I really hoped that, 22 months from the detection of Northern Ireland's first confirmed cases of COVID-19, I would not have to stand here to move today's motion. Looking back on the early days of the pandemic, no one could have predicted what lay ahead for society, businesses and our families. There have been many tough times. Too many people lost before their time, too many healthcare workers drained physically and emotionally and too many precious moments with friends and family lost. Last week marked the first anniversary of the first vaccine in Northern Ireland — a momentous occasion and a game changer in our response to the pandemic. After a genuinely colossal effort to deliver more than 3 million vaccines, countless local lives have been saved and a huge amount of precious hospital capacity has been protected. That has allowed us to continue to deliver as much non-COVID care as possible.
As with so much in the pandemic, we can never really predict what will happen in the weeks or months ahead. Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will provide the House with a quick assessment of the latest position before I come to today's substantive issue. Members will undoubtedly be aware of decisions taken across the United Kingdom over the last week in preparation for the impending wave of omicron infections. Whilst more is still to be known about the new variant, we have already learnt a great deal over the last three weeks. Emerging evidence suggests that omicron has a clear growth advantage over delta, and whilst any level of escape from immunity is to be confirmed, Members must understand that, with significantly increased levels of infection expected, it is possible that we are going to face acute hospital pressures at least as bad as we witnessed in January of this year. I say that not to dishearten anyone but to provide an early and honest assessment of what all the possible signals are indicating may be the case. We have some advantage that the number of locally confirmed omicron cases remains relatively low; as of midday today, the number of confirmed cases stands at 10. However, it is inevitable that, as the virus takes hold on these islands, the number of local cases will increase rapidly. We must consider every possible tool to slow the spread and, therefore, push the anticipated hospital pressures as far into the new year as possible.
We all know what winter is like for the Northern Ireland health service, but it has already been experiencing winter pressures for the last six months. We have the rare advantage of a little more time than some UK nations. I want to use every possible moment to drive the vaccination programme forward and to ensure that the plans that we have in place are robust.
Members will already be aware that, yesterday evening, I announced details of a further acceleration of the booster programme with immediate effect. Health trust vaccination hubs will be open for walk-in boosters for anyone aged over 30 who is at least three months from having had their second vaccine dose. Opening hours and days of operation are also being widened with immediate effect. By the weekend, over 525,000 of the eligible population had already received a booster or a third dose of the vaccine. The weekly run rate had recently been standing at around 100,000 vaccinations, but that number will almost certainly increase further now. I will endeavour to keep Members updated as best as I can in the days and weeks ahead.
I will move to the substantive detail of today's important debate. Members are considering a statutory rule that implements the Executive's decision, which was taken on 17 November, to introduce the requirements to show proof of COVID status certification to gain entry to relevant settings. I will quickly address why the debate is happening today rather than last week. I hoped that it would happen last week, but, as Members are aware, before the Assembly can debate or agree regulations such as these, they need to be reviewed by the Examiner of Statutory Rules for legislative competence. While it may often be a formality, it is an important part of the legal and legislative process that cannot simply be overlooked. The delay to what I originally envisioned was unfortunate, but it allowed the Committee an extra week to scrutinise and deliberate on the statutory rule. As always, I am grateful to the Health Committee for its efforts, and I very much welcome the fact that today's statutory rule was agreed at the Committee meeting last week, without any vote cast against it.
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 19) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021, SR 2021/315, were made on 29 November and came into operation at 5.00 pm that day. As Members will be aware, the Executive's autumn/winter COVID contingency plan, which was published by the First Minister and deputy First Minister on 19 October, aimed to prioritise measures that could help to control transmission of the virus, while seeking to minimise economic and social impacts. I quote directly from the plan:
"It is based on the need to keep our society and economy open to the fullest possible extent and, hopefully, in totality. ... In the event that case numbers rise sharply or hospital pressures become unsustainable, the Autumn Winter Plan sets out a number of potential contingency measures ... These include ... the potential to deploy COVID status certification in higher risk settings if considered appropriate and necessary".
The plan recognised that the earlier introduction of low-cost interventions could possibly avoid more disruptive measures later and unsustainable hospital pressures. The introduction of COVID status certification to gain entry to higher risk settings was therefore included as a contingency measure. It had been hoped that the autumn/winter plan would not need to be invoked. However, three weeks ago, I received clear and explicit advice that, with the ongoing, serious situation in our hospitals and very high levels of community transmission of the virus, further measures were needed to curb the spread.
I fully appreciate that a COVID status certification scheme is not without its challenges, and I hoped that such a scheme would never be necessary, but, equally, I was realistic enough to realise that, if or when the time came for it to be necessary, the Executive should have a fully considered system on the books and ready to go. That is why, for months before my decision in November, I have been expressing my frustration that the policy had, effectively, been caught up in wholly preventable Executive wrangling. I wrote to Executive Ministers as far back as 22 April, asking for the matter be taken forward by the Executive Office through the creation of a cross-departmental working group, but, every time that I raised the subject, it was met with excuses that it was not the Executive Office's responsibility to take it forward. That is despite the central purpose of the Executive Office's Executive COVID-19 task force being to help to chart a path through restrictions, with departmental and sectoral engagement and input that is as wide as possible.
On 15 November, I was looking at the situation in our hospitals, as I do every single day. I was looking at the perpetually high rate of community transmission, and I was receiving advice that we were in for an incredibly difficult winter. So, the choice was to either continue with the stalemate or to say, "Enough is enough", and look to the Executive's autumn and winter plan. Not for the first time, it was left to my Department and its limited number of officials to take on a very significant piece of work at pace. As a result, the introduction of COVID-status certification will not be as smooth as it might have been had it been taken forward under a cross-departmental approach. However, we are where we are.
This far on from the detection of our first cases in February 2020, I had hoped that we, as an Executive and as political parties, would have recognised that getting through this pandemic — I am certain that we will, no matter what curveballs are presented — would require mature, united and serious political leadership. We need a united front, with joined-up policies and united messaging. It is my fervent hope that today marks a turning point and that, given the seriousness of our situation, the House can debate this measure rationally and respectfully, and that there will be no grandstanding or petty point-scoring, whether that be political or personal. That is what I hope, but what I expect and whether it will happen are different matters.
I accept that a five-party coalition will never be easy, but when public health is at risk, the people who put us here are entitled to some sense of decorum. Sadly, we still have some senior politicians who think that it is acceptable to joke about COVID-19. They think that it is funny to pose for pictures whilst flouting the public health message and that it is acceptable to post rhymes on their social media. It is not: in fact, it is pathetic.
Right at this very moment, there are doctors and nurses who are working in our critical care units under the strain of full PPE. They are working desperately to save the lives of our people, some of whom are elderly and some of whom are not. Some of those people have young families at home, who are desperately waiting for the next update and are hanging on with every fibre of hope and prayer for a call with positive news. Tragically, despite the best efforts of our staff and the advances in care and treatment, some will succumb to the virus. Separated from their families, they will often only be joined in their final moments by the same staff who fought so hard to keep them alive. Life can be painful sometimes, but this virus can be unbelievably cruel. So, shame on anyone who thinks that this pandemic is a laughing matter.
Whilst I am the first to protect the right of any person or politician to legitimately question decisions, I am also the first to say that I will take the advice of hugely experienced scientific and medical advisers any day over something that someone reads on Facebook. However, I fully appreciate that many Members and many members of the public have, understandably and rightly, asked where the scientific evidence for implementing COVID-status certification comes from. Some ask for entirely sound reasons; they want reassurance that we, as an Assembly and an Executive, are taking decisions based only on the most accurate and fairest advice possible. Others, however, ask in the full anticipation that, no matter what answer they get, they will dismiss it out of hand. Whilst a very small number of Members may be trying to portray themselves as some sort of champions of a cause célèbre, I welcome the fact that the clear majority in the House have not so easily succumbed to the noise of social media and the vacuum of naysayers.
Nevertheless, there is a clear evidential basis for what we are discussing. Members should be aware that as far back as April 2021, SAGE noted that in relation to COVID-19:
"There are three main ways in which baseline measures can reduce transmission".
"Reducing the likelihood that people who are infectious mix with others."
"For those potentially infectious people who are not isolated, reducing the likelihood that they enter higher risk settings or situations."
"Decreasing the transmission risk from a potentially infectious person in any given environment."
While COVID certification contributes to each of those three mechanisms, it does not, on its own, provide a complete solution. SAGE concluded with medium confidence that certification is likely to have medium effect and must, therefore, be used in conjunction with other non-pharmaceutical interventions, with effective implementation through high adherence to guidance or enforcement of regulations. The aim of the combination of these measures is to allow as much of society and the economy to function in as near-normal a way as possible, to minimise the potential need for more severe restrictions and to avoid the hospital system becoming overwhelmed.
Members will know that, for too long, I have had real concerns about the level of enforcement regarding the coronavirus regulations. Thankfully, the majority of people adhere to the regulations, but it will have been lost on no one how many people are now openly flaunting them. For some people who are not exempt, walking into a shop or on to a bus without a face covering is regarded as some sort of petty act of rebellion. Not only is that presenting an avoidable risk to themselves and those around them but it is incredibly selfish.
To those who think that they have some misplaced right or authority to step outside restrictions, I challenge them to walk in the footsteps of our health workers, who, to this day, are still having to deal with the wider consequences of poor public adherence, or to sit down and talk to someone who has lost a loved one.
I fully appreciate that these are not normal times or normal asks to make of a society. If anyone had told us two years ago that masks would become commonplace and be a legal requirement in indoor public spaces, no one would have believed them. Equally, no one would have believed much of what has been experienced over the past two years. Yet this far into the pandemic, and so long after restrictions have been in place, I, like so many members of the public, continue to have major enduring frustration about the level of enforcement activity. It was never going to be easy, but, as a result of, effectively, zero visible enforcement, the door has been left wide open for anyone who opts, for whatever reason, not to comply.
I am conscious of the particular challenges that face policing in Northern Ireland, and I fully appreciate that public confidence in policing is a delicate matter that must be constantly nurtured. We owe it to the responsible majority who wear their masks and follow the other regulations to ensure that there are consequences for those who do not.
To come back to the COVID certification scheme, there is clear evidence that such a scheme will have the following benefits: it will reduce virus transmission, primarily by reducing the likelihood of infectious individuals entering high-risk settings; it will reduce the risk of serious illness and death and, in doing so, alleviate current and future pressure on the healthcare system; and it will increase the likelihood that higher-risk settings can continue to operate as an alternative to closure or more restrictive measures.
There is also overwhelming evidence, including that produced by the UK's Vaccine Effectiveness Expert Panel (VEEP) in September this year, that vaccination reduces the risk of becoming infected with the virus. In particular, it reduces the risk of serious illness requiring hospitalisation. Let us remember that the Vaccine Effectiveness Expert Panel comprises some of the most pre-eminent scientific and analytical specialists in the country.
As we have already witnessed, there has been a clear secondary benefit of a COVID certification scheme in increased vaccine uptake. The rise in the number of people over the age of 18 coming forward for their first dose is testament to that. If any Member still does not take my word for it, I encourage them to speak to any of the vaccinators involved with the campaign if they want to hear it for themselves.
We should not be surprised, and it is not just anecdotal or coincidental, that there is clear scientific proof that the use of mandatory COVID-19 status certificates leads to greater vaccine uptake. That is demonstrated by Mills and Rüttenauer of the University of Oxford. Their study, as with so much more of the evidence, is on my Department's website for all to view at their convenience. Together, all these measures will make a further contribution to reducing infections and protecting against severe illness requiring hospital admissions.
I make no apology for re-emphasising the effectiveness of vaccines. The COVID wards in our hospitals have many otherwise healthy patients who should not be there. Looking at the latest hospitalisation figures for the end of November, 62% of the adult COVID-19 inpatients aged under 50 were unvaccinated. Unvaccinated individuals aged 50 and over were more than four times as likely to be admitted to hospital with COVID-19 than fully vaccinated individuals. While the number of adults under the age of 50 admitted to hospital is lower, an unvaccinated individual is more than eight times as likely to need hospitalisation from COVID-19. Sadly, unvaccinated individuals aged 50 and over are almost four times as likely to die than fully vaccinated individuals.
For many Members, those facts will not come as news. We should, however, take every possible opportunity to highlight them.
I will now turn to the detail of the regulations under debate today. The amendment (No. 19) regulations made the following changes. They introduced the requirement for COVID-status certification to gain entry to certain events and premises through one of three methods: proof of double vaccination; proof of a negative COVID-19 lateral flow antigen test within the previous two days; or proof of recovery, as indicated by a positive COVID-19 PCR test in the previous 30 to 180 days. In the light of those separate methods, it is clear that those who describe the scheme as a vaccination passport are out of step with reality.
It was agreed that the following settings will require COVID-status certification: indoor events with 500 or more attendees at which some or all of the audience are not normally seated; outdoor events with 4,000 or more attendees at which some or all of the audience are not normally seated; events at which more than 10,000 people will be present, regardless of whether they will seated; nightclubs; licensed hospitality premises that serve food and/or drink on the premises; unlicensed hospitality premises in which "bring your own" alcohol is consumed or during times that they are operating under an occasional licence; and cinemas, theatres and conference halls.
Members should note, however, that the following premises and events are exempt from the requirements: hospitality venues at a port or airport; the cross-border intercity Enterprise rail service between Belfast and Dublin; a place of worship or a place in which beliefs are practised during an act of worship; the premises of education establishments other than those parts in which alcohol may be consumed on the premises; premises or parts thereof that are being used solely for the purposes of blood donation at the time that they are being so used; any funeral or marriage ceremony or civil partnership registration, or a gathering that relates to a funeral or marriage ceremony or civil partnership registration, but not a reception held in a hospitality premises; any outdoor event in a public space that is not ticketed and/or for which no charge for entry is made; illuminated trails or pathways; lawful pickets; and drive-in events.
The regulations also allow people to prove their certification status by certification in paper or electronic form that they have completed a course of doses of an authorised vaccine, with the final dose having been received at least 14 days before the relevant time; by certification via text or email through the NHS COVID-19 reporting app of a negative result of a COVID-19 lateral flow antigen test, or by a negative result from an on-site COVID-19 lateral flow antigen test, in each case taken in the two days before the relevant time; by a valid notification of a positive result of a COVID-19 PCR test taken no earlier than 30 days and no later than 180 days before the relevant time; by confirmation in writing of their participation in a clinical trial for vaccination against coronavirus from the organiser of that trial; or by evidence provided through the Northern Ireland COVID certification process for medical exemption of a clinical reason for not being vaccinated with an authorised vaccine, or an equivalent process in that person's place of residence.
All the preceding evidence must include, or be accompanied by, a document confirming the individual's name as stated in the evidence provided and photographic ID to confirm the individual's identity. As Members will be aware, vaccination cards can also be accepted as proof of certification, as long as they are accompanied by some form of photographic ID.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I apologise for interrupting him, but some confusion has been raised today about the regulations applying to premises that are licensed but are takeaways. Can the Minister indicate whether proof of vaccination must be shown at the door or point of entry for those places?
I want to ask about the issue that you raised. You mentioned the various means of identification and proof that can be used. How much has the Department spent on the development of the app?
I do not have that exact figure, but the Member will be aware that funding for the development of the app was approved by the entire Executive after a monitoring round bid. That funding was to pay for the development of the app, both domestic and international, and also for the support mechanisms for those who cannot download the app and thus need to call in and get paper certification or another certification. All of that is encompassed in the cost.
I will update the Member in writing with regard to that exact cost.
As I mentioned, I have no doubt that the scheme has been challenging. It has been a challenge for people to navigate their way through the application system and nidirect in particular. It has been a challenge for our businesses. Despite what some suggest, however, it is untrue to say that the scheme has been targeted at any particular sector. Yes, by its nature, licensed hospitality may be where the scheme is most frequently utilised, but I remind the House that the scheme will also apply to everything from larger football matches to agricultural shows.
I have heard some of the concerns of the sectors impacted. They are understandably concerned about the impact on their staff and how they will comply with the additional obligations of the scheme. I have heard the asks for a financial support package. To be absolutely clear, had a scheme been presented, I would have supported it. Businesses should have been provided with much greater support for purchasing scanning equipment and, if necessary, to compensate for staff time in meeting the requirements of the scheme. The Economy Minister has not brought forward such a scheme to support the industry as of yet. I do not think that he is unwilling; I think that he is waiting to see the result of today's debate. I signal to him that I would support a financial support package for the industries and settings that are put under additional cost or strains due to the development of the scheme. I hope, for the sake of business, that he did not allow his or his party's ideological objection to COVID certification to cloud his ministerial responsibilities to the businesses that look to him and his Department for support. I ask him to consider bringing something forward.
Members have asked me how people who have been vaccinated in different jurisdictions can provide evidence of COVID certification. The regulations provide that a person may evidence their COVID status through certification of a course of doses of an authorised vaccination on paper or in electronic form. The person must also have proof that the final dose has been received at least 14 days before the time of entering an event or premises. That permits certification from other jurisdictions to be used as evidence, if it is an authorised vaccine, accompanied by the relevant identification confirming that the person presenting the evidence and named in it are the same. The Verifier app used by businesses will also accept the EU COVID-19 certificate.
The following persons are exempt from providing COVID status certification for relevant settings: a person under 18 years of age; a relevant officer, which is a constable or an enforcement officer; an emergency service responder; a person employed at or responsible for the relevant premises or relevant event; in tourist accommodation, a resident, except when that resident is not part of the tourist accommodation to which the public have access and where alcohol may be consumed; a person providing services at a relevant place and time when no member of the public is in attendance at that place; or a person carrying out a public service function or essential repairs or maintenance of the relevant premises or relevant event.
The regulations define that the person responsible for implementing —.
The Member is correct. That provision, which has been put forward in other jurisdictions, is so that we do not deny someone employment or the opportunity of employment by the adoption of this certification. However, they will be in a facility where the employer has a duty of care to them, as employees, to make sure that they work in a safe space.
I thank the Member for his point. He will be aware that the engagement for the scheme is led by the Executive Office task force. There have been engagements where the Police Service has been in attendance with not only my departmental officials but industry and stakeholders. That ongoing engagement has been happening since late October and throughout November. I have a list of the dates on which those meetings take place. I cannot put my hand on it at the minute, because I am in the middle of my contribution, but I will hopefully be able to do so in order to answer the Member's question.
For a "relevant event", the person responsible is the person responsible for organising the event or the person responsible for the management of the premises at which the event is held or to be held, if no other person is responsible for organising the event.
On penalties, while not all Ministers may have been initially aware, the proposed penalties came about only after collaborative work between officials in the Department of Health, the Department of Justice and the PSNI. Whilst I fully expect that the level of penalties will be a source of debate today, it is important to highlight that, despite the many opportunities to do so, no Minister proposed amendments to them. An equality impact assessment (EQIA) screening exercise has been completed, as has a human rights impact assessment. There has also been significant engagement with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), as well as with the sectors impacted, led by the Executive Office's junior Ministers and the Executive's COVID task force.
As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the current restrictions will be the subject of regular review by the Executive and will remain in place only for as long as their use is considered to be both necessary and proportionate to the risks. These regulations will be reviewed as part of the Executive's scheduled review of COVID regulations. We all crave the day when all restrictions can be lifted and we move away from the binary choice between health and the restriction of personal freedoms. In the meantime, we face the prospect of some incredibly difficult days and weeks ahead. Today's debate would have happened regardless of the new variant. However, its arrival should help to focus and sharpen minds. As always, stepping our way through the difficult times ahead requires personal and public responsibility.
Of those who rail against certification today, I ask this simple question: what is your alternative? How would you provide that additional layer of protection for our citizens, businesses and health service? Would you prefer moving to the next step in the Executive's autumn and winter plan, which sees social distancing reintroduced for hospitality or possibly even the shutdown of certain sectors? Is your option to simply do nothing and keep your fingers crossed? We know that that does not work. That is not an option that I as Health Minister am prepared to contemplate, nor is it a position that I am able to take from the oppositional safety of the Back Benches.
