Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 17) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 14th December 2020.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 4:00 pm, 14th December 2020

The next items of business are motions to approve two statutory rules (SRs) that relate to the health protection regulations. There will be a single debate on both motions. The Minister will move the first motion and commence the debate on both motions listed in the Order Paper. When all who wish to speak have done so, I will 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. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I beg to move

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 17) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 18) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

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

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Before I do that, could I have the indulgence of the House to provide a quick update? Since my earlier statement today, I have received an update from our Chief Medical Officer (CMO) to alert me that he has been made aware of a variant of SARS-CoV-2 that has recently been identified through genomic sequencing in England. While the significance of that is being assessed, the UK authorities have provided an early alert to the relevant World Health Organization and European surveillance bodies.

The variant has been identified in the UK and is believed to be causing the faster spread in the south-east of England. My colleague Matt Hancock has provided an update to the House of Commons. Its spread is growing faster than that of the existing variant with, currently, over 1,000 cases. However, Mr Hancock has reassured the House of Commons that there is nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious symptoms and has added that it is highly unlikely that it will not respond to a vaccine. I have directed my officials to urgently ascertain whether, during the genomic sequencing of Northern Ireland samples that has been ongoing over the last number of months, the variant has, at any time, been detected in Northern Ireland. As soon as I receive information on that, I will update the House.

Moving on to the motions that are the subject of today's debate, the regulations under consideration are the amendment (No. 17) regulations and the amendment (No. 18) regulations, which constitute the circuit-break restrictions announced on 19 November and introduced for a two-week period from 27 November to 10 December. The amendment (No. 17) regulations were made on 26 November to come into effect on 27 November, and the amendment (No. 18) regulations were made the following day to come into effect immediately.

The restrictions were brought in after modelling indicated that doing so offered a greater likelihood of avoiding further restrictions before Christmas. The Executive had been advised that, without such an intervention, hospitals risked being overwhelmed. In the week preceding the decision on 17 November, the number of cases had stabilised, with only a very slow decline. The R number for cases was around 1 at that point. Hospital admissions had continued to decline slowly over the previous week, but they remained at a relatively high level and had not decreased as quickly as hoped at the outset of the period of restriction. COVID hospital inpatient numbers had fallen even more slowly than admissions and remained at a high level. That was a major concern in terms of hospital capacity. At that point, hospital occupancy stood at 100%. In the preceding week, 76 people had lost their life to COVID-19. In those circumstances, the Executive agreed to put in place the most extensive number of restrictions since the spring. The regulations were designed to be a short, sharp circuit breaker to reset and drive down infection rates. They were accompanied by the message to stay at home, work from home if at all possible and otherwise leave only for essential purposes such as education, healthcare needs, to care for others or outdoor exercise. The amendment (No. 18) regulations were made the following day to address two specific issues in the amendment (No. 17) regulations, which then needed to be amended. As you will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, the active period for the regulations has come to an end. They were intended to be in place for only a fortnight, and that period ended at midnight last Thursday night.

We believe that the restrictions have had some effect and have slowed down the spread of the virus, which would not have been the case if they had not been in place. We also know, however, that we are far from being in the clear. As I have said over the past few days, the virus is still circulating in our community and is still claiming lives. If there is a festive free-for-all, with public health advice being ignored, it will cost lives and place unbearable pressure on our hospitals. We must avoid those catastrophic consequences. We have to keep doing the basics of reducing our contacts, keeping our distance from others, wearing a face covering and washing our hands. If you experience any symptoms at all, you need to isolate yourself immediately and seek a test. We are depending on everyone to act responsibly and thoughtfully in the realm of their own life. Now that the two-week restrictions have come to an end, the infection rate and our return to normal life and activities depend on the behaviour of every one of us.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin 4:30 pm, 14th December 2020

I acknowledge the seriousness of what the Minister has said. It is a concern, given where we are with the levels of spread. I note that the Minister said that it was hoped that the variant would respond to a vaccine, but I am not clear about whether that is the vaccine that is currently available. These are worrying times. I reiterate the message to the public at large to do everything that they can personally to protect themselves and others by reducing their contacts at this time.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

The Member has raised a valid point that, I am sure, has occurred to other Members who listened to the Minister's speech. It would have been helpful had the Minister indicated whether the variant, which is quite worrying, can be dealt with effectively by the vaccine that is available at the moment rather than our having to wait, perhaps, for a further vaccine to deal with it. I did not quite detect from him a clear indication that that was the case.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I will bring some clarity to that point for the House. The information about the variant's seriousness has been brought to light today. Most activity on the virus is being undertaken at the military labs at Porton Down. People are working there to see whether the variant virus will respond to and be dealt with by the vaccine that is currently on offer. At the minute, there is nothing to say that it would not, because it is a variant of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. That work is ongoing as we speak. As soon as I receive an update on that, I will update the House.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat.

Colin McGrath is not in his place, but normally he would be here. As Chair of the Health Committee, I acknowledge the work that Colin has done on the Committee through a very intensive time. I thank him for that. I also welcome Cara Hunter to the Committee and look forward to working with her.

The Health Committee was briefed on the regulations on Thursday 10 December. The Committee is conscious of the significant restrictions on people's freedoms imposed under the two-week circuit breaker but also of the persistently high levels of infection in the community and the continuing pressure on our hospitals and on health and social care workers, who face into a very dark winter after, probably, the most arduous year that any of us have ever seen.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way. Will he agree that the high levels of transmission of the virus are worrying and that, although restrictions such as these are aimed at lowering transmission, that does not seem to be happening? Even at the minute, the rates of transmission in the North are more than four times what they are in the South. That suggests that we are doing something wrong up here.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree that the figures are certainly worrying. There are differences between rates here and in the South, and I urge that the maximum cooperation is undertaken as a matter of urgency in relation to testing, tracing, communication of messaging and all of that on a North/South basis. The continued high level of transmission is a concern as we face into Christmas.

The Committee raised the monitoring of effectiveness of measures and again placed on record its concern about the processes for doing that. In relation to monitoring, members acknowledged that transmission rates appeared to be stubborn, and it was suggested that monitoring of the effectiveness of the restrictions on each sector was therefore important. Officials advised that the imposition of restrictions on a particular sector did not necessarily imply evidence of impact on that sector and that it was difficult to disaggregate the net effects beyond confirming that the evidence showed that transmission was higher anywhere where people congregate in enclosed spaces.

