Leaders in Northern Ireland have agreed to the next steps in their coronavirus restrictions as the current restrictions were set to expire this week.
Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, and Michelle O'Neill, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, said in a statement issued today, November 12, that the Northern Ireland Executive has agreed to the following coronavirus restrictions:
- Close contact services including driving instructors will reopen by appointment on 20 November;
- Hospitality will reopen on a graduated basis, with unlicensed premises such as cafes and coffee shops opening on 20 November, with restricted opening hours to 8:00 pm. This will not include the purchase or consumption of alcohol on such premises;
- Support will be provided for mitigations to reduce risk within the hospitality sector, including improved ventilation and requirements for the recording of customer information for contact tracing purposes;
- Pubs and bars will be permitted to sell sealed off sales on 20 November;
- The remaining restrictions, which came into being on 16 October, would be extended and come to an end at midnight on 26 November, leaving all elements of hospitality including hotels able to open on 27 November;
- A vaccination programme will be rolled out from as early as possible in December in line with England, initially targeting priority groups such as health care staff, care homes and those with underlying vulnerabilities;
- Ongoing preparation for introduction of rapid testing at the earliest opportunity;
- Additional financial support for affected businesses; and
- A strengthened adherence/compliance working group, which will work to assist and to mitigate risk in the opening up of the hospitality businesses.
The decisions come as the restrictions put in place on October 16 were set to expire this week.
On the day the decisions were finally agreed upon, Northern Ireland had reported 548 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total in the region to 45,241, and 15 coronavirus-related deaths, bringing the total in the region to 825.
Responding to the Executive’s decisions, Northern Ireland’s Minister for Health Robin Swann said: “It is no secret that I wanted a different outcome from the Executive. However, the decision today is preferable to restrictions falling and all hospitality opening this weekend. I could not countenance the consequences of that happening.
“I have been frank with the public throughout. This is going to be an incredibly tough winter for us all – especially our health and social care system and all those who depend on it and work in it."
Swann added that while there were "undoubtedly signs of hope on the horizon," a vaccine is not here yet and is not guaranteed, and warned people not to "let your guard down now."
He added: “Restrictions on our daily lives will have to continue to help stop the spread of the virus. If I have to recommend further interventions to the Executive to prevent vital services being overwhelmed, I will not hesitate to do so.
“My job is to protect the health service and the health of the population."
In a video she shared on her Twitter, First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Arlene Foster said: "The choice became the quick but wrong decision, or to actually fight and get us to a better and balanced decision."
She added: "The greatest tools still remain in dealing with this virus and our common fight against this virus and of course they are the simplest rules - wearing a face covering, keeping your distance, cleaning your hands, and practicing good respiratory health."
Update: I didn’t seek the last four days but a fair and balanced agreement reached with the support of the Health Minister. pic.twitter.com/6U2jVD5vYw— Arlene Foster #We’llMeetAgain (@DUPleader) November 12, 2020
However, Michelle O’Neill, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and the Vice President of Sinn Fein, said in a statement: “Over the last four days of talks, my priority - guided and shaped by expert public health advice - has been about reaching the right decision in order to:
- Save lives
- Protect the already pressurised health service
- Protect our hard pressed doctors and nurses and health workers dealing with this pandemic
- And support workers and families
“The Executive has reached a decision. Sinn Féin will respect that democratic decision but it is not something my party could support.
“The Executive made a public commitment on decision making in May this year. We agreed that controlling transmission and protecting healthcare capacity would be our guiding principles when considering specific restrictions.
“I remain committed to that.
"The expert health advice from the Chief Medical Officer this week could not have been clearer that any move away from a two-week extension of the current interventions would result in ‘excess deaths’.
“That’s stark. It means more lives being lost.
“I am hugely disappointed that a voting mechanism designed to protect minorities was abused by the DUP to block the implementation of public health measures during this global pandemic.
“Our situation remains fragile. Our priority is to protect our hospitals and health service and will continue to keep this situation under review. We want people back to work but first we must get the virus under control.
“I have made it clear the Executive needs a strategy to break the cycle of lockdowns and circuit breakers.
“Evidence and international best practice shows that investment in developing a first-class ‘Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support’ programme, bolstered by mass rapid testing is the most effective way to suppress the spread of the virus.
“We must have financial supports in place for those who are forced to self-isolate, for workers and families, those on low incomes and zero hour contracts, those most disproportionately affected by this pandemic. That remains my goal moving forward.”
Our health service is under serious pressure
Our hospitals are at 101% capacity and our health workers are exhausted
The Executive has reached a democratic decision, we respect that decision but it is not something Sinn Féin could support
Our priority remains protecting lives pic.twitter.com/CYLcRtNRvx— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) November 12, 2020