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Sorry, I was just about to say that.
I beg to move
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
Is rún dúshlánach atá os ár gcomhair ar maidin. I move the motion with mixed feelings. Until very recently, I did not think that, as a Minister, I would propose regulations such as these. The regulations are designed to be preventative. They are being put in place to protect people. Ní mór go mbeidh cosaint an phobail mar phríomhchuspóir dúinn go léir. Supporting measures to close businesses and protect people's livelihoods, while restricting mobility, is a necessary cost that we must all pay to get through this health emergency. We must all put the needs of our citizens first. Important as economic reconstruction will be, economic interests at this time cannot take primacy over public health. The ravages of this terrible disease have dictated the need for legislation to close churches and cemeteries and empty our high streets the length and breadth of the island. Over 2,500 of our fellow citizens have been affected, and, tragically, over 200 have lost their life. Families bereaved in the most trying of circumstances are unable to comfort loved ones who are dying or to mourn them as they would wish. Our health and social care colleagues are heroes who risk their lives daily to win the battle against the pandemic. That is why the regulations are a vital necessity: without them, the battle against COVID-19 would be lost.
The regulations were made and came into operation on the 28 March in the knowledge that democratic scrutiny by the Assembly would follow. Glactar go bhfuil scrúdú na rialachán seo an-tábhachtach. It was not a decision taken lightly. Nor do we take today's proceedings lightly. Through scrutiny, the Assembly must satisfy itself that they are necessary, proportionate and sound.
Regarding the content of the regulations, the approach is very similar to that in other jurisdictions. There are three main sets of restrictions. First, many types of business, particularly those with a retail focus, have had to close or change to a takeaway or a delivery-only mode of operation. Secondly, there are restrictions on gatherings of more than two people, other than for exceptions such as funerals or providing emergency assistance. Thirdly and, perhaps, most profoundly, there are restrictions on movement, and no one is allowed to leave home without a lawful purpose. There are provisions for enforcement by the PSNI and penalties ranging up to £5,000 on summary conviction.
I will now clarify some of the things that the regulations do and some of the things that they do not do. First, the regulations do not contain a list of essential businesses; rather, they list businesses that must close and types of businesses that must repurpose. For everything else, the Executive's message is reflected in guidance and communications, and our message is clear: where people can work from home, they must; and, where people must come to work, they must be able to work safely.
The restrictions on citizens' movements are also very tight — some might even say, "draconian" — but, for the most part, the intention of the restrictions has been clearly understood and levels of compliance in society have been good. However, there is one aspect that is worth clarifying, and that is the question of whether it is lawful to drive in order to take exercise. The answer lies in the wording of regulation 5, which refers to "the need ... to take exercise". If someone needs to drive to take exercise, they may do so. The PSNI will apply a test of reasonableness to that. A household that has young children or an elderly relative can drive to the local park to exercise safely, or a person with a disability such as autism who needs to drive or be driven to take regular exercise can do so lawfully. However, a long, leisurely drive to a resort or beauty spot must be off limits for this time.
The delayed scrutiny of the regulations has one benefit: we now have evidence to assess how they are, in fact, working. Crucially, we know the answer to two key questions: are the regulations needed, and do they work? To answer the first question, we must look to the modelling work carried out by the expert group led by Ian Young. The modelling group now expects the peak of the outbreak to be less severe than previously expected, but there are still many difficult weeks and months ahead, right across these islands. We need maximised North/South common approaches adopted as well as on an east-west basis. The progress achieved through the restrictions will be lost very quickly if we relax the restrictions that have helped to achieve this compliance. Teip orainn a bheadh ann dá dtarlódh sin. We would fail ourselves and each other, if we did so at this time. The World Health Organization has warned Governments of the dangers that easing restrictions would raise of the spread of further infection. At all times, we should be guided by international best practice and advice. The regulations are still needed. Ní mór dúinn go léir cloí leis na rialacháin ar bhonn leanúnach.
On the second question, the daily situation reports tell me that the regulations successfully promote social distancing. That compliance is producing tangible results. Confirmed cases and deaths so far are fewer than we feared. The regulations are working, and that credit belongs to all of us who are making sacrifices at this time. Ach bígí cinnte de seo.
There are citizens alive today who would otherwise have died. Consequently, our health service is more than holding its own in this battle. So, yes, the regulations are indeed working.
Aithnítear ualach na n-íobairtí seo. From personal experience, I know very well how much hardship and anguish is being caused to family and friends. The Executive recognise the resulting distress, anxiety and economic harm, but all parties in our power-sharing Government support maintenance of the restrictions at this time. I and Executive colleagues understand how extremely difficult it is that members of our families, individual friends and our community are being denied the solace that moments of reflection at gravesides and places of worship can provide, but that is the price that we must pay because the coronavirus pandemic is an emergency. The fact is that we have not beaten COVID-19. No other interest or priority can take primacy over our public health. There is no room for complacency. We face the possibility of new surges of this pandemic, but, equally, we must be vigilant for mutations of this virus and/or new pandemics. Members, the scourge of lethal pandemics is no longer a reality confined to the outer reaches of Africa or Asia. We are prepared to do all in our power to help businesses, workers and citizens through this. Those efforts will not stop. This battle must be taken forward with a whole-government and a whole-society approach.
This is a very important debate. The regulations require very careful scrutiny. I trust that, having done so, the Assembly will agree with me that they are necessary, proportionate and sound. Dearbhaím do na Comhaltaí anseo go gcoinneofar na rialacháin faoi scrúdú trédhearcach go rialta. I also assure Members that the regulations will be subject to regular reviews, and the second is due by 9 May. There will be ongoing consideration on the potential of the scope for ending any of the individual restrictions where possible. All Ministers in our Executive agree that these restrictions ought not to be removed a single day before it is safe to do so but, equally, that they should not remain a single day more than is necessary. In the meantime, we must continue to give united political and civic leadership. Molaim na rialacháin don Tionól. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
I thank the junior Minister for his statement. The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit in this debate. I advise Members that the Business Committee has agreed that, under the current circumstances, Members are entitled to rise in their place if they wish to be called to speak during this debate and any other debate today. The usual ways of getting your name on the speaking list, informing the Business Office or approaching the top Table, are also valid options for Members to use.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I echo your earlier remarks offering condolences to the families of those who have passed away. I also offer our continued best wishes to our brave and formidable forces in our health service sector, who work tirelessly day and night to help to protect our community and care for them.
The Committee for the Executive Office did not have lead responsibility for the scrutiny of these regulations, but I want to outline the very important link that there is between the role of the Executive Office and that of the Department of Health in the fight against coronavirus. The Coronavirus Act gives the Executive Office powers to make directions to compel the closure of certain premises and to prohibit mass gatherings. However, it also gives the Department of Health powers to make regulations to enforce social distancing on people, and that is what we have before us today. Giving the Executive Office the power to make the directions reflects the cross-cutting, sensitive and far-reaching nature of the measures that we have, and it will help to continue to have these rules and will have a considerable impact on how we live our everyday lives for the foreseeable future.
The deliberate overlap in powers between the Executive Office and the Department of Health allows for directions to be made quickly to deal with the most pressing issues, followed by a more considered development of regulations to deal with ongoing issues. In this case, the regulations impose restrictions on people who are not allowed to leave home without a lawful excuse, on gatherings of more than two people and on businesses. The Health Committee, which has responsibility for the scrutiny of these regulations, considered the statutory rule at a meeting in early April, and I am sure that the Chairperson of the Health Committee will share with us the details of those deliberations.
