Sweeping new powers will come into force across Northern Ireland tonight at 11pm to combat the spread of coronavirus.
The Executive has agreed to adopt the powers in response to the serious and imminent threat to public health posed by Covid-19.
The powers compel the closure of certain premises and prohibit anyone from leaving home without a reasonable excuse.
Gatherings of more than two people are also banned.
Penalties ranging from fixed penalty notices to fines of up to £5,000 are being introduced to enforce the new powers under The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020.
First Minister Arlene Foster said: “These are extraordinary powers for any Government to have to introduce, but we are living in extraordinary times.
“We are asking the people of Northern Ireland to make fundamental changes to how they live their lives. But we are doing this to keep you safe, to flatten the curve of the Covid-19 infection so that the health service has the capacity to deal with those who need their help the most.
“We know the enormity of what we are asking of the public, but it is proportionate to the threat we all face from this deadly virus. No-one is immune.”
The Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “Protecting the public, supporting the health service and saving lives are the priorities for the Executive during this crisis.
“Each one of us has a personal responsibility to do everything we can to fight back against Covid-19 for the good of everyone across society. That’s why we are asking everyone to comply with the new measures being introduced today.
“As an Executive, we don’t want to get to the stage where people are being fined for being out when they should be at home. But if anyone – even after everything they have heard or seen over the last few weeks – still believes that this does not apply to them, then we will use every power we have to ensure people stay at home so that we save as many lives as we possibly can.”
Health Minister Robin Swann said: “The Coronavirus pandemic is affecting every one of us, and every aspect of public life. We think particularly of those who have lost loved ones to this virus.
“These emergency regulations are an essential component of the strategy to tackle the pandemic and will ensure a consistent approach across the four regions of the UK.
“The extreme disruption to normal life would have been unthinkable just a few short weeks ago. It is a price we all have to pay, to protect each other and the health service. Everyone has to take personal responsibility for their actions and to stick rigidly to these restrictions for as long as they are needed. It is a matter of life and death.”
The regulations list the types of business which will have to close and the types that will have to change their practices if they are to continue trading. They do not impact directly on manufacturing or most of the service sector.
The Executive has also agreed that:
- Anyone who can work from home must work from home;
- Employers must facilitate working from home where it is feasible;
- No employer should compel an employee to come to work if it is feasible to work from home;
- Every employer must take all reasonable steps to safeguard the health, safety and well-being of employees during the COVID-19 emergency, whether working from home or in the workplace;
- Every employer must have particular regard to the safety of employees in the workplace and must put into effect the guidance on social distancing issued by the Department for the Economy;
- Every employer has a legal duty to ensure, so far as it is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees;
- Where a business is failing to observe the Department for the Economy guidance and breaching the legal duty on health and safety, the statutory authorities will take robust action, which may include prosecution for criminal offences;
- Where necessary, The Executive Office will also use its power of direction to close or restrict businesses that do not ensure the safety of their employees.
A new forum, bringing together key business organisations, trade unions, the Public Health Agency, PSNI, the Health and Safety Executive and SOLACE will also be established by Economy Minister Diane Dodds. A representative of Labour Relations Agency will be invited to chair.
The forum will focus on providing agreed advice to the Executive on essential and non-essential businesses and essential/key workers to inform the management of the crisis.
The advice will be considered by the Executive on decisions on future measures that may be needed, including further closures or restrictions on types of businesses and further social distancing measures.