Thursday, 21 May 2020
Covid-19 (Health): Statements
Simon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
I welcome this opportunity to be in this House again regarding Covid-19 and our national response to it. I am sure Deputy Carthy would like to stay and ask me some questions on the topic, although he is leaving the Chamber now.
First and most important, I wish to express my sympathy to the family and friends of those that have been lost to this disease since I was last in this House. I think of them today and every day, and I know all of us in this House, across parties and groupings, do.
On Monday, we initiated phase 1 of our Roadmap to Reopen Society and Business. We moved ahead on the basis of the clear public health advice that we received. We did so knowing increased movement carries increased risk. Our message remains stay at home, but we have eased some restrictions to allow more outlets and public spaces to open. We were able to make that progress and move to phase 1 of the road map because of the actions of the people of Ireland. As a country, we faced the reality that this highly infectious disease was among us and we responded to the threat from it. We understood how quickly it can spread and how lethal it can be. We heeded the advice and the evidence. We learned what works and we set about doing it as a country together. Our efforts and our sacrifices have pushed Covid-19 back but it is certainly and sadly not gone away. If we do not stay smart it will come forward again in a resurgence. The progress made is contingent on our actions.
I am pleased to once again report to the House that our modelling shows the R rate remains stable at around 0.5. Work by Professor Philip Nolan’s team shows it is between 0.45 and 0.63. This means that for four weeks in a row, this number has remained significantly below 1. Four weeks ago, our case numbers were in the region of 400 to 800 every day. This week – for four days in a row - our cases numbers have been below 100. This day last month, 774 people were in hospitals across our country with Covid-19.
Today, 367 people are in hospital with coronavirus. On 21 April, 132 people were in ICU. Today, that number is 49. Our recovery rate has reached 87.1% and I am pleased to confirm that 258 people have been discharged from intensive care. We think of all of them. Yesterday, I spoke to Tom, a wonderful man from Waterford who was discharged after spending 66 days in hospital. He and his brother ended up in ICU and, thankfully, both have now been discharged. I am sure Deputy Butler knows them. We send our best wishes to them and to all those 258 people who are now getting their lives back on track.
Many people have become sick with this virus and many have lost their lives. Let us never forget that and let us never forget them. However, we have shown as a country that we can suppress the spread of this virus with the right measures. Whether we are at home, at work or outside our homes for some essential reason, we need to keep washing our hands properly, covering our coughs and sneezes, respecting the important two-metre rule, staying away from crowds and heeding the new and important guidance on face coverings in certain places. We must take it one step at a time. We are only in phase 1. Let us go forward and not risk going backwards.
I wish to update the House on certain important matters. We know Covid-19 is going to be with us for some time. This has consequences for every section of society and the health service is no different. We all accept the need for and wish to see the recommencement of the delivery of non-Covid health services. However, we all wish for that to be done in a manner that is safe and effective for patients and staff. The HSE has now developed a clinical road map for the delivery of non-Covid services in a Covid environment in order to enable the safe and clinically appropriate reopening of services. The road map outlines eight key principles that will be used to guide the reintroduction of all non-Covid services. Those principles are equity, safety, based on need, long-term population benefit, clear and effective communication to patients, ensuring all healthcare staff are engaged and consulted, risk benefit analysis, and public health principles of pandemic management. I am sure Deputies and the public know that getting back to normal will not mean going back to the way our health services were before coronavirus. It needs to be understood that although we have this clinical road map, we will have to remain flexible and capable of responding to any changes in the behaviour of the virus. The HSE intends to publish its plan for non-Covid health services in a Covid environment within two weeks.
On the issue of nursing homes, throughout the response to the pandemic there has been particular focus on the challenges in the nursing home sector. The sector has been and remains an absolute priority for me. All of the evidence indicates that we will continue to live with this virus and its impact for a long time to come. I believe it is critical that we now take the opportunity to examine how things have evolved in nursing homes in Ireland and the measures we have adopted so far and to consider international experiences. What are other countries doing? Are there things they are doing better than us? Are there things we can learn from them orvice versa? We need to look at the approaches in other countries, identify examples of best practice and ensure we put them in place here.
We must continue to plan appropriately to meet the ongoing challenges of Covid-19 into the foreseeable future. It is not just about getting on top of the nursing home situation today, although there has been good progress in that regard. It must be about ensuring we maintain that vigilance. Today, I announce the establishment of a Covid-19 nursing home expert panel to examine and advise on these matters. It is a crucial aspect of good planning and a recommendation of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. It will support Ireland’s navigation through the Covid-19 landscape and ensure the best possible safeguards are in place to protect the many people who call nursing homes their home. The panel will have four members, a public health expert who will chair the group, a geriatrician, a senior nurse and a public interest representative. I expect the group to do its work by the end of June such that we can share it with the House as we prepare for the weeks and months ahead.
I advise the House that I intend to update the Government tomorrow on further measures we intend to take in respect of travel, protecting our country and ensuring measures are in place at airports and ports. All travellers who come through an airport or port, regardless of nationality, must fill out a passenger locator form. They are asked to self-isolate for two weeks and provide the State with the address at which they will so do. This is the land of céad míle fáilte. We love welcoming people to our country, but now is not the time for non-essential travel.
I will now address the matter of clusters of Covid-19 among employees of meat factories, as I stated I would.
I am informed by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, that as of 16 May there were 16 outbreaks in meat factories associated with 828 cases. The HSE established a national outbreak control team and specific guidance has been issued to all meat factories. I understand that the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, also has an ability to inspect meat factories and all workplaces to ensure their compliance with the back-to-work protocols in place for Covid 19. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak with the chairperson of the HSE’s national outbreak control team, Dr. Mai Mannix. I thank Dr. Mannix and her team for their work. Preliminary estimates from the team indicate that so far between 55% and 60% of employees in meat factories who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 have now recovered, thankfully, and have returned to work. We wish all of them well. NPHET will consider the issue of meat factories further at its meeting tomorrow. I will await any advice or recommendations from NPHET and will share same with the public and this House. Let me be very clear that if employees are unwell or have any symptoms of this virus, they must not go to work and should contact their GP to seek advice and a test. If people cannot self-isolate, measures can be put in place to ensure that they can do so. We are using our facility at City West in this regard.
Last week in this House, Deputy Naughton expressed concerns in relation to how test results were being relayed to employers. The Chief Medical Officer, CMO, has clearly highlighted the importance of patient confidentiality and I very much share that view. The HSE has now made it clear that this practice is not to continue pending engagement with the Data Protection Commissioner and any other relevant regulator or authority. I have also written to the HSE seeking more information and a report on this matter.
There is no part of our country and no age group that has been untouched by this disease. It is important to say that because sometimes people think this is a virus that visits others, people in a certain age group or with a certain condition. We know that some people are more vulnerable to a bad outcome from this virus but the latest figures that I want to share with the House show that out of the total number of Covid-19 cases in Ireland, in 16,064 or 58.6% there was no health underlying condition. In other words, 58% of the people who got Covid-19 did not have an underlying condition and were not otherwise ill. Despite the power of this virus and the suffering it has caused across the world, this country has gone to great lengths together and we have managed to contain it. As our circumstances change and our society and economy reopen, we must stay focused on what we have learned and continue to practise it every day. It is in all of our hands. We all need to make sure we do everything we can to successfully move from phase 1 to phase 2 and to find that sweet spot where we can safely live alongside this virus. We need to stay with the evidence and the clear public health advice that we have been given. We ask everyone in this country to stick with us, stay at home, stay safe and protect each other.