The next item of business is three motions to approve statutory rules, all of which relate to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations. There will be a single debate on all three motions. I will call the junior Minister to move the first motion. The junior Minister will then commence the debate on all three motions listed in the Order Paper. 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 the Minister to move it. The Question will then be put on that motion. That process will be repeated for the remaining statutory rule. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
As you aware, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the most recent amendments to the regulations were announced in the Chamber last week. Members had an opportunity to probe and scrutinise them before they were made. I believe that Members will agree that those most recent amendments have moved us on considerably. It is within that context that I bring forward amendments No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7 to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) Regulations.
With your permission, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I will focus my remarks exclusively on the amendments that are at the centre of the debate. Amendments No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7 to the regulations came about following the establishment of a cross-departmental working group on entertainment issues. The group considered the risks that are associated with certain activities, such as singing and dancing, and the effects of loud music. I will outline for Members the changes that have been brought about by the amendments.
I will begin with amendment No. 5, which came into effect on 23 September 2020. It placed requirements on venues where alcohol may be consumed in respect of music, dancing, risk assessments, seating, consumption of food and drink, and the collection and sharing of visitor information. It also made it an offence for a person who organises or operates a gathering not to comply with the relevant conditions, and further required that person to provide a risk assessment and an account of the measures that are being taken on request. Finally, certain regulations on gatherings are amended so that the numbers that are permitted to participate do not include children who are aged 12 or under.
Amendment No. 6 ensures that outdoor venues where intoxicating liquor may be consumed are now subject to the same requirements as inserted by amendment No. 5 of the No. 2 regulations. It does, however, provide an exemption for places of worship.
Finally, the third motion. Amendment No. 7 ensures that movement is permitted in such premises to access a smoking area for the purposes of avoiding injury or illness, to escape a risk of harm or to provide emergency or medical assistance. An exemption is provided for residents of hotels or guesthouses. It also places restrictions on the opening hours of certain venues at which alcoholic drinks and food and drink may be consumed.
I acknowledge, however, that, with the decisions that were announced last Wednesday, the situation has moved on. Now, the hospitality sector is subject to further restrictions. The Executive have not taken those decisions lightly. Tuigimid go mbeidh brúnna agus deacrachtaí suntasacha ag cur isteach go mór ar an tionscadal. Many of our friends and family are connected to the industry. Therefore, we know that licence holders have very challenging times ahead, not only for their own businesses and families but for their staff, their families and all those who rely upon that sector for their livelihoods.
Molaim an rún agus na rialacha don Tionól. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
I rise to speak on behalf of the Committee for the Executive Office. Statutory responsibility for scrutinising those regulations lies with the Committee for Health. I look forward to hearing about its deliberations when the Chairperson of that Committee gets to his feet. The Committee for the Executive Office recognises that amendments need to be made to the regulations to reflect new medical and scientific advice, and to help to protect the health service and the health and wealth of the public and economy.
The Committee's message throughout the pandemic has been to encourage compliance with the restrictions that are in place. That message has not changed. However, situations can change rapidly, and the worsening situation that we have witnessed unfold over the past few weeks proves that we need to be nimble and flexible in our approach to fighting the spread of the virus.
I will speak now in my capacity as an MLA. There can be no doubt that times are difficult. People are unhappy, worried and stressed, and businesses and the self-employed are reeling. Those in the creative industries of art, music and drama feel totally undermined. Their very existence is challenged. The spread of the disease in the past few weeks has been shocking. Our death toll sits at over 600, and the number of positive cases has increased to over 7,000. That number continues to rise.
The introduction of the most recent restrictions last week was massive but necessary. I welcome the fact that, last week, we had the announcement and statement to the House by the First Minister. I will give credit where it is due: having the statement, and the ability to scrutinise and seek clarification, was important for Members. I also respect the parliamentary process, but what we are dealing with today is ludicrous. The first amendment — amendment No. 5 — was made at 7.40 pm on 22 September, and, here we are, at 5.00 pm on 19 October, discussing it. The others follow a similar timeline.
Those changes had a substantial impact on the hospitality industry — in bars and restaurants and on where music and dancing can and cannot take place. They even dictate where people can and cannot move in such venues. Behind every decision is a person, a family, an income, a life. I will set this in context. It may seem straightforward that you can leave a table in a bar only to go to the bathroom or to enter or exit, thereby reducing the circulation — that is important — but not getting to the gaming machine or the pool table, for example, means that those who service those machines have no work now. If self-employed, they have no job or income. Such decisions bear a heavy weight on people in our communities.
Let us not forget the inconsistencies. Last Wednesday, the First Minister said, in the Chamber, in response to my question:
"There was never going to be a situation in which we would announce overnight that people had to do something the next day." [Official Report (Hansard), 14 October 2020, p3, col 1].
Yet and all, those who work in bingo halls and amusement arcades, as well as some in the hotel sector, found out on Friday evening that they had to close or leave that very evening. Even people who were queuing up for a football match received last-minute instructions. People have been left hurt, sore and broke — all in the mouth of Christmas.
Decisions need to be scrutinised, analysed and interrogated. I continue to reiterate that the process is defunct and needs to be amended to allow greater transparency and openness in the decision-making process. We owe that, at least, to the people whose lives we are shattering.
We need to see COVID numbers come down. They must reduce. I make a simple, direct appeal to the naysayers, the COVID deniers and the anti-maskers: more testing does not equal more cases. However, more cases equal more hospital admissions, which, in turn, mean that more ICU beds are needed, which, in turn, equals more deaths, but not of just COVID. If hospitals are overrun with COVID, who looks after your granny if she has a stroke, or your child if they are involved in a car accident? No one wants to turn up to an emergency department and see a "No room at the inn" sign. Is that what those who spread the view that there is no such thing as coronavirus want to see? If the disease spreads and hospitals close, we will all suffer.
To those who gathered in the grounds of Stormont yesterday — those who did not work with the Police Service to ensure social distancing or that people stayed in small groups — I say this: if the virus jumped into that crowd as quickly as some were jumping on the backs of police officers, any work that might be achieved as a result of the next four weeks will have been undone.
To those voices I say, "Wake up and get real". This is not about control or a cashless society or even the Rothschilds. This is not about the denigration or stripping away of your human rights. All we ask is that you wear a mask in public spaces, keep your distance and maintain cleanliness. The virus is real. It is among us and is flooding our hospital wards. Our collective effort as legislators and members of the public is not simply about fighting a virus; it is about saving lives by protecting the health service.
Speaking of legislators, I would say that Executive Ministers and Members of the Assembly really need to rise above the dissenting voices. If you disagree with the regulations, raise it here or at the Executive table. Do not do it on 'Talkback'; do not do it in the columns of newspapers; avoid the temptation to fill interviews with your dissenting voice or begin a keyboard war. Ministers who think that a solo run is an appropriate method of responding to the pandemic should know by now that it is not, and such moves should be resisted at every juncture. The public will not thank you for it. Their confidence in the institutions will suffer, and they will flood our inboxes demanding that we call you out on it, and rightly so.
I welcome all interventions to deal with the scourge of the virus and its second wave, which we are battling together. I would like to see a review of how we address the legislation, even if that just means more ministerial statements and scrutiny. However, I am happy to support the amendments.
Because of the nature of the confirmatory process, the regulations reopening and regulating so-called wet pubs were in force for a period before consideration by the Committee last week. By last Thursday, however, they had been overtaken by events, in that, on Wednesday, the new four-week restrictions were announced. Members were keen to understand the implications for the regulations and the circumstances in which they would resume operation. The Committee is acutely conscious of its responsibility to play its part in considering the merits and implications of the many regulations being brought forward to manage the crisis.
Because of the fast-moving situation, the Chief Environmental Health Officer was not in a position to advise the Committee whether today's regulations would be revoked in light of Wednesday's announcement or whether the new regulations would require an amendment to the provisions under consideration today. The Committee asked about the circumstances in which they would become operable — in other words, the criteria, whether defined by R rate, prevalence of the disease or other factors being used to determine when it will be safe in public health terms to reopen wet pubs. The Chief Environmental Health Officer advised us simply that the decision would be taken by the Executive on the basis of a basket of indicators.
