Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill has ruled out any plans to link the High Street Voucher with vaccinations following a suggestion from Health Minister Robin Swann. He had earlier hinted at making it a requirement for people to have two jabs before they could use the shopping scheme as an incentive. Ms O'Neill also said she would have "real concerns" over any proposal for certificates to be required for entry to indoor hospitality or entertainment venues.
A number of hospitals in Northern Ireland are handling a surge in Covid-19 admissions and the Belfast Trust has said 60% of people admitted have not been vaccinated. Stormont announced the High Street Voucher scheme last year to support traders hit by lockdown restrictions caused by the pandemic. People would be issued with pre-paid GBP100 cards which could be used in shops but not online.
In response, Ms O'Neill said: "I think Robin perhaps misspoke this morning, there is no intention to link up the High Street Voucher and people taking up the vaccine. "Obviously we encourage everybody to take up the vaccine, it is the best defence against Covid. It is the thing that will get us to the other side of this.
"On the wider picture of vaccine certs, it is something we are going to have to talk about. However, I would have real concerns, genuine concerns from a human rights perspective, particularly in terms of the inequality. "The Executive hasn't taken a decision on that as yet but I can certainly say I would come at it from a very sceptical point of view.
But we do intend to come back to it over the next number of weeks. "I remain sceptical about making it an entry requirement." Mr Swann has said he wants to have a conversation with Executive colleagues about how to incentivise people who have not yet received a vaccination to come forward.
It came after Economy Minister Gordon Lyons rejected his suggestion to link the High Street Voucher with a requirement to be double vaccinated. Mr Swann said: "I think part of the conversation is how to incentivise the further 17.5% to come forward. "I think Gordon has indicated it could put the High Street Scheme in jeopardy or delay it if that was an avenue that was to be pursued.
That is not something that I want to do because I think the people of Northern Ireland have waited long enough in getting the voucher out. "But there is an avenue of actually looking for incentives in regards to getting those last people to come forward. "We have seen it at the SSE Arena where we have offered ice-creams along with vaccines, so it is how we actually take the next step.
"If the High Street Voucher scheme isn't a runner, I am content with that, but it shouldn't rule out any conversations in the future that the Executive could have in regards to encourage over uptake of vaccines. "Our target is to get as many people vaccinated as possible and that is what we will continue to do by making vaccines as accessible to as many people as we currently can." On Tuesday it emerged Northern Ireland's Covid-19 certification service, which provides digital proof of coronavirus vaccination, had been temporarily interrupted after a technical fault saw some users presented with data related to other users.
A Department of Health statement said: "The Department is aware a limited number of users, in limited circumstance, may be presented with data relating to other users. "The Department takes the privacy of citizen's data very seriously and contact has been made with the Information Commissioner's Office as part of due diligence in protecting citizen's data. "Immediate action has also been taken to temporarily remove a part of the service that manages identity."
Many users will not be affected by the interruption, and those who have already been issued with a certificate can still use them. Others will face delays accessing electronic versions of their certificates and some will find their accounts on the NIDirect website locked, pending the resolution of the technical issue. Earlier, Mr Swann said large-scale vaccination centres would begin to be stood down in the coming weeks.
He added: "As we scale back we are then starting to deliver Moderna across our community pharmacies. "We will see 18 community pharmacies some time soon picking up Moderna, and that will increase to 80 community pharmacies across Northern Ireland being able to deliver first dose Moderna, as well as the pop-up clinics we are seeing across Northern Ireland. "Our vaccine programme isn't something we force upon people, it is something we ask people to do voluntarily."
In total, 2,215,383 vaccines have been administered.
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