Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I genuinely welcome the fact that this legislation on hotel quarantine has been brought here today but it is not enough. It is nowhere near enough. What has been proposed in respect of mandatory hotel quarantine is the absolute minimum. It is a lax regime that will only cover 20 countries. We do not know when it will be put in place. Perhaps when the Minister responds on Committee Stage, he might clarify when he expects it to be in place.
It has taken nine months to get here. NPHET recommended this nine months ago. It is startling that we are here today. I understand that the Minister spoke with his counterpart in New Zealand on this issue recently. That is a positive development. However, the fact that this regime was only considered recently does not show urgency. It is a real worry, given the emergence of the variants. We are facing a pandemic within a pandemic in respect of the variants. It is a genuine worry. I would like to know, step by step, what the Government and various different Departments - because I respect that this issue falls across a number of Departments - were doing on the issue of hotel quarantine over the past nine months. Is it true that there was a significant opposition to this measure within the Civil Service, as well as from a political perspective, in some quarters?
The country will struggle to believe why the Government has failed to act decisively and competently on this issue, especially when people have made such sacrifices and have taken hope from the roll-out of the vaccine. Everyone is talking about it. It is unacceptable that doors have been left open in such a haphazard way and with such inadequate protections. I have no doubt but that psychologically, there has been some opposition to this within the Government. I question why this has happened.
If one speaks to members of the public, one will see that people coming into the country are normally most welcome. Those who come into the country now are still welcome but they must abide by what is required, which is quarantine. Considering that on one side of the equation, people are welcome into the country, and on the other side, people must stay within 5 km of their homes, the public do not understand it. They cannot comprehend it and they certainly do not appreciate it.
I want to say something to the Minister, and it is not meant disrespectfully at all. I am perplexed as to why the Minister is bringing this legislation to the House. If I was having a heart-to-heart with him, I would tell him that he could have done without having to bring this legislation in. To be fair to the Minister, I do not believe that this legislation should have been dumped on him. The responsibility should fall with the Departments of Justice or of Transport, but particularly with the Department of Justice. It is complex legislation and the Minister has enough on his plate. I will criticise him and compliment him but I want to be fair on this issue. It is not legislation that the Minister or his Minister of State should be introducing to this House. He has been treated unfairly. His colleagues in the two other parties have dumped this on him. That is not a good sign for collegiality in this pandemic. It is a very bad sign, given all of the Minister's current responsibilities.
I was much taken by what the Tánaiste said on two radio programmes this morning, when he stated that he does not believe in mandatory quarantine because he thought a differential approach is necessary. He referred to the approaches taken in the Isle of Man and Iceland. Jesus, that is laughable. The next thing we know, we will be going on an Oireachtas field trip to the Isle of Man so see why there are no infections there. The issue at hand is not about the Isle of Man or Iceland. The issue is that a structure must be put in place to prevent infection coming into the country. Most importantly, it is about preventing the variants coming into the country, because the variants are on tour. I have criticised the fact that 2,000 people from Brazil have been allowed to come into the country without mandatory quarantine, primarily to work in meat factories. The reality is that there are many variants now. There is talk of Bristol and California variants. Hopefully they can be dealt with, but they could come in from anywhere. The British variant is now the dominant variant. It did not just come here by itself. It had to come through human contact, as Dr. Gabriel Scally has stated. Why do we have a choice between locking up our people within 5 km or putting in place a regime to ensure that people must mandatorily quarantine to protect our people?
The public is of the view that the Government strategy is wrong, as it has said all along, but the Government is deciding, for some psychological reason, that it had better put the people who are coming into the country, even for non-essential travel, above the people living in this country, whose movements are restricted to within 5 km. That is the equation and it is damn well wrong. All the surveys that have been done show that the public supports what I and other members of the Opposition are saying on this issue. In an Ireland Thinks poll on 18 January, for example, 90% of those surveyed agreed that people coming to Ireland should have to quarantine in a hotel. Other polls show similar results. People were rightly outraged a number of weeks ago by Conor McMorrow's report for "Prime Time", a programme in which I participated. That report really brought to light and into people's homes the reality of the volume of people coming into the country after nice little breaks in Lanzarote and other places. It got a degree of agitation going to ensure the Government looked at increasing fines but what it is introducing does not go far enough.
We need to protect our own people. We, as legislators, and the Minister and his colleagues, as the Government, have a duty to protect our own people to the maximum. This legislation fails to do so. That is why we in the Labour Party, together with others, will be introducing an amendment to the Bill to make hotel quarantine mandatory, except for essential and logistic workers. We are failing our people. I have a question that I must ask in this regard. If the variants get a further foothold in the country in the coming weeks and months and become a real issue for the implementation of the plan that was announced yesterday, will the Minister and the Government accept that they have failed the people? I am saying this now to give him an opportunity to take it on board. If we keep going along the road he is going and these variants transfer into our country on a larger scale, it will be a failure on his part and, to be fair to him, a failure of the Government.
Apart from all the variants, there is also an issue in that when people arrive into the country, they must, on the basis of an honour-bound system, quarantine themselves, which is legally covered, but the Government does not, for some reason, require them to go for PCR testing. Surely that is just illogical. Surely the Government could put in place a structure to ensure such testing is mandatory in all cases and a regime to implement it. I ask the Minister at least to consider that. It is a fair consideration to put forward because this is a key component of the weakness that is in the Government plan. I will not restate what I said this morning in regard to the seven different actions we would put forward to stem and suppress the virus. I will say that, above all, we need to deal with this issue of travel. Whatever jigsaw of measures is put in place, if we are not dealing with the issue of travel in a concrete, efficient and deliberate way through a regime of hotel quarantine, we are leaving ourselves open to failure and to letting down the people.
The Minister said in his statement that this is a radical legislative provision. It might be such in normal times but when it comes to protecting our own people, a year into a pandemic where I have never seen people so worried, stressed, depressed, upset and disillusioned, it cannot be called radical legislation. In fact, it is anything but radical. It is weak legislation because it does not change much at all. It would be radical to have legislation to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for everyone. I ask the Minister to reflect on that. My party and I will be putting down an amendment to that effect and we will be pushing it.
The Bill that is being presented to us represents a worrying political compromise between what should be delivered and what is being delivered because of opposition within the Government. As my party leader, Deputy Kelly, and other speakers have said, the Ministers for Justice and for Transport should be here, alongside the Minister for Health, who is representing the public health element. I noted when the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, was going through the provisions of the Bill that the majority of them relate to penal provisions in respect of breaking the law. That is why the Minister for Justice should be here. In addition, transport is fundamentally at the heart of these provisions, which is why the Minister for Transport should be here. The latter is never here, however, when we are discussing the public health elements of transport and travel. Deputy O'Rourke has participated alongside me during transport debates in the Chamber and I am sure he would say the same.
This is a hugely important Bill, probably the most important we have had so far this term, and it is going to change things. It will shift the dial in terms of how we approach this crisis. The Minister said that some people will see it as harsh and some will see it as insufficient. In many ways, it is both. Anybody who has to go into hotel quarantine will go through something that is not very easy. However, the Bill is totally insufficient because underpinning it all is too much voluntarism. For any of us who sat through the meetings of the Covid committee last year or contributed to these debates in recent months, we know that every measure that has been brought in was not enough. The prime example of that is the laughable airport and seaport testing regime that is in place at present. Engaging a highly expensive private company to carry out tests in the long-term car park at Dublin Airport, nearly 1.5 km from the terminal building, is not a testing regime. Those measures were brought in at the end of November by the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, which threw its hands up and said it could no longer wait for a lead from the Government that was not coming. We were not even talking about variants at that time.
We would have been able to tackle more effectively the tragedy that has occurred since late November, through December and January and which we are still living with today if the Government had invested belief and resources into a proper testing regime. It did not do so, however, and we are seeing a similar approach in this Bill. There remain too many loopholes, outs and ways for people coming into the country not to have to quarantine and get tested. Everything we are hearing about the variants is scaring the living hell out of all of us, including their transmissibility and how quickly they spread through the community even when we are practising distancing, handwashing and everything else we need to do. That is why the Bill needs to be strong. It does not need to be strong because we want to score political points against one another; it needs to be strong because we are an island nation. The virus first came into this country because of travel and travel has played a large part in its incidence here. The latest wave has been so bad in large part because of the variants that have come in through travel and there not being an effective regime in place to counter that.
We cannot continue to put off taking a belt and braces approach to this crisis. We are nearly a year on from the first case in Ireland and we have had neither a belt nor a braces approach, never mind both. The response has been totally lackadaisical and the resources have never been put in to tackle the crisis. There is public support for a stronger response, even though people know it will be difficult. I am sure all Members have had calls from people abroad who are looking to come home or have plans to travel for certain types of work and are wondering what the story is. We cannot tell them because we have no dates and no details. That is another problem that is highlighted with the introduction of this Bill.
People are aware that this is going to be difficult, but the measure has to be introduced.
The aviation sector is again being told that it will be at the end of the queue. There is no survival package for it. There is nothing to protect the workers' jobs or their terms and conditions. There is nothing to protect the companies to ensure that when we beat this virus, we will have a sector that will help to drive economic recovery. That is why we need the Minister for Transport here. He has to speak to these issues. It is not the job of the Minister for Health to do so. Aviation is a major element because this Bill will have ramifications for it. This is a major Bill. It is not just about getting people into rooms and serving them food at the door. There are major implications far beyond that. It is lamentable that we do not see enough Cabinet representatives on the Government side of the House. It is absolutely shameful.
I need to ask the Minister about inbound essential workers, particularly those working in the agriculture sector. At the start of the pandemic last year, there were workers coming to work in horticulture and agriculture and in meat plants. Are they deemed to be essential workers? If so, will they not have to quarantine in hotels? We believe everyone should have to quarantine in a hotel. I am concerned about what will occur if the workers are deemed to be essential and will not be subject to the legislation as presented by the Government. We saw last year that workers who were brought in were housed in cramped, dormitory-style accommodation and in poor conditions that allowed the virus to spread among them. There were high numbers of cases and deaths. This matter was raised many times in the Dáil. There were many debates at the time with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Health but I do not believe anything has changed. Have the big employers been negotiated with on this? Everyone coming in needs to quarantine. If the workers are coming in, where will they be housed ultimately? If they are to be housed in the same way they were housed in recent years, we will have a huge problem. So, too, will the workers because, when the virus comes in, it will spread and cause hurt and death as it did last year. That cannot be allowed to happen again. We need an answer.
It is obvious that the vaccine strategy is the strategy for the Government. We are starting to hear about people in our lives who are over 85 getting the vaccine, which is encouraging. The rejigging of the sequencing that was announced last night is welcome. There is one element of it that I want to highlight. For the first time, as far as I can see, although it may have been done in other countries, people with chronic mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression have been identified as being particularly vulnerable to the virus. They are particularly vulnerable and they have been reprioritised on those grounds. That is welcome. Not only does it recognise how vulnerable people with mental health issues are to physical disease but it also puts a policy in this regard into practice. That is good.
The Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Butler, should note that the mental health of people put in hotels will need to be monitored. The mental health of people in rooms for 14 days should be monitored by some kind of mental health professional so that if they need assistance, they will have a pathway. That is important. I would like the Minister to indicate how many hotels have been contacted and lined up. What types of security firms will be used? What companies will do the catering? Are the practical, operational elements in place? How far along are they?
To go back to my major point, my concern is that the Government is not really committed to this. It hopes that if the vaccine strategy is successful over the next few weeks, it will not have to use this legislation. That would be an absolute disaster.
I very much welcome the introduction of the Health (Amendment) Bill 2021. Particularly with new strains of Covid-19 being identified, it is important to regulate travel from abroad. The problem with new variants is that the transition rate seems to increase dramatically. In several instances, quite a large number of people ended up contracting Covid as a result of one person coming in from abroad. This was particularly the case at Christmas. Large numbers of people came in from overseas for the holiday period and this resulted in a large increase in the number of those who contracted Covid. The increase was attributable to a mixture of social gatherings and the arrival of people who had not been home or in contact with friends or relations for more than 12 months.
The supervision of people who come in from abroad is complex. It is not easy. It is about identifying facilities and making sure there are adequate services provided at those facilities. It is also about ensuring proper enforcement of the regulations at all times. It is important that we have now increased the fines that can be imposed for a breach of regulations. I refer, in particular, to section 3. Section 31A of the Health Act 1947 is to be amended by subsection 12 such that the fines on summary conviction will be increased from upwards of €1,000 to upwards of €4,000. This is an extremely welcome development. Section 31C of the 1947 Act is to be amended to increase the fine from €500 to a sum not more than €2,000. This is also welcome. There is to be a conviction, not just a fine, so the matter is serious. One will not just be able to place a hand in one's back pocket and pay a fine; conviction will have serious consequences thereafter. That is the only way we can make sure there is full compliance.
With regard to home quarantine, I am not at all sure we have sufficient regulations to ensure people who are identified as having Covid comply with the requirement to remain isolated. This needs to be revisited. I am not even talking about people who have travelled from abroad but about those who have been identified as having Covid. I have come across several cases involving people who were in public places even after testing positive for Covid. They were out in public within two to three days of having being identified as having the virus. We need to ensure regulation in this regard and we must have further enforcement and checks and balances to deal with it.
Contact tracing has been difficult. Several people involved in contact tracing to whom I have spoken have referred to the lack of co-operation on the part of certain individuals in providing information. Can we give more powers in this area? We need to consider this.
I welcome the work done by all our medical professionals in this area over the past 12 months and I acknowledge the challenges they have faced. They have delivered very well in the healthcare service.
The purpose of this Bill is to provide for the mandatory hotel quarantining of inbound travellers from listed countries owing to Covid-19. We have all been calling for this measure for a long time but I am concerned about a couple of matters. I have been contacted by a number of host families who welcomed students from Spain and Germany in September. These students paid their fees, enrolled in our schools, took their PCR tests and quarantined. They did not go home to their families in December and now many of them, particularly transition year students, have been told they will not be able to return to in-person education until 12 April. If they travel home now, can they expect to return, take their tests and opt to quarantine or will they face a fine for their travel? What plans are in place to give notice of a change in country status?
Can these students now return home and be assured they can fly back, quarantine in their hosts' homes, present their negative tests and get back to school? Information is key here. These families and students want to do the right thing but they want information so they can make sure they do as required by NPHET and do everything by the book.
We need to significantly ramp up the public health teams to track and trace every case of Covid and stamp out rogue variants by ensuring we trace efficiently. It is important we have tracing. That is something all of us have been calling for. We have not had enough tracing at any point. We need to hire more tracers because we are not asking everyone to quarantine. I ask the Minister to address that point.
This Bill intends to provide for the mandatory quarantine of persons coming into the State who fail to comply with certain requirements relating to testing for the disease and coming from outside the risk countries. Since 16 January, all passengers arriving here must have a negative Covid-19 PCR taken within 72 hours prior to arrival. Children aged six years and under are exempt from this requirement. What will be the requirements for families with a child under the age of six? I understand evidence is emerging of a new variant of the virus that is more harmful to young children. Is it proposed to expose potentially healthy children to the virus because we do not test them or will we test every single traveller who we require to quarantine in a facility run by the State? These are questions that need to be asked.
