The next items of business are motions to approve four statutory rules (SRs), all of which relate to the health protection regulations. There will be a single debate on all four motions. The Minister will move the first motion and then commence the debate on the motions listed in the Order Paper. When all Members who wish to speak have done so, I shall put the Question on the first motion. I will then call the Minister to move the second motion. The Question will be put on that motion, and the process will be repeated for the remaining statutory rules. If that is clear to Members, we will proceed.
I beg to move
The following motions stood in the Order Paper:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 3) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]
Today, Members are considering four statutory rules that are narrow in scope and that implement the decisions of the Executive taken on 20 January 2022 to ease the restrictions. SR 2022/6, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022, was made on 14 January 2022. SR 2022/11, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022, was made on 21 January 2022 and came into operation at noon on the same day. SR 2022/12, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022, was made on 21 January and came into operation at noon on that day. SR 2022/16, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (Amendment No. 3) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022, was made on 26 January 2022.
At their meeting on 20 January, the Executive were given an update by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), who confirmed that Northern Ireland was likely to be past the peak in case numbers, although it remained a possibility that case numbers could rebound due to the impact of the return of schools. They also advised that hospital admissions and bed occupancy as a result of community transmission of COVID had peaked and were beginning to fall slowly. The data showed that a rise in COVID ICU occupancy was not expected in this wave and that the amendments to the regulations were a balanced and proportionate intervention based on the best available evidence.
Taking into account the improved outlook in hospital pressures, the Executive decided to relax some restrictions. They also decided that the requirement to provide proof of exemption from wearing a face covering should be removed and that the reasonable excuse of severe distress be reintroduced to the regulations. Therefore, while the requirement to provide proof of exemption may no longer apply, the other provisions remain.
Turning to the regulations that are the subject of debate today, with your permission, I will take the three coronavirus restrictions amendments first, followed by the amendment relating to face coverings.
The first set of amended regulations today is the amendment No. 6, which made minor amendments to ensure that the regulations fully aligned with the policy intent and did not make any substantive change to the restrictions. The amendments were, first, to amend the language used to describe how a person must remain in their seat in a theatre, concert hall, conference or exhibition venue or similar venue except to access their seat. They replaced the reference to accessing a table, which was relevant to a hospitality setting but not a performance venue. Secondly, they corrected the drafting of regulation 11, which had inadvertently become corrupted in the preparation of the regulations for publication. None of the changes made altered the policy intent.
The amendment (No. 2) regulations removed the requirement to be seated in performance venues and hospitality settings and removed the maximum number that can be seated at a table.
The amendment (No. 3) regulations amend the principal regulations to permit dancing in hospitality and other venues and the reopening of nightclubs. They amend the requirement for COVID status certification so that that applies only to nightclubs and indoor unseated or partially seated events with 500 people or more. They make an amendment so that failure to comply with regulation 3 is not an offence; that is to say that it is not an offence for a person responsible for a shop to breach their duty to take responsible measures to limit the transmission of the virus. They remove a statutory requirement for those responsible for office premises to have social distancing measures in place.
The amendment to the wearing of face coverings regulations removes the requirement to provide proof of exemption if requested by a relevant person and reinstates the reasonable excuse of severe distress.
As has been the case throughout the pandemic, any restrictions will be subject to regular review by the Executive. Likewise, all Ministers have repeatedly said that we will not retain restrictions for a day longer than is necessary. As always, if we are to step our way out of restrictions, both personal and public responsibility is required. I again take the opportunity to urge everyone to continue to make safer choices and follow the public health advice. Doing that will not only help to keep you, your families and others safe; you will undoubtedly play your part in keeping our society and economy open and in reducing the pressures that our health system faces as we move into the time of year that increases the pressures on our health service and its workers.
I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
I will make some brief remarks as the Chair of the Health Committee before making some comments as my party's health spokesperson.
The Committee welcomes the fact that we are in a place where we can look at lifting restrictions. We have got to that point thanks to the vast majority of the population following the guidance and rules through difficult and challenging times. I thank every one of them for their patience over this period. We are also at that point thanks to the vaccination programme, and I thank all those who took part in the vaccination programme, including GPs and their staff, pharmacies and other vaccinators in our centres and mobile teams. I continue to encourage people to get their vaccinations and boosters when they can. We are also at that point thanks to our Health and Social Care (HSC) staff, who cared for our most vulnerable, our families and our friends, often when we were unable to do so.
I thank them for all their work and for the support that they provided and continue to provide to our families and communities throughout the pandemic.