We also enquired about the period during which the regulations were in operation and how their impact was monitored and measured. The official advised that the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer provide a weekly update to the Executive but he does not have sight of that advice. He could not comment on any consideration given by the Executive to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advice of 21 September in relation to the risks associated with reopening wet pubs. The Committee restated its previous concerns at the lack of supplementary evidence and advice coming to the Committee to facilitate our scrutiny of the regulations. The official undertook to see what evidence he could provide of the impact of the regulations to date.
The Committee asked whether it would not have made more sense to revoke the regulations before us today and remake them at a time when the Executive deem them safe to bring into force once more. The Committee would then be in a better position to consider that question on the basis of conditions at that time, which remain very uncertain. The official stated that that was a possible approach but could not say more.
In light of the limited information before us and with no assurances in terms of criteria for reopening wet pubs, the Committee therefore declined to come to a view. While, once again, the Committee fully recognises the extreme pressures under which the Health Minister, the Executive and all officials are working, the Committee was unable to complete its role and regrets that it is, therefore, not in a position to advise the House today.
I would now like to make a few remarks in my role as Sinn Féin's health spokesperson. It is no coincidence or surprise that the vast majority of the House's time has been taken up in dealing with the COVID-19 health protection regulations. It is a fast-changing and dynamic situation with serious impacts for all our society and across the community. I speak as the Sinn Féin health spokesperson, as the Committee did not take a view on the regulations. Although the rising number of COVID-19 cases has superseded the regulations, it is still important that they are considered in full, given the aforementioned impacts that they will undoubtedly have. I will refer to all the regulations together as, although they make different changes, they mainly relate to hospitality premises: our pubs and restaurants.
Requirements on seating arrangements, the playing of music and dancing are not to be taken lightly. I understand the impact that the regulations have on the hospitality sector and on many communities and livelihoods, including those of the singers, musicians and artists who rely on live performance for their income. I refer in particular to the creation of a requirement to collect visitor information, names and contact details. That is important, as it shows the lengths that we have to go to for a joined-up, effective strategy to tackle the spread of coronavirus.
Maybe it says something that, over seven months into the public health crisis, there is only now a requirement to collect contact-tracing information. However, what I am concerned about is that, as the hospitality sector has additional responsibilities and requirements placed on it, the public systems, such as contact tracing, are not being built up to support it. Just last week, the Health Committee heard how the Public Health Agency had grossly underestimated the demand on contact-tracing services. It estimated 300 cases a day, but, in reality, as we now know, contact tracers face some 900 cases a day. Recently, it moved to a "Digital First" approach, which is essentially a text message to tell someone that they have to self-isolate for two weeks. It does not provide any support or advice, and there is no human voice to reassure and direct people to further necessary support services.
We also have the concerning issue of identifying how many numbers and contact details that have been given to the hospitality sector are incorrect or where contact tracers were not able to get through to someone, leading to gaps in knowledge for tracing efforts and impacting on our efforts to break the chain of transmission. I illustrate that concerning fact to highlight that none of the regulations can be taken in isolation; they must interlink to provide an effective suite of measures to fight the spread of COVID-19. If a duty is to be placed on the public and on the hard-pressed hospitality sector to collect information, there must be a concurrent responsibility on public health authorities to use it effectively and with purpose and urgency.
I have mentioned the reality that the regulations have been affected by the changing circumstances. The rates in the North continue to be deeply concerning, in particular the impact on lower-income earners and areas with higher levels of deprivation. As of today, Members, we have 820 new confirmed cases and 261 inpatients with COVID-19. We have 80 care homes with active outbreaks and 29 people in ICU with COVID-19. It is also interesting that additional information has now been made available by the Department of Health dashboard. Although limited, it gives an insight into new cases per postcode area. A quick glance should be enough for anyone to see the correlation between deprivation and the current high levels of cases in those areas. It is, perhaps, telling that some Members have ignored poverty and deprivation and, unfortunately, chosen instead to attempt to focus on religion or politics. It is important that those who are opposed to increased restrictions and the current circuit-breaker approach recognise that the measures are necessary to buy time, to reduce the chains of transmission and to give our already hard-pressed public health services the time that they need to rebuild in order to stay ahead of the virus. Maybe it is now time to revisit the test, trace and protect strategy and to put in place a robust and fit-for-purpose find, test, trace, isolate and support strategy that works with industries, businesses, communities and the public in a way that meets the needs of a rigorous and appropriate public health response to COVID-19.
Like most Members who are tasked to speak in these debates, I almost feel that the regulations apply to something that is a distant memory. Such is the nature of how things have moved on since the rules were in place, certainly in the context of where we find ourselves today, which is much more restrictive than what is in the amendments.
I want to briefly focus my comments on two aspects of the regulations. The first is our hospitality trade and, specifically, our public houses. Today, those businesses are closed. The regulations are a reminder of how much we have asked of those businesses in recent days. Aspects of their businesses have been taken away, there are restrictions on what they can do and demands have been made about how they manage their patrons. Yet, despite all that, we find that their doors are closed. My heart breaks for those people. They went above and beyond, and, on Friday, they were told that that was not enough. We need to explain to them why the measures that we are discussing today have not been enough. We owe them that. Some will never reopen, and people will be unemployed as we approach the festive period. We need to support those who have been so badly impacted.
At this point, I would like to raise a small issue about the regulations, and that is the collection and sharing of contact information. The Chair of the Health Committee outlined much of what has been discussed by the Committee recently, but, when I asked a question of Nigel McMahon, he confirmed that the contact information to be supplied was not specified in law. It would be useful to have that information to ensure that postal addresses, in particular, are collected. I am sure that the regulations will be used in the near future — hopefully, that will happen when we come out of the next four weeks — and it would be good to have those postal addresses to help to enforce the restrictions on households and on the number of households that can sit at one table in those establishments.
The other matter that I want to mention is places of worship. They remain open, with specific exemptions in place for their continued opening, and I welcome that. While primarily places of worship, our churches also provide places where issues like social isolation and mental health challenges are alleviated. Faith is important to so many people; indeed, at this time of uncertainty, a place of solace and comfort is what we all need. I welcome the continued opening of churches and trust that that can continue.
Sadly, things have moved on so much since the regulations were imposed, given the number of cases and the loss of life, and we are now in a much worse place. We need to analyse publicly what works and what does not work in tackling COVID effectively. None of us should hide from that. Those whom we ask to sacrifice everything deserve it, and, ultimately, it will help us to gain public support and beat COVID-19.
As I have done all along, I fully support the regulations. As I said last week, the measures are not welcome, but they are absolutely needed in order to keep our health service from being overwhelmed. We will not have the luxury of choosing which services can go ahead if our health service is flooded with COVID patients and staff are required to leave their normal day job in order to cope with the reopened Nightingale facility. We owe it to every member of our health service staff to respect and follow the law and guidelines to the letter whether we like it or not. We have a personal responsibility, and we have the power to control what happens in two or three weeks' time. We can prevent people becoming infected and prevent those who are so vulnerable becoming critically ill or losing their life.
How many times must it be said? We all know the message inside and out. We must stay apart, practise good respiratory and hand hygiene and wear a face covering in the appropriate places. If we could only get back to taking those basic actions, we would likely not need these draconian measures in order to keep the virus under control.
Standing here, I do not know what to say that has not already been said time and again.
Six people died today of coronavirus-related illnesses. Many more people died due to heart disease or cancer. We put in these restrictions to try to save lives and to help people's health. If those restrictions helped people with heart disease or cancer, we would put them in without thinking twice.
We all have to admit that, in doing this, we could be destroying people's livelihoods. It is the trade-off that we have made and that we need to understand, and yet people complain about wearing a face covering and social distancing. I just do not understand it. I absolutely hate wearing a mask, but — I have said this before — if I can save the health or life of just one person by wearing a mask, I will wear a mask. It is not too much to ask. If, by wearing a mask, I can get an older person to feel a little more comfortable about being out and about, I will wear a mask. It is not difficult. If I have to social distance, I will do all that I possibly can to stay socially distanced.
