Stormont’s leaders have been accused of hiding from Assembly scrutiny of their coronavirus restrictions.
First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill were criticised by rivals MLAs for not facing questioning on the Covid-19 regulations.
On Tuesday morning, recent amendments to the region’s health protection regulations were debated in the Assembly chamber with Health minister Robin Swann responding on behalf of the powersharing executive.
A quick update on discussions this morning with the Prime Minister and colleagues from across the U.K. pic.twitter.com/ZdBZuuC7wZ— Arlene Foster #WeâllMeetAgain (@DUPleader) September 22, 2020
SDLP MLA Colin McGrath was among those who questioned Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill’s absence.
Mr McGrath also criticised the ministers for their policy of announcing changes to the restrictions to the media, and not in the chamber of the devolved legislature.
“I do wonder if the First and deputy First Ministers are in hiding because they can’t agree on the message that they need to be sending out,” he said.
Mr McGrath said the ministers were sending out confusing and contradictory messages on the rules.
“When is the message going to get through that we need to have clear and simple messaging?” he asked.
“The bottom line is that the communication strategy from the executive is not working, the public are left to try and understand what these regulations mean.”
The Department of Health #COVID19 dashboard has been updated with latest data.— Department of Health (@healthdpt) September 22, 2020
75 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. No deaths have been recorded.https://t.co/YN16dmGzhv pic.twitter.com/XkRPw6gAkc
He added: “How are we meant to sell this message when it is so unclear, how can we ever expect the public to adhere to something that is unclear, confusing and open to interpretation.
“The public are rightly frustrated and they are rightly angry.”
The debate focused on amendments made over the summer and not on the latest restrictions scheduled to be introduced across the region on Tuesday.
Ulster MLA Robbie Butler also questioned the ministers’ absence.
He said the executive needed to get its act together.
“I would plead with the TEO (The Executive Office) to step up here, there’s four ministers in that office not one, four – why are they not here today?” he said.
“I don’t get cross very often, but I’m cross today because I don’t believe it should fall on the health minister’s shoulders solely at a time of crisis.”
Health Minister Robin Swann has challenged Sir Van Morrison after he wrote protest lyrics against the restrictions.
Mr Swann paraphrased the East Belfast songwriter as he responded to the debate.
He said: “These regulations are about bringing us from the dark end of the street to the bright end of the road.
“It is not an easy move to make and that is why we are asking the people of Northern Ireland to stick with the message that the health professionals actually give.
“It is not easy to keep going.”
He reiterated his warning that the increase in coronavirus cases would lead to more hospitalisations and deaths.
“That is what is proportional about the regulations.”