Coronavirus: Sixteen fatalities in North and 439 infections

Swann questions Dublin’s decision to fly people home from UK with Stormont split on travel ban

Almost 200 people are awaiting admission, said the Department of Health.

Almost 200 people are awaiting admission, said the Department of Health.

 

Sixteen more people with coronavirus have died in Northern Ireland, according to the latest figures released by the North’s Department of Health on Tuesday. It brings the total number of fatalities to 1,129.

A further 439 people tested positive for the virus, the department said.

The Executive has issued guidance advising against all but essential travel between the North and the Republic of Ireland, and between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, amid concerns over a new, more infectious strain of Covid-19 in England which led dozens of countries to close their borders to arrivals from the UK.

All new arrivals from either the Republic or Great Britain have also been asked to self-isolate for 10 days.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said this would not include cross-Border workers. On Tuesday, Ministers remained split over whether or not to introduce an immediate ban on travel from Britain, with Ms O’Neill calling for “urgent immediate action” on an all-Ireland ban.

“Here we are on the island of Ireland, where one part of the island is shutdown to travel and then another part is not ... I just think that’s not a good position for us to be in, we’re in a very dangerous position,” the Sinn Féin deputy leader said.

In an emergency meeting late on Monday night, a majority of ministers voted against the introduction of the travel ban, which was proposed by Sinn Féin and backed by the SDLP, but opposed by the other parties in the Executive.

A paper put forward by Minister of Health Robin Swann was then accepted by all parties. In the paper, which has been seen by The Irish Times, the Minister said his view was that there was “merit in moving to now to place some restrictions on travel to and from Northern Ireland”, but said the issue was “more complex than simply, and bluntly, moving to ban such travel”.

Among the factors considered was the risk of travellers to the Republic using Northern Ireland as a “gateway” to the South given its ban on flights from the UK, which has been extended until December 31st.

Appearing before the Stormont Assembly’s Health Committee on Tuesday, Mr Swann outlined his reasons for not proposing an immediate ban, saying there would be financial implications and consequences “to our supply chain here in Northern Ireland in regard to food and medicines”.

Instead, the Ulster Unionist Party MLA said he was seeking reassurances from the UK government that it would “robustly enforce” the prohibition on travel from the worst affected, tier 4 areas of England, and was also working on other measures, including the use of locator forms for travellers arriving in Northern Ireland.

He confirmed that the advice from the North’s Attorney General was that the Executive did have the power to impose a temporary ban on travel from the rest of the UK under the Public Health Act 1967, but it had to be used “proportionally”. Asked if she would support a ban on cross-Border travel, Ms O’Neill said that when it came to “North/South travel, my message to everybody is very, very clear – no one should travel unless it’s essential. No one should make any non-essential journeys.

“[Minister for Finance] Conor Murphy actually in the Executive meeting last night actually proposed that there should be a ban on any non-essential travel North/South, east/west. It should apply across the board,” she said.

Mr Swann also questioned the Irish Government’s decision to charter flights to take people back home to Ireland.

“They’re bringing back the same people that would have been coming on those commercial flights over the past 48 hours, so I struggle to see the benefit in that ban if you’re bringing back the same people from the same area but actually putting them into a smaller compact number of aeroplanes and ferries as well, where they will interact,” he told the Stormont committee.

The North’s hospital network was operating at 100 per cent capacity on Tuesday, the department said, with six hospitals over capacity and 196 people awaiting admission. A total of 447 people with Covid-19 are currently receiving hospital treatment, with 30 in intensive care. – Additional reporting: PA