By Rebecca Black, PA
Covid-19 is “no joking matter”, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has warned after a tweet by one of his party colleagues.
Mr Donaldson was speaking as the Stormont Executive issued a joint statement urging the public to redouble their efforts to stem the spread of the virus.
Ministers were briefed by medical and scientific advisers at their meeting on Thursday, and described the emergence of the Omicron variant as a “serious and concerning development worldwide”, but stressed “there is no need for alarm”.
They said no cases of the variant have been detected in Northern Ireland, but added that is likely to change in the coming days.
“It is vitally important that everyone redoubles their efforts to drive infection rates down,” they said.
“The evidence on the new variant is being very closely monitored. And our public health experts will continue to liaise with colleagues in other jurisdictions as the situation develops globally and locally.”
Ministers added that their priority remains keeping children and young people in school.
“We will continue to work with all concerned to keep our schools open and safe,” they said.
Earlier Mr Donaldson said he will speak with party colleagues over public health messaging on the coronavirus pandemic.
His party has been accused of sending mixed messages, but Mr Donaldson insisted his party’s position is clear: to follow public health advice and to encourage others to do so.
Three DUP MPs earlier this week voted in the House of Commons against mandatory mask wearing indoors in England.
Sammy Wilson has also been criticised for describing Omicron as mild, and for a tweet opposing further restrictions.
Ding dong merrily on high will be replaced this Christmas by ping-dong miserably we sigh.
I will vote against new restrictions in Parliament today.
They are not proportionate to deal with the spread of the mild omicron variant.
— Sammy Wilson MP (@eastantrimmp) November 30, 2021
Mr Donaldson said the vote on the restrictions in England was not whipped.
He told reporters during a visit to Greater Shankill Community Council in west Belfast: “I am very clear what the DUP’s position is on this: we encourage people to wear face coverings.
“I have been in meetings today, I have been wearing my face covering in all of those meetings, and when I engage with others. We encourage people to go and have their vaccination, get their booster.
“It’s important that we all play our part, whether that’s in the public messaging or following the public health guidance that is there to help all of us, and that is what we must be doing and that is what the DUP will be focused on.
“I will be speaking to my colleagues. I am very clear, I want all of my colleagues to follow the guidance, the public health advice and to encourage others to do likewise.
“We don’t yet know enough about the Omicron variant to be sure what it means.
“Yes, we have heard from the World Health Organisation that it may be a milder variant, but it affects people in different ways – people with underlying medical conditions can be impacted very seriously by Covid, and therefore we need to understand better what this variant means, and it is vital that we continue to follow the public health guidance.”
The DUP leader was asked about Mr Wilson’s tweet, which read: “Ding dong merrily on high will be replaced this Christmas by ping-dong miserably we sigh. I will vote against new restrictions in Parliament today. They are not proportionate to deal with the spread of the mild omicron variant.”
Mr Donaldson responded: “Covid is no joking matter. People have died from Covid, that is clear, and I think it is incumbent upon all public representatives to support public health messaging to ensure that we all take the steps that are necessary to protect ourselves and each other, that we get vaccinated, that we get our booster jabs.
“All of this is essential to ease the pressure on the health service this winter and ensure that we get through this winter without lockdowns, without people being out of work, with our schools remaining open.
“This is crucially important and I am clear, as leader of the DUP, we support the public health guidance, we want people to follow that public health guidance.
“We want people to get their vaccinations so that we can all work together to get through this, and to see Northern Ireland to the other side of this winter in a strong place, with people at work, people at school and people healthy and well.”
A further two deaths of patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 and another 2,272 cases were reported in the North on Thursday.
There were 324 Covid-positive patients in the region's hospitals, with 30 in intensive care.