DUP stands by Edwin Poots as he queries new Covid rules and calls for more detail on infections ‘to provide more targetted restrictions’

The DUP is standing by its minister Edwin Poots after he launched a startling broadside against the extent and duration of Covid restrictions just before they came into force yesterday evening.

Mr Poots yesterday claimed his party had opposed new Covid restrictions which came in across the Province last night - and that there are tentative plans for another two lockdowns this winter.

He claimed he and party colleagues on the power sharing Executive opposed many of the measures but were out-numbered by other ministers who favoured a more robust approach.

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The minister’s comments were later fiercely criticised by the other Executive parties.

Minister Edwin Poots did tot go on 'a solo run' party sources insist. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

It is understood the DUP is pressing for much stricter enforcement of general regulations across Northern Ireland and called for the chief scientific and medical officers to release data patterns to the Executive of those who test positive, which would show in fine detail where they live and what sectors they work in. This would facilitate highly specific responses that would cause minimum impact on the economy. DUP sources say they have been pressing for these details for weeks from Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride and Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Ian Young, but without success.

“We need to be smarter on how we tackle Covid,” Mr Poots told the BBC.

Contrary to the perceptions of some, DUP sources firmly rejected any suggestion that Mr Poots had gone on “a solo run” yesterday and argued his tone was completely consistent with recent statements from Arlene Foster - on schools - and others from Gregory Campbell, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Carla Lockhart.

Hours after Mr Poots made his comments, Mrs Foster joined Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, UUP leader Steve Aiken and Alliance leader Naomi Long in making a plea for compliance with the new restrictions.

Gary Monteith from Blethers Cafe on the Cregagh Road in East Belfast Closes his doors yesterday. Restaurants and cafes closed their doors to sit-in customers from 6pm yesterday as NI is put under stricter Covid-19 restrictions. Pic Colm Lenaghan Pacemaker

However DUP sources insisted this in no way meant Mrs Foster was in tension with Mr Poot’s comments. In her own video message released yesterday evening, she made no reference to Mr Poots but rather repeatedly emphasised that the DUP has been “trying to mitigate the worst excesses” of the latest ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown, adding that it “does not sit easily with me”.

Mr Poots claimed Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride and Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Ian Young have indicated to ministers that two more lockdowns would be required over the winter months - which he said his party would firmly oppose in order to protect jobs and community wellbeing.

He questioned why weddings and funerals are limited to 25 people when larger numbers are permitted in church services. And he asked why parents mingling at school gates could not be regulated rather than closing schools.

He also said councils should employ more enforcement officers for hospitality outlets rather than closing down the whole sector.

Asked if the DUP had been overruled at the Executive, Mr Poots replied: “We are a minority on the Executive and we stated our case but it’s very evident that all the other parties were prepared to go with this and therefore that is the outcome.”

However, Alliance leader Naomi Long told the BBC that the DUP ministers had not opposed any of the plans when they came before the Executive for a vote. 

Sinn Féin MLA Emma Sheerin branded his comments “an absolute disgrace and entirely misleading”. She said Sinn Féin’s focus is on working with other parties, including the DUP, to tackle the “emergency”.

She added: “That should be Edwin Poots’ focus instead of trying to politicise and sectarianise the issue.”

UUP leader Steve Aiken also condemned his comments. “Edwin Poots has undermined the public health message at a time when the Executive is making the most important decisions that it will ever take in its lifetime,” he said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described Mr Poots’ “attack” on the restrictions as “pathetic” and called on Arlene Foster to “intervene immediately, uphold the medical and scientific advice and rein in her party colleague”.

Yesterday’s statement from Mr Poots is understood to have been provoked by a decision by other Executive parties yesterday to clamp down on driving instruction and driving tests - but also to put down a marker that the DUP will resolutely oppose any further ‘circuit breaker’ lockdowns.

Party sources claimed the reason the party had not opposed the latest ‘circuit breaker’ when it was launched this week, was that it had not wished to formally disrupt official Executive dealings, in order to protect working relationships as far as possible.

They also claimed the rest of the Executive had pressed for the current ‘circuit breaker’ to include the closure of public transport, churches and non-essential retail for six wee but that the DUP had “hollowed out” the proposals to what has now been put in force, and so there was little point in opposing the measures when they came before the assembly for a formal vote.

Health Minister Robin Swann warned last night that the number of patients being treated in hospital for Covid-19 is set to exceed those seen in the first wave of the pandemic within one to two weeks if current trends continue.

Mr Swann said cases of the virus are doubling every 10 days, and hospital admissions every nine days.

“If current trends remain unabated, hospital inpatients will exceed those of wave one in one-two weeks and ICU inpatients will exceed wave one shortly afterwards,” he said in a statement to the Assembly.

Earlier Northern Ireland recorded a new daily high in the number of Covid cases (1,299) as part of a total of 6,708 new positive cases notified in the last seven days.

As of Friday, there were 213 patients with Covid-19 being treated in hospital, with 26 in intensive care.

There were also two deaths reported on Friday, taking the toll recorded by the department to 608.

The Executive published clarification last night on the new restrictions.

Bingo halls, bowling alleys and cinemas are not permitted to open over the next four weeks.

Stormont announced the circuit-breaker on Wednesday in a bid to halt a dramatic rise in the spread of Covid-19 across Northern Ireland.

But there was confusion over what could continue to operate and what would have to close amid tougher restrictions.

Movie House owner Michael McAdam was among business owners who said on Thursday he did not yet know whether he could open this weekend.

Full guidance was published on Friday evening at 6pm as the new rules came into force.

The guidance clarifies that in addition to the hospitality industry being closed down apart from takeaway and delivery services, most entertainment venues must also shut.

Indoor museums, galleries, bingo halls, bowling alleys, cinemas, amusement arcades, skating rinks and funfairs are not permitted to open.

Outdoor attractions such as country parks can remain open and libraries may provide call and collect services, and access to the internet.

Cookery schools and soft play areas can stay open subject to risk assessment and with safety measures.

Meanwhile, close contact services – such as hairdressers, beauticians, make-up and nails, tattoo and piercing parlours, tanning shops, sports and massage therapy, wellbeing and holistic treatments, and driving instructors – are not permitted to operate.

Workers, builders, tradespeople and other professionals can continue to go into people’s houses to carry out work such as repairs, installations and deliveries.

Music lessons and private tutoring are permitted, as long as social distancing is maintained and there is no close contact.

In terms of sport, elite training and competition can continue, both indoors and outdoors. Whether spectators may attend remained unclear on Friday evening.

Places of worship can remain open with measures to ensure social distancing.

There is no restriction on numbers attending acts of worship, but a limit of 15 otherwise applies in places of worship. For weddings and funerals, ceremonies are limited to 25 people.

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