Dáil debates

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Covid-19 Task Force: Statements


5:00 pm

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

The experts tell us that the Covid-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-century event. Let us hope they are right. There have been more than 70 million confirmed cases worldwide and many more people who have never been diagnosed. It has caused 1.6 million recorded deaths and many hundreds of thousands more deaths have gone unrecorded. Millions of survivors are living with the exhaustion and adverse health effects of what is called "long Covid". Individuals, families and entire communities have suffered greatly. Many in Ireland have lost loved ones to the disease - family, friends and work colleagues. The measures we have had to introduce have resulted in people losing their livelihoods and many facing isolation. The global economic slump is the largest since the Second World War.

Out of the ashes of all of this suffering and, at times, despair, we now have hope. The unprecedented work of the global medical and scientific community has brought us to a point where the first Covid vaccine is likely to be authorised for Ireland in a matter of days. What a wonderful thing to say in Dáil Éireann. Data from clinical trials of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines suggest they reduce the effects of Covid in approximately 95% of people vaccinated. Over time, this should help the country return to life as we knew it before Covid. We may still be in the tunnel, but for the first time we can see light.

Following a Government decision, we announced the launch of the national Covid-19 vaccination strategy and implementation plan on Tuesday following a Government decision. This was another significant step forward in our fight against Covid-19. In November, the Government established a high-level task force led by Professor Brian MacCraith. The task force was charged with developing an overall strategy and implementation plan for the delivery of a Covid-19 vaccination programme. I am most grateful to Professor MacCraith, the members of the task force and everyone who has contributed to its work. They have been able to produce this strategy within a tight timeframe.

It is important to point out that the strategy builds on many months of hard work by many different people and organisations in the world of healthcare in Ireland. These include the Department of Health, the HSE, the Health Products Regulatory Authority, the National Immunisation Office, the national immunisation advisory committee, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre and many more. It has been a show of Team Ireland and what can be done.

Similar to all other EU member states, Ireland is awaiting news from the European Medicines Agency, EMA, which assesses the safety and efficacy of all drugs. This week, we learned that the EMA would bring forward to next week a meeting to consider the Pfizer vaccine. As colleagues will know, the original date set for this meeting was 29 December. We heard in recent days that it was being brought forward to 21 December. We have great hope that other candidate vaccines, including those produced by Moderna and AstraZeneca, will be in a position to receive authorisation early in the new year.

Once initial supplies are received - they are likely to be limited in quantity at the start - the HSE will be in a position to begin vaccinating the highest risk groups. The national Covid-19 vaccination strategy and implementation plan describe Ireland's high-level plan for safe, effective and efficient vaccination of the population while maximising the continuation of service delivery in the rest of our healthcare system. The plan will evolve as we plan, deliver and refine our approach in light of national and international experience with the vaccines.

The report outlines the strategy in terms of logistics, deployment, workforce planning, communications and other essential aspects of the vaccination programme plan. Vaccines will be rolled out in three phases. The first will be the initial roll-out, which will be followed by a mass ramping up and, finally, the third phase, which will be open access. Vaccines will be administered in long-term care facilities, large-scale healthcare sites, mass vaccination centres, GP clinics and community pharmacies. They will be provided at no cost to members of the public. All vaccinators will be qualified and registered healthcare professionals who will receive comprehensive and specialist training on Covid-19 vaccines.

The initial vaccine roll-out will focus on the highest priority groups. At its heart, our approach is to protect those who are most likely to contract Covid-19 and at greatest risk of serious adverse consequences if they contract it, including death. Given that supplies will initially be limited, an important consideration is how to prioritise groups. This matter has been addressed by the recent announcement of an allocation strategy, which was agreed by the Government last week. This strategy identifies population cohorts at a relatively high risk. A further subdivision of these cohorts may be needed to assist in focusing available vaccine supplies where they can bring the greatest benefit. Decisions on matters such as the approach to vaccination of key workers in essential jobs will need to be considered at programme level. As supply increases, it may well be possible to vaccinate different groups at the same time.