Due to the timing around the laying of the rule, the Committee for the Executive Office did not have an opportunity to consider the regulations before today. However, the Executive Office provided a comprehensive briefing to outline the background to the making of the regulations and their relationship to the powers of the Executive Office under the Coronavirus Act 2020, and the Committee will consider that at its meeting tomorrow.
I will make the following remarks in my capacity as an MLA. Coronavirus has presented us with massive challenges. Nobody, when they first heard of the virus, could have understood or appreciated the impact that it would have. Certainly, words like "surreal" and "unimaginable" are regularly used to describe the situation that we are in. Who would have thought a few months ago that we would be on lockdown, restricted in what we can and cannot do and in when and where we are able to do these things? The legislation is scary. Ordinarily, it would be bad. It is draconian and anti-human rights, but we are not in normal times. The response to this virus needs to be mammoth, restrictive and even feel at times as though it is anti-democratic, with no normal time to be able to debate or discuss these massive changes to the rules.
The rules are harsh, and, in places, they are somewhat cruel. To cause loved ones to have to die alone, then not permit a funeral, restrict who can attend the burial and then not let the family visit the graveyard is cruelty. However, it is necessary in order to stop the spread of the disease, and that will save lives. It is cruel, but it is necessary.
People are still dying in our communities. The threat from coronavirus is as serious as ever, and if we let our guard down, we will be opening ourselves to the unnecessary loss of loved ones. In recent days, I have certainly seen a lot more movement in our community, and many people are calling for parks, cemeteries and recycling centres to be reopened. Any decision to relax the restrictions that we are operating under or to change the interpretation of those restrictions has to be underpinned by medical and scientific evidence. When Ministers are appearing on radio shows, on television or at press briefings, they need to explain the rationale for those decisions, including any change that there is to medical advice. The Executive must ensure that they appropriately communicate with the community and let people know why things are happening and why things are not happening. If closing recycling centres is saving lives, let us explain that. People will listen to reason, but they need to hear it, and there can be nothing wrong with clarity. Decisions cannot be taken on the basis of simple lobbying; they need to be underpinned by scientific fact.
There also needs to be a road map for us to get out of the clutches of this virus. It is not a tap; it cannot be switched off. It is not seasonal; spring and summer weather will not reduce the impact, and the virus certainly is not going to be going away on its summer holidays. It is here until we manage our way out of it, and that will require the Executive to have a detailed plan, to communicate that plan and to make sure that everybody stays onside with that plan.
I know that people are finding lockdown extremely difficult. I understand those concerns, fears and anxieties, because we are all feeling them, but the cost of loosening the restrictions cannot be the lives of the people whom we care about. In the absence of clear medical advice, we cannot change the guidance because people do not like being cooped up anymore. We all have that feeling but it must be underpinned by the scientific facts.
Successful countries, such as New Zealand, Germany, South Korea and others, have common traits: testing, community tracing and working out who has, who has not and who has had this virus. When we know all of that, we will contain it better. When we get the vaccine, we will control and eradicate the virus, and all the rules and regulations will not be needed any longer. I cannot wait for that day, and I know that many people feel the same, but patience is needed. Sticking to the rules will save lives. It is better for us all to stick to the rules for a while than be one of those family members who loses a loved one and cannot go to the funeral, or worse still, be the one who is being buried. Let us stick to the rules, plan for the way out, communicate it to everyone and be prepared if this should happen again.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, we accept and support these rules but we wish that we did not have to.
Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá ar dtús mar Chathaoirleach an Choiste Sláinte. I would like to start my contribution by expressing my sincere condolences to those who have lost a loved one during this difficult time. I know that is shared by party colleagues and all members of the Health Committee. It is not easy to lose a loved one at any time but it is, perhaps, particularly difficult at this time of social-distancing and lockdown measures.
The Health Committee considered the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations at its meeting on 2 April. The Department advised the Committee that, due to the serious and imminent threat being posed by the incidents and the spread of coronavirus, the Department was unable to submit an SL1 policy proposal, and that, to allow public health measures to be taken, the regulations were made without a draft being laid and approved.
We heard evidence from the Chief Environmental Health Officer in the Department of Health. The Department advised that the regulations cover three main areas: restrictions on businesses permitted to remain open; restrictions on the movement of people; and restrictions on social gatherings. Committee members raised a number of issues, including the importance of comparative information on similar measures in the South of Ireland and effective and ongoing North/South cooperation. I welcomed, in this respect, the memorandum of understanding that has been signed by the Chief Medical Officers, North and South, which aimed, where possible, to ensure cooperation and harmonised messages, and highlighted that cooperation is important to ensure that regulations do not present barriers or blockages in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
Committee members also sought assurances that the regulations would not disrupt the manufacture or supply of essential products and goods, especially medical and other supplies. We were advised that, subject to advice on maintaining social distancing, the rule did not require the closure of manufacturers. We discussed enforcement powers being given to the PSNI and were assured that the police have powers to disperse gatherings.
Concerns were also raised about the safety of employees in businesses that remain open and members asked whether those businesses that fail to put in place social-distancing measures would be required to close. Members flagged concerns that some businesses are reported to be operating without social distancing or PPE. The Committee was advised that it remains the responsibility of business owners to ensure the health and safety of their staff, if their business remains open, and the need for all workplaces to strictly adhere to guidance from the Public Health Agency and the Health and Safety Executive.
Members were further advised that the Health and Safety Executive and the environmental health departments within councils each have responsibility for different aspects of this and that. Complaints may be made to the relevant body. We were also informed, however, that under the rule, only the PSNI are given relevant enforcement powers but that designation of other bodies was under active consideration. I would be grateful for an update from the junior Minister on this matter.
Members raised the important issue of communicating the regulations to ethnic minority communities, for example in the form of leaflets in other languages. The chief environmental officer undertook to feed that back into the system and to act upon it.
Finally, the question of procedures at ports and airports was raised in terms of addressing the risk of further transmission of the virus from cargo or passengers — another issue that has come to prominence recently as flights are carrying seasonal workers from eastern Europe. The Committee was advised that airports would be treated as workplaces when it comes to social-distancing requirements, but I think that questions remain over the approach to individuals arriving on flights from elsewhere.
Due to the urgency of the situation, the Committee was unable to take the views of other Committees with regard to the cross-departmental elements of the regulations, as it would normally do. The Committee therefore agreed to consider only the health aspects of the regulations.
Members acknowledged the unusual nature of the regulations and the restrictions contained therein, but broadly supported the need to implement such measures in the current circumstances. The Committee noted that the regulations provide that the Department of Health must review the need for the restrictions and requirements imposed by the regulations at least every 21 days, with the first review being carried out by 18 April 2020, and that the regulations will cease to have effect after a period of six months.
It is crucial that we learn and implement the lessons from the start of this outbreak. We must do that swiftly to ensure that mistakes are not repeated and to prepare for further phases or surges of this virus. The Health Committee will continue to play its part in that process. The Committee agreed that it was content with the health aspects of the regulations.
I will now add some remarks as Sinn Féin's spokesperson for health. It cannot be said enough that we live in unprecedented times. The scope of the provisions within these regulations shows the extent of the measures deemed necessary to tackle COVID-19. They say that a week is a long time in politics, but it appears to be an absolute age during this pandemic.
There are many parts of the regulations that I could discuss at length, whether it be the make-up of the list of underlying health conditions or the provisions on public gatherings, especially the needed changes around funerals and wakes, which have a special place in our community life in Ireland, both in the towns and, perhaps especially, in rural areas like my own. However, I will focus on the key aspects of the regulations: the powers to restrict movement and travel.
