Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Committee Stage
Amendments Nos. 1 and 31 to 42, inclusive, are related. Amendments Nos. 32 to 42, inclusive, are physical alternatives to amendment No. 31. Amendments Nos. 1 and 31 to 42 will be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, to delete line 2 and substitute the following: “ ‘designated state’—
(a) on the coming into operation of this Act, means any country, territory, region or other place outside the State other than Northern Ireland,
(b) if at any time after passing a resolution under section 9(5)of the Health (Amendment) Act 2021both Houses of the Oireachtas so resolve, has the meaning assigned to it by section 38E(1);”.
Our amendment will provide for mandatory hotel quarantine for all travellers coming into the State, with the exception of those outlined therein. We will also have to deal with the issue of essential workers. According to what is being proposed by the Government, travellers who have been in designated states within 14 days prior to arrival will be obliged to undergo a 14-day period of quarantine. They will be able to exit quarantine only if they return a not-detected Covid test on arrival and again on the tenth day of their quarantine. The rule in respect of non-designated states, however, is that travellers will be quarantined only if they arrive without a non-detected PCR test, until such a test is returned.
Our amendment defines all states outside the island as designated states. It will allow for the Bill's proposed two-tier system of designated and non-designated states to come into operation only if the Houses pass an enabling resolution and only after an initial blanket three-month designation period. This approach will ensure that all travellers are quarantined for the next three months while we fight and suppress the virus and while the vaccination is rolled out, and will allow for a review after that. It will keep out variants and provide the comfort we need to give to the people that their sacrifices are worth it.
I listened carefully to what the Minister said about what the Government is proposing. As stated previously, he should not be the Minister introducing this legislation. We are where we are, however. The Government is doing the absolute minimum on mandatory hotel quarantining. What is proposed only covers 20 countries. Why is this the case? Why is it doing the absolute minimum? The public has suffered enough and deserves to have mandatory hotel quarantining to fight the variants, giving them an opportunity hopefully to be able to move on a bit better with their lives. We should be doing everything we can to help the people we are here to represent to be able to get on with their lives. We are not going to introduce mandatory quarantine. Rather, the Government is going to try to deal with the matter by means of this minimalistic legislation. Yesterday I listened to the Minister say that the Bill is radical. What is being done in South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and other countries is pretty radical; this Bill is not radical.
There is no point in taking a half-baked approach to this matter. That is my belief and the belief many Opposition Members. It is rare to see such unity on something, but this is it. It is my view and the view of the Labour Party that introducing this legislation will not have the desired impact. I am not sure how many people would be arriving from some of the 20 designated countries on the list at the best of times, let alone now. This is half-baked. I hope that I do not end up telling the Minister later this year that I told him so. I genuinely hope we do not end up in that place because if we do it will be very dark.
The Government is leaving gaping holes in our defence against the variants. We need to suppress this virus and try to shut it down absolutely. We all know now about the variants. We are hearing that there is now even a Bristol variant. There is a Californian variant. We know about the South African variant and the Brazilian variant that are here. As a result of these variants, we basically have a pandemic within a pandemic, a virus within a virus. This is leaving gaping holes in our defences at such a critical period when we are trying to maximise the effectiveness of our vaccine roll out. It is incomprehensible that the Government would, in an equation-like fashion, not put its own people first.
The crux of the matter is as follows. The virus and its variants are on tour. We know some of the incidence of the Brazilian variant here has been as a result of people travelling in from Brazil. If we continue to allow people to come in from other countries, including even European countries, to come here and then ask them to be honour-bound and quarantine themselves, variants will spread. The variants will spread because they are coming in already. The Brazilian and South African variants do not need to come from Brazil or South Africa. They can come from London, Lanzarote or Lisbon. They can come from anywhere. Why are we not doing everything we can for a particular period in order to protect our people? Why is the following equation going against the Irish people? On the one hand, the Government is limiting everyone's travel to a distance of 5 km but, on the other, we are allowing people in from all over the world and, even though it is a legal requirement, trusting them to quarantine at home for 14 days.
There are two choices here. What is being done shows an absolute failure on the part of Government that it is choosing to go against the public. The public are behind the Opposition on this issue. All surveys and analysis show this to be the case. People are at their wits' end. That is why we desperately need to go down the route the Labour Party is advocating. This is part of a bigger jigsaw of ways in which we need to deal with this virus. The edges of all the other components of the jigsaw get worn and then the whole thing falls apart because this is the critical piece. If we fail to deal with the variants, all our other work will be undone because there are so many unknowns involved.
Some people have said that travel only accounts for a tiny number of infections. I have two issues with that. First, the British variant did not arrive here as a result of misfortune. It arrived here because people travelled here. This variant is more deadly than the original virus. It is far more infectious, spreads quicker and hits different cohorts of people that the first virus did not hit in the same way. Second, when people talk about variants and travel, they need to remember that people who travel are highly prone to infection and have the capacity to spread disease quickly. People are at their wits' end. Even though only a small percentage are travelling, it does not matter how small it is. It can magnify and once it does, we have a problem.