The timely communication of frequently changing rules to enforcement bodies was also raised. The Committee was advised that, for main sets of amendments, extensive engagement was undertaken in advance of regulations being made, but the official conceded that, perhaps, where small adjustments were made to rules, such as in the amendment (No. 18) regulations, further work was required to update the police and others. It was also confirmed that enforcement powers were in place from the time that the rules have effect.

The Committee's concerns centre on matters outside the particulars of these regulations, and we continue to press for further, better and more timely engagement on policy development ahead of the making of further regulations. In closing, once again, I remind those listening to please consider the pressure on our health and social care workers as they try to stretch, yet again, their reserves of strength and resilience for the winter months before the vaccinations take effect. I urge everyone not to waste this year's efforts: limit your social contact, keep your distance, wear a face covering and keep washing your hands.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I thank the Minister for his commentary on the new information from the UK Government that we have had this afternoon on the new variant of COVID-19. It is important that our systems and our test, trace and protect processes are adequate and can cope with the new variant going forward. It is vital that those are working well and that we will be able to track the variant. If it has reached UK shores, it is most probably in Northern Ireland. It is critical that the Assembly is kept informed, so I thank the Minister for the commitment to do that in relation to the new variant. It is also critical that the vaccine is rolled out as quickly as possible in order to protect our most vulnerable.

I want to put on record my sympathies to the families who have lost a precious family member in the week since we last discussed the health protection regulations. We all need to bear it in mind that our individual actions over the next few weeks can and will have an impact on how many of our elderly population will be here to receive the much-anticipated COVID-19 vaccine. Hearing the news of vaccine deliveries into Northern Ireland over the weekend was fantastic. It is right to feel a certain amount of relief and to look forward with some optimism to 2021. However, we need to act with much caution in the coming weeks, and, in particular, we need to ensure that we continue to protect those who are most at risk. Let us give them the time that they need to get the vaccine and to gain the much-needed protection that only the vaccine can give.

It is only natural that we are very focused on the next couple of weeks and the opportunity to live in a less restricted way over the Christmas period. While the freedom being offered to people is welcome after the restrictions of the past nine months, the message must be one of caution, particularly as we consider the case numbers in the past week. The rules and guidelines continue to be an unwelcome intrusion on our freedom, but they are necessary. We must keep the basic measures of protection to the forefront of our minds and actions: wash our hands regularly; avoid touching our face; use a face covering; and keep social distance from others, including family members and friends who do not live with us or share our home.

It is while considering the case numbers from last week that we reflect on the regulations before us, particularly amendment No. 17, which gives effect to the circuit breaker agreed by the Executive on 19 and 24 November. The regulations ask a lot of people. They ask a lot of our business community, our churches and those involved in sport and the many social activities that we long to see back up and running in our communities. However, the measures set out in the regulations are necessary. The R number has shown an upward trend. Our health advisers have admitted that the measures did not have the effect that was sought to drive down R. That poses questions for those advising the Executive, and it highlights the need to study the reaction to each of the restrictions. We need evidence that the price being paid by those whom the restrictions target is worth it. That needs to be considered as we look to find a balanced and proportionate way through what might come in January, and we need to reflect that the businesses and activities so hugely impacted by the restrictions did not contribute to the case numbers that we see today. Understandably, our hospitality sector and our churches ask, "Why us?". While acknowledging that some congregations have had clusters, it is right that we recognise that the closure of churches is a significant ask of our faith community. We need to look at how we can work with churches to allow worship to continue in the coming weeks and months. The regulation makes a necessary adjustment for congregations that host online services, which is welcome, but we want to see our churches open.

We need partnerships as we tackle COVID-19. It is right to thank councils for working collaboratively with the Executive. The additional regulation grants enforcement powers to councils in a range of areas, and their support in that is welcome. However, enforcement needs to be done fairly and in an even-handed way across Northern Ireland, and I trust that councils are working through the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), for example, to ensure that that is the case.

In recent days, we have seen how damaging it is to the public acceptance of the regulations when some, including some of those sitting across the Chamber, continue to escape questioning and being held to account for breaching regulations and causing so much damage to our public health messaging and its effectiveness. No one is above these laws. We need that message to be loud and clear.

In summing up, I put on record my party's appreciation of all of our incredible healthcare workers and the wonderful way in which they have played their part throughout the pandemic in what has been a challenging year for everyone. We support the regulations.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister and other Members for their welcome as I become a member of the Health Committee. I look forward to working with them all.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the health protection regulations, as I have previously. As I reflected in my remarks last week, this has been an extremely difficult year. It has changed all aspects of our daily lives and brought great hardship and grief to many. I continue to be mindful of the emotional and mental health impact that the pandemic and isolation have had on our society and of the long-term impact that, as we all acknowledge, they will have in the months and years ahead.

In line with the amendment (No. 17) regulations, it is evident that those businesses in hospitality, close-contact and leisure services have been hit particularly hard as a result of COVID-19. I am sure that there is not one day on which Members right across the House do not hear from many business owners, and staff from businesses, about the impact of COVID-19.

I welcome the fact that, under the current restrictions, in particular in the run-up to the Christmas period, more people are allowed to attend places of worship, in line with the amendment (No. 18) regulations. As the Member who spoke previously said, however, church closures have been very difficult, especially for many of my constituents. In this time of great turmoil, when people are perhaps more than ever in need of a place in which to practise their spiritual beliefs, I hope that the recording and live-streaming of services has been something of a comfort to some and enabled thousands of people across the North to have the comfort of their faith.

As colleagues have said, it is deeply regrettable that these issues are only being debated today in the Assembly. Dealing with and managing the pandemic has been our most important item of business this year. As such, I feel strongly that a proper opportunity to debate the regulations, which touch on almost every aspect of our lives and our constituents' lives, must be given to the Assembly.

News of the vaccination and its roll-out over the past week has given us all hope that 2021 will be a much better year for us all. We hope that we will not see a surge in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks. We acknowledge that the weeks and months ahead may be just as difficult as those that have passed. Ongoing and further restrictions may well be required, unfortunately. I hope that any new regulations in the weeks ahead will be debated by MLAs in advance of their implementation, allowing us the opportunity to reflect the views, worries and concerns of all our constituents that lockdown raises.

The approach over the past month has seen many businesses shut their doors. They were allowed to open for one week and then made to close for two. In addition to the financial hardship that that entails, I am also deeply concerned about the mixed message that that approach gives to the public about dealing with the virus. A more consistent approach would resonate more strongly with the public and make clear what is required of us all in order to beat the virus.

