Undermining the Public Health Message

Matter of the Day – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:00 pm on 14th June 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 1:00 pm, 14th June 2021

Colm Gildernew has been given leave to make a statement on undermining the public health message that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should indicate that by rising in their place and continuing to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until this item of business has finished.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The comments made against the Minister of Health in a nearby hotel recently were out of order and should and must be rejected. What we heard and saw was a direct verbal attack on the character of the Minister at the most inopportune of times.

Throughout the past year, we have faced real danger. The COVID-19 pandemic has put our Health and Social Care system at risk and posed a threat to everyone across our society. It has impacted our economy and every aspect of our social lives. It has also led to deaths across this island. NI Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) statistics demonstrate that, as of last week, 2,976 people died here in the North, and 4,971 died in the Twenty-six Counties, giving a total of 7,917 people across this island who have lost their lives as a result of COVID-19. Every one of those was an individual whose death was a tragedy for a family.

We have asked so much of each other and of our community over this time, and the vast majority of people have observed public health guidance and acted according to the best interests of everyone across our community.

While Mr Swann and I have had exchanges that have been heated at times and the odd disagreement about a particular issue, we have been required to work closely together, to cooperate with each other and to challenge each other as we make our way through the pandemic. We may not have always agreed on particular issues, but our disagreements have been courteous, well intentioned and well mannered, as, I believe, they should be. I believe that what was said in the hotel about the Minister should be condemned by everyone.

A key point about this is that we are by no means out of the woods as far as COVID-19 goes. We continue to see variants of the virus emerging. They are more transmissible and are demonstrating signs of being more effective at escaping the vaccine. That presents significant public health concerns. We must continue to be cautious, and we must proceed in cooperation as the delta variant poses a significant concern.

In the weeks and months ahead, let us use the breathing space that has been provided to us by the successful vaccination programme and the lower infection numbers that we see at present to put in place the necessary find, test, trace, isolate and support apparatus that will help us to continue to ease restrictions, to reopen our society and economy, to stay reopened and to resume our lives as normally and safely as possible.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I want to make it absolutely clear that what happened in the Europa Hotel was wrong. The Member of Parliament who was caught up in it was wrong in what he did. I welcome the fact that he apologised very quickly for what happened and is, therefore, seeking to put things right. I sincerely wish that Sinn Féin had apologised for its actions at the Bobby Storey funeral, where a far greater action took place, with a far greater demonstration of criticising the procedures that were put in place. Sinn Féin actually went out and defied the law and flew in the face of the law, and the deputy First Minister has yet to apologise.

I am very clear that we apologise on behalf of the DUP for the things that are done wrong, and I am happy to do that, as was the individual. We need Sinn Féin to demonstrate to the Northern Ireland public that it cares and apologises.

Added to that, we have an issue to resolve over the next number of days around our next steps in response to COVID-19. Those will not be dealt with on Thursday if a deputy First Minister is not in place. The question for Sinn Féin is whether a deputy First Minister is going to be in place. I will be putting forward a First Minister at the earliest opportunity so that we can deal with those issues.

There is the issue of the delta variant, and the concerns coming from the Chief Medical Officer and others about the number of people who have the delta variant. The question is this: is Sinn Féin going to do anything about that? Is it going to collapse the Assembly and not care about the health of the public? Is it going to care about the 335,000 people — is Mr Gildernew going to care — on a waiting list which continues to grow? Are you going to ignore that? Are you going to deal with that? Are you going to walk away from this Assembly for political purposes?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I cannot give way. That was noted by the Speaker.

There is legislation on health reform that needs to be carried out. If Sinn Féin is for real — you brought this forward today. I have given the apology. Let us hear your apology for your actions during the Storey funeral. Let us see you commit to actually tackling waiting lists, and let us see you commit to actually dealing with COVID-19 and not use one particular issue, on its own, to bring down this Chamber and its work for political purposes alone and to ensure that you can max out the benefits for Sinn Féin, no matter what harm you do to the Northern Ireland public.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

The images of what happened at the Europa Hotel, which were shared widely on social media over the weekend, would have been laughable were things not so serious. It would have been funny in a bleak, dark surreal way were the stakes not so high. Over 2,000 people in Northern Ireland have died from coronavirus. Over 7,000 have died on the island of Ireland as a whole, and over 120,000 across the UK. The idea that an elected Member of Parliament would take to a stage to ridicule a Health Minister and defy and undermine public health advice in that way is unconscionable. It is not funny, because lives have been lost and lives continue to be at stake. The delta variant is in this community. The threat to people who are not vaccinated — and to people who are vaccinated, because we know that the vaccine is not 100% efficacious — is real. We are moving out of restrictions, but there is real risk to people in the community.

