Dáil debates

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)

 

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

10:00 am

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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Ireland has the longest lasting and most severe workplace restrictions in Europe. We have lost 163 days of work due to closure. This compares to 34 days in Germany. Does the Minister not agree that it is an outstanding fact that this country has had to lock down for longer with restrictions more severe than other European countries due to the way this illness has been managed? Indeed, for most of the Covid crisis this country has been a radical outlier in terms of the severity of the lockdowns that have happened. That is a direct result of the catastrophic policies that have been implemented by the last Government and by the current one as well.

This has had an enormous impact on every element of society. I have been talking to a consultant psychiatrist recently who told me the number of young people presenting to accident and emergency departments with acute mental health issues has increased by 130% since 2019. Coupled with the staff shortages in the hospitals and the reduction of treatments, the length of this lockdown is taking a massive toll on the health and well-being of the Irish people.

One of the most frustrating costs of Government failure has been the closure of key aspects of the health service. Patients with cancer, heart disease or mental health illnesses, as well as those who have suffered from stroke have had their access to health services radically reduced under the Government. During the week, the Minister will have heard an oncologist from Limerick who appeared on “Morning Ireland” state that the health service needs to prepare for an influx of seriously ill cancer patients. He said that a large number of patients are presenting with more advanced disease and late diagnosis. Thus, for tens of thousands of people, access to diagnosis has either been stopped or slowed down radically and as a result, access to treatment has either been stopped or slowed down radically. Consequently, those illnesses are far more progressed and will need far more radical treatments, which will have a significant cost on people both physically and financially, and on the State financially as well, in the future. Aontú has been one of the few voices in here calling for the protection of these key and critical health services through this whole pandemic.

The issue of travel, which we are discussing today, is one of the most mind-bending issues that have been associated with this illness over the past year. For most of the past year, the Government has radically curtailed the freedoms and liberties of Irish citizens with a Garda-enforced 5 km limit, while at the same time allowing for hundreds of thousands of travellers to travel to this country from all over the world with no limit. The only protection put in place is a form or two to be filled with maybe a text after that, or perhaps a follow-up phone call, but in most cases not even that. The fact that so many people in this country were so severely locked down and restricted while international travel remained so open is one of those issues that most people cannot get their heads around when it comes to the management of this illness by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. If one were to think of a phrase that describes the Government’s journey to this day and this Bill, "kicking and screaming" would best fit.

At the very start of this pandemic, I remember talking to the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, when all of the leaders of the parties were gathered around after the general election to discuss what was happening. At the time we saw a massive flare-up of this illness in northern Italy and I asked the then Taoiseach to stop the flights coming from northern Italy to Ireland. He said "No".. I asked him why he would not stop the flights coming to Ireland and he told me the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, said not to stop them. The ECDC told the Government that it should not stop flights coming from other parts of Europe to Ireland. I asked the then Taoiseach what the rationale was for this decision and he said he did not know. If there was a manager of a Centra in Navan making a decision for that shop while not understanding the rationale for it how, for long would that manager stay in that position? I guarantee Members that individual would not last long. It is incredible that the CEO of the country, the leader of the country, was making life and death decisions for this country on the basis of advice from a foreign organisation and not knowing the rationale for it. As a result, we saw people from northern Italy circulate throughout Dublin and seed the disease well and truly. It happened at the same time with Cheltenham. When there were fruit pickers coming from all over Europe to pick fruit in north Dublin and east Meath, again I raised it and again the Government shrugged and had nothing to say about it. Before Christmas I spoke to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on RTÉ radio and said there will be tens of thousands of people travelling to this country during the Christmas period, that it was going to happen whether the Government liked it or not, and that therefore, the Government should put in place some level of testing to make sure that if these people do come, that they do not have the illness. That was not put into place and tens of thousands of people travelled to Ireland at that time. I have heard Fianna Fáil Ministers on the radio saying international travel does not have a big impact on the number of Covid cases that exist in the country and then in the same breath state that 90% of the cases in Ireland are of the British variant. That they cannot put two and two together is deeply worrying.

I want to address the confusion on vaccine roll-out. Right now, two months after the vaccine landed in this country, the equivalent of the population of County Louth has been fully inoculated. That is an incredible situation. I have had student nurses, who were not on placement for months, call me and tell me they have had the vaccine. They did not want it and feel bad about taking it. They took it and then they have received a phone call saying they have their second first vaccine. They are being told the second first vaccine is being given to them. In Tuam, they have the vaccine but they do not have the needles. In my own county, doctors are ringing me to say they have no confirmation yet for the next two weeks for vaccines for people over the age of 85 years. This glacial roll-out of the vaccine is going to radically slow down the opening up of this country and at the same time we will be watching our neighbours get back to normal while we are still well and truly locked down. Has the Minister gone to supply chains outside of the EU to look for additional vaccines?

Denmark and Germany have done so. Why has Ireland not done so?

Aontú does not have confidence in the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, or the work he is doing at this time. There needs to be a radical change in the approach to dealing with this issue to make sure the country is opened up and people's lives are protected.

10:10 am

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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The first issue I wish to highlight is where Ireland stands internationally in terms of vaccine provision. The previous speaker should take the liberty of checking the facts before he makes claims which are not true. The fact is that Ireland is ahead of Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy and France in terms of vaccinations per 100,000 population.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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Out of 200 countries.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I did not catch the Deputy's interjection, but I wish to make clear to him that Ireland is doing extremely well compared with other countries. Indeed, if he had been listening to the Minister for Health, he would know that we have ordered in the region of 10 million vaccines. The issue about vaccination is that we all went together as European citizens. The Deputy may be aware that there is a meeting today of all the European Union Heads of State and Government with the aim of rolling out the vaccines even more quickly than has been the case up to now. Significant progress has been made.

The sun is shining today and we are in a different phase of spring. Changes are coming in our society as a result of the sacrifices that people have made. Many have made significant sacrifices and thousands have died but the facts are that on this morning the R number is going down and the numbers of people in hospitals and ICUs are going down. We are vaccinating more than 100,000 people per week and that number will shortly be 250,000 per week. Children are returning to schools and preschools. Routine health checks are beginning to recommence. I welcome the progress that has been made with regard to Breastcheck.

There are serious issues, such as that of vaccination centres. It is not acceptable that towns such as Drogheda, which is the largest urban area in the country outside of the cities and has a population in excess of 40,000, will not have a vaccination centre. The Minister must address that issue now. He must bring the vaccinators to the people rather than the other way around. It does not make sense for everybody in the town of Drogheda to travel to Dundalk or Navan when the vaccinators could come to the town to deliver the vaccine in an appropriate and proper environment.

I refer to the two-island strategy. We should converge as much as possible with the United Kingdom and, indeed, the Administration in Northern Ireland because of the existence of the common travel area. We must ensure that people can meet their family members, whom they may not have seen for more than a year, and that we can have the same regulations east and west and North and South. That would make a significant difference for many families. I have not seen my grandchildren for more than a year. The same is true for thousands of people in this country and I want that to change.

On the issue of change, the Dáil should be sitting five days a week in this Chamber and, if needs be, in the Dáil Chamber or the Seanad Chamber in Leinster House to ensure there is due and proper analysis of all the movements and changes that are happening in the health services in order that we can have true and proper accountability.

Joe Flaherty (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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In recent days, I have been dealing with numerous calls from elderly people in County Longford. They are frustrated and anxious and they are questioning and wondering about the validity of the vaccine roll-out. To put it in context, there are 2,000 people over the age of 85 in County Longford and a further 8,000 over the age of 65. All present accept that those age groups are the priority for vaccine roll-out. Approximately 1,500 of them have been dealt with through nursing homes.

I know of an 86-year-old woman who has put her life on hold for the past year. She and her general practitioner, GP, expected that she would get her first vaccine this Friday but last Monday she was told it would be another two weeks before the GP gets the supply of vaccine. That is no fault of the GP. I know that GPs across the county have pulled out all the stops, rescheduled staff and reorganised their surgeries with the stated aim of making this vaccine campaign work.

As I sat in the party room yesterday listening to An Taoiseach take Leaders' Questions, I got a call from a 76-year-old woman from Aghnacliff. Her only contact with the outside world for the past year has been when her two sons and her daughter call to her house and speak to her through the window. The one thing that has sustained her for the past two months has been the anticipation of getting the vaccine and a possible opportunity to visit her newborn granddaughter in London. She was angry. Through her tears, she told me that, for the first time in her life, she knows what it is like to be depressed.

There are shortcomings in the roll-out campaign but there are also many positives. However, the communication is failing us thus far. I hear the same glib advertising campaigns on the radio ten times a day and I see the same sterile and non-specific campaigns in print and online. What the 10,000 people over the age of 65 in County Longford want to know is when they will get their vaccines. To the credit of the local GPs, there is a massive plan under way in anticipation of the roll out. Several GPs in Longford will today commence the vaccination of over-80s. I am aware that more than 380 GPs will receive their supply this week and up to 500 practices will receive their supply next week. We are now committed to rolling out 1.2 million vaccines before the end of March and the target is 4.2 million vaccines by the end of June. These are big numbers but people are still sceptical. We need to start engaging with them and giving them real, specific and localised dates for when they will get their vaccines.

I acknowledge the difficulty of the Minister's job, but I believe he will lead us around the corner. However, he will only be able to do so if we get to grips with the vaccine campaign. To that end, we need to start engaging with older residents. They need to be reassured in good time that there is a plan and a date for their vaccination.