My party colleagues and I support the Health Protection Regulations and fully recognise the need for them. We feel strongly, however, that more debate and scrutiny should be allowed in the weeks and months ahead.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance 4:45 pm, 14th December 2020

The Alliance Party supports the amendment regulations. They, particularly the amendment (No. 17) regulations, which brought into law a circuit breaker, had far-reaching consequences for our non-essential retailers, bars, restaurants, gyms, sports clubs and places of worship during what should have been an important time for their operations. The only glimmer of normality for many of them was the ability to provide carry-outs and a click-and-collect service and to move their services online.

On Saturday, I visited a florist in south Belfast to see how the restrictions had impacted on the business. I was pleased to learn that the owner's experience had been somewhat positive and that trade had increased, owing to the ability to click and collect and greater support from the local community. I sincerely hope that that is replicated across the entire small-business sector over the next few weeks and into the new year. Another observation that I made was that it was fairly easy for social-distancing restrictions to be introduced and, importantly, that customers were happy to queue accordingly while I was there.

It is regrettable therefore that, also on Saturday, in images on social media, we witnessed once again huge queues outside a large clothing retailer. I repeat that it would be prudent for the regulations relating to the wearing of face masks to be introduced on a more universal basis. It is essential that retailers be required to enforce social distancing outside their premises. Not to do so is to allow other retailers to lose out on customers who will avoid the area for fear of community transmission.

I made a point at the Health Committee, to which the Chair made reference, about a small adjustment in the amendment (No 18) regulations to remove sports massage from the list of close-contact services. I welcome that amendment, as it allows for those who require physiotherapy to be able to receive it at the earliest opportunity. It is unfortunate that a constituent of mine did not feel that the change was properly communicated. She felt that she would fall foul of the PSNI, after some engagement with it, if she operated within the two weeks. I therefore repeat that communication around that amendment, and others, needs to be better.

Again, going forward, I sincerely hope that those businesses and non-essential retailers who have been affected by the circuit breaker receive the financial support that was promised as soon as possible. Earlier, during Question Time, I was amazed that the Finance Minister did not seem to grasp how many businesses have lost out, have not received communication or are in the middle of an appeal under the local restrictions support scheme. I support the call made by Roy Beggs and others for a dedicated phone line for elected representatives. Like every Member in the Chamber, I continue to be contacted by desperate business owners who have not heard back about their claim or, worse, have been advised that they are not eligible when they have blatantly met the stated criteria. It is unfair to force these businesses to close and then to deny them support. I sincerely hope that things will be done better for businesses and their staff going forward.

In closing, I wish a happy Christmas to all the health and social care workers who have so valiantly battled the virus this year. I sincerely hope that they can all have some time to spend with their families and can recuperate from an exhausting year. Finally, I send my deepest sympathies to everyone who has been bereaved this year. We all lament the loss of their loved ones before the vaccine programme was in place.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

As ever, I welcome the opportunity to debate the efficiency of our current regulations and restrictions. Once again, the regulations being discussed date back to November and do not currently apply. Perhaps it is because Christmas is approaching, but I cannot help but think that our current way of implementing the restrictions is a little bit like the hokey-cokey: we are in lockdown, we are not in lockdown, then we are in, then we are out and, to complete the dance, we have certain parties turning around on their approach to the regulations and the restrictions. However, unlike in the song, that is not what it is all about; it is about saving lives and relieving the pressure on our health system and the heroes in our health sector.

At this time, I want to pay tribute to those heroes, who consistently go over and above the call of duty to save lives and ensure that families do not suffer the devastating loss of a loved one to a most unforgiving and indiscriminate disease. Just last week, I called for a one-off payment of £500 for our health and care sector staff. These heroes have gone the extra mile for us over the last nine months, missing precious time with their families, changing in car parks, not getting breaks or time off, and £500 would be a small payment to recognise the sacrifice they have made for us. It is not beyond the reach of our Executive.

This week, healthcare staff will implement the roll-out of a vaccination that offers much-needed hope and light in the darkness. The No. 17 amendment being debated today concerns restrictions on sporting events, close contact services, leisure venues, non-essential businesses, licensed premises, places of worship and hospitality. The No. 18 amendment concerns the number of people able to be present to live-stream a church service. We are being asked to debate and ratify these regulations and restrictions, but why do we continue to delay the debates until after they have lapsed? I could, at a push, understand the 28-day delay for regulations that continue to be implemented, but to debate and ratify something that has lapsed is farcical. Why must the Assembly continually play catch-up?

Look at the way business is done in the South. We saw them enter a six-week intensive lockdown that the SDLP supported and wanted to see emulated in the North. Now, the numbers of people contracting the virus in the South are reducing significantly. That was not an easy course of action for the South, but it worked. Meanwhile, here in the North, we have had a four-week lockdown, then something resembling a reopening, then a further two-week lockdown, and now we are getting ready for a further loosening of the restrictions next week. On and on it goes, like a never-ending hokey-cokey. There must be a better and more efficient way of doing things.

I appreciate that our Health Minister is doing his best with what he has, and I will continue to support his work. However, last week he refused to answer whether or not schools should be closing at this time, as it was the concern of a different Department. That is the silo mentality that we need to move beyond. The ratification of these regulations and restrictions will have its own ripple effect, and the restrictions that we place on one Department will have effects on others.

I should also make clear at this point that the actions that we take this week will have their own direct and indirect effect, but be under no illusion about this: next week is not a free-for-all. To treat it as such is a slap in the face for our healthcare heroes. Household gatherings that breach the rules, if only in a minimal way, such as an extra household slipping in to breach the three-house-only rule, will have their own indirect consequences, such as nurses being unable to take leave or having to go outside to their car for a cup of tea during a night shift. We owe our healthcare staff much more. Let us at least give them a fighting chance to combat this invisible enemy by providing the conditions under which they can do so. People need to think about those effects and consequences when they gather together next week.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that I support the amendments and that I continue to support our Health Minister. However, that support is in no way blinkered. My support for these health amendments and for the Health Minister is very much tied to the way that business is done here. As we approach Christmas and the new year, let us stop playing catch-up and let us take the lead in debating and implementing these regulations. I support the motions and the amendments.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

We have received very serious news today from the Health Minister about the new variant of the virus, just at a time when we were all quietly celebrating that we felt we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. At that point, this new challenge has come along. Let us hope that the vaccine proves that it can deal with it.

