The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 16) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 2 November 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 10:30, 2 November 2021

The next items of business are motions to approve three statutory rules (SRs), all of which relate to health protection regulations. There will be a single debate on all three motions. I will call the Minister to move the first motion. The Minister will then commence the debate on the motions, as listed in the Order Paper. When all who wish to speak have done so, I will put the Question on the first motion. The second motion will then be read into the record, and I will call the Minister to move that motion, and the Question will be put on it. That process will be repeated for the remaining statutory rule. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I beg to move

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 16) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.

The following motions stood in the Order Paper:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 17) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 6) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Today, the House is considering three very specific statutory rules that were introduced following decisions taken by the Executive on 27 September 2021 and 7 October 2021. SR 2021/276, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 16) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021, was made on 30 September 2021.

SR 2021/283, the Health Protection Regulations (Amendment No. 17), was made on 11 October, and the third amendment, SR 2021/274, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 6) Regulations, was made on 30 September.

I begin by reminding Members that it is the Executive Office that holds the lead responsibility, and it operationally manages the processes leading to Executive decisions on the ongoing need for restrictions and the requirement to amend the regulations. I am disappointed that, once again, it has been left to me to introduce these amendments.

The past 19 months have been unprecedented, and the Executive have sought to balance individual and societal liberty with public health requirements in the face of a protracted global pandemic. The Executive weigh up the totality of the effect that each restriction can have in combination with other restrictions in reducing the rate of COVID-19 in Northern Ireland. However, any relaxation to the restrictions will be associated with an increased risk of virus transmission, as has been the case through the epidemic.

I return to the amendments in question today, starting with amendment No. 16 to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations, which was made on 30 September. This amendment was made following the Executive's agreement at their meeting of 27 September to remove the legal requirements to socially distance in retail and indoor visitor attractions. Venues are asked to follow public health guidance to continue to utilise all other available mitigations, such as hand sanitising, good ventilation and using one-way systems where possible. The wearing of face coverings remains a legal requirement in these settings. The Executive also decided to remove the requirement to socially distance in indoor seated venues, such as theatres, concert halls and cinemas, during a performance, rehearsal or recording, and they advised that additional alternative mitigation measures should be utilised.

Amendment No. 17 to the Health Protection Regulations, which was made on 11 October, immediately extended the operation of the principal regulations to 24 March 2022. Further changes contained in this amendment came into operation on 14 October. It removed the limit on the number of people who can attend an indoor gathering in a private dwelling, limiting, effectively, indoor gatherings at private dwellings to 30 people from any number of households. It removed the maximum number who can stay overnight at tourist accommodation, and it removed the requirement to be seated at an event in a concert hall, theatre, conference hall or other indoor venue being used for that purpose. Lastly, in response to feedback from the industry, it amended the requirement for visitor and attendee information in the context of large ticketed events. The previous wording was drafted with hospitality in mind, as large venues were not open. The amendment enabled operators of ticketed events with fixed start times to collect the details of a lead booker rather than every ticket holder. That removes the need to record time of arrival and removes the requirement for premises owners to collect this information. This was duplicating the requirement placed on the organisers.

Amendment No. 6 to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) Regulations commenced at 6.00 pm on 30 September. This technical amendment to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) Regulations arose as result of amendment No. 4 to the regulations. It clarifies that a person is exempt from the requirement to wear a face covering in a relevant place while actively consuming food and drink, including intoxicating liquor, and that, at all other times, face coverings should be worn in indoor venues such as theatres, concert halls or cinemas. A person may remove their face covering when seated at a table in hospitality venues such as a bar, cafe or restaurant, and no change was made in this regard. However, in larger venues such as concert halls, theatres, cinemas and conference facilities, face coverings must be worn at all times while seated and can be removed only when actively eating. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I will make some very brief remarks as Chair, and I will then make some equally brief remarks as Sinn Féin spokesperson for health. We are now over 20 months into this pandemic, and, as restrictions continue to be eased, we all hope that we are heading back to some form of normality in our daily lives. We are still faced, however, with the fact that there remain a stubbornly high number of daily cases of COVID. The figure has remained consistent over the past couple of months and continues to place immense pressure on an already overstretched health service and already overworked health workers.

