Wednesday, 31 March 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 14, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on Covid-19 was re-established by the Government on 29 June 2020 to continue to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19 and oversee the cross-Government response. The committee met this week on Monday, 29 March. The date of the next meeting has not yet been set.
On 23 February, the revised plan for managing the virus, Covid-19 Resilience and Recovery 2021 - The Path Ahead, was published. The plan sets out our approach to the next phase on our path forward. The objectives of the revised plan are to make steady progress, starting with childcare and schools, while avoiding a further wave of disease or reimposition of restrictions, protect the most vulnerable by an efficient roll-out of the vaccination programme, remain vigilant and agile regarding the uncertainties in the face of new variants, capitalise on emerging evidence on available vaccines, and lay the foundations for the full recovery of social life, public services and the economy.
Any easing of measures should be slow and gradual, with sufficient time between phases to assess their impact and respond if the epidemiological situation were to deteriorate. We will take account of emerging international and national evidence and experience and have a specific focus on supporting mental health and well-being. In-school education and childcare services recommenced in a phased manner from 1 March, with the staggered return throughout March to be concluded after the Easter break on 12 April.
Yesterday, the Government agreed further easing of measures, including, from 12 April, allowing two households to meet up with one another outdoors for social and recreational purposes. This does not include private gardens. Any meetings outdoors should be done safely, with continued practising of social distancing and other safe behaviours. Masks should be worn in crowded outdoor places. Travel restrictions will be relaxed to enable travel within one's own county or within 20 km of residence if crossing county boundaries. The message is moving from stay at home to stay local.
From 19 April, there will be an expansion of elite sports activity, to include training for, and playing of, national governing body-sanctioned and organised adult intercounty national GAA league games, not including under-20s and minor competitions, and activities by certain high-performing athletes, as approved by Sport Ireland, in a range of sports.
Subject to the prevailing disease situation, from 26 April, outdoor sports facilities can reopen, including pitches, golf courses, tennis courts and other facilities, as appropriate. Activities should take place between a maximum of two households and there should not be any return to team sports or training activities. Outdoor visitor attractions can reopen, including open pet farms, heritage sites and zoos. This does not include amusement parks. Indoor areas should remain closed and hospitality should only be open for takeaway services.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
Robust protective measures, including appropriate capacity limits, should be in place. Underage non-contact outdoor training in pods of 15 can recommence, with strict protocols. Also from 26 April, maximum attendance at funerals will increase to 25 on compassionate grounds. Linked gatherings should not take place before or after funeral services.
Regarding construction, from 12 April, all residential construction projects can recommence. Early learning childcare and school-aged childcare services will be added to the list of essential services for construction activity.
For those fully vaccinated, current guidance for vulnerable persons will be aligned to that of the general population, which means there will be no requirement to cocoon. Those who are fully vaccinated may visit other fully vaccinated people, from one other household only, indoors from two weeks after second dose.
Subject to the prevailing disease situation, areas for consideration in the next phase, after 4 May, include a full reopening of construction activity, a phased return of non-essential retail, commencing with click-and-collect and outdoor retail, such as garden centres and nurseries, recommencement of personal services on a staggered basis, reopening of museums, galleries and libraries, and recommencement of religious services on a staggered basis.
Many of the level 5 public health measures are premised on the need to reduce congregation and interactions between people in order to reduce transmission. Therefore, everyone is being asked to stay local and comply with all public health measures. We continue to have an unacceptably high level of disease in the community. It is imperative that we continue to suppress the disease over the coming period.
The Beacon Hospital gave vaccines to staff of the private school attended by the children of its CEO. The hospital gave the jab to staff of Park Academy crèches and the CEO of the VHI. The Irish Daily Mail reports that at least one other senior manager with no clinical role at the VHI was contacted by the Beacon Hospital and offered a Covid-19 jab at the start of March. I am told there is a 1990s revival going on at the moment. Certainly, it seems that the golden circle of that decade has not gone away. It used to be about contracts and money, and ordinary people suffered as a result. Now it seems to be about life and death, and ordinary people may get sick or even die as a result of this kind of carry-on.
I agree with the statement by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, that private health facilities should be brought into public ownership. The case for that has been strengthened by the events of recent days. How can the Taoiseach oppose that proposal in the light of recent events?
