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Anger at DUP minister Poots' solo run over Covid lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland

Remarks come as 1,300 new cases are recorded and a hospital warns it's close to 'breaking point'

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DUP minister Edwin Poots

DUP minister Edwin Poots

DUP minister Edwin Poots

Key divisions have emerged in Northern Ireland's response to the Covid-19 crisis - as the region recorded almost 1,300 new cases.

Stormont Minister Edwin Poots on Friday launched an extraordinary attack on tough restrictions introduced this week.

Hours before they took effect, the senior DUP figure said he and party colleagues had opposed many of the Executive's measures but were outnumbered by other ministers.

Mr Poots, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback, said he has "grave reservations" about new restrictions that will see the hospitality sector closed for four weeks and schools for two.

He said he did not agree with limiting the number of people allowed at wedding ceremonies and funerals in churches, saying that these services can be held with greater numbers with social distancing in place.

The Environment Minister also questioned the appropriateness of a universal lockdown, saying it is "unsustainable".

"I reject this broad brush approach to close the country down," Mr Poots said.

Mr Poots also sparked fury when he suggested that nationalist areas had higher rates of Covid-19 cases than unionist areas and that the funeral of IRA man Bobby storey was the cause of the differential.

"I will abide by the regulation and I will abide by the regulations, as have most people in my community.

"What I'm saying is, those people who didn't abide by them, including the Sinn Fein leadership - because a lot of this started shortly after the Bobby Storey funeral.

"A lot of the problems started after that event, and people in that community saw the breaking of the rules.

"That's why there is a difference between nationalist areas and Unionist areas - and the difference is around six to one," the minister told UTV,

Sinn Fein MLA Emma Sheering angrily rejected Mr Poots' remarks: "Edwin Poots' comments are an absolute disgrace and entirely misleading.

"The evidence of the rise of Covid-19 infections is all around us and is claiming lives right across the world.

"Sinn Fein's focus is on working with the other Executive parties, including the DUP, to tackle this emergency situation.

"That should be Edwin Poots' focus instead of trying to politicise and sectarianise the issue."

As the crisis escalated:

  • A record 1,299 positive cases and two further deaths were recorded in 24 hours.
  • Nurses reported that Craigavon Area Hospital was in a "dire and critical state" due to the wave of Covid-19 cases.
  • Mr Poots claimed some of his Executive colleagues "don't seem to care" that people would lose their jobs as a result of what he portrayed as excessive steps.

    The minister also claimed chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young have indicated to ministers that at least two more lockdowns would be required over the winter months.

    Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken branded the comments "grossly irresponsible", adding that they don't reflect reality".

    While SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Mr Poots' remarks were "absolutely pathetic".

    He added: "The DUP leader Arlene Foster needs to rein him in immediately before he does any further damage to the public health messaging."

    In a further sign of friction between senior medics and the Department of Health, intensive care consultant Dr Andrew Ferguson said more staff are needed for the Nightingale facility to act as a regional resource for Covid-19.

    In an email sent to senior figures in all of Northern Ireland's five trusts and seen by this newspaper, Dr Ferguson said while there may be equipment and physical space in Nightingale, the Belfast Trust will be limited to trying to manage Covid-19 "without additional staff".

    Earlier, SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said Craigavon Area Hospital is at "breaking point" following a surge in Covid admissions.

    The Southern Trust appealed to people to avoid the hospital unless absolutely necessary.

    On Friday health officials announced 1,299 new Covid-19 cases in Northern Ireland in the last 24-hour reporting period, bringing the total to 25,177.

    Belfast Telegraph