What people want from us is consistency, and they want us to be proactive rather than reactive. We are standing here talking about amendment regulations from two or three weeks ago. Although that is nobody's fault, if I am really honest, it is slightly nonsensical. Let us set measures and put in the mitigations as quickly as we can. We saw the numbers growing and the deaths increasing. If our Executive are meeting and saying that they saw this coming, they should have been ready for it and put in the measures straight away. We should not be waiting until today for the financial package to be put in place for businesses. If we saw this coming, that should have been done on the day that the measures were released. That is what we have to do.
Let us not allow this to become a sectarian issue. Of course, people have made mistakes, and we will all be able to carry out the post-mortems on those mistakes in the months to come. However, right now, we do not need a unionist or a nationalist COVID: we just need to fight it. We need to stop it from killing our people, and, if we can do that, those same people who are keeping us safe — the doctors and the nurses — can concentrate on people who have heart disease and cancer. It takes 100 nurses to run the ICU beds. They need to be working somewhere else.
We can look at these restrictions from two or three weeks ago, which have been superseded by new restrictions, and argue, "Do you know what? This should have been a hard lockdown. We should have gone all out in the way that we did in the spring. Do it, have the mitigations in place and make sure that the money, the funding and the financial package is there for businesses". You can argue that case, or you can argue the case that we should not have locked down at all. We could instead have pumped all the money into looking after the vulnerable; that is another argument.
However, the reality is that our Executive came up with a plan, they delivered that plan, and it is incumbent on every single one of us in the Assembly, whether unionist, nationalist or none, to get behind it, to show the people that we are united and not to bicker any more. I do not want to be standing here in 2021 and still going through this, but, right now, I think that I will be.
We are going to have a miserable Christmas, but we will be here and we will be alive. What I do not want is to be doing this again next year and to have people, in whatever form, using it for party political point-scoring. Let us not, let us stop, let us try to work together, and afterwards, when it is gone and we are doing our post-mortem, people can point-score all they want. The bad decisions are not going to go away, but right now we do not need to be too worried about them.
Before I begin my remarks, I offer my sympathy to the families who have been bereaved since we last spoke about the amendments to the health protection regulations.
As the Health Committee Chair noted, we did not reach a decision on amendment No 5, but I will be supporting the amendments this evening. However, the Health Department should use the next four weeks so that, when we come through this round of restrictions, there are better provisions in place for wet pubs in particular to reopen. That is about monitoring the risk assessments and compliance.
The amendment was passed by the Executive on the basis of the evidence, which, as we heard at the Health Committee, was subsequently revised. That poses serious questions about where we are getting our evidence, and we did not receive as full an answer to those questions as many of us would have liked.
The evidence presented in mid-September was that transmission was largely taking place in households. However, it remains entirely unclear where Northern Ireland-specific evidence is coming from. For example, in August, there were far more applications per head of the population to the Eat Out to Help Out campaign in Northern Ireland than in any other region of the UK. It was exactly at that time that the transmission level rose to a higher rate here than in the rest of the UK for the first time. That may have been a false correlation, of course, but there was already a suggestion that hospitality was a risk area, and the evidence a month or so on seemed to demonstrate that.
I have two particular concerns about our evidence. First, the Chief Scientific Adviser confirmed to the Committee that it is derived mainly from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and Independent SAGE. Those are very useful sources, but their evidence is designed for the UK Government and often specifically for England. Secondly, contact tracing has long since failed to provide us with information about the origin of infection, which has made it much harder to identify where to intervene appropriately to break chains of infection. It appears, therefore, that we have not been operating on the basis of definitive and clear Northern Ireland-specific evidence. Contact tracing is not able to provide that, and it is unclear what other sources of Northern Ireland-specific evidence there are.
Fundamentally, it was either a mistake to reopen pubs or a mistake to close them again. What is understandably galling for the hospitality sector is the lack of evidence either way. Given the lack of evidence, it appears that the regulations were rushed and that the issue of how to reopen pubs and any premises serving alcohol in a safe manner was not fully thought through. In fact, there was plenty of evidence from elsewhere in Europe that masks should have been worn by all customers until they were seated, that contact details should have been taken for all customers, that ventilation should have been subject to specific legally binding guidance and that risk assessments should have been subject to quality assurance and monitoring. None of that is covered under any of the regulations that we are discussing.
I said before that what we are aiming for at all times is voluntary compliance. That will come about if the rules are clear and the reasons for them are provided in a transparent manner. We need to be able to explain to the public, particularly when the decisions that we are taking concern social contacts and economic livelihoods, not just what we are expecting of them but why.
Consideration of the regulations needs to be backed by clear, published Northern Ireland-specific evidence. That means two things. First, we need to give greater clarity on the basis of the evidence provided by the Executive for the regulations, if we, as a Committee, are to properly scrutinise them and this House is to adopt them. Secondly, we must not waste the next four weeks. By mid-November, contacting tracing has to be reformed and resourced so that it can provide us with clearer and more specific information about the origin of infections and thus how we can best intervene without closing down entire sectors to break the chains of infection.
Last week's nonsensical shenanigans around solo runs have again caused a serious breach of trust. To put that right, we need much clearer, evidence-based decision-making and clearer, united messaging.
I thank the Minister for bringing the amendment regulations to the Chamber this evening. This has been an extremely difficult and challenging time for our hospitality sector. No doubt, every contributor will echo that sentiment. We have heard it expressed many times since the start of the pandemic. I do not want to sound patronising in any way, but I really and truly feel sorry for the owners of bars, restaurant, cafes, nightclub venues, hotels etc, and, of course, the many staff whom those establishments employ. Their livelihoods have been put on the line as a result of the COVID pandemic and the hard but necessary measures that have been put in place to protect our health and save lives.
The amendment (No. 5), amendment (No. 6) and amendment (No. 7) regulations that we are debating today were made just a short time ago, when the sector was beginning to emerge from the first wave of the virus, after there had been collective efforts to bring down the level of transmission and stop its spread. That required the help of and buy-in from the general public and collaborative working with the hospitality sector. I recognise the tremendous effort that has been put in, operationally and financially, to ensure the implementation of the sets of regulations that we are discussing today.
Today, of course, we are in a different reality than we were in in September. The virus has begun to take hold again, and we are in the grip of a second wave. To be clear, Sinn Féin does not want to see our hospitality sector close. The collective decisions that were taken by all parties at the Executive last week were not easy, but they were necessary. They were taken because the medical and scientific evidence told us that we had to do something to protect lives and stop our health service being overwhelmed.
Those businesses and the many thousands of staff who work in them, who made significant efforts to adapt to the new normal, must be commended. All their hard work, as well as the plans that have been put in place by the hospitality sector, is vital for changing habits and behaviour around social contact. That will stand us in good stead in the time ahead, as we focus our energy on tackling the transmission of COVID, which has had an impact on families and communities across the North, and on protecting our health service and supporting our economy.
To have a thriving economy, we must protect public health in a way that inspires confidence in the public to engage in economic activity and support our businesses through the pandemic. We need to use the next four weeks to address, as much as possible, the COVID transmission rate and, importantly, to ensure that adequate testing, contact tracing and supports are in place to help suppress the virus. I support the regulations.
I join other Members in offering my condolences and heartfelt sympathy to those families who have lost loved ones over this past awful time. I also offer our support and solidarity to those who are staring into an economic abyss and facing huge financial uncertainty as a result of these necessary regulations.
I am conscious that the regulations that are before us today have long been superseded by more and more stringent restrictions. The decision, for example, to enter into a circuit breaker has caused understandable dismay, frustration and fear, not least in my constituency of Foyle, which has been subject to additional restrictions for a number of weeks. The past seven months have been extremely difficult, and none of us wanted to have a repeat of March in any form. The vast majority of people understand and do their utmost to do what is required to overcome the virus, however.
If we expect the public to adhere to restrictions on their freedoms to curb the spread of the virus, it is incumbent on the Executive to make it financially viable for people to do so. It is totally unacceptable, and remains so, that, unlike in England, Scotland and Wales, there is no self-isolation support grant in Northern Ireland for people who are forced to self-isolate and who cannot work from home. The Communities Minister has informed the Committee for Communities that her Department is considering a bid for such a scheme in the January monitoring round, but that is just too late. We need that scheme now.