BBC 'Spotlight' recently did a programme that outlined the success in Wales, particularly with the different track-and-trace procedures that it had in place, and the efforts there were certainly very impressive. However, over the weekend, we heard the bad news that transmission of the virus has gone through the roof in Wales. It is easy, when that happens, to look for reasons and to want to find somebody to point the finger of blame at, but it happens because people let their guard down and facilitated the transmission of the virus.

Our Executive have granted relaxation of social gatherings over Christmas, and there will be a temptation to say, "Thank you very much" and to take advantage of the relaxations. Indeed, it might even be tempting for people to try to stretch them a little bit further to suit their own circumstances. I say this to anyone who is planning to take that approach: you do so at your own peril. If ever there was a time to raise our guard, it is now and in the coming few weeks. We owe it to our family, our neighbours, our workmates and all our fellow citizens to keep that guard up.

I have, as I am has sure everybody else in the House, received numerous emails from different organisations affected by the relaxation of these regulations, such as indoor sports clubs, swimming clubs and people who are involved in all sorts of activities, telling us that they have put fantastic things in place to prevent the transmission of the virus and asking whether we could lobby to allow them to reopen. The reality is that there is no safe or absolute way to avoid transmission of the virus in a situation where people gather, and just one little slip could lead to a death.

My family has made decisions that are, quite frankly, heartbreaking at a time of the year when we all love to get together, and I appeal to everyone to make sacrifices over Christmas. It is the right thing to do, and it is in keeping with the Christian message, which, let us not forget, Christmas is all about.

We will beat this virus, but we all have to do the right thing. If we do the right thing, it will happen sooner rather than later.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green 5:00 pm, 14th December 2020

I have to agree with some of the other Members. Here we are again, with the Assembly debating and voting on regulations after the period in which they applied. Ten months into this pandemic, we should not be in this position, fumbling our way from one set of restrictions to the next, with no overarching plan or strategy. We keep being told that we cannot have endless cycles of lockdown, yet here we are in another endless cycle of lockdown, with speculation already starting among the public about when the dates for the next lockdown will be agreed.

Of course we must follow the science and the public health guidance, and if that dictates restrictive measures to deal with the virus, that is absolutely understandable, and everyone needs to get behind it. However, the problem is that the Executive do not seem to have a plan that extends, at the very best, beyond a week or two. There is no strategy in place for when one set of restrictions is easing and what that means. There is no forward planning and no guidance ready to let people know what it means.

The amendment No 17 restrictions came in only after another shambolic display of decision-making from the Executive. I need to put on record that the public's confidence in the Executive and their ability to deal with the pandemic has been decimated. How do we expect the public to adhere to the public health regulations, with the confusion and mixed messaging that has been happening and when we are here debating and approving restrictions that no longer even apply? Is it any wonder that people are confused?

We had the shock of a cross-community veto being used against proposals from the Health Minister to deal with the crisis, and we had some businesses being allowed to open for one week and then being closed down. We are told that essential retail only can remain open, but since when was buying a flat-pack coffee table or a fancy vase more essential than children's clothing? Like everyone, I have businesses contacting me in a flurry when these restrictions are announced, but, as an MLA, my source of information was just as good as theirs. I looked at Twitter and to journalists' newsfeeds.

Time and time again, we have put businesses in impossible situations. One business owner phoned my office very confused as they were clear that they were not essential. They had not intended to remain open and had everything ready to close down in line with what they believed was public health guidance. They then found out that, because they sold hardware, they were classed as essential and that, if they did go ahead and close as planned, they would be deemed to be making their own choice and would not be eligible for financial support.

I note that the regulations and guidance that were due to come into effect on Friday past were published, once again, at the eleventh hour. So much for the promises from this Executive that they would not make decisions without giving people notice. Hours before some businesses were due to open, they learned that they could not do so. How is that acceptable? All of this is happening while we are still seeing worrying levels of community transmission and too many people still losing their life to this virus. This is an unprecedented situation, but, unfortunately, the Executive's inability to deal with the crisis in a timely manner has set the precedent.

We do have hope on the horizon with the vaccine, but it remains to be seen whether we have any sort of plan to get us to the point where the vaccine has ensured widespread immunity. Therefore, like others, I cannot welcome the opportunity to discuss these regulations today. They have passed and have gone, so does it matter whether I, or anyone else here, support them? They are done and dusted, but I welcome the chance to hear from the Minister on the detail of what lies ahead of us. What are the predictions for COVID over Christmas? Is 4 January the date that is being earmarked as the next lockdown? Will the NHS make it until then? Are there plans in place for restrictions before, after or during Christmas, if they are needed? Will we have to turn to Twitter and the newsfeeds of journalists to find out when that is, or will the House be respected enough to be told?

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I certainly will.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

The Member, like Mr Chambers, has made some very useful points. It may be that when the decisions that she is requesting are made, we will be in recess. I think that it is important that the Minister takes this, which could be the last opportunity, to let us know what the current thinking is from the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser on these issues. Early January has been suggested by many media commentators as being the likely time when yet another lockdown will be implemented. Many businesses are saying to me that it is not worth their while to open, as their Christmas trade has been utterly destroyed. However, unfortunately and sadly, they have not been allowed to claim compensation because they are not deemed as being required to close. Can the Minister, in his summation, tell us very clearly what is going to happen in the first week of January so that we have clarity? Is there going to be a lockdown and is that the latest thinking?

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I thank the Member for his intervention. That is exactly what this House needs to hear. Tomorrow will be the last plenary day before the new year, and, yet again, we know nothing, so I would really welcome that from the Minister.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I rise, once again, as I have over the last number of weeks, to speak to the absolute absurdity of the situation that we are in today. As of last week, we have seen new regulations, which have reopened large numbers of workplaces and sectors of society, come into effect, and that is something that others have mentioned. However, this Assembly still has not discussed those, never mind voted on them. That is very worrying, and it continues to set a dangerous precedent that effectively says that the Executive and their Ministers will act, and if you are not in the club, tough luck, as your voice will not be heard in any real or meaningful sense. What way is that to run a political institution? Where is the democracy and accountability here? Obviously, we are discussing amendments No. 17 and No. 18 today, but when will we have the time to discuss the current regulations that are in place and their effects? Presumably, it will be in the middle of next month, by which time, the regulations will have been in place for the guts of a month. Hopefully that is not the case, but, by all accounts, we are likely to be in a scenario — as many health experts are warning — where there will be an increase in cases and infections and the likely deaths that result from that.

