Northern Ireland news

No further lockdown planned this winter, Conor Murphy says

Conor Murphy said he does not believe Northern Ireland is at risk of another period of lockdown
David Young, PA

Northern Ireland is not expected to face another coronavirus lockdown this winter, Finance Minister Conor Murphy has said.

Conor Murphy said it is an “uncertain time” in terms of the spread of the virus and a cautious approach to the pandemic is still required.

The minister also said the economic impact of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland has not transpired to be as severe as once feared.

He was commenting ahead of the latest planned lifting of restrictions at the weekend.

On Sunday, nightclubs can reopen and social distancing rules that have limited capacity in pubs and restaurants will end.

The British Medical Association has criticised the decision to ease restrictions at a time when community transmission of the virus remains high and pressures on the health service continue to mount.

Mr Murphy said he does not believe Northern Ireland is at risk of another period of lockdown.

“I don’t expect that we will end up in another lockdown,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

“And certainly any of our discussions at Executive level have not pointed in that direction. I think we were right to be cautious where others wanted further restrictions removed in a quicker move into ending restrictions.

“I think we’re right to be cautious. It’s an uncertain time in terms of the virus and we’ve seen increases in the south as well as in Britain and here as well.

“And so I think we have to be cautious, we have to continue with the message of people social distancing, washing their hands and wearing face coverings.”

From Sunday, people will once again be able to move freely around hospitality premises, including being able to stand at the bar for a drink.

Indoor dancing will also resume across the hospitality sector.

Ministers have decided that nightclubbers do not have to wear masks when dancing or in settings that involve eating or drinking.

Mr Murphy was asked whether relaxing face covering rules for one sector while they remain mandatory in other settings could dilute the public message.

He said the Executive had tried to avoid a “blanket approach” to restrictions but he acknowledged different approaches for different sectors has the potential to create “contradictions and confusions”.

He added: “That’s always been a balancing act from the moment this pandemic began and the moment we began to ease restrictions.

“We recognise that there will always be grey areas in the middle of all of that, but I think generally society has been moving in the right direction.”

Meanwhile, Mr Murphy challenged Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s claim that Northern Ireland will receive an extra £1.6 billion as a result of the UK Government’s Budget announced yesterday.

The Stormont minister said while funding to the north has increased, the rise is “disappointing” and not at the level claimed by the Treasury.

Commenting on the economic impact of Covid-19, he added: “The hit on the economy hasn’t been perhaps as bad as we expected, but there’s still a danger out there and there’s still going to be certainly significant increases in the cost of energy and cost of living generally.

“And so I think we have a way to go. That’s why the Budget is disappointing and I think it’s sort of a missed opportunity.

“But we will try and do the best for the limited resources we have to ensure that we transform society out of the pandemic and into a better economic future.”

Ahead of Sunday’s relaxations, the Executive has advised hospitality venues to introduce their own entry checks to establish proof of vaccination or Covid status.

But the administration has stopped short of bringing in a mandatory passport system similar to the one operating in the Irish Republic.

The issue has divided ministers, with the SDLP and Alliance Party calling for legally enforceable Covid passports for nightlife venues.

Work is continuing on developing an official certification system for Northern Ireland but DUP First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill have insisted they do not want to compel the sector to enforce mandatory checks at this point, preferring a “partnership approach”.

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