We cannot leave people torn between protecting their neighbours, workmates and the public at large, and putting food on the table for their families and themselves, which is what we are doing with the lack of such a scheme.
Similarly, there is a swathe of businesses and workers who have been overlooked again by the Executive, not least sole traders and the self-employed. Other businesses have been left in the impossible situation of being allowed to stay open, and therefore not eligible for support, but their income stream is effectively halted. Many will be glad that gyms, for example, have been allowed to stay open, given the associated physical and mental health benefits, but they cannot hold classes — a vital income stream. Anomalies also exist around soft-play and child minders, another area that is in need of specific, tailored support. The gaps in support in these regulations must be urgently plugged, and I hope that the Minister can set out when that will be done.
People and businesses have complied, despite the fact that these regulations are only being debated and voted upon in this House after they have been implemented and before they were even published. That is a testament to the public's willingness to heed the advice from our scientific and health experts and to protect one another to end this pandemic as soon as possible. Unfortunately, their collective efforts are not being entirely matched by this Executive.
It is one thing to expect people to follow laws that have not even been published. That is not good governance, but it is perhaps forgivable given the urgency, but only just. What is not excusable is Ministers contradicting one another on the airwaves hours after these arrangements have been agreed. Clear, coherent communication of the regulations is, quite literally, a life-or-death situation. It serves no one for Ministers to undermine the messaging by trying to insinuate that they are more favourable to one sector or the other and trying to disown decisions that they had a hand in.
The Executive cannot command adherence from the public if the public is not afforded coherence from the Executive. It is reckless for the DUP to be talking out of both sides of its mouth on this. I do not know whether Minister Poots thought to share his criticisms of these regulations with his Executive colleagues before he shared them with the BBC. However, I do know that his party had the power to veto them but chose not to.
Political representatives need to be making the same collective effort that we expect from our constituents and definitely not making this a sectarian issue. I do not deny Minister Poots's observation that levels of this virus are higher in predominately nationalist areas. However, his observations were devoid of any recognition of the link between deprivation and high levels of the virus, just as in many other countries in the world. We need to understand the variation in levels across the North and determine the reasons for it, whether that may be the inability to work from home, housing or underlying health conditions, and to respond accordingly by committing to addressing those inequalities rather than making this a sectarian head count.
I had not intended to speak in this debate. The corporate message has been undermined by those in this House who should really know better. The most recent example was the words of an Executive Minister distancing himself from the collective and unanimous decision taken by the Executive just days before and supported by him. He was wrong to speak as he did, and I really do not know what his motivation was for doing so.
Regrettably, his remarks were compounded by bringing religion into the equation. The religion of a patient who is lying in a COVID ward certainly does not matter to me. Thankfully, it most certainly does not matter to the nurses and doctors who are wrapped in PPE and doing their best to save the life of that patient. However, how many in the House have clean hands in relation to supporting and remaining on the health message? Point-scoring is running wild. Foolish comments and actions are alive and well, but the biggest attitude at play is, surely, hypocrisy.
We hear a lot — we have heard it tonight — of people asking, "Where is the evidence?". The evidence is the 89 nursing homes, which we have heard about tonight, that are suffering a COVID outbreak. It is the 29 people lying in ICU and fighting for their life. It is the hundreds of patients in COVID wards who may take a long time to recover from the effects of the virus. It is the deaths that have left families and lives devastated. What more evidence do we need?
I respectfully take the point, but that is not necessarily the evidence; that is the outcome of people not following the rules. If we had the evidence and put it simply to people, they may understand it better and stick to the rules. Then, we would have fewer people in hospitals and ICUs, and fewer people dying. I can think of nothing better than putting the evidence to the hundreds of people who were here yesterday and saying, "There you go. There's the evidence. That's what you're breaching. Now, go home and follow it", but, at the minute, all we can say is, "There's evidence there somewhere".
I take an opposite view. People like Mr McGrath, who demand this evidence, are playing right into the hands of those who were in the grounds of Stormont on Sunday. They are planting a seed in their mind that this is not what it seems and that more evidence is needed. So, yes, why do you not seek more evidence? I do not particularly buy that.
The hospitality sector is certainly hurting, but can we afford to give it an exception during the next four weeks? I noticed at the weekend that the streets in Bangor — there is a thriving evening economy in Bangor — were empty. I am sure that other Members saw that in their towns and villages. There were no taxis or cars on the road; the place was like a ghost town on Saturday night. Surely that is what the circuit breaker is all about. We must get back to collective responsibility, and we must provide the leadership that people deserve.
I conclude by giving a message to the people who are filling my inbox with emails telling me that this is all a hoax: will you please stop writing to me?
I, too, express my deepest sympathy to all those who have lost their life through COVID-19 and to all those struggling with the disease. I reflect back to June, when figures were down and restrictions were easing. We assured the public that we would not keep the restrictions in place one minute longer than was necessary. However, since opening up society, COVID cases have gone up. Too many people let their guard down. I reflect back to places such as Ballymena, which was the first place to see a rise in cases after society opened up, and restrictions were put in place. Unfortunately, many other places followed. The rate of the spread across the North, especially, as has been said, in places of high deprivation, has rightly alarmed many.
I am reminded of the comments of Emily Maitlis, the 'Newsnight' presenter, one evening — this has struck very clearly — that we are not all in this together. However, some of the language around the amendments and restrictions that have been put in place has been misleading. You are not protected from COVID, despite what anyone might tell you, if you are from one religious denomination as opposed to another. COVID is neither orange nor green. In that respect, it is a leveller.
The amendments and subsequent restrictions that have been put in place are across the North. The sectarian insinuation articulated regarding community transmission is nothing short of scandalous and shameful. These political institutions — the Assembly and the Executive — should be able to handle the global health pandemic without, intentionally or otherwise, attempting to introduce a sub-zero sectarianism. There is enough fear and uncertainty across society without the introduction of baseline, anti-scientific and sectarian rhetoric from people who should know better.
For those interested in interrogating why the virus is spreading in more deprived areas, look at the fact that people are less protected if they are more exposed to it because they are serving on the front line, work on or use public transport, stack supermarket shelves or are carers, hospital porters or shopkeepers — basically, all those who are low-paid workers and members of our society. There are too many low-paid workers in my constituency in Derry, which is one of the most deprived constituencies in the North. They are more likely to be exposed to this deadly disease. Those with manual jobs are not able to work from home. This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, and it is a social welfare issue that has huge ramifications for public health. When you are assessing why the virus is out of control in areas that have higher rates of deprivation, you should understand the need to tackle regional inequalities.
Listening to you, Minister Kearney, I know that the Ministers and the Executive took hard decisions over a number of weeks, and last week was no different as you tried to suppress the community transmission levels. With the closure of schools for two weeks and the closure of businesses for six weeks in Derry and Strabane, whilst we are talking about wet pubs today in amendment Nos 5, 6 and 7, things have moved on, as other Members have said, and businesses have been hit hard. As you have said previously, these restrictions give us a chance to double down and to strengthen the test, track, trace, isolate and protect system.
Almost everyone in Derry, Strabane and, indeed, Donegal knows someone with COVID, someone who is self-isolating, someone affected by these amendments when they were introduced or someone impacted by the subsequent restrictions that have been put in place. People have been clearly reminded that we are the hosts. We are the carriers of this deadly disease. Therefore, it has been spreading at an alarming rate.
We had to reflect and look at our behaviours — all of them.
We can turn this around. Fortunately, we can report that the restrictions that have been in place in Derry and Strabane for two weeks have started to see the R rate of the virus come down. However, just as it comes down in Derry and Strabane, I am conscious that, as of today, the R rate is climbing in Lisburn and Castlereagh.
