Northern Ireland news

Executive ministers reach out to leaders ahead of an anticipated move to further lockdown

Finance Minister Conor Murphy. Picture by Hugh Russell

STORMONT ministers have spoken to Boris Johnson and Micheal Martin ahead of an anticipated move to a further lockdown.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has also requested an urgent meeting with Chancellor Rishi Sunak to establish what support Northern Ireland will be offered if another lockdown is required.

The executive met yesterday amid mounting expectation that the administration will seek to impose more stringent restrictions to deal with soaring infection rates.

Ministers did not make any decisions but are expected to revisit the issue on Thursday.

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young have both warned the public to plan for a potential short-term lockdown - a so-called "circuit break".

Mr Murphy said it was vital that financial support was offered to those business and individuals who would be hit.

"Clearly the executive and undoubtedly the government in Dublin and government in London are all looking with great concern at the increase in the prevalence of the virus right across these islands and considering advice from medical and scientific advisers as to what additional steps might be necessary," he said.

"Those steps obviously are key to protecting the health of the population, and that's our first and primary concern, but they also have very serious impacts in terms of the local economy and we clearly want to discuss with London additional financial support for the local economy should we move to more severe restrictions in terms of movement and the ability of people to work."

He said there was a need to confirm what level of support the UK government would offer.

"Up until this point it was being made very clear that we have had all the support that we will be getting, but I noticed that the British prime minister has in recent days talked about the possibility of further lockdowns and what support might be available during that," he said.

"So we want to make sure and bottom that out."

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill were scheduled to have a conversation with Boris Johnson yesterday. Stormont's leaders were also due to talk to Taoiseach Micheal Martin.

Mrs Foster said a second lockdown was "not inevitable".

"We look at all options but it isn't inevitable that we have a so-called lockdown," she told the BBC.

"When I hear of lockdown, I think immediately back to March/April time, and we will not be going back to a situation where our schools are closed again and we are in a situation of total lockdown.

"We have had a very useful conversation this afternoon with Michael Gove who looks after the co-ordination of the devolved administrations throughout the UK ... to talk about the response across the United Kingdom and the need for financial support if we were to move to a situation of tighter restrictions.

"I absolutely recognise the pressure on people's businesses, employees, on people's way of life, and therefore there needs to be a financial package which is there to support our economy if, and it is an if, we have to move to tighter restrictions."

Mrs Foster added that Justice Minister Naomi Long will bring forward proposals for tougher penalties for breaches for the coronavirus regulations to the next meeting of the executive on Thursday.

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