Deputy First Minister criticises move in England as leading NI medic says Executive is right not to specify dates
Boris Johnson’s plans to ease Covid-19 restrictions in England are reckless, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has said.
Ms O’Neill said she is “not prepared to go to the end of the line” with easing restrictions as is the case in England, and added there were no plans to end the use of face masks here.
She was speaking as it was revealed that seafood processing factory Kilkeel Seafoods in Co Down has temporarily closed due to an outbreak of coronavirus, in which 42 positive tests amongst staff were confirmed, according to the BBC.
The firm employs 250 people and prepares scampi tail at Kilkeel harbour. The factory closed last Thursday and results of the workforce-wide Covid-19 tests were confirmed between Sunday and Tuesday, a company spokeswoman said.
The factory is set to reopen on July 19. Three testing centres were opened in Kilkeel in early June after what was described by officials as a "notable increase" in the number of cases there.
Dr Alan Stout, chair of the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland GP committee, was incredulous at the plans to lift the majority of the remaining Covid restrictions in England from July 19, including making face masks voluntary and ending social distancing.
He said it was “amazing” Westminster had “put themselves under pressure with arbitrary dates”. “If the date didn’t exist I doubt they would be making some of the current decisions,” he said.
“Full credit to our Executive for resisting the temptation of fixed dates.”
Discussions will be held by the Executive ahead of a meeting on Thursday to consider what restrictions can be relaxed.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said Northern Ireland should “move eventually” to a policy of the voluntary wearing of masks, and said he hoped the Executive would be able to make further easements of restrictions here in the coming weeks.
Speaking to the BBC, Sir Jeffrey said he believed many will opt to wear face coverings even if it’s not mandatory.
“I’d certainly encourage people to continue wearing face masks and abiding by social distancing until new guidance is issued,” he said.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Ms O’Neill said she was “concerned for the people in England” and ruled out following a similar approach to what has been put forward by the Government.
She said: “In the first instance, we will not be following the Boris Johnson model; we are a locally elected Executive, we must take our own decisions in the people’s best interests here,” she said.
“We will have some discussions over today and tomorrow in advance of Thursday’s Executive, we will set out a programme of how we can remove some restrictions.
“We are still in a space where we need to be very careful. The Health Minister has made it very clear we are not in a position where we are able to remove face masks; I would support that. It is a case of trying to make steady progress, coming out of the restrictions as best we can, but I am not prepared to go to the end of the line yet because that is not where we are.
“I would be concerned, particularly for the people in England because of the route map that has been set out by Boris Johnson. In my opinion, I think it is a reckless approach.”
Earlier this week, Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride said Northern Ireland had entered a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sir Michael said: “Numbers will increase rapidly and we can do things to slow that, we can continue to follow the public health advice, but most importantly now is the time to get the vaccine.”
A further 417 positive cases of Covid-19 were reported here on Tuesday, the Department of Health said. No deaths have been reported in the past 24 hours.
On Tuesday, there were 37 Covid-positive patients in hospital, five of whom were in intensive care. 2,079,758 vaccinations have been administered in Northern Ireland.
Kilkeel Seafoods has been asked for a response.