DUP MP questions need for NI-wide lockdown

A senior DUP member has questioned the proposed imposition of a six-week lockdown across Northern Ireland.

It is understood chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride stressed the need for such a significant step during talks with Stormont ministers over the weekend.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson queried why such a move would be required across the region, given the marked variations in infection rates in different areas.

The Derry and Strabane Council area, which has one of the highest infection rates in the UK, is currently subject to added localised measures.

A scheduled meeting of the Stormont executive on Thursday is to be brought forward to earlier in the week to enable ministers to give urgent consideration to new Covid-19 restrictions.

Coronavirus – Thu Oct 1, 2020
Coronavirus – Thu Oct 1, 2020

The issue appears to have created tension at the heart of the executive.

Sir Jeffrey’s advocacy for maintaining a localised approach is at odds with Sinn Fein, with the party having signalled support for a move away from localised restrictions to region-wide measures.

Sinn Fein has not yet made clear whether it favours the concept of a six-week lockdown.

First Minister Arlene Foster, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Health Minister Robin Swann were scheduled to participate in a call of the UK’s Cobra committee on Monday morning to discuss the Covid-19 crisis.

Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill have both said that the executive will need to make significant decisions in the coming days.

On Monday, Mrs Foster was maintaining her position that another lockdown was “not inevitable”.

Responding to the suggestion of a six-week lockdown, Sir Jeffrey highlighted that it would be more radical than anything currently being considered elsewhere in the UK and in the Irish Republic.

“A six-week full lockdown, back to where we were last March, would I think take us way, way ahead of anywhere else,” he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show.

“And the rate across Northern Ireland, I would need to be convinced that such measures at the moment are appropriate for all of Northern Ireland.

“I’d be wanting to know why we’re abandoning the policy of focusing in on the areas where the infection rates are highest.”

The DUP’s Westminster leader also challenged Mr Swann on why Covid-19 contingency measures – such as the reopening of a Nightingale hospital at Belfast City Hospital – had not been rolled out, if the situation facing the local health service was so grave.

General Election 2019
General Election 2019

While the Derry and Strabane Council area currently is seeing 946 cases per 100,000 people, in places like Mid and East Antrim the rate is significantly lower, at 84 per 100,000.

On Sunday, Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazzard suggested it was time to move away from localised measures.

“I think there was a logic and a sense behind local lockdowns at a time but I think we’re now moving fast into the area where we need to be looking at more general lockdowns once again, at more general and rigorous and robust methods at being able to suppress this virus,” he told BBC One NI’s Sunday Politics programme.

Whether or not school closures should be included in any new lockdown is likely to be a key consideration around the executive table.

DUP Education Minister Peter Weir has insisted schools should remain open.

“I think it is critical that we ensure that schools remain open because it will do long-term damage to the life prospects of our children,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.