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Foster slams 'selfish' employers who ask staff to work from office despite coronavirus regulations

First Minister accuses some firms of asking their staff to go to office when they could work from home


United: First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during a briefing at Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor Centre in Dungannon yesterday

United: First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during a briefing at Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor Centre in Dungannon yesterday

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

United: First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during a briefing at Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor Centre in Dungannon yesterday

Stormont ministers have slammed "selfish" business owners for continuing to ask their employees to go to work when they could be working from home and for staying open despite the current coronavirus regulations.

Speaking at a joint Press conference with the Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill in Dungannon on Tuesday afternoon, First Minister Arlene Foster said the decision to ask staff to work from the office when they should be at home showed "a selfish spirit".

Mrs Foster said: "It is unfortunate that I have become aware that some employers and business owners are requiring their staff to attend the workplace when people could work from home or indeed businesses which should not be open at all.

"That's quite a selfish spirit I have to say, and it's not going to help us to beat the virus and keep people safe.

"And for those who say someone else is doing it, as my mother used to say, if they put their hand in the fire, there is no need for you to follow it," she added.

Non-essential retail is closed until at least February 6 under the latest coronavirus lockdown.

Concerns have been raised that while smaller retailers might be following the letter of the regulations, that's not the case with some larger retailers.

The Government advice is also that where employees can work from home then they should be doing so.

Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill were due to speak last night with the Chief Constable Simon Byrne to receive an update on compliance with the current legislation and guidance and assurances that necessary enforcement is in place.

Tuesday's joint Executive Press conference by the First and Deputy First Ministers was the first to be held in over a month.

Tighter restrictions came into force across Northern Ireland as of midnight on Thursday, with the stay-at-home order in effect.

Police have been able to issue on-the-spot fines to those found to be breaking the rules, as well as prohibition notices to businesses.

"Let's be sensible and work towards a place where we can be together again," Mrs Foster said.

Ms O'Neill confirmed that a forum is to meet to discuss enforcement within the retail sector.

"We have agreed to convene an urgent roundtable meeting with the retail sector, including the larger retailers, supermarkets, supply chains, along with the councils and the head of the Health and Safety Executive.

"That will give us an opportunity to address the issues which we have identified as problems and give us the opportunity to reinforce that message again of the need to comply with the spirit and the letter of the restrictions.

"It's our collective social responsibility to do the right thing," she said.

"We have been concerned about anecdotal evidence of staff coming to us with concerns around employers asking them to come into work," Ms O'Neill added.

"We're also concerned about some retailers not operating in line with the spirit of the restrictions. That's not only unfair to the small retailers who are complying with the requirement to remain closed but it also goes against all the effort to stop the spread of coronavirus right across the community.

"The message from us is one of reinforcement, it is to say again people need to stay home, to not leave your home unless it is absolutely necessary and it is for one of the reasons that has been identified. Staying at home is the law and no one should leave their home, and we are asking employers to be responsible and only bring their staff in where it is essential," Ms O'Neill said.

"We're in for difficult days ahead, the vaccine programme is rolling out... but it's going to take us some months before we get to the point where we have significant vaccinations right across society to make the difference that we all really look forward to."

Confirming the reduction of the R-number in Northern Ireland from 1.8 to around 1.1 the DUP leader also urged people to "take personal responsibility and do the right thing".

Mrs Foster said the public should make "simple and everyday choices" such as phoning family and friends rather than visiting, doing one big food shop rather than nipping out each day for a few items and not going into the workplace when they don't have to.

"I do appreciate the costs these restrictions are having, I appreciate the weariness, we're all sick and tired of restrictions but we absolutely must do it to get through it," she added.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel, the vaccine is rolling out at a very good rate, we can see a route back to normality but it will take us months to get there."

Executive ministers met yesterday for an update from Health Minister Robin Swann on the increasing pressures facing the healthcare system. Northern Ireland's health trusts have warned that hospitals could see double the number of Covid-19 patients by the third week in January.

Ms O'Neill yesterday stressed the "immense pressure" that the health service has been under in recent days as she praised health care workers. "This number is only going to rise, we're in for a very tough number of weeks ahead.

"The pressure will mount on the health system and we all need to adhere to the public health advice," she said.

"We are indebted to you for the work that you have been doing in supporting those people in the health service."

Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill last appeared together after an Executive meeting on December 10 and yesterday was the first opportunity for journalists to question them together since the new Covid-19 restrictions were introduced.

It came as the Department of Health confirmed that a further 22 people in Northern Ireland have died after testing positive for Covid-19. It brings the death toll to 1,498. Of the 22 fatalities, 18 happened within the current 24 hour reporting period, while the remaining four deaths occurred previously. A further 1,205 people have tested positive for the virus in the last 24 hours.

There are 751 Covid patients in hospitals across Northern Ireland, with 55 in intensive care and 38 requiring ventilation.

Hospitals are at 99% occupancy. A total of 149 care homes are also dealing with outbreaks of the virus. In the Republic, 46 new Covid-related deaths and 3,086 cases were reported yesterday.

Belfast Telegraph