There are legitimate arguments on both sides of the debate, but this is about how we properly balance rights with responsibilities. That is always a difficult balance to strike. I say this to the House and to those from one party who are arguing against the entire concept of a certification scheme: how do you tally your outright opposition with the fact that the Executive's autumn and winter contingency plan included certification as an option? Let us not forget that on the first page of that winter plan are the signatures of our First Minister and deputy First Minister.
I conclude by emphasising again that COVID certification is a public health measure. By introducing it, we follow public health advice. I welcome the previous public commitment from the leaders of all the Executive parties to follow public health advice, and I sincerely hope that that remains the case today. Contrary to what is claimed by some, there is sound scientific evidence to back it up. In short, the higher the proportion of vaccinated people in a setting, the safer it is. People who are vaccinated are less likely to get the virus, and you cannot pass it on if you are not infected. Also, if infection occurs in a setting where most or all of the people are vaccinated, the chance of someone becoming seriously ill and being hospitalised is significantly reduced.
There is also evidence from studies worldwide that, even when people get infected, they are less likely to transmit it to others if they are vaccinated. Requiring a recent negative test also reduces the risk of transmission, and, of course, it will work best in association with all the other public health tools in the toolkit. Therefore, I take the opportunity to again urge everyone to continue to make safer choices and to follow the public health advice. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
I will make some remarks as Chair and then some comments as my party's health spokesperson.
A chairde, we are now coming towards our second Christmas dealing with the pandemic, and here we are considering further regulations to put mitigations in place to slow the transmission of COVID-19. It is disappointing that we have to consider further mitigations, and I think that we all would have hoped to be in a better position this Christmas than last year. However, we have seen how the virus and the new omicron variant has spread across large parts of the world, and we are still unsure about the impact that this variant will have on our communities, on our hospitals and, indeed, on our health and social care workers, who have been straining to provide a healthcare service throughout the pandemic for months and months. It is, therefore, important that we encourage people to adhere to the current guidance and rules, that we maintain good hand hygiene, that we continue to wear masks when required to do so and that we maintain social distancing where possible. We need to do all that we can to protect each other. I also encourage all those who are eligible for a first vaccine or for the booster vaccine to get that when it becomes available to them. I also, indeed, welcome the extension of the booster programme to those over 30 and look forward to the programme being further rolled out in the coming weeks.
Members, the Committee was briefed on the rule at its meeting on 2 December. We were briefed on the requirement for COVID status certification and the methods by which people can access events and premises. There was a discussion on the evidence required for the lateral flow device (LFD) method of proving your COVID status. The Committee was briefed on the various exemptions for events including a funeral, a marriage ceremony, a civil partnership registration or a reception relating to those. Exemptions are also in place for a drive-in event, a lawful picket, an illuminated trail or pathway, religious worship or events held outdoor with no fixed entry points and for which tickets or payment are not required for entry.
Members asked a number of questions on the rule. The Committee received clarity that staff working in licensed premises are exempt from needing certification. Officials also outlined to us what engagement had taken place between the Executive and businesses. There was a discussion on enforcement and monitoring of compliance. The Committee has raised that issue on a number of occasions when discussing such rules, and further work needs to be done to gather information on compliance with the new rules to ensure that they achieve the desired effect. There was also a discussion of the need for clear messaging around the rules and the need to avoid any confusion so that the public are fully aware of the current rules and regulations. Public messaging is one of the key ways that we can encourage compliance with the rules, and it is imperative that the Department of Health and the Executive provide sufficient information and messaging. That includes outlining and publishing the evidence that the restrictions introduced will make a difference.
Following the briefing on 2 December, the Committee wrote to the Department, seeking clarification on a number of issues. A response was received, and an official then came to the Committee on 9 December to answer follow-up questions. During the formal consideration of the rule, a number of members highlighted their concern about COVID certification, before the Committee formally agreed to recommend that the health protection regulation be approved by the Assembly.
I would now like to make some remarks as Sinn Féin spokesperson.
No. The Member will have time to make his arguments during his contribution. I do not particularly want to facilitate the Member's comments during my contribution.
A chairde, we are dealing here with an unprecedented public health emergency that requires unprecedented actions and measures to protect our people and our health services. I welcome the fact that the Executive have endorsed the measure as part of a wide-ranging and interlocking set of public health measures.
I encourage everyone in our community to adhere to the public health guidelines, maintain good social distancing and respiratory hygiene, wear a mask when necessary and avail themselves of the vaccine and booster when they become available. I urge others, including some in the Chamber, to carefully consider their words and actions and the impact that they will have on our ability to deal with the public health crisis.
We in the House must act and speak on behalf of the most vulnerable in our society to protect lives, health and our health and social care services. The measure is not a vaccine certificate but a COVID status certificate that includes the elements of evidence of having recovered from COVID in an identified time period or, alternatively, of a negative LFD test. In essence, it is an attempt to establish that someone does not actively have COVID-19 before they go into a crowded social setting, thereby seeking to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The emergence of the omicron variant, with its reported increased transmissibility, makes that all the more relevant.
Sinn Féin supports the measures, given the need for a wide range of public health responses to the pandemic. We encourage everyone in the Chamber to do likewise.
The Health Minister will know that, since the start of the pandemic, I have offered him my support in his efforts to combat the threat posed by COVID-19. At times, I have had concerns about what he has sought to do. I have wrestled with some of the regulations and the timing of their tabling. I have listened to the concerns of constituents, whether they were business owners, the sons or daughters of those in care homes or educators. Striking a balance between living a normal life and protecting the public has been hard. It is therefore a matter of deep regret that I find myself at odds with the Minister today. After 22 months of his message of standing together, bringing the public with us and the importance of political unity, we find ourselves here. I am disappointed by the decision of the Health Minister to ignore the lack of cross-Bench support for the policy prior to its becoming active and to plough ahead with the legislation. Affirmative votes were held in Scotland and Wales, so I ask why the Minister was so reluctant to allow the House its place in respect of the policy.
I am double-jabbed. Recently, I was delighted to receive my first flu jab and my COVID booster. Like thousands of people across Northern Ireland, I have taken that step in the belief that it will protect me and my loved ones. I have also downloaded my COVID certificate to my phone, and I regularly take lateral flow tests (LFTs). I also practise good hygiene and wear a mask where required, and I urge everyone to act in the same responsible way. I abide by the law, the guidance and the public health messaging, and I do what is asked of me. Do not let my opposition to vaccine passports be misconstrued as an unwillingness to recognise the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, my opposition is largely based on the lack of evidence that the measure is effective. It is having a significant impact on sections of our economy despite there being no evidence that it is effective.
I will not take interventions, if you do not mind.
How it has been handled has caused confusion and mixed messaging. From the inception of his proposal, the Minister pursued a maximalist approach. He wanted the small, family-owned coffee shop to be subject to the restrictions and the draconian fines that were being proposed as much as the nightclub. In doing so, he alienated so many people for whom the last two years have been so difficult and those who are striving every day just to see their small businesses survive, to sustain the jobs that they provide and to make ends meet. I urge the Minister to confirm whether he intends to revert to extending this damaging legislation to unlicensed premises such as coffee shops.
It is telling that no economic impact assessment has been provided for the measure. I understand, of course, the desire to bring down the number of those who become very ill with COVID-19. I fully appreciate that our hospitals have been operating under the equivalent of severe winter pressures since the summer, but I ask about the regard for jobs, family incomes and the mental health of those impacted by the decisions; indeed, it is argued that other medical conditions, including mental health, now sit very much secondary to COVID in the Department's priorities. The Minister needs to tell the House how the policy's effectiveness will be monitored. He also needs to tell us what modelling has been done and what it shows about the policy's impact on hospital admissions, cases and deaths.
The introduction of vaccine passports indicates that the Minister and the Department have admitted that they have lost the argument with those who hesitate to take the vaccine. The carrot has turned to a stick. With more people already vaccinated contracting COVID, those who are unvaccinated ask why they should get the vaccine. They need to be persuaded by firm evidence that that approach is wrong. The Department must explain.
Passports restrict full participation in our society on the basis of a health choice. It is a choice. The Minister has told us many times that he did not want to go down that route. While I have no issue in using a form of vaccine passport, I believe strongly that the move will be detrimental in convincing those who are hesitant, have concerns or fears or simply choose to wait a little longer. Surely the Minister understands how deeply emotive the issue is and that the move will ensure that some will never willingly avail themselves of a vaccine.
I have continuously urged everyone who can avail themselves of a vaccine to do so at the earliest opportunity. I support and commend the vaccine roll-out and thank those who have been involved in that mammoth operation to date. I will keep encouraging those who need to be convinced that vaccination is the right move for them as individuals, but the move to mandate vaccine passports is far from helpful. For some, it will compound their suspicions, which makes me sad; indeed, the confrontation that it creates in society on the basis of vaccine status is a dangerous road to go down.
It has not been an easy speech for me to make. I will welcome the Minister's response to the concerns of so many in Northern Ireland about the introduction of the measure. My party and I will not support the legislation.
Nearly two years into the COVID pandemic, we still face many uncertainties, questions and big decisions about how to best protect lives and livelihoods. The one constant over the entire period has been the unwilting determination, dedication, commitment and bravery of our front-line healthcare workers. At the outset of my contribution, I acknowledge that and remind and reassure our NHS staff, care home workers and care providers that our appreciation for what they are doing is everlasting. It was never just a minute's handclap on a Thursday night as far as the SDLP is concerned, and I want to thank them.
We are here to debate the current COVID regulations, which include the introduction of COVID certification in certain hospitality settings. Again today, we all heard the Minister of Health setting out the evidential basis for the mitigations and public health guidance that we have in place. I will not repeat that, but I challenge those in the DUP, including their Ministers, some Back-Benchers and its Westminster wing, who continue to claim that there is no evidential base. Around the Executive table, its Ministers have heard from the scientific and health experts; DUP MLAs on the Health Committee have heard from the science and health experts; and we have all heard again from the Health Minister in the Chamber today. The evidence and the benefits are clear. It is also clear that those who choose not to accept them do so for ideological reasons. To date, those people have yet to bring forward an alternative plan. That is downright irresponsible.
In politics, courageous leadership is required. Difficult decisions must be taken. Leaders must lead and not seek to be popular. That is especially the case in the midst of a public health crisis. In truth, however, that leadership has been sorely lacking at critical junctures. We should have acted several months ago to introduce this mitigation rather than leave it until the mouth of Christmas, but the SDLP's proposal was voted down by the DUP, Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Party, and, once again, the Executive have been too slow to act. Furthermore, quite shockingly, some in the DUP have repeatedly acted to undermine the public health advice, even going so far as to vote against the wearing of face coverings in England. It is an issue that did not apply to their constituents, yet they went out of their way to vote against it. Sammy Wilson even took time out to try to be funny about the situation. To Sammy Wilson, I, very clearly, say this: it is not funny. COVID is not funny. The pressure on our health workers is not funny, and the families of all those who have died with COVID are not laughing. Sammy Wilson is totally wrong on COVID, but he has at least been consistently wrong. In the Executive, the DUP has been all over the place. One week, it is taking the advice of the health experts; the next week, it is taking the advice of online keyboard warriors. One day, Jeffrey Donaldson is open to the idea of certification; the next, Paul Givan leads his Ministers in voting against it.
Imagine being a front-line worker in a hospital, looking to the DUP for support or guidance and listening to some of the contributions that we will no doubt hear again today. Our healthcare workers deserve better than that. We all do. COVID is not a party political tactic. It is not something to use to undermine an opponent, to grab a headline or to try to win votes. It is literally life and death.
We in the SDLP have a political philosophy that has worked well down the years: if Sammy Wilson is for something, we are against it, and if Sammy is opposed to a decision, it is generally a good idea. COVID certification is a good idea. Following the announcement that the measure was being introduced, some 10,000 people came forward and got their first vaccination dose. That was not coincidence. We need more people to be vaccinated in order to slow down the spread. That is what science tells us. In fact, that is what common sense tells us. It is not a big imposition to ask people to show their vaccine certification, a lateral flow result or a PCR result. It is far from an attack on their civil liberties. It gives all of us the confidence to know that everything that can be done at that gathering is being done to help protect us from catching COVID and passing it on to others. Vaccinations, booster jabs, a negative lateral flow or a positive PCR, alongside good hand hygiene, the use of face coverings, social distancing and good ventilation, give us the best chance of protecting lives and livelihoods and keeping our society open. Is that not what we all want? <BR/>To the people of Northern Ireland, I say this: even if you think that it is a hassle to download the vaccine certificate, please do it. Even if you regard it as a pain to show that certificate to gain entry to a pub or licensed restaurant, please do it. We are not a collection of individuals. We are a society. We are a community. Get your vaccine and your certificate for your own benefit, for the well-being of others and for society as a whole. Let us look out for one another.
When the pandemic is finally behind us, what role will you say you played in helping society deal with it? Will you say that you did so by getting vaccinated, following the public health guidelines and wearing your face covering indoors, or will it have been by striking faux indignation and joining those at City Hall and online who claimed to know better? COVID has robbed us of the old normality for now. We are in an emergency situation: a situation in which we do not have the luxury of accommodating every individual point of view or spending months debating a new policy. Of course it is not natural to show a vaccine certificate, a lateral flow result or a PCR result to have a meal in a restaurant. I know that. We all know that.
It is not usual to flash an app on your phone in order to go for a Christmas pint with your mates; we all know that. It is not normal, however, to have our hospitals overrun with patients struggling to get a breath, to have daily deaths from a cruel airborne virus or to ask schools, hospitality settings and other places to close. We need to do all that we can to keep each other safe and to keep our society open. This is an extraordinary time, and it calls for an extraordinary response.
We have all had to make personal and family sacrifices over the past 22 months, as we have stood together to try to stem the advance of the worst, worldwide, viral pandemic in living memory. We endured a total lockdown that took all but essential traffic off our roads, kept aircraft parked on the ground and ruled out any leisure travel. Tourism and hospitality premises closed their doors to customers. Sporting events, when permitted, were conducted behind closed doors. We have moved on since then, as we have learned to achieve a balance of work and personal lifestyle that has allowed us to move about more freely.
The return to freedom of movement was achieved by sensible regulations, supported by medical and scientific advice, that required us to wear face coverings in public places, with the public responding to social-distancing requirements, washing hands regularly and avoiding entering or remaining in crowded and badly ventilated enclosed spaces.
Then, along came the production of vaccines that offered us the hope that, if we should contract the virus, the medical reaction would be a lot less severe than if we remained unvaccinated. I am confident that the vast majority of us in the House have willingly availed ourselves of the vaccine. None of us likes getting needles stuck into us, but the majority of the public presented themselves to be vaccinated, not once but twice, and followed that with a booster jab when they were eligible.
Why did we endure all that? Our first motivation was to protect ourselves from the virus and, in doing so, to protect our families and those with whom we come into contact in our workplaces or public spaces. That motivation has not or should not have changed.
None of this has made me feel that I am heading into some sort of state-controlled dictatorship where our freedoms are being slowly dismantled and taken from us. Unfortunately, there are people who hold that view.
I will not take any interventions, nor will I make any.
Some regulations have been relaxed by the Executive when the medical and scientific evidence supported that course of action. It goes without saying that the regulations before us are not a forever piece of legislation. They are not a stand-alone magic bullet. They are just another building block in the wall that we want to keep between the general public and the COVID virus, be it the delta or the new omicron variant.
I received a number of ill-informed emails, mostly of the copy-and-paste variety, which quoted all sorts of fanciful figures and theories. A few described the virus as being an attempt by China to take over the democratic world by stealth. Others threw in the comment that this regulation would take us into a Nazi-style regime. If the authors of comments like that had lived through a Nazi regime, they would reflect on the absurdity of such a statement.
As I said, the legislation will not be in place for one minute longer than the medical and scientific advice suggests that it is needed. I have heard people saying that COVID certificates have not worked in Scotland or the Republic of Ireland. How do we know that they did not make a contribution to reducing the transmission rates of the virus? Our experts will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of the legislation in the coming weeks. What has been the reaction in the Republic to the current transmission rates there? They have closed their nightclubs. Is that a place that we want to return to in Northern Ireland by ignoring the deployment of a tool that our experts say is necessary at this time?
The hospitality sector has highlighted the logistical difficulties that it feels will be caused to it by the use of COVID certificates. I appreciate that fact, but closing the doors completely, as in the Republic of Ireland, might be much more challenging. I would support financial support for hospitality premises so that they can purchase equipment and employ extra staff to control the implications of this legislation. Despite the impression that has been created, it is not only the hospitality sector that will have to work within this legislation. It has implications for other sectors. That said, I fully acknowledge that the hospitality industry will have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. Financial support would undoubtedly have helped it to cope with the demands of policing the legislation, but the Minister of Health has told the House today that the Economy Minister has brought no plans suggesting any such support to the Executive.
Why do we need more legislation to curtail this virus and the new variant? As others have said, those who seem to be set against supporting this piece of legislation do not seem to have any alternatives. They talk up their support for vaccines and for getting a booster, but do all their Members in this place support vaccination? They support good hand hygiene and the wearing of masks in public places but, as referenced by Minister Mallon, three members of the DUP Westminster team decided to vote against the mandatory wearing of masks in England in recent days. One of those members also thought that it would be a good idea to put a jokey post on social media. Such mixed messaging does nothing for public confidence; it only serves to undermine public health advice and guidance locally.
In recent days, I spoke with clinicians from the Belfast Trust. They told me that they are dreading January and that they fear that a dedicated staff that is already stretched to breaking point may not be able to cope. I was told that 44 patients were being treated in ICU beds and that over 60% of those patients had not been vaccinated. Every one of those occupied beds prevents three, or possibly four, elective surgery procedures from being delivered in a week. People who are in pain or who fear for their lives as they await such surgery do not have a choice: it is out of their hands. Those who have turned their backs on being vaccinated, for whatever reason, did have a choice. For that very good reason, we must continue to follow medical and scientific advice to reduce the transmission rates of the virus and the pressure that that translates to in our hospitals.
In some of the emails I have received, I have read demands for me not to support this legislation. Those emails have asked for sight of the evidence used to inform the expert advice behind the decision to proceed with COVID certification. On occasions, I also hear those calls voiced by public representatives. I trust the advice offered by our government experts. I have also failed to hear any of the local academic epidemic experts that we listen to in the media say that the legislation that is before us is surplus to requirements. Those are all people who deal in detailed evidential studies on a daily basis and who have the ability to tap into international best practice.
For me, the most telling piece of evidence is the fact that over 2,000 of our citizens will not be sitting around the family Christmas table this year, having been robbed of their lives by this virus. My heart goes out to their families. Thousands of those fortunate to survive infection by the virus have been left with a condition known as long COVID. We know little about that condition and do not know for how long it will affect the sufferers' lives. What other motivation do we need to go the extra mile and make sacrifices that will help to reduce the impact of COVID? In the Health Committee's recent deliberations, no vote was called on this legislation, and the DUP firmly put on record its opposition to the legislation that is before us. A Division being called in the House today on the subject will provide oxygen to those who oppose just about every aspect of the battle against COVID. I suggest that it is not too late to avoid that by signalling to our population that the Executive and the House are as one in the fight against the virus that is killing our people every day. Let us all do the right thing today.
My party supports the legislation, as it may help to save lives and will undoubtedly reduce pressure on our overwhelmed front-line health and care system staff.
I support the regulations though not without having considerable concern in two areas. First, it is worth being clear about what we are voting on. We are voting on COVID passes. It is notable that so many people still insist on using the erroneous term "vaccine passports". We are doing something different from what was introduced in Scotland in October. We are implementing a system that means that, to enter venues where there is a high risk of transmission of the virus, a person will have to demonstrate reasonable proof that they are low risk through immunity, be that through vaccination or acquired, or of non-infectiousness.
Although I view some of the concerns raised around the ethics of that as legitimate — indeed, as a liberal, I would not want to live in a society where no objections were raised to steps such as that — I am afraid that, too often, those concerns became deliberately overstated so as to draw an emotional response that was not warranted. In the same way that it is reasonable not to permit smokers to enter high-risk venues in the interests of public health or not to permit intoxicated people to be in charge of vehicles in the interests of public health and, upon receipt, to prove specifically that they are not intoxicated before driving, it is also reasonable to ask someone entering a high-risk venue during a public heath crisis whether they have taken reasonable steps to reduce that risk before entering.
