DUP Leader and First Minister Arlene Foster MLA has written an OpEd for the Belfast Telegraph arguing for a balanced and proportionate approach the Executive which is not solely using lockdown to the tackle the virus spread.
As we continue to face up to the threat of Covid-19 it is critical that decisions taken are fair and balanced to everyone in our society. That means defending the most vulnerable, supporting our vital NHS and care staff and protecting businesses on which thousands of jobs and family incomes across Northern Ireland rely. I do not want to see Northern Ireland emerge from this pandemic only to be confronted by a new epidemic of poverty and suicide or a deepening cancer crisis. As First Minister I cannot and will not accept this.
Lockdowns and circuit breakers can buy time and may even bring short-lived victories but they do not provide the strategic or even-handed approach to protecting lives and livelihoods. We need to learn to co-exist with the virus and only by increasing capacity in our health service, expanding testing and tracing and preparing now for the roll-out of a vaccine can we achieve this.
I recognise that the public are looking to the Executive to set the tone. The delays and difficulties of this week were deeply regrettable. I am sorry for the fear and frustrations it caused, particularly to businesses wanting clarity on the next steps. However, the DUP believed it was essential to reach the right agreement, not a rushed agreement. Rolling over the current regulations for another week or two without a concrete plan for reopening would have been immensely damaging to the economy. Businesses in close contact services and hospitality deserved much more than to see the can kicked down the road. I believe the timetable put forward by the Economy Minister Diane Dodds is a much better and balanced outcome, affording businesses a basis on which to plan.
I am disappointed but not surprised to hear some parties characterising the use of the three Minister rule this week as an abuse of power. The Belfast and St Andrew’s Agreements set out very clearly that its purpose isn’t confined to minority-based issues. Covid-19 decisions by their very nature are some of the most significant and far-reaching any Minister in Northern Ireland will ever make.
We make no apology for seeking to bring certainty to businesses and households in the run up to Christmas whilst also balancing the need to continue with restrictions including the closure of licensed premises for a further period. The agreement reached may be imperfect, but it will give hope to those who rely on overtime shifts at this time of year to help put presents under the Christmas tree.
The decisions we take can complement but never replicate the invaluable contribution of our dedicated heath and care staff who are working round the clock to treat those with this terrible virus - often at great personal cost to themselves and their loved ones. We can all repay this work in small part by abiding by the restrictions, wearing a face covering, keeping our distance and practicing good respiratory health.