Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
It is nine months since NPHET recommended that discretionary elements of travel should end, which is nearly 300 days. Consistently, throughout this crisis, NPHET and others have called for real checks and controls at our airports and seaports. In April of last year, Sinn Féin called for a quarantine regime for people entering the State. On 5 May, I stated in the media that our failure to impose New Zealand-style entry restrictions was undermining the efforts to combat Covid-19, but nothing was done and so here we are today with the Government eventually trying to do something about it.
The Bill will not deal with the entire threat of the importation of this virus from outside the State. While people throughout the State adhere to public health measures, people are coming into and going from this country at their leisure. Dublin Airport is in my constituency and hardly a day goes by that I do not get phone calls from people working in the airport or living in the environs of the airport, advising me that people are tripping through the airport. We have seen it on RTÉ's coverage, and we know it is happening. The Bill does not go far enough in addressing what we all know is going on. We have had enough time to get this right, but the measures proposed do not go far enough. We could have asked numerous countries for advice on how to implement this system. I am sure that officials in Australia or New Zealand would have been happy to provide direction based on their experience in this regard.
Why does the Bill not come under the remit of the Minister for Transport, with the support of the Minister for Justice or a Minister of State in her Department? We can argue about how well we think the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is doing his job - I have my own view on that - but what help is he getting from his Government partners? According to media reports, Fine Gael Deputies and Senators are slating the Minister at their parliamentary party meetings.
Yet at Cabinet, when the work needs to be divvied up, their Ministers go missing and he is left holding the baby.
The only thing that is going to get us out of this Covid crisis is the vaccine, yet the vaccination roll-out here has hardly been an unqualified success. According to some of the newspapers, in the North the jab has been given to over 25% of the population, while we are not even at 5% yet. Last year, there were some cutting words bordering on xenophobia from politicians and some in the media about the virus in the North. It seems the cat has got their tongue now.
The decision was made by the Government to hand the procurement of the vaccine over to the EU and there has been much revisionism about this matter. We were told we were too small a country to do it on our own and yet Israel, which has only a few million more people than we have, has vaccinated 49% of its population. Was it too small to arrange the vaccine for itself? Furthermore, the fact remains that health is a member state competency and the EU has no experience in this area. It has no experience in delivering healthcare so we can hardly be surprised by the delays. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has admitted that the EU initially ordered too few vaccines but the question remains of what the role of our State was. What was the role of our EU Commissioner? What was the role of our European officials? This is being questioned across Europe, in Germany and in other places. If we do not assess the situation and learn from the mistakes that were made, the worry is that this will further hinder the vaccination roll-out. I will say this very clearly: we want the vaccination roll-out to be a success but it will not be if we do not learn the lessons we need to learn.
I cannot speak here today without calling out what went on last week with the leaks and rumours coming from the Government about the restrictions, schools, reopening and quarantine. Some of those leaks were true but more of them were false. Did anyone in the Government stop for a second or pause to think about the impact that was going to have on people? People are hanging on their every word and yet they are glib and relaxed. They have a laissez-faireattitude to these leaks. People at home are watching every single word and it seems no consideration is given to that. The public are absolutely committed to defeating this virus. They have made huge sacrifices and have risen to the challenge at every stage in the battle against Covid-19. They have not flinched and they have been equal to the task but this has put a huge strain on their physical and mental health. Their commitment and well-being were disrespected by the actions of the Government last week with those leaks and rumours and the kite-flying. The constant leaking and a lack of clarity from the Government has put a huge strain on people's emotions. It has created significant stress for business owners and, indeed, for workers. I call on the Government to introduce an official protocol for relaying Covid-19 announcements, which specifically precludes unofficial leaks. It should set a time and date to come out and talk to people. It must stop leaking and making people unnecessarily worried.