Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Committee Stage
I have amendments in the group. We actually went to the trouble of putting in amendments. There are more than 20 of them. My thanks to the staff in the offices of People Before Profit and Rise who, at short notice, had to submit over 20 amendments. There are connected amendments across this grouping and other groupings.
The purpose of the amendments is to try to turn a Bill that is, in the form put forward by the Government, actually a public relations exercise on mandatory quarantine. It is not actually a serious attempt to establish mandatory quarantine for people travelling into the country. It is an attempt by the Government, which is under pressure from public anger over its failure to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and the dire surge we saw in recent months, to make it look as if it is doing something, while continuing with the same failed disastrous policy that has led to so many needless deaths. It has also led to our health services being overrun in the first couple of months. This is putting extraordinary pressure and stress on our healthcare workers. It has led to tragedy and bereavement for many families and many people getting sick as well. The Government had to respond to that, as did some of those in the Opposition who said not a word about the Government's failed strategy when it was pursuing the policy in December. They have since become very wise after the event and are berating the Government for failing to address this issue since last May when NPHET put the advice forward.
Some of us actually supported NPHET way back then and put forward detailed policy documents calling for mandatory quarantine as part of an alternative strategy to eliminate Covid-19 and try to get our society back to some sort of normality, prevent needless deaths and protect our health services and workers. However, we were siren voices, ignored and dismissed for most of that time.
It has taken the tragic events which followed the Government's disastrous decisions over Christmas - and the silence of most of the Opposition while it was making them - to finally force this debate into the public domain. Even now, however, the Government just wants to pretend it is doing something about it. What Deputy Bríd Smith said about the situation in Ballyfermot and vaccines not arriving is interesting because I fear the pretence around mandatory quarantine in this legislation may be linked to a pretence about vaccine distribution as well. I happened to get a text just now from a woman in my area who lives in Blackrock but whose 88-year-old father lives in Donaghmede. He went down to the GP's clinic this morning looking for his vaccine. He and many other elderly people discovered the vaccines had not arrived there either. Therefore what Deputy Bríd Smith referred to in Ballyfermot is not just happening there but it appears, very alarmingly, to be happening in GP clinics in Donaghmede and God knows where else. Thus, we have announcements by the Government about mandatory quarantine and announcements about the vaccine but then the reality is very different and the consequences of that can, of course, be tragic.
I want to ask the Minister a specific question. There are a lot of elderly, vulnerable people who thought they were being vaccinated today and who have discovered that the vaccines have not arrived. Where are the vaccines? What is happening? There is clearly a pattern of GP clinics not getting vaccines for elderly people in a number of locations. God knows where else this may be happening today. Why is it happening and what is going to be done to ensure that those elderly and vulnerable citizens get the vaccine and do not have to wait for weeks in uncertainty, after what has already been a very traumatising, anxiety-filled period due to the huge surges of the past few months?
As already stated, our amendments cut across a number of groups but essentially seek to address the fact that the Government is not imposing actual mandatory quarantine. In fact, the exception to mandatory quarantine is the rule in the legislation. Our amendments seek to do the very opposite, such that every incoming traveller from every country will be subject to mandatory quarantine. This is because it makes no sense whatsoever to select, as the Government is doing, 20 countries. These are countries which very few people are travelling here from in any event, countries in Africa, Latin America and, for some reason, the state of Austria. It is bizarre, quite honestly. The largest number of travellers coming here are from countries where we know there are high levels of Covid cases and where the variants are present, namely, the United States, European countries and many other places. What the Government is doing is therefore madness; it makes no sense and just shows the Bill to be a sham and not an actual attempt to put in place mandatory quarantine. I am curious to know what the logic is. I think the Government do not want to upset certain economic interests. It may also be to do with the European Union's policies. I am not quite sure but suspect the former. Yesterday, Deputy Paul Murphy mentioned that there has been no word about the US troops going through Shannon Airport, not quarantining, waltzing around Shannon and so on. Despite this we want to impose mandatory quarantine on just a select few countries. US troops are fine, as are huge numbers of people from the UK, from the US where there are variants, and so on. It is clear, therefore, that this is not a serious attempt at action.
