The Executive has some big decisions to take early this week. I believe they need to listen very clearly to the health advice given to them by the public health experts in recent days and to make an informed decision which they all support as a united Executive.
Lockdowns and enhanced restrictions can be very crude and blunt instruments which also have some severe unintended consequences, particularly on the most vulnerable and lowest paid in our society. In reality a lockdown is a failure of policy, a last resort. It is a measure that is taken when all else fails (and only should be).
But Northern Ireland is not in a lockdown. The current restrictions are different and not as severe as March/April this year. It also seems that a lockdown is not being considered but instead a continuation of the current restrictions for a time, or some additional restrictions.
The former First Minister Peter Robinson is right when he says we need a strategy to deal with the pandemic in Northern Ireland.
What should be of serious concern is that today there are more people in both hospital and ICU in Northern Ireland than in the Republic of Ireland, despite our population being a third of theirs, leading to serious capacity challenges for our NHS.
There has been much talk about our system of test, trace and isolate. Indeed, I have heard many politicians from various parties in the Executive state that we need a better system. They are in government and have had an obligation to build such a system!
It seems our testing is good, in that people can largely get tested relatively quickly and receive their results in less than 24 hours in most cases. However, we seem to have serious problems with the other two legs of the stool and we require all three to work or it falls.
I have heard from many different sources right across Northern Ireland, that many workers (including self-employed workers) simply cannot afford to self-isolate. We have statutory sick pay but it is a paltry £95 per week. On that basis some are choosing either not to get tested if they have symptoms and carry on out of necessity. Or if they get a positive test, they keep working as they cannot afford to live on inadequate sick pay for two to three weeks. This is a clear failure of strategy and has been obvious for some time.
It is like trying to fight the virus with one arm tied behind our backs. What is unacceptable is we have known this for some time and have nothing about it. Workers who are required to self-isolate need to be paid during this period. This is not just my view but is one shared by Jeremy Hunt MP, the former Secretary of State for Health.
I welcome the extension of the full furlough scheme until March 2021 as announced by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak in recent days. The Chancellor has proven to be a politician who will engage with and listen to both unions and employers when making decisions affecting the labour market.
Perhaps our politicians would do much better here if they, together, listened to the views of both unions and employers when making decisions that affect our local labour market too.
However, if the current restrictions are extended in Northern Ireland it is crucial that we do more for the lowest paid workers in our society. For example, 80% of hospitality workers earn less than the real living wage. Therefore, their furlough pay will take many of them under the national minimum wage.
This is not fair. The economically vulnerable, as well as those vulnerable to the virus, must be protected.