Stormont ministers have again failed to agree fresh coronavirus restrictions for Northern Ireland amid fraying relations at the top of the powersharing administration.
The executive did not reach consensus after a lengthy and at times acrimonious meeting on Tuesday night.
It was the second night in a row the executive broke up without agreement on a day when the North’s Covid-19 death toll passed 800.
Ministers are expected to resume debate later on Wednesday on proposals that would see a partial reopening of the hospitality sector. The current four-week circuit break lockdown ends at midnight on Thursday, at which point regulations that have forced the closure of much of the hospitality sector will fall away.
Ministers are facing mounting criticism for failing to tell businesses whether they will be able to reopen on Friday.
There were angry exchanges at the outset of Tuesday's meeting when the DUP moved to block a proposal from health minister Robin Swann to extend the circuit break measures for two more weeks.
The DUP used a contentious Stormont mechanism — a cross-community vote — to effectively veto the proposal, despite support for the move by a majority of executive parties. Mr Swann and senior health officials had warned that Covid-19 cases were likely to spike again in mid-December if the fortnight extension was not approved.
The proposal from Mr Swann of the Ulster Unionist Party was on foot on the advice of chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and the chief scientific adviser Prof Ian Young.
On Tuesday night the Executive adjourned for a period and then reconvened to consider proposals from DUP Minister for the Economy Diane Dodds.
Her proposals, sources said, included allowing cafes and restaurants to open from Friday but without serving alcohol, and also for hairdressers and beauticians to get back to business from Friday.
Also from that date, under her plan, hotels would be able to serve food and alcohol to residents but licensed premises would stay shut until November 27th.
An anticipated vote on those proposals did not proceed and the meeting concluded after midnight without agreement on a way forward.
Earlier, Alliance Party justice minister Naomi Long had been particularly critical of the deployment of the cross community vote — a mechanism designed to protect minority rights in a post-conflict society — to veto health regulations.
However, the vote also created anger within the DUP, with the party understood to be furious at Sinn Féin’s decision to back Mr Swann’s proposal. A senior party source accused Sinn Féin of “somersaulting” on an apparent pledge to endorse the reopening of cafes and restaurants.
The DUP source claimed Sinn Féin agreed that position at the weekend, pointing to a Sunday media interview in which deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill said the executive was looking at ways of “opening things up perhaps without alcohol”. The source further claimed Sinn Féin changed position on the instruction of its Dublin powerbase.
The claims were robustly rejected by Sinn Féin, with the party insisting it was acting in line with medical and scientific advice. A senior Sinn Féin source said: “We always said any movement had to be based on medical advice”.
On Tuesday the Department of Health reported 11 more coronavirus deaths in Northern Ireland, taking the total to 802. There were also 514 new cases of Covid-19, bringing the total to 43,902.
There are now 420 patients receiving treatment for Covid-19 in Northern Irish hospitals, with 50 in intensive care units and 39 on ventilators. The hospital bed occupancy rate in the North is at 99 per cent.
The overall seven-day Covid figure for Northern Ireland has dropped to 199 cases per 100,000 of population.
The highest incidence continues to be in mid-Ulster, with 260 cases per 100,000 followed by Derry and Strabane with 248 cases, Causeway Coast and Glens with 244 cases, and Belfast with 206 cases.
The Department of Health said on Tuesday that by early April Northern Ireland could receive about 570,000 doses of the new coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, if it passes future trials.
As two jabs are necessary, this would allow about 235,000 people to be inoculated against the disease.
A statement from the department read: “The vaccine will be split using the Barnett formula, so for the first 20 million doses which are scheduled to be in the UK by the end of March 2021, Northern Ireland would receive roughly 570,000 doses. “This is very good news.”
The statement noted the vaccine still needed to officially pass stage three mass-testing trials and then receive official authorisation before it can be used in the UK. Minister for Health Robin Swann has cautioned the public not to “let down their guard” despite progress towards mass vaccination in 2021.
He said it would probably be well into 2021 before a vaccine would be generally available to the population – not least because mass global vaccination is a huge logistical challenge. Those most at risk could receive it by the end of the year. - Additional reporting PA