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

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:00 am on 21st July 2020.

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Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP 11:00 am, 21st July 2020

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.