Wednesday, 10 February 2021
Covid-19: Motion [Private Members]
"That Dáil Éireann: notes that:— in March 2020, the Government published ‘Ireland’s National Action Plan in Response to Covid-19 (Coronavirus)’, and outlined proposed public health decisions and actions with the stated purpose of containing, delaying and mitigating the spread of the virus;further notes that:
— by 4th February, 2021, 3,586 people had died with Covid-19 in the State, with another 1,899 having died in Northern Ireland;
— case numbers are over 200,000 in the State and 105,000 in Northern Ireland, more than 4 per cent of the population of the island of Ireland;
— the island has experienced three waves of infection, with the most recent wave, post-Christmas, being the highest in terms of overall infection and mortality and imposing the greatest pressure on the health service;
— our hospitals have struggled greatly to deal with the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, with over 2,000 Covid-19 patients in hospital at a point in late January;
— the economy has been shut down three times, for almost six months over the past ten months, and the movements of people have been severely restricted;
— the Government’s ‘Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid19’, published in September 2020, has failed to cope with the most recent wave of infection and the emergence of more transmissible and lethal variants of the virus; and
— Ireland has an open border with Northern Ireland that should not be sealed, and essential travel must be allowed to continue on our island;— repeated surges in Covid-19 infections and deaths, and repeated lockdowns now demonstrate the failure of a strategy of containment, delay and mitigation;calls on the Government to:
— vaccination alone is not a ‘silver bullet’ solution in the short to medium-term, and will not by itself rule out the need for further lockdowns;
— a comprehensive strategy to eliminate community transmission of Covid-19 in Ireland, also known as a ‘Zero-Covid’ approach, which has been recommended by the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group, is now urgently required;
— new variants, due to mutation of the virus, present a significant risk and that it is therefore vital to take fullest advantage of our island status, and to significantly restrict all movement onto the island, or, in the absence of an all-island strategy, into
the State; and
— women are disproportionately bearing the burden from the Covid-19 pandemic, as has been laid out by the Covid Women’s Voices group; and— adopt a national aggressive suppression strategy for Covid-19, with the aim of eradicating community transmission and getting overall case numbers down to double digits, and then using aggressive testing and tracing against any outbreaks;
— prevent travellers from boarding aircraft or boats bound for Ireland in the absence of a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test;
— introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for all travellers arriving by sea and air into the State, with the exception of designated essential and logistics workers, with PCR testing at arrivals and a follow-up test after five days;
— adequately resource the testing and tracing system to increase capacity for contact tracing;
— develop, with the Northern Ireland authorities, a fully integrated cross-border contact tracing system;
— increase permanent capacity in our public hospitals, including by nationalising private hospital capacity where necessary, as called for by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation;
— target areas of significant risk of Covid-19 outbreaks for serial testing, including healthcare settings and other workplaces where a higher risk of infection exists;
— implement rapid antigen testing in congregated settings, where appropriate;
— roll out rapid antigen testing in the community, including in our schools when they reopen, and serial PCR testing in healthcare facilities to control outbreaks;
— ensure that only genuinely essential employees are compelled to work outside the home by empowering the Health and Safety Authority to survey and inspect workplaces with 20 or more employees;
— pay student nurses who are working in our hospitals at the health care assistant rate that they were previously paid during the first wave of the pandemic;
— implement a support package for the aviation and hospitality sectors, recognising that they will not be able to reopen until Covid-19 is aggressively suppressed and a significant proportion of the population are vaccinated;
— publish, on a daily basis, the figures on the total number of people vaccinated, with details on the percentage of different age groups and priority groups that have been vaccinated;
— recognise the importance of investing in our public health system, address the longstanding concerns about the inadequate resourcing of public health in Ireland and implement consultant-level contracts for public health doctors;
— assess the public health cost implications arising from the effects of ‘Long Covid’;
— recognise the disproportionate impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on women, and to address this by implementing measures recommended by the Covid Women’s Voices group;
— continue the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme until the end of 2021, and further commit to embedding such schemes into the labour market structure with important employment rights and other conditions attached as the scheme evolves;
— ensure that there is a moratorium on all evictions and rent increases until the economy has fully reopened, and call on banks to provide payment breaks to those in need, without charging any additional interest;
— proactively pursue a joint strategy and joint measures with the Northern Ireland Executive, in order to develop an all-island strategy to eliminate community transmission on the island;
— introduce Garda checks five kilometers from the border with Northern Ireland; and
— support the international campaign, supported by Oxfam and other organisations, for vaccines to be made available for all people, in all countries, free of charge as soon as possible."
I will share time with my good friend and colleague, Deputy Nash. Today, the Labour Party is bringing forward an extremely important motion. I would like the Minister and Government to listen to what we say collectively over the next two hours. This is not about being right or wrong or political point-scoring. It is about giving information and having a strategy that we fundamentally believe we must support and work towards together.
Living with Covid-19, the national strategy on which we supported the Government, has failed. The absence of an all-island or, indeed, a two-island approach has left us in need of a strategy. The position at the moment is that the Government will make some sort of pronouncement in two weeks’ time. I am not sure that is a strategy. Strategies have core areas and set out straight what we will do. I am not sure that having the Tánaiste and the Minister with responsibility for housing make statements publicly over the last 48 hours about what will potentially happen in two, four or six weeks’ time is helpful.
It certainly precedes any strategy. We do not have a strategy so I want the Minister to listen to what we say today and put it into a strategy.
We are advocating for a national aggressive suppression strategy, zero Covid by another name. We want to suppress the virus and ensure we get the case numbers down so low - to double digits - that it gives Ireland a chance of having a 2021 that is different from 2020. People are at the end of their tether and they need that chance. Once we have suppressed the virus, we should, with panzer-like speed, provide increased support for public health teams and tackle the virus in areas where it arises again. We need to eliminate community transmission as otherwise we will be in a fourth lockdown. The key test of whatever strategy the Government brings forward will be to prevent that happening.
We have so many unknowns. The vaccine is not the panacea many thought it would be late last year. It will take a considerable period of time to administer and even when it is administered - I wish the Minister the best in getting it out there and we will support him in any way we can - there are many unknowns regarding transmissibility and how the virus affects different people. The biggest issue we face is that of mutations and variants. There is a global issue with this virus whereby, if areas of the world are not vaccinated in a speedy way, variants and mutations will develop and find their way to Ireland. How will we ensure we protect our people? The real worry is that we will have a pandemic within a pandemic because of mutations. The public are ahead of us and they want us to address this issue once and for all.
There are a number of components to this strategy. The most important point is that we put forward a strategy that will have public confidence and that we will see through to get us to a point where we can live in some form of normality later on this year. Having the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Transport make a statement to the country in two weeks' time without details, objectives or being able to confidently predict where we are going is not what we need. There is too much public anxiety and helplessness. I have never seen so many people in a distressed state. I say that openly. This is different from last year. We need to give people hope and direction and deal with that anxiety.
The fundamental component of our strategy is travel. Some say that travel does not account for a huge number of cases but they are wrong. We also thought the B117 variant was not a big issue in Ireland. How did it get here and become the dominant strain? The reason was travel. We need to ensure we have mandatory quarantine of travellers. I cannot understand why, since last May, we have not put in place the infrastructure and legislation to do this. What has happened in the past nine months? Somebody needs to explain that to me because nothing has happened, and that is a failure. We also need to ensure that quarantine applies across the board. The Brazilian and South African variants are on tour. It does not matter where they are from because they could as easily come from any other destination. That is not the way the virus works. Fundamentally, we need to ensure that people who come here are quarantined and take polymerase chain reaction, PCR, tests on arrival, then five days after arrival and again later on. They can then move on.
What is the point in fining people going to airports and ports €500 and then wishing them the best for their holidays? This is driving people insane. We must have the power to tell people they are not going or to impose fines at a level that makes it not worth their while going.
The volume of people travelling is still incredible. If the Minister wants to bring in legislation next week, which I hope he will because the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, said so yesterday, we will facilitate it. We also need to ensure that we have serial testing, in particular, in healthcare settings, and that we have checks 5 km from the Border on all major routes and a significant amount of checks on all minor routes.
Furthermore, and this is something the Minister really needs to listen to, there are too many people who are not working from home. Compared to last year, the volume of traffic, again, this morning, is incredible. Through the Health and Safety Authority, will the Minister ensure that a survey be taken of all employers of more than 20 people as to how many of them are working from home and how many are not? The Minister would have full political support for doing it. It would be a good exercise. I ask the Minister to take that on board. Too many people are certainly working in environments where they could be working from home.
We also need to ensure that we have antigen testing where we cannot necessarily have PCR testing continuously; where there are large amounts of people. I have been advocating for this measure for six months. I have stood up inside the Chamber, brought out antigen tests and asked why they could not be used. In the past two months the European Commission has stated they should be used as part of a mix. Why are they not being used more across the board in order that we can track the virus and bring it down? It is a tool that has not been used enough.
Furthermore, when it comes to our public health teams, when we get this virus down they will have to be resourced to act panzer-like, to go in with the support of An Garda Síochána and whoever else, tackle the virus, which is where we need to get to as a country, and keep it down. They have to be resourced.
I saw a striking "RTÉ Investigates" programme last night on Tallaght Hospital and it showed how deeply in debt we are to all of our healthcare workers. I also listened intently to what the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, and other organisations had to say to the Joint Committee on Health. We must acknowledge this work in the near future. On 6 April last, I stated in the Dáil that we should give recognition to all of these workers in the form of some sort of payment. I recommended a once-off payment of €1,000. They are now looking for compensation for childcare costs, for other additional costs and for working longer hours. We are obliged as a country to do this and to acknowledge the efforts that they have made. The Minister also has to deal with the reality that student nurses are working through this pandemic and this was exemplified repeatedly in the programme broadcast last night. I ask the Minister to deal with those two issues. That will show that we really do support our healthcare workers and we recognise the work that they have done.
I ask the Minister to take on board what the Labour Party is proposing today. We need to suppress this virus and get it down to a point where we can give hope to people in this country. The tools to do so are outlined in our motion and I ask the Minister to bear them in mind.
The living with Covid plan that Government published last autumn is, quite frankly, redundant. In fact, it was dead on arrival. There is no shame in standing down that plan. In fact, in our view, it would be to the Government's credit. Given the trauma, tragedy and anxiety that the people of this country have gone through, in particular, in the past six weeks, citizens would prefer it were the Government to front up with them. Citizens know that a tweak here and a tweak there to a plan which has not survived contact with reality will not save lives, protect health or allow us to avoid a series of interminable lockdowns. This virulent virus cannot be reasoned with. That has been tried. It has failed. Most of all, it has cost lives.