Last week, the Government announced 37 vaccine centres throughout the country. While I welcome that announcement, there was a mistake regarding the Carlow centre, which was listed as the Seven Oaks Hotel. The hotel got word on the evening in question, however, that it was not to be the test centre and the Barrow Centre at Carlow Institute of Technology was to be the new test centre. I ask the Minister to consider designating the Seven Oaks Hotel as a second test centre for Carlow. It is in the town and well located. Carlow IT's Barrow Centre is also an excellent centre but it is a little outside the town. Will a bus be provided to bring people who do not have transport to the centre? I ask the Minister to consider that and to make the Seven Oaks Hotel a second vaccination centre for Carlow.
Making sure the State provides quarantine facilities and takes a proactive role in ensuring people entering the State can be quarantined effectively and safely will go a long way to help fight this virus. Common sense would dictate that. However, this Bill is a year late. NPHET recommended quarantine nine months ago and here we are, nine months later, with a Bill that does not go anywhere near far enough. It is mind-boggling that for almost a year, in some form or other, people in this State have endured severe restrictions on their movements, while the Government has operated an open-door policy on travel. This Government has allowed new variants into the State and we can clearly see already the effect of the British variant, in terms of how quickly it spreads and how difficult it has been this time around to get the case numbers down. A few days ago, we learned that the Brazilian variant has been found here.
People are at the end of their tether. It is fair to say that most of the population is in crisis. People have been stuck within their 5 km range for two months now with no end in sight. They have endured restrictions beyond anything anyone could have imagined. Schools are closed, people are out of work, businesses are failing, people are losing their homes, others are not able to visit family or friends and are missing out on funerals, birthdays and weddings. All of these things are affected. The Government's decision not to address travel has had devastating effects. People have become sick and others have died. The decision not to take a proactive role and have everyone arriving here quarantined and tested to ensure they are not carrying or spreading diseases is one of the biggest mistakes made during this entire pandemic. People have worked very hard in the last year to do their bit and fight this virus, so it has been a kick in the teeth that basic arrangements for travel and hotel quarantine have not been introduced until now.
The lack of leadership from this Government is shocking. It is sickening for people to see Ministers and Deputies leaking sensitive and important information and constantly trying to get one up on each other, rather than communicating clearly with the public. Everyone understands that this is an incredibly difficult situation but the Government's dreadful communication strategy adds insult to injury.
This Bill is yet another half-baked measure. Anyone travelling to this island for non-essential reasons needs to undergo mandatory quarantine. At what stage will the Government wake up to this? The Government says it want this to be the last lockdown, as we all do, but if it does not take action and introduce these measures, it may well be the case that this is not the last lockdown. It is time the Minister and the Government got their act together and introduced mandatory quarantine and testing for all non-essential travel to this island.
The failure to address the issue of travel and the consequent importation of various strains of Covid into this country have been among the biggest failings of this Government. This absolutely baffles people and has made a major contribution to the low mood of the public generally, particularly since the Christmas period. We are all feeling that and hearing it from our constituents. It is clear from listening to people in the media, meeting or speaking to friends on the phone and speaking to neighbours that the mood is very low. It was captured last weekend in a social media post, from which I will quote because it encapsulates and articulates exactly what the public mood is like at the moment. It is from a woman called Clare Kelly, who is a developmental cognitive neuroscientist in Trinity College Dublin. She wrote:
Hints about lockdown extending to May have left people feeling upset, frustrated, & outraged. Bungled communication, mixed messages & the lack of a goal other than misery-level mitigation threaten the high level of lockdown compliance people have shown so far. Here’s why –
Following the rules means huge collective sacrifice: an inability to see family & friends, travel >5km, or gather in the park. We are all tired & frustrated, yet compliance with the rules has remained high. But the consequences of gaps & loopholes are increasingly clear.
Failure to impose sufficient travel restrictions, incl. Mandatory Hotel Quarantine for ALL travellers, repeatedly seeds the virus in our communities & imports new variants. Too many employers demanding attendance means workplace transmission is high.
The result is that we feel our collective sacrifice is undermined. This situation can lead to reduced compliance in several ways:
We feel the rules are unfair. When our evolutionarily deep-rooted need for fairness is violated, we experience wounded pride (being “taken for a mug") &/or anger (personal/moral outrage). These emotions lead to protest, rule resistance & even rebellion.
We feel our efforts are wasted. People will not continue to comply when they feel the situation is hopeless & their efforts wasted. When a goal is felt to be unachievable, we abandon & devalue it. Reduced compliance helps resolve the conflict felt about giving up.
We feel we are being disrespected. Info leaks, mixed msgs, incoherence amongst leaders & perceived violations of promises & responsibilities (e.g., to protect the health of citizens [that is pretty basic]) adds to feelings of unfairness, provoking anger & reduced compliance.
These are rational responses to our situation, where personal responsibility is squeezed to its limit. To prevent declining compliance & 4th wave, political leadership MUST take action to: 1) link restrictions w/ clear goal ... [and with] intermediate case-linked benchmarks & rewards for success (e.g. relaxation of 5km rule once cases reach a specific reduction); 2) immediately address & enforce travel restrictions; 3) communicate clearly, coherently & respectfully; 4) focus attention on the successful cooperation of majority not bad behaviour of a few.
That encapsulates just how members of the public are thinking at the moment.
Those feelings were not eased in any way by last night's announcement by the Taoiseach. We have had this drip-feed of information and, unfortunately, the leaks and kite-flying have been shown to be accurate. We are now faced with more of the same. It is a case of continue to muddle along for the next six weeks and then we will see what happens. There are no clear targets, identified goals or an aim around which people can coalesce and work because there is no political leadership on this. Let us wait and see can only mean rolling lockdowns. It is the policy that has been pursued from the very beginning. It is a policy that has failed us, which is why we need a new direction and a new strategy.
It was quite incredible that in the long-awaited and much-publicised announcement by the Taoiseach last night, the issue of travel was not mentioned even once. It is amazing that should be the case when many people are having those feelings about why they should continue as they are when the Government is not playing its part, particularly regarding giving guidance on how we can now redouble efforts to get those figures down. We know that the schools and other aspects of our society and economy cannot open up until those figures dip right down, as they did last summer. A key part of this is also to ensure that once we get figures down, we do not continue to import the virus and reseed it, because that has been happening for the past 12 months.
The legislation for mandatory hotel quarantining we are discussing looks more like a box-ticking exercise rather than a serious effort to stop the importation of the virus. It needs to be amended in many ways to close the loopholes on quarantine requirements and ensure that inward travellers from all countries are subject to mandatory hotel quarantine. We know that almost half of the visitors who have come to Ireland from abroad declared that their travel was non-essential. However, the Government has only put 20 countries on the hotel quarantine list. In the first two weeks of February, passengers from only one of those countries were even arriving into our airports. They only accounted for 7% of all international arrivals. We need to know the rationale behind putting those other countries on that list. Most that were added are sub-Saharan African countries. I am not sure how many people travelled from there. We need clarification, of course, on the numbers who are travelling from there and confirmation that we are talking about people whose travel originates in those countries, even though many of them will be transiting through other airports.
Figures show that since the post-Christmas period, approximately 72,000 people arrived into our airports. The big numbers came mainly from European countries, a matter about which we are not doing anything of serious consequence. There has been much talk about Brazil and the Brazilian variant, yet most people who travelled here from that country came through Portugal. Is there clarification that all those travellers are being picked up and that there will be a response when they arrive here?
The real "game changers", a term used an awful lot by the Taoiseach who refers to various game changers, are actually the virus variants that give rise to completely change the approach. They create huge uncertainty and give rise to unknowns about the future. That is why we need to take a completely different approach and concentrate absolutely on limiting the potential for the importation of existing known variants to the greatest extent possible. The Minister has already outlined that there is much concern, particularly regarding the efficacy of the existing vaccines in the context of responding to the new variants but also the inevitable other variants that will emerge over time.
