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Watch: Matt Hancock says case 'could be made' for easing lockdown earlier in Northern Ireland

THE health secretary Matt Hancock has said a case “could be made” for easing lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland ahead of other UK regions.

Mr Hancock made the comments to the Belfast Telegraph at the Downing Street briefing, but declined to say if he would support calls for an all-island approach to fighting the pandemic.

“The thing is that across the UK the level of the virus has been different in different parts of the country,” he said.

“We saw it (earlier) that in London the level has been much higher than in other parts of the country.

“But what’s interesting is that the shape of the curve, the rise and then the fall in the virus that’s just started has been basically the same throughout the country.

“That means that moving together was the right approach at the start. I can see the case that could be made and of course we respect the devolution settlement.

“But ultimately if you look at the shape of the curve, getting R down (the rate at which the virus spreads) and getting the level of new cases right down, that’s happened in the UK together.”

Asked about an all-island approach on dealing with Covid-19, he said: “Of course the relationship with the Republic is important as well. We have good relations in terms of a political level but also at a medical level in conversations with the Republic on the decisions that they take.

“But we have very intensive conversations within the UK about the timing of changes within the country.”

Earlier, the First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill were also asked about an all Ireland dimension to any lockdown exit strategy.

This followed an Executive meeting this week with the Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney and the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis.

Mrs Foster commented: “I think I’ve always been clear that this is not a political issue . This an issue about saving lives. That’s always been the modus operandi of the Executive, and certainly for me, in terms of the way forward.

She said it was “critically important” to share information with the Irish Republic, but Stormont would continue to take advice from Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer.

She added: “There is a need not just to have a north-south approach, to what is going on, but also an east-west approach I’ve always believed that the totality of relationships are important in relation to tackling this virus - and that will continue to be my view.”

Ms O’Neill added: “We talked about exit and recovery and how we can move at similar times given that the disease is obviously spreading at a similar way across the island...I think its just common sense, what happens in Derry and Donegal, they’re going to have knock on impact on each other

“I think it’s important that where we can, we actually work in tandem and work our way through this.. as joint up as we possibly can.”

Belfast Telegraph