Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I was deeply sorry and shocked to hear about the threat to the Minister's family home. Such behaviour is totally unacceptable and appalling. It must have generated unnecessary concern for him and his family. Those actions should not have happened and I wholeheartedly condemn them.
As we know, this Bill proposes to introduce mandatory quarantine for travellers arriving into this State to limit the spread of Covid-19, particularly in light of recent variants of the disease which have been identified. It also increases various penalties for breaches of Covid-19 restrictions, which I welcome. Can we have a date for when this will come into effect and be implemented? The public have questions. They have made great sacrifices, as we all know. People have not seen their families in the past year in some cases and it is difficult. In order to give people hope, we must provide some dates for the implementation of these measures.
This issue was debated, to some extent, in the context of the Labour Party Private Members' motion which called for the introduction of mandatory hotel quarantine for all travellers arriving by sea and air into the State, with the exception of designated essential and logistic workers with polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing at arrivals and follow-up tests after five days. The Rural Independent Group has continuously raised this issue and spoken about the need for such a regime to be implemented. As long ago as April, we were strongly calling for this measure. At the time, I wrote to the then Taoiseach and then Minister for Justice and Equality, requesting that all necessary preventative measures be put in place urgently to safeguard against the heightened risk of Covid-19 infections emerging from within the tourist population. It is difficult to understand or grasp why hundreds of thousands of tourists entered this country when very strict restrictions were imposed on our citizens. It is hard to fathom why this was allowed to continue. It was certainly wrong and we in the Rural Independent Group have been consistent in condemning it.
There was a lot of speculation last April as to the numbers arriving in the country but that is not the case now. We know that thousands of people have entered the State under all levels of the restrictions. We also know that this is the kind of action that has served to radically and fundamentally undermine public confidence in the overall capacity of the various Covid plans to reduce the case incidence rate. People see news reports of another thousand, several thousand or tens of thousands travelling into the State while Irish people are confined to a paltry 5 km travel limit, and that is not acceptable. Many constituents in my rural constituency of Laois-Offaly have contacted me about this matter, asking for the 5 km limit to be extended because it does not make sense to confine people in that way, particularly in rural areas. I ask the Minister to look at that.
It is only natural that a certain level of resentment and anger is going to build up about the perceived unfairness and, as I said last April, we can allow exemptions for those involved in maintaining food security and supply or essential health services and I am happy to see that the Bill before us provides for that. As I welcome this Bill, it is difficult to avoid a sense that we are closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The general public and I would have preferred a more proactive approach instead of trying to catch up now. We had an opportunity to engage in genuine preventative measures last year with respect to our airports and inward travel but we failed to adopt such measures because deference was given to the European travel area requirements. As I understand it, we already had in place a wide-ranging and enhanced customs infrastructure last April. It was initially put in place to deal with post-Brexit customs checks at Rosslare Europort. It has involved Revenue appointing over 400 additional staff nationally to customs and related roles for Brexit, with 30 of them being assigned to Rosslare Europort. Surely some of those staff members and some of the customs check infrastructure could have been repurposed to ensure that people entering the State through our ports or airports were here for genuine reasons of absolute necessity and not for non-essential reasons. Tourists were entering this country when our own people were confined. That does not make any sense. I hope we will not see that happening going forward.
Perhaps if we had taken more proactive measures, we would not be in the position we are today. I note that the Long Title to the Bill emphasises that the Bill makes exceptional provision in the public interest to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 and variants thereof. It notes particularly that the emergence of variants of the disease, specifically the United Kingdom, Brazilian and South African variants, show evidence of increased transmissibility and the potential to evade immune response, posing a very serious risk to public health. The Bill states that the spread of such variants may pose a threat to the effectiveness of some vaccines and affect the State's vaccination programme. We have to be serious about mandatory quarantine as we move forward. It cannot be tokenistic and every measure needs to be rolled out to make sure that we are preventing the spread of infection.
I hope that our carers will be prioritised for a vaccine. I know there is some prioritisation of people in categories with underlying health issues. I hope that the vaccine will be rolled out to our carers.