Thursday, 17 December 2020
Covid-19 Task Force: Statements
I thank all the Deputies for their considered questions and comments. It is positive to have such a healthy conversation on this issue because there are many differing opinions. We must ensure that the discussion is given the time to happen.
It was no surprise to learn this week that "unprecedented" was chosen as the word of the year. The new decade has not got off to the start any of us expected. This year has been one of heartbreak for each and every one of us in different ways. We have had to deal with the deaths of loved ones and, in many cases, we have been unable to attend their funerals. We have seen the struggles and anguish as people lost jobs and as their businesses closed, in some cases for good. We have dealt with isolation among family, friends and communities. The simple joy of taking a walk or browsing in a shop can now put our health at risk. However, perhaps the word of the year next year will be "hope". As the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, said earlier, subject to approval the first vaccines could be administered before the end of the year. We are aware that vaccines will not be a total cure for the disease but they are a step towards normality. They are a step towards a time when we might not have to live in fear of what this disease might do to our loved ones, families or friends.
I am thankful for the tremendous amount of hard work that has gone into our response to this pandemic. People have made incredible sacrifices to help keep each other safe. We must, however, be honest about how this vaccine will shape our behaviours in 2021. While the roll-out ramps up over the next few months, we will need to stick to the public health measures that we all follow now. We will need to keep safe by keeping our number of contacts low, washing our hands, wearing face coverings and maintaining social distance.
I welcomed the announcement this week on the national Covid-19 vaccination strategy and implementation plan. A lot of hard work has gone into getting this right across government. It has involved my Department, the HSE, several agencies and experts. The strategy provides us with a clear path that we can follow for safe, effective and efficient vaccination of the population. It allows us to do this while getting the best out of our health service and continuing with service delivery. Vaccines will be administered in a range of settings that are best suited to the needs of the patient and the practical requirements of individual vaccines. Long-term care facilities, large-scale healthcare sites, mass vaccination centres, GP clinics and community pharmacy settings will all be utilised. There will be no charge for the vaccine. Each person in Ireland will be entitled to receive it free of charge. Vaccination will be carried out by registered healthcare professionals, all of whom will have received specific training in the administration of Covid-19 vaccines.
The focus initially will be on administering the vaccine to those who need it the most. As the Minister responsible for disabilities, I am aware that there have been queries on where people with disabilities stand in the vaccine allocation sequence. It is important to note that, as outlined, people with disabilities are included in the plan although not explicitly listed as a defined group. A person's age, whether he or she is in the long-term care setting and whether that person has a medical condition will dictate when he or she is vaccinated. More broadly, though, the implementation plan is a live document that will change and grow. Further subdivision of the cohorts outlined will be needed. The strategy can adapt based on further expert advice and in accordance with the data and status of evidence that emerges over time. Just as Deputy Berry said in his statement, perhaps the likes of peacekeeping troops going abroad might be considered in this regard. It will all depend on how we move through the phases of our approach and the experiences in Ireland and abroad.
The framework takes into account the current and evolving understanding of distinctive characteristics of Covid-19, its modes of transmission, the groups and individuals most at risk of severe disease or death, and the known characteristics of the candidate vaccines. Scientists and clinicians will continue to play a key role in determining the ongoing evolution of vaccination prioritisation to ensure the optimal approach from a public health perspective. Based on Ireland's experience with Covid-19 so far and the risks that the vulnerable and those in front-line roles in health and social care settings continue to face, it is essential that they be they be accorded the highest priority under the programme. In the first wave of the pandemic in Ireland, 56% of those who died were people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities who were older than 65 years.
They will be prioritised. Healthcare workers have also borne the brunt of Covid-19 infections and they will be prioritised, as will people aged 70 and over because we know that the risk of hospitalisation or death from Covid-19 significantly increases with age. The announcement that the European Medicines Agency will consider the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine at a meeting scheduled for next week brings us closer to a new phase in our response to the pandemic. As part of the European Commission procurement exercise, Ireland has so far opted into five advance purchase agreements with pharmaceutical companies with a process in place to opt into a sixth. It is likely that early next year, we could have a number of vaccines approved. We have made a great deal of progress over the past number of months and will continue to follow the medical and public health advice in order to keep each other safe in the new year. We hope that the roll-out of the vaccines will prevent the most severe cases, hospitalisations and deaths associated with the disease and that we will be able to reopen our society and economy.
I thank all Members of the House for the questions and issues they raised here this evening. I hope that the answers provided have addressed some of their concerns.