Health Minister Robin Swann stays silent after UUP leader Doug Beattie attends Protocol protest in Portadown

The Health Minister is remaining tight-lipped over his party leader’s attendance at a large-scale Northern Ireland Protocol protest at the weekend.

Robin Swann has raised concerns about the likes of Van Morrison, Rangers football supporters and the Bobby Storey funeral for damaging efforts to keep Covid-19 under control in Northern Ireland.

However, he has refused to comment on the crowds of up to 800 people who took part in a parade and demonstration against the Northern Ireland Protocol in Portadown at the weekend.

Newly elected UUP leader, Doug Beattie, was one of two unionist politicians who attended the rally, with the DUP’s Carla Lockhart also there.

Mr Beattie has said it was his responsibility to watch proceedings and listen to the views of his constituents and he has also said he adhered to social distancing guidelines throughout.

Ms Lockhart said she was there in her capacity as MP for the area “and a concerned citizen who sees the devastating effects of the Protocol”.

She said the rally was Covid compliant and she did not see anyone breaking coronavirus regulations.

According to the current laws, up to 500 people can attend outdoor gatherings, and spectators and event participants are regarded as two separate gatherings.

The organiser of such a large gathering must carry out a risk assessment beforehand and take all reasonable measures to limit the risk of transmission of the coronavirus.

The PSNI has said around 300 people took part in the processions and an additional 500 attended the protest.

However, footage of the event appears to show numerous people gathering together and not adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Some band members were wearing black balaclavas, while others made the futile gesture of cutting holes in their face coverings.

It comes as health officials are scrambling to stop a surge of the Delta variant — the strain first identified in India — after Sage warned it is likely to become the dominant strain in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Health has been asked to comment twice on the protest in Portadown but has declined on both occasions.

Asked whether the protest amounted to a breach of coronavirus regulations, a spokeswoman said it was a matter for the PSNI.

She also said it is a matter for individual political parties to comment on whether it was appropriate for elected representatives to attend such a large gathering where people were not adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Alliance Party MLA Paula Bradshaw, a member of the Stormont health committee, said: “The most significant issue here is that this was an unnotified and therefore illegal demonstration in a shared space which, entirely predictably, involved the prominent display of paramilitary paraphernalia.

“People may make their own judgement as to the wisdom of anyone travelling to attend or observe such an event.

“No doubt people will also be concerned about the potential public health impact of attendance or observation at such an event given the Health Minister’s own warnings, even in the recent past, about the potential for gatherings on our streets on such a scale to lead to transmission of the virus.

“This is particularly the case at this sensitive period when we are working to stop a setback arising from variants which have emerged recently in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.”

The refusal to comment on Saturday’s protest comes despite the fact Mr Swann has been vocal in his criticism of others he believes have damaged Northern Ireland’s efforts to suppress Covid-19.

In September last year, he took the unlikely step of writing an opinion piece for Rolling Stone magazine in which he was scathing of the singer’s claims about Covid-19, branding three new songs from the artist as “dangerous”.

And in June last year, he said he hoped the crowds of people who attended the Bobby Storey funeral, including a number of leading Sinn Fein politicians, would not have a “Dominic Cummings effect”.

Speaking at a Department of Health press conference, he said: “We are in a position in Northern Ireland where we have zero deaths today, we have zero people in our intensive care units because of the actions of the people of Northern Ireland, so I have a very clear ask.

“Please don’t let this weaken your resolve or your ability to follow the guidance that has got us to the position where we are today.

“Peoples’ actions over the past 14 weeks in Northern Ireland have saved lives, don’t let anybody else’s actions undermine that resolve and a very clear message is, ‘two wrongs do not make a right’.

“The regulations are there for a reason, they are there to save lives and they are there to protect our health and social care service and our healthcare workers, so I ask people to keep with what they have been doing because it has saved lives.”

 

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