Therefore, while I share some of the ethical concerns around this, too often, they descend into a suggestion, implicit or sometimes explicit, that people should not take responsibility for reducing that risk before entering high-risk venues. We need to be very clear in the Chamber that absolutely everyone should take that responsibility, and, sadly, given the evidently reducing level of compliance with other mitigations, it is reasonable to ask for evidence that they have taken that responsibility.
My second concern is around communications. That is something that I have raised in every health protection regulations debate in the Chamber. It should have been clear from the outset that the choice here is broadly threefold: accept a high death rate from the virus, even though that rate is preventable; introduce further restrictions, including closures, which is surely intolerable with vaccines and widespread testing; or encourage widespread vaccination and testing. In other words, it is in the interests of hospitality and leisure and all of us to go with the last of those and encourage widespread vaccination and testing. By ensuring that, we have the best chance to prevent death and illness while enabling businesses to operate relatively normally. That point should have been made from the very outset.
There was always the prospect that the policy would be required, and it was beyond disappointing to hear at the Health Committee that it came as a surprise to officials in November. Planning should have been put in place for that as an option many months ago. We still seem to be unable to grasp what is meant by getting ahead of the virus. Ultimately, this is about mitigating risk. There was always the prospect that such a mitigation would become necessary. I hope that business owners will recognise that ensuring that those in their venues are low risk actually reduces the risk for people entering them and, importantly, ensures the safety of their staff. It is thus likely to increase custom not to decrease it.
COVID passes are one of many tools. We need to encourage vaccination and much more regular testing in general. We need to encourage other mitigations in other locations, such as ventilation and face coverings, and we need to reinforce the messages around basic hygiene and social distancing.
I do not dismiss all the arguments of those who oppose COVID passes. However, like the Health Minister, the Infrastructure Minister and many other Members, I have not seen those who are against the passes present us with a serious alternative that will prevent death and serious illness while keeping businesses open. In an ideal world, we would not have to take this step, but, in an ideal world, there would not be a deadly virus out there. In this less than ideal world, we owe it to ourselves and to one another to get vaccinated and regularly tested.
Finally, I thank all the Health and Social Care staff who will continue to battle the deadly virus through Christmas. I hope that they get some rest during that period.
I rise with so many unanswered questions on the reasons behind how we have got here. Why we are debating the regulations on the day that they are now enforceable in Northern Ireland? How was the decision reached, and what is the evidence to back it up? I want the debate to be respectful, and I want Members to understand the genuine concerns of my constituents who have contacted me. I am sure that other Members have received the same correspondence with the same valid concerns.
I have been double-jabbed. I have followed and supported the COVID regulations that have been brought into force to date. Why? Because I understand the public messaging. I want to protect myself, my family and those around me. However, there are fundamental questions about the COVID certification. Importantly, who will enforce it? Whilst it is enforceable in Northern Ireland from today, it seems that nobody is holding their hand up to do the checks or to bring about the intended effect of the regulations. It is pie in the sky to believe that COVID certification can be widely enforced. The Chief Constable has already rubbished the Department of Health's timescale for the enforcement of COVID passports, calling it "unrealistic". Demands on policing have returned to pre-COVID levels, and Simon Byrne has made it clear that officers will spend less, not more, time supporting the health protection regulations. It is clear that enforcement is unworkable.
Even if we had the manpower, we have to ask honestly whether it would be an effective use of public resources. For every minute that the police spend at a bar or restaurant trying to enforce, we lose vital time for fighting crime. The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has already very publicly dropped other cases where enforcement was needed. The absence of a cost-benefit analysis of the enforcement activity is wholly unacceptable. It is also clear that Ministers decided to press ahead with this pet project without even the most basic consultation with the main public body that would be responsible for enforcing it. That in itself is disturbing.
Businesses are already concerned about what the winter may bring. Now, they have to enforce COVID certification at their doors. That means a cost to them. Business owners will be left counting the cost of COVID certification. This morning, Hospitality Ulster tweeted that businesses were informed only at the weekend that checks must be at the points of entry. How is it fair that that was pushed onto businesses at such a late stage? The regulations have been implemented without the most rudimentary understanding of how success will be measured.
Does the Member agree that it was disturbing to hear in the Minister's introductory remarks an acknowledgment that the measure will have an impact on businesses and then a request that the Economy Minister do something about it? Having created the problem via the regulations, they are calling on other Ministers to fix it.
I have key and fundamental questions about the regulations. We have no indication from the Health Minister about how the impact of COVID-status certification will be monitored and what success looks like.
I do not want to interrupt Members, but this is about the intervention that the Member took. On 3 December, I received a letter from the First Minister and deputy First Minister about COVID vaccine certification. The letter states:
"We wholly agree that the issue of COVID Status Certification is a strategic and cross cutting issue with impacts far wider reaching than the health service and our overall aim in taking action remains to reduce pressures on our health service and protect the health of our citizens."
That was a response to my ask, working through the Executive's COVID task force, that all the implications of bringing forward the regulation were addressed using a holistic approach by the Executive. The Member who made the intervention indicated that I am pushing responsibility onto someone else. I am not doing that. This has always been the approach that I have taken to regulations. I supported the establishment of the Executive's COVID task force so that the consideration, responses and supports that have been necessary in the past and any implications or knock-on impacts will have a holistic approach across the entirety of the Executive.
This time last year — I remember it well — the First Minister came to the House to announce the drastic steps that would be necessary post Christmas Day. That approach was taken because the entire Executive had come forward to put together support mechanisms, and that is why I said that I had support. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister have made appeals to Westminster for the funding that will be needed if additional measures are necessary. I have said to the Economy Minister — I will say it again — that I will support him with any ask for a support package that can be brought forward. I know that he has recently returned COVID support money in a monitoring round.
I will continue. Thank you. There is a lot to get through.
I thank the Minister for his intervention. However, this is a fundamental key question about publishing the data. I have heard that adding COVID certification to the range of measures that we have will have a minimal impact. Therefore, I have fundamental questions about that. How successful has certification been elsewhere? It would have been useful to have had that information before us today, but it has not been forthcoming. By what margin does the Minister envisage that hospital admissions will be reduced or case numbers will fall?
No. I am going to continue.
The Department of Health has provided no modelling on the likely impact of COVID certification. Is that because that has not been done or because the benefits are minimal? As I have said, the evidence that I have heard is that the benefits are minimal. I asked the Health Minister to publish the full evidence ahead of today's debate. Unfortunately, I have not had sight of everything that I need to make my decision to support COVID certification. The rush to push the policy through without due process was reckless and irresponsible. Proper scrutiny could have been allowed last week. As recently as last week, the untold problems of the scheme were already on display.
I am going to continue. Thank you.
I have concerns for our elderly, disabled and, may I say, some from my age group who are having difficulty in getting COVID status certification.
At the Health Committee, I said that I hoped that the helpline would be adequately staffed over Christmas to deal with the many queries from people who will be out socialising and will need proof of vaccination. There has been mixed messaging from the Department on the roll-out of the scheme itself, which is telling. Interestingly, I was told that people who are vaccinated could still show their vaccination card as proof, and the Minister has outlined that today. There is no timescale for when everyone must switch to digital or paper copies. I asked twice for information on when the interim period, as it was called, would end. I was told that there was no timescale for it to end. Why are we therefore implementing this? Uncertainty has surrounded the scheme. At the eleventh hour, it was thrust on businesses, which had been told that licensed premises were the only ones included. We were to have an opportunity to debate that, only for it to be scheduled on the day on which it is being enforced. I have consistently called for evidence to be presented. We have absolutely no data about the impact in, and no modelling from, Scotland, Germany or wherever else this has been implemented. Why is that information not available?
I really welcome the announcement made yesterday that boosters will now be available to the over-30s, and I encourage everyone to get their vaccinations and booster. Only now, however, is the booster roll-out being ramped up. The NHS started booster jabs in September. Why the delay here? We have clear evidence that vaccination is reducing hospitalisations and the effects of COVID-19. The impacts on society are huge. We are debating the issue that status certification must be shown in licensed establishments. When and where do we draw the line?
I will finish by talking about a cafe owner in my constituency. I spoke to him, and he was fearful of the further roll-out of COVID-status certification. He has followed every rule and regulation to the last letter. He has reduced table space, enforced mask-wearing and done track and trace in his establishment, all met with opposition from some hostile customers. He did it to keep his community safe. That man was in tears, not sure whether his business will be able to cope with this regulation. He will have to employ extra staff to man entry points to his facility. It is that worry and uncertainty that is driving closures in our communities. How can we think that a rural coffee shop in my village should receive the same fine as a concert gathering of 10,000 people? The COVID-status certification has been ill-thought-out, yet it is being thrust on society with no evidence that it has the desired effect elsewhere. In fact, to the contrary, in places where it has been implemented, it has far from curbed the spread of COVID-19. For those reasons, regretfully, I cannot in all conscience support the deeply divisive and non-evidential regulation. Today, I will be voting against the regulations.
First, let me pay tribute to all the healthcare workers and staff, who have worked under considerable pressure the past number of years in the most intensive settings trying to save as many lives as they possibly can. Many of them contact our offices. I also pay tribute to every family and every household in Northern Ireland, because everyone has been touched by the virus and/or the restrictions placed on them. They have had a massive impact on our people and on society.
Our people, like everyone, deserve that the regulations that we pass in the House are fit for purpose and evidence-based and that proper accountability and scrutiny takes place.
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 19) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 sounds very official, but the impact is mighty. It is probably one of the harshest statutory rules that we have been asked to scrutinise.
The media keep saying that it is only about licensed premises, businesses, pubs, nightclubs and licensed restaurants, as if that makes it better, but it will have a massive impact and not just on those businesses. It includes:
"(b) theatres; (c) concert halls; (d) cinemas; (e) indoor premises ... When used for the purpose of a performance, recording or rehearsal; (f) premises used for the purposes of a conference or exhibition".
It also includes:
"Premises which sell or provide intoxicating liquor ... on the premises (whether indoor or outdoor) and premises (whether indoor or outdoor) to which the public have access and where consumption of intoxicating liquor is permitted".
Those are wide-ranging regulations that affect everyday society and businesses. They also affect:
"(a) an event that consists or is expected to consist of more than 10,000 people ... at any one time; (b) an event that— (i) will take place wholly or mainly indoors (ii) consists of or is expected to consist of 500 or more people ... and (iii) where not all of the attendees will be seated; (c) an event that— (i) will take place wholly or mainly outdoors, (ii) consists of or is expected to consist of 4,000 or more people ... and (iii) where not all of the attendees will be seated."
That has wide-ranging ramifications, yet the penalties and tariffs seem to be the same right across the board. Of course —
I know. We also have to remember the spectre of the coffee shop. Coffee shop owners thought that they would be included in the regulations, and, on the Friday before the Monday — in fact, I think that it was at 5.00 pm — they were told that they would be excluded. Is the Minister settled on that, or is that a stay of execution for those businesses? <BR/>What grieves me more than anything else about the regulations is the lack of proper accountability and scrutiny. I get health regulations and why they were invented in the first place, which was to enable us to make regulations and legislation quickly, but when that legislation is so impactful, and when it affects so many people and there is no evidence to suggest that it will work, surely that is when we should step back and consider our actions.
The failure to bring the regulations to the Assembly until now is deeply alarming and sets a dangerous precedent. It is unacceptable that, despite cross-Bench support for an opportunity to debate the policy, the Health Minister could not bring the regulations until now, two weeks after their enactment. Even in Scotland and Wales, an affirmative vote from the legislature was sought prior to introduction. How can Northern Ireland be the only legislature where the Minister cannot bring the regulations to the Floor in time?
It is not like me.
I am mindful of the tone of the debate, and I wish to keep it that way, because we should be respectful, but I asked the Minister, at one of the last debates on health regulations, if he was minded to bring in certification, to bring it before the House before enactment. It is with deep regret that that has not taken place. It would not be sufficient with regard to scrutiny, but at least it would have been something. Where is the scientific evidence for these regulations? The Department has had months now to produce evidence. I think it was in April when the Minister changed his mind about certification. I think it was one day, from 21 April to 22 April, but nonetheless he changed his mind. So, since April, why has he not produced any evidence at all, let alone scientific evidence, that these measures and this regulation will work?
Coronavirus regulations are permitted only where they are necessary, proportionate and evidence-based, but that threshold has not been met. Since the Executive voted on 17 November, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser have said that case numbers have peaked, that the R number has come down, and that hospital admissions are on a downward trajectory. Among the parties here that cloak themselves as parties of equality, many of the self-proclaimed champions of rights in the Executive were only too willing to rush these regulations through without any equality or human rights impact assessments being produced, let alone being published. Vaccine passports may be viewed as a small inconvenience to many, but for so many others, including the elderly and the frail, they will disproportionately affect access to social settings and activities, some of which are the very lifeblood of existence. Then there are those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer's —
No, I will be consistent.
Imagine dementia sufferers or Alzheimer's sufferers: how will they cope with certification? It is essential that the implementation of this policy is paused. I make the plea tonight in the House that it is paused until those equality concerns are at least addressed in an open and transparent way.
We were told that COVID decisions are taken on the basis of economic and societal factors as well as health. What assessment has there been of the economic implications of mandatory COVID certification? The reality is that the regulations carry the threat of the same level of fines for a small corner café, a licensed premises or a restaurant as they do for large multinational companies. Is that fair and proportionate? That is only one question that we needed time to answer, and we did not get that time. Throughout the world, we have seen that these measures simply do not work. In Québec in Canada, representatives of licensed hospitality indicated that sales dropped more than 40% — 40% — in the first three weeks after COVID passports were imposed.
These regulations have been implemented without the most rudimentary understanding of how success will be measured. How will we know that these measures work? We have no indication from the Health Minister as to how he will monitor the impact of COVID-status certification. What does success look like? If there is absolutely no logic to their implementation, how will there ever be logic for removing them? By what margins does the Health Minister envisage that hospital admissions will reduce or case numbers will fall by way of this measure? No targets have been set, by the way, but if they were set, would he then commit to reversing the certification policy, because the measures simply do not work? The Department of Health has provided no modelling on the likely impact of COVID certification. Is that because it has not done any modelling since April, or is it because the benefits are minimal?
We have had no scrutiny. No Committee in this place has looked at this in depth. We have to look to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, appointed by the House of Commons, which has done a robust piece of work on COVID-status certification. It is important to put on record that it was printed on 10 June 2021, several months ago, but remember this: vaccination levels have increased considerably for first vaccination, second vaccination and now booster, which is important. It is clear, however, that the only real scrutiny that has taken place on COVID status certification shows that it simply will not work. In fact, the document refers to abandoning any plans for COVID-status certification. Those are strong words for any scrutiny Committee, not least one in the House of Commons.
It is imperative that MLAs read that document, because it is the only scrutiny that we have. How many have looked at its conclusions and recommendations? It is a powerful document. It is from June, but the same logic applies now. When I read the document, I see the similarities between here and GB — it is incredible — yet nobody here who would vote for the motion seems to take cognisance of the evidence in the document. I could go through it, but I will not, because others want to speak. However, I refer this document to you, and I plead with you to read it and then to step back from these regulations.
What I do want to illustrate in great detail is how the regulations will affect business in Northern Ireland. Hospitality Ulster represents many of our licensed premises and tourist centres. It is important that we get its words on record, because it has not been able to go to a Committee in the way that it should for primary legislation, and this should be primary legislation. One of the recommendations in the House of Commons report, by the way, is that the certification measure should have been primary legislation. That would have afforded the Committee the time for all evidence to be gathered from stakeholders. That is what we do here — we are legislators — but we are not given the time.
Hospitality Ulster stated, on 29 November, that it had a concern due to a lack of information, evidence published by the Scottish Government, and anecdotal evidence from its counterparts in the Republic of Ireland that showed a downturn in footfall of 20% to 40%, increased costs and high levels of abusive behaviour against staff. I quote:
"I hope you will agree that it would have been much better to have shared the evidence of the impact of COVID certification" —
No, I will not. I will be consistent.
— "and the measurement of success that will be used to decide when the regulation can be removed,"
— the point that I make —
"bringing the hospitality businesses with them, rather than a 'we know best' approach".
As for that "we know best" approach, it is simply not good enough to say that the evidence exists and to keep repeating it as if it was true. Produce the evidence, publish the evidence, let us all see the evidence. It just does not exist.
I will keep quoting:
"Alternatively, if the introduction of COVID certification is more about influencing the general public's behaviour, then this should have been explained to businesses, with support offered if it results in a negative economic impact. We have been told that COVID certification is to keep us open"
— there is the threat —
"but we are then told more restrictions will follow and that no guarantees can be given".
These businesses are in an awful position.
"In short" — the Health Department —
"has not laid out the evidence and explained it clearly to the people that will be most impacted; the same people who must also enforce the regulations."
Is that not damning?
I received a further email from Hospitality Ulster today, and it is important that this is spoken of. It says:
"latest hospitality industry trading survey covering the weeks beginning the 15th November, 22nd November and 29th November 2021; compared to normal trading in the same weeks of 2019. Since the announcement of mandatory 'Proof of Covid Status'" — that is how Hospitality Ulster puts it —
"trading conditions over the last 3 weeks have been extremely challenging, with the majority of businesses experiencing falling sales. Beverage and food sales have been deteriorating weekly with almost all members (93% to 95%) saying that sales were down during the week commencing 29th November 2021. The share of businesses who have experienced a contraction of more than 50% in sales has been increasing over this short period of time. In the week beginning 29th November 2021: • 1 in 5 members (21%) said that beverage sales had contracted by more than 50%. • 1 in 4 (26%) stated that food sales were down more than 50% and • Half of those with accommodation (54%) said that accommodation sales had contracted by more than 50% compared to the same week in 2019 Business owners are seeing sustained contraction of sales, forced by a drop in footfall and immediate booking cancellations, and feel like they have been left high and dry after being heaped with the responsibility of the Covid Passport scheme."
That is the way Hospitality Ulster puts it. Do you know something? It does not really matter whether you call it a "passport scheme" or "certification". The public see it as discrimination.
The email continues:
"Even though penalties for the scheme kick in from today we are still yet to see the economic impact assessment which has led to this decision. Where is the realisation from government" — from the Department of Health —
"that the hospitality industry is in trouble? After two weeks of developing operational procedures and training of staff for 'Proof of Covid Status', on the weekend before penalties begin the legislation gets changed from 'check as soon as reasonably possible' to 'check at point of entry' " — would you believe it? —
"a change that will be unworkable for many businesses that operate a counter service business model or venues that have several entrances."
"Most businesses do not have door staff and cannot afford to employ them even if they could find them. Where is the collaborative working? Where is the common sense approach? The Executive and MLAs need to understand that repeated additional Covid measures are costing businesses in the hospitality sector, and we are at breaking point. This, coupled with a highly confusing message ... is destroying our industry."
That is how Hospitality Ulster puts it. It continues:
"If Hospitality businesses are the sacrificial lamb, if our staff are to go without wages, the Executive should at least be honest ... If the Assembly votes in favour" — these are Hospitality Ulster's words —
"of Proof of Covid Status today, I respectively [sic] ask that an amendment to the legislation requiring an immediate economic impact assessment is added, and that financial support is provided to hospitality businesses where needed".
Where is the opportunity to amend the legislation? There is none. It is not primary legislation.
Let me add my take to the cry of the businesses. We are in a business arena where the rising costs of energy and inflation are crippling. Businesses cannot get staff, yet we burden them with COVID certification that is not evidenced to work anywhere, has not reduced admissions to hospital and has not seen cases drop. That is the state of the industry, and it is crying for help. It is asking for information or evidence, and we cannot even give it that. The industry wants to know the logic behind the burden that we place on it.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has also carried out polling. Over 85% of its membership felt that the COVID status certificate should either not be introduced at all or, if it is to be introduced, should be applied to relevant public settings such as trains, buses, hospital waiting areas as well as private businesses. If the regulations are to be introduced, they must contain a sunset clause — there is a novel approach — so that, in the event of instability in the current Executive or delays in establishing a new one after the election, businesses will not be left subject to a serious burden that no one is empowered to repeal.
No, I will not. I will be consistent and fair to other Members.
