Ministers again fail to agree new coronavirus restrictions for NI

Stormont ministers have again failed to agree fresh coronavirus restrictions for Northern Ireland amid fraying relations at the top of the powersharing administration.

The executive did not reach consensus after a lengthy and at times acrimonious meeting on Tuesday night.

It was the second night in a row the executive broke up without agreement.

Ministers are expected to resume debate later on Wednesday on proposals that would see a partial reopening of the hospitality sector.

The current four-week circuit break lockdown ends at midnight on Thursday, at which point regulations that have forced the closure of much of the hospitality sector will fall away.

Ministers are facing mounting criticism for failing to tell businesses whether they will be able to reopen on Friday.

There were angry exchanges at the outset of Tuesday’s meeting when the DUP moved to block a proposal from health minister Robin Swann to extend the circuit break measures 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.

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.

Later ministers debated alternative proposals tabled by economy minister Diane Dodds, which included the reopening of cafes and coffee shops, but again a consensus proved elusive.

An anticipated vote on those proposals did not proceed and the meeting concluded after midnight without agreement on a way forward.

Earlier, Alliance Party justice minister Naomi Long had been particularly critical of the deployment of the cross community vote – a mechanism designed to protect minority rights in a post-conflict society – to torpedo health regulations.

However, the vote also created anger within the DUP, with the party understood to be furious at Sinn Fein’s decision to back Mr Swann’s proposal.

A senior party source accused Sinn Fein of “somersaulting” on an apparent pledge to endorse the reopening of cafes and restaurants.

The source claimed Sinn Fein agreed that position at the weekend, pointing to a Sunday media interview in which deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the executive was looking at ways of “opening things up perhaps without alcohol”.

The source further claimed Sinn Fein changed position on the instruction of its Dublin powerbase.

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

A senior Sinn Fein source said: “We always said any movement had to be based on medical advice”.

After Mr Swann’s paper was voted down, ministers turned to debating the alternative proposals tabled by Mrs Dodds.

The PA news agency understands those measures include:

– 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.

During the meeting, chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser professor Ian Young briefed ministers on the implications of each move on Covid-19 infection rates.

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

With it clear a consensus on the proposals would not be reached, ministers did not vote on the measures on Tuesday night, instead choosing to end the meeting shortly after 12.30am.

They are due to return to discussions on Mrs Dodds’ proposals later on Wednesday.