Northern Ireland news

Analysis: United front from Stormont leaders only way to save Christmas

Health minister Robin Swann has warned of the need to act now to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed by Covid and hospitality being forced to close over Christmas
Seanín Graham

ONE week ago Taoiseach Micheál Martin gave an address outlining new Covid restrictions to curb a brutal fourth wave of infections.

Broadcast on the teatime news, the Fianna Fáil leader's speech highlighted the urgent need to act in order to prevent the hospital system from being overwhelmed next month.

Critically, it also underlined the huge strides made in a vaccination programme, without which he said there is "no doubt" they would be in "full lockdown".

Urging the public to get behind the restrictions, he spoke of the need for a "collective effort" to keep society and the economy open.

The tone of his address and backing by his political opponents was in stark contrast to what was happening north of the border as tensions flared over vaccine passports.

High-profile members of the DUP, including a former health minister, signalled their opposition to a mandatory scheme days before last Wednesday's vote was carried in favour of its rollout.

That division spilled over onto social media, where many opposed to the Covid certs thought it fair game to engage in personalised attacks on Stormont ministers.

Yesterday's executive meeting on the need for further restrictions to stem Northern Ireland's rocketing cases and hospitalisations was, according to sources, a more "cordial" affair.

While Justice Minister Naomi Long hit out at health minister Robin Swann's proposal on her department "taking the lead" on the enforcement of face masks - only five fines have been issued by police since the summer - the need for unified messaging was front and centre of discussions.

It is understood that enforcement will be divided across different sectors - from councils to public transport bodies - and overseen by the executive's designated Covid-19 taskforce.

Yesterday's meeting was adjourned to "refine" some of the wording on certain proposals but no major reworking is required and another discussion is expected to take place today.

What all parties recognise is a sense of urgency to get messaging right and win back public confidence.

The united front displayed by their southern counterparts is not lost on them and hitting the "reset" button has been mentioned more than once.

While Mr Swann yesterday evening warned that hospitality venues may be forced to close over Christmas if cases keep rising, he also stressed this is not "inevitable".

Personal responsibility in terms of face masks, vaccination and obeying latest rules will be vital in keeping society open in the north in coming weeks.

But so too will a united front from our political leaders.

A similar address to the public by the First and Deputy First Ministers flanked by Mr Swann would be a start.

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