Debate resumed on motion:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 5) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Mr Lyons (Junior Minister, The Executive Office).]
The following motion stood in the Order Paper:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 6) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved. — [Mr Lyons (Junior Minister, The Executive Office).]
Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Of course, for all the Members who have left, it is their loss not to hear my remarks.
Further to the Minister's remarks, I promise to talk only about the amendment that is presented to us today. I give that pledge, unlike him, who went on to give us a list of all the other easements that have been made since. It was great to hear about all those, but I will stick to discussing this amendment, given that, in some instances, it was so badly handled.
As has always been the position, the Committee welcomes the lifting of the restrictions when the time is right. We are all acutely aware that the public eagerly await news on what restrictions are being lifted and when, but, with that news, questions flood in from our constituents, and they are sometimes questions that we cannot answer at that stage. I am sure that all Members now expect to receive calls as soon as announcements are made.
When considering the last set of regulations — the amendment (No. 4) regulations — the Committee noted the time difference between the date that they came into operation and the date that they were debated. They came in on 21 May but were not debated until 16 June. Between those times, there was not always clarity on what restrictions were being lifted and what that meant in practice.
In the light of this, the Committee agreed to write to the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Perhaps the junior Minister will relay the message to the ministerial team: if amendments are being made, the Ad Hoc Committee should sit on the Thursday immediately afterwards to give Members the opportunity to seek clarity on questions that have been raised. Often, announcements are made on a Monday or a Thursday, after the Executive meet. However, an Ad Hoc Committee meeting, with a Minister present, on a Thursday afternoon would allow Members to ask the questions that have been raised with them in the intervening time. It would allow us to give that direct clarity back to our constituents rather than having to write through ministerial offices or ask questions in the Assembly. It would be a very helpful approach for Members, so, if possible, I make that suggestion. The Committee has not yet received a response to the suggestion, but, hopefully, it can be given some serious consideration.
I will now make a number of points in my role as an SDLP MLA. I want to reiterate the remarks that I made on behalf of the Committee on the confusion in our communities about the decisions the Executive are taking. They are now only loosely connected to the road map and, once again, we are left with constituents scratching their head and wondering what the implications are for them. To use terms such as "close contact services" but not detail what they are effectively makes the announcement verge on the useless. We end up with people from across many different sectors contacting us to ask whether we know — and we do not — and we have to try to search and find out who is the relevant person within a Department to give an answer. Often, by the time we find the answer, somebody else has gone public with it, and we are then copying the information from news websites.
This typifies the announcements. They are sometimes a little bit scant on detail and plentiful on confusion. The timings and briefings are being done behind the scenes: they are almost pointless as announcements. As I say, rather than grandstanding upstairs at 4 o'clock in the Long Gallery, it would be better if we could get an update in the House that we can interrogate, so we can find out what is meant by it. That is further to the remarks that you made about this, Principal Deputy Speaker.
There has been much confusion about this amendment and the process for it. The timing of the emergency addition to the powers on fines was a little bit misjudged. To penalise people for gathering safely and within the guidelines, as they saw it, was, possibly, wrong. However, it is not for this place to determine whether that was appropriate; it is for the police and other authorities. If one was cynical, you could suggest that the power to issue fines was added in a rushed manner to enable the control of planned demonstrations that were taking place in the days after. However, in the Health Committee — I do not want to steal the thunder of the Chairman — we asked specifically about that matter, and we received assurances that the amendments were not introduced quickly to allow fines to be handed out at those events. Therefore, I am quite happy to take people at their word as they have given that assurance to a Committee.
To not support these amendments today would mean that the relaxations that were introduced would be overturned. It would mean that weddings and civil ceremonies would, once again, be banned and other restrictions, such as the number of people who can gather in public places, would be reduced. I am not sure that is what many grandparents who have been able to meet their grandchildren for the first time in months would want to see. I am not sure that it is what those who live alone and are, at last, able to go out and meet with small groups of friends want to see. I am not sure that it is what the public, in general, want to see.
I will support the amendment and the relaxations that it contains. However, I hope that officials and the relevant Ministers are aware of the impact that their oversights can cause, with the negative impact that they can have on community relations in the North. They must exercise absolute care in the future to make sure that there is no repeat of this exercise. Thank you.
I will update the House on the Health Committee’s consideration of the statutory rules. The Chief Environmental Health Officer (CEHO) briefed the Health Committee on the amendment (No. 5) regulations on 18 June. He reminded the Committee of the rolling requirement to review the regulations every 21 days and the requirement that restrictions be lifted as soon as they are not considered necessary, given the impact on many aspects of citizens’ lives. He also reminded Committee members of the process by which relaxations are developed by Departments, brought to the Executive, risk-assessed, and considered by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) before a decision is taken.
It was noted that all the related regulations have come via the urgent procedure under which they come into effect but that they must be confirmed by the Assembly within 28 days. Although doing that is to miss out the important SL1 stage, and the opportunity to influence policy that that provides, in urgent circumstances, it should allow the Committee to be briefed and for it to look at the regulations' initial effect before coming to a view.
The Committee asked a series of questions about the laying of the amendment (No. 5) regulations and their staggered commencement that resulted in enforcement provisions coming into effect on the day on which they were laid, whereas other provisions came into effect two days later. The Chief Environmental Health Officer advised that an omission in the enforcement provisions of a previous set of regulations — the amendment (No. 3) regulations — was noticed only when finalising the enforcement provisions for the amendment (No. 5) regulations. He said that the opportunity was taken to correct the omission as quickly as possible. Asked about the urgency, given the lapse of time since the original error, the CEHO explained that the PSNI already assumed that the missing enforcement provisions were in place, as no one was aware of the omission.
Concerns about the application of the enforcement provisions had been raised in a briefing to the Committee by the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) and Amnesty International. The briefing argued that an inconsistent approach was taken by the PSNI to issuing fines for participation in different protests in the days after the regulations came into effect. Particular concerns were expressed about penalties issued at Black Lives Matter protests. The CEHO said that the timing of the enforcement provisions coming into effect the day before the protests was coincidental but acknowledged that, with hindsight, it would have been better to bring the correction into effect the following week. He stated that he could not respond to concerns around operational elements of police activity. The Committee also asked the CEHO about the distinction between a socially distanced protest and queues such as those that we have all seen outside large retailers. He advised that the purpose of easements was to facilitate small groups of friends and family to gather outside and was not intended to cover large groups.
Members enquired about public understanding of the regulations, since they stipulate what is permissible. The CEHO acknowledged that, in amending the original restrictions on activity by allowing further reasonable excuses to leave home, the structure is now becoming unwieldy and may need to be reconsidered.
Members discussed at some length how best to address their concerns. They recognised the distinction between the legitimate cause of the protest and the potential public health and enforcement issues arising from the way in which it was organised and policed. There was further acknowledgement of the fact that COVID-19 has negatively impacted on BAME communities.
The Committee agreed to support the regulations, but, given the concerns outlined, we also agreed to write to the Justice Committee and to forward to it the briefing paper received from the CAJ and Amnesty International.
The Committee was briefed on the amendment (No. 6) regulations on 25 June, and again, the CEHO outlined the main changes described earlier by the junior Minister. Having enquired about the impact of easements on the transmission rate — or R number — or other relevant metrics, the Committee was assured that there is an ongoing downward trend across the various figures measured. We welcome that.
Members highlighted some apparent disparities emerging in the opening of certain types of businesses before others. The CEHO acknowledged that, given the current pace of change and the role of individual Departments in bringing forward proposals for easements, there is a need to address some inconsistencies, and he advised that work is ongoing to do so.
Members enquired about when addiction supports such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous meetings could resume. They were advised that consideration was being given to whether such meetings fall within an existing category of easement. Further questions were asked about the safe operation of caravan parks and restaurants, and the Committee heard that the Department for the Economy is to produce further guidance for the hospitality sector.