Unfortunately, we are seeing the total number of deaths continue to rise, and our thoughts and sympathies are very much with those who have lost loved ones over the past number of weeks and, indeed, throughout the entire pandemic. That is why it is so important that we continue to follow the current rules and guidelines. I again encourage anyone who is eligible for the vaccine and has not yet had it please to go and get it.

I also welcome the roll-out of the booster jab. I hope that the booster jab campaign will again lessen the impact of the virus and save lives.

The Committee was briefed on the regulations at its meetings on 14 and 21 October. As the Minister outlined, the rules are the outcome of Executive agreements over recent weeks and include the easing of a number of restrictions. I have mentioned in the past number of debates on the coronavirus regulations that Committee members continue to voice their frustration at the lack of evidence being provided to the Committee to enable it to consider how the Department advised the Executive and the probable impact that the easing of restrictions will have on transmission of the virus. The Committee was disappointed that it was unable to see the evidence and modelling for the specific restrictions being eased.

During the briefings, members also highlighted the issue of monitoring of rules and guidelines and how the Department is capturing adherence to them. Above all, the Committee wants to see that learning from the past 20 months has been captured, communicated and understood and that that learning is being used by the Department of Health to inform the Executive on future decisions. The Committee agreed to recommend that the health protection regulations be approved by the Assembly.

If I may, I will make a few brief remarks as an MLA. For the record, I state that Sinn Féin's search for evidence is to provide better information and to learn from what we are doing. It is not to question whether evidence did not exist for some of the very draconian restrictions that had to be put in place. I make that very clear.

These are a complex and interlocking set of restrictions, and the easings are often similarly complex and interlocking. It is therefore difficult for us to get an understanding of which measures are potentially driving increased transmission and which measures are most effective at stopping transmission.

Today, we have to recognise the pressures that are on the health service. That is the imperative. As well as saving lives and protecting people's health, we need to consider how much our health service can take, to be honest. We are seeing severe stress across the system, yet stubbornly high levels of COVID-19 remain.

It is crucial that we get better at collecting data that is specific to here. We have differences in our system here. I do not think that we can rely on data being extrapolated from elsewhere. It is imperative that we put in place monitoring systems so that we can properly track and pick apart measures to determine which are working, which are not working so effectively and what we can do better in the future.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I welcome the amendment regulations before the House today and commend the Minister and the wider Executive for their endeavours in charting a course back to normality.

Regarding the amendment (No. 16) regulations, Members across the House will know of my love for the arts. I declare an interest as someone who is married to a playwright and as someone who has a role in a production company, as is documented in the Register of Members' Interests.

The arts across its various forms of expression have been so badly impacted on by the pandemic. Many of those in the industry rely on performances, ticket sales and commissions simply to make ends meet. There is no great fortune for many who pursue a career in the arts. Rather, their career is chosen out of a love of performance, art and expression.

We in Northern Ireland have such a rich heritage in the arts, music and various other forms of performance. Ruby Murray from Belfast's Donegall Road, Dungiven's Seamus Heaney and Bangor's Gary Lightbody are only but a few names, but what a legacy we have for world-class literature, music, dramatic performance and all other forms of artistic expression. The artists of 2021, whom we want to see make the same impact as those names, need to be performing to capacity audiences in the various fantastic arenas and venues that we have across the Province.

They need to be able to develop their craft, but also make a living.

Furthermore, for venues such as the SSE Arena, the Theatre at the Mill in my constituency, the MAC, the Lyric Theatre and the Ardhowen Theatre to survive and keep the lights on, they need to be able to fill their auditoriums. This amendment and the decision to remove the social-distancing requirements for persons seated at a performance, recording or rehearsal allows that to happen. Indeed, with amendment No. 16 and the removal of the need to be seated, we are returning to viability and the pre-pandemic experience of the arts. That is most welcome.

The amendment (No. 17) regulations and the removal of the limit on the number of people who can meet indoors in private households will, no doubt, be appreciated by those of us who are planning family get-togethers at Christmas. Yes, of course we need to be sensible and follow the guidance that is provided, with persistent COVID rates being as they are across Northern Ireland, but, for those exceptional moments and circumstances, having that flexibility in the law is most welcome. These are steps towards normality, and that is only a good thing.