This legislation will have little impact on the numbers arriving from abroad. Of equal concern is the fact that the proposals relating to people who will engage in onward travel to Northern Ireland are not clear at all. We tried to get some clarification on this the other day but it was not forthcoming. It seems, therefore, that the requirements for people travelling from those 20 designated countries will not apply to people who will be transiting on to Northern Ireland or people who are resident in Northern Ireland and who come through the Republic's airports, particularly Dublin Airport. Again, we have a loophole and another opportunity for a dodge. People will be arriving in with the same kind of public health concerns we have about people who live in counties Kerry, Wicklow, Galway or anywhere. They will be exempted and they will travel. They might get the train, Aircoach or Bus Éireann coach to travel the North. What is going to happen? Will that remain as a serious loophole? Will anything actually be done to ensure there are controls on the potential importation of the virus from those people?
Equally, the reverse of that is a matter of concern. As matters stand, people from the Republic who decide to travel into Belfast, for example, and who are coming from one of the designated countries are required, under legislation, to present themselves at a hotel for quarantine. Again, how on earth is that overseen? How does one monitor that? It is mind-boggling. There is no explanation for that whatsoever. Of course, we know about the lack of response from the authorities in the North throughout last summer in the Dublin dodge. That really is unforgivable. For the last nine or ten months, many of us have spoken about the need for an all-island strategy to address this issue of the importation of the virus. We know, of course, from the record now that there was little or no response from our Minister for Health or, indeed, the Government. At no point was a serious effort made to engage with authorities in Northern Ireland to work to achieve an all-island strategy. That was a major missed opportunity.
Of course, we need to learn from countries such as New Zealand and Australia that have implemented successful hotel-quarantining systems based on requirements for all incoming passengers regardless of the country of departure.
Those are the principles underpinning a successful strategy that has been used in many other countries. It has to be said that does not include European countries because Europe, in the main, has not responded to Covid particularly well. Apart from New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam, many other countries have led the way in how to respond successfully. It entails controlling the importation of the virus. Once that has been done and the numbers have reached a low level, which we achieved last summer and are capable of achieving again with political leadership, the reward is the opening of the domestic economy, domestic tourism and schools and a functioning social life. That is what we could achieve if a different approach were taken. It is not as if a lockdown to achieve that objective would take longer than what the Government is proposing now. Unfortunately, what the Government is proposing does not mean there is an end in sight. Rather, it is a recipe for rolling lockdowns. I cannot see that the Government is effectively doing anything different from what it has done for the past year.
Unfortunately, there are a number of unknowns in this legislation. It was rushed, in spite of the statement from NPHET on 8 May last year that a mandatory regime of self-isolation for 14 days at a designated facility for all persons arriving into Ireland from overseas was required. In recent weeks, NPHET has reiterated that any discretion on quarantining or isolation must be removed, yet the Government ignores its advice. The country has paid an enormous price for that failure.
I will make a couple of other points on the legislation as a number of matters are not clear. We should have had this legislation at least six months ago. It is now being rushed through very late in the day, which means there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. We had a short briefing on it the other morning, which is no way to do business. There are problems with the Bill, including potential loopholes, and we do not have adequate time to consider them. There is a lack of clarity on who will oversee all of these provisions. Concerns have been expressed about ensuring that we have adequate human rights protections in the Bill, similar to those that other countries have put in place. It is important that any exemptions to quarantine must be clear and effectively communicated to the public. It is also essential that a risk assessment, including a mental health assessment, is carried out on persons in State care, which is what quarantine would effectively entail. It is important that we have proper physical and mental health supports, oversight and services provided for people who are in quarantine.
What is not clear is what will happen if people do not pre-book for quarantining. Can the Minister guarantee that accommodation will be available? We do not know what practical steps have been taken so far. It seems the hotels, transport services, food and other catering services to be used, as well as details on the provision of health services, have not been finalised. It would be helpful if we could get a briefing on that because a briefing was not available this week when we requested one.
It is vital that this legislation is introduced. Notwithstanding how important it is and how rushed people are, it is also important that there is no compromise on proper procurement. We need to have transparent procurement for all of the necessary services I listed. We cannot have a repeat of what happened last year. The Minister will remember the scandal of the taxpayer paying €14 million for ventilators which were never used, the whereabouts of which we do not even know. It would appear that contract arose from personal contacts, potentially at a political level. I am still waiting to hear from the Tánaiste about claims that he had some involvement in the matter. I wish he would reply to my letters. We cannot have such a lack of transparency. However rushed this is, we have to do it properly and ensure the suppliers of services are reliable and trustworthy. We should not be operating on the basis of personal recommendations, particularly at a political level.
We will deal with amendments tomorrow. It is critical that the Minister listen to what other people are saying. He has been left to manage this issue. His colleagues, the Ministers for Transport, Justice and Foreign Affairs, have basically abandoned him to deal with it. It should not be that way. The Minister's colleagues did not take on their share of responsibility last year when they should have done so. It is important now that responsibility is shared. Given the huge workload of the Minister and his Department, I am concerned that many aspects of this proposal will be overlooked. The fundamental problem with the Bill, which we support in the main and in principle, is that it does not go anywhere near far enough if we are serious about clamping down on the importation of the virus. The public will not forgive the Government for that.
This legislation is necessary given the way the disease is unfolding. Having reflected on some of the discussions and debate around the Bill, I fear that travel is being presented as some sort of totemic issue in the belief that many of the answers to the challenge we face with Covid lie in banning and restricting incoming travel. That is not the case. There are many other challenges. We will be coming back to this legislation because there will be difficulties with implementing it. Difficult cases will arise over the coming weeks. For this reason, the legislation needs to be flexible in order to deal with the various demands of travel. We have to redouble our efforts to finding an all-island solution to this problem. This legislation will not be effective, whereas some sort of all-island policy on quarantine and testing could be agreed. We need to dedicate ourselves to achieving that.
People are in a very dark place. The last number of weeks have been difficult for everyone, as the Minister knows. I welcome the extra resources allocated to the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, for mental health services. It is important that those resources are spent and made available in communities around the country. I commend the Minister of State on her approach to the roll-out of the vaccination programme in nursing homes. That has been effective and has provided great assurance, not just to the residents but also to their families and nursing home staff. We are much further on than we were at the beginning of this process. I commend the Minister of State on that effort and I ask her to bring that same focus and effort to the roll-out of mental health supports to communities across the country in the context of Covid.
As I said, there are other issues that will also need to be reinforced and addressed again in our battle with Covid. I welcome the changes in the vaccination programme the Minister announced last night, which will see people with certain conditions moved up the list. I note again the role of family carers. I accept that if somebody moves up the queue, someone else must move down. However, the role of family carers in guarding against illness and doing unrecognised work to protect the health service needs to be reflected in the vaccine roll-out.
I also raise with the Minister the vaccine centres. County Mayo, the third largest county in the country, has only one such centre.
There needs to be a greater roll-out and greater availability of vaccine at the centre in Erris, which, unfortunately, has suffered so much Covid-related trauma in the past number of months, and also in Ballina and in east Mayo. There continues to be difficulties around the logistics of the delivery of vaccines, even for the over 85 cohort in which we are so progressed at this stage. GPs are still contacting me saying it is impossible to get information as to when they will get their schedule, which is due to be delivered by Friday week. There are lessons to be learned from the past three weeks in terms of that roll-out for the bigger roll-out. I hope that the Department takes the chance to roll those out and to work with the various supply chains so that they are resolved and that information is given.
Huge store is being placed on the vaccination programme and we all wish it success. However, it must work on the basis of building confidence, which, in fairness, has been done so far. We need to build confidence also in the logistics.
I ask people commenting on this Bill not to make something out of it that may not be in it in terms of its input.
