Thursday, 27 May 2021
Health (Amendment) Act 2021: Motion
That Dáil Éireann resolves that the relevant period, within the meaning of section 9 of the Health (Amendment) Act 2021 (No. 1 of 2021), shall stand extended for the period beginning on the 8th day of June, 2021 and ending on the 31st day of July, 2021.
This motion seeks agreement to the continuation in force of the Health (Amendment) Act 2021 up to 31 July 2021. I remind the House that this Act provides for the mandatory quarantine in designated facilities of persons coming into the State from certain areas. Commonly referred to as mandatory hotel quarantine, it has been operational since 26 March 2021. It has been an important part of the public health measures to combat the transmission of Covid-19 and, in particular, variants of concern.
The Act requires travellers who, in the 14 days prior to their arrival in Ireland, have been in, or transited through, one or more designated states to undergo 14-day mandatory quarantine in a designated facility. This requirement is subject to a number of exemptions and can be reduced if a not-detected Covid test result is obtained from day ten onwards. The Act also requires those travellers without a negative PCR test result from a test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival to enter mandatory hotel quarantine until they return a negative test. Typically, they are facilitated with those tests very quickly.
My Department has led on the implementation of mandatory hotel quarantine, supported by several Departments, including those responsible for defence, foreign affairs, transport, justice, and children, equality, disability, integration and youth, in addition to the Defence Forces, An Garda Síochána, the Border Management Unit, the Garda National Immigration Bureau, the Revenue Commissioners, Customs and Excise and the HSE.
It is worth giving thanks on my behalf, on behalf of the Government and - I hope colleagues would agree - on behalf of the Oireachtas.
As we have seen in the pandemic, most of the things we are doing require broad co-operation involving multiple Departments and State agencies, as well as private sector partners, voluntary sector partners and volunteers. Mandatory hotel quarantine has been no different. It has required a broad group of people to come and work together. I wish to thank everyone for everything they have done.
We have a single service provider, which is the Tifco Hotel Group. The group is providing full-board accommodation services to guests in facilities designated exclusively for the purpose of quarantine, as well as ground transportation, security services and health and well-being services for guests within the facilities.
The Defence Forces are fulfilling the important role of state liaison officer. The officer has a presence at each port of entry to the State, as well as an on-site presence at every designated hotel on a 24-7 basis to liaise with the service providers to ensure travellers are safe, secure and comfortable.
The provisions of the Act allow for travellers to request a review of decisions relating to their quarantine. However, this can only be undertaken once quarantine has started and on limited grounds. Public health obviously will remain a paramount consideration. The Department of Justice is working closely with my Department on the review process and has put in place a process which provides a seven-day-a-week service. Decisions must be returned within 24 hours of receipt of the request for review. Requests for review are based on the specific grounds established in law. Appeals officers have been selected from a group of barristers, who have also provided a service in respect of the International Protection Appeals Tribunal.
Medical services are available on-site on a 24-7 basis. It is possible for a person to leave quarantine in the case of medical emergency and to attend urgent medical appointments. Special arrangements have been made to allow those seeking international protection or unaccompanied minors to undertake their quarantine in alternative appropriate circumstances.
A procedure is in place within the missions of the Department of Foreign Affairs for deferrals of prepayment for Irish citizens and residents abroad in hardship circumstances. Irish citizens and residents who wish to make an application for deferral of fees relating to mandatory hotel quarantine should contact their local Irish embassy or consulate wherever they are. A procedure is also in place for Erasmus students. They should contact the Erasmus office in their third level institution. That office will then make the booking on behalf of the student. Their standard costs associated with mandatory hotel quarantine will be covered by the Department of Higher and Further Education, Innovation and Science. Other students travelling from or transiting through designated states are not covered by this arrangement and need to pre-book and pay as per normal.
Colleagues will recall from our debate in March that the Act contains a sunset clause at section 9. Unless extended by a resolution passed by both Houses prior to 7 June of this year, the clause will lapse on that date. The Act contains a provision for up to a maximum of three months at a time and this was seriously considered. However, consideration also had to be given to the exceptional nature of the legislation, the evolving epidemiological situation, the progress of our vaccination programme and the importance of aviation, hospitality and tourism to our country. As such, I do not propose to extend up to this maximum period. Rather, I am proposing to extend to 31 July. Notwithstanding this, subject to the passing of the proposed resolutions by each House, it is important to note that the Act does provide for further extensions of up to three months prior to the expiry of this proposed extension. Any further proposed extensions would be informed by the public health situation in July.
Throughout the pandemic, decisions on travel measures have sought to balance the urgent need to protect public health with the need to facilitate essential travel and to sustain connectivity into and out of Ireland as well as the vital importance of protecting human rights and civil liberties.
As has been widely reported, the Taoiseach will make an announcement on international travel tomorrow, including a statement on the introduction of EU Covid-19 certificates - what we have discussed as the EU digital green certificate. We recognise the growing expectation among the public of a gradual but increasing return to a more normal way of living, including foreign travel for non-essential purposes. We are also conscious of the serious challenges the pandemic has presented for the aviation, tourism and hospitality sectors. I wish to emphasise that this proposed extension of mandatory hotel quarantine to 31 July does not prevent the proposal of further legislative, operational or policy changes, including on the designation of countries. Rather, this extension would be a safeguard to manage the risk of importation of cases and variants of concern. It would also allow the economy to continue to reopen safely and for the vaccination programme to progress further.
I wish to be clear in my message to colleagues in the House today. Mandatory hotel quarantine has worked and is working. It has achieved and is achieving what we set out for it to do. It has helped to contain the virus and has gone a long way to obstructing variants of concern getting into the wider community. There has been a fall in detection of variants of concern in Ireland since late March, when mandatory hotel quarantine was introduced.
Ireland is at a critical stage in the vaccination programme and it is essential that this is not undermined. As of 25 May, a total of 4,400 people have entered mandatory hotel quarantine. Of these, there have been 173 Covid-19 detected cases, comprising 163 residents, nine staff and one unaccompanied minor. Of these cases, 59 variants of concern cases have been detected. This includes 47 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the UK and 12 cases of the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa or the P1 variant first identified in Brazil. A total of 49 cases were not suitable for whole genome sequencing while a further 58 cases are awaiting further clarification.
The data do not take account of cases which have been avoided in the community as a result of mandatory hotel quarantine. While home quarantine can be effective as a measure for lower-risk travellers, there are significant practical and legal challenges in monitoring and enforcing home quarantine for higher-risk travellers. The high level of people with asymptomatic infection remains a challenge. This creates a risk that new variants could be imported and would not be identified during the testing process in the absence of mandatory hotel quarantine. Many countries have been unable to adequately monitor new variants and this adds to the risk of circulation.
While we have recently seen encouraging research which indicates that the vaccines we are using are effective against emerging variants, we need to remain vigilant. A total of 2.5 million vaccines have been administered to date. As we discussed earlier in the Chamber, by the end of this week we estimate that half the adult population of Ireland will have had at least one vaccine dose. That is positive and it is great progress. Despite this positive progress, we must remain vigilant. It is as important as ever that we continue to follow the public health measures currently in place, including those relating to international travel.
I am of the view that mandatory hotel quarantine has been effective in supporting the public health measures to combat transmission of Covid-19 in Ireland and in particular, of variants of concern. It has contributed and continues to contribute to the reduction in case numbers and the creation of space in which a vaccination programme can be rolled out. In turn, this is making the gradual and safe opening of society and the economy possible. I thank Deputies for taking the time to listen to my opening remarks. I very much look forward to hearing contributions in this important debate.
I welcome the opportunity to have a debate on this issue. As long ago as last March or April, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and public health officials were making the case for mandatory hotel quarantine and mandatory PCR testing. All the while they were making that case, most of us, albeit not all of us, in the Opposition were calling for the public health advice to be implemented in full.
The reasons we gave for this at the time were that mandatory quarantine would be helpful in containing the virus and that it was necessary to prevent the importation of new variants. It is interesting that, in his opening remarks, the Minister rightly went out of his way to acknowledge that mandatory hotel quarantine has worked. It has helped to contain the virus and prevent some new strains entering the State. That is a vindication of NPHET's position and the position of those of us in the Opposition who called for the measure. In the context of this debate, it has to be pointed out that there are many in government, in both Fine Gael and the Minister's party, who have sought to undermine mandatory hotel quarantine from the beginning. They never wanted it to be in place, despite its effectiveness, which the Minister mentioned, and despite it being one of the many tools needed to keep us safe. I would argue that it is also a tool that ensures that we can protect and jealously guard the reopenings we are now beginning to see. Non-essential retail reopened last week. People were going back to work. We will see further reopenings next week and over the following weeks. Mandatory quarantine is one of the ingredients and tools that were necessary over recent months and which will be necessary over the coming months to keep us safe. That has to be said.
