Thursday, 17 December 2020
Covid-19 Task Force: Statements
I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. I am happy to be here on this very auspicious occasion. It is an historic event for the country. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Covid-19 task force and the national Covid-19 vaccination programme.
I would like to make six points. First, I welcome the publication of the high level strategy document and the more operationally focused implementation plan. In the short timeframe of four weeks, Professor Brian MacCraith and his team have come up with two comprehensive pathways that are hugely important. They deserve a lot of credit.
I welcome that the European Medicines Agency, EMA, is on the cusp of approving, provisionally, the use of one of the candidate vaccines, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. As we have heard, this may happen on Monday. This is a positive step. More important, it is likely that before year end people in Ireland will be vaccinated. Even three months ago, that was unthinkable in this jurisdiction. It is full marks so far in terms of my first point.
Second, it is important that vaccination is completely voluntary. There will be no mandatory vaccination, which is positive. That is important. Coupled with that, the vaccine will be free for recipients at the point of administration. This is essential. A person's financial means should never be a factor in determining whether he or she should or should not get a vaccine. Again, this is a very positive development.
Third, I want to focus on the vaccine allocation strategy. It is correct and appropriate that those who are most likely to contract the illness or those who are most vulnerable if they contract it, should be at the front of the queue. It is correct that those who are 65 and over in residential care settings are the first priority. I have no issue with that. I agree that the second priority should be our front-line healthcare workers and that the third priority should be those over 70 in the general public. There is one group of workers I would like to highlight. I know there are many sectoral interests competing in regard to the identify of key workers but the group of people I am speaking about are regularly forgotten about. They are loyal, they rarely grumble and they just soldier on. This group is peacekeeping troops overseas, of whom there are approximately 600.
The numbers fluctuate over the year. The next large contingent to deploy will go to Syria at the end of March next year. The reason these personnel are so important from a vaccination perspective is that, first, they are deployed to very remote and very hostile countries, including countries which have a much higher prevalence of Covid-19 than we do in Ireland. Second, they are deployed to resource-poor countries that have a much-reduced medical capacity compared with what we have in this country. If our troops get ill overseas, they are at much higher risk. Third, and most important, they are the only group of workers in the State who, before they deploy on a six-month tour of duty overseas, must spend two weeks in strict, mandatory, supervised quarantine in a military installation in Ireland. This means they are away from their families for six and a half months in total. If we could shave those initial two weeks off by giving them a vaccination, it would be hugely appreciated by the military community. Anything the Minister can do from that perspective would be greatly appreciated.
The fourth point I wish to raise relates to workforce planning. I am aware that Professor MacCraith has done a lot of work in this regard already. If there was one bit of advice I could give the Minister, it would be to try, if he can at all, not to redeploy front-line staff from the health services to the vaccination programme. There is no point in robbing Peter to pay Paul. We are only going to store up further problems downstream if we do so. Our waiting lists are long enough as it is without adding to the problem. I respectfully suggest that retired healthcare professionals should be used as well as locum agencies. There are many doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals who are not working full-time in the sector and would appreciate being part of the national effort to get the vaccination programme over the line. I welcome that the deployment of pharmacists is being seriously considered. It is a very progressive and modernising thing to do.
My fifth point is in regard to the ICT system, which has been mentioned by other speakers. We are looking at an off-the-shelf purchase and that makes a lot of sense. One point I would raise is that we have an unfortunate tradition in this country of patients being lost to follow-up as they move through a very complicated pathway system. We need a sophisticated ICT system to track, monitor and evaluate how things are proceeding, particularly in light of the fact that we are going to have at least five different types of vaccines and perhaps even a sixth one. We need an ICT system that is fit for purpose and in respect of which proper training is provided for the people using it.
My final point concerns the public engagement and communication plan, which is absolutely critical. It is essential that people be made aware that a rigorous and robust testing system has been put in place, that the vaccines are safe and that the chances of an adverse reaction are minuscule. If a person gets an adverse reaction, it can be managed satisfactorily. I am very happy to get the vaccine when my turn comes. I am in the unusual position that I am also happy to add my name to the list to administer the vaccine, should that become necessary.
This is a wonderful day for the country. Throughout the crisis, we have embraced science and enlightenment and now we can reap our just rewards. There should be a collective sense of achievement in this. It was the ultimate team performance. As this is my last contribution in the House in 2020, I wish the Minister and Minister of State and their families the very best over Christmas, and the same to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and all Deputies and staff present. We have been through a very rough year and I wish everybody a very peaceful and happy Christmas, particularly the front-line healthcare workers who have protected and supported the population over the past nine months. It has been a fantastic achievement. Here is to a much better 2021.