The order, which was laid in draft on 11 January this year, seeks to extend section 48 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the provisions contained in schedule 18 to same for a period of six months from 24 March to 24 September. Section 48, along with schedule 18, inserts powers into the Public Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 to make health protection regulations for the purpose of preventing, protecting against, controlling or providing a public health response to the incidence or spread of infection or contamination relating to coronavirus in Northern Ireland.
Whilst the order provides powers to make regulations, it would remain a matter for the Executive to decide on the need to make further regulations. Whilst that might not be a detail that suits the narrative being presented by some, it is a clear point of fact nonetheless. This is not the first time in recent weeks that the House has debated extensions to an element of the 2020 Act, yet I am aware of inaccurate claims emanating from some quarters as to the real purpose and rationale of the order.
People will, of course, occasionally come forward with entirely genuine questions or seek particular points of clarification. However, not for the first time, a very small number of people, including some in the House, who should really know better, are seeking deliberately to misinform and distort the truth of what we are doing today. Even after so long, it is clear that some still choose not to let facts get in the way of their own objectives.
I make it absolutely clear that I, as much as anyone else, want us to permanently cast off the shadow of COVID-19 and the prospect of any further restrictions. I have seen the real harm that both can do. I have looked into the faces of enough broken health workers. I have seen the immense societal and economic disruption that they can cause, and, probably at closer quarters than most, I have seen the damage that they can inflict on other key health and social care services.
Despite the genuine experts who urge cautious optimism, despite all the global evidence that we could have asked for over the last two years and despite the vast majority of people recognising that it would be utter madness to blindly follow a narrow ideological path, we still have a small minority of people who are so blinded by their own opinion, genuinely held or not, that they cannot understand what the implications of rejecting the order would be. Today's debate is a useful opportunity, once again, to set the record straight on the exact rationale for and purpose of the order.
Our primary public health legislation is the Public Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, and it provided the base on which we made coronavirus restriction regulations to protect public health during the pandemic. However, the 1967 Act does not provide regulation-making powers to respond to COVID-19 in the same way as our neighbouring jurisdictions in England and Wales can respond, nor as provided for by similar legislation in Scotland. The Coronavirus Act 2020 did. However, it allows the use of temporary powers to enable my Department to make regulations that are consistent with any provisions made in the rest of the United Kingdom under its existing equivalent powers. These temporary provisions were used extensively throughout the pandemic in the making and amending of general restrictions and international travel regulations. To date, around 70 sets of domestic restrictions and face covering regulations and approximately 64 sets of international travel regulations have been made.
While I had never envisaged having to make those regulations, they were crucial in our fight against COVID. During the pandemic, the severity of the situation changed rapidly, and the regulation-making powers enabled my Department to act quickly to introduce legislation that supported efforts to prevent or control the infection and the spread of infection, helping to save lives.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 expires two years after commencement unless Parliament decides to extend it. When it ceases to have effect, all secondary legislation made to date under the temporary modifications made to the Public Health Act by section 48 of the Coronavirus Act will also cease to have effect. Unlike other UK jurisdictions, however, Northern Ireland will revert to a position of not having public health regulation-making powers specific to coronavirus unless and until primary legislation, including such provision, could be brought before the Assembly. In plain terms, if the draft order does not pass today, after 24 March, we will not be able to legislate to protect public health in the event of a worsening of the pandemic. Not only will the powers on domestic restrictions be removed but so will the powers relating to international travel.
In the past, I have been clear in saying that we are, thankfully, already in a position where we have revoked all restriction regulations. The full relaxation of the international regulations came into effect at 4.00 am on 18 March. I would prefer not to have any more restrictions put in place. However, the virus continues to pose a risk as it remains in circulation, and it is difficult to predict its trajectory or the possible emergence of new variants of concern. It is, therefore, imperative that we have the necessary powers, should they be required.
If Members vote against the order, I hope that they will at least attempt to explain why, in their opinion, such essential possible safeguards, which will, hopefully, never be utilised, are no longer required or should not even be held in reserve. On matters of such seriousness, I hope that Members will engage in more genuine debate, rather than just provide sweeping generalities.
Let us also remember that extending the order was also the collective view of all my Executive colleagues. I wrote to them on two occasions, 12 October 2021 and 20 December 2021, advising them of my intention to lay the draft order. Not a single objection or concern was raised by any ministerial colleague — not one. Therefore, I will say to those who will possibly stand up today and protest that I am not sure where their parties and their concerns or objections were only a number of weeks ago.
It is for the reasons that I explained that I propose to use the powers in section 90(2) of the Coronavirus Act 2020 to extend the operation of section 48 of that Act for six months by means of the order. That is to provide the minimum powers that are necessary to deal effectively with coronavirus comparable to the position in other UK jurisdictions. If the extension order is made, the intention is to use the additional time that is provided by the extended expiry date to review and update the 1967 Act in order to bring it into line with the situation in other jurisdictions. However, that will require extensive work and will take some considerable time. Ultimately, it will be for a future Health Minister and Executive to make a decision on that.
