Restrictions in NI a step closer as Omicron aid doubled

Fresh Covid restrictions took another step closer yesterday after the Government doubled Northern Ireland’s funding to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant.

After the £75m offered to Stormont last week was widely criticised as too little, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said yesterday’s £150m boost for Northern Ireland and funding for the other devolved countries was to ensure people were supported “in the face of this serious health crisis”.

Executive ministers are involved in ongoing discussions about the situation ahead of a formal meeting on Wednesday, when it is expected new restrictions to be applied after Christmas will be announced.

First Minister Paul Givan had asked Boris Johnson on Friday for more economic support in response to cases rising. The DUP man had previously stated that Stormont cannot afford another lockdown.

But one leading business voice said he feared even £150m “doesn’t go very far” in the event of a major lockdown. Aodhán Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, said that “£150m wont go very far” if that is the case.

“If there are further restrictions, we will need to be able to ensure that retailers will be able to continue to pay their staff and before any decisions are made by the Executive to support retailers and their staff,” he said.

“What we really need is to have a plan in place if there are going to be closures, as to how retailers are going to come out the other side — £150m doesn’t go very far. We need to know what the future restrictions are going to be.

“One of the biggest complaints that businesses have is that decisions are made and then we’re told about it, and then we have to try and work around it. What we need to be doing, even if it is over the Christmas period, is that the Executive needs to be talking to businesses to understand that their decisions don’t happen in a vacuum and that they have consequences.”

He was speaking after Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill warned that Omicron would hit Northern Ireland “like a ton of bricks”, with a worst-case scenario of 30,000 cases a day. She said the Executive would look at “all options” in terms of introducing new restrictions, as the booster programme would not be enough and “we will need a significant intervention alongside that”, adding: “Everything is on the table.”

She said: “We are continuing to work around the clock with public health officials to understand the impact because there are things that we currently know, but there are also things that we do not know. In terms of what we know, we know that this is going to hit us like a ton of bricks.

“We know that by the end of the year this will be the dominant strain of Covid, we know that we will peak in the middle of January, we know it is going to spread rapidly.”

A Department of Finance spokesperson reiterated that £50m of the £150m is not new money, as it was “funding already expected and factored into our plans”.

“The additional funding also comes with the caveat that some may need to be repaid. The Finance Minister will continue to call for Treasury to guarantee that additional funding comes without the caveat of possible repayment,” they said.

Yesterday, officials said a further two patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 had died in Northern Ireland. Another 1,798 cases of the virus were also notified by the Department of Health on Sunday.

One leading doctor has accused the Executive of being “too slow and reactive” in its response to the emerging Omicron crisis. Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) in NI said the Executive needed to be “on the front foot” now and not wait until later in the week to discuss new restrictions.

He said that up to 50,000 health workers throughout the UK could be absent from work through ill health or self-isolation and that the numbers could be over 1,000 in Northern Ireland. “The Executive needs to be more on the front foot, making proactive decisions. We are now entering the worst phase throughout this pandemic,” he said.

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