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
Denis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
We have seen on social media Italian healthcare workers being applauded by their neighbours on their way to work each morning. I say to the doctors, nurses and all the healthcare staff, both in hospitals and the community, that we, the Members of the Regional Independent Group, applaud each and every one of them for the personal sacrifices being made to protect each and every one of our citizens in this very difficult time. I thank them.
I also thank the gardaí, members of the Defence Forces, welfare and Health Service Executive staff and all those stepping up to what is being asked of them in every community across Ireland. The simple fact is that the faster the virus spreads, the greater will be the loss of life. If we allow the coronavirus to run amok through the population, we face an abyss. It will leave tens of thousands of homes across Ireland without a parent, a grandparent, a brother, a sister, a son or a daughter. The public must remember that in stark figures the difference between the current mortality rate in Ireland and Italy is an average of one death for every home in Ireland.
As a consequence of these potential figures, we in the Regional Independent Group support the legislation. Although we are putting forward some suggested amendments to strengthen the legislation, we are doing this in a sense of solidarity as we believe the provisions are needed at this point to curb the rate of coronavirus infection.
The Bill provides far-reaching powers in regard to gatherings, events and travel, which is understandable to deal with the current exceptional threat to human life. It also includes the power to detain a person against his or her will, if necessary, to prevent the spread of Covid-19. These are powerful legal provisions which must only be used specifically to deal with the current national health crisis. That this legislation makes provision for these powers to be continually renewed without the prior approval of Dáil Éireann, not only to deal with Covid-19 but any variant of the disease, potentially means that these powers could be with us for decades to come. The Regional Independent Group is concerned about such draconian powers being available to any Government for decades to come. We welcome Government acceptance of our proposal for an end date, a sunset clause, to enable repeal of this law when the current threat has abated.
We are also concerned that there is ambiguity in the definition of "events" that are to be restricted in that it may not preclude house parties. It is in this regard we have tabled amendments to section 10 and new Section 11. I accept this may not be a problem now but if the current restrictions were to continue for a number of months then the risk of infection associated with house parties could become a significant problem. We want to ensure there is clarity in the law that allows the Garda to shut down house parties should they become a problem, and the associated availability of alcohol by commencing the ban on below cost selling. We are concerned that if house parties cannot be controlled we could be faced with a situation in the coming time where the Trojan effort of our citizens to curb the rate of infection could be undermined by a small number of irresponsible people. This cannot be allowed to happen.
Turning to some other aspects of the legislation, while we welcome the Covid-19 payment for persons who cannot work because they are self-isolating as a result of being infected by the virus, the legislation ignores those vulnerable people in high risk categories who must self isolate because of the high probability of death should they become infected. Surely those who must self-isolate based on best medical advice should be treated the same regardless of whether they are infected or not. We should also encourage the Minister for Health to suspend prescription charges immediately, particularly for older people and vulnerable groups. Many of them have now been able to get a neighbour to pick up their prescription from the pharmacy but older people are either being forced to handle cash unnecessarily or the obliging neighbour is having to pay the charge, which effectively is becoming an infection penalty. Prescription charges should be suspended for as long as the current restrictions are in place. In tandem with this, we should give pharmacists the legal power to prescribe straightforward repeat prescriptions, particularly for those cocooned in their homes given that GPs are inundated with Covid-19 patients.
While on the issue of further actions, there is now a serious situation arising as a result of homecare workers being refused access to the homes of older people who are too frightened to let them in. We need to provide reassurance to these older people that homecare workers are fully trained in infection control and do not pose an unacceptable risk. Homecare staff are in place to support older people in the community, to keep them out of hospital or long term care where they would face a far greater risk of infection. Where homecare staff are not currently required because there may be a family member working from home this valuable healthcare staffing resource should be redeployed by the HSE to assists in the management of the coronavirus.
I will finish with the following message. While it is true that one is more likely to become sick if one is older, people need to remember that there are exceptions to every rule, particularly so with a virus because of the different way our individual immune systems deal with the challenge of a viral infection. Age is only partially protective against the coronavirus.
Let us remember there are cases of young, fit people in their 20s and 30s in intensive care units, while some of those who have walked out of hospital are over 100 years old.