The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Steve Aiken has described Covid-19 as an “equal opportunities killer” after DUP agriculture Minister Edwin Poots claimed the incidence of the virus was far higher in nationalist areas than it was in unionist ones.
Five deaths from Covid-19 were recorded in Northern Ireland on Sunday, along with a further 1,012 new cases.
With the incidence of coronavirus now regularly running at more than 1,000 cases a day in the North, Mr Aiken said Mr Poots should consider his position as Minister for “undermining” the Northern Executive’s collective response to the pandemic.
On Friday, Mr Poots gave interviews to the BBC and UTV in which he expressed “grave reservations” about the new Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the Northern Executive of which he is a member.
This was on the same day that the North’s five Executive party leaders, including DUP First Minister Arlene Foster, issued a statement “appealing to everyone to please get behind this effort to fight back against Covid-19 and save lives”.
Mr Poots, in addition to voicing reservations about decision-making over business and school closures, also said that “a lot of the problems started” after the funeral of leading republican Bobby Storey in west Belfast in June. This led to allegations that Sinn Féin had breached the rules on crowds and social distancing, which the party continues to deny.
“People in that community saw the breaking of the rules. That is why there is a difference between nationalist and unionist areas, and the difference is around six to one,” said Mr Poots.
He also was accused of targeting the GAA community when he referred to certain sporting activities and post match celebrations. Asked was he referring to the GAA, he said that he was “not labelling one particular group of people, but if people feel the cap fits, that’s up to them”.
The Department of Health figures do show that in the mainly nationalist area of Derry and Strabane the incidence rate is far higher than in the 10 other council areas in Northern Ireland.
Over the past seven days, Derry and Strabane experienced 845 cases per 100,000 of the population compared to the next highest area of Belfast where the rate is 523 cases per 100,000.
But generally whether such a conclusion can be drawn across the North is open to question. For instance in Newry, Mourne and Down, which is predominantly nationalist, the virus rate is 331 cases per 100,000 which compares with the mainly unionist Lisburn and Castlereagh area where the rate is 333 cases per 100,000.
The lowest rate of infection is in the mainly unionist area of Mid and East Antrim – 157 cases per 100,000. But also relatively low is the mainly nationalist Fermanagh and Omagh council area where the rate is 223 cases per 100,000.
The SDLP, UUP, Alliance and Sinn Féin parties accused Mr Poots of undermining the collective message from the Executive with Sinn Féin MLA Emma Sheerin saying the Minister was “trying to politicise and sectarianise the issue”.
UUP leader Steve Aiken said Mr Poots should consider his position, a view he repeated on BBC’s Inside Politics programme on Sunday.
Asked about Mr Poots’ comment about the virus being higher in nationalist areas Mr Aiken said: “I don’t think the virus recognises post codes, it doesn’t recognise gender, it doesn’t recognise religions, it doesn’t recognise political affiliation. Coronavirus is an equal opportunities killer.”
The DUP education Minister Peter Weir on the same programme said people had “a right to express their opinions” , claiming there was no doubt that the Bobby Storey funeral “led to a drop in compliance” with the Covid-19 regulations.
Sunday’s figures brought the Northern Ireland death toll to 615. On Saturday there were 1,031 positive cases and two deaths in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland has now recorded 27,220 confirmed cases of Covid, with 7,090 of them in the past seven days, an average of more than 1,000 daily cases in the past week.
There are 228 patients in Northern Ireland hospitals receiving Covid treatment with 30 of them in intensive care units and 23 on ventilators.
Meanwhile, PSNI made a number of arrests and issued fines at an anti-lockdown protest that was held at Stormont on Sunday afternoon. The crowd were demonstrating against the Covid regulations including mask-wearing.
PSNI assistant chief constable Alan Todd said more than 300 people took part in the protest. “The numbers in attendance and the lack of social distancing in the crowd were in stark contrast with assurances given to police by the organisers in the days leading up to the event,” he said.
“Police engaged with the organisers before and during the protest in an attempt to encourage them to disperse and comply with the health protection regulations,” he added. “Unfortunately both the organisers and participants did not cooperate with these requests and continued in breach of the regulations.”
Mr Todd said officers therefore moved to enforce the regulations resulting in the issue of fixed penalty notices and a number of arrests.
“As I have said previously, in other times, we would work with organisers and protestors to facilitate lawful and peaceful protests. However, these are not ordinary times,” he said.
Mr Todd said everyone has a responsibility to adhere to the rules “to protect our society”.
Also on Sunday, the Northern Ireland Prison Service confirmed that four of its staff at the Hydebank Wood facility for women and young offenders had tested positive for Covid-19.
A further 14 staff who tested negative are self-isolating and two prisoners have also been put into isolation as a precaution.