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Northern Ireland parties call for emergency meeting over new coronavirus strain

Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party and the SDLP issued a joint request for ministers to meet.

Image: PA

FOUR OF THE FIVE five power-sharing parties in Northern Ireland are calling for an emergency meeting of the Executive to discuss the new strain of Covid-19 found in England.

Government ministers from Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party and the SDLP issued a joint request for an Executive meeting to be held on Sunday.

In a letter seen by PA news agency, Minister for Justice Naomi Long, Minister for Finance Conor Murphy and Minister for Infrastructure Nichola Mallon raised concerns about the more infectious coronavirus variant found in England. 

It is understood that Minister for Health Robin Swann, from the UUP, has also written to First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill calling for an urgent meeting.

It remains unclear whether the DUP has agreed.

“The speed and scale of the virus transmission spread and the fact that it is so fast-moving is a cause for alarm to us all,” the parties said in a joint letter.

“While our Executive met last Thursday and moved to take decisions ahead of others, it would be prudent for the full Executive to be briefed by the Minister of Heath and the chief medical officer and chief scientific officer at the earliest opportunity.

“We must satisfy ourselves that our regulations and restrictions over the Christmas period and those agreed over the coming six-week period are sufficiently robust enough to safeguard public health in the context of these latest developments.

“On this basis we are writing to request that a remote meeting of the Executive Committee is convened today, Sunday 20 December.” 

The joint plea comes after people in Northern Ireland were urged to keep their Christmas bubbles as small as possible and to consider forming them for December 25 only amid an “aggressive new strain” of Covid-19.

The first and deputy first ministers and Mr Swann met with chief medical officer Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young on Saturday as rules were tightened in other parts of the UK.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson effectively cancelled Christmas for millions of people across London and south-east England after scientists said a new coronavirus variant is spreading more rapidly.

Ms O’Neill said on Saturday: “Christmas bubbling arrangements are in place for those who feel they need to come together.

“If you must avail of them, then please consider doing so for one day only, Christmas Day.

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“Keep your bubble as small as possible and meet for the shortest amount of time you can.

“We are clearly very worried about the Covid-19 situation that is unfolding. The speed at which this variant strain of the virus is spreading is deeply concerning. 

Earler today, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health confirmed another 13 people with Covid-19 had died in a 24-hour period, bringing the death toll to 1,196.

A further 505 new cases of the virus were also reported in the region.

There were 421 patients with Covid-19 in hospitals, including 30 in ICU. 

Foster said: “Progression of a new variant strain of Covid-19 in England is concerning, and a reminder to us all to be on our guard to the dangers of the virus.

“The Executive has already taken significant action earlier this week in advance of other regions. It is incumbent on us all to do what we can to minimise the risks of Coronavirus spreading. We ask everyone to think carefully about all their actions and follow the public health advice rigorously.”

The Northern Ireland Executive decided last week to impose a six-week lockdown from 26 December.

But, under current plans, up to three households will be allowed to congregate together in “social bubbles” between 23 and 27 December, unlike the rest of the UK.

The first week of the measures will see the toughest lockdown yet in Northern Ireland, with a form of curfew in operation from 8pm, shops closed from that time and all indoor and outdoor gatherings prohibited until 6am.

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