Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 October 2021

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


5:35 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent) | Oireachtas source

I will start on a positive note and thank the Minister for coming back to me about compliance. He said he would do it and he did. The level of compliance is worrying. I have six minutes so I will make a few points but I wanted to start by thanking the Minister.

From the beginning I asked for a human rights approach on this topic. I thank Deputy Tóibín for asking for this to go on the Clár Oibre. I have asked repeatedly in a proactive manner that the Government would come back to us in order that we can engage on this process. I will make my comments, as I always do, in the knowledge and recognition that we have had 5,369 deaths, with 88 confirmed cases in ICU and 448 cases in hospitals. I make my remarks firmly in the recognition that we are dealing with a very serious crisis with Covid-19.

From day one, however, I have been most unhappy with the way the Government, including the previous Government, has dealt with this matter. In the beginning I gave my full support to the draconian legislation on the strict understanding it would be a partnership and the Government would come back to us in an open, honest and accountable way. I have watched with dismay how we speak about opening up nightclubs and what appears to be a "Cinderella" dance licence where it is safe to dance after midnight but it is not safe to open respite services in Galway. We are into the second year of the pandemic with no respite services because they are not safe but, theoretically, I could go dancing in a nightclub if I had the energy. I presume that could happen after midnight tonight.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, has clarified matters in a press release. It is becoming extremely difficult to raise any questions in this country about civil rights or alternative views in dealing with the pandemic. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties qualified that it is a pro-vaccine organisation and went on to note it supported the vaccine programme roll-out. It states, however:

At the same time, we respect everyone’s right to bodily integrity and privacy in relation to their health. We believe vaccination, and all medical treatment, should be a choice.

I believe that as well and that vaccination should be voluntary. The strong message should be to encourage and not demonise but, unfortunately, the Minister's speech continues that narrative. The Taoiseach did this as well and it is an unacceptable narrative. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties argues this could be counterproductive but I believe it is counterproductive. The Government legislation on vaccines has created an infrastructure aimed at segregating and risk-scoring individuals on their health basis and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties warned in July that this set a dangerous precedent. I fully agree with it.

We are 18 months into the pandemic and there is no evidence of any human rights impact assessment by the Government of Covid-related legislation, despite repeated calls from me, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and others. As I said, I have constantly called for a proper debate, reasoned and rational, on this topic so we can inspire confidence.

Like the cross-party committee on Covid-19 response, I have asked for an urgent investigation into the deaths in nursing homes. I note with horror that those numbers are increasing again. I feel a little sympathy for the Minister because I have read the eight-page letter from NPHET, which has three or four pages of appendices. I note what it states and it is of extreme concern. It states "disease incidence across the country is high and increasing" and "in summary, the epidemiological situation in Ireland indicates a worsening disease profile with the future trajectory very uncertain".

The letter indicates five criteria that are essential before we move to opening in a full manner and yet NPHET goes on to agree with the Minister that we should be opening up. Of the five criteria, we have achieved one, which is that "at least two weeks having passed from the attainment of at least 90% vaccination". The Minister has told us that is now 92%. The letter goes on to speak about hospital and critical care occupancy and we utterly fall down on that. We also fall down on public health capacities. Of course, NPHET also speaks about the absence of a new variant of concern and how everything becomes unpredictable if that occurs. We have control over hospital and critical care occupancy and public health capacity but we have failed utterly on both of those, although I recognise the Minister's efforts in increasing capacity.

This immediately brings to mind the question of private hospitals in Galway. Galway city has two closed wards and the head of the Saolta University Health Care Group, Mr. Tony Canavan, was on the radio recently telling us those two wards had been closed because of Covid-19. This hospital was in crisis continuously before Covid-19 and it is much worse now. The staff are at breaking point and my heart goes out to them. We have two private hospitals, however. We have spoken about everything we learned about taking over private hospitals and using them but they have not been mentioned anywhere. It is extraordinary. There are two hospitals, one of which was seriously under capacity when Covid-19 started. I would not say it did well out of Covid-19, and that is a bad way to put it. It was used, theoretically, but remained underutilised. Will the Minister tell us about that?

Perhaps the Minister might also tell us about the absence of respite services in Galway. If we have 92% of the eligible population vaccinated, where are the respite services? I see I am benefiting from a stopped clock.


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