Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I do not have a principled opposition to quarantine. I would be nervous about how it will be implemented, the effect it will have and whether quarantine centres themselves will become hot beds for transmission but I would not have a principled opposition to it if I thought it was the solution. I certainly do not believe that the quarantining that is being proposed in this Bill is the solution. If we could stop everybody coming into this State then we would stop coronavirus from coming into this State and more importantly, we would stop variants coming in but I am not convinced that we can do that.
I note the Sinn Féin amendments to the Bill which extend quarantining to everybody coming into the State but I am not entirely clear as to whether this includes those coming across our land border with Northern Ireland. There is no point in stopping people coming in at a port or an airport and not stopping people coming in across the land Border. I appreciate that Sinn Féin aims to abolish that land Border and see reunification of this State. I am asking whether it supports the quarantining of everybody, just until national reunification, because otherwise it is pointless.
A lot of what we have done to date has been based on a paucity of information. Whatever we introduce must be effective. To be effective, it must be necessary, proportionate and evidence-based but there has been very little evidence on anything with one notable exception that I wish to single out, namely the All Ireland Infectious Diseases Cohort Study in conjunction with the Irish Coronavirus Sequencing Consortium which clearly demonstrates that travel is an issue. I do not wish to misinterpret the findings of that study but it seems to me that while it is important to stop Covid-19 cases coming into the State, it is even more important to stop new variants coming in. The only way to do that is to test everyone coming into the State because at least then we would know what is coming in.
The Bill provides that we would quarantine people who have come directly from or have been in states like Brazil, Malawi, Mozambique or South Africa in the last two weeks but does not acknowledge the fact that somebody coming here from France may have been in contact with somebody who was in Brazil or somebody coming from Newry may have been in contact on a farm with somebody from Brazil. The idea that where somebody has been is indicative of whether he or she may have the virus is not credible. We must start with testing everybody. I have been calling for everybody to be tested since last May. We require people to be tested before coming in and that is fine. However, a negative PCR test does not mean that a person has not been infected after it would have become detectable by that test or that he or she is not bringing in a new strain or mutation which could affect immunity acquired through having contracted Covid-19 and recovered and, perhaps more importantly, immunity acquired through vaccination. So far most, if not all, of the vaccines being administered in Ireland seem to work on any of the strains identified to date. However, there is always the possibility of new strains and one of the vaccines in use is less effective on the South African and Brazilian strains in particular.
We need a science-based approach rather than a morality-based approach. I fear that there has been a lot of the latter and a tendency to want to purge ourselves of this virus. Unfortunately, this is not a morality tale but an exercise in science. I greatly welcome the scientific studies that have been done. They have been very clear that quarantining will work if properly implemented but it must apply to everybody coming into the State. I do not think it is feasible to quarantine everybody coming into the State. It is simply not possible because it would have to include everybody coming in at every entry point, including from Northern Ireland. Therefore, we must start with testing everybody coming into the State because that is feasible. At least then we would know what we are dealing with.