Tuesday, 15 December 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The report of the Business Committee of last week has been circulated and will be taken as read. Is the proposal for dealing with today's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to?
On Thursday's business, I wish to record again my objection to the very truncated debate that will take place on Covid-19. My colleague has already raised a very significant issue regarding indemnity. The fact is that the total allocation per Deputy is a sum of 54 seconds to discuss probably the most significant vaccination programme ever to take place in this State. We will now have a void in terms of the House sitting before the vaccination programme commences to allow anyone to throw out any information they may want to throw out without any vehicle to ask questions of the Government. The vaccination programme that has been published was published after the closing time for the submission of parliamentary questions. The Chief Whip has said the Minister will not answer questions in the House on Thursday night. The reality is that Dr. Ronan Glynn has come out publicly and stated that there are legitimate questions, yet Members of this House have no mechanism to ask any question of the Minister or hold the Government to account on any issue relating to this vaccination programme in advance of it commencing at the end of this year or early next year.
I again plead with the Taoiseach to facilitate a full and open debate on this issue here on Friday and for the Minister for Health to take legitimate questions from Members of this House on the issue of indemnity to the seven companies and perhaps more. The fact that we do not have a unique identifier will have huge implications for the implementation of that indemnity. There is also the fact that we do not have a no-fault compensation scheme and many other issues on which we all need clarity before this House rises for the Christmas recess.
I, too, am very concerned about this lack of debate and lack of discussion of the vaccine programme. I asked the Taoiseach about this some time ago and he dismissed me, as Deputy Connolly said, with a "get real". I am asking him to get real. The Rural Independent Group has 6.5 minutes to contribute to the debate on Thursday. Is that all we can get? Is that the meagre amount of time the Government is prepared to give us in a debate on this very serious issue? A no-fault compensation scheme is not even being discussed. The Taoiseach said he discussed it today at Cabinet and he is looking at some other report. This is farcical in the extreme, and that is why people out there are concerned. People such as Dr. Ronan Glynn are saying questions need to be answered. May we get any answers in here? Are we not supposed to be representatives of the people? Will we have any meaningful debate on the roll-out of this vaccine, which may well have commenced before we come back here on 13 January? It is a disgrace and, like everything else about the way the Government has handled Covid, so illogical. This is hiding from the Parliament and hiding from accountability. We are entitled to ask questions here and hold the Government to account. It is shameful. Six and a half minutes is an insult to the democratic process. To think that we could discuss this serious issue in six and a half minutes per group - there are six in our group - is a sham and a scam.
As the Ceann Comhairle will be aware, I objected at the Business Committee to the short amount of time available for the debate on the vaccine. I will add to the points that have already been made. This is a huge undertaking, and People Before Profit is very pleased that we have, or hope to have very soon, vaccines available. We have no doubt about their importance in trying to combat the pandemic, but significant measures need to be put in place to make this vaccine roll-out campaign a success. We need a major public health education campaign about the importance of vaccines and the roles they have played in the past. We need to address the huge deficit we have in our public health teams, which will be a part of the roll-out.
I had a very alarming conversation with one of our public health doctors who described in grim detail the lack of IT, the lack of a vaccine register, the chronic understaffing of our public health teams and the lack of integration of those teams with the rest of our health system. Because of the lack of resourcing and staffing of our public health teams, we will have to co-ordinate many different moving parts in a fragmented system to try to develop what should be a cohesive and integrated vaccine campaign.
There are therefore very many reasons to be concerned. There is also the issue of intellectual property rights in respect of the global roll-out of this vaccine to poor countries. If they do not get the vaccine, it could potentially undermine the efficacy of the vaccine everywhere. There are a lot of issues, more than I can enunciate in the short time available to me. We need a longer debate on this. The amount of time available to the small parties is ridiculous and unacceptable.
I agree with the other Deputies on vaccines. There should be more time for debate. There should be a questions and answers session as well in order that we can raise the issues we want. We should sit on Friday to facilitate that.
We should be doing the same with regard to Brexit. I raised the issue on the Order of Business last week. We want these issues to be dealt with in questions-and-answers format. Time has been allocated on Thursday evening for questions and answers, but it is more for statements and speeches. That is not what we need on Brexit. What we need are questions and answers. There is a range of issues that need to be raised. There are questions to be asked about the UK land bridge, what will happen in fisheries and whether there will be a deal. We have heard from the Government in terms of the supports it will give to businesses such as those in the agrifood sector in the case of a no-deal Brexit and that is welcome, but we have not heard anything about what supports will be provided to help low-income and medium-income households to cope with increased food prices. A national audit of Brexit readiness has been published in the UK. When will our national audit of Brexit readiness be published? There is a range of questions on this issue to which we want answers and scrutiny. I ask that the provision for statements on Brexit be amended to the questions-and-answers format we have been requesting. The House should sit on Friday to allocate more time to the issues of vaccines and Brexit.
The Labour Party too registered its dissent on the lack of time that has been allocated and the lack of a questions-and-answers session on Thursday. I put it to the Taoiseach - the Chief Whip, Deputy Chambers, is aware of it - that the Labour Party has put forward a proposal under Standing Orders to have a questions-and-answers session on the vaccine every week for the foreseeable future and at least until early in the new year. If that were agreed to, it would satisfy many of the concerns on this side of the House given the gravity and importance of the success of the vaccine programme.