As one of those who argued that mandatory hotel quarantine should be in place, I accept that the situation changes as more people are vaccinated. Like any other public health measures, it must be re-evaluated at all times. We obviously have to listen to the public health advice. Our public health advisers will evaluate the status of Covid and its variants at any particular time and give advice to the Government. Nobody wants mandatory quarantine to remain in place a minute or even a second longer than is necessary. It is the same with any of the public health measures. As we see many of these unwind - and we will see more unwind over the coming weeks and months - it is probable that we will also see an easing of mandatory hotel quarantining, which is probably necessary. I imagine that will happen in tandem with the coming on stream and going live of the EU Covid certificate. New arrangements will be agreed between member states to facilitate travel within the European Union before these arrangements go live in August. In addition, as more people get vaccinated, we can better protect ourselves against any variants.
The question then is at what stage will mandatory quarantine be required and for what countries. As more people are vaccinated and as the EU Covid certificate comes into play, we will reach a point at which quarantine should only be used in situations in which people are coming in from countries where incidence rates are very high or where there is a high risk of any of the new variants, either those already in circulation or further new variants or mutations that may emerge, entering the State. In some parts of the world, these conditions prevail. That is how I see this working out.
All of these measures have been very difficult. Anyone who has had to quarantine for 14 days will know that it is an inconvenience and very difficult. Nobody wants to see any of these measures put in place but the facts speak for themselves and we have seen that, as a consequence of the introduction of this measure, a number of cases of the new variants have been captured, as have cases of the existing variants, in people entering the State. That is precisely why this measure was brought in - to prevent and to protect.
A number of restrictions are to be eased over the coming weeks and there are businesses open for the first time in months. We can all celebrate that. Businesses last week were opening their doors for the first time in many months and, in some cases, a year. Many people were going back to work. It does great things for their mental health to go back to work, which is what they want to do. People are also able to enjoy more outdoor activities. That is what we all want to see. We have to protect all of those opportunities in the weeks and months ahead. We have seen what happens in this State if we take our eye off the ball. We have seen what has happened in other countries in recent weeks and months when they have taken their eyes off the ball. It would be ludicrous for any state to ignore the threat these new variants present. It is not the case that the virus has gone and the pandemic is at an end. Unfortunately, the virus is still here and still spreading and people are still contracting it.
Luckily, as a result of the roll-out of the vaccine, the fact that, as the Minister pointed out, 50% of the adult population have now received at least their first dose and, most importantly, the fact that great numbers of those most at risk in the wider population have now been fully vaccinated, we now have these opportunities to reopen and we are now in that very strong position. Surely our priority must be to jealously guard all of that. How reckless would it be to completely disregard mandatory quarantine and to say that it is not necessary even when dealing with arrivals from countries in which there is high risk of new variants or in which the infection is spreading at very dangerous levels? That is not where the majority of people's thinking is. My best guess is that the number of people being inconvenienced by mandatory hotel quarantine will reduce over the coming weeks and months as fewer people will have to quarantine because of the roll-out of the vaccine in their home countries.
That brings me to the EU Covid certificate. There has been an awful lot of debate as to how this will actually work. I welcome that it is to be in both digital and paper format. That is important. The three elements to the certificate are proof of vaccination, a PCR test or an antibody test. Antigen testing is also an option. There are different opinions on antigen testing but I see a role for it. We have called for a pilot roll-out of antigen testing for travel on the Dublin to London routes over recent months. We have asked the Minister for Transport to look at this but he has not done so. It would have been important in collecting data on its effectiveness. I remind the Minister that over recent months, when we were pleading with the Minister for Transport to put in place mandatory quarantine and proper and robust travel checks and to do all of what the Minister has said mandatory hotel quarantining has done, we got pushback from the highest levels of government. We are still getting pushback on the issue of antigen testing. It is not a panacea. It cannot be seen as a replacement for all of the other things we need to do. However, surely there is a role for it, especially as we hope to begin to reopen air travel, at the very least within the European Union.
We obviously also need to have a relationship with Britain. It will be very important to have connectivity with London and other parts of Britain. If people are to be able to fly to Spain, Italy or France, people will obviously also want to be able to fly to Britain. That bilateral engagement between Ireland and Britain is going to be very important. This becomes even more important because of the North.
Will the Minister please ensure that there is sufficient engagement with his colleague and counterpart in the North? I would say the same to the Minister for Transport. There has to be engagement with Ministers in the North and with the Executive at the highest level in respect of all of this. Today we hear that, in the North, the vaccine is now being made available to all age cohorts. It is far ahead of this State in this respect. While the North will rightly be celebrating more reopenings and while it will be ahead of us, it is important that we join up the responses as best we can. That will have to come from the genuine engagement of the Minister.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I echo Deputy Cullinane's comments. Mandatory hotel quarantine was a very significant and important public health intervention. It was not a decision that was taken lightly, nor should it have been.
It was, and is, controversial but as outlined, it was a significant tool in response to the risk of importation of the virus. In many respects, it was an inevitability given the many failures by the Government to get ahead of things, to address and put in place systems that would minimise the risk of the importation of the virus and would give people confidence that the limited amount of international travel that was permitted was happening safely. I point specifically to issues such as the introduction of the passenger locator form, on a voluntary basis initially, but which the Government was forced to make mandatory, in respect of which the follow-up was pathetic throughout. That undermined public confidence. The same applies in regard to testing. It is literally incredible that we did not introduce mandatory testing until there were in the region of 8,000 cases per day. That was reckless. At that stage, mandatory hotel quarantine became an absolute necessity, if it had not been previously As has been outlined, it has played an important role. It was only ever envisaged to be a temporary measure. The circumstances today are very different from what they were in January, February and March, when it was being introduced. Had the necessary preparations been made in advance, I do not believe we would have had the initial issues in terms of the anomalies, contradictions and difficult and hard cases that presented, many of which were resolved in a sensible and common-sense way.
The significant vaccine roll-out in Ireland, the United States, across the European Union and in Britain, in particular, presents a major opportunity for the future with regard to reopening international travel but it has to be done carefully. There are risks in terms of variants of concern. I agree with Deputy Cullinane's analysis on how we should work forward in a phased way to relax these restrictions. The priority needs to be the roll-out of the digital green certificate. We need to be in a position to adopt it as early as possible and, in that regard, to prioritise the common travel area, the European Union and the United States. There is need for an explicit indication of what criteria will apply. Obviously, variants of concern are just that, that is, variants of concern, but the risk factor changes as we get more people vaccinated and the information is generated. We need clarity and transparency in order that people are aware of the criteria that apply. I know that is a frustration for people. Hopefully, we do not have to live with the constraints of mandatory hotel quarantine for a lot longer.
I want to emphasise a point that has been made in terms of our Covid restrictions around international travel, that is, the opportunity of antigen testing. My own background is in diagnostics. I worked in that area for 15 years. At different times and for different reasons, we have argued that a single point in time PCR test is of limited use. We have argued for post-arrival testing. Professor Mark Ferguson outlines the opportunity that exists to improve on that protection with serial antigen testing. In doing that, we can potentially reduce the cost of the overall testing, reduce the cost of international travel and improve on the system we have in place in terms of providing protections for people. It might also present an opportunity in terms of the issue of quarantine at home and mandatory hotel quarantine. We should be innovative and progressive and test these systems and be ahead of the game in relation to them.
Mandatory hotel quarantine is a tool with which none of us is comfortable but it is one of the tools that has been necessary in our fight against Covid-19 over the last few months. We all know that Covid-19 and its variants do not recognise borders. As stated repeatedly by my colleague and party Leader, Deputy Kelly, this virus is on tour. The arrival of different variants on our shores has shown how unpredictable Covid can be. As stated yesterday by my colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, this virus has a habit of making fools of us all.
The vast majority of people accept that mandatory hotel quarantine is not a nice measure but it is necessary. It was brought in to capture the different variants and to ensure that those variants do not come into Ireland in the first instance. People are concerned about the different variants. Those who are in the 60-69 age cohort are particularly anxious as they await the second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine to better protect them from the so-called Indian variant. The vast bulk of this age cohort will not be fully vaccinated until August. That is a long time to wait.
