Minister proposes one-week circuit-break extension in bid to end deadlock
Northern Ireland’s health minister has proposed a one-week extension to the region’s circuit-break in a bid to end an executive stalemate on lockdown restrictions.
Divisions at the head of the powersharing administration have been laid bare over recent days as ministers struggle to agree new pandemic response measures.
The DUP has already vetoed a proposal from health minister Robin Swann to extend the current circuit-break by two weeks, despite the other four executive parties backing the move.
During a third executive meeting in three days on Wednesday, it is understood Mr Swann suggested a one-week extension of the measures, which have forced much of the hospitality sector to close.
It is understood the DUP’s initial reaction to the proposal was not positive.
The meeting is anticipated to extend through much of Wednesday, albeit proceedings were adjourned mid-afternoon to facilitate other ministerial commitments.
The executive’s two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – are engaged in a claim and counterclaim spat amid a failure to reach consensus ahead of the looming end of the current circuit-break.
Ministers are also at odds on alternative proposals tabled by DUP economy minister Diane Dodds that would partially reopen the hospitality sector.
Late-night meetings on Monday and Tuesday broke up without agreement.
Northern Ireland’s 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.
The administration is facing mounting criticism for failing to tell businesses whether they will be able to reopen on Friday.
The DUP and Sinn Fein have clashed over Mr Swann’s original proposal to extend the circuit-break in its entirety for two weeks.
The DUP used its veto to block the move during Tuesday’s executive meeting.
That tactic drew criticism from Sinn Fein and the other three executive parties.
But the DUP is understood to be furious at Sinn Fein’s decision to back Mr Swann’s proposal.
The party believes Sinn Fein has backtracked on an apparent pledge to endorse the reopening of cafes and restaurants.
DUP sources believe Sinn Fein’s Dublin powerbase intervened and forced a change in direction north of the border.
DUP First Minister Arlene Foster said her partners in government had to explain why they had changed position.
Mrs Foster pointed to a Sunday media interview in which Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the executive is looking at ways of “opening things up, perhaps without alcohol”.
“She (Ms O’Neill) advocated a wide range of relaxations, she said she was proposing that to the executive and I think it is a matter for Sinn Fein as to why they now are in a situation, despite the fact there has been no change in the medical advice, none whatsoever, as to why they are now in a completely different scenario,” she told the BBC.
“They are (now) saying let us keep hairdressers and beauticians closed, let us keep coffee shops on our high streets closed and roll it over for another two weeks in the knowledge that in two weeks’ time things will not have changed and we will be back in exactly the same position, faced with exactly the same decision.”
The claims have been robustly rejected by Sinn Fein, with the party insisting it was acting in line with medical and scientific advice.
Ms O’Neill said: “Last night at the executive we were warned by the chief medical officer (Dr Michael McBride) that any easing of the current restrictions would cause ‘excess deaths’.
“The advice was stark and clear – if we don’t keep current restrictions in place for another two weeks, more people will die.
“My priority has been to save lives, protect livelihoods and ensure that our health service would not be overwhelmed by the spread of the virus.”
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, an Ulster Unionist minister, and senior health officials had warned Covid-19 cases are likely to spike again in mid-December if the fortnight extension is not approved.
Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew branded the DUP move “madness”.
During Tuesday’s executive meeting, Alliance Party justice minister Naomi Long was 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.
After Mr Swann’s two-week extension was voted down, ministers turned to debating the alternative proposals tabled by Mrs Dodds.
Those discussions resumed around lunchtime on Wednesday.
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.
Ahead of the meeting on Wednesday, Mrs Dodds published data suggesting the four-week circuit-break had resulted in a £400 million loss for the local economy.
A further eight new Covid-19 linked deaths were announced in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, with 791 new cases of the virus.