Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 October 2021

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


5:05 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

Like Deputy Gould, I briefly raise the case of Mr. Nadim Hussain, who is on hunger strike and ask that the Minister for Justice give it her attention and see whether she can assist.

School leaders and boards of management feel isolated. They can hardly get hold of the HSE and they feel completely abandoned by the Department of Education. The changes in respect of self-isolation were expected. Making children who were asymptomatic and had received negative tests self-isolate was completely disruptive and did not make sense. It came as a surprise, however, both to me and to school leaders, that contact tracing and risk assessment would be removed completely. School leaders, students and parents now feel they have been left in the dark.

I have written to NPHET officials on this, as I have done throughout the pandemic. Briefings with party health spokespersons have been facilitated, yet education has been a fairly core issue and we have never had a briefing from NPHET. I do not know why that is. I have heard nothing in response to my latest request. I wanted to ask them about these changes and what they will mean on the ground in schools. There are still little details that need to be worked out and schools are trying to figure out exactly what the changes mean. Parents, students and school staff have questions and we need the Minister for Health, Dr. Tony Holohan and the Minister for Education to be front and centre in answering them.

I am hearing from schools they have been told they are not allowed to tell parents if there is Covid in their child's class, yet that is exactly what is done in the case of chicken pox and a number of other illnesses. This is wrong. Parents deserve to know, particularly families who have vulnerable children or adults at home. They deserve the information in order that they can take a decision that suits their family and their health risks. It helps no one to pretend there is no Covid in schools. It does not help teachers, parents or students to be kept in the dark in regard to a public health issue within the school community.

The Minister stated, at the time of these changes being announced, that they would be kept under review. The Government, throughout this pandemic, has been keen to find a middle ground. Will the Minister and his colleague, the Minister, Deputy Foley, revert to NPHET and try to find a middle ground? Will they explore with NPHET how they can ensure schools will get the support they need to retain access to well-resourced public health teams, risk assessment and contact tracing while preventing schools from being disrupted, without requiring the unnecessary exclusion of healthy children, as was the case previously? That did not make sense. Education continuing without disruption is of the highest priority to me. Knowledge is power and there is a lack of knowledge out there at the moment. Sinn Féin and I will be bound by any public health advice but knowledge and data are the key here. We are in something of a vacuum and the Minister should engage to explore the options at this stage with NPHET and the Minister, Deputy Foley. I urge her also to end the substitution crisis, which is having an impact on the issue, by extending panels to the entire country and ensuring banked hours are returned.

In recent days, there have been changes to the access restrictions in maternity hospitals and hospitals in general, although not all the issues have been resolved. There seems to be a strange, arbitrary distinction, which the Minister identified, regarding established labour. That is completely wrong-headed and needs to be resolved. Nevertheless, I commend the campaigners on the progress that has been made. They have been relentless and the protest made a significant difference. I am glad the Minister, the HSE and the hospitals listened, although there are issues that have yet to be resolved.

Finally, we have spoken a great deal about ICU beds and my party is very critical of the fact that no additional ICU beds have been added beyond what was already announced. That is a matter of serious regret. It could cause us great challenges and I want it to be addressed. I am very concerned about step-down beds, too, because they are all part of the same jigsaw. In Cork, we are down 20 or 30 community step-down beds since before Covid. The new beds that were supposed to have been built at St. Finbarr's Hospital have not come to pass and I believe they have not even been started. We urgently need modular step-down beds because they will mean beds can be freed up in the hospital. There are so many patients there who have nowhere to go because there are no community step-down beds. If we can resolve that, it will free up an awful lot of beds and capacity. I am very worried about the danger of huge trolley counts at Cork University Hospital, CUH, this winter. Step-down beds in the community and modular units are the key to resolving that.


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