A political storm blew up on Friday night after DUP Minister Edwin Poots told a constituent that he ‘entirely agreed’ with their claims that the crisis the health service was facing was ‘nothing new.’
Mr Poots was responding to a letter sent to all Stormont MLAs arguing that “we need to take advice from more than the medical community about the NHS being overwhelmed. The NHS is overwhelmed every year at this time”.
The letter added: “It’s nothing new, it happens every year, and we don’t have a lockdown, what has happened to rational thinking?”
In his reply, Mr Poots — a former Stormont Health Minister — wrote: “I entirely agree, unfortunately the majority of the Executive see things differently. The failure of the health department will inevitably lead to the failure of the economy.”
Ulster Unionist health spokesman Alan Chambers accused Mr Poots of playing “a twisted version of the blame game”.
“A few days ago he was pointing the finger of blame at the nationalist community for Covid-19,” Mr Chambers said.
“Now he’s blaming the health service, and in the process, insulting everyone within it who is working so hard at this particular time to save lives.
“It’s a widely accepted fact that one of the main reasons our health service is struggling during this pandemic is down to staffing levels.
“Edwin Poots was the Health Minister for a number of years when this staffing shortfall was developing. If he really wants to look for people who are responsible he might want to start by looking in the mirror.”
The DUP was contacted for comment on Mr Poots’ comments.
Earlier, First Minister Arlene Foster denied that the DUP had performed a U-turn following the announcement of further — and more stringent — lockdown measures.
She insisted the scientific and medical data presented to ministers this week required them to take action, a week after her party voted against steps proposed to the Executive.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and other Executive Ministers also defended the new rules after a furious backlash from businesses.
It comes amid concern over the virus’ spread in Northern Ireland. On Friday 369 new Covid cases were announced. Twelve further deaths were confirmed by the Department of Health, taking its total to 913. Separate figures from Nisra, which count deaths outside hospitals, put the toll at 1,201 as of November 13.
Health statistics show there are 447 hospital patients with Covid — 38 are in intensive care.
On Friday Mrs Foster said it was right to act, adding: “I think there’s a number of reasons why we had to take this action.
“The Health Minister brought forward to us that, first of all, the R number was not in the place where we had hoped it would be.
“Our advisers had said by this stage it should be between 0.8 and 0.9 and unfortunately it’s at 1 at present. When we look at our hospital numbers they are at their highest they have been.
“Our health service staff are very tired, we understand that. So there was a need to put in these interventions.
“Certainly none of us wanted to do this. We realise the impact it will have, but it was necessary unfortunately to protect our health service.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said ministers would now work around the clock to make sure financial assistance gets out quickly to businesses who need it.
“We have to put everything into context,” she said. “Over 3,000 families this year (on the island of Ireland) will have an empty seat when it comes to getting together for Christmas. That’s the reality. This intervention gives us the best hope of getting into the New Year.”