The removal of the maximum number of people who can stay overnight in tourist accommodation is a timely boost for the sector. We will all have had representations from businesses that operate across the Province and from providers in that industry. We know that businesses that were operating at maximum occupancy were wiped out overnight. We have seen that industry decimated, just like the arts. For self-catering venues, which, in many cases, are family-owned and essential for family incomes, removing that threshold on numbers will, once more, allow those businesses to derive full economic benefit. It is also essential to the wider economic recovery; the tourism offering is essential to Northern Ireland plc. I note that the regulation also removes the need for visitor and attendee information to be recorded. That, too, is a welcome change.

The amendment (No. 6) regulations on the use of face coverings provide a welcome clarification that a person is exempt from the requirement to wear a face covering in a relevant place while actively consuming food and drink, including intoxicating liquor. One criticism that I have heard when I have been out and about in South Antrim is that there is confusion about the rules. People want to abide by the law, yet some are unsure what the current law is and what is expected. Given how many changes there have been in the past number of months, that confusion is completely understandable. Therefore, it is sensible to provide that clarity on face coverings at this stage.

I will take a moment to commend the Health officials who have been charged with drafting the emergency legislation. I have no doubt that it has been incredibly challenging work in highly unusual circumstances, and I am sure that not many of us have been queuing up to thank them. I take the opportunity to do just that now, and I thank the officials for that very difficult work.

Coming back to the motions, hospitality venues will particularly welcome the amendment (No. 6) regulations. Despite many people's best efforts to inform, there needs to be as much awareness about rules as possible. I pay tribute to Hospitality Ulster for the work that it has done to raise awareness among the public about the rules that pertain to the industry. I am sure that Members across the House will join me in condemning outright the abuse that Colin Neill has received. No one should face threats or abuse for simply obeying the law and following health guidance, whether their role is to lobby for and represent the hospitality sector, like Colin, or to wait on tables in a local pub.

The Executive have now unveiled their winter plan. I welcome the pathway that they have set out for the next number of months. It will be a difficult period for the country and the health service. We are already hearing the scary statistics on waiting times in emergency departments, and it is only November. It is incumbent on us all to do our bit to alleviate the pressures that may come. We all have the power to help by following the regulations and guidance that are in place to keep us safe and for wider public safety.

In summary, I urge everyone to avail themselves of the overwhelmingly safe and successful vaccination, which is still available. If you have reservations, please speak to a healthcare professional. We can now all easily access not just first, second and booster doses of the vaccine from community pharmacies, but lateral flow tests across a range of pharmacies. The news that research shows lateral flow tests to be incredibly accurate is comforting. They are another tool that we can use to protect those around us, along with the common-sense actions of keeping a distance where possible, using a face covering when necessary and remembering guidance on hand hygiene. I hope that everyone plays their small part, if not for themselves, then for others, including our healthcare workforce who continue to work in the most challenging times that we have had.

My thoughts are with those who have lost family and friends to COVID-19. I support the motions.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party 10:45, 2 November 2021

Some 90% of our people are vaccinated. That creates space for cautious optimism, and we have to say, "Well done" to the healthcare teams and volunteers who ensured that it could happen. Nightlife venues have reopened, and that is an indicator of a return to normality.

Only 52·5% of 16- and 17- year-olds are vaccinated, and uptake needs to be higher among young people. They need to do the right thing to keep themselves, their families and their communities safe. We are behind with the roll-out of the booster jab. The Health Minister will probably enlighten us as to why that is.

Every winter, seasonal pressures are felt across the NHS, and this year will be no different. It is important that everyone who has been invited for a vaccine booster takes up that offer and that those who have not yet been vaccinated come forward to receive their vaccination. That collective action will be vital in allowing our NHS to cope with additional seasonal pressures and ensure that, over the winter months, non-COVID patients get the care that they need and have waited for so desperately.

Amendment of regulations and easing of restrictions gives many people cause for excitement. The public are happy that they can return to nightclubs. Young people have been deprived for too long, and I feel for them because that big part of their life has been taken away from them for so long. I could see, in the weekend press reports, the excitement on the faces of young people who were out having fun and socialising in a way that has been denied them for so long. It was heart-warming to observe.

