Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has said he “cannot rule out” the Government relaxing coronavirus restrictions in Northern Ireland county by county if there is a downward trend in reports of Covid-19.
While Mr Lewis said easing restrictions on different counties could be difficult practically, particularly in border areas such as Fermanagh, he said “it’s not impossible”.
“I think it’s unlikely to be different within Northern Ireland, it’s not impossible. I wouldn’t rule anything in or out," he told the Impartial Reporter in a video interview on Tuesday.
“But the challenge with having variations within Northern Ireland is around the messaging. We all understand the messaging of stay at home and save lives… every reader of yours, every resident who has stayed at home and has followed the guidelines has directly helped to save a life and protect the NHS’ ability to look after people. That has been hugely important.
“The challenge of having variations within Northern Ireland is how you manage that, how you message that. I think it’s unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out. In a practical sense I think it’s quite unlikely."
Asked when restrictions could be lifted, Mr Lewis said: “The short answer is I don’t know”.
“We are going to do a review in three weeks’ time. The reality is we will look at the medical evidence. The Northern Ireland Executive will have its own flexibility and we may see across the country some variations; we saw some variations going into lockdown as well. It’ll be a decision that all four nations take together based on the evidence,” he said.
I think it’s unlikely to be different within Northern Ireland, it’s not impossible. I wouldn’t rule anything in or out.NI Secretary Brandon Lewis
Mr Lewis said he was aware of the complexities of Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland amid the pandemic, explaining that he has been meeting with First Minister Arlene Foster, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Tanaiste Simon Coveney.
“Even where there are differences in the approach between the Republic and the North, if there are, if we know that we can make sure we are clear with residents why those differences are there.
“The challenge of having variations within Northern Ireland is how we manage that.”
An investigation in The Sunday Times at the weekend featured a Whitehall source claiming the government “missed the boat on testing and PPE” (personal protective equipment) and “just watched” as the death toll mounted in Wuhan, China.
The report also claimed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed five crucial Cobra meetings in the Cabinet Office in London.
When asked to respond to these serious allegations, Mr Lewis said: “I didn’t recognise some of what I saw in the Times”.
“I was in the Cobra meetings in January and February; COBRA meetings are chaired by the Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms. It’s a place, not a thing.
“We were making decisions; the scientists and medical experts were making decisions at that time and planning was going on. This is the point; to judge it now when we have two months more evidence is dangerous and a misleading thing to do.”
The challenge of having variations within Northern Ireland is how we manage that.NI Secretary Brandon Lewis
Turning to PPE which has been an issue in Fermanagh, Mr Lewis used his own constituency of Great Yarmouth as an example of where there has been “no problems” with accessing equipment.
He added: “We’ve had gowns sent over to the UK, O’Neills [sportswear] converted to gowns, there is gin distillery in your part of the world producing sanitisers.
“We’re shifting five and a half million pieces of PPE across to Northern Ireland. We’ve been able to supply that; it’s in good order. I am talking to the first minster every day that.”
Mr Lewis said the priority of the United Kingdom government is to make sure “we don’t hit the second peak” of the virus.
“One of the most damaging things economically would be, as well as health wise, to start coming out of lockdown – restaurants, pubs, whatever start opening again – and suddenly you have to close down again and that’s not viable.
“I think it’s right to be cautious about this; we’ll make that decision in a few weeks.
“The science is shifting on this; the experience is changing. I am cautious about predicting what will be in a few weeks’ time.”
He believes the government could “flatten the curve” of Covid-19 if people continue to stay at home, adding: “We want to see past the peak, you don’t want to see a downward trend and ease up as all you do is let it shoot back up again.”
“If you think back to the beginning there were some quite scary numbers being put about by some experts about what the deaths might be. Now any death is too many and we have sadly lost people, friends and family who have gone through tragic experiences recently, and the figures are nowhere near those numbers we saw at the beginning.
“That’s because the public across Northern Ireland and the UK have done a good job generally of following the guidelines which means we can flatten that curve,” he said.
Mr Lewis explained that he had personal experience of people close to him who had been diagnosed with Covid-19, including his parliamentary private secretary.
“Someone I know lost a member of their family this week, I have a few people in family who had the disease. One way or another we are all going to be touched by it.
“I suspect when we have an antibody test I think we’ll find some of us will have been touched by it or even had it.”