As we do not know what is ahead of us, I understand why the Government is seeking to extend the mandatory hotel quarantine system but this measure should be used as a last resort as more people become vaccinated. Like the health regulations that were brought before the House yesterday, the Labour Party does not believe that we can keep extending last-resort measures such as this without proper parliamentary scrutiny. Can the Minister commit to providing a detailed report reviewing the mandatory hotel quarantine system and the checks and balances that are in place? How we approach the system must be recalibrated in line with the initiation of the EU digital certificate system. The Labour Party asks that the principles of the EU digital Covid certificate also be applied to the common travel area and to areas in which vaccination levels are high, such as North America. The Minister will be aware that there are 128 million vaccinated people in the United States at the moment, not just with one shot, but fully vaccinated, and there are 30 million people fully vaccinated in the UK. We have those data sets, and we are aware of this. Rapid antigen testing must play a role here as well. As alluded to by other speakers, Professor Ferguson, the chief scientific adviser, has delivered a strong report on the use of rapid antigen testing. It must play a role, particularly for people returning to Ireland.
It is full steam ahead. We will be keeping the pressure on the Government, but hopefully the penny is finally dropping. We cannot pretend that there have not been concerns about the operation of the mandatory hotel quarantine regime. Many of us will have received feedback from people who have availed of the mandatory hotel quarantine system. They have outlined how mentally taxing it is and, in some cases, the appallingly poor conditions in which they were asked to live, while paying for the privilege. There are some questions on the standards of support and care, if one can call it that, within the system. As the days get longer and, we hope, the weather that bit better, the amount of time people get to spend outside of their rooms, for example, to exercise and so on, must be examined. We know this should be treated as a last-resort measure so we need to make things as easy as possible, and as pleasant as possible - if that is the right term - for people living under these circumstances.
There also needs to be greater agility and flexibility in adding and removing countries to the list. When we know new variants arise, we must be swift in adding countries where they are most dominant to the list. We also must be quick to examine countries where levels of Covid are dropping and vaccination rates are rising and to remove them from the list, on advice. As a Deputy for Louth and east Meath and a resident of my home town of Drogheda, which is approximately half an hour from Dublin Airport, I want to end my remarks on this issue by giving my support to people who work in the aviation sector, who are under extreme financial pressure and are very anxious to get back to the jobs they love. We know that workers in Shannon and Cork airports have lost their jobs. Hopefully, these positions can be recovered but there is an awful lot of despair. We have to acknowledge that and ensure that a great deal of work can be done in the time ahead to not just recover the jobs that have been lost but to maintain the very important jobs that are there at present. I am sure that the aviation sector, which is of strategic and significant importance to us, will be fully protected and supported.
It really is lamentable to see that some of the supports provided to the aviation sector by the Government were not contingent on protecting jobs, preventing lay-offs and ensuring that job conditions were protected, and there will be no forgiveness for this. It is something the Government will never be able to run away from. It is why, in acknowledging the strategic importance of our aviation sector not just to business, enterprise and jobs but its strategic importance to this island nation, we have to be innovative about how we support our aviation sector. One suggestion I made, and which the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has been making, to the Minister for Transport, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and others, is to establish, for example, a revised wage subsidy scheme, possibly based on the German model, to ensure the stabilisers are maintained. If it is the case over the coming months that the EWSS is run down, we should embed a German-style wage support scheme in our labour market model to support sectors such as aviation, which will find it difficult to come back to full strength. This is something the Government should consider. It is something I support and I have proposed. It is something that will be important to support the industry.
Since I was elected to Dáil Éireann a little over a year ago, and certainly since the Government was formed, we have had to pass a raft of legislation that in ordinary times would be absolutely unthinkable because of their severity and draconian nature. Everybody in here accepts the necessity for the legislation that has been put in place, and mandatory hotel quarantine is part of this. The scepticism that we share about legislation is healthy and correct, and it is very much the job of the House to examine legislation in this regard. This legislation in particular contradicts one of the four central freedoms of our participation in the European Union, namely, the freedom of movement.
Of course, I will support the extension proposed in the motion but it is right and healthy we are having the debate and that we are examining it fully. With this in mind, we are proposing only a short extension and the facility remains to extend this further, and we must approach this legislation with this in mind. We should not just have a sunset clause but should consider how it is we will unwind the system of mandatory hotel quarantining. At what point will it become redundant? Are we looking at large-scale vaccination in the country or will we rely on external factors?
In this respect, we will have to examine how it interfaces with the digital green certificate. The likelihood is this will apply to the common travel area, the EU, the US and more developed parts of the world. I have a concern that if we look beyond our European borders and into the developing world, we will we find ourselves in a situation where the walls will begin to come up with regard to Covid. It is beginning to look increasingly the case that what we are looking at in terms of Covid is something that is endemic in the world population. Earlier, I stated I do not believe the COVAX mechanism goes far enough or that Gavi will answer all of the questions we need to answer with regard to global vaccination. If we are not looking at global elimination and if we are looking at a situation where variants of concern are free to develop in large congregated settings in the developing world, then are we looking at an issue whereby the walls will come up around the developed world and we will have free travel for those fortunate enough to be vaccinated but not for anybody left out in the cold?
I am looking beyond the July extension proposed. Do we see a way out of this? It is tangential to the debate but it does of course raise the question of vaccination in the global south and what we will do about it. I am firmly of the opinion that Ireland should use its voice more clearly in whatever international context we have available to us, be it the UN Security Council, the WTO or wherever. While I support the idea of a waiver on the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, but I do not believe it is the silver bullet. We have to look at mechanisms, and make the case on a global case for mechanisms that will help vaccine roll-out in the developing world. Otherwise I worry about where it will all end.
With regard to methodologies and how countries get onto the restricted list, another worry I have is the capacity of countries and how this will play out in practice. The example put to me is Belgium. It has an extremely advanced testing system and very good genomic sequencing. Because there is so much testing there, of course it identifies Covid and variants of concern and it gets onto the list. If we apply this to somewhere such as Lebanon, where we know Covid is rife, it does not have the capacity to provide the same amount of testing and certainly does not have the genomic testing capacity. We might know Covid is there but we might not know how much or what type. In this context, what methodology will we apply as we move forward to make sure the countries from where we are restricting travel are those we really should be watching out for?
I will move to a couple of more specific concerns. For the digital green certificate, or even for mandatory hotel quarantining at present, four vaccines have been approved by the European Medicines Agency. However, other vaccines exist and more will come on stream. I am specifically speaking about Sinopharm, which has been approved by the WHO but not by the EMA. To speak specifically about this, we know we have a large expatriate population living in the UAE, for example. I have come across a specific instance where someone had to travel to see a sick relative and had been vaccinated with Sinopharm but still had to enter the mandatory hotel quarantine system. I absolutely understand the rationale for this but I also have to acknowledge the personal and financial strain put on this person who had to travel, was extremely worried about an ill parent and had to stump up the money for mandatory hotel quarantine. We should be a little bit more proactive in how we look at the various vaccines.
Slightly tangential to this is how we apply rules to those vaccinated people coming in. If I understand it correctly, a person who is fully vaccinated with one of the approved vaccines can bypass mandatory hotel quarantine but will still be asked to restrict movement. We have an exemption for elite sports people. Cases that have come across my desk relate to the arts industry and people who would ordinarily arrive here for short windows of work, such as in the film industry or conductors who might arrive to do a short piece of work with an orchestra or choir. In such cases, restricting movement may not be realistic. Of course we want to limit the amount of non-essential travel happening but it is something we should look at in those specific sectors.
Deputy Nash asked for a detailed report on the success of mandatory hotel quarantining. There is a good case for this. Certainly if we consider extending it again I would like to be on a firm footing as to how successful it is. The Minister gave us some updates on the success we are seeing in the system. Certainly I support the idea of having a detailed report.
I echo Deputy Nash's comments on aviation and the need for support. I like the idea of the German-style Kurzarbeitscheme. In the long term and irrespective of Covid-19, it would be a very interesting concept to look at in the Irish context.
We know mandatory hotel quarantining is imperfect and we know it is undesirable. We also know that for the moment it continues to be necessary. For this reason, I will support the motion but I ask the Minister to continue to keep it under constant review, as I know he is. The sooner we can step away from the powers we have passed in the Parliament in response to an emergency situation, the better for the health and the sake of our entire democracy.
It is important to note that mandatory quarantine can work and can be a key pillar of our defences during this pandemic. Its purpose is to limit the importation and spread of the virus. It is, and should only be, a temporary measure. Mandatory quarantine in a designated facility for non-essential travel from any country has a part to play in suppressing the virus and ensuring that we do not import further cases or dangerous variants. We recognise, however, that there have been many difficulties with the system currently in place. A range of issues have been brought to my attention regarding the definition of "essential", the conditions in some facilities and undue delays in visa processing for travel from designated countries. Sinn Féin has raised these matters with the Government and believes that this is due entirely to the rushed nature of the legislation. The Government had ten months to prepare but dragged its feet. The consequences are clear for all to see.
