ECONOMY Minister Diane Dodds has hit back at Sinn Fein's Junior Minister Declan Kearney's suggestion that some unionists were putting the economy ahead of public health.
Mr Kearney was criticised after making the claims in an article for the republican newspaper An Phoblacht.
Speaking yesterday during the daily Covid-19 briefing, alongside Finance Minister Conor Murphy, Mrs Dodds said that Mr Kearney's comments were a "regrettable intervention" and that it was not a time for "identity or ideological politics".
It came as a further 13 deaths were announced in Northern Ireland, bringing the total to 263.
The coronavirus death toll in the Republic of Ireland stands at 794 after another 28 fatalities were recorded.
South Antrim MLA Mr Kearney (below) claimed in his article that some people in unionism wanted to relax the lockdown to help the economy, a position which he said was supported by "right-wing elements" in the UK Government.
Reacting to his comments, Mrs Dodds said that since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the focus has been on preserving life.
"There are many people across all communities who are feeling the pain of Covid-19 and we need to ensure that the first and foremost priority that we have is to set aside differences and to ensure that we protect and save lives," said the Upper Bann MLA.
"That has been our focus, that has been the focus of everyone so far and thankfully that is actually the focus of communities in Northern Ireland, who have sacrificed enormously in order to comply with the regulations.
"I want to absolutely make it clear that saving lives is important. This is not a matter of lives versus the economy.
"Saving lives is our upmost priority but we too must protect the economy and plan for a safe and phased and step by step transition back to normality."
The DUP politician added that she had spoken to the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and the Business Secretary Alok Sharma, who recognised that Covid-19 "will be with us for some time to come".
Mrs Dodds continued: "We need to make sure that recovery happens, that safety and the safety for people working in the workplace and for our communities, and saving lives is of our upmost priority."
Meanwhile, Mr Murphy said the Executive's only priority is to save lives.
The Newry and Armagh MLA added that the message for people to stay at home, practice social distancing and only travel for essential journeys was working.
"That message has worked because our experience, as tragic as it is for every individual family that has lost someone, has not been as bad as in other parts," he said.
"If we are to consider any alteration of these restrictions, and we do on a continual basis as the Executive meets three days a week and we discuss all of these issues on a very regular basis, it has to be based on that scientific advice.
"I have no doubt that there are debates going on across the western world in relation to which takes priority.
"The undoubted damage that has been done to the economy and to business, set against the objective to saving lives, we have agreed an objective in terms of saving lives.
"We want to see the economy recover, we want to see a return back to as normal as we can possibly achieve in a very safe set of circumstances."
Mr Murphy added that he has "no doubt" that the Executive will discuss the matter of relaxing the lockdown restrictions during today's meeting.
"I have huge sympathy for people who want to get out, particularly those who are stressed in terms of visiting loved ones who have died and people who want to engage in prayer in religious facilities," he continued.
"Of course we have every sympathy for those people, but our key message is stay at home, travel only when essential and when doing so practise social distancing.
"That is keeping people alive so that is the balance that we have to strike.
"Undoubtedly there are debates going on elsewhere and undoubtedly there will be discussions in the Executive in relation to all these but we, as we entered into the process of finding an arrangement to lockdown, which I think has worked for us when we compare to elsewhere, we will discuss and find an agreement and arrangement to gradually emerge from this."