Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 9) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 21st July 2020.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 10:30 am, 21st July 2020

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

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Éirím leis an rún a chur chun cinn. I beg to move

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 9) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on this debate. I call the Minister to open the debate on the motion.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

There are two motions before the Assembly today, and with your permission I will address both of those in my remarks. I will begin by outlining the changes brought about by these regulations and the reasons behind the Executive's decisions.

First, amendment No 9 contained only one substantive amendment. Regulations 6, 6(a) and 6(b), which place restrictions on gatherings, are amended to allow for gatherings of up to 30 people in public places and outdoors. Allowing up to 30 people who are not members of the same household to meet together outdoors is consistent with step 3 of Executive's approach to decision-making. The Executive considered that this relaxation would offer benefits in terms of personal well-being, the promotion of responsible social interaction and a sense of a gradual return to normality. I am sure that we would all welcome that. It means that, for the first time in many months, our citizens have the opportunity to meet with their friends and family and share time together.

Secondly, amendment No 10 contained a set of substantive amendments that reflect decisions taken by the Executive on 2 July. Those decisions were taken after careful consideration of the available scientific and medical advice, and they are line with the timetable of indicative dates previously published by the Executive in order to facilitate the reopening of businesses and other services. The amendments include that regulation 5 on restrictions on movements and regulations 6(a) and 6(b) on restrictions on gatherings are amended to permit the reopening of museums, galleries and betting shops from 3 July.

Regulations 5, 6(a) and 6(b) are also amended to permit the reopening of massage, tattooing and piercing businesses from 6 July, and to permit the reopening of spas from 6 July, but not insofar as they provide services relating to water or steam.

Regulations 5, 6(a) and 6(b) are further amended to permit the restricted opening of restaurants and bars in registered clubs from 3 July.

Some changes have also been made for reasons of consistency and clarity. First, the reference in regulation 5 to who might attend a funeral has been removed, now that the number of people permitted to gather outside has been increased. Secondly, a change has been made to regulation 6 to clarify that summer schools and schemes can operate. Thirdly, technical amendments have been made to regulations 3 and 6 to correct the numbering of sub-paragraphs and to clarify that beer gardens can sell and serve alcohol without food.

These relaxations are aimed at boosting well-being and allowing our citizens to re-engage with our tourism, cultural and service infrastructure. They will assist in the restart of the economy by helping to protect the jobs of those who work in those sectors and their wider supply chains, and, importantly, will contribute towards an increased sense of normality.

As I explained before, the Executive will not be rushed into making decisions simply as a result of artificial deadlines or to match decisions taking place in other jurisdictions. As we have discussed in the past, we have come a long way from when the coronavirus restriction regulations were first laid. We have seen great progress as a result of everyone's concerted efforts in the intervening period.

Regrettably, other places have not experienced our relative progress to date.

D’éirigh leis na rialacha agus le cur chuige an Fheidmeannais maidir leis na srianta a mhaolú agus tá siad ag obair de réir a chéile. The regulations and the Executive's approach to easing restrictions have worked and are continuing to work. Sábháladh beatha. Lives have been saved. Our health and social care systems have not been overwhelmed. Businesses are beginning to reopen and services are returning. Our citizens for the first time in a long time are beginning to enjoy being able to do more, but it is important to acknowledge that the battle against COVID-19 is far from over. We cannot afford to drop our guard for a moment when it comes to keeping people safe.

All those relaxations were agreed on the basis of the most up to date medical and scientific advice. Crucially, they were adopted with the stipulation that all relevant public guidance and mitigating measures be implemented in advance of those sectors reopening.

I will now take the opportunity to note some of the other changes that have been agreed since the amendment regulations being debated today were laid. On Thursday 9 July, the Executive agreed a range of other measures. Those included the reopening of cinemas, bingo halls, amusement arcades, indoor fitness suites, indoor and outdoor gyms, and playgrounds from 10 July; a return to competitive sporting events without spectators, both at grassroots and professional level, which extends to include horse racing and equestrian competitions, from 11 July; the reopening of libraries from 16 July; the reopening of indoor leisure centres or facilities but not swimming pools from 17 July; and the resumption of indoor wedding, baptism and civil partnership ceremonies, with numbers to be determined by the venue on a risk-assessed basis. The Executive also agreed that the wearing of face coverings on public transport would become mandatory from 10 July, except for people for whom an exemption applies.

