Members, the next item of business is the motions to approve seven statutory rules, all of which relate to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations. There will be a single debate on all seven motions; you know the form. I will ask the Clerk to read the first motion, and I will then call the Minister to move it. The Minister will then commence the debate on all of the motions listed on 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 each of the remaining statutory rules. If that is clear, we will proceed.
Agus anois iarraim ar an Aire Ó Cearnaigh an rún a mholadh. I call Minister Kearney to move the motion.
Éirím leis an rún a mholadh. I beg to move
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 19) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
The following motions stood in the Order Paper:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 20) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 21) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 22) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 23) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 24) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 25) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As you are aware, the most recent amendments to the regulations were announced in the Chamber on 6 January. Members heard directly from the Executive on these amendments, including statements from the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Health, Education and Justice Ministers, and it allowed Members an element of scrutiny before they were made.
Today, Junior Minister Lyons and I are moving amendments Nos 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25 to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) Regulations 2020. Members will be aware that these amendments enacted measures that span the period up to and during the Christmas holidays and the subsequent weeks. With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, and given the number of amendments that we are dealing with today, I will briefly set out the context of where we were when the first of the seven sets of amendment regulations were made.
Déanfaidh mé cur i láthair ar na leasuithe seo atá i gcroí dhíospóireacht an lae inniu. I mí Dheireadh Fómhair, ghlac an Feidhmeannas cinneadh sraith srianta úra a chur chun feidhme. I will then focus my remarks on the amendments at the centre of today's debate.
In mid-October, the Executive agreed to a period of tighter restrictions. Following a week in November, where certain relaxations to the restrictions were permitted, a further two weeks of enhanced restrictions were put in place from 27 November until 11 December. Those restrictions were reflected in a series of amendments to the regulations up to and including the No 18 amendment.
At their meeting on 3 December, the Executive then agreed to allow a degree of reopening on 11 December. In some areas, they regulated for measures that were tighter than those that existed before mid-October. Those decisions were informed by medical and scientific advice, the assessment of coronavirus impacts on health at that time and the most up-to-date modelling. That formed the basis of the amendment No. 19 of the regulations.
I will now summarise briefly all seven statutory rules. I will begin with amendment No. 19, which, as I mentioned, came into effect on 11 December. It introduced a number of significant changes, including the reopening of the hospitality sector with additional requirements for unlicensed premises to bring them into line with licensed premises on seating and gathering customer information; an upper limit of 500 persons for outdoor gatherings, sports events or gatherings; requirements on a responsible person and risk assessments to be carried out; the right of appeal to a court against a premises improvement notice or prohibition notice; reopening of close-contact services, with additional requirements to see clients by an appointment-only system and to gather customer information; removal of restrictions on the opening of non-essential retail businesses; amendments to the operating hours of hospitality services, including takeaway services and the sale of alcohol; and the regulations reverted to the mid October restrictions relating to places of worship, marriages and civil partnerships, funerals and committals.
Amendment No. 20, which came into effect on 16 December, amended the requirement for review of those regulations to allow extra time for data to become available after the Christmas holidays. It also amended from 14 days down to 10 days the period that a person must wait before forming a new linked household in order to reflect the decrease in the self-isolation period, and it permitted a supermarket to use any till or checkout aisle for intoxicating liquor off-sales. That allowed customers to use all aisles in order to reduce congestion and overcrowding and to ensure that social distancing could be maintained. Some minor corrections and technical amendments to the regulations to permit the continued operation of business financial support schemes were also made under amendment No. 20.
Amendment No. 21 came into operation on 17 December and clarified some issues on entertainment and gatherings, including what constituted a single gathering if entertainment is provided in a venue, the definition of "entertainment" for the purposes of the regulations, that, in an outdoor venue, each group at a table is considered to be a separate gathering if no entertainment is provided, and that all the persons in a room are considered to be a single gathering if entertainment is provided.
Amendment No. 22 came into operation on 18 December. It provided for extended linked households at Christmas in order to reflect the guidance on households meeting over Christmas and forming Christmas bubbles; allowed the use of conference facilities by courts and tribunals; and covered some technical corrections in the regulations.
Amendment No. 23 came into operation on 23 December. It limited a Christmas bubble to one day and prohibited overnight stays connected to a Christmas bubble.
Moving to the final two amendments, which reintroduced restrictions immediately after Christmas in response to an escalating disease situation and significant hospital pressures, amendment No. 24 came into operation at midnight on 25 December, and it remains in place today. The amendment introduced the following measures: closure of non-essential retail businesses, including click-and-collect services; closure of close-contact services, including driving instruction, with some exemptions; and closure of indoor and outdoor visitor attractions and sports and leisure facilities. It limited indoor and outdoor gatherings to members of one household and their linked household to a maximum of 10 people, including children aged 12 years and under, for the two linked households to gather indoors or outdoors at a private dwelling at any one time.
Indoor and outdoor gatherings, excluding private dwellings, are permitted only up to a maximum of 15 people, including children aged 12 or under, with exemptions in place for work, blood donations, vaccinations and education. Indoor sport is permitted only for elite athletes or for PE in or for schools. Outdoor gatherings for the purposes of exercise or sport are permitted only for elite athletics and physical education in or for schools, if participants are members of the same household, a linked household or if exercise is taken by an individual and their carer or carers. Spectators are not permitted for sporting events. There is the closure of all hospitality, with some exceptions, including takeaway and delivery services, which are permitted from 5.00 am to 11.00 pm. Additional restrictions were in place between 8.00 pm and 6.00 am from 26 December to 2 January. Those stricter measures were: no household mixing in private gardens or indoors in any private dwelling, except for emergencies or the provision of health or care services. Those restrictions also applied to gatherings with a linked bubbled household. Indoor and outdoor gatherings with members of more than one household were not allowed. Indoor and outdoor sporting events were not allowed, except for training by elite athletes and exercise taken with members of your household or a linked household, or exercise by an individual and their carer or carers. Essential retail could not operate except for grocery deliveries or grocery click and collect on an appointment-only basis. Hospitality could not operate between those times, including for deliveries.
The final amendment — amendment No. 25 — came into operation on 29 December, and it made the following changes: permitting taxi or vehicle hire businesses to operate during the period of tighter restrictions between 8.00 pm and 6.00 am from 26 December until 2 January. What is more clearly defined are the operating hours of businesses that are selling food and drink to prevent businesses from flouting the regulations by taking orders prior to 11.00 pm but continuing to operate via delivery into the early hours of the morning, providing that the power to require people to return home would operate only to 2 January 2021.
A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, tá súil agam go léiríonn an méid atá ráite agam an comhthéacs inar ceapadh na rialacháin seo agus na cuspóirí a bhaineann leo. Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that that provides you and Members with a summary of the context in which these regulations were made and provides an outline of their content. Molaim an rún agus na rialacháin don Tionól. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
The statutory responsibility for scrutinising these regulations lies with the Health Committee, and I look forward to hearing from those Committee members later in the debate. As I have stated in previous speeches on this matter, the Committee for the Executive Office has been consistent in its message throughout the pandemic: everyone needs to comply with the restrictions that are in place to protect themselves, their families and others in the community. The Committee remains committed to the need for strong public messaging, a united front in tackling the pandemic and for us all to do what we must do to keep people safe. The extension of the restrictions last month and last week is indicative of the serious situation that we are all facing. Consequently, the Committee welcomes legislation that is intended to protect the community.
I will make a number of points in my capacity as an SDLP MLA. I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate.
As has been noted, the health protection amendment regulations that we are debating and being asked to ratify today are the amendment (No. 19) regulations through to the amendment (No. 25) regulations. I have said many times in the Chamber that the way in which we ratify the restrictions seems more convoluted than it needs to be, and today's debate could not be more illustrative of that.
We are debating the amendment (No. 19) regulations, which concerned the easing of restrictions and came into effect on 11 December; the amendment (No. 20) regulations, which amended Christmas bubbling and the length of time that people had to stay in self-isolation and came into effect on 16 December; the amendment (No. 21) regulations, which concerned entertainment venues and came into effect on 17 December; the amendment (No. 22) regulations, which, again, concerned Christmas bubbling and came into effect on 18 December; the amendment (No. 23) regulations, which made Christmas celebrations a one-day event and came into effect on 23 December; the amendment (No. 24) regulations, which concerned the reintroduction of restrictions and came into effect on 24 December; and, finally, the amendment (No. 25) regulations, which concerned taxis and the limiting of operating hours and came into effect on 29 December. That is quite the timeline, but what is it a timeline of? Is it a reflection on our healthcare system or staff? Is it a timeline of the public adherence to the regulations? Perhaps it is a timeline of how businesses have responded to the virus. No, the timeline that I have detailed is a reflection on the joint heads of Government, who allowed petty politicking to get in the way of public health, public messaging and local businesses.
However they try to spin it, the long and the short of it is that their dysfunctional relationship has resulted in where we have ended up today. Instead of any sort of forward planning, they have reacted to every iterance of the virus and how it has impacted on our daily lives. We are almost a year into the pandemic. At this stage, inability or unwillingness is no excuse. Frankly, they never were, but you would like to think that by this stage the two parties would have learnt something.
I am sure that my MLA colleagues in Sinn Féin and the DUP will sit there, shake their heads, denounce my words because it is a five-party Executive and say, "Why is someone from the SDLP standing up and saying this?". Although I am certainly not privy to the workings of the Executive and their meetings, I do hear about those meetings from local broadcast reporters on Twitter, and they give the impression that the papers on the restrictions that we debate are not being distributed in good time. Meanwhile, the cross-community vote has been employed in the past, and we all know where that has left us. All the while, our public are contracting the virus and dying from it, businesses are falling apart, our high street is disappearing and our healthcare staff continue to cry out that they are at their breaking point.
In the run-up to Christmas, we were able to offer our public a bit of hope for their Christmas and new year as the vaccine became more readily available, but then the timeline that I detailed rolled out. The response from our Government unravelled, and we witnessed those awful and horrifying spiking numbers. Some may be asking what my final analysis of that will be. Back in March, I said in this very Chamber when we discussed the then Coronavirus Bill:
"This day can be the defining moment of the Assembly. There is no other issue — not one in a generation — that has brought people together" — [Official Report (Hansard), 24 March 2020, p10, col 1]. and washed clean old grievances like this one. While our public have had to socially distance and separate themselves from loved ones, they have been brought closer together, but they have not reneged on what they have had to do. When businesses were faced with a terrifying virus, they put in the manpower and responded in such a way as to support the public, and they have not reneged on that. When our healthcare system faced a pandemic that no one had seen the likes of before, the staff stepped up to the mark, went over and above the call of duty and issued a fearless response with the courage and relentless energy that a gladiator would be envious of. Not once have they backed down from that challenge.
What did we see from our joint heads of government? We saw petty politicking, pride and reaction. At this stage, I think that the public have frankly had enough of that. Get your heads in the game, get over yourselves and show leadership. We have had enough of reactions, enough of bickering and enough of division. It is time to start forward planning and looking for an exit strategy from the virus.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I stand in today for the Chair and Deputy Chair. I rise initially to respond on behalf of the Committee and will then make some remarks in a personal capacity.
The suite of rules before us today gave effect to quite different approaches to restrictions within a few short weeks. The Committee's briefing on the regulations spanned its meetings of 14 and 21 January, the former of which I chaired. Members acknowledged the grave circumstances in which we found ourselves and the need to do all that we could to reduce the strain on the health service and its staff, who face into the eleventh month of relentless pressure on our behalf.
Having discussed on many occasions the urgency with which the regulations were being made and the resulting lack of prior engagement and impact assessment, the Committee enquired about efforts to analyse the impact retrospectively to ensure that future regulations were informed by such learning. The director of population health advised the Committee that significant progress had been made in consulting the sectors affected by the regulations and that the number of amendments reflected the learning and responsiveness. She further alluded to an ongoing review of the impact of the regulations. When asked by the Committee to share the outcomes of the review, however, the official indicated that she would have to take the request away for consideration since it was more of a continuous process. The Committee would appreciate early sight of any analysis produced by the review.
When asked about the learning in relation to the arrangements put in place over Christmas, the director acknowledged that what we were seeing now was clearly the impact of the relaxations that we are talking about today but pointed out that amendment No. 25, reversing some relaxations, reflected a response to the emerging data. She further advised that the modelling group was engaged in a constant process of review overseen by the Chief Scientific Adviser and was provided with updated information on a weekly basis. The director acknowledged that compliance, as raised by members, remained an area of ongoing concern and advised that there was active discussion on the subject across various groups, levels and sectors. She explained that the approach remained one of education first in an effort not to be heavy-handed and that the interplay between rules and public attitudes and behaviours was not always predictable.
In reflection on the extension of the requirements to gather customer information, the official was asked whether any consideration had been given to including postal addresses in order to discourage any breach of the two-household rule in hospitality settings. The Committee was advised that names and phone numbers were collected primarily to enable customers to be contacted if necessary, but the official undertook to consider the potential compliance benefits of requesting postal addresses. I would be grateful if the junior Minister who will respond could give any available update on that matter.