The CEHO also confirmed that the guidance in question is non-binding, although open to legal challenge if felt to be incorrect. Members enquired about the speed with which revised guidance is made available to councils and were informed that it is available quickly on the Department's website and sent immediately to councils' heads of service for environmental health. The CEHO also referred to previous Committee requests and confirmed that the guidance is now available in several languages.
The Committee has written to the Department to seek further information on the scientific evidence on which the sets of amendments and other decisions are being based and on the type of data-sharing that is informing decisions in border areas. It is fair to say that there remains a degree of concern around the potential impact of easing restrictions and the safeguards for those at greatest risk as lockdown eases. Reference was made to the Chief Scientific Adviser's comment that he is worried about the low numbers of people in shops etc who are wearing face coverings.
With regard to potential gaps to the amendments, the Committee is also aware of the significant issue of partners not being able to accompany women to antenatal appointments and into delivery and maternity wards. That has had a particular impact on women with health conditions, and there are important opportunities for bonding and attachment at those key moments of life. Members were advised that the matter was under consideration and that it would not require a legislative amendment. The Committee has written to the Department to urge that consideration be given to that, and to the matter of facilitating safe visiting at care homes. We heard from the Minister today and he has indicated to us that that, hopefully, is an area that will be progressed, and we welcome that.
Finally, as a Committee, we explored the potential to reinstate the restrictions that are being relaxed, should that prove necessary. We were advised that although there would not be a technical issue in doing so, the Department was very much aware of the challenge in asking the public to once again accept restrictions. The Committee agreed to support the statutory rule.
I will make a couple of brief marks in my role as Sinn Féin spokesperson for health. We have concerns with how amendment (No. 5) to regulation 6A was introduced through a technical amendment on 5 June, which was the night before the Black Lives Matter protests in Derry and Belfast. We need to clarify why that approach was taken, and the concern has been justifiably raised by the Committee on the Administration of Justice and Amnesty International. As Chair, I raised those concerns at the Committee for Health and we wrote to the Department of Justice regarding those. We also forwarded the letter that we received from CAJ to the Justice Minister. However, I want to be clear that the concerns raised relate to the mechanism used — the technical amendment — and the timing of that on the night before the protest, which introduced a breach of regulation 6A as an offence within a number of hours and gave people very little notice of when that would come into play. The concern is not regarding the health protection amendments.
There have also been concerns raised regarding the policing of the protest, and Sinn Féin will scrutinise and hold the PSNI to account, as always, via the Policing Board. I am also aware that the Police Ombudsman has launched a review into that. We support the regulations.
The retrospective nature of these debates somewhat limits the merits of discussing the changes that have been referred to. It is clear, however, that the overwhelming public mood is one of welcoming the easing of the restrictions. MLAs were lobbied by many who were seeking changes that were affecting them, including by businesses that are keen to get up and running again and so on.
Good government is responsive government, and I commend the Executive for listening and acting accordingly. One of the most positive changes that has been referred to is the change that allows a return to a wider and more normal family life. Allowing a single household to mix with another household was a very welcome move. This has been a lonely time for so many, not least for those who live alone. Likewise, the outdoor gathering restriction being eased to allow for groups of 10 to participate in an outdoor gathering made a great difference to families and friendships. It is just a shame that the weather did not necessarily agree.
One of the biggest challenges is to get business moving again and to support our retail, hospitality and tourism sectors, and to ensure that they survive what has been a tsunami that has devastated many local businesses. I know from speaking to businesses in my constituency of South Antrim that there is a steely determination to survive and to get things moving again. As consumers, we need to reward that determination with loyalty: loyalty to the local clothes shop, to the family hardware store and to the coffee shop that offers the best local produce.
Obviously, since the restrictions have been lifted, we have made considerable further progress in returning to some form of normality. I pay tribute to my colleague Diane Dodds, the Economy Minister, for driving forward "with a get Northern Ireland moving approach", and I know that that is greatly appreciated amongst the business community. I know that Diane will not stop with the support that she gives to local businesses in the days and weeks ahead.
We must work collaboratively with local councils to ensure that we work in tandem in delivering support, whether that be in easing outdoor trading rules or in mentoring and advice.
In conclusion, I urge the Executive to look at some of the outstanding restrictions that remain. Those who are looking forward to a wedding day need greater clarity on the timescales for changes to the rules.
We need a ramping up of our health service, whether that is in terms of surgery, outpatient appointments or the attendance of mothers and fathers at maternity appointments. I welcome the announcement that the Minister of Health has just made on hospital and care home visitation, and accompaniment at maternity appointments. I also want to encourage office workers to return to their places of work. The shutters that are down on many streets are those of non-retail premises but the imagery is one of closed town centres. We need those workers back into their offices as soon as possible to help support our high streets. The same applies to public-sector workers. There should be no hierarchy in how workers are treated. It is vital that we stay safe and save lives, and work safely and save lives.
I support the regulations as amended. I have said in the Chamber before, but want it to be recorded again, that I do so with some discomfort. I, like many others, look forward to the time when we no longer have to amend the health protection regulations and that life for our people has returned to normal. I place on record, therefore, my concern that announcements on the lifting of restrictions and amendments to guidance seem to take place in the media before meetings of the Assembly, in particular the Health Committee. As the threat of the pandemic dissipates, we should be given sufficient opportunities to scrutinise and engage on proposed amendments on issues that are so important and far-reaching for our constituents.
It remains vital that we do not forget those who are clinically vulnerable or those who are caring for them. The proposed reopenings that were announced last week were good news for many people across the community, and there was certainly something for everyone. However, we must remember that those shielding must remain doing so until 31 July and cannot, as it stands, take advantage of most of the reopenings. We will need to consider how we not just ensure that they do not feel pressurised into taking risks that they are not comfortable with, but provide them with support to access public services.
On top of that, I remain concerned by the lack of absence of reliable data on which to base our decisions on easing lockdown. I received a very useful document from the Department on how it is calculating and using the R number. I am still content that the reopenings take place over a period of weeks so that we can assess the latest recorded infection rates and ensure, as far as reasonably possible, that what we are doing is not leading to a rise in cases.
We are still told that we are being guided by the science. We need to know what scientific guidance was sought and what scientific guidance was presented. That is particularly important because we will need public support if we need to manage any outbreaks, like the one we see in Leicester today, over the next few months. The more information that we can provide the public with, the better.
I have some concerns that we are not addressing with precision the lessons learnt elsewhere. The risk from the virus is clearly determined by the environment. Indoor facilities with poor ventilation are particularly risky. I am concerned, therefore, that we have opened up and are opening up indoors, and in particular certain indoor locations, sooner than we should. I would like to see the scientific evidence on which these decisions are based to provide some reassurance.
Like Mr McGrath, I am also a little concerned that openings are announced without full and appropriate guidance being in place for business service providers, potential customers or whoever to enable them to fully prepare. That often causes practical confusion but also serious safety concerns. For example, what exactly are the mitigations allowing one-metre distancing? Why were those not stated clearly at the time that the change was announced? Again, that reduces confidence that decisions are being led by scientific guidance and genuine public health considerations.
In addressing the regulations in general as they are being amended, I remain concerned that some people are being left out of the due consideration. The longer that we go without seeing the scientific guidance and public health considerations upon which these decisions are based, the less that the public will have confidence in them. It is, therefore, essential that decisions are not just announced but explained.
I again put on record my thanks to the public for their consideration during these difficult few months. Significant challenges remain. I emphasise again that, despite the very low levels of transmission, we need to be cautious. We need to maintain the basics, not least hand hygiene, appropriate distancing and ensuring that our gatherings are of an appropriate size.
I support the relaxation of regulations, and I welcome other relaxations coming down the line, always with the caveat, of course, that they are based purely on scientific and medical advice. The Health Minister today addressed the Health Committee. Members will have heard him over recent weeks in the Chamber refusing to be drawn into making comparisons with other regions of the United Kingdom or with the Republic of Ireland. Today, however, he said that he felt that he had to say that, in terms of transmission rates, we are probably the best placed of all the regions of the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland.
That is down to the emergency legislation that we have all had to operate under in recent months. It is also down to the fact that the people of Northern Ireland have cooperated fully with the regulations. There have been people who have, foolishly, decided to breach and break the regulations. Fortunately, however, they are in a minority.
The chief environmental officer, whom the Chair of the Health Committee mentioned, gave the Health Committee a briefing earlier this month. He openly admitted that there had been an error in the wording of the enforcement part of the regulations. Bearing in mind that this is an emergency, the regulations are all emergency legislation, as are the relaxations. You have to accept that we are making law without the benefit of the normal levels of scrutiny that law needs in order to be put into force. We have to accept that, from time to time, human error will creep in. Unfortunately, on this occasion, human error did creep in.
He also admitted that when the legislation was changed — I think that it might have been on a Friday — he was not aware, and I take him totally at face value, that a protest was planned for the next day. He also said, as the Chair mentioned, that, with hindsight, it might have been better to delay that part of the legislation for one week.
I have said it at the Health Committee, and I repeat it today: I fully and totally support the motivation behind the Black Lives Matter protests — as long as everything is done peacefully. We have seen, in some parts of the world, where it has not been done peacefully. You cannot support that. However, I totally support the motivation behind the protests. I say to the organisers of the protest that perhaps it was ill advised to call a large public gathering in the middle of a pandemic. I think that it was ill-advised. Perhaps they, with hindsight, would say that it might have been better not to have called so many people onto the streets.
There was a lot of talk in the Health Committee about conspiracies, and all the rest of it. There was no conspiracy. It was human error that caused the legislation to have to be revisited and changed.
A lot of people in Northern Ireland have made huge sacrifices. People have cancelled weddings, people have lost a lot of money through lost deposits, and people have been heartbroken about that. However, the biggest sacrifice in Northern Ireland has been around the funerals of loved ones. We know the psyche in Northern Ireland and how much weight we attach to the wake and everything that goes with it.
Just the other day, I watched a hearse stop in the middle of the road, not far from a home, and a wife go over and kiss the side of the hearse to say goodbye to her husband of 60 years. He was in a coffin in the hearse on its way to the crematorium. She was not permitted to travel to the crematorium with her husband. She had to say her goodbyes in the middle of a public street, in front of the public. Saying goodbye to a loved one is one of the most personal things that any of us ever has to do.
People have made huge sacrifices. I believe that to go to that protest that day and to any other protest, people are ill advised and fly in the face of people like the woman whom I have just described. How does she feel when she sees large gatherings of people? We have seen it again today in Belfast.
Today, we are again debating retrospective changes to the coronavirus regulations; regulations that we all, I think, agree were necessary. The restrictions on our liberty have been enacted to protect the public. As other Members said, in Northern Ireland, notwithstanding the immense grief and sorrow caused by several hundred deaths, we have perhaps succeeded in restricting the rate of infection and controlling the virus. People who have made immense sacrifices, as Alan Chambers said, can take heart from that.
We are debating retrospective changes to the coronavirus regulations, and that is the frustrating part of the way in which we have done the process over the last few months. I understand the reason for it, but it is still frustrating. I say up front that I support the retrospective regulation changes in the sense that it would be odd not to, given that they have already happened, though I share the concerns raised by some about the regulation change coming in quite late before the Black Lives Matter protest. Indeed, I raised the issue several weeks ago with the Justice Minister.
However, given the strangeness of having to debate retrospective regulations and with your indulgence, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I would like to reflect on something else; another forward-looking regulation change that is happening this Friday. This Friday, in Northern Ireland, pubs are opening. Pubs that serve food inside will be opening to members of the public, as announced recently by the Executive. The Executive have made much, correctly, of the need to do that. Given the low infection rate in Northern Ireland and the extreme level of sacrifice and economic cost, it is right that those restrictions do not remain in place any longer than they have to, and the decision was made to open pubs in Northern Ireland. Let me say up front that I do not have a problem with that. I grew up working in pubs. I care a huge amount about our pub and hospitality sector. They are enormously important not just to our cultural lineage on this island but to our tourism offer and to how we do community life. I think that we should invest more in our pubs. However, I am very concerned about the fact that the Executive have chosen, in a completely unforced and slightly inexplicable way, to open pubs on a Friday. Why?
In the Republic of Ireland, pubs opened yesterday, which was a Monday. Next Monday, pubs will open in Scotland. They will open in a controlled way, serving food. Members may have seen some of the images of pubs serving food in Dublin and other parts of the South yesterday. People were socially distanced; it was planned. Lots of the customers were older, retired people who were able to go in at lunchtime for a quick drink and perhaps a bite to eat. It happened in an ordered, planned way. It gave the staff the opportunity to deal with that immense change on a Monday afternoon when things are naturally quieter. In Northern Ireland, we have made what is, to me, the bizarre, inexplicable decision to open pubs on a Friday, in midsummer, after a payday and after three and a half months of being closed.
Pub staff will have to deal with — I hate to call it "black eye Friday", but I do not know what it will be. I do not like to predict things that none of us wants to happen, but I have grave concerns about the unintended consequences of what seems like a very unthought-through decision. I would love the Minister to give us some indication of why the Executive did not simply say that the pubs could open in a socially distanced and planned way yesterday or next Monday or even today so that publicans who wanted to do the right thing — I support publicans and the sector, and it is right that pubs open — had several days to get their premises ready, their staff used to the principle of social distancing and get themselves in a place where they could do this properly. Instead, we have taken the slightly surreal and, I am afraid, risky decision to open pubs on a Friday in midsummer.
Earlier, the junior Minister said that the risk from COVID-19 remained in our community, and he was right. We know what has happened in Leicester. We know that the virus is nowhere near going away. It is also true, as he and other Ministers have said, that we now need to give businesses, workers and us as individuals the tools that we need to manage the risk, given that we in Northern Ireland and across this island have achieved a lower rate of infection than was the case several weeks ago. However, it is the job of the Executive — they have patted themselves on the back enough — to give the public the best possible framework for managing the risk. I am afraid that opening pubs at the height of midsummer after a payday without any preparation is daft and inexplicable. I make much of my experience of work in government. Well, I worked for many years in pubs in Downpatrick and elsewhere, and I would not want to have to deal with a pub reopening on a Friday for the first time in several months. I just ask the Minister to reflect on that.
I thank the Member for giving way. Would the Member agree that it is crucial that staff safety is at the heart of the reopening of the pub and hospitality sector and that it was a missed opportunity not to have the voice of staff heard on the reopening before this Friday? Would he also agree that no jobs should be lost in that sector after its reopening?
I completely agree. I know that the Member has even more recent experience of the hospitality sector.
I really want us to get this right. Like lots of people, I want to enjoy safe socialising this summer. I want the pub industry to get back on its feet. Frankly, I would have loved them to get back safely yesterday or today, which would have been safer. It is a bizarre decision, in the middle of summer, to reopen pubs on a Friday. Perhaps the Minister could offer clarity on why that is happening.
Like others, I will comment on the retrospective relaxation of regulations stemming from an announcement made some weeks ago and on the opening of certain types of retailers, amendments 5 and 6 allowing elite athletes to restart training and certain groups of workers to access childcare, which has been circumvented by further announcements by the Executive last week. There are issues around the restrictions on gatherings and enforcement powers that need to be addressed.
