Northern Ireland news

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson questions need for a region-wide lockdown

 A quiet Derry City

A senior DUP MP has questioned the need for a region-wide lockdown in Northern Ireland.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s comments come amid reports that Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride is advocating a six-week lockdown to halt spiralling infection rates.

Sir Jeffrey said such a proposal was far more extensive than what was in place or being considered elsewhere in the UK or in the Republic.

“A six-week full lockdown, back to where we were last March, would I think take us way, way ahead of anywhere else,” he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show.

“And the rate across Northern Ireland, I would need to be convinced that such measures at the moment are appropriate for all of Northern Ireland.

“I’d be wanting to know why we’re abandoning the policy of focusing in on the areas where the infection rates are highest.”

Read more: Executive 'will discuss lockdown measures at meeting today' amid alarming rise in Covid-19 cases

There were 1,066 new cases in 24 hours reported by the Department of Health yesterday, with one further death - the second highest daily number after 1,080 positive cases were recorded on Friday.

With latest figures showing 5,909 people have tested positive over the last seven days there are now 137 inpatients with Covid-19 in hospitals, with 19 in intensive care.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said Dr Michael McBride needed to produce the data that justified the imposition of a six-week lockdown.

“What we’re asking the chief medical officer, why do we need a full lockdown in those areas where the infection rate is much lower so as to combat the spread of infection in places like Derry and Strabane?” he said.

“I think that’s a fair question.”

The DUP’s Westminster leader also challenged Health Minister Robin Swann on why Covid-19 contingency measures – such as the reopening of a Nightingale hospital at Belfast City Hospital – had not been rolled out, if the situation facing the local health service was so grave.

Arlene Foster said this morning decisions that the NI Executive will need to take this week are "far from straightforward".

The First Minister said this is "the start of what will be a very busy week. Covid continues to be very much in transmission in Northern Ireland and it is hugely disappointing that a small minority still think that it doesn't concern them. Of course it does.

"Obviously we need to halt the spread of the virus otherwise it's going to have a hugely detrimental impact on our health service. Heavier restrictions however are not inevitable. I have been saying that for some time.

"If people just went back to basics and engaged in social distancing, having good respiratory hygiene, washing their hands and of course wearing their masks in the appropriate places then we in the Executive would be able to respond to that.

"We will have big decisions to take this week and they are far from straightforward and certainly cannot be characterised as some people try to say as 'health versus wealth'. On a very basic level, if you lose your job, if your business goes under and you end up in poverty then of course that too has health implications. So we need a balanced approach. We need to very much take into account health, Covid and non-Covid.

"We need to take into account societal and family impacts including the education of our young people and their life chances and of course we very much need to take into account the economic wellbeing of us all. Later this morning I will join other devolved administrations as we speak to the PM and let no-one say that these next few days will have easy decisions. What they will contain for me is weighing up some very big choices as we seek to do what is right by all of our people."

While the Derry and Strabane Council area currently is seeing 946 cases per 100,000 people, in places like Mid and East Antrim the rate is significantly lower, at 84 per 100,000.

Yesterday, Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard suggested it was time to move away from localised measures.

"I think there was a logic and a sense behind local lockdowns at a time but I think we're now moving fast into the area where we need to be looking at more general lockdowns once again, at more general and rigorous and robust methods at being able to suppress this virus," he told BBC One NI's Sunday Politics programme.

Whether or not school closures should be included in any new lockdown is likely to be a key consideration around the executive table.

DUP Education Minister Peter Weir has insisted schools should remain open.

"I think it is critical that we ensure that schools remain open because it will do long-term damage to the life prospects of our children," he told BBC Radio Ulster.

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