Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation. While I welcome the introduction of quarantine, I deplore the fact that it is being introduced on a piecemeal basis. This makes absolutely no sense in light of the serious threat we face. A previous Fianna Fáil speaker used the term "bolt of lightning". There was no bolt of lightning here. To go into the background to this, on 11 February 2020, more than a year ago, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a public health emergency of international concern. On 27 February, the first case in Northern Ireland was reported. On 29 February, the first case in the Republic was reported. Significantly, there is no 29 February this year. On 11 March, almost a year ago, the director general of the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. He said that it is "not a word to use lightly or carelessly." He also said the WHO had "been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction." I draw the attention of both Ministers, whom I welcome to the Chamber, to that latter point. That was on 11 March last year. Alarming levels of inaction were being spoken about a year ago.
We ignored the existing structure that was in place for dealing with emergencies, the name of which I have forgotten but I will come to it in a minute. We simply bypassed and ignored it without explanation. We ignored the fact that public health was at a crisis point both in the hospitals and in the regional bases of the public health service across the country. This area was totally at a crisis point and still is, with a postponed strike pending. We ignored the report on public health. It is more than a year later. We did nothing throughout the pandemic, not to mention having done nothing when the report was published.
A year later, we still have no clear message or strategy and are relying on the roll-out of vaccination, which is only one part of what should be a zero Covid strategy. We have been laughed at for suggesting this but I do not think it is a laughing matter. An awful lot of very respected people have been completely ignored in this regard. These include Dr. Gabriel Scally, who has almost been sanctified in his own lifetime for his work on the cervical smear debacle, which is very unusual. His views have been utterly ignored. He has been a consistent voice in saying that this must be treated on an all-island basis with regard to the ports and airports and that we must take a zero Covid approach. He is utterly ignored when it suits the Government to do so.
Appalling messages are coming out. I am glad the Minister for Justice is here today. The Minister for Transport and the Taoiseach should also be here because this is an extremely serious matter. One year later, we are going to look at quarantine. The figures are startling but, before I come to them, I will say that the manner in which announcements have been made is simply unacceptable. I will not waste my few minutes going through them. There was an announcement made through the Irish Mirrorand another through Raidió na Gaeltachta. There was also the Minister's debacle on "Claire Byrne Live" and his comments on Twitter at 12 midnight while a Minister of State said something completely different.
All the while, there is no enforcement with regard to passenger locator forms, an operation which has now been privatised. There has been no oversight over self-isolation over the last year. Untested troops are going through Shannon Airport, yet this Government saw fit to follow up on social welfare recipients. We ignored direct provision and nursing homes. I am on the record as having continuously highlighted the issue of nursing homes since as far back as March. We ignored the Covid committee set up to monitor the situation. None of its very good recommendations have been implemented.
Today we are dealing with a report from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which highlights serious concerns with regard to human rights arising from draconian legislation. I put my name to that legislation, most reluctantly, on the basis that there would be some quid pro quoand the Government would come back to us in an honest manner and deal with issues in the Dáil, rather than in the Irish Mirroror on Raidió na Gaeltachta, cé go bhfuil meas an-mhór agam ar an raidió. This is the place for announcements to instil confidence in the people. We are dealing with the people in a draconian manner with increased fines while putting an extra burden on An Garda Síochána. At a point when our relationship with An Garda had made a turn for the better, we are making the lives of gardaí impossible.
I hope the Minister will accept the amendments which make quarantine absolutely mandatory for all travellers into the country with a view to dealing with the pandemic.