The Executive seem to be picking and choosing which restrictions to lift from the menu of options laid out in their plan. I find the announcements made so far hard to correlate with the five-step approach. That raises questions about how they use scientific and medical evidence to come up with that plan and how they use it to make decisions as we speak, given that we do not have the evidence to look at. The manner in which the amendments are made show clearly that the five stages of the plan have not been followed in a linear way and that the recovery plan is not joined up. It seems that some of the most important issues, such as childcare and worker safety, are being treated as afterthoughts, following the relaxation of restrictions on workplaces. The approach that the Executive are taking of picking and choosing what to do next is resulting in more questions than answers and sowing confusion among those seeking clarity on their circumstances on what they should do after each announcement.
Instead of pandering to whomever shouts the loudest, we need a strategic and coherent approach that takes into account the cross-cutting nature of measures to reopen our economy and support our families. A strategy for childcare and schools, comprehensive workplace guidance and support mechanisms should be in place before we expect people to fully return to work, not thrown together afterwards. Guidance should be sector-specific and work for people in that industry. My inbox has been filling up with emails from business owners who are not only confused by the guidance and its lack of detail but are reading pages and pages that do not apply to them.
Like my colleague who spoke about the reopening of pubs, I want to mention the hospitality sector and the guidance specifically. It is something that I have spoken about many times before, and I declare an interest as a temporary, part-time member of staff in a pub. The guidance issued to the hospitality sector included a section about the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in hospitals. That does not apply to pubs. I want to reiterate how difficult this will be for pub staff, most of whom are on minimum wage in some of the most insecure employment in our economy. They will have to deal with crowds on a Friday with no security and with guidance that is completely up in the air and left to each owner and manager to do by themselves. They have nowhere to go to get clarity from the Executive, so they come to the likes of me and other MLAs. That is not good enough, because, folks, we are talking about staff safety here.
Many people that I have spoken to are literally freaking out because they will catch coronavirus by the end of the summer if we are not careful. They are not being given the guidance in the detail that they need, so we are effectively just letting them work. Customers will come in, and we just have to take it that they are following the guidance and are in a bubble or are members of the same household. We do not know. What will happen when there are a few pints in? We really have to think about this. I would love to have a conversation about it. If anybody wants to have a conversation about the realities of working in the sector at the moment, please come and speak to me. My door is open.
Does the Member agree with my earlier remarks that that is the very purpose of having an opportunity for the House to question the Ministers a few days after the announcement is made, rather than what we have been doing, which is having a couple of weeks of speculation and then, four weeks later, amendments are laid and we need to get clarification? Would it not be good if we could get the clarification a few days after the announcement?
I thank the Member for his intervention. I completely agree. I heard his earlier comment, and I could not agree more. That is what the Ad Hoc Committee should be for. It should be used weekly by any number of Ministers. I would be happy to sit here to listen and question them on every question that I get in my inbox or by phone.
We really have to think about this. Business owners and employers are doing their best, but some of them are doing a lot more than others, and we really need an opportunity and an open line of communication to get actual answers for business owners. This is a matter of staff and customer safety. This is not about the economy; it is about people's health. The basics need to be covered, and people need assurance that the steps that they take are the right ones not only for their customers but, importantly, for their staff's safety, as I have said. It should not be a copy-and-paste job. The guidance must be issued fully in conjunction with the sectors and with the staff that it affects.
As regards today's regulations, every time guidance is issued following an announcement, many more questions need to be answered. People are being left in the dark. Ministers must consider this properly and give us the much-needed clarity, as it is fundamentally missing. We have had situations reported to us that business owners are getting mixed messages and different advice depending on which MLA or MP's office they contact or which council area they are in. That creates confusion and does not bode well for the people who need certainty in order to reopen safely.
We have an issue with restrictions on gatherings and protests as well. I think that everybody here can agree that there have been more difficulties with enforcement than are needed. There have been examples of how the gaps are being tested. Major holes have been identified, and enforcement has not been equal across the board. We have had scenarios where fines have been issued and others where they have not. Some protests and gatherings have been clamped down on, and others have been let go. As has been pointed out by Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice, the regulations do not address the right to protest alongside the need to protect public health. The lack of clarity has led to the police using regulation 6A in the context of protests, fuelled by the inconsistencies that we have all witnessed. Ministers need to address urgently the issues around enforcement, and I hope that the junior Minister can take this back to get actual details for the Chamber. I fully agree with Amnesty:
"The right to protest is a fundamental human right, which may be limited in a public health emergency, but limitations must be proportionate, meet the test of ‘legal certainty’ – this is, the rules must be clear - and not be enforced in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner."
If the Executive's decisions on the relaxation of the regulations are informed by scientific and medical evidence, the Executive should publish that advice. Every announcement should carefully consider all those it may affect and give the necessary detail, otherwise it opens wider questions and does not bode well for public confidence at a time when it is needed most.
It is good to see you back, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, and I wish you good health in the time ahead.
It is a damning indictment of the political establishment and, indeed, the PSNI's approach that, throughout the crisis — a health pandemic in which workers' safety has been risked by large employers and some of the most vulnerable have, essentially, been left to fend for themselves in care homes where conditions should, at the very least, be the subject of a public inquiry — the only section of our society that has been specifically targeted with a large number of fines, cautions and threats of prosecution seems to have been Black Lives Matter protesters who were taking part in safe, socially distanced events. The issue should be treated with the utmost severity by all in the Chamber because, if the regulations are ratified here today, it will send a crystal-clear message that the Assembly supports discriminatory punishment for anti-racist protesters. I want to lay out in no uncertain terms why that is the case.
We are being asked to support two amendments to the regulations — the amendment (No. 5) regulations and the amendment (No. 6) regulations. The amendment (No. 6) regulations, as we have heard, allow for the lifting of restrictions on workplaces such as non-essential retail outlets, allowing people to gather in their hundreds in queues at IKEA and other shops. Given that the R number, at least last week, was still close to 1 and we have little of a test and trace system to speak of, that could risk the health and safety of workers and see them taken off furlough and put back to work before we can be absolutely sure that it is safe.
At the same time, the Executive ask us to pass the amendment (No. 5) regulations, which were used by the PSNI to fine and threaten BAME protesters for taking a safe stand against racism. You do not need a fine-tooth comb to find the glaring hypocrisy there. Indeed, despite warnings from various medical experts, virologists, workers and trade unions about rushing to reopen the economy — we have heard some already — the Executive seem intent on ploughing ahead. Those in the hospitality sector in particular, as we have heard, have been very clear that they do not believe that there is a means for them to socially distance in their workplace. What is the response of the Executive? Closed ears, the creation of a recovery panel without one trade unionist on it and a Boris Johnson-esque approach that puts profit over the health of our communities.
When it comes to the kinds of gatherings that do not make a profit and are entirely socially distanced, as was the case with the Black Lives Matter protesters on 6 June who gathered in solidarity, fed up with systemic racism, the Executive take exactly the opposite approach by doling out special police powers to facilitate repression and discrimination and giving the PSNI political cover to carry out that repression. Anyone who listened to press statements and interviews by Arlene Foster, Michelle O'Neill and Naomi Long in the run-up to the Black Lives Matter protest could see that political cover was being given to police actions. The Justice Minister's comments, almost immediately after the protests, that police actions were proportionate were particularly disgraceful. They were out of touch with reality and were a dangerous intervention in support of the police actions, which are now being widely described as discriminatory.
One week later, it should be remembered, another crowd gathered in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, including elements of the far right who have threatened the presence of black people, minorities and refugees on our streets. Not a single fine was handed out on that occasion, despite the fact that, clearly, there was no attempt to implement social distancing. I challenge the Minister to tell me in his response how he can comfortably claim that that is not discriminatory policing. I challenge the Justice Minister to take action on that disparity in a manner that she has, thus far, refused to do. If she is able to intervene to comment on the fines for Black Lives Matter protests, there is no good reason why she cannot highlight that blatantly inconsistent approach and work to make sure that it does not happen again while she holds the Justice Ministry. It should be pointed out that other gatherings that were not of a political nature were also allowed to proceed unchallenged, shop queues being the most widely covered. One has to ask this: if the Black Lives Matter protesters had been holding their placards and chanting outside IKEA or Tesco or were in swimsuits on a crowded beach, might they have met with an entirely different fate? That, incredibly, seems to be the case. How can anyone here sit comfortably with that?
