COVID-19: Health and Safety Executive

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 6 December 2021.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 2:15, 6 December 2021

5. Mr Beggs asked the Minister for the Economy to outline the role of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in promoting good practice to minimise the risk of the spread of COVID-19. (AQO 2841/17-22)

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Throughout the pandemic, the Health and Safety Executive has sought to utilise the information emanating from the Public Health Agency in a way that will assist employers to keep their staff safe and that will allow them to continue to function. That advice has been offered not only through face-to-face inspections but via email, telephone conversations, social media and regularly updated advice on the Health and Safety Executive's website.

The Health and Safety Executive has no vires in areas such as leisure, retail or hospitality. Its role in ensuring that food production and processing, the transport and logistics sector and key manufacturing sites have been able to continue throughout the pandemic has been critical, however, and it has protected our economy while keeping people safe in the workplace. Since the start of the pandemic, the Health and Safety Executive has provided direction or advice during 1,736 COVID-related site visits.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Minister, there have been some superspreading events, which have endangered staff and patrons. Over 200 young people contracted COVID at a disco in The Elk in Toomebridge and took it home to their families. Does the Minister accept that, in such high-risk venues, COVID certificates or proof of a negative lateral flow test reduce the likelihood of the spread of COVID and, ultimately, the pressures on our hospitals? What role does the Health and Safety Executive play in monitoring and enforcing the regulations?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

The Health and Safety Executive does not have any role in that. It does not have the legal powers or the people to enforce those regulations. That is not a way that we can enforce the regulations.

In relation to the Member's first question, we have no evidence — certainly none has been provided to us — for how COVID vaccine certification would help to reduce transmission of the virus. I accept that negative lateral flow tests could be of some use, because they can tell you about a person's immediate status. My concern about lateral flow tests, however, is that they are self-certified, so there is room for fraud.

The evidence that I have seen, from the University of Oxford and from 'The Lancet', in relation to vaccine passport certification shows that a vaccinated person and an unvaccinated person are just as likely to transmit the virus. The strong evidence that we would need in order to say that vaccine passports will reduce the transmission of COVID-19 significantly, or in any way, is not there. That is why I have concerns about the passports and believe that it is wrong to introduce them.

There will be one big impact, which will be on our hospitality sector. We have heard about the number of bookings that have been cancelled, and we have heard about many people's concerns. In particular, I have received concerns from the hospitality industry about the cost and implementation of such a scheme. That is where the difficulties have come from. A lot of people feel that they will need to deploy additional staff to bring those passports in.

Those are my concerns. It is certainly not a role for the Health and Safety Executive.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his answers so far. Minister, earlier in the pandemic, the COVID engagement forum helped to make workplaces safe by bringing trade unions, the Public Health Agency and business representative groups together to shape an agreed COVID safety policy for the workplace. Do you agree that there needs to be coordinated engagement on compliance and enforcement?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Compliance with the rules that have been put in place is clearly important. Enforcement is a difficult area. In a lot of cases, the question that people ask themselves is this: who will do the enforcement? A lot of responsibility has been left with hospitality and other industries, and that creates difficulty for them. That is where a lot of the concern comes from. It is not a role that the Health and Safety Executive is able to jump into.

I will say — it is often missed — that hospitality and other industries have worked well together and have spent an awful lot of time, effort, energy and money on making their establishments as secure as possible. If you look at some of the statistics on where spread is, potentially, taking place, you will see that they show the relative safety of some of those establishments. I pay tribute to all those who have absorbed that cost in order to keep people safe.

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

Minister, I agree that hospitality is vital and that it has suffered a terrible 18 months, but I am sure that you will agree that it is critical to the functioning of the Executive in a pandemic that there is a unified message from Ministers on public health measures once the Executive have agreed them. Can you confirm whether you authorised someone to leak to the BBC two days after the omicron variant was first reported, on Friday 26 November, a letter from you that outlined your supposed opposition to COVID certification?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

There have been many leaks across many months from the Executive. I am not sure who is responsible for those leaks, but they have happened, and I think that they have come from many different people over that period. The Member asks about unity in the Executive. In the past, other Ministers have expressed their concern about Executive policy. Sometimes, they think that it has gone too far; at other times, they think that it has not gone far enough. I was open and upfront with Executive colleagues, and also publicly, about my position. I do not need to hide behind anyone else leaking anything. I have been upfront about my position.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Minister, the message from the Executive is that we are all in this together. Do your words today not rather undermine that message by giving mixed messages about COVID certification and lateral flow tests and to the supporting agencies such as the Health and Safety Executive, our public health officers and others? Are we not truly all in this together, and is it not important that the Assembly and, in particular, the Executive speak with one voice?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I am here to defend the hospitality industry, which I feel has been unfairly treated. I am here to raise concerns that have been expressed about the impacts of the policies that have been put in place. I recognise that Executive colleagues have taken a different decision. The Executive are united in wanting to make sure that we defeat the pandemic and that we get to the other side of it, but, in my view, we should take measures that are proportionate and evidence-based and that actually deal with the issues. It is right that I express those concerns.