Mrs Cameron referred to the arts sector opening up again. I, too, am a big fan of the arts sector, and I am excited about the Lislea drama festival being able to run in 2022. So many negatives have been associated with lockdown, but the Lislea community prepared a poetry book, 'Room to Rhyme', based on the poetry recitals given on Facebook during lockdown. That lifted people and gave them a sense of hope. People such as Séan Cunningham, Anne Garvey, former commentator on this place Eamonn Mallie, Liam Hannaway and Úna Walsh created a tremendous sense of optimism, and they have turned that into a book and held a great event in Lislea last weekend. The proceeds of the book will be donated to the Rural Health Partnership, which helps people deal with mental health challenges. It is a positive story from lockdown.

I will move on. Rarely a day goes by without another horror story about the state of our health service. This year's winter pressures have arrived earlier than normal and are affecting services across the board. Our healthcare staff are crying out for help; they know that what is to come will potentially be a "winter of discontent". We are still recording over 1,000 new cases of the virus daily, and people are, literally, dying. We hear about the challenges being faced by our emergency departments and the threat of closure of some of them.

Everyone in the House should recognise the need for vaccine certification while we are in this situation. To me, it is a no-brainer. Anything that can encourage more people to get vaccinated, to lessen the demands on our health service and shorten waiting lists is a no-brainer. Why is there opposition to it? The SDLP has been absolutely clear from the start about the pressing need for vaccine certification. Vaccine certificates are a proven alternative that will allow us to prevent another lockdown. Who could be against that? They are about protecting our health service from being overrun. Who could be against that?

The evidence from other jurisdictions is clear. The introduction of vaccine certification encourages vaccine uptake, particularly in younger age groups. Surely that is not too much to ask in the interests of keeping the public, families and staff safe. Our proposals for vaccine certification were blocked in the Executive by the DUP and Sinn Féin, who have, instead, left the matter in the hands of individual businesses. Some businesses are stepping up and taking responsibility. I believe that, to attend this year's Belfast Christmas Market, you will have to have a vaccine certificate. Why is there opposition in the House to vaccine certification in order to keep our healthcare staff, families and communities safe, lessen the waiting lists and reduce the waiting times for people who are waiting for operations and cancer treatments? Why is there opposition to that? What is the problem?

It is important that everyone is absolutely clear: the decision not to employ vaccine certification abdicates —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Sorry, Mr McNulty. You make a very valid point as a stand-alone argument, but you are well off the scope of the regulations that are in front of the House. I ask you to return to the motion.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Apologies, Cheann Comhairle. I just feel strongly about it. Others will have a different view, but there should be no opposition to anything that reduces the pressures on our health service and keeps people alive.

I support the implementation of the regulations. I look forward to hearing other people's contributions.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes and supports any guidance or regulation that is put in place to protect the health of the people of Northern Ireland and ease the intolerable burden that is being experienced by our health and social care system. We have every confidence that the evidence and advice that is being offered to the Executive by our experts enables them to make informed decisions.

The pandemic has not gone away. We are simply in a stage of trying to manage it and provide the public with an opportunity to return to some form of normality. However, that comes with a responsibility for the public: they must assist the process and ensure that the return to normality is allowed to proceed. The public can do that by increasing the number of people who have received the vaccination. It is absolutely imperative that people consider that and make the choice to get vaccinated and, when the opportunity comes along, to receive the booster injection.

It is easy to forget the simple messages that we were all given at the start of the pandemic about wearing a face covering, social distancing and hand hygiene. All those things are still relevant because the virus is out there seeking every opportunity to infect every one of us. We have a responsibility to protect not just ourselves but the people around us. The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes and fully supports what is in front of us.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I support the motions.

As the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment No. 6) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 are technical, I do not intend to take much time on them. However, I will say that our entire guidance on face coverings is now bordering on farce, particularly given the reopening of nightclubs without any real mitigations. It is now common to see people, including staff in shops and elsewhere, simply not wearing face coverings. Of course, not wearing a face covering indoors is permitted in an increasing number of instances. Debate has now moved on as to whether face coverings should be required only while standing on public transport and seated at a wedding dance. No one can say that there is scientific advice on such specific requirements, and that removes people's faith in the whole thing.

Ultimately, we have to make a decision. If we are keeping face coverings in the regulations and thus in law, we need to enforce those regulations or put in place other mitigations where they cannot meaningfully be applied, rather than being seen to constantly pare back the requirements. Alternatively, we need to accept that we are now solely using guidance. After all, so many people are now not wearing face coverings at all.

Amendment No. 16 was made specifically to allow for the resumption of theatre and drama.

