Executive fails to strike agreement as clock ticks on NI circuit-break expiry

The Stormont executive has again failed to agree new coronavirus restrictions for Northern Ireland as the clock ticks towards the expiry of the current circuit-break.

A third executive meeting in three days broke up on Wednesday night without consensus emerging.

Ministers will resume discussions on Thursday, less than 24 hours before regulations lapse, with many businesses in the dark on whether they will be able to open on Friday.

In another day of twists and turns within the five-party coalition, the PA news agency understands that:

– The DUP vetoed a second proposal from health minister Robin Swann to extend the circuit-break measures, this time by one week.

– The other Stormont parties voted down alternative proposals tabled by DUP economy minister Diane Dodds that would have seen a partial reopening of the hospitality sector.

– Alliance justice minister Naomi Long tabled a hybrid proposal that fused Mr Swann’s one-week extension with Mrs Dodds’s measures being introduced the week after.

No vote has yet been taken on Mrs Long’s proposal and it is understood they will form the basis of renewed discussions on Thursday morning.

Coronavirus – Thu Oct 8, 2020
Coronavirus – Thu Oct 8, 2020

Ahead of the meeting on Wednesday, Mrs Dodds published data suggesting the four-week circuit-break had resulted in a £400 million loss for the local economy.

A further eight new Covid-19-linked deaths were announced in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, with 791 new cases of the virus.

Divisions at the head of the powersharing administration have been laid bare over recent days as ministers struggle to agree new pandemic response measures.

The DUP had already vetoed a proposal from Mr Swann to extend the current circuit-break by two weeks on Tuesday night, despite the other four executive parties again backing the move.

On Wednesday, Mr Swann suggested a one-week extension as a way of buying some time and avoiding the cliff edge of the current regulations lapsing at midnight on Thursday.

The Ulster Unionist minister said it would provide space for ministers to try to develop an agreed approach for the week after.

However, the DUP again vetoed the proposal using a voting mechanism that necessitates any proposal to gain the backing of a majority of nationalist and a majority of unionist executive members.

Coronavirus – Mon Jul 20, 2020
Coronavirus – Mon Jul 20, 2020

It has left the DUP in the unusual position of using cross-community provisions against proposals tabled by a fellow unionist.

The DUP and Sinn Fein, which jointly lead the administration, are at loggerheads over the Covid-19 response.

The DUP has accused Sinn Fein of backtracking on an apparent pledge to endorse the partial reopening of hospitality, such as cafes and restaurants.

DUP sources believe Sinn Fein’s Dublin powerbase intervened and forced a change in direction north of the border.

DUP First Minister Arlene Foster said her partners-in-government had to explain why they had changed position.

Mrs Foster pointed to a Sunday media interview in which Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the executive is looking at ways of opening up businesses.

“She (Ms O’Neill) advocated a wide range of relaxations, she said she was proposing that to the executive and I think it is a matter for Sinn Fein as to why they now are in a situation, despite the fact there has been no change in the medical advice, none whatsoever, as to why they are now in a completely different scenario,” she told the BBC.

The claims have been robustly rejected by Sinn Fein, with the party insisting it was acting in line with medical and scientific advice.

Last night at the Executive we were warned by the Chief Medical Officer that any easing of the current restrictions would cause ‘excess deaths’. The advice was stark and clear – if we don’t keep current restrictions in place for another two weeks, more people will die. pic.twitter.com/xgw0cnIprD

— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) November 11, 2020

Ms O’Neill said evidence from chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride indicated that any easing of the current restrictions would cause excess deaths.

“The advice was stark and clear – if we don’t keep current restrictions in place for another two weeks, more people will die,” she said.

“My priority has been to save lives, protect livelihoods and ensure that our health service would not be overwhelmed by the spread of the virus.”

PA understands that a paper Mr Swann presented to the executive warned ministers that failure to extend the circuit-break by two weeks would “significantly increase” the likelihood of a pre-Christmas intervention in Northern Ireland.

The paper made clear that even a two-week extension may not be enough to avoid the need for new measures being imposed ahead of the festive period.

It warned that hospitals in Northern Ireland are all currently operating “at, close to, or above full capacity” and that non-Covid services could be “adversely impacted” if staff are overwhelmed, leading to increased deaths from other causes.

In the document, Mr Swann also expressed doubt about whether the alternative proposals tabled by Mrs Dodds could have been translated into regulations in time for the lapsing of the current circuit-break on Thursday.

PA understands those measures included:

– Close contact services, including hairdressing, beauty treatments and driving lessons, resuming on November 13 by appointment only.

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

– Hotels able to serve food and alcohol to residents.

– Licensed premises remaining closed until November 27. A “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.

Those timelines have been pushed back a week in the revised proposals from Mrs Long.