Effective scrutiny and accessible information remain significant issues for the Committee. Members have not always found the online information entirely clear, up to date and accessible. We are now at amendment No. 25 to the No. 2 regulations, and the Committee has previously asked to be provided with what would effectively be a tracked change version showing the net effect of the amendments at any given point. That has not been forthcoming, and again the official simply directed the Committee to look at the nidirect website. As a Committee member who has long sought improved communication, I have to say that this is not good enough, and I suspect that Members all agree with me on that point. I do not see why the Committee cannot be added to the list of recipients of accessible versions of the regulations to facilitate it when it undertakes its scrutiny.
On a more positive point, we were advised that the most recent version of online information had been translated into a number of languages. That is very welcome and is something that the Committee has long been calling for.
Economic questions have been raised by the Committee, given the wide-ranging impact of the health protection regulations. Officials were asked for their response to frustrations expressed by local retailers who see multinationals continuing to sell items that they, as smaller operators, cannot. The issue of closing times for takeaway services was also raised, and the Committee was advised that those issues would be considered further.
As previously discussed, Members have concerns about the limitations of post hoc scrutiny and the continuing approach of legislating without formal consultation and impact assessment. It is acknowledged, however, that this opportunity for debate allows Members to place on record their views, and we trust that it will inform subsequent regulations.
I now wish to make some remarks in a personal capacity. The regulations are already passed, but what can we learn from them? Members will recall that amendment No 19 followed a series of attempts by one party in the Executive to reopen higher-risk services, contrary to the scientific advice, in November. The Health Minister has, implicitly at least, already noted that even that date was clearly too soon.
We could already see at the time, not least in the size of the queue outside Primark in the Abbey Centre immediately at midnight and the inability in practice of many venues to keep up with the new requirements imposed by the regulations, not least on maintaining contact details and ensuring spacing, while remaining profitable, that such a reopening with fully two weeks to go until Christmas would create a problem down the line. Members all need to be clear that the health emergency is the economic emergency.
One problem was that the scale of the risk was poorly understood. For all the emphasis on distancing, it has been clear since September or earlier that indoor venues are high-risk because of the transmission of the virus through aerosols. Even at more than two metres, the risk is high, particularly when an individual stays in a venue for a period of time and even more so if face coverings are not used, as they cannot be worn while eating and drinking. That raises questions about the risks in workplaces or places such as motorway service stations, where people can still be seen eating and drinking and therefore not wearing face coverings indoors.
Let us look at the case numbers, which, we know, follow actual infections by some days, as they typically follow symptoms, test arrangements and result reporting. On 16 December, there were 510 confirmed cases; on 23 December, there were 787; and on 30 December there were 2,143. A peak in hospitalisations followed a fortnight later. Let us hope that the peak in the number of deaths has now passed, but the numbers are still horrendous. We need to be aware that there is a penalty that we have to pay for pushing to open indoor venues before time. That is clear in the emerging research and is utterly obvious in the daily hospitalisation numbers. Let there be no more denial about what that impact is.
As noted, amendment Nos. 20 and 21 are tidying-up amendments.
Amendment No. 22 implemented the Christmas bubble, which amendment No. 23 reduced to a single day. The Health Minister has been more overt that things went wrong in that regard. It was a mess across the UK. There are legitimate questions to be raised about how enforceable Christmas restrictions would have been anyway, particularly with regard to private homes. The Office for National Statistics has suggested from the trends of infection that there is evidence UK-wide that people were beginning to gather in homes for Christmas even before 23 December, the date from which, in law, they were allowed to, in most areas, although it depends a little on how much difference the new variant made to transmission. The evidence from Great Britain, in fact, shows that, during the Christmas bubble period, people largely avoided risky contacts, even though they were permitted, perhaps taking the opportunity to meet others but intentionally staying away from older people and those with underlying conditions. Therefore, there is, as yet, limited evidence that the spike in cases and hospitalisations arose from permitting meet-ups in private homes for one day over the immediate Christmas period. The evidence for increased contact and thus increased transmission points more to the period before it. It would be useful to have more direct research for Northern Ireland to confirm that the trends were similar to those in Great Britain.
It is worth noting, as we have seen from the dramatic rise in infections in the new year in the Republic of Ireland, that a travel ban cannot stop a dramatic rise in case rates if an upward trend in contacts and thus infections is already ongoing.
We see that the virus — both old and new variants — were already circulating far too rapidly before Christmas. The fact that infections were evidently on an upward trend from the 11 December was the reason for amendment No. 24, closing so-called non-essential shops and hospitality immediately on Christmas Eve to avoid the Boxing Day sales rush. All the evidence suggests that that was wise, as I have just outlined. Amendment No. 25 provided clarification around taxi services.
We have gone some way this year towards reducing the infection rate but still not far enough. Infections are still too high, pressure on hospitals is too big and the impact on our population's well-being is too vast. However, there is evidence that, from the immediate Christmas period, when people are given clear guidance, they will behave responsibly. We need to redouble our efforts around the messaging and, most notably, in avoiding the three Cs — crowds contact and close spaces. If we give the public the right tools, I have faith that we will get through the next few months until the impact of the vaccination programme is fully felt. There is a clear light at the end of the tunnel, but we must maintain our courage and discipline until then.
I rise to speak on the restrictions before us today. Before I do so, I want to recognise where we are with the latest COVID statistics. As of today, our seven-day rate of positive cases was 261·5 per 100,000, with 422 new cases and, sadly, 17 deaths. While the rate is still alarmingly high, we hope that we will continue to see a downward trajectory.
As always in these debates, I want to pay tribute to the staff, particularly our healthcare staff in the respiratory teams across Northern Ireland, who have been under significant pressure over this period, due to winter pressures bringing already large numbers into our hospitals as well as the influx of COVID patients. They are deserving of plaudits from us all for their hard work. I was particularly struck when I saw, at the weekend, a post from a local priest in the Craigavon area. He talked about receiving that call to go to the hospital to tend to one of his parishioners as they came to the end of their life, COVID-positive. He talked about entering the hospital, seeing four or five people around the bed in full PPE — gowns, visors, masks and everything — and hearing the tears. One was holding the hand of his parishioner and another was, aloud but softly, praying for the gentleman that he was caring for. Initially, thinking that this must be family, he was even more touched when he realised that it was not family at all, but nurses and doctors, tending to the patient. How common that must be in these difficult days.
There is no doubt that we have seen quick developments throughout the past couple of months. I welcome the call for aid for those medical professionals and, indeed, the deployment of military medical personnel, but I regret that we have reached the situation that it is necessary. I also regret the tone in which some Members in the House and individuals outside took to those professionals coming in to help support our front-line services. They have the logistical and medical expertise and professionalism to play their part in repelling the COVID-19 virus as it stands.
The restrictions before the House today, as mentioned, are quite wide-ranging. Some, around the Christmas period, are no longer relevant, but others are very wide-ranging and will have wide-ranging consequences. It is only right that the House considers that. It is not only the restrictions, in particular amendments Nos. 24 and 25, that we must consider, we must take into account the knock-on effect.
I want to talk about the impact of the restrictions before us today, as well as the wider lockdown, in managing COVID-19. Inevitably, restrictions are put in place to help — as they have done — reduce positive cases and reduce pressure on hospitals, particularly when we have an influx of COVID patients and already existing winter pressures. By means of restrictions, we are trying to manage the situation until a sustainable solution and way forward is found. I understand and appreciate that our primary aim has to be to protect the health service. Equally, it is important to note that restrictions and lockdown measures are not a cure to COVID-19. As has been seen around the world and, indeed, in Northern Ireland, once restrictions are lifted, cases go up and we face a repeat cycle. I think that Members can agree that, as a society, we need to learn to move beyond the blunt instrument of restrictions and lockdown. I am sure that we can all agree with that, because we have agreed on that point before, albeit that the pressures that come with COVID-19 have been relentless.
We need to examine some of the lockdown restrictions before us today and how they can have a long, shadowy impact on many sections of our society. How do the restrictive measures before us today, and lockdowns in general, impact on society? Let us look, for example, at the working poor and the impacts on job losses, bills, financial pressures and family life. While it may be OK for people who have the luxury of green, open spaces in their gardens or, indeed, who have a wide family bubble to support them, for many of the working poor throughout Northern Ireland and, indeed, the world, the COVID restrictions and measures that are in place to bring the virus under control have had a devastating, long-lasting impact. We have to recognise that because it is true. I am not here to lay the blame at anybody's door either; I am simply outlining the effects of COVID restrictions. Indeed, that includes the ones that we have before us today.
The impact on another section of our society, our children and young people, has been well-documented. There is the closure of schools, the lack of face-to-face teaching and the impact on progression of basic skills. It was noted in a recent Stranmillis University College report that motivation has been one of the key elements noticed by those who conducted the study of our young people. It was reported that they no longer have the motivation to learn the essential life skills that they would do in a classroom. We only have to engage with the many parents who are struggling with home education — homeschooling — to realise the devastating impact that lockdown will have on our children. I understand that, in the House, quite rightly, there is divided opinion on how safe the school environment can be, but it is upon us to ensure that, as quickly as possible, we provide the space in which our children can return to education and provide them with those basic needs.
I ask parents what the major defects and defaults from lockdown and, indeed, the restrictions have been. They talk about our young people being failed academically, emotionally, physically and, indeed, socially. We have to realise that the restrictions that we put in place, albeit to stem the COVID influx, have long-lasting impacts. I think that that is a point that is lost on a lot of Members because, while restrictions have been seen to become the norm for dealing with COVID-19, it is what the long-term outcome of those restrictions causes for other sections of our society that we need to take into account. Earlier, John O'Dowd mentioned the lack of opportunities and the difficulties for university students, and that is another one. It is not just something that is facing our young primary-school children, but, right through, that experience has been lost, and we have to take cognisance of that fact.
I want to talk about our vulnerable people: cancer patients and those suffering from poor mental health. The restrictions, particularly the ones that we are studying today, coincide with some devastating news: the cancellation of cancer services across Northern Ireland. Some will ask what they have to do with the current restrictions that are before us today.
There is no doubt that the restrictions that are before us today to try to drive down infection rates coincide with the closure of cancer services. The cancellation of cancer services is the greatest COVID sin of all. It should never rest easy with any Member that we have been forced down a path where those who require urgent and immediate surgery have a fear of presenting at A&E. They are not seeing their GP because of a lack of face-to-face consultations. There is real, palpable anger. You have only to listen to radio programmes and to watch TV shows across the country to realise that those with cancer are suffering. I imagine that there is not a family represented in the House that has not been impacted by cancer, and it is all the more alarming to deal with it in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic.
At last week's Health Committee, I raised the plight of two individuals who had had to ring their GP because there were no face-to-face consultations. They were, I think, prescribed painkillers for their symptoms, and that happened two or three times. When the pain continued, they presented at A&E, an advanced stage of cancer was diagnosed and they were dead within four days. That is a tragic story. I asked the health trust personnel at the Committee about it: they talked about late diagnosis.
The evidence on cancer from the health trusts was damning. It showed that the number of cancers detected is down; the number of red-flag cases coming forward is down; late presentations at A&E are up; and there is a pause in paediatric services. Those are the results of the restrictions. It is easy for any Member to say, "We should place society under restrictive measures to deal with COVID", but we also must reflect that they have impacts on other services.
I thank the Member for giving way.
I was at the Health Committee last week when the chief executives of three trusts attended. Will the Member agree that, depending on whether we listen to statistics from the Department or NISRA, either slightly fewer or slightly more than 2,000 people have died as a direct result of COVID-19 but that many more people have lost their life during the emergency as a result of cancer? The two cases that the Member mentioned in the Committee last week are very poignant, but there are multiple cases like that. Some day, we have to get the true number of people who have died in the emergency.
I thank the Member for his point. That is what the restrictive measures can do. It is important that we note that and do not just nod through restrictions without considering their real impact on normal people. Mr Sheehan's point is correct. I fully understand that we have been dealing with the COVID pandemic. I see the pain that families suffer as a result of deaths from COVID-19. I see the pressure on health professionals. I see the pressure on our Departments. I see it all, but, equally, it would be remiss of me, as an elected Member, if I did not comment on the wishful thinking of some that we will pass regulations and not look at their wider implications. It is incumbent on Members to do that.
The statistics that are before us and that Mr Sheehan mentioned should send shivers up every one of our spines. It scares me and, I say without doubt, many Members. It is deeply worrying that, despite the current restrictions, which are starting to bring limited rewards, sufficient capacity has still not been achieved to allow the cancelled surgeries to resume at even close to normal levels. The number of non-COVID patients in the ICU and general beds has also continued on a disconcerting downward trend. We have heard the harrowing reports about cancer diagnosis coming late because of presenting too late at A&E or fear of coming forward.
For that to be compounded by the cancellation of scheduled surgery is a bitter blow that, sadly, will inevitably lead to lives being lost that would otherwise have been saved.
