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Variant B117

Arlene Foster speaks to Micheál Martin about his 'wholly incorrect' comments on NI testing for UK variant

The Taoiseach had stated over the weekend that “the north isn’t testing for the variant”.

LAST UPDATE | 25 Jan 2021

FIRST MINISTER OF Northern Ireland Arlene Foster has spoken with Taoiseach Micheál Martin, after he claimed that the North was not testing for the UK variant of the coronavirus.

The Northern Ireland Department of Health said earlier that these claims made by the Taoiseach were “wholly incorrect”.

Following a call this afternoon, Foster said that Martin accepted that the North is testing for the UK variant. Foster also said that testing for SARS-CoV-2 variants in the UK “is massively more advanced” than in Ireland. 

Foster also said that she pressed the Taoiseach on sharing travel-locator forms, which would help inform the Stormont Executive on whether people were travelling into Dublin and up to Northern Ireland.

The DUP has been asking for this information for nine months, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said earlier.

Foster said that the Taoiseach “committed to movement soon on that issue”.

Geonome sequencing

The NI Department of Health released an update last night on its “ongoing work” on the identification of new variants, saying the update was in response to “some misleading commentary in recent days”.

The detailed statement outlined that genome sequencing has been in place in NI “from an early stage of this pandemic” and that the prevalence of the B.1.1.7 variant, otherwise known as the UK variant, is also monitored via PCR testing.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s Brendan O’Connor programme on Saturday, the Taoiseach had spoken about the problem of mandatory quarantine in the context of the “seamless interactivity” between the UK and Ireland.

He specifically mentioned Northern Ireland as being an issue and questioned its testing for the UK variant:

The north is a difficulty, my understanding is that the north isn’t testing for the variant and I’ve discussed this with northern leaders and their view is that the variant doesn’t appear to be as big an issue in the north, which is just not, I can’t understand that. So the north is an issue in terms of sealing the entire border.

In its statement, the NI Department of Health said its virologists are “part of the COG-UK Consortium, which is carrying out 40% of all global whole genome sequencing”.

The department also said that it submissions to the international repository genome sequences “compares favourably with other countries”.

“To suggest that NI is inactive in this field would be wholly incorrect – and is unfair to the dedicated, expert local staff working intensively in this area. Work is ongoing in relation to increasing the level of publicly available data on the ‘B.1.1.7 variant’ in NI,” the statement said.

The DUP’s Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley said that the Taoiseach’s comments “tarnished the good name of our public health workers who are leading on this front. He should apologise and correct the record”.

Mandatory quarantine

The question of mandatory quarantine for people travelling into the Republic of Ireland is set to be discussed by the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 today

Some ministers have raised concerns about mandatory quarantine; Tánaiste Leo Varadkar argued in the Dáil last week that many of the travellers are essential workers.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said on RTÉ Radio this morning that the measure wasn’t “draconian”, and criticised the government for not taking action sooner.

- With reporting by Gráinne Ní Aodha

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