We owe it to the people to tackle this deadly threat head on, change tack, take it by the scruff of the neck and mean it when we do. By adopting the kind of aggressive suppression strategy that the Labour Party proposes, the sacrifices that we make over the next while will be worth it in the long run. It will save lives, protect our health service and health workers, allow for a resumption of meaningful economic activity and minimise the risk of yo-yoing in and out of damaging shutdowns.
Nowhere has the Government's softly-softly and incoherent approach to dealing with this unprecedented threat to human life been more evident than in how it has managed non-essential travel into this jurisdiction from the North. Time and again since last April, I warned the Minister's predecessor and officials in his Department of the effect that unimpeded travel from the North to Border counties and beyond was having on the spread of the virus and the threat to life. I told the Department what action needed to be taken. The Government failed to heed those calls. It is a poor reflection on this Administration that it only elects to sign regulations now nigh on ten months later placing the same kinds of restriction on travel for visitors from the North that have been imposed on residents of the South since last March.
While we would have preferred it had an all-island strategy been agreed, I do not accept for one minute that everything that could have been done to nail down a North-South strategy has been done. Not for the first time in our history has the retreat to tribal politics been responsible for an ever-rising body count on this island. Covid-19 is set to claim even more lives than the Troubles claimed over a 40-year period. The incapability to put narrow interests aside and adopt a common strategy to save lives should be a source of great shame. Sadly, it is a case of business as usual for some actors on this island.
Especially in a time of crisis such as this, leadership and good government involve deploying all of the levers at our disposal to protect the interests of the people we represent. It pains me to say it but when decisive action has been required to suppress aggressively this unprecedented threat to lives and livelihoods, this Government has too often failed or been plain incapable of getting even the basics right. If we are to accept the realpolitikthat an all-island Covid-19 strategy is unattainable and if that route is exhausted, our attention must naturally turn to the prospect of an east-west, two-island strategy. On 22 January, the Taoiseach stated that such discussions with Prime Minister Johnson were at an "exploratory" and "embryonic" stage. I detected then that it was a half-hearted and anaemic commitment to pursuing such a strategy, but that strategy needs to be doggedly pursued. A degree of alignment with the UK on key issues such as travel, quarantine and the management of emerging variants should be paramount on the agenda at the highest level.
The pandemic represents two crises in one - we have a public health crisis and an economic crisis. We are all seared by the experience of the financial crash and its impact on the economy and people's lives. It is evident every day how the European Central Bank, ECB, and the International Monetary Fund, IMF, have learned from that experience. There are opportunities now. The medicine prescribed is different, for example, and the propitious fiscal conditions and the likelihood that low interest rates will remain a feature of the environment for some considerable time mean that, if the right approach and tools are used, a deep recession can be avoided. Ideologically, I am concerned that there are those at senior level in government and among other decision makers in the system who will want to fight this war with the outdated strategies and weapons that were used to deal with the previous crisis. The message from the IMF is clear - spend what we can and then spend some more.
The pandemic has wrought havoc on our younger citizens. A staggering 56% of under-24s are unemployed. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, has warned of the scarring effect. Whole economic sectors have been ravaged. Consumer habits have changed overnight. Many jobs will not come back. A major injection of investment and support is required in upskilling, training and further and higher education. We need a new deal for a new generation in order that our younger population is not left behind.
Supports like the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, have been a critical lifeline for workers and businesses. It is similar to one proposed by the Labour Party in the context of dealing with a potential no-deal Brexit a couple of short years ago. It would cost an additional €3.7 billion to extend the EWSS to the end of the year, but it would be money well spent.
It is less costly, as the Minister knows, to protect a job than to create a new one. There should be no cliff edge in ending many of the important lifelines available to businesses and workers at present.
Those on the employment wage subsidy scheme have, in many cases, seen their income drop. They are still at work but they have seen their incomes drop. Since last September, the Government has thrown them and hundreds of thousands of others on the pandemic unemployment payment at the mercy of their banks in terms of the mortgage difficulties they experience. The European Banking Authority states the Irish State can reintroduce a further mortgage moratorium to assist workers who have lost jobs and who are in reduced circumstances but the banking industry, aligned with the Department of Finance, tells us there is no demand. This is not how the Labour Party sees it and it is not our experience in our constituencies. If a moratorium is required then it is required now and it certainly will be required. With little prospect of a return to any kind of what we might term normal economic activity any time soon, structured mortgage breaks are absolutely required now.
Above all else, what citizens need now is a sense of hope, a sense of a new direction, a sense that lessons have been learned and a change of tack to tackle the virus head-on once and for all. As my colleague and our party leader, Deputy Alan Kelly, has said time and again, the people are way ahead of the politicians. They know the Government plan, for whatever it represented, is absolutely holed below the waterline. It is redundant and obsolete. It does not make sense. It has been brought into disrepute. It has absolutely no hope of succeeding. I appeal to the Minister to have the humility and grace to acknowledge a change of course is required and take the country in a different direction at this very challenging time. I am confident the people of this country would get behind him and get behind the Government if he were to commit to embarking on that journey before it is too late. It is not too late to change course. People need hope and a sense of vision that 2021 will be better than the catastrophic year experienced in 2020. They need hope of a better brighter future. The Minister needs to paint a picture of a brighter better post-pandemic Ireland. I appeal to him to support the motion and I ask the House to support the motion, to change direction and to tackle this unprecedented threat to the citizens of this country. It is required and it needs to be done now.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss Ireland's response to Covid-19 and I thank the Deputies in the Labour Party for tabling the motion. I have read it carefully and it contains many very good ideas, many of which are in line with approaches being taken or being considered by the Government at present. I look forward to an ongoing constructive debate throughout the House as we navigate our way through this very difficult global pandemic.
Before I continue, I would like to express my deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives to Covid-19 in the past year. It has been an incredibly difficult time for our country and it is important that we remember these family members, friends and colleagues.
I am sure all Members of the House will join me in paying tribute to our healthcare workers and, of course, the other front-line workers who have worked tirelessly since the beginning of this pandemic. Last night's "RTÉ Investigates" programme provided a stark insight into the enormous pressure that our healthcare workers are under, as well as the extraordinary professionalism and dedication they bring to bear on our behalf every day.
Ireland's National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, was established on 27 January last year, days before the WHO declared Covid-19 to be a public health emergency of international concern. Since then, Ireland's approach to Covid-19 has been informed by the guidance and evidence from the WHO, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and, obviously, advice from NPHET, together with close working relationships with colleagues throughout Europe. The Government remains absolutely determined in its resolve to tackle the spread of Covid-19. The comprehensive disease prevention and control strategy adopted seeks to prevent the virus spreading among our population to the greatest extent possible.
The aim of the strategy is to limit transmission of the virus through a range of public health measures, including our testing and tracing contact programme. The resilience and recovery plan is based on a public health approach to the pandemic, and aims to suppress the virus to the greatest extent possible while allowing society and businesses to operate as much as possible. It was designed to help people and organisations anticipate and prepare for the measures that might be needed to suppress the virus.
The pattern of disease in Ireland is broadly similar to what has been observed in many other European countries. Like most of Europe, Ireland began to experience increasing Covid-19 infection rates in late summer and into the autumn. We achieved reductions in these infections by escalating measures in line with the plan following advice from NPHET. Most recently, as we are all acutely aware, infections increased again, and this occurred at the same time as the circulation of a new variant, the so-called UK variant. Again, measures were escalated in line with the plan. As a result of public support and adherence to the measures, we now have the fastest-decreasing 14-day incidence of the disease in the EU and we are about mid-table in terms of our 14-day incidence. This is as a direct result of the efforts of people to stay at home, limit their contacts and follow the public health advice.
While we have seen reductions in hospitalisation and ICU admissions in tandem with reductions in our case numbers, we need to make further progress to reduce the mortality that, tragically and inevitably, goes with higher incidences. Our average daily case numbers are still around 1,000 cases and they need to fall very considerably further than that. The Covid vaccine programme is a vital part of the public health response, and roll-out of the vaccine programme has started well and is ramping up.
Given the international dimension to the virus, we have worked closely with European partners on our approach to the spread of the disease. We have moved from an advisory regime to a mandatory quarantine regime that involves enforcement measures and penal provisions. Detailed work on new travel measures, including the drafting of primary legislation to provide for designated quarantine facilities, is a priority. In addition, new regulations provide for mandatory home quarantine for arriving passengers.
Increasing capacity across the health and social care sector is a priority for Government and is fundamental to the response to Covid and ensuring the ongoing delivery of non-Covid care. Investment was provided as part of budget 2021 to fund an additional 1,146 acute beds, excluding ICU beds, on a permanent basis, and that is over and above the number available at the start of 2020. Efforts will also see increased capacity in primary and community care, which will reduce pressure on acute services and provide more healthcare options closer to people's homes, in line with the Sláintecare vision and plan. The strategic plan for critical care aims to bring permanent adult critical care capacity in Ireland to 321 by the end of this year and to 446 after that, which is in line with the recommendations of the health service capacity review on critical care. We have also secured agreement with private hospitals to provide up to 30% of their capacity, if required, to deal with surges in Covid-19.
Infection protection and control is, of course, of critical importance and significant additional funding is being provided to enhance the health services in infection prevention and control responses across acute and community services. As Deputies will be aware, we are targeting efforts at other sectors which are vulnerable to infection, including ongoing serial testing, now-weekly serial testing in residential care facilities and ongoing serial testing in food production facilities.
We recognise the need for consistent consideration of how best to support women through the pandemic, including our predominantly female health and social care workforce and, of course, formal and informal carers. Improving women's health is a priority, as laid out in the programme for Government. A big investment in women's health has been made for this year, including additional funding for maternity services, gynaecology services and actions arising from the women's health task force.
Cross-Government collaboration is essential to the response to Covid-19. We have worked together to introduce measures to mitigate the economic impact of Covid-19, including the pandemic unemployment payment and support for businesses, which includes businesses and pubs in rural areas. Some €221 million has been provided for the tourism sector and over €100 million in supports has been made available to date for Irish airlines and airports.
Finally, the Government is committed to close and productive co-operation with Northern Ireland to foster commonality in approach. This includes significant engagement in co-operation between the Chief Medical Officers and the two Departments of Health.