There is a fear that surgeons who have been out of the theatre for so long — this was mentioned in Committee — will have missed out on training and development, which could jeopardise the full resumption of services once the pandemic has ended.
I was shocked to learn at the Health Committee last week that there is evidence that paediatric surgery has been subject to suspension. There are serious concerns about how that will affect children and young people's health and well-being now and in the future.
The restrictions that are in place can, as I outlined, have a devastating impact on other services, but I do not want to talk only about problems. I am not here to attack; I am here to speak on behalf of those who have been impacted by COVID restrictions in many ways. I want to look at possible solutions. There is a worry that, due to COVID-19 and the restrictions in place, potentially curable cancers have been detected only at an advanced stage. There are many sad cases of advanced throat cancer that could have been detected earlier. Other cancers such as bowel cancer, diagnosis of which is based on symptoms of a change of bowel habit, would ordinarily be referred by a GP to a red-flag clinic. I do not see why that cannot continue. Those symptoms can be picked up in the history, but, sadly, because of the COVID-19 restrictions, they are not. Patients are presenting late and are automatically placed on end-of-life treatment. Perhaps people are not aware that GP doors are still open. Perhaps there are flaws in the system. For example, who is triaging calls? Is it receptionists, or is it qualified professionals? After all, this is new to everyone. I implore the junior Ministers to take that point up with the Health Minister. It has been lost as we have been debating regulations.
We need to realise that COVID is here and does not seem to be going anywhere quickly. Do we, therefore, need to think about opening satellite centres for cancer patients to be seen by the professionals whom they need, be that a surgeon, an oncologist or a palliative care specialist? Could we make better use of peripheral facilities? We all know of buildings in our trusts that have not been used because staff are working from home. Maybe there is space to allow some sort of cancer centres to open. Could we introduce a system in which a patient has a COVID test done 48 hours before an appointment?
I respect the Member's genuine points and have given him a fair amount of latitude because this is crucially important and serious for many people in the community, but could we move back to the regulations, please?
Deputy Speaker, I thank you for your indulgence on that point.
As I said, the restrictions and the amendments are so wide-ranging that it is only right that we, as elected Members, consider their full impact on society. As I said, cancer affects everyone. It affects every family; there is not a family that has not been touched by it. When I hear the stories through email and phone calls and on the radio, I have to speak out. I understand the need for restrictions. I am not a COVID denier: all that I say is that we need to think about the long-term impacts that the restrictions could have on society.
In this place, we have spoken regularly about the impact that the pandemic has had on mental health. The Belfast Trust experienced a 30% increase in inpatient mental health admissions at the height of the previous lockdown. It is clear that the extension of the regulations, including the continual closure of schools, requires us to look more at how we can target the early prevention of mental health issues, particularly in children.
I will now speak to the amendment (No. 24) regulations, particularly the issues surrounding small businesses — another sector that has been profoundly impacted on by restrictions — and the closure of non-essential retail businesses and click-and-collect services. Small independent retailers are the backbone of the Northern Ireland economy. They have looked at the restrictions that have been put in place with disdain. They understand the need for restrictions to be put in place to prevent community transmission. Many of them have put their lifetime's work into establishing their businesses. They have been on the high street through thick and thin. They have sustained the Northern Ireland high street through wars and the Troubles, but they now face their biggest threat yet. They have been closed, but multinational retailers in the very same towns, sometimes on the edges of our town centres, continue, unhindered, to sell the very same product that the independent retailer has been prevented from selling. That is ludicrous in the extreme. We need to look at how we can deal with that issue, because the independent retailer runs the risk of never returning to the high street. I understand and accept fully that the Executive Office, maybe through the junior Ministers, who will give us an update, has been engaging with the sector. I would like to think that they have heard loud and clear the frustrations of independent retailers across the country and how we should right the wrongs contained in the regulations.
The Member makes a valid point, but is it not a point that has been made for months in the House, from the first manifestations of the regulations? Again and again, in successive lockdowns, however, we have the same flagrant flaw, whereby supermarkets can do what they like and independent retailers are driven off the streets. Why have the Executive not closed those loopholes? That is the question that needs to be answered in the House.
I thank the Member for his intervention. I am sure that it is something that the junior Ministers will take up in their final contributions.
Independent retailers are not being unfair in what they are asking for. Their plea is that either you level up with click and collect or you level down and put everybody on the same footing. That is all that they ask for. It is only right that we in the House fight for that level playing field.
In a moment.
I thank the independent retailers for their endurance throughout this time. They realise that their sacrifice regarding their businesses, jobs and perhaps even their livelihoods is for a greater cause — to suppress virus transmission in the community — albeit that, as I mentioned, I have been sceptical, to say the least, about the evidence of community transmission in close-contact services. It has been mentioned many times in the House that illegal gatherings — house parties or whatever — are a far greater threat than independent businesses, which have probably put in place more stringent measures than the multinationals that are open freely.
We in this House have a duty to repay their faith in the Executive's response by ensuring that we chart a course outside this pandemic. Those businesses devastated by the current rules should have access to the vital financial and practical support to get back on their feet. There is a particular responsibility on Ministers to meet the needs of our independent retailers, who are rightly seeing these large supermarket retailers acting outside the spirit of the regulations in non-essential sales.
There are some areas where there should be scope to give more flexibility within the structure of the current regulations. That was mentioned at the Committee. For instance, in respect of amendment No. 24, some takeaway food businesses have highlighted the fact that the 11.00 pm cut-off point for delivery disadvantages shift workers in hospitals, many of whom work on the front line. We should be open to listening to those concerns substantively in the coming days.
As I have outlined throughout my contribution, we must collectively focus our energies on the clear path that gives us the most hope of righting the horrible wrongs of COVID-19, and that is vaccination. It has been noted on numerous occasions that a lot of the sectors that I have mentioned have been affected by the COVID pandemic. We now need to look at ways and means by which we can protect those sections of society and get them back operating again. I look to our teachers; I am sure that many Members have this thought as well. We have seen the negative impact that COVID regulations have had on our young people, and it is now incumbent on us to make representations to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to see whether we can vaccinate our teaching population, to ensure that we can get our young people back to education as quickly and safely as possible. Those teaching special educational needs children have not for one moment stepped back in this pandemic; they have stepped forward, into the breach. We now need to support them with a vaccination programme that is fit for purpose.
On that point, I commend the current vaccination programme and those administering it, because it is a leader in the United Kingdom. In fact, it is compared globally with some vaccination programmes. That is a real tribute to those administering the vaccination scheme. I take that point on board, but I would like to see flexibility within the scheme to allow for a process by which we can start to normalise society. The restrictions alone can never hope to see us through the pandemic, nor can they deflect attention from the need to ramp up that vaccination programme on a massive scale. I mentioned in Committee that we should have vaccination 24/7, if we can. I look across the trusts. This morning, we heard how trusts have got through vaccinating their staff, and now we are starting to see the slowing down of vaccination centres because there is not the same footfall coming through them. Maybe I am missing something, but this should be the very time that we should be ramping it up. At the end of the day, if there are spare vaccinations, let us see a process by which we can vaccinate teachers or those who are vulnerable. We all know them. We need to get society moving again, and moving quickly.
We now look to commence vaccination of the over-75s group, and that is a testimony to the dedicated teams of vaccinators. With over 1,000 volunteers to take up this role, the Health Minister needs to look at expanding the skill set further. As our society eventually reopens, we have to be mindful that pressures on our public servants, including teachers and police officers, will only increase. We believe that there is merit in providing those who work at high risk with a vaccination programme.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank you for your indulgence on those points. I believe them to be pivotal in this debate. The road ahead will be long. There will be many twists and turns in relation to COVID and the regulations. I do not want to fall out with any Member of the House for being passionate about something that I feel is having an adverse impact on people who do not deserve it. I hope that, in the spirit of such debate, we can continue to confront those issues, deal with the pandemic and, sadly, deal with the long-term consequences thereof.
I wish to speak to amendment Nos. 19 to 25. I remind the House that, on 5 October, Derry and Strabane were placed under restrictions, and then, in the middle of October, the entire North was placed under the same restrictions. We realised, as time moved on, that things were going in the wrong direction. We knew that new variants were appearing and that the rate of transmission meant that we needed to delay the relaxation measures, but it took longer for the amendments before us today to come into effect because, unfortunately, the DUP used a veto to block a two-week extension of the restrictions, and that was shameful.
We know that there has been talk — in fact, we have just heard some commentary in which a focus was put on this — about the implications of the restrictions on people's lives, resulting in people falling into poverty. I take it that, when we move on and things, hopefully, return to some kind of new normal, we will build back better, and that, throughout this journey, if there is an anti-poverty strategy on the Executive's table, we will have full ministerial support for its implementation and for its being allocated based on objective need.
As a member of the Executive Office Committee, I want to say that the public are fed up. The public are fed up with the SDLP playing hokey-cokey during this pandemic: being in the Executive and out of the Executive. The public are really fed up with that.
Amendment No. 19 deals with the reopening of close-contact services. There has been a lot of confusion about what a close-contact service is. I would like the Ministers to take this into account. I have been dealing with photographers — I am sure that I am not the only one — whose business evaporated, as their operation was severely limited because their customers were required to wear a mask. When hairdressers, nail bars and other close-contact services reopened, people were rightly required to wear a mask. I ask the Ministers to think about that and to pass it on to their ministerial colleagues. Photographers do not meet — I have been told this by officials — the legislative definition of a close contact, as defined in the health protection regulations, and are designated as a retail service. Those in retail are only eligible for phase 3 of the COVID-19 support payment.
People were told to wear a mask in retail stores, and that made it impossible for photographers to carry out their service. You will not get your photo taken if have to wear a mask. In the regulations, photographers are not exempt from wearing a mask because their business is classed as retail, and you have to wear a mask going into retail premises. Photographers want the Assembly to realise that their businesses have been severely limited as a consequence of the restrictions. I therefore ask the Ministers to feed that back when discussing amendment No. 19.
Amendment No. 20 deals with some minor corrections and technical amendments to the regulations to permit the continued operation of the local restrictions support scheme for businesses. Those schemes have been a lifesaver for many businesses.
I acknowledge the work of the Executive and the Finance Minister, Conor Murphy. In England, the most that businesses receive is under £800. Here, the Executive and the Finance Minister secured agreement that the least that a business would receive from the local assistance support scheme would be £800. If we can do that without the economic levers of power, just think what we would do if we had them. However, I know, a LeasCheann Comhairle, that the last thing that you want me to do is enter into a debate about the benefits of Irish unity, so I will leave it at that.
The amendment (No. 20) regulations address the decreased period of self-isolation. I, along with other Members across the Chamber, have spoken about those on low wages finding it difficult to self-isolate and, at the same time, put food on the table. The discretionary support payment is welcome. However, we all know that households without an income of below £21,000 are not eligible in those circumstances. I and other Members have heard the issue of carers not receiving statutory sick pay. The Health Minister has informed us, in response to questions for written answer and in answers on the Floor, that he has put financial support in place for the independent care sector, for carers who need to self-isolate. Employers have told me that some of them are not entitled to receive a payment. Employers say that those carers do not have day-one rights, that they must work six months, 26 weeks, before they can receive financial support for self-isolating. Some of these workers are looking at a Health and Social Care service under pressure and, even as we speak, countenancing returning to work to help out to alleviate the pressure. Yet, employers are telling me that they are not entitled to day-one rights; they are not entitled to financial support. The lack of such financial support for those who have to self-isolate needs to be looked at. If we do not do that, we run the risk of further transmission of the disease because some people who are contacted and told that they should self-isolate may be choosing to continue to work because they cannot afford not to do so.
Some families had hoped that the amendment (No. 21) and (No. 22) regulations would result in their loved ones getting the vaccine so that they could become part of their Christmas bubble. I ask the Minister to take account of hospitals, such as Waterside Hospital in Derry, that have units with dementia patients. We hear about the vaccine being rolled out to care homes, but the Waterside Hospital has wards with dementia patients and patients who have mobility issues, and they are not being vaccinated. I was given information by the trust to inform a family that their loved one would be vaccinated. The family wanted them home to form part of their Christmas bubble. The family wanted them home to take care of them, and the hospital needed the space. I told the family that their loved one would be getting vaccinated, only for the trust to tell them, two weeks later, "No, he is still not vaccinated because we do not have authorisation from the Health Minister". I ask that that issue is taken account of and that the Minister, please, feeds it back.
The amendment (No. 25) regulations permitted taxi hire to operate during the tighter restrictions. Taxi drivers who temporarily suspended their insurance but who were able to operate at that time because they renewed it are being penalised and will not receive the full grant. They will receive a reduced COVID grant. Either they were shielding or the stay-at-home message impacted on their customer base, and they simply had no money. It is wrong that the second grant that is going out under the taxi support scheme will penalise taxi drivers who temporarily suspended their insurance because they had no money to pay for it. I ask that that stops and that they get the full grant like everyone else because they had to pay the full cost of the PPE once they renewed their insurance.
