Foster confident of consensus on coronavirus restrictions for Northern Ireland
Arlene Foster has expressed hope the Northern Ireland Executive will reach an agreed position on new Covid-19 restrictions for the region.
The First Minister’s comments come amid deadlock within the administration on whether to extend, amend or relax the current four-week circuit-break measures, which expire at midnight on Thursday.
Ministers are due to meet again later on Tuesday after discussions on Monday failed to secure a breakthrough.
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.
Amid sustained pressure on hospital admissions, ministers in the five-party executive are at odds over whether to remove the restrictions from Friday onwards or extend some or all of them for a further two weeks.
Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann favours a comprehensive extension of the measures.
A majority of other ministers appear to favour allowing close contact services to resume, as long as strict precautions are observed.
It appears pubs that do not serve food will be unlikely to get approval to reopen.
We have a determination to work together to find a solution
Ministers are at odds on how much of the rest of the hospitality sector will be allowed to resume trading.
The DUP is pushing for more widespread easing of restrictions than Sinn Fein is prepared to support.
Addressing the Assembly during a question session on the recent British Irish Council (BIC) summit, the First Minister said an agreed way forward can be found.
“I think we are all dealing with very difficult situations at the moment, we will have an executive meeting later today and I very much hope that consensus can be achieved,” she said.
“We’re in a five-party coalition, Mr Speaker (Alex Maskey), and there are many administrations across the United Kingdom and the other administrations in the BIC who do not have to deal with differing political philosophies and ways forward.
“But we will work together, we have a determination to work together to find a solution and that will happen hopefully today.”
One option understood to have been under consideration by ministers was cafes and restaurants being allowed to reopen without alcohol being sold.
But there are doubts whether ministers will press ahead with this proposal, given the hostility expressed by some members of the hospitality sector.
Restaurant owners have said the inability to sell alcohol would make trading unviable.
Another potential option is non-licenced premises such as cafes being allowed to reopen while those business that do serve alcohol remain closed.
Mrs Foster told the Assembly there is 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.”
In a clear indication of the strength of opposition among some DUP members to extending restrictions on businesses, party MLA Paul Frew accused the Executive of committing an “act of vandalism” on the economy.
Mr Frew, who also criticised the introduction of the circuit-break last month, branded the actions of the administration, particularly the delay in providing clarity to businesses, a “shame, disgrace and farce”.
“We have businesses, owners asking do I bring my supply chain in, do I order all that food, do I fill my freezer,” he told MLAs.
“This is unbelievable. This is a tremendously harsh time for business and yet this Executive is causing an act of vandalism to those businesses.
“It is an act of vandalism to not be able to tell a business on the Tuesday that they can open up for sure on the Friday, that they can fill their fridges and freezers, they can bring in their stock and they can pay their supply line.
“All these businesses have no idea. That’s no way to run a business. But it’s no way to run an Executive. It is an absolute disgrace, it is an absolute farce that we are letting so many people down.”
Daniel McCrossan, SDLP Assembly member, asked health minister Robin Swann, if there is any easement of the current restrictions, would it increase the likelihood of further restrictions in the mouth of Christmas.
Mr Swann told the Assembly: “If there are any further easements, I cannot give that guarantee.”