Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I understand; I just wanted to check.
I thank colleagues for their contributions today and yesterday. It is clear there is strong support across the House for hotel quarantine. Many issues were raised during the debate, with a variety of positions given. Some are calling for quicker opening up, others believe the balance is about right and necessary and others believe that further measures are needed and for longer.
A common issue raised was the number of countries to which the requirement for hotel quarantine applies. There is a lot of interest in this issue. It has been suggested by some that more countries need to be added to the list of 20 countries currently designated by Ireland as category 2. Some believe there should be a blanket ban for all countries globally. Some have stated that they will be opposing the Bill because the list of 20 countries is insufficient; they want it to be significantly more. It would be incorrect to suggest that the legislation is limited to these 20 countries. The legislation specifically empowers the Minister for Health to designate additional countries on the advice of the chief medical officer, where the evidence so justifies. The currently designated states - the 20 we are discussing - are the states currently advised to me by the chief medical officer, and which I have designated as category 2 states.
Section 38E(1) empowers the Minister for Health to designate in writing additional states, "where there is known to be sustained human transmission of Covid-19 or any variant of concern or from which there is a high risk of importation of infection or contamination with Covid-19 or any variant of concern by travel from that state." It covers a very wide range of risks from Covid and from variants. Any measure that requires mandatory quarantine must be proportionate to EU law and the Constitution. A proportionate approach necessarily requires the designation to be evidence-based. This is precisely what the Bill provides for. The Bill also provides that this can be done without delay; it simply requires a designation in writing by the Minister for Health. In essence, the Bill before us allows for any state in the world to be added to the system of hotel quarantine in a way that is in line with EU law and the Constitution and is done on evidence-based public health advice. I would hope that colleagues in the Dáil, whether seeking a list of two, 20 or 100 countries, believe that the approach we are taking provides that it could be 30, 40 or 50 countries so long as that is the public health advice based on evidence. That give the measure a firm legal standing. That, I think, is an approach that we can all back. I would love to see us all back it.
NPHET is meeting today - that meeting is taking place now - to review the latest international data. Later today, I will be meeting with the deputy chief medical officer to discuss if we should be designating additional states, other than the 20 provided for. If that is agreed, it can happen very quickly. I want to give colleagues a sense of the mechanism we are trying to put in place here. We are not trying to limit this to 20 states; we are saying it will apply to any state anywhere in the world where, based on evidence, the chief medical officer identifies there is a risk. That is then notified to the Minister for Health, the Minister makes a designation in writing and that state then falls immediately under the hotel quarantine regime. I ask colleagues to think that through. This is being done in a legally robust way, which I know we all understand is important.
Should the Bill pass, we will have a robust system of hotel quarantine, certainly by European standards. No EU state has mandatory hotel quarantining in place for all international arrivals. No EU state has quarantine requirements for those without symptoms of greater than 14 days. This information may have changed. I had a briefing on 12 February. My reading of the situation is that ours will be the most robust hotel quarantine system anywhere in the EU, closely aligned with what is in place in the UK, which is important as we look to an all-island approach and as close to a two-island approach as possible.
In the time available to me, I would like to try to address some of the other issues raised by colleagues. A question was asked regarding people arriving into Ireland and travelling on to Northern Ireland. It was suggested that such people should be included in the system of hotel quarantine as they have to travel across Ireland. I can confirm that such people are included. Similarly, those arriving in Ireland who transited through Northern Ireland are also covered by our hotel quarantine system.
A question was asked about seasonal agricultural workers and whether they would be exempt. The legislation provides a short list of travellers who will be exempt. The list does not include essential workers as a category. The legislation gives the Minister for Health the power to designate additional classes of travellers and the subsection refers to persons who perform essential services, but it would not be envisaged that people in that category, who could pre-book, would have to be included.
An important question was raised around mental health supports for people in hotel quarantine. There is an awareness of the need to have regular check-ins with travellers in quarantine, which could identify issues with health generally, including mental health. The provision of on-site medical care is envisaged as part of quarantine. Should additional supports be required, I assure colleagues it is possible under this legislation to make arrangements for that provision.
This Bill is the latest measure being proposed by the Government on border controls. Currently, there are multiple controls in place. There is a fine and-or prosecution for non-essential travel and hundreds of such fines have been imposed. This Bill will increase that fine from €500 to €2,000. A preflight PCR test is required. Failure to produce this can lead to prosecution. The numbers now arriving without such tests are very small. The Bill requires any such person to stay in a designated quarantine facility until such time as he or she has had a not-detected PCR test. Mandatory home quarantine for all arrivals is in place. This is being enforced by the Garda and failure to comply can result in prosecution. Quarantine is required for 14 days for category 2 states, but this can be relaxed following a non-detected PCR test on day five for non-category 2 states. This Bill introduces hotel quarantine in addition to that for the category 2 state arrivals. Genome sequencing has been very significantly ramped up and includes targeting of positive test results for those who have been in category 2 states. Travel visas have been suspended from a number of countries.
I acknowledge the significant work done since the recent Cabinet decision. This is complex and sensitive legislation. The establishment and operation of a system of mandatory quarantine, including at designated facilities, is complex and sensitive. We all agree with that. The work to date has required input and efforts across Government. I thank my colleagues, including the Ministers for Justice and Transport, Deputies McEntee and Ryan, respectively, both of whom are here, as well as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and others for all their work. I commend the Bill to the House.