Northern Ireland

Edwin Poots accused of ‘doubling down’ on 2020 claim that Covid was more prevalent in nationalist areas

The former DUP minister claimed coronavirus cases in nationalist areas were ‘six-to-one’ greater than non-nationalist areas

Stormont Speaker Edwin Poots has voiced concerns about how questions are answered
Former DUP minister Edwin Poots. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA (Liam McBurney/PA)

Edwin Poots has been accused of “doubling down” on claims he made four years ago about the apparent high prevalence of Covid in nationalist areas.

The former agriculture minister was accused of attempting to “sectarianise” the pandemic when he made the comments in October 2020.

He claimed the “difference between nationalist areas and unionist areas is around six to one”.

Mr Poots made the remarks as the executive imposed a four-week ‘circuit-breaker’ that was agreed by all executive parties.

The South Belfast MLA, who at the time represented Lagan Valley, said he had “grave reservations” about the restrictions.

The former DUP minister also said at the time that “a lot of the problems started after the Bobby Storey funeral... and people in that community saw the breaking of the rules”.

Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams and Michelle O'Neill at the funeral of former IRA man Bobby Storey in 2020
Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams and Michelle O'Neill at the funeral of former IRA man Bobby Storey in 2020

His claims around a higher prevalence of Covid in nationalist areas were dismissed Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride.

But in his written statement to the Covid Inquiry, Mr Poots appears to stand over the comments, citing the British government’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme and Gaelic games as reasons for a surge in coronavirus cases.

“GAA is played from spring through to the autumn and is a very popular sport,” the statement says.

“A lot of feedback was coming through of revelry in post-match celebrations. There was also evidence of on coverage of matches of a lot of hugging etc during the celebrations of scores and winning matches.

“If one looked at where Covid-19 was peaking in that period, it was the areas where the sport was most popular.”

Mr Poots’ statement references the funeral of Bobby Storey, which he says was attended by leading Sinn Féin politicians who “clearly broke the rules”.

“The impact reverberated across the country, with many people angry that the rule makers were the rule breakers,” the statement says.

“That this gave individuals a green light to break rules with inevitable consequences.”

SDLP health spokesperson Colin McGrath said he was surprised the former minister was “doubling down”.

“At the time the health minister was clear that there was no evidence to substantiate the claim,” the South Down MLA said.

“Using vague generalities to diminish an entire community when the vast majority of people everywhere were doing their best to keep themselves and their loved ones safe was wrong then and it’s wrong now.”

After his 2020 comments sparked an angry response, Mr Poots told The Irish News that they were not sectarian because “most Sinn Féin leaders don’t attend the Catholic Church on a regular basis”.