The need to reduce unnecessary travel and social interaction is a key response that is backed up by international evidence from the World Health Organization, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and many others. Restrictions on travel and movement are one of the most noticeable measures to reduce social contact. The WHO indicates that these measures are effective but have a cost. They also lose their benefit if they are not coordinated across the entire island. Effective implementation and coordination across the island is essential, especially as part of a future review of the regulations.
I believe it is worth noting that the measures were already largely observed in the North ahead of the Executive, with many schools effectively closed, events cancelled and families already self-isolating. We are only now starting to see the benefits of that. Essentially these measures are designed to keep the public safe, but they are also — and this is an important point for the public to remember — vital in keeping front-line workers and staff safe. It is brilliant for us to clap for health and social care workers on a Thursday night, and very well deserved, but we are hearing ongoing concerns about access to PPE and difficulties in testing, so one of the best things that the public can do at this time is to stay at home in order to protect and not overburden our health service. I look forward to the time when these measures are no longer necessary, when we have the testing and contact tracing systems in place to do as the global experts say — to test, isolate and trace — but we are not there yet.
In a recently published guidance document, the World Health Organization advises a number of steps that need to be in place to deal with the situation. The first is that transmission is controlled. The second is that capacity is in place to detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact, and that outbreak risks are minimised in special settings like health facilities and nursing homes, about which we are all gravely concerned.
I want to quote a clear message from the WHO guidance that is important to remember:
"To prevail against COVID-19, we need an approach that unites in common cause every individual and community, every business and non-profit, every department of every government, every non-governmental organization, every international organization, and every regional and global governance body, to harness their collective capacity into collective action. Everyone has a crucial role to play in stopping COVID-19".
There is a saying that night is darkest just before the dawn, but let us be very clear: we are not through this yet, and, for that reason, Sinn Féin supports the regulations. Bígí slán uilig ag an am seo. Be safe and take care.
I join other members in the House this morning in offering my sincere condolences to the many families out there who have lost someone that they love dearly. I also join the Chair in his remarks that death at any time is very difficult, but given the numerous restrictions that we have at the moment, it is most certainly an awful lot more difficult at this time. I also offer my heartfelt thanks to all those people in health and social care who are doing an absolutely wonderful job and also those essential workers who, behind the scenes, are carrying out many aspects of daily living in Northern Ireland that go unnoticed, so a massive thank you to them.
I rise to speak on behalf of the Committee for Communities. While the Committee has not formally discussed the regulations, its members have been aware of those aspects that relate directly to the Department for Communities and the nature of my comments as Chair of the Committee.
The restrictions outlined in the regulations undoubtedly curtail the normal activities associated with everyday life. In effect, these regulations put an end, temporarily, to those activities for the majority of people. However, it is reassuring that the people of Northern Ireland have responded with great understanding of the crisis we are in and the actions we must take collectively to emerge from the crisis as soon as we can with as few fatalities as possible.
It is not an understatement to say that adherence to the regulations will save lives, and the Executive have gone to some lengths to emphasise that. However, people need to be reassured that the restrictions in the regulations are not just essential but proportionate and that there are clear criteria and processes in place that will allow for those restrictions to be relaxed at the appropriate time. Therefore, it would be helpful if the Minister would clarify how the process of review takes place and against what criteria. That will be increasingly important as the public health impact of the virus in respect of decreasing infections and deaths appears to decline and the focus turns to restoring greater normality to all aspects of our lives. That will be particularly important to our economy, so we need clarity on the evidence required to support a decision to terminate a restriction or requirement. Perhaps the Minister can shed some light on that.
The economy has been significantly impacted, perhaps none more so than the hospitality industry, which plays a huge role in the wider tourism industry. Indeed, that is evident under schedule 2, which lists the businesses subjected to restrictions or closure. My party colleague the Minister for the Economy has taken decisions to support those businesses and that process is now under way. So, while the regulations are extraordinary in the extent of the restrictions, we should remind ourselves and wider society that the Executive have tried to balance those with support for industry and the individual.
The Committee for Communities also notes regulation 5 — restrictions on movement — which provides a reasonable excuse for a person to leave their place where they are living. The regulations state that a reasonable excuse includes:
"to access critical public services, including— (iii) services provided by the Department for Communities;"
The junior Minister will be aware that those services have been significantly curtailed in order to minimise the need for a person to leave their home, but given the wide range of services provided by the Department for Communities, it would be useful if clarity were provided on what services the Minister had in mind when including that reference in the regulations.
We all look forward to the day when the restrictions and requirements imposed by these regulations are lifted, but it is important, as progress is made towards that goal, that we are cautious, that we do not take action too early and set back the achievements that we as a society have made together.
I thank the Minister for the statement, which offered much-needed clarity on the regulations and some of the rules that apply to them; for example, the circumstances under which it is permissible to drive to a venue for exercise and when it is not. <BR/>However, I think there is still some inconsistency, and I invite the Minister to address, for example, rules on visiting cemeteries.
For some time, I have observed how a supermarket near here has been applying social distancing, beginning with restricting the number of shoppers in the supermarket; making sure that those in a queue maintain social distancing by marking the pavement in two-metre lines; and having a one-way system up and down the aisles. That is all very good, but it is not being enforced, and I do not see how it could be enforced.
What if a shopper is half way down an aisle, turns and goes back because they have forgotten a good? Nobody is saying, "You can't do that". Other people are going down the aisle the wrong way and nobody is preventing that. If a shopper stops to load their trolley, do the shoppers behind them all stop, each two metres apart? No, they overtake, passing each other, on all those occasions, much closer than two metres, and yet we permit that, every hour and every minute of every day, while we do not allow people who are grieving to visit the grave of their loved one. The testimony of those people is heart-wrenching; the impact on their mental health is clear. We say, "Go to a park, because it is good for your physical and mental health", but when it comes to someone who is grieving — the most natural human condition — we say, "I'm sorry", as the Minister said, and I believe I quote him:
"that is a price that we must pay".
I do not think that it is. I know that I could visit my father's grave at Roselawn Cemetery and the Roselawn authorities could ensure that social distancing is maintained in a way that is not maintained in our supermarkets daily, hourly and minute by minute.
While I welcome the Minister's statement, I think that we could do more to be consistent, be empathetic and to recognise our common humanity, and I would welcome his addressing that point.
On behalf of the Alliance Party, I will make a few remarks about the health protection regulations. I support them, though naturally with the reluctance that many of us in a liberal democracy feel. I want to emphasise that the aim is to stay home and stay safe.
The powers conferred allow our Ministers to respond proportionately to deal with all public health aspects of planning for and dealing with COVID-19. They are far-reaching and go beyond what we would normally be comfortable with, but the evidence clearly shows that they are necessary. The regulations are fundamentally about enabling social distancing, and we can say with some certainty that they are starting to work. That demonstrates that the vast majority of people are not only adhering to the rules but are respecting the urgency and severity of this pandemic that we are all living through.
I would, however, like to take a moment to recognise that there are many in our society who are legitimately struggling with the lockdown. I want to make it clear that these regulations are designed to help them. Prime among those struggling are those who are suffering abuse at home — children, women and men — and despite the PSNI, Victim Support and many voluntary organisations standing ready to intervene, communication with the outside world may be virtually impossible. These regulations are about staying at home, but they are also about staying safe. If people are not safe in their home, they are entitled to seek support and to move somewhere safer under regulation 5(2)(m), which clearly states that a reasonable excuse for travel is:
"to escape a risk of harm."
I also want to include in this group children who are being denied access to one of their parents. There is evidence that some people are exploiting the pandemic to frustrate court contact orders.