While it is welcome that we are considering the easing of restrictions, we are not through the pandemic yet. We have a consistent number of people — over 300 — in our hospitals with COVID, and we are seeing COVID-related deaths daily. Therefore, it is important that we all continue to play our part and follow the guidance, including wearing masks, social distancing and having good hand hygiene.
The Committee was briefed by officials on the statutory rules on 3 February. The Committee welcomes the clarity provided by the amendment that deals with the wearing of face coverings. That removes the requirement to provide proof of exemption and reinstates the reasonable excuse of severe distress. That issue caused the Committee some concern during its consideration of a previous statutory rule, and it welcomes the clarity provided by the amended rule.
I ask the Minister to provide some clarity on the process for bringing forward further COVID rules if there is no First Minister or deputy First Minister in place. It would be useful to hear from the Minister what powers there are to bring forward further rules.
The Committee considered the statutory rules and agreed that it was content for the rules to be approved by the Assembly.
I will now make some brief remarks as Sinn Féin's spokesperson for health. Many of the changes relate to the lifting of restrictions and the easing of some requirements. The Assembly and virtually all Members, at some point or another, have stressed that the restrictions should not be in place for any longer than they need to be. Given the evidence and advice to lift the restrictions, their lifting is, indeed, to be welcomed.
I also welcome the clarification of and changes that have been made to the face-covering regulations and the lifting of some restrictions on hospitality. However, the possibility of the further easing of restrictions may be in some doubt. As we debate the lifting of restrictions that affect hospitality and some of the most vulnerable, it has not gone unnoticed that the DUP seems intent on restricting the ability of the House and the Executive to deliver for people. I look forward to the Health Minister's announcement on the legal advice that he has sought on the making of future regulations.
Obviously, a lot of the focus today is on the regulations and the legal powers within them on, for example, the lifting of social-distancing requirements in nightclubs, workplaces and hospitality and entertainment settings. However, I and others are struck by the fact that, more than a week after the Minister stated that he had approved a plan to reopen day centres and respite services, we have seen nothing to date. The current guidance and direction are not contained in legislation, yet, as we ease restrictions on nightclubs and other hospitality settings, day centres and respite services are no better off than they were last week or last month. I plead with the Minister to make his plan public and to act urgently on something that is within his power to provide relief and respite to hard-pressed carers.
First, I express my condolences to those who lost loved ones in recent weeks as the result of COVID-19. While society continues to embrace a return to normality, it is important to remember that there are those who mourn and for whom that return to normality will be more difficult, having suffered loss. Furthermore, it is worth reiterating our support for front-line healthcare workers who continue to care for those with COVID-19 in our hospitals, for those who work in the care home sector and, indeed, for all those who are involved in management across the trusts, as they battle winter and pandemic pressures in light of high levels of staff absence. A huge thank you must go to all those, at every level of the health service, who have been at the coalface of the pandemic. We owe a great deal of gratitude to each and every one of those individuals.
The amendments represent, once more, the improving situation and the step-by-step return to what we once took for granted. The previous time that I spoke in the Chamber on COVID regulations, I spoke of the devastating impact that the pandemic, and the regulations that had been brought forward, had had on our hospitality industry. I do not need to repeat my previous comments, but I add that the progress in these amendments — on table numbers, seating requirements, dancing, the reopening of nightclubs and so on — is a welcome boost to the hospitality sector and, indeed, to all in wider society who enjoy a night out or catching up with friends.
The reinstatement of severe distress as an exemption to the wearing of face coverings and the removal of the offence that went with that particularly bad move is very much welcomed.
We must continue to look at ways of supporting our hospitality sector to recover. In that regard, I know that my colleagues at Westminster are lobbying for the VAT reduction to 12·5% to be extended to at least the end of this year. That would be a great help to local businesses, and I trust that the Finance Minister is making similar representations to the Treasury on that matter. It is now my hope that the Health Minister can use the powers that I hope he has — I look forward to getting clarity on that — to move ahead with the withdrawal of the remaining regulations and to take that final step, as a society, back to normality.
For the past two years, the Minister has repeatedly said that he will not play party politics with the pandemic. I shared that view and worked with him throughout that challenging time. On occasion, I could have chosen to disagree with the Minister, but I stood with him, as many of us did, in order to combat and get through COVID-19. For anyone to play politics now with the removal of regulations would be entirely wrong, so I welcome the comments made by the Minister yesterday that he believes, as I do, that the restrictions must be lifted this week and that he will endeavour to do so. Reaching this point in the pathway out of the pandemic is very welcome for every person in Northern Ireland who wants our home lives, workplaces and social lives to return to normal and who wants to see our young people and children back enjoying the full experience of the youth that they deserve to enjoy.
