The Stormont executive has again failed to agree new coronavirus restrictions for Northern Ireland as the clock ticks towards the expiry of the current circuit-break.
A third executive meeting in three days broke up tonight without consensus emerging.
Ministers will resume discussions tomorrow, less than 24 hours before regulations lapse, with many businesses in the dark on whether they will be able to open on Friday.
In another day of twists and turns within the five-party coalition, the PA news agency understands that:
- The DUP vetoed a second proposal from health minister Robin Swann to extend the circuit-break measures, this time by one week.
- The other Stormont parties voted down alternative proposals tabled by DUP economy minister Diane Dodds that would have seen a partial reopening of the hospitality sector.
- Alliance justice minister Naomi Long tabled a hybrid proposal that fused Mr Swann's one-week extension with Mrs Dodds's measures being introduced the week after.
No vote has yet been taken on Mrs Long's proposal and it is understood they will form the basis of renewed discussions tomorrow morning.
After the executive meeting, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Féin expressed frustration.
"I know people are frustrated and you're waiting on a decision," she said in a Facebook Live video. "I can tell you, I'm frustrated too."
Ms O'Neill singled out the DUP as the cause of the logjam, accusing it of deploying a veto to block agreement twice in two days in moves she said ran "contrary to the clear and alarming expert health advice".
"Yesterday we were given that stark and unequivocal advice from the chief medical officer (Dr Michael McBride) that more people will die if we do not keep the full restrictions in place," she added.
"All along I have been clear that we support the public health advice. We need to find agreement.
"We need to save lives, to protect the health service. We also need to support our workers, and our families who are struggling right now."
A further eight new Covid-19-linked deaths were announced in Northern Ireland today, with 791 new cases of the virus.
The death toll now stands at 810 while the total number of confirmed infections is 44,493.
Ahead of the meeting today, Mrs Dodds published data suggesting the four-week circuit-break had resulted in a £400 million loss for the local economy.
Divisions at the head of the powersharing administration have been laid bare over recent days as ministers struggle to agree new pandemic response measures.
The DUP had already vetoed a proposal from Mr Swann to extend the current circuit-break by two weeks on Tuesday night, despite the other four executive parties again backing the move.
On Wednesday, Mr Swann suggested a one-week extension as a way of buying some time and avoiding the cliff edge of the current regulations lapsing at midnight tomorrow.
The Ulster Unionist minister said it would provide space for ministers to try to develop an agreed approach for the week after.
However, the DUP again vetoed the proposal using a voting mechanism that necessitates any proposal to gain the backing of a majority of nationalist and a majority of unionist executive members.
It has left the DUP in the unusual position of using cross-community provisions against proposals tabled by a fellow unionist.
The DUP and Sinn Féin, which jointly lead the administration, are at loggerheads over the Covid-19 response.
The DUP has accused Sinn Féin of backtracking on an apparent pledge to endorse the partial reopening of hospitality, such as cafes and restaurants.
DUP sources believe Sinn Féin's Dublin powerbase intervened and forced a change in direction north of the border.
DUP First Minister Arlene Foster said her partners-in-government had to explain why they had changed position.
Mrs Foster pointed to a Sunday media interview in which Michelle O'Neill said the executive is looking at ways of opening up businesses.
"She (Ms O'Neill) advocated a wide range of relaxations, she said she was proposing that to the executive and I think it is a matter for Sinn Féin as to why [despite the fact there has been no change in the medical advice, none whatsoever] they are now in a completely different scenario," she told the BBC.
The claims have been robustly rejected by Sinn Féin, with the party insisting it was acting in line with medical and scientific advice.