It is reasonable to say that those who must travel for essential family or medical reasons or return to the State for legal reasons should be permitted to self-quarantine, where possible and appropriate, but the decision on these definitions must be guided by the public health advice. The Government should recognise the circumstances of these individuals and have a robust appeals process in place to prevent people having to resort to expensive legal action. We must weigh up the risk of permitting self-quarantine in essential circumstances. The Government should also consider subsidising or fully covering the cost of hotel quarantine on a case-by-case basis. After months of dithering, hotel quarantine legislation was forced through at the last minute and no time was afforded to considering essential travel and the handling of hard cases. These powers should be brought back for regular scrutiny and approval by the Oireachtas. That is why it would be more appropriate to return here in July rather than November to review this legislation. The Minister was given extraordinary powers in good faith, and to push an extension to November is to push it too far. It would be more appropriate for the Minister to return to the House in July to extend the emergency powers, if necessary, and to explain the context in which they are needed. That is a fair ask.
We also need to see greater North-South co-operation. I was dismayed to hear Minister Robin Swann say earlier this week that he had been seeking a meeting with the Minister for two weeks. This is not acceptable. We need to work together if we are to stop the spread of this virus.
Finally, while I have the Minister here, I wish to refer briefly to our health service. We need to address the crisis in our health service and the massive backlogs that were not caused by Covid but are being made worse by it. People are receiving life-changing news about amputations, cancer and in some cases potentially terminal diagnoses on their own with no family support apart from phone calls. We have discussed this previously. Imagine telling your loved ones over the phone in a public ward that you have had such a diagnosis. That is cruel and we must find a way around it if at all possible.
I am glad to have an opportunity to participate in this debate, though the timing is not the best. It would have been better if we could have had the debate in the context of the plan for international travel that is to be announced tomorrow. It would have been helpful if there had been more discussion and particularly more briefing in that regard. As I have said a few times now, there has been no briefing from the Government for the Opposition on any aspect of the response to Covid since last December. That is not helpful or in any way collaborative, and we need collaboration in the context of a national effort on Covid, so it is regrettable the Government has not taken the opportunity to do that.
It is important to point out the fact that mandatory hotel quarantine was recommended in May of last year. It is very regrettable that the Government did not take that advice on board at that time because a number of issues related to travel contributed hugely to the difficulties we experienced last year. There was travel from Italy in March and April, people travelling to Cheltenham and then the repercussions from Spanish holidays. Much of that could have been avoided or contained if the advice on introducing travel controls had been listened to at that point. As a result of that, however, and as a result of inadequate protections regarding the threat from travel, last year 2,000 people lost their lives, people's livelihoods were destroyed, tens and tens of thousands of people lost their jobs and their businesses and devastation was caused to people's lives. We have to reflect on that and on the opportunities that were there to mitigate much of that devastation which were not availed of at the time. That lesson was not learned.
Then, at Christmas, when there was the very serious threat from the UK, namely, the Kent variant, and when the advice was again to tackle the issue, that advice was not taken on board and that wave ended up absolutely ravaging the country. More people died in the first two months of this year than had died in the entirety of last year. Again, it was a failure to address the importation of a new variant, namely the Kent variant, and we paid and are continuing to pay an enormous price for that. It was not until the end of March that the Government moved on this. Arguably, if the advice on mandatory hotel quarantining and the protections it gave had been taken on board at an earlier stage, the country would now be in a much better position than it is, having weathered a shocking five-month lockdown, with still some way to go until we will be fully opened up. It is important to point out that lessons should have been learned and that there were opportunities to do that.
The Minister mentioned the difference mandatory hotel quarantining has made, even though it came in very late. We know that public health doctors have said it has made a huge difference, and it is important to recognise that. Dr. Ina Kelly made the point that the number of new variants of concern of Covid-19 detected in Ireland had fallen to zero since the introduction of mandatory hotel quarantining in late March. That is a really important point because that is where the huge threat has been coming from over recent months. Dr. Kelly went on to make the point that mandatory hotel quarantining, combined with improved contact tracing, has helped to reduce the spread of Covid-19. She said:
Public health consultants breathed a huge sigh of relief when mandatory hotel quarantine came in. It's making a huge difference to protecting the population. So therefore making it easier for ... [public health doctors] to do ... [their] job.
That is a very important thing to note. Now, however, as a result of the huge efforts on the part of the public in adhering to the regulations, the restrictions and the lockdowns over many months, and as a result of the huge bonus from the vaccine programme, it is to be hoped we can go forward with considerable optimism and hope that we will be able to continue to open up the country. However, there needs to be caution in that regard, and dealing with the threat of variants of concern has to be part and parcel of that.
I am happy to support the motion. I would just like the Minister to explain why the terms of the motion have changed since last week. Last week the briefing given was to the effect that the extension would be until 8 June, which seemed to be an obvious thing to do. Why is the Government now extending it until 31 July? What is the point in that? It may be the case that the Dáil will have to revisit this sooner rather than later. The other thing is what the Government proposes to do about people who will be outside of the provisions of the green certificate. Overall, however, I welcome the fact that the digital green certificate is going to come in. I hope there will not be delays with it. I certainly hope the vaccine programme can continue apace and that we address the supply issues.
Another important measure to help address potential difficulties with travel is antigen testing. I do not understand why antigen testing is not being used more widely and I would like the Minister to deal with that.
Some of this responsibility should have been taken by the Minister for Transport. It would have been good if he had been more proactive in identifying the supports our aviation industry badly needed. I hope we will see those in detail tomorrow.
I thank the Acting Chairman for updating me on the time allowed. I am sure viewers watching Oireachtas TV will be delighted to hear that, notwithstanding that this is an important issue affecting so many people, particularly the aviation industry, I will not talk for the full 11 minutes.
Covid and mandatory hotel quarantining are the twin axis which have wreaked havoc on the aviation and tourism sectors. They now put the very future of the Irish aviation community in doubt. I am deeply conscious that what I say today is in anticipation of what we hope will be a comprehensive statement tomorrow from An Taoiseach regarding aviation. I am also conscious that considerable work has been done and progress has been made on the EU digital green certificate which will come into effect from early July.
It will be a slow recovery for the aviation sector and the Irish Airline Pilots Association, IALPA, many of whose members are outside the House today, has put forward four specific asks for us. Essentially, they want this House to end the delay in reopening international travel and to introduce rapid antigen testing for airline passengers. As part of its four-stage plan, the group has also called for travel harmonisation between Ireland and UK.
A man in Longford town who is in his 70s plans to travel to the UK in two weeks’ time. He is fully vaccinated and, as it stands, he will not require a PCR test or even an antigen test in order to travel. However, he will be required to show a clear PCR test on his return if he wants to be admitted to the country at Dublin Airport. It is not an inconsiderable €100 plus additional cost for a pensioner with limited means. It is also a clear deterrent to him as he tries to decide whether to fly out or not. The same man could opt to fly from Belfast, thereby avoiding the cost of a PCR test. It points to the fact that we need to harmonise the common travel area with UK and align with its position on travel. As it stands, the requirement for returning vaccinated passengers to show a clear PCR test is an artificial barrier serving no purpose. It offers no public health value at this stage.
There is a belief that Dublin city will bounce back quickly from Covid but the reality is that it will not unless the planes start to fly again. This city is hugely dependent on overseas visitors. It is vital that we embrace the EU digital certificate with immediate effect from 1 July. We have a short window this year in which to aid and assist tourism and the aviation sector. The vaccination programme is well advanced in the US and, as it stands, US visitors who have received an EU-approved vaccine 14 days previously can avoid mandatory hotel quarantine but will need to show a clear PCR test. Again, this is cumbersome and could be resolved if we adopt a similar approach for the US as we now have in place with the EU digital green certificate.
The House will be pleased and relieved to hear that I am not a scientist. However, I fear NPHET has overstepped the mark when it vehemently stated its position on antigen testing. I accept the Government has to work with NPHET. I am mindful and deeply appreciative of the work it has done. As a veteran of 15 years of marriage, however, my advice is always that if one makes a mistake, gets it wrong or says the wrong thing, it is best to put one's hand up and say sorry.
If we were to deploy rapid antigen testing, it would not only greatly assist the recovery of the aviation and tourism sectors, it would also deliver a significant public health benefit. NPHET, to be fair, has been the scapegoat for much of what we did not like or want in terms of restrictions. In the area of antigen testing, however, it has got it wrong. We need the planes back flying. We need pilots and airlines staff back engaged in meaningful employment. We need tourists back in Ireland this summer.
The Minister said that mandatory hotel quarantining has been a vital tool in providing us with protection. We had the dreadful experience in December and January when, if anyone had not heard it before, the new horror term "variant" emerged. We are now aware of the Kent variant, which has had a huge impact in Britain and throughout Ireland. Beyond that, we have the ongoing horror for people in India. That is why we need to maintain all the tools required in order to protect ourselves.
