Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
Ireland has the longest lasting and most severe workplace restrictions in Europe. We have lost 163 days of work due to closure. This compares to 34 days in Germany. Does the Minister not agree that it is an outstanding fact that this country has had to lock down for longer with restrictions more severe than other European countries due to the way this illness has been managed? Indeed, for most of the Covid crisis this country has been a radical outlier in terms of the severity of the lockdowns that have happened. That is a direct result of the catastrophic policies that have been implemented by the last Government and by the current one as well.
This has had an enormous impact on every element of society. I have been talking to a consultant psychiatrist recently who told me the number of young people presenting to accident and emergency departments with acute mental health issues has increased by 130% since 2019. Coupled with the staff shortages in the hospitals and the reduction of treatments, the length of this lockdown is taking a massive toll on the health and well-being of the Irish people.
One of the most frustrating costs of Government failure has been the closure of key aspects of the health service. Patients with cancer, heart disease or mental health illnesses, as well as those who have suffered from stroke have had their access to health services radically reduced under the Government. During the week, the Minister will have heard an oncologist from Limerick who appeared on “Morning Ireland” state that the health service needs to prepare for an influx of seriously ill cancer patients. He said that a large number of patients are presenting with more advanced disease and late diagnosis. Thus, for tens of thousands of people, access to diagnosis has either been stopped or slowed down radically and as a result, access to treatment has either been stopped or slowed down radically. Consequently, those illnesses are far more progressed and will need far more radical treatments, which will have a significant cost on people both physically and financially, and on the State financially as well, in the future. Aontú has been one of the few voices in here calling for the protection of these key and critical health services through this whole pandemic.
The issue of travel, which we are discussing today, is one of the most mind-bending issues that have been associated with this illness over the past year. For most of the past year, the Government has radically curtailed the freedoms and liberties of Irish citizens with a Garda-enforced 5 km limit, while at the same time allowing for hundreds of thousands of travellers to travel to this country from all over the world with no limit. The only protection put in place is a form or two to be filled with maybe a text after that, or perhaps a follow-up phone call, but in most cases not even that. The fact that so many people in this country were so severely locked down and restricted while international travel remained so open is one of those issues that most people cannot get their heads around when it comes to the management of this illness by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. If one were to think of a phrase that describes the Government’s journey to this day and this Bill, "kicking and screaming" would best fit.
At the very start of this pandemic, I remember talking to the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, when all of the leaders of the parties were gathered around after the general election to discuss what was happening. At the time we saw a massive flare-up of this illness in northern Italy and I asked the then Taoiseach to stop the flights coming from northern Italy to Ireland. He said "No".. I asked him why he would not stop the flights coming to Ireland and he told me the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, said not to stop them. The ECDC told the Government that it should not stop flights coming from other parts of Europe to Ireland. I asked the then Taoiseach what the rationale was for this decision and he said he did not know. If there was a manager of a Centra in Navan making a decision for that shop while not understanding the rationale for it how, for long would that manager stay in that position? I guarantee Members that individual would not last long. It is incredible that the CEO of the country, the leader of the country, was making life and death decisions for this country on the basis of advice from a foreign organisation and not knowing the rationale for it. As a result, we saw people from northern Italy circulate throughout Dublin and seed the disease well and truly. It happened at the same time with Cheltenham. When there were fruit pickers coming from all over Europe to pick fruit in north Dublin and east Meath, again I raised it and again the Government shrugged and had nothing to say about it. Before Christmas I spoke to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on RTÉ radio and said there will be tens of thousands of people travelling to this country during the Christmas period, that it was going to happen whether the Government liked it or not, and that therefore, the Government should put in place some level of testing to make sure that if these people do come, that they do not have the illness. That was not put into place and tens of thousands of people travelled to Ireland at that time. I have heard Fianna Fáil Ministers on the radio saying international travel does not have a big impact on the number of Covid cases that exist in the country and then in the same breath state that 90% of the cases in Ireland are of the British variant. That they cannot put two and two together is deeply worrying.
I want to address the confusion on vaccine roll-out. Right now, two months after the vaccine landed in this country, the equivalent of the population of County Louth has been fully inoculated. That is an incredible situation. I have had student nurses, who were not on placement for months, call me and tell me they have had the vaccine. They did not want it and feel bad about taking it. They took it and then they have received a phone call saying they have their second first vaccine. They are being told the second first vaccine is being given to them. In Tuam, they have the vaccine but they do not have the needles. In my own county, doctors are ringing me to say they have no confirmation yet for the next two weeks for vaccines for people over the age of 85 years. This glacial roll-out of the vaccine is going to radically slow down the opening up of this country and at the same time we will be watching our neighbours get back to normal while we are still well and truly locked down. Has the Minister gone to supply chains outside of the EU to look for additional vaccines?
Denmark and Germany have done so. Why has Ireland not done so?
Aontú does not have confidence in the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, or the work he is doing at this time. There needs to be a radical change in the approach to dealing with this issue to make sure the country is opened up and people's lives are protected.