Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Covid-19: New Measures: Statements
David Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
We all hoped we would be in a different situation going into December and the Christmas period. We must all reflect on the current trajectory of the disease, the current daily case numbers, the number of people who are hospitalised, the numbers in ICU and the very difficult situation we have in our hospitals. At the same time, for anyone who gets sick with Covid, it is difficult for them and their families. As I said, we all hoped we would be in a different space but we are not. This disease is very stubborn. It has not gone away and it is going to be with us for some time. We all have to collectively try to figure out how to manage, live with and deal with this virus for some time to come.
The last time we had a discussion on Covid was during the emergency powers motion we discussed a number of weeks ago. I reiterate a point I made in my opening remarks and repeated again to the Minister. I listened very intently to his response. It is reasonable for him to criticise me and my party, as it is for me to hold him to account as the Minister for Health. I support all the public health measures, as does my party. What I will not do is support emergency powers when we do not get any heads-up and there is no involvement of the Opposition. There is certainly no scrutiny, debate or accountability as regards any of the actions that flow from the emergency powers this Oireachtas has given the Minister, which we supported in the past.
There have been too many examples of regulations that were clumsily put together, where stakeholders or people who have to live with the measures arising from the regulations have been quite critical of the approach of the Minister, the Department and the Government. There is a better way to do it. We have to get back to more decisions being made by the Oireachtas and votes on the regulations if necessary. We certainly need debate and scrutiny. We cannot continue with a situation where we do not have that level of scrutiny. I do not believe having emergency powers to the extent that we almost fully devolve responsibility to the Minister for Health is where we need to be, at a time when the Dáil is sitting in full and we can respond, as the Minister would put it, in an agile way. I want to make that clear because there was a misrepresentation, if not a spin, put on what our position is. It is up to the Minister and the Government to present that in whatever way they want.
I want to deal with the issues of Covid and how we need to respond and can better respond. Sinn Féin and all of the other Opposition parties have for some time been critical of a lack of planning, and in some areas no planning, when it comes to some of the responses and tools we have at our disposal, which we need to deploy as best we can to get a grip on this virus again. A lack of planning, engagement and leadership presents challenges when people see it. There is a public health message that we all have to give, which is that people should abide by the public health measures. If they have symptoms, they should get tested using a PCR test. Antigen testing is not for people who have symptoms. They need to make sure they restrict their movements and self-isolate. We have to reinforce the public health message that has been given by public health officials. Everyone should look at his or her social interactions and limit them where possible. I fully support all of that. I have said this on countless local and national radio stations and I will repeat it again today. We all have a responsibility to repeat the public health message but the Government also has a responsibility to get its part of this right.
I want to deal with a number of issues. The first is PCR testing. Paul Cunningham from RTÉ tweeted ten minutes ago that he contacted all the PCR testing centres in the country and 21 of them currently have no capacity for today or tomorrow. People cannot book a test. That number was ten yesterday and 15 the day before but is 21 at this point in time. Of course the system is under real pressure but the Government needs to provide additional capacity and we need to be looking at where there are gaps.
Like me, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is from the south-east region. Yesterday, you could not get a test for 48 hours in Waterford, Kilkenny, Wexford or Tipperary. That is an entire region. It is unacceptable. We need to put in the capacity and resources. When we are telling people they need to get tested and restrict their movements the very least we can do is make sure there are quick turnaround times for them when they need it. I know the system is under pressure and I hear what the Minister is saying about the number of tests being done but what is happening at the moment is causing tension and difficulties for us in delivering a public health message to the community because people do not see the Government getting it right.