Life, according to Stormont, as we are being asked to approve it today, is one where shops, bars, hairdressers and more should open in order to facilitate the Executive's rush to kick-start the economy even if workers in those fields do not feel safe, rather than taking steps to consider an entirely different economic model that is not entirely predicated on profits.
If those same workers decided to engage in safe, socially distanced, anti-racist protests, they will have the book thrown at them. It is frankly disgusting. In my view, parties should not support the regulations today, especially those MLAs and parties who claim to be opponents of state repression, but will likely endorse this dangerous farce.
As has been recognised by human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice, the treatment of BAME and other protesters was disproportionate. That Stormont handed down those powers without a democratic vote at the final hour on Friday 5 June makes the situation all the more insidious. Who can say that that does not seem targeted? It seemed entirely contrived to police BAME protests the very next day. Imagine the gall that it must take for some in the Chamber to claim that it was just a coincidence. We see you and those protesters see you and your comments. Every anti-racist in the North sees through that attempt to whitewash the issue.
Today, I am asking everybody who is uncomfortable with last-minute, seemingly contrived acts of discrimination against anti-racists and the BAME community to oppose the amendment (No. 5) regulations. To those who say that they must pass because there are elements in them that are good and that do not relate to the policing of the protests, I say do not use that pathetic excuse. It was entirely within the gift of the Executive to not table the regulations today and to bring only the elements that do not relate to the policing of protests, just as swiftly as they were able to force the regulations through in the first place. If they can do it at 5:30 pm on a Friday, they can sure as hell bring an amended form of the regulations for ratification on a different day.
We live in a society with a clear race problem, a deeply disturbing level of racist incidents and appalling treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. At times, we have had more incidents of racism than sectarianism, yet 86·5% of racially motivated hate crimes go unsolved. What a startling figure. That is 50% less than any other hate crime. A 13·5% success rate is a failure that has put the lives of many people at risk.
Some 79% of asylum seekers recently reported that they are unable to afford enough food. Some 71% of asylum seekers who are parents here reported being unable to afford school uniforms for their children. Those are just some of the figures that highlight the problems that we face in society. The broader point is that attempts to address those policy gaps have been stalled by subsequent Executives for over a decade. There is clearly an institutional problem here, right at the heart of Government: from the top of the Executive right down to the PSNI on the streets and their response to the protests. Instead of tackling the problems of institutional racism, the Assembly is potentially adding to them by rubber-stamping legislation that was used to unfairly target BAME and anti-racist protesters. No other group in society has had those penalties imposed on them despite organising public gatherings. I appeal to all parties and call on MLAs to reject the amendment (No. 5) regulations and stand in solidarity with those who were unfairly penalised during the socially distanced Black Lives Matter protests. Black lives matter.
Before I call the next Member to speak, when the Minister entered the Chamber, she walked in front of the Member while he was speaking. That is considered a discourtesy. I am sure that she did not mean one, but I think that most of us have been here long enough to know that.
Today, something of a pall of hypocrisy hangs over the Executive with their COVID regulations. For months now, on a nigh daily basis, up in the Long Gallery, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and/or substitutes have lectured the people of Northern Ireland about the inescapable necessity of standing in favour of and implementing each and every one of the regulations. "We are all in it together", we were told. When families found it very, very difficult, when burying their loved ones, to abide by these regulations, the deputy First Minister went on record to say that no one was above the law. Today, we saw that she thinks that she is above the law; that the Finance Minister thinks that he is above the law; and that other Sinn Féin Assembly Members think that they are above the law. This very day, the credibility of the Executive on these issues has been shredded by a joint leader of the Executive. What a commentary that, as we meet to debate restrictions such as this, the joint leader of the Government is out on the streets of west Belfast flagrantly breaching the very regulations that she put in place.
On a point of order, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Mr Allister may have a view on whether breaches occurred today, but it is not appropriate for a Member to stand up in the House and accuse another Member or a Minister of breaking the law. It is not appropriate, and I do not believe that it would stand under Standing Orders.
The best that I can say — sorry, I have to rise to respond — in relation to that is that the Standing Orders, rules and conventions of the House instruct Members to be temperate at all times in what they say and how they say it. Mr O'Dowd, you have put your comment on the record. Mr Allister, you have put your comment on the record as well, and I will allow you to resume.
Thank you. I will express it in the very terms in which the Executive express the rule about funerals on nidirect. This is the guidance of Michelle O'Neill. This is the guidance that, in this Building, she has lectured us all on. This is what it says:
"The funeral should be private and only the following should be there, up to a maximum of 30 people".
This is the up-to-date guidance:
"up to a maximum of 30 people (this figure does not include funeral directors or other people needed to officiate".
There it is. This is what Michelle O'Neill tells the rest of us, across Northern Ireland: when it comes to the most difficult issue of all — funerals — they should be "private" and:
"up to a maximum of 30 people" should be there. Yet, today, in flagrant defiance of her own guidance, she takes herself, as a joint leader of the Government, to west Belfast to breach the very guidance that she puts upon the rest of us. That is why I say that the Executive, today, shredded their own guidance. The Executive, today, have lost all credibility when it comes to saying to ordinary people, "Do what we say". It is not a case of, "Do what we do" but "Do what we say". That is the inescapable, orchestrated, predetermined message from Sinn Féin and its leadership today. It is not, "Do as we do"; it is, "Do as we say". That is contemptible. Utterly contemptible.
The junior Minister has had to come today and tell us why these regulations are so essential to us. I notice that he is getting no help from junior Minister Kearney. He is not here today to answer the debate. Is it embarrassment that keeps him away? Is he running away from the questions as to why his leaders were in flagrant breach of the regulations today? Is that why it has been left to junior Minister Lyons to handle this alone? It is an appalling indictment of not just the dysfunctionality but the double standards of this miserable Executive, that they say to ordinary folk in the depths of grief, sorrow and despair, "You cannot go to your friend's funeral. You cannot be there". As Mr Chambers told us, even a widow cannot go to the crematorium, but Michelle O'Neill and the rest of them however can go in the throngs unlimited to the funeral of a terrorist. That is a commentary in itself on this Government and their regulations.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to turn to some of the specifics of the amendment (No. 5) and amendment (No. 6) regulations and deal specifically and primarily with the issue of marriage. The amendment (No. 5) regulation introduced a revision of the amendment (No. 4) regulation, which, you will recall, related to dos and don'ts and what must be open and what must be closed. It deals at paragraph 6 with places of worship. The amendment (No. 5) regulation put into regulation 4(6) the subparagraph stating that a place of worship may be used to:
"solemnise a marriage ceremony, subject to— (i) the ceremony taking place outdoors; and (ii) a total number of ten persons" — which, I do not think, will be affected by the 30 provision —
— "being present in the place of worship".
What does that mean? It says:
"solemnise a marriage ceremony, subject to— (i) the ceremony taking place outdoors; and (ii) a total number of ten persons being present in the place of worship".
It does not say "at" the place of worship; it is "in" the place of worship. What does that mean? We have been told in guidance and everything else that you can have only outdoor weddings — fair-weather weddings, as I have called them. That in itself is a burden too far. I do not see any logical, compelling reason for the provision that weddings can only be outdoors. Yes, I understand a limitation on numbers, but I see regulations that state that a place of worship can be used for funerals, inside; can be used to broadcast from; and now, under the amendment (No. 6) regulation, can be used to provide childcare but cannot be used for a wedding.