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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As many Deputies have stated, there has been a significant difficulty with miscommunication. Even the Government has admitted that because it is beyond denial. The live-streaming of parliamentary party meetings is not a pretty sight. A person said to me earlier that parliamentary party meetings are like the making of sausages - far from pretty and nobody should know what happens inside them. It really is not helping people that they are getting multiple lines from multiple sources and they are not entirely sure which to believe. It is okay for those of us who listen to every detailed news bulletin and can see generally what is happening, but that is not the case for everybody. What is done is done, but we need the Government, the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to collectively get their act together and get the messaging sorted because one of the difficulties people have with regard to the vaccine roll-out is that they lack confidence in it. They will only have confidence when they are given a plan, see that plan enacted and have absolute clarity from on top. We need that to happen.

A significant number of people have made great sacrifices. Not everybody has done so, but a significant number of people have. Those people expect the Parliament, the Government and the State to do their part. The Government has taken its time getting to the point of agreeing to the quarantining of travellers from approximately 20 countries. I accept that there is latitude for more countries to be added to that list, but what we really need is for hotel quarantine to be introduced for everybody coming into the country. That would deal with any issues of indirect flights and from where a person came. All Members are aware of the issues with regard to the various strains of the virus. In this State, we must reduce the numbers. We need to ensure that we do not allow a greater level of transmission or the creation of new strains. We definitely do not need to import any new strains. This legislation will be reviewed and there is a three-month sunset clause, so we should ensure that hotel quarantine is brought in across the board.

This is about regaining the dressing room. The only way the Government will do so is by showing people that is has their backs. Sinn Féin accepts that this is not New Zealand and that there is a significant number of essential workers who are necessary for the supply chain, but we need to fireproof as much as we can. We have been hearing about progress with regard to the sharing of information relating to international travellers North and South for a long time. At this point, I want to see a solution and nothing else. I am not particularly worried about whether we get an all-Ireland response or a two-island response, but we need a better response. It is as simple as that. All Members welcome the fact that the number of vaccinations will increase and that there may be 1 million vaccinations per month in April, May and June.

We need to do what we can to ensure that we do not have new strains coming into the country and to protect our people. I beseech the Minister to do what is necessary. We need clarity and better communication. As already stated, what is done is done and we need an improved plan from here on in.

10:20 am

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offally, Independent)
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I was deeply sorry and shocked to hear about the threat to the Minister's family home. Such behaviour is totally unacceptable and appalling. It must have generated unnecessary concern for him and his family. Those actions should not have happened and I wholeheartedly condemn them.

As we know, this Bill proposes to introduce mandatory quarantine for travellers arriving into this State to limit the spread of Covid-19, particularly in light of recent variants of the disease which have been identified. It also increases various penalties for breaches of Covid-19 restrictions, which I welcome. Can we have a date for when this will come into effect and be implemented? The public have questions. They have made great sacrifices, as we all know. People have not seen their families in the past year in some cases and it is difficult. In order to give people hope, we must provide some dates for the implementation of these measures.

This issue was debated, to some extent, in the context of the Labour Party Private Members' motion which called for the introduction of mandatory hotel quarantine for all travellers arriving by sea and air into the State, with the exception of designated essential and logistic workers with polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing at arrivals and follow-up tests after five days. The Rural Independent Group has continuously raised this issue and spoken about the need for such a regime to be implemented. As long ago as April, we were strongly calling for this measure. At the time, I wrote to the then Taoiseach and then Minister for Justice and Equality, requesting that all necessary preventative measures be put in place urgently to safeguard against the heightened risk of Covid-19 infections emerging from within the tourist population. It is difficult to understand or grasp why hundreds of thousands of tourists entered this country when very strict restrictions were imposed on our citizens. It is hard to fathom why this was allowed to continue. It was certainly wrong and we in the Rural Independent Group have been consistent in condemning it.

There was a lot of speculation last April as to the numbers arriving in the country but that is not the case now. We know that thousands of people have entered the State under all levels of the restrictions. We also know that this is the kind of action that has served to radically and fundamentally undermine public confidence in the overall capacity of the various Covid plans to reduce the case incidence rate. People see news reports of another thousand, several thousand or tens of thousands travelling into the State while Irish people are confined to a paltry 5 km travel limit, and that is not acceptable. Many constituents in my rural constituency of Laois-Offaly have contacted me about this matter, asking for the 5 km limit to be extended because it does not make sense to confine people in that way, particularly in rural areas. I ask the Minister to look at that.

It is only natural that a certain level of resentment and anger is going to build up about the perceived unfairness and, as I said last April, we can allow exemptions for those involved in maintaining food security and supply or essential health services and I am happy to see that the Bill before us provides for that. As I welcome this Bill, it is difficult to avoid a sense that we are closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The general public and I would have preferred a more proactive approach instead of trying to catch up now. We had an opportunity to engage in genuine preventative measures last year with respect to our airports and inward travel but we failed to adopt such measures because deference was given to the European travel area requirements. As I understand it, we already had in place a wide-ranging and enhanced customs infrastructure last April. It was initially put in place to deal with post-Brexit customs checks at Rosslare Europort. It has involved Revenue appointing over 400 additional staff nationally to customs and related roles for Brexit, with 30 of them being assigned to Rosslare Europort. Surely some of those staff members and some of the customs check infrastructure could have been repurposed to ensure that people entering the State through our ports or airports were here for genuine reasons of absolute necessity and not for non-essential reasons. Tourists were entering this country when our own people were confined. That does not make any sense. I hope we will not see that happening going forward.

Perhaps if we had taken more proactive measures, we would not be in the position we are today. I note that the Long Title to the Bill emphasises that the Bill makes exceptional provision in the public interest to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 and variants thereof. It notes particularly that the emergence of variants of the disease, specifically the United Kingdom, Brazilian and South African variants, show evidence of increased transmissibility and the potential to evade immune response, posing a very serious risk to public health. The Bill states that the spread of such variants may pose a threat to the effectiveness of some vaccines and affect the State's vaccination programme. We have to be serious about mandatory quarantine as we move forward. It cannot be tokenistic and every measure needs to be rolled out to make sure that we are preventing the spread of infection.

I hope that our carers will be prioritised for a vaccine. I know there is some prioritisation of people in categories with underlying health issues. I hope that the vaccine will be rolled out to our carers.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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We are talking about mandatory quarantine which should have been implemented for people entering this country long before now. I called for it last April or May, although I have not checked my records in that regard. The reason I called for it is that I come from a constituency with a high volume of tourism. I felt at that time that for me to give confidence to the people of west Cork, we had to have PCR testing of people coming into our country. I called for it at that time but the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, refused. I was on the Covid-19 committee and called for the move there but it was continuously refused. As Deputy Nolan just said, we are closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. We are, unfortunately, trailing and falling behind and it is going to cost our country very dearly.

I was talking to a gentleman who came in from the United States recently. He was in Dunmanway in west Cork. He said that he thought the rules and restrictions here would be as good as they are in some other countries when he came home to see his mother. He would not go straight home. He made sure that he rented a car that was full of fuel so he would not stop on the way to Dunmanway. He made sure that the Airbnb he booked for 14 days would be full of food for that length of time so he would not have to go out. He could not believe that when he came here he did not have to do any of that. He could have stopped on the way down and gone anywhere he wanted. He could have called in to see people. He could have been at the shop the next morning and it would not have mattered a damn. He was astonished to think that we had such lax laws and that has, unfortunately, proven very costly.

While I agree that all people other than essential workers need to quarantine when coming into the country, I still have serious concerns that the fallout on our hotel sector will be detrimental. Many in the hotel industry in west Cork have contacted me to voice their serious concerns. The all-important summer trading period could be in jeopardy. That period serves as a life buoy to sustain a business through the other months of the year in normal times. If hoteliers' opportunity to earn money at that time is eroded, additional Government supports will be critical to their survival. It is now make or break time. We need to secure urgent Government action to protect the long-term viability of the Irish tourism and hospitality community. The hotel industry needs a Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, to target businesses with a 75% drop in revenue. I suggest a doubling of payments irrespective of the level of Covid restrictions, as well as the removal of the current €5,000 weekly cap. It is estimated that 44% of hotel bedroom stock is excluded from CRSS entirely.

The limit of €5,000 equates to an annual turnover of €4.2 million or 58 bedrooms per hotel. Hotels need an extension of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, to the end of 2021.

I ask the Government to intervene with the banks for businesses that are in a serious crisis to ensure that concessions-based moratoriums are provided for tourism businesses and their teams until the restrictions are lifted. There should be a clear commitment to the retention of the 9% rate of VAT for the tourism sector, until at least 2025, to assist with recovery and to provide certainty for businesses in the sector. We need fast action. The Minister is at the Cabinet table and he must ensure that his colleagues are singing the same tune. There should be a refund of energy pass-through charges of 70% on State-controlled fixed-energy network charges for gas and electricity in line with the drop in energy consumption and hotel revenues due to Government restrictions. This must be backdated to the start of October 2020.

The Government must fight for an extension of the local authority waiver on rates for tourism businesses until the end of 2021. It must ensure that clear progress markers are put in place to support the change in restrictions. Aside from hotels, so many businesses were left out of the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. The wedding industry, which I mentioned recently, is on its knees. Pubs are also on their knees. Restaurants have been closed for nearly 12 months since March 2020. Many of these services will never reopen and many of the people working in them will not have jobs to go back to. Last night I spoke to a woman who works in a retail business in a town in west Cork. She asked me if I think she will have a job to go back to when the level of restrictions eases. My answer to her was that I do not know.

The most important issue we will have to face is people's psychological well-being. Some people who live alone have had their lives upended for the past 12 months. While they may put on a brave face, issues of isolation arise. Some have serious financial issues and that is not helped by the banks turning down loans to people because of the industry they work in. Unfortunately, this is an all-encompassing problem that goes well beyond the financial. The upheaval we have all faced has been tremendous. To be candid, it is not just hospitality, it is everyone in the service sector.

