The regulations will provide a new exemption from seat belt-wearing laws for ambulance personnel when they are providing urgent treatment to patients in the rear of the ambulance. It is made under article 23 of the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.
Under current law, all adults are required to wear a seat belt, when fitted, with some exceptions. While one of those exceptions relates to the emergency services, it does not extend to ambulance personnel. Ambulance personnel could be prosecuted for removing their seat belt to care for a patient whilst riding in the rear of an ambulance. The current operational practice is for everyone in an ambulance to wear a seat belt unless to do so would impair the treatment of a patient. The proposed change will support current operational practice and ensure that healthcare professionals riding in motor ambulances can carry out their duties properly without infringing seat belt legislation. It will also ensure parity between ambulance, police and fire professionals when performing the duties required of an emergency service.
The new regulations specifically state that seat belts should only be removed:
"while that person is providing medical treatment to a patient which due to its nature or the medical condition of the patient cannot be delayed; or because of the medical situation of the individual being treated."
I expect ambulance personnel to use their discretion when determining what treatment cannot be delayed in any given case. The legislation does not specify which persons are covered by the exemption. That should ensure that any person who provides urgent treatment to a patient whilst travelling in an ambulance will be able to rely on the exemption. I anticipate that that will primarily be paramedics, emergency medical technicians and other ambulance personnel, but it could be other medical personnel such as doctors and nurses. While not explicit, it is not anticipated that the exemption will extend to the driver of the ambulance.
The regulations also revoke a statutory rule similar to the one before you today that was made in 2016 but that could not be affirmed because of the suspension of the Assembly in January 2017. The 2016 rule technically remains on the statute book, so it is necessary to ensure that it is revoked to remove any ambiguity around the proper operational date of the exemption being granted.
In concluding, Mr Deputy Speaker, I take the opportunity to place on record my gratitude and appreciation to all those working in our Ambulance Service and across our emergency services for the invaluable work that they do every day but particularly the work that they have done to keep us all safe during the COVID-19 crisis. I commend the motion to the Assembly and ask that it affirm the regulations.
I welcome the opportunity to speak as Chair of the Committee for Infrastructure on this statutory rule. The Committee initially considered the proposal for the rule at its meeting on 29 April this year and welcomed its introduction by the Department. The rule itself was then approved by the Committee on 3 June. Although its consideration and approval was relatively quick and simple, it was the culmination of a far longer process, as the legislation has been a considerable time in the making. It was initially intended that the regulations would become operational in March 2017, following a consultation in 2016. The regulations were not debated or affirmed, however, as a consequence of the suspension of the Assembly in January 2017, and it is only now, after that hiatus, that the issue can be addressed.
The rule itself amends the Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993. It creates an exemption for ambulance personnel from the requirement to wear a seat belt when providing emergency treatment to patients in ambulances. The requirement for compulsory use of seat belts in vehicles comes from Council directive 91/671/EEC. That is reflected in the 1993 Northern Ireland regulations, whereby all adults are required to wear a seat belt, where fitted. The 1993 regulations do provide for some exemptions, one of which relates to the emergency services, but that exemption does not extend to ambulance personnel. That means that they could be prosecuted for removing their seat belt in order to care for a patient while riding in the rear of an ambulance. The statutory rule provides an exemption from that requirement and therefore gives much-needed clarity to the Ambulance Service, as well as removing the potential threat of prosecution or of a fixed penalty under the 1993 regulations.
The rule also ensures parity between the position of ambulance professionals and other emergency services, such as the police and fire professionals, when performing the duties required of an emergency service. Therefore, having considered its detail and purpose, the Committee for Infrastructure is content with the rule.
Our ambulance workers play a critical role daily by transporting those who are unwell. A lot of the time, they do so in emergency situations. The last thing that our ambulance personnel need to be worrying about when performing their essential duties is that they are at risk of prosecution, when they should be concentrating on their patients' immediate care. The change will provide clarity for the Ambulance Service and remove the potential threat of prosecution. The amendment to existing regulations is to be welcomed.
I had sought further clarity on the consultation from departmental officials and the Minister to ensure that there were no road safety issues for ambulance personnel and patients themselves, and I am content that I got that clarity. I am therefore content to support the regulations.
I thank the Chair of the Committee and its members for their support in taking forward the regulations, as well as for their contributions today. As both the Chair and Cathal Boylan pointed out, the rule addresses an anomaly that we were not able to address owing to the collapse of the Assembly. It is an important step forward in removing the risk of prosecution but also in bringing much-needed clarity to our ambulance personnel as they carry out their daily duties of making sure that we are all safe and saving lives.
In concluding, I ask the Assembly to affirm the regulations before us today.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved: