Foster says rise in Covid-19 rates a ‘wake-up call’ for Northern Ireland

Society has to work in tandem with Executive to halt virus spread, DUP leader says

The North’s first and deputy first ministers have warned in a televised address on Tuesday evening that public must take action to stop the spread of coronavirus.

However Arlene Foster said new restrictions limiting the number of people who can meet in private homes, which came into force on Tuesday, were not a second lockdown, but a "wake-up call, a reminder that we are not out of the woods."

The renewed restrictions, she said, were “proportionate” and were “designed to protect the need for a return to lockdown.”

In a speech broadcast in Northern Ireland following a similar address by the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, the DUP leader said the "deadly virus has crept into communities in every county in Northern Ireland. "


The North, she said, was “now recording the highest number of cases that we have seen since the early stages of Covid” and the number of hospital admissions has been rising.

“We need to act,” she said. “I am asking every person to join with us to limit the virus.”

Referring specifically to concerns over house parties, Ms Foster said “the only winner in the long term from such things will be Covid-19.”

The North’s Executive is due to meet again on Thursday, when Ms Foster said ministers would “look closely at the measures that have been outlined today, and the prime minister’s address.”

The deputy first minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, said Northern Ireland was at a “critical period in our response to this pandemic” and “tonight, we are sounding the alarm bells loud and clear.”

Over the next two to three weeks, she said, “we can by our actions slow the virus down.

“Not to do so is to risk a worsening situation by mid-October.”

Ms O’Neill also said that a co-ordinated, all-island approach was necessary to tackle the virus. “Dublin knows that, we in Belfast know that, and London knows that.

“We need full co-operation on this island, and between our islands, in the fight back against Covid. This island is a single epidemiological unit, and we must maximise the protection that afford us,” she said.

Earlier, Ms Foster told BBC Radio Ulster that “everything has to be weighed in the balance.”

The DUP leader said she was not ruling out a further lockdown out “because I don’t know where we will be in a period of time.

“I very much hope that we don’t get to that position,” she said.

“I hope that people work with us in a partnership approach the way in which we have worked at the earlier part of the pandemic so that we can try and break the transmission.”

Meanwhile, Ms O’Neill said the “notion of a potential circuit breaker” - a short-term return to full lockdown - “has to be something that we absolutely have in the mix.”

She said the Executive had always said “we will step forward and step back according to the virus spread, so initiatives such as that is certainly something that we would have to consider.”

A further 75 people in Northern Ireland tested positive for coronavirus cases in the 24 hours to Tuesday, according to the North's Department of Health.

It brings the total number of Covid-19 cases identified in the North since the beginning of the pandemic to 9,541. In the past seven days, 963 people have tested positive for the virus.

There were no further coronavirus-related fatalities reported on Tuesday, leaving the total number of deaths at 577.

New measures aimed at halting the spread of coronavirus will come into force from 6pm on Tuesday.

People from different households will no longer be allowed to meet inside private homes, and a maximum of six people - excluding children under 12 - from no more than two households can meet in private gardens.

There are a number of exemptions, which include caring responsibilities or childcare needs, essential maintenance, supported living arrangements or legal or medical visits.

Single person households are also permitted to “bubble” with one other household.

The Northern Executive is to consider the imposition of further restrictions, which could include a curfew for the hospitality industry, when it meets on Thursday.

The reopening of pubs and bars serving drinks only is to go ahead as planned on Wednesday.

Industry body Hospitality Ulster has called the potential additional restrictions “disappointing” and called for the mooted closing time of 10pm to be “scrapped straight away” and replaced with “at least an 11.30pm target to ensure financial sustainability for the sector and align it with the Republic of Ireland.”

Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill took part in a meeting of the UK government’s emergency Cobra committee on Tuesday morning.

Ministers raised the need for an extension of the coronavirus “furlough” job retention scheme, but did not discuss the so-called “circuit breaker” during the meeting, Ms O’Neill said.

“It is very clear that we all need to take action that is commensurate to the risk posed in each of our areas of responsibility,” she said.

“I made it very clear in the conversation today that we need to have a very focused north-south, east-west approach, that we need to be working across this island and between the two islands in terms of our response.

“We are facing a very difficult winter. I raised the issue of the furlough scheme and financial supports if we have to take more draconian measures, which I hope that we do not get to that point,” she said.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster, Ms Foster also reiterated her support for the extension of the furlough scheme, saying it is “incumbent upon us all to recognise that financially we cannot expect to take action which impacts upon people and then not give them the assistance they need.”

Additional reporting - PA.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times