Every one of us in the Chamber knows that the last 12 months has been horrendous. Unfortunately, like many in the Chamber, I stand here heartbroken, having known many of those who have lost their life, particularly during this wave of COVID. I have been told that, during the first wave, not one death occurred in Altnagelvin Area Hospital of someone from Derry and Strabane council area, yet we are now looking at over 110 deaths — and I see my constituency colleague Gary over there. I send my heartfelt sympathy to the loved ones of all those who have lost their life due to COVID. I especially send my deepest sympathy to Majella McCourt, who lost her soulmate and husband, and to her children, who lost their father, at the weekend. Derry lost a solid republican who will be sadly missed by all. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
Like others, I recognise the extreme hurt and pain that many of our constituents are suffering; whether that is COVID-related or non-COVID-related, it is equally important. It is also important that, as we look at the restrictions and regulations that have been put in place, we are mindful that their impacts go well beyond COVID. They affect every area of our lives, and we are seeing that on a daily basis, so we just need to be mindful of that.
Amendment No. 19 specifically deals with restrictions around places of worship. At a time, there was a relaxation, but I welcome the fact that many of our churches have shown great leadership in coming to a voluntary arrangement to provide safety for their congregations and parishioners but also being mindful that they have a leadership role, and I thank and congratulate them for that.
The restrictions on funerals are very relevant today, given the day that is in it. Funerals are limited to 25 people. Everyone has the right to remember their dead. We have to be mindful of that fact. When someone loses a loved one, it is a difficult time, and we have to be honest about that. The difficulty that I have is that, once again, today, in my constituency of Foyle, a funeral took place in the Creggan area, and that funeral, once again, broke the restrictions by many, many numbers. That, once again, is not only a slap in the face to our constituents but a kick in the teeth to our health workers, who, no doubt, will have to deal with the consequences of what happened today. I urge all Members in the Chamber to please speak out; absolutely be respectful of a family who has lost a loved one, regardless of their background, but be honest with the public.
As we are putting these restrictions through today and we look at further restrictions in the future, we need to show leadership. It cannot be a situation where it is, "Do as I say, not as I do". I will give way to Mr Allister.
I endorse what the Member said. Does the Member think that it would have helped to underscore the public message that he has just been articulating if the previous Member to speak, Ms Anderson, who referred to the same death, had gone on to condemn the breaching of the regulation at the funeral of the individual? Would that not be of more assistance than simply lauding the individual who had a past that involved him in terrorism?
I completely agree with Mr Allister's point. That is very relevant, because we cannot stand with straight faces and tell members of the public to follow guidelines if we, in this Chamber, are not willing to follow those same guidelines.
I will speak for the next number of minutes and will leave the Floor open if anyone, particularly those from the Sinn Féin Benches, wants to intervene and give clarity about how they are giving guidance to their communities. It is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. To be honest, it causes so much upset to my community and to all our communities when they see such shameful disregard for the rule of law. I urge Members to reflect on that.
I will move on, because I am keeping to the amendments to the regulations. Amendment No. 20 deals with linked households and the length of time that a person has to leave before they can move from one household to another. That is fairly self-explanatory. Amendment No. 21 deals with entertainment venues.
Amendment Nos. 22 and 23 deal with the household restrictions at Christmastime. When we speak to our constituents and ask them about Christmas, the common word that we hear is "quiet". That can be good in some ways, but, in others, it has been detrimental. Whilst amendment No. 23 deals with the Christmas bubbles, which were limited to one day, many elderly and particularly vulnerable people were isolated and were not part of bubbles. We have to be mindful that we will be dealing with the impact of those restrictions on those people for some time. There was a recognition that something had to be done at that time to ensure that the virus did not get completely out of control, but, as I said, it was one of the more difficult decisions that had to be taken by the Executive. It was a decision that nobody would have wanted to take, but it had to be taken at that time.
Amendment No. 24 is one of the bigger amendments, and it deals with tightening the restrictions. My colleague touched on the impact on our businesses and economy and that so many of our businesses continue to struggle. It has always been vital and essential that we get the appropriate financial schemes on the ground as quickly as possible in order to ensure that they get to those who need them most.
A number of local businesses raised delivery and takeaway services with me. They feel that those need to be looked at as they have an impact on shift and key workers who may want to order from those facilities. I ask the junior Ministers to take that away to see whether something could be done, even to maybe just listen to those concerns. If there are genuine health reasons why takeaways cannot operate after 11.00 pm for deliveries, it would be useful to address those and bring some clarity to the situation.
I support other Members' concerns about click-and-collect services, and I raised points about those before in the Chamber. The restrictions to those services in that amendment could be looked at.
I thank the Member for giving way. I know that he has been on record with this point at the Committee, but would he agree that, if it appears to be transparent that click-and-collect services cannot be provided for reasons that are presented by medical officials or whatnot, we should look towards a form of click-and-collect services that could apply stricter enforcement rules and guidance? That would enable small independent retailers to use up some vital stock that will, essentially, be useless by the time that their business can operate again.
I thank the Member for that. I completely agree. One example that was given to me was a garden centre that stocked flowers. It had to order the stock a year in advance and is now sitting with £25,000 worth of flowers that cannot go anywhere. Valentine's Day is coming up, for example. The First Minister reminded me that there are ways and means, but I assure you that there is great disappointment in flower shops. We could look at how we could address click-and-collect services for perishable items.
We, on these Benches, take the COVID virus completely seriously, but we also have to look at the practicalities and at how we can be innovative and allow businesses to operate as safely as possible whilst trying to keep a lid on the levels of the virus.
I appreciate the Member giving way. I am intervening at this stage because Mr Buckley and Mr Middleton raised the issue of click and collect, and I believe that other Members will want to raise it, too. Perhaps I can provide some reassurance to the House that, at the Executive meeting on 21 January, we agreed that the Department of Health and the Department for the Economy would look at ways in which click and collect could be done in a safe manner. I understand the arguments that are being made, but we have to understand the health implications as well. That issue is being looked at, and, between those two Departments, I hope that we will find a resolution and that it will bring some comfort to Members today.
I thank the junior Minister for that. It does bring some comfort. Obviously, I would like to see that come to fruition, and I know that many businesses would welcome some sort of movement on the issue.
The amendment No. 24 regulations have the widest impact on the majority of our society in terms of the economy. There are welcome signs that the restrictions are working to a certain degree. The rate of infection is coming down, and hospital admissions are gradually — hopefully — going in the right direction, but there is still significant pressure. I take my colleague Mr Buckley's point that restrictions alone will not solve this crisis. We have to ramp up the vaccination process and look at how we do that. It could maybe be done through 24/7 mass vaccination, but we need the capacity there. To that end, as I said to the Health Minister earlier, I welcome any steps that can be taken to address capacity issues and to provide support. This is not about politics. As we have said for quite some time, leave the politics out of health and let the health people get on with it. Where support is required, we should absolutely bring it in.
We should not underestimate the significant sacrifice that the public are making at this time. They have, in the main, abided by the restrictions by which they have been asked to abide. A lot of it has been tough, including things that we never thought that we would see in our lifetime, such as curfews and the closure of businesses and schools. It is also having a severe impact on mental health. On Friday, I heard from the Western Trust that it has seen a 12% increase in inpatients in its mental health facility. These are devastating impacts that will have long-lasting consequences.
I want to move on. Again, it is about those pressures. All this stuff is about personal stories and the difficulties that people are facing. I mentioned at the start that these amendments, restrictions and regulations go beyond COVID. I do not need to tell anybody in the Chamber that that is the case, but I want to address one point that was raised with me by a constituent. I believe that he sent this to all MLAs, albeit he is from my constituency. I know the gentleman very well. This came last week. It said:
"Good morning and I hope you are all well. I do not know anyone who has died with COVID in the past 10 months, but I do know two friends who have passed away because of cancer in the past three months."
Both their cases were identical. Each of them had significant pain, they called their GP, and the GP prescribed them painkillers. As the months went on, they contacted their GP several times and had telephone diagnoses and conversations, but they never had a face-to-face appointment for examination. Eventually, after nine months, the pain got so bad that the two individuals to whom my constituent referred went to A&E. They were both admitted, and the next day they had a scan, and the cancer was found. Just four days later, those people died. Unfortunately, that story is familiar to many people across our society. Of the two who died in those three months, one had her funeral today. She was 56. That is the reality that we are dealing with when we are putting through amendments and restrictions like this, so I appeal to those who deny that COVID exists — I do not see how they can but such people exist — to think about the impact that it is having on the likes of that constituent and on the families of those who, sadly, are bereaved. Think of those people when you feel that you do not want to abide by the restrictions.
When you see incidents and just blatant breaches of the rules, as we have seen today, it is a real kick in the teeth for all of us who are doing our best to get the spread of the virus down.
The amendment (No. 25) regulations very much speak for themselves as they relate to the taxi industry.
We need to look to the future. We need to ensure that we can ramp up our vaccination process. That is the hope to which everybody is clinging. There is an important conversation to be had, and the Education Minister has lobbied for this, about special schools and their staff and about teachers, classroom assistants and others who work in schools. We need to recognise that the education situation is just heartbreaking. I am a father of a child who is not in school yet but will be in September. Imagine it were your child, and I know that there are Members in here who do have children, who was in the education sector and not in school but at home with varying amounts of work. I am not critical of teachers, but, a bit like with the health service, where there is no substitute for face-to-face consultation, there is no substitute for face-to-face education.
I urge everyone please to follow the regulations. We are not out of this yet. I thank the junior Ministers for being here.
I support the regulations but with the realisation that, in normal times, we would all reject them without any level of debate.
Mr McGrath called for an exit strategy. I wish that I had his optimistic foresight. He forecast that Members from the other four parties on the Executive would remind him that all decisions are made by a five-party Executive that include his party, the SDLP. I am not going to disappoint him: no amount of passion in making those remarks will cloud or change the reality that it is a five-party Executive that make all the decisions around this pandemic.
As regards an exit strategy, the Member must realise that every time that we get a little bit of hope, we get a setback, such as the discovery of a variant of the virus. How and when could anyone plan an exit strategy when the virus and its variants continue to call the tune? There will be a time when we will have to formulate an exit strategy. I just do not think that we are there just yet.
For those outside this House calling for an end to restrictions, I ask this: what is the alternative? They are not in place to punish us. Rather, they are there to help protect us. The problem is that too many people are deliberately ignoring the regulations. Ninety-five per cent of people, perhaps even more, are making huge sacrifices to comply with the regulations, but those 5% are diluting their effectiveness. I will use a phrase that has been used in the Chamber before: they really do need to wise up.
Members who spell out the negative impact of the restrictions, and the toll that they are taking, are correct. They are taking a huge toll on everyone, but what is the toll on those families receiving a phone call from a hospital informing them that their loved one has died alone as a result of the virus? They then have to bury their loved one under what amounts to almost a cloak of secrecy. How long will those families take to recover from that? That is an even sadder reality.
We talked about delay in cancer operations. That is another reality. It is another dreadful impact of this virus, and one that no one can fully appreciate unless it happens to you or a loved one.
The Minister has identified a regional approach to urgent life-saving operations, not just confined to cancers. He has also told us that he has secured 112 theatre spaces in the private sector over coming weeks. Robin Swann is not a callous individual taking pleasure from the suffering of others. He must have —.
I agree entirely that Robin is not a callous individual; he is a very decent man. I asked him a question earlier and he did not answer it. Perhaps you can answer it, Alan. I asked why, instead of the trusts announcing that cancer surgery was going to be cancelled, he did not first scope out what capacity there was in the private sector and ensure that those who have a cancer diagnosis were not kicked in the teeth again. The Minister did not answer that.
I have every confidence that he did scope out those figures that you talk about.
Robin Swann must have many sleepless nights wrestling with this situation. Our National Health Service was in a bad place before Robin Swann took up the Health portfolio. Our waiting lists, including for cancer operations, were the longest in the United Kingdom. Perhaps, if those of us who sat in the House in previous mandates had properly funded the NHS, we would be in a better place today to cope with this pandemic.
My colleague Jonathan Buckley — I recognise and admire the passion that he brought to the debate today — highlighted the flaws in the crafting of restrictions. There are obvious flaws and contradictions, and they are hard to defend at times when people challenge you about them, but I hope also that Jonathan recognises that his party has four voices in the Executive. That is the place to highlight the flaws and to correct and change them.
I am just finishing, Jonathan.
In relation to vaccines, there is a lot of talk about ramping it up to 24/7 and getting more vaccinators. However, we are getting told by the professionals — I do not understand this; are people not listening? — that the vaccination programme is dictated by the availability of the vaccine and that we are not at that place yet where we can offer a 24/7 service. That is another reality that we all need to recognise.
The true cost of this pandemic has been well laid out today, and not just for those who have died. There are also many who have been left with long-term illness — long COVID — and that will test our health service very much in the time ahead. We have also heard in particular about those who have received cancer diagnoses and have been told that their emergency surgery is going to be cancelled. It was very worrying last week to hear one of the trust chief executives tell us at the Health Committee that in some cases, in some patients, the cancer will already have spread by the time that they get the treatment they need. Imagine the devastation of, in the first place, getting a cancer diagnosis, and then it being followed up with that news. I know that patients are being offered chemotherapy as a sort of suboptimal treatment while they wait for the potential or the possibility of surgery.