There is an acceptance that it took us some time to get the show on the road with mandatory hotel quarantine. It was mentioned by some colleagues earlier that we had a passenger locator form which was mandatory but there were issues as regards follow-up. We had voluntary PCR testing, which became mandatory at a later stage. We did not necessarily get all our ducks in a row when it came to international travel and other facilities. We need to make sure, as I stated yesterday, that we do not allow ourselves to fall behind in any way, shape or form.
We all welcome that we have the option of the EU digital green certificate. We need to ensure we are capable, competent and can operate without any difficulties with the technological aspects of it. We must be fit to move when we need to move. That is absolutely necessary. Many businesses and industries, particularly the aviation sector, want clarity, or as much as can be given. That is accepting that every decision that needs to be made needs to take fully into account health precautions because, first and foremost, we need to protect people.
The digital green certificate will play a significant role. Many Members have already said that we need to do due diligence with regard to antigen testing. Professor Mark Ferguson's report provides us with the tools and we have the option that such testing has already operated throughout Europe, particularly in Britain. There have been many pilot studies in this area but we need to put our own pilot studies into operation. The Oireachtas transport committee has spoken about running a pilot study - no pun intended - on international travel. We have the opportunity to do all the heavy lifting to ensure we are ready to move when we need to move.
The Minister shocked all of us earlier with the information on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and that we are not going to get the numbers anticipated, which was in and around 470,000 vaccines, before the end of June. We are now talking about somewhere between 60,000 and upwards of 250,000. I apologise if my figures are slightly wrong. Obviously, it will have a huge impact and it looks like we are not going to get close to the 82% target of at least one vaccination by the end of June. Johnson & Johnson was also providing the added bonus of full vaccination with a single jab.
On the debate on legislation regarding Covid restrictions we had yesterday, we need to have a conversation with the pharma companies and with the European Commission. When the European Commissioner, Thierry Breton, was put into operation, we did deal with some of the issues as regards AstraZeneca. I also recognise that there are still issues with the supply chain and AstraZeneca. We need everything done from the point of view of maximising supply. That needs to be done on a global basis, even if that involves a TRIPS waiver or any other facility. It means a conversation with the European Commission and then a conversation with the pharma companies from the point of view of dealing with this particular issue.
On this island, we also have to get the show in order as regards our conversations with the Northern Executive. No one wants to be hearing about difficulties in this area, particularly across the media. That needs to happen as soon as possible.
It goes without saying that the aviation industry needs clarity and, beyond that, it needs supports. Any supports given need to take into account the needs of the workers and ensure airlines do not take advantage of this situation. We need to provide security for workers and families and ensure connectivity on this island.
I will make a number of points. The first is that mandatory hotel quarantine saves lives. It was a crucial part of the zero Covid strategy that was successfully implemented in some countries. The difference in death rates between countries that adopted a variant of that strategy versus those that did not is striking. In New Zealand, there has been a total of 26 deaths. It has a similar population to Ireland where, tragically, we have close to 5,000 deaths. Australia, with a population of 25 million, has had fewer than 1,000 deaths. Even in Ireland, where it was introduced very late by a Government that did not want to introduce it and had many significant flaws in how it was introduced, mandatory hotel quarantine had an impact. The indications are that once mandatory hotel quarantine was introduced, the Brazilian and South African variants effectively disappeared from the island when, before that point, they had been on an upward trend.
Mandatory hotel quarantine works and saves lives. On behalf of People Before Profit, we opposed the Government's mandatory hotel quarantine legislation because, while we were calling for mandatory hotel quarantine, there were many substantial problems with the way the Government introduced it.
There will presumably be a major public inquiry into how the Government handled Covid-19. I believe its outcome will be damning of the Government and of the system of mandatory hotel quarantine and will back up many of the points we made at the time. These include how late mandatory hotel quarantine was introduced, namely, nine and a half months after NPHET first recommended it, and how it was set up, in that it was outsourced to private companies with individuals left to pay the substantial cost themselves. In addition, there was no oversight by public health officials and it was not incorporated into the public health system. There was no oversight or supervision by civil liberties or human rights activists and experts. Even the structure of the legislation prevented mandatory quarantine from being introduced for all countries around the world. These were very substantial problems and they still hold, unfortunately, in what the Government is now proposing. While we favour mandatory hotel quarantine, we oppose the version of it that the Government is seeking to extend.
My final point is an urgent one. It is an appeal to the Government to listen to the very many scientists who are banging the warning drum about the Indian variant. Hospital admissions are now rising in England because of the Indian variant, which appears to be substantially more transmissible. It is particularly concerning for us that the protection offered by one dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine is quite limited. One dose seems to be only 33% effective, while two doses are between 80% and 90% effective, or largely effective. We know the Indian variant is here. A week before the cyberattack on the HSE, there were 72 cases of the variant. That figure is likely to have doubled to 150 or more. We also know the Indian variant is the dominant strain in Britain at this time. We are, therefore, in a race against time to complete two doses of vaccines before the Indian variant becomes dominant here. It is a race we are likely to lose unless we take action, and it is very simple. We need to follow the advice that is being given to implement mandatory hotel quarantine at airports and ports for travellers coming from Britain.
I will be voting against the extension of mandatory hotel quarantine. I share the opposition of Deputy Paul Murphy to the privatised model of mandatory hotel quarantine that the Government has introduced. I also share his opposition to this quarantine system which has no human rights oversight, certainly none worth talking about. Even if these issues were to be addressed, I would still oppose the extension as I opposed the introduction of the regime earlier in the year.
Mandatory hotel quarantine is a form of detention without trial. It disproportionately hits migrant communities with family abroad who have been cut off from accessing their close family members, including, in some cases, their children, and who are unable to travel for family emergencies such as funerals. It also disproportionately impacts lower paid workers, those with care needs, disabilities and children, and others. The disproportionality of the measure is shown by the fact that the rate of positive infection for those tested in quarantine, at 3%, is generally in line with the rate in the national test centres, and is quite a bit lower than in some of them.
There are alternatives available. We should have free testing for all at ports and airports, a better resourced contact and tracing regime and for those who need to quarantine at home, we need public health check-up teams to organise a follow-up. As well as this, we need caution in relation to indoor activity and pressure to prematurely reopen indoor bar and restaurants needs to be resisted.
Public health has introduced many measures on Covid-19 since the start of the outbreak. Many measures were called for by medical professionals before public health or the Government reacted. Masks are a case in point together, as was the early adoption of testing and tracing. Mandatory hotel quarantine was requested for a considerable period of time. I am glad, as the Minister and previous speakers noted, that it has had a significant effect in protecting us from incoming variants.
We are possibly in a very tough position now given the progression of the Indian variant across the water. The logic of our approach to imposing mandatory hotel quarantine in the Republic has to be questioned when people are able to sidestep it by coming in through Belfast Airport. It has been said many times that we need a whole-island approach to the island's defence against incoming variants.
Mandatory quarantine has put significant pressure on international travel. That was the idea. It has also damaged future travel connections and we have to see how soon we can begin to rebuild these connections. It has also affected travel in and out of the country for people who work in the foreign direct investment sector. That, too, is a cost to the economy.
Mandatory hotel quarantine has worked but anomalies exist. I will point to just one which was mentioned by Deputy Ó Cathasaigh in respect of people from the United Arab Emirates who may wish to travel into Ireland for necessary functions and have taken a vaccine approved by the World Health Organization but not by the EMA. I represent a family of two parents with two disabled children. How will they be looked after if the family has to spend two weeks in quarantine? They have to come home. This is a significant case. The family have correctly pointed out that they are vaccinated but the vaccine they received is not recognised here, even though it is recognised by the WHO. We have to recognise vaccination centres from overseas. How will we verify vaccination for future travel? What technology is being considered?
We are talking about potentially reopening the economy soon, and it has been suggested that we are going to have significant technology difficulties with managing that in the context of European and worldwide vaccination certificates.
A number of Deputies mentioned the issue of people who are awaiting second doses of Pfizer or AstraZeneca. There is considerable disquiet among a number of people at the talk of the Indian variant. I am sure the Minister is aware the UK is making moves to reduce the timelines and I again ask that NPHET look at this, particularly in light of the transmission potential of the Indian variant to people who have had only once dose of vaccine.
As the Minister will be aware, a bugbear of mine and many others is the ongoing situation with antigen testing. Will the Minister comment on the Professor Ferguson report? The professor reported to an Oireachtas committee just a couple of weeks ago that the only Department that had engaged with him subsequent to the publication of his report was the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and its Minister, Deputy Harris. Is the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, aware whether that has since changed and, if so, does he know which other Departments have talked to the professor and what pilot testing they are considering?