We are talking about mandatory quarantine, but we must look at the rules and regulations and there must be a line of appeal. We must have an appeals mechanism in the laws we are implementing. There is a difference between what Ministers say and what happens on the ground. A few months ago I asked the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, in the Dáil if students could travel from their homes to their accommodation. To be honest, she was sarcastic and argumentative. She lacked any knowledge of the travel restrictions at the time. From what she told me, students could travel to their accommodation. She asked me not to be causing problems that are not there. When I passed on her so-called advice to a certain student in west Cork, the student then travelled to her accommodation. The bus was stopped en routeby the Garda and they severely reprimanded the student and told her they had better not catch her on the bus again. The Minister of State obviously did not have her facts right. That is the type of confusion and lack of communication from the Government, which has gone on for too long and has led to people being scared and angry. People are able to fly into this country but at the same time people cannot travel beyond 5 km from their home due to the rule in that regard. There is a lack of clarity in the restrictions, largely due to the fact that the Government has no idea what it is like for regular people on the ground. A couple of weeks ago-----

10:30 am

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Go raibh maith agat, a Theachta.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I will talk about the rest of the issue later.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am pleased to be able to speak on the Bill. It is something that should have been done back in April 2020. On behalf of the Rural Independents I attended the briefings with the then Taoiseach and Dr. Holohan and others. I sympathise with Dr. Holohan on his recent bereavement. Every time we met, I asked why we were not closing the borders. The response I got is that we could not because we are Europeans. When I pointed to what was happening in Poland and Hungary I was told to stop.

We are punishing the ordinary people. Many of them are terrorised. RTÉ radio is terrorising them hourly not to mind daily. The former Teachta, George Lee, has found his true vocation in trying to scare the life out of people. It is not balanced, logical or fair. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, have been ham-fisted in the way they took over from the previous Minister, Deputy Harris, and the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar. They have dropped the ball spectacularly. That is more than evident from the Minister’s appearance on Claire Byrne Live on Monday night. Thankfully I did not see it, but I heard enough about it. It is shocking that a Minister for Health would be so ill-informed, out of his depth, inadequate and poor. That has been the raison d'êtreof the Government since it took over.

The Minister closed St. Brigid’s Hospital in Carrick-on-Suir, which had been designated as a step-down facility in March or April. The hospital was closed in the middle of a pandemic. Who in their right mind would do that? The Government is throwing money at every kind of problem, but it has treated the people with disdain and contempt. People’s inalienable rights under the Constitution have been trampled on. The little green book has been shredded. This is more of it here today.

I have very mixed ideas about this Bill because it has gaping holes in it. It will take another six weeks at best before it is implemented. We will be into the summer season and people will be coming in from all over. The country is porous. The Government blames the Border with Northern Ireland, but people have been flooding through the ports and airports. The Garda Síochána is confused. Spokespersons from the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, and the Garda Representative Association, GRA, know nothing about it. As Deputy Michael Collins stated, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, gave information here that was totally erroneous and quite stupid and people are expected to deal with it. I do not know. We have tabled several amendments which will be moved later on Committee Stage. I am glad they were accepted but the question is whether they will be reached given that the Bill is being guillotined. We have such limited time to debate the drastic measures contained in the Bill. There are gaping flaws in the drafting of the legislation. I expect it will be challenged everywhere, including in the courts.

Industry is being crippled. I came across a case recently in my constituency of a man who is very depressed by the situation. He is going for private mental health care and it will take him more than 12 months to get help. Does the Minister realise that? The man is paying for it. That is not to mention the people who are suffering in the public system. Cancer patients are of concern. We heard this morning on "Morning Ireland" that people who were due to be called for BreastCheck appointments this month will more than likely only be called in 2022. There is misdiagnosis and people are full of fear and anxiety.

The Government's handling of the vaccination programme is a thundering disgrace. I put a question to the Minister last November and again three weeks ago, and I will put it to him for a third time. Deputy O'Dowd was lecturing us here about how well the Government is performing and how good it is. The vaccine has been rolled out to the equivalent population of one county. I put it to the Minister last November that 2 million flu vaccines had been bought but the Department could only account for 1.4 million. I asked the Minister to prove me wrong on that. How are we going to be fit to roll out the vaccination programme? The Minister said we have ordered 10 million vaccines. Did he go outside the EU? We are always being the good boys of Europe but we are only getting the crumbs. Did we try to source vaccines elsewhere? A doctor's practice in Cahir did not get the vaccines on Wednesday of last week. It was due to get 120 vaccines but they never arrived. Let us imagine how those people, some of them elderly, felt who were ready to come and had been telephoned. There is a 100-year old lady, bean i dTiobraid Árainn, a wonderful woman in her 101st year, and her son rang me the other day asking when she would get her vaccine. She was one of the patients of the doctor I mentioned. The same situation of vaccines not arriving occurred in a practice based in Carrick-on-Suir and south Kilkenny. Anyone can make a mistake, but people have no idea where the vaccines went or when they will get them.

Carers and other people are in vulnerable situations. I spoke previously about one young lady, Valerie, in Carrick-on-Suir in Tipperary who had a serious accident and has her own care team. She employs them privately. She wants the vaccine, but she cannot get it. She is afraid her carers will get Covid or she will get it, with lethal consequences. The bungling and misappropriation of vaccines was endemic in the HSE ever before the so-called pandemic.

The Irish people are being punished for the abject failures of several Ministers for Health and the HSE. The Taoiseach set up the HSE some years ago, so he is hardly going to disband it even though former taoisigh, Ahern and Cowen, told me they were disbanding it because it was dysfunctional. It has gotten more dysfunctional. There is a lack of accountability. Millions and millions are being fired at problems now. Money is no problem for whatever work is being done. I know from contractors that it is a case of getting in, doing it and spending the money. There is no accountability whatsoever. The fact is that the Minister has had 12 months to put extra beds and facilities in place, but he never did one thing. There might be an extra five or six beds. There is no capacity. The sum of €1.4 million was spent on St. Michael's in Clonmel but the mental health institution has been closed up and a mental health patient will not be allowed in it even post pandemic.

The Minister will go down in history. I will not even say it. It is the season of Lent and I will be charitable. The Minister is not at the races. Someone said that the horse has bolted. The horse is in Cheltenham, if not even farther away. Members of this House went to Cheltenham last year but one can be sure that no Deputies will go this year if the festival is held. There has been reckless behaviour while people are obeying the restrictions, doing everything right and still seeing the flouting of the laws, including what has happened in the mosques recently, which are freely open even though we could not get ashes in a church in Dublin last Wednesday. We saw what happened last Thursday in Rathkeale, where hundreds of people were involved. We are told that these are minorities that we must respect. They are flouting the law and telling the Irish people to lie down, and to hell with the daoine óga or the daoine beaga, and to let others do what they like in other areas.

10:40 am

Cathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I will take up where Deputy Mattie McGrath left off because there was much parish pump politics there about the daoine óga. A total of 4,237 people have died over the past 12 months. This Sunday marks the anniversary of the first case of Covid. This time last year, I used to turn off my television and radio when I heard about the Covid pandemic because it was happening in a province in China. Then, like a bolt of lightning, it swept across Europe and the wider world and it reached our island. In the past year, 4,237 people have lost their lives as a result of this pandemic. I have not enjoyed anything that we have done here over the past 12 months in the context of decision-making, lockdowns and all the policies that have been rolled out by Government and those who support it. I have not enjoyed lockdown or any measure that has restricted civil liberties or resulted in an action that has inhibited how we live our normal lives. Much of what we have done has been necessary to save lives, however. We saw in Great Britain, just across the water from us, how there was a phase of denial for five or six weeks early on following onset of Covid and how this led to a dramatic upward trajectory in the number of deaths. More than 120,000 people have died in Britain.

I want to address some of the elements of the legislation we are debating. As matters stand, the quarantine will relate to people coming here from 20 countries but there is scope for the number to increase. The position will be closely monitored by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. It is important that we look at current and up-to-date data at all times when making decisions in this regard. We have heard from NPHET and the health experts, who have guided us through all phases of this, that we are not configured as a nation to have a zero Covid policy. We are ahead of many European countries in bringing forward this legislation.

There are things that I think we need to look as a matter of urgency in tandem with everything else that is before the House today. PCR testing will be a built-in feature of the system being rolled out under this legislation. The cost of a PCR test varies greatly across the European Union and the rest of Europe. In North Macedonia, the cost of a PCR test is €35 but it is between €120 and €150 in Ireland. It is the same test. It is the gold standard in determining if one has Covid or not, yet the cost varies significantly.

The backlog of mammograms and other health screening tests was addressed on "Morning Ireland" for a considerable time earlier. For every person detected with breast cancer, 90 or more have gone through the screening system in good health. Their health is not overly jeopardised, yet many are waiting to be screened to rule out having breast cancer. Every resource needs to be thrown behind that.

There is logic to the 5 km limit and I know that it is subject to review on 5 April, but many people tell me that it is mind-numbing. The reality is that there is so much shut down, including shops, retail, hospitality, etc., that there is little to do when one leaves one's home and drives across the country. It can be mind-numbing, especially in rural Ireland, to drive two or three crossroads away from one's home and have to turn around and go back again. That should remain subject to review but this legislation is important.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Sligo-Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to make a few points. We all support the legislation to introduce quarantines. I take the view that if we are doing it, we should do it for everybody. During the week, the Tánaiste said that if people are coming from the Isle of Man, there is no Covid there and we do not want to hold them up. The primary issue for me is trying to get back to some level of normality for people who are suffering. All of us, and particularly young people, have had enough of all the restrictions and the difficulty, worry and pain of Covid. Even though it is destroying our aviation industry and so on, if we are implementing a quarantine, we should do it for everybody.

I reiterate my view about whether we have pushed the boat out with our neighbours, particularly the UK. We appreciate that if it has a surplus at the end, it will give the vaccines to us. We have ordered 18 million doses. The issue is delivery dates and scheduling as opposed to supply. The Minister said that we have our orders in and I appreciate that. Is it not possible for those countries that are in a flusher situation to effectively lend us 2 million or 3 million doses which we can replenish in April or May when they come to us, so that we can ramp up here much quicker?