Then on top of that we have the issue of mental ill health and the people who are struggling badly with their mental heath as a result of this pandemic and the lockdowns and so on and so forth. I want to give a special mention to front-line care workers because, yesterday, I spoke to an ICU nurse who told me that, of a group of 15 nurses, eight have to take sleeping tablets because the images in their minds will not allow them to sleep at night. Imagine the impact that that will have on the resilience of the health service in the time ahead. Many more problems and issues could be discussed in the debate, but that one about those nurses is, perhaps, the most worrying. Nurses on the very front line are struggling to deal with the patients on ventilators in ICU.
We have been here many times to discuss the regulations. Their aim is to reduce the rate of community transmission of the virus, or perhaps at certain times, when the transmission rate is low, to ease some of the restrictions that have been introduced. My difficulty is that that is not a strategy; the regulations are not a strategy.
Last week, in the Committee, the Health Minister said that his objective is to keep the R rate below 1. That is not a very ambitious objective. However, even by his own standards, if that is his objective, the Minister has failed, and failed miserably. That is why we are in the situation that we are in today. That is why there are more patients than ever in hospital and higher transmission rates than at any time since the pandemic started. A clear objective is needed. When you have a clear objective, you build a strategy to reach it, and you use whatever measures or tools you have at your disposal to bring you, through that strategy and strategic targets, to your overall objective.
The Member will recall that, last week, in the Health Committee, I said that I welcome help from wherever it comes. People wanted to focus on other elements of what I said. I thought that it would have been a significant story that a former member of the IRA, ex-political prisoner and hunger striker said that he had no issue with British soldiers coming to work in our hospitals. I thought that it would have been newsworthy, but maybe not.
In any event, we were talking about strategies, and the Health Minister said earlier that it was not his responsibility to bring forward a strategy; it was that of the Executive. Let me read from the first-day brief to the Health Committee. Under section 3.8, on emergency planning, it states:
"Under the NI civil contingencies framework 2011, the Department has been identified as the lead Government Department for responding to the health and social care consequences of emergencies arising from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents; disruptions to the medical supply chain; human infectious diseases, e.g. pandemic influenza; and mass casualties. 3.9 This requires the Department to not only develop and maintain appropriate emergency plans and response arrangements to manage its own response to an emergency, and that of its associated agencies and NDPBs, but also to coordinate the interagency aspects of civil protection for those emergencies for which it has been designated lead. In such circumstances, the Minister would be required to lead, direct and coordinate the response for NI, reporting as necessary to the Executive under the Northern Ireland central crisis management arrangements".
That tells me that the responsibility for development plans and developing a strategy to combat this virus rests with the Department of Health, particularly with the Minister of Health. It is also the responsibility of the Department of Health to provide advice. I still cannot get my head around the advice that was given to the Executive, just before Christmas, with regard to travel from London. Matt Hancock had told us that the virus was out of control in the south of England, and that the new variant had become dominant. In fact, we were being told that, probably, one person in 40 in London was infected with this virus, and in some parts of London, the infection rates were as high as one person in 30. However, it was OK to jump on a plane at Heathrow, hop off at Belfast City Airport and go about your business by getting into a taxi, train or bus to go into the city centre to do your shopping or whatever. A plane holds 160 passengers, so if one person in 40 in the south-east of England was infected with the virus, then it does not take you to be Einstein to work out the maths and the probability that there were four infected people coming in on every flight from the south of England.
I thank the Member for giving way. He articulates his point quite well, and I know that this is something that he has long debated. However, in following that same logic, when we look to the Republic of Ireland and see what was described as "some of the highest rates in Europe", does the Member equally call for an equitable approach between the South and North with regard to COVID-19's spread?
I will come to that point in a minute, if you will let me finish the point that I was going to make.
So, what is the point of us trying to reduce community transmission? Bear in mind that I see this as a contract with the citizens. We introduce these regulations and restrictions, which are often quite draconian, on the basis that, if they do what we ask them to do, we will do our best to protect them, to save lives, to ensure that our health service is not overwhelmed and so forth. However, what is the point of us trying to reduce community transmission here if we are going to open the door and welcome the virus in on planeloads of people who are coming into Belfast City Airport, Aldergrove, Derry or wherever? What is the point? The advice that was given to the Executive by the Minister, the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer was that that did not post a significant risk. That is arrant nonsense. I do not care who the scientist is; let them get up and explain how it is not a significant risk, because it is.
On the issue of the South, first of all, there is one advantage that many countries have. It is just by accident — a geographical accident — that some countries are islands, and many of those islands are the ones that have performed best in the whole pandemic. That is because they can control entry into their country. They are places like New Zealand, Australia — albeit it is a continental island — Taiwan, Iceland and so on. They have all done better because they have a small number of points of entry, which is where the virus can be controlled. Here you can come from London, jump off the plane and go about your business without any checks or restrictions: nothing. That is a problem. It does not matter how low we get community transmission, if we are still importing the virus, we are still going to have problems. I do not care whether it is London, Paris or Timbuktu; if we are going to import the virus, we will continually be in this situation where we impose lockdowns, get the transmission rates down, open up and see the thing go through the roof again, just as it has done this time.
There has been talk about zero COVID, and people say, "But, ah, you can't get to zero". People also say, "You cannot eradicate the virus", and that is absolutely true. We cannot eradicate this virus; it would be impossible. The virus will be with us for many years to come. The Chief Scientific Adviser said that, rather than being a pandemic, it will become endemic; it will always be there like the flu virus. We have to deal with that, and there are ways in which we can deal with it, and vaccination is, of course, one of the tools at our disposal.
Once the vaccinations arrived, people were thinking, "We're going to be out of the woods by Easter or maybe late spring or early summer". I doubt that anybody sitting in this Chamber now expects that. There will be problems with vaccinations, and we have seen new variants arising. Funny enough, going back to what I was saying earlier, I saw today that the Kent variant — the UK variant — accounts for 68% of all cases in the North. I wonder whether that has anything to do with people jumping on and off planes and coming in here.
It is certainly concerning that other variants are arising, and, if you listen to any of the scientists or public health people who have expertise in this field — the virologists, the epidemiologists and so on — you hear them say that the greater the community transmission rates, the greater the chance of mutation. The great fear in all this is that we will get a mutation that becomes resistant to the vaccine. Of course, many of the vaccine manufacturers say, "We can deal with that and tweak the vaccine", but that will take time. They will not only have to tweak the vaccine; they will have to reboot their whole manufacturing process and so on and so forth. So, anybody who thinks that this is going to be resolved in a few weeks or a few months is living in cloud cuckoo land.
What do we need? We need a coherent, coordinated and integrated strategy to deal with the virus. We need to find the virus. We need to have proper contact tracing. We had an opportunity during the summer after the first lockdown, when numbers were very, very low, to build a proper contact-tracing operation. That opportunity was wasted. The Chief Medical Officer told the Committee that there were between 400 and 600 offers from people to train to do contact tracing. He said that there were people being trained in enhanced contact tracing. That is going back to 23 April or 24 April — I am not sure which. The chief executive of the Public Health Agency told us, in the middle of April, that her organisation was "training" 500 people to carry out contact tracing. She came back three weeks later, and, when her words in the Hansard report were read back to her, she admitted that she had spoken out of turn. Those are the opportunities that were wasted. Nobody was being trained, and there was no beefing up of the contact-tracing operation.
The chief executive of the PHA came back in October and told us that it had 151 contact tracers, and when asked what that amounted to in full-time equivalents, she could not give us an answer. We later found out that it was actually 88. When we asked her why the numbers were so low in comparison with what she had been talking about in the spring, she said that the experts who did the modelling on the number of positive cases that we should expect got the modelling wrong. The experts told the PHA to expect a maximum of 300 cases a day, so it did not beef up its contact tracing as a result of the modelling that was given to it. Who was the modelling done by? According to the chief executive of the PHA, it was done by Professor Ian Young, the Chief Scientific Adviser.
When the Chief Scientific Adviser was at the Committee a couple of weeks ago I asked him about that. How come they made such a mess of the modelling, and how did they get it so wrong? He said, "We did not get it wrong. We told the PHA to expect up to 1,300 cases a day". I do not know who is right and who is wrong. Whoever is sitting here can make up their own mind on that. It tells me that, in dealing with the pandemic, this whole operation has been absolutely shambolic. There is no other word to describe it.
We need a clear objective and a coordinated, integrated strategy, and somebody has to take responsibility. At the minute, the Health Minister is abdicating his responsibility. If the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer are going to give advice, let it be based on science.
I will begin by taking the opportunity to thank the public for all that they have done and the sacrifices that they have made over the past 10 months as we continue to do all that we can to beat the virus.
As we discuss amendment Nos. 19 to 25, I am sure that the recent news that the lockdown will be extended until early March was met with many sighs and heavy hearts. Whilst all of us across the Chamber recognise the need for continued restrictions and support the Executive in this difficult decision, we are very mindful of the impact that the pandemic has had and will continue to have for the foreseeable months on our constituents, not least the emotional impact of being socially isolated.
Sadly, the sacrifices that have been made for the greater good have come at a very personal cost. For many of the most vulnerable people, during the pandemic, their life has existed only between four walls. Many experienced a very lonely Christmas, making sacrifices this year so that the next will be very different.
As I and many other passionate Members have said before, the after-effects on mental health and well-being will be felt long after the pandemic has passed. Mr Middleton, although he is not here at the minute, mentioned a call that we had with the Western Trust when we heard the worrying statistic that 12% more people are presenting at mental health services. That is deeply concerning and worrying. I believe, as do other Members, that it is on us, as MLAs and the Executive, to commit to ensuring that the support is, and will continue to be, there for those who are in need of help and support, particularly after this traumatic time. The last 10 months have been very difficult for all aspects of society.
One thing that Mr Middleton touched on was that in previous health amendments we discussed funerals. It is a very difficult time to have a funeral. In the North, having wakes allows us to engage with our community in grief, and that support system is not there. To speak directly to the public, I urge those who are suffering from a bereavement to seek crucial support and counselling.
I must also pay tribute to the NHS staff who, as we speak, are facing some of the most difficult times that they ever have faced or will face in their work. We are greatly indebted to them and hope that, with further restrictions in place, we will start to see a fall in infection rates and people needing hospital care, and, in turn, less pressure on front-line staff and the health system.
Similarly, I pay tribute to all those who are involved in the vaccination programme. Its success is remarkable, and it is heartening to see the figures every day for those getting the vaccine. Currently, 10·5% of the adult population has been given the first dose of the vaccine, and that is most welcome.
As we look towards more weeks of businesses having to stay closed, I call on the Executive to act quickly to extend current schemes and to help those business owners who rely on that money to keep their businesses afloat.
From my constituents, I hear a lot about the closure of entertainment venues and the need for more support for entertainers, singers and musicians. Having no social events such as weddings has caused great difficulty, and the pandemic has meant that the entertainment industry has had a very hard time. In the coming days and weeks, I look forward to learning what further consideration is being given to provide support for that sector.
While I appreciate that swift action needs to be taken by the Executive when it comes to decisions around regulations and lockdowns, I believe that the Assembly should have more time to discuss those decisions. Today's regulations were all made between 10 December and 29 December, which is over one month ago. I also note that it seems that, too often, we are learning about Executive decisions through the media as opposed to being properly informed and briefed on any policy changes or extensions to restrictions.
I will conclude my remarks by once again thanking front-line staff for all that they are doing in this fight. We are all very grateful. I urge the public to continue to adhere to the current guidelines and regulations, as difficult as that may be. The vaccine roll-out is giving us all hope that the end is a little bit closer, but it is important, now more than ever, not to give up and undo all the sacrifices that have been made over the last year.
A lot of political angles have been discussed today, and I could indulge in that. However, I want to shift to an important topic. Mr Buckley mentioned, very passionately, his deep concern about cancer surgeries being cancelled. I absolutely agree that that is very concerning. Cancer is a deeply emotional and raw topic, and I share my deep concern. Two years ago, my father had a robotic radical prostatectomy, and the cancer care that he received from the Western Trust was absolutely fantastic. However, we often wonder whether, if he were having his diagnosis in 2021 and needed that crucial surgery, we would be having a very different conversation. I share that deep concern, and the Health Committee should discuss the issue further.
I thank the public for their continued efforts and the health staff for their hard work.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Do you know what? If the public are listening to this debate, they would be more depressed than ever. It has been hard to listen to some of you tonight. I do not know how you can make a pandemic a green and orange issue, but can we please just knock it on the head?
A lot of the regulations that we are talking about here, as many Members said, take us up to the end of December. I thank the junior Ministers, the Health Minister and the whole Executive for bringing them forward because I had been giving out about the extraordinary length of time that it was taking for the regulations to get to the House. That is not bad going; we are only back after the Christmas recess, even though we were here quite a lot during recess, and we are up to amendment No. 25. I know that we are already into the 2021 regulations, but we are not too far behind, so I thank the junior Ministers for bringing them forward.
