Thursday, 21 October 2021
Covid-19: Reframing the Challenge, Continuing our Recovery and Reconnecting: Statements
I thank the Deputies for contributing to this important debate this evening. I welcome the opportunity to hear from colleagues as to what is and is not working, and where more needs to be done.
I will begin with the excellent contribution from Deputy Connolly. Some of the points she raised have also be raised by other Deputies this evening. Deputy Connolly referred to people who have chosen not to be vaccinated. She quite rightly said that this is voluntary and people must have a choice, which is true. However, many of us are familiar with the phrase that "with freedom comes responsibility". We must bear that in mind when we say people have the freedom, which they do, not to be vaccinated. The issue is not about whether they chose to be vaccinated. It is not about whether they chose to protect themselves. If they chose to leave themselves at risk of serious illness or death, that is their choice. I do not think it is the right choice, but it is their choice to make. As the Minister for Health, I have to deal with the implications of that choice as do those working in the healthcare system. I am not making any value judgments; I am providing the facts.
Let us consider adults, that is, those aged 18 years and over. Approximately 6% of them are not vaccinated in any way. Some 94% of the adult population are either fully or partially vaccinated. That provides a huge amount of protection against hospitalisation and, in particular, admission to an intensive care unit, ICU. We considered all ICU attendances over several months - from April to October - and we found that 70%, seven in every ten, of Covid patients in ICU we not fully vaccinated. At present, there are 88 people - 87 adults and one child - in intensive care with Covid. A massively disproportionate number of those are unvaccinated. They have chosen not to be vaccinated. We know there is a very small number of people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, and we are not referring to them.
We need our ICU capacity to treat sick children and adults. An awful lot more of that ICU capacity is used for Covid for the 6% of people who chose not to be vaccinated. Is that their choice? Of course, it is. Are they free not to be vaccinated? Of course, they are. However, as the Minister for Health, I must point out that there are serious implications for the rest of society because of their choices. If we do the maths, approximately 60 ICU beds could be freed up right now and used for life-changing operations for adults and children. That is the reality of the situation. It is incumbent upon me, as the Minister for Health, to state the facts and to say to the 6% of adults, while fully respecting their bodily autonomy, that this is not just about them. It is about the people they know, their friends and family and our healthcare system. Scarce and incredibly important healthcare resources are having to be deployed because of the choices they make. That is the position and why I must make that argument as the Minister for Health. If people chose not to be vaccinated, let them make that choice knowing all the facts and the implications their choices have on wider society and our healthcare system.
There has been much good debate on many other issues, which I will try to touch on. On antigen testing, I agree with Deputies that this has a role to play. It has already been deployed. Right now, we are doing serial testing with antigen tests in a large number of nursing homes throughout the country, including my county. They are being used in hospital settings, higher education, childcare and workplaces, and individuals are using them. However, I want to go further than this and I think most Members, probably every Member, agree that we should. To that end, I set up the rapid testing expert group to help with implementation. I wish to acknowledge the work done by Professor Mary Horgan and others in that group, who have worked incredibly hard. Members will be aware I published the group's report today. It is a very good report. Our strategy was that if antigen tests were needed at scale and disease rates rose again, we would be ready. That need has arisen and we are ready. That is partly down to the work the group has been doing with the HSE.
As colleagues will be aware, asymptomatic close contacts will now be sent rapid tests in the post so they can test themselves. The group has put together comprehensive material, which will be shared online, for individuals, employers and organisations who want to use rapid testing. It will include training materials, videos, testing protocols, check lists, and details of the types and makes of rapid tests that are deemed to be good and where people can get them, etc. There will be a lot of information available in that regard. We are also developing a risk assessment tool anyone can use. Depending on their age, where they live and the type of activity they will participate in, people can determine whether a rapid test would be a good thing for them to use in that case. I hope colleagues will be encouraged by the progress made there.
Deputy Shortall asked whether the data on outbreaks was being published anymore. It is published by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre every Wednesday. Deputy Buckley referred to a mental health situation in his constituency. If the Deputy sends me and the Minister of State a note on that, we will be happy to look into it. Similarly, Deputy Connolly has quite rightly continued to raise the issue of respite in her constituency.
I commit to following up with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. One of us will get back to the Deputy on that issue because, when it comes to healthcare provision and these essential respite services, anything that can be opened safely, must be opened.
Deputy Andrews asked some questions on volunteering and situations in which different organisations had made different decisions on the use of certain facilities in some sports clubs. I will revert to the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, and ask that Deputy Andrews be engaged with on that issue.
The issue of schools was raised, which is very understandable. I will make a few points on this. First, as I said to the Deputy as he was leaving, if the education spokespeople ask to meet with the public health experts, I am very happy to facilitate such a meeting. We need to provide all the expertise we can to Members of the House so that they can do their job. I am very happy to do that, if people would like me to.
The solution to making schools as safe as possible is for us to drive down the number of cases in the community. We are finding that children are picking up Covid more in the community than in the schools. That is down to the great work being done by the schools and by the students while in school. They deserve great credit for that. Some Deputies asked about contact tracing and why the isolation of asymptomatic contacts was stopped. This was done for various reasons. Very few of these tests were picking up positive contacts but the ten days of isolation was causing a lot of disruption for the children themselves.
I hope I have got to most of the questions that were raised. I again thank colleagues for their time and for their contributions this evening.