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Hospitality sector set to reopen from next week despite doctor's stark warning

Chief Medical Officer predicted excess deaths but divided Executive opts to let sector trade

Stormont has voted to reopen hospitality next week - despite the warning from its top medical adviser that Covid restrictions must stay in place for another fortnight to save lives.

A deeply divided Executive opted to allow cafes, coffee shops and non-licensed restaurants to trade from next Friday, with drink-only bars and other licensed premises re-opening a week later.

Hairdressers, beauticians and other close contact services will also be allowed to do business from next Friday.

Chief Medical Adviser Dr Michael McBride had warned that restrictions should be in place for another two weeks to avoid excess deaths.

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Michael McBride

Michael McBride

Michael McBride

Northern Ireland hospitals are already running at 101% capacity.

The chair of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland, Dr Tom Black, repeated his warning that the health service was under "the most pressure it has ever been" and he didn't believe the Executive's measures "will address that".

He had previously described re-opening hospitality early as "an act of careless vandalism".

After four days of talking, the Executive limped to an agreement yesterday evening with a DUP proposal passed by six votes to four.

Arlene Foster's party emerged as the clear political winner from the week of political wrangling.

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Agreement: First Minister Arlene Foster

Agreement: First Minister Arlene Foster

Agreement: First Minister Arlene Foster

Naomi Long and Robin Swann backed a paper by Economy Minister Diane Dodds as a "far from perfect compromise" as it was claimed the alternative was for all restrictions to end today and the entire hospitality sector reopening.

Sinn Fein voted against the proposal and the SDLP abstained.

Michelle O'Neill warned of the serious repercussions of not following Dr McBride's advice but her party chose not to employ a cross-community vote mechanism to block the DUP. Mrs Foster's party had used the mechanism to veto Mr Swann's proposals earlier in the week.

The Deputy First Minister said: "The Executive has reached a decision.

"Sinn Fein will respect that democratic decision but it is not something my party could support.

"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. Our situation remains fragile. Our priority is to protect our hospitals and health service."

Just five days ago, Ms O'Neill suggested to the BBC's Sunday Politics that cafes and restaurants could reopen this week but not bars. She has been accused of a major political U-turn by her critics.

Mrs Foster said that a "fair and balanced agreement" had been reached.

Diane Dodds said that the move would "bring certainty to people in their lives in the run-up to Christmas".

She told the BBC: "The virus is new and unpredictable and difficult to work with.

"We have to make sure that there is a pathway for people to earn their living and put food on the table."

But Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken blasted "the lack of leadership" from the two big parties and called for urgent reform of Stormont's system of government.

"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," he said.

"This has not been a good week for local democracy or for devolution."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "The actions and inactions of the DUP and Sinn Fein in the Executive this week have been a disgrace. They have let down people, businesses, patients, doctors and nurses. They are an embarrassment."

Mrs Long said she was reconsidering her position in the Executive over its handling of the Covid restrictions.

She told the BBC that the DUP's use of the cross-community vote mechanism on a public health issue was wholly unacceptable and "shows the farce that is these structures".

She said: "I have been reconsidering my position - it would be hard to imagine anyone around the Executive table with an ounce of sanity or scruples wouldn't have reconsidered their position, in light of the debacle that took place this week."

But she added: "On balance, I still believe it is important that those of us who want to do our absolute best for people of Northern Ireland, and find a way through these difficult times, are at that table trying at least to have influence."

Belfast Chamber chief executive, Simon Hamilton, said: "The embarrassing mess that has played out over the last few days has been hugely unhelpful and ministers must avoid a repeat."

Belfast Telegraph


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