I know that it is hard for Members to sit and listen to quite a lot of stuff. I know that I am a member of a party that is part of the five-party Executive. I think that it was Mr Buckley who talked about being motivated. I do not know how the Executive are staying motivated because this has been the toughest time in politics. We need to take a wee moment to catch ourselves on here. We have an Executive who are exhausted. I do not know about the rest of you, but I am exhausted. My family is exhausted. The public are exhausted. We need to bring people with us; they do not need to hear negativity coming out of this Chamber.
I am massively concerned about mental health. Amendment No. 25, the last one on the list today, is to do with the closure of close-contact services. Do you know what? I need my hair cut, and Mr Middleton needs his 12 red roses for Valentine's Day. We talked about a lot of points of contact that we are missing.
Mental health is really struggling.
Others have talked about schools. I have teenagers who are now saying to me that they want to repeat a school year. Have you ever heard of young people saying that they want to do another year at school? That is how bad it is. We need to give them something to look forward to. Over Christmas, we know that it really got to isolated older people. As others have said, it was a very quiet Christmas. Their mental health is a problem. For maternity services, we are creating a wee bomb ready to go off in about six months or a year for all those women going through birth without their birthing partner being there, and for those who, unfortunately, like me, have been through miscarriage or stillbirth. We cannot do this any more. A lot of people are at breaking point with their mental health.
A lot of Members today have talked about front-line carers, and I thank them for that. I thank each and every carer who has been out there knocking their pan in and helping people, to the detriment of their own mental health. I want to make a point today. When we talk about front-line carers, there is one group of carers completely left out. They are not mentioned in the regulations and never considered when it comes to giving out money. They are the home carers: the people looking after the elderly and disabled at home and who have not had a break in a year. Those people are not getting any money thrown at them, they did not have a carer's allowance increase and they have not had the £500 that has been thrown at people in Scotland. Those people are at breaking point and have no respite.
They need clarification on the vaccine. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has said that they are in group 6 of the people who will get a vaccine, but our GP surgeries do not know that. When carers phone up to make sure that they are registered on their medical records as being a carer, some GPs are saying that carers are not getting the vaccine then. That is not true. The JCVI has already confirmed it. In fact, I am delighted to say that, today, the update is that over 182,000 people have had their first vaccine. That is fantastic. When it comes to mental health, I ask the junior Ministers to take back to the Executive that we have teenagers, isolated older people, pregnant women and their partners, and carers who are at breaking point, and the key thread running through this is their mental health.
When I say that we need a clear COVID recovery strategy — we need to see that being built through the regulations — I do not mean that we go back to what was before but go forward to help people come out of this. Money is still not getting through to businesses. A lot of Members talk about the independent retailers, but large retailers have closed, costing us 700 jobs. When Debenhams went, it was not just a few people: a lot of people lost jobs. As Ms Hunter mentioned, events companies, the arts and sports all need help. The regulations have impacted on them all. We need to start to think our way out of this. It will not be today, tomorrow, Easter or the summer. I do not know when it will be, and I do not think that anybody out there in the community would thank us for putting a date on it that is then broken, but we do need to start planning ahead.
Unlike Mr Chambers, I believe that preparation is key. We can help bring people with us if we give them a plan and show them that there is something for the future. The vaccine does that but only in part, because it is about mental health. What are we going to say to those mothers who have not had any support? For instance, do Members know that Cruse Bereavement Care does not receive funding for the mental health of mothers? The other day, the Minister of Health mentioned that there will be perinatal mental health money available, but it is not there now. It is being thought about for the future. We need to think about this. Key to this is our children. They are starting to struggle. They have lost their motivation, as others have said. We need to give them something positive to look forward to. Telling them that they do not have exams coming up is not something positive. They miss all of that, so we need to give them something a bit clearer. A clear COVID recovery strategy would help.
I ask the junior Ministers please to take this back, because I am fed up asking the Executive for it. Can we get a point of contact for the Departments so that we can get through to them? I am sick to the back teeth of writing to a Minister asking for a point of contact, only to be given the same point of contact as everybody else, and the phones are never answered. We need to be able to speak on behalf of businesses, people with mental health problems and people trying to find out about vaccines. I know that they are not to phone their GP, and I would never ask anyone to do that, but we need those contact details, and perhaps the public need clear information as well.
The silent majority out there are complying with the regulations and have complied with amendment Nos. 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25. They have complied with them the whole way through, and they will continue to comply. Perhaps it is time that, in those regulations, we start to think about introducing regulations that say to those who do not comply that the fines will get worse.
On the fake news providers, I do not know about the rest of you in this House, but, as an MLA, I am sick to the back teeth of getting emails from people saying, "You must read this book about COVID that says that it is a load of rubbish", and, "COVID is not the cause of everything. COVID is just made up by government to control us all". I even had a church pastor write to me saying that I was a disgrace because people were not going to that person's church. Most churches have kept within the regulations.
All I ask is: can we please have a little bit more clarification in future regulations? Please go back and talk to the Executive and say to them that, while we have almost caught up with the regulations that have been issued to date, we need to stop the tit for tat, and we need to give people hope. We need to start to bring people with us, and we need a COVID recovery strategy — not, as Mr Chambers said, that we need it to be back to what we were used to a year ago. Who would have thought that a year ago we would not have known what the R number meant? It is for a new future and for what that new dawn will be like when people can finally go out of their houses again. Some of those isolated older people — the people who were closed down over Christmas because of those regulations — are very scared about going outside, and we need to help them to access services, especially when it comes to improving their mental health.
I thank the junior Minister for bringing these regulations to the Floor of the House. As I sit and listen to the valuable contributions of all Members this evening, the words of a friend of mine are resonating in my ears. Last March, when we were all getting to grips with the arrival of this new virus and pandemic, I reached out to a trusted friend, Dr Gerry McEntee, a back-to-back winner of all-Ireland championships in the 1980s with me and also a renowned surgeon in the Mater Hospital in Dublin for over 30 years. I wanted a medical steer on what he thought about this pandemic. Gerry said to me:
"Justin, when this is all over and done with, people you know and people I know will be dead."
Sadly, I have seen how right Gerry was, even though it was hard to comprehend it at that time. We all know people who have passed on, and it is very sad. Coincidentally, Seán Boylan, Gerry's great manager, contracted COVID, and, thankfully, he has fought through. I acknowledge the stark necessity for these regulations. At the time of their introduction, they were necessary both to protect public health and to protect our health services. We all have to acknowledge that these restrictions are not what we want. They place extraordinary curtailments on our economy, our way of life and our basic liberties.
Before I go any further, I want to again put on record my sincere thanks and appreciation of the front-line workers across our society, especially those working in health and social care and education front-line services and in essential retail. Sadly, until this virus hit our world, much of the work that these people did was taken for granted. May that never be the case again. We should not just thank these people but revere them.
Like many in this House, in recent weeks and months I have sat in on many meetings with health officials. I have heard from them and, indeed, from the healthcare workers on the front line about the very real pressures on them as they battle to save every life. I spoke with the chief executive of the Southern Trust, Shane Devlin, last week: a week when 40% of all people who were in hospital with COVID in the North were in a Southern Trust hospital. The director of acute services told me that the staff have been fabulous, resilient and gracious. They are feeling the pressure and are completely shattered, but they are facing the challenge head-on. They are extraordinary people. I have spoken to heartbroken families that are distraught; others have lost loved ones or have loved ones in the hospital that they cannot visit. I have spoken to families who have lost loved ones to this horrible disease, and they are beside themselves with pain and grief because they have not been able to say their goodbyes and share their grief in our special Irish way. I know too many families who have lost both parents to this horrible virus.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
The restrictions are not normal, but neither is the virus. While many of the restrictions are seen as reasonable and justified, there are others that people question. They are questioning the restrictions; they are not challenging the advice. However, they seek clarity and need to know why certain restrictions are in place. For example, why is outdoor sport for young people not permitted? Children have been taken out of school, and if we are to protect their physical and emotional well-being, surely organised and managed outdoor sports should be considered. I have had parents plead for their children to be permitted to participate in sport. Yes, the restrictions and regulations must be adhered to. However, allowing some limited sport and recreation will protect the mental health and well-being of young people now and into the future.
Why are car washes closed? Surely keeping cars and headlights clean is a good thing. We have kept garages and MOT centres open and operating. Yet, some cannot get their car washed. So-called non-essential retail is closed, yet essential retailers can sell items that are deemed non-essential, such as hot tubs and some electrical goods. Surely that is not fair. It favours the retail giants but does nothing for the small independent retailers in our town centres who were fighting for their very survival before the pandemic.
We have seen the impact of COVID-19 on our communities, not just by the outcome of these restrictions but the death toll and the number of people affected by it, the impact of schooling from home, and by large parts of our economy being put into cold storage. We need a plan for recovery and a plan for the reopening of our education and health services.
I have said many times that those working in education need to be prioritised for vaccination, especially those in special education settings. We need a plan to ensure that children who are falling behind can catch up, a plan that ramps up healthcare capacity to tackle the ever-growing waiting lists and the hidden health consequences of the pandemic and the various lockdowns. We need a plan for mental, physical and emotional health recovery and renewal. We need to see a plan for economic recovery and renewal. We need a plan to reboot our tourism and hospitality sectors. We need a plan to get sport back on the pitch. We need a plan for emotional health and well-being renewal.
Like many in the House and in our communities, I want to see the restrictions eased and life return to as normal as possible — whatever normal might look like after this pandemic. We do need to adhere to the public guidance and expert advice. Someone once said:
"If you're going through hell, keep going".
Let us all keep going.
I thank the junior Ministers for outlining the regulations. I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and, like others, pay tribute to our front-line and healthcare staff who work extremely hard under immense pressure and stress. Like Kellie Armstrong, I want to mention those family and home carers who are often hidden. I extend my thoughts to families and friends who are suffering because of the passing of their loved ones and those who are unwell.
These regulations were to be expected. We were warned that infection rates would rise and that our health service would become dangerously overwhelmed. Around the middle of December, there were, on average, around 500 positive tests per day, according to Department of Health figures. By 27 December, that had doubled to just over 1,000 per day, and, on 29 December, there were 2,300 positive COVID test results. In the week commencing 28 December, over 12,000 people tested positive for COVID-19. The previous week, there were just 5,000. How did that happen, and what were the Executive doing about it? At the beginning of December, the Executive agreed what they called the Christmas household bubbling arrangements from 23 to 27 December. They also announced that non-essential shops and services would reopen from 11 December. The First Minister said:
"Through our collective efforts over recent weeks we gained enough space in the transmission of the virus to relax a significant number of restrictions, including the opening-up of non-essential retail, close contact services, sport and leisure activities and our places of worship ... These decisions will give families, businesses and employees some much-needed certainty and comfort in the run-up to Christmas and beyond."
There was little comfort in those words for those working in our health service. As scientists and medical professionals pointed out at the time, transmission of the virus remained steady and the lifting of restrictions could have only one effect on spread; it would allow the virus to circulate even more widely. Professor Gabriel Scally said back then:
"I think with Christmas coming up, people will see this as permission to do lots of things they haven’t been able to do and a lot of those situations, whether it be restaurants, or whether it be a lot of crowds shopping — all of that will just feed the virus and the numbers will go up."
Similar concerns were raised by others, such as Dr Tom Black of the BMA. Time and again, we were told that the Executive's decision to reopen non-essential services before Christmas and their easing of restrictions to allow for social mixing over five days during the festive period set us on the course for the crisis point that we are experiencing at present. The result was entirely predictable, yet we ploughed on.
Less than a week after relaxing restrictions, there came a completely different message; on 17 December, the Executive agreed a full lockdown to come into effect from Boxing Day. The deputy First Minister said:
"The health service would be completely crushed in January if we didn't intervene now, so while this is draconian, it's about saving lives. We've never been in such a bad position as we are now, and will be in January if this didn't happen".
Let us think about that for a moment. On 4 December, the First Minister said that we had:
"gained enough space in the transmission of the virus to relax a ... number of restrictions", and that it would provide "much-needed certainty and comfort", but, less than a fortnight later, the deputy First Minister said:
"We've never been in such a bad position".
When the new variant began to cause widespread panic on 19 December, Ministers suggested that people should consider mixing on only one day over Christmas. That is outlined in the amendment (No. 22) regulations onwards, which we are dealing with today, but it was not formally agreed by the Executive until 21 December and was communicated via a press release that was published just after 1.30 am. They advised against non-essential travel, but, like many decisions and messaging in that regard, it was too little, too late. It sent many people into a panic. Some had arrived home to Northern Ireland but were due to go back to university or to where they live. Others made the horrible-but-necessary decision to cancel their visit to their family at Christmas. We were all contacted throughout the holidays by many people who were panicking because their children, for example, could not get home or would be turned away from the boat.