We have always said that restrictions should be in place only for as long as is strictly necessary. Therefore, we welcome the Minister's announcement earlier this week. We want the direction of travel that the Minister has outlined and to which he has committed to become irreversible. As vaccination rates remain high and natural immunity increases, there should be a shift to encouraging responsible personal choices and providing very clear guidance. It is important that any legal advice that the Minister has commissioned also clarifies the basis for reintroducing restrictions or extending powers, should a new and serious wave of the virus emerge in the coming weeks and months. I support the motions before us today.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on these statutory rules today. I am fully aware that they allow for the easing of some restrictions that have since been amended, but that is the nature of the legislative process that we have dealt with over the past two years. In summary, the first statutory rule that we are discussing today is a technical amendment, the second one removes the need to be seated and the cap on the number of people at tables, and the third permits dancing and live music once again. The last one relates to face coverings. It removes the requirement to prove an exemption and allows for a reasonable excuse for not wearing a face covering. We will, of course, support those statutory rules today, as we have throughout the past two years.
It has been a period of unprecedented crisis and, for some of us at least, continuous learning, such is the nature of an unknown and unseen virus. It forces us to constantly have to respond to its evolving presence, and, as the Health Minister detailed for us, it has been through the collective efforts of everybody working together that we have been able to turn this corner today.
We all have been working together for the past two years, but today we heard that, even without a First Minister and a deputy First Minister, the Health Minister may be able to remove further restrictions. The public will welcome that. Businesses will certainly welcome it, though, as the Health Minister rightly said, it cannot be a free-for-all. The public have worked with us for the past two years. They distanced themselves from their families and friends and did every single thing that we asked of them. We were truly all in it together. However, at the last minute, the DUP has walked away. Suddenly, the hard Brexit that it championed seems to be more important than the COVID restrictions and public health. I wonder whether that has been the case —
Does the Member agree that, while my colleagues and I are here, we are debating legislation, and that legislation will go through, we cannot forget that the protocol is costing £2·5 million per day in Northern Ireland? Yet I am here and debating important legislation today. I have not walked away, and certainly the DUP will continue to debate legislation here.
Say that to the family whose family member has died. Say to a relative of someone who has died as a result of the pandemic, which we have tried to prevent with these regulations, that financial issues in another policy area should impact on our capacity to legislate on this matter. The families of those who died will not find much comfort in it being argued that, somehow or other, there is a legitimisation of another policy area and that it can impact on this one. They would struggle with that.
The regulations that we discuss today — I do not want to deviate from the business at hand — have been a key tool in our fight against COVID. When the leader of the DUP was all over the media last week saying that, in removing the First Minister, he had allowed the Health Minister to remain in post so that he could do the business, that was generous of him. However, if you can excuse my frustration, Mr Deputy Speaker, I say that it is the business of this place to legislate for the good of people. If our COVID response is to work, this place must work in the entirety of its parts. If some parties feel that their narrow, blinkered agenda is more important than the health of the public and our education services, perhaps they need to reassess why they are here in the first place.
We will support these regulations and do what we can to continue to help our communities to get through the COVID pandemic.
We have asked families across Northern Ireland to make many personal sacrifices in their daily lives over the last two years, in particular with regard to the education of their children and grandchildren. Those with loved ones in residential care were hard hit by the restrictions that had to be imposed on visiting to prevent the transmission of COVID into those vulnerable settings.
We also asked the public, when the game changer of vaccination came along, to avail themselves of the vaccine, and they did so in their tens of thousands. We owe a debt of gratitude to that public cooperation. Unfortunately, many others took a different view, but that was their choice.
The very fact that we are here today discussing relaxations in the regulations and guidance around COVID is due to public adherence and to the dedication of our health and social care staff and volunteers, who not only nursed the sick at great personal risk at times but rolled out the vaccination programme, which was such a huge success and a credit to everyone involved.
The Minister of Health has maybe been placed in a difficult position by the events of the last few days. He has made it clear in his public statements over the last few days that he is keen to see the regulations being relaxed as far as they can be at this time. I hope that that legal advice does allow him to repeal regulations that, we cannot forget, were put in place at the will of the entire Executive. I hope that the legal eagles will take the view that it would be well in the public interest to allow the Minister to intervene on an individual basis and to repeal and relax the regulations.
I have put this on record many times, but we cannot put it on record often enough: the House sends its sympathy to all those who have lost loved ones. I know many families who have lost mothers, grandmothers and fathers during this terrible pandemic. We must also not forget the hundreds of people who are still suffering from the various long-term symptoms that they have been left with because of the virus. The medical profession does not have all the instant answers to that, but I am sure that there is a lot of research going on in the background to find ways to help those people who are still suffering from the effects of COVID.