I quote the Federation of Small Businesses:
"The discontent stemmed, in the first instance, from the lack of clarity as to the policy intent. Is it to drive up vaccinations or ensure that public gatherings are demonstrably safe spaces? The complete absence of public settings undermines confidence that the policy intent was truly about demonstrating the safety of places where people congregated and raised concerns about the lack of equality in the policy, as it is intent on placing the burden solely on the private sector. Beyond that, there was real confusion [in the survey] as to the mechanics for checking, as it appeared that existing vaccination record cards, carried by hundreds of thousands of people, would no longer be acceptable as proof of vaccination and that an entirely new and complex app -based system would be required."
Again, there is confusion. What is the current position? How long will the wee paper cards in your wallet be usable? Do businesses know that they can be used? There is already confusion.
I will finish this section of my speech with a quotation from the Federation of Small Businesses:
"I am writing to urge that the Assembly take time to consider not simply whether this directive can be approved and imposed on customers and businesses but whether it should be. The forthcoming Assembly debate on this proposal should give opportunity for wider reflection and, if the consensus of those Federation of Small Businesses members who engage with our poll is reflective of wider concerns, an opportunity should be taken to change course and avoid doing untold damage to hospitality businesses in every community who find themselves having to police a public policy of which a great many of their customers will know little, if anything, until the moment they find themselves denied entry to a cafe or restaurant or a pub."
Those are the words of the Federation of Small Businesses. Have you ever seen a time when lobby groups have spoken so sternly and with so much force? I have not. Surely that shows the measure of the concern among businesses.
I turn now to a good report from Imperial College London about vaccine passports and the link to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in the UK and Israel:
"A new study from Imperial College London has found a link between COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and a perceived lack of free will over vaccine passports"
— call them what you will.
The article continues:
"The findings, taken from surveys of 1,358 people across the UK and Israel — two highly vaccinated countries — found that people who feel their sense of autonomy, or free will, is unmet by government incentives like vaccine passports are less likely to take the COVID-19 vaccine."
Dr Porat, the study's lead author, states:
"If public health incentives like vaccine passports 'frustrate’ psychological needs ... then they might paradoxically reduce people's willingness to get vaccinated."
The article goes on to state:
"Domestic vaccine passports, where people must prove their vaccination status to stay in hotels and attend events for example, have been introduced across the world to restore freedom of movement within countries and encourage vaccination. However this new study, published in the journal 'Vaccines', highlights that such public health incentives might affect people's vaccination decisions in unintended and undesirable ways."
Without a doubt:
"Vaccination is the single most effective way to reduce deaths and severe illness from COVID-19, and current vaccines have demonstrated high levels of protection against symptomatic infection."
You do not and should not coerce people, however. You should not discriminate against people because they have chosen to wait a while or chosen, for some other reason, not to take the vaccine at this time.
No, I will not.
The article states that the study also found:
"people’s willingness to get vaccinated correlated with their sense of autonomy: participants who felt their need for free will was unmet were particularly unlikely to say they would take the vaccine."
Professor Calvo from the Dyson School of Design Engineering, said:
"Governments should focus on building a caring and trusting relationship with the public, rather than applying pressure and external controls."
The article states that the researchers said that there is a suggestion:
"even if government pressure causes people to get vaccinated now, they may be less willing to receive a booster dose or a vaccine against new variants in future. Autonomy-frustrating policies like vaccine passports"
— or certification —
"might also have long-term public health implications in terms of trust in the health system, they explain. Moreover, failing to meet psychological needs can damage people's wellbeing, so needs-frustrating policies might add to the already heavy burden of the pandemic on people’s mental health."
Dr Porat added:
"For some, vaccine passports act as incentives to get vaccinated so they can move freely in society. Our results suggest that for others, the passports might increase resistance to vaccination or alter the motivation behind their vaccine decisions in ways that might have detrimental long-term consequences" for public health and trust in government. That is undeniable. That is why I cannot support anything that forces or coerces people into getting vaccinated or discriminates against them based on their vaccination status.
There are also serious concerns over the lack of guidance for those who are medically exempt from vaccination. The regulations state that someone can provide evidence:
"through the Northern Ireland Covid Certification process for medical exemption".
What does that even mean? Unlike other regions of the United Kingdom, there is no indication that such a facility is even close to being operational in Northern Ireland. Even if it were, why does it have to be done through the certification scheme? Surely a letter from a GP, who knows the patient best, should be ample to provide exemption. The problem is this: some GPs will not give out exemption letters. Sometimes they do not have the time because of the strain and burden on them. How will we get around the exemptions for vulnerable people and people who simply cannot take the vaccination? There are many medical reasons that people cannot take the vaccination, one of which is that they may have suffered myocarditis after the first dose. That has been proven to be the case in some cases, but it is very rare, thankfully.
The UK Health Security Agency states:
"As of 17 November 2021, there have been 432 reports of myocarditis and 332 reports of pericarditis following ... Pfizer ... 101 reports of myocarditis and 57 reports of pericarditis following the use of ... Moderna".
That, of course, will be under-reported.
We know that there are people who are exempt from vaccines. How will those people be supported? They cannot be coerced into taking another vaccine. They have already tried it once. The Minister's press release championed early uptake of the scheme on 3 December and completely ignored the issue of medical exemptions. Was that a blind spot? The Department's online guidance refers to only three ways to provide your status: being double-vaccinated, having a negative test result or having evidence of an earlier PCR positive test. However, let us be clear. You can have a certificate on your phone or in paper form in your back pocket, but that certificate does not prove one bit that you do not have the COVID-19 virus. We have seen in many cases, in hospitality settings and in settings such as cruises, that vaccinated people spread COVID-19. Certification is no guarantee and no safeguard against the transmission of the virus, nor will it stop hospitalisations.
That is the tragic thing about the debate today. There is no evidence to suggest that it will work, none whatever. Nobody has provided that, yet we are going to pursue it and burden those businesses. In England, clarity has already been provided on the medical conditions covered by the exemption process. They include people receiving end-of-life care where vaccination is not in the person's best interests, people with learning difficulties or autistic individuals, people with a combination of impairments where vaccination cannot be provided through reasonable adjustments and people with severe allergies to all currently available vaccines. Short-term exemptions will also be available for those with short-term medical conditions, an option that some pregnant women may choose to take. Where are those facilities in Northern Ireland? It is unclear whether the Department intends to replicate that flexibility. In the meantime, those with legitimate reasons for not receiving the vaccine in other parts of the UK can continue to access settings that require proof of their status. They can gain entry. That creates an unacceptable inequality for people living in Northern Ireland.
There are also data concerns. Where are the data protection assessments? The Department, the Minister and, if the regulations pass, the House will ask people to provide strangers with personal health data. Will the reason for someone's medical exemption need to be declared on their certificate, or will an exemption be enough? What clinical and professional evidence will be needed? Who will have access to such personal information? Who will ultimately be the judge of whether someone's condition is serious enough to warrant an exemption? How will the process be open and transparent? Will there even be an appeal mechanism?
The fact that so many gaps remain in relation to the regulations demonstrates that the Department has not learned the mistakes of previous stages of the pandemic. Even the PPS has made it clear that the ill-considered and confusing nature of much of the COVID legislation is a barrier to effective enforcement, even if you wanted to enforce a draconian measure that discriminates between one family member and another.
I believe it to be an horrendous measure on the face of the regulations, and I believe it to be horrendous that we have not had the time to scrutinise properly and that no scrutiny Committee has had the time to really get in-depth knowledge and evidence on COVID status certification. Yet, we will pass this here tonight. It will have a massive impact on our people and on households, with discrimination between one family member and another. I cannot support that. I will not support that.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Mr Frew has referred on a number of occasions to vaccine "coercion" and "discrimination". The options before us are multiple. One is proof of COVID vaccinations, but there is also lateral flow and PCR, so it is not accurate to continually refer to vaccine coercion and discrimination.
I think it is a point of debate, actually, but I will not go against your ruling. If you treat people differently, it is discrimination. If you allow only people who are vaccinated to have a certificate but you force people who are not vaccinated to test every other day to gain entry to the same setting, it is discrimination. It is treating one family member differently from another. I cannot support that. I will not support that. My party will not support that. All I ask is that we pause, take this back a step, scrutinise it properly and see the evidence. If there is any evidence, let us see it.
Let us move forward with regulations that are evidence-based and that will protect people — not discriminate against them and hurt them and hurt business but protect them from the virus that is killing people. The regulation — this measure — does not do it. It does not cut it. It will bring widespread hurt and pain to businesses, business owners and staff and members of our population and of my constituency. I will not abide by it. I cannot support it. My name will not be near it.
Before I call the next Member to speak, I remind Members that the Assembly has extended the sitting until 9.00 pm, at which point, if the item of business has not been concluded, it will be postponed until such time as the Business Committee determines. That will have allowed almost five hours to debate the motion, and, while the Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on contributions, I am confident that there is plenty of time for everyone who wishes to speak to get their views across. It is in everyone's interests that Members' speeches are brief and to the point. The Speaker hopes to call the Minister no later than 8.30 pm, to allow him to wind up the debate, before putting the Question at 9.00 pm. I encourage you all to assist with keeping to that time frame.
I thank Mr Frew for reminding me why, in the Business Committee, I support time-bound contributions and will continue to do so.
I will rewind to a year ago, when the people of Northern Ireland had been in lockdown in various ways for nine months. Families were separated. Loved ones had died in hospital with only a doctor or a nurse to hold their hand. Healthcare staff worked day and night without sick leave or holidays to protect life in the face of an invisible and relentless foe. The Assembly was, for the most part, in agreement on our course of action to minimise the risk to the public and, in turn, minimise, as far as possible, the pressure on our health service. That was all done while we did not know when a vaccine would be forthcoming. This day last year, there were 483 new cases. Today, we have, I think, about 1,800 new cases.
The tools in our arsenal against COVID-19 are many. Every one of them, however, is a complement and a support to the others. They range from the individual wearing a face covering on the street, to the citizen washing their hands one more time, to the person maintaining social distancing, to taking lateral flow tests before you go out, to the public health officials' messaging, to the legislation that we pass in this place, which includes the COVID certificates. Each of those tools works to support the others, with the threefold objective of reducing the spread of the virus, easing the pressure on our health service and saving lives.
As soon as the vaccine arrived, our Executive went into the most incredible public campaign to raise awareness of the importance of getting vaccinated when called to do so. The Department orchestrated what was, in hindsight, the most effective and efficient campaign to set up vaccination centres, to get staff on board and to ensure that people were able to receive their vaccinations as quickly and safely as possible. I pay tribute to Dr Patricia Donnelly and to all those who have been working on the vaccination programme with its threefold purpose of reducing the spread of the virus, easing the pressure on our health service and saving lives.
Where are we now? Why have some members of the public been more reluctant to get their vaccinations? Why are there still some who refuse to do so? I wonder whether public confidence was affected when a DUP councillor announced in December 2020 that he would not be getting the vaccine because he believed that it contained stem cells from aborted babies. That same councillor went on to say that the pandemic was the wrath of God as the result of abortion and same-sex marriage. How much damage did that do to the messaging? Perhaps public confidence was affected in June, when a DUP MP said that our pandemic response had been driven by medical opinion for "far too long". He went on to say:
"we've had a period when terror was almost imbibed in people to try and keep them in line".
Perhaps public confidence was affected in June, when a DUP MP rushed onstage with Van Morrison to engage in one of the most dangerous and destructive verbal assaults on our Health Minister that we have ever witnessed.
While most of us in this place, our councillors and other elected representatives were pleading with the public for everyone to do their bit in the fight against COVID and for cool heads to prevail, DUP representatives were running off on solo runs, undermining the Health Minister and the public health message at every turn and facing absolutely no disciplinary action as a result.
Disgracefully, it is time that some members of the DUP who have fuelled the fire with conspiracy theories and misinformation —.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. My point is this: is it any wonder that we have had people in our constituency offices asking, "What is the point in following the restrictions?"? It is the double standards that I am talking about. They have been most eloquently displayed by one political party in the Chamber over others.
As I said, there are many tools in our arsenal against COVID-19. Those tools do not operate as stand-alone items but impact on each other. That brings me to the specific matter that we are talking about today: COVID certificates. On 27 September, the Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, made a proposal to the Executive for the introduction of a mandatory system of COVID certification for hospitality and entertainment venues to support businesses and reduce the pressure on our health service. That proposal was rejected by the UUP, the DUP and Sinn Féin. At the time, we said that COVID certificates were needed. We said that they would help with our rate of vaccination, which would, in turn, ease the pressure on our health service and thus save lives. We were right then, and we are right today to support their introduction.
I know that many people are reluctant about COVID certificates. There is a reluctance that we will implement them and that we may face further restrictions in January. However, had we implemented them in September, when the SDLP made its proposal, who knows what situation we would face today? The public will look to us to provide the reassurance that certificates will contribute to the threefold outcomes that I mentioned.
"Show us the evidence" is what the DUP says to us: "Show us the equality impact assessment". It is all on the Department of Health's website. There is documentation of an empirical study that showed that COVID-19 certification led to an increase in vaccinations 20 days prior to its implementation and a lasting effect for 40 days afterwards.
France, which initially had a lower uptake of vaccinations, had 1·7 million doses administered prior to certification, and 770,000 doses after it. There was a higher uptake among those aged under 20 and those in the 20 to 29 category. That assessment provides solid evidence that certification can increase vaccine uptake, so what is the problem?
The Department has also published its scientific evidence on its website. We have documentation of what SAGE was telling us in April of this year. It said that COVID certification would reduce virus transmission, reduce the risk of serious illness and death and increase the likelihood that higher risk settings could continue to operate. The evidence states that there is also likely to be a secondary benefit in relation to vaccine uptake, so what is the problem?
The British Society for Immunology goes as far as telling us that if you are fully vaccinated your chance of being infected with COVID-19 is approximately halved. Furthermore, if you do get infected, you are half as likely to pass it on. Therefore, vaccination can reduce transmission overall by 75%.
Finally, details on equality screening, disability duties and human rights assessments are published on the Department's website. That comprehensive document outlines precisely the impact of certification on those identified in section 75. The document has found that no singular group in section 75 is unable to receive the vaccine and is, therefore, unable to avail themselves of the vaccine certification.
Every action that has been taken since the outbreak of the pandemic has been to mitigate and minimise the risks presented as much as possible. The certification process does just that: it minimises the risk that is posed. Again, what is the problem? The legislation has been underpinned by the most expert health, scientific and legal advice, not by YouTube and unverified accounts or struck-off medics. Again, what is the problem, when we have got the experts?
At this stage, I am at a loss as to what the problem is with the DUP and this policy. Why is it that the DUP has supported every regulation that has come before the House until this regulation, today? Is its problem that it cannot sell the latest regulation to its voter base? Is the party opposite opposing the legislation because it feels that it is standing up for people's rights? That simply does not wash. Its track record on equality and rights speaks for itself.
At the outset, I said that today's debate is about more than just COVID certificates; it is also a debate on trust in those who provide the expert medical, scientific and legal advice. If the DUP decides to vote against these regulations, it is sending a clear message to the public that it does not trust our Chief Medical Officer or Chief Scientific Adviser —
I will take as many interventions as Mr Frew took.
It is also sending the message that it does not trust the Department of Health's Departmental Solicitor's Office. That may sound like political hyperbole to some, but it does not change the fact that it is true.
None of us is entirely comfortable with the implementation of COVID certificates, just as none of us was comfortable with the introduction of lockdown, face coverings, social distancing and the rest of it. However, those who adhered to the regulations did so because they knew that each of us has a responsibility to minimise the risk of the virus's ability to spread. Some in our community are saying that their rights are being infringed by the certificates. There are people in my constituency of South Down who are still shielding because they are so vulnerable and immunosuppressed. Do they not have a right to be able to re-enter the world, enjoy a trip to the cinema and know that the people around them are either fully vaccinated or have taken a test to prove that they are not carrying the virus?
I would not dare advocate for the introduction of COVID certificates because I am some instrument of government. I support them because I do not want to see people die as a result of being exposed to someone who refused to undertake basic precautions.
We know that the public are tired of COVID. All of us, I am sure, have found ourselves saying, "I am just done with this". We have all experienced that at some point. Things have not been made any easier when we have seen the antics of the current Tory Government, who were hosting parties at Number 10 while the rest of us were following the restrictions and some were in hospital, dying alone.
One excuse that is often fired at us on COVID certification is that it denies people their individual rights and freedoms. That is utter nonsense. Our society is just that: a society. We have laws, legislation and social contracts to which we adhere for the greater good of society. Showing certification that you have been vaccinated in no way impinges on your basic and inalienable human rights or on the civil rights that were hard won, and I challenge any MLA who has not been vaccinated for ethical reasons to dare, again, to call themselves pro-life.
In conclusion, I would like Members to hear article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."
I implore all Members today: if you truly value life, rights and individual human dignity, engage your reason and conscience; do the right thing; and support the regulation before us. It will enable people to live and will ensure that we act in a way that befits that spirit of brotherhood. I support the regulation, and I implore other Members to do so.
Well, the spirit of brotherhood was overflowing in that contribution. What we heard from the Member for South Down is that there is not a single restriction for which he will not willingly vote. As long as it comes with the imprimatur of the Department of Health, he can be relied upon to trot through the Lobbies and vote for it. There is not a single restriction that he will not vote for. Everyone listening to the debate will have taken that from his contribution.
At the core of the debate is a disagreement on tactics, not outcomes. We are all unified in wanting to see the threat of COVID eliminated and society return to normal — at least, I thought that we were — as speedily as possible. There is no contradiction in wanting to see such an outcome and disagreeing with the efficacy of so-called vaccine passports.
I want to make it clear that there is no fundamental dispute between the Minister of Health and me in our shared desire to see COVID eradicated and life get back to normal, and I will have absolutely no truck with anyone who has made disparaging or threatening remarks about the Minister. In a democracy, people should be free to disagree on public policy without resorting to personal insults.
The evidence has not yet been produced to show that the passports will work. There is some evidence to suggest that, far from producing the desired outcome, they are counterproductive in encouraging people to do the right thing and get vaccinated. There are places around the world where these or similar schemes have been tried and have not worked. An article in the 'Daily Record' on 7 November 2021 stated:
"One of the UK's most respected public health experts has called on the Scottish Government to scrap its 'ridiculous and discriminatory' vaccine passport scheme. Professor Allyson Pollock spoke out after a study by 'The Lancet'"
— I presume that that is a reliable source —
"medical bible found double-jabbed people can be just as likely to pass on Covid-19. The research appears to blow a hole in the argument for controversial new laws in Scotland requiring proof of vaccination to enter football grounds and nightclubs."
Not all experts are unified on the issue. We have seen similar schemes tried elsewhere that have not produced the desired outcome.
Further to that, the introduction of such measures represents a failure of focus on the Department's behalf. Our job needs to be to encourage people to do the right thing and take up vaccination. This punitive measure will not produce the outcome that people think it will. We should instead be debating how to clear the backlog in domiciliary care packages and tackle the bed-blocking in our already-under-strain hospitals. There has been an announcement about trying to tackle the problems in domiciliary care, but the detail of that is yet to be brought before the House. Instead, the public discourse has been dominated for weeks by this particular issue.
The failure of any agency — be that the Justice Department, Health Department, local councils or the PSNI — to step up and take ownership of this idea is demonstrative of its unworkable nature. Those arguing for it know that they want it to be passed but also that they want someone else to enforce it for them. What is that, then, if not an empty and hollow gesture? How will the passage of a scheme that nobody wants to enforce make the public safer? Who will enforce it? I have not had an answer to that question, and I do not know whether other Members have. Are we proposing that local government officers conduct raids on premises to see whether the regulations have been breached? What does that say about the duty of care that local councils have to their staff? Are we suggesting that the police should devote their time to it in the middle of winter, when all sorts of issues — road traffic accidents and things like that — arise? Winter is a time of increased activity for the police. Are we suggesting that they be diverted from those activities in order to ensure the imposition of the scheme?
