Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I would like to thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for coming to the House to reply to this issue. It is most disappointing that the Minister for Health is not present to take it, given that it concerns a health issue in Arklow in our constituency. I am disappointed and frustrated that he is not here to answer this question for the people of south Wicklow.
On 15 February 2021, the Minister for Health announced that a number of vaccination centres were going to be set up across the country.
Two of them were to be in County Wicklow, with one located in Greystones and the other in the Arklow Bay Hotel. The centre in Greystones has been operating for approximately five weeks. It has been offering some children's vaccinations and giving Covid vaccination appointments for three weeks' time. The centre in the Arklow Bay Hotel was to open on 11 May, which is today. Until now, people from Gorey, Arklow, Tinahely and throughout south Wicklow were travelling to Greystones to get their Covid vaccinations, while people from Greystones had to travel to Dublin. The plan was that the centre in the Arklow Bay Hotel would open today and people from south Wicklow and north County Wexford would access vaccinations there instead of having to travel to the north of County Wicklow.
As it transpired, the vaccination centre in Arklow did not open today. We have a situation where the Arklow Bay Hotel was contracted for a three-month period to provide vaccinations but now it seems it will not open and there will be a grand total of zero Covid vaccinations given there.
I have three questions for the Minister of State in this regard. First, how did this situation arise? Only last week, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, was in Arklow to avail of a photo opportunity in the hotel. The story was all over the local newspapers. How are we in a situation where, less than one week later, the vaccination centre is not open, there was apparently no preparation for it to open, no one was told what was happening and we only found out today it is not opening? Second, what is the plan B for the residents of south Wicklow and north Wexford? Third, what will happen to people in the interim while a plan B is put in place?
I thank the Deputy for providing me with the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to update the House on the roll-out of the Covid-19 immunisation programme and vaccination centres. The vaccine programme is a key enabler of the reopening of society and the economy. It continues to progress, with more than 1.8 million doses administered overall. The programme has passed the milestone of the administration of 500,000 second doses and, this week, we expect to pass the milestones of having administered 1.5 million first doses and 2 million total doses. The plan is to distribute in the region of 250,000 to 270,000 vaccines to the system this week. Vaccines will go to GPs, hospital groups and vaccination centres.
A total of 38 HSE vaccination centres will operate on an eight-hour basis, seven days a week. This will increase to 12 hours a day when supply allows. These centres support the vaccination of the general population in a safe and efficient manner. Each centre varies in size and operating hours and has been selected based on population density, ease of access, transport and parking. There is at least one vaccination centre for each county. As of 5 May, there were 35 HSE vaccination centres open and operating. The 36th centre, in Carrick-on-Shannon, is planned to open on 12 May. There has been very positive feedback from members of the public who have accessed vaccination appointments in their local HSE vaccination centres in the past week.
The Arklow Bay Hotel Covid-19 vaccination centre was scheduled to open for the administration of vaccinations today. However, following last week's announcement on the reopening of services, the hotel has indicated it will return to operating as a hotel business. The result is that the facility will only be available to the HSE until the end of May. From a logistical perspective, it does not make sense to operate a Covid-19 vaccination centre at the facility for the short time involved. The HSE is actively exploring available alternative sites for a vaccination centre in the south Wicklow-north Wexford area. A number of sites are being examined by HSE Estates and Community Healthcare East, in partnership with South East Community Healthcare.
Pending agreement on a south Wicklow-north Wexford site, the HSE is maximising the capacity at the Aviva and Greystones vaccination centres. As staff numbers increase in the Aviva facility, the number of available appointments will rise by an additional 400 to a total of 3,000 daily when all 29 booths are open. The vaccination capacity at the Shoreline Greystones centre will be increased by moving from a 12-booth to a 15-booth model. The change to the physical infrastructure at the Greystones site is already complete. As more staff come on stream, the hours of operation will be extended to 12 hours per day. This will allow a total of 1,400 appointments to be offered daily. People in the Arklow area who are registered on the public portal will be offered appointments at the Shoreline centre in Greystones. Those in the north Wicklow area will be offered appointments in the Aviva centre. This has been the approach in recent week while awaiting the full opening of the Arklow Bay Hotel centre.
I acknowledge the efforts and flexibility of the HSE staff in ensuring the success to date of the roll-out of the vaccination programme. I thank them for their continued commitment to the programme.
I recognise this matter is not part of the Minister of State's remit and he has been left to explain this particular failing in the system. However, some of his response does not make sense. He stated the centre at the Arklow Bay Hotel was to open today but, because there are only three weeks left before the hotel returns to its usual business, it does not make logistical sense to have it operating for that period. I do not understand why the HSE is not using that particular facility for the next three weeks. The staff in Arklow were ready to go and had to be stood down. According to the statistics given by the Minister of State, using the centre for the next three weeks could potentially result in 12,000 to 15,000 people being vaccinated. That is surely a good thing and would give the HSE time to find a plan B. Will the Minister of State ask the HSE to look at using the Arklow Bay Hotel for the next three weeks? I assume the State has paid for a three-month contract, yet not a single Covid vaccination has been administered there. It seems like a wasted opportunity not to use the site for the next three weeks.
There are huge problems for people from south Wicklow in accessing the Greystones centre. There is limited public transport available and that is causing a lot of problems. It does not make sense to have people going to Greystones from Arklow and elsewhere in south Wicklow as well as from County Wexford while people in Greystones have to go to Dublin to get their vaccine. I have spoken to the National Transport Authority, NTA, about putting in place a bus service from south Wicklow and north Wexford to Greystones. Today, I telephoned Wexford Bus and was told the company is keen and eager to provide a service. I ask the Minister of State to contact the NTA to make sure public transport provision is put in place. That should have been done already. It is critical that it be provided now given there is no plan B for people from south Wicklow to get their vaccinations.
I understand the HSE has decided that it does not make sense from a logistical perspective to operate a Covid-19 vaccination centre at the Arklow facility for the short period involved. The vaccination roll-out programme continues to demonstrate agility and responsiveness to revisions in the advice on the use of vaccines and changes to vaccine delivery schedules. The public online registration system was launched on Thursday, 15 April, commencing with appointments for 65- to 69-year-olds before extending out to include all those aged 60 to 64. Last week saw the commencement of registrations on the portal system for the cohort aged 50 to 59. From Thursday, 13 May those aged 50 will be invited to register. To date, more than 34% of the adult population identified to receive a vaccine have received a first dose and almost 13% of the adult population are fully vaccinated. The programme remains on track and Ireland compares favourably with our European neighbours.
There is a great sense of optimism and relief at the numbers of people getting the vaccines. I got a text message this evening calling me for vaccination tomorrow. I will be leaving in the next 20 minutes to drive to Sligo to get my AstraZeneca vaccine at 9.30 in the morning. I am very happy and excited to be getting it. The Deputy will have seen the sense of relief and optimism among those who receive their vaccines.