Finally, we cannot put on record often enough our absolute gratitude to all the staff in our health and social care system. Pharmacists, doctors, GPs, nurses, health visitors — I do not want to leave people out — and the entire health and social care family have really stepped up to the plate and, at times, at personal risk. Once again, I put on record my personal gratitude and that of the Ulster Unionist Party. Today, we certainly support the Minister in all his efforts to relax the regulations.
On behalf of the Alliance Party, I will support the regulations today. The last time these regulations were debated, we were all aware that the changes that we are now seeing and that are being debated would be coming, so I do not intend to repeat many of the points that were made previously by my colleague Paula Bradshaw MLA.
It is worth following the logic. We have moved to allow some venues that were closed to open, subject to presentation of a relevant COVID pass, and we have allowed venues that were already open, by and large, to operate free from COVID passes and the rule of six. It may be noted that COVID passes remain a recommendation. Venues may feel that they may benefit from using them as a risk-reducing mitigation, but it is now left to them to use their judgement.
The changes to the face coverings regulations are the ones that my colleague Paula Bradshaw spoke about during a previous debate. Alliance was never totally convinced that the Christmas changes in that area would be practicably implementable — that is hard to say. The announcement of changes caused genuine stress to many, and they will welcome this absolute confirmation that they will not be pursued. These regulations constitute a very sensible way out of restrictions. They allow for significant and greater freedoms to be restored while leaving measures in place that will restrict spread and act as a clear and present reminder to the public that there is a declining but still very present risk from the virus to public health.
As we all know, we were due to take further steps on 10 February, but some have opted to make that difficult and leave those decisions on the shoulders of the Minister of Health. Suffice to say that health is Alliance's priority, even if it is not the priority of others.
For clarity, these regulations apply predominantly to hospitality venues, with some technical changes applying to areas such as the vehicle used for driving instruction. None of them applies to schools. What is going on in schools is, first, instructive. Secondly, it is highly frustrating for those working in schools that the provision and use of filtration or ventilation systems seem to be sporadic, and many teachers are left baffled as to what the strategy is. Regulations are clearly in place to reduce the spread in other public spaces, yet that is not evident to many schoolteachers. There is a very practical impact. Many teachers get the virus and have to self-isolate, leaving schools short-staffed and constantly playing catch-up. Exam year students are not having the continuity of teaching that they need to prepare them to sit written exams, most for the first time ever. It remains unclear what the strategy in schools is concerning the virus, taking account of the understanding that it is airborne and particularly that omicron is so infectious.
This debate concerns the regulations, and we still have time to consider and plan for what lies ahead, even though we are now in far from ideal circumstances. I trust that planning is ongoing across Health and Education. Like the Chair of the Health Committee, I ask the Minister to clarify what will happen to the restrictions, and their further easing, if a First Minister is not renominated by this Thursday. Can he clarify how they will move forward?
I welcome today's debate on the three amendments to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations and the amendment to the face coverings regulations. I thank Members for their contributions. Ms Armstrong's last question about what will happen is the most pertinent. As yet, I have not received legal advice on what will happen, where the powers lie and what steps I can take. We knew and understood what the process was prior to the First Minister's resignation. Now, however — not for the first time, unfortunately — we are in uncharted waters.
As I said yesterday, it was my intention to go to the Executive this week to advocate the removal of COVID restrictions. In the absence of an Executive, however, I am seeking, as I said, legal guidance on how I can replace the bulk, if not all, of the remaining restrictions with clear guidance and advice. As I said, it would be intolerable if we were to find ourselves in the position of being advised that this week is the time to lift remaining restrictions but had no legal or political mechanism to do so. I await legal advice on what options I currently have. Let me be clear, however: the easiest way to have ensured that the restrictions were lifted would have been not to collapse the Executive last week. As they say, a week is a long time in politics. The Executive were due to meet on Thursday, and that decision could have been made there.
I will respond to those points in reverse order. The current sunset date for the regulations is 24 March. I think that it was Ms Cameron who asked what ability there would be to reintroduce or extend —
Apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I think that it was Ms Cameron who asked what ability there would be to reintroduce or extend powers if necessary, should there be another variant or an international requirement. That is also being explored. The basis for the regulations is the Public Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. As I have always said at the Dispatch Box, all decisions to date have been made by the collective authority of the Executive, so we need to seek legal guidance. The Member will be fully aware that I need to seek that clarification before I can announce any further iterations or make decisions on my own, as Minister of Health.
