Article By: Orlaith Clinton - READ ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Health Minister Robin Swann MLA welcomed a conclusion to this week’s Executive discussions on Covid-19 regulations. The Minister said that while there are signs of hope on the horizon, the next few months will remain “extremely challenging”.
t has been a tedious four days as all eyes were on Stormont awaiting a decision on the current circuit breaker.
With whispers of announcements due since Sunday morning, it was over to our ministers to make a decision - but it wasn't that straightforward.
Two vetoes, three proposal papers and four sleepless nights later and a deal was given the green light.
What was announced?
The Executive has agreed the following:
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 8pm. 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.
Which parties were in favour of the deal?
It is understood that the DUP, UUP and Alliance Party all voted in favour of these proposals.
Sinn Féin voted against them.
The SDLP abstained from voting.
Why did Sinn Féin vote against the deal?
Speaking on Thursday night, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said while the Executive did reach a decision, it was not one that is supported by Sinn Féin.
Ms O'Neill added: "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."
Why did the SDLP abstain from voting?
SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood explained: "Minister Nichola Mallon abstained on the vote as she could not in good conscience support measures that fell short of protecting against plunging us into more restrictions just before Christmas - even two weeks would have risked that.
"The SDLP will always work in the interests of our health care system, our local economy and our communities. We won’t accede to threats from the DUP or anyone else - but we will continue to fight for a fair, functional, honest, transparent government that our citizens deserve. We will not, not now, not ever play politics with lives or livelihoods."
What has First Minister Arlene Foster said?
Speaking after the announcement of new restrictions on Thursday evening, Arlene Foster said she was under the impression that a proposal would be agreed on Monday.
"I believe that we had secured that over the weekend," Mrs Foster added.
"When I left home on Monday I was expecting to formally agree proposals at the Executive and inform the Assembly later that day.
"But this past four days, days I certainly didn't seek, the choice became the quick but wrong decision or to actually fight and get us to a better and balanced decision.
"Sometimes compromise doesn't come easy and it has to be fought for to secure it. The changes are well publicised and we now have dates for all of the sectors now agreed and the greatest tools still remain in dealing with this virus and our common fight against this virus.
"Of course they are the simplest rules - wearing a face covering, keeping your distance, cleaning your hands and practising good respiratory health."
What has the Health Minister said?
Health Minister Robin Swann MLA welcomed a conclusion to this week’s Executive discussions on Covid-19 regulations.
The Minister said that while there are signs of hope on the horizon, the next few months will remain “extremely challenging”. He appealed to everyone to keep fighting back against Covid-19.
Pushing down rates of infection will protect hospitals and care homes and also allow us to have a better Christmas, he added.
Mr 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.
"No secret that I wanted a different outcome" - Swann
"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.
“I want to again thank everyone for the sacrifices they are making.
“There are undoubtedly signs of hope on the horizon – in terms of progress on a vaccine, increased testing and improved treatments.
“But the vaccine is not here yet and is not guaranteed. Please do not let your guard down now. Let’s keep on the right path and get through this together.
“I am an optimist and I know this will end and we will get through it. However, I also don’t want to offer false hope to anyone. The current situation is extremely challenging and will remain so throughout the winter.
“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.
“We can all play our part in driving down infection rates. That means acting responsibly and following public health advice – keeping our distance and reducing our contacts, wearing a face covering and washing our hands.
“If we all keep doing this, it will save lives. It will get us to a better place and allow us to enjoy some level of normality and festive spirit this Christmas.
“The greater the burden Covid places on our health service, the fewer resources we have to treat other conditions. Rising infections in the community also bring increased risks for care homes.
“The best way of protecting the vulnerable in our community and all our health service is to keep levels of Covid transmission at the lowest possible level.
“I appreciate the frustrations voiced publicly in recent days by members of the business community. I share many of them. To anyone in hospitality who is threatening to re-open in breach of the regulations, I would say think again. There are moral as well as legal obligations here – especially with regards to the safety of customers and staff.”
