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Is é seo an ceathrú huair a tháinig mé féin agus an tAire Lyons anseo le ceadú an Tionóil a iarraidh do na rialacháin seo. This is the fourth time that junior Minister Lyons and I have come before the Assembly to seek its approval for the regulations. As in each of the previous occasions, we have not sought to do so willingly. We would much prefer not to have done so, except for the continuing health emergency.
A LeasCheann Comhairle agus a Chomhaltaí, the Assembly considered and approved the original regulations that were made in March using emergency provisions in the primary legislation. The original regulations, and the subsequent amendments to them, have been brought into operation in the knowledge that scrutiny by the Assembly would follow later. The content of the original regulations is, of course, something with which we are all now very familiar.
There are three main aspects to the regulations. First, they impose restrictions on businesses. Secondly, there are restrictions on gatherings of people, apart from certain exceptional circumstances. Thirdly, there are restrictions on movement. There are also provisions for enforcement and penalties, ranging from a fixed penalty notice to fines of up to £5,000 on summary conviction.
The regulations have built-in protections to ensure that there are frequent, robust reviews of the measures. Regulation 2(2) requires that the restrictions and requirements be reviewed at least once every 21 days. Regulation 2(3) requires that any restrictions or requirements must be terminated as soon as the Department of Health deems that necessary. Those are powerful legislative provisions.
Since the 28 March, when the regulations were first introduced, they have provided the basis for several reviews conducted by the Executive. The Executive's members take the regular reviews of the regulations very seriously and very systematically. We have shown that we will not hesitate to move decisively when the medical and scientific evidence and advice indicates that it is the right time to do so.
The process of review and consideration is continuous and detailed. The health emergency, I can assure Members, has been kept under continuous review, even between the regular statutory review points of 21 days.
The motion is that the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 4) Regulations (NI) 2020 be approved. These short amendment regulations give effect to a particular set of changes. Regulation 3, which deals with the closure of premises and businesses, is amended to allow arts and entertainment venues to provide outdoor, drive-in, and live entertainment events. In practice, occupants of vehicles must be from the same household and remain in their vehicle for the duration of the event.
Regulation 5, which deals with the restrictions on movement, is amended to include attendance at an outdoor film, a live music concert, or a theatre performance as a reasonable excuse for a person to leave their home.
Regulation 6, which deals with restrictions on gatherings, is amended to allow attendance at an outdoor film, a live music concert, or a theatre performance.
The amendments may appear modest. However, they mark a small, but important, step on the Executive's pathway to recovery. They have allowed, in a very limited and modest way, families a way to enjoy some much-needed entertainment safely. The purpose of the amendments, and the associated relaxation of restrictions, is designed to create a progressive, cumulative effect.
The Executive continue to keep the regulations under review using the three essential criteria that we published last month. The first is reliance upon evidence and analysis relating to the pandemic. That will include the latest medical and scientific advice and the estimated level and pathway of transmission. That includes the impact that any relaxations might have on the future trajectory of the pandemic.
The second is the capacity of health and social care services to deal with coronavirus cases whilst also returning to the delivery of normal services as soon as possible. The third is the assessment of the wider health, societal and economic impacts of the regulations. That includes the identification of areas where we can achieve the greatest benefit and ensure that the lowest risk will result from any individual relaxation.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, bhíomar soiléir i gcónaí. We have been clear all along: the Executive will not be rushed into making decisions as a result of artificial deadlines or simply to match actions in other jurisdictions. Since the regulations that we are debating today were made, we have agreed to an extensive range of additional relaxations, and that list includes a range of activities such as outdoor weddings, caring for animals, outdoor sports, the reopening of retail shops and other outlets as well as activities associated with moving house. We have also taken steps to allow the hospitality sector to prepare for the reopening of a range of hotel and other accommodation facilities, and the Executive have commenced an incremental and rolling process of easing restrictions, based on scientific advice and, crucially, on the basis of managing and minimising risk.
Tá ag éirí leis an chur chuige seo. The regulations have worked and continue to work. They have saved lives and prevented our health system from becoming overwhelmed. I have previously said here that, as we continue our pathway to recovery from coronavirus, it is right that we recognise the positive role played by all our citizens.
Is mar gheall ar an chomhairle agus an treoir a leanúint go bhfuil ráta an infhabhtaithe ag laghdú agus saolta a sábháil de réir a chéile. By following the advice and guidance, the actions of the Executive and the behaviour of citizens have helped to reduce the infection rate and save countless lives. However, we should always recognise that, for many people, this has been an extremely difficult time. Many hundreds of our fellow citizens, our friends and our family members have died across this region and throughout the island. As a direct result, thousands of people have suffered the pain of the loss of a loved one, and our thoughts and sympathies are with all those who have lost family and friends.
We all want to see a return to the normal ways of living, but that will only be possible for as long as we are winning the battle against COVID-19. We cannot afford to be complacent. COVID-19 is still very much in our midst. It is an invisible and ever-present threat to our health and well-being. We will have to learn how to live with this virus for some considerable time to come, and, unfortunately, that means that we will also need to keep managing the way we go about our daily business and how we live our lives.
In conclusion, I say to Members that there will be further, similar debates in the weeks and months ahead. We hope that the scientific and expert medical advice will allow for more amendment regulations to be made. I assure Members that further relaxations across key areas will come into effect on that continuing and rolling basis, but we cannot afford to adopt a reckless approach. The pathway out of lockdown and towards recovery will not be straightforward.
Yes, there are sometimes contradictions, and there have been criticisms of the approach taken. Some feel that we are not moving quickly enough; others have argued and will argue that we should do things differently. I believe that ministerial colleagues in our five-party power-sharing Government are doing their best to provide steady and cohesive leadership. The Assembly also needs to continue to speak with a single, united voice. At the same time, we must all continue to do our part as politicians, lawmakers and leaders in the community to remind our citizens of the need to stay safe as they venture out more and more. Tá muid go fóill sa darna baol. Caithfear an fód a sheasamh. We must lead by example, so keep your distance, limit your contact with other people and wash your hands well and often. Fanaigí ar shiúl óna chéile; nigí bhur lámha. Molaim an rún agus na rialacháin don Tionól. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
I will speak on behalf of the Committee. The Committee welcomes lifting the restrictions when the time is right; however, it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge once again that they have had and are still having a considerable impact on our normal life and, for some people, that is proving very difficult to live with. It is well documented that activities such as going to the cinema and attending live entertainment events are good for our health and well-being. Throughout the pandemic, we have heard about the negative impact that lockdown has on the mental well-being of all sections of the community, so taking steps to alleviate that is very welcome. Such events are also key to creating a sense of togetherness, and that is particularly relevant in these times, when a lot of the focus is on telling people to stay physically apart. I recognise that events cannot happen indoors yet, but permitting outdoor drive-in events allows people to be entertained in safety while reaping the benefits for their well-being. As I have mentioned in previous debates, the reasons why restrictions can be lifted are largely down to the impact that social distancing is having on the transmission rate of the virus. Social distancing is no less important at this point in time than it was a couple of months ago, and I urge the public to keep up the good work and to continue to show discipline and to remain compliant with the social distancing guidelines.
Speaking in my capacity as an MLA, I welcome the relaxations in the amendment (No. 4) regulations, as I know that they will provide a form of entertainment that will help people, given that we have limited social outlets at the current time. I also acknowledge the futility of the debate today, given that, I think, we are up to amendment No. 8 in the regulations at this stage, which has been made and introduced, but we are at only amendment No. 4 in our discussions in the Assembly. The time lag makes these debates seem somewhat defunct. I will use the opportunity, though, to raise, as ever, my concern about recent announcements and, again, the lack of clarity that there can be in some of the more recent ones. For example, many businesses were very concerned last week because they did not know whether they were covered by the relaxations or whether their doors went out into a public place or not. That was on the back of the hotels that were approved, yet, at that stage, there was nothing about the food and beverage outlets. Of course, beauticians and hairdressers have to wait, but we can get the dog groomed. Every decision tends to raise more questions and some concerns.
I welcome that, for the hospitality sector, there is now a date, and we accept that that is an indicative date. I welcome it that timings are now included, and, as I say and will reiterate, they are indicative times and people know that they can change, but at least that time is there. I have called for timings in every statement that I have made on the issue in the House. Indeed, the SDLP was publicly criticised by other parties for asking for them, but I welcome it that the Executive now understand and accept the need for timescales. Industry, business and commerce need those timescales to prepare. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on their work already, and they do not need the further uncertainty of a lack of timescale to add to their pain. Timings are welcome, and, if they need to slip by a short period, the sector will understand that. It will be happy that it has the target dates.
I continue to be unhappy that many of the announcements are being made in TV studios, on the air waves or in newspaper columns. That is becoming a little tedious. Ministers should have the decency to wait until a decision is taken by the Executive before briefing on it and should then come and update the House on it. That would feel more procedurally appropriate. Many of the announcements could be bounced by public feelings and sentiments that are stoked by the leaks and briefings, and that is not helpful. We all should agree that the scientific evidence — I continue to call for that scientific evidence to be published — should be the guide, not just the last lobby group that we have met.
