Stormont minister Edwin Poots has denied linking the spread of Covid-19 to religion, accusing rivals of “twisting and distorting” his comments on infection rates in nationalist areas.

The DUP Agriculture Minister was accused of sectarianism last week after he claimed the virus was more rife in nationalist areas than unionist ones by a factor of six to one.

Mr Poots claimed the disparity was a result of behaviours influenced by Sinn Fein’s “poor political leadership” when senior members attended the funeral of IRA veteran Bobby Storey in apparent contravention of Stormont’s rules on mass gatherings.

Five days after the furore erupted, the Lagan Valley Assembly member issued a statement on Wednesday expressing deep regret that a “narrative has been created” suggesting he was linking the spread of Covid-19 to religion.

Bobby Storey funeral
Mr Poots criticised the attendance of Sinn Fein leaders Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald at the Bobby Storey funeral (Liam McBurney/PA).

DUP First Minister Arlene Foster said her colleague was right to “clarify” his comments and said she now considered the matter closed.

In his statement, Mr Poots said: “Over the course of the last few days Sinn Fein and others have tried to distort and twist comments I made in reference to the spread of Covid-19.

“At no time did I attribute the spread of Covid-19 to religion. It is deeply regrettable that such a narrative has been created.

“It is obvious such spread is related to behavioural issues, nothing more nothing less.

“I cherish my Catholic friends and neighbours. I would never intentionally use words that would cause them offence.

“Covid-19 is spread by bad behaviour such as that exemplified at the Bobby Storey funeral.”

Mrs Foster welcomed the statement.

“I think it was right that he clarified what he had to say,” she said.

“And I stand by that and I think it’s right that he did do that.”

Coronavirus – Tue Sep 22, 2020
First Minister Arlene Foster welcomed Mr Poots’ statement (David Young/PA).

The First Minister added: “The clarity is there in the statement. As far as I’m concerned that’s an end of the matter.

“It’s important that we keep our heads, there’s a lot of things happening at the moment, but it’s also important that we all move forward and look at the bigger picture.

“Of course, the virus doesn’t discriminate against people on the basis of their religion or their politics or where they live. It’s right across Northern Ireland.

“It’s right across the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, it’s right across the world. So we need to step in now and take the right decisions to deal with it.”