I wish to finish by acknowledging the widespread support for public health restrictions by the public and the solidarity shown by communities and citizens and residents right through the year. As we have so far, we will continue to get through this together.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:
— that like most of Europe, Ireland experienced increasing Covid-19 infection rates over the winter months and by December and January infection rates were accelerating rapidly with consequent increases in hospitalisation and mortality rates;
— that the Government, following advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), took decisive and proactive action and put in place Level 5 restrictions from 31st December, in order to reduce the rate of infection and to prevent mortality from the disease;
— the widespread commitment and continued adherence to these public health restrictions by the Irish public; and
— that health and social care workers have been at the forefront of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland since the beginning of the pandemic, and they have worked tirelessly to care for people who have become infected, while also delivering non-Covid services across the breadth of our health and social care services;
notes that the measures taken to address the third wave of the virus have:
— resulted in significant suppression of viral transmission, and acknowledging that in January Ireland had one of the highest incidences of the disease in Europe, Ireland is now suppressing this third wave of Covid-19 infection faster than any other country in Europe;
— following a surge in incidence, succeeded in reducing incidence, and hospitalisations, Intensive Care Unit admissions and mortality are now stabilising/declining; and
— enabled the successful ongoing roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, which, up to 3rd February, has resulted in over 200,000 Covid-19 vaccines administered, with 67,000 people fully vaccinated, having received their first and second doses and this is a key element of the ongoing public health response;
— that notwithstanding the roll-out of vaccines, the current public health protective measures like social distancing, face masks and respiratory etiquette will continue to be fundamental components of the approach to the prevention and mitigation of Covid-19; and
— that the current experience of countries across the 27 European Union (EU) Member States/United Kingdom and elsewhere, demonstrates the fragility of the epidemiological situation in Ireland and the threat still posed by the Covid-19 pandemic;
— the emergence of Covid-19 worldwide: — has taken a significant personal, societal and economic toll;
— has had a significant impact on the ongoing delivery of health and social care; and
— resulted in a very significant increased requirement for infection prevention and control (IPC) capacity across the health system; — these impacts are inextricably linked to the levels of transmission of Covid-19 in the community and underline the need for continued widespread compliance with public health guidelines as they evolve; and
— in light of the foregoing, the Government: — is implementing an extensive and comprehensive strategy to the Covid-19 pandemic, including a range of public health restrictions and investments in public health capacity in line with the national framework for living with Covid-19;
— has taken measures in best interest of public health, having regard also to maintaining economic and social activity as safely as possible; and
— has taken measures in best interest of public health, having regard also to maintaining economic and social activity as safely as possible; and
— has ensured that the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) is providing support across all sectors of the economy to support viable firms and encourage employment in the midst of these very challenging times; to date, subsidy payments of almost €2 billion have been made and Pay Related Social Insurance (PRSI) relief worth over €300 million has been granted to over 46,000 employers in respect of over 515,000 employees;
— has supported businesses via the Pandemic Stabilisation Recovery Fund (PSRF) and the Irish Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF), as part of the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA), has allocated €2 billion for deployment from the PSRF to support businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic and to invest in their recovery phase; in particular, welcomes the significant investment in the vaccine programme and the successful commencement to the roll-out of the programme starting with the most vulnerable groups;
further acknowledges that testing and contact tracing are key components of the response to the pandemic and recognises the robust testing strategy under the guidance of NPHET and the comprehensive testing and tracing operation that has been put in place by the Health Service Executive, and welcomes the significant investment provided to the testing and tracing programme, amounting to €445 million in 2021, and the ongoing recruitment of dedicated community swabbers and contact tracing staff;
further recognises the very significant ongoing serial testing programme in residential care facilities and food production facilities, and welcomes the Government commitment to continue the programme of serial testing in those most vulnerable settings;
further welcomes the ongoing consideration of all appropriate mechanisms to target testing to detect and mitigate the impact of the virus across the population including the adoption of appropriate testing technologies based on evidence and evaluation;
also acknowledges the important role of strong measures in relation to travel in the wider strategy for the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, and welcomes the requirement for passengers arriving to Ireland from overseas to present a Covid-19 passenger locator form and evidence of a negative pre-departure test taken within 72 hours of travel upon arrival;
— the work on new travel measures, including the drafting of primary legislation to provide for designated quarantine facilities, and the introduction of mandatory home quarantine for arriving passengers, with limited exemptions;
— the investment in hospital capacity, including €600 million in the Winter Plan 2020/2021 and Budget 2021 to provide for a permanent increase in hospital beds (excluding critical care beds) of 1,146 above the number in the system at the end of 2019;
— the Strategic Plan for Critical Care which aims to bring permanent adult critical care capacity in Ireland to 321 by the end of 2021, and to 446 in the long-term, in line with the recommendations of the Health Service Capacity Review on critical care; and
— significant additional funding in 2021 to enhance the health service’s IPC responses in an integrated way across acute and community services;
further notes the agreement with 18 private hospitals to provide up to 30 per cent of their capacity, if required, to deal with the current surge of Covid-19 cases;
acknowledges the need to strengthen and reform how public health medicine operates, including the introduction of a consultant-led public health model, and notes the commitment to significant investment in public health with the announcement of plans to double the current workforce by recruiting an additional 255 permanent staff, at an annual cost of over €17 million;
furthermore, recognises the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on specific groups and in particular:
— the significant contribution made by women to the Covid-19 response, and the disproportionate burden which the pandemic has placed on women;
— the need for consistent consideration of how best to support women throughout the pandemic, including our predominantly female health and social care workforce and informal and family carers, within the context of the overall response; and
— the work of the Women’s Health Taskforce, which is a priority in the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, and the additional funding allocated to the taskforce and key services for women, including maternity and gynaecology services, in Budget 2021;
— that Covid-19 is a global challenge requiring close international collaboration and commits to continue the close and productive cooperation with Northern Ireland to foster commonality in approaches, where possible, in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic;
— that the Government is negotiating its participation and contribution to Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) as part of a Team Europe effort following the EU joint engagement to mobilise resources in a coherent and efficient way in the context of the EU Global Response to coronavirus and welcomes that Team Europe’s engagement will accelerate global efforts to bring the pandemic under control and scale up distribution of a successful vaccine as soon as it becomes available;
— that Covid-19 requires close collaboration across Government and across all sectors and welcomes a record level of funding for tourism of just under €221 million that has been provided, and over €100 million in support that has already been made available under schemes for Irish airlines and airports; and
— the advice to work from home where possible;
— the Government will continue to monitor the measures that have been put in place in response to the economic challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, to support viable firms and encourage employment, including the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme; and
— regular assessments will continue to be carried out to determine whether it is necessary to adjust such schemes to better fulfil the objectives of providing the necessary stimulus to the economy so as to mitigate the effects on the economy of Covid-19, or to facilitate the efficient use of Exchequer resources and protect the public finances;
further again, acknowledges the widespread support and adherence to public health restrictions by the public and the solidarity shown by communities and citizens, in line with the Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19;
recognises the reduction in the disease incidence, with Ireland suppressing this third wave of Covid-19 infection faster than any other country in Europe and the need to continue to maintain public health protective measures to minimise the spread of Covid-19;
welcomes the protective measures in place to ensure ongoing provision of healthcare including €4 billion to protect, reform and expand health and social care services and implement universal healthcare in Budget 2021;
highlights the measures put in place to mitigate the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment and supports for businesses, including businesses and pubs in rural areas;
emphasises the measures put in place to protect the elderly, vulnerable groups and those experiencing loneliness and social isolation, including increased funding for mental health services, extra counselling supports, home-help supports, and the expert panel on long-term residential care; and
strongly values the contribution of health and social care workers at the forefront of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
First, I commend the Labour Party on bringing forward this motion. I join the Minister in extending my solidarity to all the families of those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 in recent months and especially in the past month, when the number of deaths has been very high.
There is no doubt whatever that we need a change in approach. Sinn Féin supports a maximum suppression strategy. We want to get to a point where we get the numbers down as low as we possibly can and thereafter to keep them low. If we are honest, we have failed in that area in the past when the investments needed were not made in the appropriate responses and measures when numbers were brought low by huge efforts by people to abide by public health restrictions, which are really tough on families, workers and businesses. The inaction of the Government and the failure to invest in test and trace, as well as the failure to embrace all-island responses or to ensure that we have sufficient checks at ports and airports have resulted in this State losing control of the virus, not because of anything the public has done but because the Government has not got its house in order.
A strategy that is fit for purpose must be one that is underpinned by the public health advice. It has to be underpinned by a robust test and trace system that can be used to hunt down the virus when the numbers are low and stay ahead of the virus, and which really achieves the first principles given to us by the World Health Organization at the very start of the pandemic, namely, test, trace, isolate, and now vaccinate. We have to get the all-island responses right and get supports, measures and controls and checks at ports and airports right. The reality is that in most of these areas, we simply have not done so.
I wish to address some issues that arose over the past 24 hours. It is really important that lessons are learned. The further kite-flying by the Tánaiste yesterday is an absolute disgrace. No lessons at all are being learned, and the Government is pushing back against public health advice, again trying to blame others for the fact that this State, including the Minister for Transport, the Minister present in his capacity as Minister for Health and the Government, has never done its job in relation to travel. The Government has been warned time and again by public health officials that the discretionary elements of travel need to be removed and quarantine needs to be mandatory. The Minister's opening statement stated the Government is moving from an advisory regime to a mandatory quarantine regime but that is not true. What he is proposing cannot be enforced and unless it is mandatory quarantine in hotels for all non-essential travellers, then we can forget about it, it is not going to work. The Minister has tripped himself up in interviews, as has the Taoiseach, in trying to explain the difference between self-isolation and home quarantining when the reality of the need to get those restrictions right is staring them in the face and has been for some time.
The kite-flying from the Tánaiste yesterday again, in competition with senior Ministers in Fianna Fáil, on when certain elements in the economy will re-open is another lesson that has not been learned. It is not what people want to hear. They want a clear plan and a clear strategy that is based on the public health advice. A strong message must be sent to the Government to stop the kite-flying and please stop the push-back against public health advice.
The Government should do its job and make sure that all of the protections and measures that need to be in place are put in place when people are making sacrifices. These public health restrictions that impact on workers, families and businesses are very challenging. Everybody accepts that. However, they become even more challenging when people see half-baked measures from the Government, which is not doing what it should be doing, not living up to its side of the bargain and, worse, kite-flying and pushing back against public health advice. Please, stop.
I want to make a brief point about what is happening in healthcare and the comments made by the healthcare trade unions yesterday. We heard of burnout and low morale from front-line healthcare workers, which all of us can understand given that they have been operating with one hand tied behind their backs. There is no serial testing of front-line workers in hospitals. What in God's name is going on if we are not even doing serial testing in hospitals except when there are outbreaks? How are we using testing and tracing to hunt down this virus? There is a battle every day for personal protective equipment, PPE. That is what the healthcare unions are telling us. The vaccine roll-out is haphazard in that it was not following the data that the Department has in respect of the highest rates of prevalence of the disease. Finally, we heard about issues relating to childcare.