As I said, we are in the unusual position of agreeing to a decision that has already been taken and implemented, and therefore I welcome this announcement, as I did when it was announced about three weeks ago.
Chuir an príomh-oifigeach timpeallachta an Coiste Sláinte ar an eolas faoin rialachán reachtúil ar 28 Bealtaine, agus d’aontaigh an Coiste na srianta. The Health Committee was briefed on the statutory rule by the chief environmental officer on 28 May and agreed that it was content with the regulations. The statutory rule allows for the staging of drive-in cinema screenings and live music or theatre performances. The Committee considered the statutory rule alongside other regulations providing for easements to restrictions. As I have previously informed Members, the Committee raised several issues with the Department during its consideration. They included the evidence and tracking in the decision-making process behind the various easements and the strategies for engagement with harder-to-reach communities.
I dtaobh seirbhísí tiomána isteach agus léirithe de, dúradh leis an Choiste má bhíonn na háiseanna agus an spás ann le hócáid a óstáil go ligfear di tarlú. In relation to drive-in services and performances, the Committee was informed that, if organisers had the facilities to accommodate such an event, it would be permitted. With regard to the staging of drive-in live music in particular, Members expressed the concern that those attending might be tempted to exit their vehicles to join in. In response, the chief environmental officer advised the Committee that it was up to the organiser to ensure that people stayed in their cars during the event and that they were from the same household, although he accepted that there were practical issues with how an organiser might do that. However, the Committee was advised that anyone planning to stage a drive-in event was legally obliged to ensure compliance with the regulations and must detail how they planned to do so.
In closing as Health Committee Chairperson, I will say that, while the Committee supports this easement, the concern was expressed that some might view the relaxation of restrictions as the end of the pandemic. I acknowledge the remarks from the previous two Members in relation to that. The Committee recognises the ongoing danger of the current situation and the risk of complacency, and we urge people to keep to the rules and to continue to maintain social distancing.
Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal eile a rá anois mar urlabhraí sláinte Shinn Féin. I will say a few words now as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. Mar Chathaoirleach an Choiste Sláinte agus mar urlabhraí sláinte Shinn Féin, cuirim fáilte roimh na srianta COVID-19 a mhaolú mar. Caithfidh na srianta a bheith ag teacht le leas an phobail agus leis an chomhairle eolaíochta. As both Chair of the Health Committee and Sinn Féin spokesperson for health, I welcome the incremental easing of the restrictions. However, as previously mentioned, it must be done only in accordance with health and scientific guidance. A safe and gradual exit from the lockdown is possible, but we all have a responsibility for making that happen. Our citizens have played a significant role in containing the COVID-19 virus. Since March, we as a society have done well in observing the rules on hand hygiene, safe distancing and other public health measures taken to stop the spread of the virus. I too recognise that that has had a toll in terms of mental health and in terms of people going about their normal life.
If we are to ease COVID restrictions, the importance of continuing with these measures must be communicated through public health messaging and become common practice in our everyday lives for the foreseeable future. We must be assured that the Department of Health and all relevant public bodies have put in place extensive and sustainable programmes of isolating, testing and contact tracing so that we can suppress the COVID-19 virus to the maximum degree possible. Advice from institutions such as the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is that, as we relax COVID restrictions, we must ensure that the infrastructure is in place to detect and react quickly to any outbreak or surges that we might see in the future. Evidence from countries such as New Zealand, Germany and South Korea is that extensive case detection, testing, contact tracing and isolating have allowed those places to restart their economies safely and effectively.
Ní thig linn talamh slán a dhéanamh den dul chun cinn, ach is trínár ngníomhartha go dtí seo a thig linn cuid de na srianta a mhaolú. We are not out of the woods yet, but, thankfully, through our actions to date, we have reached a point where some easement of restrictions is possible. As we cautiously emerge from lockdown, we must all understand that we are all responsible for the safety of our families, friends and neighbours.
I think that I speak on behalf of many of my constituents in expressing relief that we are now progressing with the lifting of restrictions at pace. While mindful of the need to protect public health and rightly taking one small step at a time, it is essential that we return to some degree of normality as soon as possible, led by science, yes, but also led by the need to protect jobs, to reboot our public services, including our health service, and get Northern Ireland moving again.
Recently, it was reported that 95% of the population here had not had COVID-19, and it was suggested that we should slow down the process of lifting restrictions. I believe that the Executive have acted well in protecting public health. We have seen the success of the regulations and, more so, the public adherence to rules and guidance in the much lower figure of COVID-19 deaths than the reasonable worst-case scenario. I also believe that we need to proceed with easing of restrictions, so that many more lives are not lost through non-COVID conditions. I desperately want to see measures put in place to allow those in care settings to safely have contact and visitation from loved ones, as we know the impact that loneliness and isolation have on our mental health. We need to focus now on a twin-track approach of continuing to protect the most vulnerable whilst restoring confidence with the wider public to get out, support local business and rebuild community and to do that safely.
The reality, of course, is that the extreme pressures on our health service from coronavirus have been alleviated. The public are to be praised for that and not punished for longer than is necessary. I very much encourage the Health Minister and the entire Executive to now really push ahead with the reopening of all our health service at large with the vital reform that is necessary. A week's delay at this stage exacerbates problems down the line for patients and the system. We must also see specific areas in our health and social care system get back on track. I think particularly of respite provision for those who regard it as a lifeline. They are physically and mentally exhausted and desperately need the service restored. We need to now step up and support all those families.
It would be remiss of me not to mention once again our healthcare workers and the tremendous work they have done, not least our Ambulance Service. It disgusts me that that front-line service — lifesavers — have suffered 35 attacks in the space of a week. That is to be condemned utterly by everyone in the House.
I look forward to Thursday and further announcements and dates for restrictions being lifted and some form of normality returning, and I commend the Executive for the work that they are doing to that end. In finishing, I give another reminder out to people to keep their distance and to continually wash their hands and a reminder that, if you have any coronavirus symptoms, you should seek a test, if you are over five years old. It is vital that we track and trace the virus to allow us to return to some form of normality or a new normal. That is vital at this time.
I preface my remarks by saying that anything I say today is related to the regulations as they are being amended. I want that to be clear. Secondly — I have said it at every debate of this sort for the past four times, I think, that we have spoken — in normal circumstances there is no way that I would support the regulations, but we are still in a crisis and an emergency, and it is important that we are aware of that and continue to ensure that the proper message goes out to our citizens.
These amendments to the regulations allow outdoor, drive-in cinemas, concerts and theatre productions. As has been mentioned, they came into effect on 21 March. Since then, there has been easing of a large number of other restrictions. Of course, that is to be welcomed. Everybody is glad to see, I am sure, the opening up of society and people being able to meet family members again and socialise to a certain extent. That is a good thing. However, the battle against COVID-19 has not been won — not by a long shot.
There are a number of things that we need to focus on as there is more and more easement of the restrictions. First, we need to get our heads around the idea of the island of Ireland as a single entity in the fight against the virus. It has been said on many occasions in this Chamber that the virus does not respect the border. It is not even that it does not respect it; it does not know that there is a border there. There has been a high incidence of COVID-19 in border areas, and that is all the more reason to deal with it on a single-entity or all-island basis.
There has been talk of a phone app, and we discussed that with the Minister and the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) in Committee. Any phone app that is going to be used in testing and tracing must work on both sides of the border. If it does not work on both sides of the border, it is not going to cut the mustard. It is as simple as that.
What is more important than anything, and a number of Members mentioned this, is that there is a proper system of testing, tracing, isolating and supporting as these restrictions begin to ease. Some of the countries mentioned did not have lockdowns as severe as ours. Indeed, ours was not even the most severe. In South Korea, the economy, by and large, carried on. Bars and restaurants were still open. Because they had such an effective and widespread system of testing, tracing and isolating the virus, society was, by and large, able to carry on as normal. Now, of course, it has been said that they had previous experience with SARS, MERS, swine flu and avian flu and so on. However, we need to learn from best practice, and the best practice is in such areas.
The difficulty that we face now, with easing the restrictions, is that there may be an upsurge in the virus. I heard, just this morning, that two new cases have been diagnosed in New Zealand for the first time in something like 24 days, although it has been established that both individuals had travelled from the UK. China has also experienced an upsurge, as has Japan and somewhere else in the Far East that I just cannot remember. What is important is that none of those outbreaks has led to mass lockdown of the affected countries. Because they have an effective system of tracking and tracing, they can isolate the virus to a particular area, market or block of flats. If the system of testing, tracing and isolating is effective, there can be localised lockdowns without having to shut down the whole of society.
In conjunction with that, we need clear messaging from the Executive. I get the feeling that, with the easing of restrictions, many people feel that they can just go about life as normal, as they did before the pandemic. Of course, that is not the case. We need to listen to the medical and scientific evidence if more restrictions are going to be eased. So, the messaging from the Executive has to be crystal clear.