There is no precedent in our history for the introduction of such measures. Before now, we had not countenanced the idea of vaccination certificates at any stage in the history of the National Health Service. Given the scale of the undertaking, the failure of any Department or agency to take ownership of enforcement means that the measure will divide the community, regardless of protestations to the contrary. It creates two classes of people. Anyone who suggests otherwise is being wilfully blind. Of course it will do that. By any logical measure, it creates two classes of people: one with the app and one without; and one with the certificate and one without. Those are two different types of people. Any suggestion that this will not divide society is for the birds, frankly.
It is a policy that was born out of a something-must-be-done mindset. Indeed, many of its biggest supporters acknowledged that the best outcome that they can hope for from the policy is that it will encourage more people to get vaccinated. Is there no other way in which that outcome can be achieved without dividing the population and denying people access to services? Have we, the 90 Members of the Assembly, lost our capacity for thought, intelligence and a sensible approach to public policy to such an extent that we can think of no other way in which to shape the outcomes that we all want?
I wish the Minister very well. I wish him all the best over the winter. I know that he has difficult job to do, and I have backed him thus far, but I cannot support this measure.
Can the Member share with us where he would feel safer? As a customer, would he feel safer in an environment in which he knew that people were doubly vaccinated or had had a negative lateral flow test or previous positive PCR test, or would he feel safer and more confident and comfortable in a place in which none of those mitigations was in place?
I am doubly vaccinated and I wear a mask. I conform to the regulations. I suggest to the Infrastructure Minister that the return on the policy that she is pursuing will be so minimal when it comes to affecting the outcome that it may do more damage than good. The Minister represents one of the most socially deprived constituencies in Northern Ireland. She knows the economic implications of pursuing this policy for some of the least well-off people in our society. She knows that small businesses especially will be absolutely clobbered by the measure.
There is an unquestionable desire to get back to normality. People want the economy back on track. People want the removal of masks and an end to further lockdowns, but, to do that, ultimately, we have to defeat the virus.
Undoubtedly, the question of COVID passes is a complex one, and, as we have heard from Members and have seen from emails that we have received and from protests that were outside the Building today, they are an emotional topic for many people. I have been contacted by numerous constituents who are willing to make sacrifices to halt the spread of the virus. For others, passes are a frightening prospect. It is all about providing assurance to the people with whom we come into contact.
Our health service is, by any stretch of the imagination, overwhelmed. With the new variant on our shores, it is, regrettably, only going to get worse. Sadly, today, we heard evidence of the first death from the new variant in the United Kingdom. We are now in a situation where COVID passes, together with all the other mitigating measures, are the way forward. They are a necessity.
Quite often, there was poor communication on regular testing, and decisions were made that ignored the scientific evidence, such as the opening of nightclubs and high-risk venues. We cannot and must not make the mistakes that were made last year, when the DUP prematurely forced the opening of venues, which saw soaring rates and hospitalisations. Undoubtedly, for many, this a very difficult situation and a very difficult decision, but showing proof of vaccination and a negative test or high immunity levels can play a positive role in reducing hospitalisation. It will deliver what we want to do, and that is to reopen our economy and keep businesses and those who work in them safe.
We all must do what we can to halt the rise in cases and reduce pressures on our health service. The regulations that the Minister has presented today are minimal, and I hope that they will add a further layer of protection in high-risk settings, allowing businesses to remain open. That has to be the fundamental message going out from here today. This is not about attempting to damage or close down businesses; it is quite the reverse. It is about attempting to deliver a safe environment in which businesses can continue to proceed.
As we have all heard, Northern Ireland is not unique in its approach. COVID pass schemes are in place in many countries across Europe, including Ireland and France, as well as the rest of the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, I understand that some people have concerns, and those who refuse to get vaccinated have their reasons. The regulations ensure that proof can be provided in place of a vaccine for medically exempt people, but, for those who refuse the vaccine on other grounds or because of conspiracy theories, we have to act to mitigate their concerns. Getting a COVID pass is a reasonable and proportionate demonstration that people have behaved responsibly, either through vaccination or through testing.
While one of the positive spin-offs of COVID passes is an increase in uptake, there is still work to be done to combat vaccine hesitancy, misinformation and lack of access to people in hard-to-reach communities. I make a plea to the Minister that what he is proposing today is a small part of a much bigger issue that needs to be dealt with, which is how we use our public messaging to get across to everyone that we are truly all in this together and that, if you can get vaccinated, you should get vaccinated.
The quick roll-out of the vaccine can be explained from the past SARS virus, which meant that a vaccine was already under way. Likewise, there was fear about blood clots: a genuine and understandable concern about a side effect. Out of 50 million doses of AstraZeneca, those have been extremely rare. More than that, the risk of clotting is much lower than with the contraceptive pill, and significantly lower than the risk of blood clots after the coronavirus infection.
Handwashing, use of masks, social distancing and contact tracing have all been essential throughout the pandemic. What we are attempting to do today is to add one more piece in the wall to arm us against the virus. Often, we are affected by human error and behaviour. We know that transmission occurs before symptoms are apparent, and that many people could, quite simply, be unknowingly spreading the virus. Implementing COVID passes in high-risk, non-essential settings like bars and licensed restaurants creates an environment where favourable measures can be used to create optimal protection for the business, to keep it going, and for workers in situations where masks are down and people are moving around. That is the type of environment in which we have to work in the current circumstances. I do not believe that anybody in the Chamber would wish for or relish a further lockdown. However, if we are to navigate the omicron variant while maintaining an open economy and functioning health service, we need to use all the tools at our disposal. None of us wants to move to plan B or C.
From a personal perspective, I wear my mask and carry my COVID pass to protect others — the stranger in the shop, on the train and in those places where we are required to by these regulations. It is important to me, as a cancer survivor, to provide that security to others. My plea is that they do the same for me. I went through chemotherapy and surgery. I am vulnerable, and remain so post that activity. I look to other people around me to protect me in the same way that I look around to try to protect others. I wish that we would all work to protect one another.
This is not coercive legislation: it is humanitarian. It is about ensuring that, after months and years of hardship, businesses can remain open and we can protect our loved ones and ourselves. Of course, no one can be forced to get the vaccination. However, as we have seen across the globe, COVID passes provide a carrot-and-stick approach. I do not believe that they are negative. I believe that they are part of the armoury that we can deploy to help to protect one another. That is what I want to do for every single Member in the Chamber: I want us all to protect one another. I truly believe that we are all in this together.
At the outset, I join with other Members who have thanked front-line staff who have worked throughout the pandemic, such as health and social care workers. From personal experience over the past few months, I know the dedicated work that those professionals are doing. Whatever our views are on the particular subject of the debate, I think that we all join in sending out that unified voice of support to those people.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. Again, without labouring the point that others have made, it is somewhat disappointing that we are left, to some extent, with those regulations being effectively a fait accompli. Having been in Government, I know that, at times, Departments need to move quickly. That is particularly true in dealing with the pandemic. However, it is the case that in Wales, Scotland and Westminster, there was the opportunity for their respective Parliaments to give their direct views before regulations took effect. It is disappointing that, in effect, we are doing this a couple of weeks after the initial proposals were brought forward and, indeed, before —. I think that the Minister is looking to intervene. I will give way.
I thank the Member for giving way, because this issue has been raised a number of times. The Member knows me well enough from serving with me in the Executive. When the paper went forward, one of my requests to my Executive colleagues was that the matter should be debated and brought to the House as expediently as it could be. There is another Minister in the House who could assent to that. That is what we have done, and that is what I had hoped to do. Members who sit on the Business Committee will have seen the draft Order Papers and will know that I had hoped that the regulation would be debated last Monday. It did not happen, but that afforded two weeks for the Health Committee and the Examiner of Statutory Rules to scrutinise the regulation. I draw that to the Member's attention.
It is not appropriate or in the spirit of the debate to personalise the matter at any stage. I am not throwing out accusations against any individual. I am indicating that something was able to be done in all the other jurisdictions, but it is disappointing that our processes and systems were not able to do that in the Assembly for Northern Ireland. I welcome the ruling of the Deputy Speaker. I know that he has encouraged us towards brevity, which is often the soul of wit, and that can be somewhat lacking in the Chamber. It is also important that every Member be given the opportunity to fully express their position. I welcome the ruling that should we not reach a point at which the debate can be concluded by a particular time, that it is not a question of a guillotine coming down. It is important that there is maximum opportunity for debate on this most critical of subjects.
It is about trying to be pragmatic and sensible in the approach. We know that the biggest single intervention to deal with the threat that COVID poses — still poses and has posed — is the vaccination programme, and particularly ensuring that we have maximum uptake of the booster vaccination with the maximum speed. We know that that is particularly important, as has been highlighted. We are still developing a certain level of knowledge about the omicron variant. One of the early indications seems to be that, while someone who is double vaccinated has a certain level of protection, that protection appears to be considerably boosted when a third dose is given. I spoke in the Chamber, a while ago, about not doing as I do but doing as I tell people to do. However, last week, I received my booster vaccination. I encourage people to get the booster vaccination, not just for their sake but, as Mr Dickson pointed out, because of the impact that it has on others.
In taking that reasonable and responsible approach to our interventions, we need to ensure that it is weighed against a number of criteria. We need to look at whether any actions that we take are for the overall public benefit and are weighed against the full implications for public health. That is not simply about the indicators for purely COVID; it is about the wider public health implications. There has sometimes been a tendency for some to pitch economic considerations against health considerations. However, economic considerations are a key driver in public health considerations. We know that, if we create the conditions that cause major economic damage and jobs are lost and poverty is driven in our society, while it may not lead to someone appearing immediately at the front desk of a hospital, in the long run, creating poverty and unemployment leads to much poorer public health outcomes and to deaths. Therefore, it is important that we protect both lives and livelihoods. When making that judgement, any intervention has to be focused, proportionate, effective and evidence-based. Today, the problem that we face with COVID certification is that, when it is measured against that threshold and yardstick, the policy falls short.
Let me take each of those aspects in turn. I indicated earlier that the key focus has to be on the speed of delivery and the numbers who can get the booster jab.
As a society in Northern Ireland, we have to admit that we have been behind the curve with the booster programme. We have been slower than other parts of the United Kingdom. Again, that is not an attempt to have a go at any particular individual or group; it is a fact. We were slow in September. From the figures that I have received, the number of people who received the booster in the first couple of weeks that it was available was in double figures. While there has been a ratcheting up of the process, one thing that concerns me is the number of booster jabs that were given in the first week in November and compare it with the number that were given in the first week in December.
I will in a moment.
The figures for the first week in December are lower than they were a month earlier, which should concern us. Those are the latest figures, which were provided on 8 December in answer to a question for written answer.
I am grateful to Mr Weir for giving way. The Member served in government from the start of the COVID crisis until relatively recently. He will recall that, at various stages when restrictions were being introduced, the Minister or someone else at a press conference usually told us, "This measure will have x impact on the R number. It will help to reduce it and bring it below one". I may be wrong, but I have not seen anywhere anyone saying, "This measure will have x impact on the rates of infection".
I appreciate the point that is being made. One of the problems with this — I will come onto this later on the evidential side of things — is a lack of driven data. It seems that one of the popular themes of the debate has been that there is a range of things that we need to do and this is one item in our armour. However, if we have no way of gauging whether the piece of armour is in any way protective of society or the level of protection that it offers, how can we judge the actions that we take? It is about focus.
I mentioned the booster jabs. If there is a commitment to having such an acceleration that we match the targets in other parts of the United Kingdom, I welcome that. It is critical that we match those targets so that the booster can be offered to all by the end of December. If that can be done, it must be done for the benefit of our citizens.
The JCVI was possibly a little slow off the mark. I was one of the first to call for the United Kingdom to follow the Republic of Ireland — this should not be ideological — and give parents the option for their children to receive the vaccination. That was eventually done, which was important.
Looking at where we are with regard to the boosters and initial doses, much has been made in the debate about vaccine hesitancy. Possibly 9%of people have not as yet received the double vaccination, and we do not know precisely how the figures will work out for the booster. In many ways, our level of vaccination in this country has massively exceeded the initial expectation. I am not talking out of class, but I remember an Executive meeting a while ago at which either the Chief Scientific Adviser or the Chief Medical Officer — I cannot remember which — was looking at modelling. At that time, he talked about 80% being the best that could be achieved and set out the implications of doing so. We have now reached 91%.
One of my concerns is that we have spent a lot of time concentrating on certain measures. For instance, today it has been on COVID certificates. However, there has not been the same amount of work done — if there has, I stand to be corrected — on a clinical and research-based assessment of why that 9% has not taken up the vaccine. We can all engage in point-scoring across the Chamber and blame the communication of one statement or another, but have we really drilled down into the 9% or 10% to see how we can reduce it?
This is more of a point of interest. The Health Committee was advised that the Department had done some attitudinal surveys around why people have or have not taken the vaccine. That work has been done, and it was to feed into future communications.
Perhaps it comes back to the point — I cannot remember who raised it initially; it might have been the Member — about a lack of communication. If detailed work of that nature has been done and there is knowledge about that, it does not appear to have been shared with the wider system.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
We know that 9% or 10% of people have not received the vaccination. My guess is that, in many of those cases and particularly among young people, there is a belief that it will have little direct impact on them and that it is an issue of not bothering to get the vaccine. A small minority takes particular objection for a range of reasons, whether they believe certain conspiracy theories or have particular principles. A very small percentage will simply refuse to take the vaccine. Therefore, the question is this: if we have perhaps 100,000-plus adults or a little more who have not received the vaccination, what are we doing directly to make that as easy as possible? While various methods have been used, such as walk-in clinics and things of that nature, we need a bit more thinking outside the box about how we can drive that. That is part of the focus that we should have —
The Member will know that I am one of the 9%; I am not vaccinated. I have made it clear why I am not vaccinated. On Thursday, I am meeting Dr Chada, who is a deputy chief medical officer, with a deputation to offer a solution to the problem for some people who cannot take the vaccines that are presently offered in Northern Ireland. One of the difficulties is that we have signed up to three major suppliers: Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer. If a wider range of vaccines were available, it would solve the problem for a significant proportion of the 9%.
I will give way in a moment. I am conscious that a number of Members want to speak.
I do not necessarily share the Member's position. I have taken the vaccine. I do not have the scientific data to show it, but I suspect that, when it comes to actual numbers, the Member's rationale is not one that is a major driver for the 9%. Until we have done the scoping work and we start applying the lessons of that, we cannot say that actions will be taken.
I think that the Minister was looking to come in, but he has now withdrawn the point that he wanted to make.
There is a third bit that we need to focus on. There is a constant and understandable focus on hospitalisations. If we talk about the demand side, it is about keeping the numbers down and preventing people getting to the point of hospital. That is fair enough in and of itself, but it is also crucial that we do not miss the other part of the equation, which is supply and availability. COVID in and of itself has a public health impact when it comes to deaths, but there clearly is another complication when it comes to hospitalisations, given that it denies hospital beds to people who come in with other conditions. While some work has been done on increasing the supply of beds in our hospital system, we need to ratchet up our focus on how we do that and how we look at more flexible workforce planning to ensure that we have the staff to do that. Critically, the slow discharge of patients has been a major problem, and, therefore, we need to ensure that action is taken on the social care side of things. Those critical issues need to be focused on.
Mention was made that, whatever the implication, the impact of certification may well be minimal. We need to focus on where we can get the greatest level of delivery.
Again, there is the issue of proportionality. When we talk about impact, it seems that there is an understandable concern, which has, at times, been expressed by the hospitality sector, that every time that action needs to be taken, that sector is at the front of the queue. There is no doubt that, given the lack of information about what the impact would be on the R number or on the number of cases, there is a disproportionate level of impact on the hospitality sector. That will lead to additional costs and perhaps to its having to try to find people who can service the front desk or the front door. Whether that is 19 doors or one door, that will create a level of financial burden and, indeed, may create simple practical difficulties.
We also know that it is undoubtedly the case, either from the information coming from international experience or from what has been said here, that there is clear evidence to show that there will be a loss of trade and the double whammy of additional costs and lost income. We have seen that in the figures that have been quoted from Quebec, where there has been a 40% reduction. There has been a relatively unified voice from Hospitality Ulster, which has given that information, and the FSB. I do not intend to repeat the detail of that, as Mr Frew already read it into the record. On proportionality, however, my question is this: if we are to look at what the impact is on wider society, where is the economic cost-benefit analysis? If that has been produced, let it be published, in order for it to show us what the impact is compared with the potential benefits.
There is also the issue of efficacy and evidence. There is a lack of direct evidence as to what the impact of the regulation will be. The one bit of evidence that we have is that, where this has happened — in the Republic of Ireland or Scotland, for example — case numbers have further risen. If we are to drill down and have effective data, simply to say, "We believe that the situation would have been even worse had this measure not been in place" does not strike me as being a particularly strong argument or one that is data-driven.
It is undoubtedly the case that, logically, the level of efficacy will lead to some additional people being vaccinated. I do not dispute that. It is also the case, however, that there are potential downsides, even from the vaccination programme and the spread of the disease. What are those? First, the Imperial College London report, which Mr Frew quoted from earlier, indicated that vaccine hesitancy has created some reaction amongst some of those who have not been vaccinated to be stubbornly opposed to it. There is no reason to believe that that stance will not be shared in Northern Ireland, where thranness is often a well-credited virtue. Undoubtedly, although the measure will lead to some people getting the vaccine, others will be more and more determined not to get it.
That is not my principal concern, however, about the behavioural aspect. Mention has been made of the fact that, if we have some form of check, the environment will be safer. In many ways, from the point of view of those who are gaining access to premises, I am not disputing that. My concern is that it will be viewed by many who are entering a licensed premises, a cinema, a theatre or a nightclub as their having a golden ticket and that, once they enter, because of those processes, they are effectively insulated from COVID. Sadly, we know that that is not the case. There is a danger that, where certification has been brought in, it breeds a sense of complacency amongst those who go into establishments and, indeed, that it creates a feeling, from a behavioural point of view, of a certain amount of carte blanche once people are in. There is therefore a level of danger there.
At this critical time, particularly with the additional risk from the omicron variant, and we do not know precisely how that will play out, we should build consensus where we can, not on the basis of division but on what are, potentially, ineffective interventions that, on an evidential basis, appear to be unproven. We must concentrate all our efforts, where we can, on the key interventions that will make the difference in booster numbers and the actions we can take within our hospital system.
That is the real advantage. That is why we need to pause today and use that opportunity to ensure that we have evidence and can, therefore, move ahead on the basis of what actually makes effective intervention. I am sure that that is something we all share, irrespective of our difference of views.
In 1976, I was 22. I left the rural security of Moira to buy a little bar, down by the docks in Belfast, called the Liverpool Bar. I want to speak for a couple of minutes on bars and the problems that family and friends who still work in that business tell me about.
The Liverpool Bar was at the bottom of Donegall Quay where it touches Corporation Square, in the shadow of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners' office. There used to be two boats that sailed from there, one from Belfast and one from Liverpool, and they crossed in the Irish Sea. One was called the Ulster Prince and the other the Ulster Queen.
On my very first day and night in the Liverpool, I witnessed something that shocked me. On the shore, families were coming down to say cheerio to their loved ones. Those loved ones were young ones leaving Northern Ireland on the £20 passage to Australia. They got the boat to Liverpool and a train to Southampton and set off. When they were saying cheerio on the docks, they thought that they would never see their loved ones again. They were 100% convinced that they were saying goodbye.
I want to move from there to when I moved to where my parents were, at The Kitchen Bar. I am telling these stories simply to remind us that we had hard times, and we have come through real hard times. Belfast, back then, was surrounded by what some called the ring of steel. There were two gates, one at High Street, which was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and one at Castle Street, opposite the City Hall, that closed at 6.00 pm. People who went through them into the city centre were searched, but only four people lived in that square mile. There was the caretaker of the Masonic lodge in Cornmarket and his wife, and the other two were my mother and father above The Kitchen Bar.
In all the businesses, those were the only two in which people lived, but they carried on. They did their best to keep their doors open. We all remember when awful tragedies happened — that is a debate for another day — there were signs that stated, "Business as Usual". They tried to pick themselves up out of the rubble or the shooting that took a loved one, to reopen and get going again.
Given that context, I made the shortest speech that I could today to condense that to see what we are going through now. The pandemic is worldwide, and we are suffering from it greatly here.