While the manufacturers were saying at the beginning, based on clinical trials, particularly the Pfizer trials, that there needed to be three or four weeks between the first and second injections, the UK, Israel and the United States went a different route, deciding on 12 weeks. Their data are based on many millions of people, much more than in a clinical trial, and they have adopted a 12-week approach. According to the Scottish data which were published the day before yesterday, 84% efficacy was proven. While I appreciate our Chief Medical Officer and deputy chief medical officer saying that we needed to stick to the rules and that we should stick to the three weeks for the maximum possible efficiency, other countries have taken a calculated risk and it has worked. If we did the same here, we could double or triple our rate of vaccinations and get to that level of protection, at 84% efficacy, that has been achieved in Scotland, the UK, the US, Israel and elsewhere. I appeal to the Minister to do that. The evidence is there now and it can lead to a much earlier timeframe for having all of our people vaccinated, which has to be the priority because it assists us in getting back to some level of normality.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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We have seen for a long time the mixed messages coming from and the kite-flying engaged in by the Government. This is not a game between the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to get the message out first and then to undermine each other. The people are worn out with conflicting information and off-the-cuff announcements. People's mental health has been affected. There is a large audience every time the Government announces new restrictions. This is not because people want to see "The Micheál and Leo Show", but because people have a real interest in the impact that these restrictions will have on their daily lives, whether it is when they will see their parents again, when they can go back to work, or where they will be in the vaccine roll-out. The questions are endless. It is time for the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to put away their egos, to stop this one-upmanship and to put the people first.

For the sake of the mental wellness of the nation, the Government needed to set the record straight this week and end the spin, leaks and uncertainty. Unfortunately, this did not happen. The time for talk is over. Talk is cheap and real action is needed. The public does not want a pat on the back and platitudes, and to be told that people's mental health is being minded when the reality on the ground is different. People do not want to hear that we are all in the same boat when some are in yachts, some paddle their own canoe and some even prefer boats that leak. Many people I have spoken to feel that they have been thrown overboard by this Government and left to fend for themselves.

In fairness to the public, they have been brilliant in playing their part in suppressing this pandemic. They have jumped through hoops and have made great sacrifices in trying to suppress the virus. Some nine months ago, the National Public Health Emergency Team called for the mandatory quarantine of passengers. This did not happen and we are now fighting new variants of this virus. We have gone from a crisis to an emergency under this Government. We cannot drive 5 km to see our parents but we can fly into this country with relative impunity. Half-cooked measures just will not work any more.

If this Government is serious about tackling this emergency, it needs to support the Sinn Féin amendments. These include a requirement for all people arriving to have a post-arrival PCR test and to extend the quarantine requirements to all arrivals into the State, not just those from the 20 states designated. I heard the previous speaker, who is of the Minister's own party, support these measures. I hope he will support the Sinn Féin amendment when the vote comes. Not only are we not all in the same boat but it looks like we are not all on the same plane either. I sometimes question whether we are even on the same planet.

10:50 am

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation. While I welcome the introduction of quarantine, I deplore the fact that it is being introduced on a piecemeal basis. This makes absolutely no sense in light of the serious threat we face. A previous Fianna Fáil speaker used the term "bolt of lightning". There was no bolt of lightning here. To go into the background to this, on 11 February 2020, more than a year ago, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a public health emergency of international concern. On 27 February, the first case in Northern Ireland was reported. On 29 February, the first case in the Republic was reported. Significantly, there is no 29 February this year. On 11 March, almost a year ago, the director general of the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. He said that it is "not a word to use lightly or carelessly." He also said the WHO had "been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction." I draw the attention of both Ministers, whom I welcome to the Chamber, to that latter point. That was on 11 March last year. Alarming levels of inaction were being spoken about a year ago.

We ignored the existing structure that was in place for dealing with emergencies, the name of which I have forgotten but I will come to it in a minute. We simply bypassed and ignored it without explanation. We ignored the fact that public health was at a crisis point both in the hospitals and in the regional bases of the public health service across the country. This area was totally at a crisis point and still is, with a postponed strike pending. We ignored the report on public health. It is more than a year later. We did nothing throughout the pandemic, not to mention having done nothing when the report was published.

A year later, we still have no clear message or strategy and are relying on the roll-out of vaccination, which is only one part of what should be a zero Covid strategy. We have been laughed at for suggesting this but I do not think it is a laughing matter. An awful lot of very respected people have been completely ignored in this regard. These include Dr. Gabriel Scally, who has almost been sanctified in his own lifetime for his work on the cervical smear debacle, which is very unusual. His views have been utterly ignored. He has been a consistent voice in saying that this must be treated on an all-island basis with regard to the ports and airports and that we must take a zero Covid approach. He is utterly ignored when it suits the Government to do so.

Appalling messages are coming out. I am glad the Minister for Justice is here today. The Minister for Transport and the Taoiseach should also be here because this is an extremely serious matter. One year later, we are going to look at quarantine. The figures are startling but, before I come to them, I will say that the manner in which announcements have been made is simply unacceptable. I will not waste my few minutes going through them. There was an announcement made through the Irish Mirrorand another through Raidió na Gaeltachta. There was also the Minister's debacle on "Claire Byrne Live" and his comments on Twitter at 12 midnight while a Minister of State said something completely different.

All the while, there is no enforcement with regard to passenger locator forms, an operation which has now been privatised. There has been no oversight over self-isolation over the last year. Untested troops are going through Shannon Airport, yet this Government saw fit to follow up on social welfare recipients. We ignored direct provision and nursing homes. I am on the record as having continuously highlighted the issue of nursing homes since as far back as March. We ignored the Covid committee set up to monitor the situation. None of its very good recommendations have been implemented.

Today we are dealing with a report from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which highlights serious concerns with regard to human rights arising from draconian legislation. I put my name to that legislation, most reluctantly, on the basis that there would be some quid pro quoand the Government would come back to us in an honest manner and deal with issues in the Dáil, rather than in the Irish Mirroror on Raidió na Gaeltachta, cé go bhfuil meas an-mhór agam ar an raidió. This is the place for announcements to instil confidence in the people. We are dealing with the people in a draconian manner with increased fines while putting an extra burden on An Garda Síochána. At a point when our relationship with An Garda had made a turn for the better, we are making the lives of gardaí impossible.

I hope the Minister will accept the amendments which make quarantine absolutely mandatory for all travellers into the country with a view to dealing with the pandemic.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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We can reach zero Covid. We can, and we could, if the Government would just put the health and well-being of all of the residents of the country before business interests, profits, lobbyists and, it seems, the European Union.

I was inclined to support the Bill before us today but now I am not so sure. The Health (Amendment) Bill 2021 will belatedly provide for mandatory quarantine for some people coming from designated countries. It will also provide for mandatory quarantine for people who arrive in the country without a negative PCR test. The Bill could really be known as the shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted Bill, seeing as how some of us have been calling for these measures since May last year.

The Government knows that I am a proponent of a zero Covid strategy and that I have been since last October when we were in the midst of the second wave. The third wave, since our so-called meaningful Christmas, has been more deadly and devastating than everything else we have had to endure since March last year. At our weekly Business Committee meetings, I have pleaded each week for the Oireachtas to properly plan for the months ahead, correctly saying that there was no point in planning week by week as there would not be any significant change to the lockdown for a number of months.

There are now a number of new variants of Covid-19, or SARS CoV-2, in the country. The most dominant strain on the island is now the highly transmissible UK variant. There are at least three other variants outlined in the Bill. I do not agree with the names of the variants being specified in the Bill as we have absolutely no idea what other variants of this virus could arise. Any legislation we introduce now should have the ability to address any future variations. I have studied SI 53/2020, the Infectious Diseases (Amendment) Regulations 2020, and I ask for reassurance that any and all variants will be covered under the extensive list.

I do not want to be too negative. I was dismayed to hear media reports that the Brazilian variant could possibly be immune from the current vaccines. Surely, we cannot know that yet. I do not think it is fair for such speculative reports to be broadcast in our media as things stand.

The feeling of hope around the vaccine roll-out is palpable. It is wonderful to see people sharing images of their vaccination certificates or of their family members’ joy in getting the vaccination. The Government and HSE need to improve their communications around the importance and safety of the vaccines. Now is not the time for misinformation or conspiracy theories. I also would like to see a far speedier roll-out of vaccines, but would not we all? That is out of our hands. Given how atrociously the UK Government handled the start of the pandemic, it is strange to see it plan for a summer reopening. I suppose that is the benefit of having a health system like the NHS; public health works when it is needed. Alternatively, it may be down to the fact that it is only giving one dose of vaccine to its citizens. We do not know if that decision will come home to roost. We have to see what the story is in that regard.

I welcome the foresight of the Government in introducing a three-month sunset clause as set out in sections 9(3), 9(4) and 9(5) of the Bill. I was actually pleasantly surprised to see some provisions with which I agree in a Government Bill. It makes sense that these measures would be reviewed on a three-monthly basis. It has been positive to see the position of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, on the calls for mandatory quarantine. Of course, we do not want to infringe on people’s rights, but we have a responsibility to protect people’s lives, health and livelihoods. The ICCL's submission sets out the balance that could, and should, be met in this regard. We can do both and it is vitally important we do so. All travellers to the island should have to quarantine.

11 o’clock

I do not agree with the notion of designated states which may pose a high risk to this State or where there has been sustained human transmission. One thing we know about this virus and its variants is that it is highly transmissible and highly dangerous. Surely the Minister would agree that anyone travelling from anywhere with any instances of Covid should have to quarantine. Indeed, in some of the countries requiring quarantine there is a very low incidence of Covid but for many countries with a very high incidence, we are not providing for quarantine at all.

