Northern Ireland’s health minister has warned that those spreading “misinformation and lies” about Covid vaccines are putting lives at risk.
Robin Swann also blasted the EU for the Northern Protocol and its potential impact on medical supplies.
He was speaking at the Ulster Unionist Party’s first conference in Belfast since 2018.
Later, party leader Doug Beattie will call for a return to the Good Friday Agreement’s “factory settings.”
In his first party conference speech as leader, Mr Beattie will also outline his strategy for promoting a more confident “pro-union message” in the run-up to the next assembly election.
He will also accuse his political opponents of being “distracted by champagne receptions,” despite the fact that his party warned about the Northern Ireland Protocol’s dangers two years ago.
Covid ‘misinformation and lies’
Strict Covid rules are in effect for the event, which is taking place in a Belfast hotel.
Those attending must provide proof of a double vaccination or negative tests.
Inside, the audience is socially isolated and has been asked to cover their faces.
Mr Swann, a former UUP leader, praised the health-care response to the Covid pandemic while criticising vaccine sceptics.
He claims that three-quarters of adult Covid inpatients under the age of 50 are unvaccinated, and that unvaccinated people over the age of 50 are five times more likely to be admitted to hospital than fully vaccinated people.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “while we have seen so many people work so hard on our vaccination effort, there has been a small minority – a tiny minority – that is determined to spread misinformation and lies.”
“While I recognise that there are genuine cases of vaccine hesitancy – and I and my department will continue to have those engagements and provide whatever information or reassurance is required – there are others who chose not to accept the truth and appear intent on endangering the health and well-being of their fellow citizens.”
His party’s leader has vowed to punish any elected official who publicly expresses anti-vaccine sentiments.
Protocol fall out warning
Mr Beattie will remind delegates of the party’s role in negotiating and securing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in his own speech.
“We need to return the Belfast Agreement to its factory settings in order to undo the damage done by those who tinkered with it, particularly at St Andrews,” he will say.
He will also criticise the responses of other unionist parties to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
What is the protocol?
By keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, the protocol avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland.
However, unionists argue that it creates a trade border between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.
They argue that it undermines Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as a part of the United Kingdom.
“The Ulster Unionist Party has been warning about the protocol since 2019, while others with influence have been distracted by champagne receptions,” Mr Beattie will tell delegates.
He will also warn of the potential consequences if the protocol is not changed.
“We must address the inherent instability that will turn every election [into] a protocol election as we seek majorities to amend Articles Five to Ten every four years.”
This will undermine a vision and a goal of making Northern Ireland a better place for everyone.
“We will examine any proposals made by the UKG (UK government) or the EU to see if they restore the balance of the Belfast Agreement.”
You can watch the party leader’s speech live on the BBC News NI website from 15:00 BST on Saturday.