I welcome the fact that theatre and drama can resume, particularly for my constituency of South Belfast. Theatres have had a long wait to welcome back their patrons. I very much welcome the responsible attitudes shown by many theatres with which I have been in contact. Most have opted to reopen at full capacity, subject to checking for vaccination or a recent negative test, or, alternatively, they will open at below full capacity on terms similar to the hospitality industry; for example, face coverings will be required while moving about. I find that impressive, and I attended a show recently and felt that mitigations had clearly been put in place to assure those attending that they were at low risk.

Amendment No. 17 is curious. It was designed to stop significant gatherings in private homes. The example that is always given, for whatever reason, is raves. There is a fairly open acceptance here, as I have indicated in previous contributions in the Chamber, that the regulations for private dwellings were not particularly enforceable. We wasted too much time on specifics that were never going to be checked.

In Committee, I raised the issue of communications in response to each of the amendments that we are discussing. It is evident that Scotland is the leader in communications among the jurisdictions of the UK and Ireland. Scotland gives messaging that is clear and succinct. We are still talking about the latest communication plan, which is being updated to reflect the feedback from the attitudinal study. I welcome the fact that the Department of Health conducted that, but we need to see its outworkings soon, particularly in targeting the younger age groups, where we see the majority of cases at present. We also need to ensure that there is awareness, even if people feel that they are not vulnerable, that the chain of infection, particularly via households, can soon see the virus reaching an elderly grandparent or a parent with an underlying condition and so on.

I put on record my party's opposition to the reopening of high-risk indoor venues without any mitigations that are regulated for or enforced, be they spacing requirements, ventilation, vaccination or negative test checks. This morning, I was sent a photograph of a queue outside one of the venues in South Belfast. Scores of people who look like students — they were certainly young people — were queueing to get into a venue. That is dispiriting because students or young people cannot be taught properly in university classes because those establishments worry about their close proximity, yet we see them stand shoulder to shoulder with virtual strangers. Not to have those checks in place is a major error, and it will see infection rates and, ultimately, hospitalisation rates rise. We will see so much more pressure on our Health and Social Care staff. Putting that additional pressure on them when we are warning that we are heading into a very tough winter is particularly concerning.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 11:00, 2 November 2021

The regulations typify the steps being taken to open up society. There is a corresponding concern in respect of those who feel vulnerable to COVID as to whether and why our booster programme has fallen behind. Many of us were amazed at the efficiency and achievements of the original vaccination programme. It truly was a remarkable feat. However, suddenly, when it comes to the booster, which, we are told, is necessary six months after the previous vaccination, we drag far behind. The figure quoted is only 28%, which is less than half of some other devolved regions. As the Minister is present, I would like him to use the opportunity to explain to the House why the booster programme lags behind, what steps are intended to make up that lost ground and what the time frame is in that regard. There is particular concern amongst many about the booster programme.

If I can test your patience a little, Mr Speaker, I also invite the Minister to comment, if he can, on the fact that the medical director in the Northern Trust has said that patients visiting hospital should be entitled to ask the attending staff whether they are vaccinated. There has been some controversy about that, not least today. Is that the Department's policy? What is the compulsion, if any, on the nursing and medical staff to answer such a question? If they do not answer such a question, are there consequences? The medical director's remarks are opening up a whole new controversy.

If the Minister could clearly spell out the Department's stance on those issues, that would be of particular interest and assistance. I would like to hear from the Minister on those two points, within the ambit of the debate.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That would be stretching it.


Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I start by expressing my sympathies to the families of everyone who has passed away from COVID. Unfortunately, thousands of people have died, including my grandmother Claire, who, sadly, died last week. Our nanny, as we knew her, was in hospital awaiting a care package. She was waiting for a long time, and, unfortunately, picked up COVID. She was transferred to the Mater and died later. The fact that our health and care services and systems are overstretched meant that communication broke down or did not happen. I do not for a second blame the health workers; I blame an underfunded system and am concerned that others will be impacted by that, as our grandmother was. My family and I thank the staff in the COVID centre and the Mater who cared for her. I am worried about how the winter will be for many people.

