Dáil debates

Thursday, 16 December 2021

1:10 pm

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I will be sharing my time with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. We will take ten minutes each.

I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the situation regarding Covid-19 in Ireland, as well as the measures being taken to address the threats posed. I will come to Omicron shortly, but I would like to start on a more positive note. In spite of the very significant threat posed by the Delta variant, it is clear that the national effort being made over the last number of weeks has been working. The efforts of every single person, every family and every business have all been working. These have been in tandem with a big increase in testing, in PCR and antigen testing, a wider roll-out and use of the Covid-19 pass, the roll-out of flu vaccines, serial testing in nursing homes and many more measures.

It is because of all of these measures, but most importantly because of the efforts that people have been making, that the number of cases, which had been rising very rapidly, has levelled off. It is because of the successful roll-out of the booster programme as well as the important fact that people are looking to get the booster vaccine, that we have also recently seen a steady reduction in hospitalisations, including a steady reduction in the number of people in critical care.

This is important. I want to acknowledge, in short, that the national effort taken against the Delta variant has been working.

What has changed now is the emergence of the new Omicron variant. We know it is taking over from the Delta variant quickly. We know it is significantly more transmissible. To give colleagues a sense of this, last week the Omicron variant made up about 1% of all new cases in Ireland. By the weekend, it had gone from 1% to 5%. By Tuesday, we were reporting that 14% of new cases were the Omicron variant. I can confirm to the House that as of today, the Omicron variant makes up 27% of all new cases. We have therefore gone from 1% to 27% in approximately a week. We know that the variant is spreading rapidly. Yesterday, the UK recorded its highest number of cases in one day since the pandemic began. We know that the variant is going to result in an increase in cases in Ireland soon. The only question is how high that increase will be.

The advice I have so far is that vaccines provide significant protection against severe illness from the Omicron variant, which is important. However, they provide less protection against symptomatic infection than they do against the Delta variant. They provide significantly less protection against becoming symptomatic. The strong advice I have is that the booster critically provides a dramatic and an essential additional level of protection against the Omicron variant, both from becoming symptomatic and from becoming severely ill.

I urge every single person who is eligible for the booster vaccine to get it as a matter of urgency. This is particularly true for people in the high-risk categories. These groups, as defined by the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, are as follows: everyone aged 50 and above, anyone who has an underlying condition, all of our healthcare workers, all of our residents in long-term residential care and pregnant women.

The epidemiological situation both here and internationally, as well as the emerging evidence in relation to the Omicron variant, is being kept under close review. My Department, the HSE, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre and the National Virus Reference Laboratory, NVRL, are meeting on a regular basis to review the evolving situation. As we are all aware, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, is meeting today, right now in fact, to assess the current situation. The Government will of course consider any advice and analysis offered by NPHET.

Given the seriousness and the urgency of the threat posed by the Omicron variant, a number of actions have already been swiftly implemented. To protect our healthcare system and our economy, we have responded quickly with new travel measures, which colleagues will be aware of. As Deputies are also aware, the Government agreed to introduce a package of new public health measures, which took effect from 7 December. These are aimed at reducing the current levels of socialising across society to interrupt or indeed slow down the spread of Covid-19 in the community. We are not alone, of course. Many EU countries are introducing new Covid-19 restrictions. These include reintroducing measures, some of which we have retained here, such as the use of face masks and Covid-19 certificates. Others are having to go further, including for example a partial lockdown in the Netherlands and the introduction of stricter measures in Germany. It is fair to say that the situation across the EU remains fluid and uncertain.

Our national vaccination programme is one of the most important tools we have in responding to Covid-19 and, in this case, in responding to the new threat posed by the Omicron variant. We have a high level of vaccination by international standards. We should be proud of it as a nation. Critically, as well as having one of the highest levels of people vaccinated, we have always prioritised the most vulnerable first. This is important. In fact, Ireland has the highest percentage levels of vaccination anywhere in Europe among those who are over the age of 50, 60 and 70 and among the higher at-risk groups. This is welcome. It will have saved, and will continue to save, many lives and will keep many people safe.

We have taken the same approach with the booster programme, where we have prioritised those most at risk first. A large majority of these groups have now received a booster vaccine. Our aim is that by the end of the year, which is within the next two weeks, everyone in those groups defined by NIAC will have had a booster, will have an appointment for a booster or will have had an opportunity to go and get a booster at a walk-in clinic.

We are also doing well on the total number of people who have received the boosters, and not just at primary vaccination. Now, the figure is approximately 1.4 million people, or about a third of adults in the country. It puts Ireland third in the EU and it puts us eighth in the world in number of adults who have received a booster.

I want to take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks to everybody working right across the country, in every one of our constituencies and in every county, who has been working night and day to make this vaccine programme such a success.

However, as I am sure colleagues will agree, given the scale of the threat posed by the Omicron variant, given how fast it is moving and given just how much extra protection these boosters provide, we are going further. Last night, I announced a significant scaling up of the programme to bring us to in excess of 300,000 doses a week on average over the coming weeks. I would like to thank our healthcare workers, our GPs, our pharmacists, our service men and women in the Defence Forces and so many others right across the country. We have put out a national call over the last number of days and, by God, people have responded. I want to thank everybody for responding to that call to arms.

Capacity is being increased across the board, in the vaccine centres, in the GP surgeries and in the pharmacies. The vaccine centres will now be open from 8 a.m to 8 p.m., seven days a week. Additional staff are being deployed. Extra booths are being added where possible. Staff from the Defence Forces are coming in. We are redeploying staff from other parts of the health service. We are opening three new centres - one in Cork and two in Dublin.

While three quarters of GPs were already involved in the vaccine programme and doing incredibly valuable work, now nearly all of the 1,300 GP clinics across the country have agreed to get involved and to increase their capacity where they have the ability to do so. Obviously, they still have serious obligations to keep their patients well on non-Covid-19 issues.

The GPs will continue to prioritise the NIAC groups. However, as of today, they also now have the ability to move through all of their patient groups as the capacity allows. The number of pharmacies has increased immediately from 550 to 700. We are pushing to get up to 1,000 in the next two weeks. Critically, for GPs and pharmacies, last night I approved the waiving of the 15-minute post-vaccine wait on foot of a recommendation from NIAC. The GPs and the pharmacists asked us to waive that. Given the context of the urgency we have right now, it would help them, so that is in place as of today as well.

High-risk children will start to be vaccinated next week, initially through the paediatric hospitals, and then through the vaccine centres. The following week, from 28 December, the online portal will open for the parents of high-risk children to register them. It will be on a self-identification basis. The vaccines for this group will start on 3 January. From mid-January, the vaccine centres will open to other children and other adult cohorts. We all know that many parents have many questions. Comprehensive materials are being put up on the HSE website. Next week, those in their 40s will begin to receive appointments for the following week for vaccines to begin.

I see that I am out of time. I want to finish by saying it is an urgent situation. I would like to wish all my colleagues a happy Christmas. I acknowledge the broad political support there has been for the national effort and particularly for the vaccine programme. This is urgent and I want to thank all of my colleagues for everything they have done and continue to do. We need to this do together. I have no doubt that we will. I wish everyone a happy Christmas.


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