A senior DUP MP has criticised Michelle O’Neill for “arbitrarily” declaring that Northern Ireland will not follow England’s road map out of the Covid-19 restrictions.
Gregory Campbell said parties at the Executive had to reach consensus on the region’s next steps toward normality and needed to offer the public hope that measures limiting their freedoms will be coming to an end quickly.
The East Londonderry MP was responding to the Sinn Fein’s deputy First Minister insistence on Tuesday that Northern Ireland would not be following the model outlined for England by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Mr Johnson has set out plans to lift the majority of the remaining Covid restrictions in England from July 19. Under his proposals, the wearing of facemasks would become voluntary and requirements for social distancing would end.
Ms O’Neill branded the plan as “reckless” and made clear she was currently “not prepared to go to the end of the line” with easing restrictions.
Stormont ministers are meeting on Thursday to discuss the potential for further relaxations in Northern Ireland. It is extremely unlikely that the administration will sanction moves on the scale of those announced by Mr Johnson.
Mr Campbell accused Ms O’Neill of stating what she would not do without providing any information on what she is willing to accept.
“I don’t think an arbitrary view like that, particularly when she doesn’t spell out the direction that she would like us to take, is the way forward,” said the DUP MP.
“It has to be a collective decision.”
In an interview with BBC Radio Ulster, he added: “We have to move gradually, we have to move safely, but we’ve got to move there in a way that gives people confidence we are emerging out the other side – that’s what people need to see and they need to see it from a united executive.
“Michelle O’Neill’s comments last night did not give people hope that there’s going to be a consensus, she just arbitrarily says ‘we will not be following the Boris Johnson model’.
“That’s not the way to reach consensus, you’ve got to try and bring people with you to deliver people the option and the forecast of better times ahead and coming quickly as well.”
Mr Campbell said relaxations in Northern Ireland would depend on the region reaching higher vaccination uptake levels. He questioned why other parts of the UK had achieved higher percentages of the population receiving first and second doses.
“If you look within the UK, for some reason Northern Ireland is very far behind, for example, Wales,” he said.
“England and Scotland are also ahead of us. And for some reason on both first dose and fully vaccinated people we’re at the back of the queue in the UK. So I think what we have to get from the medical professionals and the Department of Health is why is that in the past month to six weeks has Northern Ireland fallen so far behind Wales.”
Mr Campbell said he hoped Ms O’Neill would demonstrate more flexibility at Thursday’s executive.
“I’m concerned that people like the deputy First Minister has said what she has without outlining her alternative,” he said.
“Hopefully tomorrow that wiser counsel will prevail, and we can reach a unified position, which offers confidence and hope for people in the short term.
“Michelle O’Neill may well have better words for us tomorrow rather than the words she used last night.”
The veteran MP said people would not tolerate the “nonsense” of “perennial” restrictions.
“People will not contemplate two full years of varying restrictions because that will get us into an endless circle where we simply can’t break this,” he said.