One key theme throughout this crisis has been an attempt at victim blaming from a political establishment that is, itself, responsible for presiding over the spread of this virus. It is my contention that the Executive are primarily responsible for the surge of the virus. Broadly speaking, they had two major opportunities to combat the virus: initially in March, when it arrived on our shores, and later in the summer, after the first major lockdown. The Executive wasted those opportunities, and it is dangerous to follow the pursuits of the Tories, with their commitment to a for-profit model of society and the economy and their refusal to properly implement a zero-COVID strategy.

Now, Executive Ministers appear to be clamouring to cover their mistakes by blaming individuals for their actions, while ignoring the policy decisions and wider structural obstacles that have prevented us from beating the virus, such as the disastrous track-and-trace system and the shambolic mismanagement of restrictions. The big parties are lining up to blame another surge on ordinary people for mixing over the Christmas period. You can already see the blame starting. However, that is not good enough, because the deadly context that we are entering is one that they have created.

Consider this, as the restrictions were eased last week — as I have said, we still have not discussed them — COVID cases per 100,000 of the population were at a significant high when compared to previous weeks. That indicates that the Executive's pre-Christmas circuit breaker was an abject failure by all accounts, as some of us predicted it would be. It further indicates that the Christmas period will likely be followed by another period of restrictions, as others have alluded to, and that is because of their precise failure to get the virus to manageable levels. All of this was utterly predictable.

The Executive were warned about such a scenario by Gabriel Scally, who said that reopening in December would mean that:

"in January and February we may well be burying some relations".

What shocking stuff. Some MLAs are fond of quoting Mr Scally — sometimes after the fact — but they seem incapable of following his advice when it matters. If there is a spike early next year, it is not good enough for the Executive or Ministers to blame that on people visiting their families over Christmas, not when they have permitted such actions. Ministers reopened workplaces and caused surges, presided over another failed circuit breaker and threw workers and businesses under the bus, and if they want someone to blame for the next surge, I suggest that they look in the mirror. The Executive have presided over an omnishambles, including how quickly they lifted restrictions in the summer, danced along to the tune of the Tories throughout the pandemic and issued mixed messaging, confused messaging and downright baffling anti-scientific messaging. That is not the fault of the public; it is the fault of Executive Ministers in this Building.

The so-called circuit breaker that ended last week has been an unmitigated disaster. We have seen not only a failure in health terms but more job losses because of the uncertainty. The stop-start attitude towards restrictions and the inability properly to track, trace and control the virus and work towards creating a zero COVID situation has resulted in a disastrous health and economic scenario. Even when the circuit breaker was in place, as I said, the infection rate was shooting up. Rather than taking stock of the situation, slowing down and saying, "Let us look at this and respond accordingly", as other countries have done, the Executive have opened up the shutters to the virus. What disgraceful stuff.

As one scientist, Mr Einstein, said many years ago:

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

I suggest that there are not many Einsteins currently in the Stormont Executive. In the absence of any lead from the Executive, people have again been forced to act themselves, including some bar owners who are able to close over the Christmas period or are doing so for health and safety reasons.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. He paints a picture of a utopia, whereby Government closes the entire country down, so keeping infection rates under control, while not mentioning the need for personal responsibility. Under his scenario, if the Government adopted an approach whereby a lockdown closed the entire country and people did not take personal responsibility — what then?

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

It is not utopia. I will give the Member two words: New Zealand. That example could have been followed, but it was not. He claims to be against the strategy of going in and out of lockdown but is pursuing and defending the strategy, which, by definition, means going in and out of lockdown. He fails to grasp the point.

People have been forced to act because the Executive have failed to act. Principals and teachers, in the absence of any real action at all from the Education Minister — much like earlier this year — have been forced to close schools in order to protect pupils and staff. While it may be fashionable or easy to blame everyone else, the Executive and their approach cannot be let off the hook, especially as we see what will happen over the next few weeks. By all accounts, another dangerous surge seems to be on the way. I hope that that is not the case.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Some Members have rightly said that there is something farcical about this debate. Here we are, a legislative Assembly, being asked to approve legislation that is already dead and gone. It does not matter whether or not we approve the legislation. That is the very essence of the farce.

I am sure that the regulations could have been before us last week with the others that we debated. I would have thought that the regulations that are now ruling us could be before us today. As a Member pointed out, the current regulations will run their course during recess, and we will be invited to debate them at the end of January. That is why a debate such as this is fast losing traction. It is why far fewer Members are speaking today: they recognise the futility of the exercise. It does not reflect well on this House and on those who set the business of this House that this is the persistent arrangement that we have in respect of these regulations. I will, therefore, keep my own remarks quite brief.

There is one issue that I want to draw the Minister out on, if I can. Under these regulations, churches were closed. There was very little indication in the public domain of scientific or other advice indicating that churches were such a problem that they had to be closed. I want to know why it was that, essentially without notice and apparently without much indication of churches being a difficulty, and in the face of many indications that several churches were taking conscious, effective steps to reduce their numbers, to have social distancing and to do all the right things, nonetheless they were visited with a punitive measure that would have come if they had done nothing. Why were churches closed during that two weeks? What was the advice that gave rise to that?

Now, when churches are reopened, it is in circumstances where there is an added restriction, which did not exist before, in that you now have to wear a mask, not just going to and from your seat but while you are in your seat throughout the service. Why is that, because the social distancing within the buildings is the same as it was before? To my knowledge, there has been very little indication that churches have been a significant problem, so why this added, suddenly announced, restriction? It is one thing, in terms of comfort and durability, to wear a mask going in and out of a shop or going in and out of a church, but it is quite another thing to be asked to wear a mask for the total duration of a service where one generally is not moving about. What is the rationale and the reason for putting that punitive measure upon churchgoers? That is something that we need to hear from the Minister.

The only other comment that I want to make is that the regulations that have just passed drew their own opprobrium. In my constituency, I can think of a couple of devoted toyshops. That is all that they do: they sell toys. They were forced to close, but you could buy some of the same toys in Tesco. Why was there this disparity, which, in fact, punished the small independent trader and advantaged the large supermarkets and international traders? That caused a good deal of resentment, particularly amongst those who had spent money and scarce resources on preparing and readying themselves, only to be slapped in the face with these regulations.

Going forward — whatever forward entails — I trust that the Minister and the Executive will temper these issues with a greater degree of what would appear to many to be common sense than heretofore.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 5:15 pm, 14th December 2020

I now call on the Health Minister, Robin Swann, to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the two motions.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank the Members for being in attendance today and for their contributions to the debate.

