Coronavirus: Foster denies DUP U-turn on restrictions

Coronavirus: Foster denies DUP U-turn on restrictions

First Minister Arlene Foster has denied the DUP performed a u-turn by agreeing to tighter Covid-19 restrictions one week after voting against measures proposed to the Stormont Executive.

She said the evidence “had changed” in what was put to ministers at Thursday’s executive meeting.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said it was the “correct decision”.

On Friday, some businesses reopened ahead of a two-week “circuit-break” which will begin on 27 November.

The restrictions have been criticised by many businesses leaders, with the Stormont Executive being described as a “coalition government run by numbskulls” by the prominent hotelier Bill Wolsey.

But Mrs Foster said the executive “had to act” given that the R-number – the average number of people that one infected person will pass the virus to – to one.

Ministers were presented with data last week that said the R-number was “around 0.8 and rising”.

Speaking on Friday, the DUP leader said: “This is a very difficult time for everybody, I’m not pretending these are easy decisions.

“I regret we had to act but that’s what we had to do.”

Last week, the DUP blocked plans to extend existing restrictions.

Both the first and deputy first ministers said the priority now was to ensure businesses affected by the new restrictions received financial support.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she understood the anger felt by businesses that would have to close next week but added that it was was the “correct decision” given the medical and scientific advice ministers had received.

She said she was concerned about what she described as the “contradictory” move to reopen cafes and close-contact businesses on Friday while preparing for a lockdown next week.

The restrictions coming into force from next Friday include the closure of non-essential retail, close-contact services, restaurants, and churches apart from for weddings and funerals.

Ministers have also advised against household gatherings outside of support bubbles, and said people should work from home “if at all possible”.

Hotels and other accommodation providers can operate on a restricted basis, such as for work-related travel and for vulnerable people.

On Friday the Department of Health said 12 more people had died after contracting coronavirus and another 369 people had tested positive.

The government statistics agency Nisra said it had recorded a rise in Covid-19-related deaths for the sixth week in a row.

It said 96 deaths were registered in the week up to Friday 13 November, with the overall total standing at 1,201.

Stormont ministers know that last week was very damaging for executive relations.

That penny particularly dropped with the DUP.

DUP ministers, I think, found themselves in a place where they were very fearful that they were on the wrong side of this argument and would be blamed if something went catastrophically wrong.

There was an absolute screeching u-turn, a 180-degree turn.

There is no doubt there was a different atmosphere around the table last night – there was consensus.

But if they are truly united why could they not have come out, even together, and made this point?

Hiding away from questions and scrutiny, as ministers did for hours after the announcement, is not the way to present unity.

Justice Minister Naomi Long said the situation facing ministers was “quite stark” and there was concern that hospitals would be “in a pretty bad state” without tight restrictions being put in place.

Speaking to BBC News NI’s Good Morning Ulster on Friday, the Alliance Party leader she said: “It was predictable – we knew this last week.”

Health Minister Robin Swann had warned that without immediate action there could be a need for restrictions in December due to the pressures the pandemic is placing on the health service.

After the decision to introduce new measures on Thursday evening, he said: “Without this further intervention there was a very real risk of our hospitals being overwhelmed in the run up to Christmas.

“All of us now have to work really hard to achieve a happier festive season.”

It is understood DUP Minister Edwin Poots voiced opposition to the restrictions during the executive meeting.

Stormont sources said the minister, who has previously spoken out against imposing tighter lockdown measures, said it was illogical to close non-essential retail as it could severely damage the high street.

It is believed Mr Poots did not ask for the measures to be put to a vote by the executive and said he would accept whatever measures were agreed by the executive.

Simon Hamilton, the chief executive of the Belfast Chamber, said businesses were “sympathetic” to the need for steps to “save lives”.

But he warned that there could be “unfathomable job losses” without “a multi-million pound rescue and support package”.

Colin Neill, the chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said the sector he represents has been “left with no trade, no hope and a huge amount of redundancies”.

The executive has said it will develop further financial support packages in the coming days.

On Thursday, it agreed that businesses which are allowed to reopen between 20-26 November but choose not to will be able to access funding.

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