Also, as we move forward, and it may not be directly related to these regulations, the care sector has to be protected in a way that it was not at the outset of the emergency. Many people believe that the care sector was, effectively, thrown to the wolves. We need to make sure that the care sector is protected.
There does need to be a serious discussion about the wearing of face masks and whether there is a need for regulation.
The primary purpose of this debate is to endorse decisions already taken by the Executive but, like Pat Sheehan, I would like to look more broadly at the issues that we face. I am sure that we all long for the day when we return to what we might call the normal politics in a full House, or whatever a full House is going to be under the new norm.
If it was normal and we did not have this crisis, I am sure that we would have debated the Programme for Government by now, and, hopefully, agreed it. It has sat in draft form for far too long — not for months but for years. I remind Members that the purpose is:
"improving wellbeing for all – by tackling disadvantage".
Below that, one of the 14 high-end outcomes is to:
"give our children and young people the best start in life".
In terms of indicators of success, number 2 is:
"to reduce health inequalities".
Number 3 is:
"to improve healthy life expectancy".
Number 11 is:
"to improve educational outcomes".
Number 12 is:
"to reduce educational inequalities".
"improving child development".
Below that, one of the measures of success in this outcome-based accountability programme is to tackle the gap between the percentage of school leavers and the percentage of school leavers receiving free school meals at level 2 or above, including English and maths. That is A* to C in GCSEs.
I thank the Member for giving way. I hear what he says and I agree with him with regard to the function of government, and the Programme for Government doing the best it can for all our people. Would the Member agree with me that we have not even had a chance to align the Budget with the Programme for Government to make sure that we populate those outputs with financial clout in order to get to a place and move in a direction that will benefit all the people in the Programme for Government?
Mr Deputy Speaker, I stand admonished, but I hope you will give me a little leeway. I thank the Member for his intervention. I do agree that aligning the Programme for Government and the Budget, and making the Budget multi-year, are critical.
The point I am trying to get to is that, in this crisis, we need to tackle holiday hunger. It is partly COVID-19 and partly not. It is COVID-19 because more young people and families are finding themselves in financial difficulty because of the public health crisis. Beyond that, it is an enduring problem that we face.
I thank the Member for giving way. He has raised an important topic under the COVID-19 restrictions and the further impact of poverty on families that were not experiencing poverty before. The Member will, I think, be reminded of a Long Gallery event last year — I think it was hosted by Children in Northern Ireland — when we talked about food poverty and child food poverty. There was an example in Portadown of a charity where a mum was sending in a lunch box that was empty but for a note asking the charity to feed that child.
Would the Member agree that it is lamentable that we are still talking about that in 2020, and it takes something like COVID for us to seriously address it in the Assembly?
I thank the Member for his intervention. It was a memorable moment but not in a good way, and will not be forgotten.
Deputy Speaker, I will not test your patience much further. All I want to say is that there is no logic in us saying that we give free school meals during term time but not during holidays. If a child needs a state intervention in May and June, they must need that intervention in July and August.
The First Minister hinted very broadly during Question Time a couple of hours ago that the Executive were moving on this but with the proviso that it was dependent on finance. The Prime Minister has announced £120 million or so of intervention for free meals for children in England over the summer. If there is a Barnett consequential, that is north of £3 million. That should be plenty. I simply believe that the House has a moral obligation on tackling holiday hunger and I invite Members to join me in pressing the Executive to fulfil that obligation.
I support the regulations as amended. I send my best wishes and hope for a speedy recovery for my fellow constituency MLAs Deirdre Hargey and Christopher Stalford. It is a timely reminder to us all of how important it is to look after our health and to take time out when needed to seek treatment and to recuperate.
I have no issue with the change relating to drive-in cinemas. In south Belfast we have already seen some preparation and innovation around this, particularly with the Let's Go Hydro complex on the Saintfield Road which will be showing films from 19 June. That is a very welcome boost for local family provision and economic activity after the months of lockdown. I am sure that it will be a great success.
On Sunday, while out walking in the grounds of Ulster University in Jordanstown, I came upon a drive-in church. We recently debated that amendment to the regulations and I was pleased to note that the car park was full. There were plenty of stewards about and it seemed to be very well organised. It is another way in which society has embraced our circumstances and found ways to bring people together in common cause.
However, after this positivity, I will put on record some enduring concerns. The first issue I will touch upon is shielding. On Friday it will be twelve weeks from the time of the first issuing of letters from GPs to patients. I have heard that some constituents have received an updated letter, either from their GP or the Department of Health, covering until 30 June, while others are still waiting. That is causing the latter group some concern, especially as we start to see places of employment opening up. That group fear that they may be excluded in the revision process and therefore forced to return to work.
It is so important that the remaining letters are posted out, that guidance and communication continues to flow and that full consideration is given to those people who are shielding in terms of the changes that they should expect with regard to accessing care and treatment by the Department of Health, its new management board and the five trusts as they take forward the rebuilding of health and social care services. There are certainly opportunities here and we also need to ensure that those affected by the re-establishment process of our health service are included in conversations as much as possible.
I also place on record my deep concern that people who are living with diabetes have been excluded from receiving shielding letters. That is despite the fact that the Department of Health advised that they were revising the list and guidance. It is perplexing to me that they have appeared to ignore the huge body of evidence which shows that 10% of people with diabetes who are admitted to hospital with the virus die within seven days. Those people are clearly clinically vulnerable.
The next point that I will touch upon is the economy, with particular reference to private healthcare practitioners, many of whom have contacted Members with concerns about their future viability, and asking questions about how they are going to provide treatment for their vulnerable patients. I am talking about our dentists, opticians, podiatrists, physiotherapists and many other front-facing allied health professionals. They are urgently awaiting guidance and they want to open their businesses in a safe manner and as soon as possible.
Another aspect of the economy that urgently needs attention relates to the provision of childcare, and my colleague, Chris Lyttle, will be touching upon that.
Also in relation to the economy, we need to be careful that, as the Executive moves through the steps of the recovery process, there is consistency in rationale and measure. We must, therefore, recognise that it will be harder to enforce the regulations and that people will undoubtedly, as we have already seen, interpret the changes in different ways.
Associated with that, I express my concern at the absence of reliable data to base our decisions on easing lockdown. The data document that was released on Sunday night was bizarre. It has major gaps in information, the information it did provide was vague and the conclusions that it drew from the information were outright dubious based on the latest scientific and global research into the virus. We have to understand that this is a matter of considerable urgency. As we move through the crisis and the opening up, we also need to be managing the risks, not just for the authorities, but more importantly for each and every one of us as active citizens.
In conclusion, I appeal to Ministers and the authorities to shift priorities to ensure that issues around childcare and those who are shielding are resolved and to ensure that the communication of key messages and the most up-to-date information to the entire population is clear. The Health Minister specifically needs to improve the data, research and conclusions on which he makes future decisions. We all need to continue to show the respect, kindness and patience that we all need.
First, I will address the issue that was raised by Colin McGrath, the Chair of the Committee, regarding the time lag between the House debating these regulations and the lifting of such regulations. Whilst I will not be too hard on the Assembly and the cogs that turn very slowly, this goes to prove once again that draconian legislation like this does not fit. It does not fit the Assembly system or the accountability and the democratic apparatus with which we hold these things to account. So, it is a bit of a farce that we are debating lifting regulations that have been lifted. It is bizarre.
Whilst the amendments are welcome, they seem to raise further questions every time, which the Executive struggle to deal with and answer. That then has ramifications for the publication of announcements, media messages and everything else. If we do not get the message right, we will put people's lives at risk. I have always been nervous about these regulations and this draconian law that has been brought into people's homes and marks out every twist and turn of their life and tries to legislate for it. Whilst it has saved lives, it has not really worked, and, worse than that, it may have had a detrimental effect on people's lives in many ways that we will not really see until it surfaces many weeks and months from now.
Some examples of that are the lifting of restrictions for shops. When that announcement was made, there was massive confusion in some sectors as to whether or not they could open. Some retailers published statements on a Friday night that they were opening on the Monday, but they had to retract them on the Saturday or Sunday. Some businesses went on ahead and opened anyway, even though it was against the regulations. When I spoke to council officials and businesses spoke to council officials, it was very clear that they were not going to enforce the regulations. That poses the question: what good is law or regulations if they are not going to be enforced?
So, some businesses opened that should not have opened. Some businesses put out statements that they were going to open and then retracted those the next day. They remained closed, but they were looking down the street and seeing similar businesses opened. There was confusion for a long time. I am glad that that has been clarified and retailers can open, but that has had a massive impact for people and businesses that have struggled because they have not been open for all these months, and some have not been able to avail themselves of support, although many have and that has been very, very welcome.
What annoys folk more than anything is that it seems to be that the very bricks of society, the very unit of society — the family — has been left behind. I do not know why, but when you look through the step change plan that was released by the Executive, it states in step 1 that you could visit family members indoors. Why was that in step 1? We have always been told that medical advice and science dictates. Why then was that aspect of step 1 in step 1 if we have not even completed step 1 but are mostly through step 1? It feels and seems as if families have been left behind.