I turn to the regulations. I have raised concerns in Committee about evidence not being forthcoming to guide the lifting of regulations, especially those pertaining to the removal of social-distancing requirements at performance venues. I am concerned that there has been a lack of projected modelling of what the cases will be or what will happen if regulation x or y is lifted. We are met with daily warnings about the health service reaching crisis point this winter, so I am concerned that there is a plan to plough ahead without knowing about or having some baseline as to what the cases will be if those decisions are made and regulations are lifted.

I do not believe that the regulation allowing food ordering has been put through rigorous enough checks. Despite the fact that hospitality workers are integral to the venues operating, I am concerned that, once again, decisions are being made without any consideration about how front-line workers will be impacted by them.

I am worried about the winter. I am also concerned about the spread in cases not just among the elderly and vulnerable but in people across the community, the unvaccinated and those facing the possibility of long COVID.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

No other Member has indicated a wish to speak, so I call the Minister of Health, Robin Swann.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Before I start my remarks on closing the debate, I pass on the condolences of the House to Mr Carroll on the loss of his grandmother. It is never easy to lose a loved one, but there is often a special relationship with a grandparent that, I am sure, many Members have had. Mr Carroll, will you pass on our condolences to your family?

I welcome today's debate on the two amendments to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations. I thank Members for their contributions. I will address some of the points that were made by Members.

I was deliberate in my opening comments on how the regulations are the culmination of Executive decisions. I still feel the frustration and annoyance from the Health Committee about how it has to review, look at and mitigate the direction of travel of the regulations without the full evidence that goes to the Executive. We can give our input from a health point of view from our papers, our modelling, our TTP projection and our outbreak reports, and that is published on the Department's website, so I understand where the Chair and his members are coming from. The most recent amendment that we are talking about today was made on 9 October. We have not caught up on the debate over the regulations, but there is a shorter gap between when changes are made and when they are enacted.

I thank the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, Mrs Cameron, for thanking and acknowledging the drafters. A small team of drafters in my Department, which has been supplemented now and again with staff from other Departments, works on how regulations are drafted, changed and challenged. I will put that into perspective: other jurisdictions have large teams that work in multiple shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to do the same thing as we expect a small, dedicated team in the Department of Health to do. I reiterate what Mrs Cameron said and acknowledge the work that the team has done not only in turning the regulations out in time but in dealing with the challenge of converting into legislation the conversations or the will of a five-party Executive. As we heard in the debate, it is not always easy to change those conversations into legislation that can be easily understood and communicated. That was Ms Bradshaw's point.

Mr McNulty is no longer in the Chamber. He spoke about "cautious optimism", but, in that messaging, I encourage people not to lose the benefits and the optimism by falling into a level of complacency, dropping their guard and beginning to act as though the virus has gone away. Mr McNulty started to talk about domestic certification. Yesterday, we launched the domestic COVID certificate app. Having that facility is part of the Executive's autumn and winter planning, should it be needed. I encourage anyone who has been vaccinated and is eligible to download the app, because, if the Executive make a decision at some point to utilise it in Northern Ireland, people already having it would be a big advantage. It would reduce the workload, and the app will be able to be used in the other jurisdictions across the common travel area where proof of vaccination is needed.

Mr Chambers talked about the responsibilities that we still ask the general public to take on in order to support us. The messaging has not changed greatly. It is to get the vaccine when it is offered; wear a face covering in crowded or indoor settings; wash your hands regularly; cover your nose and mouth; self-isolate and take a PCR test if you have symptoms; if you do not have symptoms but are mixing closely with other people, take regular tests to reduce the risk of spreading the virus; meet outside, if you can; open windows when indoors; keep your distance from people who are not in your group; and work from home where practicable or do a mix of home- and office-based working.

There are still challenges. Ms Bradshaw highlighted part of the challenge, which is the communication when we start to ease regulations and move some parts from regulation to guidance. In many places and settings, face coverings, as I said in my opening statement, are still in the regulations. I want to see more enforcement and compliance, but, from the Department of Health's point of view, we have always had the struggle that the enforcement power and ability do not lie with us. We rely on other Departments, local government and the PSNI to make educated enforcement guidance and to have conversations with people, no matter where they may be, about face coverings still being a critical tool to be utilised by those who can use them. I acknowledge that there are people to whom face coverings are not applicable or by whom they are not easily used.