Community transmission has brought the deadly virus into our homes, care homes and hospitals; indeed, on Friday, it was reported that Altnagelvin Hospital was on red alert. Nurses are struggling with COVID-19, and many more are self-isolating, which has put pressure on our health service. As the Chair of the Health Committee told us today, 80 care homes are now battling with COVID-19. Minister, we need to protect our front-line workers, our carers, especially those on low wages, who do not receive statutory sick pay if they self-isolate. The MLAs from Derry and Strabane, along with the MPs, spoke to you on Friday once again. I acknowledge that the Executive Office has afforded us the opportunity on two occasions to talk to you about the impact that the restrictions have been having on Derry and Strabane. After the great efforts made by wet pubs, cafes and restaurants, there came further restrictions, and that broke the hearts of many who work in that industry. We talked to you and collectively expressed our concern about the number of people in Derry and Strabane and across the North who are not self-isolating because they cannot afford to and decide to keep their head down and carry on. Minister, we must give the maximum support possible, within the limited spending power available to the Executive, to workers and the most vulnerable in our society. We cannot simply tell people that they need to self-isolate but not provide financial support if their employers are not paying them even basic sick pay. Whilst the COVID-19 discretionary support grant is welcome, the threshold for successful applications cannot be above the living wage of just over £20,000 per household. That, in itself, is simply not enough to lift families out of poverty. I know that the Minister for Communities understands that. The Assembly needs to let those in Derry and elsewhere who are struggling and juggling the need to self-isolate with the need to put food on the table know that a financial package will not leave them behind.
Unfortunately, the amendments that we are discussing did not stop the spread of this deadly virus, because there were a number of reasons why the virus spread. The further restrictions are impacting on thousands of sole traders designated as "newly self-employed", businesses without premises, charities and small manufacturers. Again, I raise the case of the transport sector. Taxi drivers have been left behind since March, and, just as their wheels were starting to turn again, the restrictions now in place have stopped them. Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, put a financial package in place last week, just days after further restrictions were announced. Yet the self-employed, taxi drivers and the recently self-employed, who are all hit by the restrictions, are running on empty. Telling them that close to £800 million has been allocated for rate relief, business grants or the newly emerged support grants is neither helpful nor welcome, because most of them fell through the cracks. They have not received one penny. Some hoped that the Economy Minister's hardship fund would offer them some support, but, because the criteria were so limited, they could not avail themselves of it. They got nothing; they did not get a bean. They are rightly annoyed, as they watch hardship money being returned, not spent.
On Thursday, Friday and Sunday, I heard the Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, once again call on his ministerial colleagues to bring forward proposals for sectors that are they are responsible for. Whilst we are dealing today with amendment Nos 5, 6 and 7, which cover wet pubs, we know that further restrictions have been brought into place, so Minister Dodds needs to bring forward a scheme for the recently self-employed. She can use their accountants to verify the authenticity of their business. Minister Mallon needs to bring forward a scheme immediately for the transport sector, including taxi drivers and others.
Minister, this island is a single unit, and all-Ireland policies and practices have been put in place for the 10,000 pigs that come into the North every week. We have seen an all-Ireland health strategy with policies and practices for the thousands of cows and sheep that cross the border every day. Whilst we are talking about wet pubs today, we have had situations in Derry where the restrictions were different from those in Donegal. We have also heard of a memorandum of understanding that the two Administrations, North and South, we were told, had established, but doctors have told us that they have neither heard of it nor operate it. Government, North and South, must act swiftly, collectively and collaboratively if it is to protect the 30,000 people who cross the border every day to work and study and the thousands of others they come into contact with. It is absolutely reckless and wrong that people in Derry and Donegal operate under two different COVID restriction practices. There are houses and other buildings across the border corridor that partitions Ireland where the front is in the North and the back is in the South or vice versa.
Finally, I acknowledge the huge debt of gratitude owed to the healthcare heroes who have been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 and who, once again, face the serious challenge that the deadly virus presents. There are many strands to the amendments that we have talked about today and to the subsequent restrictions that are now in place. In order for people to be able to afford to comply with them, we need to hear more about the support schemes that Minister Murphy has called for for those who are most in need so that, in places like Derry and elsewhere, our much-needed services, whether they are public or private, are not brought to their knees. I support the amendments.
These new restrictions — amendment Nos 5, 6 and 7 — have been and gone. They are subject to negative resolution. That means that they took effect on the day that they were laid. I ask the junior Minister to clarify, please, why it takes so long for the regulations to come to the House. They are subject to negative resolution, and, as soon as they are laid, they become law, so why do they take so long to get here? Earlier today, amendment (No. 10) went through. If that had been subject to affirmative resolution, we could have debated it in the House and it would have gone through. The way that the process works means that we take for ever to get these through to the House. We could have done amendment Nos 5, 6, 7 ,8 and 9 today, but, instead, we are doing things that were passed at the end of September and the start of October. I ask the junior Minister to clarify that for us.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
That is what is happening now. There is delay after delay, and we heard it from many Members here this evening. There are delays in the Department for the Economy getting money out to people. Really? What is the problem?
The money is there and it needs to go out. People need it. Why is there still a delay? The situation has changed since the amendment regulations were written. That was so long ago that the pubs are now closed. The amendments are irrelevant given what has since come to pass. As many Members have said this evening, Northern Ireland cannot afford any more delays for the businesses that have been impacted.
There are necessary rules in place. Please do not get me wrong. I have absolutely every sympathy for any family who has had a death, for those who have tested positive and been left with poor health, for those with loved ones in hospital whom they cannot see and for those in care homes who are heartbroken and do not understand why their family cannot see them or hug them. This virus is horrendous. While people are frustrated with the virus, we have delayed things. We need to move more quickly.
I have already written to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to say that part of the current problem is not only the rising COVID infection rate in the community but the boring message that we are giving to people. The arts sector is on its knees, and thank goodness the Executive have said today that money will go to the sector. Can we please use interesting people to get the message out? No harm to anyone, but the podium has become irrelevant to folk. A boring message is being put across in such a doom-and-gloom way that people just hear it as "another day at the podium".
We need to take people with us on this journey. They need to fight with us. They need to be with us. They need to stick to the message. They do not need their businesses going down the pan because they have closed again. They have to keep at this because it is all about saving lives. I read on social media that the reason people wear a mask, wash their hands and keep a social distance is to keep someone else alive. We have to keep that message going.
When the next round of amendment regulations comes forward, I ask the Minister to recognise the carers and not just the businesses that Ms Anderson talked about. Since March, the carers have been caring 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I know that people on Twitter or some smart alec will say that you cannot work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but carers do. They do not get a break. They have not had a break. There is no day care. There is no respite. There is no help. No one is rushing to help carers. When the carers go down, our health service will be on its knees.
While we are sticking this out and trying our best not to spread the virus, we should recognise that up in Derry — my goodness — there are further weeks when people have no opportunity to make an income. We are in the mouth of Christmas, and families do not know what they will be doing. Presenteeism is happening because some employers are forcing employees into the workplace. Some employees are working more hours because they feel guilty as their children are at home, and it is presumed that they are not working.
We cannot afford any more delays. Can we please get all the outstanding regulation amendments forwarded to the House as soon as possible? The Speaker has said on plenty of occasions that we need more Executive business to come to the House. Let us get the business moved forward and start planning for the future. Let us start planning for a time when we are not closing things. Let us start planning ahead. I know that the Budget is coming through, but we still do not have the October monitoring round. We still cannot see what is happening with next year's Budget. We need to move forward.
Why are these amendment regulations coming to the House so late? It does not have to be 26 days. We will work with you. The House will work with the Executive to do what needs to be done to ensure that our citizens have the best possible service from us. Amendment (No. 10) was laid today, and it could be done next week. Why not move it forward more quickly? Why not put forward the economy pieces that we need more quickly? Why not invest in where the money needs to go?
I cannot let today pass without welcoming the reopening of the emergency department at Daisy Hill Hospital. I thank the Health Minister, the chief executive of the trust, Shane Devlin, and the entire team at the Southern Trust for their work to remodel Daisy Hill in order to open the emergency department today. Most of all, I pay tribute to the medical teams and support staff for their commitment and determination to keep the show on the road despite untold pressure, duress and uncertainty. They are the heroes who are ultimately responsible for the reopening of Daisy Hill's emergency department.