I am interested to hear about the Minister's conversation with the New Zealand authorities. If he were actually talking to people in New Zealand and to the public health authorities in Australia, he would understand how to impose a mandatory quarantine and link it to an effective strategy to drive Covid down to the point where, as is the case in those countries, people could be living normal lives. Clearly, the Minister, the Government and, I must say, some of the Opposition still do not quite understand this. Mandatory quarantine is not about quarantining those engaging in non-essential travel as some have said; it is about stopping non-essential travel and quarantining those who must engage in essential travel into the jurisdiction. People do not seem to understand even this elementary point. One cannot go to New Zealand for any reason other than an essential one. They just turn people around. They do not need to quarantine people or fine them, they just turn people away and do not allow them in. That is how the system works there. We do not need quarantine for non-essential travel into the country because there should be no such travel into the country, full stop. Anybody who arrives for non-essential reasons should simply be told to turn around and go back to where they came from. It is essential travel which should be subject to quarantine and the exceptional circumstances for that should be very narrowly defined. Preventing non-essential travel should be the rule whereas the Government is essentially making it the exception. The PCR test is similarly meaningless in terms of the non-designated countries. It will do absolutely nothing to prevent the importation of variants and the virus generally.
All of this must be linked to a serious public health strategy and the resourcing of our public health teams. Again, the Government's failure to do that is manifest in this legislation. We have tried to address it in our amendments. I heard the AGSI say that its members are not qualified to organise mandatory quarantine. It is absolutely correct in that regard. Does the Government think that it is the police who are organising mandatory quarantine in Australia or New Zealand? It is not. It is public health doctors together with staffed and resourced public health teams. That is who calls around to a persons house, rather than the police. How would the Garda know how to deal with mandatory quarantine or public health issues? It is ridiculous and the AGSI is absolutely right. People need to get into their heads how under-resourced and dysfunctional our health service is and how that is seriously disarming our ability to deal with Covid-19, be it in terms of a quarantine regime for travel or eliminating community transmission and having the public health infrastructure on the ground to actually deal with any outbreaks which may still arise.
People would be shocked if only they knew the contrast. The person from whom I learned about the set-up in Australia is an Irish public health doctor who worked briefly for Irish public health. He was educated and qualified here, worked briefly in the Irish public health system and left. He is now in charge of infection control in Queensland, Australia, where, by the way, there has not been a Covid outbreak to deal with since June. This is because they had one lockdown, eliminated community transmission and are now able to open up. They are living normal lives but if there is an outbreak, they have the infrastructure in place to deal with it. He was absolutely adamant that this could be done here. I asked him to explain the difference between the resources he has at his disposal - this is directly relevant to the legislation - and the situation in Ireland. He said they, as qualified public health people, had the resources and the authority to go the police, the local hospital or any state agency, simply state what they need and have it given to them.
The legislation was in place beforehand and a plan was prepared before Covid ever broke out, as the WHO had requested of states. The Irish Government had committed to preparing such a plan but never followed through.
The first NPHET briefing on Covid took place in late February 2020 and was attended by one representative of one Dáil office in the Houses of the Oireachtas - my office. Our staff member asked whether drills had been done, as the WHO had required. There was no answer to that question. The staff member was told an email would be sent to let us know. The drills had not been done. There was no preparation for this even though the WHO had been telling states they needed to prepare. That is the reality of what is going on.
I asked the public health doctor in Australia what the difference would be between his public health team in Australia and the public health situation he would have faced if he were working in Dún Laoghaire. He said that he has 16 staff under him, all of whom are directly employed public health professionals. Of course, he has consultant status. He said he can ring up the equivalent of Tony Holohan or NPHET, describe the situation and tell them what he needs. That does not happen here. He said that public health doctors in Ireland cannot make direct contact in that way. I asked how many staff he would have if he were employed here. He said he would not have any staff. He has 16 staff over there and he can go to the local hospital if he needs more. He can tell the police and the local authority what to do because, as it is a public health emergency, the public health professionals decide how it is responded to. The resources are made available and the legislation is already in place. That is how one deals with a pandemic. What we have is a disaster in comparison and the consequences of that have been dire. That is the truth of it. I would be interested to hear the Minister's response on that issue.
The amendments I and my colleagues have tabled seek to make mandatory quarantine a reality and to remove the potential for profiteering from the establishment of the facilities necessary if we are to actually have a proper mandatory quarantine regime. Our amendments on that front have been ruled out of order but I wish to point out that they are not out of order because they are directly connected to the public health effort. In Australia, any profit motivation has been removed from the public health and quarantine system established there because the authorities there found that where profit came into play, it was undermining the public health effort because staff were moving from one place to another, there were staff shortages and corners were being cut and so on. Our amendments seek to ensure that people will be employed directly by the health agencies and the public bodies necessary for the effort and that they will all be under the authority of public health. That is what is necessary in order to deal with this pandemic. Sadly, I do not think the Government will do that. This legislation is certainly not even a serious effort to do. Nonetheless, we will continue our campaign for a proper response to the Covid pandemic.