We have to keep going with mandatory hotel quarantine, but I might highlight for the Minister an anecdote about a couple who have recently returned from mandatory hotel quarantine in Portugal. Despite their being in quarantine, they were able to get out during the day quite a number of times and travel around with a degree of freedom. Could antigen testing be used for people in that position? I do not know how I would manage locked into a hotel room for 14 days, coming out only a couple of times a day. It is a very hard ask of people. We are all the time talking about mental resilience and mental health, and that would certainly test those for many people. Perhaps this is another area where antigen testing could be considered.
To return to aviation, there has been much talk about us potentially being included in the EU digital green certificate initiative. A significant number of people in the United States, a pivotal tourism market for Ireland, have been fully vaccinated. Is there any model whereby Ireland could enter into an agreement with the US travel authorities to offer vaccinated individuals in the US an opportunity, at the earliest possible time, to travel to Ireland, in particular, to the west and south, the regions that depend on tourism? They are going to have opportunities to book flights to Asia and other areas outside the US, perhaps Europe, and Ireland might not be on that list. There is a significant tourism kick in this regard and I am sure it can be developed with just a little outside-the-box thinking.
On the EU digital green certificate, can the Minister provide any assurance that we are going to be included from the start? The mood music at the moment suggests we will not be. I think I heard the Minister mention in the House the other day that the Government, or more likely the Department, is speaking to technology providers to ensure we will be able to be facilitated, but a significant degree of ICT appears to be required to link in to that. Will the Minister comment on security in that regard?
We are now in a position of constant surveillance and we need to get the vaccinations administered. We are doing that and I congratulate the Minister, the Department and all the people nationwide taking part in the vaccination programme. I had the benefit of getting my vaccine last week and a top-class job was done by everybody involved. I was delighted that pharmacists were included in the vaccination centres. We need to get as many people as possible involved. I understand that vaccine supply is always a factor but constant vigilance is required. I again ask the Minister to please have a look, with NPHET, at the issue of aviation. A number of Deputies have spoken about it during the debate. Lufthansa, United Airlines and British Airways are all using antigen testing to fast-track travel and surely we should be able to link in with those programmes.
I am sharing time with Deputy Alan Farrell.
I hope this is the last time in this House that we have to debate the introduction of legislation to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. As the Ceann Comhairle will be aware, the House last year enacted four items of substantive legislation as part of our response to the pandemic. We introduced the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act, the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act, the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act and the Health (Amendment) Act.
As everyone in the House will be aware, the benefit of enacting that legislation was that it enabled the State to respond immediately and flexibly to the new challenges posed to us by the pandemic. The great benefit of the legislation we enact is it provides the Minister for Health with power to make regulations. He can make them promptly having received advice from his advisers and legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General. That is the great benefit of delegated legislation. It can be done provided that it is within the principles and policies of the initial legislation, and I do not think there was any doubt the measures introduced by the Minister came within the policies and practices of the legislation that was enacted. All those Acts ultimately provided that they would be extended until 9 June, an extension from what was previously 9 November 2020. Nobody wants to keep this legislation in place, and I am sure the Minister for Health does not want to be in a position where he has these extraordinary powers. The legislation was enacted and we gave the Minister for Health these powers because we needed to respond to a desperately serious threat to the State.
Nevertheless, let us not underestimate the extent of the powers we gave to the Minister for Health and which this House gave indirectly to the Government. They were extraordinary powers. We told people they could not leave their houses unless they had a reasonable excuse, we told children they could not go to school to get an education because of the threat posed by the virus, and we told businesses they had to close unless they were essential. We told people there could be no travel, not simply out of the jurisdiction but, at some stages, not even beyond 2 km from their houses. That was then extended to 10 km and 20 km, and then to travel only within one's county.
These were extraordinary powers, and aligned with that was the great interference this had in people's social life and social development. People were not allowed to visit other people's houses for social purposes or to have others visit theirs for social purposes either. This was done because it was seen to be necessary, but we should not underestimate the extent of these powers. I very much welcome what I heard the Minister for Health say in the House at the commencement of this debate, namely, that these are draconian powers he does not want to possess, although his responsibility requires him to do so.
When we look back at how the State performed in response to the pandemic, I think it will be seen to have done a good job. Obviously, criticisms can be made. Perhaps we were too slow to respond at the beginning. Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight, we got bad public health advice when we were told there were no difficulties with Italian rugby fans travelling here in February for the purpose of the Six Nations Championship last year. It was wrong when we said there were no concerns about people travelling to Cheltenham, but this was a developing-----
-----virus and a developing situation that required a response from the State. On balance, when we have a review, I think it will find that the State managed circumstances quite well. As I said, we may have been too slow to impose restrictions at the beginning. I suspect another criticism may be that we were too slow to lift restrictions at the end of the pandemic.
One thing we know about pandemics is that they all come to the end, and this pandemic will end as well. Fortunately, I believe we are now coming to the end of this pandemic. It is one of the few pandemics that has been ended as a result of vaccination. Let us look at the recent statistics. Yesterday was the 12th consecutive day in this country when there was no reported case of Covid-related deaths. The Minister may clarify whether this has something to do with the cyberattack but I suspect it does not, given that deaths have plummeted as a result of the vaccination programme.
The programme is extraordinarily effective in reducing deaths. We also see that, as of today, 111 people are in hospital. What is most interesting about those two statistics, when they are aligned with the fact we are still seeing 400 or so cases a day, is that they indicate what is really happening now, which is that younger people are getting the virus but it is not leading to their hospitalisations or deaths. However, we want to ensure that all of them get vaccinated as quickly as possible, so the freedom provided to elderly people is provided to all people throughout the State when that is done.
We also need to reflect upon the fact that this has become a polarised issue. It is not necessary that the issue should become polarised, because there is no definitive answer as to what is right or wrong when it comes to what are, in a sense, judgment calls. I urge the Minister and the Government to recognise that we cannot eliminate risk from society. We will always be faced with risk. We now need to be extremely careful that we are not being overly cautious in removing very many of the restrictions, which the public regard as unnecessary. For instance, there will be a debate later today, and a decision tomorrow, on what should happen with our hospitality and aviation sectors. We need to recognise we are not making risk-free decisions in respect of this. If we err completely on the side of ensuring the disease does not spread, we will do irreparable damage, potentially, to other areas within our economy, which are absolutely essential.
As I have said repeatedly in this House and elsewhere, we see the consequences of the pandemic in the Covid-related deaths of some 5,000 people, and the hospitalisations, but we are not yet seeing the consequences of the restrictions that have been imposed in response to the pandemic. We need to approach the restrictions and their impact with similar caution because they can also have devastating consequences.
Having said that, I would like to see restaurants and hotels permitted to open for indoor dining at the same time. While there is a risk in respect of the Indian variant Members should remember we introduced mandatory quarantining to stop variants coming in and it appears to have been very effective. Once the measures we have taken have had an impact, we must derive the benefits of that impact. Since we have got the benefit of vaccination, let us use it by opening up more.
We also need to look at the aviation sector. As I came to the House, a number of pilots were outside peacefully protesting and getting significant support from members of the public who were passing by. We have to be extremely careful that we do not do so much damage to the Irish aviation industry that the damage becomes irreparable. Certain businesses have been built up over years in this country and the assumption that they can be turned off and on again is incorrect. If they are turned off for too long it can sometimes have irreparable consequences. That could happen in respect of our hospitality business and, indeed, of our NPHET-----
I beg the Ceann Comhairle's pardon. I was told I had 20 minutes. I beg Deputy Farrell's pardon. I will conclude as I got my timing wrong. I commend what I have suggested to the Minister and ask him to take it into consideration.
That is absolutely fine. I understand the motion and the Bill being too close together, ostensibly on the same issue. I thank the Minister for bringing this matter before us, which is an opportunity for every Member of the House to have their say on the quite extraordinary measures introduced in the last Dáil and renewed in this one. These are necessary steps at an extraordinary time and not taken lightly as many Members have said over the course of the debate.
The extraordinary powers afforded to the Department of Health, An Garda Síochána and many others were introduced at a critical time and were a critical intervention for absolutely the right reasons. They have been renewed by this House already and this final renewal, as was put on the record of the House, relating to the expiry of these measures in November is appropriate. It should be said to anyone listening that these measures will only be used if needed, as opposed to going back to the scenario quite rightly mentioned by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, in which people were not allowed travel too far from their homes, were asked to stay at home and businesses were shuttered and schools closed. I cannot imagine that scenario arising again in relation to Covid-19 but they were and remain prudent steps.
