Northern Ireland news

Calls for Edwin Poots to consider position after attack on new lockdown restrictions

DUP minister Edwin Poots has expressed "grave reservations" about the new lockdown restrictions
Seanín Graham

THERE were calls last night for agriculture minister Edwin Poots to consider his position after he expressed "grave reservations" about new Covid restrictions.

In a direct attack on Department of Health medical advisors and Executive colleagues, the DUP agriculture minister castigated the decision-making behind the closure of businesses and schools, as well as the "logic" limiting funeral and wedding numbers - claiming it "could not be backed up with science".

The Lagan Valley MLA also said data on coronavirus clusters should be made public.

The DUP agriculture minister claimed “a lot of the problems started after the Bobby Storey funeral... and people in that community saw the breaking of the rules”.

Mr Poots also expressed “grave reservations” about the latest restrictions imposed by the executive, despite the four-week ‘circuit-breaker’ having been agreed by all parties.

Last night Sinn Féin described his comments as “an absolute disgrace and entirely misleading”. It said its “focus is on working with the other executive parties, including the DUP, to tackle this emergency situation”.

“That should be Edwin Poots’s focus instead of trying to politicise and sectarianise the issue,” the party said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood last night branded his comments "pathetic" and called on DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster to "rein him in immediately before he does any further damage to the public health messaging".

Read More: Edwin Poots accused of bid to sectarianise coronavirus crisis

Ulster Unionist leader Steven Aiken also said Mr Poots should "consider his position", while a Sinn Féin spokesman described the remarks as "an absolute disgrace and entirely misleading".

Mr Aiken said: “If Edwin Poots feels so strongly in now opposing previously unanimous Executive decisions which his party endorsed, then he should do the honourable thing and consider his position as an Executive Minister. He can't have his cake and eat it; he can`t be in government and opposition at the same time."

Alliance justice minister Naomi Long also said "no-one voted against those regulations" and appealed for people to pull together.

Department officials told The Irish News that neither health minister Robin Swann nor Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride would be responding to Mr Poots' comments.

A spokeswoman added that they "understood a statement has been issued by the UUP".

Asked if they would be disclosing data on Covid-19 outbreaks, the department also declined to comment.

In an interview with Radio Ulster's Talkback programme yesterday, Mr Poots claimed that he and his DUP colleagues were in a "minority" in opposing the four-week restrictions that came into force last night.

The former health minister claimed there was a "suggestion" by Dr McBride and the chief scientific advisor, Professor Ian Young, of two further 'circuit-breaker' lockdowns in coming months.

He warned of the consequences, particularly if one took place before Christmas, saying it would "unsustainable".

"I think that would be hugely damaging for the economy, hugely damaging for people's mental health and well-being and I think the consequences of it will lead to tens of thousands of people on the dole and that is not very good for the health of Northern Ireland."

While the north had one of the lowest Covid-19 infection rates at the beginning of July - when it was almost down to zero cases and few hospital admissions - the latest restrictions have been prompted by a surge in cases and fears of the health service being overwhelmed.

There have been repeated calls in recent days for health chiefs to disclose information on the most common sources of outbreaks, be it schools, bars, restaurants, factories or people's homes.

Mr Poots said he has "no problem" with that information being made public but the "power ultimately rests" with Mr Swann and the CMO/CSO.

He claimed Dr McBride had informed him "privately" that sport and house parties were linked to outbreaks.

In what is understood to be a reference to GAA games and celebrations, Mr Poots said: "I know of one event where people went to a bar after winning a particular cup and that cup was passed around the bar full of drink - and most of them caught Covid."

He said he favoured localised restrictions, noting the disparity in infection rates across different council areas, with Derry and Strabane being 10 times higher than Mid and East Antrim, while Lisburn/Castlereagh and North Down/Ards were "considerably lower" than Newry, Down and Mourne.

And he said he was "deeply unhappy" with any suggestion by his Executive colleagues to close schools for four to six weeks.

"I would have grave reservations about a number of things that have been applied."

Under power-sharing rules, three Executive ministers can insist a significant or controversial item is put to a cross-community vote.

Mr Poots said: "All of the other parties were prepared to go with this and therefore that is the outcome."

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