Northern Ireland 'circuit-breaker' lockdown extended

12 November 2020, 22:15

Lockdown restrictions will remain in place in Northern Ireland
Lockdown restrictions will remain in place in Northern Ireland. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

Lockdown restrictions on hospitality businesses in Northern Ireland will be extended for one week after a lengthy political wrangle exposed Stormont divisions.

Hair and beauty salons and premises without an alcohol licence like cafes and coffee shops can reopen next Friday, with hours restricted to 8pm.

Restaurants, pubs and hotels can lift shutters on 27 November. Pubs and bars will be permitted to sell sealed off-sales from November 20.

Driving lessons can resume by appointment only.

It comes as the deaths of another 15 people with Covid-19 were announced on Thursday, along with 548 new confirmed cases of the virus.

DUP economy minister Diane Dodds told the BBC's Newsline programme: "What we have to do is bring certainty to people in their lives in the run up to Christmas.

"We have tried to bring forward a proposal that is balanced and proportionate and that the health minister supported.

"That is the only way forward for an Executive of five parties."

Pubs will have to remain closed
Pubs will have to remain closed. Picture: PA

Sinn Fein voted against the proposal because it ran contrary to the guidance from Stormont's medical and scientific advisers to extend the circuit-break in its entirety for two weeks.

It was outnumbered around the ministerial table as ministers faced mounting public criticism over the delay.

The party's Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said: "The expert health advice from the chief medical officer (Dr Michael McBride) this week could not have been clearer that any move away from a two-week extension of the current interventions would result in excess deaths. That's stark. It means more lives being lost."

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Days of political rancour as this Friday's deadline for a decision before current regulations lapse loomed have left businesses in limbo.

The Ulster Unionists and Alliance Party also voted for the breakthrough proposals.

DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster said: "The choice became the quick but wrong decision or to fight and get us to a better or balanced decision.

"Sometimes compromise does not come easy and it has to be fought for to achieve it."

Ms O'Neill warned of the repercussions.

She told Newsline: "We potentially are coming back to this situation again before Christmas. This is not a position that any of us want to be in."

It was the fourth meeting of Stormont Executive ministers in four days.

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Mrs Dodds said it was not her intention to return to the same situation as before Christmas.

She added: "No matter what we do or do not do, there may be need for further interventions at a further stage, maybe even before Christmas.

"The virus is new and unpredictable and difficult to work with.

"We have to make sure that there is a pathway for people to earn their living and put food on the table and that we learn to live with the restrictions of this virus."

UUP health minister Robin Swann backed the proposal as a way to avoid all the regulations lapsing at midnight on Friday.

However, businesses have voiced their "deep dismay and distress" at the "shambolic" decision.

Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton said there was "huge disappointment" among its members who were forced to close four weeks ago at being told at the "11th hour" that they would not be able to reopen this weekend as intended.

Mr Hamilton said: "Unfortunately, after offering no convincing evidence for closing these sectors in the first place, no additional evidence has been put forward for keeping them closed for a further period.

"Various ministerial statements built up a reasonable expectation amongst businesses that, as they were repeatedly told, the restrictions would last for four weeks, would end on 13 November and that affected businesses could reopen and start trading again from then.

"There is deep, deep dismay at this change of direction, there is distress at the shambolic way this decision has been made and some are saying that they now feel that they are indeed the 'villain' just a few weeks after being told they weren't."

Mr Hamilton added that many businesses are understandably concerned that the adjusted reopening dates they have been given will also "slip".

He called on ministers to fast-track financial support for businesses affected.

He also said businesses needed a "cast-iron guarantee" that the new reopening dates will be honoured and that they can operate in the lead up to Christmas.

"The embarrassing mess that has played out over the last few days has been hugely unhelpful and ministers must avoid a repeat," he said.

Retail NI said the latest restrictions were "far from perfect" but it welcomed the certainty a decision being made will give to businesses in the run up to Christmas.

The representative body's chief executive Glyn Roberts said: "This decision provides a roadmap for the reopening of our high streets for the Christmas period and increased footfall for local retailers.

He added that Retail NI would be "pressing" the Executive to provide a package of support measures to support the high street shops through Christmas.

While welcoming that a decision had been made on the matter Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said extra financial support was now needed to protect businesses and jobs.

Mr Neill said the decision brings a period of uncertainty to and end that would "hopefully result in thousands of jobs and businesses being saved".

"Our members will do everything they can to make sure they reopen successfully and safely in little over two weeks' time."

"The Christmas period is vital for our hospitality businesses and while we know that this year will be a lot different, it will provide a critical, if not much reduced, income to help secure jobs and businesses," he added.

"It has been suggested that further support will be provided for mitigations to reduce risk within the hospitality sector, including improved ventilation and requirements for the recording of customer information for contact tracing purposes - this would be a welcome step by those in the industry."

"We await further detail on what additional finance in terms of grant support will be available over this two week period.

"While pubs and restaurants may be closed, the bills continue to mount on a daily basis therefore extra financial support is needed now to protect businesses and jobs and we hope that the NI Executive will be swift in getting this money into bank accounts."