Thursday, 10 September 2020
Public Health, Well-being and National Drugs Strategy: Statements
Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
The Minister of State raised the first issue I wished to raise with him, which is good. However, I still find the response unbelievable. I raised the issue of 12-step meetings with him. I refer to meetings of groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and others as well as other meetings for people in recovery. The key word here is "recovery".
I wrote to the Minister of State on 20 August on behalf of the people who attend these meetings and I believe they are essential services. Unfortunately, I had to write to the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach when I did not get a response. The Minister of State did, however, reply to me on 26 August. I then sent his response on to the members of these recovery groups and explained that, according to him, they were not allowed to meet because such meetings would not comply with the limit of six people meeting in indoor settings. They believed it was insulting to suggest they would not have the capability to organise meetings with social distancing. The Minister of State said that information about the effects of alcohol and health tips to cut down could be accessed on the HSE website, askaboutalcohol.ie. Is it sufficient to send people who are in recovery and who need these meetings to a website?
Another point he made to me was that the HSE had produced a poster. We are talking about a poster when hundreds of meetings nationally were closed down because he did not ensure they could stay open. People who have been in recovery for ten, 20, 30, 40 years or more and who are stalwarts in their communities and know how to advise people were prevented from meeting for three weeks. The Minister of State's response to my emails was flippant and dismissive. I asked him whether these people should be granted an exemption. In his letter ,he said that this may not be the time to introduce exceptions to the public health advice. The funny thing about this is that, last Friday, I received a phone call from someone who told me that a Fianna Fáil backbench Deputy had told Alcoholics Anonymous that it could go ahead with its meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous then released a press statement to say that, until it got proper public health advice, its meetings would not go ahead. On Monday, we were given clarity in a letter and, on Tuesday, it was announced that all 12-step meetings for people in recovery could go ahead. This was three weeks later. The Minister for Health also said that those meetings were never meant to be stopped and that they were considered essential services.
I wrote to the Minister for Health and to the Taoiseach's office. Is there a lack of communication between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil? Is there a lack of caring? Did the Minister for State ask the Minister for Health whether these meetings could go ahead? The Minister obviously did not read my emails. I am even doubtful whether the Minister of State read my emails in light of his response. It is an absolute disgrace that people who are in recovery could not meet for three weeks because of a communication issue between two Ministers, which probably arose because they are members of two different political parties.
It is not good enough. Nor is it good enough to announce three weeks later that these groups could have met all along. I forwarded the Minister of State's response to all the groups who had contacted me.
There is so much more I want to say and so many more issues I want to raise today. The national drugs strategy has a 50-point action plan that was intended to run between 2017 and 2020. In response to a parliamentary question I tabled in June, I was informed there were 35 actions in progress, four completed and 11 more to be started. A briefing paper for the Minister for Health received under a freedom of information request stated that at the end of 2019, all of these figures were the same, that is, 35 actions in progress, four completed and 11 not yet started. Was no work done on the national drugs strategy in 2019? I have raised this issue and my concerns on it. We should have reports every three or six months, not yearly. That is the problem here, namely, no one is keeping an account of this strategy. I recently met representatives of one group, the Alcohol Forum, who were excited to be included because of the work they do on alcohol addiction. They are at point 1.1.1 in the strategy and it has not even been started yet. I am conscious of the time and other speakers.
The Minister of State did not mention the whole issue of dual diagnosis and I found that exceptional. It is mentioned in the national drugs strategy, the mental health strategy and is part of the programme for Government. Currently we have only a small number of underfunded pilot projects. I now ask that the Government forget about pilot projects. We want a national scheme rolled out. We want a "no wrong door" policy introduced.
I will conclude by saying I am proud to be Sinn Féin spokesperson on addiction, recovery and well-being because I am proud to be able to give a voice to people and communities who are often not heard. I will be holding the Minister of State and the Government to account because someone needs to stand up for those people who do not have a voice. I want to work with the Minister of State but thus far, his performance has been dismal. He really needs to up his game when it comes to the drugs strategy and the health of our nation.