Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Covid-19: New Measures: Statements


4:17 pm

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this hugely important matter, namely, the Government's response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The current level of Covid infections, both nationally and internationally, is of concern and is placing, yet again, a huge strain on our public services, not least our health system. I would like, at the outset, to commend the tremendous and tireless work and dedication of our health staff in continuing to provide vital services across the country.

Notwithstanding the challenges we face, I will focus today on some of the most significant progress that is being made to further enhance protections, particularly for our older population and people using the mental health services, in our continued fight against this relentless and evolving virus. Significant progress is being made in the administration of booster vaccines to the population of over-80s within the community. I commend the excellent work of GPs across the country in administering these vaccines in order that our older people continue to be protected. There are some 161,000 people in this age cohort and approximately 134,000 vaccines have been administered to date. GPs are also administering additional doses to over-70s in the community, of whom there are approximately 336,000. To date, nearly 172,300 vaccines have been administered. It is expected that this group will be largely completed over a period of about four weeks before the Christmas season. This is in line with NIAC guidance, which recommended an additional mRNA booster dose for all individuals aged 60 to 79. NIAC recommends people should be administered their booster vaccine after six months or a minimum period of five months. This means the time to complete an age cohort is dependent on individuals' original vaccine completion date. The group of people aged 60 to 69 are now being vaccinated through vaccination centres, with more than 33,000 vaccines administered to date. The expectation is this group will be substantially completed by the end of December.

The Covid-19 home vaccination service to individuals who are housebound has been made available for the purposes of administering the third primary or booster vaccine. HSE community vaccination teams visit people's homes to administer the additional vaccine dose. The first phase of the programme commenced the week of 28 October and included two groups, namely, people who are immunocompromised, as per NIAC guidance, and people aged 80 years and older. I am pleased to state that, as of 18 November, the delivery of booster vaccinations through the home vaccination service has been extended to people aged 60 to 79 years. This programme will run for a period of four weeks up to 17 December and will overlap with the vaccination of the 80 years-plus age group, which is under way. To date, more than 260 doses of the booster vaccine have been administered by community healthcare organisation, CHO, teams as part of this phase of the home vaccination programme, with many more to be delivered over the next few weeks.

The roll-out of the booster vaccination programme among people aged 65 and over in long-term residential care facilities, including nursing homes, has been substantially completed since the end of last month, having commenced on 4 October. Vaccination teams were operational within all areas of the country, seven days a week, which saw the majority of care facilities complete the booster programme within a three-week period. Following extensive discussions with the Department and the relevant health agencies, I very much welcomed the expansion of the booster vaccination programme to individuals of all ages living in long-term residential care facilities.

In line with NIAC guidance, from the week of 8 November, vaccination teams extended the administration of the booster dose to people aged 60 to 65 years in care facilities. This week, in accordance with further NIAC recommendations, vaccination teams will again extend boosters to individuals of all ages within their residential setting, or will facilitate residents to attend vaccination centres for their booster dose. As of 21 November, almost 25,000 residents in long-term residential care facilities, including nursing homes, had received their booster vaccination. Community vaccination teams will continue to administer vaccines to people who were advised to have their booster vaccine deferred and in facilities where there was an outbreak of cases. The extension of the booster programme to all healthcare workers, including those in nursing homes, is progressing and will add further to the protections afforded to front-line health staff and the people under their care.

I assure the House that significant supports continue to be made available to nursing homes in response to Covid-19. The outbreak assistance element of the temporary assistance payment scheme provided to the private and voluntary nursing home sector continues to be available. A total of €134 million was allocated to the sector between 2020 and 2021. More than €1.4 million has been paid in outbreak assistance under 63 separate claims since the end of June of this year. A broad suite of other supports continues to be provided to nursing homes. These include the establishment of Covid-19 response teams, the supply of precautionary and enhanced personal protective equipment, PPE, free of charge where possible, access to staff from community and acute hospitals, a suite of focused public health guidance and training resources, including a further series of infection prevention and control webinars delivered by HIQA in September, including nearly 800 attendees from nursing home staff, and temporary accommodation nursing home staff to support measures to block the chain of transmission. Serial testing is to be reintroduced for two consecutive cycles to all nursing homes across the country and is expected to commence at the start of December.

I meet regularly with the HSE, HIQA and the Department on the evolving impact of the pandemic in nursing homes and continue to monitor the situation very closely to ensure all necessary supports and guidance are sustained and, where required, enhanced. There is no doubt that the protection of people living in nursing homes has been prioritised once again through the roll-out of the booster vaccination programme and the continuation of a broad range of supports.

An antigen testing pilot programme has been under way in residential care facilities for older people since mid-September. Over the period of the programme, a total of 4,855 tests were completed in 41 centres in CHO 2, including counties Mayo, Roscommon and Galway, CHO 9, including Dublin North, Dublin North-Central and Dublin North-West, and County Wicklow. There were four positive antigen test results as part of this programme. The pilot programme has finished in all sites and the evaluation is currently being completed.

I would like to specifically mention the progress that has been made in our mental health services to address the emerging challenges posed by Covid. The majority of people aged 60 years and over in long-term care have been vaccinated with a booster dose, with individuals who have not yet received it scheduled for vaccination this week or next. In line with NIAC's advice to expand the booster programme to people of all ages in long-term residential care, planning is under way to administer the vaccine to those in mental health centres. As Minister of State with special responsibility for mental health, I welcome NIAC's decision to offer booster doses to those aged 16 to 59 with certain underlying conditions.

The decision means that those who experience certain mental difficulties such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression will now be offered a booster dose. I hope the additional protection provided will bring a renewed level of comfort and reassurance. I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly’s work on ensuring that that happened.

Booster vaccines among all mental health staff are progressing with the majority completed as part of a six-week programme, which commenced earlier this month. While there are significant challenges posed by Covid-19 currently, we must remember the progress we have made through our shared collective efforts. The Government has moved quickly in an attempt to stabilise the situation, with work from home requirements where possible, the extension of the Covid-19 passport, new closing times for the on-license trade and greater use of antigen testing. The vaccination and booster programme are central to our response to recent developments. Thanks to the successful implementation of a world-class national vaccination programme, the infrastructure has been put into drive forward with our booster roll-out. However, it is so important for us to remember that as we roll-out boosters, vaccination alone will not prevent transmission. Mask wearing, keeping our distance, washing our hands, reducing social contacts and choosing to make smart decisions based on our immediate environment will make a huge difference in not only protecting the great progress we have made to this point, but building on it.

Now, more than ever, I appeal to those who are unvaccinated to please come forward and speak to a medical professional about their concerns. To those who are offered the booster, please take it. If we all contribute to this collective effort, we will keep our society and economy open, we will maintain our progress and we will keep people healthy and safe.


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