Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Covid-19: New Measures: Statements
Duncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, for her statement that people with mental difficulties such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression will be now offered a booster dose. She did it previously in the first round of the vaccination programme as well. I know she gets how serious this is for people who are living with those conditions. In recent weeks I heard of an individual whose story will not be captured in the overall figure of 5,609 as someone who died with Covid, but they passed as a result of Covid because they suffered from one of these illnesses and there was a direct correlation. I think of that person now when I am making this contribution and I will be thinking of that person for a good while to come. It is vitally important that these people are reached as soon possible and are offered a booster and every effort is made to get them to a vaccination centre.
Following on from Leaders' Questions yesterday and my discussion with the Taoiseach, our greatest concern in the Labour Party is that we are operating as if this wave is going to be our last. That is something we have been doing since the pandemic began. I accept it is done for positive reasons based on hope. With each wave that comes, we believe it will be our last. Unfortunately, this virus continues to outwit not only this country, but the region and the world, so we must plan for the virus being with us, as the WHO says, until at least 2023. It means putting in place the resources to cope with surges in the need for testing, vaccinations, boosters and critical care beds. That is where we need to look. We are in the eye of the storm with this fourth wave, and we can get caught up on a daily basis with the individual crisis within a crisis of the day, but we must talk about how we are going to make the health service robust enough to ensure we can mitigate against these waves should they come. I hope this is our last wave, but we cannot plan for that to be the case.
I wish to ask about ICU capacity. The Minister mentioned that we would have a baseline of 297 ICU beds. The Department's 2018 capacity review set the target at 330. Paul Reid said we would have 50 surge beds for December and into the early part of the new year. In summing up, will the Minister indicate how many whole-time equivalent hours that will take from non-Covid care and how it will impact on such care? Surge capacity has an impact on non-Covid care. I would welcome if the Minister could provide details in that regard. We know that providing ICU beds is not a case of rolling a bed into an ICU ward, and that skilled, trained staff need to go with the bed. As health spokespersons, we are fully aware of that. Surge capacity has an impact on non-Covid healthcare, which is also in a crisis.
We know there are issues with PCR testing. I have been raising the matter for more than a week and a half. It can take two days to get a test and another two days to get a result. That is four days from when a person could be symptomatic to when he or she gets a result. People like us in this House have the ability to control our diaries and we have staff that work for us to keep the wheels going, but people working in retail, as taxi drivers, in transport or in other low-paid work do not have that luxury and they are under pressure to work. The PUP has been cut. That must change given where we are going with this virus. Low-paid workers are under immense stress coming into the Christmas period to pay fuel bills and rent. We must reduce the four-day delay. We are doing 209,000 tests a week, which is substantial. I wish we did not need extra capacity, but we do.
A hames has been made of antigen testing. The opposition has been criticised by the Government for being partisan, but in the course of the pandemic, the Opposition has provided practical solutions such as antigen testing, testing and tracing, not cutting the PUP, sick pay and remote work. The Opposition, including the Labour Party, has been playing a very constructive role. What role does the Minister see antigen testing playing in households into 2022? Where antigen testing has worked at the latter end of last year and this year is where large companies, for example, big building companies, have made sure their workers have been serial tested on Mondays and Thursdays on big sites.
They have been catching cases, people have been self-isolating and work has been able to continue.
The Taoiseach said yesterday, in response to my question on promised legislation, that he sees a role for regular testing in households into 2022. Does the Minister think that is the case? If it is, how do we get clear messaging and how do we get accessible, affordable and, ideally, free antigen testing into enough households to ensure that we are catching this virus as early as possible and making sure it is spreading as slowly as possible? Given Dr. Catherine Motherway believes everyone in this country is probably going to get this virus, we have to slow the spread and we have to take the pressure away from our acute hospital system. I look forward to the Minister's summing up.