Those changes were given effect in the amendment (No. 11) regulations, which were made on 9 July. Members will have an opportunity to debate those measures in due course. We are now at an important point in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are beginning to look beyond the response phase towards the actions that will be needed to secure a robust and sustainable recovery, to rebuild public services and for us to seek to restore more normal ways of living.

Is é dúshlán atá romhainn anois ná teacht ar na bealaí agus na modhanna chun é sin a bhaint amach le go mbeadh muid ábalta ruaig eile den aicíd mharfach seo a bhainistiú más gá. The challenge facing us now is to find the ways and means to achieve that whilst managing the risk of a second wave of this deadly virus, were that to transpire. The Executive will therefore be monitoring the impact of all the relaxations very carefully. We are prepared to reintroduce restrictions if that is considered necessary in order to control the virus, but our focus needs to be on ensuring that that does not happen. Vigilance and caution will continue to be essential as we move through the coming weeks. All the practical advice continues to apply. Fanaigí ar shiúl ó chéile. Nígí bhur lámha. Keep your distance, and wash your hands well and often. A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, molaim an rún agus na rialacha don Tionól. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am speaking on behalf of the Committee for the Executive Office. There has been much debate in the Assembly and its Committees, and, indeed, in the media, about recent amendment regulations. Although the Committee for the Executive Office has discussed issues around the outworkings and alleged breaches of the regulations, it does not have responsibility for scrutinising the legislation. The statutory responsibility for that lies with the Health Committee, and I am sure that its Chair will provide a detailed commentary. The Committee for the Executive Office welcomes, however, the timely lifting of all the restrictions that are mentioned and encourages continued discipline and compliance with them.

I will now make a few remarks as an SDLP representative and highlight the fact that this continues to be a worrying time with a number of spikes in community transmission. People have been very worried about the outbreaks in places such as Limavady. That scares people, and we need to continue to do all that we can to manage our behaviours and approaches to everyday life so that they are done in a safe manner.

Today's restrictions that are eased include the allowing of gatherings of up to 30 people outdoors and permit the reopening of key businesses and high street venues to allow a greater sense of normality to return. Now we can go to museums, beauty parlours, spas, bars and restaurants and see summer schools take place, but always underpinning the relaxations is the need to remember to keep to social distancing guidelines and to wash our hands.

Businesses across these islands have been impacted the most, yet some have had to bear the brunt more than others. Our hospitality sector has felt the full whack of the pandemic and for it to be permitted to reopen, in even a small way, is a move in the right direction for it.

The regulations continue to cause confusion. I worry about an Executive who cannot relay messages to people and then get upset when people do not stick to the guidelines. Well, if you do not even stick to the guidelines yourselves, what hope is there that people in our communities will stick to them? People are angry at the "One rule for us and one rule for them" that some have displayed. Ministers, please go back to Stormont Castle today and shout "Clarity" at the top of your voice. Let simple, clear and effective messages be the mantra from here on. Stop the confusion. Stop the double standards. Let people know exactly what they can and cannot do in a way that is easy to understand. As my Committee has heard, you have 45 or more press officers, the cream of the crop. They should be able to help you to spread the message clearly.

Let us not fall into the trap, which is easy to fall into, of trying to make the pandemic a green-and-orange issue, an us-and-them battle a day. I ask the Executive Office and its Ministers to pull together and to do what is in the best interests of people here on the basis of the scientific advice that is available to you. The restrictions impact all of us, be it where you can go, whom you can be with and even if and when you can go on holiday. Most of us have stuck by the rules and have ensured that we lead by example. Some Members have felt the heat of that more than others in recent days. I think of my close family members overseas, whom I have not been able to see since last year, but rules are rules.