Thank you very much for giving way. I want to follow on from the last remarks. Interestingly, if the Health Minister was able to take the decisions all along, he was not the one who was out announcing those to the public and who was seen as the guardian of the public. Other Ministers got out there and took to the fore in order to make sure that they got the limelight for that. Now that they are not in position, it is suddenly your issue, and you have to deal with it.
Will you undertake to publish this week the medical evidence suggesting that the regulations can be relaxed? That is especially important if they are not relaxed because, legally, you cannot do so. It is important that the public realise exactly why, if regulations can be relaxed, that is not being done.
I thank the Member for that point. He may not be aware, but I thought that, being a member of the Health Committee, he would be, that the Department continues to publish the R paper every week and put it online. The Executive met fortnightly, but we continue to produce that weekly update.
I will return to some of the decisions that demonstrate that anything to do with COVID was a collective responsibility of the Executive.
I remind Members, although they will be fully aware of this, that in, I think, November 2020, a cross-community vote was taken in the Executive not to proceed at a certain point with recommendations that came forward. That demonstrates that, legally, that power rested with the Executive as a body corporate, but, as I said, I have not received the final legal advice on what responsibilities or powers lie with me as a Minister, given where we are politically.
I replicate and reiterate the Chair's words of thanks to the people of Northern Ireland for the steps that they have taken and the dedication and support that they have shown in following the regulations and guidance over the past two years. We need to continue to take those steps because we are not yet completely out of the situation. I encourage anyone who has still to come forward to take part in the vaccination programme, whether that is because they have not started it or still have to complete it, to take the opportunity to do so while the vaccine is here.
The Deputy Chair, Ms Pam Cameron, reminded us that, unfortunately, there are still people losing their lives due to the virus but that there are things that we can all do and continue to do. She is right. I know that there were times when it was difficult for her and her party to support some of the propositions that I was bringing forward, but they did, because we knew that it was right to have that collective support to combat COVID, and we continue to have that. I thank her for the encouragement to seek further guidance on the ability to reintroduce or extend powers should that be necessary, considering where we currently sit.
Mr McGrath's comments re-emphasise the commitment and all-party support that I still see and feel in the House for our health service and those who work in it. I hope that that apolitical support continues over the next weeks and months because it will be crucial as we see what happens and what our health service needs to do as it re-engages in the work that it wants to do.
Mr Chambers talked about the game changer, which is our vaccination programme. Again, I encourage anyone who has not yet taken up availability in any stage of the vaccination programme to come forward, should that be for a first dose, second dose or booster dose. I encourage everybody to do that, because we have seen the difference that our vaccination programme has made to the seriousness of the illness, hospitalisation rates and pressures on our ICU. Mr Chambers commented on the legal eagles who are out there. We have found a new cohort of legal eagles on social media who have moved from being experts on epidemiology to being experts on legality and what lies in regulations and law.
Ms Armstrong made a point on the schools issue. That has been raised by the Education Committee, and there has been a recall for a debate in the House on it, but, as the Member will be aware, schools and education have always sat outside the regulations. The recommendations that we provide and the advice and guidance that are given to schools and boards of governors to follow are a conjoined piece of work between the Department of Education, the Education Authority, the Public Health Agency and we in the Department of Health.
I hope that I have answered as many —
Minister, do you understand the frustration of those who have had the services of day centres and respite care removed? Given that we are welcoming today the relaxation of restrictions and a return to at least some degree of normality, those people still do not have access to those services. Will you advise us when the trusts will bring forward plans to reinstate the services in full?
I thank the Member. I apologise to the Chair, because he had raised that point. The Member will be aware that when I was most recently here for Question Time, I said that I had given instructions to the trusts to include in their three-monthly rebuild plans details on when those services would be up and running again. I will get that clarity for the Chair from each of the trusts when those plans are updated and published.
I hope that I have answered as many Members' queries and questions as possible. In closing, I remind Members that the choices that we make now will be crucial in ensuring that the virus does not begin to spread once more. As we continue to remove the remaining restrictions, our society will move closer to a return to normal life. As we move through one of the most difficult times that we have faced throughout the pandemic, we are again asking everyone to look after themselves and one other by following the simple precautions: get your first and second vaccine doses and your booster; limit your social contacts; meet outdoors when possible; if meeting indoors, make sure that the rooms are well-ventilated; wear a face covering in crowded indoor spaces; take a lateral flow test before meeting others; and practise good hand and respiratory hygiene.
By making safer choices, following public health advice and complying with the regulations, we can all play our part to help lower the spread of COVID-19. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved: