Stormont votes to extend powers for Covid-19 restrictions until September

The Northern Ireland Assembly has voted to extend powers to introduce Covid restrictions.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 21st March 2022, 7:32 pm

MLAs voted by 57 to 25 to extend the powers to September 24 under the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Extension of Powers to Act for the Protection of Public Health) Order.

Health Minister Robin Swann said the act allows for regulations to be made – but would still need the Executive to decide on the need for any further regulations.

He described the extension of the order as an “insurance policy” for “if the worst happened”.

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In a vote today, MLAs extended their Covid-19 powers until Autumn.

He was critical of what he termed “some inaccurate claims” around the move.

“Whilst, of course, occasionally people will come forward with entirely genuine questions or seek particular points of clarification, not for the first time there are a very small number of people, including some in this House who really should know better, and who are seeking to deliberately misinform and distort the truth from what we are actually doing here,” he told MLAs.

“Yet, even after so long, it’s clear that still some choose not to let facts get in the way of their own objectives.

“I want to see us permanently cast off the shadow of Covid-19 and the prospect of any further restrictions as much as anyone else.”

Mr Swann described the regulations as “crucial” in the fight against Covid-19.

He said if the order was not passed by MLAs, then, after March 24, there would be no power to legislate to protect public health in the event of a worsening of the pandemic.

“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 emergency of new variants of concern,” he said.

“It is therefore imperative we have the necessary powers should they be required.

“So, if members vote against this order, I hope they will at least attempt to explain why in their opinion such essential possible safeguards, hopefully never to be utilised, are no longer required to hold even in reserve.”

Mr Swann said he wrote to the Executive parties twice about the order and did not receive an objection or concern from any of the ministers.

Chair of the Stormont health committee Colm Gildernew (Rebecca Black/PA)

Stormont Health Committee chairman Colm Gildernew reminded MLAs the latest Covid-19 death toll was 3,274 as of Monday, and described two very difficult years.

He urged against complacency, pointing out there were 484 Covid-positive patients in hospital.

“Covid has not gone away and I would ask people to continue to follow the guidance and advice, including wearing face coverings, social distancing and good hand hygiene,” he said.

He said committee members “considered this a sensible and reasonable approach and were content with the regulation”.

He said DUP members present during the committee’s discussion did not take part in the formal agreement of the rule.

Committee vice-chairwoman Pam Cameron said her party, the DUP, are unwhipped on the issue and were speaking as individual MLAs.

She said it would be preferable if a more selective approach had been taken to which powers were extended, given some were not used.

She also raised the practical difficulties with the Executive not currently fully functioning, adding it is unclear whether Mr Swann alone would be able to use the powers.

Meanwhile, DUP MLA Paul Frew said many of the restrictions caused great harm, saying it “at times catastrophic for folk”, adding: “There must be a better way.”

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