However, again, the regulations very clearly and very rightly state at section 5(2)(j) that there is a reasonable excuse for travel for:
"children who do not live in the same household as their parents, or one of their parents, to continue existing arrangements for access to, and contact between, parents and children".
Some parents have contacted me — and, I am sure, others in the Chamber — who are in complete despair that their court contact orders are being frustrated. It is essential for children's well-being that the situation is not used as a legitimate mechanism by which to damage loving parent-child relationships.
We should also be aware that the regulations exist in the context of guidance from the Government which allows people with disabilities to travel for the purpose of exercise, as junior Minister Kearney said earlier, where there are specific requirements, including more than once a day. We must also recognise, however, that, for many residents who are still stuck at home, outside exercise is not suitable. They are missing their normal, structured daily activities. Unfortunately, their lives are being so negatively affected during the pandemic. We in the Chamber — I hope that Members will agree with me — give thanks to them and their carers for adhering to the stay-at-home regulations.
Lastly, the regulations are also clear that people should not have to leave home to work except where it is really necessary. Sometimes, that is the case, but even if someone cannot stay at home, they must be able to stay safe. Be they healthcare workers, shop workers or factory workers, their safety must be paramount and relevant adjustments made to their workplace and equipment in order to make that so.
Like others, I look forward to the day when we debate how we step down and move away from these regulations and lockdown. For now, we have to stick with the guidance. It is essential, therefore, that we ensure that the regulations are about both staying home and staying safe. That is our aim for us all.
First and foremost, I want to take the opportunity, like others have done, to express my deepest sympathy to the families of all those who have lost their lives to the coronavirus in recent weeks. To lose a loved one at any time is very difficult. In these circumstances, it is all the more traumatic and difficult to process. It is also appropriate to recognise those who have lost loved ones through conditions that are unrelated to COVID-19, as their grief is no less in these most trying times. Of course, we think of all those who are mourning today. They are in our thoughts and prayers at this time.
The regulations that have been brought in by the Executive have been largely proportionate and justified in the battle that we all face against COVID-19. These are not normal times: these are exceptional times that demand exceptional measures from the Government. The regulations demand much of the people of Northern Ireland. It is very important to state that. They make the trip to Granny's on a Sunday impossible. They close the family business that has been passed down through generations. They make the farewell to a loved one through the normal process of grief — a funeral or wake — impossible for family circles, friends and communities across Northern Ireland. Life has changed for this period, and changed utterly, yet the price is worth paying so that more families are not grieving today and tomorrow, and so that the incredible health service and the heroes who deliver it can save lives. <BR/>I want to commend the people of Northern Ireland for their response to the regulations. In recent weeks, we have seen the collective will of the community to beat COVID-19 by staying at home, practising social distancing and being good neighbours. The response has united people young and old, from the schoolchild who misses their friends and is missing class — or maybe not — to the care home resident who is missing that cherished family visit. We must also commend all those who have kept Northern Ireland moving. I have already mentioned the heroic healthcare workers. I must also pay credit to many others, including retail workers, farmers, postmen and postwomen, refuse collectors, the PSNI, prison officers, and delivery drivers. They are heroes all.
I wish to raise several specific issues on which I would encourage action. Many in the House will know that an issue close to my heart is that of the rights, well-being and care of those living with autism. Lockdown poses huge challenges for those with autism and their families. I urge the Executive to build on last week's initiatives by making clear the regulatory provision that specifically meets the needs of those with autism. I am glad to have received communication from the Department of Health saying that clarity will be given in the coming days.
Another issue that I wish to raise relates to the regulations around funerals. Funerals are a part of the grieving process. As I said earlier, for many, the opportunity to attend a funeral or service of thanksgiving is being denied at this time. That sacrifice is being made. Sadly, we have witnessed a small number of people ignoring the regulations by being part of funeral gatherings that go well beyond what is permitted in the regulations. It is important that the unified voice of the House tells those people that they are not above the law and that they do not have the right to do that which families grieving as a result of COVID-19 have sacrificed. I urge the PSNI to bring to justice those who flout the rules, for everyone's benefit.
While we ought always to have these regulations under review as the situation evolves, they are necessary. Let us continue to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.
From a political perspective, I would never want to introduce such restrictions on people's freedom of movement. However, as many colleagues have stated, we are living in extraordinary times.
On a personal level, as someone with young children — two daughters, aged eight and four — we are involved in the GAA as a family, we enjoy our walks on the beaches and in our parks and forest parks, and the idea of having to continue to stay at home as the evenings get brighter brings many challenges. However, those challenges pale in comparison with the challenges that our healthcare workers currently face, and would face to an even greater extent if we were to relax the restrictions now. We are told that we are in the surge period. Ceasing the restrictions that facilitate social distancing at this time would be, in my view, irresponsible.
The economic challenges that we face as a society will undoubtedly be huge as a result of this global pandemic, and we will need to support workers and business to rebuild in the time ahead. However, we need to keep our eye on the ball. This is a public health crisis, first and foremost. Early, decisive action, as recommended by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and by the World Health Organization, such as closures and the cancellation of sporting and other events, has been effective, but we still face challenges.
We need to increase testing in the community and in vulnerable settings such as care homes. We need to ensure that front-line workers have the PPE that they need to carry out their vital work in a way that protects patients, their families and themselves. We need to carry out proper contact tracing. Test, trace, isolate. The first of three criteria set out by the World Health Organization for lifting the restrictions is that transmission is controlled. The second is that the capacities are in place to detect, test, isolate and treat very case; and to trace every contact. The third is that outbreak risks are minimised in special settings such as health facilities, nursing homes and anywhere where there are groups of vulnerable people. We need to build our capacity to meet World Health Organization criteria before we ease restrictions.
On 12 March, the British Government and Public Health England decided to end all contact tracing, and a similar decision was taken here. Yet the countries that have been most successful at combating this virus used that combination of measures: testing, tracing, isolating and social distancing.
I understand that many feel apprehensive about the severity of the restrictions being placed on society. However, before we begin to ease these restrictions, we have to ensure that we build the capacity to continue to fight this virus. If we do not know where it is through community testing and contact tracing, how are we going to be able to fight it? There have been many commentators — and I am not talking about barroom commentators, or barroom epidemiologists or experts in bars on infectious diseases. I am talking about well-respected experts in their field, such as Gabriel Scally, who has been commentating regularly in the media and is an expert in public health. We need that combination of measures: of testing, widespread community testing and contact tracing, and then, isolation and social distancing. Until then, these restrictions will continue to save lives and that must be everyone's priority.
Like others, it is only appropriate that I begin my paying respects to those who have lost loved ones at this time, both through the tragedy of contracting COVID-19, but also those that have lost loved ones as a result of natural causes at this time. They are being denied the right of the basic grieving process. It is only right that this House recognises that and thinks of them in our deliberations here today.
I also want to put on record my thanks to the medical professionals for the way in which they have dealt with this public health crisis. They are, indeed, a credit to us all. They are a credit to our health service and, as time goes on, we will learn to value that service and those people in a way that is befitting of what we have been through.
I welcome the opportunity today to review these regulations. It is important that this Assembly has the opportunity to debate them, given the quick pace at which they came through the House. There has been limited scope and time for Members to have their say on how this pandemic has unfolded throughout our community, and indeed how these regulations have affected our community. That being said, given the time that we have had, there has been much reflection on what has been successful — the Junior Minister made reference to that — and other areas that perhaps need further work.
