PM hears calls for extension of jobs furlough

The Prime Minister fielded calls for an extension of the jobs furlough scheme during an emergency Cobra meeting with devolved ministers.

The British Government was not forthcoming with support in response, Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said.

A so-called circuit breaker, a short-term return to lockdown, was not discussed during the meeting with Boris Johnson, the Sinn Fein vice-president added.

Coronavirus – Tue Sep 22, 2020
Coronavirus – Tue Sep 22, 2020

She said: “It is very clear that we all need to take action that is commensurate to the risk posed in each of our areas of responsibility.

“I made it very clear in the conversation today that we need to have a very focused north-south, east-west approach, that we need to be working across this island and between the two islands in terms of our response.

“We are facing a very difficult winter. I raised the issue of the furlough scheme and financial supports if we have to take more draconian measures, which I hope that we do not get to that point.”

On Thursday, Stormont ministers will discuss what potential “tools” they can use to handle the current stage of the crisis.

Ms O’Neill added: “It was necessary to raise those issues because ultimately when you have to move draconian measures then we need to be able to financially support families and workers and be able to allow them to do the right thing in what is going to be a very difficult winter.”

Fresh Covid-19 restrictions are to be extended to all of Northern Ireland from this evening.

There will be no mixing of households indoors with exemptions, while no more than six people from two households can meet in a garden.

Previously, the measures only applied to Belfast and Ballymena in Co Antrim.

The deputy First Minister said: “I also want to prioritise schools remaining open.

“We have an inevitable rise in positive cases, that is going to continue but the window of opportunity should not be missed. We have a chance now in the next two to three weeks to try and reverse the trend.”

She said they had to consider whether lessons could be learned from how people had responded globally.

Pubs which do not serve food are due to open on Wednesday, despite the fresh restrictions.

Ms O’Neill said: “I think it is a confusing message that you are moving towards opening up a sector, but the pub sector is the only part of that entire hospitality sector that has not opened.

“You have to be reasonable about that, 30,000 jobs are impacted by that sector not being opened.”

She said there was a difference between a regulated setting with good hygiene measures in place and people’s own homes, where they feel more relaxed and are less likely to wash their hands.

“I accept that is a slightly conflicting message there but we would only be moving forward if the science and health advice say that we can,” she added.