The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Revocation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:30 pm on 14 March 2022.

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Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 12:30, 14 March 2022

I beg to move

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Revocation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

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

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Members are considering a single statutory rule that removes the remaining COVID-19 restrictions from regulation. SR 2022/47, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Revocation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022, was made on 15 February and came into operation at 5.00 pm that day.

It had been the Executive's intention to review the remaining restriction regulations at their meeting on 10 February. Work had been done to assess the options available and the likely impact. In light of the position with the virus, the pressures upon the health service and the Executive's commitment not to have regulations in place any longer than necessary, I concluded that there was a case for ending the remaining legal restrictions. My conclusion also included a determination that the measures contained in the regulations should be the subject of official guidance to the public and to organisations.

It is worth noting the measures. Shop managers and anyone organising gatherings over a certain size should still conduct a risk assessment and take all reasonable measures to limit the risk of transmission. Managers of hospitality and entertainment venues should still conduct a risk assessment, take all reasonable measures to limit the risk of transmission and collect visitor information. Managers of tourist accommodation or close-contact services and anyone organising a wedding or civil partnership ceremony should still collect visitor information. Anyone organising a funeral or wake should still comply with Department of Health guidance on funerals. No one should meet indoors in groups of more than 30. COVID certification should still be used in hospitality and entertainment venues. People should wear a face covering in enclosed public areas; in premises such as restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs; on public transport; for driving instruction; and in close-contact service settings.

Due to matters beyond my control or that of my Department, the Executive meeting that was scheduled for 10 February did not take place. That resulted in some uncertainty, as any previous decisions in respect of COVID-19 regulations had been made at Executive level. Having reached my conclusion regarding the removal of restrictions, I sought legal clarity from the Attorney General on whether I could implement this policy and revoke the regulations without seeking a decision from the Executive.

In light of legal advice, I wrote to my fellow Executive Ministers on 10 February, seeking their views. I was pleased to note that my ministerial colleagues supported my approach, enabling me to take the decision. Therefore, I instructed my officials to revoke the remaining restrictions, with the legislation coming into effect on 15 February. However, while the legal restrictions may have come to an end, the pandemic certainly has not, and any measures that were in regulations have moved to guidance.

It is vital that we continue to observe the sensible measures that we have learned to use in order to protect ourselves and others, such as meeting outdoors where possible, good ventilation indoors, the use of high-quality face coverings where appropriate in indoor settings, self-isolation when symptomatic or after a positive test, and uptake of vaccination, including boosters. Those measures form a baseline of good practice for the foreseeable future, and they will contribute to reducing the risk for the most vulnerable members of society.

Furthermore, it is important to retain our ability to make regulations again in case of urgent need. As previously communicated to the Executive, I intend to seek an extension of six months to the powers granted to the Department by the Coronavirus Act 2020. In line with that legislation, I plan to bring those measures before the House in the near future. I sincerely hope that we will not need to use those powers, but I cannot assume that there will be no need to protect the public from a new variant in future. Even with those powers in place, however, it would almost certainly be impossible to introduce new restrictions in the absence of an Executive.

Again, I would like to take this 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 family and others safe but will undoubtedly help to keep our society and economy open and will reduce the pressures on our health system as we aim to return our society to normality. I commend the motion to the Assembly.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to make some brief remarks as Chair of the Health Committee on this matter. The Committee welcomes that we are in a place where we can look at how restrictions can be lifted. We got to this point thanks to the vast majority of the population who have been following the guidance and the rules through very difficult and challenging times. I thank everyone for their patience over that period.

We are also at this point thanks to the vaccination programme. I thank all those who have taken part in that programme, including GPs and their staff, pharmacies, other vaccinators in our centres and mobile teams. I will continue to encourage people to come forward to get their vaccinations and boosters when they can. Most importantly at this point, I wish to acknowledge the absolutely massive contribution of our health and social care staff, who have cared for our most vulnerable, our families and friends when we were unable to and, indeed, provided love and support to them in very difficult times. I thank them for all their work and for the support that they continue to provide to families and communities.

However, while it is welcome that we are considering the easing of restrictions, we are not through this pandemic yet. We consistently have more than 300 people with COVID in our hospitals, and we are seeing COVID-related deaths daily. It is therefore important that we all continue to play our part and follow the guidance, including wearing masks, social distancing and good hand hygiene, as appropriate.

The Committee was briefed on the rules by officials on 3 February and welcomes the clarity that was provided by the amendment to the wearing of face coverings regulations, which removed the requirement to provide proof of exemption and reinstated the reasonable excuse of severe distress. That issue caused the Committee some concern during its consideration of a previous rule and the Committee welcomes the clarity that is provided by this rule. However, I ask the Minister to provide further clarity — I know that he has touched on it — on his intention to extend the underpinning regulations. It will be useful to know whether the Health Minister is able to bring forward further rules if no First Minister and deputy First Minister are in place.

The Committee considered these regulations, and members agreed that they were content that they be approved by the Assembly.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP 12:45, 14 March 2022

I support the motion before the House to revoke these health regulations. We have had many such debates in the Chamber, and this is another one. That we are very much heading in the right direction is a good-news story.

