COVID-19 Task Force: Update

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 1st June 2021.

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Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP 2:00 pm, 1st June 2021

1. Mr M Bradley asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the work of the COVID-19 task force. (AQO 2118/17-22)

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

The Executive's COVID-19 task force, chaired by the interim head of the Civil Service, meets regularly and reports to the Executive weekly. The task force has four work streams: adherence, protection, communications and recovery.

The adherence group is working on the development of a longitudinal survey, which is designed to give more information on individual adherence and influence policy development, as we continue along our pathway out of restrictions and remain reliant on people to make safer choices to contain the virus. In communications, as we have moved away from the "Stay local" message, relaxed guidance within the common travel area and adopted the green list for international travel, we are focusing our message on the behaviour of the individual. That will be designed to inform and enable people to make safer choices on how to keep themselves safe and reduce the risk of transmission. The protection work stream is led by the Department of Health and involves the great work on the roll-out of the vaccination programme. The recovery work stream continues to progress the development of a cross-cutting recovery strategy for delivery over the next 24 months.

The task force also runs the cross-departmental working group, which meets weekly to consider the proposals that have been submitted for the next set of relaxations. The next major review will be on 10 June, and the group is working through the proposals that will be submitted for consideration at that point.

Photo of Maurice Bradley Maurice Bradley DUP

I thank the deputy First Minister for her answer. Are the solutions of the task force's four work streams of protection, recovery, adherence and strategic communication in line with those in the rest of the UK?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Obviously, we are very much focused on our own recovery and on trying to build a pathway out of restrictions based on being careful and being ambitious for the future. There will be a COVID summit, which will involve ourselves, Scotland, Wales and England sitting down together to discuss what comes next and plans for the future. Clearly, there is a huge job of work to be done on recovery and rebuilding, which is why we are very much focused on trying to come at it from a holistic point of view, tying in the Programme for Government commitments and short- and medium-term recovery interventions from a health, societal and community perspective, as well as jump-starting longer-term renewal with the Programme for Government work. We have a huge job ahead of us, but at least we have a road map to chart us through that.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for that update on the COVID task force. Minister, can you give us an update on the roll-out of the vaccine, specifically its efficacy against new variants?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for her question. I express, probably on behalf of us all, our huge debt of gratitude to all those who have been involved in the vaccination programme. It has been strong work, dedication and commitment throughout the past year that has got us to this point. We are very grateful for that work. I can confirm that the vaccination programme continues to progress really well, with the prioritisation as recommended by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. More than 70% of the adult population have had their first dose and more than 40% have had their second dose.

People are concerned about new variants. There is limited information available on effectiveness of the vaccine against those, but we will continue to keep that under review. That is why it is essential that people continue to take up the vaccine. I encourage people who have not yet taken it up to do so, because it is our best protection alongside people's individual behaviour.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Rather than simply taking a punitive approach, what proactive work is the task force doing to help educate and inform businesses that may inadvertently be breaching rules and regulations?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

We have very much taken that approach the whole way through. That is the best way to proceed: to work with people and to provide advice. Guidance for a range of sectors has been developed, in tandem with the sectors, and we continue to keep that under review. If the Member wants to refer to any areas in particular, we will be more than happy to hear from him. As we build and plan to take ourselves out of COVID and into the recovery phase, it is important that we work with industry and businesses on the front line that are trying to rebuild from the devastating impact of the pandemic.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

The task force was asked to look at the scenes that we saw in the Holylands, last September, during freshers' week and how to deal with that. What work has been done with the students' unions and universities to try to avoid a repeat of last year's scenes?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

It is important that we work on a cross-departmental basis as we prepare for that period, which is fast approaching, because a lot of people have a role to play. The council, for example, has to be involved. I have no doubt that the work that was done previously will be replicated in advance of freshers' week. I will seek an update on that at the Executive meeting on Thursday.