What happened at the Europa Hotel was surreal, darkly laughable but totally unacceptable for any elected representative. Unfortunately — this has to be said — we have come to expect that kind of thing from the Member of Parliament for North Antrim, who has consistently demeaned his office. I welcome the fact that there has been an apology. However, the incident should never have happened in the first place and I cannot understand how any public representative could have thought that it was acceptable.

Although I have had several honest reasons to scrutinise the Minister of Health on issues on which we have disagreed, including in relation to handling the coronavirus, most people accept that he has worked diligently to protect the health of all the people in Northern Ireland. He has taken decisions for the right reasons and has communicated them fairly. He has done so, on occasion, at political cost to himself. I respect that. He deserves so much better than the squalid spectacle that we saw at that hotel. It is also worth saying that people in Northern Ireland, frankly, deserve better standards in public life. Too often, they look in on this Chamber and what our politicians do and are scundered, to use an expression that we all know the meaning of. They are scundered, and they were scundered by what Ian Paisley did that night.

I should say, in parenthesis, that I love the music of Van Morrison. He is a deeply important artist to people on the island of Ireland and to people in Northern Ireland, particularly in Belfast. I hope that his legacy survives some of the, frankly, nonsense that he has been spewing in recent months. His legacy is important, but it is sad, I am afraid, what he has been indulging in in the last year. I do hope that his artistic legacy survives that. In conclusion, let the message go out from here that no elected representative should engage in squalid, right-wing nonsense like we saw at the Europa Hotel.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP 1:15 pm, 14th June 2021

I am not on my feet this afternoon to defend the Health Minister, because he does not need to be defended in the court of public opinion. His leadership and dignity throughout the pandemic have been beyond reproach.

What we witnessed in the Europa Hotel that night was childish, irrational, unfair and totally uncalled for. People say that you should try to avoid meeting your heroes because you might be disappointed when you do. What happened was a perfect example of that, if, indeed, any of us needed to learn that. The only saving grace is that it got little traction in the room, I am pleased to say. A few people applauded, but it did not get the traction that, I think, Mr Morrison thought it would.

You could maybe make excuses for people who are not public representatives and do not think about the consequences of their words, which is the case for Mr Morrison, but a Member of Parliament really should know the consequences of their actions and words and what the public reaction to them will be. I understand that the Member of Parliament has apologised to the Health Minister, but he possibly also needs to apologise to the Minister's Executive colleagues, because he stood outside that hotel and said that the Executive "couldn't run a bath". That is hardly an endorsement of an Executive who have guided us and will continue to guide us through the pandemic.

We are talking about being "dangerous", and the message that went out that night was dangerous. It was an insult — a major insult — to all those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic and to the tens of thousands who made sacrifices to try to curtail the spread of the virus. At the end of the day, all Mr Morrison achieved was the loss of friends. I dare say that the MP for North Antrim possibly lost friends as well.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I thank Mr Gildernew, the Chair of the Health Committee, for bringing forward the Matter of the Day. It is important that we have an opportunity to discuss it in the Chamber.

I concur with Members' comments about the words and deeds of Mr Paisley MP as witnessed last week. We have to continue to play our part in communicating the public health messaging from the Executive, not least those of us who sit on the Health Committee.

The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt been the most devastating public health crisis this country has experienced in a century. People have suffered terribly from catching the virus. Many of them, unfortunately, died, and their families remain in our thoughts. There are also those who have served our health and social care sector so valiantly over the last 15 months and those whose treatment and care was disrupted, with many still on waiting lists and experiencing pain and the associated mental health anguish as a result. What we saw last week was an affront to all those people.

The only positive throughout the pandemic has been that the vast majority of people have adhered rigidly to the public health restrictions and advice as they sought to protect themselves and their loved ones. While we have spoken many times in the Chamber about ways in which the communication could have been clearer and more expedient, we cannot fault those who worked at pace in the Department of Health, the Public Health Agency (PHA), the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and the trusts in order to get the message out. They did that against a backdrop of an ever-changing pandemic, more information and a greater understanding of how the virus was spreading through our community and how its potency could be minimised through hygiene control and social-distancing measures.

