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Live Reporting

Tori Watson and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. Good afternoon

    Stormont

    After welcoming the panel, in an unexpected move, the committee chair asks members if they agree to enter private session before discussing the next item of business.

    We're unable to bring you any further coverage of today's committee meeting, so that's all from us this week at the assembly.

    We'll be back on Monday for another plenary session.

    Until then, have a lovely afternoon and stay safe.

  2. Public Accounts Committee meeting

    William Humphrey

    Committee Chair William Humphrey opens the meeting.

    He runs through some initial committee business.

    The first briefing is on the Inquiry into Special Educational Needs.

    The witnesses are:

    • Kieran Donnelly CB, Northern Ireland Audit Office
    • Colette Kane, Northern Ireland Audit Office
    • Karen Armstrong, Northern Ireland Audit Office
    • Suzanne Murphy, Northern Ireland Audit Office
  3. On the Public Accounts Committee agenda

    We're back from a quick lunch break.

    Here's a snapshot of what's coming up at the Public Accounts Committee meeting this afternoon.

    NI Assembly
  4. Time for lunch

    Alex Easton draws the meeting to a close.

    It's been a busy session.

    We'll be back at 14:00 with live coverage of this week's meeting of the Public Accounts Committee.

    Members will have a preparatory briefing on their inquiry into Special Educational Needs provision.

    Do join is then.

    In the meantime, we're off to grab a sandwich.

  5. Alex Easton in the chair

    Alex Easton

    The committee returns with Mr Easton in the chair.

    Members agree to postpone a departmental briefing on the October monitoring round scheduled for today's meeting.

    Mr Easton quickly runs through a number of items of committee business.

  6. Short break

    Mr Gildernew, the committee’s chair, thanks the panel for their contribution to the meeting.

    The Sinn Féin MLA moves members to a discussion about the regulations.

    They agree on a number of proposals.

    Colm Gildernew declares that he has to leave the meeting to attend another session and asks members to nominate a chair to replace him until 12:50.

    Alex Easton of the DUP is nominated.

    The committee takes a short break to enable Mr Easton to receive a quick briefing.

  7. 'Queues outside venues'

    Pam Cameron is unable to ask her question so Colm Gildernew reads it out.

    She wants to know if officials have had any engagement with the Department of Justice on how any review of enforcement would impact on regulations.

    Mr McMahon says Executive Office junior ministers are working with an enforcement group looking at matters including fines and penalties "and whether they are currently sufficient or otherwise".

    Wide view of the committee

    Paula Bradshaw of Alliance refers to the “risk assessment” at indoor venues take in relation to indoors, and wants to know if they have any responsibility for queues outside.

    Mr McMahon says this is an area where “the owner or manager of the property does have legal responsibility for that”.

    Ms Bradshaw then turns to the question of “no more than two households sharing a table” in a restaurant and wants to know how staff will manage that.

    Mr McMahon says many premises require pre-booking of tables, and “presume” that where those bookings are taking place that this would be raised.

    The official says the customer should be asked if they are from the same household, adding “there is an element of trust there in relation to that”.

  8. 'Live music is prohibited'

    Nigel McMahon

    Having discussed amendment no.4 of the regulations, Nigel McMahon from the department, is then invited to give members a brief on amendment no.5.

    It relates to the reopening of pubs and other hospitality venues.

    “The main changes introduced are in a venue serving alcohol,” says Mr McMahon, the venue is required to outline the maximum number of people that can be inside at one time in line with social distancing guidelines.

    Hand sanitisation stations must be available for customers to use before entering, he adds.

    “All service must be at seated tables,” and customers may not stand at the bar, adds the official.

    “Live music is also prohibited,” but background music is ok, as long as people don’t have to raise their voices to be heard says Mr McMahon.

    “A maximum of six people from no more than two households can be seated at a table,” he says, adding that children under 12 are not included within that figure.

  9. 'A gaping hole'

    People Before Profit’s Gerry Caroll says he’s “concerned” about comments regarding community transmission made by Prof Young.

    He says there is a “gaping hole” that is “workplace, hospitality and places where there has been a rush to open the economy up back to normal”.

    Prof Young responds, “community transmission as a category and identified by the contact tracing service is separate from workplace-based transmission”.

    He says there are some cases of the virus being transmitted in the workplace, but is currently “only a small minority of cases”.

    Colin mcgrath

    Colin McGrath of the SDLP (above) is up next. He is still self-isolating after receiving a notification from the Stop Covid NI App.

    He asks if there’s a way for the app to identify the time that someone was exposed to someone who had the virus.

    Mr McGrath also raises questions about isolation and those who are bubbling with people who are elderly and vulnerable.

    Nigel McMahon says a “vulnerable person isn’t defined in the regulations” adding that was “quite deliberate”.

    “It’s open to interpretation,” he adds, “but in a specific point you raise about isolation, that’s something we’ll look at”.