Our amendment seeks to remedy the glaring omission in this legislation. I wish to make a number of other points on the amendment and the legislation. Those points go hand in hand. I cannot understand why it has taken since May of last year to introduce any form of legislation relating to quarantine. To avoid the need to use freedom of information requests, parliamentary questions, etc., I ask the Minister to outline why the conversation stopped last May. Why has it taken until now to do this? What were the blockages? Where they at political level our civil servant level? Step by step, what happened from May until now?
We continually hear that NPHET advises and that the Government is following NPHET's advice. It certainly is not following NPHET here; it is going against public health advice. Surely public health advice is that we should keep all the variants out as much as possible and use all the tools at our disposal. The Government has gone against public health advice for the past nine months. What has happened? I welcome that the Minister has spoken to his counterpart in New Zealand in recent weeks. All the research on how we should be doing this as an island nation should have been done long before that. I wonder if, psychologically, there is some issue at the heart of Government that has opposed this for a longer period.
I personally think there is.
I was taken by the Tánaiste's comments on multiple programmes yesterday, where he said that we need a differentiated approach because the Isle of Man and Iceland do not have Covid. It was said to me a number of times yesterday that that was a ridiculous example. This is not about a differentiated approach. This is about maximising and ensuring that our people are protected. A differentiated approach may be laudable in different circumstances but we are in the heart of the pandemic and at a very critical juncture. This is not the time for a differentiated approach.
When people come into this country from countries with high Covid rates and are asked to quarantine legally for 14 days, why are they not PCR tested after quarantine, in the middle of it or when they arrive? I asked the Minister about this yesterday so I would appreciate if he could formulate a reply. It seemed from his reaction yesterday that he thought it was possibly worthy of consideration.
I thank him for verifying that. If the Oireachtas decides to go down the Government's route, which I oppose and I hope it does not do so, I urge the Government to implement that testing as part of it. That would give at least some form of confidence to people, even if it is a weakened confidence.
Human nature means that a significant percentage of people will not unilaterally and absolutely adhere to a self-imposed quarantine. We all saw that with the people coming back into the country at Christmas. There is no way they adhered to a quarantine, as it would not have been worth their while coming home if they did. Can we deal with that?
How are the measures being proposed going to be implemented? The general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, Antoinette Cunningham, said she had absolutely no idea about gardaí policing mandatory quarantine, whether at home or in hotels, as is proposed in this legislation. How is that possible? I have spoken to many members of An Garda Síochána. Many Members here have friends in An Garda Síochána, such as people we went to school with or grew up with, neighbours or family members in some cases. I have not met one garda yet or heard one story of An Garda Síochána being asked to call to somebody's home to check if they were quarantining. Not one. Zero. None. If anybody in this House has heard of that happening, I ask them to tell us because it would be news to me and many others.
As for the infrastructure around this, what has been done in the time preceding the introduction of this legislation as regards hotels, transport and the health requirements of those who will be quarantining in hotels? Deputy Berry spoke about the use of the Army. How far down the line is the Government on all these issues, considering the amount of time that has passed and that nothing has been done?
There is one other glaring issue in what the Government is proposing versus what we in the Labour Party, together with some other Opposition parties and Independents, are proposing. The UK has a list of 33 countries for which people have to quarantine. Why is the Government only proposing 20? Why is there a differential between the two islands? The UK's list has 33 countries versus 20 in what the Government has proposed. It seems illogical to me, given that we have been talking about an all-island or two-island approach.
This amendment is a critical one for us. It is one of the most important votes we as a House are going to have during this pandemic. There are some members of Government who, dare I say it, reluctantly believe that the limited, half-baked mandatory hotel quarantine system it is putting forward will work, nine months after it was asked for in the public health advice. The Government says it always follows public health advice but it failed to do so in this case. There are also those of us who believe the Irish people deserve respect, to be given every chance and an opportunity to get out of being locked into operating within 5 km of their homes in the coming months. The Irish people deserve the best chance against the biggest threats and anybody would acknowledge that the biggest threat at this moment is the variants that are coming down the road. If the Minister goes down this route he will not be giving the Irish people the best chance. I do not want to be standing up here again in the future reminding him that he has failed the Irish people. There is an equation in the decision that has to be made today. Will the Government put the Irish people first or will it put a failed strategy first? Our proposal protects the Irish people as much as possible, whereas the Government's is a failed strategy. I will be asking everybody in this House to support the Labour Party amendment, on which we intend to call a vote later today.
I support the Labour Party amendment, as well as amendment No. 31, which is in the name of two Sinn Féin Deputies. A number of these amendments are grouped. We had lengthy discussions on Second Stage, in which we set out our overall view of the Bill and the Government's failure in this area. At the heart of that failure is the matter being addressed by the amendments tabled by various Opposition groupings. The reason there is unity among the Opposition on this is that it makes sense. It is simply common sense that we would put in place mandatory hotel quarantine for all non-essential travel, irrespective of where somebody is coming from. For the vast majority of people, that makes sense and opinion polls show it is supported by over 90% of the people in this State. It seems that everybody accepts this is a good idea, except for the Cabinet, the Government and the Minister for Health.