We have reached an utterly illogical position. You can use a church for a funeral. You can now go to it for an act of community worship, or use it for childcare, but you cannot get married in it. That act of worship is excluded. I say to the junior Minister that the Executive need to urgently address the glaring — glaring — inconsistencies in these regulations.
What have they got against marriage? What is it about marriage, that you cannot be married in church? There is no justifiable shadow of a reason why that should be. You can now have religious services, Bible readings, all of that, with no limitation on the numbers, but the one thing that you cannot do is get married. You can have your kids minded in childcare, but you cannot get married.
That is absurd. It is the absurdity of that which brings regulations, such as this, into disrepute, but it is as nothing over the self-inflicted disrepute into which these regulations have been brought today by the deputy First Minister.
Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, it is good to see you back in your role and, hopefully, fully recovered from your recent illness.
From a societal point of view, there is considerable confusion in relation to how this entire process has been handled. At the outset, when COVID was coming towards us, and we could watch the impact it was having right across the globe, instead of preparing, we were doing very little. Then there was an automatic panic reaction of closing everything or, in some cases, a debate about closing everything, refusing to do so, and then coming back later that day to the Chamber, in the case of the Education Minister, and announcing the closure of schools
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
It seems that this entire process around COVID-19, and the preparation for it, to ensure the health and safety of the general populace, has been badly handled, messily handled. Like other Members, I appreciate that it is an entirely complicated, unprecedented situation.
In the early stage, it was, "Close everything. Shut everything down. Shut your businesses." It is important to recognise the huge sacrifice that has been made by all sectors of our society, and the business community, who have been closed and their doors have been shut for many months. Our healthcare staff, nurses, doctors and front-line workers, for the last number of months have sacrificed their lives and well-being to ensure that we were safe, cared for and looked after in hospitals. Their sacrifices were huge, so huge that we will never be truly able to thank those who have stepped beyond all boundaries to help and protect our population from the threat and risk of COVID-19.
My concern is that, as we emerge from COVID-19 — we still remain in a place of significant uncertainty as to the true impact ahead could be — we are simply now, instead of following a phased reopening, announcing, in a lucky-dip sort of approach, the reopening of this, that and everything that may suit the agenda of particular Ministers, or the First and deputy First Minister, at the Executive.
It is unhelpful in many ways because, whilst we are minded to continually think of those who have made considerable sacrifices throughout this pandemic, there is a reckless or loose reopening, and a lack of guidance around what is expected in the reopening of our society across all sectors. If that is not handled properly, we will return to square one. We are seeing patterns emerge in various countries right across the globe where spikes are happening in the pandemic and infection rates are going up in certain towns and villages.
Members of society are concerned, and rightly so. They have put their trust and faith in us as legislators and in the Executive to ensure that, whatever action we take, it ensures the population's safety. However, as many Members in the House will know, over the course of the past number of weeks, we have been inundated by constituents asking us to clarify the guidance or announcement that has been made here. For example, one of the earliest announcements was about hotels. People could book a hotel, but we could not tell them the date. That is just an example of the inconsistencies and shortcomings that there have been rather than proper planning for the reopening of society.
The public out there are concerned. They are reaching out to us, as individual MLAs and people in positions of authority, to ensure that, whatever steps we take, we can, at all times, ensure that the public will be safe. However, when, each and every week, we hear announcements of the reopening of churches, for example, as Mr Allister mentioned, and that there can be funerals with a certain number of people present, and masses or church services, but that there cannot be weddings, it does not make sense. It causes confusion in our communities that we, then, are burdened with trying to clarify. As legislators, we are, then, in the ridiculous position of being unable to clarify it because the announcement has been so poorly communicated.
We have to remember that, throughout the entire pandemic, whilst we ensured, thank God, in an operational Assembly, that people were safe, regulations were in place and measures were in place to support businesses, the community, and healthcare and front-line workers, we should also have been planning properly, from day one, for the reopening of society. The flick-of-a-switch approach will not work because it puts everybody at risk. I do not think that any Member of the House would argue with that. If we get it wrong, and we reopen society quickly and without proper protections and guidance in place, we will put people at risk. For the House to do that would be unforgivable.
Today, we have talked about funerals. I am not going to make political points. However, I will point out a glaring frustration that I had today. In recent months, we lost John Dallat, a man who was a public representative for 40 years. My SDLP colleagues could not attend his funeral because we respected the regulations that were in place to ensure the population's safety. We did that, importantly, to show leadership and that it was wrong to go there and put others and ourselves at risk. We are expected to show leadership, folks. It is very frustrating that, across the House, certain parties say one thing at the pulpit on a Monday and do something entirely different on the Tuesday. It damages confidence in the House and these institutions.
There are big concerns about the guidance on education. I know that many MLAs will have heard from schools in their constituencies about the lack of guidance on the reopening of schools that gives confidence to principals, teachers, parents and people who work in the school environment that, when schools can be reopened, the health and safety of people in the wider school environment can be ensured. When guidance and regulations are being drip fed through the BBC, that also damages confidence in the House and the Executive.
It is not acceptable that principals and teachers are hearing about what is expected of them when they are expected to ensure the health and safety of children. They will be the first who will be exposed to large groupings of young people in schools, in small classrooms. Even with one-metre restrictions in place, which I welcome, there are still significant risks because our schools will be expected to reopen. There is no extra money in the budget, there is no money in place to protect staff or ensure the safety and health of our children and young people. That is the point that I am making overall.
For us and for the public to have confidence in this place, in our Executive and in us as legislators, if we are going to make announcements and continue making them to ensure that our society can unlock itself and emerge from this safely and to prevent a recurrence or spike of this infection, we need to provide all the details clearly and remove any ambiguity around what is expected in the guidelines.
I will finish on this point: it becomes very, very frustrating for me each and every day to take calls from the public and not be able to clarify their concern or question because we have not received the information that is necessary to do so. If we are serious about ensuring confidence in this House and this Assembly, particularly when people's lives are at stake, let us get the finer details and the most simplest of things right at least.
Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I apologise. I thought that my name was on the list from earlier. I really appreciate you allowing me to come in now. I will follow on from Mr McCrossan's contribution when he mentioned the lucky-dip approach to how different aspects of relaxing lockdown are coming forward. I will not take too long today, but I ask the Executive and Ministers to absolutely consider putting the people back to the forefront of our lockdown relaxations.
Like many in this room, I am inundated day in, day out by calls from carers who are at breaking point across our society. They have no respite care, they have no day centres, they have no breaks, they are depending on food parcels, and for those who do not have a shielding letter from their GP, those finished last week.
We have a community out there that is looking to us to show leadership. We have a community out there that needs our help. We have a community out there that is still scared. As my colleague Paula Bradshaw said very clearly, when the easements come forward, they must come with robust guidelines. We still need to help people to understand how to look after themselves when the footsteps are going forward to lead them back into normal society again. When will they get the guidance that says, "As a carer, thank you very much for the last 12 or 13 weeks of looking after" — this could be an 80-year-old — "your their disabled adult son or daughter. Thank you for doing that. We know that you have been on your own. You have been stuck in the house with that person. You have done everything. Normally, you could have got a bit of respite". Do we have any guidance coming forward for those people that says, "OK. We are going to help now. The state is going to help you again"?
I know that we are debating amendment (No. 5) and amendment (No. 6) to the regulations today, and amendment (No. 8) and amendment (No. 9) are planned for the future. Can we please bring people back to the focus? Carers do not understand why a hotel, a pub and a hairdresser are more important than they are. While I appreciate that we need to get our economy back up and running, can you imagine the cost to each and every person across Northern Ireland if our carers collapse? When those people go, our health service will completely collapse.
I am making a call today to please provide robust guidance from Health, from Communities, from whatever Department it needs to come from to help those carers understand that they have not been forgotten about, that we know that they have worked so hard over the last number of weeks on their own without the support mechanisms that would normally be in place.
