Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Committee Stage
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, to delete line 2 and substitute the following: “ ‘designated state’—
(a) on the coming into operation of this Act, means any country, territory, region or other place outside the State other than Northern Ireland,
(b) if at any time after passing a resolution under section 9(5)of the Health (Amendment) Act 2021both Houses of the Oireachtas so resolve, has the meaning assigned to it by section 38E(1);”.
Our amendment will provide for mandatory hotel quarantine for all travellers coming into the State, with the exception of those outlined therein. We will also have to deal with the issue of essential workers. According to what is being proposed by the Government, travellers who have been in designated states within 14 days prior to arrival will be obliged to undergo a 14-day period of quarantine. They will be able to exit quarantine only if they return a not-detected Covid test on arrival and again on the tenth day of their quarantine. The rule in respect of non-designated states, however, is that travellers will be quarantined only if they arrive without a non-detected PCR test, until such a test is returned.
Our amendment defines all states outside the island as designated states. It will allow for the Bill's proposed two-tier system of designated and non-designated states to come into operation only if the Houses pass an enabling resolution and only after an initial blanket three-month designation period. This approach will ensure that all travellers are quarantined for the next three months while we fight and suppress the virus and while the vaccination is rolled out, and will allow for a review after that. It will keep out variants and provide the comfort we need to give to the people that their sacrifices are worth it.
I listened carefully to what the Minister said about what the Government is proposing. As stated previously, he should not be the Minister introducing this legislation. We are where we are, however. The Government is doing the absolute minimum on mandatory hotel quarantining. What is proposed only covers 20 countries. Why is this the case? Why is it doing the absolute minimum? The public has suffered enough and deserves to have mandatory hotel quarantining to fight the variants, giving them an opportunity hopefully to be able to move on a bit better with their lives. We should be doing everything we can to help the people we are here to represent to be able to get on with their lives. We are not going to introduce mandatory quarantine. Rather, the Government is going to try to deal with the matter by means of this minimalistic legislation. Yesterday I listened to the Minister say that the Bill is radical. What is being done in South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and other countries is pretty radical; this Bill is not radical.
There is no point in taking a half-baked approach to this matter. That is my belief and the belief many Opposition Members. It is rare to see such unity on something, but this is it. It is my view and the view of the Labour Party that introducing this legislation will not have the desired impact. I am not sure how many people would be arriving from some of the 20 designated countries on the list at the best of times, let alone now. This is half-baked. I hope that I do not end up telling the Minister later this year that I told him so. I genuinely hope we do not end up in that place because if we do it will be very dark.
The Government is leaving gaping holes in our defence against the variants. We need to suppress this virus and try to shut it down absolutely. We all know now about the variants. We are hearing that there is now even a Bristol variant. There is a Californian variant. We know about the South African variant and the Brazilian variant that are here. As a result of these variants, we basically have a pandemic within a pandemic, a virus within a virus. This is leaving gaping holes in our defences at such a critical period when we are trying to maximise the effectiveness of our vaccine roll out. It is incomprehensible that the Government would, in an equation-like fashion, not put its own people first.
The crux of the matter is as follows. The virus and its variants are on tour. We know some of the incidence of the Brazilian variant here has been as a result of people travelling in from Brazil. If we continue to allow people to come in from other countries, including even European countries, to come here and then ask them to be honour-bound and quarantine themselves, variants will spread. The variants will spread because they are coming in already. The Brazilian and South African variants do not need to come from Brazil or South Africa. They can come from London, Lanzarote or Lisbon. They can come from anywhere. Why are we not doing everything we can for a particular period in order to protect our people? Why is the following equation going against the Irish people? On the one hand, the Government is limiting everyone's travel to a distance of 5 km but, on the other, we are allowing people in from all over the world and, even though it is a legal requirement, trusting them to quarantine at home for 14 days.
There are two choices here. What is being done shows an absolute failure on the part of Government that it is choosing to go against the public. The public are behind the Opposition on this issue. All surveys and analysis show this to be the case. People are at their wits' end. That is why we desperately need to go down the route the Labour Party is advocating. This is part of a bigger jigsaw of ways in which we need to deal with this virus. The edges of all the other components of the jigsaw get worn and then the whole thing falls apart because this is the critical piece. If we fail to deal with the variants, all our other work will be undone because there are so many unknowns involved.
Some people have said that travel only accounts for a tiny number of infections. I have two issues with that. First, the British variant did not arrive here as a result of misfortune. It arrived here because people travelled here. This variant is more deadly than the original virus. It is far more infectious, spreads quicker and hits different cohorts of people that the first virus did not hit in the same way. Second, when people talk about variants and travel, they need to remember that people who travel are highly prone to infection and have the capacity to spread disease quickly. People are at their wits' end. Even though only a small percentage are travelling, it does not matter how small it is. It can magnify and once it does, we have a problem.
Our amendment seeks to remedy the glaring omission in this legislation. I wish to make a number of other points on the amendment and the legislation. Those points go hand in hand. I cannot understand why it has taken since May of last year to introduce any form of legislation relating to quarantine. To avoid the need to use freedom of information requests, parliamentary questions, etc., I ask the Minister to outline why the conversation stopped last May. Why has it taken until now to do this? What were the blockages? Where they at political level our civil servant level? Step by step, what happened from May until now?
We continually hear that NPHET advises and that the Government is following NPHET's advice. It certainly is not following NPHET here; it is going against public health advice. Surely public health advice is that we should keep all the variants out as much as possible and use all the tools at our disposal. The Government has gone against public health advice for the past nine months. What has happened? I welcome that the Minister has spoken to his counterpart in New Zealand in recent weeks. All the research on how we should be doing this as an island nation should have been done long before that. I wonder if, psychologically, there is some issue at the heart of Government that has opposed this for a longer period.
I personally think there is.
I was taken by the Tánaiste's comments on multiple programmes yesterday, where he said that we need a differentiated approach because the Isle of Man and Iceland do not have Covid. It was said to me a number of times yesterday that that was a ridiculous example. This is not about a differentiated approach. This is about maximising and ensuring that our people are protected. A differentiated approach may be laudable in different circumstances but we are in the heart of the pandemic and at a very critical juncture. This is not the time for a differentiated approach.
When people come into this country from countries with high Covid rates and are asked to quarantine legally for 14 days, why are they not PCR tested after quarantine, in the middle of it or when they arrive? I asked the Minister about this yesterday so I would appreciate if he could formulate a reply. It seemed from his reaction yesterday that he thought it was possibly worthy of consideration.