Will the Taoiseach confirm to the House that children's shoes will be added to the essential retail list? Given the time period of lockdown and retail being closed, everybody knows that this issue is causing serious problems for children in many families, particularly children of a very young age. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that this issue will be addressed.
Antigen testing is finally being rolled out and I very much welcome it.
The Taoiseach knows I was the first to raise the question of those tests in the House well over six months ago. I do them regularly when going to and from Dublin. Why is the process taking so long and will the Taoiseach outline the process?
Why has the Government now decided to do PCR tests on arrival from airports? My colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, has been raising this for six or seven months, so what has changed? Will the Taoiseach please inform the House the process by which decisions will be made to add countries to the mandatory hotel quarantine list? It is quite obvious the Minister for Health jumped the gun in announcing that the US and three or four countries from Europe would be included. If I say the Minister for Foreign Affairs was mildly annoyed by that, I am being polite. What is the process for making these decisions, as the current process certainly cannot be used in future?
I have just read the NPHET letter. It correctly states we are in a very fragile and precarious position, as a result, in my opinion, of the Government refusing to impose the mandatory quarantine that NPHET asked to be introduced. The Government still refuses to do it for a majority of countries. Whereas the vast majority of people adhered to public health guidelines, enduring immense hardship in doing that, the Government has allowed certain favoured sectors off the hook. As a result, we still have dangerously high levels of transmission of the virus, most notably with the beef plants and other non-essential sectors that clearly have the favoured ear of the Government.
Interestingly, NPHET does not mention construction in its letter or ask for the reopening of non-essential construction. Why has the Government done this, given the fragile position described by NPHET? Yet again, it seems another reckless move as the Government kowtows to the Construction Industry Federation, including Mr. Tom Parlon, and similar interests.
There are people who will continue to suffer economically and I have raised many times the grant supports that have been denied to taxi drivers. The Taoiseach often makes comparisons with the North, where taxi drivers are being given £3,000 to cover ongoing fixed costs. We have not given them a cent. Will the Taoiseach consider supporting our taxi drivers during this difficult time?
I ask about the vaccination programme. I listened carefully to the Government's announcement yesterday and again this morning when it was replayed during a radio interview. To put it mildly, the Government's plan to reopen the economy is almost 100% dependent on a successful roll-out of the vaccination programme. One could say that is fair enough because it is expected we will get a million vaccines in May, June and afterwards, so there shall be plenty of them in the country. Let us say that happens and there are no problems with distribution or imports. Will the Taoiseach clarify if we are sufficiently resourced in vaccinators, as this is where we could have a problem? I have a niece who is an unemployed midwife and who has offered to be a vaccinator. Ridiculous questions are asked by CPL, the outsourced recruitment company, including requests for the certificate for the BCG vaccine given to people when they were six. They also ask for the junior certificate and the long version of a birth certificate. These questions are obstacles being put in front of people trained as public nurses and doctors who want to be vaccinators. How in God's name are we going to vaccinate millions of people without plenty of vaccinators? Why are these obstacles being put ahead of people's health? Will the Taoiseach explain if he has faith in CPL to deliver the programme?
It is just to keep us right. I thank the Deputy. There is a move to age-based vaccination and the Taoiseach drew a parallel with the North. Sadly, I wish we were in the same position as those in the North, where vaccination is moving ahead at pace. Of course, the Taoiseach is aware there is an occupational element to that scheme. It is why, for example, carers got priority and have been vaccinated in the North. The occupational logic was applied in the correct decision to vaccinate healthcare workers - those on the front line - first. It was not age-related but decided according to occupations.
The Taoiseach has told us the national immunisation advisory committee has advised the Government that there is no occupational group at higher risk of disease or death from Covid-19. I invite the Government to publish that advice so we can scrutinise it. There is also the question of the shenanigans at the Beacon clinic, which is the latest instance we know of where the guidelines issued by the HSE were set to one side and an individual arbitrarily chose people to be vaccinated. Apart from the elitism, this demonstrates a lack of oversight and surveillance. We heard about the Beacon clinic case because of good journalism and somebody stepping forward, not because we have good oversight. What will the Taoiseach do to remedy this clear deficiency?