I do not even know where to start on antigen testing and how long we have been waiting for the Government to put a coherent plan in place. We are not at the races compared with where other European countries are. What we need first and foremost is a plan and clarity of message. I have a good understanding of how and when people should use antigen tests. Yesterday, the Chief Medical Officer, in a briefing to Opposition and Government representatives - although not Ministers - talked about circumstance and interpretation. He spoke about the circumstances in which someone should use antigen testing and how that person as an individual interprets the results of the test. The point that has been made to all of us is that, of course, if people are symptomatic, they should get a PCR test but if they are asymptomatic in a high-risk environment, they should be using antigen testing on a regular basis. That is the public health advice I have been given and that is what we should very clearly communicate so there are no mixed messages. People need to be really clear about when they should use antigen tests and how to use them and then we need to make a decision on how we are going to fund this. I do not see why we should not make the tests freely available. I do not see circumstances where people will be looking to hoard dozens of antigen tests. Let us just make a decision. We are already making them freely available in some circumstances. Let us just for once make a quick and decisive decision that we are going to do this and get it done. That is what people want to see.
We stopped contact tracing entirely in schools. I was one of the people who said yes to that when asymptomatic children or children who did not have Covid were having to self-isolate for ten days and missing school was a problem. However, we have gone from one extreme to the other. I do not see any balance. We need to better equip and better support our teachers, parents and children in schools and put more measures in place. As the Minister knows, substitute teachers are an issue. Ventilation, which I will come to in a second, is also an issue in schools. We need to have a level of contact tracing and risk assessment in schools which is not there at the moment.
Public health officials will say that schools are a safe environment. I, too, have used that expression because it is one we have been given by public health officials but of course, there is risk. No environment is fully safe because of Covid and in every environment there is an element of risk. It is the job of the State to minimise risk, particularly for young people in schools. We seem to have gone from one extreme to the other, with no contract tracing at all, which is not acceptable.
There needs to be more urgency in relation to the booster jabs. At the aforementioned briefing yesterday, I asked the CMO whether we will have to go to a general population roll-out of the booster jab and whether we accept now that at some point in the future, everyone will require a booster jab. His answer was not quite "Yes". He said he could foresee an extension of booster jabs but logic would tell me that everyone, at some point, is going to need one. If that is the case, let us accept that reality and start planning for it. We need timescales to give people a sense that it is going to happen and when it will happen. The Government must engage with NIAC and that committee must be front and centre in all of this but people are looking for certainty and clarity.
Ventilation is a bit like antigen testing; all we hear is talk and more talk but we do not see the solutions, whether in schools or workplaces. There is no responsibility on employers or the State, or at least people do not see the State taking responsibility in relation to ventilation. Again, it is one of the tools that we can and should be using, alongside all of the other measures.
The derogation for healthcare workers from the restricted movement for five days rule has been raised with me time and again. It has been raised by the INMO and I want to put on record that organisation's concern in this regard. We must protect people on the front line. I know we have a real problem in the hospitals. I have mentioned moral injury to the Minister previously in the context of those on the front line being unable to take breaks and afraid to take annual leave. Now they are not to be subject to the same rules as everyone else and they have a real concern about that. At the very least, the Government must listen to what the healthcare trade unions are saying and engage with them so that we can properly support people on the front line.
I have spoken several times with the Minister about ICU capacity. We are far behind where we need to be in relation to the 2019 and the 2009 capacity reviews. While additional capacity has been provided, we are still far short of what is required. I do not have the time to go into all of the problems we have in our health system at the moment. We have discussed them several times. We had a discussion with Paul Reid and others in the HSE today but it is a real crisis and challenge and the rising cases of Covid are adding to that challenge. I agree with the Minister that all the measures I have just talked about, as well as reinforcing the public health message and people abiding by that message, are required to reduce the levels of infection and hospitalisation of Covid-positive patients, which are causing a real difficulty.
I want to address comments that were made about people wearing masks. The Deputy who made the contribution was passionate and he may have had a negative experience on a train but I have to say that my experience is that, for the most part, most people are abiding by the restrictions most of the time. I do not see any evidence of people not doing that. There may be some examples but generally, people are doing their best. There is fatigue and tiredness with this virus that we all accept. We are all fatigued and tired and we all wish the virus would go away but it has not done so and is still here. We have to continue to appeal to people to do their best but I think they are doing their best. I genuinely believe that. What they want to see is the Government getting it right at its end but in lots of different areas, they do not see that. We need to sharpen the State's response in many areas.