Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Covid-19: New Measures: Statements
Stephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the Government's response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The current level of Covid-19 is having a negative impact on public health, as well as placing an enormous burden across all aspects of our health service. The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in hospital and in ICU is high. We are seeing case numbers previously seen only in January of this year. Our situation is not unique. Countries across Europe are seeing a surge in cases. We heard the recent warning of the WHO that Europe is once again at the epicentre of this pandemic. As we have seen throughout the course of the pandemic, Covid-19 continues to adapt and create significant challenges and this pandemic is not yet over.
In its recent advice to the Government, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, has highlighted that the current epidemiological situation is concerning and uncertain. Due to the deterioration in the epidemiological situation, on 16 November the Government decided to put in place a package of additional measures to reduce the current level of socialisation across society to interrupt the spread of Covid-19 in the community. These measures include: a move to working from home unless it is absolutely necessary to attend the workplace in person; proof of immunity to be required for entry to cinemas and theatres; bars, restaurants and nightclubs to close, and patrons to be off the premises, by midnight; and, household close contacts who are fully vaccinated and showing no symptoms to restrict their movements until they have three negative antigen test results within five days.
Ireland remains vulnerable to a further deterioration, depending on a number of factors. These include level of social contact, adherence to basic public health protective measures and levels of immunity across the population. We are monitoring this situation closely. As always, our core priorities are to protect the most vulnerable from the impact of the virus and to ensure our health and social care services can continue to deliver much-needed care.
As colleagues will be aware, Covid-19 is once again on the rise across Europe, where it is putting health services under considerable strain and is challenging the provision of health and social care in many countries. We are seeing several EU countries reintroduce restrictions or introducing new coronavirus restrictions as case rates surge. Some western EU countries, which had removed the majority of public health measures, have now experienced sharp increases in Covid cases and have reintroduced measures in recent weeks. Some of these measures are more extensive than what we have in place in Ireland, including for example the lockdown reimposed in Austria. Other countries are taking similar measures to Ireland and a number have had to reintroduce basic measures such as mask wearing and use of the Covid-19 pass for entry to premises.
In Ireland, despite the current challenges, steps taken are working in protecting our population from the worst of this virus. Our vaccination programme is among the most successful in Europe, with more than 90% of the eligible population fully vaccinated. While every death is, of course, one death too many, according to the latest European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, data, Ireland has the fifth lowest overall mortality rate from Covid among the EU 27, plus the United Kingdom.
In addition to the essential public health measures in place, we are doing everything we can to strengthen our public health response and to bolster our health and social services to sustain this latest Covid wave. Testing continues to be an important part of the Irish Government's response to the pandemic. Demand for testing remains extremely high, with an amazing 210,000 PCR tests completed in the past seven days. The HSE is making every effort necessary to address the very significant demand arising for PCR testing, including making arrangements with private providers. The number of National Ambulance Service mobile units will double from four to eight in order to provide additional capacity in addressing high demand. The core public health message remains that anyone who has symptoms should self-isolate at home and get a Covid-19 PCR test.
Our vaccination programme continues to be one of our strongest and most successful defences against Covid-19 and the harm caused by the virus. More than 7.7 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been administered since the programme began in December last year. I am happy to be able to report to colleagues that between third doses for the immunocompromised and booster doses, in excess of 630,000 doses had been administered as of yesterday under the third dose and booster programme. The programme for residents and long-term residential care and those aged 80 and above is substantially complete. Most people who are immunocompromised have either received or been offered a booster vaccine. Approximately half of all healthcare workers and half of those in their 70s have now received a booster vaccine. Progress is also being made for those in their 60s. The group I was particularly keen would be offered a booster vaccine quickly is those with underlying conditions. This is a combination of cohorts 4 and 7 from the initial vaccine programme. When we look at our ICU patients, we see that the sizeable majority of them have an underlying condition. The latest advice we got from the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, on this cited that 98% of the vaccinated Covid patients in ICU have an underlying condition. In regard to all of our Covid patients in ICU, in excess of 80% have an underlying condition. For me, it was critical that we moved very quickly with this group. I am delighted to be able to share with the House this evening that following on from a telephone I had with the HSE before I came into the Chamber, I can confirm that we will be commencing booster vaccines for those with underlying conditions from next week. The HSE and the Department of Health are working through the details as to exactly how that will be phased. It was a very important and necessary addition to the programme and I am very happy to be able to share that information with colleagues this evening.
The booster vaccine is adding further protection and it is having a positive impact in those who have already received it. In Ireland, the impact of the recent booster vaccination on those aged 80 and older is evident in the rate of incidence no longer rising in this group. We are seeing this internationally as well. The evidence from countries like Israel and the UK is showing that the boosters are incredibly effective in preventing serious illness from Covid. I would encourage everyone, as they become eligible for a booster vaccine, to get it.
The health system is being supported at this exceptionally challenging time through significantly increased funding, with over €1 billion extra being provided in budget 2022. This investment will ensure a continued strong public health response to Covid-19, as well as a stronger health and social care service for the future.
Before the pandemic, we had just 255 critical care beds, which was an inadequate level. We are addressing this lack of capacity, with some €52 million provided by the Government in the budget for this year to add an additional 66 permanent ICU beds, or a 25% increase in capacity. The HSE has advised me that 42 of these beds are now open, bringing the baseline in critical care capacity as of today to 297. More beds will be added over the coming weeks and months and the HSE has been funded to increase capacity to 340 by the end of 2022 or early 2023. This represents a 33% increase in our base compared with the start of the pandemic.
The health service winter plan was launched last week and will provide supports to maintain Covid-19 services, account for winter pressures, provide continuity of non-Covid services, address waiting lists and enhance services in line with our goal of universal healthcare. My Department has received the national service plan from the HSE and will now finalise the measures to be implemented in 2022 to continue to ensure a strong response to Covid-19, while also ensuring the delivery of the essential range of health and social care services that are needed. I assure all colleagues that I, and the Government, will continue to do all that can be done to respond to this phase of the pandemic. We will continue to do this for as long as necessary, until the pandemic is over.