The Executive had intended to review the remaining restriction regulations at their meeting of 10 February. Having initially tabled the motion to approve the order prior to that date, I decided to withdraw the motion ahead of that meeting to allow a full Executive discussion about the trajectory of the virus so as not to preclude any Executive decision on regulations. As we know, for reasons elsewhere, that Executive meeting never took place and there has not been a meeting since.
As I said in the Chamber just last week, while the legal restrictions may have come to an end, the pandemic certainly has not. Following the revocation of the remaining restriction regulations on face coverings, I still deem the extension of the powers to be imperative, and, as such, I re-tabled the motion for the draft order to be approved. Should the need arise, we must have sufficient powers to allow us to continue our fight against COVID-19, as we have done with great effect since March 2020.
Devolved Administrations are also working with the UK Government on contingency measures that can be ramped up in the event of another variant of concern that warrants the implementation of travel restrictions. Some aspects of those contingencies will require new travel regulations, for which primary powers will be required. Further, as I said, even with those powers in place, it would almost certainly be impossible to introduce new restrictions in the absence of an Executive.
I suppose that is the crux of the debate. We had to seek legal advice to lift even the last set of regulations. As I said, even if those powers that the order would give were in place, it would almost certainly be impossible to introduce new restrictions in the absence of an Executive. Should the order be approved and an extension made to the expiry date for the powers, it is likely that any decision to implement restriction regulations would be controversial and cross-cutting and, as such, would necessitate an Executive decision, and that is a position that I would support.
Finally, I reiterate to Members that the extension of this order is merely an insurance policy. We do not want to have to avail ourselves of it, but it is there should the worst happen. None of us in the House wants to see any further restrictions in place, and I certainly hope that we have seen the last of any such measures. However, despite the appeal to some of grandstanding on the issue, I simply cannot risk being in a position where we cannot protect public health, which I firmly believe will be the case if the powers are not extended. I commend the order to the Assembly.
I will make some very brief remarks as Chair of the Health Committee and then some comments as my party's health spokesperson.
The Committee welcomes that we are in a place where restrictions are being eased and that it seems that we are returning to a more normal situation. However, it has been a long and difficult two years. Many in our communities have lost loved ones to COVID. The figure on the Department website today is 3,274 total deaths, with over 10,000 right across this island. These have been two very difficult years for those families, and our thoughts are with each and every one of them.
Over the past two years, we have seen our health workers stretched beyond any reasonable expectation, yet they have shown real strength in helping us to get through the pandemic. Let us not be complacent, Members. COVID continues to be an issue in our hospitals, with 484 patients in hospitals at present. That is a sign that, although things are beginning to return to normal, COVID has not gone away. I ask people to continue to follow the guidance and advice, including by wearing face coverings, social distancing and practising good hand hygiene.
The Committee was first made aware of this rule when we received it as an SL1 in November. Members received a short briefing on the SL1 and asked for some further information, including details of the powers that had been used and further information on what would happen in the event that an Executive is not formed after the next election. We asked where, in that event, responsibility would lie for implementation of regulations that may be needed. The Committee received a response from the Minister in January outlining the powers that had been used and those that had not. The Minister also advised that, if an Executive is not formed or in place, implementation of the regulations will remain the responsibility of those mentioned in the regulations: that is, the Department of Health.
The regulation was then laid in the Assembly back in January, and there was some confusion in relation to the regulation being scheduled for debate. At its meeting on 8 March, the Committee was informed that the Minister intended to take forward the regulation and was subsequently briefed on the rule on 15 March. The Committee highlighted that the rule would allow the Department to respond quickly if other problematic variants are identified and measures need to be put in place. Members considered that a sensible and reasonable approach and were content with the regulation. I note that the DUP members present at the meeting did not take part in the Committee's formal agreement of the rule.
I will make some very brief remarks as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. While it is certainly welcome that, because of a combination of factors — the vaccination programme, better treatments and the enduring work of our health and social care services — we are in a better place, these have been very difficult and, at times, very dark days. We need to guard against complacency. There is an old saying that the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining. It is incumbent on us to learn the lessons from the pandemic and work together across these islands, and, crucially, on this island, to ensure that, should further variants of concern emerge or, indeed, should there be other viruses or pandemics in the future, we will be better able to respond and be better prepared. I would welcome any update from the Minister on the work that is ongoing across the island and on his approach, as Minister of Health, in recognition that this island is a single epidemiological unit and must work together, now and in the future, to protect and guard all our populations from disease and viruses.
Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to speak on this important motion on the draft Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Powers to Act for the Protection of Public Health) Order (Northern Ireland) 2022. DUP Members are unwhipped on this motion, so I speak as an individual MLA.
We understand that this legislation is to extend article 48 of, and schedule 18 to, the Coronavirus Act 2020 in order to retain powers to make emergency legislation, and that those current powers are to expire this Thursday, 24 March. The legislation would extend those powers for six months, until 24 September 2022.
We are painfully aware of the outworkings of those powers in managing the coronavirus pandemic since 2020. Some of the notable powers in schedule 18 are paragraph 25B, "Health protection regulations: international travel etc"; paragraph 25C, "Health protection regulations: domestic"; paragraph 25F, "Health protection regulations: supplementary", which is used to create offences; paragraphs 25G, 25H, 25I, 25J, 25K, 25L and 25M, which relate to Magistrates' Court order powers, and which have not been used; paragraph 25N, "Power to make further provision by regulations", which also have not been used; paragraph 25Q, "Emergency procedure", which allows certain regulations, which, otherwise, would have been subject to the draft affirmative procedure, to be made without a draft of the regulations first having been laid before and approved by the Assembly; paragraph 25R, "Powers of entry"; and paragraph 25T, "Offence of obstruction".
We also understand that Scotland intends to make these emergency powers permanent through the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) Bill. England and Wales have permanent powers in place, and the Irish Republic has extended its remit of comparable powers until September.
It might have been more appropriate or, perhaps, desirable had a selective approach been taken in relation to which powers were to be extended, especially given that not all of the powers had been used. I ask the Minister whether it is appropriate to extend powers that have not had to be used. I also ask whether pre-existing legislative provisions covering public health emergencies might be sufficient in governing Northern Ireland through the COVID recovery phase.
The Minister outlined the practical difficulties that may exist around the absence of an Executive. It is unclear as to whether he alone can use these powers. I would appreciate the Minister addressing those points in his winding-up speech.
I, for one, completely understood and supported the introduction of the powers at the beginning of the pandemic. I remember well the fear that I felt for those around me whom I knew would be more vulnerable to the highly infectious COVID-19. I am glad that, as a nation, we acted responsibly, heeded the public health advice and acted in a way that protected each other.
Health Committee members have spoken dozens of times in the Chamber on the health regulations, often weeks after those regulations had already come into effect. Every one of us has been highly frustrated at scrutinising and debating what has already passed, but we understood the nature of the emergency legislation and why it was appropriate at that time. It is fair to say that every Member would choose democracy, the timely processing of legislation and the vital scrutiny of legislation before changes become law, as is normal fashion with any other type of legislation in the House. In short, I would not choose to legislate in this fashion under anything other than the most serious of public health emergencies, such as that which we have just been through.
I trust that this legislation will not have to be used again, given where we are in the pandemic and the fact that we are heading to more favourable weather and, hopefully, leaving behind the additional winter pressures. That should see some easement in the capacity in our hospitals in particular.
I cannot mention hospitals without paying tribute to our incredible healthcare workers: every doctor, nurse, porter, cleaner, cook, dentist; pharmacist; and every individual who played a part, and continues to play a part, in the incredible vaccine roll-out or our PHA contact-tracing services. We owe each and every one of those amazing individuals a debt of gratitude for their selfless work ethic and for putting others above themselves. I put on record my thanks to every person in that sector who has played a part in what has been the most extraordinary and challenging time in Northern Ireland and, in fact, the most challenging time that the world has seen.
In conclusion, I thank the Minister and his officials, who have worked hard in what have been incredibly difficult times, and the entire Executive, who made very difficult decisions that were, very often, very unpopular. I will be abstaining on the motion for the reasons that I have outlined.
I am glad to be participating in the debate. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020, we have had a number of tools at our disposal to try to combat the virus. One of those tools has been the trust that we have been able to place in the Health Minister, through these powers, to respond quickly and effectively to the ever-changing nature of the virus as it spread so rapidly through our communities. The powers that were given to the Health Minister were achieved through our collective humanitarian and political will. Although I believe that the humanitarian will is still very strong across the House, the political will has regrettably diminished in some sections.
Should we fail to extend these powers today, they will expire on Thursday, and we will not have the ability to respond quickly or effectively to the virus, which, as I can attest to, is still very much alive in our community. In our fight against the virus, there must be accountability in government. Although our response to the virus has been made collectively, it is to the Health Minister whom MLAs have gone when we have had questions. It is the Health Minister who has been accountable for the decisions taken, and that has not been an easy task.
Disgracefully, one party in the House has collapsed our Executive. It refuses to nominate a First Minister. It has drawn its own red lines ahead of an Assembly election, which may mean that, after 5 May, who knows what our capacity to form an Executive once again will be? As a result, should these powers expire on Thursday and should there be no Executive following the election, there will be no final point of accountability and decision-making. As is quite often the case in these matters, people complain to us that they do not want these decisions to be taken. Perhaps we can ask the Health Minister to explain to us what the alternative is if we do not have the capacity to take them. What is the alternative if there is a need to do so?
