Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Committee Stage
I support the Labour Party amendment, as well as amendment No. 31, which is in the name of two Sinn Féin Deputies. A number of these amendments are grouped. We had lengthy discussions on Second Stage, in which we set out our overall view of the Bill and the Government's failure in this area. At the heart of that failure is the matter being addressed by the amendments tabled by various Opposition groupings. The reason there is unity among the Opposition on this is that it makes sense. It is simply common sense that we would put in place mandatory hotel quarantine for all non-essential travel, irrespective of where somebody is coming from. For the vast majority of people, that makes sense and opinion polls show it is supported by over 90% of the people in this State. It seems that everybody accepts this is a good idea, except for the Cabinet, the Government and the Minister for Health.
Nine months ago, NPHET argued with the Government and recommended that it remove all discretionary elements of the travel checks. The Government refused to listen to it. Members of the Opposition went on numerous television and radio programmes and argued with the Minister, his colleagues in government and backbench Deputies about the Government's disastrous policy on checks and controls at airports. Every time the proposal for quarantine was raised in this House by Opposition Deputies, it was knocked back by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Ministers for Transport and for Health or others. They said it was simply not necessary and not possible. Here we are, nine months later, and all of a sudden mandatory hotel quarantine is possible. However, it is only possible for people coming from some countries and not people coming from all countries. While one could argue that a half measure is better than no measure, in reality that is not the case because of the new variants and strains of this virus, which are highly contagious and dangerous.
The refusal of the Government to listen to the public health advice nine months ago, and since then, has led us to a situation where the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has had to scramble to put in place legislation at the eleventh hour. The Minister still has not worked out all of the details of how this is going to work and he has not given us a date for when this Bill, if enacted, will come into effect. We are not in a position to give any of that information to the public; nor is the Minister because if he could he would be communicating it to us. The Minister, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party when pressed on this issue today, have not been able to give us a satisfactory or reasonable answer as to why mandatory quarantine cannot be put in place for all non-essential travellers irrespective of what country they come from.
We have heard from the Tánaiste that one of the reasons may be because Iceland, the Isle of Man and other countries have low levels of the variant and so we should not seek to stop people from those countries coming here. One can only imagine what that does to somebody who, at this point in time, is at home, working from home, as he or she has been doing for months now, the person who has lost his or her job and is at home, staying indoors other than to grocery shop or to avail of an essential service and the parents of children who have been home-schooled for the past number of months. It is important to bear in mind that people having been living with some of form of restrictions for months. One can only imagine how people feel on hearing that people from Iceland and the Isle of Man can travel into Ireland while they cannot leave their homes unless for essential purposes or to take exercise, but only within 5 km of their home. Yet, travel is still permitted. The fact the Government does not get that anger and frustration and the logic of that, or the illogic of its position as people see it, is infuriating.
Essentially, the Minister is saying to Members of this House that he is putting in place a two-tier quarantine system. There will be mandatory hotel quarantine for people coming from some countries such that we will have some level of protection. I imagine the reason for that is to stop the importation of any of the new variants or the virus itself. We are imposing quarantine in respect of travel from some countries but for other countries we are going to continue with the nod and wink home quarantine, which is no quarantine at all. It is quarantine in name only.
We heard yesterday from the general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, that there was no consultation with that organisation in relation to the role it will play in policing this legislation. She said they had been given no operational instructions and no guidelines. The Government is telling us that this will be enforced and this can work, yet the organisation that will be tasked with enforcing it has not been consulted or given any instructions. How in God's name is anybody meant to have confidence in that process? It is beyond breathtaking that the Government continues with that nonsense. This cannot be enforced. Home quarantine will not be enforced. It cannot be enforced.
Like Deputy Kelly, I am putting the Minister on notice - it is important for the Opposition to put the Government on notice - that if he does not accept these amendments and go the full distance, as he should do to ensure we have the most robust quarantine and testing regime in place for international travel, and new variants of the virus enter Ireland from any of those countries not on the list, Government will have to take full responsibility for it. The failure to act is solely that of the Government. It does not lie with NPHET or with anybody in opposition or the Irish people who are doing their best and are at their wits end. As accepted by the Taoiseach in the speech he gave a few days ago, people are frustrated and fed up. Of course, they are. They are fed up with the restrictions, but they are also fed up with the Government's half measures. They are also fed up with the fact that it is one rule for them in that they cannot leave or go 5 km outside of their homes, but people can come here by airplane from most countries in the world and are not subject to quarantine. It is driving people bonkers and rightly so. That anger and frustration will, in my view, continue to grow and it will reach a very high level if over the next number of weeks and months we see continued importation of any strain of this virus into this State, when people are doing their best to keep the numbers low.
We have had several conversations in this Chamber about the impact of Covid-19 on front-line hospitals. When the virus gets out of control, our hospitals fill up, ICUs fill up and, unfortunately, more people die. We have seen record numbers of people die in January and February this year. The Minister and I, and others in this Chamber, will mourn every one of those people who have passed away. The only way we can prevent this happening in the future is by ensuring the system that should be in place is in place, that the processes that should be in place are in place and that the solutions that should be in place are in place. One of those solutions must be mandatory hotel quarantine and testing. There still is no legal requirement for a mandatory PCR test for a person travelling into this state.
I am conscious that there is a lengthy list of Deputies waiting to come in. One of our amendments has been ruled out of order, which is a matter for the Ceann Comhairle. Decisions are made to rule amendments out of order for all sorts of reasons. However, one of the amendments we tabled provides that the Minister would engage with his colleague in the North in regard to data sharing. It was ruled out of order on the basis that it would incur a cost on the Exchequer. This is how laughable all of this is becoming. It is really serious. The Minister is still not dealing with the issues. He is not engaging and sharing data with his colleague in the North, going the full distance on travel or seeking to get all of the other elements of this right. Why is he surprised that people are angry and frustrated? There is no point in Government putting it back on the Opposition and claiming, as it has done, that some parties or the Opposition are playing politics. The only people playing politics as far as I can see are Ministers, who are trying to pin the blame on everybody else but themselves.
The Minister needs to step up to the plate on this issue. I appeal to him, even at this eleventh hour, to support these amendments. If he does not and there is continued importation of the virus into this state as a consequence of his half baked solutions as presented today, be that on his head and that of Government, not the Irish public who are abiding by the restrictions or the Opposition which is pleading with Government to do what is right. It will be the sole responsibility of the Minister and the Government.