Thursday, 17 December 2020
Covid-19 Task Force: Statements
I am reflecting a little bit on Deputy O'Connor's contribution as he said it would be his last contribution for the year. It makes us reflect on the year we have had. Certainly the election in February seems more than just a number of months ago. Since then, we have had to tackle two major issues. One is the impact of the virus itself, and I believe we have managed the virus well in this country. The numbers and comparisons with other European countries over recent weeks have shown we have managed the virus well. We should not be triumphalist about it and things will change over time. As the previous speaker said, the level of interaction we see in the city would cause some concern, and perhaps we came out of the second restricted period with a more relaxed attitude than we did coming out of the first. All that being said, the numbers do speak for themselves and we have managed the virus well.
The other major issue is that an economic price has been paid for this by many people. People have lost their jobs. People have been made redundant. People have lost income. Again, we have managed some of the worst elements of this economic impact with economic supports for jobs such as the Covid restrictions support scheme, the restart grant and, principally, the pandemic unemployment payment, which I believe we should look at as being a progressive form of basic income.
On this second score of managing the economic hardships, we have done well. Therefore, it bodes well heading into this third phase, where we will start to roll out the vaccine, that equally we should have confidence in this country's ability to deliver the vaccine programme. It should be summed up as two sides of a coin. One side is public support for the campaign and the other is public service excellence in delivering the vaccine campaign. There are a number of elements in both of these points. On public support, of course there needs to be leadership and we have to be careful that those who have genuine concerns about the vaccine need to be won over. They need to be persuaded that their genuine concerns can be answered in a rational and reasonable way. We can explain how the vaccine can be another tool, along with a face mask and 2 m social distancing.
With regard to this conversation, we have to differentiate between people with genuine concerns and those who do not want to be persuaded because of an ideological opposition to vaccination or because they took an earlier position that they do not believe Covid is as serious as we do. I do not know how the people in this category have come to that conclusion. Vaccine deniers and Covid deniers have their own form of twisted logic. The conversation with them should not overtake the genuine conversation we have to have with people who have genuine concerns. In the public health messaging we need to make sure we concentrate on the middle ground and those with genuine questions and the questions we can genuinely answer and that we do not get caught with people who want a black-and-white argument and do not want sophisticated and nuanced answers. They just want to be Covid deniers and vaccine deniers.
In the public support message we need to talk about trusted advisers. We need to talk about GPs, pharmacists and health professionals in people's families, and empower them with the simple messaging that the vaccine is an additional tool and will be crucial in us tackling the virus.
The issue of certification, data protection and the technology is very important. There are always restrictions with any IT system or data management system but they should not dictate the ambition of the roll-out programme. We need to make sure we record everyone who takes the vaccination. If people wish to have evidence they have taken the vaccination, we need to make it available to them. A big part of the pandemic has been people associating with other people who they trust and know are being responsible in the pandemic and, therefore, are willing to be part of their bubble and to trust them.
That is the way we will make progress on the vaccine also. If I am going to be with other people in a social setting I will want to be with people who I trust also availed of the vaccine.
We should not be overly concerned about passports and certificates. That is not the way this country has dealt with this crisis to date. There will be times when we will need to provide evidence that we have taken the vaccine and that should be available as part of the IT and administration systems. However, if we return to the idea of environments we can control and in which we can have trust, we will not need that overly-prescriptive approach. However, there are groups that are not in that position. I refer to those who, either in their work or because of where they live, are put in a position where they are forced to be in an environment with people they may not have the information or knowledge to trust.
I welcome the prioritisation given by the task force. I have great experience of dealing with Professor Brian MacCraith. As a former president of DCU he had great confidence in administering that university and I hope that he and all the people on the task force will bring all that skill to it.
Looking at the prioritisation and the categorisation, it would appear that priority is being given to small groups first and expanding out to those people who cannot control the environment around them. I refer to those people who live in congregated settings or who, because of their housing condition or their health, are forced to share space with other people or those who work in those environments. We must make sure that they can avail of the vaccine earlier than others.
There is always a different focus brought by different sectoral groups in terms of the restrictions that should and should not apply. I imagine the same will happen with vaccination but if we trust the prioritisation of the task force we can have confidence that they will deliver the programme to those people who need it most.
We need to examine the definition of key workers, which is essential. The one area I talk about most is education. Teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, have put themselves in a position where social distancing is possible most of the time but they are in contact with large groups of people, perhaps larger groups of people than most people have been in contact with. I would equate bus drivers and other transport workers in the same category. Teachers and SNAs must be able to continue to have confidence that schools will remain open, and they should remain open. I despair at the constant rumour mill of schools possibly closing and not closing. The Government has made a commitment to keep schools open as long as is possible and in a safe a manner as possible. I wish we would continue to hear that message rather than the constant attempts to shorten weeks and times.
On that issue, if that commitment is being given, equally we should stand by the teachers and the SNAs who are in that position. Social distancing is possible some of the time but there are occasions when it is not. When I asked my 11 year old daughter about the conditions in her school she said, “Well, you know, the babies cannot keep the social distance the same as the rest of us”. That is the reality. Younger children in schools may breach the distance more than others. I ask that the position of key workers be examined and fleshed out. I know every group will want to be in that category. The political reality is that there will be calls and lobbying from every group but the education sector has been one of the real success stories of this pandemic in terms of how we have managed to respond to it. I would like to see them and the risk that they take acknowledged in the vaccination programme.
Equally, there are those people who have underlying conditions or medical conditions who will seek protection. I ask the Minister to examine their position.
The categorisation is very clear. Although one might be in category seven, eight or nine, the numbers above that are quite small. That is because we focus the need on those people who need it most. As we get to each category, more and more people are brought into the programme. Those are the practical realities of delivering the programme.
I said at the outset that the country has done well in managing the virus and the economic impact of the virus. I am confident that we will do well again in administering this vaccination programme.