A coronavirus vaccination will not be a prerequisite for participating in any recreational or economic activity in Northern Ireland, the health minister has insisted.
Robin Swann noted the indication from airline Qantas that international travellers will need to prove they have received a Covid-19 jab before boarding a flight.
Mr Swann said the Executive has no control over policies adopted by international companies but stressed that ministers have no plans for similar action in Northern Ireland.
The process of giving the Pfizer vaccine to healthcare workers in the region could begin as early as next week, commencing a population rollout programme that will last through to next summer.
The minister told committee members that First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill agree with him that people without vaccinations cannot be prevented from doing things those with the jab can do.
“In regard to linking the uptake of the vaccine to some sort of access to recreation or even getting into economic or retail settings and things like that, it is not the intention nor will be it be the policy intention of either my department or the Executive,” he said.
“But what I would say – we would have no control or influence over those international companies. I think there’s actually a significant airline who are now indicating that pre-indication or pre-certification that you’ve had the vaccine will be a condition to fly on.
“Whether it is taken up by others outside our remit or our jurisdiction, it’s not something that we will be taking forward as any sort of policy intent.”
DUP committee vice chairman Pam Cameron had asked the minister about the issue, stressing the need to dispel myths that failure to take the vaccination might limit people’s civil rights.
“It’s important that we do cut off the roots of those in society who believe vaccination will be coupled with an approach to civil rights and the economy, which will discriminate against those without a vaccine,” she said.
“I think these arguments do need to be addressed early and effectively.”
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride told the committee it is important that at least 50% of the population receives the vaccination.
“It is important that also, in addition to vaccinating the most vulnerable, that we get high population uptake when we get into those later phases of the programme, because that’s the best way of protecting everyone, including the vulnerable,” he said.
“Certainly, what we want to achieve is at least over 50% of the population being vaccinated, and certainly if we can get that up to 70%-75%, that actually will be a very, very significant achievement.”
After the evidence session concluded, several committee members complained that they had not been afforded enough time to scrutinise the vaccine programme and other aspects of the Covid-19 response.
DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley called for extra sessions with the minister and senior officials to enable more extensive questioning over key issues.
“It’s absolutely disgraceful,” he said.
Mr Buckley added: “The ability of this committee to scrutinise is significantly undermined at a time of critical national importance and I feel very passionate about it and I think we need to take this issue up.”