As others have said, these restrictions would not sit easily during normal times. Restrictions affecting civil liberties, people's way of life and their livelihoods do not rest easily with me, but we are not in ordinary times.
These regulations are over a month old. Many of them have been superseded by the regulations that came into effect on Friday. However, when the current tight restrictions are lifted, we will revert to those restrictions. Whilst these restrictions have been necessary, the plan to get us out of these restrictions and to rebuild our economy and our society will be equally necessary.
A big issue with the implemented restrictions that we discussed and the ones that have followed is how they are enforced and how effectively they are enforced. We need to get back to the compliance levels in the community that we had in March. That is the only way that we will defeat this virus. We need to drive home the message and communicate better why each restriction is needed, and we need people to observe the restrictions not because they have to but because they understand that, by doing so, they will save lives.
Lots of businesses, individuals and organisations feel that they have been left behind and are still falling through the cracks. That may have been acceptable in March, April or May but not six or seven months into this pandemic. Why are people and businesses still being left behind: close-contact services, such as the health and beauty industry; self-employed people; people who work in the gig economy; freelancers; taxi drivers; town and city centre businesses, many of which are family-owned?
Just this morning, I met two gentlemen who were driving an ambulance to Belfast. Those two men run a gym in Armagh, but they have had to close it. Whilst the gym can remain open, without classes, it is inviable. I applaud those two gentlemen for the important work that they are doing now, but it is incredible that they have been forced into that situation.
We are telling people to stay at home, and we are telling shopkeepers to stay open. How does that make sense? How does that add up for those business owners? People from the health, beauty and close-contact services are also asking why they have been shut down when they have complied with every regulation. Other businesses are in the same boat and find it difficult to understand the rationale. Is there a better way of communicating why each restriction has been introduced? Surely, the publication of the relevant scientific and PHA data that informs each decision would help to encourage greater compliance and buy-in. I support the regulations.
The Ulster Unionist Party supports the amendments, but I wish to make a couple of comments. First, as we all know, this is a global pandemic that does not recognise race, gender, religion, political affiliation or anything else. In fact, as I have said on several occasions, it is an equal opportunity killer that has no regard for who you are or what postcode area you live in.
As we all know, regrettably, with pandemics, there will be multiple waves, and we are now dealing with the second wave. We can see the impact not just on this island or on these islands but across Europe and the world. If anybody noticed what was happening in Belgium or France today, they would realise that this has a long way to go. The best way that we have of defeating this virus is to stop giving it an opportunity, because this virus exploits weakness, it exploits ignorance, it exploits dissension, it exploits complacency and it exploits bigotry. What it must not be allowed to do is to overwhelm us.
We have an opportunity to come together. On Tuesday, the Northern Ireland Executive decided to make particular rules and regulations and put in particular procedures that will help us get to through this next part of the COVID pandemic.
The reason that we did that was to prevent our health service from otherwise being overwhelmed. This is no longer a question of, "We do a bit of this or we do a bit of that". We all have to join together to prevent our health service from being overwhelmed.
All of us — every single MLA here — will know people who are healthcare professionals. We know people who have been on ICUs. We know people who are fearful about going into work for their next shift because of what they might see and what they might receive. They are also extremely angry about what they see as politicians, the Assembly and the Executive not coming together to make the right choices and the right decisions. They want to see us all working together.
Last week, the party leaders came together to say that we would support whatever came out of the Executive and put our full-hearted support behind that. We as party leaders also committed our parties to doing exactly the same thing. That is because COVID does not respect politicians. COVID does not respect political parties. What we have to do is break the transmission path. To do that, the people of Northern Ireland need to have confidence in the message that is coming from us. They have to have confidence that the Northern Ireland Executive are making the right decisions.
I therefore send a message from the Assembly to all those healthcare workers who tonight are about to go on a shift in some fairly horrendous conditions that we support them and that we do so by supporting these rules and regulations. We do not quibble over them; rather, we get behind them. Frankly, Members of the Assembly, we do not have the time or the space in which to do that. The Ulster Unionist Party supports the amendment regulations.
I will try to be brief in order to let other Members in, given that we are close to the end of the day. As many Members have said, it is slightly surreal that we are debating the amendment (No. 5), amendment (No. 6) and amendment (No. 7) regulations, which are specifically regulations for the hospitality industry, when, in the past week, we have gone much further and closed down, out of necessity, the hospitality industry for the next four weeks.
First, I want to talk about the hospitality industry, because the regulations are specifically about it. It cannot be said often enough that the virus and the unavoidable response to it have imposed extraordinary and heartbreaking challenges on the industry. Sometimes, the debate here and in other jurisdictions has fallen into the narrow and unhelpful binary of health versus wealth, or the idea has been that the economy is something that is participated in purely by rapacious, cronyistic capitalists. As we all know from our constituencies and from our lives, however, the vast majority of people who own and operate hospitality premises, be those coffee shops, pubs, restaurants or, indeed, hotels — perhaps not so much hotels, because they tend to be slightly larger entities — run independent businesses and are quite often sole traders. Those people are intimately and profoundly connected to the community that they serve. What they provide is not just a local business or an amenity but something that defines and binds local communities. That is particularly the case on this island. In Ireland, we have a particular tradition of hospitality that is very special and intimate to our sense of self, whatever part of the island we are from. Indeed, it is strategically important in a sense, because it relates to our tourism offering.
All that is preamble to saying that this is a profoundly difficult moment for our hospitality industry, and no words that I or anyone else in the Assembly can say today will, in the weeks to come, alleviate the acute need, frustration and, I am sure, intense anxiety of many people in that industry. What is the answer to that? The answer is, clearly, the maximum possible help that we can give that industry through the next few weeks and the maximum possible financial support in the most straightforward possible way for them to access it. That is true of the other industries that are most directly affected by the new restrictions; not these regulations that we are technically debating today but those imposed in the past week.
It is not just about having an economy on the other side, although, clearly and self-evidently, we need an economy on the other side and we need employment. It is about having those businesses such as coffee shops, restaurants and pubs that create a sense of place and, frankly, a sense of self for people and places here. I speak as someone who grew up working in pubs and who has pulled more pints than I care to remember — not quite as many as my Assembly colleague Pat Catney but certainly quite a few.
That brings me on to the next point about these regulations and our broader response to COVID, which, touching on something that my colleague Colin McGrath talked about, is about consistency and clarity of communication. I agree with what Kellie Armstrong said about moving these amendments to regulations in the Assembly more quickly, so that our communication to businesses and the public can be more coherent and joined up. As Colin McGrath said, it is really important now that, as we have already moved into the most complicated bit of the public health response to this, we are as clear and consistent in our messaging as we possibly can be.
Let us be honest; this is a unique jurisdiction. It is not totally unique in that there are other consociational power-sharing arrangements in the world, but we have a pretty unique arrangement. It is certainly unique in these islands and in western Europe. That creates certain specific challenges with communication and with political buy-in. It is a challenge for jurisdictions everywhere, whether a single-party Administration or whatever, to communicate the difficult bit, which is that new partial restrictions may be required.
That is a challenge, but it is not an excuse for, I am afraid, some of the inconsistency and some of the unforced errors that our Executive have made. I have two points to make about that. First, I agree with what Colin McGrath and, I think, other Members said, that publishing the evidence and being as clear and as forthright as possible is the best way to bring people along.
I do not agree, with respect to him, with Alan Chambers, who said that, purely by publishing the evidence, you are feeding conspiracy theorists or people who do not want to go along with the regulations. Bluntly, I say that the opposite is true. My experience, as someone who worked for a very long time as a civil servant, largely in communications, is that you get the maximum buy-in from people — first, from the media and, secondly, from the public with whom you are trying to communicate — if you show them your working out. It is a little bit like primary school. If you show people your working out, they are a bit more bought into it. So, if we can be as maximalist as possible in explaining to people why these restrictions are necessary and why we are imposing them now, I think that we have a greater chance of buy-in and, therefore, a greater chance of compliance. That includes the regulations that we are discussing today.