The anomalies of the guidelines continue. If we examine what is being cleared today and introduced a few weeks ago, we see that we now permit 30 people to gather outdoors in a socially distanced manner but not if they choose to watch a sporting event. It is an oddity that people can gather in large numbers to eat and drink indoors yet cannot gather outdoors to watch a sport, even with proper social-distancing and safety measures in place. I hope, for the immediate future of the GAA, soccer and other sports, that that rule is revisited tomorrow at the Executive meeting and that the Minister can give us his view on it today. Many of those sports need the gate fees from attendees to survive. They can do it safely. They can do it properly. They just need the Executive to be on their side. I hope that that is possible and that we see the change tomorrow. I wrote to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to ask for that change, and I hope that it will be reflected in what we hear being proposed tomorrow. I hope, too, that other Members here today will support me in their contributions in order to help our sporting community to allow spectators back safely to sporting events.

I welcome the further easements detailed today. I believe that all of us should support them, and I encourage clarity at all times.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin 10:45 am, 21st July 2020

Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá ar leasú uimhir a naoi agus ar leasú uimhir a deich. I will speak about the amendment (No. 9) and amendment (No. 10) regulations, which the Health Committee was briefing about on 9 July. The Chief Environmental Health Officer (CEHO) advised us of the main easements for each, as outlined by the junior Minister this morning, and reminded the Committee of the 21-day period and the process for bringing proposed easements to the Executive for consideration. Once again, the Committee enquired about the commencement dates applying to different easements and was reminded that changes are made as quickly as possible since, under the original regulations, restrictions must be withdrawn as soon as they are considered unnecessary.

A number of members raised concerns about notice and preparation time for those affected. It was noted, for example, that the amendment that increased from 10 to 30 the maximum number of people who could gather outdoors came into effect on the same evening as the regulations were laid. Members enquired whether advance notice was given to, for example, the PSNI ahead of changes to regulations. The Chief Environmental Health Officer had no knowledge of advance notice being given to enforcement authorities at that time.

The Committee again enquired about the scientific evidence underpinning decision-making and noted that a written request for further detail remains pending. Again, assurances were sought in relation to the health and safety of workers in light of the recent outbreaks in Leicester and in Germany. We were advised that the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser monitor situations elsewhere and keep regulations under constant review.

The CEHO also confirmed that work was under way to restructure the regulations to improve clarity and coherence, given that there have been so many sets of amendments. It is clear that we have moved from a list of reasons to leave home, which has grown so lengthy that it would now make more sense to state what is not permissible.

Further to a question on guidance, the CEHO advised that the Department that sponsors a particular change is responsible for producing any guidance required on it.

The Examiner of Statutory Rules had not had a chance to report on the regulations prior to the Committee’s consideration, since they had been laid only a few days earlier. The Committee, therefore, agreed to support both statutory regulations, subject to the Examiner’s report. The Examiner has since reported and has raised no issues with the regulations.

I want to make a few remarks in my role as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. It is important that we consider the reality that clusters may become all-too-frequent occurrences here. It is vital that testing, contact tracing, self-isolation and supports are in place to meet the needs of those who are tested and test positive. We saw a recent example of that in the Limavady area. It is welcome that the system was able to respond to that cluster, but we need to ensure that vigilance remains to monitor and manage such situations as and when they arise.

I am concerned at reports that some testing kits produced by Randox do not meet safety standards. I urge the Minister to come forward with information and provide answers on how that affects the North. I sincerely hope that there is no risk to citizens and it does not put anyone off or deter them from being tested. Undoubtedly, testing remains an important part of the public health response, but so does the issue of personal protective equipment (PPE). I also worry that the Randox issue could negatively impact on the capacity for testing that is required, and I would like to hear further information about that.

As restrictions are lifted, it is important that we remember that many key workers still need access to vital PPE to do their job. This week, dentists have been allowed to open up, but they are doing aerosol-generating procedures, and concerns remain about their access to vital PPE and who is expected to provide and source it. The issue should be resolved as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I felt somewhat deflated as I thought about this speech. The unity of purpose that typified the response of the Assembly and Executive is now sadly so damaged. I have often referred to the importance of a united approach in dealing with COVID-19, but we now see more and more that one party and its selfish objectives trump all else. That is very disappointing. The public share my sense of disappointment, anger and disillusionment with those for whom public health and adherence to our own rules were cast aside. We still have had no apology.