I want to focus particularly on three key elements. I listened to the Chair of the Committee for the Executive Office, Mr McGrath, who said that the regulations that are in place are cruel but necessary. While I agree, for a large part, with the sentiment of that, some particular references and restrictions are both cruel and unnecessary, and perhaps, in part, counterproductive.
I talk in broad terms, but I want to cover the scope of mental health and the cause of those who are suffering at this time, which is something that the Assembly has really taken to its heart since its reconstitution and re-establishment. The omission of mental health conditions in the definition of a vulnerable person in the regulations, at 1.(2), is something that gives me great concern. Mr Nesbitt has rightly outlined one of the key restrictions that has had a devastating impact on mental health — and it is something that needs urgent review — namely that of access to graveyards, and particularly urban cemeteries. For many, the most basic form of grieving is to visit the grave, whether that be to place flowers or for quiet times of reflection. For many, it is a private, dignified act of remembrance. I feel that the regulations that are in place are cruel and unnecessary in that regard.
Yes, I will in just in a moment.
I want to bring to Members' attention the recent media reports that talked about an elderly gentleman from County Antrim who wanted the opportunity to go and place flowers on his loved one's grave. She had passed away a year ago, and it was coming up to the anniversary. The gate was locked, so he attempted to climb the fence, impaling himself on the railing as he attempted to place flowers on his loved one's grave.
I am sorry, but I do not see how that regulation is necessary. If we can place and society can place social restriction measures on shops, as has been alluded to, or on walking space, surely to goodness we can place adequate restrictions in a graveyard. Let us remember that people go to visit loved ones at gravesides not for mass gatherings but for quiet times of personal reflection. Yesterday, I had an email on that very issue. It was from a gentleman who, quite briefly, got to the point:
"Please, sir, show some compassion and reopen our cemeteries. I had a bad breakdown last week. I am ready to end it".
That is getting to the point. While we put regulations and restrictions in place to save life — I recognise that in its entirety — we run the grave risk of taking life through the restrictions that we have put in place, if we do not act sensibly.
I thank the Member for giving way. Like others, from my family perspective, I have more immediate family members in a graveyard than out of the graveyard and know its importance. Does the Member accept that we do not want this to become divisive? We are all looking in the same direction, which is to get the cemeteries open. We are all in the vein of looking for that, and we have been stating that it is about getting the scientific evidence to say that it is OK. That could, I feel, be sorted out by today or tomorrow. It is about underpinning. If you start to change rules, people get confused. Scientific evidence is the way forward. If we could get that open, I do not see it taking any great length of time.
I concur with what the Member said about graveyards. I have no doubt that, if Members reflect on the point, there should be unanimity in the House about how we deal with the matter. Let us face it: I take your point about scientific evidence, but, if we have a situation where, for example, off-licences can be open and people can queue in a socially restrictive manner to access that service, common sense alone would tell you that the same rules should apply to a cemetery. That is logic. Nobody should be against the principle, if it is done in the correct manner. Let us face it: those who attend cemeteries do so with the right frame of mind — personal, quiet reflection. I ask the Assembly and the junior Ministers to please take that point on board.
The next point that I will raise is about parks. The junior Minister clarified a point about travel for immediate exercise, and I welcome that clarity. That is important and needed at this time. I want to focus on parks that are in an urban setting. It goes back to my point about being cruel, unnecessary and, in some ways, counterproductive. Those who live in the countryside have access to some beautiful rural roads in fine weather and can walk the roads with less traffic in a quiet, peaceful manner and socially distance, but, for those who live in urban settings, it is quite different. What we now have is people taking to the high street to walk up narrow streets, much closer to one another than if they were able to access the green, open space in their town centres; in this instance, I think of Lurgan Park, for example. I realise that it is the responsibility and remit of the council, but the point stands: while the gates are closed on Lurgan Park, we force people to move in restricted places on our pathways and streets, while closing the open space that could provide them with an opportunity for daily exercise at social distance. My friend Ms Cameron raised a point about autism. I pay tribute to her, because I know that it is issue on which she has lobbied heavily. She has been a champion in the House for those with autism. For children with autism and their parents, having access to urban parks is essential to the mental health not only of the child but of the parent. That point should be taken on board.
Lastly, I want to talk about waste management, because it is an issue that, reflecting on the regulations in place, we need to explore. It deserves further discussion. We have an increase in fly-tipping and an increase in waste lying in our streets and in our backyards. For those who have no access to refuse disposal, we are creating another public health emergency. There is an increase in vermin and in the potential risk to individuals and young people. That is something that the Assembly and Executive really need to bear witness to. It is important to have a unanimity of message across the board. We see now that some councils are adopting a different approach. I go back to the principle that, if council staff or, indeed, any other staff can apply social distancing measures, they should do so.
Those are simple elements of the regulations that I wanted to highlight. Getting back to my litmus test, I feel that a lot of the restrictions have been cruel but necessary. That is without doubt. I welcome them. I voted for this legislation and the restrictions, but I now look in further depth at specific regulations that have been counterproductive. I have highlighted three of them. I appreciate the junior Ministers' time and ask them to reflect on those points.
I speak in favour of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations.
When I last spoke in the Chamber on the regulations, I sent my sympathy to the 10 people who had died across Ireland and the 17,000 who had died across the world. Here we are, only a few weeks later, and I send my deepest sympathy to the 894 people who have died across this island and the 170,000 who have died across the world. Even as we let all that sink in, no-one in the Chamber — I have listened to all the MLAs thus far — is enthusiastic about having to support such restrictions on our society. In normal circumstances, I would speak loudly against such restrictions at every opportunity, in Committee and in the Chamber. Ideally, this is not how we should or would legislate. However, as my opening remarks show, these are not normal times, and extraordinary measures are required to tackle a deadly global pandemic.
The public health crisis has resulted in having to put the economy to sleep in order to save lives. Had the restrictions not been introduced, the human cost at this stage would be greater. We cannot become complacent, and we must listen to the best scientific advice. We should reflect on the advice of the director-general of the World Health Organization last week at the COVID-19 briefing. He set out the criteria for lifting restrictions, and we simply do not meet them yet. We need to continue with the restrictions in order to break the chains of transmission. I commend all those in places like my home town, Derry, who continue to abide by the public health advice and adhere to the restrictions. They have kept the death toll down. Without doubt, a small number all over the North are ignoring the restrictions. They put others in danger. My appeal to all of them is, "Please stop it. Stop it".
This is an incredibly hard time, particularly for our amazing healthcare and front-line workers. They put themselves in harm every day in every way. The best way in which we can show our appreciation is staying at home and respecting the restrictions. It is, however, not the only way we can show our appreciation. This deadly virus has infected every level of society, regardless of age or sex, but the evidence shows a stark reality: we are not all in this together. Low-paid workers such as bus drivers, nurses, agency workers, domiciliary care workers and shelf-stackers are those most likely to become infected, because they are more exposed. The pandemic has shown that many of the lowest-paid workers are society's key workers. They are our front line in responding to the deadly pandemic. Without them, it would be impossible to enact these regulations to save lives. Those workers deserve a fair, decent and enhanced salary; they deserve union representation; and they deserve secure employment. We do not have to wait until all of this is over to give them that and more.
As I said, the measures are draconian but necessary. People accept having their civil liberties stripped away in the expectation that politicians such as us will do everything in their power to save lives. On that note, I have been dealing with a family in Derry: the father is critically ill with COVID-19, the mother has been infected and they have three children. The father is in an ICU. The family sought the life-saving and specialist treatment of an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, a state-of-the-art oxygenation treatment. When I raised the possibility of purchasing a machine for the North, which the family offered to crowdfund, I was told that there was a specialised unit in England that provided the service. I say that in the context of our civil liberties being removed and the expectation that people have of us politicians to save lives. When I challenged how COVID-19 patients could travel on a plane to England with nurses, who would, undoubtedly, get infected en route — the patient would probably die — I got a more substantial reply to confirm that the trust was looking at how people in the North could access that life-saving ECMO treatment in the South of Ireland. Nothing has yet materialised. Whilst it may be too late for that Derry father, it is not too late for others.
