Thursday, 17 December 2020
Covid-19 Task Force: Statements
I am sharing time with an Teachta O'Reilly. First, in what will be my final contribution in this House before Christmas, I wish the Minister and his family a happy and peaceful Christmas and, indeed, all the staff in the Department and those in the HSE. I thank sincerely all the front-line workers who work in our acute hospitals and in primary, mental health and community care, as well as those in our nursing homes who have done a really difficult and challenging job and Trojan work over recent months in what has been a very difficult situation.
I commend Professor MacCraith on his work and, indeed, all the expert group. I am on record as saying the plan they produced is not just credible, it is very good and is a very good framework. Like all plans, however, it comes down to resourcing. We must look under the bonnet to see how well this plan will be resourced and how quickly it can be delivered if and when any of the vaccines get approval from the European Medicines Agency, EMA. We hope that will happen as soon as it is safe to do so.
I say sincerely that it is important we do not unrealistically raise anybody's expectations about the vaccine. I do not say that as any criticism of the Minister but as a general point. We really need to be honest with people about how quickly the vaccine will come on stream. It is possible that the European Medicines Agency will sign off and approve any number of the vaccines before the end of the year or early next year. However, at the Joint Committee on Health this week, even with the advance purchase agreements we have with different pharmaceutical companies, totalling more than 14 million doses of different vaccines, we were told the most likely candidate for first approval would be the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. We are in for 2.2 million doses of that particular vaccine. We were told, however, only 5,000 of those doses would come in the first phase, and then a couple of hundred thousand, but no more than that. We were not even given a figure of what a couple of hundred thousand will mean. Is it 200,000 or 500,000? My point is we do not know how quickly the supply of the doses will come, and that will determine how quickly people will become vaccinated. I say that in terms of not raising people’s expectations because we must be careful and we cannot be complacent.
The Minister quite rightly pointed out that the positivity rates in this State are increasing. The 14-day and seven-day incident rates, the five-day average and the hospitalisations are increasing, and of course all that is a concern. We can see what is happening in the North with high figures and huge pressures on our front line. We need to bear that in mind as we approach the end of the year. As we know, January, February and March in any given year are a difficult and challenging time, especially for people who work in our acute services. We must do everything we possibly can to check ourselves and take personal responsibility to ensure we do what is right over the Christmas period. Obviously, the HSE, the Department and the Government have a role and responsibility to give and reiterate that message time and again. The virus has not gone away. It is still here and it is still spreading. We cannot be complacent. We must remain vigilant.
I want to start to go under the bonnet of the plan a little bit and raise not what I see as concerns but suggestions as to how we can give confidence to people that the vaccine will be rolled out as quickly as it can. The document quite rightly says that the vaccinators will all be qualified medical professionals. That is how it should be. People need to have confidence in the administration of the vaccine and in the vaccine itself and I expect the vast majority of people will. How many vaccinators will there be? How quickly can we get all the training done? The plan also says these vaccinators will have to be trained.
Maybe some of them will not need training but some will. Timelines and urgency are important in this.
The plan also talks about mass vaccination centres. The Minister will know that I published a plan on providing a framework for how the vaccine could and should be rolled out. One of the things we called for was these mass vaccination centres. We highlighted in our submission at the time that we felt that community settings, such as sporting facilities, for example, would be a good place for these vaccination centres, because we need to engender a community spirit and to encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated. We were told at the Joint Committee on Health that there will be 15 vaccination centres. We do not know the geographical spread of those yet. That needs to be there. We also do not know the level of staff that will be required for these centres. The more vaccination centres we have and the more staff we have trained and in place, the quicker the vaccines can be rolled out and the quicker people can become vaccinated.
That is my point on not raising expectations because my understanding from what was being said by the experts is that we might not reach peak vaccination in this State by the summer of next year. It could be closer to the end of next year. We would all hope it will be sooner than that and it can be done as quickly as possible. That will come down to the Minister giving reassurance on how many doses of the vaccine we will get and when we will get them. When the Minister has that information, it should be clearly communicated to people. Second, when we get the doses, the storage capacity should be right, the distribution and logistical requirements should be right and the role of GPs, pharmacies and so on should also be advanced and all of the work should be done.
I met GPs and the head of the pharmacy union in recent days. They have other issues aside from the vaccine. The Minister met them recently as well about a new contract for pharmacists. They need to be communicated with on the vaccine. They need to know what their role will be and when they will play a role in all of this. When we have mass vaccination centres, for example, is it envisaged that GPs and pharmacists will also be administering the vaccine in tandem with these centres? Is that the plan? These are the questions that will need to be teased out and answered. One of the requirements I asked of the Minister, which he was supportive of anyway, was that the vaccine should be free. If it is being administered by GPs and pharmacies, that has to be worked out quickly. There cannot be any problems, delays or issues that arise that could and should have been foreseen so now is the time to make sure we get all of that right.
I want to touch on the need for public education because I am supportive of vaccines. I understand the importance of vaccines and how they have all but eliminated many diseases in the past. The crucial role they have played, not just in the elimination of diseases but in their suppression in some cases, is extraordinary. The development of vaccines and of new technologies and research in this area has been phenomenal. That is something we should celebrate and something that makes them as safe as they can possibly be, which is why I will be at the front of the queue if and when the opportunity comes to be vaccinated. My family and I will be vaccinated because I want to play my part in suppressing the virus. There will be people who will have questions, however, and politicians should not be the ones who give medical advice. The medical advice should be given by medical professionals and the medical professionals are people like Professor Karina Butler, who has done a first-class job in recent weeks in communicating a clear and coherent message and we need more of that.
Public information will be important. If people have questions, we should not knock them. We should encourage them to go to a GP and to get information from credible, sound and reliable sources, as opposed to the unreliable sources we have seen with other vaccines in the past. We should encourage that and make sure they go to their GPs and get factual information to equip them to be in a position to then take the vaccine. That will be an important part of all of this.
I have been heartened by the uptake in the flu vaccine this year. Even though we had more doses this year than in previous years, there still was not enough because of the demand. That tells me that people will want to be vaccinated. We have a huge job of work to do. The Minister has a heavy responsibility and I wish him, his Department and all of those who have done a lot of work in this area well in that. It will be the biggest challenge that will face us next year and one we collectively have to rise to.