Nine months ago, NPHET argued with the Government and recommended that it remove all discretionary elements of the travel checks. The Government refused to listen to it. Members of the Opposition went on numerous television and radio programmes and argued with the Minister, his colleagues in government and backbench Deputies about the Government's disastrous policy on checks and controls at airports. Every time the proposal for quarantine was raised in this House by Opposition Deputies, it was knocked back by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Ministers for Transport and for Health or others. They said it was simply not necessary and not possible. Here we are, nine months later, and all of a sudden mandatory hotel quarantine is possible. However, it is only possible for people coming from some countries and not people coming from all countries. While one could argue that a half measure is better than no measure, in reality that is not the case because of the new variants and strains of this virus, which are highly contagious and dangerous.
The refusal of the Government to listen to the public health advice nine months ago, and since then, has led us to a situation where the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has had to scramble to put in place legislation at the eleventh hour. The Minister still has not worked out all of the details of how this is going to work and he has not given us a date for when this Bill, if enacted, will come into effect. We are not in a position to give any of that information to the public; nor is the Minister because if he could he would be communicating it to us. The Minister, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party when pressed on this issue today, have not been able to give us a satisfactory or reasonable answer as to why mandatory quarantine cannot be put in place for all non-essential travellers irrespective of what country they come from.
We have heard from the Tánaiste that one of the reasons may be because Iceland, the Isle of Man and other countries have low levels of the variant and so we should not seek to stop people from those countries coming here. One can only imagine what that does to somebody who, at this point in time, is at home, working from home, as he or she has been doing for months now, the person who has lost his or her job and is at home, staying indoors other than to grocery shop or to avail of an essential service and the parents of children who have been home-schooled for the past number of months. It is important to bear in mind that people having been living with some of form of restrictions for months. One can only imagine how people feel on hearing that people from Iceland and the Isle of Man can travel into Ireland while they cannot leave their homes unless for essential purposes or to take exercise, but only within 5 km of their home. Yet, travel is still permitted. The fact the Government does not get that anger and frustration and the logic of that, or the illogic of its position as people see it, is infuriating.
Essentially, the Minister is saying to Members of this House that he is putting in place a two-tier quarantine system. There will be mandatory hotel quarantine for people coming from some countries such that we will have some level of protection. I imagine the reason for that is to stop the importation of any of the new variants or the virus itself. We are imposing quarantine in respect of travel from some countries but for other countries we are going to continue with the nod and wink home quarantine, which is no quarantine at all. It is quarantine in name only.
We heard yesterday from the general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, that there was no consultation with that organisation in relation to the role it will play in policing this legislation. She said they had been given no operational instructions and no guidelines. The Government is telling us that this will be enforced and this can work, yet the organisation that will be tasked with enforcing it has not been consulted or given any instructions. How in God's name is anybody meant to have confidence in that process? It is beyond breathtaking that the Government continues with that nonsense. This cannot be enforced. Home quarantine will not be enforced. It cannot be enforced.
Like Deputy Kelly, I am putting the Minister on notice - it is important for the Opposition to put the Government on notice - that if he does not accept these amendments and go the full distance, as he should do to ensure we have the most robust quarantine and testing regime in place for international travel, and new variants of the virus enter Ireland from any of those countries not on the list, Government will have to take full responsibility for it. The failure to act is solely that of the Government. It does not lie with NPHET or with anybody in opposition or the Irish people who are doing their best and are at their wits end. As accepted by the Taoiseach in the speech he gave a few days ago, people are frustrated and fed up. Of course, they are. They are fed up with the restrictions, but they are also fed up with the Government's half measures. They are also fed up with the fact that it is one rule for them in that they cannot leave or go 5 km outside of their homes, but people can come here by airplane from most countries in the world and are not subject to quarantine. It is driving people bonkers and rightly so. That anger and frustration will, in my view, continue to grow and it will reach a very high level if over the next number of weeks and months we see continued importation of any strain of this virus into this State, when people are doing their best to keep the numbers low.
We have had several conversations in this Chamber about the impact of Covid-19 on front-line hospitals. When the virus gets out of control, our hospitals fill up, ICUs fill up and, unfortunately, more people die. We have seen record numbers of people die in January and February this year. The Minister and I, and others in this Chamber, will mourn every one of those people who have passed away. The only way we can prevent this happening in the future is by ensuring the system that should be in place is in place, that the processes that should be in place are in place and that the solutions that should be in place are in place. One of those solutions must be mandatory hotel quarantine and testing. There still is no legal requirement for a mandatory PCR test for a person travelling into this state.
I am conscious that there is a lengthy list of Deputies waiting to come in. One of our amendments has been ruled out of order, which is a matter for the Ceann Comhairle. Decisions are made to rule amendments out of order for all sorts of reasons. However, one of the amendments we tabled provides that the Minister would engage with his colleague in the North in regard to data sharing. It was ruled out of order on the basis that it would incur a cost on the Exchequer. This is how laughable all of this is becoming. It is really serious. The Minister is still not dealing with the issues. He is not engaging and sharing data with his colleague in the North, going the full distance on travel or seeking to get all of the other elements of this right. Why is he surprised that people are angry and frustrated? There is no point in Government putting it back on the Opposition and claiming, as it has done, that some parties or the Opposition are playing politics. The only people playing politics as far as I can see are Ministers, who are trying to pin the blame on everybody else but themselves.