The second part is around consistency at Executive level. As I mentioned before, we have a unique jurisdiction here. No one expects that every Member of every Executive party will constantly and consistently speak from exactly the same hymn sheet on all policies. That would be impossible, given our context. We would just have Mr Carroll and Mr Allister to keep us honest. I am sure that they would do a very good job on that, but the rest of us would not be doing our jobs if we were not here debating this frankly.
However, it is clear that remarks like those made by the Agriculture Minister over the past few days can only be detrimental to the public health message. I will not dwell on his remarks. Frankly, I will not dwell on them because I do not want to. They were pretty contemptible. It was a pretty lurid and garish display of sectarianism of the kind that saddens and frustrates me. Frankly, it is a reminder that, unfortunately, this society is struggling with a disease that has been with us for significantly longer than the virus of COVID-19 and which will probably long outlive COVID-19, sad to say. That kind of utterance is, frankly, completely counterproductive, and, yes, there have been other examples of Executive Ministers behaving in a way that was counterproductive. My party has been clear about that, and there is no point in going over those where we have discussed them in the past. Clarity and consistency is needed.
My next point is about the consistency of our financial response to the crisis. We talked about it earlier with the Finance Minister and will talk more about it tomorrow. We have not yet seen, I am afraid, a consistent and clear enough response to the overwhelming economic crisis that we face. I do not want to get into a ministerial blame game. Others in the Chamber have done a bit of that. That is OK; it is fine. All that I want to say is that we need to see a clear, more coherent financial and economic response from the Executive. That has to be tied in to a serious look at what the next three, six and 12 months will look like with regard to the virus, Brexit and what we can expect in fiscal terms from the UK Government.
It is true that, while my party clearly and unequivocally supports the restrictions that have been imposed in the past week, it is also the case that we need to see — this is why evidence is really important — the clearest possible vision from the Executive of the exit strategy from the current restrictions. That is not because I am a sceptic about the restrictions or that I do not think that they are a good idea; I think that they are completely essential to prevent the health service from being overwhelmed. However, we need to have a discussion about how we progress through the pandemic and what the mechanism and thresholds will be for easing those restrictions and getting back to some sort of normality. That will not happen immediately but as we move, hopefully in the spring, towards the availability of a vaccine.
Those are the key points that I wanted to touch on: the centrality of the hospitality industry; the need for clear and concise messaging from the Executive; and my view that the maximum publishing of evidence does not feed conspiracy theorists, because, frankly, the best antidote to conspiracism is to publish clear, evidence-based scientific advice. I hope that the advice from the CMO and CSA will be published in full by the Executive and that that will lead into an overarching and coherent financial response to the crisis, understanding that some of that response will be limited by the fact that we must wait for Barnett consequentials from London. However, that is not the full alibi, as it were; we have many tools at our disposal in this place. There is also the fact that the Treasury is not stopping us being coherent in our response or setting out what we see as the clear road map for various sectors over the next few months.
In conclusion, I support the regulations. However, I want to see a much clearer set of communications from the Executive moving forward.
There is, indeed, something inherently farcical about the debate, in that we are debating amendments to regulations that have been overwhelmingly superseded by events. These regulations date from a time when the Executive were telling us that hospitality venues were safe but your home was not. Therefore, you could meet your granny in the pub but not in your home. That was the genesis of the regulations that we are discussing. Of course, to make places of hospitality safe, their owners, with great diligence in most cases, spent thousands of pounds on taking the steps that the Executive required of them, only to have all of that pulled away last week and those very premises, effectively, closed.
Maybe it is not entirely coincidental or inappropriate that there is something farcical about a debate such as this because, frankly, there is something farcical about the Executive's stance on issues such as this. Last Wednesday morning the First Minister, quite properly, came to the House and gave us an outline of what the Executive had agreed. I stood where I am standing now, and one of the questions I asked was, "Where does this leave spectators at elite sporting events?" She very clearly indicated that nothing had changed in that regard and that spectators could still attend elite sporting events under the existing restrictions.
We had such an event on Friday night at the Showgrounds in Coleraine, involving Ballymena United from my constituency and nearby Coleraine. Bear in mind what the First Minister had said. Nonetheless, even before the regulations were made — they did not come into effect until 10.30 pm on Friday, even though various hospitality places had been told to close from 6.00 pm, and did so. Up until the moment of 10.30 pm, the regulations were of no legal effect whatsoever. Yet, at about 6.00 pm or 6.30 pm on Friday, the Communities Minister — a member of the Executive, who had agreed the very regulations that were coming into effect — sent a letter to the sporting bodies in Northern Ireland telling them that, with immediate effect, they could not have spectators at their matches. Not surprisingly, chaos and confusion reigned in Coleraine.
What a preposterous situation. I think that "preposterous" was the right word for the First Minister to use, on Friday night, on the social media that she does not use. What a preposterous situation that a Minister who is a party to the making of the regulations so misunderstands them as to go out of her way to misrepresent what they say. Nowhere do those regulations say that spectators cannot attend elite sports. Whether they should is another question, but they do not. In any event, we had the farce of the sports Minister telling people the very thing that was not in the regulations as if it was.
Of course, it did not end with Sinn Féin. We then had the DUP Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, who also is a member of the Executive, seeking to create an aura that he and his party were not really for these regulations and that they were, in fact, in opposition to aspects of them. That might be for the gullible within the base that he was trying to settle, and who were unsettled by the stringency of some of the regulations, but it is not for any thinking person who knows anything about how the Executive operate. Anyone who knows anything about that knows that nothing comes to the Executive table until it is put on the agenda and agreed by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly. Therefore, the proposals that came to the Executive on Tuesday night came with the imprimatur of the Democratic Unionist Party. When they were debated, it seems, from reports, there was not a cheep of opposition because they were the pre-packaged, already agreed proposals of DUP/Sinn Féin. So, for the Environment Minister to strut his stuff as if he were an opponent of the very things that he did not require a vote on in the Executive, and which his party endorsed, is quite inappropriate.
Maybe a little embarrassing. Maybe that is why, today, we have had but one token speech from the DUP Benches on that issue. Where are the defenders of Edwin Poots? We are told in press briefings that, apparently, it was not a solo run. I suspect that that is probably right. If it was not a solo run, he is looking very solo tonight in this debate. No one is rising to defend his position.
It is not that there are not points to be made against these regulations. There are, but not by those who agreed them. That is the difficulty. The fact that they are more likely to kill the economy than to kill COVID-19 is certainly a point that can be made. However, politics, not for the first time, is over-riding the issues. This debate, in its own way, shows that.
To finish, I come back to a point that I have made many times: here we are again with a junior Minister, who, when we debated some of the early amendments on 30 June, could not be in the House because he was off attending the funeral of a terrorist. Yet, once again, the public are being lectured by people who have not apologised and are being told, "Do as we say, not as we do". That is one of the fundamental reasons why there is a credibility issue for the House on this issue.
The COVID-19 restrictions that we are being asked to sign off on today are largely redundant because the virus is, once again, out of control. A much more robust approach is needed. The fact that the regulations before us are so weak is symptomatic of the head-in-the-sand approach of the Executive to the surge of cases over the past few weeks. New cases, now in the thousands, are growing by the day, and these regulations are nowhere near close to the response that we need.
That is exasperating because, like others, I warned time and again that the virus would surge because of the actions of the Executive. I feel like a broken record, and I am sure that there are some in the Chamber who would rather that I changed my tune, but a cursory glance at the number of occupied ICU beds is the vindication of what trade unions, workers, People Before Profit and others warned about. I did not want to be right when predicting that the virus would surge because the Executive prioritised getting people back to work before it was safe to do so. Nor did I want to be right when predicting that hospitality workers, artists, taxi drivers and others would be thrown under the bus by this Executive after they spent weeks crooning about the importance of saving jobs.
What about the jobs of hospitality workers now, who did everything that they could to keep themselves and their punters safe when the Executive promoted a return to pubs opening without even a proper, functioning test-and-trace system in place? What about the workers who will lose out on payments when furlough comes to an end, and those who were never furloughed in the first place because their jobs were not deemed viable enough to save or protect? They are now being forced into the situation that they faced in the spring.
Once again, they will have no work to go to, but this time, they will have even less financial support to avail themselves of.
