Leading article

No excuse for lockdown breaches

Not for the first time, we have witnessed large crowds coming onto the streets in a clear breach of the lockdown regulations, which at this stage of the pandemic is deeply disappointing.

Hundreds of Rangers fans gathered on the Shankill Road in Belfast on Sunday to celebrate the team's success in winning the Scottish Premiership for the first time in a decade. There were also reports of fireworks in the Ballysillan Road area.

Footage on social media showed large numbers of people partying, setting off fireworks and flares and taking part in a cavalcade. It is clear from the videos that social distancing was being ignored by many while mask wearing was observed by only a minority.

Political representatives, including those who count themselves as supporters of the Glasgow side, have rightly pointed out that people must adhere to the public health guidance.

Certainly, no one can credibly defend people thronging the streets at this time, no matter what the reason.

The PSNI has launched an investigation, saying that "appropriate enforcement action" will be taken.

Superintendent Nigel Henry said: "The numbers involved in the scenes last night were clearly a breach of the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations, which is so disappointing when we know so many other people are adhering to the regulations and playing their part to keep people safe."

We will await the outcome of that investigation but questions will be asked about how the police dealt with Sunday's events and if it had anticipated the likelihood of fans celebrating in large numbers.

As we know, the policing of large gatherings has been a particular issue throughout the pandemic while the public health message was undoubtedly undermined by the attendance of senior Sinn Féin figures at Bobby Storey's funeral in June.

However, there can be no excusing what are clearly significant breaches that can potentially set back efforts to reduce infection rates and the full reopening of schools, workplaces and hospitality.

We are at a crucial juncture in the lockdown and there is obvious concern that after a tough year we could see widespread flouting of the restrictions, especially over St Patrick's Day and the Easter holiday.

Queen's University has issued a stern warning to students who breach the guidelines on March 17 and hopefully that will be heeded.

Having come this far, it is vital that we do not slip back.

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Leading article