Covid certification entry requirements could be dropped across a number of hospitality settings in Northern Ireland, the First Minister has said.
Paul Givan said, while he would support the removal of mandatory certification entirely, he anticipated a majority of ministers in the powersharing administration will back proposals to retain the system in higher risk settings.
Mr Givan’s comments come ahead of a meeting of the Executive on Thursday afternoon.
Laws requiring people to prove Covid status to gain entry to a range of hospitality venues and large-attendance events were introduced last November.
The move proved politically contentious with Mr Givan’s DUP party voting against the scheme while the other four Stormont Executive parties backed it.
Patrons wishing to access nightclubs, pubs, restaurants and other licensed premises have been required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test result or evidence of a previous Covid-19 infection.
The same rules have applied for entry to large indoor and outdoor events, such as concerts and sporting events.
A phased approach to the discontinuation of the system could see the removal of the requirement in settings such as pubs, restaurants and cinemas, with certification being retained for nightclubs and some other settings.
Nightclubs have been closed in Northern Ireland since December 26 as part of a series of restrictions agreed on December 22 in response to the Omicron variant.
Ministers also imposed fresh measures on the rest of the hospitality sector, including a return of table service and a ban on dancing.
Ministers are expected to announce the removal of the majority of the December restrictions after Thursday’s meeting.
This is anticipated to be part of a phased approach to the lifting of remaining Covid restrictions in the region.
Ahead of the meeting, Mr Givan reiterated his party’s opposition to Covid certification.
“We didn’t support their introduction, I don’t support them in any setting,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“I would want them to be lifted in its entirely because we didn’t believe that the evidence existed to justify their introduction. We think that it’s been incredibly controversial and distractive at a time when we needed to focus on key public health messages that actually worked.”
He added: “Where I can make progress even in terms of reducing its application in certain settings then I will support the reduction of its use but my preference is that the Covid mandatory passport scheme would be removed and its entirely but my expectation is that it will be removed in certain settings.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill expressed hope on Wednesday evening that the Executive could make “some positive strides forward on the Covid front, and particularly in relation to restrictions all the while guided of course by the health advice”.
Mr Givan and Ms O’Neill are in Londonderry on Thursday morning for a visit, and will remain in the city to virtually chair a meeting of the Executive.
The outcome of the deliberations on Covid restrictions is to be announced at a press conference in Derry on Thursday afternoon.
The Executive meeting will be informed by the latest Department of Health data which indicates Northern Ireland is likely at the peak of cases in the Omicron surge.
A departmental paper, seen by the PA news agency, advises that case numbers fell substantially in the last week “primarily due” to reduced PCR tests due to a change in testing policy.
But it notes the region is “likely to be at or around peak in terms of case numbers for the Omicron wave at present”.
The paper indicates the true extent of the rise in case numbers is masked by the impact of the change in testing policy, with confirmatory PCR tests no longer required.
The data suggests between one in 15 and one in 20 of the population tested positive for the virus in the week up to January 7, indicating around 18,000 cases per day, which corresponds to the central and pessimistic scenarios presented in mid-December.
Hospital admissions and Covid bed occupancy increased in the last week, but started to slowly fall in the last few days.
The paper notes Northern Ireland may experience a second peak in case numbers in the next two weeks as a result of further spread of the virus among school-age children.
It notes the severity of Omicron appears to be “substantially reduced” from the Delta variant, and it is “likely that current measures will be sufficient to maintain peak hospital numbers at a significantly lower level than last January”.
However the paper warns that very high levels of community transmission may result in significant staff absences with the potential to reduce capacity in health trusts.
On Wednesday evening, Mr Givan said that the self-isolation period for Covid-19 will reduce from seven days to five from January 21.
Mr Givan and Ms O’Neill met with Health Minister Robin Swann, chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young on Wednesday to discuss the latest state of the pandemic in the region.
Earlier this week, there were calls from the business community for relaxations to restrictions.
Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton said predictions about how hard Omicron would hit had been “wide of the mark”, but added the effect of restrictions on businesses was “very real”.