There is no problem. My jaw almost hit the floor during the Taoiseach's response when he said the meat plants have been dealt with. Tell that to the six meat factory workers currently hospitalised with Covid-19. Tell that to the meat factory workers in the two plants that have been added to the list of outbreaks in the latest weekly statistics. There are now open outbreaks in 27 of 56 meat plants that have supposedly been dealt with. In towns with meat plants, such as Tullamore, the rates of incidence are five times the national average and the poor conditions of meat factory workers continue. For almost a year now, NPHET and People Before Profit have been calling for proper sick pay for these workers but 90% of them still do not have it. We will introduce a Bill tomorrow that would force the beef barons to provide sick pay for all meat factory workers. Will the Taoiseach support us in dealing with this matter, as opposed to ignoring it or pretending it has been dealt with?
I will go further than Deputy Boyd Barrett. Not only does NPHET not recommend the reopening of construction, it argues that it should not happen. After outlining its list of suggestions, it states "no further relaxation of measures should happen". The Government is again going away from NPHET advice in bowing to the lobbying of the Construction Industry Federation. Will the Taoiseach take responsibility if a disaster results?
Like everybody else, I want to see the country reopened. I understand the vaccine roll-out is key to that objective. I have been pushing for many months for a timely rolling out of vaccines. However, I oppose mandatory vaccinations. Encouragement has proven far more successful than browbeating people. I received a number of phone calls from students over the past number of days who have told me they are being forced to take the vaccine against their will. One woman called me and said she was under massive stress and she cannot sleep. She indicates she has been told that if she wants to finish the two weeks of placement she has left, she must take the vaccine. In other words, she must take the vaccine to continue her career. She says she is looking at Germany and Canada, two countries that have paused the roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine for her age cohort, and she cannot understand why the HSE is making it mandatory for students to take this vaccine to continue with a particular career. Will the Taoiseach guarantee these students will not be forced to take the vaccine?
In the statements yesterday, the Taoiseach mentioned that people who have been vaccinated can meet. I welcome that. How will that be policed or will it be policed? Will there be occasions where gardaí will attend people's houses and ask them to prove they have been vaccinated?
I thank the Deputies, who have raised a range of matters. Deputy Barry again raised questions relating to public and private hospitals.
We live in a country where people have choices. I support as strong and well-resourced a public health service as possible and will continue to do so. That is why record funding was provided this year to the HSE to develop, advance and expand the public health service system. That is my commitment to that.
I have condemned what happened at the Beacon. It was wrong in terms of personal ethics and behaviour and represented a gross breach of trust with the Irish people.
Deputy Kelly raised the issue of children's shoes, which the Government is examining. We take the point. There have been issues in terms of children's shoes being an essential item for the growth and development of children and the need to provide for that. We are finalising specific guidance. That will be published and outlined in regulations to facilitate shoe shops and shoe-fitting services to measure children and provide for them on appointment online or by phone call. The basis will be to provide that service and the subsequent sale of children's shoes only. It is specific to the needs of growing children and we will provide for that in guidance and regulations that will be published shortly. It is a fair point that Deputies and medical personnel have raised with us.
Antigen testing is being rolled out. A report has been compiled by Professor Mark Ferguson which is with the Minister. It is being rolled out in the private sector, as well as by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue; by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, in the third level sector; and by the Tánaiste in respect of enterprise and the private sector more generally. It is available in meat plants. We have done serial testing in meat plants to keep the pressure on the virus.
On mandatory quarantine and the addition of countries, the process is clear. The Chief Medical Officer assesses the situation against a range of criteria provided for within the legislation enacted by the House. He sends a report to the Minister for Health who then has to consult with the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the countries to be announced and added.
On Deputy Boyd Barrett's questions, it is a fragile situation. In terms of construction, on another day Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy will come into this House and rail about the state of homelessness and the housing crisis. We are allowing for residential construction and not kowtowing to anybody. It is Government policy to provide housing for people, to combat homelessness and so on. We have had no housing construction, essentially, since the beginning of the year. Some 14,000 workers are provided for, that is all. That is in the context of 1 million going back to school. That is the perspective and the balance. I ask the Deputies not to overstate it.