Zero-COVID Strategy

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 8th February 2021.

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Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance 2:00 pm, 8th February 2021

1. Mr Carroll asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether they have considered the merits of implementing a zero-COVID strategy. (AQO 1512/17-22)

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Over the past year, we have worked continuously to put measures in place to curb the spread of the virus in Northern Ireland. A zero-COVID-19 strategy would require a five-nations approach to collectively close our borders with other countries. Our response as an Executive and our recovery from COVID-19 will continue to be focused on the health and well-being of our citizens, our economic well-being, revitalising the economy and our societal and community well-being. The restrictions implemented are there to help reduce the spread of coronavirus and to help manage the pressures on our health and social care system.

In making decisions, the Executive consider three key criteria: the most up-to-date medical and scientific evidence; the ability of the health service to cope; and the wider impacts on our health, society and economy. Every proposal to change restrictions that comes before the Executive has been reviewed by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA). They attend Executive meetings and give their advice directly to us.

Following the increase in coronavirus cases, the Executive agreed the current restrictions on 17 December. We moved quickly to put in place measures to reduce the spread of the virus and to help manage the pressures on our health and social care system. We have continued to keep the restrictions under review and took the decision on 21 January to extend the restrictions until 5 March, and we will review them again on 18 February. The single most important action that we can all take is to stay at home.

The Executive place a particular emphasis on people and families, as we know how important they are to everyone. Any future Executive decisions will, therefore, be informed by the impact that they may have on us as individuals, families and the wider communities within which we all live, and they will be necessary and proportionate. Since the current regulations were put in place on 26 December, we have been encouraged that the majority of people are adhering to them and are doing their utmost to help to limit the spread of COVID-19. That can clearly be seen in the falling R number and the reduction in the number of positive cases. However, the pressure on our hospitals will remain for some time, and, as such, we cannot be complacent.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

It is widely regarded that the Executive's handling of the pandemic has been catastrophic, when compared with countries that have had a low number of deaths and have returned to some normality as they have developed a zero-COVID approach. Many hope that lessons will be learned, but I remain unconvinced.

If the pandemic can be thought of as a cancer, Professor Mark Shrime said that governments have adopted an essential oils approach: perfunctory, with half measures and wishful thinking. That is true here. Given that, will the First Minister commit to engaging with those who are advocating for a zero-COVID strategy and commit to adopting one on this island with her counterparts in the South?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I thank the Member for his questions. We have not been taking advice from quacks, as I think that he is indicating. We have been taking advice from the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser and, indeed, from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) in the United Kingdom. As I indicated in my substantive answer, a zero-COVID approach would work only on a five-nations basis. I am pleased to see that we are working in that regard with the quarantine, and, hopefully, that will help with the problems with international travel.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

It is clear that COVID-19 does not recognise borders, which speaks very much to the need for enhanced collaboration and working together. Will the First Minister outline the practical benefits of all-island cooperation in managing our response to the public health emergency?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I would be absolutely delighted if we could have cooperation on data sharing from the Republic of Ireland's Government. We have been very disappointed about the way in which that has been approached. We were told that there was a problem from the Attorney General of the Republic of Ireland, and then we were told that there was a problem with the Information Commissioner. I think that if we want to try to make sure that we deal with COVID in a proper way, we should be sharing the information. We will raise the issue again with the Republic of Ireland's Government, but I have to say that, in our last meeting, I was very disappointed that Simon Coveney, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, again hid behind some reason or other why it could not be done. It is a straightforward matter. The Minister of Health has been looking for this information for almost 11 months. It is about time that it was sorted out.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

First Minister, what is your assessment of the mental health impact of lockdowns, and what cross-departmental approach will be taken to mitigate it?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

It is something that we are very conscious of, particularly for our young people with the closure of schools and the fact that they are not having the interaction with their peers that they are used to having. We are also concerned about the isolation of older people and the fact that they are not having the contact that they would usually have.

As the Member will know, we set up a cross-departmental mental health group, under the chairmanship of the Minister of Health, in February or March of last year, shortly after we came back into Government but before COVID hit us as a nation, and it is important that we continue to work through that. I know that the Minister of Health is aware of the mental health crisis that, unfortunately, awaits us after we have dealt with COVID issues. We are doing all that we can to support people through COVID, but we recognise that more funding will need to be made available after the COVID pandemic has passed.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

Unfortunately, we may have to live with COVID for many years to come and we will all have to continue to make personal sacrifices. What mechanisms will be put in place to address future localised outbreaks?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The Member will remember that we began with localised restrictions. Unfortunately, that did not work because we are quite a small jurisdiction, so any movement of people spreads coronavirus. Therefore, we found ourselves having to take a nationwide approach to restrictions. I think that testing will be a useful tool. I note that in England, all employers with more than 50 employees can now apply for rapid-testing kits and can follow that up with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. Therefore, it is something that we need to consider, particularly for employers engaged in food preparation and for places where COVID spreads rapidly, often in an asymptomatic way with people not realising that they have it. Testing will form part of a strategy, as will the vaccine, which continues to be rolled out in Northern Ireland in a very professional way. I pay tribute to the work of the vaccination team for everything that it is doing in Northern Ireland.