Tuesday, 7 July 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I congratulate the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, on his new post and genuinely wish him every success. Particularly with a Ministry such as Health, his success will be the success of the entire nation in keeping us all healthy. We do not need a reminder of how important our health service is or how well it has performed under the most difficult circumstances over the past months due to this awful pandemic. However, I remain deeply concerned about the provision, distribution and use of face coverings and face masks. I said it at the start of June when the previous Minister and the Government put a bit of energy behind the education on the use of face masks. It seemed that we might get something going and that the Government might really put its full force behind it, but that has not occurred. We were behind the curve then and we are even further behind now in July. I cannot find accurate figures for our face covering usage but Italy has nearly 84% face covering and Spain, where local authorities have been involved in the distribution and provision of face coverings for free, has around 64% or 65%. We are nowhere near that. I am concerned. Our transport workers are concerned. The National Bus and Rail Union, NBRU, has stated that its drivers are very worried that they are having people get on their bus at a time when the use of face masks is supposed to be mandatory but they do not have the means to enforce it. We are putting our transport workers on almost the same front line as our health workers. Our health workers are petrified and are calling my office and emailing me to say they are worried that not enough people are wearing face masks. This worry is gathering momentum and gathering steam. My big concern as we enter the autumn and winter months is that we may have a second wave or, more likely, super spreader events. They are likely to occur in shared transport, congregated settings, workplaces, pubs and clubs. That is where we need to get the message out.
The responsibility is on the Government and the Minister. Will the Minister commit the Government to a widespread distribution of face coverings to transport hubs, secondary schools, universities, congregated settings, workplaces and even to homes if necessary? Are there any plans for improved education initiatives along this line? I have received representations from eminent scientists and well respected television broadcasters who want to work with the Department of Health, and I have made representations to the Department, to put together educational television programmes. We may have had segments on current affairs shows but we have not had proper scientifically based programming to really hammer home how important it is for people to wear coverings to keep themselves, their families, vulnerable people and immunosuppressed people safe. The focus has been on getting the economy back up and running but there are people who are too scared to engage in their local economy, to go to a local restaurant or shop. Ireland will never get back on track until everyone feels confident enough to be able to engage in society and the economy and a big part of that, as well as the hand-washing, cough etiquette and physical distancing, is the use of face coverings. We are nowhere near where we need to be. Personal responsibility plays a big part but the Government needs to lead and the Minister is not leading at the moment.
I thank the Deputy for his kind words at the start. I really do hope we will all work together; it does not mean we always have to agree. Sorting out the healthcare system and making sure we get that care is something we all agree on. I am sure we will disagree on some of the hows and whens and so forth. I broadly agree with what the Deputy is saying. Like him, we listen to the doctors and the people who really know what they are talking about and they are saying, "face masks, face masks, face masks". They absolutely are. I want to agree with the broad sentiment as we all do in getting that message out.
The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, provided guidance on face coverings in its advice to Government on the roadmap for reopening business and society. I am just going to go through it here. The NPHET advice sets out circumstances under which wearing of a non-medical face mask, which I think we are both talking about, is recommended. These include using busy public transport and we have regulations coming forward very shortly to put that on a statutory basis. I share the Deputy's concern that it has to be mandatory. There has been incredible compliance across the country. Look at how many people today have downloaded the tracker app. There is incredible buy-in. When we have a clear message and strong leadership, I think we will see the solidarity. We are putting public transport on a statutory footing for exactly the issues the Deputy has raised. Other circumstances set out by NPHET are when in indoor public areas such as retail, places of worship, cinemas and so forth; when visiting the homes of those who are cocooning; by people who are being visited in their homes by those who are cocooning; all visitors to residential care facilities; and indoor work environments where it is difficult to maintain a 2 m distance. That is something we can do here and probably on a night like tonight could have done without the restricted seating in the Chamber.
