COVID-19 is a cruel, cruel virus and it has disrupted almost every aspect of our lives. And one thing that has remained steadfast throughout, is the resilience of our people, and our resolve and our ability to come together as a people, to fight against this enemy.
The death of my dad last week, of course brings the importance of family and loved ones into sharp focus for me personally. And I know how hard it is for all of you not to do what comes most naturally. COVID-19 has robbed us of the very things that bring us joy – seeing our loved ones, a tight hug, comforting a friend, visiting your family, having a traditional funeral and wake, not going to your church anymore, or out for an evening. The concert you’ve wanted to go to, the sporting events, our lives have been turned upside down.
And yet it is those very things that weaken our response. It is those things that allows this virus to spread. And it is those things we must avoid, for our loved ones.
As we move through the various stages of this pandemic, of course our response too must change. And in order to flatten the curve, restrictions have been put in place to slow down the spread of the virus and to give us all a fighting chance in reducing the number of loved ones that we actually lose.
This is the right thing to do. But the Executive has also tried to take a pragmatic, practical and sensible approach to our new norm. In the last week, I have permitted people to walk through our forests and country parks in limited circumstances and I have also written to our local councils to outline principles that can apply when deciding if it’s safe to open household recycling facilities. The Executive has also opened access to our cemeteries.
The purpose of these actions is actually to help people cope and stay at home longer - by letting people visit a loved ones’ grave, permitting exercise, allowing people to get fresh air, and helping people to keep busy at home, gardening and clearing out – all of which aid better mental health.
Small steps like this do not mean we drop our guard or we take our eye off the ball. It is not business as usual. If you plan to undertake any of these activities, you must still observe social distancing, only travel short distances to your cemetery, the forests, or indeed the recycling centre – and only if you absolutely must.
The battle is far from over, but we can already feel hope, triumph over despair. Our actions are making a difference. We see the number of admissions to our hospitals fall, and we hope to see the number of deaths fall on a very consistent basis going forward. So we must not risk undoing all the good work or create another wave.
I, and my Department,remain fully committed to helping our industry, our stakeholders and the people of Northern Ireland get through COVID-19. The work we do touches everyone across our region – food, waste, fisheries, rural support and the environment.
Our sector has responded to the challenge in a remarkable way, never seen before. Innovative thinking, collaboration and responsive action as well as grit and hard work, have ensured we continue to have food on our tables, a functioning waste sector and a healthy environment.
And while we would never have wanted it on these terms, much of the work done in response to COVID-19 has shone a light on new ways of working, on how we can do things better and find opportunities amid the challenges. As we look to a more positive future, I intend to hone in on some of the good habits we’ve developed as well, as to try and strengthen weaknesses that have emerged, including securing Northern Ireland’s food supply lines between ourselves, the mainland and the rest of the world.
We’ve already seen other nations across the world struggle to get food moving off farm and into the retail sector. And although the hard work and dedication of our local food sector and farmers means that we haven’t had that problem, we must not be complacent. This is an important piece of work.
We can win this battle, we must win this battle, we will win this battle, and better days lie ahead if we persevere a little longer.