Ireland is taking part in a procurement exercise that is being operated by the European Commission on behalf of member states to procure suitable, safe and effective vaccines in sufficient quantities to combat the disease. We have already opted into five advance purchase agreements, APAs, with pharmaceutical companies and a process is in place to opt into a sixth.

It is important to remember that, while this is a time of hope and we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the vaccines are not a silver bullet. We will still be observing public health measures well into 2021. It is vital that we understand this and continue to show one another the wonderful solidarity that has been displayed throughout our country during the pandemic. Right now, the situation across Europe is precarious. In recent days, our own case numbers have increased. I will speak more to that issue shortly. Nonetheless, our 14-day incidence rate is now the lowest in the EU at 88 per 100,000 population. To put that in perspective, the rate is 547 in the Netherlands, 341 in Germany and 1,208 in Croatia.

Huge credit goes to those who have worked gruelling hours for many months, that is, the doctors, nurses and others on the front line as well as those who were redeployed earlier in the year; Mr. Paul Reid and his team of managers, who have worked under huge pressure; Dr Tony Holohan, Dr. Ronan Glynn and all the other members of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, as well as the many people in my Department who may not be household names but who have made an outstanding contribution at this most challenging time.

I would like to finish today by saying there are still big challenges ahead, not least in the logistical matters detailed in the implementation plan. It will not all be smooth sailing from the start of January or the end of this month. I urge members of the public to remember that every contact counts.

Before I came in here for the debate this evening, I had a long conversation post NPHET with the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and the deputy CMO. They have been reviewing the latest information right up to today and the situation is precarious. The R number for last week was calculated somewhere between 0.9 and 1.0. As of today, the latest we have from Professor Nolan is an R number of between 1.1 and 1.3. If we assume it is approximately 1.2, the modelling we saw from NPHET and from Professor Nolan's team shows that at anything above approximately 1.2, particularly given the level of cases we are at, the cases can rise very quickly.

We know the positivity in testing is up. The referrals for PCR testing and the incidences of doctors and GPs recording flu-like symptoms in their surgeries are also up. The lead indicators we watch to see what is coming in the next few days and weeks are all pointing to a serious increase in cases. We have seen the number of contacts per person who tests positive rise from 2.8 recently to 3.6 today.

Ireland has done incredibly well. In fact, we have done the best in the western world as a nation and a body politic in working together to drive the virus down and keep people alive. The conversation I just had with the CMO was sobering. He will be doing a press conference with Dr. Glynn this evening and will be relaying some of this.

I will, however, re-emphasise that the debate this evening is one of hope. It is a debate about the vaccinations. Earlier in the year, I spoke to infectious disease experts, as, I am sure, did my colleagues, who said it could be years before we had a vaccine, or that we may never get a vaccine. They said this based on what happened with previous similar diseases where vaccines were not developed and, in some cases, still have not been developed.

It is, however, essential now as Ireland is in this privileged position of opening up for Christmas, we are able to meet our friends and family, we have a very low case rate, and we are looking at this wonderful hope at the end of the year, which is the imminent arrival of vaccines, and it is as important now as any other time that we keep minding each other, keep each other safe and keep following the public health advice which has served us well.

I will finish by repeating some of the clearest advice I ever heard, which was from Dr. Ronan Glynn many months ago. He said whatever number of people a person is planning on meeting in the next week, just think forward about who it is, whether it is family, friends, colleagues or whoever, and just plan to reduce and bring the number down, because if we bring the number of contacts down, we bring the R number down, and if we bring that down, we slow down the growth rate, keep people safe, keep people in nursing homes safe and protect our hospitals and healthcare system, which need to stay open for non-Covid work. I will make a final appeal. I know the House has been united in this right the way through. We must keep communicating with the people we represent and say to them to keep minding each other, keep contacts down and let us keep each other safe through the Christmas period.


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