O’Neill urges cautious approach to further easing of restrictions after admitting virus ‘floored her’

Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister has urged a cautious approach to further lockdown relaxations amid high Covid rates and pressures on the health service.

Michelle O’Neill returned to Stormont on Monday following her own battle with the virus which she described as having “floored her”.

She said Thursday’s meeting of the Executive was an “important” one and would look at pandemic planning for the winter.

The Sinn Fein vice president said she would advocate a cautious approach to easing further restrictions, adding that it was “unhelpful” for DUP ministers to take “solo runs” discussing dates which had not been discussed by the Executive.

“Clearly we are experiencing very high levels of Covid, a very difficult time for the health service. Healthcare staff are stretched to full capacity and really exhausted after the last 18 months, and they continue to really feel that pressure,” she said.

“I think the Executive on Thursday will have to look at where we are now, have to look about planning for the winter and what’s going to be a very uncertain period, I think, over the winter months.

“We have to take decisions, I believe we need to be cautious, we need to make progress, of course, but we need to move very cautiously as we go through the next number of months if we’re going to protect not only ourselves, our loved ones.

“It’s not just in terms of the Covid crisis and the pressure in our hospitals, it’s the knock-on impact that it has across our health service for those patients requiring treatment for many other conditions.

“That is all a very challenging picture.”

DUP Economy Minister Gordon Lyons had expressed hope that all remaining coronavirus restrictions could be lifted by October 22.

Ms O’Neill said she had “always advocated the cautious approach”.

“That we take things very steady, when we’re able to make easements, we have to measure those easements,” she said.

“It’s very clear the winter months ahead are going to be difficult. It’s already a difficult picture within the health service.

“I think it’s very unhelpful for DUP ministers to take solo runs in terms of setting out dates that have not been discussed at the Executive.

“What we need on Thursday is that steady, cautious approach.”

She added: “What we need to have is a preventative approach, I have always said that we need to be very honest with the public and say that everything has to remain on the table given the uncertain nature of the pandemic.

“However I want to do everything we can to avoid circuit-breakers, lockdowns whatever you want to call them. So we should do everything in our power. We can do that with simple things, face coverings social distancing … those things will prevent us from having to reach for the more draconian tools.”

Ms O’Neill said she planned to visit a hospital on Tuesday to talk to staff.

“I’m going to visit a hospital in the morning and hear from staff first-hand the pressure that they are under, and I have no doubt their plea will be for a steady, cautious approach from the Executive, and that is something that I will be supporting at the Executive on Thursday, and hope that’s where we end up,” she added.

On Monday, a further five deaths of patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 and 1,020 more cases of the virus were reported in Northern Ireland. There were 379 Covid-19 patients in hospital, with 33 in intensive care.

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