Draconian movement restrictions needed to tackle COVID-19

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Image - David Young PA, @DavidYoungPA

By David Young and Cate McCurry, PA

Draconian restrictions on movement will be introduced in Northern Ireland within days, the region's Health Minister has said.

Robin Swann said the measures were required because "selfish" people continued to ignore social distancing guidance.

First Minister Arlene Foster said the powersharing executive would not hesitate to introduce a "lock-down", working in conjunction with police, if that is what health experts advised.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said it was no longer a matter of "if" restrictions are required; it was just a question of "when" they would be imposed. She also acknowledged the measures would be "draconian".

Mr Swann has already warned that 15,000 people could die in the region if steps are not taken to limit the spread of Covid 19.

He confirmed the imminent introduction of restrictions as another 20 cases were announced in the region. There are now 148 confirmed diagnoses in Northern Ireland, with two people having died.

Emergency powers passing through Westminster on Monday are expected to be formally introduced in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, after MLAs vote on a legislative consent motion tabled by Mr Swann.

The minister said while some further preparations would be required before the powers were used, he did expect to see them rolled out this week.

"When we see the response of some people in the general public it's what's actually needed here in Northern Ireland, and we'll have to enforce that," he said.

"Those draconian measures will save lives - it's as simple as that.

"This isn't something we can wait weeks on, this isn't something that we will wait many days on. These are measures that if we use now, use constructively, we can really have an impact here on Northern Ireland and save lives."

Ulster Unionist Mr Swann said the death toll in Northern Ireland could "rapidly dwarf" the numbers who lost their lives during the Troubles.

Asked to react to images of people gathering in large numbers in public places over the weekend, Mr Swann replied: "I couldn't fathom the selfishness of those individuals.

"Those people who don't see social distancing as their responsibility they're selfish, and they will put enormous pressure on our health service, if not end the lives of their loved ones."

Later on Monday, Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill addressed the issue at their daily Covid-19 press conference.

The First Minister did not give a time-frame for implementing restrictions, but warned: "We will take the legislative powers and we will use it when it's appropriate and proportionate to use those legislative powers.

(First Minister, Arlene Foster during a COVID-19 press conference at Stormont)

"If the public health advice is that we need to use powers to enforce a lock-down then we will do that in conjunction with the Police Service of Northern Ireland."

Mrs Foster said the public should not wait to be forced to act and should instead take responsibility for adhering to the guidance immediately.

"This really is a matter of life or death," she said.

"If people don't follow the guidelines the coronavirus will spread, it will surge and result in a wave of deaths as our hospitals come under intense pressure to deal with the amount of cases coming through their doors."

She referenced the case of Mark McClurg, a 40-year-old pastor from Co Down with no underlying conditions, who is being treated for Covid-19 in intensive care - to highlight the risks to all age groups.

(Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill speaking at a COVID-19 press conference at Stormont)

Ms O'Neill, who earlier broke down in the Assembly chamber as she fielded questions about the crisis, accused those disregarding the social distancing advice of effectively "killing people".

She acknowledged people would be scared about the prospect of a lock-down.

"People should be assured that every single thing that we are doing is about protecting lives and the powers that we seek are quite draconian powers but they are necessary in order to get us through an emergency situation," she said.

"It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when. I think it's important that we communicate this in a sensible way to the public because people will be afraid when they hear the word 'lock-down'.

"So when we move there, and we will have to move there, then we will have to communicate that in a very sensitive way, explaining very well to the public and that's what we are going to do."

Stormont's leaders again urged people not to stockpile food and said progress had been made to secure extra personal protection equipment (PPE) for health care staff.

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