Minister, I also want to thank the front-of-house staff, the hospital staff, the doctors, the nurses, the porters and all who are there doing a great job, but I also want to thank all the people who find themselves in businesses that will be asked to do all these checks. I ask all of us to send out a message that there is no need to give anyone abuse, especially those young people at the front of house. They will be doing whatever is passed in here today, and they will do their best. I know of pubs where they have been abused, and I know of pubs — I can quote them to you — where damage has been done to windows and doors and where staff have been given abuse.
Despite what I have said, I always believed that, if my doors were open and customers were able to come in, I had a chance of trying to make some money. We have asked a lot of our business owners over the past two years, and many have struggled to make ends meet and keep their businesses afloat. I fully believe in doing all that we can to keep the public safe and in trying our best to keep businesses open and functioning. We have heard from the Minister about the terrible impact that the current surge and the new COVID variant, if left unchecked, will have on our health service. We cannot just sit by while more and more people get sick. That is not to say that the vaccine certificate will be able to reverse the surge by itself; no one who has advocated for certification has said that that is the case. It is just one tool, as we have heard in the House today, that must —
I thank the Member for giving way. At the start of his remarks, the Member rightly highlighted the pressures on businesses. Part of the issue is weighing up the costs and the potential damage to businesses, and he talked about the extent to which businesses have had to try to soldier on over the last number of months. One of the major problems that we are facing now is that a lot of the tools that were available at earlier stages of the pandemic through the largesse that came from the Exchequer nationally, which was then distributed to us, particularly the furlough scheme, are no longer available to the Executive. That makes it increasingly difficult to be able to respond and give protection to businesses.
Yes. Thank you for the intervention. I have to agree with what you said. I sit on the Finance Committee. There is a shortfall of £50 million in the Department of Finance. It is not a shortfall, but it is to compensate people who are trying to claim back rates paid for business that was lost because of COVID-19, and that not being allowed for in the rateable valuation of that business. I hear what you are saying and I accept that, but we have to do everything that we possibly can to keep our businesses open and allow them to at least try to trade. That is my belief. I am not saying that it is the right one.
Anyhow, as I said, certification is only one tool to be used, and the combination of stricter adherence to social distancing and the use of face coverings are all ways to reduce the risks of people getting sick and to reduce transmission of this virus.
COVID certification has been used across Europe for many months now. Democracy has not fallen. I have spoken to businesses that had been using certification in advance of today's decision, and, yes, more needs to be done, particularly with those who are older, to help them with the process of getting their domestic certificate. My office has been working with many constituents each day to help them with that process, and I hope, and I know, that all other Members in here are doing the same.
To those who do not want to see the certification and to those who do not want to get the vaccine, let me say this clearly: you have every right to your opinion. However, you have no right to attack business owners and young staff by threatening them with fake legal action just for implementing the rules. They are trying to do their best and to make a living, and some of the staff are starting out in their little careers.
They do not deserve to be attacked for sticking to rules that are set to try to make our lives safer.
Restrictions on the public should not be implemented unless completely necessary. Once again, we find ourselves in a situation where they are required. We have to come together, folks, in these times, to do what is right, and I hope that that is what happens today. I will support the regulations, as proposed by the Health Minister.
I remind Members that, as the Deputy Speaker announced a while ago, tonight's sitting will conclude by 9.00 pm. That means that any Members who have been unable to contribute will have their contributions deferred until the Business Committee schedules another sitting to resume the debate. If Members try their best to keep their remarks as succinct as possible, while protecting their right to speak on the issue, of course, we can conclude at that time.
This is one of those debates where the eyes of the country are on us. Many will be watching, and they will be disappointed that so many Members stood up with typewritten text, got their heads down and read. It was interesting that perhaps the youngest Member of the House, Mrs Erskine, did not do that. She took interventions and is to be applauded for that. However, I was disappointed that other, experienced MLAs could not take a point of information or an intervention on an issue that requires mature debate in the House.
I am particularly disappointed that the Chair of the Health Committee, who is an experienced campaigner in the House, did not have the confidence in his arguments to take an intervention. To be fair, I was disappointed that my old friend Mr Frew, one of the most experienced and able debaters in the House, chose not to take interventions. He used the point that he was ambushed early on by Mrs Mallon and turned down her intervention and, therefore, turned down even friendly-fire interventions like mine. That is disappointing.
What I will say will be controversial, and, unlike other Members, I am not scared, when an intervention comes, to sit down and take the flak. The Minister has been listening, and he is not scared to take interventions. I want to forewarn him of a point that I will raise in my speech, so that he can give some thought to it. The one phrase that has not been used in this evening's debate is "sunset clause". It would reassure an awful lot of people — MLAs and members of the public — if, during his summation at the end of the debate, he could suggest a —.
I thank the Member for giving way. The Member has asked the question directly, and he has taken interventions. This regulation comes under the coronavirus regulations that fall on 23 March next year, should there be no other interaction. To address the concerns that were raised specifically by the FSB, that is the sunset clause for the entirety of the regulations. However, our regulations are reviewed by the Executive every four weeks as part of our standing process to make sure that they are still proportionate and necessary. Any Member of the Executive, either current or previous, will justify that. That is the time when any Minister has the opportunity to say, "Can we question that one? Can we look at that one?". I give the Member that.
I welcome that. Many are concerned that the regulations will take on a life of their own and will expand and increase in intensity; that they will become like a juggernaut; and that we will not be able to bring them under control. I am pleased about that, and that has reassured me.
As I said, some of what I will say is controversial. As far as I am aware, I am one of only two Members of the House who is not vaccinated. That does not make me irresponsible, it does not make me a second-class citizen and it does not make me someone who should be discriminated against or shunned in public. Like a significant number of people in Northern Ireland — 9% — I have taken the decision not to be vaccinated. My decision on that is because all of the three vaccines that are available in Northern Ireland have been tested on the cell lines of an aborted fetus. When I made that point to the Department, it came back to me and said, "That is wrong, Mr Wells. None of our vaccines contain the cells of an aborted fetus". That is true: they do not. It was never claimed that they contained the cells of an aborted fetus. What I am saying, and this has been backed up by leading academics, even those who work for Mr Swann, is that the three vaccines that are available in Northern Ireland — Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer — have all been tested on the cell lines of an aborted fetus; a young Dutch girl who was aborted in the 1970s. That is a fact. Morally, I have spent all of my adult life campaigning against the evils of abortion. This is a personal decision for me, and it is not one that I would try to impose on anybody, but I am not under any circumstances going to benefit in any way from anything connected to the abortion industry. I am sorry. That is my view, and I am sticking to it. It is a view that I have stuck to throughout the past 12 months during which we have had vaccinations.
There is a solution to my dilemma and that held by a small number of people. I am not going to say that it affects thousands— it may be a few thousand — but there is absolutely no doubt that a small number of people in Northern Ireland find the situation difficult. They tend to be from the devout Roman Catholic community and the evangelical Protestant community. That is why I welcome the opportunity on Thursday to meet Dr Chada, who is the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Northern Ireland. I will suggest to him is that there is a solution to the problem, namely the vaccines that are available in Europe that have not been tested on the cell lines of aborted children. All I am asking is that those vaccines be made available in Northern Ireland.
There have been developments that could assist the Department in that respect. The first development is that — the vaccines, by the way, are quite hard to pronounce — Sinopharm and Covaxin, which contain none of the problems that I have with the others, are being used in scores of countries throughout the world. Recently, they were recognised by the World Health Organization, which is important. The overarching body for health across all of the world has said that those vaccines work and have been clinically trialled and that it is content that they are a major step forward in protecting the community against coronavirus.
The second major development is that National Health Service England has said that it will recognise any vaccine that is on the WHO's list of approved vaccines. For instance, if someone was vaccinated in Egypt or Hungary and came to live or work in England, their vaccine would be recognised as far as vaccine passports etc are concerned. I have asked the Minister this question: will he extend to Northern Ireland the recognition of WHO vaccines that has been implemented in England? He knows where I am going with that. If he does extend that recognition, someone who had taken one of those vaccines would be on exactly the same footing in Northern Ireland as someone who had taken the AstraZeneca, Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. That would also mean that several thousand people who have a deeply difficult moral issue with the three vaccines that are available could get vaccinated and not be regarded as second-class citizens.
I am not anti-vaccine. I have heard some of the most extraordinary stories and read some of what has been stated on the internet. Some of it is absolutely fanciful.
I would want to be at the door of the vaccine clinic on the day that a vaccine is available in Northern Ireland that I can take, and, what is more, if it would help things, I would make a song and dance about it to encourage others to do so.
We have talked about the 9% who have made that decision. Some of them have made an ethical decision, as I have done. Some have made a scientific decision. You could argue about whether they are right or wrong. Some have read about the side effects of vaccination, and some have heard stories, some of which are true and some of which are very dubious. I suspect that there are a lot of people who just have not bothered to be vaccinated, particularly younger people. I think that anything that engenders confidence in the vaccination programme has to be a good thing. As the Minister has confirmed, 91% of adults in Northern Ireland have been vaccinated. That is an astonishing performance. There is no other word for it because I remember Patricia Donnelly saying that they were aiming for 80% to 85%, and they now have 90%. I have to say, however, that, at the time that vaccination was brought in, we were told that an 85% rate would effectively bring herd immunity and wipe out coronavirus. Sadly, that is not the case. Sadly, infection rates are still sky high in Northern Ireland, and we have to accept, unfortunately, that the effects of these vaccines wane over time. Indeed, some of the manufacturers are saying that the impact of the vaccination dissipates after three months, and some are saying that that happens after six months. That is why, of course, we need a booster campaign.
Therefore, I am saying that I hope that the meeting goes well on Thursday and that we can solve this problem. Of course, some people have misunderstood the purpose of the meeting and have tried to distance themselves from it immediately. Even though they were not invited, they have distanced themselves from it because they think that it is an anti-vaccine campaign. It is not. It is a pro-vaccine campaign. It wants to increase the number of people who are vaccinated, but I suspect that the problem that we have in the United Kingdom is that the National Health Service in England has signed massive contracts with the three providers, which may be very reluctant to allow even small doses of alternative vaccines into the United Kingdom. They may see that as a breach of contract.
I would like confirmation from the Department about a situation where, if someone goes to the Continent and receives what they perceive to be an ethical vaccine, when they come back, they will be treated exactly the same as someone who has had AstraZeneca, Moderna or Pfizer. That is an important issue. I would be minded, if needs be, to hop on a plane somewhere just to get this issue off my back. People have been critical of me, but I hope that people will at least understand that it is based on a sound understanding of the science and a strong moral objection to anything connected with the abortion industry.
Tomorrow, we will discuss those with severe fetal disabilities, and we wish to protect them. Sadly, in sworn testimony to a United States Congress session in 2018, a leading scientist admitted that 76 fetuses had been aborted at three months in order to produce vaccines in the United States. Three months old. A child of three months is very well developed. I think that it is very sad that that has happened, and I want absolutely nothing to do with that. However, I will not be judgemental. I will not criticise anybody who has looked at the facts and has said that, morally, they feel that they can have a vaccine. Everyone has to make their own judgement on such a decision, and I will not judge.
Many party members in the Chamber have taken a different view. They are perfectly entitled to that view, and I will not criticise them. However, some of them have said that they did not know the facts before they took the vaccine. Therefore, I am not shining my halo and being holier than thou. That is totally wrong. It is a deeply personal decision, but it is worth saying that, when I dared to go on the radio in July, having not put out a press release and having not tried to broadcast the fact, a certain radio journalist whom I will not name but who is on at 9.00 am on Radio Ulster and is paid a fabulous salary casually asked me whether I had been vaccinated. I said no and explained why.
From that, I have heard from an amazing number of people throughout Northern Ireland — even today, two have emailed me, saying, "That is where I stand, and I was scared to say it, because I thought that no one else had the same view as me, but you stand for my point of view" — who want to be with me in the queue for that vaccine when it becomes available. The sooner, the better.
I will not labour the point, Mr Speaker, but, as you are in power in your seat, or on your throne, as it were, I will say that, when it comes to a deeply moral and difficult and complex issue such as this, the days of standing up and reading a tightly typed script into the record and handing it to your local paper are over. We are here for a minimum of two years each — in my case, it has been 27 years — and it is time that we learned to stand up and have a rational debate, to take points and to argue what is a very complex issue.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the regulations. To touch on a point that Mr Wells raised, I may have a different speaking style from his, but I struggle with public speaking, so I have to type everything out. I hope that he does not mind that I have written my speech for today.
You could have fooled me. I have listened to you speak here for a couple of years, and you are certainly full of confidence. You may feel that you have an impediment, but no one notices.
I remind Members that it is not their business how other Members conduct their business, as long as they do so within the rules governed by Standing Orders, procedures and the Chair at the time.
Miss Woods, continue with your presentation.
You will not be surprised to hear that I will focus on the hospitality sector, as Mr Catney did, after I make some other brief remarks.
The Green Party does not sit on the Executive. We do not sit on the Health Committee. We do not sit on the Economy Committee. The Green Party has not had the opportunity to scrutinise COVID-19 regulations before they are laid. I have not contributed regularly to the debates, because they have been retrospective. The regulations are already in force.
I have, however, had numerous conversations with constituents to try to explain the rationale behind and outworkings of the Executive's policy and subsequent legislation. That has proved difficult at times, and it is worth raising today. Every time that COVID-19 regulations were introduced, amended or updated, with changes to restrictions being announced, we had answer questions from those whom we represent. We have all had to do that with a very limited amount of information, if any. A number of us rely on BBC news or Twitter for our updates for constituents.
Like many others, I have, for almost two years, defended measures to protect public health, and I will continue to do so. We are mindful, however, that we are not being issued with the full evidence that forms the basis on which the decisions are taken by the five-party Executive. I am asked for documents, papers, minutes of meetings, agendas, proof and evidence. I am asked for the details behind policies and the basis on which the Executive have made their decisions. Those are details that I do not have and will never receive, because Executive documents are not shared with members of the unofficial opposition, who are expected to explain the decision-making of Executive Ministers without sufficient clarity and the transparency that we need before the regulations come into force.
It is on that basis that people ask, rightly, for full transparency and accountability. They are in the same position as we are. They have a right to know what data and what information are being used to develop all COVID-19 policies and regulations. That is not new, and it is not specific to today's regulations. From the start of the pandemic, we have all asked for information and effective and clear communication, and I do so again tonight. I say this to the Minister of Health: these comments are not for you but for the Executive as a whole. It is about collective responsibility. There are a number of Ministers in the Executive, and they all need to get on the same page.
People have a right to ask, and they have asked, these questions: what are the projections for transmission? What are the quantifiable effects of each restriction or measure on the R rate? What set of criteria was used to determine when COVID-status certificates should be adopted and what sectors they should apply to? Is that based on scientific and medical factors? Can we see and make sense of all the data? How has it been used to develop all policy? Have we learnt nothing from the past year and a half?
I re-iterate this point and would welcome some clarity if I am wrong, but it appears that the regulations that we are being asked to discuss today are retrospective. They are already law, and the motion is on regulations that have already been bought in. The regulations were not shared with or developed in conjunction with the very people who will be tasked with enforcing them and who will be affected by them the most.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from an hotelier in north Down to ask for a copy of the regulations to help him to develop policy and guidance for the workplace. I could not deliver on that because the regulations had not been laid.
One of the main points that I wish to make to all Executive Ministers is about the experiences of the workers and staff in the hospitality sector with whom I have engaged on this set of regulations and from my experience as a former worker.
I am sure that most people will have seen hospitality businesses posting on social media over the last number of weeks about the changes that the Executive agreed. A number of those posts read the same and set out that, beginning on Monday 29 November, they would be requesting customers to present the necessary documentation to show proof of vaccination or a negative result from a lateral flow test. The posts go on to say that the businesses hold no opinion, as establishments, on the current requirements and that they must comply with them to continue trading.
Underneath many of those posts are messages of support for the establishments. Other messages are not so kind. One business in my constituency was apparently "enforcing communism" by sharing information on the regulations. Its owners were also told that, if they refused entry to the premises based on those unlawful acts, they would be actively participating in a crime, that their compliance would be its downfall and that they should have their legal team on standby. The business owners were called "lying filth", as well as being accused of receiving thousands of pounds from the Government to enforce COVID certification. If only. Last week, members of staff on the door were told to prepare for legal action to be taken against them personally and were told that they had no moral compass. Another establishment received comments, such as, "You should be ashamed of yourselves" and was told that customers would never be back to the restaurant. This morning, I spoke to another business owner, who has bars in Belfast and further afield. I was told that he would not put anything out on social media because he knew what would happen, having seen what others have had to deal with. I could go on, but I think that we get the idea.
Businesses should not have to post on social media that they hold no opinion on the matter. They should not have to defend the decisions made by the Executive, try to answer people's questions or spend time, which they should be using to serve customers and deal with staff, explaining how it will work, when the regulations are not even published. Staff in pubs and restaurants already have to deal with very challenging people and circumstances. They do not need to be told that they will be sued or closed for implementing the law.
Members will have received an email from Hospitality Ulster today. I know that Mr Frew quoted some of it. I will quote another bit of it. It states:
"After two weeks of developing operational procedures and training of staff for ‘Proof of Covid Status’, on the weekend before penalties begin the legislation gets changed from ‘check as soon as reasonably possible’ to ‘check at point of entry’"
I would happily take an intervention from the Minister to clarify whether, indeed, legislation was amended over the weekend to say that. When was it amended and why? The sectors are looking for information.
Clarification was provided. A reinforcement of the legislation and what it meant was made on Friday. There was sectoral engagement on Friday morning between officials, the hospitality industry and the PSNI about what they sought in that reinforcement so that we could provide clarity to those who have to implement and enforce the regulations. There was a request for sectoral engagement. That was led by the Executive Office and the Executive's COVID task force. There was an ask for additional clarity.
If there is anything further, I will provide the Member with an answer in writing. I know that she asked a specific question when I made my contribution. I apologise for not getting back to her at that point.
I thank the Minister for his intervention. I would certainly welcome that. The question was about the regulations that apply to premises that are licensed but are also takeaways. There is a number of those across my constituency, but they are especially in our cities. They serve alcohol but are primarily takeaways. That was a point of confusion that was brought up with me today.
The mixed messaging and lack of consistency from a number of Ministers has meant that it is the staff who are bearing the brunt of people's anger and frustration and are being drawn into ethical debates online. A member of staff in a pub in my constituency said:
"It is unfair to ask hospitality to take the front line on this issue after all that's happened in the last two years without having you needing to be a bit more vocal on the fact that this is not our fault or decision. There seems to be this idea that we're getting money to do it too, and I think there's going to be aggressive people to deal with".
Others whom I have spoken to, today and over the weekend, have said that their experience so far is that customers have been receptive when they have tried to implement the regulations before they came into force today. That is welcome. People have been willing to work with it and understand that it is not the staff member's fault, and are happy to show a negative test. I, for one, have been doing that over the weekend, as well as show my COVID cert. They say that customers feel safer being out, and have welcomed the fact that businesses have put in the measures to allow them to get used to them before they were enforceable. Others have said that this kind of certification scheme is better than being shut or subject to further restrictions. They have said, yes, it is extra work at the front door, but that it is way better than being closed or being in a position of:
"having to sell your home, as that was the position I was in last year".
They have asked why we do not make everybody do a lateral flow test.
So the experiences have been varied, but why are we in a situation in which Executive decisions regarding COVID regulations have resulted in the hospitality sector having to develop protocols to deal with abusive customers and advise staff when it is appropriate to call the police for assistance? Why is there an expectation that they will have to deal with aggressive behaviour? That is not OK. How is a licensed premises, such as a small bar or club that has one staff member or volunteer on a shift, supposed to check at a point of entry? Do they have to stand outside, run in, serve a drink and then go back out again? Where is the support for the sector — for the staff who have to implement this, and for the businesses that could lose income because of these regulations? Generally, staff in hospitality, and in other sectors, are not allowed to carry their personal mobile phone with them — that is part of workplace policy — so where are the scanners coming from? I welcome the comments that have been made by the Health Minister, and I completely support him in that regard: a scheme of support should be forthcoming. I urge every Minister to make that possible. As far as I am aware, there is nothing coming from the Executive for the businesses that I have spoken to.
