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.