Most reasonable people do not understand why, on this island, we do not have an all-Ireland human health strategy to deal with this deadly pandemic, given that we have an all-Ireland animal health and welfare strategy. The pandemic neither knows nor cares about borders. We should trace, track and isolate on an all-island basis. I leave it there.
I thank the junior Minister for moving the motion. I associate myself with the remarks of sympathy that have been made for those who have been bereaved and those who suffer. I also offer our support to our excellent and valued front-line services.
The Minister convincingly described the terms of the regulations and, understandably, outlined some of the frustrations around them. He, then, rightly, reminded us of the fact that those regulations are in place to save lives. Further to that, perhaps, I will reflect a little more on the Chair of the Executive Office Committee's remarks, in which he mentioned the need for consistency of messaging in relation to the regulations and the public health and public safety relevance of that messaging and how we put that out. I want to concentrate on that messaging and the consistency of its delivery across our public services.
It might be possible to find restrictions in every aspect of the regulations that cause difficulty for an individual, for a sector or for a group. If we take, for example, the restrictions laid down by local councils on their services and the difficulties that that creates for ratepayers, we must immediately relate that to consistency of messaging so that ratepayers understand the link between those restrictions to restrictions on movement and the generally accepted, publicly important issue of social distancing. There are signs, at this stage, that social distancing is having an effect, though it is far too early to be confident, let alone complacent, in that regard. We need to be very careful about conversations in the House around the relaxation of regulations.
We have already mentioned cemeteries today. I am very mindful of the sensitivities and the real grief of people in and around that issue. I include in that some Members of the House who have been bereaved recently. That subject was also being broadcast on the airwaves as I travelled here today, so I accept that that is in the news. Access to parks was on the news over the weekend. As we entered the weekend, recycling centres were a news topic. We have to be aware that the mixed messaging that is emanating from those conversations is not conducive to clear guidance. It creates grey areas and uncertainty, and has the potential to put already stretched public services under further pressure.
For those reasons, while I support the motion, I ask that the Ministers who are present take with them today if they can, first, a request for consistency of messaging that is steered, of course, by professional health and scientific advice and, secondly, full explanation, whenever possible and as regularly as possible, as to the reasoning behind the restrictions and the regulations. Thirdly, I ask them to make every effort to ensure consistency in delivery across government and different levels of government and in local government. If that requires liaison with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) or the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) or any other body, so be it. In supporting the motion, I make those requests.
None of us are particularly comfortable with the regulations, nor should we be. They are in the main necessary, though they are not perfect. As time goes on, we will need, proactively, to address the imperfections.
Mr Nesbitt and Mr Buckley have put their finger on one of the most poignant inadequacies in the regulations, which is the quite distressing situation that people are forbidden by law to visit the graves of their loved ones in a cemetery. Mr Buckley pointed out that the regulations preserve the rights of people to go to an off-licence but they prohibit a citizen to go to a graveyard. You can go to the enclosed space of an off-licence, but you cannot go to the open space of a graveyard. How preposterous is that? Yet, that is what these regulations provide for. Graveyards are not the gathering places of large numbers — outside of funerals, which are separately taken care of. They are solitary places where people go, often individually. On the radio this morning, we heard a former Member of the House, Kieran McCarthy, talking about being unable to go to visit the grave of his daughter. They are solitary visits in the main. They are not rowdy, rumbustious situations that get out of hand. They are singular, but they are critical to the grieving process and indeed to the mental health of many. Though, apparently, we have passed the first review of these regulations, they still maintain this outrageous restriction on any member of the public going to the grave of a loved one. If there is any compassion, that needs to be addressed. Yet, we are told that, on Friday, the Executive could not agree on that. My goodness. The junior Minister finished his remarks by talking about united leadership. If we cannot even get leadership on an issue as elementary as that, what hope is there for us?
When I read the regulations, I have a query for the junior Minister, presumably Minister Lyons, to respond to. Within these regulations, who has the authority to change that? I read in regulation 2(3):
"As soon as the Department of Health" — not the Executive Office, the Department of Health —
"considers that any restrictions or requirements set out in these Regulations are no longer necessary to prevent, protect against, control or provide a public health response to the incidence or spread of infection in Northern Ireland with the coronavirus, the Department of Health must publish a direction terminating that restriction or requirement."
The restriction or requirement that I am referring to is that which is found in regulation 4(8), where it says:
"A person who is responsible for a crematorium or burial ground" — and it is burial grounds that I am talking about —
"must ensure that, during the emergency period, the crematorium or burial ground is closed to members of the public, except for funerals or burials."
That is the restriction that is giving the difficulty. If I read regulation 2(3) correctly, the Department of Health could remove that constriction. Can the junior Minister specify whether it is correct that the Department of Health, and therefore the Minister of Health in his own right, could remove the restriction affecting burial grounds in 4(8) and that it does not require Executive permission? If that is so, I urge the Minister of Health to do it and do it now, because it is most grievous to many. If the Minister of Health cannot do it and it requires the Executive, it will be a test of the humanity of that Executive as to whether or not they do it. It really is beyond belief that that restriction exists while you can queue up and mingle in the closed environment of an off-licence or supermarket, but you cannot go to the open environment of a graveyard. That issue really needs to be addressed and to be addressed quickly.
I will make a few other comments. Some parks have reopened, and I do not take issue with that. Again, they are open spaces where social distancing applies. The People's Park, in Ballymena in my constituency, was opened. The throughput has been 15 people an hour. What is wrong with that? Some of the medical experts say that being out in the open air is the best possible provision that you can make for respiratory problems, so why should people not be in parks and why should they not drive to be in a park? I noted that the junior Minister said in his opening statement that there was nothing to stop you driving, within reason, to a park. I hope that the PSNI were listening, and I hope that we will not have a repeat of an Assistant Chief Constable making a fool of himself on the radio by blatantly misinterpreting the regulations. Anyone who reads them would surely know that, in regulation 5, there is no restriction on driving to a park for exercise. It is quite clear:
"For the purposes of paragraph (1), a reasonable excuse includes the need—to obtain basic necessities, including food".
You can walk and you can drive. To take exercise, you can walk or you can drive. To seek medical assistance, you can walk or you can drive, and yet, we have had the folly of a senior police officer telling the public that you cannot drive to take exercise. It does not say that and it does not do anything for public confidence when an Assistant Chief Constable cannot adequately read the regulations, so I am glad that that matter was spelled out today.
Other issues that still require definition and refinement are the important issues related to the opening of manufacturing and other factories. It is still opaque. It is still whatever you want it to mean and it should not be like that. Three weeks ago — more now — the Executive feuded over what factories could be open and what factories could be closed. To try to square that circle, the Economy Minister established a stakeholders' forum. For three weeks, the mountain laboured and, at the end of it, it brought forward a mouse. We are no further forward. Again, take it to mean what you want it to mean, and that is a lamentable failure of the Executive. The junior Minister need not talk about united leadership if Ministers in the Executive cannot agree that if a factory can operate social distancing, it can and should be open. At the end this, we have to have an economy. Therefore, the common sense that is so often missing needs to be applied.
