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Coronavirus: Arlene Foster says new lockdown 'avoidable'

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI Political Reporter

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image copyrightPA Media
image captionArlene Foster says the executive doesn't want to impose further restrictions in Northern Ireland

Another lockdown in Northern Ireland to tackle Covid-19 is "avoidable" if people adhere to the rules, First Minister Arlene Foster has said.

She said the executive did not want to have to impose further restrictions.

However, Mrs Foster said if that became necessary then Westminster would have to provide extra financial support.

She and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill spoke to Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove about that prospect on Monday afternoon.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Evening Extra programme, the first minister said she did not believe another lockdown was inevitable.

"The important thing to do is work with us and comply with the guidance and regulations out there," she said.

"We know the impact they have on people's way of lives, we don't want to have to move to further restrictions."

Tougher penalties

The first minister said Justice Minister Naomi Long has been carrying out a review of the executive's level of fines for breaches of the regulations.

Mrs Long is expected to put forward proposals for "tougher penalties" at Thursday's executive meeting, she added.

Mrs Foster also insisted schools would not close again, even if other restrictions are imposed.

"We will not be going back to a situation where our schools are closed and we're in total lockdown," she added.

On Monday, 616 new cases of Covid-19 were identified in Northern Ireland, bringing the total during the pandemic to 14,690.

The number of deaths recorded by the Department of Health remains at 584.

On Sunday, Health Minister Robin Swann Swann said he did not "want a return to a long-term or indefinite lockdown".

However, Chief Scientific Adviser Prof Ian Young has said that Northern Ireland may need more than one circuit breaker, or temporary lockdown, this autumn or winter.

Funding discussed

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has asked Chancellor Rishi Sunak for an "urgent" meeting relating to additional Covid-19 funding for NI.

He was speaking after the executive met on Monday.

The executive has not made any further decisions on imposing more restrictions, but Mr Murphy said ministers will meet again on Thursday.

He said his "first priority" was to ensure the health service can cope with tackling the virus.

image copyrightPA Media
image captionConor Murphy confirmed he was looking at a number of options for new financial support measures for Derry and Strabane

The first and deputy first ministers are expected to reach out to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Micheál Martin about the next steps across the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland.

Mr Murphy also confirmed he was looking at a number of options for new financial support measures for Derry and Strabane, where new restrictions on hospitality have come into force.

"There are some options in relation to support for Derry and Strabane, it may be that we are looking in the not-too-distant future for support in other areas," he said.

Asked for an estimate of how much financial support may be needed, Mr Murphy said his officials had "not gotten to that extent yet".

He said it would depend on the severity of any further restrictions imposed.

"The level of support will depend on the level of restrictions, the virus has had a much more rapid growth than anticipated," he added.

Unemployment

Meanwhile, Economy Minister Diane Dodds has warned that unemployment in Northern Ireland could return to levels "we haven't seen since the early 1990s".

She said further lockdown measures in combination with the end of the government furlough scheme could see the current 3% rate grow to about 12%, which was experienced about 30 years ago.

"That is a terrifying prospect for families and for communities and for individuals," she said on Monday.

The minister was updating the assembly on plans to support businesses affected by the tighter restrictions in the Derry and Strabane council area.

She said the executive would announce details in the coming days.

Mrs Dodds also said any further restrictions should take the economic impact and the ability to pay into account.

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