Varadkar: Irish government and NI Executive share same goal

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By Aine McMahon, PA

The Irish Premier said his Government and the Northern Ireland Executive share the same goal on tackling Covid-19 but they differ on timing.

Leo Varadkar has said Covid-19 is an illness "that knows no borders" as administrations on either side of the border follow different strategies.

Mr Varadkar said: "This virus knows no borders, no nationality. It is a problem for all of us. Our response to it is made more difficult as we do have two jurisdictions on this island."

There are more than 100 cases of Covid-19 on the island of Ireland but differences have emerged as schools in the Republic have closed and public gatherings have been curtailed.

Northern Ireland's administration has not introduced the same measures, although Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said schools should be shut.

Mr Varadkar said: "There will be differences of approach over the next few weeks and months, we are different jurisdictions and there are differences and there will be differences, but the differences that exist are mostly around timing.

"What there isn't any difference about is our common objective, which is to slow down this virus in its tracks and push it back as much as possible and limit the harm to human health and human life."

It comes as Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir has insisted it remains the wrong time to close schools in Northern Ireland.

Mr Weir was responding after the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, wrote to urge him to consider closing schools and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said schools should close.

Speaking in Armagh on Saturday, Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster said schools in Northern Ireland will close when "the timing is right" and parents should prepare as they may close for several months.

She said: "We will take that action when it is the right time to do it. There are two different jurisdictions on this island.

"Schools will not be closed immediately but schools and parents should prepare because when they do they will close for at least 16 weeks."

When asked about the different approaches being taken on the island, she said: "In terms of the co-operation I don't think the co-operation could be any better between our chief medical officers, between our ministers of health and between the Government of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive."

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill repeated a call she made on Friday that Northern Ireland should follow the Republic's lead and close schools.

She said: "People are taking decisions in advance of government and my own personal opinion is that schools should close now.

"I think the fact that you can have two schools a mile apart and one school's open and one school's closed, that's a very confusing picture and a very confusing message for the public."

Mrs Foster said both governments had "very coherent messages" and that Stormont is taking advice from the Public Health Agency and the chief medical officer on when was the appropriate time to shut schools.

"There are two different jurisdictions on this island and we may do things differently in terms of timing, but the tools are all the same in terms of what we are going to do to try and combat this virus," she said.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald, who was not at the meeting, said the UK's response to coronavirus "should be rejected" and is "totally unacceptable in the north of Ireland".

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