Stormont leaders defend wait on NI coronavirus powers

Stormont’s leaders have defended the time they are taking to agree Northern Ireland’s coronavirus enforcement regulations and guidance.

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill insisted details of new police powers to fine those breaching social-distancing rules and a definitive list of essential businesses would be published as soon as possible.

First Minister Mrs Foster acknowledged there was a need for clarity and predicted the regulations and guidance would be published by the end of the weekend, if not earlier.

Deputy First Minister Ms O’Neill said she did not want to publish the regulations and guidance until they were “solid”, insisting that might create more questions than answers.

The leaders have faced questions why the powersharing executive has still to implement the provisions of emergency legislation passed at Westminster earlier in the week.

As of Friday evening, police still did not have the enforcement powers and many companies remained unclear as to whether they were considered an essential business.

Despite the delay on the new powers, Mrs Foster said police could use powers already available to them to enforce appropriate behaviour over the coming weekend.

“Police have their general laws, which of course they can use at any time, and they continue to do that and we understand from the Chief Constable (Simon Byrne) that he will enforce – if he believes that people are acting in a way that is injurious to public health – he will use those powers,” she said.

“So, it’s wrong to say that the police haven’t clarity in relation to any powers.”

Mrs Foster also announced the formation of a new forum to allow businesses and employee representatives to discuss concerns over safe working practices.

Ms O’Neill said the UK Government’s approach had hampered efforts to develop the new regulations and guidance.

“This a rapidly changing situation – there aren’t answers to all the questions which people have and I accept that readily,” she said.

“Forty-eight hours ago we received the legislation (from Westminster). We’re trying to turn that into regulations to give us the powers to do the things that we need to be able to do.

“There’s so much confusion out there. We’ve been drip-fed information from the British Government, bit by bit, and then we’re trying to translate that and put it into how we actually can operate what we can do here.”

Ms O’Neill said the guidance and regulations would be published by Monday morning’s executive meeting.

“We don’t want to put out something which only invites even more questions, so bear with us,” she said.

Earlier, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Simon Byrne said he expected the powers available to his officers to be similar to those in England and Wales.

“What we broadly expect though is to have similar powers, if not the same, as has been widely publicised in England and Wales,” he told the BBC.

“So, for example, the powers to disperse large gatherings of people, the powers to prevent large numbers of people coming together, to enforce essential travel and things like that.

“So we’re taking a similar approach and as soon as there is clarity, I think you’ll hear from the executive.”

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