The danger with the regulations is that, in some ways, we get used to their abnormality. They are abnormal restrictions. We must not, as politicians and as a House, get used to them as the norm. We must re-establish the rights of people to go about their daily business as they see fit. We must lift the hand of government from oppressing in that manner. Yes, we must do it when it is safe to do so, but there are some things in here that I, Mr Buckley and Mr Nesbitt have referred to that are utterly oppressive and utterly unnecessary and should be removed forthwith.
We are weeks into this crisis, and it is scandalous, to say the least, that the Executive have only now put out legislative guidelines on which businesses can and cannot open. Once again, the Executive have followed the Tories' snail's pace, waiting for them to act while leaving small businesses and their owners in limbo; allowing big businesses such as Bombardier to do what they like; and, worst of all, putting the lives of workers at risk. So slow have the Executive been to act that we have seen workers forced to walk off the job because of a lack of PPE or a lack of social distancing in place. They were forced to take action because Ministers would not.
I raise the deeply concerning issue of Bombardier in particular. This new law sets fines and provides for potential prosecutions for people in gatherings of more than two. Can we expect that, for forcing non-essential workers to gather en masse, Bombardier will receive hefty fines for putting workers at risk? I doubt it, yet I see nothing in either the Government's specification or in the legislative changes that indicates that building aeroplane parts is an essential service at this time.
Why therefore does Bombardier feel that it is able to announce that it will reopen very soon? Is it the case that a Minister on the Executive has given Bombardier the go-ahead to reopen and designate its work as essential? If that is the case, we urgently need the Executive to come clean. The Minister will be responsible for risking the health of our communities in favour of a quick buck for Bombardier bosses. Much was said about the actions of individuals during the debate, but there was not a single comment about Bombardier.
I want to speak too about construction sites, which have been publicly shamed for opening and forcing workers on-site while the Executive have turned a blind eye. It is shameful that profit margins and the economic interests of bosses here seem to be elevated above the health and needs of our communities. Every day it seems that I am contacted by workers or employers who are totally baffled by the guidance here; who have no idea what their rights are; and who are terrified that they are bringing this virus home to their family. They needed protection from the Executive for months but have been left in limbo. They deserve better.
I welcome today's debate and the thoughtful and sincere contributions from the Members who spoke. This is the first time that we have had to take legislation through the Assembly on behalf of the Executive Office. Just a few weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable that we would be introducing regulations that have such far-reaching consequences for almost every aspect of the lives of our citizens.
The regulations are detrimental to our economic well-being, restrict our civil liberties, and separate us from our friends and our families, but they save lives. In ordinary times, these restrictions would be abhorrent to all those who value the freedom to get on with our lives in the way that we want, without interference from the state, but, sadly, they are necessary as we fight this invisible and deadly enemy. Thankfully, people have been adhering to the rules put in place, out of respect for one another and our NHS.
I thank everyone for doing their bit and helping us to stop the spread of the virus. I know that it has not been easy. I have heard the stories of the heartache that people are facing. From those who cannot be with their elderly relatives. From those who have had to miss out on attending the funeral of their loved ones. From those who are fearful about their economic security or their businesses that have had to close. I know that it is not natural for us to stay apart from each other in this way. We are, mostly, social beings who thrive on interaction. However, I hope that people will be able to take some comfort in the fact that their sacrifices are helping to keep people alive, and that is why we have to stick to the rules that we have: we need to maintain social distancing, as difficult as that may be.
I want to turn to some of the points that Members made. It is clear that there were recurring themes woven through many of the contributions. Those included: the unprecedented nature of the regulations; the courage and selflessness of health and social care staff and the many others working in public services and businesses to keep things going; the importance of supporting the bereaved and the vulnerable; and the need to turn our minds to recovery.
The Chair of the Committee rightly pointed out the cross-cutting nature of the response to COVID-19 and the need for a joined-up approach across all Departments. I can assure him that the Executive Office and the Department of Health will continue to work closely on the matter. He talked about the possible relaxation of the restrictions. Obviously, the first review was considered by the Executive, and no changes were made at that time. The next review will start to look at the timescale for easing some of the restrictions to get more of the economy working again and to ease the burden on citizens. The decision obviously calls for careful judgement. Easing the restrictions too early risks a resurgence of the outbreak, while prolonging the restrictions for too long would damage the economy and civic society. We will be guided, as ever, by what the science tells us about our success in tackling the outbreak and the level of risk. The Member is right to say that we need an evidenced-based, carefully communicated strategy when that time comes, and I can assure him that work on that is under way.
I am going to come to that point when I address the comments that were made by Mr Buckley, Mr Nesbitt and Mr Allister.
In response to Colm Gildernew, regular reviews of the regulations will, of course, include looking at best practice in other areas. He referred to businesses operating safely. The engagement forum that was established by Minister Dodds produced a code of practice in relation to that.
Mr Gildernew also referred to enforcement by district councils. That will be kept under review. There are no plans to designate councils. However, if and when the Executive conclude that some of the restrictions can be lifted safely — for example, more retail businesses and public services being allowed to open — the need to involve councils will become stronger.
Paula Bradley, speaking as Chairperson, asked how and when the relaxation of the restrictions will take place. As I have said, that will call for careful judgement and ensuring that guidance from the scientific advisory group on emergencies and the modelling group is taken into consideration. She also referred to the classification of essential or critical services. Now, this is not defined. As you will be aware, the regulations do include some that would be considered essential services; it is not a fully comprehensive list. However, if we believe that the provision needs to be broadened, we will bring forward an amendment.
I want to come to the comments made by Mike Nesbitt, Jim Allister and Jonathan Buckley about cemeteries and graveyards. They made very powerful points in their contributions on this issue, and we do recognise the sensitivities around it. I have been contacted by a number of constituents, and, indeed, by people outside my constituency, who are having an incredibly tough time as a result of this regulation. I am well aware of the pain and the suffering that some people are going through. This is not just people who have been recently bereaved — we all know that the pain of bereavement can remain acute for many years after a death.
I was contacted by the father of a four-year-old girl who died a number of years ago. Her mother is a nurse in our health service, and some of the only comfort that she can get is by visiting her daughter's grave on her way to and from work, so I have huge sympathy for that family. I heard of somebody else, who, for the past 50 years, has visited the grave of her mother on her birthday, and she is finding it exceptionally difficult that she cannot do that. I do not want people to think, for one moment, that I am not aware of the sensitivities around this. I am extremely sympathetic to the points that were made.
Mr Allister asked about the scientific advice that is available. Obviously, we will be asking the Chief Medical Officer, and others, about their advice. However, we need to ask ourselves some common-sense questions as well. Can social distancing be maintained? Is it likely that this will increase the spread of the virus? We also need to look at the number of people who might be expected to be in a cemetery or at a grave, and we can assume that that would be a very small number.
We also have to take into consideration the health, including the mental health, and well-being of individuals. All those things will be taken into consideration. I promise Members that we will look into this and that we will take all those things under consideration. Ultimately, however, it will be a decision for the Executive to take.
I appreciate not only your comments but your tone. I am not a scientist, but, respectfully, if you give me a scale map of, for example, Roselawn cemetery, I will show you a way to ensure social distancing not of two metres but of 20, how many people can access the cemetery at any given time, and a one-way system that guarantees that people do not overlap and cross as they do in a supermarket aisle. I think that that could be done today.
That is, obviously, what we will be taking into consideration as well. I thank the Member for his comments. I realise how sensitive this is, and I know that nobody in the Executive wants to cause undue harm or pain at this time.
I want to move on to —.