I, too, thank all those involved in the incredible efforts against coronavirus, especially the vaccination roll-out, and applaud all those in the health service who, in the past couple of years, have struggled with treating ill patients. Indeed, we think of the families who have lost loved ones throughout the pandemic. We cannot forget their loss. Their grief is still there to be seen.

It is appropriate to support the motion. Like the Chair, I advise people that it is good to adhere to the guidance in place and to take common-sense action to protect themselves and others as we make our way, hopefully, through the final stages of the pandemic.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for bringing forward the regulations. As other Members have said, this is the sort of day that we hoped for when we introduced all those rules two years ago. We hoped that we would get to the stage at which we could start to undo the legislative requirements of people. It is key that we note that we are where we are today because so many people have gone the extra mile and done what they can, be that simply putting on a face mask when going into a shop. That may have helped to stop the virus spreading to all the people in the shop, who could have become very sick and ended up in hospital. We also thank our health service staff, who went the extra mile to do the work that they did. Like everybody else, they had to wear a mask and will still need to do so.

We want to see more of this sort of day, because it speaks to the fact that we are moving away from the virus. It is, however, still here. It is still present, and it therefore has the potential to spread. Some of the simplest methods to stop its spread are good hand hygiene, social distancing and continuing to wear a face mask. I know that many of us will continue to wear one when we are in places where we are in close contact with people. That is the type of intervention that will continue to help. I welcome this important step today, and I am delighted that the SDLP can support it.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I support the regulation changes today. I appreciate that the Minister was put in a difficult position by the absence of an Executive shortly before announcing the revocation. Nevertheless, I have two specific concerns.

First, I am concerned about the lack of scrutiny afforded to this step. Although the regulations were brought in under emergency legislation, it is unclear why they should be revoked without consultation when the emergency legislation to reinstate them is still in place. A few days before the announcement, it seemed to most of us that the next step in the removal of restrictions would be relatively minor. What was announced, however, was extremely significant: an outright revocation that went well beyond what any of our neighbours was doing at the time. Whatever our views on the rights and wrongs of that, we are left entirely unclear as to what expert advice enabled that step to be taken at the time.

That touches on the other aspect, which, as ever, is communications. Questions on the announcement were taken by a senior official, who was left to reveal that self-isolation after a positive test had never, in fact, been a legal requirement. For some time after the announcement, public signs and announcements in certain locations, such as on trains and buses, still stated that face coverings were mandatory, suggesting that there had been little warning that complete revocation of the regulations was expected across all public services. Of course, face coverings remained mandatory in schools, potentially causing further confusion about exactly on what grounds they were not legally necessary elsewhere.

Notably, while most of us broadly welcomed the move, not just because it enabled us to do more things freely but because it suggested conclusively that the omicron variant was not as severe, others did not see it that way. For some, not least those who are clinically vulnerable, it caused significant anxiety — we have covered that subject many times in the Health Committee in recent months — and there was no clear guidance on what they should do now. Some people were getting quite ill, and others were expressing extreme concern about what would happen if they contracted the virus, given their underlying condition. With daily numbers of infections still running in the thousands amongst a population of under two million, we must do far more to address that anxiety. I commend the many people and organisations who continue to act responsibly, not least on behalf of those clinically vulnerable people. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about guidance for those who are clinically vulnerable and who perhaps remain anxious about a virus that is still out there.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

This is an occasion to, once again, as others have said, praise the Northern Ireland public for how they have stepped up to the plate to help to curtail the spread of COVID infection. We have asked people to make personal, family and employment sacrifices. Thankfully, the majority of the public did exactly that. At the start of the pandemic, we were fearful about facing the complete collapse of our health service and about hospitals and GP practices collapsing with the sheer volume of people presenting with the infection. Because of all of the sacrifices that the public made and the public compliance, those doomsday scenarios were averted. The guidance in the regulations that were brought to the House definitely contributed to that situation.

The arrival of the vaccine was a game changer. We cannot praise enough or often enough all of the staff who were involved in coordinating that programme. Nearly 4 million doses of COVID vaccine have been administered, and that is on top of the annual routine flu vaccination. Everybody involved in that deserves the highest praise that we can give them.