Mr Speaker, you indulged Mr Allister slightly, and, if you grant me the same indulgence, I will answer some of his points. I am slightly disappointed about where we are with the booster programme. The Member is right to highlight strongly the start that we got off to with that. I engaged with our Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and our vaccination team last week. Yesterday, I engaged with a number of actors who are key to the roll-out of our booster programme to see exactly where we are. While we have been able to support our GPs with additional vaccinators in some scenarios where they have been doing large vaccination campaigns, inputting the data into our vaccine management system did not keep up with that.

We have now asked the Public Health Agency (PHA) to look at how we can enhance the administration side of things so that, when people get the vaccine or the booster, that information is put on to the system. That drives the dashboard, which, in turn, drives public knowledge about how many vaccines have been supplied.

The House will be aware that Community Pharmacy stepped in yesterday to provide booster programmes as well. It is now acting in that regard. There is currently a dual-track approach between GPs, who will call people forward, and Community Pharmacy, with which people can make a booking if they are eligible. Those over 50 who had their second vaccine at least six months ago are eligible.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his remarks. I welcome the fact that Community Pharmacy is now involved. There is further scope to employ the volunteer vaccinator cohort to take the pressure off GPs, who are so stretched in trying to provide appointments. Does the Minister recognise that there is now some confusion about where people can go to get not only the booster vaccine but the first, second and third vaccines? With so many moving parts, it has become confusing for some people.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I get that. Most of the people who came forward to the PHA as volunteer vaccinators or through the payment system were deployed to the SSE Arena. There were a large number of administrators as well. It is now about how we utilise them, through the PHA, to support our GPs. They are coming forward, and they are being used.

The Member is right about what is now available. We are still calling people forward for their first and second vaccines. In the region of 400 to 500 people a day are coming forward for their first vaccine. That is available through Community Pharmacy. From where people get their second vaccine will depend on from where they got their first vaccine. If people got their first vaccine from a GP practice, Community Pharmacy or a trust facility, they will get their second one from the same place.

The third vaccine that the Chair talks about is for people who are immunosuppressed. It is strange terminology, as it is a third vaccine, not a booster. Technically, it is a third vaccine. Just shy of 10,000 people who have come forward for the third vaccine are not included in our booster vaccine statistics. That starts to complicate the messaging.

For anybody who wants a vaccine, be it their first, second, third or a booster, the availability is there. When it comes to those people over 50 who are eligible for the booster, we are back to that twin-track approach, where it is got either from their GP or from Community Pharmacy.

Come forward and get your vaccine. Over 190,000 vaccine doses have been deployed to our GP practices. Those have to be used within three weeks. I think that it was Dr Alan Stout who said yesterday that he hopes to see an increase over the next couple of weeks, and so do I. We are making every effort to ensure that we can get our vaccine programme back on track and fully performing in order to deliver the booster programme as well. It is about working with all partners across the programme.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Thank you for that clarification and the recognition that there is scope for confusion, given that things are so complex. You stated that you are disappointed at where we are at present, so is consideration being given to reopening some of the walk-in centres to make a start on fast-tracking the programme?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

When we met yesterday, everything was on the table. We looked at where we could go. I want to see Community Pharmacy and GPs start to deliver what they have said they will deliver. Let us not take away from the programme that Community Pharmacy and GPs delivered at the very start, before we moved to the mass vaccination programme.

One of the things that we need to be conscious of is the fact that people cannot get a booster until six months after their second vaccine. There is a time delay involved in determining who is now eligible. It is therefore not just a matter of opening mass vaccination centres for everybody to come forward for their booster. We are providing further communication to make sure that people are clear about who is eligible and where they can go.

I did not hear the comment that Mr Allister referred to, but I see that Tom Black said something similar in 'The Irish News' . That has not been discussed in the Department, nor had it been raised with me before I saw it on the front page of 'The Irish News' this morning. I would not be comfortable with, nor do I intend, following that direction of travel, whereby we challenge our health professionals to prove that they have been vaccinated before they treat patients. It is not something that I was aware of, have had conversations about or have definitely made a decision on.

I hope that I have answered as many Members' queries and questions as possible. In closing the debate, I remind Members that the choices that we make now will be crucial to ensuring that the virus does not begin to spread once more. As we continue to remove the remaining restrictions, our society moves closer to a return to normal life. By making safer choices, following the public health advice and complying with the regulations, we can all do our part to help slow the spread of COVID-19. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 16) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 be approved.