I also take umbrage with the wording in subsection (25) of Section 38B which states that a dependant person means "a person who is 18 years or over and is suffering from a mental or physical disability".Does the Minister not listen to people with disabilities and advocacy groups? Has he not seen the Disability Is Not a Dirty Word campaign? Disabled people are reclaiming the term "disabled" and highlighting that it is society, policies and infrastructure which disable them and limit their abilities. Cultural change is needed and if the Government does not use inclusive and person-centred language then what hope is there for wider change?

I would like to briefly mention that it is completely unacceptable that developed countries are swallowing up all available vaccines. In order for the vaccination programme to be successful, it must be rolled out worldwide. We have a moral responsibility to share vaccines with developing countries and I was glad to hear Dr. Mike Ryan of the WHO outlining the importance of this.

In essence, I am not sure I will be supporting this Bill because although it will implement some of the measures I have been calling for, it does not go far enough. We are a year into this pandemic and people need leadership.

11:00 am

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I do not have a principled opposition to quarantine. I would be nervous about how it will be implemented, the effect it will have and whether quarantine centres themselves will become hot beds for transmission but I would not have a principled opposition to it if I thought it was the solution. I certainly do not believe that the quarantining that is being proposed in this Bill is the solution. If we could stop everybody coming into this State then we would stop coronavirus from coming into this State and more importantly, we would stop variants coming in but I am not convinced that we can do that.

I note the Sinn Féin amendments to the Bill which extend quarantining to everybody coming into the State but I am not entirely clear as to whether this includes those coming across our land border with Northern Ireland. There is no point in stopping people coming in at a port or an airport and not stopping people coming in across the land Border. I appreciate that Sinn Féin aims to abolish that land Border and see reunification of this State. I am asking whether it supports the quarantining of everybody, just until national reunification, because otherwise it is pointless.

A lot of what we have done to date has been based on a paucity of information. Whatever we introduce must be effective. To be effective, it must be necessary, proportionate and evidence-based but there has been very little evidence on anything with one notable exception that I wish to single out, namely the All Ireland Infectious Diseases Cohort Study in conjunction with the Irish Coronavirus Sequencing Consortium which clearly demonstrates that travel is an issue. I do not wish to misinterpret the findings of that study but it seems to me that while it is important to stop Covid-19 cases coming into the State, it is even more important to stop new variants coming in. The only way to do that is to test everyone coming into the State because at least then we would know what is coming in.

The Bill provides that we would quarantine people who have come directly from or have been in states like Brazil, Malawi, Mozambique or South Africa in the last two weeks but does not acknowledge the fact that somebody coming here from France may have been in contact with somebody who was in Brazil or somebody coming from Newry may have been in contact on a farm with somebody from Brazil. The idea that where somebody has been is indicative of whether he or she may have the virus is not credible. We must start with testing everybody. I have been calling for everybody to be tested since last May. We require people to be tested before coming in and that is fine. However, a negative PCR test does not mean that a person has not been infected after it would have become detectable by that test or that he or she is not bringing in a new strain or mutation which could affect immunity acquired through having contracted Covid-19 and recovered and, perhaps more importantly, immunity acquired through vaccination. So far most, if not all, of the vaccines being administered in Ireland seem to work on any of the strains identified to date. However, there is always the possibility of new strains and one of the vaccines in use is less effective on the South African and Brazilian strains in particular.

We need a science-based approach rather than a morality-based approach. I fear that there has been a lot of the latter and a tendency to want to purge ourselves of this virus. Unfortunately, this is not a morality tale but an exercise in science. I greatly welcome the scientific studies that have been done. They have been very clear that quarantining will work if properly implemented but it must apply to everybody coming into the State. I do not think it is feasible to quarantine everybody coming into the State. It is simply not possible because it would have to include everybody coming in at every entry point, including from Northern Ireland. Therefore, we must start with testing everybody coming into the State because that is feasible. At least then we would know what we are dealing with.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. First, I wish to say that it is regrettable and a sad thing to hear that the Minister for Health had to erect a security fence around his house.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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We stand in solidarity with the Minister. There is no place for that in Irish society. We can have our differences in here but respect must be shown to people's families and children-----

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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And to people themselves.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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-----and to people themselves.

We live in an Ireland where people are coming in and going out. I spoke last night to a young couple in Donegal. They are living in a caravan that is damp and are expecting a baby on 1 April next. They cannot get an electrician for two days to finish their house out in the countryside in order that they can live in it. We live in a country where a person who was roofing a house in Portumna was told by a member of An Garda Síochána to go. We live in a country where a group of workers from Northern Ireland can come down here every day, go into every shop in this country and work on a social housing scheme under contract to the Irish State but Paddy, in this country, is now considering going across to England to work because sites have been shut down. I spoke to small subcontractors last night who are on the verge of going bust because of the regulations here. I know of a 150-acre field in Dublin that one would need to send a drone across to see someone but the site has been shut down. What is the mentality? Have we become so cowardly that we cannot make a decision on what is right or wrong? Are doctors going to be allowed to say, "I do not know much about building but I am going to shut it down"? We need to wake up and cop on to the plight of our own people. Builders and construction workers are like birds; they go where the work is. They are leaving this country in droves because England is at full bore and there is no point in staying. We must also remember that there are companies in Ireland employing electricians who go off to work for three weeks and come home for one. Will they not be allowed to see their families?

I am not opposed to quarantine - let me be very clear on that - but what is the point of it if I can go to France, meet people there who jump on a plane and come to Ireland and then jump on a plane and go to England? If we are doing this, we need to do it right. It should be full duck or no dinner. We either do it right or forget about it all together. We have been talking about doing this for so long now. I listened to a programme this morning on quarantine and if we do not do it right within the hotels, we will have an even bigger problem. I heard Professor Luke O'Neill talking about the fact that when one opens the door of a room where a person is quarantining, the virus can come out at one. We are not set up for this. We need systems that pull the air away.

We are proposing a system whereby people coming from 20 listed countries must have everything in place in advance or they cannot come. It is almost like the requirements for animal exporters. However, if people are coming from somewhere else, they can shoot in, show their PCR test and away they go. We need one system or the other.

I do not blame the Minister but the big problem is that the way the EU has gone about doing its deals has been an unmitigated disaster. If we went down to marts in Castlerea or Roscommon, got some of those dealers and brought them to deal with the vaccine suppliers, we would have got better results. We should be looking outside to see if we can do deals with whosoever have vaccines. From what I see, some of those in Europe do not have a clue what they are at.

I ask the Minister and the Government to give consideration to the construction sector. Many people do not understand all the elements of this situation. The Government has not gone to the banks. The banks are not granting moratoriums, even though it has been stated by Europe since after Christmas that the banks should give moratoriums to help with the situation in countries. The banks have given the two fingers to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, as usual. Either this House or the Central Bank needs to rein in the banks.

People do not understand that we need subcontractors to do the groundwork and shift the muck in the construction sector. They have major payments to make because their equipment is leased. There is no moratorium in place in that regard. Everybody is talking about the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and all of this kind of stuff coming out. Let us drill down, however, into what payments these people have. There is nothing contained in those payments to help these subcontractors.

I appeal to the Government to consider the construction sector. One would nearly have to throw the virus at one person roofing a house in Portumna to infect him or her. The statistics in this regard should be examined. In one industry in this country, 800 people were infected within one week.

11:10 am

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank Teachta Fitzmaurice, but his time is up.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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Meanwhile, there were about 22 infections with the virus in the construction sector. Have we lost the courage to make decisions because we got a bite on the arse at Christmas? I was one of those people who said we should then open up things. I put my hand up in that regard. However, I ask the Government to not lose courage and for its members to stand up and be counted. Getting one bite of a dog does not mean just giving up as a result.

Cormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this opportunity to examine the Health (Amendment) Bill 2021, which provides for the establishment of mandatory quarantine for travellers arriving into the State in order to limit the spread of Covid-19. I thank the Ministers present and their ministerial colleagues in the Departments of Health and Justice for their efforts during this global pandemic. I equally acknowledge the untimely deaths of the 4,237 people who have succumbed to the virus in Ireland. Once again, I offer my deep condolences to all those who lost loved ones during this pandemic.

Like everyone in Ireland, I am extremely grateful for the efforts of our front-line healthcare workers, who have worked so tirelessly and diligently to keep people safe over the past year. Thankfully the numbers of people hospitalised due to Covid-19 have reduced and other indicators are beginning to become more regular and normal, which is encouraging. However, we cannot let our guard down and it is right that we continue to suppress the virus during the month of March. This will ensure our GPs, nurses and medics can continue to roll out vaccinations without the pressure of dealing with a fourth wave of cases.

News this week that 82% of adults will be offered their first jab by the end of June is very encouraging. I also welcome the changes to the vaccine roll-out sequence to prioritise people with a high risk of complications from Covid , including people with serious underlying conditions. However, more must be done for carers in particular, as the Minister will know, and these people should be categorised as essential workers. I ask for that situation to be reviewed. The roll-out of vaccines with GPs has been going well but not surprisingly, there have been teething issues. Some people are being asked to travel excessive distances. In Dublin, people aged over 80 years old have been offered vaccinations in the Helix in Dublin City University, DCU. This is an excessive journey for some people. We must look at having more local hubs. I ask the Minister to examine both this issue and the reports of vaccinations not arriving at GP practices and appointments being cancelled at short notice.

While the vaccine is being distributed and Covid case numbers are low, we must make every effort to avoid importing new cases. This where this new Bill comes in, as a proactive measure to introduce mandatory hotel quarantining to provide an extra level of protection against new variants entering from high-risk countries. The main aim of the Bill is to amend the Health Act 1947 to provide for mandatory quarantine in designated facilities for people travelling into the State, particularly from certain areas where there is significant transmission of Covid-19 or variants of concern.

