Thursday, 1 April 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
I again wish to raise the issue of the Covid-19 vaccination programme. I do so because, like so many colleagues in this House, I have been inundated with calls from constituents who are deeply concerned about the roll-out programme. The vast majority of correspondence to my constituency office relates to the vaccination programme. As the Tánaiste will be aware, my constituency office is located near the Border.
As things stand, the North will, in effect, be leaving lockdown at some stage in June, just like other parts of the UK.
I have very real concerns that the North has raced ahead of us in the fight against Covid. I stated from the start that we should have taken an all-island approach to this pandemic. If the North continues at its current pace and reopens fully in June, we in the South will face some very difficult times. One can imagine the chaos if all retail is fully reopened in Newry while we in Dundalk remain in lockdown. This will cause a lot of businesses along the Border to close. Those business owners have sacrificed a great deal in fighting the coronavirus and they must be fully supported. We simply cannot allow a situation whereby one part of the island is open and another part is, in effect, closed.
I am sure the Tánaiste is aware of the situation in Northern Ireland but I will remind him of it. As of 31 March, total vaccinations administered in the North numbered 887,598. Everyone over the age of 45 in that jurisdiction can enrol for vaccination. A new vaccination centre was opened in the SSE Arena in the past week and more than 350 community pharmacies have joined the vaccination programme. There is even a vaccination date calculation system available online where citizens can get an estimated date for their vaccination. The death rate from Covid in the North is at its lowest in six months. Almost half of the adult population has had at least one vaccination and the plan is that society will be reopened there before the end of June.
If we compare the situation in the South, it is clear that we are nowhere near opening our society in June. Statistics do not lie. The latest figures show that 806,541 vaccinations have been administered in the South. We have a population that is approximately three and a half times that of Northern Ireland. At this stage, if we had kept in line with the North, we should have administered at least 3.1 million vaccines. Looking at it in those terms, we are behind the North by just under 2.3 million vaccinations. That is a staggering statistic. There is no doubt that the Tánaiste will blame the supply chain and say that the vaccines have simply not been delivered by the manufacturers.
The question I would like answered is why the North did not have the same problem with supply that we have. Nor does it seem to be an issue in the rest of the UK. Questions need to be answered as to why the Government has failed miserably so far in securing more vaccines. The message from the Government continues to be vague and, at best, confusing. We are told now that the vaccination programme is to be changed to an age-based system. What is the rationale for that? Has the advice been changed and who took the decision to change the roll-out programme? What is the situation with teachers, SNAs and members of the Garda? Are they no longer considered a priority?
The North will be fully open before the end of June. What plans has the Government in place to ensure the South can keep up with the North in terms of the reopening of society? Can the Tánaiste confirm that teachers, SNAs and members of the Garda are no longer deemed to be priority groups for receiving vaccination? Can he also confirm that changes to the vaccination roll-out programme are the result of new advice and, if so, why has the advice changed and what was the basis for this change in approach?