  10. 'People finding a way around the regulations'

    Paula Bradshaw of Alliance asks about a constituent whose sister is "bubbling" with their mother and father.

    She says that this weekend the constituent is going to stay in a hotel "so that she can see the mother".

    Ms Bradford wants to know to what extent the officials have looked at behavioural science concerning how people "will find their way around these regulations".

    Prof Young says they have considered "the behavioural elements of this throughout the epidemic and in relation to the regulations that we're developing".

    He says they hope that people "will not try to find a way around the regulations but will recognise the intent of the regulations".

    Paula Bradshaw

    In reply to a follow-up question from Ms Bradford, Prof Young says that the initial indications were that the majority of cases were the consequence of household transmission.

    He says the largest group currently being reported "are described as community transmission".

    The chief scientific officer says the tracing system often finds that when there is a cluster, individuals have been mixing in multiple settings.

    He says the decisions are difficult, adding that more than half of the cases in the Derry and Strabane area that were in identifiable clusters were associated with the hospitality sector.

    Committee Chair Colm Gildernew says "the committee would like to see the breakdown of those figures so that we can apply our scrutiny and advice role to the department as we are mandated to do".

  11. 'Large amount of the scientific evidence publicly available'

    The committee is back in public session.

    They’re now joined by Chief Environmental Officer Nigel McMahon and Chief Scientific Adviser Prof Ian Young.

    Both are on video link.

    They’re at the meeting to answer member questions relating to Coronavirus Regulations.

    Senate Chamber

    Colm Gildernew of Sinn Féin jumps straight to questions. He says the committee has sought evidence from the department behind the regulations being considered.

    Prof Young says “a large amount of the scientific evidence is publicly available”.

    “In addition, we do provide, myself and the CMO, evidence directly to the executive,” he says, adding that whether that should be published or not is a matter for the executive.

    Mr Gildernew then asks about citizen bubbling and changes in bubbles.

    Mr McMahon says “this is a good point and something that has come up in recent days”.

    “There were concerns that in allowing an exemption for bubbling through two households", it would be potentially open for abuse, he adds.

    The committee chair says the committee are very conscious that there has been an "unprecedented amount of legislation brought forward here” in light of the pandemic.

    Colm Gildernew
  12. Committee enters private session to discuss Covid regulations

    NI Assembly

    The Committee Chair, Colm Gildernew, directs members to take a short comfort break while the next panel join the meeting by conference link.

    In a slight change to the original schedule, members turn to closed session to discuss a statutory regulation relating to Coronavirus.

    The chair makes members aware that the regulations will be debated in the assembly on Monday.

    They enter private session to take “legal advice from the examiner for statutory rules".

    The session will reopen to the public shortly, so do stay with us.

  13. 'This is not unique in any way to neurology'

    Órlaíthi Flynn of Sinn Féin asks the panel if they have contingency plans in place for the incoming year, "if we’re into further lockdowns”.

    “I think we’re quite pleased at the precautions and the steps we have taken to recommence the inquiry,” says Mr Lockhart.

    “I would hope we’re not back into the situation” back in March, he adds.

    Órlaíthi Flynn

    Alan Chambers of the UUP says he’s “greatly reassured” by the evidence received by the committee today.

    He asks Mr Lockhart “what happened in this neurological department, could this have been replicated in almost any discipline within a hospital?”

    Mr Lockhart says “the short answer is yes”.

    “The concerns we have looked at, we believe are relevant across the health care sector, this is not unique in any way to neurology,” he adds.

    Mr Lockhart says he hopes the recommendations will be applied across the health service in NI and beyond.

    People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll is back in to ask a question after some technical difficulties.

    He asks if the panel have received all the cooperation they need from the trust.

    Mr Lockhart says “we are satisfied we have had that cooperation”.

    Colm Gildernew thanks the panel for their contribution to the meeting before allowing them to leave the room and the video conference.

    Alan Chambers
  14. 'Sanctions, punishment, or dismissal?'

    Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit joins the meeting on a bad-quality audio link.

    He says he wants to echo Pat Sheehan's point "about patients feeling failed by the system", that they feel they lack support services and some have waited seven months for a meeting with the Department of Health.

    Mr Carroll wants to know if it's within the inquiry's remit "to recommend sanctions, punishment, dismissal, things of that nature.".

    He says that there are fears that "nobody can be held account" for any flaws in governance.

    Mr Lockhart says this was something raised during early discussions with politicians, that the inquiry would "somehow skirt over the issues and focus entirely on systems".

    He says that he and Prof Mascie-Taylor agree that the inquiry must "talk about and, if necessary, criticise those individuals who were involved in that system".

    Mr Lockhart says the inquiry is not the regulator and is not there to judge "the competence of a particular doctor".

    wide shot of the committee

    The committee's deputy chair, Pam Cameron of the DUP, joins the meeting by video link.

    She asks if the inquiry members have any idea of the themes that will be dealt with in the report.

    "I have to be as careful as possible because the evidence hasn't finished," says Mr Lockhart.

    He outlines some of the possible areas including regulation in the independent sector, governance arrangements within neurology and blood patching.

  15. 'Forgive me if I ask some strange questions'

    Paula Bradshaw of Alliance asks about what she describes as a “limited terms of reference” for the inquiry. She asks if this has restricted the panel’s ability to assess accountability “for this mess”.

    Mr Lockhart says he does not think the terms of reference have restricted the panel in their work.

    Alex Easton of the DUP is next.

    He says “I’m not an expert in inquiries so forgive me if I ask some strange questions”.

    Alex Easton

    Mr Easton asks about the registrar who is in Australia and the consultant neurologist who is not medically fit to give evidence.

    Mr Lockhart says “when we’re talking about the registrar we’re fairly confident that would be of limited evidential relevance to us”.

    He says the consultant “was someone we were interested in talking too” adding that the panel “pursued that with some intensity, to put it mildly” and outlines that two medical reports were received.

    “We took a lot of steps to try and ensure this person's attendance.”

  16. 'Patients want justice, accountability, and reassurance'

    Colm Gildernew

    Colm Gildernew, the Committee Chair and Sinn Féin MLA begins questions.

    He asks what impact Covid will have on the release date for the preliminary report.

    “When you’re hearing evidence, it’s very difficult to write,” says Mr Lockhart.

    The pause due to lockdown let the panel “make up time” he says, adding “we have about 14 to 18 witnesses left out of 200”.

    “You can’t draft a final paragraph or final conclusion” ahead of that evidence, he adds.

    Mr Gildernew says he has met with families and individuals who have been impacted.

    He turns to Pat Sheehan, his party colleague, to ask the next question.

    Pat Sheehan

    Mr Sheehan asks how “you and your inquiry intend” to ensure patents get closure.

    Prof. Hugo Mascie-Taylor, who joins the meeting by video link, takes the question.

    He says he fully understands why patients “want justice, accountability, and reassurance that this won’t happen in the future”.

    He adds “the way we have carried out our task, and the way we have carried out our task so far is without fear or favour”.

    “We didn’t have to see patients, but we chose to do so,” adds Prof Mascie-Taylor.

    Prof. Hugo Mascie-Taylor
  17. Neurology Inquiry Briefing

    Mr Lockhart says the inquiry sought to update politicians about its work "because so many of you have been contacted by patients".

    He says inquiry members were determined to ensure "we did not miss the most important voice in this inquiry, even though our terms of reference require us to focus on the circumstances which led to the recall of patients in May 2018 and to review the handling of concerns by the Belfast Trust, we have never lost sight of the fact that our inquiry should hear from patients".

    Mr Lockhart says they ran a public information campaign and invited submissions from those who had been affected by the recall. This resulted in over 200 written submissions from the public and the inquiry formally invited 32 of these people to give evidence.

    The inquiry chair says the testimony of 100 patients has been sent, with their consent, to the GMC (General Medical Council), the Belfast Trust and in some instances to the health regulator, the RQIA.

    Brett Lockhart

    He says that as far as he and Prof Mascie-Taylor are concerned, the aim of the inquiry "is to ensure that patient safety is enhanced and that outcomes are improved".

    Mr Lockhart says that, whilst the inquiry is non-statutory, a failure to cooperate with the inquiry would result in an individual being named in the report.

    "We are pleased to report that the cooperation promised has been delivered with the exception of one registrar who is in Australia and has not responded to any correspondence and a consultant neurologist who is not medically fit to give evidence," he says.

    Mr Lockhart says the inquiry wants to issue its final report at the conclusion of all other inquiries.

    He says the delay in taking evidence due to the Covid pandemic was "regrettable".

    "We fully understand the frustrations of the public and the urgency of producing our preliminary report," the inquiry chair concludes.

  18. Committee opens to the public

    Colm Gildernew

    The committee is opened to the public by Colm Gildernew.

    He brings members to order and runs through some business before moving to the first item on today’s agenda, a briefing on the Independent Neurology Inquiry.

    There's a discussion among the members before the witnesses are invited to begin their briefing.

    Joining members to discuss, are:

    • Brett Lockhart QC, Independent Neurology Inquiry
    • Prof. Hugo Mascie-Taylor, Independent Neurology Inquiry
    • Mark Scott, Independent Neurology Inquiry

    The Inquiry was launched after the Trust and two Independent clinics recalled over 2,500 patients.

  19. On the Health Committee agenda

    Agenda
  20. Good morning

    Stormont

    Welcome to our live coverage of business at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

    This morning, we have a meeting of the Health Committee, including a briefing from the Chief Scientific Adviser, Prof Ian Young, on the Coronavirus Regulations.

    This afternoon we'll be covering a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, which has a briefing on its inquiry into Special Educational Needs.

    The Health Committee meets at 09:30. Do stay with us.