Rightly, the Act leaves the designation of high-risk category 2 countries to the Minister for Health, which will allow him flexibility to add new countries when necessary. The list has 20 countries and passengers who arrive from these countries are subject to stricter quarantine requirements and must complete 14 days of quarantine. I also welcome the three-month sunset clause, which will ensure this necessary but extremely strict law will only continue as long as is absolutely required.

I conclude by asking all Deputies in this House to be cautious about the language they use concerning international variants of Covid. Talk of people from Brazil, for example, who it should be noted are legally resident in Ireland, importing the P1 variant to meat plants and other places is regrettable. This kind of inflammatory, socially divisive rhetoric should be avoided. I thank the Minister for introducing this important legislation and I hope it will be supported by all Deputies.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on the Health (Amendment) Bill 2021. The Government this week took the decision to extend significant restrictions. This was not a decision we took lightly but while reflecting on a number mentioned by many Deputies today, namely, those 4,237 people who have died because of Covid-19. Everything we are doing is to keep that number as low as possible. However, our schools are beginning to reopen and we will again review the current level of restrictions in April. It is our firm hope that we will then be in a position to ease and relax some of these restrictions but we ask people to continue to abide by them until we get to that point.

I know that we are asking a huge amount of people and that the public rightly expects the Government to keep our side of this bargain by protecting us from Covid-19, while also looking beyond the pandemic. In that sense, I appreciate that many people, Deputies and Senators have wished to see legislation passed to allow for mandatory quarantining in designated facilities. It is important, however, that this is done with the utmost care and attention to detail. One year ago, it would have been almost inconceivable that we would be in a position where penal regulations would be in place to bar people from travelling to airports and ports or that we would seek to place individuals entering our country into a mandatory quarantine system. It is essential we remember how extraordinary a step this is and that the legislative basis for doing so is rooted in public health grounds. That is firmly the basis of this Bill. The public health advice is clear: everybody should avoid non-essential travel completely.

This legislation is being undertaken by my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I sincerely thank him and all his colleagues in the Department for all the work they are doing and will continue to do to try keep us safe during this pandemic. Officials in my Department have worked closely with their colleagues in the Department of Health on the drafting of this Bill and we will continue to provide assistance and support. There is ongoing co-operation between our Departments, and more generally across Government, as we continue to deal with the unprecedented challenges presented by Covid-19.

The extraordinary nature of the battle against Covid-19 and the efforts of all of us in this House to keep the public safe are reflected in the extraordinary measures contained in this Bill. Although we are introducing mandatory quarantine to protect public health, we must strongly consider the civil rights and liberties of those we are asking to quarantine as we take this step and as we consider how to put these measures into operation. We have had to do that every step of the way with all of the measures we have introduced in the last year.

As it has throughout the pandemic, An Garda Síochána is continuing to support the public health regulations through a graduated response and in keeping with our country’s long history of policing by consent. This approach has seen the Garda use the four Es approach, namely, to engage, explain and encourage and, only as a last resort, to enforce. As many Deputies are aware, the Garda is already implementing a system of fixed-charge notices for those found in breach of those Covid-19 regulations which have been designated as penal provisions. This system allows for a speedier system of fines, without the requirement for a person to be brought before the courts and prosecuted. More than 9,000 such fines have been issued to date, including more than three hundred €500 fines for non-essential travel to airports or ports. Those fines have unfortunately only been issued in the last two to three weeks. I urge people who are thinking of travelling where there is no need to do so to not travel. Many people leaving and coming back into the country are Irish citizens who are resident and working here. I encourage them not to travel.

We have introduced mandatory PCR testing for everybody entering the State, mandatory quarantining for everybody entering the State and we are now introducing mandatory hotel quarantining for those coming into the State from at-risk countries, and the Minister will have an opportunity to extend that list, but also for those who have no PCR test.

We are the first country in the EU to introduce this type of hotel quarantine. It is important to note that those who are serving their period of mandatory quarantine have committed no crime. It would, therefore, not be appropriate for members of An Garda Síochána to provide a permanent presence at such locations. However, where issues arise and where there are public order incidents or attempts to breach the regulations that are in place for public safety, my Department and An Garda Síochána will provide assistance.

I assure the House that there is ongoing co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the Government on Covid measures and other issues. Officials in my Department are in daily contact with Garda management and, as Minister for Justice, I speak regularly to the Garda Commissioner. Contact between the Department and An Garda Síochána includes consultation on any measures the Government is considering to protect public health and how such measures will be put into operation.

The Government's aim in taking this very serious step is to ensure that, insofar as possible, we avoid the possibility of Covid-19 being reimported to Ireland through different variants while we are in the process of bringing down our numbers and implementing the vaccination programme. This would undermine the many sacrifices that people have made to protect the most vulnerable in society. This is a very important protection but, as I mentioned, it is really important we ensure that our legislative approach reflects the balance between the protection of public health and the constitutional freedoms that all legislation much respect. I believe this Bill does so and that the measures will remain in place only as long as public health circumstances require.

We all acknowledge that people throughout the country have made very significant sacrifices in the past year, with lives and businesses put on hold. However, as the Taoiseach said this week, the end is in sight if we stick with the guidelines a little longer. I thank again the Minister for Health and his team for the considerable work that has been done on this legislation. I urge all Deputies to support the Bill.

11:20 am

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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I acknowledge the extraordinary sacrifices that Irish people have made in responding to this pandemic over the past year. During that time, their constitutional and personal rights and their civil liberties have been significantly infringed and, in many cases, fully restricted. The people have gone along with that because they recognise, to a large extent, that those restrictions have been necessary in our ongoing battle against this pandemic. As politicians, however, we need repeatedly to acknowledge that sacrifice and to recognise that the actions we are taking are having a significant impact on people's lives. One reason that people have grown increasingly frustrated is that they perhaps perceive that the body politic is slightly too casual in imposing restrictions on them. I do not agree but it is important that we repeatedly recognise and acknowledge that these are severe restrictions on their rights.

The rights of citizens have been infringed in that their movement and ability to earn a livelihood have been restricted and their ability to engage in the types of entertainment they want to engage in has been severely curtailed, as has their ability even to form personal relationships. It was important today that the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission published its report and I urge the Minister to take on board many of its recommendations. Citizens have had their rights significantly restricted, and while they are prepared to go along with that, they do not want the political system to interfere with their rights in a casual way or in a way that takes this interference for granted. We are all aware of the significant impact the pandemic has had on public life and the lives of people. We referred to the 4,200 people who have died as a result of the pandemic. People are prepared to have their rights and liberties restricted but we need to ensure that is not done in a casual way.

I have spoken repeatedly in the Chamber since last May about the significant and extraordinary impact the restrictions have had on the lives of children and young people. They have been impacted much more than any other group in our society. Their education and employment have been interfered with. We need to put a greater focus on them as a priority in our response to this pandemic. It is not just me who is saying this. I ask Deputies to take on board the statement by the Ombudsman for Children two weeks ago that, in the future when we look back on this time, people will say adults let down children.

We need to take into account the sacrifices that people are making when we consider this legislation. I am supportive of introducing mandatory quarantining because such draconian measures are being imposed on Irish citizens, so it is not too much to ask that we impose restrictions on people travelling into this country from other jurisdictions. It is also important that we know the reason we are introducing this mandatory quarantining. It is not for the purpose of trying to stop Covid coming into Ireland; the virus is here already. The purpose is to try to stop variants coming into the country that will have an impact on our ability to respond to this pandemic. We need to recognise that although we are preparing for what is happening in the immediate future, we also need to prepare for next autumn. We need to put in place measures now to ensure that if some variant is not responsive to the vaccines, we can respond to that next autumn without the necessity of reimposing draconian measures.

I emphasise that there is hope out there. Part of the reason that people are finding this so frustrating is they are concerned about there being a lack of hope and that it is inevitable that we will have rolling and continuing lockdowns, which will prevent people from living the lives they want to live. Hope is on the horizon in the form of vaccination. The vaccination programme in this country is going well and will be very effective. When we get our elderly population, our population in nursing homes and our vulnerable population vaccinated, we will see a remarkable transformation.

I mentioned that young people have been severely restricted by these restrictions, but it is also the case that very many people over the age of 70 have been locked up for a year. It is too much to expect that once they are vaccinated, they will be required to remain locked up. They probably will not tolerate that. People in their 70s are aware they have a limited number of years left and want to get out and live their lives, as does everyone else. We need to recognise, therefore, that once vaccines are administered to people over the age of 70 and to the vulnerable, there will be an unquenchable desire to get out and enjoy freedom.

We need to be realistic with the population about the impact of the vaccination. It will have a very positive impact on hospitalisations and deaths. Results from Israel and Imperial College London reveal that it is having a significant impact in reducing the number of hospitalisations, serious illnesses and deaths. Nonetheless, no vaccine will be 100% effective, so we need to be aware that even after the vaccines are rolled out, there will continue to be positive Covid tests, people will continue to go to hospital as a result of Covid and, unfortunately, people will also continue to die as a result of Covid. We need to be realistic about this because if we are not and if we do not talk about it, we will lull people into a false sense of security that the number of Covid deaths will drop and stop immediately once the vaccination programme is rolled out.

We also need to examine how we will manage through March and what our timelines are for when we get to 5 April. As politicians, we all know that March will be a very difficult month. We have seen an increase in the number of representations from citizens who are simply fed up and concerned about the impact this is having on their elderly family members and their children and younger family members. As a Government, we need to offer them a practical lifting of the restrictions on 5 April. Obviously, everyone is aware that we have to try not to let our guard down during March and I believe the majority of people will do that. They are committed to ensuring we get the figures as low as possible, but they have to be given some hope for the future. As I have said previously, we need to get children back to school as quickly as possible.

