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Stormont Executive split over Covid restrictions: What position each party has taken

Justice Minister trying to broker agreement but the situation is described as 'very messy'


Justice Minister Naomi Long

Justice Minister Naomi Long

Justice Minister Naomi Long

Discussions on relaxing Northern Ireland's Covid-19 restrictions are set to continue on Tuesday as the Executive struggles to reach agreement on the way forward.

Stormont sources said that Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann, and SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, remained opposed to easing regulations.

The DUP is the keenest in the five party Executive to open up the hospitality sector, but there is also Sinn Fein support for lifting restrictions.

The sources, who described the situation as "very messy", said Justice Minister Naomi Long was trying to broker a compromise that would bring the UUP and SDLP on board.

They said that agreement was still possible to allow hairdressers and beauticians to reopen, with strict regulations in place, but it was likely that most of the hospitality sector would remain closed for at least the next fortnight.

The sources said coffee shops and cafes stood the best chance of opening, but that there would be "difficulty in defining what is a cafe and what is a restaurant".

They ruled out the chances of restaurants or pubs re-opening their doors as normal. The restrictions, which came into place last month, are due to end at midnight on Thursday.

The Executive will reconvene on Tuesday to continue discussions ahead of the scheduled end of the four-week circuit-break lockdown.

Ministers met twice on Monday to discuss a paper brought by Mr Swann which proposes continuing with the current restrictions for another fortnight.

A third meeting was planned for 9pm on Monday night, but was postponed until Tuesday morning amidst continuing divisions.

There was no paper presented by the Executive Office, although sources said that the DUP and Sinn Fein were largely on the same page.

They claimed that the SDLP complained about the lack of a joint paper put to the meeting from Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill.

They said that Ms Mallon backed the Health Minister's position that it wasn't safe to re-open any part of hospitality.

A Stormont insider said: "At the weekend, it looked as if a compromise was doable that would see most of hospitality open except wet pubs, although they would be allowed to sell alcohol like off-licences.

"But the chances of that have now evaporated. Any re-opening of hospitality will be much more limited. There isn't enough agreement around the Executive table to do otherwise."

The DUP strongly opposed Mr Swann's position that no part of hospitality could be opened up.

Given that Arlene Foster's party could veto the Health Minister's paper, sources said that Mrs Long was trying to find a compromise between the two sides.

It is understood that the Justice Minister would support a minimal lifting of restrictions over the next fortnight if that enabled most of hospitality to reopen in the lead-up to Christmas.

She is keen to see an improved test, track and isolate system in place, and more care home testing, in order to reopen the economy.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride and Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Ian Young are continuing to pull together evidence related to reopening specific parts of the hospitality sector.

Although the Executive had previously insisted that it was safe for drink-only 'wet' pubs to operate after lockdown - with certain measures in place - this position has changed.

Ministers now accept that social distancing is very challenging in situations where people have consumed alcohol.

Allowing restaurants to reopen without serving alcohol has been branded as "absolutely crazy" by leading restaurateur Michael Deane.

Belfast Telegraph