The Minister needs to step up to the plate on this issue. I appeal to him, even at this eleventh hour, to support these amendments. If he does not and there is continued importation of the virus into this state as a consequence of his half baked solutions as presented today, be that on his head and that of Government, not the Irish public who are abiding by the restrictions or the Opposition which is pleading with Government to do what is right. It will be the sole responsibility of the Minister and the Government.
I have just finished a phone call with a constituent in Ballyfermot. I am not sure if the Minister is aware of the following, but it will be interesting to hear if he is. At least 90 people over 85 years of age have had their vaccination appointments for today and tomorrow cancelled. The Ballyfermot primary healthcare centre was emptied of all other appointments to allow that to happen. The vaccines never arrived, leaving these people very disappointed, worried and anxious and an entire community up in arms about how they have been treated. They cannot make contact by phone with anyone from the centre or the HSE to seek an explanation or to offer an alternative date. That is a flavour of the background to the frustration, sense of desperation and growing anger out there over the way this Government is handling the Covid crisis. What the Minister is seeking to do here today in terms the legislation before us, will do nothing but compound that.
A whole community was let down this morning when the vaccines were not delivered to Ballyfermot. We are not talking about Timbuktu; Ballyfermot is in Dublin 10 and it is easy to find. People were told they would be getting the vaccine and their appointments were scheduled. Instead, they are still in a situation where none of them can go more than 5 km beyond their home town and they must stick to the same rigid regime. Everybody is complying with the regime and everybody wants the over-85s in Ballyfermot to get their jabs because they are salt of the earth people who made the communities that we all love. Everybody is hopeful in that regard. Then the Minister comes in here and tells us he is going ahead with legislation that will see foreign travel into this country continue unabated and unchecked for at least another four weeks. Even after the regulations become applicable, or possibly applicable, they will cover only a tiny cohort of potential travellers into the country. The bulk of travel into Ireland is not coming from the suggested list; it is coming from all over Europe and the USA. It includes the American troops who have not quarantined and are coming through Shannon and travelling into Limerick.
There are many examples of where there is real danger of variants of the virus coming into the State. Meanwhile, people in this country struggle to put up with the restrictions, do their best for each other and maintain their sense of social solidarity. They need to see social solidarity from the Government. They need the Government to think about what it is actually doing rather than the optics of what it is doing. The Government is failing to help to crush the virus while everybody else is bending over backwards in their efforts to do so. The Minister has it within his power to accept the amendments that are before him today. I plead with him to do so and to give people a sense of hope and an idea that we can do this. If we do not limit non-essential travel into the country and enforce quarantines, then we are a leaky sieve and we are potentially wide open to variants, whether from California, Austria or God knows where else.
The measures the Minister is proposing to introduce will not do what they are meant to do. He is either not thinking things through or else he, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party are only concerned with the optics. After failing for ten months to take note of what needs to be done and trying to do it, they are now pretending they are doing something. Never let it be said that the Government tried to introduce mandatory quarantine, because that is not the case. It is making a bags of things and leaving our communities very vulnerable and wide open. I would appreciate an explanation for what happened in my constituency this morning because it is probably not the only constituency in the country in which it is happening. We need to know how people who were desperate to be vaccinated and who have been let down are going to be treated while they wait for an appointment. I ask the Minister to accept these amendments because they will do the job, unlike the provisions he has devised.
The list in front of me has the following speakers in the order they indicated: Deputies Mattie McGrath, Boyd Barrett, Ó Murchú, Duncan Smith, Paul Murphy, Shortall, Barry, Michael Collins and McNamara. Deputy O'Rourke is also indicating.
I am not aware of that convention but it may have been followed in the past. I have simply selected Members in the order in which they indicated. I call Deputy Mattie McGrath.
I too rise to support the Labour Party amendment and the associated amendments in this grouping. We in the Rural Independent Group have tabled a number of amendments and I thank Brian Ó Domhnaill in our office for assisting us in producing them. They are quite detailed and also quite rushed because we did not have a lot of time. There is not enough time allocated to discuss this Bill. By the looks of things, we will not reach many of the amendments. We are only on an chéad cheann and if we are still discussing this group at 4.30 p.m., we will not even get a vote on it. We have to be cognisant of that.
Another speaker said that this legislation is a case of closing the door when the horse has bolted. As I said this morning, the horse is already in Cheltenham or a lot further away. Deputy Kelly and other party and group leaders will be aware that ever since the start of the pandemic, or at least when we used to have weekly or fortnightly briefings - we have not had such a briefing from the Taoiseach, NPHET or anybody else since last November although they talk about collaboration and keeping people informed - I always wanted quarantine at the airports and restrictions on travel. This is not because I am a killjoy who does not want people travelling and who wants to lock them up and throw away the keys. That is not at all what I want. The Irish people have made heroic efforts during this crisis. I sympathise, in particular, with anyone who has lost a loved one and could not have a proper funeral or attend the funeral. I salute everybody involved in trying to beat the virus.
I have said before that this is like drawing water and I remember as a buachaill óg drawing water from a well with a bucket. If there were holes in the bucket, one would never fill one's churn. It is as simple as that. We were shocked to hear the figures for the numbers of people coming into and out of the country. I did not in my wildest dreams think there were those kinds of numbers coming in but they are coming in and have been coming in. Of course, we wanted to be the poster boys of Europe. Every answer I got from the previous Taoiseach and the current Taoiseach was that we are European and we are in this together with Europe. However, Poland and Hungary sealed their borders, as did other places within Europe, with varying degrees of success. We could not do that because we are the good boys, the white-haired boys in Europe, and we wanted to be the best Europeans. We were best in the class at one stage, we were told, then we went to worst in the class and I do not know where we are now or whether we are in the class at all.
