Peter Donnelly, Editor
Here in Northern Ireland, ministers of the devolved government are more often than not given a rough time by both the public and media. With their own uncanny personalities and entrenched positions it has to be said that invariably such criticsm is warranted.
The latest blueprint for Northern Ireland’s exiting from the current Covid-19 lockdown, released last week, for all its faults, is common sense which is a nod to the past’s faux pas.
On Tuesday, March 2nd, the Northern Ireland Executive revealed their proposed blueprint to ready Northern Ireland’s, albeit gradual, exiting of the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. ‘
‘Moving Forward: The Executive’s Pathway Out Of Restrictions‘ has been eagerly anticipated, and the 24-hour delay in its publication was unlikely to drastically hamper the feelings of an already exacsperated public.
That feeling of hopelessness transcends borders and nationalities who have each been subject to some of the most severe forms of restrictions, in the last century, since the Covid chaos commenced over one year ago.
In contrast with the relaxation of Coronavirus restrictions plans published by the Scottish Government and the Government in England, the Northern Ireland plans do not contain any specific mention of dates.
The Executive’s cautious motioning to easing restrictions has led commentators to suggest ministers are adopting a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ approach. Indeed even a mere cursory recollection of the chaotic weeks prior to Christmas, where the Executive were powerless to reach a common and consistent consensus on basic public health messaging, stifles any wish to return to that type of uncertainty.
The mantra from the First and deputy First Ministers last week was that they would be led by the science coupled with the data coming from the health service, even though Arlene Foster admitted the plan was unavoidably imperfect.
The framework guiding Stormont’s approach, to making decisions on future easements, have been prescribed in the plan guided by four overarching principles. That such future actions will be evidence-based, necessary, proportionate and sustainable. The document emphasises that those four principles will be allied to health considerations which includes the rate of virus transmission, incidence and the progress of the vaccination delivery, World Health Organisation conditions for adjusting restrictions
The fact that no fixed dates have been set within the Executive’s plan, has spurred a deluge of criticism, some even coming from within the Executive’s ranks itself. The business community has arguably had the most to fear about any continuation of public health restrictions. For many businesses their future prospects of recovery are fixed on an increasingly slippery slope
Colin Neill, the Hospitality Ulster Chief Executive, has been particularly vocal on his criticism of the Executive’s management of lockdown restrictions since the beginning of the pandemic closures.
Mr. Neill informed the BBC that the hospitality sector remains “frustrated that this [latest] pathway shows no dates whatsoever and once again singles out our traditional (wet) pubs for extended closure. How are our pubs supposed to survive, and the industry plan for the re-emergence of the entire sector?”
Easing Alligned With Actions
The current Public Health Regulations will continue to be in force until at least Thursday 1st April, with the Executive due to convene a review meeting on March 16th. On Monday, March 8th, the youngest primary school-aged children returned to the classroom for the first time since they entered their Christmas holidays. That is undoubtedly a sign that progress is being made. The First Minister has said that she expected the Executive to make a clarification announcement on the wider issue of reopening of schools later this week. The Education Minister, Peter Weir, expressed his wish on Tuesday evening, March 9th, that he will propose the re-opening of schools for all children from the 12th April. The success of this proposal will depend on the consensus of his other, non-DUP Executive colleagues.
There is no doubting that any continuation of restrictions is highly frustrating as the thirteenth month of living under some form of lockdown or restriction approaches. Hope is near with the highly successful UK-wide roll out and delivery of the Coronavirus vaccination programme. Yet that hopeful anticipation of something brighter on the horizon is persistently defeated by the recklessness of individuals who take it upon themselves to invoke their exemption to the law.
Over the past week we saw sights in various parts of Belfast which were the height of irresponsibility. It is understandable that some within society will view events in the Summer of last year, where senior Executive officials, breached public health regulations so cavalierly and shamelessly, as giving a nod and a wink to their irresponsible actions.
As the saying goes, two wrongs do not make a right and that is universally true.
People’s lives continue to be snatched away by the bitter effects of this virus.
At the time of writing, NISRA states that 2,077 people have died from Coronavirus in Northern Ireland, out of the UK-wide death total of 125,000. That gives the UK the position of being the fifth highest in the world for Covid-19 deaths, behind countires with vastly greater populations such as the United States, Brazil, Mexico and India. In the Republic, 4,422 people have died with the virus.
So when people excoriate the NI Executive for a lackadaisical approach to the easing of restrictions, consider that they have good reason to pursue this step-by-step, incremental approach.
You can read the Northern Ireland Executive’s structured blueprint for easing Coronavirus public health restrictions on the NI Direct Website here.