Examine the regulations and the amendments before us today. What do they show? The amendment (No. 19) regulations to the amendment (No. 25) regulations tell a story; they illustrate precisely the problems that the Executive have had in dealing with the pandemic and their inability to get on top of the crisis. We are debating amendments to regulations that were brought in to ease restrictions and also some that constitute the shutting down of society and the economy.
As Colin McGrath said, it is rather convoluted, if not highly confusing. How many more lockdowns will there be? How many more blows will be suffered by people who have struggled financially and emotionally throughout the pandemic? The approach has been inconsistent and incoherent. The regulations paint that picture very clearly. The Executive published plans and frameworks for decision-making on easing and tightening restrictions and we did not follow them. Ministers argued and fought about reopening non-essential services that would have increased the transmission of the virus, and then, faced with the complete implosion of our health service, they rushed to backtrack and impose tighter restrictions. The competing priorities of each of the Executive parties have compounded attempts to deal with COVID-19. There has been a failure in the most basic duty to communicate simple, consistent messages to the public and to give relevant information. One day, we have room to relax, but, less than two weeks later, we have arrived at our worst point; we are told that we can mix with other households for several days over Christmas, then, sorry, no, just one 24-hour period; and we are told to travel only if it is necessary but that there would be no restrictions other than for those in and out of tier 4 in England. All of that was in the amendment (No. 22) regulations, as outlined, and in the amendment (No. 23) regulations.
Confusion, mixed messaging and no, or very little, information are recurring themes. We continue to find out what has been, or will be, discussed by the Executive through Twitter or Facebook posts by journalists. As MLAs, we are not given the information to answer our constituents' questions. Perhaps, however, it is just those in the opposition. I appreciate that this is a fast-moving picture, but people deserve information to get their questions answered or, at least, to have an avenue to do so. I fully support Kellie Armstrong's call for a single point of contact for MLAs to utilise to get the answers that their constituents need.
I repeat, again, my call for press conferences to be more regular and, specifically, this question: when will Ministers conduct a youth press conference? I have written to the First Minister and deputy First Minister twice — both unanswered — not to mention the questions for written answer. When will children and young people get their questions answered?
"stresses the importance of allowing children and young people opportunities to participate in society and to have their voice heard and their views respected, especially on issues which affect them."
Where is their ongoing opportunity during this most uncertain of years in their lives, as they deal with massive changes and ongoing restrictions? Worst of all is the underlying tone that is evident in some communications that ordinary people are to blame for the virus getting out of control. As the dean and vice dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine in England noted:
"A troubling narrative now appears to have crept into some reporting of intensive care bed shortages – blame the public."
Our NHS staff are struggling. They are frustrated, stressed and stretched beyond what we can only imagine, and they have every right to be angry with those who flout the rules, but it is not a few reckless individuals or young people who are responsible for the near collapse of our health service. It is not the public's fault that hundreds of people had their cancer surgery cancelled last week. The BMA's medical ethics committee pointed out:
"Rather than blame the public, we should focus on how the timing and communication of restrictions have contributed to the current situation ... We are also dealing with a variant that makes the virus more transmissible, which is especially dangerous for those living in areas of social deprivation where the infection spreads more easily. Fundamentally, however, it is chronic underfunding and lack of resources in the NHS that are driving staff to breaking point – not the public, who are doing everything they can to prevent our beloved health service from going under."
There has been a failure to deliver an effective test, track, trace and isolate system that compensates people who miss out from lost income. As, I am sure, others have, I have had constituents contact me to tell me that they have been turned down for support, even for grants that are set up for them to apply for, and are being told that they are not eligible. As an Assembly, we need to protect the most vulnerable — the people who cannot afford to self-isolate — and those who have missed out on forms of financial assistance for their business or livelihood.
As I have said, the restrictions before us were to be expected. We were warned that infection rates would rise and that our health service would become dangerously overwhelmed, but it did not have to be this way. The pandemic is far from over. What we need, above all, is a clear and consistent approach to deal with the crisis. We do not need any more confusion, ambiguity or toing and froing from pandering to populism. We must get on top of this, once and for all. There has been too much unnecessary suffering. The Executive must get support to those who need it. Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I do not think for one moment that there is anything but extreme difficulty for any Government dealing with the pandemic, and it is the same for the Stormont Government as it is for anywhere else. However, those difficulties are nothing compared with the difficulties that our health service has had to cope with.
I join others in saluting the dedication of so many across that service for answering beyond the call of duty.
Although I acknowledge that it is difficult to deal with a pandemic from a government perspective, this Government, through the Executive, have had a number of steps and missteps that have compounded those difficulties. One of those is the flip-flops in the announcements. Miss Woods articulated some of them. In November, we were told that it would be two weeks and that would do it. Then, at Christmas, we were told that it would be five days, but, no, it was then one day. Then we were told that the current lockdown would last until 6 February, but now it will last until 5 March. That leaves a public who are not just increasingly frustrated but increasingly questioning whether some of those in charge know what they are doing.
The issue that brings that to the fore is what the public were told was the key determinant. For months, the public were told, "It is the R number, stupid. If we can get the R number below 1, we can ease things". Now the public are being told, "The R number is below 1, but we will extend the lockdown from February to March". Where did the benchmarking to the R number go? The public are entitled to ask and to have that question answered. Does the R number not matter any more? Yes, I understand the delay in working through the system of rising numbers of infections, hospital admissions and deaths with a falling R number, but, if there is, as there seems to be, that conjoinder between a rising R number and rising numbers of cases and a falling R number and falling numbers of cases, surely, as we go forward with a falling R number, we should anticipate a fall in the demand for hospital admissions. We know that there has been a fall, thankfully, in the number of positive COVID tests. The lag for that works both ways. The lag is now, hopefully, working in the opposite direction. However, the lockdown is not. We have just been told that the lockdown is reaching into March. It is issues like that that add to the public's scepticism.
I understand that our hospitals have to be able to cope. I will not labour the point, but I will say again that, if, under devolution, we had looked after our hospitals instead of taking out 2,000 beds since 2007 and all the attendant staff that go with them, we would be in a much better position to cope. I understand that, but, when the R number is falling, surely the admissions are projected to fall and, happily, the deaths, yet we are projecting extension. Why is that? What about all the talk that we had before Christmas from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister about how we had to learn to live with the virus? That is the sort of flip-flopping on the message that I refer to, never mind even going to issues such as the catastrophic impact on messaging of the Storey funeral.
Those are some of the problems that the Executive have had. The other dimension of public disquiet, from what I hear from my constituents, arises in the disparate treatment of businesses.
The point that some have made in the debate is that large supermarkets can open, but small retailers that do not predominately sell essential goods are closed. So the draper who sells predominantly clothing is closed, but you can walk into Marks and Spencer and kit yourself out in its vast range of clothing. That is what really irks so many small businesses on our high street.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he acknowledge that the ability to socially distance at many small independent retailers, given that they work on an appointment basis, makes them a much safer environment than Marks and Spencer, for example, where people go for their jolly shop and then venture on into the clothing section?
The Member is absolutely right. I think of the main town in my constituency: Ballymena. We have a Range store. The Range sells a vast range of, essentially, household goods. It sells some essentials such as toiletries etc, but the predominant sales are in its household goods. The Range is open, but Wyse Byse, a local business, which also sells some toiletries but which predominately sells household goods, is closed. Why is that? Why are those who, prima facie, seem to be breaching the rules not enforced against? Does that simply mean that others should equally disavow the rules, because that is the open invitation?
There was an example in my constituency of a business that sells home heating fuel, which is essential, and has a small car wash to the side being fined by the police, because the regulations say that car washes cannot open. Yet multinational companies that do essential retail are allowed to sell their unessential retail, which is also listed in the legislation. Does the Member agree that that really does make small local businesses feel as though it is one rule for the big companies and a different rule for them?
I agree absolutely. If nothing is heard out of this debate but the pleas on behalf of small local business, I hope that those at least will be heard. It is imperative that, either through proper enforcement or ironing out the wrinkles — let us be kind — of the regulations, there is not that disparity. Until that is done, you are going to build a huge pond of resentment. I am getting correspondence all the time. Here is one from the owner of a garden centre, who, to help himself over the winter months, sells a few bags of coal. He had to close the garden centre and cannot sell the coal, because it is a minority interest, but the hardware store that can sell coal can also sell the things that he normally sells — garden benches and all of that. Take another business: this one, I see, is from — she is not here — Ms Hunter's constituency of East Londonderry. The owner of this well-established business tells how every lockdown has had a massive impact on local business, while the big multinationals appear to be able to trade without any impact on their business and are benefiting from local business being shut down. He added that he had to go into Asda last week for groceries and was completely shocked by the number of people in some aisles in the store not buying groceries but buying other stock. He also made the point that someone else made that, in fact, small local businesses have a better opportunity to control their customer input properly.
I say to the Executive that there has to be a readdressing of the disparity in the matter, which is becoming acute not just in its level of annoyance but in its level of damage to the possibility of those businesses surviving. I trust that the junior Ministers have been listening and that, the next time we debate the regulations, we will not have the same catalogue of complaints about the prejudice against small business. If the debate serves any purpose, I trust that that is the purpose that it will serve.
I have been incredibly frustrated for almost a year by the way in which the Executive have implemented regulations, not solely because their strategy of living with COVID is utterly reckless, which I will come to, but because of the nonsensical charade whereby we are expected retrospectively to give approval to or discuss regulations that have long been implemented and, in some cases, are out of date. There is no real semblance of oversight, transparency or accountability. The latest regulations are cooked up behind closed doors, often diverging from health advice, and pushed through without a pick of scrutiny. It is bad enough that Governments around the world have been able to do this much more rigorously and effectively, but, when the regulations actively allow a deadly virus to surge, allow for the criminalising of protests and put workers at risk, the lack of accountability and scrutiny is totally negligent.
It seems clear to everyone that the current regulations will be extended to early March if not beyond, but when will we debate those decisions? In April or May, when the regulations have already been implemented? As others have said, why are we not discussing in the House the long-term strategy for dealing with the virus? This charade and the Executive's strategy have left us with one of the worst records in the world of dealing with the virus, and that needs to end.
The regulations before us relate to the Christmas period and, in some cases, just before. It is worth remembering that the Health Minister has already publicly admitted that the Executive got it wrong in how they handled that period. How many cases were contracted unnecessarily? How many deaths have occurred because of the decisions made by the Executive before the Christmas period, which we are able to discuss — some of them — only today, at the end of January?
One of the amendments allows for up to 500 people to attend a sporting event. I have no doubt that sport can help alleviate the pressures of isolation, COVID and lockdown generally, but it is utterly baffling to me that the Executive would permit such large gatherings while criminally punishing people at socially distanced protests such as the Black Lives Matter protests. Many people will ask and have asked, "Where is the consistency? Where is the medical evidence that says that one gathering is permissible but the other is not?". The only discernible difference is that you pay into one event but not into a protest, never mind the questions around systemic racism.
The amendment (No. 25) regulations allowed taxi drivers to operate after 8.00 pm over the Christmas period. I do not think that anyone would oppose that. Some taxi drivers, however, were approached by the PSNI for doing so, some while transporting essential healthcare workers to work or home from work. Regulations have been rushed time and time again. Half the time, Ministers are not available on the air waves beyond a quick, curt press conference to explain the details. Many people are left to ask multiple questions online and of MLAs. People rely on WhatsApp and Twitter to understand the new rules. It is clear to me that the regulations were not understood, and taxi drivers were on the receiving end of that. They should not have been approached by the police. They have been through enough already. Too many still struggle financially without having to deal with that extra pressure.
The key question for the Minister is this: when will the Executive learn the lessons of the failed strategy of designing rushed regulations behind closed doors that risk the health of workers and communities by allowing the virus to continue to surge and then asking the Assembly retrospectively to give permission to the regulations? Unfortunately, I do not think that I am the only person who doubts that lessons will be learned. There has been consistent talk of individual responsibility and even a shameless attempt by some on the Executive to shift the responsibility on to ordinary people.
Yet here we are, looking back at regulations from the Christmas period, at a time when the virus was allowed to spread once again. Where is the acceptance of culpability on behalf of the Executive? Where is the individual responsibility for the strategy advocated by this Executive?
There is a momentum growing for an entirely different approach to the regulations, which amounts to a zero-COVID strategy. That has been raised already today, and I have raised it many times in this House but have been met with derision on many occasions. Last week, I wrote to the five party leaders on the Executive about the issue, and, frankly, the excuses from the Executive and the Government for not implementing a zero-COVID policy are pathetic and dangerous, and the Irish Government are pointing the finger at the North. They say that they cannot implement an elimination strategy because regulations here are different and looser, and our airports could undermine their strategy and provide back-door travel to the South.