It is important to emphasise that the wearing of face coverings is an additional hygiene measure. It does not take the place of all of the other things that have to be done as well such as respiratory etiquette, washing our hands and so forth. They need to be worn properly in line with guidance. We have to wash our hands before putting them on and taking them off. The current NPHET recommendation is that the focus should be on increasing compliance, which is exactly what we are talking about, within the current recommendations for use. On 15 June, as the Deputy mentioned, my predecessor, Deputy Harris, along with the then Tánaiste and the National Transport Authority, NTA, launched a national communications campaign which outlines best practice for using the masks. The campaign is communicating on who should wear the masks in what settings and how to wear and remove the face coverings correctly.
In response to the Deputy's point on the Government distributing face masks, at present we do not have a plan to distribute face masks for a variety of what I think are quite sensible reasons. It is something we can keep under review. I think the Deputy nailed the issue in his opening statement. It is about compliance and about saying that on public transport it is the law and has to be done, so that one cannot by law take public transport without it. We have to get the message home on compliance. I am certainly open to considering if we need another push and if there are other ways. I am very much looking at where it is and is not working so there may be some very targeted communications in that respect. The face coverings are readily available in a lot of different places such as retail outlets, supermarkets, convenience stores, petrol stations and pharmacies. We can get them online. There is guidance on how to make them on the HSE website. I welcome the increasing trend in the numbers reporting they are wearing the coverings. According to the public opinion tracking research, it is currently 45% so maybe that provides a benchmark.
I have a concern as we go into August and September. I imagine the schools will be back in some fashion, although that is a whole other debate. Society will feel like it is moving even further towards reopening and we may feel further away psychologically from the pandemic. I want to continue to hammer home the need for the Government to be ten steps ahead of where society is as we head into the winter. We are going to have a re-emergence of seasonal 'flu; we always do and it always puts massive pressure on our health system. If Covid comes back it will double or treble that pressure. I do not want to have to wear a face mask on public transport or in congregated settings for the rest of my life.
However we need to get through this winter season. Maybe in the future we will need a traffic light system where if flu levels or Covid levels reach a particular level in our acute hospitals, the public are warned that it is amber or red and people should wear their masks on public transport, etc. Perhaps that is where we will go in the future, but in winter 2020-21 we need to protect our transport workers. We need to protect all our workers. There are workers in shops who have been told by their bosses not to wear masks. That is happening and it should not. They are sitting ducks during their eight-hour shifts because anyone can walk in with or without a mask. They need to be protected and we need to hammer the message home to employers that if they want increased footfall in their stores they need to look after their workers and protect them. All this will help to protect society and prevent our front-line health workers from having to go through what they have been through in the last months again.
I agree. According to our public opinion tracking research, the level is now 45%. I imagine that is variable. It is probably variable by public transport compared with retail, or by types of retail or different workplaces and different parts of the country. It will be interesting to see whether there are some areas where there is a lot of compliance. The solidarity and uptake in the measures has been extraordinary. We have got the virus in Ireland down to a really low level, one of the lowest in Europe. That is down to great leadership from people such as Dr. Holohan and some extraordinary work from front-line workers, officials in the Department and the HSE, members of An Garda Síochána and people further afield, such as the people keeping the shops open and keeping us all fed. There is a lot of buy-in. We all understand how awful it will be if there is a big resurgence and we have to put more restrictions in place. The tracker app will help. The recommendation not to engage in foreign travel - and where such travel happens, to travel to green-list countries only - will help. I think there will be a lot of buy-in and there has been a lot of buy-in. There was a lot of reporting about serious infringements of social distancing in Dublin city but the vast majority of the country was compliant. The same will apply around face masks. I am very open to taking another look at whether it is necessary to push further. We will keep under review whether it needs a statutory basis for things other than public transport which we have gone with. If the Deputy wishes to sit down with me or the officials, or send in ideas for what he would like to see, I ask him to do so. I would be happy to engage with him on it. I agree that we have to get the message out there that face coverings are one important part of our arsenal in fighting this awful disease.