Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Covid-19: New Measures: Statements
Jim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
I am sharing time with Deputy Murnane O'Connor.
I remember 20 months ago, in March 2020, we were here debating the amendment to the Health Act 1947 in response to the pandemic that had just arrived on our shores. I know many other Members in the Chamber this evening were here when we were all congregated discussing the amendment of the Act and the emergency measures to be introduced to provide financial support in light of the closure of businesses that was taking place. If we had been told that 20 months later, we would still be talking about the pandemic in this Chamber, our hearts would have dropped. I do not think we expected it to go on for this length of time or that it would be so challenging. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had limited information. If we looked at it objectively, we would be able to look at history and the experience of the Spanish flu from 1918 to 1920. We would note that the Spanish flue went on for two years and there were four waves.
Although the pandemic has gone on longer than any of us would have hoped, we are in a stronger position than we were in March 2020. We now have a huge amount of information about the pandemic. There will not be a pandemic that has as much data prepared and recorded about it as this coronavirus pandemic of 2020 to 2022. We need to learn from those data and see what they have taught us. The first thing we learn from them is that this is a highly infectious and contagious disease. However, we know that Covid cases can be cut down through the imposition of restrictions. The more severe the restrictions, the more likely it is that we will be able to reduce Covid cases. However, experience has also taught us that while restrictions can be imposed quickly, it can take a long while to remove them. It is difficult to remove restrictions once they are imposed.
We have also learned that once restrictions are lifted, Covid cases will rise. If we look at any country around the world where there have been restrictions that have then been lifted, we will see that, inevitably, Covid cases will rise. Such has been the case. It applies especially to colder countries. When one looks at the statistics in respect of Europe, the countries in northern Europe, in particular, are going through this latest surge of the virus.
We also need to recognise that vaccination has transformed the position we were in last year to where we are today. We are now in a situation in which 93% of those eligible to be vaccinated in this country have been vaccinated. We can see the effects of that in the growth of Covid cases since we have lifted restrictions. There has been significant growth in Covid cases, but not the exponential growth we saw previously in the pandemic. We can also see, fortunately, that the number of deaths has reduced remarkably, which must be due to vaccination. We can also see the number of Covid cases going into hospital and ICU is not as great as it was prior to this wave. We are learning more and more information about the virus as we go on. We need to use that information carefully when we come to making decisions in respect of it.
We are now seeing people in Ireland reduce their social interactions and that is having a consequence on Covid cases. I am hopeful we are now going through a plateau period in Covid cases and we will subsequently see a reduction. However, it is important to emphasise there is nothing surprising in the fact that Covid cases have risen in recent months, as a result of having lifted restrictions. What is not inevitable is that they have to keep growing and, fortunately, because of the behaviour of Irish people, that growth has been reduced.
In terms of areas on which we need to have greater emphasis and concentration, we need to ensure we get the booster vaccines out as quickly as we can. We saw they were effective in reducing the wave that took place in Israel a number of months ago. We also need to be aware that when it comes to the booster programme, those who are immunocompromised have to be prioritised and I welcome the fact the Government has done so. The very elderly have now received their booster vaccines and the immunocompromised are in the process of receiving them.
The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, are supporters of antigen testing. I raised the matter in the Dáil in April. We have probably been too slow in coming to use antigen testing. That may have been because of the opposition of NPHET and the HSE, but it is now apparent we need to use it as a tool of assistance to us in our response to the pandemic.
A number of Deputies made statements about schools. Obviously, there is an issue of concern about schools. However, we also need to recognise that we cannot overstate the importance of children attending school to their educational and social development and, indeed, their general public health.
It is important to public health in this country for schools to be open and for children to continue to go to school. It is essential for their educational and social development. We saw what happened when schools were closed. Children suffered badly, particularly those with special educational needs.
Something that we probably do not mention sufficiently is that the ongoing anxiety and uncertainty related to the pandemic cause significant trauma for the people of this country. I do not think we recognise the public health implications that the anxiety caused by the pandemic is having for the general population, especially young people.