Of course, the messaging was based on the most up-to-date medical evidence and health advice from those who are highly qualified, experienced and knowledgeable. Therefore, it has been deeply disappointing that those who hold positions of elected office, especially those with huge public profiles, have sought to undermine the public health messaging through their words and actions. Who do they think they are? We are public representatives. We are not virologists; we are not epidemiologists; and nor are we healthcare professionals.

As we continue to work our way through the pandemic, I sincerely hope that anyone who is tempted to speak out in defiance of the public health messaging by the Executive Office and the Department of Health stops and thinks. These are gratuitous attacks on the people who are fighting the pandemic. Like Mr O'Toole, I have challenged the Health Minister many times during the pandemic, but he has my utmost support and respect for his efforts and endeavours over the past 15 months and will continue to have that. We need to be more careful in our words and deeds going forward.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Not for the first time, the Member of Parliament for my constituency has embarrassed himself through his buffoonery, his words and his deeds. This time, he added an appalling layer of vicious insult: an unwarranted attack on the Health Minister that was delivered in circumstances and in a manner that would have caused many of his constituents to cringe at his being their elected Member of Parliament.

The incident demonstrates yet again Mr Paisley's capacity for flawed judgement. That any public representative at such an event would think it appropriate to bound onto the platform to roar out those insults shows a serious lack of judgement. We are told that he apologised, and that is good. However, the initial response that I heard was an attempt to wave it off as banter and parody. It was no banter, and it was no parody; it was a calculated slur on, undoubtedly, one of the hardest working Ministers in the House. On many occasions, I have had cause to disagree with the Minister, but to think that such a spectacle would unfold courtesy of a Member of Parliament is truly, truly appalling.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I was shocked, just like my colleague, when I saw the footage on Twitter. Robin Swann has, as I have passed him in the corridors, always been helpful to me. I want politics to be completely taken away from what has to be done to get our health service fixed. What Junior — Ian Paisley Junior — said was an insult. He attacked a Minister who is hard-working. We can always do more, but we deserve better in Northern Ireland. If I offend anyone, I apologise. Nobody likes a microphone better than me, drunk or — well, not drunk, but with a pint or without one. It was wrong, and he should be embarrassed. He has apologised, but an apology must be meant, and there must be an apology served to all of Northern Ireland for what went on.

I know Van Morrison from the bar. He is not a personal friend, but I expect better from him. I know the musicians who play with him, and they are top-class musicians from Northern Ireland. He is a top-class artist, but he has let himself down, and, in doing so, he has let his music down and he has let all of us down.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank Mr Gildernew for securing the matter of the day.

I was the person who nominated Robin Swan to be Health Minister before COVID struck. The job of Health Minister was always going to be one of the most difficult jobs in Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland politics. One of the aims that we set right from the beginning was that we were going to take health out of politics and put health first; indeed, that was the commitment from the party leaders then. Then we hit COVID and its significant impact on everybody in Northern Ireland. Not only has Robin Swann stood up for the Health Department and our health workers but he has been under real and severe threat. His life has been threatened. His family has been threatened. The PSNI has been involved.

With all those things, Mr Speaker, you would think that elected representatives across the Chamber and, indeed, across these islands would realise that we have a duty of care and a responsibility to ensure that we do not exacerbate situations. It is not as if we are out of the COVID pandemic situation. We now have the Delta variant, and cases are increasing across Northern Ireland. We are not out of the challenge. There are real, significant issues of which we are all aware.

The fact that a Member of Parliament — a "Rt Hon" Member of Parliament — would say such things and add to the grief of our Health Minister should be matters over which he should consider his position. However, at the moment, we do not live in the normal world of politics. I look at the party to my left and say, "You should show an example to make sure that this never happens again, but there is a significant answer to these questions". It is not a question of just a mealy-mouthed apology; it has to be a full, clear and sincere apology for what that Member of Parliament has done to undermine the health message in Northern Ireland. Frankly, like most Members of the House, I find the actions of the so-called Rt Hon Member for North Antrim completely and absolutely unacceptable.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

The House does not do irony, but, if it did, it would be the best irony in the world. Many in the House have undermined the public health message. They should know better, and some of them hold ministerial office. There are those in other places who have constantly undermined the public health message, including Mr Paisley, who should know better. His actions and words were reckless and dangerous, particularly in the context of the threats presented by the new variant. I for one have done my best to adhere to the public health guidelines. Can everybody in the House say the same thing? I was always told that people in glasshouses should not throw stones.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes this item of business. Thank you.