Executive dithers all day and still can’t reach decision on pandemic restrictions

Businesses were left in limbo tonight as a dithering and divided Executive failed to agree on whether pandemic restrictions should be ended on Friday, extended, or amended.

Monday, 9th November 2020, 11:52 pm
Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill (left) and First Minister Arlene Foster

A day which was described by a source close to the Executive as “shambolic; utterly shambolic” saw the Executive meet twice, adjourn twice without agreement, agree to meet a third time late tonight and then cancel that meeting at the last moment.

Meanwhile, the Assembly spent four hours in the farcical situation of debating whether to accept legislation which imposed restrictions weeks ago – even though one of those laws is now due to expire in two days anyway, and another of the laws has already been repealed.

On Sunday, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill outlined the framework for an apparent deal which had been agreed with the DUP which would have seen restaurants allowed to reopen but not serve alcohol.

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When asked on Sunday by the BBC if she was “at one with Arlene Foster ... on the plan of attack tomorrow at the Executive meeting; are you speaking with one voice, 100%”, the Sinn Fein minister replied confidently: “Yes. And we will have a joint Executive agreement tomorrow ... I think it’s been one of the successes of the Executive, the fact that we have moved lock stock the whole way through this pandemic ...” 

But that plan fell apart this morning as the hospitality industry savaged it, bluntly telling Ms O’Neill that such a suggestion showed the Executive’s ignorance of how their industry works and the importance of alcohol sales to them breaking even.

An Executive source has told the News Letter that DUP minister Edwin Poots today threatened to wield the DUP’s veto to block the only proposal on the table which would have extended restrictions by two weeks.

The formal agenda for today’s first Executive meeting was to discuss a paper which Health Minister Robin Swann submitted a week ago which proposed a two-week extension to restrictions alongside a major support package for businesses not allowed to open.

It is understood that Mr Poots said that if a vote was called on that paper, he would call a cross-community vote and the DUP would block the proposal – effectively the party wielding its veto to prevent a full two-week extension of lockdown.

The agriculture minister had faced criticism four weeks ago for condemning the current restrictions just days after he had not sought to block them in the Executive.

However, despite the deputy First Minister promising businesses at the start of last week that they would have a decision in plenty of time to prepare, there appears to have been no other serious written proposal for ministers to consider, forcing them to ask officials to being looking at other options.

Various sources suggested tonight that a likely deal may involve close-contact services (hairdressers, beauticians, etc) re-opening on Friday, along with cafes and coffee shops.

However, it appears that pubs will be kept shut and it is unlikely that restaurants with a licence will be allowed to re-open - but it is unclear if that possible extension to restrictions would be for one week or two weeks.

The News Letter tonight put to the DUP that we understood Mr Poots had made clear that the party would block a two-week extension of restrictions. At the time of going to press, the party had not responded to a request for it to explain its position.

Leading Belfast restauranteur Michael Deane said the situation was “really beyond belief logic and sense”.

Earlier today he made clear that he would accept being closed for a longer period if that was necessary for medical reasons, was communicated in good time and was accompanied by appropriate compensation from Stormont.

However, the medical advice from the chief medical officer is understood to be clearly in support of a two-week extension to the current restrictions – meaning that if ministers reject that it will be on the basis of other considerations, such as the impact on the economy.

Stevie Higginson, chef and owner of the acclaimed Square Bistro in Lisburn, told the News Letter: “Today has been a very anxious day for our team. We are all gutted at the disorganisation and being left in limbo once again. We can’t organise rotas, ordering stock or bookings. We need to know what is happening by Tuesday evening at the very latest.”

Referring to the Executive’s decision not to meet again tonight, he asked: “Do they only work until 9pm when our livelihoods are on the line?”

Other business owners tonight pleaded with the Executive to make a decision which would allow them to prepare for re-opening, if that is to be allowed.

TUV leader Jim Allister said that the Executive “needs to come to a sensible decision” but said that yesterday had been “another hokey cokey exec situation” where even the Executive’s story was constantly changing throughout the day.

The Executive is due to meet tomorrow morning and if a decision can be agreed that will then be brought to the Assembly chamber for a statement from either the first minister or the deputy first minister.

Current and past political figures from various parties or the civil service with extensive experience of how Stormont operates privately expressed bafflement as to what was going on – mainly because the Executive’s indecision and refusal to make the decision at an earlier point is so self-damaging.

As ministers pondered what to do today, the Department of Health announced a further 10 deaths in its daily update, along with 471 new cases of coronavirus – a far higher number of deaths than when the restrictions were imposed three weeks ago but less than half the number of peak daily new cases in recent weeks.

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