A great deal of very good work has been done by businesses and the Executive in listening to businesses. They have been able to open things up and get things cranked up again. People and businesses are very thankful for that, but is it not a bit of a farce that you can visit a family member in a garden centre, a shopping centre or, soon to be, a pub, but you cannot visit them in their homes? Is it not a farce that you can go to their back gardens but you cannot enter their premises to use the toilet?
I welcome the point that the Member is making. The scientific evidence sometimes underpins it and if people understood the scientific evidence, they might be able to accept it. If the scientific evidence is being published, it has not been very clear nor has it been widely available. Does he agree that making that scientific evidence more widely available would help people to understand why those differences exist? Like me, they do not understand why those decisions are being taken.
I agree 100%: the more information that we can get out into the public, the better it will be for the public. It will help to inform them and allow them to see the rationale behind the decisions that are being made. It would also help people to align with the regulations, because I fear that, especially over the last week and a half or two weeks, so many of our population have flouted the law and the rules and have basically said, "We are not going to follow the regulations any more".
The issue of the family unit is fundamental. There are so many vulnerable people out there in family settings who do not know what to do for the best or whether they can visit the family members who they miss the most. They cannot have their children and grandchildren around to their homes. A family member will not put another family member at risk. They would take extra precautions if they were able to get visits from family members. It is a massive issue and placing that aspect in step 1 was fundamentally wrong if it was not meant to have been there in the first place.
My question is this: when you were working out the step plan, what was the scientific and medical advice that told you to put family visitations into step 1? If there was medical and scientific advice on that, why has it not been lifted in step 1? We are now through step 2, are eating into step 3, and I am sure, in some aspects, we are into step 4. To be honest with you, I am not sure; I am getting confused. Why is it that family members have to go to retail outlets, such as clothing shops, to meet their grandchildren? It is a bit of a farce, is it not? I would like that to be explained to me and for as much information about that aspect to be released, as soon as possible, so that people can at least see the rationale and justification for that when they are in their homes and are unable to visit their loved ones. If we got it wrong in putting it into step 1 and family visitation in their homes should have been in step 3 or 4, then so be it. Say that. Say that we got that aspect wrong. However, if we have always been going by science, how did we get it wrong?
I also want to raise an issue about the restrictions that we are talking about today and the allowing of drive-in aspects of social activity. The police have refused to enforce some of the regulations. The PSNI told the Justice Committee weeks ago that they were not going to enforce, I think, section 4, which deals with the travel aspect. They told us that they were simply not going to do it anymore. How do you expect an events promoter or organiser to police the number of people in a vehicle and make sure that each person in a vehicle is from the same household?
Over the last number of weeks, I have witnessed large numbers of young people in cars. "Cruising" is the term that I think that they use; I am not young enough to know. I worry about that. It is especially young people who are out and about in that way. It is not everybody. I will not be general about the issue because many will be adhering to the regulations for fear of their own health and their own life. However, it seems that so many of our population are now at the point where these regulations do not count. That is worrying.
I know that the best intentions of the Executive were to protect life and make sure that we did not burden the NHS, so I get the rationale for the regulations. However, we need to be realistic about draconian legislation that legislates for every twist and turn of people's lives. We need to be honest and ask this: has it worked to the extent that we thought that it would? That is an easier question to answer as we have loosened the restrictions. What has now happened in many people's minds is that they have just flipped over and are trying to go back to normal. The way that they spent last summer is consistent with their thought process now, and that is a worry for me.
It is about messaging. People are equating the lifting of restrictions with the lessening of risk. That is a massive issue. For the last 12 weeks, most people have been cocooned in their homes and washing their hands like blazes. I have never washed my hands so much. There is an argument that it is always good to be hygienic and have good personal hygiene habits. However, there is also an argument that, if you are cocooned in your own bubble and are not meeting anybody, washing hands is very good but not necessarily essential. What we need to say now is, "Now that you are being lifted out of these restrictions, interfacing with more people, touching more surfaces and going into more shops and other buildings, you need to wash your hands quadruple the amount that you did in the last 12 weeks. You need to realise that the restrictions having gone does not mean that the risk has gone". People are equating those. People are saying, "Oh, it is OK now to go shopping so it is OK now; there is no health risk". However, really, there is a greater health risk because the exposure is greater. That message needs to get out. I do not know whether it is getting out or whether it has failed, but it needs to be reinforced time and time again.
I must say that, even when I saw people out and about over the weekend, it looked as if it was June 2019 rather than June 2020. I really worry about people's health. If we have any sort of second wave, imagine going to businesses and saying, "OK, folks, we have to have another shutdown". That will end it for most. Most of the people will say, "If I close again, I am not reopening". Some people will say, "Sod youse. Youse told us that the last time and the numbers were not as first feared. Is this one big conspiracy?". I know that I am being flippant with language but it is to prove a point. I am thinking this and the public are thinking this. I am only relaying what some of the public are thinking, and their number is getting greater by the day. The Executive really have to focus and double down on the messaging around the fact that, with the lifting of restrictions, the risk is greater. That balance is not there at the minute; it is the other way about. People are thinking that the lifting of restrictions means the lessening of risk. That is a really fundamental error for any of us to make.
My colleague Pam Cameron raised the issue of attacks on ambulance workers. That is horrific. It is horrific in normal times, but it is even more horrific in the height of crisis. A number of years ago, I brought in legislation that created tougher sentences for attacks on ambulance workers. That brought ambulance workers into line with police officers and the Fire Service, and it was greatly needed.
Before the Assembly fell, I had a private Member's Bill to bring attacks on accident and emergency staff into line with the tougher sentencing. I think that the Executive and the Minister should look at that. I recall the Minister giving a commitment that he would do that. That is vital. It is a way in which we can help to protect staff. There was always a question about whether the private Member's Bill was too restrictive in being about accident and emergency staff only, but I hope that the Health Minister will look at that.
We have clapped our NHS staff for so many weeks now, and rightly so, but, if we can give them greater protection with tougher sentencing for assault, that is some way that we can go to reward them and to guarantee their safety in the future. It will not stop attacks, because obviously —.
I have found the Member's contribution confusing. He started by seemingly criticising some elements of the regulations that have impacted on civil liberties and people's movement and then proceeded to talk about the need for caution. I find it extremely difficult. Does the Member agree that not only do the Executive need to communicate clearly but the House needs to set an example and to communicate clearly to people out there and to not create confusion by dissecting individual elements of the regulations?
Yes. Let me be clear. I believe that the regulations had to come in to save lives, but, the very day and hour that they came in, I posed this question: how do we get out of them? That has proved to be difficult. I think that I was proved right. There has been confusion about lifting. I make the point about family visitations being in step 1 of the recovery plan. How did that ever come about? How is it the case that we have not completely finished step 1 when we are already going through and have, I think, nearly completed step 2, but we have not, and we are eating away at step 3 and, I think, are now even into step 4?
I thank the Member for giving way. I will add to the previous question. My recollection is that the Executive, of which the Member's party is a leading part, made it fairly clear that passage through the steps would not be an entire step followed by another entire step. The Member should know well that that is the approach that the Executive laid out. I agree that we need to take care in the Assembly, yes, by all means, to relay concerns but not to add to them or to confuse further. We need to try to provide clarity on what is in the regulations.
It was announced that each aspect of the step-change plan would not go at the same speed, and I get that. That is quite simple. However, each box was to go at the same time. Family visitation was one part of a box that has been left behind. I simply pose this question: was that geared up for the science? Was the family visitation right placed in step 1 because of science and medical advice? If it was, has that science and medical advice changed?
Order. I have been very tolerant and have allowed a great deal of latitude on this issue of concern to the community. However, we are starting to repeat the discussion on it. This debate is specifically about the removal of some of the regulations. I wish to draw Members back to the changes to the regulations.
I have nearly finished, but I also want to talk about the restrictions on childcare provision. The childcare sector is in a very difficult position. I welcome the First Minister's announcement on the issue. That has come as some relief to childcare workers. It was a farce that the key workers element of childcare was not in line with the key workers aspect of who should go to work and who should not. That has been a problem the whole way through. Key workers, such as electrical and gas workers, could not get childcare support for their families. It just seemed to be a nonsense. That is something that still needs to be resolved completely. The childcare sector is struggling with very little support and needs to be opened up in a safe manner. Whilst we send more people back to work when the restrictions that we are debating today are lifted, surely we need to look at the childcare element to ensure that those people's families are supported and that their children are minded when they go back to work. We need to grasp that and resolve it.
I support and welcome the lifting of the restrictions but the messaging has to be clearer. The science must be published in order that people can see the logic of the decisions. I ask the Ministers, in their reply, to address the issue of family visitation in step 1.
I support the amendments, as they signal more baby steps back to normality. They will be welcomed by many of the public at large. I drove past the drive-in cinema on Saturday afternoon down at the Titanic Quarter; it was a bright, sunny afternoon and the arena was absolutely packed. I was surprised to see a film on the screen, as we usually think of a cinema as a place where the lights are out. The huge attendance demonstrated the public thirst to get back to enjoying entertainment as a family. I understand that a concert performance is planned at the same arena in early July and I am sure that people will be looking forward to that.
