Northern Ireland news

Executive prepares to discuss fresh Covid-19 restrictions against backdrop of disagreement

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said O'Neill says the economic impact of the pandemic has been 'devastating'. Picture by Rebecca Black/PA Wire

THE STORMONT executive is expected to meet today against a backdrop of growing differences over the level of restrictions to combat the coronavirus.

Health Minister Robin Swann sent a paper to the first and deputy first minister on Sunday night which is understood to include a number of options for ratcheting up the regional response to a soaring number of Covid-19 cases.

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young are believed to advocate a lockdown of up to six weeks but the DUP has voiced misgivings over such stringent measures.

Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill were among a number of Stormont ministers that yesterday took part in a meeting of the UK's emergency Cobra committee.

The deputy first minister said the need for "additional finances" was raised with the British government during the meeting.

"Our Covid situation requires decisive action to stop the spread and therefore we need the finances to support workers, families and businesses in these challenging times," she later tweeted.

Writing in The Irish News today, the Sinn Féin deputy leader says she is concerned that the discussion around tackling the coronoavirus pandemic is "increasingly pitched through a health versus economy narrative".

Ms O'Neill says the economic impact of the pandemic has been "devastating" but she voices support for immediate measures to combat the spread of the virus, urging people to "make short-term sacrifices for long-term gain".

"Any delay in taking decisive action will increase transmission rates and potentially overwhelm our health service and leave it unable to cope with both Covid and non-Covid cases," she says.

"The only way we can get control is to break and lessen social contact – in our homes, in our leisure and social activities and in our workplaces."

The deputy first minister again appeals for the British government to ensure Stormont has "enough financial help to get us through the current public health crisis."

Mrs Foster last night played down the depth of any dispute at the heart of the executive.

The first minister said she would listen to "all advice" to take a "balanced response".

"Of course we will listen to our medical advisers, we will of course then have to also do a risk analysis as to the damage to other sectors in society and especially economic damage," she told UTV.

"It is important that we do the maximum damage to the virus and the transmission of the virus whilst at the same time doing the minimum of damage to the economy."

The DUP leader said she spent yesterday "striving for unity" within the executive ahead of today's expected meeting, which has been brought forward in response to a growing number of Covid cases.

She also indicated that she is not in favour of closing schools, which is thought to be among the recommendations from the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser.

"I do agree with my Education Minister (Peter Weir) that we have to protect schools and I hope that the Executive will agree with that policy tomorrow," she said.

Mr Swann had earlier told the assembly that his paper recommends "decisive action be urgently taken to save lives".

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had queried why a six-week lockdown would be required across the region, given the marked variations in infection rates in different areas.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access