Executive ministers were involved in angry exchanges after the DUP moved to block a proposal to extend Northern Ireland’s circuit-break lockdown for two more weeks.
DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots’ call for the proposal to be decided using the cross-community voting mechanism – effectively handing his party a veto – provoked heated responses from other parties during a meeting on Tuesday night.
The recommendation to extend the circuit-break measures in their entirety was tabled by Health Minister Robin Swann, who warned of another spike in cases by mid-December if the move was not taken.
The DUP has been 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. Mrs Dodds has recommended a partial reopening of the hospitality sector.
Executive exchanges were ongoing on Tuesday night, with chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser professor Ian Young outlining the implications of Mrs Dodds’ proposals.
The meeting convened around 6pm, almost 24 hours after exchanges broke up on Monday without agreement.
Ministers are at odds on whether to extend, amend or relax the current four-week circuit-break measures, which expire at midnight on Thursday.
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, and that in and of itself has its own health outcomes – mental health and, as I say, the issues around poverty.
“So there is a need for us to find a way forward. I hope that we can all work in collaboration to find a way forward.”
Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazzard said his party supported the resumption of close contact services but believed the restrictions on the hospitality sector should be extended.
Mr Hazzard said it would be reckless to throw away progress in reducing infection rates.
“I think there is a case to be made when it comes to close contact services, you could look at relaxations,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“But I think on the whole it’s important we find a way forward now that sees us through to the new year and, to me, that means restrictions must stay in place for another two weeks.”