We certainly are not getting a fair crack of the whip when it comes to getting vaccines from Europe. When one looks across the pond at our nearest neighbours, it is staggering to see that they have administered 12.6 million vaccines, which they acquired from outside the EU. We are patting ourselves on the back that we have 350,000 or so people vaccinated. I am tired of asking the Minister about the flu vaccination programme that was rolled out late last summer, because he will not answer my question. I asked him in November, three weeks ago and again this morning to tell me whether I am being given misinformation in this regard from good sources. I do not believe I am misinformed that only 1.4 million of the 2 million vaccines can be accounted for. In that context, how will the HSE, the Department of Health or whoever else be able to roll out 10 million vaccines, which is the figure we were given this morning? There is not a hope in hell of it. They are like children playing with a jigsaw. If they could not make the jigsaw with 2 million pieces, how will they make it with 10 million pieces?
I know of some horrific cases where people were all buoyed up to get their vaccines but did not receive them. I was talking to one such man in Tipperary last Monday week who was due to get the vaccine on the Wednesday. I am talking about people who are aged over 85 and were due to get the vaccine in doctors' centres in Cahir, Carrick-on-Suir and other places. Thanks be to God, one doctor's surgery in Cahir got the vaccines and all its patients got their vaccines. However, another doctor in the town got none of the 116 injections that were supposed to arrive. Logistics can go wrong with anyone but there has been no information given in the eight days since as to where the vaccines went, where they are now, why they did not arrive and when they will arrive. It is awful. A wonderful woman in her 101st year, who was a business person all her life and is still a sprightly woman, was one of the people going in for the vaccine who was turned away. Another very sick couple in that age group - I will not mention names - are absolutely desperate. These people had the anticipation, expectation and delight of going for the vaccine and then they did not get it. Now we cannot get information to tell them they will get it next Wednesday or whenever. What is the cause of the dysfunction in this process? The same thing happened at a doctor's practice in Carrick-on-Suir. Most doctors got their vaccines but one practice in south Tipperary and another in south Kilkenny did not get them. People were let down. Why is the process so dysfunctional?
As I said, I was not happy with the way the flu vaccine was administered. I am told it has been the case for years that accountability is negligible. How are people supposed to have the hope that we so badly need on this beautiful spring day that we look out and see around us? How will we get the people to follow us? Ní neart go le chéile is my belief i gconaí, but the Government has made a hames of things. I said again this morning that the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health have dropped the ball spectacularly since they took the baton. They were mad to get into government. At least there was a degree of co-ordination and some type of system in place under the previous Taoiseach and Minister for Health. We, as Opposition groups, were always kept informed. Now we are shut out. The Government knows best and we know nothing. The Taoiseach and the Minister do not want our advice.
They want us to come in here as cannon fodder and vote for this Bill. I have major issues with voting for this legislation because it is inadequate, inept and ten months too late. Is it workable? The Minister for Health tells us all that gardaí are doing checks on homes and everything else. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, was challenged again today about that. Gardaí are frustrated too. They are getting reams of documentation at the levels of inspector, superintendent and sergeant in charge. I salute the gardaí on the ground who are trying to do their jobs. They are frustrated. They have families too. They have not been given the vaccine and they are far down the list. They have to deal with all kinds of situations in any 12-hour stint.
There is utter confusion. I can only hope and believe that the vaccine will do what it is meant to do and people will not get Covid-19 but that is not the assurance I got from Tony Holohan or the Taoiseach. I am simply saying this outfit, the HSE, is not fit for purpose. Two former Taoisigh, Mr. Ahern and Mr. Cowen, told me in the House privately that they were going to disband the HSE. We all know it is not fit for purpose. We see the problems in my constituency and in Limerick, one of the worse places for beds and trolleys, this week. We see the problems with the mental health services. I had a woman on to me recently about a man looking for a private mental health therapy consultation. He had to wait 12 months when he went private. Someone said an epidemic was going to start, but it is here and we are in the middle of it. People are locked away and cannot grieve or support each other. They cannot visit houses and cannot go anywhere.
We see this tomfoolery at the airports - that is what I call it. People can waltz in, waltz out and boast about it. They might fill in a form sometimes and then they might get a call or they might not. We were told the whole tracing system crashed after Christmas because of the pressure. There is no intent to seal people coming from abroad, but there must be. There are huge pitfalls within the legislation and I believe it could be open to legal challenge.
The Minister has not given us any timeline. I know we are debating the matter today and it is being guillotined. That is a shame because it means many of the amendments that our group and other groups put down will not be reached. There is no timelime for implementation, which is something I would like to see. I know it is in the Seanad on Monday but when will it be signed into law? When will we make the preparations to enact it? We have no date. It will simply be sent up to the park to be signed like other legislation that has been passed but not implemented. How will we know what its various aspects are? Have the hotels been procured? Do they have security staff? Nothing like that is detailed. It is being done on a wing and a prayer. It is a wish list and merely a hope that people will be good. They have been very good but good only carries us so far and they are fatigued now, as are the nursing staff. It is striking to think that we gave student nurses a round of applause in the Chamber rather than pay them a meagre amount.