From his experience, does the Minister know of any other place that has been left without the capacity to take these decisions? Sometimes, whenever everybody else is doing something and people suggest to us that we do not do it, we should give that some consideration. I implore those DUP Members who, I know, hold that humanitarian will very close to their heart to see the bigger picture. Their actions will have a ripple effect on our capacity to respond to the virus and other issues, not excluding the crippling cost-of-living emergency that we are also facing. The SDLP will be supporting the motion.
I support the motion. It enables the maintenance of the emergency law around coronavirus for six months so that, in practice, in the event of a public health emergency arising from a new wave based on a new variant of the virus, we can reintroduce public health measures to reduce its onward infection.
It is worth emphasising that, in the absence of a functioning Executive, the law can be used only on the same basis as that on which all restrictions were removed last month, which is with the written consent of Ministers representing all parties in the Executive. That renders the law less draconian than some like to claim ahead of an election. It also demonstrates, however, how the uncertainty around the future of a functioning Executive is a relevant consideration.
More broadly, I have to say that there is difficulty with the key argument against maintaining the law, namely that it is about freedom. We could have argued that — indeed, some did — when cases fell close to zero in the summer of 2020, yet the virus rebounded. We could have argued that at this time a year ago, when the first dose of the vaccine seemed to be reducing not just illness but the spread of the virus, yet the delta variant emerged, and the virus rebounded. We could argue that now, yet the truth is that we do not know what lies ahead.
Death rates connected to the virus in some territories in the Far East are spiralling to record levels, and there is some uncertainty over why that is the case.
When the departmental official came to the Health Committee last week, I asked for an assurance that there would be no further such waves here, and, of course, he could not give such an assurance.
It is worth noting at this point that the only thing that is evident about those territories experiencing a further wave of hospitalisations is that they are territories where vaccination levels, particularly among the older population, are low. It is reinforcing the point that vaccines work and that, in fact, vaccines are perhaps the best argument against the extension.
All of that would still probably not be enough for us, as a liberal party, to justify maintaining emergency laws at this stage but for one further vital consideration: we are about to enter the election period, and there is considerable uncertainty about the formation of a functioning Executive, which may eat into some, if not all, of the coming six months. One particular party has caused the uncertainty in that regard and seems intent on continuing to do so. Without an Executive and with no emergency law in place, if something were to happen with the virus, there would be no practical means of introducing Executive legislation or managing a swift, cross-departmental response. Even if the chances of our needing to do that are low — who knows what they are in practice — we simply cannot leave ourselves entirely undefended with no future means of defence while there is still a deadly virus out there and so much political uncertainty about it. Therefore, on balance, and with respect to those raising valid views against the extension, we will not be raising an objection to it. Naturally, we sincerely hope and believe that it is the last one.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the legislation. As my colleague Pam Cameron pointed out, the DUP Members are unwhipped on this particular issue, so I will speak in my individual capacity and as a member of the Health Committee.
From the outset, as this matter deals with COVID regulations and powers, I take the opportunity to extend my sympathies to those who have sadly died as a result of COVID-19. I also pay tribute to our health service staff, who have had to cope with pressures in handling COVID and dealing with a pandemic. They have had a very stressful number of years, trying to save lives, and they are still under extreme pressure in our hospital settings. COVID is still here. I know; I had it last week. I lost my voice, which is not great for a politician, but, thankfully, I recovered. Thankfully, we are in a better place with the vaccine, and I was very glad to have had my three jabs, which minimised my symptoms.
I am glad that we are in a place where the virus is such that we are able to relax the restrictions that we have had. However, I also recognise that the restrictions have been draconian at times. The Minister will know that I was not in favour of COVID vaccine certificates, most notably. As far as I can see, they were ushered in as quickly as they were ushered out. Businesses and families have really struggled with the changing nature of the COVID restrictions and, in fact, with the restrictions as a whole. They have had major ramifications for the economy, our health service, mental health and domestic abuse. We have to remember that home was not always the safest place for people.
I understand that we have no crystal ball, but I wish that we all did. The legislation will extend article 48 of and schedule 18 to the Coronavirus Act 2020 for a further six months until 24 September. If I had that crystal ball, we would know what will happen between now and then, but we do not. I understand that other jurisdictions have legislated for emergency powers in situations relating to COVID. As a member of the Health Committee, I understand why the legislation is before us. However, I will abstain today, given that I have concerns regarding how these powers may affect lives and livelihoods here. I also understand that, should a variant emerge in another country, we may need to mitigate its impact by putting in place some restrictions and travel regulations for the protection of public health. I welcome the opportunity to outline my views this afternoon.
