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NI Finance Minister Murphy tweets 'clarification' on coronavirus preventable lockdown claim

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Exceutive ministers Swann and Murphy have clashed over the coronavirus response.

Exceutive ministers Swann and Murphy have clashed over the coronavirus response.

Exceutive ministers Swann and Murphy have clashed over the coronavirus response.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has tweeted a "clarification" of his claim the Northern Ireland coronavirus lockdown was preventable had the health service been better funded.

In an interview on Wednesday morning, the Sinn Fein MLA said Northern Ireland would not have had to go into lockdown if the health service had been more "robust" and not suffered through years of austerity.

That afternoon he tweeted saying the lockdown was "absolutely necessary" to save lives. He did not say if he still felt additional funding for the health service would have prevented the introduction of the draconian measures.

The UUP described his "clarification" as "feeble".

MLA Alan Chambers said it made "the situation worse because he singularly fails to explain why he said what he said in trying to blame the UK Government for lockdown and he has failed to retract the comments he made.

"Conor Murphy's own party leader said, on more than one occasion, that we should be following the World Health Organisation`s advice on lockdown, so his failure to retract his original comments run directly counter to what they were saying. More people being infected would have meant more deaths.”

The Health Minister Robin Swann dismissed Mr Murphy's suggestion better funding for his department over the years could have avoided a lockdown.

The UUP MLA said no health service could have coped with the outbreak no matter how well it was funded and the measures imposed were based on similar responses from around the world.

The impact of the lockdown has been immense in Northern Ireland with the economy suffering a major shock with all sectors in a slump. The rate of decline experienced has been the worst in all the UK.

Mr Murphy told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster: "The fact we had to go into lockdown is because our health service has suffered from decades of under investment."

He added: "If we had a very robust health service that was well-resourced then it would have been fit to cope with the pandemic.

"The reason we had to go into lockdown - and people should understand this - is because the health service has been under resourced through austerity cuts for many, many years.

"So any attempt to restructure the health service is a big challenge as we still suffer from nine years of austerity."

Later in a tweet he said: "Austerity policies have severely impacted on the capacity of Health and Social Care services, here and elsewhere, to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. For clarity, lockdown has been absolutely necessary to save lives."

Health minister Robin Swann said he agreed his department was under resourced but said the only way to manage the spread of the infection in NI was to go into lockdown.

He said he took exception to Mr Murphy's claim they could have coped better had the funds been available.

"It was not because our health service was not fit to cope. No health service was fit to cope.

"When we look at the pictures coming out of Italy at the time and New York - which is supposed to be world leading - no health service could have kept going in its day-to-day operations and coped with Covid at the same time."

He added: "Our health service has been under resourced and is still under resourced. It's not [the reason NI went into lockdown].

"The reason we went into lockdown was how we were to manage the spread of Covid-19 and that was the method that was used across the world.

"No health service could have coped."

The Finance Minister was called to clarify his remarks, with SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole describing them as "‘bizarre and inexplicable".

“Years of austerity have undoubtedly degraded the quality of our public services and have placed immense pressure on hard-worked public servants," he said.

“But there is, to my knowledge, no evidence suggesting that the reason for the Covid-19 lockdown is the financing of our health service.

"It’s baffling, therefore, that the Minister in charge of financing our response to the Covid-19 pandemic, seems to have a view at odds with most other countries in Europe and the scientific community.

"Public messaging during a health crisis is important and, on this occasion, it seems to have gone wrong again."

Mr Swann has in the past blamed Stormont for running down the health system to an extent a "scramble" was necessary to find the capacity to cope with the virus.

“Vital services have been underfunded, short-term decisions were preferred over long-term planning, difficult choices were ducked, staff were left to feel unappreciated, social care was particularly neglected,” Mr Swann told MLAs in May.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, a former health minister, responded by accusing the Conservative government of having “stripped the Executive of funding over 10 years”.

“The impact that’s had on our health service and our public services are well rehearsed and well known to everybody. Even the fact and the condition that we were in as a health service to be able to respond to Covid-19 was greatly diminished because of the impact of Tory austerity over many, many years,” she said.

Belfast Telegraph