Stormont’s finance minister has moved to clarify a claim that the coronavirus lockdown could have been avoided if the UK Government had better funded the NHS.
Controversy flared over Conor Murphy’s remarks about “Tory austerity” as Northern Ireland reported no new coronavirus deaths for a fourth day in a row.
On Wednesday morning, Mr Murphy insisted restrictions on movement may not have been required in the region if “years of Tory austerity” had not left the health service in a challenging position.
He said if the region had a “robust health service which was well resourced”, it could have coped with the pandemic.
Austerity policies have severely impacted on the capacity of Health and Social Care services, here and elsewhere, to respond to the Covid 19 pandemic. For clarity, lockdown has been absolutely necessary to save lives.
“The reason we had to go into lockdown, and people should understand this, is because the health service has been under-resourced through austerity cuts for many, many years,” Mr Murphy told BBC Radio Ulster.
Hours later, he posted a tweet making clear that the lockdown was needed to save lives.
Mr Murphy wrote: “Austerity policies have severely impacted on the capacity of Health and Social Care services, here and elsewhere, to respond to the Covid 19 pandemic.
“For clarity, lockdown has been absolutely necessary to save lives.”
The coronavirus death toll recorded by the Department of Health remained at 537 on Wednesday, after the fourth day of no new fatalities.
That total primarily accounts for deaths that occurred in a hospital setting involving patients who had tested positive for the disease.
Fuller statistics that include coronavirus-linked deaths in all settings, including care homes, are published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency on a weekly basis every Friday.
There were 13 new confirmed cases of the virus reported by the Health Department on Wednesday, bringing the total since the outbreak began to 4,818.
First Minister Arlene Foster declined to be pulled into a “political row” over Mr Murphy’s comments.
“I think what is important is that if we look right across the world, everybody went into lockdown for a number of reasons and one of those reasons that was common was the fact that we want to protect our health services,” she said on a visit to a childcare provider in Co Tyrone.
“We have seen the way in which health services in places like Italy and Spain were impacted and the fact they were overwhelmed.
“We wanted to make sure that we weren’t overwhelmed and I was very pleased to see the way in which we were able to manage the pandemic – and indeed, our health service was not overwhelmed.
“Therefore I think people should very much welcome that.
“I think the Executive have worked very well together in a collaborative way around moving out of lockdown. We always knew that coming back out of lockdown was going to be more difficult because you’re doing it in a step-by-step process as opposed to just everything closing down.”
Mr Murphy’s initial comments were criticised by the Minister for Health Robin Swann.
He said that Northern Ireland went into lockdown with the rest of the world.
Mr Swann told BBC Radio Ulster: “It wasn’t because our health service wasn’t fit to cope. No health service was fit to cope with what we saw.”
Meanwhile, Mrs Foster also said the two-metre distancing rule remained the “safest” option for Northern Ireland.
She said while there were calls for a reduction to one metre across the UK and the Republic of Ireland, the advice from Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Michael McBride is that the two-metre rule is the “safest place to be”.
“It’s not just about two metres, it’s the length of time you are at two metres,” she added.
“One metre at three minutes is the same as two metres at 15 minutes.
“That shows you the challenges we have, but it is about managing risk and what is the appropriate risk in the appropriate setting.
“We again are having those discussions and those will continue. We need to absolutely look at how we can move to a one-metre scenario in different settings, but to understand the risk associated with that and then how that risk is managed.”