The Minister must resolve these problems. He needs to get his act together. The Government needs to get its act together. It is clear that the strategy is not working. It is not working because of this push back time and again and because the Government has not made the investments where they need to be made and people are feeling very let down.
I will go back to the Labour speakers. It was my mistake. I did not put on my glasses when I was reading the list and I was waiting for Deputy Cullinane to finish speaking. It was my fault. We have stopped the clock for Sinn Féin speakers and I will come back to them when it is their turn. With apologies, I am going back to the Labour speakers, Deputies Ó Ríordáin and Howlin.
If the Minister succeeds in his endeavour to drive down the virus and rid this land of Covid-19, we will all succeed and we can all go back to the type of human relationships and interactions all of us have been sorely missing. It is now February. In January, we lost more than 1,000 people to this virus. We had more infections in January than we had in 2020 so clearly a new strategy is needed. Unfortunately, I do not get from the Minister's contribution that he understands the sense of the need for a new strategy.
Over the weekend, the Taoiseach acknowledged that mistakes had been made in December. It is fair to acknowledge also that mistakes were made across this Chamber in December in terms of what people were calling for and what the Government did. If politicians learn from those situations, that is good for politics. I can understand that the Minister gets frustrated when people in his party are peddling misinformation about Monday-to-Friday-only vaccinations. I would say that is deeply frustrating. I would say it is also frustrating when we hear people from the Opposition suggesting that we are at the bottom of the EU table in terms of vaccinations, which is also untrue.
I appreciate that the Minister is working within a level of misinformation. However, there are things within the Government's control that are making matters much worse. What happened yesterday was a classic example of that. We had a leak, again, from the Department of Education about the potential reopening of schools. I am sure this information will have been of interest to teachers, special needs assistants and parents who will be dying to know more about the potential reopening. It is literally days since 1,000 deaths were announced. We had more infections in January than we in the entirety of 2020. That was another leak from the Department of Education, the same Department that cannot seem to get anything over the line without making an announcement about it or leaking about it, which again makes the reopening of schools more difficult.
Then the Minister for beer gardens comes out and furthers his personal agenda, again making things worse by talking about potentially reopening industry and having family gatherings. This in no way recognises the fact that we are in the teeth of a body count. The Government's legislation on travel next week will apparently reference two countries. This is its great move after nine months of recommendations and calls from across this House. The UK is introducing legislation that deals with 33 countries, so why are we not going to where the UK is now? Why are we always behind? Why do we not become a European leader when it comes to suppressing the virus? There is genuinely no point in giving people hope about beer gardens, family gatherings and schools reopening if we are just going to go back and lock down again in May. People are going around the twist and finding it extremely difficult to function. We cannot give with one hand and take away with the other.
Unless we are serious about driving down this virus as far as it can go, we will just get into a yo-yo effect of reopening, then closing and doing it again and again. Then we will see new variants requiring a whole new strategy. This is not working and it has not worked so that strategy must be stopped. The elements in the control of the Government must be controlled. There must be no more leaks from Departments or self-indulgent press conferences from the Tánaiste, who is clearly not in line with the national effort and is again making the work we are trying to share in this House more difficult.
I know the Labour Party thought long and hard about tabling this motion. There is almost a weariness in this House, as there is across the nation, about this terrible disease that has taken such a terrible toll on all of us. We have had a shockingly dreadful January, particularly for those who have lost loved ones. There has been a terrible rate of infection and death. We must ask questions and provide some answers as to why, after ten months of the pandemic, we arrived at our lowest and most devastating point.
In my judgment and that of the Labour Party we need a new approach and very clear signalling and messaging, as my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, has said. The mixed messaging is driving people bonkers when we need to be very clear. We want to work in concert with the Government and have a clarity of focus, strategy and messaging.
I will deal with two points in the few minutes I have. This pandemic has affected every man, woman and child in our nation. We will not truly know the full extent of the impact until well after this pandemic ends, including the degree of harm and things not done, such as screenings or identification of other health matters. They will come upon us and we must prepare for them now. For the very young we must think of the psychological impact and loss of education, and that may never be overcome. For older people, there is the sheer anxiety of fear of death and contact with loved ones as a vector for death. We have never lived with that before and we must prepare ourselves in a psychological way for it.
I will deal specifically with the issues faced by women. As international studies, the World Health Organization and women's organisations have recognised, women are uniquely affected and in a greater way by this pandemic than any other cohort. For example, there is the case of domestic violence.
I commend An Garda Síochána on its efforts. It has gone well beyond what anybody could have asked for in respect of its efforts to address the issue. Gardaí have been visible and proactive.
I thank the NGOs in the women's sector, including the domestic violence NGOs, the rape crisis centres and the women's refuges. They have stepped up to the plate. However, despite their best and heroic efforts, there is, unfortunately, a sea of hidden abuse that we will see after this pandemic ends. As we know, women in the workforce constitute the majority of front-line healthcare workers. They are nurses in our hospitals, carers and home carers. They have been carrying an extraordinary burden. They are now at the end of their tether. They are at their wits' end. They need recognition, and more than that, they need resources and help. We need to target those and set out exactly what we are going to do for them.
The next category of the workforce that we are going to ask step back is teachers. Again, this is a predominantly female profession. I refer to issues such as childcare provision. Why can we not address these issues as other countries have done? We have not done that well. We must also prepare for the aftermath of the pandemic, for example, the lack of screening.
My final point concerns international solidarity. We must recognise that until all our people are vaccinated - and by that, I mean all the people on this planet - none of us will be immune, safe or invulnerable. We are vulnerable to mutations of this awful virus as long as vaccination is not universal. We must ensure that we subscribe and advocate, not only providing funding but also the capacity to provide the vaccines to the scores of Third World countries which have not even started a vaccination programme yet. Their front-line workers are expected to walk into danger without that. We have much to do. We have set out an agenda. I hope that today is the start of a new approach of clarity, vision and united determination to defeat this virus finally, and to prepare for its aftermath.
The first big failure in tackling this virus was the failure to keep ahead of it when the numbers were low. The Government never got test and trace right. It was never used to full effect. It did not get travel checks right, and it certainly did not get the all-Island response right. Most people outside of government believe that a maximum suppression strategy is the only way to crush this virus. The key ingredients to achieve suppression are test, trace, isolate and vaccinate. Test controls at airports, mandatory quarantine for all incoming travellers and a strong, all-island approach are required.
We also need to know what will happen come 5 March 2021 for the rest of the year. What we do not need are contradictory messages from Ministers or half-baked measures that do not go far enough. The Government seems to add to the confusion and anxiety on a weekly basis. With all the confusion and contradictory messages, it is constantly adding to people's anxiety. All the ingredients for a maximum suppression strategy have always been there. The failure has been down to the lack of capacity and the failure of the Government to prepare for any possible resurgence in the virus.
I accept that the supply of vaccines is outside of the Government's control but many questions are being asked about the process, and no answers are coming from the Minister or the Government. There are 2,500 pharmacists. There has been little or no communication with them. They are supposed to be involved in the roll-out of the vaccines for the over 70s. They have still no idea what part they are going to play in this process. In respect of the ICT system, work only started on it a month ago. It should have been started six months ago. It was left until the last minute. Why was work not started on that during the summer? How can we register people without having a proper ICT system in place?
The health committee was told yesterday that there are serious problems with the initial roll-out. We do not even know if it will be fit for purpose. We do not know where the 15 mass vaccination centres will be located. We have no idea how many staff will be required. Even front-line staff do not know what is happening. For example, there are hundreds of front-line staff at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda who still have not got their vaccinations. This is the sort of Government incoherence we are dealing with and it is not fair. It certainly is not fair on front-line staff.
From the get-go, the Government never got travel right. The guidance in this regard was always just advisory and there was never any enforcement. The discretionary element meant it was obvious that the strategy was never going to work. We need mass testing and quarantining for all non-essential travel. People have been saying that for months. We need a crystal-clear definition of essential travel and essential work. Back in May, when NPHET recommended mandatory quarantine, the Tánaiste at the time openly challenged the soundness of its advice. Here we are now with the current rate of infections. There should be testing of incoming passengers prior to arrival and five days afterwards. That will send out a clear message. As it stands, introducing mandatory quarantining will take weeks.
The Minister for Health has been on the back foot all along on these issues. Again, it is down to incoherence and his failure to implement a clear maximum suppression strategy to crush this virus. That goes back to the Minister and the Government. He needs to get his act together and set out a clear plan to end the confusion and anxiety.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. Our party supports maximum suppression, as outlined by NPHET. We want to continue to work with NPHET to ensure that we crush the virus and roll out the vaccines in a timely and efficient manner. We have worked hard for the implementation of a strategy of strong restrictions underpinned by a fast track and trace process. At times, things could have been done better and we have had our disagreements with the Minister and the Government on some of the decisions taken.
We know it is difficult but there is a lot more that can be done to deal with the pandemic. We have long called for greater cross-Border co-operation between the Governments, North and South. We want an all-Ireland approach to deal with the pandemic. It has been a great disappointment to see the lack of ambition by the Government to engage proactively with its counterpart in the North. Just last week, the health committee in the North heard that the assembly's Department of Health has yet to receive a formal request for data sharing from the Government. That is disappointing and it needs to be corrected. The position taken by the DUP in blocking Covid checks and quarantine at the ports in the North has caused difficulties. We need to keep lobbying that party, both the Government and everyone else, to change its position.
The virus does not recognise borders and nor should our strategy. We need sensible and practical solutions to the ongoing challenges around international travel. The Government has been foot dragging on this issue. The international travel restrictions it has introduced do not go far enough. It is a half measure to ask people to self-quarantine and for gardaí to call around to houses and apartments and knock on doors to check whether people are at home. Imposing restrictions on travellers from just two countries is hopeless. The Government needs to understand that. It seems to be in a world of make believe. We are calling for a mandatory hotel quarantine regime for all inbound air travellers that is enforceable and makes good use of limited resources. Of course we need a waiver for workers such as hauliers, health workers, engineers etc., who are essential, once they have the required documentation.
I will conclude by mentioning front-line workers, who are exhausted. They are playing catch-up with waiting lists and working excess hours. They have had to deal with appalling situations over the past 11 months. They account for more than half the cases of Covid. I am calling on the Minister and the Government to address these concerns within the health sector, the roll-out of the vaccine and the restrictions that are needed now. We need to crush this virus.