Meanwhile, the Northern Executive muddy the water by fixating on the differences between us and New Zealand. They have referenced the cost of an elimination strategy, while the cost of their own living-with-COVID strategy surges in terms of money, impact on the health service and lives. It has even been suggested by some that an all-Ireland strategy could be the first step towards a united Ireland. The border is being cynically utilised by parties North and South as an excuse not to implement the necessary strategies and regulations to suppress this virus and to save lives. There has been no attempt to come together and work together to hash out a costed zero-COVID strategy which could be implemented across this island. The absurdity of allowing a man-made border to stand in the way of getting us through this pandemic is striking. It has been said over and over again that if this was foot and mouth or some other animal-borne virus, there would have been an all-Ireland strategy on day one. Excuses, obstinacy and posturing around the border are pathetically transparent and patently dangerous. That is just one reason why the campaign for a zero-COVID strategy is gaining momentum.
A zero-COVID strategy is not about lifting the New Zealand model and dropping it over into Ireland. It is about working to achieve the same levels of elimination, suppressing the virus through reduced economic capacity, travel bans, rigorous testing and tracing and the necessary financial and mental health impacts being put in place. It means listening to the growing calls from experts and working out how that can be done in Ireland. I do not hold out much hope that the Executive will implement such a strategy on their own initiative, but our party and others across the island are doing all that they can to continue to put pressure on both Governments to ensure that we force them to adopt such a strategy.
I believe that Standing Orders mean that we have to be out of here this evening by 8.00 pm, so I will do everything that I can to make sure that I am finished up before then.
I thank all Members for their contributions this evening. As is normal, we have often gone beyond the regulations that are in front of us and got into a more general COVID debate, but that is the way that it has always been. Perhaps it is the way that it will be in the future as well.
I will address some of the comments that Members have made. I will begin with the Chair of the Executive Office Committee. I thank him for the comments that he made and the fact that the Committee has recognised the united approach that we need if we are to tackle this pandemic. I also note the concern that the Member raised about the complexity of getting the regulations to the Floor of the Assembly. That is something that we have talked about in this Chamber time and time again. I hope that all Members will recognise the efforts that we have made to make sure that we can get information to MLAs as quickly as possible through, for example, the Ad Hoc Committee. As junior Minister Kearney said in his remarks, after the latest decisions were made by the Executive, a number of Ministers made themselves available to that Committee so that they could address the issues and concerns that Members have. We are operating under the structures that were agreed in the coronavirus legislation, which mean that the Executive make the decisions and then bring them to the Floor in this way. I know that that is not ideal, and that is why we have tried to ensure that that there are opportunities, through the Ad Hoc Committee, for Members to question Ministers about some of the changes that have been made.
Paula Bradshaw spoke on behalf of the Committee, and I thank her for her comments. I understand the concerns that she expressed. The Committee Clerk has written to the Department about those, and I hope that she will get a reply to them. On her point about consultation, it is difficult and we do not have the time to go through the formal consultation procedure, but we are doing everything that we can to have a close dialogue with key sectors. We have done that in a number of ways and will continue to do it.
Speaking as an individual MLA, Ms Bradshaw raised the learning that has been gained from the reopening of sectors. That is an important lesson for us that we will take into our planning for recovery. She also rightly stated that the case numbers are horrendous, which is why we are under the restrictions. She also spoke about the new variant, the impact that it has had, and the use of a travel ban. She is right that it is transmitting too rapidly and that we are suffering the consequences. We will consistently monitor that to see what further action needs to be taken.
Mr Buckley spoke next. I thank him for his contribution. His passion was very clear. It is important that we do not just nod through the regulations or in some way get used to them, because they are extreme. We can see that in a number of ways and in the impacts that they have. As MLAs, it is right that we do not shirk our responsibilities in asking those questions and that we make sure that we try to find out exactly why we are bringing them in and whether they are proportionate at this time.
Mr Buckley raised a number of impacts that the regulations are having on people, and he was right to do so. In particular, let me mention his concerns about cancer treatments. One of the reasons why we have restrictions in place is because of the wider health impact on cases and issues such as cancer. The restrictions are not preventing cancer operations from taking place and they do not mean that doctors are staying at home, but resources are being diverted to COVID-19 cases. That is why it is so important that we drive down the rate of infection and do not have patients in ICUs. That will allow ICUs to be ready to be used for cancer operations and all the other very important things that he raised. He was right to make clear the impacts that COVID-19 is having on our health service. We need to make sure that we are running a health service in Northern Ireland and not just a COVID-19 service and that all those other issues are being addressed.
Members will be aware that the Health Minister has approved the establishment of a new regional approach to ensure that available theatre capacity across Northern Ireland is allocated to those patients who are most in need of surgery both during the surge and as we come out of it. That will include seeking to fully maximise all available in-house health and social care and independent-sector capacity. It is important that we recognise the impacts of COVID-19 on cancer and on non-COVID-19 health.
We also need to recognise the impacts that COVID-19 is having on our daily lives. Time and again, we have said that we will base our decisions not only on the R number but on the capacity of our health service and wider societal and economic impacts. That case is frequently pressed with the Health Minister when he brings these restrictions to the Assembly. The impact on mental health is constantly raised with him.
We frequently talk about the impact of poverty as well, and I have lost count of the number of times, for example, that the CMO — I am sure that he will not mind me saying this — has pointed to the fact that poverty and unemployment are poor for health. We need to take into consideration all those aspects, and I can assure the Member and others that that is taking place in Executive meetings. All these issues are being considered, not just COVID alone.
I am sure that everyone in the House is aware of those impacts and of the devastating impact that all these restrictions are having on people across Northern Ireland and beyond. I am thinking about the impact on people's mental health here. That is devastating, and I am sure that we have all heard stories about how the mental health crisis has got even worse over the last number of months. We can see a huge impact on education as well. As useful as remote learning can be, it is no substitute whatsoever for face-to-face teaching, and I am concerned about the impact of that.
We see it in a number of other ways, and I think particularly of special needs children. I have heard stories of special needs children not getting the speech and language therapy, the music therapy and the physiotherapy that they had been used to before, so these regulations are having lots of impacts on our lives. It is absolutely right that we take all of these into consideration and do not just look at COVID alone. In fact, there is a responsibility on us to do that, and so I thank the Member. He and others also recognised the problems around click-and-collect services, and I answered that when Mr Middleton allowed me to intervene.
Ms Anderson is not in her place, but I will, of course, raise the issue of photographers. It does seem a bit odd. If you go to a photographer, you do not want to have a mask on when you are getting your family photograph done. I see what Mr McGrath is going to say. He is probably going to say that, for some people, that might well be an improvement, but it is an important issue, and, if we can give flexibility around that, it is important that we do so. Members will be aware that grants are being paid out to taxi drivers and financial support has been put in place, and Ms Anderson's concerns about taxi drivers will be raised with the Minister for Infrastructure.
Alan Chambers raised the issue of an exit strategy, and whilst I understand his point about it being difficult to do that in the current circumstances, we must start looking at our recovery now so that we are prepared, and that includes how we come out of the current restrictions in the short term and the wider economic and societal recovery processes after that. Members will be aware of the original pathway to recovery document that the Executive worked on in late spring and early summer, and it was agreed at the last Executive meeting that that work will be taken forward in a new and updated document on recovery to make sure that we have a plan for how we move from restrictions into a better place of recovery. That issue was raised a number of times.
Mr Middleton raised the issue of churches. Minister Kearney and I have had a number of engagements with many groups during the time that we have been in office, and I want to thank the representatives of local churches here for the way in which they have approached our discussions. The discussions have always been sensible, measured and thoughtful, and it is good that we are able to have that working relationship with them, as we do with many leaders in other sectors. I thank them for their input and for the discussions that we have had.
Mr Middleton also raised the issue of funerals, and, again, I absolutely agree with everything that he said. I understand how difficult it is when you lose a loved one — we all do — and we want to make sure that we are able to grieve in the way that we are all accustomed to.
We want to be able to have people with us sharing in our time of sadness and grief. However, I have to say to those people, and this goes beyond funerals to any event or anything that breaches the regulations, "What makes you so special? Why do you think that the rules do not apply to you?". So many other people are adhering to the rules and to these restrictions, difficult as it may be, but they are adhering to them, so it is really important that we all send that message that we need to show that leadership and working with other people.
I note the concerns that the Member made in relation to click and collect. I get the sense from Mr Middleton that he is very concerned about not being able to get flowers for Valentine's Day in particular. If we can make common-sense adjustments to the regulations, we should be willing to do so.
Pat Sheehan made a number of comments. I agree that the pressure on front-line staff has been immense over the last number of months. That is why we all need to make sure that we do work together and adhere to the rules and guidance as best as we can so that we can relieve the pressure on them.
The issue of travel is continually under review, both east-west and North/South. The issue of people bringing the virus into Northern Ireland is, of course, a concern, and that is an issue that we talk about frequently with other Governments across the UK and with our counterparts in the Republic of Ireland. I think that I picked up, when he was referring to the proposed travel ban with GB, him saying that he did not care who the scientist was who said that. The advice and evidence that we, in the Executive, got at that time was that the risk was small. That was why we took the steps that we did in relation to that.
I am not going to give way at this time.
Kellie Armstrong began her speech by bemoaning the negativity of the debate and then proceeded to highlight her grievances about everything that was in the regulations that she did not like.
She said that this was an orange and green debate. I wish that the Member was still in the Chamber so that I could raise that with her. I do not think that this has been particularly an orange and green debate. In fact, what I have witnessed over the past three hours has been people bringing legitimate concerns. There has been a sincerity to these debates, which is always evident, and I do not think that there has been a lot of orange/green point-scoring at all. That was evidenced by Mr Sheehan when he showed that he actually welcomed the fact that the army was coming in here to help, so I do disagree with her in relation to that.
With regard to the main point of contact for MLAs, the main point of information is, of course, Northern Ireland Direct, which is updated regularly with the latest information relating to the regulations and restrictions. We also have a team that deals with queries. If the Member is content, I will pass her contact details on to them.
Yes, I am sure that that can be sorted out. We will try to make sure that there is information for Members on the point of contact. As a constituency MLA myself, I understand what happens to your mailbox, WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages and all the rest of it. You get inundated with questions, and we want to help as much as possible with that.
I share Ms Hunter's concerns for the most vulnerable during this time. We are committed to doing everything that we can to help. I welcome her recognition of the impacts that the current restrictions are having on mental health.
Mr McNulty raised the issue of death and the fact that we all likely knew someone who had died — a sad but realistic perspective on what it is that we are facing.
He went on to talk about life returning to normal. Obviously, we want to be in that position as soon as possible. We have talked about an exit strategy time and time again, and vaccines are key to that. We will bring forward a recovery plan, and we trust that, in conjunction with the vaccines, we will really see how we get back to normality
Miss Woods raised a number of issues about the pre-Christmas restrictions and relaxations that were put in place at that time. I hope that the Member recognises that we are dealing with a rapidly changing situation. It does not always run smoothly. It is not a straight line on a graph, and we have been reacting as best we can. As I said previously, nobody has ever got this right. If we had said to Members, "Five days — that is what you can all have for Christmas" and did not change that advice based on the evidence that was presented to us, we would rightly be accused of not listening to the advice that was in front of us. Sometimes we have to make decisions, and sometimes things have to be changed quickly. We thank the public for their patience as we do that.
To refer to her point about young people, we are very much committed to engaging with our young people. In December, the First Minister and deputy First Minister engaged in a junior press briefing with Cool FM. We are actively looking at other opportunities to engage with young people in the coming weeks. I agree with what the Member said insofar as we should not just be paying lip service to our young people but giving them real opportunities to engage. I am happy to look at any other recommendations that come forward.
I thank the junior Minister for giving way. I will make one suggestion. A Northern Ireland Youth Forum political panel and press conference was arranged by the Executive Office last year. Unfortunately, that was cancelled because of political fallout. I suggest to the Executive Office that it rearranges that with the Northern Ireland Youth Forum as soon as possible.
Mr Allister asked why we cannot start to relax restrictions now that the R value is below 1 and the rate of new infections is declining. The difficulty that we have is that we are at a very high level of hospital occupancy and we know that this caseload will take a considerable time to ease and reduce. Of course, it is not the Executive's policy to get the R number below 1; it the Executive's policy to keep the R number below 1. That is why we cannot let up as soon as the number drops below 1.
I think that I covered in previous comments most of Mr Carroll's points.
I will again say that we recognise the impact that these restrictions are having on people. This is not something that we take lightly. I hoped many months ago that we would not have to be back in the Chamber doing what we are doing now and bringing all the negative consequences that come with these restrictions. However, I think that something has changed now compared with what happened in the past when we have been in front of the House, and that is that we have had the rapid roll-out of the vaccine. There has been tremendous progress. It is great to see that so many of our older people and our care home residents have been vaccinated. We need to give credit to our Health and Social Care services, which have done so much to ensure that that has happened. I hope that, with the continued roll-out of the vaccine, we will not need to constantly bring restrictions like this back to the House time and time again. That is what we all want to see. Let me again thank all those in our health service who have worked so hard to get us to this point.
My plea to the public is this: please stick with us. I know that this has been difficult. I know that people are fed up. I know that I am fed up and want this to be over. Let us just keep going through these next number of weeks and months. I have no doubt that, if we do that and work together, the normality that we all seek will be with us again shortly.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (Amendment No. 19) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.