Stormont’s leaders have issued a joint appeal for compliance with Northern Ireland’s latest Covid restrictions hours after a DUP minister criticised the measures.
DUP First Minister Arlene Foster joined Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken and Alliance leader and justice minister Naomi Long in making the plea.
It came after Mrs Foster’s party and ministerial colleague Edwin Poots claimed the DUP opposed several of the measures.
The agriculture minister said the DUP was essentially outnumbered by other parties in the powersharing coalition when it came to imposing measures that see the hospitality sector close 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 the steps.
The joint message issued by the party leaders struck a very different tone.
“We have four weeks to turn this around and we’re appealing to everyone to please get behind this effort to fight back against Covid-19 and save lives,” it said.
“These are difficult days. But it won’t last forever and we will get through it.”
Earlier, Mr Poots claimed 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.
It was the highest number of cases reported in a 24-hour period since the testing regime was expanded in the summer.
The death toll recorded by the Department of Health now stands at 608.
There were 213 patients with Covid-19 being treated in hospital, with 26 in intensive care.
The new period of intensified restrictions came 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 for 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, Mr 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.
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.”
Separately from the joint party leaders’ statement, Mr Poots’ remarks were heavily criticised.
Mr Aiken rubbished the suggestion that the DUP could not have vetoed any of the measures introduced.
“Don’t fall for this Edwin Poots nonsense that the DUP couldn’t have stopped this if they had wanted to,” he said.
“To claim the opposite and seek party political advantage is gutless and grossly irresponsible. His comments don’t reflect the reality of what happened and they can’t distance themselves from the tough decisions.”
Mr Eastwood called on Mrs Foster to rein Mr Poots in.
“At a time when we need a strong, united and cohesive message coming from ministers, Edwin Poots’ assault on the latest Covid restrictions is absolutely pathetic,” he said.
“These restrictions are uncomfortable for all of us, but to turn on Executive colleagues in public is incredible in the current circumstances.”
Sinn Fein MLA Emma Sheerin said Mr Poots’ comments were “an absolute disgrace”.
“Sinn Fein’s focus is on working with the other Executive parties, including the DUP, to tackle this emergency situation,” she said.
“That should be Edwin Poots’ focus instead of trying to politicise and sectarianise the issue.”
In a Facebook video posted on Friday evening, Mrs Foster made no reference to Mr Poots’ comments.
She did say her party had tried to mitigate against the “worst excesses” of the restrictions.
“It’s not easy for me, it doesn’t sit easy with me having to bring these restrictions in,” she said.
“We as a party have tried to minimise against them.”
Earlier, Mr Poots claimed Dr McBride had privately identified “sport” and “parties after particular events” as problem areas.
The minister 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.”