I turn to the specifics of the amendments. I welcome the fact that we now have an increase in the numbers allowed at outdoor gatherings to 30. Socially, we have some way to go, whether that is to reinvigorate the community or attend family or other events.

It is also worth remembering that the figure of 30 is the total for the gathering, not an element. For some, I think, that clarity is needed.

Obviously, alongside the public health considerations, the priority in all these decisions is the economic well-being of our people. Jobs must be protected. It is good that more services, including contact industries, have reopened, but I urge the Executive to do more to signpost employers and business owners who are already stressed to relevant guidance on how to operate safely.

We will have much more to do in the journey back to normality. A walk down the high street in Northern Ireland shows us the challenges that we face. Shutters are down, some permanently, and each business gone represents jobs lost and households that have been plunged into uncertainty. As we look ahead, we must ensure that we look at the most effective ways to sustain those businesses. Sticking-plaster solutions do not work. An opportunity to do things differently is before us and we should have everything on the table to ignite our economy.

In the last day or two, we have heard much about whether it is right or wrong to travel on holiday and whether quarantine is necessary. Further clarity is needed, and I welcome the First Minister's comments that there needs to be a further tidying up of the regulations and the subject of essential travel. I urge the Executive to concentrate on actual science-based evidence and, perhaps, the junior Minister can furnish the House with the relevant R rates, not just in Northern Ireland but across England, Scotland and Wales and, indeed, those of our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland. As an Assembly, we need to give clear guidance and the general public want to know what they can do and how they can do that with as little risk as possible.

Test, track, trace and isolate is now in place, so let us keep reminding people to be tested if any of the symptoms of COVID-19 are present. Let us keep a distance from others and wash our hands. Let us volunteer to wear face coverings in shops. Let us look after ourselves and each other.

From a health perspective, I again make a plea for the urgent reopening of services. I also highlight the plight of dental practices and urge the Minister to engage with the sector to ensure that it is protected throughout this difficult period. The wider issues have been well highlighted and the rationales are clear. Just this morning, we heard from a consultant orthopaedic surgeon, Mr Gavan McAlinden, who aired his fears and frustrations about the pace of reopening surgeries. Mr McAlinden said that their advocacy for their suffering patients was falling on deaf ears. That concerns me and I am worried that we are not even listening to our clinicians now.

Many people, including my husband, are waiting for general surgery. Many are suffering and are in great pain and that is due to the lack of our health services at this time. Waiting lists, which were already at an all-time high before the pandemic, are growing. The Department is quite rightly trying to suppress the virus and we are all eternally grateful to all the Department of Health staff and all our amazing health workers, who go far beyond the call of duty to look after others. If this is an opportunity to transform services so that they can work more efficiently and safely, then let us do that, but let us do that with haste and recognition that the people of Northern Ireland are suffering and deserve to have services resumed as a matter of urgency. Of course, that all adds to mental health issues, and I urge the Assembly to back the Minister in reopening health services with the utmost urgency. How many will lose their lives or become incapacitated because of the lack of action to resume healthcare?

In conclusion, I welcome that visitor attractions, museums, galleries and bookmaking offices have been able to resume business. I thank the public and appeal for continued compliance with the guidance and adherence to the regulations. Let us remember what this is about: it is about saving lives. I am also very proud of those who organised very safe, lawful Twelfth celebrations this year. That is something to be proud of. I support the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 9) Regulations (NI) 2020 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 10) Regulations (NI) 2020.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I rise without a prepared speech because I am so angry that I could bite something. While the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 9) Regulations (NI) 2020 allow people to go and stay in overnight accommodation, even though we had a cross-party motion in the House that recognised the pressure on carers, we still cannot have overnight respite care for people with disabilities or older people. I appreciate that the rules and regulations are being laid in a specific way that adheres to legislation, but our carers' needs are falling on deaf ears.

