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

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:15 am on 21st July 2020.

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Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP 11:15 am, 21st July 2020

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.