Thursday, 1 April 2021
Vaccination Programme and Covid-19: Statements
I thank the Deputy for his questions. The walk-in PCR testing centres we recently opened have proven to be very successful. As the Deputy has quite rightly said, these centres are for people who do not show symptoms of Covid. People who do have symptoms should call their GP for a referral for testing. These centres have picked up hundreds and hundreds of cases. The feedback has been very strong. We are hearing from people who say they just went down to check but who did not, for a moment, think they were positive for the disease. They just wanted to double-check because there are people vulnerable to Covid in their lives. Some of these people have tested positive and are now going to follow the protocols and stay away from people, thereby protecting their friends and family. As the Deputy will be aware, we are opening such a centre in his own constituency. I pay tribute to the National Ambulance Service for moving so quickly in this regard. I want to see more and more of these centres. We want to deploy them in areas in which Covid rates are very high. The response has been very good so far.
I share the Deputy's passion for rapid testing. There are highly credible and respected people on both sides of this debate. Some are very worried about the potential negative effects of rapid testing. These tests are nowhere near as accurate as PCR tests in identifying positive cases. There is a real concern that some people might get a negative test result and, despite being told that such a result may not mean that they do not have Covid because the test is not as accurate as a PCR test, they may take it that they do not have the virus and engage in higher risk activity, having misunderstood the test result. There are highly credible people who are genuinely concerned about that. We have to be very clear and appropriate in our communications and we have to ensure that people understand the limitations of rapid testing.
However, as the Deputy will be aware, I appointed an expert group, led by Professor Mark Ferguson, to look at the issue. The group's report is more positive about rapid testing and makes some recommendations. I will be launching that report later today. I will also be working with my Cabinet colleagues to look at rolling out rapid testing in various sectors. For example, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and I are already involved in a large-scale pilot in meat processing plants. Tens of thousands of rapid tests are being deployed in that sector. We will be looking at doing more of that.
The Deputy's suggestion of a video briefing on the rationale behind moving to prioritisation based on age is excellent and I will take it back to the Department today. I have had conversations with people in the education sector, who were of course feeling disappointed, but when they hear about the NIAC analysis or that people in their early 60s - to the Deputy's point, such a person may be someone's mum or dad - are 70 times more likely to die from Covid than they are, they have all responded that, if that is the case and the risk is so much higher for older age groups, these older groups should be vaccinated first. Such a person may be one's work colleague, parent, friend or family member and the people I have spoken to want these people protected first.
It is also worth saying that NIAC looked at any potential link between the risk of severe illness or death and the sector in which a person works. It looked at the education, construction and healthcare sectors and others but the only sector in which it found a significantly higher risk of harm from Covid was the healthcare sector, which has been prioritised.
With regard to the Deputy's question about the Janssen vaccine, I authorised the use of this vaccine yesterday by way of a regulation. We expect Janssen vaccines to arrive in late April. It is a very interesting vaccine and will be our fourth. Clinical trials show really high levels of effectiveness and protection, which is very encouraging.
Janssen is the only vaccine that we have or that we have advanced purchase agreements in place for which is a single dose shot. That makes it particularly useful if we are trying to engage with harder to reach communities, for example. As the Deputy will be aware, one of the groups that NIAC has pointed to as being harder to reach is those who are homeless. Many people who are homeless are leading difficult and sometimes chaotic lives, and although we will have to wait for the clinical advice from NIAC and the HPRA, the Janssen vaccine is an interesting one to be able to use for people who are in more vulnerable situations and who might find it harder to be able to come back to a vaccination centre or a GP clinic in exactly four, six or 12 weeks. I thank the Deputy for his comments and suggestions.