I welcome that they are starting back next Monday. All children should be getting back to school in the next two weeks. We are damaging them, and we need to get them back to school.

On 5 April, we need to ensure that we let people out so that they can play their sport, not just children but elderly people who want to play golf or people who want to take exercise and play team sport. We need to recognise that we have to live with some level of risk. Yesterday, Denmark announced it was lifting restrictions significantly, but its government expressly stated it is taking a calculated risk in what it is doing because it recognises it cannot keep restrictions in place indefinitely.

We also need to look at the areas of tracing and testing. At present, it appears that our tracing only goes back 48 hours. We need to focus on that more. If the vaccination programme works and we see a reduction in the disease because of vaccination, we will need to be careful of new variants coming in. The way to be effective and careful in response to new variants is by having a very effective tracing system that goes back more than 48 hours.

We need to start to be more receptive to antigen immediate testing. Obviously, I appreciate that PCR testing is a more reliable way of assessing and appraising the extent of infections. However, for the purposes of opening businesses and getting our lives back to normal, we need to use immediate antigen testing. Let us not be too concerned that it may not be 100% effective. We know it is largely effective in identifying people who are infectious.

I believe we have hope in the future. The Government has a responsibility to ensure that a single message goes out to the Irish public. I welcome that politicians and representatives from NPHET were on the same platform the other evening and that should continue. One of my regrets is that we allowed the situation to develop from last March where we had two alternative sources of authority coming from the State. That is not a good idea. The State and Government need to speak with one voice on this.

I commend the Minister and I will be supporting the legislation, which provides flexibility to allow us to respond to variants as they come in.

11:30 am

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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As the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is leaving, I take the opportunity to join Deputy Fitzmaurice in saying that the situation he and his family faced is regrettable and needs to be condemned. There is no place for it in our society. Criticism of Ministers is one thing, but targeting of a home like that is unacceptable.

Deputy Jim O'Callaghan made an interesting point about what we are asking of the Irish people and what we are asking of people taking flights into this country. It is welcome that people in government are making that point. Unfortunately, it has taken far too long for Ministers to hear that point and for action to be taken in this area. People feel enormous frustration and anger, particularly this week. There is a sense of drip feeding, confusion and contradiction. Even when things are announced the public do not have much faith that that is what will happen because so many things have fallen through or are being delayed.

We had the fiasco with special education in January. There is not necessarily much confidence that we will see success with schools in the coming weeks. I certainly hope that we do, but people have an attitude that they will believe it when they see it. That is caused by the poor communication and co-ordination on the part of the Government, and the feeling that there is a profound lack of leadership. That is really aggravating people because they feel they have sacrificed an enormous amount over the past year and the least they deserve is a feeling that there is a plan, a strategy and a coherent approach to get us out of this. People are angry that they are hearing such information, which is crucial to their lives and impacts on their liberty and their enjoyment of so many aspects of their life, through side comments and interviews rather than being addressed directly.

I welcome some movement on the hotel quarantine plans, but it is a day late and a dollar short. I am alarmed that it is taken so long for the Bill to come before the Dáil. NPHET first recommended mandatory hotel quarantining on 8 May last year. There has been a delay of 293 days in the Minister's drafting this legislation and bringing it before the Dáil. All sorts of reasons were advanced as to why that was the case. However, I agree with Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's point. When we are asking people to make such enormous sacrifices, it is incomprehensible that such a lax approach is being taken to an area of such high risk as international travel, particularly given the impact that variants from different parts of the world have had on the trajectory of the disease, and the impact they could have on hospitalisations and indeed death. The risks that are involved in not managing international travel well enough are enormous.

Even after today, this system will not be in operation for some weeks. It is simply not good enough. Mandatory hotel quarantining for arrivals from only 20 countries is not sufficient. This legislation does not go far enough. It is difficult to ask the public to continue to make the enormous sacrifices they have been making, including staying at home under level 5 restrictions and doing all that they can to ensure that Covid does not spread, when the Government is not doing all it can to stop Covid and its variants coming into the country. My colleagues have submitted amendments that would see these provisions extended and I hope the Government will consider them.

Travel restrictions will have a severe impact on the aviation sector. Government and the European institutions need to ensure that the aviation sector, particularly outside the major capitals, is supported. I have been raising concerns about my local airport, Cork Airport, for several months. About 2,200 jobs rely directly on the airport with a further 10,000 jobs relying on it indirectly. There are workers who are on the breadline and put to the pin of their collars. We need additional Government support. Travel restrictions, while necessary, will obviously have an impact on airline workers, ancillary staff and all airport-connected workers. We need to act swiftly to protect these workers and their families. Wage supports alone are not enough. The Government cannot continue to ignore the plight of aviation workers. They need payment breaks from lenders. They need protection from credit rating impairment. They need tailored supports, particularly workers facing possible further job losses.

The Government needs to use the €245 million connectivity fund to support the aviation sector. To reach its full potential, Cork needs a viable international airport. We need to ensure that airports such as Cork Airport are protected in this context and I ask the Government to ensure that is the case.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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It is nine months since NPHET recommended that discretionary elements of travel should end, which is nearly 300 days. Consistently, throughout this crisis, NPHET and others have called for real checks and controls at our airports and seaports. In April of last year, Sinn Féin called for a quarantine regime for people entering the State. On 5 May, I stated in the media that our failure to impose New Zealand-style entry restrictions was undermining the efforts to combat Covid-19, but nothing was done and so here we are today with the Government eventually trying to do something about it.

The Bill will not deal with the entire threat of the importation of this virus from outside the State. While people throughout the State adhere to public health measures, people are coming into and going from this country at their leisure. Dublin Airport is in my constituency and hardly a day goes by that I do not get phone calls from people working in the airport or living in the environs of the airport, advising me that people are tripping through the airport. We have seen it on RTÉ's coverage, and we know it is happening. The Bill does not go far enough in addressing what we all know is going on. We have had enough time to get this right, but the measures proposed do not go far enough. We could have asked numerous countries for advice on how to implement this system. I am sure that officials in Australia or New Zealand would have been happy to provide direction based on their experience in this regard.

Why does the Bill not come under the remit of the Minister for Transport, with the support of the Minister for Justice or a Minister of State in her Department? We can argue about how well we think the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is doing his job - I have my own view on that - but what help is he getting from his Government partners? According to media reports, Fine Gael Deputies and Senators are slating the Minister at their parliamentary party meetings.

Yet at Cabinet, when the work needs to be divvied up, their Ministers go missing and he is left holding the baby.

The only thing that is going to get us out of this Covid crisis is the vaccine, yet the vaccination roll-out here has hardly been an unqualified success. According to some of the newspapers, in the North the jab has been given to over 25% of the population, while we are not even at 5% yet. Last year, there were some cutting words bordering on xenophobia from politicians and some in the media about the virus in the North. It seems the cat has got their tongue now.

The decision was made by the Government to hand the procurement of the vaccine over to the EU and there has been much revisionism about this matter. We were told we were too small a country to do it on our own and yet Israel, which has only a few million more people than we have, has vaccinated 49% of its population. Was it too small to arrange the vaccine for itself? Furthermore, the fact remains that health is a member state competency and the EU has no experience in this area. It has no experience in delivering healthcare so we can hardly be surprised by the delays. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has admitted that the EU initially ordered too few vaccines but the question remains of what the role of our State was. What was the role of our EU Commissioner? What was the role of our European officials? This is being questioned across Europe, in Germany and in other places. If we do not assess the situation and learn from the mistakes that were made, the worry is that this will further hinder the vaccination roll-out. I will say this very clearly: we want the vaccination roll-out to be a success but it will not be if we do not learn the lessons we need to learn.

I cannot speak here today without calling out what went on last week with the leaks and rumours coming from the Government about the restrictions, schools, reopening and quarantine. Some of those leaks were true but more of them were false. Did anyone in the Government stop for a second or pause to think about the impact that was going to have on people? People are hanging on their every word and yet they are glib and relaxed. They have a laissez-faireattitude to these leaks. People at home are watching every single word and it seems no consideration is given to that. The public are absolutely committed to defeating this virus. They have made huge sacrifices and have risen to the challenge at every stage in the battle against Covid-19. They have not flinched and they have been equal to the task but this has put a huge strain on their physical and mental health. Their commitment and well-being were disrespected by the actions of the Government last week with those leaks and rumours and the kite-flying. The constant leaking and a lack of clarity from the Government has put a huge strain on people's emotions. It has created significant stress for business owners and, indeed, for workers. I call on the Government to introduce an official protocol for relaying Covid-19 announcements, which specifically precludes unofficial leaks. It should set a time and date to come out and talk to people. It must stop leaking and making people unnecessarily worried.

11:40 am

Thomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister came in here yesterday and said that quarantine measures were being brought in to protect the vaccine programme in order that it is not undermined by new variants. What the Minister has failed to acknowledge is that a limited list of countries is not good enough. We need all people travelling from all countries to be quarantined on arrival. That is the only way we can provide protection from new variants getting into the country.

Ordinary people have done their best. People have stayed home and kept their businesses shut. They have been out of work. Parents have kept their children in and they have had no schools to go to. These people want the Government to provide safety and to keep the variants out. Last week, over 10,000 people flew into this country. The Taoiseach said that half the people who came into the country in January were coming back from holidays. We knew there was a Brazilian variant at the time. We knew there was a risk and yet this Government, and the Minister, let 1,500 people travel in from Brazil. What happened then? Three cases were confirmed coming through Dublin Airport and there could be more. People are angry at the Government's failure to solve this problem. People are angry at the Government for failing to prevent new variants coming into the country. A lady called Margaret from Dublin Hill in Cork rang me this week. She is a pensioner with underlying conditions who has been a prisoner in her own home - her words, not mine - for a year. She cannot understand why the Government has taken a year to bring in an action that is too little, too late. We need everyone to be quarantined on arrival.

