Ministers locked in late night talks over new NI coronavirus restrictions

Stormont ministers were locked in late night negotiations on Tuesday amid efforts to agree new coronavirus restrictions for Northern Ireland.

There were angry exchanges at the outset of the meeting when the DUP moved to block a proposal from health minister Robin Swann to extend the region’s current circuit-break lockdown for two more weeks.

The DUP used a contentious Stormont mechanism – a cross-community vote – to effectively veto the proposal, despite support for the move by a majority of executive parties.

Alliance Party justice minister Naomi Long was particularly critical of the deployment of the mechanism, which was triggered by DUP agriculture minister Edwin Poots.

Mr Swann and senior health officials had warned that Covid-19 cases were likely to spike again in mid-December if the fortnight extension was not approved.

The DUP has been strongly opposed to extending the full complement of restrictions beyond the original four-week period.

After Mr Swann’s paper was voted down, ministers turned to debating alternative proposals tabled by DUP economy minister Diane Dodds, who recommended a partial reopening of the hospitality sector.

The circuit-break has forced the closure of much of the hospitality sector in Northern Ireland and halted the work of close contact services such as hairdressing.

The PA news agency understands that measures in Mrs Dodds’ alternative paper include:

– Close contact services, including driving lessons, can resume on November 13 by appointment only.

– Unlicensed premises, including cafes and coffee shops, can reopen on November 13.

– Hotels able to serve food and alcohol to residents.

– Licensed premises remain closed until November 27. “Safely open” group, involving hospitality sector and executive, to be established to oversee this move.

– Pubs and bars able to offer sealed off-sales from November 13.

A further 11 Covid-19 linked deaths were announced in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, along with 514 new confirmed cases.

On Tuesday morning, First Minister Arlene Foster expressed confidence the executive could find a consensus position.

She told the Assembly there was a need to develop a “clear exit strategy” from lockdown measures.

“I do not believe that we can continually go into circuit-breakers, lockdowns, call them what you will,” she said.

“You cannot keep turning on and off the economy.

“When you go back on one occasion there’ll be nothing left and people will not have jobs, they will not be able to support their families, they will fall into destitution and poverty.”