"Not a good week for democracy or devolution"
Ulster Unionist Party Leader, Steve Aiken OBE MLA said: "That an agreement that could have been reached over a week ago has finally been achieved this evening is hardly a startling example of good and effective government.
"The need for an extension on restrictions, based on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, has now been clearly recognised, while the opening up of some businesses has also been agreed, as has a date for the hospitality industry.
"However, as we have said on many occasions, the imperative is to reduce the pressure on our health service. With the equivalent of over 52 8-bedded wards of COVID19 patients, we have to maintain effective measures to prevent our Health Service from being totally overwhelmed.
"The lack of leadership from The Executive Office, the leaking and the briefing, as well as the use of cross-community voting within the Executive on matters that are anything but, further reinforces our belief that the system of government here needs urgent reform.
"The first duty of our Executive should be the protection of our people, we would be hard-pressed to say that either the DUP or SF have put that responsibility first this week. This has not been a good week for local democracy or for devolution
"I call on us all to pull together to combat Covid-19."
Reacting to the Executive’s decision to extend the lockdown imposed on hospitality businesses and close contact retailers, Belfast Chamber Chief Executive Simon Hamilton said: "There is huge disappointment amongst Belfast Chamber members who were forced to close by the NI Executive four weeks ago that they are now not able to reopen this weekend as they were originally and indeed subsequently assured.
"Unfortunately, after offering no convincing evidence for closing these sectors in the first place, no additional evidence has been put forward for keeping them closed for a further period.
"Various Ministerial statements built up a reasonable expectation amongst businesses that, as they were repeatedly told, the restrictions would last for 4 weeks, would end on 13 November and that affected businesses could reopen and start trading again from then.
"There is deep, deep dismay at this change of direction, there is distress at the shambolic way this decision has been made and some are saying that they now feel that they are indeed the “villain” just a few weeks after being told they weren’t.
"Having being told that they could reopen this weekend only to be informed at the eleventh hour that they’ll now have to wait even longer, many businesses are understandably concerned that the new dates that they’ve now been told when they can reopen will also, similarly, slip.
"Ministers must now fast track support that for lots still hasn’t arrived, increase funding to affected businesses and also give a cast iron guarantee that the new reopening dates will happen and ensure that these businesses can take the necessary steps to plan for reopening and enjoy something of a Christmas trading period.
"The embarrassing mess that has played out over the last few days has been hugely unhelpful and Ministers must avoid a repeat. They should seek to work closely with business in developing a way forward and end the high wire acts which just heap additional pressure on already struggling businesses."
Justice Minister says no certainty in middle of pandemic
Naomi Long tweeted: "I agree on clarity and have been trying to get that for people since last Thursday. But no one - and I mean no one - can offer certainty in the middle of a global pandemic involving a new virus. It is the desire to offer false certainty that walked us into this debacle.
"Lockdown isn't in place. Some restrictions are. But schools went back early against the original advice and because they were a priority. We're now starting to see the impact of that more than a week on."
What were the Covid-19 figures on Thursday?
The Department of Health reported a further 15 coronavirus related deaths on Thursday.
Eleven of these deaths are said to have occurred with the current reporting period, and four outside of it.
The death toll in Northern Ireland now stands at 825, according to the DoH.
Thursday's dashboard update also reported a further 548 positive cases of the virus, bringing the total number of positive cases to 45,241 since the start of the pandemic.
Over the past seven days, the Department says 3,835 individuals have tested positive in Northern Ireland.
There are currently 435 Covid-19 confirmed patients in hospital and 46 in intensive care.
What happens next?
As it stands, the new coronavirus restrictions take over from the existing restrictions which were originally due to end at midnight on Thursday.
However, developments on Thursday afternoon revealed that Executive Ministers revised legal advice on Wednesday night that the deadline would be midnight on Friday November 13.
The new rules detailed on Thursday remain in place for the next week, ending on November 20. Licensed premises, however, will have to wait almost two weeks to welcome customers back through their doors, opening on November 27.
Like all restrictions, these will be kept under review alongside scientific and medical advice.