I respect the right of many Members to have opposing views on this issue but the pandemic is not over. Masks work and they are included in these provisions. Many other provisions are included, which are necessary. For us to go back, unpick the legislation and start over would take unnecessary time. It is a prudent step for us to do this. If the Members opposite wish to come back to the Minister about certain provisions, perhaps they can be considered at a later stage, but not today. That is why I support this measure.
Given the speed at which this debate has processed through the speakers' list, I will speak for a moment about aviation. As I mentioned to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on Tuesday, given the decisions that the Minister for Health will take tomorrow, it is a critical sector to our economy. There are literally thousands of jobs potentially at risk because it is not just pilots, cabin crew or ground crew that are at risk, but the businesses associated with the sector and with aircraft landing and taking off in Dublin, Cork and Shannon. This is not to mention the huge impact a lack of connectivity will have in certain areas, particularly in the regions, like Shannon, if airlines withdraw aircraft on the basis of a lack of demand because of a lack of certainty. That is what the airlines require.
The Minister is aware of that and a commitment was given to bring forward the plan for aviation to the month of May. That is being done tomorrow, which I welcome. I ask the Minister, along with all the other measures that have been mentioned at his and my parliamentary parties, which I am sure he read about, in respect of what are our priorities to bear that in mind for tomorrow night.
It is interesting that we have now come to depend on leaks from the parliamentary parties to know the real thinking inside them. They are proud of it; boasting about it here in the Chamber. It is gas. We do not get it from officialdom. Fáilte Ireland is making up the guidelines. The guidelines that came out yesterday are that we cannot sing, dance or play taobh amuigh nó istigh d'óstán, nó aon áit eile. We cannot sing or dance. The Taoiseach said today we might be too loud when singing and might transmit the virus. It is such balderdash.
When Fáilte Ireland came before the arts and tourism committee, I asked two or three times why it came up with the daft €9 rule for food. Their representatives said they had no hand, act or part in it. I believe the Government is using Fáilte Ireland as a stalking horse. Fáilte Ireland has a serious job to do. Ireland is the eighth highest destination for American tourists. That is what Fáilte Ireland should be at now, aspiring to getting Americans over here to help the pilots that are outside, to help Shannon and to help lift our hospitality industry again. That is what it should be doing, not this tomfoolery with making up rules that have nothing to do with it. Fáilte Ireland has a job to do and it did a good job, in the main, always. However, now it is being sucked into debates such as the one about the €9 meal. If I get someone to play a tune I dance a reel, whenever I get the opportunity. I am proud to sing and so are many others. As I said this morning, we cannot sing "The Lonesome Boatman" or play uilleann pipe music, or sing silent laments about Biddy Early, God help us. It is just so illogical.
I will be honest and put my hands up. I looked for the borders to be sealed at every meeting I went to. The Minister attended many of them when he was in opposition. I will not be a hypocrite and say I was not looking for that. We have hotel quarantine, but it is difficult and damaging. However, I did not want hotel quarantine, I wanted the border sealed. Hungary and Poland did it. I was told at every meeting by then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, and then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, that it could not be done because we are Europeans. We are the best boys in Europe, but other countries could do it and we could not. We allowed people in and there was contamination, spread and everything else. We saw what went on in Lanzarote and different places. We have hotel quarantine now but I have questions to ask about the cost of it and the no-tender process. Since this pandemic began, the HSE has got a blank cheque.
People phoned me to find out where the locations were when they were asked by the HSE to go and do work there. The cost did not matter, it was just a case of getting the work done. There was no tender process. We saw that with the old St. Michael's hospital in Clonmel, County Tipperary. Some €800,000 was allocated to make 40 beds and then a further €600,000 was allocated, with the number of beds dropping to 30 from 40. The waste is shocking. There will have to be an independent inquiry into all of this.
I will not be a hypocrite. I wanted restrictions in respect of our borders because ours is an island nation. What I was seeking should not have been difficult. Now, we have the quarantine system and it has been given to one big company - I have all the details of it here - with no tendering process. A total of 20 other groups made submissions. How was that company chosen? Why will the Government not accept antigen testing? Every other place in Europe and the European Commission said it should be used but the Government will not accept it. Is there a vested interest in PCR tests? Will the Minister answer that question? There must be an answer. It is very strange that the Government resolutely refuses to use antigen tests.
We want Shannon Airport supported. Let Fáilte Ireland get the tourists back in and stop making up silly rules. Irish people will not behave because they love to sing, dance, play and recite. That is our culture and our heritage.
In theory, mandatory hotel quarantine was a smart measure to slow and stop the introduction of new variants. In practice, our system quickly accelerated from being problematic to being dangerous. Ireland’s version of quarantine exacerbates the difficulties involved, distinguishes between the between the rich and poor, ignores science and puts front-line workers and their communities at risk while failing to protect Irish people. The Government has had ample opportunity to address these issues but has shown no serious interest in doing so. Enough is enough. It is time to end hotel quarantine before it becomes a bigger rights violation than it already is. Any closures or bans, such as those relating to lockdowns, should have been comprehensive and short, not half-baked and drawn out indefinitely. Unfortunately, due to the half-baked policies of this Government, Ireland’s restrictions are being drawn out indefinitely.
The Tifco Hotel Group is being paid over €5.4 million for operating the Government’s mandatory hotel quarantine system. It has turned into a lucrative gravy train for those selected by the HSE and the Government to provide services at 11 different hotels. Travel and event management operators made submissions to the Department offering to provide a quarantine facility and other services required. Only the Tifco offer was given a contract. Apollo Global Management are the current owners of the Tifco Hotel Group and, according to a report, the CEO is being questioned about his links with convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. The US media is still reporting on that connection this week. Why has the Government ignored it?
On Tuesday, we saw the pilots outside the convention centre. I did not get a chance to speak to them but I will speak for them now. Their union has called on the Government to immediately end the two-week mandatory quarantine imposed on travellers from the US, whose vaccination programme is well advanced. The CEO of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, said the other day that mandatory hotel quarantine had been completely useless because variants had still entered the country. He stated that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is without doubt one of the worst Ministers with responsibility for transport ever. I and my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group fully endorse and support the pilots' union and the aviation sector.
What is needed is for the Government to introduce rapid antigen testing for travellers, for traveller harmonisation between the Republic and the UK and for every US citizen who has been vaccinated to be allowed to enter the country. We need to follow other countries that are moving with confidence in respect of international travel and embracing technology. We also need an acute appreciation on the part of the Government of the fact that most airlines make 90% of their revenue in the months of June, July and August. An acknowledgement that freedom of movement within the EU is enshrined fundamental right of the EU citizen is also needed.
My local airport, Cork Airport, is planning on closing in the winter months for runway repairs. After all the closures this year, I encourage those at the airport and the Minister try to try and get this work done at night and keep the facility open. This is vital for west Cork and if that does not end up being the way, I ask for at least a guarantee that all Cork-based crew are guaranteed a job and some type of payment similar to the pandemic unemployment payment being put in place, if closure of the airport is to go ahead. I am totally opposed to it. It needs to be done by night in order to secure jobs, keep the airport open and keep the struggling economy of west Cork going.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The degree of absolute power contained in these regulations and similar enabling legislation is of concern to me. I am happy to state that I do not think the Minister has been corrupted by the power but I think he has become befuddled by the broad powers he has. I say that with no degree of pleasure.
I objected to this legislation being put in place from the outset. I thought there was a propensity for it to be abused, and it was. No sooner was it announced than the number of countries subject to mandatory hotel quarantining was doubled and trebled. It was an exciting thing to face down the Italian ambassador on television, but that has a price. We had a degree of European solidarity in the face of this. It has been a long time since I had a green passport. I am proud that I am a citizen of the European Union, as well as of Ireland. I do not see a contradiction between the two but the Minister increasingly drives a wedge between the two. That is a very damaging thing. To go back to the countries put on the list, Israel was maintained on the list on the basis of on outdated data. When that was challenged in court, the case was settled and Israel was immediately taken off the list.
I do not think this degree of power without checks and balances is healthy in a democracy, certainly not now as the situation improves. I do not think we needed it then and I do not think we need it now. I recognise the danger posed by variants but I do not understand how colleagues in this House who called for mandatory hotel quarantine for people coming from Britain think people coming from Britain to Northern Ireland and then from Northern Ireland to here do not pose a problem, but people coming here directly from Britain do. Similarly, people travelling from Brazil or any other country to Northern Ireland and then to here pose the same problem as people travelling here directly, but we do not take any account of that. It is about being seen to be doing something rather than doing anything. Of course, we are not doing what we could do, which is to test everybody coming in to this State at every point of entry using antigen testing.
I did not have my photo taken with members of IALPA, unlike many Members of this House. Also unlike many Members of this House, I will not vote to continue the measures IALPA is protesting against either. I am concerned that Alan Brereton of IALPA said he met with the Minister, who told him the European Union is ruling out antigen testing. In fact, the proposal for a digital green certificate expressly includes measures around antigen testing. Media reports of the deal struck between the Council and the Parliament include antigen testing. We, for some dogmatic reason, have set our face against it.