We also need an all-Ireland solution. We need everyone to work together on the island of Ireland, irrespective of politics. This is about public health and safety. The Taoiseach needs to step up. He has damaged relationships with some of our partners in the North. We should be strengthening our ties because at the end of the day, we are all in it together on this island. Covid-19 does not recognise party politics, the Border or partition. If we are going to get ahead of this virus, we must not recognise them either and we must work together.

The Taoiseach stood in front of the country two days ago and said that he understands how hard this is but I do not think he does. People are hurting. They are angry, nervous and scared by all the mixed messages and the leaks from different people trying to beat each other out to the media. We want to support the Minister. We want to support the Government, because at the end of the day this is public health and we are all in it together, but not with the way the Government is behaving. This Bill does not go far enough to deliver what we need.

An hour ago, Munster Post Primary Schools GAA cancelled its 2020-21 season and it will not be the only school organisation to do so. All the different sporting, cultural and arts programmes are closed down at the moment. Children, people with disabilities and the elderly have been the most affected by Covid-19. There is so much more I could say but I will just give the Minister one statistic. Merchants Quay Ireland found in its research that four out of five people it interviewed had relapsed into addiction during the Covid-19 crisis. That says an enormous amount. We are bringing amendments forward and I hope the Minister will accept them because we need to get ahead of this.

Patricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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This Bill is long overdue. It has been nine months since NPHET recommended putting restrictions in place to limit travel into this country, as my colleagues have stated. The Government sat on its hands and did nothing, allowing dangerous variants into the country. The Government must accept Sinn Féin’s amendment to introduce mandatory quarantining for all non-essential travel from all countries, not just an obscure list of mostly African countries. I would like to know what criteria were used to decide on that list. We owe it to everyone, especially our older people and those with underlying conditions who have stayed in their homes for almost a year now, to get this right.

There are many concerns about this legislation. The logic of the published list of countries is non-existent. We are proposing to quarantine travellers from African countries, many of which have had fewer than 10,000 cases of Covid-19 in total. Burundi has had a total of 2,041 cases and is 178th in the world for Covid cases. The Seychelles have had 2,514 cases and are 172nd in the world, while eSwatini has had 17,000 cases and is 124th in the world. It is a small country of just over a million people in southern Africa, beside Mozambique. I wonder how many people from eSwatini will not travel to Ireland because of mandatory quarantining. Ireland's total number of cases, at almost 217,000, is more than 20 times that of the average African country. Meanwhile, we are allowing travellers in from Britain, which has had almost 20 times more cases than Ireland, and the United States, which has had 133 times more. According to figures released by the Department of Health, around half of those arriving into the country by aeroplane at the end of last month were doing so for what were deemed to be non-essential reasons.

People are worried about these new variants, especially due to reports that they spread more quickly and may be resistant to vaccines.

While speaking about vaccines, I must mention that the only public vaccination centre in County Kildare is in Punchestown. County Kildare has a population of almost 250,000 and it is the fifth biggest local authority area in the State. We need another vaccination centre, one that is on a public transport route and it needs to be central.

We still do not have mandatory PCR testing for people travelling into Ireland; it is only advisory. This is not good enough. Ordinary people are sacrificing so much to beat this virus. People's lives are on hold, all in an effort to stop the spread, and they are being let down by this Government in that it will not make the right decision. We need to ensure there are adequate human rights protections and mental health supports in place for those who will enter mandatory quarantine. I hope the premises to be used for quarantine have been properly informed. We need to ensure we do not see a repeat of last week's situation, where the Seven Oaks Hotel in Carlow had not been fully informed that it was to be a vaccination centre and when this was pointed out, it was dropped from the plan.

We need clarity from the Government around what criteria will lead to a reduction in restrictions. What levels of cases, vaccinations and R number are required in order that we can drop down a level? Everyone is confused and hanging on the every word of Ministers in interviews. We are becoming more confused and angry as time goes by. We need to see that the plan is not being made up as we go along. We need the Government to share it with us, inclusive of the data that will tell us when we can see light at the end of the tunnel. I am asking the Minister to do this.

11:50 am

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I am required to call the Minister now because this debate is to conclude at 12 noon. The Minister has less than ten minutes.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I was told I had ten minutes. Is it possible to get ten minutes?

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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There are not ten minutes remaining owing to the way in which the debate was run.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I wanted to try to address as many of colleagues' concerns as possible. Is it not possible to get ten minutes?

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Leaders' Questions are scheduled for 12 noon.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I understand; I just wanted to check.

I thank colleagues for their contributions today and yesterday. It is clear there is strong support across the House for hotel quarantine. Many issues were raised during the debate, with a variety of positions given. Some are calling for quicker opening up, others believe the balance is about right and necessary and others believe that further measures are needed and for longer.

A common issue raised was the number of countries to which the requirement for hotel quarantine applies. There is a lot of interest in this issue. It has been suggested by some that more countries need to be added to the list of 20 countries currently designated by Ireland as category 2. Some believe there should be a blanket ban for all countries globally. Some have stated that they will be opposing the Bill because the list of 20 countries is insufficient; they want it to be significantly more. It would be incorrect to suggest that the legislation is limited to these 20 countries. The legislation specifically empowers the Minister for Health to designate additional countries on the advice of the chief medical officer, where the evidence so justifies. The currently designated states - the 20 we are discussing - are the states currently advised to me by the chief medical officer, and which I have designated as category 2 states.

Section 38E(1) empowers the Minister for Health to designate in writing additional states, "where there is known to be sustained human transmission of Covid-19 or any variant of concern or from which there is a high risk of importation of infection or contamination with Covid-19 or any variant of concern by travel from that state." It covers a very wide range of risks from Covid and from variants. Any measure that requires mandatory quarantine must be proportionate to EU law and the Constitution. A proportionate approach necessarily requires the designation to be evidence-based. This is precisely what the Bill provides for. The Bill also provides that this can be done without delay; it simply requires a designation in writing by the Minister for Health. In essence, the Bill before us allows for any state in the world to be added to the system of hotel quarantine in a way that is in line with EU law and the Constitution and is done on evidence-based public health advice. I would hope that colleagues in the Dáil, whether seeking a list of two, 20 or 100 countries, believe that the approach we are taking provides that it could be 30, 40 or 50 countries so long as that is the public health advice based on evidence. That give the measure a firm legal standing. That, I think, is an approach that we can all back. I would love to see us all back it.

NPHET is meeting today - that meeting is taking place now - to review the latest international data. Later today, I will be meeting with the deputy chief medical officer to discuss if we should be designating additional states, other than the 20 provided for. If that is agreed, it can happen very quickly. I want to give colleagues a sense of the mechanism we are trying to put in place here. We are not trying to limit this to 20 states; we are saying it will apply to any state anywhere in the world where, based on evidence, the chief medical officer identifies there is a risk. That is then notified to the Minister for Health, the Minister makes a designation in writing and that state then falls immediately under the hotel quarantine regime. I ask colleagues to think that through. This is being done in a legally robust way, which I know we all understand is important.

Should the Bill pass, we will have a robust system of hotel quarantine, certainly by European standards. No EU state has mandatory hotel quarantining in place for all international arrivals. No EU state has quarantine requirements for those without symptoms of greater than 14 days. This information may have changed. I had a briefing on 12 February. My reading of the situation is that ours will be the most robust hotel quarantine system anywhere in the EU, closely aligned with what is in place in the UK, which is important as we look to an all-island approach and as close to a two-island approach as possible.

In the time available to me, I would like to try to address some of the other issues raised by colleagues. A question was asked regarding people arriving into Ireland and travelling on to Northern Ireland. It was suggested that such people should be included in the system of hotel quarantine as they have to travel across Ireland. I can confirm that such people are included. Similarly, those arriving in Ireland who transited through Northern Ireland are also covered by our hotel quarantine system.

A question was asked about seasonal agricultural workers and whether they would be exempt. The legislation provides a short list of travellers who will be exempt. The list does not include essential workers as a category. The legislation gives the Minister for Health the power to designate additional classes of travellers and the subsection refers to persons who perform essential services, but it would not be envisaged that people in that category, who could pre-book, would have to be included.

An important question was raised around mental health supports for people in hotel quarantine. There is an awareness of the need to have regular check-ins with travellers in quarantine, which could identify issues with health generally, including mental health. The provision of on-site medical care is envisaged as part of quarantine. Should additional supports be required, I assure colleagues it is possible under this legislation to make arrangements for that provision.

This Bill is the latest measure being proposed by the Government on border controls. Currently, there are multiple controls in place. There is a fine and-or prosecution for non-essential travel and hundreds of such fines have been imposed. This Bill will increase that fine from €500 to €2,000. A preflight PCR test is required. Failure to produce this can lead to prosecution. The numbers now arriving without such tests are very small. The Bill requires any such person to stay in a designated quarantine facility until such time as he or she has had a not-detected PCR test. Mandatory home quarantine for all arrivals is in place. This is being enforced by the Garda and failure to comply can result in prosecution. Quarantine is required for 14 days for category 2 states, but this can be relaxed following a non-detected PCR test on day five for non-category 2 states. This Bill introduces hotel quarantine in addition to that for the category 2 state arrivals. Genome sequencing has been very significantly ramped up and includes targeting of positive test results for those who have been in category 2 states. Travel visas have been suspended from a number of countries.

12 o’clock

I acknowledge the significant work done since the recent Cabinet decision. This is complex and sensitive legislation. The establishment and operation of a system of mandatory quarantine, including at designated facilities, is complex and sensitive. We all agree with that. The work to date has required input and efforts across Government. I thank my colleagues, including the Ministers for Justice and Transport, Deputies McEntee and Ryan, respectively, both of whom are here, as well as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and others for all their work. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put.

12:00 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until immediately prior to the taking of Committee Stage.