Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Covid-19: Reframing the Challenge, Continuing our Recovery and Reconnecting: Statements


3:35 pm

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

Printed copies of my speech will be ready shortly. They are on their way over. It is hard to believe that it has been 607 days since the first case of Covid-19 was detected in Ireland. Little did we know what was ahead of us - a pandemic that upended our lives and changed the way we lived, worked and socialised. This disease has shattered lives. It has taken well over 5,000 of our loved ones from us. It has caused great fear, frustration and disruption.

In healthcare, it has taken a very deep toll. Our healthcare workers have made great sacrifices. Many are tired and depleted. Many became sick themselves or provided care to their colleagues. Many more people are waiting for non-Covid healthcare. At the same time, our healthcare workers have been incredible. There has been record investment and funding for new developments and our healthcare workers have turned this investment and funding into record numbers of new beds and staff during the pandemic.

The vaccine roll-out has been a success. More than 7.4 million doses have been administered since the programme began in December last year. Around 90% of the eligible population are now fully vaccinated. Ireland has a vaccination rate that is among the highest in Europe. Our vaccine roll-out has proven what our health service can do when we all work together. There is greater confidence in what our health service can achieve. As I travelled around the country visiting testing centres and vaccine centres in recent months, the pride that healthcare workers have in our health service was clear and palpable. We can build on this positivity as we face into winter and the task of tackling waiting lists.

The pandemic also shone a light on issues that have blighted our health service for far too long, including a dearth of critical care or ICU bed capacity and a poorly resourced public health infrastructure. Before Covid arrived here, we had just 255 critical care beds. We invested €55 million in that this year and will have 321 permanently funded beds by the end of this year, or very early next year. That represents an increase of approximately 25%. We are going to add more beds next year, resulting in a 33% increase in permanent capacity between the start of the pandemic and the end of next year. Are more ICU beds needed? They absolutely are. I have brought a plan to Cabinet outlining further plans to significantly increase capacity.

Our public health teams were significantly under-resourced when this pandemic hit. Public health doctors were not given the recognition they deserved and were the only medical specialists who could not progress to consultant status. This impacted our ability to recruit and retain candidates. This dispute had been going on for decades. The Government resolved it by reaching an agreement with the Irish Medical Organisation. I was delighted to see advertisements for these consultant posts appearing in recent weeks.

Last year, I committed to a significant investment in public health when I announced plans to double the workforce by recruiting an additional 255 permanent staff at an annual cost of over €17 million. In a highly competitive employment market, created by the pandemic, I am very pleased to share that the HSE has filled 196 of these roles to date, increasing staffing levels in our public health system from 254 to more than 450 employees. I know everyone here will welcome that.

Like many countries, we have deployed a wide array of measures to battle Covid-19 over the past 18 months, including masks, social distancing, local restrictions, travel restrictions, testing, contact tracing, guidance on improved ventilation and more. We are still deploying some measures like mask-wearing but lockdowns, which sometimes, unfortunately, involve the cessation of non-urgent healthcare, are not a long-term sustainable solution. Fortunately, safe and effective vaccines were developed in record time. These vaccines are key to turning Covid-19 into an endemic but controlled communicable disease. Only one human disease, smallpox, has been completely eradicated. Others, such as the flu, measles and cholera, slowly became endemic. Since the vaccines are remarkably effective in preventing serious disease and death, they can serve as our conduit for control. Many experts believe that the harm from endemic Covid may ultimately fall somewhere between that of flu and other coronaviruses that cause the common cold but, as we all know, the world is not even close to that point yet.

What is to be done? I want to reiterate the case for everyone to be vaccinated. We are a highly vaccinated country and yet we are seeing that Covid can still create tremendous pressure on our health service. We have 448 people in hospitals with Covid and 88 Covid patients in intensive care. Of course, every one of the beds taken up by those 448 people in hospital with Covid reduces the capacity in our hospital system. As is to be expected, we are increasing our efforts to promote the vaccination of those not yet inoculated. There are approximately 360,000 adults who are eligible but who have not chosen to get vaccinated to date. We are looking at what additional measures can be taken to increase uptake among this group, including pop-up vaccination clinics, which will begin in early November in local election areas where uptake is still low. Ongoing engagement is also taking place with industry and civil society organisations to improve uptake among vulnerable workers and migrant communities.

I appeal to those who have not yet been vaccinated to please step up and get vaccinated. I ask them to do so for themselves and for everybody else. Our waiting lists for planned care, which includes everything from hip operations to scoliosis procedures, are far too long. I am determined to tackle these lists and to bring the same rigour to doing so as we have brought to the vaccine roll-out but we need everyone to play his or her part.

To those who are unvaccinated, the decision not to get vaccinated is helping this virus continue to spread. The most recent figures I have are that more than half of those with Covid in intensive care are unvaccinated. This means ICU beds are not available to sick patients waiting on urgent surgery and we have to cancel operations for children and adults in need of urgent hospital treatment and procedures. I met Nursing Homes Ireland this morning, as I am increasingly concerned about the rising number of outbreaks in nursing homes, as are those living and working in and running our nursing homes. To those who are unvaccinated, I ask them to please think again. I ask them to get the facts, to follow the science and to protect themselves, those closest to them and everyone else in the country who has fought so hard for the gains we have made against this virus.

As we have seen throughout the course of the pandemic, Covid-19 continues to be a volatile and unpredictable opponent. The disease incidence in the country is high and has deteriorated significantly in recent weeks. Taking into account this situation, the Government this week made a decision on the way forward.Our approach continues to be to move forward carefully and steadily with the reopening of our society. Sectors of our society and economy have reopened in recent months and they have stayed open, and we need to ensure this remains the case.

On Tuesday, following public health advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, the Government agreed that the remaining aspects of the hospitality, entertainment and night-time economy could reopen. Given the deteriorating trajectory of the disease, this reopening is taking place accompanied by comprehensive protective measures and the wide and robust use of the digital Covid certificate.

Our booster vaccine campaign will play a vital role in offering continued support to our most vulnerable.The national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, has now recommended that a booster dose of Pfizer can be offered to everyone aged 60 and above who has completed their primary course of a Covid-19 vaccine. My Department and the HSE are now implementing these recommendations. NIAC will continue to examine new evidence regarding booster doses for other groups. I believe there is a strong case for healthcare workers. We are engaging closely and continuously with NIAC on that, and we will follow the evidence and science and look forward to its ongoing deliberations on this.

I wish to finish with another appeal to the hospitality sector. It is essential, if we are going to continue opening up safely, that the Covid pass is used and enforced. We all know that the majority of operators in the hospitality sector are doing the right thing. However, an unacceptably high number are not. The data we have on enforcement and the survey results from patrons going to pubs and restaurants suggest that about two out of every three pubs and restaurants are doing the right thing and are enforcing the pass but one in every three is not and that has to change. We have to have more compliance. There are things the State can do, and I am sure we will discuss some of that during this debate, but it is imperative that the sector steps up and ensures that those regulations and that compliance are followed.


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