I have a question relating to the vaccination. Why is it so much more expensive to have it carried out here than across the water? If I am right, the fee for two vaccinations in Britain is £14 but it is €60 here for one. That is what I am told. Why is this? Is this rip-off Ireland? Why is it so expensive? Why can we not run the vaccines out in community halls using retired nurses and other professionals who signed up in their thousands for Ireland's call? Only 300 or so were engaged. They are available and we have them. Is it the preserve of certain people?
I have no faith in the vaccination figures the Taoiseach gave the other night for June. There is not a hope we will achieve those at the rate we are going, even if we had the vaccines. We cannot find a doctor's surgery in Cahir or in Dublin 10, as Deputy Smith said. There is no explanation. If I ring up, there is no one to give me an answer to when the vaccines will be available, where they are and whether they will come next. It is dysfunctional in the extreme. It is pathetic. I have serious issues about it. I am not in favour of this half-baked legislation.
We did the same here some time ago on the forestry Bill. I want to equate the two issues. I voted against that Bill because I said it was useless and it has proved to be useless. Many of my colleagues voted for it saying half a Bill was better than none. This is not even half a Bill. It is not co-ordinated, thought out or proper. Why is the Minister for Health dealing with it? I was told that he answered on "Claire Byrne Live" that he has it because he was given it. He is one of the good boys in the class. He will take his punishment and do his lessons. He was given it. Why is the Minister for Justice not dealing with these issues? The Minister for Justice could be asked about the Garda and whether gardaí had been briefed, schooled, educated and trained on this. They have enough to do without looking after quarantine in hotels and everything else. There are few of them there. I have major issues with the Bill.
I will not go on for much longer. I could go into all the different people who have been affected. Why can we have an election in a day? Everyone in the country can vote on a long day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. In most places in the country, we can have two officials per booth and the votes can be counted within a couple of days. That is for 4 million people, although maybe only half of them vote. Anyway, we can do it in one day. It will be five years to roll out a vaccine by the looks of things. Surely we have the template. I compliment a certain businessman in Tipperary, William O'Halloran, who came to me with that idea yesterday morning. He asked how we can have an election in a day. We can do that with all our organisation and co-ordination. The process has stood the test of time well, aside from the fiasco with the voting machines. Yet, we are going to go on forever.
The people are sick, sore and tired of George Lee and Fergal Bowers. They should have their own channels. I said to the former Deputy, Mr. Lee, that he had found his vocation. It is to strike fear into every elderly person in the country. We should remember these people are at home and cannot leave. Many only have one channel. We need some light entertainment but the people who want to provide that are not allowed.
People cannot go to worship. This was one of the only countries in the world where, during level 3, people could not go to public worship. However, we see some religious people flooding into buildings and flooding out and there is no monitoring of it. The same applies with certain funerals. There were probably 500 people at a funeral yesterday in east Limerick. It is shocking. There were no masks or anything else.
I am not dog-whistling. I am telling the truth that people are relaying to me. They are highly frustrated that they cannot go to services of any denomination and they see that other people can do what they like. That is the basic nutshell of it. The Government has not dealt with that and will not deal with it. This legislation cannot deal with it either because it is not foolproof or thought-through. Amendments will not be accepted because we will not get to them. Would they be accepted anyway? Some have been ruled out of order, as other have said.
I am not dog-whistling. I am relating the facts as they are. The people of Ireland have suffered enough, from the cradle to the grave. They are unable to have company when they are in maternity wards giving birth. They are unable to grieve at a funeral, whether it is a normal death or a Covid death. It is shocking that only ten people can go into a church even in the case of big families. It is shocking. People were well able to put their shoulder to the wheel, as they did last spring. They fought gallantly but they are fatigued and mixed messages are coming from Ministers.
The Minister is present. I remember the Iraq war. Comical Ali came on every night telling us that Saddam was winning the war, even though the bombs were falling around him. The Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, did the same on "Claire Byrne Live". He is like Comical Ali - he is Comical Donnelly.
I have amendments in the group. We actually went to the trouble of putting in amendments. There are more than 20 of them. My thanks to the staff in the offices of People Before Profit and Rise who, at short notice, had to submit over 20 amendments. There are connected amendments across this grouping and other groupings.
The purpose of the amendments is to try to turn a Bill that is, in the form put forward by the Government, actually a public relations exercise on mandatory quarantine. It is not actually a serious attempt to establish mandatory quarantine for people travelling into the country. It is an attempt by the Government, which is under pressure from public anger over its failure to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and the dire surge we saw in recent months, to make it look as if it is doing something, while continuing with the same failed disastrous policy that has led to so many needless deaths. It has also led to our health services being overrun in the first couple of months. This is putting extraordinary pressure and stress on our healthcare workers. It has led to tragedy and bereavement for many families and many people getting sick as well. The Government had to respond to that, as did some of those in the Opposition who said not a word about the Government's failed strategy when it was pursuing the policy in December. They have since become very wise after the event and are berating the Government for failing to address this issue since last May when NPHET put the advice forward.
