The Executive today has considered the grave and serious situation we are currently in.
I have been clear with you in recent weeks about the steep rise in positive cases of Covid-19.
We know the speed and relentless nature of this deadly virus.
And we also know that it takes action from each of us to stop it in its tracks.
We are seeing a progressive rise in hospital admissions.
If allowed to run unchecked, these are predicted to exceed those of the first wave before this month is out.
That would be hundreds of people requiring hospital treatment within the next two or three weeks. And a growing proportion will require the care that can only be provided in our intensive care units.
I know there is a small band of voices who feel the risk from Covid-19 is not really all that serious. And indeed, it may be easy to hold that view if you feel that you are not in what is considered a vulnerable group.
But it is untrue. You have only to look at how other countries around the world have fared, to see the terrible toll it has taken on lives.
And look closer to home and think about how an NHS overwhelmed by Covid-19 will impact on those with other serious and long-term ill health: people with heart conditions, cancer and strokes for example.
They will also pay the price for the complacency of others.
So today, the Executive has made a number of decisions that will strengthen the current interventions to increase their effectiveness in curbing the spread of this virus.
Firstly, we have extended the settings where face coverings must be worn. In addition to public transport, retail and hospitality environments we have agreed that they must be worn:
- when boarding a plane,
- in taxis and private buses,
- if visiting Government offices such as benefits offices,
- and banks, building societies and credit unions,
- and both driving instructors and their clients should wear face coverings.
These are mandatory requirements, but I would encourage everyone to wear a face covering in any setting where social distancing is not possible, where there are large crowds, ventilation is poor or you are in a confined space for a long period of time.
This is simply common sense.
But for those who think that these and broader health regulations do not apply to them and want to ignore them, then the consequences from today will be more serious.
The Justice Minister has advised us that the PSNI has to date issued:
§ 1,156 Cov1 £60+ fines for breaches of public health regulations.
§ 203 Cov2 prohibition notices for licensed premises or for the restriction of gatherings in a private dwelling.
§ and 27 Cov3 £1,000 fines for failure to self-isolate following international travel.
And today the Executive has agreed a new regime of penalties.
The existing fixed penalty notices for breaches of the regulations which started at £60 doubling up thereafter, will instead be replaced by a single tariff FPN of £200.
And three other offences will be punishable on conviction by a fine of up to £10,000, or attract a fixed penalty notice starting at £1,000 and laddering up to a maximum of £10,000.
The first of these is not closing a business as required under the regulations, and there are two other new offences we are introducing. These are breaching the early closing requirements for hospitality, and secondly not implementing measures to maintain social distancing.
The Justice Minister and Executive are also giving further consideration to an offence relating to organising a large gathering or unlicensed event, as applies in England and Wales.
It will always be my preference that, rather than face penalties, people would work with us and support our shared effort to save lives.
So the Strategic Enforcement Group, led by Junior Minister Lyons and Junior Minister Kearney are bringing together a range of partners including business and civic leaders along with those with responsibility for enforcement, to develop a joined up programme of work that will support people to do the right thing.
I want to say thank you to the vast majority of people who follow both the letter and the spirit of the current public health regulations and guidance. Your efforts are protecting lives and livelihoods.
I know that the people of Northern Ireland are sensible, pragmatic and above all caring and kind. And that most carefully follow the simple steps to stop infection spreading.
But our circumstances require action from everyone. We all have a responsibility to stop the spread.
In closing I want to be up front with you- the Executive is concerned about the direction of travel set out today by our medical and scientific experts. It is clear that there is a rising curve of cases and hospitalisations. We will be taking a significant strategic stocktake of the situation and the actions needed to drive down the curve of infection.
There is no doubt that we, together with leaders across the United Kingdom and beyond, are facing some of the toughest decisions we will ever have to, in the days ahead.
So I am saying to everyone, that how far and how hard the Executive will have to go, will depend on your actions, today, tomorrow, over the weekend and the week ahead.
Let’s all work together, and bring the curve down.