I appreciate the willingness of the Assembly to work within unusual processes, whereby the role of legislative scrutiny is being applied after the event. In this case, the scrutiny takes place in respect of regulations that have already expired, as many Members have said. Nevertheless, I believe that it is important that this scrutiny takes place in order to examine and comment upon measures that have been taken.

On the timing of this debate, I will not defend where we are today, but I will explain, from what I know, why we are debating the regulations today. The debate is being held at the earliest opportunity available to my Department. The regulations were laid before the Assembly on 27 November and 30 November respectively. The Examiner of Statutory Rules reported on them on 9 December, and the Committee moved quickly to scrutinise them on 10 December, so today is the first opportunity for them to be debated. The timing of the debate is a matter for the Assembly, given the Assembly's requirements for the input of the Examiner of Statutory Rules and the timing of scrutiny by the Health Committee.

If there is another way in which the regulations can be brought forward and debated, I am up for that. As I said earlier to Members, in the past nine or 10 months, I have been in the Chamber more than any other Minister. In today's opening comments, I provided an update on the new variant of COVID. I brought that update to the House first, not to the media or anywhere else, because I think that this is the proper place for such an update. If there is another way in which we can debate the regulations and have meaningful and democratic input, I am up for that, and Members know that.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

As someone who has sat in the Minister's chair and who is glad that he is not sitting in that chair at the moment — I have thought of that many, many times over this last while — I accept —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I encourage the Member to speak into the microphone.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Sorry about that.

As someone who has sat in the Minister's chair and who is very glad that he has not been sitting in his chair for the last month, I accept that he has been before the Assembly far more than any other Minister and, indeed, has made himself available to the media far more than any other Minister. He is to be congratulated on that. Given that we are going into recess, can he guarantee that, if a problem arises with the vaccine and the new variant, he will immediately issue a written statement to Members to update them on such a worrying situation so that we can hear that directly from him before it appears in the media or on Twitter or Facebook?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I will issue a written statement. The Member will be aware that, on a number of Fridays, I issued written statements to update Members on where we were, and I was criticised by Members for doing so. I will issue and have issued written statements. Can I guarantee that Members will know before the media or Twitter finds out? I cannot give that guarantee. I cannot even give that guarantee about an Executive meeting, so I cannot give it to the House. If I could give that guarantee to the Member, I would do so. I will update Members. As I have said, I will provide current and regular updates to the House and the Committee on the variant and the vaccines. I think that I am due at the Health Committee just before Christmas, and that will be my twelfth attendance at that Committee this year.

Things move fast in the current context, and the observations and concerns of Assembly Members are taken on board as we develop policy and work on the next set of amendments. I will explain the process — I have had this conversation with the Committee Chair, whose duty it is to scrutinise the regulations — which is that the regulations come forward as a result of policy development by the Executive, not solely my Department, although I take great pleasure in coming here to have such debates and answer Members' questions. I believe that the public must have confidence that the Executive are not acting without scrutiny, and, for that reason, I am happy to respond to a number of questions and comments raised by Members during the debate.

In response to the Committee Chair's comments, I thank the Committee for its engagement with my officials and other officials in scrutinising these regulations. If there was a way in which they could come forward earlier, at policy development stage, I would support that, but the policy is developed by the Executive, not solely by my Department.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I appreciate the Minister's remarks about coming to the House to give updates. Nobody could fault the Minister of Health for the number of times that he has made himself available for that. Does he accept that two separate things might need to happen: updating the House and scrutinising the decisions that have been taken?

Scrutiny of the decision can be done in Committee, where experts can be called in. That takes time, but the update to the House could be done by ministerial statement by any of the Ministers at the next available time, after which all Members could seek the clarity that they need. Seeking clarity is often not about scrutinising the impact but about getting an update and asking questions. A response to an official email can take weeks to come back, when all that we are looking for is a quick update. The processes of updating the House and scrutinising the policy could be helpful.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I agree with the Member. If I recall correctly, and I stand to be corrected, when the regulations were brought in and announced by the Executive on the Thursday, I came to the House and made a statement on the Monday morning. As I have said, this is the place where the questions should be asked and answered.

I move on to the contribution from the Deputy Chair of the Committee, Ms Pam Cameron, about the vaccine. I believe that it was Mr Chambers who spoke about the light that the vaccine brings. Let us not lose the hope and positiveness that the vaccine brings. I know that I mentioned the new variant in my opening statement, but we do not know where that stands yet or how successful the vaccine will be against that variant. We do know, however, that the vaccine is effective against the current variant that we are battling.

As of close of play yesterday, we had vaccinated 1,700 individuals, including vaccinators, healthcare workers, and care home residents and staff. From a standing start, from when we received the go-ahead for the vaccine and then received the vaccine, the programme is now well under way. As the Deputy Chair of the Committee indicated, we received further deliveries of the Pfizer vaccine over the weekend. We now have stock of 50,000 vaccines, which is enough to vaccinate 25,000 individuals without waste.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for giving way. You said that 1,700 vaccines were administered over a seven-day period. Will there be an increase in the numbers who are vaccinated within a one-week period?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I gave an update to the House during a debate a couple of weeks ago on how the vaccination programme would work. We have started off by vaccinating our vaccinators. That programme ran over the weekend in a number of trusts. It started last week in the Belfast Trust, because of the logistical supply and management of the vaccine. It requires a pharmacist to be present to dilute it and draw it up. The other trusts are moving into care homes today. I spoke to the chief executive of the Northern Trust, who had teams out vaccinating care home residents and staff this afternoon. The multiplier effect will kick in from today. As I have said, I am willing to provide written updates on how the programme is progressing. It is my intention that it will become another part of the public dashboard on display so that people can see the progress that we are making. It takes time to develop that and to validate the information that is displayed.

The Deputy Chair commented on the value of our healthcare workers. She knows that well, having family members who have been on the front line from the start and who continue to be there. Other Members have indicated the support that we need to give to those workers. The best present that we can give to any healthcare worker this Christmas is to play our part, reduce the number of contacts that we have and break the chains of infection so that they can have an easier time over the festive period.

I will move on to comments from —.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Thank you, Minister, for giving way. Forgive me, but I should have asked to come in sooner, as this is on the vaccination issue. I welcome the progress that the United Kingdom has made in being the first country in the world to roll out the vaccine, from which Northern Ireland has been able to benefit.

