Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on the Health (Amendment) Bill 2021. The Government this week took the decision to extend significant restrictions. This was not a decision we took lightly but while reflecting on a number mentioned by many Deputies today, namely, those 4,237 people who have died because of Covid-19. Everything we are doing is to keep that number as low as possible. However, our schools are beginning to reopen and we will again review the current level of restrictions in April. It is our firm hope that we will then be in a position to ease and relax some of these restrictions but we ask people to continue to abide by them until we get to that point.
I know that we are asking a huge amount of people and that the public rightly expects the Government to keep our side of this bargain by protecting us from Covid-19, while also looking beyond the pandemic. In that sense, I appreciate that many people, Deputies and Senators have wished to see legislation passed to allow for mandatory quarantining in designated facilities. It is important, however, that this is done with the utmost care and attention to detail. One year ago, it would have been almost inconceivable that we would be in a position where penal regulations would be in place to bar people from travelling to airports and ports or that we would seek to place individuals entering our country into a mandatory quarantine system. It is essential we remember how extraordinary a step this is and that the legislative basis for doing so is rooted in public health grounds. That is firmly the basis of this Bill. The public health advice is clear: everybody should avoid non-essential travel completely.
This legislation is being undertaken by my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I sincerely thank him and all his colleagues in the Department for all the work they are doing and will continue to do to try keep us safe during this pandemic. Officials in my Department have worked closely with their colleagues in the Department of Health on the drafting of this Bill and we will continue to provide assistance and support. There is ongoing co-operation between our Departments, and more generally across Government, as we continue to deal with the unprecedented challenges presented by Covid-19.
The extraordinary nature of the battle against Covid-19 and the efforts of all of us in this House to keep the public safe are reflected in the extraordinary measures contained in this Bill. Although we are introducing mandatory quarantine to protect public health, we must strongly consider the civil rights and liberties of those we are asking to quarantine as we take this step and as we consider how to put these measures into operation. We have had to do that every step of the way with all of the measures we have introduced in the last year.
As it has throughout the pandemic, An Garda Síochána is continuing to support the public health regulations through a graduated response and in keeping with our country’s long history of policing by consent. This approach has seen the Garda use the four Es approach, namely, to engage, explain and encourage and, only as a last resort, to enforce. As many Deputies are aware, the Garda is already implementing a system of fixed-charge notices for those found in breach of those Covid-19 regulations which have been designated as penal provisions. This system allows for a speedier system of fines, without the requirement for a person to be brought before the courts and prosecuted. More than 9,000 such fines have been issued to date, including more than three hundred €500 fines for non-essential travel to airports or ports. Those fines have unfortunately only been issued in the last two to three weeks. I urge people who are thinking of travelling where there is no need to do so to not travel. Many people leaving and coming back into the country are Irish citizens who are resident and working here. I encourage them not to travel.
We have introduced mandatory PCR testing for everybody entering the State, mandatory quarantining for everybody entering the State and we are now introducing mandatory hotel quarantining for those coming into the State from at-risk countries, and the Minister will have an opportunity to extend that list, but also for those who have no PCR test.
We are the first country in the EU to introduce this type of hotel quarantine. It is important to note that those who are serving their period of mandatory quarantine have committed no crime. It would, therefore, not be appropriate for members of An Garda Síochána to provide a permanent presence at such locations. However, where issues arise and where there are public order incidents or attempts to breach the regulations that are in place for public safety, my Department and An Garda Síochána will provide assistance.
I assure the House that there is ongoing co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the Government on Covid measures and other issues. Officials in my Department are in daily contact with Garda management and, as Minister for Justice, I speak regularly to the Garda Commissioner. Contact between the Department and An Garda Síochána includes consultation on any measures the Government is considering to protect public health and how such measures will be put into operation.
The Government's aim in taking this very serious step is to ensure that, insofar as possible, we avoid the possibility of Covid-19 being reimported to Ireland through different variants while we are in the process of bringing down our numbers and implementing the vaccination programme. This would undermine the many sacrifices that people have made to protect the most vulnerable in society. This is a very important protection but, as I mentioned, it is really important we ensure that our legislative approach reflects the balance between the protection of public health and the constitutional freedoms that all legislation much respect. I believe this Bill does so and that the measures will remain in place only as long as public health circumstances require.
We all acknowledge that people throughout the country have made very significant sacrifices in the past year, with lives and businesses put on hold. However, as the Taoiseach said this week, the end is in sight if we stick with the guidelines a little longer. I thank again the Minister for Health and his team for the considerable work that has been done on this legislation. I urge all Deputies to support the Bill.