My time is up. I opposed this at the start and I oppose it now. I am cognisant of the risks posed by variants but I do not think this is the way to combat it and absolute power is never healthy in a democracy.
I absolutely agree that absolute power is never healthy but I think the Minister has done well on this by standing by what he believes in when it comes to quarantine. I agree with him. My difficulty is it should have been brought in last year and that when it was brought in this year, that happened as a result of pressure and in a way that was destined not to succeed. There was no oversight, it was outsourced, there was no human rights impact assessment and, today, no details.
I welcome the Minister's contribution. He told us that 4,400 people have gone through mandatory hotel quarantine and that 173 cases have been detected. He gave us a breakdown of those cases and stated that they involved 163 residents, nine staff – which is significant and raises questions as to how the staff contracted it – and one accompanied minor. Significantly also, 59 variants of concern cases have been detected. For that alone, quarantine was worth it. My difficulty is the manner in which it has been conducted. I have great difficulty with that. Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds that detention should never be arbitrary. There is an extra onus on the Government because we are detaining people. I could quote many European Court of Human Rights judgments but there is one which states that "where deprivation of liberty is at stake, the interests of justice in principle call for legal representation". The Minister has given us no figures today on the number of appeals, how they were handled, whether there is consistency in those appeals or whether the humanitarian grounds exception is being applied consistently. There is absolutely no information in respect of any of them.
I was aghast to hear Deputy Jim O’Callaghan saying that, when we look back, we will say we handled it well. Whatever about in the beginning when there was a certain level of ignorance and uncertainty, there was none by the summertime when we utterly failed to plan for the third wave. The figures are shocking. The figure for January to May of this year is 2,704 deaths. Most of those occurred between January and March.
That is in comparison with all of last year, when we had 2,237 deaths in total. We had most of the deaths in the first few months of this year and we utterly failed to plan for it or to take action. We brought in quarantine under pressure and in a manner that is not compliant with our legal obligations nationally and internationally. I do not know why we have to go through freedom of information and parliamentary questions to find out. There is an onus on the Government to inspire confidence so that we can work with it. I say that as someone who agrees with mandatory quarantine as a last resort, but we should have done it last year at the beginning of the pandemic. We would be in a very different space had we done so.
I have the greatest trouble with Deputies revising or changing history. We utterly failed to protect vulnerable people in nursing homes, in direct provision and in meat plants. I might have failed as well had I been in government, but I do not think I would have failed to learn from the mistakes. It is simply unacceptable to be still making mistakes.
I have a closing speech, but I might try to address some of the points raised by some of the Deputies who are present. I will start with the questions raised by Deputy Connolly. With regard to appeals, as of 25 May there have been 1,518 appeals. Some 11%, or 166, were granted and 1,352 were refused. As of 20 May, the breakdown of the reasons for the 157 granted appeals were as follows: 62 were exempt vaccine, PCR or other exempt reasons, two appeals had completed quarantine, one appeal had a negative PCR test after quarantine, 50 were granted for medical and exceptional reasons and 42 were granted for humanitarian reasons. I would be very happy to provide the Deputy with the information she seeks. I referred in my opening contribution and she will be aware of it. The regulations are available. A panel of barristers is used.
Questions were asked by several Deputies about the exemptions. Deputies will be aware of the exemptions listed in the original Act, which included valid annex 3 certificates for drivers of heavy goods vehicles, airline pilots, aircrew, maritime masters and many more. Six exemptions were added as follows: passengers transiting through an Irish port or airport; athletes competing in events of international standing; newborn infants born abroad returning to the State with their families; travellers who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19; travellers returning to the State after receiving unavoidable imperative and time-sensitive medical treatment, which extended to their carers or dependents as well; the sixth category of exemption was for travellers providing an essential service to the State. They are the exemptions that are in place.
Several Deputies referred to the need for fully vaccinated people from the United States being able to avoid mandatory hotel quarantine. I want to restate that this is currently the case. Those who are fully vaccinated in the US, in the vast majority of cases are vaccinated with one of three of the four vaccines approved by the EMA, so people coming here from the United States who are fully vaccinated do not need to go into hotel quarantine once the vaccine is one of the EMA-approved vaccines.
Some Deputies asked for stronger engagement with Northern Ireland. There is ongoing engagement with Northern Ireland. I share the view that we need as close an all-island approach as possible. Various Deputies asked for a report on the operation of mandatory hotel quarantine. I would be very happy to provide that. There are a lot of facts and figures. I will ask the Department to kick that piece of work off immediately. There is an awful lot of ongoing daily and weekly facts and figures and reporting on the system. It is being managed very closely. If Deputies find it useful, I would be very happy to ask for an up-to-date report encompassing all of the information we have.
Some Deputies asked if we could consider additional vaccines. The one that is of most interest is the Sinopharm vaccine, which is used in the Emirates. It is not one of the ones approved by the EMA. My understanding is that it is under rolling review. My information might not be up to date, but the last time I checked authorisation had not been sought within the EU from the EMA. I understand the point and, as Deputies have indicated, Sinopharm is part of the EU digital green certificate recommendation as it has been recognised by the WHO. That is certainly something we can ask the public health experts to take a look at.
In terms of barriers to travel, there has been a fair amount of comment on Ireland not moving quickly enough. A wide range of views have been expressed. We had the usual position from People Before Profit, whereby it demanded mandatory hotel quarantine but then opposed it when we brought it in. That of course is the right of Deputies. Others very reasonably expressed a broad range of views. Some believe that we should not have mandatory hotel quarantine and that the domestic public health measures are too harsh. Others believe we should have had mandatory hotel quarantine from day one and we should have essentially sealed the island off and gone for a zero Covid approach, which would require much harsher measures to be in place and we would not be having a conversation about relaxing any of those measures now. There is no monopoly on wisdom in this regard. There is no right answer to any of this. For what it may be worth, in terms of Ireland's timing on mandatory hotel quarantine and the measures we have in place for international travel, for quite some time Ireland has either adopted the EU-wide approach or we have gone considerably further than that. Ours is the only country in the EU that has such a system of mandatory hotel quarantine. The system we have here is by a country mile the most comprehensive in the European Union and it is now more comprehensive even than the United Kingdom in terms of the list of countries. Even when we did not have it, we had considerable measures in place, and we did that as part of an EU-wide approach. Measures have been in place for a very long time.
It has been suggested that if we had mandatory hotel quarantine in December, for example, we could have avoided the awful situation here towards the end of December and in January. I do not believe that would be the case at all. If we had the current system of mandatory hotel quarantine in place, the protocols we use to designate countries, which is by a mile the most comprehensive of its kind in the EU, would not have stopped what happened in January. The UK signalled that it had a very serious issue with a variant of concern, which was discovered in Kent on a Friday in the run-up to Christmas. We worked right through the weekend and by Monday we had met and very serious restrictions were put in place, including a complete ban on travel to the UK, which is more comprehensive than mandatory hotel quarantine. The genome sequencing which was done subsequently has shown that there was a lot of it here. The idea that the current system of mandatory hotel quarantine would have somehow stopped what happened here in January simply is not true. We moved very quickly. We moved much quicker in fact in response to the UK variant than the current system of mandatory hotel quarantine allows in terms of designating states as category 2 states. That is just where that is.
I conclude by thanking Deputies for what is a really important debate. As I said, we are only looking to extend this to July. People have very reasonably asked why we are not looking to extend it longer. It is because we have advice from the Attorney General to that effect, which we just got in the last few days. It reflects the fact that the protocols on international travel are moving very quickly right now. The digital green certificate is coming. I get a sense there is very broad support for this around the House. The Taoiseach will make a very detailed statement tomorrow on Ireland's timing and criteria for it.
On the basis that the situation is moving so quickly, we thought it would be prudent to just seek an extension from both Houses for the minimum time required, as has been commented on by many Deputies right across the House in regard to these powers for mandatory hotel quarantining and, indeed, the Bill we are moving straight onto, the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021, in terms of the public health measures. They are draconian powers and they do not sit easily with me. These are powers I would much prefer no Government in Ireland had. They are time-limited, as they should be.
On mandatory hotel quarantining, like the public health measures, while of course we have not got everything right, it has worked. The public health measures have worked and they are working. Mandatory hotel quarantining, which first and foremost is about stopping the uncontrolled spread of these variants in the country, has worked really well. For those reasons, I ask Deputies to support the motion, which is for a relatively short extension, so we can maintain our protections against these variants of concern while we get up and running with the digital green certificate and we keep going with the vaccine programme.