Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Covid-19: New Measures: Statements


5:27 pm

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)

There are various aspects of the Covid issue that I want to reference here this evening and comment on but I want to start with one that has received very little attention. I refer to the question of the migrant community and the impact of Covid on them and the question of vaccines.

Figures came out in recent days which are enlightening in relation to what is actually going on. It drills down into the figures and tells us a lot of interesting and concerning things. Much important analysis was done of these figures by Mr. Mark Coughlan of the "Prime Time" team. Mr. Coughlan has published that on the RTÉ website and it is very insightful. We cannot afford to ignore those figures. I will put them on the record here this evening with the intention of bringing them to the Minister's attention and, hopefully, that we will get action on them. Real action can be taken to impact these figures, which are so worrying.

Seven per cent of the population is unvaccinated and 54% of all ICU admissions are unvaccinated people. That was found through study of the figures in September and October. What is very interesting is the fact that 50% of all unvaccinated people in ICU were born abroad. That gives us insight into an important cohort of people who are not availing of the vaccination programme.

A total of 44% of people employed in Ireland but originally from the EU's eastern European member states are vaccinated and the remainder, obviously, are not. The latter is a substantial number.

Five per cent of the population in Ireland is originally from the so-called 13 EU accession states. Most of these countries have very low vaccine uptake rates. It is worth looking at some of those. For example, in Poland, the vaccination rate is 54% and in Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, the rates are 61%, 62%, 45%, 36%; and 25%, respectively.

It is worth repeating that 50% of all unvaccinated people in ICUs were born abroad. That should tell us that there needs to be a targeted programme to reach those traditionally hard-to-reach groups and that we must work hard and redouble the efforts to reach that group. I am not saying that nothing has been done about that. The HSE has done quite a bit of work on this. They ensured that public health messaging was translated by native people. Those messages are being put out on various websites in 27 different languages. I accept that translation work has been done. There have been radio advertisements on community radio. There have been print advertisements in some of the Polish, Lithuanian and Russian language newspapers. There are also multilingual advertisements on digital and social media. The HSE has made reasonable efforts but I do not believe that they are enough because those figures show that they are not sufficient. The message is not getting across. There are many reasons for that. I am not blaming anybody but I am saying that those figures are so stark that they demand a response. The kind of response demanded is a detailed strategy based on the evidence and on advice from community leaders in those communities and from migrant advocacy groups because there is a tendency at official level in this country to do things through the eyes of the officials, who are often Irish born and bred, middle-aged and middle-class people. Such officials design communication programmes and they are not always the successful ones. You have to speak to representatives of the communities which you are targeting. In my view, that is what needs to happen now.

What we need, first and foremost, is a clear strategy. We need a strategy that measures the impact of the messaging that is going on, for example, as to whether it is making any difference. When we have those kind of figures, you would have to say the current approach is not working particularly well. As I say, you need to be able to measure what the response is.

It is critical that there be engagement with migrant groups in order that we know what are the best ways of communication and what are the best channels to use. Because something might work for Irish people and work in this country does not necessarily mean that it will work with migrant groups.

We also know that quite a number of migrants are working in low-paid industries, for instance, seasonal workers, meat packers and fruit pickers, and there could well be significant literacy problems. Not only is there the language issue but there could be a literacy problem as well. That has to be addressed. One of the ways of addressing that would be through using influencers in those communities. We should be engaging with those communities to find out what is the most effective way of communicating.

Obviously, the other issues that arise are in relation to children. We talk a lot about the issues in schools at present in relation to Covid and what is the best thing to do about children, what is the best advice to give them, and what about sending them to school or not. For migrant workers who have children, there is the added issue about advice needing to get through to them, not only in relation to the importance of availing of the vaccine programmes, knowing where vaccines are available and knowing how to go about getting a vaccination, but also in relation to how to handle situations with children.

That relates to getting teenagers vaccinated but also what to do about younger children, keeping them off school when they have symptoms and so on. We must redouble the efforts here because we are not reaching those hard-to-reach communities, in spite of reasonable efforts. Those efforts must now be redoubled. However, the Government needs to find out from a cultural and ethnic perspective, what are the best ways of doing that and seeing what are the best platforms and ways of communicating. I strongly urge the Minister to do that.

There were 3,500 PCR tests available in the Dublin area last night at midnight. That is a huge number. At 7.30 a.m. there was not a single one left. In spite of the huge efforts that were made, we are not meeting the demand that is there. That means people do not have the opportunity to get tested and get advice, and nor do their immediate contacts. It also means that while we are seeing very high numbers every day, inevitably they are understating the situation because there is under-reporting due to the lack of availability of testing. That has to be addressed urgently.

At one point there were no tests available in the Minister's constituency and someone contacted their GP and got a test very quickly. That is great for that person but what exactly is the route to getting tests? If it is the case that you can get one if you go through a GP, that puts further pressure on GP practices. There needs to be clarity on the best way for people to go about accessing tests. Up to the last couple of days, it took at least a week for people to discover that the tests were only being loaded at midnight. Many people went without having tests because that was not known. Overall, there is a shortage.

Antigen testing is a huge issue. I raised it with the Taoiseach earlier today. I was concerned that he seemed to be very definitely rowing back from the commitment that had been given. The Minister said he thought the tests should be available free or heavily subsidised. Today, the Taoiseach did not exactly say that. There was considerable disappointment. We expected the announcement of a scheme after yesterday's Cabinet meeting. That did not happen. We are now told it might happen later this week or next week. However, the Taoiseach did not confirm that there would be a subsidised scheme and that concerns me. Will the Minister clarify that this evening?

Ventilation has been consistently ignored in spite of it being one of the single most important tools that people can use. There is need for very clear advice. The NHS has put out a campaign telling people to treat it as though it is smoke in a room. You open the windows to create ventilation and airflow. It is an airborne virus. People pick it up by breathing it in. The priority must be that as far as possible in indoor spaces, the air is kept clean. There is very little advice on that here - in fact it is rarely mentioned in public health messaging. That is a huge omission. I ask the Minister to address that.


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