Arlene Foster urges ministers to support each other over Covid decisions

Arlene Foster has urged Executive ministers to support each other on decisions around coronavirus restrictions.

The First Minister’s plea came amid the ongoing political fall-out over comments by her ministerial and party colleague Edwin Poots when he criticised the latest Covid-19 measures.

Further remarks by Mr Poots in which he claimed coronavirus was more rife in nationalist areas than unionist areas have served to deepen the controversy.

Senior Sinn Fein member John O’Dowd branded those remarks an “absolute disgrace” and called on Mr Poots to apologise.

Elsewhere on Monday, a DUP Assembly member became the latest party representative to publicly criticise the four-week circuit break, branding some of the new restrictions a “shame and disgrace”.

Power sharing
DUP MLA Paul Frew (PA)

Paul Frew asked who was going to “protect the people” from the decisions being made by an administration his party jointly leads.

In a video posted on Facebook, Mrs Foster did not refer explicitly to Mr Poots’ or Mr Frew’s comments.

She acknowledged the DUP would have opted for different restrictions if it was making the decision on its own, but she highlighted the Executive made decisions on a coalition basis.

“We are in a five-party Executive and, by its very nature, any decision is going to have to be a compromise,” she said.

“And I think it’s fair to say that, left to the DUP on our own, it would have been a different decision that we would have came forward with.

“However, it is important to say that everyone in the Executive recognises that there was a need to take some action to deal with the increase in transmission.

“And I’ve always spoken about the balance needed and about the fact that we need to take proportionate decisions.

“I’m going to continue to seek proportionate decisions and seek balance as we move forward.

“And let us support each other as we do take these decisions.

“I think it’s important at this challenging time that we do that.”

Taoiseach visits United States of America
Edwin Poots has faced calls to apologise (Niall Carson/PA)

There were a further six Covid-19 linked deaths and 820 new cases of the virus reported by Northern Ireland’s Department of Health on Monday.

Health minister Robin Swann said the figures provided evidence that grave predictions about the infection curve were coming true.

He also urged unity, saying: “If we continue to stand together, we can prevent the worst.”

Mr Swann acknowledged the restrictions were “extremely challenging” but insisted the measures were “proportionate and well founded”.

In other developments on Monday:

– The PSNI confirmed it had issued its first ever penalty noticed for a failure to wear a face covering in a retail premises.

– Education minister Peter Weir told the Assembly there have been almost 1,500 Covid cases in schools since they reopened in August.

– The flue vaccine programme for eligible people under 65 was hit by a global shortage and paused awaiting the arrival of further stock.

Coronavirus – Wed Oct 14, 2020
Robin Swann (Presseye/PA)

The four-week period of intensified restrictions, which was agreed by all five executive parties last week, has forced the closure of hospitality businesses, with the exception of takeaways and deliveries.

Schools have also closed for two weeks after the Halloween mid-term break was extended by a further week.

While many retail outlets and service providers can keep trading, those involved in close contact businesses, such as hairdressers and beauticians, have been told to close.

During an Assembly debate on the executive’s finances, Mr Frew claimed there was “no rhyme and no reason” as to why businesses that had put in place infection control measures were being told to close.

“It is an absolute shame and disgrace that the Executive can make a decision like that,” he said.

Earlier, Mr O’Dowd called on Mr Poots to apologise for his comments on the breakdown of infection rates.

Mr Poots had linked the issue to alleged breaches of coronavirus rules by Sinn Fein members at the funeral of IRA veteran Bobby Storey in Belfast in June, suggesting that had set an example for supporters of the party.

Mr Poots told UTV on Friday: “A lot of this started shortly after the Bobby Storey funeral.

“A lot of the problems started after that event and people in that community saw the breaking of the rules that is why there is a difference between nationalist areas and unionist areas and the difference is around six to one.”

Mr O’Dowd claimed Mr Poots had effectively accused nationalists of spreading the virus.

“It has caused huge offence and it has caused huge harm and potential harm to community relations and Edwin should apologise for it,” he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme.

He added: “His comments about the breakdown of the council areas and his hint this is a Catholic problem is an absolute disgrace, comments that he should withdraw and comments he should apologise for.”

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