Stormont’s First Minister has said she respectfully disagrees with a leading medical body’s assessment that new restrictions for Northern Ireland are “too little, too late”.
Arlene Foster was responding to a claim from the British Medical Association NI that only a full lockdown could have prevented the health service falling off a Covid cliff edge.
She defended the package of measures as the powersharing administration announced the expansion of a financial support scheme to cover businesses that will be forced to close as a result of the four-week “circuit break”.
Chairman of the BMA’s Northern Ireland Council Tom Black said doctors feel the intensified measures are “too little, too late and don’t go far enough”.
Dr Black said spiralling case numbers in the region justified a “full lockdown” – a move he said should have been triggered much sooner.
He said it was the first time the BMA’s membership in the region had failed to endorse a Stormont response to the pandemic.
Under measures that come into effect at 6pm on Friday, pubs and restaurants will close for four weeks, with the exception of takeaways and deliveries, and schools are to shut for two weeks, one of which is the mid-term Halloween break.
Mrs Foster said the executive had to consider many factors when deciding on the restrictions, not just the health implications.
“I did hear the comments of Dr Tom Black from the BMA today. I respectfully disagree with him,” she said.
“I say that because not only do I have to look at the health outcomes in these issues, but of course the economic outcomes, the societal outcomes, the education of our young people… and therefore I think that what we came forward with was an action plan which has been blended to try and deal with all of those issues, not for one minute taking away from the huge challenge that lies in front of us all in relation to Covid-19.”
Four Covid-19 linked deaths and 763 new cases of the virus were reported on Thursday.
There have been 6,394 new positive cases notified in the last seven days, bringing the total to 23,878.
As of Thursday, there were 201 patients with Covid-19 being treated in hospital, with 24 in intensive care.
Under the new restrictions, retail outlets will remain open, as will gyms for individual training.
Churches will also remain open, with a 25-person limit on funerals and weddings. Wedding receptions are prohibited.
People have been advised to work from home unless unable to do so and have also been urged not to take unnecessary journeys.
Indoor sporting activities are not allowed and outdoor contact sports will be limited to elite athletes.
Off-licences will be required to shut at 8pm.
Close contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, must stop.
More information will be published soon in relation to the regulations. However, hopefully this may help answer some of the queries that people have. pic.twitter.com/z6VsXkvS0g
— Arlene Foster #We’llMeetAgain (@DUPleader) October 15, 2020
At a Stormont press conference on Thursday, Mrs Foster also moved to provide clarity on some issues that had prompted confusion among businesses and the wider public.
She said hotels could remain open, but only on a limited basis to accommodate people who were already resident, key workers or those in a vulnerable or emergency situations.
The DUP leader said self-catering and rented accommodation can remain open, taxis can still operate, swimming pools can operate for individual use but not for group classes, and music lessons and tuition can be provided from home.
She said private childcare and pre-schools could also remain open during the period of school closure.
The First Minister said while deceased people could be brought to private dwellings, wakes were not allowed.
Mrs Foster reiterated the view that the measures did not represent a lockdown.
“This is a careful and considered blend of actions designed to cause the maximum damage to the virus, but the minimum damage to the everyday lives of our people,” she said.
At the same press briefing, Finance Minister Conor Murphy announced that a support scheme set up for businesses impacted by localised restrictions recently imposed on the Derry City and Strabane council area will to be extended to the rest of the Northern Ireland.
The scheme agreed by the executive will double the original payment rates, but will only be eligible to business forced to close as a consequence of the new region-wide restrictions.
It will see small businesses receive £800 per week, medium-sized firms £1,200 a week, and larger businesses £1,600.