As we build up our resilience and protect the most vulnerable, cross-border travel from North to South clearly has implications whilst the Republic of Ireland is yet to roll out a vaccination programme. Is there any indication as to when the Republic of Ireland will start to carry out its vaccination programme?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 5:30 pm, 14th December 2020

I thank the Member for his question. I cannot give any firm update; it is not information that I have to hand. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is due to give the go-ahead for the Pfizer vaccine, I think on 29 December. I hope that, if that approval is given, the Republic of Ireland will start its vaccination programme, using the Pfizer vaccine or any others that come to hand before that.

Ms Hunter, in following her predecessor's role on the Health Committee, has big shoes to fill. I thank Colm for his contribution over the past few months in holding my Department and officials to account in a constructive way, which he always did. I hope that the Member is able to follow on in that regard. One thing that she has already brought to the House is her passion for mental health and how she has presented that.

This morning, I visited Holywell Hospital to show the staff our thanks and appreciation for the work that they have been doing these past months. They are the front line that is already there and is often forgotten about. When we think about mental health, we think of the challenges in the community and for GPs but often forget those who are staffing mental health facilities on a full-time basis, supporting some of the most vulnerable. It was an honour, and a humbling experience, to see the work that they are continuing to do, day in and day out.

With regard to Mr McGrath's comments on our assessment process, I covered that. I would just caution him: I know that he likes to use illustrative language such as "hokey-cokey". I do not think that lessening or lightening the seriousness of this virus is the right thing to do. I am not criticising him for it, but we just need to be careful around our words.

Ms Bradshaw commented on what we saw at the weekend with regard to face coverings. I was amazed and shocked by what I saw in the Abbey Centre. I am challenged as to how the owner of the facility and the managers of the facilities did not have those structures in place. I was reassured by the retail engagement group that is headed up by the junior Ministers, the engagement by the Economy Committee and the work that has been done by the retail sector that there would be things in place to prevent us from falling into what we saw a few weeks earlier outside the same shop, only it was outside on the streets of Belfast — that it would not happen again. It is about taking on those responsibilities. Some of the commentary with regard to how others saw that, especially on social media over the weekend, puts it into stark reality. How necessary are a pair of pyjamas when it comes to putting yourself or your family members into that challenging situation?

Mr Chambers said that anyone who ignores these restrictions does so at their own peril. I think those were his actual words. One of the things is that we ignore the restrictions at someone else's peril, because if we ignore them, there is the opportunity for someone else to become infected and end up in hospital. That is some of the selfishness that we need to challenge.

I take on board Mr Carroll's comments —

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

Minister, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, said at a press conference in this Building recently that just because you can does not mean that you should. Does the Minister agree that those words will carry a huge significance in the coming days?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I do. I always take the advice of the Chief Medical Officer with great value and cognisance. Those words have resonated and have been used by myself and, I think, the First Minister as well, because it is about self-responsibility. I agree with Mr Buckley on what we can do and what we should do. This is not a challenge to Mr Carroll, because I would not do that, but just because the Executive have put relaxations in place, it is not about looking for someone to blame in the future. It is about enabling people to have their own level of sensibility and seriousness about and observance of what they can do, should do and should not do. The concern, especially about the guidance for over Christmas, was that, without a structure, people would simply revert to a free-for-all in the number of people they have in a house. The relaxations are there as a framework that people can work to; they are not something that they have to abide by.

Clare Bailey commented on where we are, and she criticised the Executive. I have said in the House many times that it is not easy for a five-party Executive, with the different political outlooks that we have on many things. However, one thing that I am assured of is the consistent message that has come from my Department and the healthcare workforce across Northern Ireland. In fact, earlier today, the chief executives of all six health trusts issued a statement on their concern about that. Their message is consistent with anything that has come from me, as the Health Minister, from the Chief Medical Officer or from the Chief Scientific Adviser about how dangerous the virus is, how dangerous it continues to be and the steps that we can take to break the chains of infection.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Ms Bailey also raised a very important point about what is likely to happen on 4 January. Given his understanding of the situation and the advice that he has been given by the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser, what is his best educated guess about where we, as a Province, will be on the first Monday in January as far as restrictions are concerned?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I was just about to come to that comment. I did not know what I was going to say, but I was just about to come to it


I say with all respect that Members know me well enough. The Member for South Down indicated the number of times that I have come to the House and the number of times that I have made myself available to the media. One thing that I have always done is have those conversations in the Executive first and then communicate them. It is challenging. As I said, it is challenging that, often, when we have those conversations in the Executive, some in the media are able to put them on Twitter before I have taken a note of what we actually agreed.

Do I think that we will be facing further restrictions before this year ends or at the start of the new year? Over the next week, we will assess how effective the two-week circuit breaker has been or whether it has had any effect at all. We can see how it has slowed the infection rate and plateaued the number of inpatients that we have, but it has not lessened the pressures on our health and social care staff across the system. Going back to the World Health Organization guidance and advice, you utilise a circuit breaker in order to alleviate the pressure on your healthcare system. The Member will know, because he has sat in this seat, the pressures that we face at this time of year anyway, never mind in the middle of a pandemic and what could be a further wave.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Minister for giving way. On the point about the reinfection rate etc over Christmas, first, I know that he will agree with me that personal responsibility will be paramount in that time. The Government enter a contract with the people, but it is the people who must exercise restraint when it comes to the restrictions that are in place. In light of where the R rate is at the moment, the developments in and our knowledge of test and trace now, is the Minister able to elaborate to the House where the main sources of infection and the increases in the R rate are?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member. He will be aware that one of the changes and advancements that we have made in our test, trace and protect system is the ability to look back. On 16 November, we started to ask people who have tested positive where they have been over the last seven days rather than just the last 48 hours. When we received the presentation from the Public Health Agency on Friday, the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and I visited our test, trace and protect offices in County Hall in Ballymena to see further guidance and information about where the outbreaks had occurred. They occurred in various settings, including churches, gyms and the retail sector. They were all proportionate with the time and where the restrictions fell. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister received the same update that I did so that we could validate the information and make it public, as we do not want to send out a false sense of that information or to present it in a non-useful way to the public. They should see the evidence of where outbreaks are occurring in schools and churches.

Mr Allister mentioned churches and church settings; we have had outbreaks in churches and church settings. That is why there was a step to introduce the two-week circuit breaker for churches and places of worship as specific locations that had not been included before. That is coming from the Public Health Agency system. I do not want to put churchgoers off engaging with our Public Health Agency, but one of the things to have come clearly through from our systems, and which has been indicated before, is that — I am thinking about how I can put it sensitively and in a politically correct way — when a contact tracer contacts people who have been at church in the previous seven days, they are more likely to say that they have been in church, if the Member gets my drift. The contact tracers have indicated that there is an openness and honesty that —.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Minister seems to be confirming that going to church may, in fact, do you some good.


Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I wholeheartedly agree with the Member. I have never met anyone it has harmed, although some in the House might benefit greatly by listening when they are there.

I hope that that clarifies some of the reasons why the two-week circuit breaker was in place.

On face coverings, one of the challenges —.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I thank the Minister for giving way. Minister, there will be a mass shift of people trying to come home for Christmas from other countries. I know of people who will have to be tested clear in the country that they are in and get a certificate before being allowed to travel. Under the test, track and trace system here, will we ask for and look at those certificates on entry? Will we test people who leave here to travel elsewhere?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member. I will come back to her once I have dealt with Mr Allister's contribution. He asked about face coverings. One of the things learned from international advice, and from looking at other practices, is that the aerosols generated by singing have caused outbreaks in churches. The advice in other places, which we have adopted, is that wearing face coverings all the time is a better management tool than putting them on and taking them off. For the sake of the hour that someone is in church, we should try to minimise the risk and allow churches to go ahead with their services as much as possible.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

If the Minister had attended a Baptist or a Free Presbyterian church, he would know that it certainly would not be for an hour; it is more likely to be two hours. It is a bit of an inconvenience to wear a mask for that length of time. I do not know what church he attends, but if he is getting only an hour, he is being short-changed.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I will come —.


And we wonder why there are so many Protestant denominations in Northern Ireland. As a Presbyterian, if you cannot get three points into a sermon in an hour, there is something —. Sorry. I will not go any further; I am probably in enough trouble.

Maybe I will not answer all the Member's concerns. However, the junior Ministers are leading engagement with the leaders of the main Churches. From feedback that I have had, I believe that the junior Ministers understand fully the passion and feeling of the main Church leaders when that decision was made. The Member will know that it is not something that I would do, nor a recommendation that I would bring forward, easily.

Ms Bailey asked about travel. We have set our regulations on international travel depending on the country that someone comes from rather than the test on arrival. One thing that we have not done yet, although we have explored and are looking at it, is the commercial nature of testing on arrival; those who can afford to fly could pay for their own tests or get priority access to National Health Service testing because they can afford to fly. That is not something that would sit comfortably with me. That is why we have maintained and followed the route of assessing the country from which someone travels and the risk there, and, depending on that, whether we deem it necessary for them to undertake 10 days of isolation. That is done on an international basis by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). That country analysis is used in the same way across the four nations.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

We know that the travel sector has been hit greatly by the pandemic. In London, Dublin and other places, someone can now isolate for five days on their return and get a test and release. Can the Minister give us any indication of when that system might be brought in here? At some point in the future, when we are over the worst of this but there are still some restrictions, that may unlock and open some routes and help the travel industry, which, at this stage, feels that it has been left behind somewhat.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

As I said, we are observing that. It has just recently started in England. As that is a commercial transaction, it would be neither pillar 1 nor pillar 2 testing by the National Health Service. A commercial transaction would take place. We have concerns that it would start to use up testing capacity for what is a commercial transaction rather than one of a health nature. We are keeping an eye on that.

I think that I have covered most of the concerns.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Minister for giving way. Does he know when the House will discuss the latest regulations that are in place? If cases go up early in the new year, will he and his Department be willing to reconvene the Assembly to discuss that? Whilst people deserve a break, the worst possible thing would be for this place to be closed if there was a massive spike in cases. Has the Minister considered or taken a view on that?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I have never been reluctant or hesitant to bring forward recommendations to the Executive. With regard to the seriousness of recalling the House to assess further restrictions or regulations that need to be brought in, I will leave that in the hands of the Speaker and Members. Under Standing Orders, 30 Members can recall the House. I believe that it is in the gift of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I do not believe that it is in the gift —.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The Minister is quite correct about the process that he has outlined. The Business Committee, which sets the business of the Assembly, has already taken that into consideration. It is aware of that and is prepared to recall the Assembly if needs be for any matter of business that arises over the break.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member, who is a member of the Business Committee, for that clarity. As I was about to say, I do not believe that the Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response still has the facility to do that. The Member will know that I will do that if needs be. I will also commit to providing written statements, if necessary, to ensure that Members are kept as fully up to date as possible.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

As a follow-up to John O'Dowd's question earlier, I am concerned about the roll-out of the vaccinations. The Minister said that 1,700 were done over a seven-day period. The first delivery of 25,000 vaccines will, I presume, do 12,500 people, given that it is a split dose. At that rate, we would be looking at some six weeks. I presume, therefore, that there will be significant scaling up. How long does the Minister expect it to take to do the first 12,500 vaccinations?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

With regard to my answer to Mr O'Dowd's question, I will also say to the Member that what we did at the start was to ensure the logistics. Remember that the vaccine itself presents severe logistical challenges because it has to be stored at -70°C.The vaccine came in batches of 1,000, so we had to work out how to split that. We are the first part of the United Kingdom to get the vaccine into care homes. Our plan for the first batch is to do the entirety of our care home sector, including residents, at least once by the end of the year. That is a major logistical challenge in itself, so I ask the Member not just to take what we have done in the past few days, because that was about setting up systems and processes and making sure that our vaccinators were vaccinated first.

Today is the first main day of vaccination. We will be able to get an assessment of that tomorrow, and we will provide an update sooner rather than later on how we are progressing with the initial batch. As I said in response to the Deputy Chair, we now have 50,000 vaccines in place. We are hopeful that more will become available towards the end of the year, so that supply line will continue to produce.

I think that I have covered everyone's queries or comments. There were challenges at the start about the usefulness of this debate and the time spent in the Chamber, but our engagement has allowed Members to raise questions and get some answers, but perhaps not the level of detail that they would have liked.

We all have a responsibility to help to curb the spread of the virus. We do that — I repeat this — by maintaining social distancing; maintaining good hand and respiratory hygiene; wearing face coverings; self-isolating immediately if we experience any symptoms, including a new persistent cough, a fever or a loss or change of smell or taste; seeking a test if we experience any of those symptoms; downloading the StopCOVID NI app; and complying with the restrictions. By following that advice as we go about our daily lives, we can protect ourselves and others from serious illness, protect our health service and our economy and help to avoid further prolonged and more stringent restrictions.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I confirm that the Ad Hoc Committee can meet if a Minister informs the Speaker that they wish to bring a statement to the Committee. It is within our provisions to arrange such a meeting quickly, and — who knows? — if it is needed, within the next number of weeks.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 17) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.