Like Deputy Calleary, I was listening to the debate outside the Chamber. I was listening and reflecting on what different Deputies were saying. One phrase the Minister used at the outset of the debate was that not everybody will be happy with this legislation. That certainly seems to be the case. Some people do not think it goes far enough. Others think perhaps that it goes too far. I listened with amusement then to Members from one particular party on the left standing up, one by one, criticising people being unable to attend communions, parties and funerals. That very same party, as is well documented, attended a funeral in the North not so long ago and there was no question of fines, isolation or quarantine afterwards. It is quite hypocritical that they stand up, one by one, and throw those accusations when they themselves have not been seen to be overly compliant with regulations.
Returning to the Bill, for some people it will not go far enough but I believe it is welcome. I believe it gives us the necessary protection from people travelling into the State in terms of the possible spread of the virus but it also proposes to institute a quarantine regime that is appropriate and commensurate to the challenges posed by the virus.
I believe that what the Minister is proposing will complement the existing regulations around quarantine. I note that there are 18 additional countries on the category 2 list, which now comprises of 20 countries which are subject to stricter quarantine requirements. It goes without saying that the prevalence of the virus globally, its ability to reinvent itself as a different and sometimes deadlier strain, and its transmissibility require that the list of category 2 states needs to be constantly under review. Can the Minister elaborate on precisely what the qualifying criteria for such a state on that list is? It would give us some reassurance if the Minister could elaborate on that in his summation.
I note that the responsibility for designation of appropriate facilities falls to the Minister once he is satisfied that the facility is suitable and of sufficient quality to meet the health and welfare needs of those quarantining. I am sure the Minister is aware of the public inquiry in Australia in relation to difficulties with their quarantine programme. In fact, I can see that in the Bill the Minister has tightened up on issues such as the use of cleaners in facilities and how people here will be responsible for cleaning in their own rooms. Following on from that, I believe poor ventilation in rooms was another contributing factor to the poor performance in the Howard Springs complex near Darwin. I hope that the designation of such facilities here is thorough and that we learn from Australia's failings. My concern lies with the agreement the Minister or the HSE might have with these approved persons. Is there a template devised by the Department around the security of these facilities, provision around meals and other routine tasks in the facilities, the provision of training to staff, the use of personal protective equipment, PPE, etc.? These are some of the issues surrounding the problems referred to earlier in Australia and if the Minister could provide some detail in response to the requirements placed on these approved facilities, their obligations to those staffing these facilities etc. it might give a bit of reassurance to the public at large.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this.
Since day one, it has been essential that we bring the public with us every step of the way and in every decision during this Covid pandemic. However, each week it becomes more difficult to explain to the public the inconsistencies and decisions that the Government is making. The public wonder why they are restricted to 5 km and why they cannot visit family, go to church or do normal things. That has to be at present, but at the same time the Government has dragged its feet for ten months on mandatory quarantine and real restrictions on international travellers. Ten months ago, Sinn Féin called for a 14-day mandatory system of hotel quarantine for international inward travel. So did the Chief Medical Officer, as a matter of record. Finally, after all the foot-dragging, the Government has now at last moved on this issue, but only for 20 countries. This is worrying when the Brazilian and South African variants are on tour right across various continents.
We have also called for much more to be done to take advantage of the island's sea border. This is a challenge and yet the Government has shown a lack of leadership on North-South co-operation. Two weeks ago, I asked the Minister whether we had requested data sharing with his counterpart in the North. I ask the Minister again today has that been done. There has been no serious effort to support Sinn Féin's efforts to get the DUP to join a coherent all-island strategy to tackle Covid and place restrictions on ports in the North.
I will raise a few points around the vaccine. Capacity needs to be ramped up across the State. I am not fool enough to think that there is a silver bullet to solve this. It will take many measures to do it. We realise the difficulties involved but there are things we can do. We need to ramp up capacity so that when supply comes we can deliver it. We need to use Army medics. Can people who are medically trained within the Civil Defence and Order of Malta, who are trained in vaccinations, be used? That is happening in other countries.
With regard to centres, I am aware that the Pfizer vaccine cannot be used everywhere and can only be used in a controlled environment because of the temperature requirements. However, other vaccines can be stored in an ordinary fridge. Why are we not utilising town halls and community centres that we have at our disposal? They are empty at present. Why not use property that is owned by the local authority and parishes instead of using private venues all the time where someone makes a profit out of the pandemic?
Finally, testing and tracing needs to be improved. The recent halt to the programme for close contacts shows that it is not adequate. It is essential that we get this right and that the capacity is there to defeat the virus. We all know this. The Government knows it. We know it.
Even at this late stage, I call on the Government to use the options it has. The Government has options to improve the restrictions on international travel and increase all-island co-operation. We will support the Government every step of the way with that. Let us ramp up the vaccine roll-out. If we do these things, we have some hope of getting society back to a level of normality as soon as possible.
I am sharing time with Deputies Paul Murphy and Barry.
Sadly, this legislation on quarantine is the latest instalment in the totally defective and failed policy of the Government for dealing with Covid-19. To be honest, the legislation is nothing more than quarantine by name, but neither in effect nor in practice, for incoming travellers and therefore will continue to allow the virus and the variants to move into the country freely and completely undermine all of the huge sacrifice and hardship that the public are going through. People have endured two months of harsh lockdown but, because the Government refuses to introduce a mandatory quarantine on all non-essential travel into the country and simultaneously refuses to deal with those employers who are breaking the lockdown and ignoring the work-from-home provisions of public health, the Government is undermining huge sacrifices and efforts that everybody else is making and guaranteeing that the lockdown will go on indefinitely. The Government is prolonging the agony because of indecision and half-measures and this legislation is one of the most extreme examples of half-measures when it comes to dealing with the importation of the virus. The idea is to select 20 countries, particularly from Africa and Latin America, and one from Europe for some odd reason.
In respect of the majority of other countries - in Europe, the US and elsewhere - where we know that the virus is circulating at high rates and the variants will come from, there is a different set of rules and quarantining will not be required. That is madness. This decision is full of holes and renders the entire approach meaningless, but it is linked with the Government's half-baked policy for dealing with Covid.
I must take this opportunity to say that the Taoiseach should start being honest. He was thoroughly dishonest when he told Deputy Paul Murphy today that those who advocated for zero Covid wanted a longer lockdown. Under the Government's policies, we have been locked down for nine of the past 12 months and we will be locked down indefinitely because it continues to allow rogue employers to break lockdown regulations and allows incoming travel from countries from which we know the virus and its variants will come, thereby undermining public health efforts and the significant sacrifices that our healthcare workers have endured in dealing with the pandemic and guaranteeing the continuation of the surge-lockdown pattern. The Government has learned nothing, but it wants to pretend that it is doing something. Why it is doing this is inexplicable. The only reason I can imagine is that it has some misguided notion that this will protect certain economic interests. That would be short-sighted, though. In truth, failing to drive the virus down, chase it out and then prevent it from re-entering the country is a recipe for more severe and long-term economic damage, which is exactly what has happened.
We are arguing for a clear policy of acknowledging that we cannot live beside Covid-19. The idea that we can is a dangerous fantasy, and a fatal one for the more than 1,000 people who have lost their lives this year alone as a result of it. It is a half-life and not living for the majority of people who remain indefinitely locked down.
The virus will come to the country from abroad and chase us in our communities because that is what the Government is allowing it to do. The Government imagines that there are tolerable levels of infection. People should think about this. The Government is already talking about lifting restrictions when infection levels are still three times higher than when it lifted restrictions in December. It imagines that it will be able to manage and control this situation even while operating a quarantine regime that does not apply to the majority of countries where the virus and its variants are circulating. That is madness. I appeal to the Government to wake up. It is taking a serious gamble. Ironically, it is worsening the possibility of losing that gamble through its half measures in respect of the travel quarantine. If the virus continues to circulate and the Government continues to allow more variants into the country because it will not impose a quarantine on travel from most of the countries from which they come, the chances of the vaccination programme on which we are all depending being undermined are greater. The greater the number of variants that enter the country, the more the virus circulates and the greater the possibility that one of the variants will evade the vaccine. Then we will be in serious trouble. If, on the other hand, the Government drives community transmission levels down to zero, it has the public health infrastructure and tracing and testing infrastructure to deal with outbreaks, and it prevents the reseeding of the virus through travel into the country, the likelihood of the vaccination programme being effective in eliminating Covid-19, allowing us to get our lives back and ending the misery of a semi-permanent cycle of surge and lockdown is far greater.