Furthermore, there has been no response to questions that I have asked Ministers. A number of weeks ago, I asked the Economy Minister what he intends to put in place to help the sector should it experience issues or be adversely affected. Nothing. I asked the First Minister and the deputy First Minister what they have done. There has been no response. What was, and is, the role of the COVID-19 task force regarding the implementation of support? How many times has it met and engaged with the many voices of the sector that have been affected — not just a call outlining what is going to happen, but actually listening to the practical needs of this industry and addressing its concerns? The sectors that are affected need to be around the table. Speak to the people who work in the industry so that the issues are overcome at the outset, before regulations are implemented.
The debate around this is yet another example of how the Executive are not equipped to deal with a crisis. The divisions and splits between Ministers have been laid bare. They cannot even roll out an agreement that the Executive made only weeks ago — the so-called plan that the First Minister stood in this Chamber and spoke to, and answered questions from Members on, and which took weeks to unravel. I am really confused here, Mr Speaker. We have a party speaking against the motion, asking for more information, suggesting that it is some sort of pet project and saying that the information is not there. Why on earth is the First Minister's signature at the bottom of the plan? Why would you sign your name to something you are not willing to implement? Who suffers from this constant dysfunction in the Executive? The very people who elected us to represent them and take the difficult decisions that are needed to protect public health.
Where are the press conferences? Where is the communication strategy — the clear, unified messaging that we need to get through the latest wave of COVID transmission? Those press conferences used to be weekly. I reiterate my continued call, which was never facilitated, for the Executive to hold regular and meaningful press conferences for our children and young people. Their voices must also be heard on this. Where are the statements that were made to the House regarding the Executive's decision-making in response to the pandemic? The Ad Hoc Committee on COVID-19 has not met in eight months. Communication around COVID certification has been abysmal. It has resulted in widespread confusion, and that was not helped by the fact that it was to apply to all premises, then just to those that were licensed, or those in the arts — the cinemas, the theatres, the conference halls. Nor was it a good idea to have the media forewarn people that the scheme was going to be introduced on a certain day and not publish regulations or guidance as to what would be in it until the very end of that same day.
I will give an example of why communication needs to be clear and issues around accessibility must be considered. I give you the example of my grandmother. She is 93 years old. She watches the news, listens to 'The Nolan Show' daily — other commentators are available — and reads the papers. She has had information on downloading an app; on getting a certificate added to the app if you already have one for international travel; on how, if you have access to the internet and know how use it, you can go online and find out how to apply for a paper certificate; and on what ID she needs. I sent her information on the paper certificate that she could get to enable her to go out for lunch in particular places where she would like to see some of her friends after nearly 18 months in lockdown. The questions remain, however. Does she need to bring her passport? What about her driving licence? Does her electoral ID card stand? She has many questions that need to be answered, and she does not have the internet to go on in order to find out for herself, so she must rely on other people. What if you do not have a smartphone, the internet or somebody to ask?
How are the Executive communicating and ensuring that older people, those who are vulnerable, those living on their own and those without the tech know what to do, how to do it, and which places may require them to bring their certificate or lateral flow test? How is the Executive's engagement around the regulations with those who are disabled, are deaf or have hearing or sight loss? I observed the first Disabled People's Parliament earlier this month, and I heard, loud and clear, that more and better communication is very much needed. Joe Kenny highlighted the impact of the restrictions on people with sight loss — for example, changes to shopping and accessing supermarkets — and explained how he was locked out of a world that had changed.
Sorry. May I interrupt? I remind you to stick to the issue of vaccine certification. I take the point that you are making — that there is a whole range of issues around the regulations and communication — but please focus your remarks on the subject at hand.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was speaking to the communication on the certification scheme. I will bring my remarks to a close very shortly.
I was about to speak about Diane Marks, who has sight loss. She specifically outlined the difficulties in accessing information independently. She described her partner's experience of downloading COVID certification as "pulling teeth". From talking to people, I know that they have limited understanding of what they need, how they can access the certificate and where they do and do not need to show it. We are getting calls from the carers of elderly people who are isolating and are not able to get their certificates because they do not know that they can order a physical one. Again, I have raised the issue in questions, but we need a public awareness and information campaign that really gets to people who do not have social media, internet access or smartphones or who do not watch the news daily.
Not everyone has to have an app, as we know, but much of the focus has been on that. It is important to clarify a number of aspects of the regulation. Yes, you can go to a licensed premises or theatre with a paper certificate; yes, you can go with proof that you have recovered from the virus; yes, you can go with your lateral flow test, taken on that day, showing a negative result. No, you do not need to have a QR code with your face beside it if you want to go to a pub.
I am disgusted that I even need to say this, but I think that we have all had the accusation: supporting COVID certification is not equivalent to supporting the Nazis. I am not a member of the SS. It is not OK to send MLAs pictures of swastikas or to abuse Ministers — or any other person, for that matter — online or to issue death threats to anybody. This is a global health pandemic.
Mr Dickson outlined a very personal testimony, and I know a great number of people who share his experience and thoughts. I thank him for sharing that. I urge everyone to act responsibly. Wear your face covering if you can. Wash your hands, keep safe, look after each other, and please be kind to one another. Our front-line health and care workers have worked and worked, and they are expected to keep going. We have all made sacrifices, and family and friends are grieving because they have lost loved ones.
Last Christmas was horrendous for everybody. I go back to the example of my gran. Last year, I stood outside her house, waving at her. It was the first time that she had ever spent Christmas away from family. I do not want to do that again, and I do not know any other member of our society who would want to do that either. As we move into another phase of the pandemic with new variants, and the Executive consider further responses, they must provide clear communication and guidance. Please provide detail and information, and please provide support to those being affected.
I shall be mercifully brief. We all know why the Minister has proposed these regulations. He has done so because we are in the middle of a global pandemic that has killed over five million people. We all know what we are trying to achieve. We are trying to safeguard the health of our people in Northern Ireland. That said, I know that we are divided. We are divided in the Chamber, we are divided within some political parties, we are divided within society, and we are even divided within families.
There is no point in vilifying or mocking somebody just because they do not support COVID certification, because that will not change anything. In the same way, there is no point in vilifying or mocking those who support COVID certification. Neither approach will move this issue forward. These are difficult decisions for us all. I thank Robin Swann for his steadfastness and moral courage. I am grateful to the Minister for standing up and taking the flak for this — alone, in many cases — while other Ministers hide in the shadows because they clearly do not want to take the flak for some of these regulations. That is fine. I know that the Minister is up to the task.
We need to use everything at our disposal to tackle COVID-19. Nothing stands alone. All the measures work together: face masks, hand washing, hand sanitiser, lateral flow tests, PCR tests, social distancing, vaccinations — doses one and two, and the booster — proof of vaccination and COVID status certification. Nobody is being forced to get a vaccine — absolutely nobody. They have choice, and it is right that they do.
What, then, is the problem? Is the problem just with showing proof? I was at the Balmoral show in the summer. It was wonderful. I queued up, showed that I had had my vaccinations, and I was allowed in. Nobody complained. People queued up to go to the Northern Ireland match. They knew that they had to show their proof of vaccination. Some of them did not show it, because they were not asked to, but they knew that they might have had to. There were no complaints. It was the same with Ulster Rugby and Irish Rugby.
It is the same for those who go to concerts: to get into a concert, they show their ticket, and then they show their proof of vaccination. There is absolutely no issue with that. Those who are luckily at the age at which people want to check whether they are old enough to get into a pub have to show proof of age. There is no issue with that. People who are disabled and need disabled tags for their car have to show proof. I do not see what the issue is with showing some form of certification or proof that you do not have COVID.
If having COVID certification saves lives, saves our people from getting sick and allows the freedoms that they enjoy today, I will support the regulations. I will, of course, support the regulations, and I will support our Minister. At times, we have to have a degree of trust, and I trust our Chief Medical Officer and our Chief Scientific Adviser, whose advice we ask. We have empowered them by putting them in a place from which to advise us. I do not look at Twitter or Facebook to give me the information that I already know from looking at expert advice and talking to experts. We can all present comments from various sources, and, at times, we present those comments without context.
We have to understand that Northern Ireland does not sit in splendid isolation. We are part of a world; we are part of a United Kingdom; and we are part of an island. We have to understand, therefore, that what happens outside our borders affects us. If you want to watch Manchester United play in England, guess what? You will need some form of certification. If you go to Glasgow and want to watch Glasgow Rangers or Celtic, you will need some form of certification. A while ago, I went to France for the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Tower. I needed certification to get on to the plane; I needed certification at the other side; I needed certification to get into the event at the Ulster Tower in Thiepval; and I needed certification to get into every single pub and cafe that I went to in France. There was not a single issue. My heart did not miss a beat. It was simple. All the people just got on with it.
I was also very lucky to go to New York and Washington. Likewise, while I was there, I had to show certification for everything that I did. Again, people just got on with it, and there was no issue. Some of those people who are looking to go on holiday to Spain next summer will have to have certification. We are part of a global world where we want to make sure that our people have freedoms.
I view certification in a different way. I think that it is helping us to keep our economy open. It does not sit in isolation, and I have said that. It is linked to everything else. If it all comes together and all our people look at this and say that what we are trying to do is inherently good and not inherently bad, and they just work with us, we will keep our economy open.
Nobody wants to force certification, and nobody wants to do it. We are doing it because we think that it is the right thing to do for our people. I support certification, and I support my staff who get abusive emails and phone calls. Swastikas and Stars of David are sent to them. They get absolutely mad emails, but I will not mock people if they do not want to get a vaccine. I will not mock people if they do not want to get certification. I will use the power of persuasion. When those people want to go to Spain in the summer, they know what they will have to do, and they will make up their own minds.
As we debate this legislation tonight, it is highly probable that criminal penalty notices have already been issued in respect of legislation that we have not even voted on. It offends me as a Member of the House and as someone who is elected to be a legislator that legislation is taken for granted. At this very moment, a police officer or someone else could be issuing a penalty notice on proposals that we have yet to vote for. That is not right, and it cannot be right, yet it is the persistent system that we have followed in the House. It is a system that is contemptuous of the House and has been tolerated and, indeed, embraced for far too long.
I come to this debate as someone who is double vaccinated and with a booster, convinced about pro-vaccination. I have no difficulties with that at all. Yet, for me, the certification proposal is a step too far for a number of reasons.
My starting point is this: up to this point, every COVID regulation applied equally to us all, whether it was wearing a mask, socially distancing, not going here and not going there. It was universal. The problem that I have with the regulation is that, first and foremost, it causes distinction and differentiation. It picks out those in our community who, for whatever reason — good, bad or indifferent — have chosen not to be vaccinated. It sets them apart as people who cannot go to certain places if they do not go through the hoops of certification.
For the first time, we are making a real, tangible, visible difference between people. That is a wrong step. It is the fundamental reason that I find the idea of COVID passports unacceptable.
Other matters trouble me. In order for certification to work, it inevitably requires access to what should be private and confidential health information. It provides government access to very personal data. It requires the sharing of very personal data. Surely, in our health regime, we have a fundamental right to privacy and confidentiality, yet that is unsustainable in the face of the regulation. The First Minister has told us that, although he signed off the winter plan, which, apparently, anticipated certification, no evidence has been presented to the Executive to justify certification. I hear the Health Minister say, "Oh, yes, there has". The First Minister replies, "Oh, no, there hasn't". It is a bit pantomimish: I have heard others say that it is all there to be read on the Department's website.
On that specific point about other Ministers saying that there was no evidence, or that they had not had sight of it, on 29 November, I wrote to all my Executive colleagues to invite them to individual briefings, if they so wanted, with my departmental officials and Executive Office officials who were involved in the drafting of the policy, subsequent regulations and the evidence that had been presented. It had been brought forward through the Executive paper. Yes, some Members and Ministers have said that they have not seen the evidence. I can assure you, however, that Ministers were invited to come and see it, question it, discuss it and talk about it. I would like to thank both Ministers who took up that invitation.
I have to say that I would have expected that, if the Executive were making a decision, they would not have to go looking for that evidence but that it would have been presented to them. If that was not so, perhaps the First Minister has a point. It still does not explain, however, why one would sign off a winter plan anticipating such a thing. Perhaps there is a bit of ambiguity about that issue.
For me, Mrs Erskine asked the key question. She posed a pertinent question about the regulation that you are bringing in: what are the criteria by which you will judge its success or failure? What does it have to show? Does it have to show a reduction in the R rate, in hospital admissions or in deaths? What is the benchmark for the success or failure of the regulation? When the Minister comes to answer, he needs to tell us how the regulation will be judged. What are the criteria by which we will decide whether it is working or not? In a month's time, when the Executive review it, by what criteria will they judge it? That is the best question, and it is the critical question that needs to be answered here tonight.
We can look at Scotland. The evidence suggests that certification has not made any positive difference there. One might say the same about the Republic of Ireland. If that is right, what is it about the regulation that causes the Minister to think that certification will be different here? I am not so interested in what the Minister thinks will happen; I am more interested in knowing by what standard the Minister will judge the success or otherwise of the proposition.
That leads on to a point that many people have touched on: the critical question of who is going to enforce this. We have had pass the parcel from the Executive on enforcing face masks. Who is going to enforce this? The burden on business is indescribably high. If you are running a small hospitality business with a couple of entry points, suddenly, you need two extra staff for whatever hours you are open to do the checking. That has not been in your business plan; that has not been taken into account when the viability of opening up business was decided. However, suddenly, that is the burden and the reality. Frankly, the disproportionate burden on business has not been properly gamed out, and it is a gaping hole amongst some other flaws in the proposal.
Will the Member agree with me that it is not good enough for Members who have imposed such additional burdens on business to stand up in this debate and say, "Oh, if the Economy Minister comes along with a plan to ease the burdens that we have imposed, I am happy to vote for it"? That is not good enough.
It is not just about the Economy Minister coming along with a plan. It is about the Economy Minister and the Finance Minister finding the money for that plan, which is very often the greater stumbling block in all those things.
However, in the meantime, businesses are bleeding financially and will bleed financially both from the negative impact of people staying away and by the fact of having to equip themselves with staff to carry out the checks. It is a matter of very considerable concern, quite rightly, for business.
That brings me to question the worth of the passport or certification process. I will take a practical example. Someone goes into the centre of town who is not vaccinated. They have not taken the test; they cannot produce the certificate. They cannot go into a hospitality venue, but they can turn on their heel and get on a Translink or Glider bus. They can travel to Belfast City Hospital or the Royal Victoria Hospital and start a shift of work. Where is the logic of a system that lets you work in the health service and travel on packed public transport, and you do not have to have anything, but if you want to go into a hospitality venue, that is a no-no? Where is the logic in that?
Think of hospitality. In an earlier intervention, the Minister told me that employees in hospitality do not have to meet the certification. The customer base has to pass the certification to get in, but, once in, they can be served by individuals who are not vaccinated or carrying a test result or a passport. If the whole idea is to cocoon people from the risk of transmission in those hospitality settings, how is it that the very people who will serve in those hostelries are exempt? Not only have you the situation where the individual can travel on public transport, work in the health service and not need any of those things — although they cannot go into a hospitality setting — if someone does go into a hospitality setting, the person who serves them does not have to meet any of those tests. That is why there are many flaws in this system which cause me to think that it is quite questionable.
I thank the Member for giving way. He has highlighted the particular issue about the different positions within hospitality. Does he agree that that will create an added danger that a lot of people entering hospitality would have a false sense of security and feel that they were completely safe within that environment, which, in and of itself, creates a greater risk of the spread of COVID-19?
Yes, that is a point that carries on from the point that I am making. The certification, as I see it, is meant to do two things. It is meant to be a coercive persuasion for people to get vaccinated and to build an air of confidence for people within certain settings. If, within one of those settings — the hospitality setting — the front-line staff who interface with the customer base do not have to meet these requirements, then it seems to totally undermine what lies within this proposition.
Another major concern is where this is ultimately leading. A year ago, the Minister told us that the exit out of COVID was vaccination. We have had vaccination — 90%. We were told, at one stage, that we have to learn to live with it. Now we are being told that we need certification. Is the next step that of Greece and Austria: fines on the unvaccinated? Is the next step, like some other European countries, mandatory vaccination? It seems to me that, in these circumstances, we have embarked on a process and, if it does not work, then the must-do-something syndrome gets even stronger. And the must-do-something syndrome could well lead to mandatory vaccination, fines for those who are not or something of that order. That is far too far down the totalitarian route as far as I am concerned.
Although I strongly urge people to be vaccinated, because it is about protecting yourself, your loved ones and your neighbours — there is an element of "love thy neighbour" in being vaccinated — it is a personal choice. Once you cross the line of refusing to acknowledge and respect personal choice and get into the compulsive, coercive steps that this is taking us to, in circumstances where there is no assurance that any of it is going to work, then we have impinged rights and freedoms by just a step too far. I will vote against this.
Once again, I rise in the Chamber deeply frustrated by the approach of the Executive. This has been a running theme from the very beginning of the pandemic, and I am sure that some are sick of hearing it, but time and time again, as failures of this Executive are exposed, the principled opposition in the Chamber has proven correct. Not only have vaccine passports already been implemented, so this debate and vote are effectively undemocratic and pointless in practice, but, in a totally farcical move, the Executive introduced the passports days after relaxing social-distancing and mask-wearing measures in the very venues where passports are being mandated. It is truly bonkers, if you ask me. This is a cynical attempt to shift the responsibility for limiting the spread of the virus from the Executive to ordinary people, and that is a strategy straight out of the Tory playbook.
I am doubly jabbed and, after last night's announcement, I will be urgently scheduling my booster. I have encouraged everyone who can to do the same since the beginning of the vaccine roll-out. However, I firmly believe that any strategy which is aimed at vaccine uptake alone while utterly abandoning the principles of social distancing, mask-wearing, ventilation and tracking and tracing is doomed to fail. Not least because vaccine uptake has already been very successful and only a minority of people have not been jabbed yet infection numbers are still high, but also because of the new variant that is already here, we need to maintain a focus on basic measures. The World Health Organization has been explicit about this. Vaccination is key but needs to be accompanied by a swathe of other measures.
If anyone needs a window into our future, look to where the path of vaccine coercion has been followed — in Scotland, the South of Ireland and a litany of countries across Europe — only to be met with discontent and further COVID surges. A different approach has been taken, for example, in New Zealand. People Before Profit has called, North and South, for this island to follow that model, where vaccine coercion has not been sought as a singular keystone or main strategy; virus suppression has. We have been proven correct in wanting to follow such global examples, given their successes compared with the disastrous record of the Executive and the Irish Government.
One has to ask why any Government would seek to mandate vaccine passports, while, at the same time, stripping back regulations and protections, pushing people into shops and removing financial support for workers to stay at home. If the Executive were honest, they would recognise their failures during the pandemic and not want to push the responsibility onto ordinary people.
We have already heard establishment politicians blaming people without vaccines for the spread of the virus, while pushing through the relaxation of social distancing without so much as a debate in the House. Those same politicians cannot even muster the will, as the virus spreads for the umpteenth time, to facilitate people to continue to work from home, to put the basic financial supports in place to help with that, to put basic ventilation measures in schools and essential workplaces or to maintain a track-and-trace system that is worth its salt. Those measures will suppress the virus and keep vulnerable people safe, and it can be done in a way that does not push small businesses to the edge or sink the economy. Again, we have seen that done more successfully in other parts of the world and have not learned the lessons here.
As a socialist opposition in the Chamber and, indeed, Dáil Éireann, People Before Profit has been consistent in challenging the reckless approach of the Governments in the North and South. We have not gone along with their Tory tailing strategy, and we will not give cover to that hypocrisy today, nor will we give an inch to anyone in the DUP — arguably the most culpable party in the Executive's reckless approach in ignoring medical advice over the past two years — whose vaccine and mask scepticism has no place in the Chamber, and some of whom are opportunistically appealing to the right-wing element of certain anti-vax sentiments with their smoke and mirrors, petition of concern stunts and other activities.