I say to both junior Ministers this morning, "Go back to the Executive and ask the Executive to sort things out for carers". We heard, over the past few days, that some respite services may be available and that daycare centres may be open for 10% of the people with learning disabilities and older people. Honestly. We have carers who have been working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 16 weeks. They are at breaking point. How many times do we have to ask in this place for their needs to be recognised? Fantastic: we can all go and stay in a B & B, we can go to the bookies, but we cannot give a carer a break.

I am so angry about this. We worked so hard together as parties to recognise the needs of carers and of those with disabilities, who, to be quite honest, are sick looking at their family because they still cannot go out through the door. We are not looking after them. I reiterate what Pam Cameron said: we need to look after ourselves and one another. I ask the junior Ministers please to put carers at the front of the queue. They have been part of the rainbow of heroes throughout the pandemic; they have worked quietly in the background, and, as has been recognised in the motion, they have been scared, they have been alone, they have been isolated, and they have done all that without much thanks or any recognition.

I push for the next regulations, the ones that have not yet been written — we already know what they are; they have been talked about today — to have the needs of carers in them. We need the junior Ministers to tell the trusts that there has to be fair and equitable treatment of all people with disabilities and of older people and their carers across Northern Ireland. I make this plea: while amendments Nos 9 and 10 to the regulations are absolutely welcome, it is the people who are doing the work on the ground in looking after the most vulnerable in society who need our help now. I am asking — I am pleading with — the Assembly and the Executive please to put carers first in their next considerations.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin 11:00 am, 21st July 2020

I welcome amendment Nos 9 and 10 as further relaxation of the draconian restrictions imposed since the start of the pandemic. Of course, under normal circumstances, none of us would have supported such restrictions, but, given the circumstances, they were absolutely necessary.

The amendments give effect to the previously announced indicative timings for the opening of, among other things, museums, galleries, bookies, spas, tattoo and piercing businesses, restaurants, bars and clubs. Funerals are no longer restricted to close family and friends, beer gardens can reopen, and so on. I welcome the easing of the restrictions, as it indicates that, to an extent, we are getting on top of the virus. However, the situation remains extremely dangerous, and we need to listen to the experts, particularly in the field of public health.

I heard Pam Cameron mention the R number. That was the third time that I heard it mentioned today. The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party mentioned it on the radio this morning. I also heard Gabriel Scally, who is pre-eminent in the field of public health — one of the most renowned experts in these islands on public health — saying that when the transmission rate is as low as it is, particularly here, the R rate is not in itself a useful measurement. What is more important is the number of people being infected.

We need to listen to the experts. We also need to look at the countries that have done best in suppressing the virus. Many of them have done particularly well: New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany, and so on. We should listen to the advice that we are getting from people such as Gabriel Scally and Devi Sridhar, who advises the Scottish Parliament, and that advice is that, for the purpose of public health, we should treat the island of Ireland as one unit. We should coordinate, North and South, all the moves that we take in relation to the virus.

It is welcome that there was a memorandum of understanding (MOU) a few months back, but that in itself is not enough. There needs to be constant contact between the Executive, the Dublin Government and both Chief Medical Officers and Chief Scientific Advisers.

That is what we need to do. We need to continue to find, test, trace, isolate and support. That is what will keep the virus suppressed. That is the message that needs to go out.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

It is important that we and the public recognise that the Executive are trying to do a job of work. The Executive are trying to strike a balance between getting the economy back on its feet, getting people back to work and getting basic services available, all whilst trying to protect the public's health the best they can. We have to recognise that any relaxation of the regulations is not an invitation to the public to let their guard down or to relax their personal measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Social distancing and personal hygiene are still paramount in controlling the virus. As civic leaders, in a way, we have to set an example, and we have to continue to adhere to the guidance as best as we can.

The virus has not gone away, and it has not relaxed its efforts to spread. We have heard that the guidance is confusing. Yes, there could be clarity in some elements of the guidance, but we have to recognise that they are emergency regulations and have maybe not been put together with the same scrutiny as the law would normally attract. We have to accept that clarity will be needed in certain sections of the regulations. A lot of the confusion has been created not by the wording of the regulations but by the selfish actions of parties and civic leaders in the House. We have a responsibility to adhere to the regulations. How can we expect the public to adhere to the regulations if we cannot?

