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DUP minister says he never tried to attribute Covid-19 spread to religion after nationalist/unionist comments

Edwin Poots has accused Sinn Féin of trying to “distort and twist” his comments.

DUP MLA Edwin Poots
DUP MLA Edwin Poots
Image: Liam McBurney/PA Images

A DUP MINISTER has said he never made any attempt to “attribute the spread of Covid-19″ to religion, after controversial comments over the difference between the spread of the virus in nationalist and unionist areas.

Last week, Stormont agriculture minister Edwin Poots claimed that the virus was more rife in nationalist areas than unionist areas by a factor of six to one.

Poots suggested coronavirus had increased among nationalists at a higher rate because behaviours had been influenced by “poor political leadership” shown by Sinn Fein leaders when they attended June’s funeral of IRA veteran Bobby Storey in Belfast in apparent contravention of Stormont’s rules on mass gatherings.

His claim has been dismissed by the North’s health minister and chief medical officer. 

Northern Ireland CMO Dr Michael McBride said yesterday: “Certainly at no stage would we have either publicly or privately suggested that there’s a link between the transmission rates of Covid-19 and people’s political affiliation or religion.

“There is no such evidence, we don’t have that evidence and our approach throughout all this has been guided by the evidence.”

He added: “I know of no such evidence and I’m not sure of the basis of those comments.”

In a statement today, Poots accused Sinn Fein of trying to “distort and twist” comments he made about the spread of Covid-19 in nationalist areas, insisting he never linked the issue to religion.

Poots said: “Over the course of the last few days Sinn Fein and others have tried to distort and twist comments I made in reference to the spread of Covid-19.

“At no time did I attribute the spread of Covid-19 to religion. It is deeply regrettable that such a narrative has been created. It is obvious such spread is related to behavioural issues – nothing more, nothing less.

“I cherish my Catholic friends and neighbours. I would never intentionally use words that would cause them offence.

“Covid-19 is spread by bad behaviour such as that exemplified at the Bobby Storey funeral.”

Covid-19 in Northern Ireland

It’s believed that the effects of the new restrictions introduced across the six counties aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus won’t be seen until next week, but there are already “positive signs” that the spread may be starting to slow.

Schools are currently closed in the North until the beginning of November, while bars and restaurants are also shut. 

There was further controversy for the Stormont executive last night after it emerged ministers were advised that the closure of a range of businesses would have a low impact on infection rates.

The assessment on the closure of hairdressers and beauticians is contained in a scientific paper that guided the Executive’s recent decisions on the introduction of a four-week circuit-break for the region.

It was published yesterday evening as part of an initiative by the Department of Health to increase transparency around the decision-making process.

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The paper listed a range of actions available to ministers, setting out the impact of each both on transmission rates and on wider society.

The impact was quantified in terms of the potential reduction in the crucial reproduction number (R number), which is the average number of people an infected person infects.

Ministers are endeavouring to reduce the R number to below one.

Last week, close contact services such as hairdressers and beauticians were among a range of businesses required to close for four weeks.

The Executive paper said the move would have a low impact on Covid-19 transmission, with a potential reduction in the R number by 0.05.

However, the paper said the closures would have a high social and economic impact, warning it would disproportionately affect low-income workers and women.

Other steps that would have had a greater projected impact on the R number – such as the closure of churches (estimated reduction of R by 0.1) – were not taken by the Executive.

The paper said current closure of bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants was likely to have a “moderate impact”, reducing R by between 0.1 and 0.2.

 With reporting from PA

About the author:

Sean Murray

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