In his opening remarks, the junior Minister said that the Executive were not being influenced or led by what was being done in other jurisdictions, and I concur with that. That is the right thing to do; we should be dealing with the situation on a local basis, based on the local scientific and medical advice that the Executive have been getting. He also mentioned contradictions, but it is important to acknowledge that the Executive are acting solely in the interests of protecting and saving life in Northern Ireland. Against that, they also have to balance the demands of our economy because we cannot allow that to sink either. It is a bit of a balancing act and we need to acknowledge that.
When he spoke about those contradictions, Mr Frew mentioned that the police had told the Justice Committee that they would not be enforcing the travel restrictions. I noted that, in referencing the amendments in his opening remarks, the junior Minister said where anybody was stopped in their car, it would be a reasonable excuse to say that they were going to a drive-in cinema or concert. There is a huge contradiction there, insofar as, equally, someone could drive from Newry to Londonderry and when they are stopped in the course of their journey and say that they are going to a garden centre, that is considered as a reasonable excuse with no distance limit placed on it. That is the sort of contradiction that, perhaps, causes the police some embarrassment.
I am not going to criticise anyone for those contradictions. We have to acknowledge that we are having to abide by emergency regulations. It is difficult when you are rushing things through and taking shortcuts that are absolutely inevitable when you are bringing in emergency legislation; you can lose sight of unintended consequences. That is what has led to the contradictions. We all have to stop sniping at them and acknowledge that everything is being done in the best interests of the public.
People have been sending me emails and phoning me about hairdressers and barbers, and I am sure other Members are receiving the same communications. I am a living example of someone who is looking forward to them reopening; I cannot wait for the barbers to reopen. Dentists are also appealing to us. Again, we have got to acknowledge that those are services that involve close contact and they are in enclosed spaces, which makes it difficult. People are going to have to be patient.
Further to his point, does the Member not think that we should be asking the Executive to look at other experiences? In Spain, for example, barbers have been open for the past four weeks, and I am sure that the hairdressers are open as well. They can open safely in other places. We have a sector here that is dying to reopen so that they can do the work, people want them to reopen and some countries have been able to reopen such businesses. Again, it brings it back to this question: why does the scientific evidence here say that it cannot happen, but, in other parts of Europe, it can?
I accept the Member's right to have that opinion, but, as I said earlier, I welcome the fact that the Executive are not looking over their shoulder at what other jurisdictions are doing. They are doing what is best for us. I have to accept in good faith that they are doing the right thing. I cannot wait until the barbers are open. Maybe, I will go to Spain, but I would have to quarantine for 14 days when I get there and 14 days when I come back, so it would not work.
I would need another haircut.
People are also crying out for the reopening of sport — football, GAA, horse racing. We all look forward to the day when we can go out to support our sports. People are also keen to see the reopening of church services, public worship and weddings in churches. A lot of people feel hurt that they cannot go ahead with a wedding in a church. Those are issues that will have to be considered on the basis of scientific and medical advice, not political pressure.
One Member talked about time scales and said that it would be nice to have dates for these things. Given the nature of the crisis, we cannot set anything in stone. We must always be flexible, and people have to be prepared for an indicative date that they may have been given to be changed. That could happen.
Some Members have asked for scientific information to be published. I understood that the Department of Health published some information, yesterday. Perhaps, the junior Minister will confirm that in his summing up, but I think some fairly detailed scientific advice was given yesterday.
It is also important not to forget that another outbreak of the virus is a strong possibility. People are still being infected on a daily basis. God forbid, but more people may die from the virus.
I want to pick up on a point that was made by Mr Frew about industry, but it relates to COVID as well. Does the Member agree that the time of greatest risk is often the transition period when people's guard is down? That confers on us the responsibility to ensure that we do not act in haste and repent at leisure with such a dangerous epidemic.
Yes. I will finish my remarks by stealing some words from a former local politician. If he was speaking in relation to the risks associated with the virus, he would tell you:
"They haven't gone away, you know."
I welcome the opportunity to respond to a number of matters relating to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 4) Regulations (NI) 2020. It is my understanding that the Coronavirus Act 2020 Temporary Modification of Education Duties (No. 7) Notice (Northern Ireland) 2020 extends related education regulations from 4 June for another 28 days.
It is also my understanding that those regulations reduce the obligations on a number of statutory authorities, including the Education Authority, health and social care trusts, boards of governors and principals, from a duty to a best endeavour in a number of key areas.
The temporary modification of education duties states that the Education Authority reports inadequate resources for the special educational needs statutory assessment process and that the Education Authority educational psychology service (EPS) has suspended face-to-face assessments. Whilst the EPS allows alternatives to face-to-face consultation, those alternatives have time implications and must be balanced against the requirement to obtain a professional and, insofar as possible, complete assessment. The Department of Health also reports that social care staff are having difficulty assessing children in suitable clinical environments to enable them to provide reports for the statutory assessment process.
I think that most MLAs will recognise that the statutory assessment or statementing process is absolutely vital to delivering essential and legally entitled access to support services for children with special educational needs in our community. I ask the Executive Office Ministers today what impact this modification is having on special educational needs pupils in our community. Indeed, in Learning Disability Week, I ask, for the second time in this Assembly, that the Education Minister give a detailed statement to the Assembly regarding the support services that are in place during these restrictions for children with special educational needs.
Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am, obviously, commenting on the regulations that this legislation extends for another 28 days. I consider that to be of significant relevance.
The Northern Ireland Executive coronavirus recovery plan step zero says that such services are in place for children with special educational needs, and, again, I call for those support services to be outlined in detail in this House.
We have provided for the extension of free school meal payments, and Alliance is clear that this must be extended this summer and that the Executive must work to ensure that the right to food is available to all children at all times in Northern Ireland, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. I pay tribute, as other MLAs have done, to the work of Children in Northern Ireland, to our secretariat to the all-party group on children and young people, which conducted an inquiry into holiday hunger that was mentioned earlier by other MLAs, and, of course, to Marcus Rashford, who appears to have forced the hand of the UK Prime Minister in relation to this matter.
The Education Minister has announced a date of 17 August for a return to school and a release of restrictions, however it is my opinion that the focus of the Education Minister ought to be on 17 June and the urgent need to deliver guidance to schools on social distancing, PPE and what the curriculum would look like. Therefore, I ask the Executive Office Ministers what the Chief Scientific Officer and the Chief Medical Officer's advice is on social distancing in schools and whether that advice will be published in advance of the Assembly debate on the matter next week.
There is obviously, as other MLAs have mentioned, significant pressure on childcare as a result of restrictions, not least in terms of access to funding. Indeed, it is of some concern that approximately 50% to 60% of childcare settings have applied for the coronavirus childcare support scheme, yet only approximately £600,000 of £12 million has been allocated. We also seek a detailed statement from the Minister on how restrictions relating to childcare will be eased going forward, particularly in relation to which parents and guardians are eligible to access childcare. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, that will be brought into line with those parents and guardians who are eligible to return to work. That statement should also make clear that childminders are key workers.
Order. I have tried to draw the Member back to the regulations. He is not mentioning the regulations. He is talking about lots of other areas, which are important, and I am giving a little bit of latitude to everyone to do that, but I wish to draw him back to the regulations.
You have had considerable time to talk about subjects that you want to talk about. I ask you again to come back to the regulations that are in front of us. My patience is wearing thin.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. My concluding remarks on childcare are that the lifting of restrictions on informal childcare provision by grandparents is also in need of urgent consideration, as other MLAs have mentioned. Families are increasingly confused to hear that they can take kids to childminders but not grandchildren to grandparents.
Other MLAs mentioned sports, and that is a matter that I would like to speak to as well, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Executive Office has already given permission for outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people but has not yet, as far as I am aware, permitted the step 2 resumption of non-contact, small group, team sports training. Indeed, grassroots sport across Northern Ireland, including my own sport of football, has a need for information and clarity on the particular issue of whether and in what way it can resume non-contact, small group, team sports training.
In conclusion, I thank the people of Northern Ireland for the vital role that they continue to play by complying with the coronavirus restrictions. They are protecting our NHS, which has served us invaluably. They are saving the lives of loved ones across Northern Ireland. It is vital, however, that the same care that people have applied to lockdown restrictions be applied to the measures that are in place that will allow us to ease safely the extent of the lockdown, which has saved so many lives. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I understand, because of the drip-feed nature of the changes, the necessity for you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to allow some latitude. Here we are debating the amendment (No. 4) regulations. In fact, we have probably already had twice that number. Naturally, because none of the amendment regulations is an island, it is right that you are allowing the latitude that you are.
On the concept of the regulations being drip-fed to us, is that coincidence or is it by design? Does that serve the purpose of an Executive anxious to establish credibility in their early days and trying to escape the cloud of the renewable heat incentive (RHI)? Does it serve a purpose to keep the public on a string, hanging on their every word about when the next amendment regulations will come, or is that mere coincidence? It is more likely to be the former.