Aggressive suppression was never the plan of the Government. We saw it welcome flights full of rugby fans from Italy's inferno and global guests for St. Patrick's Day and how there was not even a leaflet at the airport for people returning from Cheltenham.
Last summer, fresh from telling billionaire tax exiles they were grand here and would not be outstaying their welcome, the Government sent inspectors to the airport not to check who was arriving but to check whether there was anyone on small State payments leaving. From the outset, wealth has been the motivation, not health. From closing down too early, opening up too quickly and doing too little too late in respect of testing and tracing to mandatory quarantine 18 months on, we are still thinking about it. Putting private wealth over public health is a symptom of the social disease sweeping old politics with its myopia and selfishness.
In 2019, the World Health Organization reported that 1.4 million people died of tuberculosis. Luckily for us in the developed world, they had the decency to keep it in their countries and die out of sight. Then came Covid, which hit us head-on. I said to the Minister at Christmas that the only reason the developed world cares about Covid is because it is a threat to our economies. Some of our front-line workers have yet to receive a first vaccine, yet family members or the celebrity in the room got the spare doses. In poorer countries, front-line workers are battling the virus and its variants and it is a case of nothing now and nothing ahead. We are all in this together, the Minister says, but he has not actually grasped that we really are. We are letting in the variants while the UK is reporting variants of concern on top of other variants of concern.
Sinn Féin has advocated for aggressive suppression from the start. I am proud we supported the No Profit on Pandemic EU citizens' initiative. I call on the Government to use Ireland's seat on the UN Security Council to make the world secure and to stand up for our shared humanity by championing early access to free vaccinations for our brothers and sisters in poorer parts of the world.
Yesterday, the Tories announced hotel quarantine for people travelling from 33 countries but we are still talking about only two. Imagine being shown up by the Tories. The embarrassment. We need an all-island strategy. We need mandatory hotel quarantine and sharing of data on passengers from the North. The Tánaiste stated yesterday that there are plans to launch a refreshed Living with Covid plan. The families of the 3,752 dead and dying would call that phrase deluded, insensitive and tone deaf. Facing into a crisis - we are a year into it now - all actions seemed too drastic. Afterwards, as we count the dead, they will all be seen to have been too inadequate. Chase this virus and dig the firebreaks in front of it; aggressive suppression is a no-brainer.
I thank the Labour Party for tabling this motion. It covers a comprehensive number of detailed issues, many of which have been spoken about before in this House. Various proposals have already been discussed. I would like to focus on a few issues. This motion calls for student nurses to be paid. This is of the utmost necessity. What is needed is a sense of urgency to protect the well-being of all front-line workers, financially and in every other way possible. I spoke on the Sinn Féin motion calling for pay for student nurses and midwives two weeks ago. Notably, the Government did not oppose it. What has happened since then? There cannot be any more posturing or delays. It is wrong to place student nurses on the front line to work in this pandemic and not pay them for such a high risk. Knowing the conditions they face, it is reprehensible when a small financial gesture could at least relieve some of their financial pressures.
I recently tabled parliamentary questions on PPE for front-line staff. In particular, I asked about access to and the requirement for the FFP2 masks that the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation is calling for. I ask the Minister to give his response today or to kindly revert to me. This is an urgent matter and addressing it would have a genuine impact on transmission levels in hospitals. When a leading medical union is calling for practical, sensible measures, it should be accommodated.
This motion also touches on the mandatory quarantine measures. This is an issue in respect of which the Government has got it wrong. Our current Covid-19 restrictions on international travel are, by definition, impossible to implement. The only way to ensure and enforce quarantine requirements is with a mandatory hotel quarantine regime, with exemptions for essential travel. The same quarantine requirements that apply at Dublin Airport should apply at Belfast International Airport. There is no logical reason real-time sharing of incoming passenger data cannot be agreed to for the common good. The public is ahead of the Government again on this. When the Government is asking people to make a sacrifice and stay inside, and when they have practically been in lockdown since last March, it is reasonable for people to expect the Government to be able to get over the logistical challenges and implement a proper quarantine regime of the kind that has been introduced seamlessly in other jurisdictions.
This brings me on to my final point, which is the absolute importance of a common, beneficial approach to an all-Ireland alliance, based on saving lives and eradicating the virus. The first task at hand is to establish which Minister and Department will take responsibility for driving this approach. An all-Ireland approach needs to be mindful and recognise cross-border communities. There are people who are elected to and serve in these Houses who cross the so-called Border to do their work and an all-Ireland strategy needs to be cognisant of that. I urge colleagues to listen and take on board some of the contributions this morning and, most importantly, to listen to the people of this country who have sacrificed so much and deserve far better than the mismanagement and drip-feed communications they are getting from the Government.
One challenge we are facing right now when it comes to Covid suppression strategy is the lack of clear and determined decision-making. Kite-flying is all we seem to be getting.
Like many others present, I find it frustrating to be given fake answers to questions I submit on the roll-out of the vaccine and on quarantine or to be told that urgent details are yet to be decided. When seeking clarity on the various tiers in the vaccination programme, I too often have been issued with a standard response that does not relate to my question. For example, group 6 is still undefined. Childcare workers were said to be in this group, and then they were not. Carers are dispersed through various groups and people with disabilities are also uncertain about where they are included. When I submitted a parliamentary question asking whether pharmacist assistants will be vaccinated alongside pharmacists in the roll-out, all I got was a stock response with no reference to pharmacists at all. Instead, I was told to look at the vaccine allocation strategy on the gov.iewebsite.
Recently, I asked if travellers coming into the country who have to restrict their movements will be provided with secure transport from their arrival point to their residence or accommodation so as not to risk spreading Covid-19 on public transport. The response I received was that "The implementation of Government measures concerning international travel quarantine and supporting regulations are being worked through". That means more delay.
Sinn Féin has been consistent in advocating a maximum suppression strategy for Covid-19. We need to crush this virus and keep the numbers down. We would aim to keep numbers low while facilitating, where possible, the reopening of schools and aspects of the economy, all guided by speedy and full implementation of public health advice. Socially, we have consistently pressed for proper supports for families and businesses and moratoriums for mortgage and rent payers. We advocate a robust trace, isolate and vaccination programme, which the Government has failed to use to effectively hunt down the virus. There is no serial testing in hospitals until after the outbreak.
I welcome this motion, the essential elements of which amount to a zero Covid strategy. Whether people call it a maximum suppression strategy or an aggressive suppression strategy, it amounts to the same. It is about driving down the figures of the virus, ideally to single digits, while having a proper testing and tracing system that is capable of hunting down the virus, jumping on any outbreak, finding out where it came from and dealing with it. Critically, it also involves having clear controls on the importation of the virus, something we have never had in this country.
I welcome the fact that it now seems that all the parties in opposition are in favour of mandatory hotel quarantining. Some of us have been looking for this for quite a while. I acknowledge Solidarity-People Before Profit in this regard. We in the Social Democrats have been pursuing a mandatory quarantining system for quite some time. Now that Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and many Independent Members and Independent groups are supporting that measure, I hope the strong voice coming from across the Opposition might be heard by the Government. There is the potential to do something good and effective in this country by all parties in this Dáil working together on a clear strategy, which has to be a zero Covid strategy. Nothing else will work. It is infuriating to hear the Taoiseach talking all the time about being "cautious" and "conservative".
Those two terms are being used frequently. That is the last thing we need in this country in order to respond to Covid. We need our political leaders in government to be brave and courageous and to pursue a clear strategy that gives us the best chance of success. We need to do what works. What has been done over the past 11 months has not worked and we need to be clear about that. The Government needs to face up to the fact that that has not worked and a new approach needs to be taken urgently. The essential element of that new approach has to relate to travel and has to be about having strict controls so that we do not continue to import the virus.
Looking back over the past 11 months, we know that the virus came from China initially. It then came here as a result of flights for a rugby match from Italy that should have been cancelled at the time, but no decision was taken on that. It then came from Cheltenham, in respect of which no decision was taken and no leadership provided. During the summer, there was no leadership on travel, so we got the Spanish variant, which accounted for more than 60% of cases here by September. At Christmas, there was no leadership on travel, so we imported the UK variant. This will continue, time and again, unless there is a change in the strategy. That is the fundamental point that the Minister, along with everybody else, does not seem to accept.
It is infuriating to hear the Tánaiste musing about parts of the country or of the economy reopening. This is fantasy stuff. Unless we change the strategy and pursue a rigorous zero Covid strategy, we face rolling lockdowns at least to the end of this year and potentially further. The reason that now, at this point, a clear zero Covid strategy is so essential is that there are threats from these new variants, namely, the South African and Brazilian variants, and who knows what other variants with what other impacts will arise. It is inevitable that there will be other variants. We need a clear strategy, therefore, to give ourselves the best chance of surviving all of that, because it is about surviving at this stage, and of being able to get to a place where at least we can look forward to some normality and some opening up of the country, if only at a domestic level, and a zero Covid strategy gives us the best opportunity for that.
That issue of travel is, thankfully, now coming to the fore and people are coming to the conclusion that we need mandatory hotel quarantining. I have a concern about who is in charge of travel in this country. I am making a call on the Taoiseach to assign responsibility for travel and quarantining to a different Minister. This is no reflection on the capacity of the Minister for Health - that is not the reason I am saying it - but as it stands, he is dealing with significant demands of responding to the pandemic and rolling out the vaccination programme while, at the same time, endeavouring to keep some element of our normal health service running. It simply does not make sense that the same Minister would also have responsibility for implementing and overseeing the regime for monitoring international travel during the pandemic.
There is not the capacity on the part of either the Minister or the Department of Health to do that, and nor does it come into that area of responsibility. That has to be made clear. This goes much further than that, if we are serious about addressing the issues of travel. It is particularly important now that the UK has announced new mandatory hotel quarantine rules for UK and Irish residents. This work demands a serious time commitment and a renewed focus to address both ongoing issues and newly emerging problems. Many of those emerging and existing problems need to be dealt with properly but have not been dealt with, such as oversight of what is being termed "home quarantining". I cannot understand how that can possibly succeed but, in any event, there needs to be the involvement of a Minister allocating sufficient time.
There is a need to prepare for mandatory hotel quarantining, including passing the necessary legislation, procuring hotels, transport and security and so on. Somebody needs to oversee the policing of ports and airports in line with the new rules. We need to stop the so-called Dublin dodge. It is unbelievable that has been allowed to continue and that we do not have sharing of data between North and South. That the Minister has ignored this for many months is unforgivable as there is an immediate need to share those data. The implementation of a joint strategy with Northern Ireland has been ignored. These things cannot be dealt with by the Department of Health or the Minister for Health. I call on the Taoiseach to now allocate responsibility to the Minister for Transport, to the Minister for Justice or to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, all of whom have roles and capacity in this regard. That needs to happen urgently.