First, I pay tribute to all the people who, over the last two years, have worked on the front line, most notably in our health service and all its side departments, including pharmacy and home care. I pay tribute to every person in all the elements that make up our superb health service, some of whom struggled grievously at the start of the emergency as they sought PPE and went to work not knowing what they were stepping into and were going to face or how it would affect their health and that of their family. Yet, they marched into wards and cared for grievously ill patients.
I also pay tribute to those healthcare workers who have yet to receive — they may have no hope of receiving it — the one-off reward payment, even though they did an enormous amount of work and did the same hours as the people working alongside them. Those people who have yet to receive that one-off payment feel hurt today.
I also pay tribute to those healthcare workers on the front line who are still being discriminated against on close contacts and isolation periods just because they have not, as yet, had their vaccinations. That is a disgrace. I support — 100% — those healthcare workers. They need to be treated the same as everyone else in order for the health service to function efficiently, appropriately and properly. They should not be treated differently.
Then, there was the issue of the consultation on vaccinations for staff. That, of course, has disappeared out of all psyche. Perhaps the Minister could address in his closing remarks what his plans are for that consultation and what its findings were on the way forward for the vaccination status of healthcare staff in our trusts.
Order. I have given considerable latitude to the Member. I remind him that we are here to debate the motion on the draft Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Powers to Act for the Protection of Public Health) Order 2022. He has given a historical tour of what has happened on many, many issues. I ask him to come back to the motion.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will abide by your ruling, because I value your role, just as I value the role of the Assembly in scrutinising legislation. The motion will grant the Health Minister, no matter who that is, and his Department extensive, sweeping and draconian power. I ask the Minister to address this in his closing remarks: if he feels that he cannot use those powers after today because of the lack of an Executive and because they are controversial and cross-cutting, how can he come before the Assembly today when those same powers and the motion are cross-cutting and controversial? How does the Minister have the vires to even ask for that extension?
I think that I heard the Minister say that no ministerial colleague of his had any objections to the extension. Has any Minister written to the Health Minister about the controversial and cross-cutting aspect of today's motion? If they have written to him, will he enlighten the Assembly about that in his closing remarks?
The motion is before the Assembly, so the Assembly needs to decide what to do. What will it do? The Assembly is a legislature; it scrutinises and then passes legislation. It rightly takes its time. Each line and clause is deliberated on, and that takes time. The legislation then goes to a Committee, which deliberately takes its time to make sure that each clause is appropriate, and it then comes back to this place, and we take more time and have further stages to ensure that the legislation that we pass is the most appropriate and will not cause any harmful effects.
The House cannot say that about the legislation that has been born of the Coronavirus Act, however. Many of those pieces of legislation caused great harm. They were wished up in the morning, written up in the afternoon and implemented in the evening; they were enforced that same day. At times, that was catastrophic for folk.
What will the Assembly do today? How can it be sure that one person, no matter who it is — it could be a member of my party — or one Department, no matter what that Department is — it happens to be Health — will act in the best interests of all of Northern Ireland, not only in health but in the economy, in education, in industry and in communities?
Thank you for giving way. Maybe I was not following every word you said, but, from what I picked up, are you suggesting that, going forward, one Minister could function and take forward regulations unilaterally? If that is what you are suggesting, you were not listening to what other people contributed before you started to speak.
I thank the Member for her contribution. I will try to keep the debate as civil as possible. The Member has obviously not been listening when in the Chamber. One Minister moved, amended and enacted legislation for the certification scheme. The Member will recall that, when the Executive decided one scheme, on the Friday before the Monday on which it was to be implemented, the Health Minister amended it to remove coffee shops. I am happy to give way to the Member again if that jogs her memory. That was one instance when the Minister in question amended the legislation unilaterally. The power was always there to do that.
We have to ask ourselves this: is the Health Department clued-in to all the other factors of government in this place? Does it have the expertise? My suggestion is no: why would or should it? Yet the Assembly is going to give the power to one person and one Department. How is that democratic? How is that accountable? How is the Assembly doing its job properly with regard to scrutinising legislation? It does not make sense to me. Look at the impact that those regulations have had. They are so powerful, but they can be wished up in the morning, written up in the afternoon, enacted in the evening and enforced on the same day. They have the power to close down business and prevent people from earning a living — a God-given right.
The regulations left vulnerable people alone and isolated from other family members. They closed gyms but kept off-sales open. They closed schools. They closed down active sports when young people were crying out for comfort, friends and mentors. They closed down active behaviour. In fact, they kept us imprisoned in our homes. There was a time when I had to deal with constituents who had been turned away from attending a loved one and providing them with hot food. Their car was turned away a mile from their loved one's house. That was not even in the regulations, but the police struggled to enforce draconian legislation that they were never designed to enforce. The impacts on our people have been mighty. The lockdowns will have a detrimental effect on people's health for many years.
