By Ashleigh McDonald
A 56-year old woman who drunkenly spat in the face of a key worker during the Covid-19 pandemic was jailed for nine months today.
Pauline Burns, from Donegall Street in Belfast, was told that her actions on April 4 this year caused fear of infection not just to the woman she spat on - who works as a cleaner in a Belfast hospital - but also to the woman's family.
Described in Belfast Crown Court as a woman with a history of alcoholism, Burns admitted a charge of common assault, and appeared at the remote hearing via a videolink with Hydebank.
Judge David McFarland said that whilst spitting into someone's face was a serious matter, anyone who did so during the Covid-19 could expect a "robust penalty"
This, the Judge said, was to act as a deterrent to others and to protect those who "work on the front line providing service and protection to others."
In submissions made by prosecutor Simon Jenkins, it emerged the offence took place two weeks after restrictions were put in place.
At 6pm on Saturday April 4, the mother-of-three had just left her home in west Belfast and was due to deliver food to her father who was self-isolating when she was approached in the street by a drunken Burns.
The two woman knew each other, and after Burns asked the other woman for a hug, due to social distancing she refused.
She then asked Burns politely to keep her distance, but Burns verbally abused her then repeatedly spat on her, which landed on her face and body.
As she was a designated key worker due to her job as a hospital cleaner, she was concerned about being infected with Covid-19 and immediately returned home and showered. She did not contract Covid as a result of the incident.
Burns was arrested at her hostel the following morning, and when interviewed she admitted she had been drunk the day before.
She also admitted that whilst she did know the woman, she could not remember speaking to her, asking her for a hug or spitting repeatedly on her.
It was noted that Burns had 201 previous convictions which included previous assaults. Also noted was her history of alcohol abuse.
During today's sentencing, Judge McFarland said that after being released on bail for the spitting offence in April, Burns "came to police attention a short time later" and was remanded back into custody.
Branding Burns 201-strong criminal record as "appalling", Judge McFarland said her convictions "focus on her disorderly conduct and drunkeness."
The Judge said that after reading defence reports, it was clear Burns has a "difficult" childhood and there was an "extensive history of alcoholism" in her family.
He added: "Her life for the past 15 to 20 years has been a revolving door between prison and hostels."
Judge McFarland said he was giving Burns credit for asking to be sentenced so quickly. He also praised the police and prosecution "for the speed with which they have progressed this case."
As he sentenced Burns to nine months custody, Judge McFarland said: "This incident took place two weeks into the restrictions placed on the community concerning Covid-19, and her actions would have been motivated by an intention to cause fear of serious harm, including the transmission of Covid-19.
"This fear would have extended to infection of the victim's family, given the highly contagious nature of the disease."