I thank the Labour Party for giving us the opportunity to discuss Covid-19 strategy. It is critical that we do because, quite frankly, it beggars belief that the Government is continuing to talk about living with Covid-19. Even more shockingly, this week the Minister with responsibility for housing has been citing arbitrary dates in a few weeks' time to reopen construction and other sectors of the economy with the cheerleading of Mr. Tom Parlon from the Construction Industry Federation, CIF.
This is a terrifying echo of the dire mistakes made by the Government in November and December that led to the terrible surge in infections that was fatal to many, which we saw in January, in a situation where our health services were almost overrun and our healthcare workers are on their knees. It therefore beggars belief that the Government yet again wants to go around for another twirl on the merry-go-round of surge and lockdown with all the terrible possibilities that means in terms of deaths, sickness, pressures on our healthcare workers and the almost racing certainty of a fourth or fifth lockdown. Has the Government learned nothing from the terrible consequences of the last year or so?
I therefore welcome the fact there is a move towards a different strategy from some of the Opposition. It is absolutely right that Deputy Nash, for example, should talk about the need for humility and grace when it comes to recognising the mistakes that were made in the past. By the way, that should also extend to Opposition parties that are now rightly decrying the Government strategy. In September of last year, however, the Labour Party called for the pubs to reopen, decried the public health guidelines as "too draconian" and "bonkers" and called for the resumption of international travel. There need to be honesty about the mistakes that were made. If they are rightly criticising the Government's flawed strategy and calling for an alternative, those parties that went along with it should admit to doing so as we make the case for an alternative.
Deputy Shortall has been consistent in questioning the Government strategy from pretty much the outset, along with People Before Profit, Deputy Pringle and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Let us call a spade a spade about who was actually challenging the flawed strategy, which led to this dire cycle of surge and lockdown with all the fatalities and pressures it put on the health service. That alternative is a zero Covid strategy to at least try to emulate what has been done in New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan and many parts of Asia. People have got their lives back because the governments there did not try their to live alongside a virus that kills, makes people sick and overruns health services. Those governments understood that one does not negotiate with a virus. A virus is not interested in a live-and-let-live relationship that one can negotiate. The virus wants to kill and to make people sick. One cannot live alongside it; one must chase and eliminate the virus and have the public infrastructure, which is chronically lacking in this country, to deal with the outbreaks that will come up until we completely eradicate it, if we can ever do so. We can at least deal with the outbreaks as they do elsewhere, however. Some of us have been arguing for that strategy and it must include mandatory quarantine.
I spent most of Friday talking to an Irish public health doctor who is in charge of infection control in Queensland in Australia. He told me they have not had a single Covid-19 outbreak since June. Everybody in that territory is going to pubs, restaurants, schools, work and living their lives because they had a plan. They had legislation even before the pandemic broke out. They have public health teams that can deal with outbreaks and therefore society can function. We can and must do the same. Lastly, we must support workers whose industries and sectors have been hammered. We certainly should not be taxing people on the economic supports we gave them.
On Sunday, the Taoiseach was quoted as saying he regretted the decision to reopen in December. It was the first time the Government came close to acknowledging its responsibility for the unnecessary and avoidable loss of more than 1,000 lives in January. Yesterday, however, the Tánaiste was talking about a revised plan for living with Covid-19. Mr. Tom Parlon from the CIF appeared on the radio this morning beating the lobbying drums again for a full reopening of construction and spinning a ludicrous line that it is safer to be on construction site is to be in a community. Interestingly, it was reported on the RTÉ website without any fact-check or anyone pointing out that this is complete nonsense. One thousand people died because of the Government's failed strategy and here we are; it is Groundhog Day again and the same process is going to happen with the Government giving into the pressure of the lobbying drums and reopening.
We cannot live with the virus. That is the lesson to be learned from the tragedy we are in. That is a strategy for rolling lockdowns and real damage in respect of our health service, unnecessary loss of life, mental health and the economy. That is the consequence of sticking with the rolling lockdown strategy.
The alternative is a zero Covid strategy with mandatory 14-day quarantine. It is making this lockdown effective by allowing trade unions and the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, to inspect workplaces to ensure working from home guidelines and essential rules are being followed and to fine employers that are not doing so. It is a strategy of electing health and safety workers' committees to ensure proper procedures are being followed and by ensuring we do not reopen until we have eliminated community transmission. It is a strategy of investing in find, test, trace, isolate and support to hunt down the virus and of supporting workers with the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, full eviction bans, full-pay childcare and sick leave.
There is huge support now for those measures. The proof of that is today's debate and in the Labour Party's national aggressive suppression strategy, NASS. The Labour Party is doing this because of the vast public support that exists for this sort of strategy. It is calling for this now although I note it called for reopening early in the summer. In October, it called on the Government not to move to level 5 restrictions but instead use the tax revenue gain from staying open to buy private hospitals, not thinking about the consequence in terms of extra debts when it welcomed the reopening in December.
It is a sign of the public mood on this and politicians being under pressure. Therefore, I say to the public to keep the pressure up. It is working; we can achieve zero Covid. We need Sinn Féin to get off the fence and we need the Government to commit to a zero Covid strategy.
This Labour Party motion is purely idealistic. It is a far cry from the Labour Party calling the lockdown too draconian and bonkers last September. Had it been presented at a much earlier stage of the pandemic, it may have had some advantages. That ship has sailed, however.
Nowhere in the Labour Party plan is there mention of how business and industry would cope with a national aggressive suppression strategy. While they may have coped with such an approach in the earlier months of this pandemic, 12 months after Covid first struck and with more than six months of closures, the appetite and ability to commit to even stricter restrictions would be impossible to tolerate. The focus of business and enterprise now is the struggle to survive and rebuild. For them, the urgent need is to reopen safely and salvage what they can as soon as they can.
Yesterday, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks, representatives of the aviation sector set out a bleak analysis of the future of the sector arising from a further international travel ban. This ban will have enormous consequences and a devastating impact on thousands of workers and their dependent families. Airlines will not survive another summer of inactivity. The extent and magnitude of the problem in this sector are daunting. It is an appalling vista for the aviation sector and all those who are dependent on it.
There is no mention in the motion of how the education sector would handle an extended rigid lockdown. How would pupils in special schools and examination classes or students at third level manage if their centres of education were to remain closed? The mental health of people is also overlooked. The motion does not reflect the major impact that this pandemic is having on the mental health of people of all ages.
Significantly, a glaring omission in this motion is how the timeline for a zero Covid strategy would play out. The aim of such a strategy is to drive down Covid to as close to zero as possible by imposing radical restrictions. The motion does not outline how long such radical restrictions would last. Would it be a year or would it be two years? More important, the Labour Party motion does not provide a roadmap for exiting this strategy. If subsequent outbreaks were to occur, would we go back to stage 1 of the same stringent approach? The Government, in conjunction with NPHET, already has a suppression strategy in place. The difference between it and the aggressive strategy being put forward today is that the former takes into account the needs of all sectors of the economy. While the primary concern is always about people's health, there has to be recognition that economic and social needs must also be considered. Failure to incorporate this into any strategy will expose our economy and its citizens to long-lasting damage.
Three weeks ago, Deputies from the Regional Group stated publicly that the three strands of the State's Covid-19 response, testing, tracing and vaccination, were no longer enough. We highlighted the urgent need to introduce quarantining. The Labour Party is now echoing that call. We identified many suitable locations for mandatory hotel quarantining. We suggested that airlines and shipping companies which transport to Ireland passengers who have not taken a negative test in the previous 72 hours should be fined. We recommended temporary border checkpoints within 5 km of our land border to monitor and turn back non-essential travellers to reduce the numbers coming in the back door. We emphasised strongly the need to concentrate on the rapid roll-out of the vaccination programme.
The Labour Party says that the vaccine is not a silver bullet. I believe that it is in fact our greatest weapon. We must utilise and roll out the vaccine with a sense of urgency and cohesion. People throughout the country want mandatory quarantine, temporary border checkpoints, rapid antigen testing, tracing and, most of all, vaccinations. What they do not want at this time is a zero Covid strategy that will plunge them into an even more severe lockdown for a long and indefinite period. That is not practical or feasible. It is unrealistic and counterproductive at this point.
Táim buíoch don deis labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. Covid-19 has radically impacted on the health and well-being of people around the country. Many families have lost loved ones in tragic circumstances and many families listening to this debate are in bereavement or serious grief. The country needs to do everything it can to make sure we reduce the incidence of this illness. We must do our best to make sure we get the daily case figures down to single digits if possible. It is important in a debate such as this that we do not forget the other elements in society which have also been severely struggling as a result of this pandemic. As we approach one year since this illness struck, it is important that we look at what is happening in real time in communities throughout the country.
The first issue to remember is that there is, as was said in a committee meeting yesterday, a tsunami of non-Covid illness washing across the country. Well over 850,000 people are on waiting lists for treatment for very serious health issues, including cancer, heart disease and stroke, and mental health patients are struggling to get diagnoses, never mind treatment. There is no doubt in my mind that as a result of what is happening in the health service and the withholding of treatment and diagnosis from these patients, many people will suffer serious deterioration in their health and morbidity and some will suffer mortality.
It is also important to look at what is happening in people's lives. As a result of lockdowns and the lack of schooling, the development of children into teenagers and adults is being radically stunted because of their inability to socialise, create friendships or develop their personalities and their parents' nerves are frayed. This is translating into major problems with alcoholism and domestic abuse, which are imprisoning many women and families in fear. In my community, older people are living in constant fear. Many of them feel the clock is running down on the remaining years they have on this planet and that this is happening while they are in isolation. The solace and supports that many generations have depended upon, for example, religious services, have been denied to these people.
Many people feel deep social isolation and claustrophobia as a result of lockdown. This is eroding their mental health in a big way. I spoke to a volunteer and anti-suicide activist in Galway, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's county, who spoke of the chilling effect the sound of helicopters flying over the Corrib is having at the moment as they search for four people in the Galway city area. This is being replicated throughout the country. We need to suppress this virus but we cannot forget about the rest of society. We are in a dark place as a country but people must see light at the end of the tunnel.
The real problem with the Labour Party approach is that a zero Covid strategy will kill off the entire domestic economy. Interestingly, it will not impact on the largest companies in the world today, some of which operate out of Ireland, including Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Google and the large multinationals. Ireland's small and medium enterprises account for approximately 45% of GDP and they employ 70% of the workforce. The lockdowns are having a severe impact on those sectors. I cannot understand that the Labour Party, a party of the working class, wants to have this regressive strategy imposed on them.