There are serious issues relating to the vaccine and there are serious issues relating to trust and transparency. The comments of the Taoiseach in personalising things when a person such as me asks a Leaders' Question, the opportunity for which only comes up on a circular basis, are not helpful. I do not take it personally, but the thing is that the Taoiseach is ignoring the facts I raised and my colleagues are raising relating to the serious issues of how we get people to take the vaccination in sufficient numbers. We cannot do that if there is no trust. Trust is based on transparency and facts. I, as a Deputy, have absolutely no facts relating to the indemnity except that it is open-ended and is being given to at least six companies. That number is rising.
Only today, the Taoiseach has looked at the Meenan report. It has been on his desk for months. He has not told us for how long it has been sitting there, when it was completed, why it has not been published or why he has not acted on it. If he wishes for us to work with him and he wishes us to encourage people to take the vaccine, he should stop the snide comments, the joking and putting people down and let us deal with the issues and the facts.
I note that the record of the meeting of the Business Committee last Thursday indicates that almost all members of the Opposition who were present dissented on the issue of no time being allocated for questions on Brexit and the vaccine issue. Today at short notice we have been advised that the debates relating to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement that were scheduled have been pulled back. That has been welcomed by all members of the Opposition. It has saved two hours from the schedule today on the Government side and that is fine. I think the way to deal with the concerns that have been expressed is for the statements that are proposed for Thursday evening on the Covid-19 task force, the issue of vaccinations and Brexit to be taken on Friday. I propose that we now schedule a sitting for Friday and allow more time. The proposal for Thursday's business allocates 145 minutes each to Brexit and the Covid-19 task force. Instead, there should be two 220-minute debates, with time set aside for questions, and that business should be taken on Friday. The Government is packing everything into Thursday night. The Dáil is currently scheduled to sit until midnight on Thursday, but it will probably go on until 1 a.m. I suggest to the Taoiseach and the Chief Whip that the wise thing to do would be to take both sets of statements on Friday with a bit more time allocated to them and provision for questions and answers such that we can wrap up properly for the Christmas period having done our job effectively.
The least Deputies are entitled to is the courtesy of being allowed to make our points. Perhaps the most important thing we could do today is to agree to de-politicise the entire vaccine issue. Brian MacCraith, the chairman of the high-level task force in relation to the vaccination programme, will appear tomorrow before the Joint Committee on Health. The central theme of the strategy that will be launched today by the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, along with the Chief Medical Officer, the head of the HSE and the head of the task force is transparency, openness and also the principle of informed consent on behalf of citizens. Nothing will be hidden here in terms of the development of the vaccine or the issues pertaining to it. It is all about open transparency. In many ways, the personnel involved at the highest level are open to answering questions from anybody in whatever forum or forums. That is an important point I have to make today. It is not doing justice to the work that is being put into this. The strategy in terms of rolling out the vaccine was endorsed by Cabinet today for the first time. It is a comprehensive strategy. Likewise, the implementation plan is comprehensive.
I have referenced the indemnity issue on a number of occasions in the House. It was necessary and the advanced purchasing was necessary in terms of giving the firepower, if one likes, to develop the vaccines. This is a collective public welfare and well-being issue not just here, but across Europe and globally. What Deputies are witnessing is unique collaboration between the private sector, through the pharmaceutical companies, and the State. Governments do not produce vaccines. They do not have the manufacturing capacity to produce vaccines. That collaboration has resulted in an extraordinary acceleration of the vaccine development process through co-ordination and open books and so on in terms of the data, as well as the fact that the regulatory authorities have watched this from the very beginning so that they are in a position to make a decision more speedily than perhaps they would ordinarily have done. That has all been well documented and published. The only objective here is to get a safe vaccine available as quickly as possible. That is the only agenda. What other agenda could there be?
What other agenda could there be but to do that? In terms of holding a debate, as I stated, tomorrow the Joint Committee on Health will be dealing with the issue of vaccination. It is now expected that the European Medicines Agency will have an extraordinary general meeting on 21 December. That may bring forward the conditional market authorisation of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That means administration could start at some stage after that. I do not have a specific timeline here. The House will return in January. I have no issue at all, by the way, if the Dáil wishes to come back for any length of time it wishes. This issue is not going away in the first two weeks of January. I can assure the House of that. The Moderna vaccine is currently pencilled in for a hearing by the European Medicines Agency on 12 January.
As far as the Government is concerned, on Friday there is a meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council. It is an important meeting that is being held virtually and will involve quite a lot of Ministers. That is something that should go ahead, in my view. It is the second such meeting since the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, so quite a number of Ministers will not be available, including the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly.
Yes. On Brexit, I have to point out that there was a fairly extensive debate on Brexit in the context of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020. That involved various Departments and areas and several Ministers came before the House over a two-week period.
James Browne, Richard Bruton, Colm Burke, Dara Calleary, Joe Carey, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Jack Chambers, Niall Collins, Cormac Devlin, Alan Dillon, Alan Farrell, Norma Foley, Noel Grealish, Brendan Griffin, Seán Haughey, Emer Higgins, Micheál Martin, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Eoghan Murphy, Verona Murphy, Malcolm Noonan, Darragh O'Brien, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, Neale Richmond.
Chris Andrews, Richard Boyd Barrett, Sorca Clarke, Rose Conway-Walsh, Pearse Doherty, Gary Gannon, Marian Harkin, Alan Kelly, Martin Kenny, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Mary Lou McDonald, Mattie McGrath, Denise Mitchell, Denis Naughten, Cian O'Callaghan, Richard O'Donoghue, Eoin Ó Broin, Thomas Pringle, Duncan Smith, Mark Ward.