Thursday, 19 March 2020
An Bille Sláinte (Caomhnú agus Cosaint agus Bearta Éigeandála Eile Ar Mhaithe Le Leas an Phobail), 2020: An Dara Céim - Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020: Second Stage
Brendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
Like others in this House, I begin by expressing my solidarity and that of the Labour Party with everyone who is affected by the coronavirus, especially those who are ill right now, those who are in the front line of providing health and social care, retail, transport and logistics and policing, and the amazing 30,000 or more people who have volunteered to support our health services in this time of national crisis.
People have shown extraordinary resolution in the way they have co-operated with social distancing and other urgent life-altering advice from our health authorities. Nobody would have thought it possible how quickly our people have adapted. People have demonstrated a tremendous, warm community spirit in the way they have reached out to support those who are vulnerable, including finding innovative ways of helping people without breaking the new rules of social distancing.
Today, as a society, we have greater scientific knowledge and research facilities to work on vaccines and treatments. We have much improved hygiene and we are part of unprecedented global co-operation. We can and we will defeat this disease. Everyone must play their part, not least in vital measures such as social distancing, rigorous handwashing and social isolation. These are matters that are crucial.
The Government’s Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020 is another vital part of the national effort to challenge and overcome this menacing coronavirus. The Labour Party will support the Bill because we support the objectives it is trying to achieve. However, we believe the law can be improved. I believe from what the Minister for Health has said in his opening remarks that in the short time we have he will carefully consider suggestions from across this House today on measures to improve the Bill.
The Labour Party, like others, confined itself in the number of amendments we tabled. We tabled only two and I will set out what they are later.
We have other concerns about the Bill. There are serious differences in terminology between the Social Welfare Act amendments and the Health Act 1947 amendments that are welded together in this Bill. The Social Welfare Act amendments confer entitlements on those who are diagnosed as actually having Covid-19, who are "probable" sources of infection or who have been formally detained. The health part of the Bill deals more broadly with powers in respect of persons who are "potential" sources of infection. Many of those who are self-isolating at home at present, in line with the HSE advice, are doing so because they are potential rather than probable sources of infection. "Probable" means more likely than not. A GP could not diagnose someone as a probable source of infection unless he or she had been in close contact with a confirmed case and was showing signs and symptoms of the disease. If a person is merely a potential source of infection and has not been notified that he or she is a probable source but is nonetheless in self-isolation - all of us would be if we thought we were potential sources - because of the formal advice received, it appears from the Bill that this category of people would not be covered by the Social Welfare Act amendments. The amendments do not seem to extend to them. We need to know the thinking behind having entitlements confined to probable sources but powers extended to potential sources. It may be that people who are away from their jobs will fall into the gap created by having two separate definitions under this Act. I want the Tánaiste to explain the reasons for the deviation in these two terms. Could we simply use the term "potential" in all cases to remove the possibility of creating any ambiguity in the law?
On another technical point, which may be a flaw in the Bill as drafted, will the Government confirm whether or not the new offence of contravention of a regulation under the new section is an arrestable offence? Nothing in the original Act nor in this Bill seems to make the new offence an arrestable offence. This would mean that the Garda would be very limited in its powers to enforce it. If a garda wanted to stop somebody from contaminating others, there would be no point in saying, "We will serve a summons on you", but the powers to arrest are not conferred on gardaí in the Bill; they are conferred on medical officers.
Section 11 brings in a new section 38A into the 1947 Act to allow for the forced detention of persons who will not self-isolate. As currently worded, this requires a medical officer to believe, in good faith, that the detention is appropriate. However, the Bill should also provide that the medical officer in question must have "reasonable grounds" for making that decision. That is currently not in the section. Gardaí have various powers of arrest but must have "reasonable grounds" for exercising those powers. Subsections (5) and (6) of the new section 38A, inserted by section 11 of this Bill, provide for a review that is triggered at the request of a detained person. There is no provision that persons must be informed of their right to this review. That is something we should add to the Bill. Subsection (4) of section 38A states that the detention must be kept under review and that a medical examination must be carried out no later than 14 days after the date of the detention. Subsection (1)(d) of section 38A states that the detention continues "until such time as the medical officer certifies that the person's detention is no longer required". The section should state that the medical officer who ordered the initial detention must receive a report of such examination and review whether the detention is later still appropriate. These are matters that in the normal course of debate we would have time to tease out in detail but we will not have the time today.
I am anxious to give time to my colleague so I will add one final, additional plea to Government. Local radio is a vital source of information. Others have talked about misinformation, particularly on social media. People in my constituency of Wexford listen to South East Radio as an authoritative voice of truth and advice. Due to the current crisis, many businesses have pulled away their ads and those local radio stations are now under incredible pressure.
They are already losing jobs. I end my contribution by asking the Government to include local radio stations in the panoply of supports that are being given. A small amount of money is required to ensure this vital lifeline remains operational in the crisis period ahead.