I am not making light of the coronavirus and the potential for people to get sick and die. However, we should be responsible for the actions that we take. We have to take into consideration the balance that has to be struck between the good that you do and the harm that you do. I hear nothing from the other Benches about the harms that will come from the powers that have already been used. Those powers have discriminated against people. They prevented people from going to a restaurant, a local pub and other venues just because they waited a while and did not take government advice. Imagine a Government discriminating against somebody because they did not take government advice. Where do we live? How dare the Government encroach on people's rights in that way. People have been treated as though they were unhealthy. They had to prove that they were healthy before they could gain entry. What message does that send out? They had to prove that they were healthy before they could partake in everyday life while someone who just happened to be vaccinated could walk in without proving anything. Where was the health consideration in that? Where was the science in that? There was none. It was to put pressure on people. That, in itself, is a place where government should not go.
The Coronavirus Act and the extensive, draconian powers that flowed from it have been a shambles, so why would the Assembly want to give any sort of extension to them? There must be a better way. Legislation that was written quickly, without due scrutiny or consultation, was often harmful, incomprehensible, incoherent and confusing, so much so that the enforcement agencies, such as the PSNI and councils, could not cope. They could not enforce the legislation properly and made so many mistakes that thousands of people who broke the law did not face any consequences. People were prevented from attending the cremation of loved ones. Think about what we have lived through over the past two years, and yet the Assembly would grant the same power to the same Minister and Department? I say no. There must be a better way.
People were fined because they wanted to swim in the sea. A police officer said to a lady, "If you leave me now and run across that sand into the sea, you can expect a £200 fine when you come out of the sea". A family of two parents, three grandparents and a nanny, who were celebrating a child's first birthday, received a £200 fine. Who can afford that in this day and age? Yet, that is what the regulations brought, and there is no science behind it. There is no health strategy behind it. It just does not make sense.
The proposed order provides sweeping powers to the Health Minister outside of an emergency. We now know what we are dealing with. It is not like two years ago, when not one of us knew what was coming down the track. What was the mantra from the Ministers then? It was that the powers will not be used a day longer than required. That day has long gone past. I say that the powers should lapse. There is no evidence from the Minister or the Department that says why the powers need to be extended. If they are extended because there might be another virus or another strain, that same pretext will apply from September when we walk into this year's autumn and winter pressures.
We cannot keep giving an extension to these draconian, sweeping powers to the one person and the one Department, no matter who its Minister is, and think that things are going to go well. They have not gone well these last two years. The regulations have been confusing and incoherent. The police cannot manage to enforce them, and they should not. Why should they? They are not designed to do that. It is not that type of police force, yet, with the extension, we are going to give the Minister the power to keep administering the powers. No. I say that we should not.
We are on the eve of an election, and we hope to be back in this place. What if we are not? That power would still reside with the Department, but it would be worse than that. There would be no scrutiny at that point. There would be no Committee at that point. There would be no Assembly and no voices of dissent like mine. Yet the Minister will have power like no other politician, probably in the history of this state. We must think carefully about our next step before we agree to something like this, which has caused real harm, real pain and, I believe, death. That is the action that the Assembly will take today, so I say this: think again. We should think carefully before we proceed down this road.
The owner of the lone voice of opposition that we have heard to date this afternoon has been looking back quite a bit in his comments. I like to view the order as looking forward and not back. The Minister has made it very clear that he has no desire to impose more regulations or guidance. Maybe the clue is in the title of the order, which includes the words:
"Extension of Powers to Act for the Protection of Public Health".
That is exactly what it is for: public health. This is a Minister acting with prudence to enable measures to be taken in the event of a new variant emerging, and God forbid that that should happen. The Minister mentioned that it is an insurance policy. It made me think. Look around this Building, your office and maybe your own home. What is sitting in the corner? Fire extinguishers. Why do you have them? They are an insurance policy so that, in the event of a fire, you will be able to deal with it. It is the same with defibrillators, which we are trying to put into more and more public buildings. It is prudent; it is planning for something that could go wrong. That piece of equipment will be there to save a life. That is how I view the extension of these powers. It is about saving lives in the event of the virus coming back.
If the Minister did nothing and there was an outbreak of a variant, the first people to point the finger at the Health Minister and his Department and accuse them of being ill-prepared would be the very people who object to the extension of these powers. These powers are simply powers to react — an insurance policy.
We have heard a lot of tributes being paid — absolutely and totally deserved — to the people who work in our health and social care system. They are people to whom, at the start of the pandemic, PPE was maybe not available because of the circumstances, but they went in, fought, nursed people and put themselves at personal risk. What are we going to do? Are we going to say, "No. We will not extend these powers"? Are we going to let our health and social care staff face the potential of another outbreak with no controls in place to protect them? What a kick in the teeth that would be to those heroes. What about more families facing the grief of losing a loved one to the virus, while we, including the Minister, stand like spectators unable to do anything to help curb the spread of that new variant?