I will make a few specific points about the legislation. We have tabled amendments to the effect that all countries and non-essential travel should be subject to mandatory quarantine. We have also tabled amendments to deal with the outsourcing facilitated by this legislation. It is noticeable that Australia, which runs an effective quarantine regime, does not allow outsourcing. The Government is planning to outsource many elements of the services that would provide the quarantine facilities to agencies and other business interests that want to make money out of them. Not only is that disgraceful, in that it potentially facilitates people profiteering from the quarantine regime, but it also threatens to undermine the health purpose of quarantine. If agency workers move from one quarantine location to another, the possibility that they will spread the disease is heightened. This is specifically precluded in Australia, where people are directly employed by the state authorities and stay at one location so that they do not spread the virus.
We do not understand why the Government has made a series of exceptions. In particular, why are politicians, diplomats and state officials exempted from the mandatory quarantine provisions? Is there some notion that politicians and diplomats cannot carry the virus? It is ridiculous. Politicians, diplomats and state officials should be subject to the same rules. Of course we need haulage, direct logistical work and so on, but I do not know why the Government is allowing so many exceptions.
My final point is related. The Government praises the healthcare workers who have borne the brunt of this crisis on the Covid front line when it needs them or wants to exploit them, but it abandons them when it believes no one is looking. It should be noted that the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, stated in recent days that student nurses and midwives, to whom promises were made about recognising and acknowledging their work while on placements on the Covid front line in our health service, had been abandoned. The Government has abandoned them. They are either not getting paid or those who are getting paid anything are being paid less than they were last March. They are even being told that they may have to repay the time lost on placements later in the summer, meaning that they will be punished for working on the Covid front line. That is a disgraceful treatment of our student nurses and midwives.
For months, RISE and People Before Profit have been to the fore in calling for mandatory hotel quarantine for all incoming travellers as part of a zero Covid strategy that is based on socialist policies. We are not alone in this. Nine and a half months ago, NPHET wrote to the Government calling for “a mandatory regime of self-isolation for 14 days at a designated facility for all persons arriving into Ireland from overseas”. That was 8 May. It repeated its call in August. That call has overwhelming public support. Multiple opinion polls show that approximately 90% of the public agree that we should be banning non-essential travel and that all essential travellers into the country should have to undergo 14-day mandatory hotel quarantine.
What we have in the Bill is not the mandatory hotel quarantining that NPHET was looking for, that the socialist left has been calling for and that has vast public support. Instead, we have a half-hearted attempt to pretend that the Government is introducing the necessary mandatory hotel quarantining. It is the practical equivalent of closing one window in an entire house when all of the other windows and the front and back doors are still open. It will affect a tiny minority of travellers coming to the State.
Unless we hear from the Government that it will be taking on board the Opposition's amendments we will be opposing this legislation and demanding instead that we have proper mandatory quarantine for all incoming travellers from all countries, without the sort of scope for outsourcing and profiteering that is contained in the legislation.
I want to focus on three key issues. The first is the structure of the Bill. While it is true that the 20 countries the Minister plans to include with a statutory instrument are not mentioned in the Bill, the Bill explicitly provides that countries will be added only on a state-by-state basis. With this legislation, the Government cannot do what is necessary. After this Bill passes, the Government cannot be persuaded that we must have full mandatory quarantine for all travellers. One cannot do this with the legislation. It is structurally entirely inadequate. What we should be doing is starting with the position of quarantining all travellers from all countries and then we can, bit by bit, establish green zones for international travel and take countries off the list. Instead, the Government is doing the exact opposite and is locking it in with the legislation.
The second point is on the provisions in the proposed section 38H, which is a recipe for outsourcing on a massive scale. The legislation provides massive opportunities for profiteering. As our amendment sets out, this should be provided by the HSE or another public body on a not-for-profit basis. Deputy Boyd Barrett made the point on Australia. There was a case, for example, in Victoria where some of these operations were outsourced and it was a disaster. The conclusion was that if it is done on a for-profit basis, there will be attempts to scrimp and save to maximise profits, there will be the transfer of staff from one location to another because they are poorly paid and public health will be undermined.
The third point is the list of countries. This morning, the Tánaiste asked why we would put someone in a hotel for two weeks when there is no Covid in those countries, speaking about the Isle of Man and Iceland. He did not ask why we would not put someone in a hotel when they are coming from countries such as the US and Britain, were Covid is absolutely rampant. It is very concerning that we have a list of 20 countries, 16 of 17 of which are based in Africa, when members of the US military are able to walk in here repeatedly and, at least three times in Shannon Airport, not abide by the guidelines. There is no quarantine for them and they are able to flaunt the regulations. It is the same with Britain. We have the British variant and the Californian variant. Will the Government act to say that now we will have to have quarantine for the US or Britain? I very much doubt it.
The Government relented to the retail and hospitality lobby and opened up in the run-up to Christmas. This created a perfect storm for the virus with deadly consequences. We need a radically different approach to that of bending to the will of business interests. Instead, we need an approach that will put the interests of public health first. We need to go after this virus and repress it to single digit cases, speed up the vaccine programme, roll out mass testing and repress it further, thereby avoiding the need for yo-yo lockdowns and saving lives. The failure of governments to repress the virus has led to the development of new strains. This danger will continue due to vaccine hoarding by richer states and profiteering by the pharmaceutical industry, which is putting the vaccines out of the reach of the majority of the world's population for the foreseeable future.
The emergence of new strains, combined with the need to repress the virus, points to the necessity for a very serious approach to international travel. We agree on the need for all people entering the State to undergo a quarantine of 14 days. There are legitimate fears about quarantines not been properly respected. There have been cases of outbreaks linked to travel, especially over the summer when tourism travel was permitted and even promoted. There needs to be a significant boost to the resources given to assisting and checking people who are quarantining.
This is not enough. Despite coming forward with the Bill, the Government has still not banned non-essential international travel. It is still possible to board a flight to or from here without having to show the trip is essential. This should be the case. For those who must travel, if travel is essential, there should be an obligation to have a negative test before travel and for quarantine to be respected and checked by public health officials. In fact, more resources need to be put into this. People in this situation must be given information, advice and support to quarantine effectively, including income support to remove an economic push for people to break quarantine. Hotel facilities should be provided free of charge for people to quarantine safely where they feel they cannot otherwise do so such as, for example, people in crowded housing situations.
There is clearly a strong case for extreme caution with regard to people travelling from areas with high levels of infection or where new more virulent or dangerous strains of Covid are circulating. However, we in Solidarity have serious concerns about the legislation. The plan put forward in the Bill represents a very serious restriction on civil liberties. Of course, we all have had impacts on our civil liberties due to public health measures but this is a form of detention without trial, with people being kept in solitary confinement for a period of two weeks. We must be extremely cautious in giving the State these powers.
We note and agree with the concerns raised by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties and Nasc about the Bill. The ICCL points to the need for any measure that is a severe restriction on civil liberties to be proportionate to the public health risks and for the right of detainees to access medical and legal services, to have a system of inspections and for facilities to be staffed with fully trained individuals who understand their duty of care to detainees. Nasc, which advocates for refugees and asylum seekers, has pointed out how the Bill will disproportionately impact a small but highly vulnerable number of refugees and family members.
