The rapid spread of the Omicron variant means Northern Ireland must brace itself for a Covid-19 “storm”, the First Minister has warned.
Paul Givan stressed the need for the population to bolster the region’s defences by having their booster jabs.
The booster programme in Northern Ireland is being accelerated in response to the threat posed by Omicron and has opened up to all over-30s.
“I think there’s certainly a storm coming our way,” said Mr Givan.
“Similarly in Scotland that is the case as well, and with the movements that take place across the Common Travel Area, we have already a number of small cases in Northern Ireland, but the expectation is the same trajectory that is happening in Great Britain is likely to occur here in Northern Ireland.”
He told BBC Radio Ulster: “That’s why we need to take the steps that we’ve been advocating in terms of the booster jab over the next number of days and that will help prepare our defences for what is going to be needed to meet the challenges that are coming.”
On Monday, Northern Ireland’s Covid certification became legally enforceable.
The scheme requiring people to prove Covid status to gain entry to a range of hospitality venues and larges attendance events was introduced late last month with a two-week grace period to allow businesses adjust.
Patrons wishing to enter nightclubs, pubs, restaurants and other licensed premises will need proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test or evidence of a previous Covid-19 infection.
The regulations behind the new system will be subject to a vote in the Stormont Assembly on Monday afternoon. It is unlikely the law changes will be voted down.
While the DUP opposed the scheme at the Stormont Executive last month – branding it a distraction that would have marginal effect in suppressing the transmission of Covid-19 – the coalition’s other four parties supported it.
If the parties vote the same way in the Assembly, the regulations should pass with ease in a straight majority vote.
Ahead of Monday’s debate, DUP First Minister Mr Givan again questioned the evidential basis for mandatory certification.
Under the regulations, businesses that fail to administer the scheme will face fines ranging from £200 to £10,000.
Ahead of the vote, Health Minister Robin Swann appealed to MLAs to back the scheme.
In a letter sent to all Assembly members, seen by the PA news agency, Mr Swann called for a “respectful debate” and said opponents should set out preferred alternatives.
“While I am confident this measure will be supported by a majority of MLAs, I wanted to underline some key points, not least for those who have still to make up their minds,” he wrote.
“Firstly, it needs to be recognised that Covid certification is a public health measure. By introducing it, the Executive and the Assembly will be following public health advice.
“The chief medical officer (Sir Michael McBride) and chief scientific adviser (Professor Ian Young) have both recommended the initiative to help reduce the risk of infection in higher risk settings.”
Mr Swann added that the rationale for certification was “well captured” in the Executive’s autumn/winter Covid-19 contingency plan issued by Mr Givan and Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill in October.
“In spite of the differences of opinion in the Assembly on this measure, I would appeal for a respectful debate on Monday,” he said.
“The situation we are now facing with Covid demands that of us all.
“Certification is certainly not a panacea and will need to be complemented by widespread adherence to public health advice. It does, however, offer another layer of protection to our citizens.
“I would encourage opponents of the scheme to spell out their preferred alternatives.”
“There have been no easy answers or simple policy choices in this pandemic. That has been the case for governments across the world.
“It does not serve the public interest to be ducking decisions or constantly criticising from the sidelines.
“I commend certification to you as a proportionate policy, that has been introduced in other jurisdictions, and can help keep people safer, business open and support our health service this winter.
“The emerging Omicron threat demonstrates the continued risk from the virus and further strengthens the case for certification.”