Constituents need to know what the changes mean.
Up until very recently, when you clicked into the coronavirus legislation, there was a document that spelt out for you exactly what it meant — what businesses were open and what it meant for individuals. That has not been updated since 12 June. Can we please do that? It was a useful document to share with people, but we have nothing to give them now, as has been highlighted by others. It is time that we put people back to the front and started to look after our society so that their mental health is not in such a terrible way when we come out of this that they cannot cope.
I welcome today's debate and thank Members for the contributions that they have made. I will turn directly to the points that some Members have made and try to focus on the questions that they asked and the clarifications they sought, first and foremost.
I begin with the Chairman of the Executive Office Committee, who suggested that early referral to the Ad Hoc Committee would be useful and provide for scrutiny and clarification. I am certainly more than happy to take that back to Executive colleagues, but I again remind the Member that we are under a duty to terminate these regulations as soon as we believe that they are no longer required in order to protect public health. Additionally, a lot of the time when we are making announcements, we are giving indicative dates, so hopefully there is that time for people to plan and prepare.
Mr Gildernew was next. He made a number of comments, but he will be pleased to hear that, since he spoke, the Health Minister has confirmed that changes will be made in relation to hospital visits, visits in care home settings, and partners being able to attend scans for pregnant women, as well as fathers now being able to attend the birth of their child. I know that that was a hugely important issue and I was delighted to be able to send a message to one of my constituents who had contacted me and asked me to lobby for this on his behalf. He said that he was absolutely delighted; he and his partner had broken down in tears because it was such an important thing for them to be able to do. He was delighted that I was able to share that good news with him, and I look forward to baby Gordon coming along in a few weeks' time. Maybe they will take that on board as a suggestion.
Turning to the remarks of Pam Cameron, I welcome her support for the changes that allow a return to family life. I certainly agree with her that the mental health and well-being benefits that result from that are vital.
I will touch on Kellie Armstrong's comments towards the end, but she mentioned that we need to put people first. I contend that we have put people first throughout this pandemic. We have been concerned, first and foremost, about their health and well-being. We have been concerned about their jobs and their economic prosperity. We have been concerned about their mental health. We have been concerned about how they are able to interact with their family and friends, and all of the other societal issues. I accept the points that she made about carers, but it is certainly the case that we have put people first and foremost in all that we have done.
I also echo Mrs Cameron's support for the restoration of the economy and the effective partnership working with businesses, trade unions and councils which is, of course, essential for our communities and for our high streets as well.
Ms Bradshaw is still in her place. I want to acknowledge, again, her concern about scrutiny in relation to these issues. It is the nature of the regulations that we have brought through that it is up to the Minister of Health to terminate them whenever it is necessary. I hope that these debates have been useful for Members to raise additional concerns. We have tried to hold them as close as possible to the times when the regulations are introduced, but I can understand the points that she made and will of course take back her agreement with Mr McGrath's suggestion that we look into how the Ad Hoc Committee could be better used in communicating changes and guidance.
In terms of the risks that she mentioned, especially in relation to indoor activities, I want to assure the Member that every decision that is taken by the Executive takes account of the professional, medical and scientific advice of the CMO and the CSA. Risk assessments are done. We do not, as some Members have said, just pick ideas out of a hat or pursue our own narrow interests. We take all of this with a very collective approach.
I welcome Mr Chambers's acknowledgement of our relative success in tackling the pandemic. I do not think that it is the time or that it is appropriate for a victory lap for anybody, and I am sure that the Member will agree. However, I agree with him that the successes that we have had are down to the actions and the responsibility of the people of Northern Ireland, and it is absolutely right that we put that on the record and, again, thank those in our health and social care sector who have done so much to protect us and the ones who we love. He is absolutely right that it continues to be the case that citizen behaviour is key in all of this. As I said in my remarks earlier, it is not just about how we can enforce these regulations. We are entering into a social contract with people, and they need to ensure that they are following the letter and the spirit of the law.
I also thank Mr Chambers for the very eloquent way in which he spoke about the widow who he mentioned and the very sad circumstances surrounding that funeral. As I acknowledged in my earlier comments, this has been a very difficult time for people who have lost a loved one, and we have to thank those who went through that difficult time and still adhered to the regulations.
Mr O'Toole also mentioned scrutiny. It was a common theme through this debate, and we will certainly do all that we can to allow Members to have proper scrutiny. He did, however, mention the timing of the opening of the pubs and said that he believes that Friday evening in the middle of summer is a bad time to open those pubs. I dare say that we could have had criticism for opening the pubs at any time of the week, but it is important to note that we did work with the sector. We talked with the sector about these issues, and it is also important to note that we did give a lead-in time to help those bars and restaurants to prepare. I also note that we are not just opening pubs for alcohol sales only. That will help to bring this in in a managed way because, probably in most cases, people will have to book a table and sit down. There will not be a lot of milling around, and it should not be the case that these places are overcrowded. I also make the point that there is no requirement on anybody to open. If people feel that they need more time or that they would like to wait a few days, that is up to them. They have that choice and the ability to do that.
I thank the Minister very much for giving way. Will he agree that you do not have to work behind a bar to agree with the idea that, on a summer Friday afternoon, there are more likely to be crowds attending pubs anywhere? That is a matter of arithmetic because it is a Friday afternoon and people are not working the next day. There is a reason why, for example, the South of Ireland and Scotland have chosen to open licensed premises on a Monday. Will he agree that it would be, in that sense, safer to manage crowds to open on a Monday?
I understand the point that the Member is making, however we are living in a very different time. Perhaps a lot of people are not in that place where they want to be going out yet. I am not sure how much different it is going to be. I think that there could also be a rush for a lot of people who are eager to see them open, and, whether that was happening on a Monday or a Friday, they would want to have gone and would have booked their table or whatever else. This is not an opening of the doors and seeing who is coming in. In most places, there will probably be a need to book a table beforehand because of the nature of the restrictions that will be in place because of social distancing and so on. The Member has made his point and put it on the record.
Miss Woods is absolutely right to say that the recovery plan is not linear, and we never said that it was going to be. This was always going to be our approach to decision-making on opening up parts of our economy again. The proposals are considered by the whole Executive, and we take all of the medical and scientific advice into account. Remember, we are required to lift these restrictions as soon as we do not believe that it is necessary to have them. That means that, in some cases, we have been able to move further on with some of the regulations than with others. That is why in the plan sometimes we were at step 4 where step 1 had not been completed. That is natural, and I think that it was wise for us to have an agile plan so that we did not have to rush things forward sooner than we needed to do, and we are not waiting on the slowest part before opening up other areas. <BR/>I notice that she raised specific concerns about guidance for pubs, and I am more than happy to draw her concerns about that to the Economy Minister, who, I am sure, will consider them carefully.
I will come on to Miss Woods's comment on enforcement and the issues around the protests, in particular. I will also touch on Mr Carroll's comments, although we have been over this the last time we were in the Chamber for this matter. There continues to be an insinuation that, in some way, Ministers or officials within the Department for Health were trying to pull a fast one and bring this legislation in to specifically target Black Lives Matter. I see that Mr Carroll is agreeing with what I am saying. Let me make it clear, once more, and put it on the record that a drafting error in the amendment (No. 3) regulations, which came into operation at 11.00 pm on 19 May, meant that it was not an offence to breach the new restriction in regulation 6A relating to outdoor gatherings of up to six people.