Members have asked, "Why are you bringing this legislation in, because you admitted earlier that you may not be able to use it?". That may be true. It might end up in front of a judge; I do not know. However, it is prudent that it is in place so that, if it is necessary to test it in court, it is there to be tested. I would rather have that situation than simply to dismiss the extension.
It was mentioned that this would give the Minister draconian powers. Tell that to the hundreds and hundreds of people who are suffering from long COVID. Tell that to the family who I know in which four young children, all under 12 years of age, lost their mother and grandmother to COVID within 10 days of each other. Tell that family that the powers that we are going to give the Minister are draconian.
We have also heard — I am sure that the Minister will enlighten us — that a Minister in the Executive is trying to stymie this draft legislation's going forward. I give this message to that Minister: hang your head in shame. That is a Minister who helped to collapse the Executive.
Two of my DUP colleagues on the Health Committee, who are well aware of the issue, having worked on it over the past two years, and know the score, have said that their party is whipping today but that they will abstain. I say to those two Members, "Well done".
Mr Frew says that there has to be a better way than this. I suggest to Mr Frew that, perhaps, the start of creating a better way would be to get the Executive back in place.
I welcome today's debate on the order and the way in which it has been held. The Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Powers to Act for the Protection of Public Health) Order (Northern Ireland) 2022 seeks to extend the expiry date of section 48 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 and of the provisions in schedule 18 by six months, from 24 March to 24 September.
I turn to some of the comments in Members' contributions. The Chair of the Health Committee rightly acknowledged, as he always does, the difficult and dark times that the virus has visited on the people of Northern Ireland, those working across our health service and those who live here. He spoke about how complacency is now the biggest challenge that we collectively face. I note the support of the entire Health Committee on the issue and on other regulations and restrictions that we have had to introduce over the past two years using the Act. It is about looking to the next step, and, as the Chair recognised, that will be the review of the entire Public Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. Legislation that was written before I was born definitely needs to be brought up to date to deal with modern-day medicine and viruses and how, as a society, we react to them.
The Deputy Chair, Pam Cameron, spoke on what the legislation is actually about. The first provision that she listed — one of the most, if not the most, significant — was section 25B on international travel. Without the order, we could leave ourselves completely at risk from a variant that could be established anywhere across the world. It would be able to make its way into Northern Ireland, where we could see travel closed down across these islands, North/South and east-west, but, without the order in place, we would not be able to introduce regulations or restrictions on international travel. That would leave Northern Ireland not only susceptible itself, through international travel, to another variant of concern but able to be used as a back door to the United Kingdom and to the Republic of Ireland.
The Deputy Chair also acknowledged that a number of powers in the Coronavirus Act have not been used. My Department has worked with Health Departments across the other jurisdictions to ensure that powers that have not been used and that there is no intention to use will lapse at this point; indeed, some of them have already lapsed. Ministers from Departments in other areas are, even today, bringing forward extensions under the Coronavirus Act 2020 because of how their Departments and arm's-length bodies are working.
The Deputy Chairperson usefully highlighted what is in place in other jurisdictions. Scotland, England and Wales, and also the Republic of Ireland, have reacted by having a proportionate response to the continuation of what may be necessary but will hopefully never have to be used. Unfortunately, we have had to seek the six-month extension of the order because of a difference in historical legislative provisions. As I said when talking about the Chair's contribution, we very much rely on the 1967 Act.
Colin McGrath asked what the alternative is to extending the powers today. The alternative is to let them fall in their entirety, which would leave us susceptible to having to bring in emergency regulations should they be necessary, but only should they be necessary for what can be done. Colin also asked whether the emergency powers have been allowed to lapse completely elsewhere. Not to my knowledge.
Ms Bradshaw spoke about the Alliance Party's approach to the regulations and restrictions in the past as being that of a liberal party. I have always noted the Alliance Party's contributions to the debates in the Chamber and in Committee as being a proportionate response to the entirety of our reaction to the virus over the past two years.
That leads me on to Mrs Erskine's contribution. She is right about needing a crystal ball to look ahead to the next six months. If we had a crystal ball, we would know whether the legislation is needed. We do not have that crystal ball, however. Some Members are trying to react to where we are now by saying what we should have done two years ago and how we could have reacted then. We did not enter the pandemic with perfect hindsight about what could have been done. There will be work done on how those decisions were made and enacted. As Mrs Erskine said, it is about having the ability to mitigate the additional pressures, should that be of additional variance or the international implications. That theme came through in Mrs Cameron's contribution as well.
No matter what some may think in this place, I value Paul Frew's contribution to these debates, because it is right for me to be challenged. That is what the Chamber is about, but, when he has spoken, it has sometimes felt personal, because he mentioned "this Health Minister" or "that Health Minister" a number of times. It was always directed at me, but I am glad that he has changed the message today. It may not necessarily be me who is in this post again. He said that it could be someone from his party. Indeed, it could be him, depending on his party leader, of course.
I am not under any illusion, but I also fear how many people would have been in our hospitals. How many people would not be walking the streets of Northern Ireland today because of some of the decisions that the Member may have taken, should he have been in this position? That is an assumption, however, and, again, it may be unfair, because nobody knows how any individual in such a post over the past two years, be that in Northern Ireland or across the jurisdictions, would have reacted.
Mr Frew talked about the "Government's approach" and "what the Executive did". I remind him that his party has — had — the most Ministers in that Executive. Many, if not the majority, of the decisions that were taken were therefore made with the full support of his party's Ministers. At the end of his contribution, Mr Frew spoke about how I brought forward all the regulations and restrictions. There was a time when the junior Ministers led the debates about the restrictions that were brought in. Indeed, Minister Lyons, now the Economy Minister, was at one point standing in the Chamber, behind these Benches, trying to convince the rest of the Assembly to vote for the restrictions, while Mr Frew and others in his party seemed to be railing against them, although from a historical point of view rather than currently.
With regard to some of the comments, there have been many contributions on, and much acknowledgement paid to, our health workers and the work that they have done over the past two years. They are to be commended. Some in the Chamber spoke about their contribution in combating COVID in the past tense, but they are still at it today. They are still supporting patients with COVID across the entire sector, in care homes, on the front line and in the vaccination programme.
With regard to a number of other points raised in Mr Frew's contribution, it was a collective response over the past two years that actually brought us to where we are today. I welcomed that response. I welcomed the engagement and the message that I had from the Member's party leader about how it was the Executive who collectively agreed the emergency procedures. That included the DUP Ministers.
There have been some questions asked about where we go from here and what will happen with regard to the draconian ability that some have mentioned. I think it was Mr Allister, away at the start, who gave us a history lecture about who Draco actually was. That is not an approach that I have ever taken. I concentrate, instead, on the collective public health response.
It is my view and that of my Department that, in the absence of a functioning Executive, even if these powers are extended, it is not clear how future regulations, if required, could be implemented, since any decision such as this would likely be seen as controversial and cross-cutting and, as such, would necessitate an Executive decision. Therefore, there are challenges already there.
Mr Frew asked whether I had received any communication. Like many in this place, he never asks a question unless he knows the answer. The Member already knew that his party colleague, Minister Lyons, had sent me a letter just before coming into the Chamber about how he has changed his opinion about the extension of these regulations. Having said nothing when I wrote to him on 12 October and nothing when I wrote to him on 20 December, he wrote me a letter expressing his concern just prior to coming into the Chamber. My officials will, of course, respond to that.
The powers that we are talking about already exist, and the power to extend them for six months at a time already exists. Those features were built into the initial legislation, so there is an ability to extend it for six months. That is what I ask the Assembly for today.
Mr Chambers spoke to reiterate my initial point that I seek the extension of this order as an insurance policy, so that whoever is next in this position, if they need to — hopefully, they never will — will be able to enact or utilise this extension.
I hope that I have answered as many of the Members' queries and questions as possible. I thank Members for their participation in this informed debate, both today and throughout the entirety of the pandemic. I mean that sincerely. I also place on record my sincere thanks to the members of the Health Committee for their valuable scrutiny of legislation throughout this process. That process has never been easy but always challenging. As I have said before during these debates, our system needs to be looked at and reformed so that we can act more quickly to change regulations and restrictions, as they do in other legislatures.
I reiterate that, while the legal restrictions have been removed, and I sincerely hope that there will be no return to them, the pandemic certainly has not ended. I implore us all to follow the guidance in place. Each of us should play our part in ensuring that we are not back here debating any further measures needed to tackle this disease in the future. I commend the order to the Assembly.
Clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that they should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.
Before I put the Question again, I remind Members that it would be preferable to avoid a Division.
Question put a second time.
Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. I remind everyone to maintain social distancing during the voting process, ideally keeping a distance of 2 metres. Please be patient at all times.
The Assembly divided:
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Brogan, Mr Butler, Mr Catney, Mr Chambers, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Muir, Ms Á Murphy, Mr C Murphy, Mr Nesbitt, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Miss Reilly, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Stewart, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Armstrong, Mr Chambers
Mr Allister, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Rankin, Mr Robinson, Mr Storey, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Clarke, Mr Frew
The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Mrs Cameron, Mrs Erskine, Mr Irwin, Mr Weir
Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved: