Covid-19: Nichola Mallon says extending lockdown could help save Christmas

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Nichola Mallon has said there needs to be support put in place for businesses if restrictions are extended

Restrictions on the hospitality industry should be extended for two weeks to rescue the Christmas period, the infrastructure minister has said.

Nichola Mallon said she had come to the conclusion following evidence to the Northern Ireland Executive.

Restrictions aimed at curbing Covid-19 have been in place since 16 October and are due to end on 13 November.

"My view is that we should be extending the restrictions," said Ms Mallon, adding business needed to be supported.

"For me the focus here is on Christmas, families need to be together at Christmas, they need to be together safely."

First Minister Arlene Foster told Thursday's Stormont press conference that restrictions had made a positive impact, with the reproduction number - or R-rate - dropping to 0.7 but that no decision had been made on whether to extend the measures.

BBC News NI has seen a proposal by the Department of Health that indicates a two-week extension of the restrictions on hospitality could mean avoiding further curbs before Christmas.

'Focusing on Christmas'

Speaking on BBC's The View, Ms Mallon said she "would have been up for taking a decision [on Thursday]".

"Businesses, the hospitality sector, Christmas is their busiest time.

"We need to make sure they can be open at that time and that customers can be there spending their money safely."

Ms Mallon said the health service had been "on the brink of collapse" with livelihoods "hit hard".

"This is not an easy situation, of course we are ministers from different backgrounds, different political parties - we will have different perspectives," she said.

"The responsibility on us is to come together, to take a decision, and to communicate that decision to people as quickly as possible."

'Hammer blow'

Glyn Roberts, the chief executive of Retail NI, said the closure of the hospitality sector had been "a hammer blow to the high streets".

"We have seen the economy minister say that the current circuit breaker in Northern Ireland has cost the economy some £400m," he told BBC Radio Foyle.

"We are in a fight to save as many jobs and businesses as possible."

Mr Roberts said the executive should back a "Christmas campaign" to encourage shoppers back onto the high streets safely.

"We should be putting Covid marshals in all of our town centres, putting public hand sanitiser stations in all town centres and getting a proper track-trace and isolate system in place," he said.

On Thursday, Mrs Foster said an announcement about whether restrictions would be extended would come "at the earliest possible opportunity".

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said it was "not ideal" that a decision had not been made yet but that it was a "complex situation".

The battle over Covid restrictions

Since the measures were brought in by the executive, there has been strong public debate on whether they should go beyond their initial four-week period or end as planned on Friday 13 November.

Four business groups - the Belfast Chamber, Hospitality Ulster, Manufacturing NI and Retail NI - issued a statement during the week urging the executive to develop a "different strategy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic".

They said they want to find a strategy that "suppresses the spread of the virus and keeps people in employment" ahead of Christmas.

Image source, Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire
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Arlene Foster said ministers had a "comprehensive discussion" about what may be needed after the current restrictions end

However, medical leaders have said they are "extremely concerned" over healthcare pressures caused by upturn in cases.

In other coronavirus developments in Northern Ireland:

  • The chancellor says his spending plans for the coming year will mean an an extra £400m set aside for Stormont budgets