Where is the plan here? Where is the leadership that we urgently need? What we urgently need is an all-island, zero-COVID strategy that seeks to eliminate this virus. It is the only way to crush COVID-19 in the absence of a vaccine. Unfortunately, that means restrictions for a period. However, those absolutely must be accompanied by full financial support and emergency contingencies for vulnerable people and by cash injections into our health service to enable it to provide a COVID service and regular services. It means putting the focus on those who are in control of workplaces rather than an obsessional overemphasis on individual behaviour. It means promoting that strategy through education rather than the primary focus being on criminal deterrents. Those issues are important. The workplace issues are essential. Again today, my office has been contacted by workers in Bombardier — this is a bit of a déjà vu scenario — where there are serious health and safety concerns that appear not to be taken as seriously as they should be.
Instead, we are in a situation where it is an absolute shambles on the hill. There are those who cannot even get the message straight. They openly call for profits to be prioritised over health, and they plead poverty when it comes to paying people through the crisis, but they do not hesitate to pay £4 million for a bump in their own expenses. There is another shambles in the South that is led by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The Government in the South are very happy to use the border as an excuse not to take this virus as seriously as they should, and this Executive, or certainly some elements of the Executive, seem very happy to let them because of an irrational fear of an all-Ireland approach.
We need to get real here. This virus is taking lives because of the political decisions that have been made across this island over the past few months. The economy was rushed to open before it was safe to do so. This virus will emerge again and again if we do not get a handle on it. We cannot accept an endless cycle of a surge in cases and circuit breakers and a surge in cases and circuit breakers. We have already seen the impact that it has had on our life, our livelihood and our mental health.
Moreover, it is rich for some in the Chamber to suggest that we cannot afford a different approach because the economy will suffer and there is no magic money tree. I would like someone to tell me how exactly they expect any economy to recover if they are periodically shutting it down because they have lost control of the virus time and time again. As for the magic money tree, for the First Minister in particular, here are five headlines from the past few weeks:
"UK billionaires' wealth soars by 35% as tech and healthcare firms thrive in the pandemic" "Sir Jim Ratcliffe, UK's richest person, moves to tax-free Monaco" "Ireland's richest increase wealth by 7.3% in last 12 months" "Billionaires' wealth reach record levels during Covid pandemic".
Just today, we had:
"Ireland's super rich own €93bn — and Covid-19 has made them even richer".
Not only is there a magic money tree, there is a forest full of them. Anyone who denies that, it appears to me, would rather see billionaires hoard the wealth that they built on the backs of ordinary people than bail out vulnerable people at a time of crisis. Shame on them for backing that strategy.
There are other Members who, over the past week, have sought to suggest that the spread of COVID-19 is happening on one side of the community. One would imagine that they would hang their head in shame when, unsurprisingly, it emerged that this virus is spreading in working-class communities as a result of the Executive's approach. Past experience leaves me doubtful that any heads were hung in shame, such is their shamelessness. Let me say this: sectarianism is also a virus, and Edwin Poots is a superspreader.
I will end on this point, which I think many would benefit from hearing as a refreshing circuit breaker from the rank sectarianism that has poured from some in the Chamber over the past few weeks: there is a way out of this crisis, and it is not a pipe dream. When we look around the world at millions of people returning to life as normal, we can be hopeful of what is possible beyond this virus. Look to New Zealand and other islands around the world that have used to their advantage their ability to limit travel and implement post-travel quarantine while ensuring that a proper track-and-trace system is in place to track and trace the virus. They decided to slow their economies down to allow people to get well and have now successfully reopened, including holding big events in their countries. That is what is possible; it is time for us to do it.
I welcome the debate on amendments No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7 of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) Regulations and thank Members for their contributions. Their concerns, questions and observations play a key role not only in scrutinising the regulations that are under debate but in helping to inform policy development as we go forward in these most challenging of times.
I will now turn to some of the points that Members made during the debate. I intend to address those contributions that were specific to the regulations. With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, in deference to the range of contributions, I will also acknowledge other Members and the commentary that they made during the debate.
Colm Gildernew outlined the wet pubs discussion that took place in the Health Committee and the Committee's discussions with the environmental health officer. He pointed out that the absence of criteria for reopening wet pubs meant that the Committee formed no view on the amendments.
Pam Cameron highlighted the relevance of the collection of postcode details in the context of the amendments, as addressed in the Committee, as a more effective means by which track and trace could be taken forward.
Paul Bradshaw questioned the region-specific scientific analysis and data that underpins the amendments and, therefore, how we arrive at decisions about the type of restrictions that are placed on the hospitality sector. The scientific data is obtained from a variety of sources, including from the SAGE group, which the Chief Scientific Adviser attends. A range of other evidence is considered, including international experience and relevant scientific publications. However, I am aware that the Health Department is looking at how it can upscale the amount of scientific data, information and analysis on the dashboard so that there is a greater public circulation of that information.
Colin McGrath and Kellie Armstrong raised what I think we all already know. That was, as Kellie Armstrong described it, the negative resolution approach that is taken with the regulations. I have great sympathy for her critique and discussion of the lag with the regulations. Ministers have sought to address all those issues with greater energy and in a more systematic way through oral and written statements, but we can always try to improve how we manage the legislative process. For consideration, there may be merit in a discussion between the Speaker's Office and the Business Committee about how we could, perhaps, address that more effectively within the constraints with which we are expected to operate under.
Kellie Armstrong also urged that the extant regulations be expedited, and Matthew O'Toole supported that position.
Much was said in the debate that extended outwith the regulations. There was much commentary about the current situation and, in particular, the bringing forward of the new intervention that was announced by the joint First Minister in the Chamber last Wednesday. Many Members spoke about and commented on those matters. They are effectively outwith the specificity of the regulations under debate, but, nevertheless, colleagues made a range of observations.
Colin McGrath spoke about the naysayers and the dissenting voices, but he welcomed all the interventions to have the desired effects. He and Matthew O'Toole appealed for more consistent processes to be adopted in how we all take forward our business.
Colm Gildernew commented on the linkage between the collection of information in the hospitality sector and the test, trace and track systems that we require to fight back against COVID-19.
Pam Cameron stressed the importance of letting our hospitality sector know when it can reopen, and that is because we have moved into a series of much more stringent restrictions, which have effectively overtaken the positions that are adapted by the amendments that are before us.
Sinéad Ennis acknowledged the sacrifice that is being made within and by the hospitality industry.
Alan Chambers made the point that the evidence of this pandemic is found in our infection levels, our hospitals, our ICUs and, sadly, in the new wave of fatalities that are being recorded.
Mark Durkan and Martina Anderson spoke about their constituency context and the need for increased solidarity and financial supports for businesses. They made the point that the health emergency needs to be understood as interlinked with social disadvantage and that we all need to ensure that COVID-19 does not deepen the poverty trap. By way of information and to share it with those colleagues, it is important to note that, between April and August of this year, COVID discretionary support grants totalled £1·9 million and, in the same period, non-COVID discretionary support grants totalled £4·2 million. Those interventions need to continue into the future if we are to avoid COVID becoming a deepening poverty trap.
Kellie Armstrong called for enhanced messaging and communication, and Justin McNulty spoke about the importance of increased compliance.
Matthew O'Toole spoke from his experience and an economic perspective on the centrality of our hospitality industry.
I hope that I have responded to as many of the Members' queries, comments or questions that arose. We all have a responsibility to help to curb the spread of the virus, and we all know that; we have discussed it so many times. We can do that by complying with the restrictions that are in place and by following the health advice that we have. That extends to what we all already know: maintaining the social distancing that is required; good hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene; wearing face coverings and self-isolating immediately if we experience any symptoms, including a persistent cough, the loss of smell or taste or developing a fever; seeking a test if we experience any of those symptoms; and downloading the StopCOVID NI app. By following that advice, as we go about our daily lives, we can protect not only ourselves but others from serious illness. We can, crucially, protect our health service and, just as crucially, our economy, and we can help to avoid further, prolonged and more stringent restrictions.
A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, molaim an rún agus na rialacha don Tionól. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 5) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.