Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I acknowledge the extraordinary sacrifices that Irish people have made in responding to this pandemic over the past year. During that time, their constitutional and personal rights and their civil liberties have been significantly infringed and, in many cases, fully restricted. The people have gone along with that because they recognise, to a large extent, that those restrictions have been necessary in our ongoing battle against this pandemic. As politicians, however, we need repeatedly to acknowledge that sacrifice and to recognise that the actions we are taking are having a significant impact on people's lives. One reason that people have grown increasingly frustrated is that they perhaps perceive that the body politic is slightly too casual in imposing restrictions on them. I do not agree but it is important that we repeatedly recognise and acknowledge that these are severe restrictions on their rights.
The rights of citizens have been infringed in that their movement and ability to earn a livelihood have been restricted and their ability to engage in the types of entertainment they want to engage in has been severely curtailed, as has their ability even to form personal relationships. It was important today that the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission published its report and I urge the Minister to take on board many of its recommendations. Citizens have had their rights significantly restricted, and while they are prepared to go along with that, they do not want the political system to interfere with their rights in a casual way or in a way that takes this interference for granted. We are all aware of the significant impact the pandemic has had on public life and the lives of people. We referred to the 4,200 people who have died as a result of the pandemic. People are prepared to have their rights and liberties restricted but we need to ensure that is not done in a casual way.
I have spoken repeatedly in the Chamber since last May about the significant and extraordinary impact the restrictions have had on the lives of children and young people. They have been impacted much more than any other group in our society. Their education and employment have been interfered with. We need to put a greater focus on them as a priority in our response to this pandemic. It is not just me who is saying this. I ask Deputies to take on board the statement by the Ombudsman for Children two weeks ago that, in the future when we look back on this time, people will say adults let down children.
We need to take into account the sacrifices that people are making when we consider this legislation. I am supportive of introducing mandatory quarantining because such draconian measures are being imposed on Irish citizens, so it is not too much to ask that we impose restrictions on people travelling into this country from other jurisdictions. It is also important that we know the reason we are introducing this mandatory quarantining. It is not for the purpose of trying to stop Covid coming into Ireland; the virus is here already. The purpose is to try to stop variants coming into the country that will have an impact on our ability to respond to this pandemic. We need to recognise that although we are preparing for what is happening in the immediate future, we also need to prepare for next autumn. We need to put in place measures now to ensure that if some variant is not responsive to the vaccines, we can respond to that next autumn without the necessity of reimposing draconian measures.
I emphasise that there is hope out there. Part of the reason that people are finding this so frustrating is they are concerned about there being a lack of hope and that it is inevitable that we will have rolling and continuing lockdowns, which will prevent people from living the lives they want to live. Hope is on the horizon in the form of vaccination. The vaccination programme in this country is going well and will be very effective. When we get our elderly population, our population in nursing homes and our vulnerable population vaccinated, we will see a remarkable transformation.
I mentioned that young people have been severely restricted by these restrictions, but it is also the case that very many people over the age of 70 have been locked up for a year. It is too much to expect that once they are vaccinated, they will be required to remain locked up. They probably will not tolerate that. People in their 70s are aware they have a limited number of years left and want to get out and live their lives, as does everyone else. We need to recognise, therefore, that once vaccines are administered to people over the age of 70 and to the vulnerable, there will be an unquenchable desire to get out and enjoy freedom.
We need to be realistic with the population about the impact of the vaccination. It will have a very positive impact on hospitalisations and deaths. Results from Israel and Imperial College London reveal that it is having a significant impact in reducing the number of hospitalisations, serious illnesses and deaths. Nonetheless, no vaccine will be 100% effective, so we need to be aware that even after the vaccines are rolled out, there will continue to be positive Covid tests, people will continue to go to hospital as a result of Covid and, unfortunately, people will also continue to die as a result of Covid. We need to be realistic about this because if we are not and if we do not talk about it, we will lull people into a false sense of security that the number of Covid deaths will drop and stop immediately once the vaccination programme is rolled out.
We also need to examine how we will manage through March and what our timelines are for when we get to 5 April. As politicians, we all know that March will be a very difficult month. We have seen an increase in the number of representations from citizens who are simply fed up and concerned about the impact this is having on their elderly family members and their children and younger family members. As a Government, we need to offer them a practical lifting of the restrictions on 5 April. Obviously, everyone is aware that we have to try not to let our guard down during March and I believe the majority of people will do that. They are committed to ensuring we get the figures as low as possible, but they have to be given some hope for the future. As I have said previously, we need to get children back to school as quickly as possible.
I welcome that they are starting back next Monday. All children should be getting back to school in the next two weeks. We are damaging them, and we need to get them back to school.
On 5 April, we need to ensure that we let people out so that they can play their sport, not just children but elderly people who want to play golf or people who want to take exercise and play team sport. We need to recognise that we have to live with some level of risk. Yesterday, Denmark announced it was lifting restrictions significantly, but its government expressly stated it is taking a calculated risk in what it is doing because it recognises it cannot keep restrictions in place indefinitely.
We also need to look at the areas of tracing and testing. At present, it appears that our tracing only goes back 48 hours. We need to focus on that more. If the vaccination programme works and we see a reduction in the disease because of vaccination, we will need to be careful of new variants coming in. The way to be effective and careful in response to new variants is by having a very effective tracing system that goes back more than 48 hours.
We need to start to be more receptive to antigen immediate testing. Obviously, I appreciate that PCR testing is a more reliable way of assessing and appraising the extent of infections. However, for the purposes of opening businesses and getting our lives back to normal, we need to use immediate antigen testing. Let us not be too concerned that it may not be 100% effective. We know it is largely effective in identifying people who are infectious.
I believe we have hope in the future. The Government has a responsibility to ensure that a single message goes out to the Irish public. I welcome that politicians and representatives from NPHET were on the same platform the other evening and that should continue. One of my regrets is that we allowed the situation to develop from last March where we had two alternative sources of authority coming from the State. That is not a good idea. The State and Government need to speak with one voice on this.
I commend the Minister and I will be supporting the legislation, which provides flexibility to allow us to respond to variants as they come in.