I have noticed that a lot of people are still comfortable to wear a mask. That is fine. If they feel comfortable doing that, I encourage them to do so. I also encourage people, as others have done, to continue to take the simple, basic precautions that came out at the start: wash your hands, socially distance and do not go into crowded areas. I call on the public to continue to do that. I support the motion.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I rise to welcome the move by the Health Minister today but also to show concern that he uses this opportunity to slip into the House the fact that he intends to extend his powers for a further six months. Those powers were used to discriminate against people by preventing them from entering premises solely on the basis of their vaccination status, due to the vaccine certification scheme; close down gyms but leave open off-sales; close down businesses providing a service and a living; prevent people from earning a living and going to work; isolate people in care homes, away from their families and their care; and prevent loved ones from even attending vulnerable loved ones in their own homes or providing food and assistance in care. Those powers were also used to fine people who were swimming in the sea or walking along a beach. All of that was done without sufficient evidence, justification, information or data being provided to the population. No transparency or openness was provided to our people. People have suffered; in fact, people will suffer for years on end.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Yes, I will.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I have stood in the Chamber many times and criticised the Minister or challenged him to reveal evidence. On every occasion, he has come back to tell me where that evidence could be found. You have used the word "transparency": that was wrong, in this context. If you had wanted the information, you probably could have found it.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for her intervention. The people out there have not seen that evidence. When the Minister has mentioned some evidence, on most occasions, it has been outdated and scant. It has not been sufficient for the population out there, yet the Minister wants to extend his powers, in the midst of an election period when there will be no Executive and no Assembly to hold him to account. That is not sufficient or appropriate.

I ask the Minister why he is bringing that information to us on the back of another piece of legislation. Why does he not even make a contribution to the House on its own by making a statement justifying why he needs those powers?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call the Minister of Health, Robin Swann, to conclude and make a winding-up speech on the motion.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I very much welcome today's debate on the regulations to revoke the health protection restrictions regulations and the face covering regulations. I thank Members for their contributions.

I will turn to some of the points that Members made. I thank the Chair and the Deputy Chair for their continuing support, for their encouragement of the vaccine programme and for encouraging people to come forward to get the vaccine. Our vaccine programmes and clinics are still running, so I encourage anyone who can avail themselves of them to come forward and get it.

The Chair asked about who can make the extension in the absence of an Executive, and that touches slightly on Mr Frew's point. The purpose of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Powers to Act for the Protection of Public Health) Order (Northern Ireland) is to extend the expiry date of section 48 and the provisions in schedule 18 to the Coronavirus Act. Those are due to expire on 24 March 2022. I have written to the Business Committee asking that a debate be held on the extension, Mr Frew, so you will get the opportunity to have your say at that point. That debate will be on a six-month extension.

If an Executive is not formed or in place after the next election, implementation of the regulations will remain the responsibility of those mentioned in the regulations, on the basis that the expiry date of section 48 and schedule 18 will have been extended prior to the Assembly's dissolution. It is not clear whether further regulations could be brought in the absence of a functioning Executive. As I have said, that is because of the likelihood that any such decision would be controversial and cross-cutting, necessitating an Executive decision. Regarding any coronavirus regulations, I have often mentioned the fact that the decisions were taken by the Executive as a whole. I point out that, at one point, I received a message saying that the Executive collectively agreed the emergency procedures, including DUP Ministers: I thanked the leader of the DUP for his message at that point.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Minister agree that, while he wants to be able to take decisions that may save lives, for him to be criticised for doing so by people who are in a party that refuses to give us an Executive to take those decisions is downright cheeky? It is absolutely cheeky of people to sit here and say, "We are not going to give you an Executive. If the Executive need to take decisions to save lives, how dare anybody else do that?". It is the ultimate act of cheek. I wish that Members of certain parties would reflect on what they are depriving people of.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I will not expand on that, because I do not think that Members want to be here for as long as I could take. I note, however, that not all Members of a single party hold that position.

I have been supported in the past in statements made not just by ministerial colleagues and Health Committee members but, on a number of occasions, by the party leader. I thank the Member for his points about utilisation and the fact that, as we move from regulation to guidance, those baseline measures are in place. I encourage people to continue to follow them.

In an intervention, Ms Bradshaw talked about her ability to challenge and ask questions about the regulations. All members of the Health Committee have done that on all occasions on which my officials or I have been in front of them. As I have often said, the regulations have always been debated in the House in a way that I have not liked, but I pointed out recently that it has been left solely to me to bring them forward, rather than their being brought forward by the Executive as a collective. Ms Bradshaw made a point about communication on how the change was brought about. As I said in my opening comments, I communicated with all my ministerial colleagues, who said that they supported the step that was being taken and the date on which it was being taken. The Infrastructure, Education and Justice Ministers, and others, supported those steps. They were all aware of my intention, and they all supported it. They were also aware of the fallout for their respective arm's-length bodies and Departments.

Mr Chambers acknowledged the contribution of our healthcare workers and what has been done and brought about. Accusations were made about me slipping something in and not wanting a full debate. I took this opportunity to flag up the fact that the debate was coming. The Chair and members of the Health Committee are aware that that will be brought forward. It has been tabled through the Business Office, and I am seeking for it to be brought to the Business Committee for scheduling. I will be here to have that debate.

I hope that I have answered as many of the Members' queries and questions as was possible. I thank Members for their contributions today and throughout the entirety of the pandemic. I also thank the Health Committee for its invaluable scrutiny of the regulations throughout the process. Once again, I reiterate that, although the legal restrictions have come to an end, the pandemic certainly has not. I implore us all to follow the remaining guidance so that we can protect one another, protect our health service and support society's return to normality. I commend the regulations to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions, Wearing of Face Coverings) (Revocation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 be approved.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 1:00, 14 March 2022

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.