The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 5) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 12:15 pm, 30th June 2020

Before we move to the item of business, I thank all those Members who were in touch with me during my recent illness. It was very much appreciated. I also thank the wonderful staff of ward 5B in the Ulster Hospital.

The next two motions are to approve statutory rules relating to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations. There will be a single debate on both motions. I will ask the Clerk to read the first motion, and I will then call on the Minister to move it. The Minister will commence the debate on both motions. When all who wish to speak have done so, I will put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and I will call on the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I beg to move

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 5) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you. The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Thank you very much, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, and I welcome you back to your position. It is good to see you in better health again.

There are two motions before the Assembly today. With your permission, I will address both of them in my remarks. The pattern of these debates is now well known to Members. We bring a motion regarding the relaxations of restrictions that have already been made and Members then studiously avoid discussing the amendments and instead talk about the further restrictions that they would like to see or, indeed, any other COVID-related matter that they wish to discuss, testing, in the meantime, the patience of the Principal Deputy Speaker. I do not expect today to be any different.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Let me begin by outlining for Members the changes brought about by these regulations and the reasoning behind the Executive's decision-making. Regulation 4 was amended to allow those who provide holiday accommodation, such as hotels, bed and breakfasts, apartments, campsites and caravan parks, to prepare for their reopening by taking advance bookings. Whilst it is not subject to the motions being debated today, I am delighted that the Executive moved quickly thereafter to give the hospitality sector specific dates when it could reopen.

Our caravan parks and camping sites opened last Friday, and our hotels and other holiday accommodation, as well as restaurants, bars and coffee shops and visitor attractions, will reopen later this week. I am sure that all Members will agree that that is a positive step for a sector that has been particularly hard hit by the lockdown, especially at this time of year when everyone's mind turns to holidays.

Regulation 4 has also been amended to allow places of worship and community centres to open to provide day care for children. That relaxation allowed more parents and guardians and those providing childcare services to return to work, as well as improving the well-being of parents and children and increasing a sense of normality.

Significant and important amendments have been made to regulation 5, which is concerned with restrictions on movement. People who live alone have been able to form a small support unit with one other household, enabling the person to visit, stay over and spend more time with their support network. That is an important step to help to tackle isolation. The housing market has been opened up, allowing people to move house, visit estate agents, view properties and make arrangements for removals. That relaxation removes the negative physical and mental health impacts on households by not restricting house moves for longer than was absolutely necessary. People can leave their homes to attend to the needs or welfare of an animal or animals. Outdoor sports facilities are now open, and elite athletes can resume their training and use outdoor facilities as they prepare for major competitions.

Regulation 6 has been amended to allow marriages and civil partnerships to take place outdoors where the number attending is limited to 10. Members will agree that that relaxation offers benefits in personal well-being. We send our best wishes to couples who are now able to undertake those celebrations.

Regulation 6A was amended to allow outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people from different households, a relaxation that offers benefits in personal well-being.

Changes were made to Part 2 of schedule 2 to the regulations, which is concerned with businesses subject to restriction or closure, to allow for non-food retail to reopen. The changes were initially limited to certain sections of the retail trade and subsequently updated to include all retail. Those steps have brought about much-needed recovery for the retail sector, which has been particularly affected by the COVID-19 crisis. It is good news. People can leave their homes to buy goods, improving personal well-being and increasing the sense of normality as well as protecting the jobs of those who work in retail outlets and restoring livelihoods.

Technical amendments were made to correct a drafting error in the amendment (No. 3) regulations, which came into operation at 11.00pm on 19 May. They mean that it was not an offence to breach the restriction in regulation 6A relating to outdoor gatherings of up to six people.

We have been clear all along that the Executive will not be rushed into making decisions as a result of artificial deadlines. Equally, we have moved quickly and decisively, as circumstances have allowed, to bring about changes to help to restore our economy and society. The regulations have worked and continue to work. They have saved lives and have prevented our health system from being overwhelmed. However, the pathway out of lockdown and towards recovery has not always been smooth. It is regrettable but probably inevitable that inconsistencies arose when making such detailed regulations. We have addressed those at the earliest opportunity and will continue to do so.

Of course, not all changes have required new legislation. We have striven to ensure that the guidance is up to date and is available to everyone. In recent days, that has included guidance to the many who have been shielding since mid-March. They can now look forward to being able to meet others from 6 July and further relaxation of the shielding guidance after 31 July.

Strong communications are vital so that the bases for our decisions are understood, sectors have time to prepare and citizens clearly understand what we are asking them to do. While the approach so far has not been to take decisions on the basis of a timetable, we have recognised that some sectors benefit from indicative future dates. That means that our decisions are taken on the basis that sectors and citizens will have the information that they need, including some indicative dates, guidance where necessary and strong messaging.

Since the regulations that are subject to today's motion, the Executive have agreed further significant relaxations. Last week, we announced that indoor meetings of up to six people could take place within the home. We agreed that places of worship could reopen from 29 June and that hairdressers, barbers and other close-contact activities could reopen from 6 July.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I know that many Members are particularly pleased to hear that.

Additionally, we have agreed indicative reopening dates for a range of sectors and activities, including indoor gyms and sports courts — not as much enthusiasm for those, I see, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker

[Laughter]

— libraries, playgrounds and open-air museums. There will also be a gradual return of spectators at outdoor events. Those further indicative dates will allow the sectors involved to make preparations for safely restarting and reopening.

Another key tool is the Department of Health's test, trace and protect strategy, which will continue to play a key role in containing transmission as more relaxations are introduced. I urge us all, if contacted by that service, to play our part and act on the information provided and self-isolate or get tested, as appropriate.

I am pleased that we have been able to relax many of the restrictions that have had such a detrimental impact on the social and economic well-being of our citizens. However, the risk from COVID-19 remains, and it is still the case that citizen behaviour will determine outcomes in terms of transmission, morbidity and mortality.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I give way to Mr Allister.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Will the Minister agree that the Executive's credibility in making requirements of citizens, particularly about social distancing and the number of people who can gather outside, is substantially undermined today by the fact that the deputy First Minister and other Members of the House were photographed and seen in flagrant breach, it would appear, of some of those regulations at the funeral of a terrorist? Does that not undermine the status of what the Executive require of others?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

First, I note that many people across Northern Ireland, have had to forgo family funerals and the traditional way in which they would grieve and mourn. That has come at a personal cost to many people. Therefore, although I have not seen any of the footage that Mr Allister refers to, I think it essential that we all provide leadership. We are all subject to the regulations in the same way. We all have to ensure that social distancing is adhered to and that the regulations are adhered to as well. That is particularly important for those of us in leadership, and I would expect it of everybody. There is a requirement and a responsibility on us all to ensure that that takes place. <BR/>That brings me back to what I was saying. We are, obviously, moving further away from enforcement. With the increasing relaxation of the regulations, citizen behaviour becomes increasingly a product of choice. By relaxing the regulations we have given citizens more freedom, and I urge members of the public to use that freedom sensibly, because I do not want us to be in the situation that Leicester finds itself in today. We need to think of the health and well-being of each other and the huge societal and economic consequences of a return to lockdown. None of us wants to see a second wave of this deadly virus. Therefore, we will closely monitor the impact of the relaxation of the regulations, and we are prepared to introduce restrictions, if that is considered necessary to control the virus.

We now need to look beyond the response phase towards the actions that will be needed to ensure a robust and sustainable recovery, rebuild public services and restore more normal ways of living. The process is under way with the Executive. We have started the development of a comprehensive recovery strategy. Citizens issues are increasingly at the heart of the decisions that we need to take, now that the immediate crisis objectives are under control. That includes long-term health and economic and societal well-being.

The fact that 95% of the population have avoided the disease is a double-edged sword. It means that 95% of the population potentially remain at risk, so the need for caution remains. Social distancing will remain a vital part of the response and recovery phases. The precise advice may change over time and must be well thought through and explained. As was announced last week, the Executive agree that two metres remains the optimum distance in maintaining physical distancing where possible. However, where appropriate mitigations can be made, a distance of no less than one metre between people should be adhered to.

I know that Members will have additional questions and comments on the points that I have made, and I look forward to them. For now, however, I commend the regulations to the Assembly.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you, Minister. Given that it is 12.55 pm and the Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time.

The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 12.55 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair) —

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP 2:00 pm, 30th June 2020

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I ask for the ruling of your office in the light of what we saw today, when the deputy First Minister attended the funeral of Bobby Storey, at which clear breaches of social distancing took place. I ask you to get a ruling from the Speaker's Office about whether the attendance will be looked at in line with the Members' code of conduct, given the clear breach of the regulations that are in place.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has put his point on the record. I am not sure that it is a point of order for here. Others may wish to pursue the matter through other means. That is about as much as I can say at this stage. The point is on the record.