The Government, through ongoing lockdowns, is already putting the labour market into a deep hole. Most small businesses had between 30 and 90 days of working capital at the beginning of the pandemic. In the real world, this meant that this capital has been used up by last summer. When the Government schemes run out, the real extent of the pain will emerge. The longer the lockdown is kept in place, the less likelihood there is of these businesses reopening. That is not acceptable. I note the number of suicides, as Deputy Tóibín and others have done, and the number of small businesses the banks have foreclosed on, which must make payments, including insurance payments. This utopian idea that we can have a zero Covid strategy is pie in the sky. We cannot do so. It will not work. It is as simple as that.
I have an issue with the Labour Party approach and the zero Covid strategy that will kill the entire domestic economy, as Deputy Mattie McGrath has just said. I look at small businesses such as barber shops, bars, hairdressers, nail salons and sit-in cafés. Lockdowns are putting these businesses under severe pressure. They are not sure if they will be able to reopen or what the circumstance will be going forward.
The mental health implications of lockdowns are severe. They are impacting on suicide rates and causing drug and alcohol abuse, which needlessly cause lives to be lost.
The isolation and lack of social isolation does not stop the spread of the disease but it does destroy the economy.
My colleagues in the Rural Independent Group and I have been calling for over ten months for our focus to be on all incoming passengers. As early as last April or May, I called for mandatory testing of and quarantine for all incoming passengers and it was never put in place. Now we are frantically trying to do that and it is a bit late. Latest data indicate that 70% of all Covid cases in Ireland are from the UK variant. This means that 70% of all current cases emerged from the variant coming into the country via someone who travelled here. The Government has completely failed to implement strict inward travel protocols here. This now means higher case number and harsher lockdowns.
We should be focusing on the nurse registration fee of €100 with which they are being hit-----
The lost Labour Party, which is walking in the political wilderness and whose members are just trying to make themselves relevant in today's political landscape by bringing forward this motion because they are on the sidelines and are wandering aimlessly, has no understanding whatsoever. For a once-great party that had great people in it, its members today are trying to scramble to make themselves relevant.
They do not represent the workers who are coming to us and asking how could this motion make any sense in terms of helping them. How could what they are proposing help small businesses in small towns and villages or bigger population centres where these business people are struggling? They really are suffering.
What the Labour Party is proposing to do here today includes a couple of issues where it is only saying what we were saying for more than ten months with regard to travel into the country. It was common sense but, unfortunately, the Government ignored our calls and pleas at the time. Labour does not understand work. It does not understand business. It does not understand what it is to try to keep a door open, whether one is a hairdresser, a small butcher or a person in the service industry. Its members do not have a clue. All they are trying to do here today, as I say, is make themselves relevant in a debate they know nothing about.
I also question the zero Covid-19 strategy by the Labour Party. It will kill the entire domestic economy. In Ireland, SMEs account for 45% of GDP and they employ 70% of the Irish workforce.
If we are looking at strategies today, what we should be looking at is the roll-out of the vaccine. If we are to vaccinate the people who are over 70, that means from now until the end of April, when the Minister stated it will be done, 62,500 people over 70 will have to be vaccinated each week to reach that target. The United Kingdom has 12.81 million people vaccinated; Germany, 3.61 million; Turkey, 3.28 million; Italy, 2.66 million; France, 2.63 million; Spain, 2.12 million; and Poland, 2.11 million. Let us have a big hurray for Ireland. Up to 5 February, we had 230,766 people vaccinated. Europe and our Government have let us down in getting the vaccine. That is our strategy.
Listen to the Labour Party today. Its members know nothing about the workforce. They know nothing about the SMEs. That is why the party has become as small as it has. They know nothing. They have not been on the ground with the small business people. That is what we need to stand up for.
That is our strategy. Get in the vaccines and get people vaccinated, as all the other countries have done. The Government should stand up to Europe and ask where is our fair share. That is what we need to do; stand up for Ireland and shout and roar. Who shouts the loudest gets the results. Start shouting.
I am glad to get the opportunity to say a few words. Even though the time is short, I am grateful for it.
I have to say to the members of the Labour Party that they must realise that the longer businesses are shut and the longer the doors are closed, the harder it will be to get these people's businesses back open again. It is far easier to shut places down and to keep them locked down. It is much harder to open them up. As a business person who has employed people, I know the value of business to the working person. Businesses are about giving employment to people. If the businesses are shut and SMEs are closed, locked down and locked down further, there is less of a chance of them opening back up again.
On the talk about the schools certainly not opening before St. Patrick's Day, I would hope that the schools would open before then and maybe a long time before then.
Labour has to consider what the lockdown is doing to people's minds. I refer to people in rural places who are locked down and cannot come out and have a short conversation with anyone. Members of the Labour Party do not realise that because they are far removed from what is going on in rural areas. Mental health is a big issue.
For instance, people trying to build their own house or who are trying to get in a carpenter or a plumber to do work to finish off a house are stopped from doing so at present.
When circumstances change, we need to change our approach. The information that we have gleaned in the past few months has to be factored into any ongoing policy decisions. What do we know now that we did not know two or three months ago? At that point, vaccines were on their way but we were still awaiting European Medicines Agency, EMA, approval. Now we know that there are a number of variants, namely UK, South African and Brazilian variants. Some are much more contagious and some seem to involve higher levels of mortality. There is uncertainty as to how the different vaccines will work on the new variants. Keeping those variants out is absolutely crucial.
People want this to be the final lockdown. Businesses want this to be the final lockdown. What we do this time must give us a sustainable future. Nobody wants us to fall at the final hurdle. Members of the public know that no system is perfect and that one cannot always cover all the bases but, as I said, they also know that the current vaccines may not perform as well against the new variants as they did against the original virus. Therefore, we now know it has never been more important than it is now not to import any new variants of this virus. It is far too late for the UK variant, which has become dominant, but we still have significant control over other variants. That is why it is essential, crucial, pivotal - use any word one likes or use them all - to stop those variants from entering Ireland.
We have new measures on the Border and I support them. Travelling from Derry to Donegal is the same as travelling from Donegal to Derry or Donegal to Sligo. There should be no unnecessary journeys. However, it is like having a field with two gates. One of the gates is closed but the other is open. That other gate refers to our ports and airports and the only way to close that second gate is to introduce mandatory quarantining of those arriving in Ireland. That means demanding a negative PCR test before anybody arrives and mandatory quarantining with a second test five to seven days later. I believe we will have mandatory quarantining a few weeks' time anyway, but will it be too late? I ask the Minister to bring the required legislation before this House as soon as possible and move heaven and earth, if it takes it, to keep those new variants out.
Finally, I will briefly address another issue related to Covid, and that is the need to give an ex gratiapayment to healthcare staff. I am not jumping on any bandwagon or simply repeating the words of the INMO.
I tabled a question to the Minister almost a month ago asking him whether he would consider a non-taxable flat-rate payment to healthcare workers just like everyone else, that is, an ex gratiapayment. His response was not positive, but I am asking him to reconsider. Those workers deserve it.
I welcome this motion and the Labour Party getting behind a national aggressive Covid-19 suppression strategy. That sounds unnecessarily negative and scary. I prefer the idea of working towards zero Covid, implementing a zero Covid strategy and supporting the We Can Be Zero campaign. That gives us something positive to work towards together, something to look forward to, something for which to hope. I understand Labour's position on this, given that the Government has stubbornly refused to admit its mistakes and take proper steps to suppress the disease.
I hope that the Minister will accept the motion before us, but I doubt that will happen. From the Opposition benches, I have been speaking and asking about a zero Covid strategy since last October, but the Government is too arrogant to work with us on the matter and accept ideas from these benches because it could not then take credit. Unfortunately, it can have the credit for all of the deaths since its so-called meaningful Christmas. There were more than 1,000 deaths and 100,000 cases in January alone. This is wrong, Minister. When I raised this issue during Leaders' Questions a couple of weeks ago, it seemed that some journalists were more concerned about manners than holding our Government to account for its dire and deadly mistakes.
Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to how it beggared belief that the Government would go down this road and not listen to what needed to be done. Unfortunately, I do not think it beggars belief at all. A focus group and opinion polls have not told the Government something and, therefore, it does not think it. That is the reality of the situation. Unfortunately, people are dying because of the Government's decisions or lack thereof. It is like the Government is so afraid of messing up that it does not realise the destruction it is leaving in its wake. People are tired, at their wits' end, suffering, grieving and scared. They want and need the Government to govern and to put the health and safety of people before airline profits, big businesses' turnover and industry lobbyists.
The economy is suffering, but at what cost? How many lives must be lost before the Government finally admits that zero Covid or something similar is the strategy that is needed? At this point, I do not believe the Opposition would grandstand and say that we told the Government so. In fact, many of the Opposition Members present are against this strategy and mention the difficulties for workforces and how people would manage. How can people manage under this constant cycle of lockdown, undo, lockdown, undo, lockdown and undo? It makes no sense. No business person could plan in this situation. It is ridiculous. It is obvious that the only reason the Government will not close the airports and the like is because it is pandering to the airlines. It is putting the safety of citizens below the safety of airlines. Mr. Michael O'Leary is more important than the citizens of Ireland. That is the sad reality of the situation.
Rural businesses that are in lockdown would have a chance to come back after a proper zero Covid strategy and would cater for the people of Ireland as part of a local strategy, but they can do nothing now. They are all locked down. That is what the Government is doing for us. Some people have said that the zero Covid strategy would last for ten years, others have said only one. In a newspaper today, though, the Tánaiste spoke about the Government's nonsensical strategy, which will last into next year regardless. Be truthful with people and tell them exactly what the Government is thinking and hoping in this regard. What it is doing now will not deliver anything for people except more lockdowns and hardships.
I thank the Labour Party and all contributors to this debate on the motion on Ireland's response to Covid-19. The Government has taken strong and decisive action in its response to Covid-19. The overall strategy is based on the Government's resilience and recovery plan, which was published last September. The plan provides us with a framework to enable society and businesses to operate as much as possible while continuing to suppress the virus. It is designed to help individuals, organisations and sectors to better understand, anticipate and prepare for the measures that might be introduced to suppress the virus. Inherent in the plan is a prioritisation of activities and a balancing between the intertwined elements of our society and economy. Given the evolving nature of the pandemic, a certain amount of flexibility has been built into the plan to allow for new and targeted approaches. This allows the Government to take account of the disease's profile and trajectory at given points in time and to make decisions accordingly. That is precisely what the Government has done.
As we have already heard, Ireland has experienced a third wave of the disease, as has much of Europe. Consequently, the Government took decisive action with the introduction of regulations that were in line with level 5 of the framework under the plan. The current measures will remain in place until 5 March. They are having the desired effect, with Ireland having the fastest-declining 14-day incidence rate in Europe. However, we still need to work harder to achieve a reduction in case numbers. That reduction is possible.
Our ultimate aim is to reduce the level of infection in the population, save lives, protect the health services and other essential services. In doing so, we will be guided by NPHET and its public health advice, taking into account the international evidence and guidance as it emerges from the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Covid-19 is still a relatively new disease and research is ongoing to better understand the virus and how we can interrupt transmission. We will continue to tailor our efforts based on the latest available evidence.
As the House knows, the Government has put in place an extensive range of supports for society and the economy. These measures are designed to mitigate the economic impact of Covid-19. They include the pandemic unemployment payment and supports for businesses. Particular sectors of the economy that have been hard hit have been supported, for example, tourism. We will continue to monitor the effectiveness of measures that have been put in place to support viable firms and encourage employment, including the EWSS.
We have also put in place measures to protect the elderly and vulnerable groups and those experiencing loneliness and social isolation by increasing funding for mental health services, extra counselling supports, home help supports and the expert panel on long-term residential care. Additional supports are in place across the community sector and the Government has encouraged close collaboration between the statutory and voluntary sectors at local level to ensure that resources and supports are targeted at those most in need.
Last year was incredibly challenging for us all. I acknowledge and express my sympathies to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives to Covid-19. We need to remember this sobering fact and to redouble our efforts to control the virus in 2021.
All Deputies will join me in paying tribute to those healthcare workers and other front-line workers who have worked tirelessly since the beginning of the pandemic. Our healthcare workers have played a vital role in combating the disease and caring for those who required healthcare as a result of it.
We are making progress in tackling the disease and, through domestic measures that require individuals to stay at home except for essential reasons, reducing the opportunity for the virus to be transmitted. The current regulations will remain in place until 5 March and we are investing in and building up capacity right across our health and social care services, including those that are specific to Covid-19 responses. We are also working closely with our European partners on our approach to the spread of this global disease.
Our efforts have been bolstered by the new tool in our kit to tackle this disease, namely, the Covid-19 vaccination programme. It is delivering vaccines to the people of Ireland. Up to 5 February, more than 230,000 Covid-19 vaccines had been administered, including to approximately 80,000 people who are now fully vaccinated.
The first delivery of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived at the weekend and we started to include it as part of our vaccination programme this week, with front-line healthcare workers receiving their first vaccine. Phase 3 of our vaccination programme will start on Monday next, with GPs inviting those over the age of 85 to come forward for vaccination. Our objective is for nobody to be left behind, and our GP community is the most effective means of delivering the vaccine to this cohort. Vaccination centres have been identified for some GPs to come together and thereby ensure that the vaccine can be delivered speedily and safely. Deliveries of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the current preferred vaccines for those aged over 70, continues. Ireland is expected to receive a total of 1.1 million vaccine doses by the end of March.
We have achieved reductions in infection rates this year as a result of decisive and proactive action by the Government following advice from NPHET. This is also as a direct result of the efforts of the population in staying home, limiting contacts and following public health advice. However, it is vital that we keep this up. The Government recognises the public support for public health restrictions. Solidarity among communities and citizens is the most important factor in driving down this disease.
I thank each and every one of the contributors to the debate. I thank the Labour Party for tabling the motion. Listening to Deputies Nash and Ó Ríordáin, there were two aspects to their contributions. Deputy Nash stated that people need hope and a sense of vision that 2021 will be better than 2020. I certainly hope we can work on that. Deputy Ó Ríordáin said he hoped we will succeed. We will succeed together.
People referred to east-west and North-South issues, travel quarantine and emerging variants. It is very worrying that we have these new variants and mutations between the UK, Brazilian and South African variants. We must work together to try to suppress these variants. There should be a role for pharmacists, dentists and many other healthcare workers in helping to deliver the vaccine to the people who need it.
Deputy Howlin outlined the impact the pandemic is having throughout society and stated that women have been more impacted upon. This is something of which we are very aware. I thank all of the NGOs and the Garda Síochána for being aware of this very difficult situation. There are people across the island who are affected more than others by the virus and we hope that vaccines will be delivered as quickly as possible. They will be delivered as soon as we get them.
I thank all of the Members for their contributions. I refer them to the Government strategy to address Covid-19, which is extensive and comprehensive and which has been implemented through a range of public health restrictions and investment in public health capacity in line with the national framework for living with Covid-19.
It was very interesting to listen to our friend from Limerick and our friends from Kerry speaking about the Labour Party motion. They reminded me of the missionary priests who used to come to Mallow when I was a boy in the 1980s. Those priests would preach fire, damnation and brimstone and engage in fine rhetoric. I am not sure the Deputies' rhetoric was so fine but there was plenty of it. However, there was very little enlightenment at the end of it all and I often wondered if it was more about spectacle than substance. None of the Deputies to whom I refer have spent a day in government and they never will because they would run a mile from it. I doubt any one of them would have the backbone or the courage to go into government or to spend one day inside Government Buildings. I think the Healy-Raes were in there for a little while all right but they ran out as quick as lightning. It is fine to preach when in opposition . It is the easiest thing to play the Tadgh an dá thaobh, and God knows there are plenty of people in this place who want to be Tadgh an dá thaobh. The Labour Party motion is honest. What we are seeking to do is to bring about a perspective which seeks to provide some enlightenment on this issue that exercises us all.
I want to focus very briefly on the issue of long Covid. I ask the Minister to take on board the fact there are people now suffering the effects of long Covid. It is an expression that has worked its way into the public discourse and we are seeing its effects. However, it has not been classified officially. I ask the Minister and the Government to put in place a pot of funding so that Science Foundation Ireland, the Health Research Board and the Department can take a collective approach to looking at the effects of long Covid. We are now seeing the effects of this in terms of the presentations of other types of illness as a result of people having contracted Covid. The only research I can speak to in an Irish context that exists at present is the 2021 Trinity College and St. James Hospital research by Townsend et al. The authors looked at post-Covid lung assessments and imaging to date. They examined 153 patients and concluded that 62% felt they had not returned to full health, 48% met the case definition for fatigue - this was not associated with severity of initial infection - and a number of the 153 had abnormal chest X-rays quite a length of time after having received a diagnosis of Covid.
All I am asking is that the Government adopts a cross-departmental approach, brings in the research funders and start issuing funding calls so that our excellent scientists working in health can start researching this. If there is an evidence base for it, we can then acknowledge that the Department of Social Protection could put in place a payment which recognises the long-term impact on people of Covid, something akin to the enhanced illness benefit payment that recognises long Covid. Long after having received a diagnosis of Covid people feel the ill effects of it. They are missing work. There is the issue of fatigue and also issues relating to the impact on people's hearts and lungs.
As a society, we need to acknowledge this issue and address it. If we have an evidence base with well-funded research, we can take that research and turn it into an acknowledgement, through the Department of Social Protection and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, of the need to establish payments for those people where they are missing work and require a supplementary income to acknowledge the suffering they are going through at present. This is the call the Labour Party is making through the motion and I ask that the Minister uses his good offices. I know he is a research-minded Minister and if we call on the Minister to do this we would be doing a good day's work to acknowledge those people suffering from long Covid.
I thank all of the Deputies, parties and groups that contributed to the debate. Well, I would like to thank almost all of them. It will come as no surprise to the Government that we will not accept its amendment. It may come as a surprise, although I hope it does not, to Comrade Boyd Barrett that we will accept his group's amendments. I wish to comment on the Deputy's contribution.
He spoke about the Labour Party and some in opposition showing humility as to when we got things wrong in regard to this pandemic. Everyone has got things wrong in regard to this pandemic. In the exhaustive trawl of our contributions, press statements and comments which they did in advance of this debate, surely they would have the humility to acknowledge that the Labour Party has stated categorically, unlike others, that we have got things wrong, which is why we are at this point, which led us to this motion and which led us to the position that we have to be in now, which is to suppress this virus. We have the humility to admit that and we are fully behind this motion.
When the revolution comes, and I am genuinely looking forward to the revolution coming, maybe Deputy Boyd Barrett will have the humility to understand that we are not the enemy. I doubt it. In fact, if he could see us when the revolution comes, from the very back of the battalion, he will see, as usual, that we are at the front.
What really got me in this debate today were the contributions from the Healy-Raes - both of them. I am absolutely disgusted because it hit me personally. Usually, what they say is water off a duck's back to most or all of us in this House, but they had a go, and it was “the Labour Party this”, “the Labour Party that”, “relevance this” and “relevance that”. They said we did not understand working people, and said we did not understand a carpenter coming to the house to fix a job. I am the son of a carpenter. I am not the son of Fianna Fáil privilege and millions and millions of euro. I remember, as a kid in the 1980s, having to take any work going, hanging doors in Finglas just to put a roof over our heads and food on the table. I remember that. I spent my teenage years working on sites, filling skips. Did they? Or were they driving their Mercedes into their big plant hire shops, walking past all of their machinery, worth hundreds of thousands, to count all their money, to count up all their properties?
I have the floor. I am not going to be lectured on understanding workers. I do not have to put on a political costume and a caricature to pretend I am working class, like some. They do.
This is a pro-worker motion. If they read it, if they understood it, if they took one second to remove themselves from their own regressive politics, they would see that this position is about a strong public health response to get people back to work and to stay in work, to get schools open and to keep them open. That is what this is about and that is where the Opposition is at. I do not think the Government is too far away either, but we need to meet in the middle and we need to get this through. We need to keep this virus down and that is how things will be opened.
The next time we have a motion or anything else, I will happily sit down or have a Zoom call and explain to them what it stands for because they never read it. They are pursuing a narrow, regressive, conservative agenda all of the time. It lets down the people of Kerry who they profess to represent; it lets down working people. This is a pro-workers motion. Everything we have put through is pro-workers. We will work together, we will admit when we are wrong and we will move forward.
Last night’s “RTÉ Investigates” should have shown everybody where we are with this, and how desperate it is to see the work of the doctors and nurses in Tallaght Hospital, to see the work of the porters, the receptionists and everyone else in that facility and in healthcare facilities all over the country. That is why we are where we are. That is why we need to be supporting strong public health measures to protect those workers and to get workers who are currently at home on PUP, workers at home trying to educate their children with all the pressure that entails, to get all those people back to work and to get society back. I think it is what people on this side of the House want and what people on the other side of the House want. It is what the Labour Party wants. I very much doubt it is what they want.