The junior Minister says, "We will do this; we will do that. We will take all these things into consideration". Have the Executive already discussed this issue and decided to make no change? Can the junior Minister be forthright with us on that? If the Executive have decided to make no change to the regulations on cemeteries, could he please explain it to us?
Obviously, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, such discussions are internal to the Executive, and it is not appropriate for me to talk about them at this time. However, not only have the regulations to be reviewed every three weeks, but they can be reviewed at any time.
I agree with Paula Bradshaw about the difficult situation that many find themselves in as a result of domestic abuse or the difficult circumstances that they might find themselves in because of having to stay at home. I fully agree with the Member that it is right that those people can leave home if they need to get help. I was also reminded of the comments made yesterday by the Health Minister in relation to the need for people to continue to access medical help if they need it. That is really important. We are obviously seeing a huge reduction in the number of people accessing health services at this time — for example, in emergency departments — but people should go to get support and help when they need it. That should not stop simply because of COVID. I also agree with what the Member said about parental rights or responsibilities and the rights of children to have contact with their parents.
Pam Cameron made the key point that it is not the regulations that save lives but the fact that our citizens are observing them and, in addition, the courage and the professionalism of those who work in our health service. I want to put on record once again our thanks to all of those in the health and social care sector who are doing so much to look after us and to protect us at this time. I also pay tribute to our pharmacists. Our pharmacists can often be forgotten about, but they are just as much on the front line as many others in the healthcare sector. I also pay tribute to all of those key workers out there who do so much, including our farmers and all of those in agri-food and processing and those in haulage and transportation. They do so much to make sure that we continue to have food and all of the other supplies that we need. I also thank Mrs Cameron for her work on autism and reassure her that the PSNI have assured the Executive that they will take a reasonable, proportionate approach to enforcement and one that recognises the particular needs of people with autism or, indeed, other conditions.
Mr Sheehan spoke in some detail in regard to the need for PPE, and that is absolutely right and appropriate. He spoke about the need for testing and resumed contact tracing. Of course, winning the war against COVID-19 will require winning more than one battle, but planning for that future phase is now under way.
Mr Buckley made comments around cemeteries, and I have addressed those issues. He made comments in relation to parks, which are not covered in the regulations. It is up to those who operate parks, but we have heard his comments. Additionally, he made comments about household recycling centres. Councils have taken different approaches to that. We recognise the need for commonality, but the DAERA Minister intends to bring forward more information on that later this week.
Martina Anderson rightly emphasised the stress and difficulty that this causes an awful lot of people. She raised a matter specific to one constituent. I am sorry to hear of the suffering that that family faces at this time. It is not a matter for the regulations, but I will ask the Health Minister to reply to her in relation to that.
Mr Carroll raised an issue around Bombardier. I think that the Member has not understood the regulations in that regard. There is no restriction on manufacturing companies such as Bombardier operating; however Bombardier, like all companies, must ensure that its employees can work safely and that the enforcement of statutory duties in health and safety legislation is maintained. That is already there in current legislation, and that needs to be adhered to.
I think that I addressed the issues that Mr Allister raised in relation burial grounds. On the matter of authority to change regulations, the Member is correct: the Department of Health can terminate any restriction in the regulations. However, the Minister of Health, recognising the cross-cutting and sensitive nature of the regulations, had referred the matter to the Executive for consideration.
I apologise to Mr Blair. I had not forgotten about him; I just left him to last. He made an important point about the need for consistent and clear messaging: I completely agree with that. Certainly, we say that the regulations need to stay in place. Of course, there will always be reviews, and, of course, there may always be things that we need to tidy up or clarify. However, I hope that the message goes out from here very clearly today about the need for the regulations and their importance. I assure the Member that there is regular and ongoing dialogue with SOLACE at this time.
If any Members feel that there are points that I have not addressed, I assure them that I can, of course, respond in writing in the days ahead.
Making such regulations, by any standard of normal democracy, is a necessary but deeply uncomfortable course of action for us to take. Today, in the Assembly, we must do this uncomfortable thing. The alternative is far worse, for it would involve the needless death of thousands of our fellow citizens and overwhelm our fantastic health service and the first-class staff who work in it. We need to have the courage to do that which is unpalatable to prevent much worse consequences, and that means that I am in the strange position of seeking the approval of the Assembly for legislation while longing for the day when it can be repealed. The regulations will be repealed at some stage. Let us remind ourselves that this is only temporary; we are asking people to adhere to the restrictions not for ever but simply for a period that will end. That is why it is so important that we adhere to them and that we remember that it is only for a short time. We will be able to look forward to a time when the restrictions will be lifted and citizens can once again enjoy the freedoms that we cherish. We can look forward to a time when we can support the vulnerable, comfort the bereaved and properly mourn the departed, and we can look forward to a time when we can celebrate the heroes who have done so much for us. In short, we can look forward to a time of normality.
Be under no illusion that, when normality returns, we have a lot of work to do. First, we must rebuild our economy, learning the painful lesson that our economy can be shaken up very easily in a short time, so building future resilience must be central to that. Secondly, we must rebuild our health and social care service. The response of that service and everyone who works in it has been truly magnificent, so, in return, we must nurture and transform it, investing in its capacity and its resilience and, above all, investing in its people to show how we value them. Until then, we need the regulations in order to protect that service and to protect us all. Therefore, I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Any Parliament or Assembly worthy of the name takes a serious view of a Minister misleading it, and it is such an episode that I want to draw to your attention. On 23 March, the deputy First Minister, no less, told the House that the Executive had signed a contract for PPE, implying that it was with China and causing great hope and expectation amongst our hard-pressed National Health Service workers. It turned out there was no such contract. I say that on the basis of what her colleague the Finance Minister, Mr Murphy, told the Finance Committee on 8 April, which was that no contract had been signed. He did not know why the deputy First Minister had claimed that and, I say, misled the House. Yet, today, we had a debate where there was an opportunity for the deputy First Minister, under Executive Office business, to come to the House to correct, withdraw and apologise for misleading the House, but it is clear that she has not done that. That is why I left it to the end of the debate to raise the issue that, on 23 March, in response to Mr McNulty, she said
"Just this morning, we signed a contract that will see additional PPE brought in." — [Official Report (Hansard), 23 March 2020, p24, col 1]
She had previously told Mr McGrath,
"At a meeting this morning, we were told that, through Finance, we have been able to secure a contract". — [Official Report (Hansard), 23 March 2020, p15, col 2]
None of that was correct. The House was misled by a senior Minister. I ask you, as the person occupying the Speaker's Chair today, to take action on that. I respectfully suggest that the appropriate action would be to refer the matter to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
I thank the Member for his point of order. Matters relating to conduct in the Chamber are covered in Standing Orders 65, 69A and 70; in particular, 69A relates to the power of the Commissioner for Standards, who has responsibility in this area. I suggest to the Member that he should write to the Speaker's Office and seek a ruling on the matter. I am sure that it will be issued to him in a very short time. I hope that that satisfies the Member.
Further to that point of order, if you are suggesting that the matter could be referred to the Commissioner for Standards, I have to respectfully suggest that it could not.
Well not only because there isn't one but because his powers are restricted to the actions of MLAs, not Ministers. Indeed, now that you have given me the opportunity, I hope to bring legislation before the House that will plug that lacuna. The actions of a Minister — it was a Minister acting as a Minister who misled the House — cannot be investigated by the standards commissioner. I certainly think that the Standards and Privileges Committee is the right place for this to be inquired into. If you require me to write to the Speaker's Office and put in writing what I have said here — it will appear in the public record, so it seems a bit unnecessary — I will do it, nonetheless.