Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Covid-19: New Measures: Statements
Verona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
In the first days of Covid, in February 2020, we were a country gripped by fear of a pandemic for which we were ill-prepared. The scenes from Europe alerted Government in Ireland that we did not have a plan to deal with a pandemic. The Government decided that to prevent the spread and allow it to prepare, time and money was needed. We locked down, private hospitals were taken over to ensure bed capacity, preparations commenced to put in place a gold standard test, trace and isolate system, and capacity was increased to ensure we could contain the virus, reduce spread and increase ICU capacity. The motto was "No stone would be left unturned".
In May 2020, we had no sight of a plan that the Government intended to reopen. We had to push on the floor of this House for one to be produced. In late October 2020, I raised concerns and questioned the capacity of the test, trace and isolate system. I was told it was more than adequate. Yet, three weeks after opening up in November, it collapsed, and just as Christmas dawned, the country went into the longest lockdown in the EU. In contrast, elsewhere in the EU, antigen testing was being widely used as part of an armoury to allow society to reopen. In March this year, the French insisted that every Irish driver entering France had to provide a clear antigen test to show a clear Covid status or risk being turned back. The French authorities gave the Irish Government a list of over 40 approved antigen tests that could be used. At the same time, NPHET continued to deny that antigen tests were reliable.
There was talk of a vaccine. It would be the Holy Grail. Despite numerous calls from eminent medics and Opposition Deputies, including me, to invoke antigen testing on a widespread basis as the vaccine on its own would not be enough, such was NPHET's disbelief that one of its members described antigen testing as snake oil. Needless to say, those requests fell on deaf ears. Twenty months into the pandemic, we are still a country gripped by fear of a pandemic for which we are ill-prepared. Twenty months since the Government first said it would implement a gold standard test, trace and isolate system, it has not done so. Today, in 21 counties people are unable to get a PCR test.
The Government said it would increase ICU capacity and implement widespread antigen testing; it did not do so. Public confidence in the Government's ability to do anything but lock down is waning because the most elementary of measures required to contain the virus and allow society to live with Covid are in the same place 20 months later. It has been clear to everyone that the vaccine was a bonus, not a panacea. There is no panacea. Medics predict that this virus will be with us for years. The Government's inability to devise a long-term strategy to allow us to live with Covid is now compromising the health of the nation, with the cancellation of critical transplant operations and almost all other elective surgeries.
I agree with Government that this is a surge. The question is what is it doing about it. In addition, the messaging on antigen testing between the Government and NPHET is now more confused and contradictory than ever. People believe that the Government's default position is lockdown. The Government will say it has no choice and that other countries have failed. We should not rely on the failure of others to defend ourselves. There were choices, but the Government did not make them. If we are to endure another lockdown, can we at least have a commitment from the Government that NPHET and the HSE will devise a long-term strategy, one which must ensure a resourcing of all of the aforementioned and the use of whatever supports are available in the armoury to allow us to live with Covid in the long term once and for all?
I am asking for a commitment from the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, that walk-in test centres will be set up immediately, especially in the 21 counties where PCR tests cannot be obtained. Councillor Jackser Owens, an independent councillor in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, called for this on Tuesday. I have endorsed his call. I am asking for a clear commitment from the Government that this will happen in order that people will be allowed to enjoy Christmas.