I will be very clear. Those who stood outside this Building and in town centres across the North, likening COVID passports to Nazi measures, are not only totally inaccurate, but their actions are deeply offensive. While we do not believe that top-down, state-enforced, mandatory COVID passports in the absence of social distancing are a valid solution, we think that everyone who can get vaccinated should do so. We believe that everyone should test before entering venues and should not enter if they have COVID symptoms. Those are the basics of acting in solidarity to protect everyone, especially workers and those most at risk.
I do not understand why the Executive will not mandate businesses to provide lateral flow tests on-site on that basis, rather than making it optional. The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) has, rightly, raised concerns about how the scheme is exclusionary for those who do not have a home address, any form of ID or access to a smartphone. One measure to alleviate that would be to guarantee that every person has access to a lateral flow test on-site, but the Executive will not enforce that. I urge the Minister to come back and explain why that is the case.
Other members and I have asked at two successive Health Committee meetings why the vaccine certification policy was not fully equality screened, and I am yet to hear an adequate answer. I ask the Minister to address that concern, because it is a valid concern that is held by human rights groups and anti-racist organisations. For example, they have concerns around how BME community members may be further marginalised by that policy.
Finally, I make a fresh appeal to the Executive: do not embark on a strategy of "business as usual" and ask people to live with the virus while using those without vaccines as a scapegoat for the spread of the virus, especially as cases of the omicron variant rise. Instead, the Executive should do their job based on the best medical advice; protect communities and workers by financially facilitating working from home, introducing ventilation measures and getting back to the basics of distancing and mask wearing; do better in educating and encouraging those who have fears of vaccines rather than coercing them; and mandate venues to provide lateral flow tests on-site. In the absence of any of that, the vaccine passport scheme, in my view, is a shameless attempt to shift blame from the Executive's door to the public, who did so much during the first waves of the virus and, on the whole, have done their bit to protect others.
Two Members are yet to speak before the Minister concludes the debate. We need to allow the Minister an appropriate amount of time to do so. I ask the final two Members, without putting them under any pressure at all, to bear that in mind, and we may get finished by 9.00 pm this evening. That is unlikely at the moment, but we never know. I call Roy Beggs.
In preparation for this debate, I took a look at the Northern Ireland COVID-19 daily dashboard. I was very struck by the strategy at the front of the document. It highlights:
"Understanding measures to 'flatten the curve'".
How many have read that? Why is it important? If we do not flatten the curve, the NHS will not cope. The alternative is exponential growth. Our hospitals risk failure at that point. This is very serious. Measures to flatten the curve, as others have indicated — and which I fully support — include the washing of hands, social distancing, wearing a mask and vaccination, but other options include ceasing non-essential activity and staying at home. Certification is an alternative to those latter, drastic options. Let us allow our businesses to stay open and allow a degree of activity to mix with others in a safe environment. Let us allow hospitality to stay open.
There is almost an ignorance or a lack of understanding that doing nothing risks us going back to the very serious position that we were in a year ago. Members have paid tribute today to NHS doctors, nurses and support staff who have all been under intolerable pressure since the outbreak of COVID. We now have vaccination, which is giving a degree of protection, and those who are vaccinated and contract the virus are more likely to have a relatively minor infection. However, that does not apply to all: some will require hospitalisation, and a further proportion will require ICU. With that, fewer operations will be able to occur in our hospitals and our waiting lists will grow. Ambulance attendance times will increase if we have exponential growth in infections. With those increased call times, there will be delays in meeting patients and delays will mount at our EDs. That is very serious; it is not just an academic debate. Look at what happened last January.
Our Chief Scientific Adviser and our Chief Medical Officer have advised that they need further help to stop another COVID wave. Let us remember that, over the past year, the SAGE modellers have been fairly accurate. They have told the UK regional Governments when they have needed to take action, and we have seen that that has generally worked and brought things under control.
Let us look at what happened a few weeks ago at a disco at The Elk in Toomebridge. Some 200 young people were infected in a single evening and took that home to each of their families, and perhaps even mixed at school. Undoubtedly, the venue's staff were also put at risk, and no business can survive when its staff become infected and have to take time off work. We must avoid an exponential growth in infections, and we must ensure that we can have a degree of normality.
Again, let us remember what happened last November. It was stop, go and stop again. Many people argued that we did not need restrictions, and that was the worst scenario for businesses. They stocked up, and then they were shut down again. It is important that we work together with businesses on the mitigations and that all Executive colleagues play their part. Why are we having this debate when, frankly, there is little alternative? We should be having a debate about the support that we are going to give to those businesses that will be adversely affected.
Christmas is a risk factor. Traditionally, we all meet our friends and colleagues at festive events and then we go home and mix with our family members. Look at what happened last year when there was an exponential growth in infections after Christmas. The further risk factor that we have this year is omicron, which we are all still learning about. It appears that the infection transmits very easily and that it is not as serious in most people. However, we can expect large numbers of infections, and with that, we can expect large numbers to eventually end up in hospital. So, it is important that all of that is managed.
Common sense would provide an understanding of the risks that we all face and why the modellers are indicating to Health Ministers that action is needed. What are we to do? Are we to ignore professional medical and scientific advice, or do we find a reason for doing nothing? I am not saying that what is being proposed is perfect. If it needs to be changed, I am sure that the Health Minister, under the regulations, can quickly adapt. That had to happen previously, but it is not good enough to do nothing.
Some people propose that we ignore SAGE advice. Some propose ignoring decisions that have already been taken in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. Their experts have recognised that some form of certification is required to give protection and to prevent the alternative: lockdown. I do not want to go there. That is not good for our community or for anyone. Let us take mitigating action. Let us fight this disease and have some normality.
It is important that we act together as a community. It is equally important that the Executive act in a coordinated manner, not only in bringing in sensible measures and compensation but in providing enforcement. I wish that this legislation could have been brought in more quickly and that this debate had taken place earlier. However, processes have to be undertaken, sadly, and legislation has to be finalised.
We have reached that stage now. What do we do? Do we put it off and decide to wait for another two or three weeks? We do not have that choice. The mixing time and risk factors are in the here and now. Alternatives have been given. You can be double vaccinated and, like me, reach the booster stage and get your certification that way. There are other methods for those who object to vaccination or perhaps have a medical reason for not being vaccinated. We have to support those people in using alternative methods.
Everyone can find a method to get certification, so let us protect ourselves, our families and communities. Let us not find reasons for doing nothing and, potentially, reaching the scenario that we faced last year. I urge everyone to do the responsible thing. Do the basics: wash your hands; wear masks; and try to socially distance as much as you can. Get vaccinated and get that protection, and then, if we want to go out, let us use our certification to protect ourselves and those with whom we may be in close contact.
At Halloween, I visited my son in London. Last Christmas, he did not make it home; lockdown hit one day before he was due to fly. Thankfully, this year, with certification, I was able to visit him. I was able to show my certification and get into a show with him. There was some normality. I hope that we all take reasonable actions so that, this year, families will once again be able to meet safely.
If any alteration is needed, that can be done. As I see it, we have no time and no choice. I support the Minister and the Executive, who approved these mitigations so that we do not have to face business closures and the inevitable difficulty that would follow. I urge the Executive, in particular the Economy Minister, to look at what compensation can be put together to support the businesses that will be adversely affected.
I am incredibly frustrated by the debate. This is secondary legislation empowered by primary legislation. On reviewing the regulations, I noted that they are not empowered by the Coronavirus Act, which I assumed, but by public health legislation that has been on the statute book for a considerable number of years.
I find it interesting that some Members point to the fact that we had not debated the regulations before they came into effect. The House passes statutory rules and secondary legislation. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that the number is 351 this year; maybe I am wrong. A considerable number of statutory rules go through the House daily without being signed off or voted on. Tonight, to be honest, very much feels like theatre, and I will go into that point in a bit more depth in a minute, because I want to labour the point about statutory rules and secondary legislation. When the Northern Ireland Executive did not sit for three years, senior civil servants in various Departments were passing legislation like this. They did so because there was concern that we would not get through the legislation in the House. If we have issues with that, we need to look at our whole process and our whole system.
I mentioned tonight's debate being like theatre, and, if I am wrong, I would love someone to intervene to correct me. My understanding is that a vote on these regulations was taken in the Northern Ireland Executive, and I accept that one party in that Executive did not vote for them. Am I correct in saying that that party could have backed up not voting for those regulations by blocking them? I am quite happy to take an intervention if someone wants to confirm that. If that is the case — I get that understanding from an occasion when the same party exercised that option last year — what is this debate about? Is it about posturing to the public and saying that you are trying to do something when, really, you could have done something that was more meaningful than the vote tonight, given that four of the five parties will vote for this? This feels like theatre.
Gerry Carroll MLA and I have been targeted by a worldwide campaign suggesting that there was a petition of concern that only he and I could have voted for. I have received over 1,500 emails from people from Northern Ireland since last night. It is probably getting closer to 1,700 at this point. Those emails have been from people in New York, people in London and people in Ireland, who have been saying to me, "Claire, please sign a petition of concern. You are the only person who can do this". There is some suggestion that I am the most powerful woman in the world. I wish that I did have that power, but I do not. Again, it is this theatre that suggests that this is more than what it is.
My understanding is that it can. To satisfy the 1,700 people who have contacted me, I spoke to Members who had allegedly signed this petition of concern. They do not know anything about it. In fact, they were not even contacted, because, allegedly, they had already signed it. I contacted the Business Office to see whether the petition of concern had been laid there. It had not. No one had heard of it.
Sorry. Will the Member return to the matter at hand and not talk about a petition of concern? We are not dealing with a petition of concern this evening. Mr Wells, please resume your seat. I invite you to return to the topic at hand, Ms Sugden. We are running out of time. Thank you.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I appreciate what you are trying to do, but the point of my raising the petition of concern is that I am being coerced, as a Member of the House, to vote for these regulations on the basis that I am the most powerful person in the House, and that is simply not true. For my own integrity, I want to put on record that I do not have that power. Let us make it clear for the record, and let us make it clear for all those people who have contacted me about these regulations: 30 Members will not make the vote pass. A minimum of 45 votes will be needed. That means, again, that this is theatre, because anyone suggesting otherwise is suggesting something that is not true.
I asked the Member to give way on the petition of concern on the vaccine passport issue. Quite simply, a petition of concern can be tabled only if it has at least 30 Members' signatures. The reality was that, by Saturday night, it became apparent that the maximum number of signatures that could be obtained was 29. Therefore, people were ringing me and asking, "How do we get to 30?", and I suggested names of people who could be approached.
Before you respond, I want to make a point. We are not debating a petition of concern. There is no petition of concern. It is not on the agenda. Every Member in the House has been offended, abused on social media and all the rest of it. We all know that. We all understand that. It is totally condemned. Please stick to the matter under debate.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to make the point that, in what happens here today, in the vote we will take after the Minister speaks, it will not be possible to overturn these regulations. Indeed, it is not even a standard thing. That is not to say that we should not debate it or have a conversation and vote on it. However, typically, this is a rubber stamp. A lot of the contributions that I heard are disingenuous. More could have been done, in practical terms, to stop these regulations rather than what is happening in this debate. That is an important point to put on record, and it is important for other Members when they consider how they will vote. What is this really about? I ask anyone listening to the debate from outside the Chamber to reflect on that.
I accept these regulations. I make a point of saying "these regulations" because I have pored over the legislation and have read what they say. I am not voting on what people assume are in the regulations or on what could, potentially, happen as a result of them. I have heard Members talk about the thin end of the wedge and the slippery slope to something further.
Ultimately, what people are concerned about is mandatory vaccination. However, that is not what is in these regulations. It is not about mandatory vaccination. If we were voting on mandatory vaccination, I would be keen to understand whether it would require primary legislation rather than the regulations that are in place. If tonight, we were voting on mandatory vaccination, I would not support it, and I can wholeheartedly say that to everyone who has contacted me about that. However, that is not what this is. As Members of the House, we are debating very specific legislation, specific regulations. I have read through the regulations: this is not mandatory vaccination.
In fairness, I do not dismiss anyone who has raised concerns with this. If it were only one or two people throwing out wild accusations, maybe: but it is not. Thousands have contacted me in relation to this, so it is important that we listen and try to understand their concerns and, perhaps, dispel the myths that people are being fed.
Ms Woods made a diligent effort to describe what is happening. Ultimately, where we are in society is a result of shockingly poor communication from the Northern Ireland Executive. That is why people are contacting me about their assumptions on this and why they are concerned about mandatory vaccination. I have spoken to a large number of people in the past week and have described to them what the regulations are. Eventually, they say, "Actually, that is not too bad."
We have to be mindful of what we are voting on, not what is assumed, and not the slippery slope. I am sure that the Minister will assure us that, if he goes down the path of mandatory vaccination, he will not take that responsibility on his own. He will take it to the Northern Ireland Executive, I imagine. When he brings it to the House, that will be the point at which we vote for or against it.
I want to address all the concerns of the many people who have contacted me. I feel that I can address them. I say that in a limited way, because I am not fully versed in the way that some people are. Coercive vaccinations: are we creating a society where we almost discourage people from going out and having social interactions because of these vaccinations? I do not think so. Again, I come back to this point: this is not mandatory vaccination. There are other mechanisms in these regulations by which you can demonstrate your COVID status. That is very important. When the Minister originally announced that he would be doing this, I was the first to say to him, "Hold on a minute." However, in fairness to him, he brought out other measures. It means that people are not being forced to get the vaccination. We do not live in a society where vaccination is mandatory, and that is right. There are many reasons why people cannot have vaccinations.
People should not take it on themselves to treat others abusively, incorrectly or make other people feel less than they are because they have taken a decision that they are entitled to take. That is another important point. Yes, the Minister and others are trying to encourage a roll-out of the vaccination, and it has been very successful — over 90% uptake. However, we should not undermine those who have chosen not to be vaccinated for various reasons.
I have heard a lot about discrimination. I am not legally trained, but my understanding of discrimination, particularly in Northern Ireland, is very specific in relation to the law.
This is not discrimination as I understand it, unless someone wants to describe it to me as having gender discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination or perhaps even disability discrimination. What people are really talking about is prejudice. If that is the case, we need to look at that. That again comes back to good communication more than anything else.
I accept that there will be an impact on business. Again, we have to look at how it works in practice, rather than what we assume will happen. I attended the Christmas market a couple of weeks ago, and staff were enforcing COVID certification. It was simply a flash. It was a system put in place as outlined in the regulations, and my understanding — I am sure that the Minister will talk to this — is that it is nothing more than that. It is about businesses demonstrating that they are going as far as can be reasonably expected in order to prove that the people at their establishment, premises or event are unlikely to have COVID and are unlikely to pass it on. That is really important. Members have talked about the additional people who have to be put in place. Certainly, on licensed premises, people are asked for ID. If you go to the cinema, you are asked to show your ticket. When you go to an event, you are asked to show your ticket. What will actually happen on the ground is minimal.
I accept that there are some challenges for older people. Generally, that comes down to the Executive's failure to pass age discrimination legislation on goods, services and facilities. We have to look at better ways of providing COVID certification for older groups. I hear that the turnaround times are significant. That in itself is not a good thing if we are trying to be fair to all in society.
Mr Allister, Miss Woods and even Mr Carroll made a point about the provision of lateral flow tests or rapid testing for everyone, rather than just the unvaccinated. Maybe we need to look at that so that there is not that differential. Again, we have to come back to the point of the regulations and why we are making them. From the outset, I have maintained that the COVID restrictions are not primarily about stopping people getting COVID but about stopping people getting COVID and adding further pressure onto an already overwhelmed public health service. People have said to me, "You have had 10 years to fix the service". Absolutely we have, and three of those years were completely wasted. We had a plan in 2016. I will come back to the point in hand, Mr Speaker. What I am trying to say is that, yes, there are winter pressures every year — absolutely there are — but COVID is an additional pressure, and we have to do what we can to remove that additional pressure, as well as others. I am sure the Health Minister is working through those too.
A lot of this comes down to personal responsibility. As someone said, you could flash a fake COVID cert at the door. Again, that is an offence under the regulations. Sure, you could go into a shop and shoplift. On that point, you have to recognise that there is an element of personal responsibility in this.
I want to ask the Health Minister about data protection and GDPR. I take the point in relation to having to flash your medical status in some way. I am curious to know how the Health Minister has looked at and considered that. Again, it is about the proportionality of what people are being asked to do and the risk that comes with disclosing or perhaps not disclosing such information. Again, for me, it is a positive thing to take a lateral flow test in order to know that, when I go into an environment, I am not potentially infecting people. I do not know why we are taking it in a personal and precious way. For me, it comes back to that sense of responsibility.
On enforcement issues, again I go back to the point in the regulations about having "a reasonable system" in place. Perhaps this is where we need better communication and guidance from the Department of Health and the Department of Justice on what enforcement has to look like and at what point it becomes a breach. If a business has a written statement, as provided for in the regulations, to say that the system is in place and is seen to be consistently applying that system, it is working within the regulations. This is not about strong-arming people out the door. It is not about having a heated conversation. Again, businesses need guidance on that. Miss Woods pointed to an awful lot of this. It all comes down to poor communication, with businesses not knowing what they can and cannot do and what the consequences will be.
I will wrap up my general comments. People have asked for the evidence. If it is there, show us it. If it is there, make it clear to people. Back up everything that we do with rationale. I am sympathetic to the Health Minister because I recognise that he is, to an extent, on his own in relation to the public health message. That has become clear in the past six months. At the outset, we saw all the Executive Ministers working together. We saw joint press conferences and a united message, but, as we have got closer to an election, he is on his own. I do not envy him in that task. I do not think that the Health Minister would do this if he did not have to. I reluctantly will support the regulations, but I do it only on the basis that they will be contained and will be kept under regular review with a mind that they will end when they are no longer appropriate. That is the basis that we keep having to come back to on all these things.
Speaking to the House and to the people of Northern Ireland, I know that this has been a really difficult two years with COVID and other issues, and we need to do all that we can to prevent deaths and sickness, ensuring that we have a public health service that can get to the other issues, because it is not right that we prioritise this over every other illness. We should prioritise every critical and urgent illness. I hate to use the phrase, "We are where we are", but, if this is about protecting the health service and stopping it becoming overwhelmed, this is not disproportionate. Minister, if you are coming back to me in a number of weeks and saying that there will be mandatory vaccinations, I put it on record now that I will not support that. That is not what this is, and the practicalities of it are not disproportionate to what people think.
Members, we have just about reached the time to which the sitting was extended by the Assembly earlier under Standing Order 10(3A), so we must come to adjourn. I certainly do not wish to disadvantage the Minister by asking him to start speaking now and then conclude at a later date. That would be completely unfair on the Minister. Standing Order 10(3C) requires that:
"Consideration of business on the Order Paper not concluded by the time the Assembly adjourns on a Monday shall be postponed until such time as the Business Committee determines."
I understand that the Business Committee may consider rescheduling the remainder of this business on tomorrow's Order Paper. If that is subsequently agreed, a revised Order Paper will be issued this evening, but that will be a decision for the Business Committee, hopefully, shortly. Unless the Minister has any contrary argument, I propose that we adjourn now and return when the Business Committee reschedules the sitting. The only Member left to speak is the Minister. The Minister may have a contrary view on that, but I believe that to expect him to finish before 9.00 pm would be impossible.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Surely, with the leave of the House, we can extend the business to 9.30 pm. That seems logical because everybody has had their point of view and Mr Swann is ready to go. I do not think that anyone would object to staying here until 9.30 pm to hear him complete his speech.
Mr Speaker, can we seek a suspension? In all honesty, I would prefer to complete the business tonight. I think that the Members want to complete the business tonight, and I think that people who are watching and listening to know the decision that will be made in the House want to know it tonight. I am unsure of the procedures or the Standing Orders, but, if the Business Committee could meet in the next number of minutes to schedule another half hour of the sitting, I will give you a commitment that I will be finished by 9.30 pm.
I have taken advice, and there is strong procedural advice that, given that we have already extended the sitting and are running out of time, we run the risk of a legal challenge. With such an important issue under debate tonight, I am not prepared to take the risk of a Minister, a Department or the Assembly being hauled into the courts for breaking the Assembly's own rules and regulations. On that basis, we will suspend the debate.
The debate stood suspended.
Adjourned at 9.02 pm.