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Return of Foster and O'Neill Covid-19 briefings long overdue

YESTERDAY's tightening of coronavirus restrictions signals a new phase in the response to the pandemic.

It is not only the rise in the number of positive Covid-19 cases that is giving cause for serious concern, but the pace of that growth.

In these circumstances, a clear and united public health message from Stormont is essential.

The joint Covid-19 briefings from first minister Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill were a particularly helpful aspect of the Executive's response to the virus's first wave earlier this year.

With Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, facing an unprecedented health emergency, the fact that Stormont's two most senior figures, despite the manifest differences between their parties, could share a platform with obvious compassion and sincerity was a powerful statement.

That positivity was comprehensively derailed in June by the controversy surrounding the funeral of Bobby Storey, in which Mrs O'Neill was a central figure.

Amid a storm of protest, she defended her presence at the very large funeral which was, among other things, conspicuous for its lack of social distancing.

The episode led to the impression that Sinn Féin did not believe that the profoundly difficult rules around funerals, which Mrs O'Neill had been involved in making and urging compliance, did not in fact apply to the party itself.

This opened Sinn Féin to allegations of double standards, which dogged it throughout the summer and left many bemused when it went on to call for the resignation of those involved in the Oireachtas golf society dinner scandal.

Of perhaps more consequence is the fact that the Storey funeral row not only weakened Mrs O'Neill's credibility but also brought an abrupt end to the joint press briefings at Stormont.

This undoubtedly contributed to the Executive's public health messaging losing both force and clarity.

Although falling short of the fulsome apology that many people, especially those who sacrificed so much during lockdown by following coronavirus restrictions and not attending the funerals of their loved ones, would have hoped for, Mrs O'Neill's belated acknowledgement that Stormont's coronavirus message was undermined by the Storey funeral is to be welcomed.

It has paved the way for Mrs Foster to feel able to resume the joint coronavirus briefings, at a critical juncture in the effort to slow the spread of the virus.

As we face into a difficult winter, a united front at Stormont could be more important than ever.

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