Thursday, 17 December 2020
Covid-19 Task Force: Statements
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on these statements this evening. However, I would make the point that it is not the ideal format for us. There are two major issues facing the country. They are being discussed here tonight at the tail end of the Dáil session and they are only statements. We are going into an almost four-week break over Christmas. It would have been really helpful if in both cases, the vaccine and Brexit, we could have had a question and answer session. It is quite unsatisfactory and difficult for the rest of us just to deal with this because of the failure to provide that opportunity.
Those of us who are members of the health committee met with a number of the key people involved on Wednesday. Unfortunately, there was not an awful lot more information forthcoming at that stage. It was unsatisfactory. We have not had a briefing for quite a long time. It would have been helpful to have a briefing on the vaccine strategy. I hope the Minister will keep that in mind over the recess and, if the need arises, that he would arrange a briefing for us.
It is welcome the vaccine strategy has been announced. We await the further detail. The excitement and the welcome has to be tempered with a realisation of just where we are at the moment too. We are facing into a lifting of restrictions tomorrow, a Christmas period when people will be mixing to a much greater extent than they have been recently. We are in a situation where all of the indicators are worryingly going in the wrong direction, however. We have not heard this evening's figures yet but the Minister talked earlier about the R number, as well as several of the underlying indicators being of concern.
In that context, I would just be afraid that, while the vaccine is really welcome and offers people hope for the future, it is important that we bear in mind that it is for the future, not now. There may have been too much talking up of the vaccine at this point. When it starts to be administered, hopefully by the end of the year, only a tiny number of vaccines, 5,000 will be available. We do not have any idea about the scheduling of further deliveries. It would be helpful if we got information about the likely schedule, the phasing, the time delay between putting in an order and approval from the company, as well as getting those orders delivered. It could be well into the middle of next year by the time the general population is vaccinated.
It is a long way to go until then.
A very clear message must go out about the very real dangers over the coming weeks. We see what is happening in the North, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. We are about to embark on a period of opening up. Irish people are very sociable. We all want to see our families and do those pleasant things. We just have to keep repeating the messages, and I am not sure the messages are getting out there clearly enough. In terms of limiting contact with other households and household visits, it is not three households in the morning and another three households in the afternoon or the next day. All of this needs to be kept at the forefront of people's minds. More could be done in this regard.
With regard to the vaccine strategy itself, there are many questions that have not yet been answered. I am particularly concerned about the IT system to underpin the vaccine strategy. We do not know when it will be finalised with IBM and Salesforce. There are issues with regard to what data will be gathered, how there will be unique identifiers, and the problems associated with the fact we do not have disease registers. It is a self-registration programme. How will we cross-check those registering with those who have particular underlying health conditions? What about those who do not register? There will be people who do not get those messages or for whatever reason do not come forward. How do we encourage those people to come forward for the vaccine?
What about those who do not have access to computers or who may not be computer savvy? Many of these people are concerned about how they register. There is no information available. Clearly people want to register and get into the system as quickly as possible but those questions have not been answered. There are also questions about data protection. It is not clear that the issue has been resolved. We are still waiting to hear from the Data Protection Commissioner. If there are concerns about the security of data, it will discourage people from coming forward. We need to be absolutely clear that the system is secure and safe.
There are a few other points that need to be raised. An issue that has come to the fore is the safety of the vaccines in respect of fertility. We know pregnant people are at the end of the list. We also know it is not advisable for people who are breastfeeding. There are question marks raised about people considering planning a pregnancy or fertility treatment. We need clarification on these issues as quickly as possible.
The other point I want to raise is one I raised last week with regard to teenagers aged under 18 with underlying health conditions. I was hopeful there would be progress on this and that there would be a positive announcement this week. Many families in this situation were hopeful the Minister might say something on it this week. He undertook to speak to the Chief Medical Officer about it. It really would be very helpful if at least those aged 16 and 17 with underlying health conditions could be included. There is an overall question about people with disabilities as opposed to underlying health conditions, especially people with Down's syndrome who are at greater risk. There does not seem to be provision for people in this category at this stage. It is something that needs to be addressed very quickly.