Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
We can reach zero Covid. We can, and we could, if the Government would just put the health and well-being of all of the residents of the country before business interests, profits, lobbyists and, it seems, the European Union.
I was inclined to support the Bill before us today but now I am not so sure. The Health (Amendment) Bill 2021 will belatedly provide for mandatory quarantine for some people coming from designated countries. It will also provide for mandatory quarantine for people who arrive in the country without a negative PCR test. The Bill could really be known as the shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted Bill, seeing as how some of us have been calling for these measures since May last year.
The Government knows that I am a proponent of a zero Covid strategy and that I have been since last October when we were in the midst of the second wave. The third wave, since our so-called meaningful Christmas, has been more deadly and devastating than everything else we have had to endure since March last year. At our weekly Business Committee meetings, I have pleaded each week for the Oireachtas to properly plan for the months ahead, correctly saying that there was no point in planning week by week as there would not be any significant change to the lockdown for a number of months.
There are now a number of new variants of Covid-19, or SARS CoV-2, in the country. The most dominant strain on the island is now the highly transmissible UK variant. There are at least three other variants outlined in the Bill. I do not agree with the names of the variants being specified in the Bill as we have absolutely no idea what other variants of this virus could arise. Any legislation we introduce now should have the ability to address any future variations. I have studied SI 53/2020, the Infectious Diseases (Amendment) Regulations 2020, and I ask for reassurance that any and all variants will be covered under the extensive list.
I do not want to be too negative. I was dismayed to hear media reports that the Brazilian variant could possibly be immune from the current vaccines. Surely, we cannot know that yet. I do not think it is fair for such speculative reports to be broadcast in our media as things stand.
The feeling of hope around the vaccine roll-out is palpable. It is wonderful to see people sharing images of their vaccination certificates or of their family members’ joy in getting the vaccination. The Government and HSE need to improve their communications around the importance and safety of the vaccines. Now is not the time for misinformation or conspiracy theories. I also would like to see a far speedier roll-out of vaccines, but would not we all? That is out of our hands. Given how atrociously the UK Government handled the start of the pandemic, it is strange to see it plan for a summer reopening. I suppose that is the benefit of having a health system like the NHS; public health works when it is needed. Alternatively, it may be down to the fact that it is only giving one dose of vaccine to its citizens. We do not know if that decision will come home to roost. We have to see what the story is in that regard.
I welcome the foresight of the Government in introducing a three-month sunset clause as set out in sections 9(3), 9(4) and 9(5) of the Bill. I was actually pleasantly surprised to see some provisions with which I agree in a Government Bill. It makes sense that these measures would be reviewed on a three-monthly basis. It has been positive to see the position of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, on the calls for mandatory quarantine. Of course, we do not want to infringe on people’s rights, but we have a responsibility to protect people’s lives, health and livelihoods. The ICCL's submission sets out the balance that could, and should, be met in this regard. We can do both and it is vitally important we do so. All travellers to the island should have to quarantine.
I do not agree with the notion of designated states which may pose a high risk to this State or where there has been sustained human transmission. One thing we know about this virus and its variants is that it is highly transmissible and highly dangerous. Surely the Minister would agree that anyone travelling from anywhere with any instances of Covid should have to quarantine. Indeed, in some of the countries requiring quarantine there is a very low incidence of Covid but for many countries with a very high incidence, we are not providing for quarantine at all.
I also take umbrage with the wording in subsection (25) of Section 38B which states that a dependant person means "a person who is 18 years or over and is suffering from a mental or physical disability".Does the Minister not listen to people with disabilities and advocacy groups? Has he not seen the Disability Is Not a Dirty Word campaign? Disabled people are reclaiming the term "disabled" and highlighting that it is society, policies and infrastructure which disable them and limit their abilities. Cultural change is needed and if the Government does not use inclusive and person-centred language then what hope is there for wider change?
I would like to briefly mention that it is completely unacceptable that developed countries are swallowing up all available vaccines. In order for the vaccination programme to be successful, it must be rolled out worldwide. We have a moral responsibility to share vaccines with developing countries and I was glad to hear Dr. Mike Ryan of the WHO outlining the importance of this.
In essence, I am not sure I will be supporting this Bill because although it will implement some of the measures I have been calling for, it does not go far enough. We are a year into this pandemic and people need leadership.