Some of us actually supported NPHET way back then and put forward detailed policy documents calling for mandatory quarantine as part of an alternative strategy to eliminate Covid-19 and try to get our society back to some sort of normality, prevent needless deaths and protect our health services and workers. However, we were siren voices, ignored and dismissed for most of that time.
It has taken the tragic events which followed the Government's disastrous decisions over Christmas - and the silence of most of the Opposition while it was making them - to finally force this debate into the public domain. Even now, however, the Government just wants to pretend it is doing something about it. What Deputy Bríd Smith said about the situation in Ballyfermot and vaccines not arriving is interesting because I fear the pretence around mandatory quarantine in this legislation may be linked to a pretence about vaccine distribution as well. I happened to get a text just now from a woman in my area who lives in Blackrock but whose 88-year-old father lives in Donaghmede. He went down to the GP's clinic this morning looking for his vaccine. He and many other elderly people discovered the vaccines had not arrived there either. Therefore what Deputy Bríd Smith referred to in Ballyfermot is not just happening there but it appears, very alarmingly, to be happening in GP clinics in Donaghmede and God knows where else. Thus, we have announcements by the Government about mandatory quarantine and announcements about the vaccine but then the reality is very different and the consequences of that can, of course, be tragic.
I want to ask the Minister a specific question. There are a lot of elderly, vulnerable people who thought they were being vaccinated today and who have discovered that the vaccines have not arrived. Where are the vaccines? What is happening? There is clearly a pattern of GP clinics not getting vaccines for elderly people in a number of locations. God knows where else this may be happening today. Why is it happening and what is going to be done to ensure that those elderly and vulnerable citizens get the vaccine and do not have to wait for weeks in uncertainty, after what has already been a very traumatising, anxiety-filled period due to the huge surges of the past few months?
As already stated, our amendments cut across a number of groups but essentially seek to address the fact that the Government is not imposing actual mandatory quarantine. In fact, the exception to mandatory quarantine is the rule in the legislation. Our amendments seek to do the very opposite, such that every incoming traveller from every country will be subject to mandatory quarantine. This is because it makes no sense whatsoever to select, as the Government is doing, 20 countries. These are countries which very few people are travelling here from in any event, countries in Africa, Latin America and, for some reason, the state of Austria. It is bizarre, quite honestly. The largest number of travellers coming here are from countries where we know there are high levels of Covid cases and where the variants are present, namely, the United States, European countries and many other places. What the Government is doing is therefore madness; it makes no sense and just shows the Bill to be a sham and not an actual attempt to put in place mandatory quarantine. I am curious to know what the logic is. I think the Government do not want to upset certain economic interests. It may also be to do with the European Union's policies. I am not quite sure but suspect the former. Yesterday, Deputy Paul Murphy mentioned that there has been no word about the US troops going through Shannon Airport, not quarantining, waltzing around Shannon and so on. Despite this we want to impose mandatory quarantine on just a select few countries. US troops are fine, as are huge numbers of people from the UK, from the US where there are variants, and so on. It is clear, therefore, that this is not a serious attempt at action.
I am interested to hear about the Minister's conversation with the New Zealand authorities. If he were actually talking to people in New Zealand and to the public health authorities in Australia, he would understand how to impose a mandatory quarantine and link it to an effective strategy to drive Covid down to the point where, as is the case in those countries, people could be living normal lives. Clearly, the Minister, the Government and, I must say, some of the Opposition still do not quite understand this. Mandatory quarantine is not about quarantining those engaging in non-essential travel as some have said; it is about stopping non-essential travel and quarantining those who must engage in essential travel into the jurisdiction. People do not seem to understand even this elementary point. One cannot go to New Zealand for any reason other than an essential one. They just turn people around. They do not need to quarantine people or fine them, they just turn people away and do not allow them in. That is how the system works there. We do not need quarantine for non-essential travel into the country because there should be no such travel into the country, full stop. Anybody who arrives for non-essential reasons should simply be told to turn around and go back to where they came from. It is essential travel which should be subject to quarantine and the exceptional circumstances for that should be very narrowly defined. Preventing non-essential travel should be the rule whereas the Government is essentially making it the exception. The PCR test is similarly meaningless in terms of the non-designated countries. It will do absolutely nothing to prevent the importation of variants and the virus generally.
All of this must be linked to a serious public health strategy and the resourcing of our public health teams. Again, the Government's failure to do that is manifest in this legislation. We have tried to address it in our amendments. I heard the AGSI say that its members are not qualified to organise mandatory quarantine. It is absolutely correct in that regard. Does the Government think that it is the police who are organising mandatory quarantine in Australia or New Zealand? It is not. It is public health doctors together with staffed and resourced public health teams. That is who calls around to a persons house, rather than the police. How would the Garda know how to deal with mandatory quarantine or public health issues? It is ridiculous and the AGSI is absolutely right. People need to get into their heads how under-resourced and dysfunctional our health service is and how that is seriously disarming our ability to deal with Covid-19, be it in terms of a quarantine regime for travel or eliminating community transmission and having the public health infrastructure on the ground to actually deal with any outbreaks which may still arise.