Of particular concern is the manner in which these facilities will be outsourced to the private sector. Giving private profit-maximising companies the right to preside over the detention of people with next to or no real oversight is very problematic. The profit motive will mean an incentive for skimping on facilities for detainees, on staffing levels and on infection control. Many of the people entering these facilities will be in vulnerable situations, for example, people returning from family crises, elderly people, people who do not speak English and people with physical and mental health difficulties but no real protections or provisions for their needs are outlined in the Bill.
The charging of the full cost of the centres to the travellers, estimated at approximately €2,000, will give a massive incentive to people to travel indirectly and to not declare themselves upon entry. These facilities need to be provided free of charge and run on a not-for-profit basis. Profiteering from these facilities will also give an economic incentive for private companies to push for these facilities to last longer than is warranted by public health advice. There is a danger that this quarantine policy could, therefore, develop into a more long-term attack on the rights of migrants, with people from poorer parts of the world particularly affected as the wealthy nations hoard the vaccines and leave them to suffer the virus for longer.
We need to suppress the virus. As part of this, we need to take serious steps on international travel but it would be foolish to allow the State and private companies this level of power, which can lead to a myriad of abuses. For these reasons, and for others I will outline on Committee Stage, I will not support the Bill.
I welcome the proposed travel restrictions. While travel-related cases have remained relatively low, it is time to introduce travel restrictions of this nature. We know from countries such as Australia that mandatory hotel quarantine, if done correctly, is hugely effective at managing travel-related cases. Our cases have reached a concerning plateau, due in part to the UK variant, which is 90% more transmissible and now accounts for 90% of our cases. It has contributed to much of the devastation and frustration felt over the past few months.
Mandatory hotel quarantine will help stem the spread of new variants but it will not affect holidaymakers. Last month, in one single day, 800 people entered Ireland, of whom 542 were Irish and almost 400 of these were returning from a holiday abroad. Countries included in our proposed list for hotel quarantine are not typical holiday destinations for Irish people. It is my genuine fear that we are missing a trick here. Anecdotally, I have heard of Irish people factoring in the price of travel fines to their holiday budgets. Worse again, we have instances of people being stopped and fined by the Garda but still continuing to board a plane and fly to their holiday destination simply because they can. Covid-19 does not care where people are coming from or how far they have travelled. Covid-19 does not continue in the same breath.
We do not know where the next variant will originate or how transmissible it will be. Exactly a year ago this week, the very first case of Covid-19 was detected in Ireland. It entered through the arrival gates of Dublin Airport. Since then, two new strains have come through Dublin Airport. The latest variant associated with California has a very real chance of making it to Irish shores because the United States is not one of the 20 designated countries on the current list.
If we allow people to take non-essential journeys into Ireland and simply ask them to self-isolate, we do a disservice to all of the sacrifices Irish people have made. The message is clear. Do not travel outside of the 5 km limit unless absolutely necessary. Holidaymakers are choosing to disregard the 5 km limit, not just to travel outside of their county but outside of their country in the midst of a global pandemic. One would have to think that maybe those same people will choose to disregard quarantine advice unless they are forced to do so. I ask the Minister to seriously consider extending the list of countries requiring mandatory hotel quarantine beyond the 20 high-risk countries. I appreciate he can do that as he sees fit under the proposed legislation.
I welcome the clauses in the Bill that make provision for unaccompanied minors or those seeking international protection. I would like to draw his attention to people who have been granted a legal right to enter the State as family members of refugees or under the international humanitarian admission programme. It is not practical for these people to further delay their travel to Ireland for a number of reasons. In some circumstances, the family is in danger until such time as they can leave the country.
NGOs, including Nasc, a taxpayer-funded NGO, expend significant efforts working with international NGOs to reunite refugee families in Ireland. If travel is delayed and documents expire, the process and effort would have to begin again. At the moment, the Department of Justice sets out a 12-month deadline by which a family member must enter the State or lose that right.
Many refugee families benefit from means-tested financial assistance towards the cost of flights from the Irish Red Cross administered travel assistance scheme. That programme will probably not be able to bear the additional costs of quarantine. I ask the Minister to either consider further the proposed section 38B in section 7 of the Bill to allow the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to designate quarantine accommodation for newly arriving family members or commit to funding quarantine for people coming in under the programmes. The number of such persons would be in the dozens nationally. This will be small changes for the State but would have a significant benefit for the families involved.
I thank the Minister. I welcome the Bill and will of course support it. I have said that I would have liked it to go a bit further but I appreciate that it is being introduced and it cannot be passed too soon.
Part of how we tackle and suppress the virus involves international travel. Our testing regime will be an important part of how we suppress the virus. I want to extol the benefits of rapid antigen testing and the important role it could play in getting to a point where we can suppress the virus and once again open up society. It is fast, cheap and effective and can be a significant tool in slowing down and stopping transmission in offices, nursing homes, building sites, factories and schools. We need to explore that option more closely and roll it out. I am not asking for it to replace PCR testing but I ask that we use it in conjunction with such testing because it can help to identify pockets of the disease and help us stop them from spreading.
I also want to take this opportunity to speak about the roll-out of vaccines and vaccinations at home. Unfortunately, some elderly and vulnerable members of our societies and communities simply cannot make the journey from their homes to their GPs to be vaccinated. I know of a 94-year-old woman who suffers from severe dementia. The ordeal of being transferred from her home to a GP for a vaccination is too much and would have a significant negative impact on her. There are issues with transporting vaccines and they have to be kept at a certain temperature. People cannot wait for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which would solve such issues, to come on board. Can the Minister consider vaccinations at home and some method of bringing vaccines to elderly and vulnerable people in our community who cannot make a journey to a local GP because of the impact it would have on their health?
I have never met so many frustrated and angry people. I have received correspondence and have spoken to people on the telephone who are exasperated. They are exasperated because it has been a year since the first case of Covid-19 entered our shores, yet today we are talking about at some point in the near future putting in place mandatory quarantine for international visitors.
Even then, it will not be a comprehensive and mandatory quarantine system that we know will make a difference. Many people have told me that they are willing to put up with the sacrifices they have been asked to make, including their children's mental health, the exasperation in their children's eyes and frustration among their colleagues. They are even willing to close their businesses if that sacrifice on their part is matched by action on the part of the Government. It has not been in the areas where it really matters. International travel is one area in which the Government has been blind and is steadfast in its refusal to put in place the measures required.
I refer to meat factories. I have spoken on countless occasions to the Minister, his predecessor, the current Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and his predecessor and have pleaded for adequate controls to be put in place. At the outset of the pandemic we knew meat factories were a breeding ground for this virus. We have seen a carte blancheapproach and a free rein being given to meat factories to such an extent that I firmly believe the Brazilian variant reported in this country is directly linked to meat factories and encompasses and represents the inaction and failure of the Government to put in place the protections that are necessary.
We have heard about six rounds of serial testing in our meat plants. It is clearly not enough. We know that because when it came to the point where the State had almost no cases of Covid, meat factories were ground zero in terms of the re-emergence of the second wave. Time will tell what role they played in the third wave.
Meat factories are, of course, an essential part of the food production system. That does not and cannot give them the right to wreak havoc. It does not give the Government the right to turn a blind eye. I ask the Minister and Cabinet to put in place the measures that will ensure workers in our meat plants are protected by being tested on a regular basis and that controls are put in place. If a meat factory, due to a lack of due diligence, becomes a source of yet another community cluster, the provisions by which the owners of those factories are held financially responsible need to be in place.
I welcome mandatory hotel quarantine. It should have been introduced several months ago. However late, it is a significant step forward. It will be one more gaping hole filled in our fight against the ever-evolving Covid crisis. I fully support the call from my colleague, Deputy Berry, for the Defence Forces to provide security at hotels selected for mandatory quarantine. They are highly trained, accountable, responsible and much better positioned to carry out such a task. The hiring of private security firms would be a misuse of money when Army personnel can carry out this task as part of their assigned work.