I heard Gabriel Scally on the radio this morning, and I hear he is an extremely prominent professor. To me, he is just a voice with an opinion. I do not put any more weight on what he has to say than what I hear from our own experts whom we have employed to advise us. Only weeks ago, the R number was considered to be of paramount importance. We were all hanging on it, waiting for the Executive to announce the latest R figure. It became the habit that it was announced every Thursday. We all waited with bated breath to hear what it was, because it was considered to be a very important indicator of how we were controlling the disease. I do not think that we can now simply discard the R number. It is still a scientific figure to be looked at, and I hope that the Executive will continue to consider it.

We have heard that amendment (No. 9) was discussed by the Executive on 29 June. It was signed off at 9.30 that Monday evening and became law at 11.00 pm. At the Health Committee, I raised with the chief environmental officer the point that it is not good housekeeping to have laws change in the middle of a day. They should be changed and come into law on a date, as opposed to a time. I pointed out to the chief environmental officer the sort of confusion that was caused on 29 June, when it became law at 11.00 pm, making it legal for 30 people, as opposed to 10, to gather. That was not really fair to the enforcement agency, which, in that case, was the PSNI. They might have been out on patrol and, at 10.55 pm, come across a gathering in excess of 10 and would have taken whatever they considered to be the appropriate action, be it advice or, if necessary, the issue of fixed penalty tickets. Yet the police could have come up the same road at 11.05 pm and encountered a crowd of people in excess of 10 who were not respecting social distancing or anything else, and they would have spoken to them, totally unaware that, at 11.00 pm, the law had changed and that, now, a gathering of 15, 16 or 18 was legal and complied with the regulations. That has the potential to create embarrassment for the enforcement agency.

When I asked the chief environmental officer whether they had had any conversations with the police during that Monday to give them a heads-up that the regulations in respect of gatherings were going to change at 11.00 that night or whatever was deemed to be the time, he said that, no, they had not done so. He said that the normal practice was to inform local authorities and the PSNI the following day of any regulations that had changed. I do not think that, from a housekeeping perspective, that is really satisfactory. I know that the Executive, when they decide that they can relax a regulation, have a duty to do so quickly and give the public the benefit of it, but, as I say, from a housekeeping perspective, it would be much better if the change kicked in from midnight on a date, as opposed to a time during the day. As I say, it is unfair to the enforcement agencies.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I will be rather brief. The slow drip-feed in the easing of COVID restrictions is welcome, and it is absolutely the right way to do things. We have to look at what is ahead of us and then change to meet that. It is important that we do that and that we try to analyse and listen to the advice when we do it.

The opening of museums and galleries is incredibly important so that people can go to view our history, understand our culture and see our art. If we do not have that, if we do not allow people to get out there and enjoy it and if we do not remember what we are doing this all for, what is the point? It is incredibly important, and I welcome that release of restrictions. In the same way, I welcome the release of restrictions on the opening of restaurants and bars, although with certain caveats, because it kick-starts the pulse of our society. Our society needs to have something to look forward to. Restrictions, restrictions, restrictions will not help us or help the mental health of our society.

I absolutely agree with the Chair of the Committee for the Executive Office: clarity is what is really important. That is about digging down to the absolute detail of everything that we put out there so that people know exactly what they can and cannot do. I guess that that is where the confusion is at the moment. People are confused because we are giving confused messages. We are giving confused messages in our guidance. We are giving confused messages in our legislation. We are giving confused messages when we make statements. It is important that we have clarity.

I also agree that the integrity and the credibility of the Executive Office have been seriously damaged. They have been seriously damaged by Sinn Féin, who seem to have selective amnesia because they never talk about their deliberate breach of the guidelines that they told everybody to adhere to. Groups of 30 being allowed to gather came out at 11 pm on 29 June, yet they managed to get their little cabal of 30 ready for a funeral the next day, not to mention the hundreds who followed behind it, who must have been organised well in advance. They certainly were not given the heads-up at 11 o'clock that night to be there.

When you talk about this selective amnesia, we now have a society that seems to have brushed that under the carpet because what that did abused our society. What they did at that funeral abused our society. There were not 30 people there, there were hundreds, and that abused our society. Many in our society are now suffering from Stockholm syndrome because they have just forgotten about it and it does not matter; they are allowed to do it. Nobody else is allowed to do it, but they can. It is absolutely shocking.

Then, to stand up and say, "Don't worry about the R number, it is not important any more because it does not fit our narrative". Yet we have just had four months of people banging on about the R number and saying that we have to get the R number down and that we have to save lives. Then, somebody says, "Ach never worry about that because we want to stop the English from coming to Northern Ireland". That is what it is all about. It is bias and bigotry, and they need to own up to it.

I will finish and say again that, in all of these amendments, clarity in everything we do and everything that we say is the most important thing.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 11:15 am, 21st July 2020

I call on Junior Minister Gordon Lyons to conclude and make his winding-up speech on the motion.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

As we have said previously during the debates on the amendment regulations, we all want to see a return to a more normal way of living. None of us wants to have to legislate on how people and businesses go about, what we consider to be, normal and routine activities. We all look forward to a time — hopefully soon — when we no longer have to do that. However, that time is not here yet. Yes, we are winning the fight against COVID-19 and, yes, we have come a long way and made great strides towards a return to something approaching normality, but the job is not finished.

It is very clear that managing a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping people safe and supporting those who have faced real hardship as a result of the pandemic is going to be a top priority for us all for some time to come. The 'Executive Approach to Decision-Making' document remains our blueprint for the review process and the incremental structure for assessing progress, contained within the document, will continue to help decision-making in key areas in the weeks ahead, as we ease our way further on the pathway towards recovery.

We have learnt a great deal and come a long way in a short period and there is much to be optimistic about. We all look forward to moving forward, responding to COVID and recovering from its impact. Progress has been good and we have made significant strides in easing the restrictions that have been in place. As a result, and provided that we keep our guard, we can look forward to further positive changes very soon.

I will turn to some of the points that Members made during the debate. We began, as always, with the Chair of the Committee for The Executive Office. I thank him and welcome his support for the progressive, but cautious, direction of travel set out in the regulations. He, rightly, emphasised the need for caution. The burden of the regulations on our citizens is being reduced, but the need for responsible behaviour remains. Indeed, it is even more important as we relax these restrictions.

I agree with him about clear messaging and it is a point that has been raised elsewhere. It has always been something that I have tried to do in the Chamber and when replying to individual requests from Members. Trying to get guidance out, and listening to interested parties from across Northern Ireland, has certainly been to the fore of what I have been trying to do.

I agree with him completely when he says that it is not a green or orange issue; it is definitely not. There is nothing that is less green or orange because nothing is more important than human life. I want to make it clear that that has always been my approach. Indeed, the First Minister has made it very clear that her focus, and that of the Executive, needs to be on the health, lives and livelihoods of people in Northern Ireland. That is what has directed us during the pandemic.

Another issue that he raised was sporting events. I assure the Member that that is being looked at. We understand the need for people to be able to go back to those events and that sporting organisations require the income that comes from them. Obviously, there are other issues to consider around that, but we will progress it, as we will all other measures, as soon as we can. I thank him for raising that issue.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health set out the Committee's position. I note the points that he raised about testing kits and PPE. I will ask the Minister and the Department of Health to send a written response to the Member on those specific points.

I welcome Mrs Cameron's support for larger gatherings to facilitate social events. I certainly agree with her on the need for cautious and responsible behaviour at such gatherings. She, rightly, emphasises the importance of guidance to help businesses to operate safely. I assure her that my colleague the Minister for the Economy will continue to give that high priority. We have to recognise and understand that there has been an economic impact and that the regulations and restrictions that we have had to bring in are causing economic uncertainty. She is right to mention that.

Of course, it is not only an economic crisis but a health crisis; a non-COVID health crisis as well. She articulated that in her comments when she referred particularly to the reopening of services. I thank her for mentioning dentists in particular. I am sure that Members across the House have received representations from members of the dental profession. They should not be forgotten. They need our help and support at this time because they are there when we need them.

A strategic framework for rebuilding health and social care services has been published. Northern Ireland's trusts have published plans that set out the immediate work that is being done in their areas. That rebuilding process can secure better ways in which to deliver services, but will require innovation, sustained investment and society-wide support. However, keeping the public and staff safe is an absolute priority. I agree with the Member's comments in that regard.

She also raised another couple of issues, one of which related to the R number. The latest figures that we have show that, last week, the R number in Northern Ireland was between 0·5 and 1. The R number in the Republic of Ireland was between 1·2 and 1·8 last week, and below 1 in England, Scotland and Wales. I hope that that provides clarity for the Member. On that point, I agree with what Mr Beattie said: yes, obviously, there is lots of data and evidence that we have to take into consideration, but the R number remains an important tool for us as we move forward.

Finally, Mrs Cameron mentioned the Twelfth of July celebrations. I want to take this opportunity to commend everyone involved for the exceptionally high level of adherence to the regulations over that period. We understand how important the date is in our calendar and how people want to celebrate. Obviously, this year was different. It is important that we place on record and recognise that people found alternative ways in which to celebrate and did so in a largely safe way, with very high levels of compliance. I want to put on record our thanks to the leadership of the loyal orders, which demonstrated that leadership in its advice and encouragement. I am delighted that tens of thousands of people threw themselves into the spirit of the regulations and ensured that they were adhered to. They are to be commended for that.

I acknowledge Pat Sheehan's support for the direction of travel and the gradual restoration of normal life, with access to facilities such as museums. He mentioned the importance of following the evidence. I completely agree with him, which is why we have to recognise and follow the advice of our advisers. He mentioned Professor Scally, who is not a member of SAGE; our medical advisers are members of SAGE. In relation to travel, the Department of Health, advised by its advisers, has been clear that very few travel-associated cases have been identified, and the possibility of a traveller from England bringing the virus to Northern Ireland is very low in terms of absolute risk. It is important that we acknowledge that when we make decisions. As always, our decisions need to be based on evidence and nothing else.

I acknowledge Kellie Armstrong's comments about our carers, with which I agree wholeheartedly. Carers support the most vulnerable in society. I know how difficult it has been for people not to have had carers come in and not to have respite care in place. Nobody wants this situation to last one minute longer than necessary. We need to ensure that, as we reopen our services and our society, we do so in a safe manner that ensures that we do not overload the capacity of our health service. However, we also need to make sure that we do not put vulnerable people at risk. The regulations undergo frequent revision, and the issues that the Member raised form part of the discussions and considerations that take place at the Executive. The Member very firmly placed the matter on the record today, for which we thank her.

Mr Chambers, like other Members, rightly emphasised the ongoing threat of the virus and the balance that we need to maintain as we relax the regulations. There must be more emphasis on guidance and responsible behaviour.

(The Temporary Speaker [Mr Wells] in the Chair)

A number of Members referred to scientific debate in the media. Let me again reassure Members that Executive decisions are informed by advice from the CMO and the CSA, who in turn have direct access to the most comprehensive expert advice.

The Member referred to the timing of the regulations and acknowledged that they are changed as quickly as possible after the Executive's decision to do so, in keeping with the requirement that we relax restrictions as soon as we can. It has always been the case that regulations are laid before the Assembly and then brought into force very close together, normally later on the same evening. There is no conspiracy and no other reason behind that. I take the Member's point that it may seem strange that, at 11.00 pm, there is one rule in place, and, at 11.30 pm, there could be another rule. The regulations have to change at some point, and we bring them in as soon as we can. That is what guides us. I hope that that provides clarity to the Member.

I certainly agree with Doug Beattie's comments on the significance of the amendment regulations. They are not merely technical changes but make further progress towards the gradual restoration of the normal daily activities that we all hold dear and that are so important to the economy and the health and well-being of our people.

Mr Temporary Speaker, I hope that that answers most of the questions and comments that Members raised. If I have missed anything, we will of course write to Members in due course. In the meantime, I commend the amendment regulations to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 9) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.