Coronavirus: DUP blocks 14-day NI Covid restrictions extension

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The current coronavirus restrictions are due to end at midnight on Thursday

Proposals from the health minister to extend coronavirus restrictions in NI for two more weeks have been blocked after an executive vote.

Advice from Robin Swann's officials recommended keeping the measures in place until 27 November.

The DUP opposed the move, and triggered a cross-community vote to effectively veto the proposals.

The current restrictions are due to end at midnight on Thursday.

The hospitality sector is waiting to find out whether it can resume trading on Friday after a four-week shutdown.

It comes after the Department of Health announced a further 11 coronavirus-related deaths in Northern Ireland on Tuesday and 514 more positive cases.

Ministers are currently considering alternative proposals from DUP Economy Minister Diane Dodds.

The talks began shortly after 18:00 GMT and still had not concluded after 23:00, as ministers wrangled over a plan.

Mrs Dodds's paper suggests close-contact services such as hair and beauty salons can reopen on Friday, by appointment.

'Safely open group'

It also proposes allowing unlicensed premises such as cafes and coffee shops to reopen on Friday, but licensed restaurants would remain closed until 27 November.

It is also understood that a "safely open group" could be established if ministers agree the plans, that would cover hospitality.

BBC News NI understands that Mrs Dodds's paper also stresses the need for increased visibility of police and environmental health officers to manage enforcement.

The minister has previously said she did not want the restrictions to be extended, as it could further damage the economy.

It is understood she still holds this view, but recognises that the executive must agree a "general consensus".

And so the wait for business owners and employees alike goes on, almost a week since health officials first recommended that the restrictions should be extended.

There was a distinct sense of déjà vu emerging tonight, as attempts for the executive to meet were pushed back repeatedly while the parties tried to work out a plan they could feasibly sign up to.

DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster was facing much internal pressure not to bow to calls to extend the measures, despite the health advice.

It's understood the DUP's use of the cross-community veto did not go down well with the Alliance minister Naomi Long, who is excluded from such votes as her party is neither unionist nor nationalist.

Now that the DUP has managed to bring its own proposals to the executive, it may feel that provides its ministers with some political cover to stand over decisions which may end up being made tonight.

However, nothing is over the line yet.

Some businesses may feel the decisions are coming too late, with many unable to prepare for opening with two days' notice, even if they get the green light.

Others will also wonder about the executive's messaging - easing some restrictions at a time when doctors have been calling for "breathing space", to keep the rate of infection as low as possible in the run-up to Christmas.

A number of DUP backbench MLAs have previously vocally opposed the coronavirus regulations agreed by the power-sharing executive, which the DUP jointly leads with Sinn Féin.

Earlier, the executive was accused by DUP MLA Paul Frew of "letting businesses down by the hour" by delaying a decision on extending coronavirus restrictions.

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Hair and beauty salons had to shut for four weeks on 16 October

Mr Frew, who has openly criticised his party's decision-making on the coronavirus regulations before, told the assembly on Tuesday that the delay in announcing a decision was "unbelievable".

"This is a tremendously harsh time for businesses and yet this executive is causing an act of vandalism to those businesses," he said during a debate on the Budget Bill.

"It is a shameful position to be in.

"It is an act of vandalism to not be able to tell a business on the Tuesday that they can open up for sure on the Friday, that they can fill up their fridge, bring in their stock and pay their supply line - it's no way to run a business and no way to run an executive.

"It's an absolute farce we are letting so many people down, who just want to earn a decent living and who provide so much."

Earlier, Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard said he believed the DUP had been "too strident," by suggesting the restrictions would not remain in place longer than four weeks.

"Arlene (Foster) put herself on a hook by saying at an early stage that these restrictions would come to an end before progress was made," he told BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme.

"Good progress is being made, but from our point of view it would be reckless now to throw it all away."

He said there was a case to be made for reopening hair and beauty salons, but that restrictions on hospitality should remain in place for another fortnight, as health officials initially recommended.

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Hair and beauty salons closed on Friday 16 October - it is thought they could reopen with some mitigations

Alison Canney, owner of the Spaghetti Junction restaurant in Londonderry, said they are undecided whether they would reopen at all if a limit or a ban is placed on alcohol sales.

Speaking to BBC Radio Foyle, the Derry business owner said: "It is doable but is it the same? I don't think so.

"People come out to relax and unwind. It's an experience. It's not like alcohol is essential, but people like a glass of wine with an Italian meal."

'Put on their big girl pants'

Hair and beauty salons have also been closed since 16 October.

Beautician Carolyn McCauley said First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill needed to "put on their big girl pants and make decisions".

"At this stage, it's simply not good enough," she said.

"They've had four weeks to make these decisions and now here we are, at the 11th hour, and there's still no decision."

Calls to 'safeguard Christmas'

Michael Cafolla, who runs a large cafe in Newtownards, County Down, called on the executive to "consult with people on the coal face of this industry, look at the evidence and make sure that the evidence backs up the decisions that are made".

Speaking on the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme, he said there had been "no direction, leadership or consistent messaging" for businesses.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party supports extending all of the restrictions for an extra fortnight, to reduce the possibility of further interventions before Christmas.

"We need to look beyond short-term decision making and ensure we achieve a safe Christmas by driving down Covid-19 now," he said.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said the executive "absolutely does need" to take a decision on Tuesday.

"It would be wrong if the clock was allowed to run down on this and we saw the restrictions almost disappearing by default," he said.