Plans to introduce a rule making face masks mandatory in shops across Northern Ireland have been scrapped after a legal challenge was launched.
Brentnall Legal Ltd in Belfast, a human rights law firm, was instructed by clients to challenge the NI Executive’s recent proposed change in legislation around mask mandates, wherein proof of exemption would have been demanded from anyone and everyone in the province, regardless of what their exemption is for. That would have included victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse and those with hidden disabilities, who would have had to disclose distressing personal information to strangers.
NI First Minister Paul Givan announced yesterday that the proposed requirement of individuals to provide proof of exemption from wearing a mask in shops has now been suspended in terms of any enforcement. “No business should be asking anyone to provide proof,” Mr Givan said.
The DUP politician added that while businesses can still ask people to wear a mask, they cannot force shoppers to wear one or ask why they are exempt. Many people across the North were supportive of the decision.
One user, taking to Twitter to comment on the announcement, welcomed the news while blasting the ‘disgraceful’ and ‘discriminatory’ attempt by the NI Executive to mandate masks.
“People with particular disabilities and medical conditions as well as victims of certain crimes who find wearing one distressing will breathe a sigh of relief. Disgraceful discriminatory approach by @niexecutive,” they said.
People with particular disabilities and medical conditions as well as victims of certain crimes who find wearing one distressing will breath a sigh of relief. Disgraceful discriminatory approach by @niexecutive
— Gary McGladdery (@GMcGladdery) January 6, 2022
The executive had been planning to remove some exemptions on face coverings, forcing individuals to disclose personal information by providing medical proof of why they cannot wear one. Mr Givan, however, said that ministers had decided to suspend the planned policy “indefinitely” and that “no business should be asking anyone to provide proof”.
Brentnall Legal Ltd, human rights lawyers in Belfast, took the legal challenge against changes to the face mask legislation in Northern Ireland, putting pressure on the Executive to withdraw its plans. The human rights law firm, described by supporters of their ongoing challenges as “brave and courageous,” have also taken legal challenges to the ‘discriminatory’ vaccine passport system introduced in the North on the 29th of November under guidance from Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride.
The contentious system means that people have to prove their medical status to gain entrance to hospitality settings. This was enforced by law on the 13th December with the government claiming it would help keep hospitality businesses open. The Executive spent a reported £10 million on the scheme, however, within days, pubs and restaurants were forced to announce they were closing due to a huge drop in their footfall.
Northern Irish organisation Citizen Journos campaigned on the issue of mandatory face masking, and said they had been inundated with emails from people across the North who were concerned about being forced to wear masks – particularly survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, and those with disabilities. The media outfit described the Executive’s attempt to remove exemptions as a continuation of their “self-destruct policies” when the Executive, on the advice of NI chief medical officer Michael McBride, attempted to change the legislation on face masks that would mean everyone must prove their reasons for exemptions when asked.
“This means that victims of sexual assault and rape, who are unable to wear masks and who may have never discussed their ordeal are now being forced to recount and relive their ordeals to a Department of Health approved agent in order to be permitted access to supermarkets so that they can buy food to eat,” Citizen Journos said.
Social media users praised Citizen Journos for drawing attention to the ‘unlawfulness and folly’ of the proposed policy.
Word of thanks due to @citizenjournos_ for doing the BBC's job in drawing attention to the unlawfulness and folly of the policy? Hmm?
— Jeffrey Peel (@JeffreyPeel) January 6, 2022
The Northern Irish media outlet also highlighted the inconsistency with regards to the approach to face masks in the North, citing comments from Health Minister Robin Swann and chief medical officer Michael McBride. In April 2020, Robin Swann told the NI public that “Face coverings lead to a false sense of security”. In the same month, Michael McBride stated that: “The benefit [of face masks] is marginal to say the least.”
Yet, by December 2021, that position had shifted despite a lack of new evidence on the effectiveness of mask wearing. Addressing the NI public last month, McBride said: “I confront people I see not wearing masks who I believe should be,” adding that: “They must respect me.”
It comes as Professor of Evidence Based Medicine Carl Heneghan said that a study published by UK Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi as the “evidence” for pupils wearing face masks in schools is “not fit for purpose” and actually shows evidence for not wearing masks.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has published the "evidence" for pupils wearing face masks in schools.
— talkRADIO (@talkRADIO) January 6, 2022