NI at tipping point in Covid-19 battle – Foster

Senior Democratic Unionist Sammy Wilson claimed his party leader had reined in health department ‘technocrats’ over wider restrictions plans.

Northern Ireland is at a “tipping point” in its battle to contain Covid-19, First Minister Arlene Foster has said.

She denied scaremongering and warned concerns remained about infection rates in localised areas subjected to extra movement constraints.

Meanwhile, Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann has dismissed “bogus” claims that he was overruled during last week’s Executive meeting on coronavirus restrictions.

Senior Democratic Unionist Sammy Wilson said his party leader Ms Foster had reined in health department “technocrats” who wanted to take more severe measures.

Ms Foster said: “We are at a tipping point in relation to Covid-19 and I know that there are those who think that we are scaremongering about this issue and I just want to address that – we are not.

“We are in constant contact with our chief medical officer and again today I am advised that the postcodes which we have particular concern about, that concern is very much still there.

“And I do not want to see that spreading across Northern Ireland, we have to act to stop that spreading across Northern Ireland and actually stop people in those postcode areas from spreading Covid-19.”

On Thursday, ministers resolved to impose localised limitations on people socialising in Belfast, Ballymena and other areas with high infection rates.

Mr Swann said: “In light to what is being alleged this morning, I am not going to breach the confidentiality of Executive discussions to comment on ill-informed and bogus claims.

“Our public health messaging is too important to play games with.”

Mr Wilson alleged that Mr Swann and others had pressed for more extensive restrictions during Thursday’s Executive meeting.

The East Antrim MP told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme: “If the technocrats in the Department of Health and if some of the ministers in the Executive had had their way these restrictions would be far more severe and many businesses would be experiencing far, far greater difficulties as a result of them.”

The DUP’s chief whip at Westminster added: “Other ministers wanted far, far more widespread restrictions and those were opposed by our party, and quite rightly so.”

Limits on social interaction between households amid soaring Covid-19 infection rates in the Belfast council area were agreed last week.

People living in Ballymena town and postcode areas BT43, BT28 and BT29 have also been given guidance discouraging non-essential journeys outside the affected zones.

There will also be new legally enforceable social restrictions – residents in these areas cannot visit other households.

There are a number of limited exceptions, including childcare provision and households that have formed a social bubble with another.

She (Arlene Foster) needs to get hold and get a grip of her party because this is undermining the Health Minister and undermining the whole health message we have as wellSteve Aiken, Ulster Unionist leader

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken told the BBC’s The Nolan Show: “Arlene Foster needs to take some personal responsibility for sorting Sammy out.”

He said Mr Wilson is undermining the coronavirus message.

“Arlene Foster needs to take charge and sort out Sammy Wilson.”

He added: “She needs to get hold and get a grip of her party because this is undermining the Health Minister and undermining the whole health message we have as well.”

A spokesman for Justice Minister and Alliance Party leader Naomi Long also cast doubt on Mr Wilson’s version of events.

He said: “We don’t discuss the ins and outs of Executive business.

“Those who do should make more effort to be accurate.”

As far as the Executive is concerned, we are united on this messageGordon Lyons, Executive Office

A spokesman for the party said: “The comments made by Sammy Wilson have no basis in reality.

“The SDLP has argued for clarification of the restrictions, not further restrictions.

“The DUP should explain why one of its MPs is relating false reports from Executive meetings.”

Gordon Lyons is a DUP junior minister at the Executive Office.

He told the BBC’s Talkback programme he could not discuss its meetings but said ministers took the advice of chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young.

Mr Lyons said: “As far as the Executive is concerned, we are united on this message.

“We have an agreed set of proposals on possible restrictions and I hope that that is the message that is coming across.”