Coronavirus: Four Ministers self-isolating as North reports five deaths

Foster insists Executive will continue as normal it looks to move past Poots’s remarks

 First Minister Arlene Foster, Minister for the Economy Minister Diane Dodds and junior minister Declan Kearney at a press conference at Parliament Buildings Stormont. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire

First Minister Arlene Foster, Minister for the Economy Minister Diane Dodds and junior minister Declan Kearney at a press conference at Parliament Buildings Stormont. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire

 

Stormont business will continue as usual notwithstanding that four of the Northern Executive’s 10 full Ministers are self-isolating, First Minister Arlene Foster said on Thursday.

It also appeared on Thursday evening that the row over DUP Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots’s claim that the incidence of Covid-19 was far higher in nationalist than unionist areas would not be an impediment to Executive work.

The Executive held a three-hour Zoom meeting on Thursday afternoon attended by all 10 Ministers and two juniors on a day when the North’s health department reported 1,042 new cases of Covid-19, taking the total since the start of the pandemic to 31,034.

There were five more deaths, bringing the total to 634.

At an evening press conference attended by Ms Foster, junior minister Declan Kearney – the only Sinn Féin Minister not self-isolating – and DUP Minister for the Economy Diane Dodds it seemed that Ministers agreed to differ over Mr Poots’s comments.

Mr Foster said that Mr Poots issued his clarification on Wednesday where he said he had no intention of offending his Catholic friends and neighbours.

“I think it was important that he did that because from his point of view he would never have intended to offend anyone in the community, and as we know the virus is unfortunately present right across all of our communities in Northern Ireland, ” she added.

Mr Kearney said he was “personally and politically hugely disappointed” at Mr Poots’s comments.

“I think people have made their minds up around what has been said,” he added.

“I don’t think anyone should be sectarianising Covid-19 or this pandemic. I think that is what has happened. There is no place for sectarianism either within our Executive or within our wider society.”

Nonetheless, Mr Kearney said Ministers did have a “focused, strategic discussion” at its meeting. He went on to say that the Executive was committed to act “decisively and cohesively” in relation to Covid-19.

He said the “clear resolve of the Executive” was to “move forward, to give assurance, to give hope, to set out a clear plan for our people and to let them know that we will do everything that we can on a united basis, as five parties in a powersharing coalition, to get in control of the spread of the virus”.

With the three other Sinn Féin Ministers – Michelle O’Neill, Conor Murphy and Carál Ní Chuilín – self-isolating because of contact with people who had tested positive for the virus Mr Kearney jokingly described himself as Sinn Féin’s “designated survivor”.

The other Minister self-isolating is Ulster Unionist Party Minister for Health Robin Swann.

On Wednesday evening, the UUP Assembly member John Stewart reported he had tested positive for the virus. At least four other MLAs are self-isolating over contacts with people with Covid-19.

In the past week 6,753 positive cases of coronavirus were confirmed by the North’s Department of Health.

The Derry and Strabane remains worst hit but numbers continue to drop in that council area. Over the past seven days the area experienced 617 cases per 100,000 of the population. Just over a week ago it was reporting close to a thousands cases per 100,000 of population.

Belfast is the next worst affected, experiencing 512 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days.

The figure for all of Northern Ireland is 359 cases per 100,000.

Currently, there are 291 Covid-19 patients in Northern Ireland hospitals with 33 in intensive care units and 23 on ventilators.