A DUP minister in the Stormont executive has criticised Northern Ireland’s latest coronavirus restrictions and claimed his party opposed several of them.
Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said the DUP was essentially outnumbered by other parties in the powersharing coalition when it came to imposing measures that will see the hospitality sector closed for four weeks and schools for two.
In a dramatic intervention on a day when Northern Ireland recorded another record number of cases, Mr Poots claimed some of his colleagues at the executive “don’t seem to care” that people would lose their jobs as a result of what he portrayed as excessive steps.
The minister also claimed that Stormont’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young have indicated to ministers that at least two more lockdowns would be required over the winter months.
He said the two expert advisers have also told him privately what they believe is the main cause of Northern Ireland’s spiralling infection rates but have not made it public.
Mr Poots pointed the finger of blame at certain sporting activities and, in particular, post-match celebration events.
Asked in an interview with BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme if he was referring to the GAA, the minister replied: “I am not labelling one particular group of people but if people feel the cap fits that’s entirely up to them.”
There were 1,299 new Covid-19 cases reported in Northern Ireland on Friday and two further deaths linked to the virus.
There were 213 patients with Covid-19 being treated in hospital, with 26 in intensive care.
The new period of intensified restrictions was due to come into effect at 6pm on Friday.
“I would have grave reservations about a number of things that have been applied,” Mr Poots told Talkback.
He questioned the logic of applying a 25-person limit on weddings and funerals when larger numbers were permitted to normal church services.
Mr Poots asked why traffic and human interactions at school gates could not have been better managed, rather than closing schools.
He said it also made more sense to provide funding for councils to employ more enforcement officers to monitor compliance with regulations in hospitality outlets rather than closing down the whole sector for four weeks.
The minister said he would also have preferred more targeted localised restrictions in areas that have the worst infection rates, rather than blanket steps covering the whole region.
“We need to be smarter on how we tackle Covid,” he said.
Asked if the DUP had been overruled at the executive, Edwin Poots replied: “We are a minority on the executive and we stated our case but it’s very evident that all the other parties were prepared to go with this and therefore that is the outcome.”
Mr Poots claimed the DUP could not have blocked any of the measures as the power for amending the regulations lay with health minister Robin Swann.
“We are deeply concerned about the wellbeing of the future of Northern Ireland, jobs in Northern Ireland, education in Northern Ireland and if we need to protect people’s health, we need to do it in a much more structured way than just have this broad brush approach and just simply close the country,” he said.
“We cannot sustain that going forward and we certainly cannot sustain it another two times over this winter, and in particular we cannot sustain another close-down before Christmas.”
He added: “This is going to be the ruination of many businesses and some of my colleagues just seem completely blind to that and don’t seem to care.
“I do care about people losing their jobs.”
Edwin Poots claimed Dr McBride and Professor Young had identified the need for two more lockdowns before the spring.
“If the proposal is, and I believe that there is suggestion that there’s at least another two lockdowns over the winter, then I think that’s hugely damaging for the economy, for people’s mental health and wellbeing and the consequences of it – probably tens of thousands of people on the dole and that’s not good for the health of Northern Ireland,” he said.
The minister said the executive needed to take a “more measured approach”.
“We can’t live in an eternal lockdown, people need to live their lives,” he said.
Mr Poots also claimed Dr McBride and Professor Young had indicated to him privately what lay behind the surge in cases in Northern Ireland.
“I’ve asked the chief medical officer and the chief scientist the question and they’ve admitted to me privately what the problem is but they haven’t said it publicly,” he said.
Mr Poots singled out issues around sport and, in particular, post-match celebrations.
He claimed some people were “flagrantly breaking the rules” over the summer months.
The minister claimed Dr McBride had privately identified “sport” and “parties after particular events” as problem areas.
Mr Poots added: “There is certainly an issue around sport. I can think of one event where people went to a bar after winning a particular cup, passed the cup around the bar full of drink and most of them actually caught Covid.
“Those types of behaviours are entirely unacceptable in a pandemic.”
Mr Poots was asked a number of times whether he was referring to the GAA.
“I’m not picking on one organisation, but there are certainly those who have engaged in very poor behaviour over the course of the summer months, which has helped exacerbate this problem,” he said.