In pursuit of that, we have had the situation played out before us. One day, we are told that retail shops can reopen, and then, to keep the public happy, the Executive say in a couple of days, "You can now have shopping centres". One day, the Executive say, "You can have a fair-weather wedding, but you rely on us, the Executive, to tell you when you can have an indoor wedding. Even though the contradiction is plain. You can have an indoor funeral in a church, but you cannot have an indoor wedding. Supplicant public, we the Executive will tell you when you can do that".
I think there is a bit of that going on here. I think there is politics in it. I heard Mr Chambers say that he accepted and was glad that we are not following anyone else's lead on these matters. Are we not? Did this Executive not announce that hotels would open on 20 July, and did Mr Leo Varadkar not then steal a march on them and pull it back, in his case, to the end of June. Low and behold, suddenly, science allowed us to open our hotels on 3 July. The public are not fools. They can see the politics at play in much of this. The public also know they are being played.
The best-case scenario has never been made available to the public. Why? As they wanted to scare the public and could not tell them that we also had a best-case scenario. We are told, through the promptings of 'The Nolan Show', that all the parties now agree that the medical advice can be released. Where is it? It is still hidden. The R number is now a range. We do not know if it is the range over the week or the range for a particular day. We do not want the public to know too much because they might get more discontented. There is some of that going on.
I thank the Member for giving way. Will the Member accept that, when delivering life and death messages about matters of public safety, as I have had to do with fire safety messages, there is no best-case scenario? The Executive and the Health Minister's decision was right because it maximised the amount of lives saved by taking that line of action.
That is a perfectly legitimate view. However, the fact remains that we had an Executive which had two scenarios. They chose to tell us about the worst-case scenario. I remind the House that these regulations are all predicated in a national picture of 500,000 deaths. Happily, there has been nothing like that. In Northern Ireland, we were told there would be 15,000 deaths. Happily, nothing like that. There was a scenario which was much more akin to where we actually are, but it was concealed from the public. You cannot make a virtue out of saying, "We are going to tell you what the worst-case scenario is", while at the same time concealing something as relevant as the best-case scenario.
I thank the Member for giving way. Since we are talking about scenarios that were outlined in public, will he note that the Chief Scientific Officer in England, Patrick Vallance, said that a good outcome for the UK would be 20,000 deaths? Clearly, the UK has, unfortunately, far exceeded that number of deaths. Will he acknowledge the fact that sometimes it is worth thinking very carefully about estimates that are put into the public domain?
I have two points about that. They demonstrate the fact that they are, very often, guesstimates. Indeed, in the UK, we were told that the worst-case scenario was 500,000 deaths. Other people said 20,000 and others said more. Sadly, we are at 40,000 deaths. None of that is to be dismissed or talked down. It is serious. However, we are at a point where, happily, today, there was only one death. Happily, today, there were only two new cases, and that has, essentially, been the picture over the past week, and it is a good situation to be in. However, it also makes the point that the easements have to come. Making a virtue out of the inevitable has become something of an art form with this Executive. It is inevitable that these restrictions are eased because of the statistics which inform the reality of the situation.
There are a couple of specifics I would like to be enlightened on.
When we last debated these matters, I raised the issue of drive-in church services and went through the legislation as to what it might mean. Junior Minister Kearney, in replying to my question, said:
"Drive-in church services are permitted only on premises belonging to the place of worship."
— [Official Report (Hansard), 02 June 2020, p17, col 1].
I would like the other junior Minister, in replying today, to tell us whether it is still the Executive's view that:
"Drive-in church services are permitted only on premises belonging to the place of worship."
As Ms Bradshaw related to us, we all know that, without public harm, there are drive-in services taking place in other locations. Therefore, what is it? Is it enough if the organisers can control the venue or does the venue have to be the actual premises? Churches, and those of that interest, are entitled to an emphatic declaration from the Executive that is up to date. The last time that we had a declaration, from the other junior Minister, really put the kibosh on the thought that you could have the sort of thing that Ms Bradshaw illustrated.
Absolutely, and I am looking for the flexibility. With regard to that, can I make a slightly technical point? I am a bit surprised that, when it came to drive-in cinemas, we went through the right process of amending the relevant regulation, the number of which I have misplaced, to say that drive-in cinemas were an exception to the use of the premises. We did not do the same for churches. Why not? I would have thought that it is a drafting issue that should have been paralleled in the two.
"Gatherings can accommodate up to 30 people while maintaining social distancing."
I take it that those are inside and outside gatherings. Will the junior Minister confirm that they are indoor gatherings as well as outdoor gatherings? How does that affect churches? For example, if a small church congregation had a midweek meeting, where 30 people might be more than enough, does that mean that they can meet in those circumstances when we come to step 3, without waiting for step 4? Or is that situation trumped by regulation 4(5), which says:
"A person who is responsible for a place of worship must ensure that, during the emergency period, the place of worship is closed, except for uses permitted", such as a funeral etc. Are we in a situation where, under step 3, the group that will have no benefit from step 3 gatherings of 30 or more people is, in fact, churches because churches, according to regulation 4, are required to be closed? We could have a situation, perhaps, where Larne DUP could meet as a gathering of 30 people but a church cannot.
Not the last I heard.
A church could not hold a small service like that. Those are the sort of irregularities in the regulations that jump out at me. Therefore, I ask the junior Minister to address the drive-in situation, to provide clarity beyond doubt, and to clarify whether the step 3 gatherings of 30 people are (a) indoors and (b) apply to everywhere except churches.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have to raise serious concerns about the process here. These concerns, you will be glad to hear, relate directly to the amendment No. 4 regulations under discussion this afternoon. Despite having widespread and, indeed, draconian emergency powers throughout this crisis, the Executive and the Justice Minister have so far not exercised these powers against the employers who risk workers' lives or the care home owners who put people in danger. Instead, they have exercised them primarily against the BAME protesters who recently took part in a responsible and socially distanced event.
This directly relates to the amendment No. 4 regulations because it relates to outdoor gatherings. For months, we were told that there were no police enforcement powers attached to outdoor gatherings. Indeed, when the amendment that we are discussing today went through, there were, despite what junior Minister Kearney says, no powers of enforcement. It was only afterwards, and less than 24 hours prior to the Black Lives Matter protests —.
Is it not correct that, under regulation 6, police would have had the powers to act when there were more than two people? It was only the day before that it was changed to allow groups of up to six. In many ways, it would have been more restrictive had they not updated the regulations.
I thank the Member for her intervention, but I refer her to the comments of Amnesty International and the CAJ on this. I will come on to those in a second. They back up the fact that it was on 5 June, the day before the protests, that the enforcement powers were brought in.
Some of this may seem technical, but it is worth going into detail because it is, in fact, highly political. As you may know, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Executive, under section 25Q of the Public Health Act — emergency procedure — have the legal authority to bypass Assembly approval, if it is "by reason of urgency". I question having such powers at any time, but my point is that both recent amendments to the health regulations, amendment Nos. 4 and 5, rely on this process. Both relate to outdoor gatherings, but the enforcement powers to allow police to fine or prosecute people did not exist. Then, suddenly, on 5 June, we witnessed the last-minute amendment No. 5, which granted enforcement powers in order to restrict the protests in Belfast and Derry. That begs the question of why the Department did not consider it necessary "by reason of urgency" to include police enforcement powers at the time of amendment No. 4, which was passed on 21 May. No such provision was included in the amendment being discussed today, but it was rushed through, just weeks later, on the eve of anti-racist protests and events.
As the Committee on the Administration of Justice and Amnesty International have pointed out, there seem to be two possible explanations. The first and, in my view, less believable is that it was just a coincidence that these enforcement powers were unlawful, because the protest did not constitute an emergency. The second and, I suggest, more likely explanation is that these powers were explicitly introduced to tackle the Black Lives Matter protests. If true, this represents the real possibility of discrimination against our BAME community. No powers of enforcement were attached to this amendment for potential breaches relating to outdoor cinemas. Indeed, no powers of enforcement existed to tackle IKEA queues, workplace gatherings or any other manner of gatherings and social events.
In conclusion, when it comes to the vote in the Chamber on amendment No 5, I think that we should vote against it. All MLAs should reject it and raise concern about how it was a discriminatory attack on the BAME community that was gathering in a responsible, socially distanced way. Until then, I want to know, if the junior Minister can tell me, the rationale for not introducing enforcement powers for the amendment that we are discussing today. Why wait until Friday 5 June before it was introduced? I suspect that a truthful answer to that question may speak volumes about the disgraceful treatment that the BAME community has witnessed in the last few weeks.
I thank Members for their contributions. As junior Minister Kearney said, this is the fourth time that we have come to the Chamber in relation to these regulations. Each time that we have returned, we have been able to bring before the House a further relaxation of the regulations. We have been able to do this because the people of Northern Ireland have adhered to the rules that were put in place. With few exceptions, the compliance has been incredible. We have asked people to stay away from their families, friends, jobs and places of worship. We asked them to refrain from doing so much of what, before the crisis, was a normal part of everyday life. Therefore, it is right that we acknowledge the part that individuals have played in saving lives. It is also important that we remind people that we are not out of the woods yet. We are still depending on people to follow the restrictions that remain in place, to observe social distancing and to maintain good hygiene. Those measures remain critical in our efforts to save lives.