People would be shocked if only they knew the contrast. The person from whom I learned about the set-up in Australia is an Irish public health doctor who worked briefly for Irish public health. He was educated and qualified here, worked briefly in the Irish public health system and left. He is now in charge of infection control in Queensland, Australia, where, by the way, there has not been a Covid outbreak to deal with since June. This is because they had one lockdown, eliminated community transmission and are now able to open up. They are living normal lives but if there is an outbreak, they have the infrastructure in place to deal with it. He was absolutely adamant that this could be done here. I asked him to explain the difference between the resources he has at his disposal - this is directly relevant to the legislation - and the situation in Ireland. He said they, as qualified public health people, had the resources and the authority to go the police, the local hospital or any state agency, simply state what they need and have it given to them.
The legislation was in place beforehand and a plan was prepared before Covid ever broke out, as the WHO had requested of states. The Irish Government had committed to preparing such a plan but never followed through.
The first NPHET briefing on Covid took place in late February 2020 and was attended by one representative of one Dáil office in the Houses of the Oireachtas - my office. Our staff member asked whether drills had been done, as the WHO had required. There was no answer to that question. The staff member was told an email would be sent to let us know. The drills had not been done. There was no preparation for this even though the WHO had been telling states they needed to prepare. That is the reality of what is going on.
I asked the public health doctor in Australia what the difference would be between his public health team in Australia and the public health situation he would have faced if he were working in Dún Laoghaire. He said that he has 16 staff under him, all of whom are directly employed public health professionals. Of course, he has consultant status. He said he can ring up the equivalent of Tony Holohan or NPHET, describe the situation and tell them what he needs. That does not happen here. He said that public health doctors in Ireland cannot make direct contact in that way. I asked how many staff he would have if he were employed here. He said he would not have any staff. He has 16 staff over there and he can go to the local hospital if he needs more. He can tell the police and the local authority what to do because, as it is a public health emergency, the public health professionals decide how it is responded to. The resources are made available and the legislation is already in place. That is how one deals with a pandemic. What we have is a disaster in comparison and the consequences of that have been dire. That is the truth of it. I would be interested to hear the Minister's response on that issue.
The amendments I and my colleagues have tabled seek to make mandatory quarantine a reality and to remove the potential for profiteering from the establishment of the facilities necessary if we are to actually have a proper mandatory quarantine regime. Our amendments on that front have been ruled out of order but I wish to point out that they are not out of order because they are directly connected to the public health effort. In Australia, any profit motivation has been removed from the public health and quarantine system established there because the authorities there found that where profit came into play, it was undermining the public health effort because staff were moving from one place to another, there were staff shortages and corners were being cut and so on. Our amendments seek to ensure that people will be employed directly by the health agencies and the public bodies necessary for the effort and that they will all be under the authority of public health. That is what is necessary in order to deal with this pandemic. Sadly, I do not think the Government will do that. This legislation is certainly not even a serious effort to do. Nonetheless, we will continue our campaign for a proper response to the Covid pandemic.
I remind Deputies that we are on section 2 of the Bill and we are dealing with a grouping of several amendments. There are ten speakers offering as things stand, so I appeal to Members to be conscious of time.
I will not take very long on this issue. Members are aware of the distress that people are experiencing. It has been recognised many times in the House, particularly today. Members are aware that people are worried and disgruntled and wish to see a plan and a way through this. They do not believe a sufficient amount is being done with regard to the particular issue of hotel quarantining.
Sinn Féin welcomes the fact that the Government has got to the point of discussing quarantining people coming in from 20 countries. All present know the current difficulties. We know of the Californian, Brazilian and South African strains, but we do not know from where the next strain will come or where the real difficulty may be. What we need to do is to ensure the ultimate protection we can give our people is in place and that means quarantining across the board in respect of flights into Ireland. I accept that those who are involved in freight and supply chains are an absolutely necessary part of the workforce to ensure we maintain an element of connectivity. We cannot do absolutely everything we need to do, but we can do a hell of a lot more and we need to ensure it is done as soon as possible.
Many Deputies have recently expressed concerns in the House regarding problems that are obviously very distressing, particularly for some older citizens, such as people showing up to be vaccinated but the vaccines not being available. We need those problems to be dealt with as quickly as possible.
An issue that frightens me is that it is expected that 100,000 vaccines will be delivered this week, while in April, May and June there could be at least 250,000 vaccines a week. We need to ensure that we have the infrastructure and capacity to deliver that. We need not only to deal with these individual issues but also to ensure that the system is absolutely streamlined.
Deputy Cullinane addressed the issue of the Sinn Féin amendment that has been ruled out of order but I am not particularly worried about the amendment. What I am worried about is delivery with regard to the sharing of information North and South on people travelling into this country from the point of view of ensuring that we do what we can in the context of mandatory quarantine. We cannot do everything, but we can do a lot more. It is as simple as that. We need to fireproof people from the vaccine as much as possible. That is the whole idea of hotel quarantining.
We need to be ahead of the game rather than waiting until we identify five, six, seven, eight, nine or ten cases of a new strain which may be worse than any of the strains we have seen before. We need to protect people and the vaccination programme and we need to deal with the issues. Sinn Féin calls on the Government to change its tack with regard to supporting these amendments or dealing with the reality that we need hotel quarantine for travellers into Ireland from every other country. We need an all-Ireland response and, if that cannot be delivered, we need a two-island response. It is as simple as that.