I also wish to take this opportunity to acknowledge the involvement of members of the Garda in the overseeing of quarantine. Once again, they are being asked to risk their health and that of their families through direct involvement with people who may be infected with Covid. In recent months, members of the Garda have expressed concerns about entering places where unlawful gatherings of people were taking place.
Now we are calling on them to address breaches of quarantine rules. We owe members of the Garda a great debt of gratitude for the role they play on our behalf. They must be vaccinated as a matter of priority. They are entitled to protection from Covid-19 in the line of duty.
Mandatory quarantine should be introduced in tandem with other actions. I have called in the past for the enhancement of testing and tracing. It is also vital to introduce widespread, rapid antigen testing, which has allowed numerous workplaces to remain Covid-free.
The greatest weapon we have in this war is the Covid vaccine, and it must be the primary focus of the Government. Mass vaccination will give people some semblance of normality and a sense of freedom and control in their lives. No single issue since the start of this pandemic has monopolised the minds of people like the Covid vaccine. People are devouring information. They want to know what is happening and to see the evidence that something is happening. They need reassurance that the Government not only recognises, but shares, their sense of urgency. The Government will ultimately be judged on the successful roll-out of the vaccine. If the people of the country deem the roll-out to be successful, the Government will be remembered as the one that brought the country through a pandemic. If the roll-out is considered to be slipshod or ineffective, it will not be forgiven.
People are looking enviously at Britain as it plans a full reopening of the country in June. Britain outsmarted the European Commission. The EU central purchasing strategy is flawed. The European Union's procurement of vaccines has been a shambles. The Commission was slow off the mark. It did not order on time and did not secure a sufficient supply. It is now playing catch-up and making excuses for its incompetence. The European Commission has let down the citizens of Europe. The lack of certainty about schedules and deliveries has impaired vaccinations in Ireland and across Europe. A shortage of vaccines has implications for the health of citizens. The slow roll-out has a massive impact on our ability to reopen society and get our economy moving again.
At the same time, people in Ireland are getting mixed messages about how soon different categories of the population will be called for vaccination. We must have clarity and certainty. People's stress and anxiety are mounting. Family carers appear to have been ignored again in yesterday's revised primary list. The Government must allay fears and give people hope. Competition is growing among vaccine manufacturers and supplies will become available and plentiful. The focus should now switch to ensuring that the logistics are in place for when the vaccine arrives. The messaging must be strong, clear and accurate and leave no room for dispute. Information given to the public must be beyond contradiction.
Vaccination centres must be prepared and functional in advance. When the vaccines arrive, it should be just a matter of opening the door and being ready to start. Rosters for vaccinators should also be drawn up well in advance of the arrival of the vaccines. There is no wisdom in waiting until shipments have arrived to establish when vaccinators can be available. We must know that they are engaged and ready to start. People want to get vaccinated. They want their lives back. At this point in the traumatic and destructive Covid journey, people will do whatever it takes to bring the end nearer.
I welcome the Minister. I am conscious of the clock so I will be as brief as possible to allow my colleagues to contribute before the close of business.
I wish to make five points. First, I welcome this legislation. Of course, it is belated. We would all prefer to have mandatory hotel quarantine up and running at present, but it is better late than never.
Second, I believe the legislation strikes the appropriate balance. For example, I welcome the safeguards for unaccompanied minors and the fact that there is a prompt appeals mechanism for humanitarian cases. Most importantly, it is very good that a sunset clause is included. If the legislation is enacted, it must be rolled over every three months by a motion of the Dáil. That is a good principle and practice for other legislation as well.
Third, I echo what some other Deputies have said in this debate. I do not believe the Department of Health should be in the lead on this matter. The Minister and the Department are already overloaded. The Department of Justice, the Department of Transport or even the Department of Defence, as is the case in New Zealand, should take the lead on this system. The HSE is already running three new streams that did not even exist 12 months ago. It is running testing, tracing and vaccination. Including quarantining as a fourth arm of the State is too much for the HSE. One of the other Departments should take the lead.
My fourth point relates to people coming from Northern Ireland, either transiting through it or residents of Northern Ireland. As I am not convinced that the mandatory hotel quarantining system will capture all those people, perhaps the Minister will elaborate in that regard in his closing remarks.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, the key point is that nothing but the highest professional standards must exist in these designated facilities. We see from the example of Australia that if there are lax standards, far from helping, it will hinder matters or cause a further issue. The last thing one wants is these designated facilities to become epicentres or clusters of the virus. Anything we can do from that perspective should be welcomed.
In conclusion, I thank the Minister for bringing this legislation forward. I look forward to his closing remarks in which, perhaps, he will expand a little on how the legislation will operate on the ground.
It is no exaggeration to say that the population is becoming traumatised by the continuing effects of Covid-19. This is the last time we should ask the Irish people to continue with level 5 restrictions, albeit softening them slowly. There is no doubt that significant mental stress has resulted for many in the population. This has been particularly so for the education sector, especially special education and the many teachers, carers, parents and pupils. The latest announcements regarding the return to school are welcome, especially for leaving certificate students, early years education and those in special education.
Like many others, I welcome the re-prioritisation of vulnerable and immunosuppressed people in the vaccination schedule. I believe the Government will also have to consider some cohorts in the carer sector for priority vaccination, given the exceptional difficulty that could occur for a vulnerable person if the person's carer becomes indisposed due to Covid-19.
However, even as the Government commits to schooling and vaccination, there is very little in the plan for the private business sector or for those who depend on the hospitality and tourism sectors for their livelihood. We all understand that transmission of the virus is the arbiter of opening up the economy but significant questions remain for me and many others. What is the overall action plan, aside from waiting on sufficient vaccine supply, to prise ourselves out of this situation? The vaccine strategy is fraught with danger on two levels in particular. One is that we may not secure appropriate supplies for a considerable length of time. For all the time that we depend solely on a vaccine fix, we risk a new variant of Covid coming into the country and undoing all the hard work the population has done to date. We have seen how the British variant has become the dominant strain in less than 12 weeks, and the Brazilian variant has been identified in the North of Ireland. How can we protect our future, hard-won gains if we cannot protect our borders and the movement of people throughout our country? We have had months to consider border restrictions and full quarantine, yet we faced waiting for weeks for legislation to be drafted. This can hardly be deemed to be acceptable.
Along with the furloughed economy, there is now a tsunami of deferred activity in the hospital sector, with waiting lists doubling from the position 12 months ago. One of the services that is restarting is BreastCheck, which has been closed for many months and has over 240,000 on the mammogram waiting list. This scanning was deemed unsafe due to Covid transmission rates, but how is it there was no proposal to try to provide screen testing to BreastCheck patients in advance of their scans to keep the service operational? This sounds like failure, not fail-safe. The same rationale applies to many other activities, both public and private, that are currently furloughed. Could our health experts not follow the leads of countries such as England, Germany, France and the US and implement antigen screen testing in many of our work settings? What is to stop us screen testing construction workers every two days using antigen tests, to open the construction sector and monitor the testing effectiveness? There are many other sectors and areas that could benefit from this approach.
The current planned pathway gives nothing certain to the business sector other than the promise of continuing support, which, for many, is like pumping oxygen into a dead body.
Many private business owners are facing significant warehoused debt and demands for rent and utilities. Moreover, they are incurring significant interest penalties on long-term loans on which the banks are once again looking for payment. Many owners know full well that when they resume trading, their revenue will be a fraction of it was pre-Covid and is likely to remain that way, leaving their business technically insolvent. These businesses need something like certainty.
The Government should implement the kind of steps that were spoken about early on in the crisis, namely, widespread population screening, rigorous testing and border controls. I do not think that we can continue to limp along, waiting on European medicine supplies to fully deliver us from this crisis. We need to find new ways to live with this virus while we wait for the technology, which hopefully will fully eradicate it in the future.