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Arlene Foster urges public to trust Stormont to guide them through crisis

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First Minister Arlene Foster

First Minister Arlene Foster

First Minister Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster has urged the Northern Ireland public "not to throw the baby out with the bath water" and to trust the Executive to guide them through the Covid-19 crisis.

The First Minister admitted, however, that there would be no joint conferences with Michelle O'Neill for the foreseeable future, and rejected suggestions of an all-Ireland approach to travel restrictions and quarantine.

But she refused to comment on the debate over health committee member Paula Bradshaw arranging, and then cancelling, a family holiday in Italy.

Mrs Foster – who will be ‘staycationing’ with her family on the north coast this summer – said in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph that Deputy First Minister Mrs O’Neill’s involvement in the funeral of leading republican Bobby Storey, when social distancing rules were widely flouted, had led to a “credibility issue” with regard to their joint messaging.

The DUP leader, who was on a visit to Galgorm Spa and Golf Resort, just outside Ballymena, also said it was "very hard" to keep the public on board when rule makers are also the rule breakers.

Northern Ireland's two most senior ministers have not shared a platform since the Storey funeral, which brought thousands out onto the streets of west Belfast on June 30.

And although it will be months before they work as closely together again, Mrs Foster urged people from all shades of opinion here to "stick with us".

"Locking down was difficult but coming out of it is actually more complex," she said.

"It's trying to get people to stick with us and stick with the message because it has worked and I think Northern Ireland has shown that it did work.

"So whilst people are frustrated, we're saying don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Stick with us. We're trying to make it work."

Mrs Foster made the comments on a day when no new deaths from Covid-19 have been recorded in Northern Ireland.

The tally, mostly comprising hospital deaths, remains at 556, with the overall number infections totalling 5,857. Between Friday and Monday another 23 people tested positive for coronavirus, while a further 71 positive results were recorded over the last seven days, according to the Department of Health.

Mrs Foster poured cold water on a leading Irish epidemiologist's plea in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday that north and south should work on a joint strategy on quarantine rules or risk a second Covid-19 wave later in the year.

Professor Gabriel Scally said the separate approaches would be problematic for health officials - but the First Minister described that notion as "a red herring".

"Historically we've had the common travel area between Ireland and Great Britain and that has existed since the 1940s and it has served us very well," she said.

"It would be wrong to say to people - we are one country, the United Kingdom, it would be wrong to start splitting up the country.

"What we're trying to do is to instead look at how we deal with localised outbreaks, so learning the lessons of Leicester, Gretna Green, places like that, that have had clusters and indeed the Republic of Ireland, which has had clusters as well.

"It's important that we look at what is important and that is the transmission of Covid-19 and how we deal with that as opposed to going off in a direction which is frankly a red herring."

Mrs O'Neill - who Mrs Foster revealed had wished her a happy 50th birthday last week - said yesterday that Northern Ireland should act to protect against travellers from Great Britain spreading coronavirus.

With regard to face coverings Mrs Foster - who uses "quasi-medical" masks - said: "We've asked people to shield for a quite a long time.

"Now we're going to pause that at the end of July but, in order to protect those people, I think that face masks will form part of that protection.

"I understand, however, that they're quite restrictive for a lot of people.

"People realise the direction of travel in relation to face masks but that doesn't mean we shouldn't listen to where the concerns are and try to minimise those."

Belfast Telegraph