However, we must not become complacent about these restrictions and they must not be allowed to become the norm. Although the statutory requirement is for a review of the measures at least every 21 days, the reality is that the Executive continue to review them on a constant basis. They will not hesitate to make changes when the scientific and expert medical advice allows for that to happen. The 'Executive Approach to Decision-Making' document remains our blueprint for the review process, and the incremental structure for assessing progress, contained in the document, will help decision-making in key areas. There will be more relaxation to come in the days and weeks ahead, as we ease forward on the pathway to recovery.
I now turn to some of the points that Members have made during the debate. I will focus on aspects that are relevant to the amendment regulations at the centre of debate.
To begin with, the Chair of the Executive Office Committee, Mr McGrath, rightly drew attention to the mental health impact that the virus and these regulations are having on people in Northern Ireland. We are fully aware that that is a huge issue, and that is why it is good that we are able to come here, when we can, and put those relaxations in place. We thank him for his support and reinforcement of the need to continue to practice social distancing. We welcome also his support for the indicative timescales, but we emphasise that they are conditional. They depend on maintaining the progress that we have made in the fight against the disease, something that we all have the opportunity to influence by our behaviour. I accept what he says in relation to these debates. A number of Members have made the point that the debates take place weeks after the amendments have been made. We are now onto the eighth set of amendments, which means that we will come here at least another four times. However, many Members have talked before about the importance of Assembly Committees having the ability to view and look at the regulations beforehand. That is why it is important that they go to Committees before they come to the House.
Mr McGrath made a point in relation to the announcement of the easing of restrictions. He asked why they are announced in the press before they are debated in the House? The regulations are very clear. They state:
"As soon as the Department of Health considers that any restrictions or requirements set out in these Regulations are no longer necessary ... the Department of Health must publish a direction terminating that restriction or requirement."
We hear everybody say that they do not want these regulations a minute longer than we need them, so when the Department of Health determines that they are no longer necessary, we make that decision and announce it. That is why it is not coming to the Assembly as quickly as some Members might like.
Mr McGrath, along with Mr Chambers and some others, mentioned the need to get hairdressers operating again. People ask me about that on a daily basis. When are the hairdressers opening? They do not always need to ask me, of course, because some truths are self-evident. I will say nothing more on that.
I know that people want to see those changes made. We will do that as soon as possible.
Mr Gildernew commented on test and trace. As he will be aware, the Department has, of course, prepared a COVID-19 test, trace and protect strategy that sets out the public health approach to minimising COVID-19 transmission in the community in Northern Ireland. The key elements are testing all people with symptoms of COVID-19; contact-tracing; providing information and advice on self-isolation; and supporting people to enable them to self-isolate. Department of Health officials are working closely with officials in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland to understand their approaches, align where appropriate and share learning and tools. Of course, support from the public will be absolutely critical in order for that to be effective.
Pam Cameron welcomed the cautious and incremental approach taken by the Executive. I agree with her on the importance of restoring the economy and the delivery of health and social care, in particular, and the need to make sure that the people who need that care and support actually get it and that COVID-19 does not restrict that. I noted her comments on visiting people in care homes and hospital-type settings. That is, obviously, a matter for the Department of Health, and I am happy to pass that on to the Minister.
I want to pick up on the Member's comment about the 35 attacks on the Ambulance Service that took place, I think, in one week. I think that all Members will agree that it is absolutely abhorrent that such a thing is taking place. Those people are the first responders — the first on the scene — to provide critical care to people. They deserve our respect and admiration; they do not deserve the attacks that have taken place. That is absolutely abhorrent.
The advice on shielding remains current. Anyone who is advised to shield by their GP or hospital specialist should continue to do so until advised otherwise. As announced on 1 June, from Monday 8 June, provided that the rate of COVID-19 infection allows, those who are shielding will be able to spend time outside with people from their own household or a person from another household whilst ensuring social distancing. The UK's four Chief Medical Officers are leading work at a national level to assess carefully what needs to be done to continue to protect people who are extremely vulnerable.
Pat Sheehan began by saying that he would stick to the regulations and then went on to discuss COVID-19 at the border; phone apps; the test, trace and isolate policy; case diagnosis in New Zealand; and the upsurge in China
I do not think that there is anything left for me to say other than to congratulate the Member on being able to test the Deputy Speaker's patience to just about the limit. The Member mentioned face coverings. It is recommended that people should think about using face coverings in particular circumstances, such as for short periods in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not possible. In practice, those circumstances will largely be while on public transport or in shops, but the use of face coverings is not currently mandatory. Crucially, people should not get a false sense of security about the level of protection provided by wearing a face covering. It is essential that everyone continues to practise social distancing as much as possible; wash their hands thoroughly; and "Catch it, bin it, kill it" when they sneeze or cough.
I will just respond to the comments that the Minister has just made about face coverings or masks — whichever term he wants to use. The week before last, the Chief Scientific Adviser gave evidence to the Committee. In the final stages of the Committee, he said that he is slightly disconcerted when he goes into a shop and is the only person wearing a face mask. If he is wearing a face mask and he is the Chief Scientific Adviser, why is he doing that?
I do not think that we can get ourselves into a position where it is mandatory for people to wear face coverings. That is not a route that I want to go down. I would much prefer that people listen to the advice, particularly around some of the measures that I have mentioned. It is not particularly a matter for the regulations at this stage, but I am sure that the Health Minister, the CMO and the CSA will have heard what you have said on those issues.
The next Member to speak was Mike Nesbitt, and I think that he was trying to outdo Pat Sheehan in staying as far away from the regulations as he could. He rightly reminded us of the importance of a Programme for Government and issues such as holiday hunger, and I am pleased that that announcement has been made today. He reminded us that there were many effects of COVID-19. I have always said that this is not just a health crisis; it is a non-COVID health crisis as well, which people sometimes forget, and it is a social and economic crisis. It is also an education crisis. All those things need to be taken into consideration, and they, no doubt, will be when the Programme for Government is developed over the coming months.
The next Member to contribute was Paul Frew. I have considerable sympathy with the Member's concern about the delayed opportunity for scrutiny by the Assembly. I have already outlined how things are passed on to Committees first. However, he certainly took advantage of the opportunity today to get his views across in the debate. I take on board the issues that he raised in relation to some of the inconsistencies that can come up as we try to relax the restrictions. It was easy to bring them all in at once, but opening up is a bit more difficult. Various Members expressed their concerns about that. We welcome Members getting in contact with us, if there are things that, they think, should be changed or things that do not make sense. We will not be opposed to people highlighting those issues, especially if they are simply inconsistencies.
Mr Frew specifically wanted answers on the 'Executive Approach to Decision-Making' document. From the very start, we said that this was not going to be a process that we moved forward in together, and we said that it may be the case that "Family and Community" moves at a slower pace than "Sport, cultural and leisure activities". Sometimes, we might get to step three or four in one area before we get to step one in another area. That was agreed by the Executive, including the Minister of Health, but we have always said that we need the flexibility that is in the document. That flexibility means that we are able to get advice from the scientific experts, from the CMO and the CSA. They have made it clear that the family aspect is a lot more difficult. I can understand people's frustration about that. People might say, "Why is it that I can go into a shop and perhaps bump into a member of my family but I cannot have my family in my home?". If you are in a shop, the chances are that you will not be there with them for a prolonged period in close contact, unless you are specifically going for that reason. If we allow close contact in the home with the family, the temptation to hug or get close to your family members may be too great, and, at this time, guided entirely by what the experts have said, we have decided not to progress to that point. I hope that that changes soon, but that is the process that we have for moving through.
I take you back to the point that I made to Mr McGrath: the regulations state that we have to terminate the regulations as soon as we consider that they are no longer required to help in the fight against the disease. If we believe that the risk in doing so is low, I do not want to prevent restaurants from opening simply because there is another stage that has not been able to catch up with that.
The Member also mentioned childcare. Childcare is not specifically an issue for these regulations, although informal family childcare is obviously a factor here. He will be aware of the wider discussion that is going on in the Executive, and the Executive very much appreciate the difficulty that it causes for a growing number of people as we relax restrictions on the rest of the economy. I hope that there will be positive announcements about that in the coming days.
I want to refer to the comments made by Alan Chambers. He referred to the relaxation on the ability to travel and described it as a contradiction or an unintended consequence: I respectfully disagree. This is not a contradiction but a natural consequence of the relaxation. As restrictions are relaxed and more and more activities are permitted, it follows that people will be able to travel further. That makes it even more important that we all adopt sensible precautions, good hygiene and social distancing.
The Member mentioned dentists, and I have had a lot of requests about that in my constituency. I know that a lot of people have gone a long time without certain levels of dental care. Progress has been made in the last week on that, but I understand that we need to make further and greater progress. I know that it is becoming more of a pressing issue, and the Member certainly put that on the record today. I will pass those comments on to the Minister of Health as well.
The Member also mentioned church services. I will come to that in greater detail when I speak to Mr Allister's comments. The churches need to be commended for the exceptional way in which they have adhered to the regulations at this time. I understand the frustration of a lot of churches. They can see that shops are open and that restaurants are going to open, so they say, "Why can we not meet?". It goes back to the point that was made about family: you might go into a shop to buy something and not get very close to other people or hug or greet people, but that may happen in a church situation if you are being reunited with folks whom you have not seen for a long time. There is more of an opportunity, perhaps, for people to mill around. I understand how important an issue that is for many. Many people, especially, perhaps, older or retired people, have their weekly life anchored in that church family and church community. I have heard examples of how that is affecting the mental health of many people, so we want to see that addressed. I am pleased that the First Minister was able to announce the setting up of the working group on churches, and that will meet for the first time tomorrow. I hope that we can get good guidelines and recommendations out of it that will allow for the opening of churches.
The Member also mentioned hairdressers. That has come up again. That shows what an important issue it is. The Member does not have to worry: he is looking OK there. I understand why many people want them to be opened up as soon as possible. Of course, there is more difficulty with close-contact services such as those provided by hairdressers, but that is under active consideration by the Executive.
Mr Lyttle referred not to these regulations but to the associated education regulations. Schools are not really mentioned in these regulations; in fact, I think that the only time that they are mentioned is in the requirement to make sure that school canteens are closed. However, I fully understand the points he made about special educational needs and social distancing in schools, and I am more than happy to pass those comments on to the Minister of Education, who will write to the Member about those issues. The Member also mentioned childcare, which, I think, I addressed in my comments to Mr Frew.
I want to move on to Mr Allister's comments. He mentioned releasing the scientific and medical advice. That is something that I support. I have no issue with that at all. Obviously, it is an issue for the Department of Health — it is their advice — but we have no problem releasing it and making it available. The Member talked about how we were perhaps being led by other jurisdictions. We are clear on this: we have made these decisions for no reason other than that the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser have said, "This is acceptable. This will be OK for us to do".
The Member later talked about the need for us to ease restrictions and to open things up. I hope that he will welcome the fact that this is allowed. He previously mentioned caravans to me, and I hope that he is content with the changes that will be made there.
The Member specifically raised a number of issues with regard to churches, and I want to address those now. First of all, when the regulations were originally made, they mandated that places of worship be closed. We subsequently amended those regulations to allow that a drive-in service could take place on a place of worship's premises. So that has been changed, and people are allowed to have their drive-in services on the premises. And then we get the question that Mr Allister and many others have raised, which is in relation to a drive-in service taking place somewhere other than the place of worship's own property. If a service of that type is taking place outside of a place of worship's property, then it does not actually fall under the restrictions. It does not come under the regulations in the terms that we were speaking of.
The only way that it might fall under the regulations is under regulation 5, the reason for travelling. You need to have a reasonable excuse, but if it is a reasonable excuse to travel to a place of worship to attend a drive-in service on its premises, then surely it follows that it is a reasonable excuse to attend a service outside of that property. It may be the case that that needs to be completely clarified in the regulations, which we would be happy to do, but there is a distinction between those activities that were originally mandated to shut and those that were never mandated to shut at all and which any organisation is therefore free to do.
The Minister says that it could technically be a breach of regulation 5 about travel, but is there not also a problem with regulation 6 and the number of people gathering outside? If he is going to amend the regulations to put in an exception for drive-in churches, does he not need to amend both regulations 5 and 6?
I do not think that it would be a problem for us to bring forward amendments to the regulations. However, I do not think that a drive-in service necessarily constitutes an outdoor gathering. I am happy to get that clarified for the Member, but obviously it is a very different set-up if people are coming in their cars. I do not think that anybody would count a traffic jam as an outdoor gathering. But I think it is important that we look at these regulations and see how they can be amended, if necessary, to provide people with the comfort that they are looking for.
The other issue that the Member raised was in relation to gatherings of up to 30 people under step 3, and I refer him to the Executive's decision-making document. It does say that in step 3, gatherings can accommodate up to 30 people while maintaining social distancing, but look at the definition of the steps in the bottom box. It says that that includes:
"Indoor activities involving larger number of individuals where social distancing can be maintained for individuals who do not share a household connection."
So it follows, surely, that a church service — a midweek prayer meeting, perhaps, or a smaller service — could happen. Now, the numbers for the indoor congregations are not specifically mentioned, but I think that they fall into that category.
The Member then raised the question of whether that is permitted under the regulations. However, if we are going to get to step 3 and say that this is going to be appropriate to take place, that will require an amendment to the regulations, and we are now able to make sure that that happens and is part of it. I thank the Member for his questions.
Our final contributor was Mr Carroll. He mentioned the changes that took place within the regulations and seemed to suggest that there was a conspiracy going on and that we had intentionally brought in changes to regulations to allow enforcement at a Black Lives Matter protest. Let me make clear the sequencing and the timeline of what took place. Regulation 6, which relates solely to a gathering in a public place of more than two people, has never been repealed. Accordingly, there has been no interruption to the enforcement powers relating to public gatherings for which regulation 6 provides. Regulation 6(a) was intended to be a concession in respect of families and friends who do not live in the same household. It is also with noting that whilst regulation 6(a) applies to outdoor gatherings, it also covers gatherings in a private outdoor place, such as a private garden.
A drafting error in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 3) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, which came into operation at 11.00 pm on 19 May, meant that it was not an offence to breach the restriction in regulation 6(a) relating to outdoor gatherings of up to 6 people. The omission was noticed and corrected on the same day, by way of a technical amendment included in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 5) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, which came into operation at 11.00 pm on 5 June.
I understand that the amendments had the effect of putting the PSNI in the position that they thought they had already been in with regard to regulation 6(a) from the evening of 19 May, since they were unaware of the drafting error until it was drawn to their attention on the afternoon of 5 June.
I am also advised that no fixed penalty notices were issued for breach of regulation 6(a) by the PSNI during the period in question. The Department of Health was simply using the opportunity of the Amendment (No. 5) Regulations to make a technical correction to a previous drafting error. The timing of the Black Lives Matter protest was purely coincidental, but the enforcement of the regulations is a matter for the PSNI.
All that I can say to the honourable Member is that the regulations have been clear. The enforcement issue is separate, but the effect of the regulations on the movement of people had not changed and they were still in place. I hope that clarifies the issue for the Member.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Is the Minister not concerned that one group of people gathering in a socially-distant way is being threatened with prosecution and fined, and another group of people who seemingly are not socially distancing, namely outside Belfast City Hall, are not treated in the same way? Does that not concern the Minister?
That is obviously an issue for the PSNI, but let me say this: I believe that we are all equal under the law and equally subject to the law. I believe there needs to be consistency in how issues are approached. Obviously, there might be different approaches that the police take at different times, depending on the nature of the event. That is an issue for the police and an issue for you to raise with the Policing Board, the Chief Constable or the Police Ombudsman, if the Member does not believe that those issues have been dealt with in the appropriate way. It is my job here today to say what the regulations state.
To finish my answer to Mr Chambers's question, public protests or demonstrations of more than 10 people are not permitted at this time, regardless of how good the cause might be and regardless of how much we may support it, because here is the thing. I know people who have had to give up going to the funeral of a loved one. I know someone who has not been able to have the wedding that they had planned. We have all heard the stories about people who are missing their friends and their family and cannot meet up in that way.
I have huge support for some of the protests and demonstrations that some people might like to take place and to see happen, however we need to realise that these regulations are in place for a reason. We are not here just for the banter. We are here because we are trying to save lives. We are here because we are trying to do the right thing and I think it is really important that people adhere to that.
I appreciate the Minister giving way. I seek some clarity on a point he raised. He said that the regulations had not been used during that period. Does that include the Black Lives Matter protest? Was a different regulation used to issue fines at that protest or was it the regulation we are currently discussing that was used at that protest? I am just seeking clarity on that matter.
Yes. It is my understanding that they are the same regulations. The changes came into effect at 11.00 pm on 5 June, and that took place before the two protests that Members are alluding to. There was no difference. I do not want to stray away from that, but I hope that that answers most of the questions that Members have asked today, and, if there is anything else that I have missed, the Department will respond in writing.
Before I finish, I want to take this opportunity to thank once more those who have done so much for us during these unprecedented and strange times. Of course, I start with our wonderful health and social care staff. Although our clapping on Thursday evenings may have stopped, our gratitude continues. Their efforts and sacrifices have not gone unnoticed, and we thank them for the professional and caring way in which they have done their job.
I want to thank others who have kept us going during this crisis: the council workers and civil servants who kept providing essential public services; the farmers and all those in the agri-food sector who ensured that we have enough to eat; those who operate public transport and taxis so that key workers could get around; all those in retail and delivery who have kept us supplied; all those in energy and utilities who have kept that power on and the water flowing; and the thousands of others who have worked so hard. We thank them all.
I hope that we will be able to keep coming back here with further relaxations. In the meantime, I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 4) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.