Regulation 6A was intended to be a concession in respect of families and friends, who do not live in the same household, to enable a small group of up to six friends or family to meet outdoors in places such as a private garden or a public park. Regulation 6, which relates solely to a gathering in a public place of more than two people has never been repealed and has applied from the outset and, accordingly, there has been no interruption to the enforcement powers relating to public gatherings under regulation 6. The omission in regulation 6A was noticed and corrected on the same day by way of an urgent technical amendment included in the amendment (No. 5) regulations, which came into operation at 11.00 pm on 5 June. The amendment (No. 5) regulations were being made that day, following Executive decisions to allow the lifting of some restrictions relating to outdoor marriages and civil partnerships, animal welfare, holiday accommodation and certain types of retail and wholesale premises from 6 June. PSNI and the Department of Justice colleagues were advised of the position on the same morning that the error came to light and were further advised that the error would be addressed by way of an amendment to the regulations to be commenced later that day.
I understand that no fixed penalty notices were issued by the PSNI for a breach of the restriction in regulation 6A, 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 that had come to light that day. The timing of the Black Lives Matter protests on 6 June was purely coincidental, and the operational enforcement of the regulations is a matter for the PSNI. It is the second time that I have explained that to the Member and the House. He is still of the opinion and does not accept what I am saying. He has said that it is not just him, but others as well. I think that he said earlier on in the debate that no anti-racist would believe what we are saying on this. That is certainly not the case. Whether or not he, or others, choose to accept this is up to them but that is the position of the Executive and the Department of Health, and I have read that into the record.
I want to come next to the comments of Mr Allister. I have already said, in my opening comments and to Mr Chambers, that an awful lot of people in our country have had to forgo the normal and traditional funeral arrangements, that are a normal part of the grieving process in Northern Ireland. Mr McCrossan also mentioned the very sad death of Mr Dallat, his party colleague, and their inability to attend the funeral. I said earlier, in the Chamber, that I had not seen the footage. I now have and I agree with the Minister of Health that there appears to be a clear breach of the regulations. The regulations are very clear, and that is what we are here to talk about today, that only 30 people are allowed to attend an outdoor gathering related to a funeral.
Is the Minister now advising people that, under no circumstances, should they line the streets when a funeral is taking place; under no circumstances should neighbours come out and stand on the streets, as the cortege passes; and, under no circumstances, can anyone pay their respects from the roadside? That is what he appears to be saying.
That is not what I am saying. I understand that many people have taken part in standing outside their houses or standing on a roadside; that is not what I am referring to today. With regard to the numbers that I saw, I do not want to go into the detail —.
I am repeating what the Minister of Health said: there appears to be a clear breach of the regulations. It is also clear that, when people are moving or when there is a cortege — this is talking about any event — that is limited to 30 people. I do not believe that that was the case today. That is exceptionally worrying for people who have had a forgo a funeral, and it is very unfair. I think that, if you were to ask people today what they thought, they would accept that it is unfair that it appears that some people are allowed to do one thing but others have to do another. I recognise that the police have said that they are reviewing the footage and that it is their responsibility, but the point that I want to make is that it is exceptionally important that we not only follow the regulations that are set down but adhere to social distancing. Social distancing may not be written down in the regulations, but it is a key part of what we need to do to ensure that we control the virus.
As I said, I do not want us to get into the position that Leicester finds itself in. It would be a terrible tragedy for our economy if we had to go back to locking things up. That would be wrong, and it is not where I want to be. I appeal to people, whether it is young people taking part in gatherings or people taking part in funerals or any other sort of gathering, to please adhere to the regulations and please adhere to social distancing. We are trying to combat a disease, and we need everybody's assistance in that.
I want to mention another issue that Mr Allister raised in relation to marriages indoors. The limit of 30 applies to indoor weddings for people who are terminally ill, which are the only circumstances in which indoor weddings are permitted at present. I understand the concerns that Mr Allister has raised and the inconsistency he raised in relation to weddings. The Executive have committed to looking at the issue again. There are other consequences that we need to think of, for example weddings that take place outside church settings, in private hotels or whatever it might be, but, as for all indoor events, we will keep that under review.
On the issue of marriage, the churches are opened up for people to meet, as Mr Allister said. You say that you are keeping this under review: when will the Executive look at the issue? Constituents have got on to me because they have had to cancel or postpone their wedding. They wonder whether the Executive have forgotten about them. They are still looking to get married and wonder when they will get married. There is little guidance for them, apart from, as has been said in the House, a fair-weather wedding. That is simply not good enough, when we have moved on to seeking to get reopened and to a more normal type of society, albeit with all the restrictions that we have to keep in place. When churches can open and funerals can be held in them and other aspects, surely to goodness we can get them opened up for people who want to get married in a church setting and in a church building? We know what marriage is. It is between a man and a woman. It is traditional, and people want to hold on to it. They want to get married, but they are being held back from doing that. It is time that the Executive took the matter seriously, looked at it and made a decision for people to get married in their own church.
I thank Mr Buchanan for his comments. I completely agree that there are lots of young couples out there who are keen to get married and want to get married in the churches. They look at the services that are now able to take place in churches, they look at funerals that are able to take place in churches and they say, "Why not us? Why can we not have weddings?". I am sympathetic to the point that the Member made. I trust that Executive colleagues will be able to look at that in the coming days. We need to look at the unintended consequences of that, realising that weddings can take place in other areas and wanting to make sure that there is equity in relation to that.
While we are on the subject of churches, it would be remiss of me not to place on record my thanks to the churches working group, which has done fantastic work over the last number of days and has put together guidance. I am pleased that we are now able to move to a position where churches are able to reopen with a great degree of freedom. The Executive have not placed onerous restrictions on them, but, again, with churches as with the rest of society, with that extra freedom comes responsibility, and we need to make sure that we are responsible.
I think that I have dealt with most of Mr McCrossan's comments in my responses to other Members, but I again make it clear that, when the Executive make a decision on the relaxation of restrictions, it is based on three very clear criteria: the scientific and medical advice that is available, the ability of the health service to cope and the wider societal impacts of any restrictions on the economy, families etc.
Minister, thank you for touching on those issues. I welcome the reopening of society; I just want the guidance to be crystal clear. Until now, it has been as clear as mud, and that is the issue for our society. We need to be clear about what the regulations mean as we ease the lockdown.
It has been easy for us to turn everything off and to flick the switch off. It has been a lot more difficult to open up, because we are opening up in a very controlled way. We are opening up in a way that, sometimes, involves additional restrictions. I completely understand the frustrations that the Member feels when he does not have the answers to the questions that constituents ask. With every set of relaxations, it is clear that there are always people who do not fit neatly into some of the categories that we have announced or there are other issues that constituents have for us. I can understand the Member's frustration about that, but he can get in contact with the relevant Department through the departmental Assembly liaison officer, and it will hopefully be able to provide that guidance and that additional reassurance to the Member.
I waited until you got through everybody before raising this. At the beginning, you mentioned the suggestion that I made about going to the Ad Hoc Committee and said that there was a bit that was not clear. I want to clear that matter up. The idea would be that, if you make announcements on a Thursday and a Monday, the Ad Hoc Committee would meet on the Thursday after to clarify any questions that Members have. It is not about agreeing to the changes; it is the questions that you get. A number of Members have mentioned that, when a statement is made, there is a lack of clarity. We get bombarded with questions, and, if we have to go through the departmental system, it can take weeks to get the answers back, which just adds to the confusion. If Ministers were able to come on the Thursday after the announcements have been made, we would be able to seek that clarity and deliver it straight back, which would be a much better system. It is not about agreeing to the changes, which, I think, you mentioned at the beginning.
I appreciate the Member's comments. I will certainly take that to Executive colleagues, seek their views on that and come back to the Member. It may not always be the case, though, that the regulations fall exactly to one Minister, but the point remains that, if there are issues of clarification, I encourage Members to get in contact with us. We will also examine the other ways in which that can take place. The Assembly needs to have its place, and the Assembly can be exceptionally useful in making sure that we have the extra clarification that we need on some of the issues.
I think that I have answered most of the questions and queries from Members. If there is anything further that they wish me to address, I will be happy to take that from them in writing and get back to them. In the meantime, I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved: