Thursday, 27 May 2021
Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I will continue from where I stopped yesterday. I was talking about the level of communications we have been receiving from people in recent weeks. I do not believe these are from conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers or Covid hoaxers. Some of their arguments have some basis in reality. They argue that the Act has caused an unacceptable level of collateral damage and suffering, including in relation to physical and mental health, loneliness and isolation, increased domestic violence, and damage to the livelihoods of many people. Public opinion is moving rapidly against the continuing lockdown which Part 3 enables, with a Kantar-Sunday Independentpoll finding “huge frustration with the level of Covid restrictions” and 50% believe the lifting of restrictions is too slow. Human rights and civil liberties must be respected, even when this is difficult. They note that a liberal democratic society does not abandon its commitment to human rights and civil liberties as soon as that commitment becomes inconvenient. They argue lockdowns are not a normal pandemic response and, in fact, represent a radical departure from normal practice in responding to pandemics. Moreover, the original rationale for the restrictions - to flatten the curve - has long since passed. It is difficult to argue with some of these points. Indeed, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, produced and circulated an analysis on the renewal of emergency Covid-19 powers earlier this month.
I note that the Seanad began the debate on this Bill at the start of this week and it is again being rushed through. Tuesday saw the Committee and Remaining Stages of the Bill in the Seanad before it came to us. I would like to acknowledge the work of some Senators, particularly those in the Civic Engagement Group, who put forward detailed and proportionate amendments. I agree it is unacceptable to create provisions for rolling three-month renewals of the legislation.
There are growing concerns about the spread of a new variant in England and the efficacy of the vaccines against this new variant. None of us knows what is coming and what could happen next, but what we do have is 15 months of experience. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of what the English have done in their vaccine programme because the variants can run riot in a half-vaccinated population.
I reiterate my support for public health measures and the need for some emergency measures. Again, at the beginning of the pandemic, we did not know what was going to happen and what we were going to do. However, I will not just pander to the Government because of public health concerns. I have had public health concerns for those working in meat packing factories and I still have concerns for those in overcrowded and congregated settings, such as direct provision.
The ICCL has called for a “meaningful and robust debate” on the extension of the Covid-19 legislative measures. Senators were not given time for a meaningful and robust debate. I note, however, that the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, while addressing Committee and Remaining Stages in the Seanad on Tuesday, said that he would look at bringing an amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil for just one five-month extension. That decision followed the debate in the Seanad on Monday and the concerns raised there, and I look forward to seeing that amendment.
The ICCL analysis asks for the following: a meaningful and publicly demonstrated proportionality test; better consultation with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC; pre-legislative scrutiny; Oireachtas approval; a limit on broad powers; a regular review of powers extended to gardaí and Ministers; and a human rights impact assessment. It is an excellent and measured analysis and I thank the ICCL for consistently providing much-needed analysis to Oireachtas Members. I agree with the ICCL’s point that enforcing public health should be based on education and advice. It pointed to behavioural science research that indicated positive reinforcement of messaging, targeted communication and provision of supports would ensure compliance, capability, opportunity, and motivation at a higher rate than the threat of punishment. An example of this was the Garda hotline set up in Donegal for people to report others for breaching restrictions. The hotline was discontinued very soon after launch because it was never going to work. That is not the way to motivate the public.
The Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill is quite a name for legislation. There is much that needs to be improved in our health service and also in our criminal justice system. The facts and figures available on the Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, website about the prison population across Ireland include the following: there are 3,831 people in prison custody in Ireland; the rate of imprisonment in Ireland is approximately 73 per 100,000 of the general population; the overall daily average number of prisoners in custody in 2019 was 3,971 compared with 3,893 in 2018, an increase of 2%; the majority of Irish prisoners have never sat a State examination and over half left school before the age of 15; the average number of females in custody in 2019 was 170, a 3% increase on the 2018 average of 165; the daily average number of female offenders in custody rose by 29% in the ten-year period between 2006 and 2016; and as of October 2020, there are 47 people in prison slopping out, without in-cell sanitation. The list goes on.
The figures for the restricted regime do not include the Covid-19 infection control measures. The Prison Service worked very well in keeping Covid out of the prisons but it meant that most people were on restricted regimes of long lock-up. We should think about these facts and figures as they give an insight into the much bigger problems in our criminal justice system. There has been a huge increase in the number of women prisoners, most likely to be from deprived areas, and a big increase in those not paying fines, and this extends further to our policing of marginalised communities and deprived areas.
On the Garda Síochána website, the statistics on Covid-related fines has some categories separated out under “fine offenders”. Some 74% of those fined are male, 53% are in the 18 to 25 age group and 24% are in the 26 to 35 age group. Most of the fines were given out on Saturdays and Sundays, and the southern region has the highest number of fines issued, at 6,157, with Cork city and Limerick being the areas with the highest number of fines in that region. Some 886 fines have been given out in Donegal out of 5,013 in the north-western region. There are better ways to go about things and I believe increasing Garda powers is not one of them, especially not until unconscious bias training has taken place and is implemented across the force. I said months ago that it would be interesting to see the level of policing in different postcode areas and the likelihood of those getting away with breaching restrictions depending on their address or socioeconomic status.
It is nearly a year since I started calling for a zero-Covid strategy, instead of the stop-start disaster that has been the modus operandi of the Government. Since Fine Gael handed over the Department of Taoiseach and Department of Health to Fianna Fáil, it feels like Leo, Harris and company have been sitting back, rubbing their hands with glee, and watching Fianna Fáil internally combust. The public has lost confidence in the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Yes, pandemic fatigue is a thing, but when the Minister for Health starts comparing the dangers of trampolines and road safety to an unprecedented airborne global pandemic, people start to take things less seriously.
I do not agree with the extra powers being extended for the Garda and I definitely do not agree with unlimited powers being extended to the Government. That is the reality of the situation.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. What it does is to continue the extraordinary emergency legislation due to expire on 9 June and the Government is extending it to 9 November 2021.
It may be further extended for up to three months at a time by resolution passed by each House of the Oireachtas. These include measures in section 1 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, section 17 of the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 and section 6 of the Health (Amendment) Act 2020.
These were extraordinarily draconian pieces of legislation as we watched what was happening across the sea, and in Italy where hospitals were overwhelmed and could not cope with the amount of people becoming ill, and the high rates of deaths. Hospitals were being built in China to cater for the sick and dying. We were dealing with an unknown virus. We did not know how it was spread or whether it was airborne only or on surfaces. There were people wiping down their shopping when it home and wiping their door handles in their home because they were fearful of contracting the virus. It went against all my political principles and instincts to give more power to the State to curtail people's freedoms and human rights and the same can be said of many Members of the Dáil and Seanad.
This debate is about extending the legislation and whether there is a basis for it to remain, particularly now that the vaccination programme appears very effective in stopping the rate of infection and it being passed on, although we do not have peer reviewed information. Recent reports from Israel suggest that the virus is not passed on to others after vaccination, but that will have to be reviewed after a period of time. It is stopping people getting ill and helping stop deaths from the virus. It is fantastic that science could develop these vaccines at the speed it did. Saying that, I am appalled that the pharmaceutical companies have resisted waiving intellectual property rights to the vaccines and sharing their know-how, technology and ingredients to enable greater levels of manufacture in the world, as well as by some of the countries that have grabbed practically all the world's vaccines, including in Europe, Canada and the USA, although it has recently changed its position.
The position we have adopted of not pushing Europe to support the TRIPS waiver is logical based on some this Government's decisions. While I welcome everyone in Ireland getting the vaccine we cannot be comfortable or smug when two thirds of the world's population will not get the vaccine until 2022 or early 2023 if we continue distributing the vaccine as we have. That increases the likelihood of more dangerous variants. That is one reason why Ireland should urge the Government to support the TRIPS waiver and get the vaccine manufactured as quickly as possible throughout the world to protect everybody.
The information to date on the Indian variant B.1.617 is that it decreases the efficacy of the vaccines, particularly where people have only received their first doses of AstraZeneca and Pfizer. Considering that many 60 to 70 year olds, and 50 to 59 year olds and people in cohort 4, who are very high risk, and cohort 7, receive AstraZeneca and are waiting on their second dose which gives people more protection against the B.1.617 Indian variant, we must be cautious. We do not know the impact of the variant on public health. I know someone who has cystic fibrosis who will not receive their second dose until mid-June. Many of those over 69 years will not receive their second vaccination until June and July. These are the people who are most vulnerable and those who we want to protect more. We have to move with caution on this for the moment.
Some 73% of people in Britain have received their first dose and 35% have had their second. Northern Ireland is now vaccinating those aged 18 years and over. Because of the threat of the Indian variant England has shortened the window between the first and second doses of AstraZeneca from 12 to eight weeks.
I listened to the Minister for Health this morning talking about supply. It seems that of the 600,000 Jansen vaccines promised, we might only receive 60,000. That is a blow for the programme. In the British Medical Journal public health experts have said the Indian variant has fundamentally changed the risk faced in their country. We have to take what they are saying on board and learn from their response and their information. In Ireland on 15 May, there were 41 cases of the Indian variant. There were 59 cases in the middle of that week and on 21 May there were 72 cases. Those are the cases we know of but there might be more. I urge the Minster to go back to NIAC and see if there is a case for shortening the 12 week window. I know the 12 weeks was shortened from 16 weeks, but we should shorten it again to eight weeks if we can because if the Indian variant is so infectious and the protection of the first dose is down to 30%, we must protect people and stop a situation where the virus can develop.
We are debating legislation, but earlier I heard a Deputy say we had handled it well. I do not think we did. We have a lot of questions to ask and lessons to learn. During the first restrictions, where there was huge community support and back-up in towns, villages and cities across the country, there was an opportunity to reach zero Covid. When we came out of the first restrictions, the cases were down to very low numbers. The Government did not take the advice of NPHET about introducing mandatory hotel quarantine. We did not handle our nursing homes well or our direct provision centres. We continued to allow people to travel even though others were liable to a penalty if they were 5 km or 20 km outside their homes. Then we had the Spanish variant, the Kent variant and now the Indian variant is in our community. The Minister said earlier that we would have got the Kent variant in any case, but had we had mandatory hotel quarantine in place much earlier, travelling to Ireland would not have even occurred to many of the people who did come for the so-called meaningful Christmas. That would have had an impact on the numbers travelling, as they would have questioned travelling.
Deputy Ó Cuív is right. The people are ahead of the Government on this. Generally, when they see dangerous situations looming they respond positively. From the feedback I am getting, people are losing trust in the Government. Many of the emails we receive are expressing genuine concerns, although some are not.
We should not be basing our approach on that but we should be noting that people are getting frustrated. They want to know what is happening, they want transparency and they want to have the position explained to them. Once we explain logically why we are adopting a certain position, people will understand the logic and support it. We have tabled an amendment to ensure a review on 9 September rather than in November.
Nobody likes rules, regulations or measures that affect our ability to live our lives as we please. To that end, it is understandable that there is some resistance to the planned extension of the date and the legislation. We have a very light-touch policing policy and that was reflected in the professional manner in which An Garda Síochána dealt with our public health crisis over the past 15 months. There is almost unanimity in the House on the extension of the date until later this year but it is important that the public knows and realises that we may not need the full complement of public health measures that have been in use over the past year ever again. It is important that we have a safety valve allowing us to call in the statutory measures again if necessary. There could be some need for local and regional restrictions to control outbreaks over the coming months but we hope that will not be the case.
It is easy and popular to be critical of the legislation. No self-respecting government would ever consider such legislation and we only did so against the backdrop of 2,500 deaths, heartbroken families and many devastated business sectors.
It is getting very hard to keep track of the emerging variants. Many speakers have alluded to this. We are particularly conscious of the challenges faced by the people of India. We can doubtlessly expect further strains to emerge over the coming months. We need to be prepared for them and have the capacity to deal with them as they arise.
I noted earlier that we have now gone 12 days without a Covid-related death. It is a trend we wish to see continue. We are now on the cusp of seeing 50% of the population receive their first vaccine. That is an important landmark on our road to recovery. We have surely travelled a long journey together since I first voiced concerns and reservations about the vaccine roll-out in March.
I make no apology for taking the opportunity to commend the Minister on the success of the vaccine programme to date. There is no doubt but that its success rests with him and the national vaccination team. We have come a long way but we are not there yet. While the current circumstances give great reason for hope, we need to retain the capability to react to any adverse developments, and this legislation provides that capacity for a specific period of five months.
I am relatively new to this House and never imagined that in my time here, I would see this legislation or anything similar. I earnestly hope that no Irish Government will ever again have to invoke such extraordinary powers, which surely run contrary to the very spirit of this great nation. I accept that the powers are draconian. We asked people to stay in their homes and told them they could not go to work or visit relations and family in hospitals or nursing homes. We told them there were to be no weddings and only limited numbers at funerals. We told their children they could not go to school. I acknowledge the legislation is not legislation that the Minister wanted to invoke. While hindsight and history may reveal that mistakes were made, I believe the Government has performed well in the face of a public health crisis. We rolled out the largest ever vaccine programme in the nation's history and can now rightly see an end to this crisis is in sight. The original legislation was for eight months and the period was then extended for a further seven. The Minister is before the House today seeking a further five-month extension, with a three-month sunset clause. It will provide the background that will allow us to unwind further the restrictions that have paralysed this country for the past 14 months. Before Christmas, I would have been bullish and pushed for the fast-tracking of the reopening of our economy. We did so on a limited base for Christmas and ultimately it came at a price. I concede that today.
This legislation is a safety net and it will not deny the Government the right to ease restrictions for hospitality, aviation, sport and the arts, arguably the last four sections of our commercial and social set-up that are caught in the crushing arms of this crisis. I look forward to the Taoiseach's statement on this tomorrow.
I reluctantly agree to the extension but do so in the certain knowledge that it is purely a safety valve to protect this nation and our great people. I also do so in the hope and expectation that we will never again need this or similar legislation.
At any time, being the Minister for Health is a tough job. We all know that. Being landed with a Covid-19 global pandemic on top of that is not easy, to say the least. Being asked to look after a vaccine roll-out of an unprecedented scale was challenging. Having had to take charge of a quarantine regime was rather unsettling and demanding, to say the least. Topping it all, the recent hacking experienced by the HSE and Department was the icing on the cake. For dealing with all those issues, as the Minister has done, I take my hat off to him and say, "Well done." I mentioned to him privately in the past that he should look after himself. The amount of work he is dealing with and the stress and strain are enormous. I pay tribute to him on the work he has done, in addition to his team in the Department and the HSE.
This brings me to the issue of healthcare workers. We have all been speaking on and off about the stress they have been under. I spoke to some of them, particularly young doctors. They were absolutely shattered and exhausted when the pandemic was at its height. They were dealing with people who were dying or were on the verge of dying and they were trying to keep people alive. They were working all day in personal protective equipment on very long shifts. That is extremely challenging. We all have to appreciate the work they did. We must also appreciate the work of the Garda in respect of meeting people on the streets and roads and dealing with people in a civilised, disciplined and co-operative way to try to curtail the spread of the virus. We must also recognise the impact of the pandemic on children and young people. I heard an individual saying on television that young people in their teens and early 20s are programmed to socialise but they could not do so at all. Neither could older people. It has been a really tough time.
Today we are dealing with four legislative measures, namely, Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act) 2020, Part 5 of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act, the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020, and the Health (Amendment) Act 2020. All were enacted as temporary measures and were time limited, and rightly so. In the explanatory memorandum that the Minister has kindly circulated among us, there is a sentence that is slightly concerning. It comes after the setting out of the context and references to the trajectory and spread of the disease, variants and so on. It states: "It is in this context that the emergency provisions in the four named Acts, aimed at preventing and minimising the spread of Covid-19, will still be required in the near future and should therefore be continued in force." We all hope to God the provisions will not be required in the near future. I suggest that if the wording "may still be required" were used, it would be better.
Many colleagues on all sides have said this is extraordinary legislation that gives the Government extraordinary powers. I was taken very much by Deputy Bruton's comments in this regard. November 2021 is a long way off so I wonder why that month was picked. The provision stipulating a period three months after that brings us to some date in January or February. It is after the Christmas period so that may be the reason. I suggest to the Minister that he consider an extension until September so he could have an Oireachtas committee examine the provision before the Dáil returns in the autumn.
We can then have another debate on it at that stage and see where we are going.
We are all getting emails from constituents and citizens who are concerned about the powers the State has. These include the power to require people to remain in their homes, which is an extraordinary power, the power to prevent various events, including private events, and the power of arrest. Many of these were necessary. It is strange because before these powers were in place, we had regulations and guidelines. They were followed by the people at the start because people were concerned, afraid and wanted to comply. They did not want the disease to spread. There was great fear at the start when the pandemic broke out. There was footage on screens of patients in Italy and other parts of the world being treated in emergency rooms that were overflowing.
I suggest the Minister consider extending this legislation to September and not November. He might tell us in his summing up why November was chosen. As a previous speaker said, we may not and hopefully will not need the full complement of powers. There might be need for further amendment in that regard.
I pay tribute to the officials who drafted the legislation passed in 2020, including those in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Office of the Attorney General. I know from my time there that it took immense work to put together those four Acts without making serious mistakes. There must have been a great deal of midnight oil burned. However, the measures were supposed to be temporary. I notice today that the HSE has reported a collapse in the number of deaths. Thankfully, we are at that point, although we should still bear in mind the 4,841 people who have died of Covid-19.
There are some who believe that all this is some kind of global hoax, a power grab by the World Health Organization and others to subjugate the world. Some believe that Bill Gates is involved somehow or another. We have all seen those conspiracy theories. Notwithstanding that, there are people who are very concerned about the powers the Minister has. They are concerned about what is, as they see it, the curtailment of various freedoms that we should and otherwise would have in a democracy and that we all want people to have. We need to explain further why we need these powers extended. We also need to have more flexibility with the application of some of them.
I have said in the past that we need a one-stop-shop to find out about exemptions. I know of doctors who wanted to come from abroad to work here as locums. They were expected to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks at their own expense. Maybe the Minister or his officials might take that on board to see if anything can be done in that regard. That might not be required. The issue of hotel quarantine was already discussed in the previous debate.
I am concerned about the aviation industry. If we lose it, it could be a long time before we get it back. I would like some clarity from the Minister with regard to travel from the United States and Canada in particular. Can people travel to Ireland from the US and Canada? What is required? Will they need a certificate? What certificates are recognised, if any? What kind of quarantine would be required if they come here? Will they have to quarantine for five days in a home or hotel? We need to start looking at trying to open up international travel again as soon as possible.
There are four Acts involved here. They all sound a little similar but they are all somewhat different. The first relates to the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act. We are talking about extending the mental health provisions in that Act. There are also provisions in Part 2 to amend the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. This has not been mentioned. The Minister might comment on these when he speaks later. Section 17 of the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act is also being extended. This Act gives gardaí the power to enter and inspect premises. Section 4 gives gardaí powers to shut down premises. We have heard reports of shebeens operating throughout the country during this period. Gardaí have done the best they can.
I salute vintners and publicans as they have complied with the legislation and regulations in the main. Not even a handful have failed to comply and they are to be commended. We need to support them as best we can as they open up. We need to look at small businesses as well because there will be unknown unknowns, to use that expression. Some business owners will open up and find that their business has vanished. This morning someone used the phrase "zombie businesses". We need to look at that as well as businesses start opening up. That discussion is perhaps for another time.
It is good to see that vaccines are being rolled out and working. That is most important. We are all looking for a vaccine benefit and we will get more and more freedoms because of the vaccines. I will finish with that.
I thank the Minister for the work he and his team are doing. It has been very challenging on everyone but I hope we can move forward with a certain amount of confidence in the future, get our economy open again and get back to normal or as near as we can get to it.
I am up here in the Gods. Like many other Deputies, I have real concerns about the proposed amendments. As Deputy Stanton has told us, we are looking at four amendments. Two relate to health, one relates to emergency measures in the public interest and one relates to criminal justice enforcement powers. These amendments were put in place to deal with an emergency.
As the nature of the emergency has changed since we first put the measures in place, we have to take account of those changes when we are discussing these proposals. Until now, I have voted with the Government in supporting the legislation and rolling it over. I had concerns but I took the view that the approach was a measured response. Any legislation, but especially emergency legislation, that gives significant and unprecedented powers to law enforcement, medical officers and the Minister has to be closely examined. We would be failing in our duty as Deputies if we did not do that.
I believe this legislation got the balance right last year and in January last. However, circumstances have changed considerably since then. In other words, we got the balance right but the balance has shifted. The legislation before the House does not reflect that shift in balance.
As we know, the vaccine roll-out has been successful. Time and again, many in the House questioned the ability of the Minister, the Government and the HSE to deliver. I was not one of those because I genuinely believed that everyone was doing their best and that the Minister was competent to do so. The result is that approximately 50% of the population are now vaccinated. I know that means 50% are not vaccinated but those who are vaccinated were those most at risk of hospitalisation and death because of Covid-19. Despite the disappointing news this morning with regard to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, our roll-out is still proceeding. When the Minister brought this draft legislation to the House the target was that 80% of the population would receive a first dose by the end of June. The Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but approximately 55% of the population was to receive a second dose by that date. However, it is a totally different context from last January, when fewer than 10% of people had been vaccinated. Our response needs to reflect that change in context.
In fact, I agree with Deputy Bruton who said that we should actually be looking at unwinding these powers rather than simply rolling them over. My colleague, Deputy McNamara, will bring forward an amendment. When this legislation was enacted, we gave the Minister unprecedented power to bring in specific regulations to increase restrictions. We are now rolling over this legislation and again giving him this power. I believe the specific regulations should come before the Dáil. We have to be able to debate the specific regulations rather than just the legislation that enables the Minister to make them. We have an oversight role. People outside the Houses may not often see that role as being very important until it affects their lives but, when it does, they realise just how important it is. It is incumbent on us, as Deputies, to ensure that oversight and to ensure the Minister is held to account.
In that context, I also support the Sinn Féin amendment which proposes to bring the date forward to 9 July. It is close but gives the House control, which is crucial. I have no doubt but that, if the Minister was on the Opposition benches and another Minister was bringing in legislation of this sort to give him or her unprecedented power to make regulations, he would also have concerns. An end date of 9 November is not reasonable. It is far too far away. It is not proportionate and does not strike a proper balance between public health and civil liberties. As I have said, I can live with a constraint on civil liberties in the middle of a pandemic because such liberties must be balanced against public health. We are, however, emerging from the pandemic, albeit slowly. We are therefore in a different space and a different approach is required.
It is also important to note that this legislation amends social welfare Acts. If a person is diagnosed with Covid and is sick or has to self-isolate, that person must retain entitlements to illness benefit, jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance. These provisions need to be rolled over. This presents us in the Opposition with a horrible choice. We know these provisions must be rolled over but we have serious concerns about some of the other aspects of the legislation. It is no choice at all because people have to be protected but, to some extent, what we are doing is protecting people from themselves when there is no longer a need to do so. That is a serious issue. Those protections around jobseeker's payments and illness benefit need to be rolled over but the other provisions need to be nuanced.
The Minister can improve this legislation by accepting some of the proposed amendments. They would help to provide the necessary safeguards and allow us to emerge with a proportionate legislative framework for not only the current circumstances, but the circumstances likely to arise in the near future.
Have ten minutes or 20?
Okay. I have been flying but that does not matter. The other issue is the rolling sunset clauses. These are not acceptable. I have listened to a good bit of this debate but I did not catch it all. I believe I might have heard somewhere that the Minister is willing to amend the wording. I am not sure about that but I hope he is. In truth, however, it tells us a great deal about the mindset of those drafting the legislation and of those who approved the legislation that these provisions remained in the draft legislation. I will listen carefully to hear what the Minister has to say on that matter.
On a very much related note, may I ask that, in the announcements expected tomorrow, we get guidelines that are simple and clear? I have just argued for nuance in legislation because that is where it is appropriate. When it comes to guidelines, however, we need simplicity and clarity. For example, when I hear of the possibility of different guidelines for tables that are 1 m apart and for those that are 2 m apart, to be honest, I lose the will to live. I understand where the abundance of caution and the attempts to manage things come from but what happens when people push their chairs back a little bit? The 2 m is now 1.7 m. Are they breaking the law? Is the owner of the restaurant or hotel breaking the law? Is somebody going to take out a measuring tape and measure the distance? This type of guideline is unenforceable. We all know that. It brings the law into disrepute. People who have followed guidelines to the letter and who want to do so will start to ignore them. If we make the guidelines simple and clear, they are much easier for people to follow.
I am not making up the following story. It actually happened today. I was speaking to someone on the phone. It was just a general conversation, I was not speaking to a constituent. This person was talking about families not being able to dine together. I said that is to be allowed and that there is to be an allowance and a different number when children and adults are involved. This person watches the news and reads the newspapers but was still confused about this. To be honest, unless we have very simple guidelines that everyone can understand, many people will be in that situation. I am not telling the Minister, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, or anybody else what decisions to make. I am saying that these decisions should be made and that we should be then given one distance. We should be given a number rather than a series of numbers. We should then let people get on with it.
The possibility of time limits on dining has been raised. Let the owners of hotels and restaurants decide that. It is not something that should be decided centrally. I hope it will not be. In addition, if hotels can open their restaurants, then all restaurants should be allowed to open. As I said, if we are given rules that are simple and straightforward, it is much easier to comply.
I will make one or two final points. With regard to the green certificate, I hope the Minister will tell me I have heard wrongly as it was only on the grapevine, but I have heard that while member states will, of course, have flexibility in when and how to introduce the certificate, there is a possibility that they may pick and choose provisions. There are three conditions. If one has been vaccinated, has recovered from Covid or has a negative test, one should be able to access this green certificate. I have heard rumours that we may pick and choose and perhaps it will only be those who have been vaccinated who will have access to this certificate. That would be devastating for the aviation industry. It is only speculation and I hope what I have heard is incorrect. Yesterday, I spoke of the importance of the aviation industry, of Shannon Airport and of the transatlantic connection to the whole west coast.
I am from the north west - Sligo - but I recognise the value and the importance of that service. Our aviation industry is on its knees. I am calling on the Minister to ensure that the green certificate introduced here is in conformity, inasmuch as possible, with that of our European neighbours. I ask him please not to pick and choose as to one or the other.
By and large, this Government has done a reasonable job on Covid. It is a global pandemic. There are no rules. No rules could have be written beforehand. When its over, rules can still change because we cannot negotiate with a virus. It is easy to be wise after the fact. In my view, those who have to make the decisions beforehand have the really tough job and they have to stand or fall on those decisions. As I said previously, I think the Minister and the Government have done a reasonable job in extraordinary and completely unforeseen circumstances.
In regard to the legislation we are discussing now, the timeframe is too long. We should be looking to unwinding rather than rolling over measures. I hope that in our consideration of the Bill on Committee Stage the Minister will take on board some of the amendments that are proposed because I genuinely believe they will improve this legislation. That is what everyone in this House wants to see happen.
I thank Deputy Harkin and all other Deputies who contributed to the debate. It has been a worthwhile, thoughtful, reflective and important debate in regard to the exceptional times we are in and the legislation and public health measures and powers that have been put in place to respond to the pandemic. I do not have a closing speech. I propose instead to try to capture the various comments, questions and themes raised by colleagues across the House. I will run through them as best I can, but inevitably there will be some that I will miss so I apologise in advance for that.
I will start by reiterating that nobody wants this Bill. I do not want it. I do not want anybody to have to need these powers, even temporarily. They do not sit easily with me, nor should they. I do not believe they would sit easily with anybody.
On a point of order, this is the about the fifth time the Minister has said that he does not want the Bill. Why is he introducing it? He did not want it in opposition and he does not want it now yet he is introducing it. This is codswallop.
Nonetheless, the powers are necessary. Notwithstanding Deputy Mattie McGrath and a few others, most of us in this Chamber understand why we need public health measures, why they have been important in terms of saving lives and why they need a statutory basis to be brought in.
Deputy Harkin and others mentioned that what we should be doing in this legislation is unwinding the measures and the powers. That is exactly what we are doing. The Bill does not seek to make any changes in terms of having more comprehensive regulations or measures in place. All that it seeks to do is extend the ability of Government to bring in measures. That is it. There is a lot of focus on the officeholder of the Minister for Health and the powers that I have, as the current holder of that office. I want to assure colleagues that these are regulations which are introduced by Government. They are not regulations which I, or we in healthcare, are coming up with and signing into law. The process by which this happens is that Government meets and considers measures, just as it will do tomorrow. What is due to happen tomorrow is another example of this. This evening, following this session, there will be a meeting of the Covid committee. There has been a lot of analysis done. NPHET met yesterday. A lot of analysis and thinking has been happening over the last few days and weeks in the build-up to tomorrow's Cabinet meeting. There will be memo provided at Cabinet, which will propose to Cabinet that various measures are undertaken. I imagine, hope and expect that when we meet tomorrow, it will be about the further unwinding of measures and the further relaxation of measures. What happens then is that I and the Department of Health take on board those proposals and we create the regulations in consultation with the Attorney General's office and other Departments and Ministers as appropriate. The regulations are then published and brought into law. I want to assure colleagues, in regard to these measures, that while under statute they are powers that are introduced by the officeholder of the Ministry for Health, the process is about decisions Government is making. They are not other regulations being brought in without Government decisions.
I return to Deputy Harkin's point that we should be unwinding measures. That is what we are doing in this legislation. To unwind the measures in a safe, sustainable way so that they do not all disappear in one day, which is exactly what would happen, we need an extension of the Act, via this Bill, to be able to do that. As we move further through the summer, it is absolutely my expectation and, I think, the expectation of all of us, that the regulations will become fewer and that it might be the case that by November - I very much hope it is November - there will be no measures in place. A number of Deputies asked why November. I am aware that amendments have been tabled on Committee Stage that it should be July. Most people would accept that having the measures extended for just a few weeks is not where we are at in terms of this disease. This disease is still very serious. We are stuck at in or around 400 to 500 cases per day. That level has not reduced. While severe illness and fatalities have reduced, the number of cases is still quite high. We are very concerned about the Indian variant and the impact it has had in parts of the UK. Most people would accept that we really do need measures for a while longer. As to whether that should be until September, October or November, I do not believe there is a right answer. However, we have from day one been public health led. The public health view is that measures of some sort are likely to be needed through the autumn and early winter. As an example, in September it is the hope of all of us that schools, childcare and third level education will return in full on campus. That is what we all want to see happen. It could well be the case that the public health view at that time will be that, for example, on third level campuses, it may be safe and prudent and cautious to begin with the wearing of face masks in certain settings. I have no idea if that is what will be recommended, but it is entirely possible that we will have variants like the Indian variant and others. It is the view of public health that up until then, it is possible that public health measures will be required, however minimalist they, hopefully, may or will be. To have those measures, we need to have the ability to make these regulations.
Tomorrow, I will seek Government approval to make a very significant amendment to the Bill. I have read the submission from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL.
I have listened very intently to colleagues in this House and to the debate in the Seanad. I agree with the point that has been made in a wide number of places that we should not have the ability simply to roll on the sunset clauses again and again. Tomorrow, I will seek Government agreement to bring forward a series of amendments on Committee Stage to propose that only one sunset clause be allowed, for up to a maximum of three months but it does not have to be for three months, after which the Bill would fall. I hope colleagues will support this. Colleagues have tabled amendments on different versions of this with regard to timing, and I hope they will support my proposal.
I also hope colleagues accept that this is the legislative process at work. There has been comment that there has not been enough time for debate or oversight. We have spent many hours on Second Stage. The Bill has been through the Seanad. We will spend hours on Committee Stage. Through the legislative process the Bill is being amended in a substantive way. I hope colleagues recognise that this is oversight. This is the legislative process at work.
Some Deputies suggested that there has been very little oversight or transparency in respect of the regulations. On this, I respectfully disagree quite fundamentally. There has been, and continues to be, a vast amount of analysis done and it is available for discussion. The health committee and the sectoral committees can and do look at individual issues in their own sectors. They debate them. We have had debates in the House not every week but many weeks. Members can always table Private Members' Bills and motions. There is a facility for any regulation to be debated in the Oireachtas and annulled within a certain number of days of it being laid before the Houses. This mechanism has not been used by any Deputy in respect of the regulations put in place. I can certainly say as somebody who-----
On a point of order, I invite the Minister to correct that because a motion to annul a regulation was tabled in the House. It was voted down by the Minister and he corralled in behind him the sheep in the flock-----
Our group introduced a motion to declare null and void a statutory instrument. The Minister has said this before. He accuses us of misstatement. He said this before and he was corrected. He is in some kind of a cloud cuckoo land. It happened on the floor. We lost the vote but we did table it. The Taoiseach begged us not to table it but we did so.
No, the Minister cannot mislead the House. This is the second time he has done it in respect of this issue. He cannot have it both ways. He is in some kind of euphoric state whereby he does not know what he is doing. He does not want to introduce this but yet he is doing so. He is telling absolute porkies and lies. We had a motion here. The Dáil-----
-----I am more than happy to accept that with no problem whatsoever. However, I would point out that we all listened to the diatribe, quite frankly, from Deputy Mattie McGrath but we listened nonetheless. We did not keep jumping up like a jack-in-the-box and interrupting him. We do afford each other the space to make our points. Deputy Mattie McGrath might consider the same.
We have addressed the issue of Oireachtas oversight and transparency. We have addressed the issue of dates and why 9 November has been suggested and the substantive amendment for which I hope to get Government agreement tomorrow.
Other issues were raised on the details relating to the Mental Health Commission. I am very happy to ask the Department to provide colleagues with a report as to how it has worked. The briefing I have is that while the regulations have allowed for tribunals to be held by a single psychiatrist rather than by the normal three, this did not happen. When they were held remotely, the three-psychiatrist model was in use. It is my view, and it is view of the Mental Health Commission and the HSE, that we need to get back to in-person tribunals as quickly as possible. The HSE is in contact with the professional body and the professionals involved to bring this back as quickly as possible.
Questions were raised about the assessment of the regulations and what type of assessment is done before these regulations are brought in. I can share with colleagues there is a wide variety of assessments. There are public health assessments obviously, and social impact analysis and economic analysis is also done. This is considered by the Cabinet and, typically, by the Covid committee also. The measures are then introduced. Certainly the analysis and advice from NPHET is all available online. The minutes of the NPHET meetings are available. The analysis that NPHET considers, including the projections on epidemiology by Professor Nolan's group, is all available online, as are the letters from the Chief Medical Officer to me on his advice based on this analysis. A lot of analysis is available online. Somebody asked whether enforcement data could be published. My understanding is An Garda Síochána does publish the enforcement data as it pertains to the various offences.
Various other issues were raised. One was on the ability of groups such as the AA and other support groups for those in addiction to be able to meet up and for greater numbers to be accommodated. This is something I will certainly feed in.
There was very useful debate on human rights and the infringement on people's civil liberties that these regulations and measures cause. There is no question but that they do infringe and have infringed in serious ways and with very serious consequences, as we know. There has been huge hardship, isolation and loneliness. Many people are dealing with their mental health. Businesses have had to close. People have lost their livelihoods. People have not been able to travel. They have not been able to move far from where they live. People have not been able to mourn their friends and families in the way they normally would or attend weddings and celebrate the way they normally would. I assure colleagues that these things are taken very seriously and none of this is done lightly.
The other side of this is the right of people to be protected from the disease and the right of people to be able to live in a society in which appropriate measures are put in place to keep everybody safe and break the chains of transmission. It is a balance and I do not think there is any way of ever getting that balance perfectly right but we certainly try to do so. What colleagues will see is that as the risk of the disease to individuals has increased at certain times the measures have increased, and as the risk of the disease decreases, as it has now, the measures applied decrease correspondingly and, hopefully, proportionately although perhaps not always. Perhaps some measures should have been introduced earlier and some measures should have been got rid of earlier. The effort has always been to be proportionate and balance the measures against the risk to people's safety, lives, the healthcare system and, ultimately, to public health. I hope the meeting tomorrow will be very positive and that we will be able to relax further the measures insofar as possible.
I will make two final points. First, whatever we may think about the measures, they are working. Ireland has had one of the lowest excess mortality rates in the European Union during the pandemic. That is not to minimise what has happened or the pain and suffering caused by loss of life; I am just saying that compared with other countries of similar societal and economic make-ups, Ireland has a low excess mortality rate by those standards. We also achieved one of the earliest reopenings of primary and secondary schools, that is, in-person teaching, in Europe this year, which was one of the priorities. We saw an enormous fall in the number of cases from that very high peak in January. That worked very well. We know that in the past 12 days eight fatalities linked to Covid have been reported. Again, eight is eight too many but, relative to what we have been dealing with, that number is a sign that the most severe impacts of this awful pandemic are being dealt with, partly by the vaccine programme, obviously, but also partly because people have backed the measures. I know there are widely held views as to which measures were right and which measures were not right, but the reason they worked was that, broadly, I think people trusted the public health advice and complied with the measures to the best of their ability. The result of that is that an awful lot of lives have been saved and that we are now in a positive position for a sustainable exit from the pandemic.
Finally, I wish to take a moment to thank the Department of Health officials. I and many colleagues have quite rightly thanked the HSE, our healthcare workers and everybody who has been involved in our national response on numerous occasions. The Department of Health officials have tended not to get so much thanks but they have been working away in the background seven days a week and at all hours of the day. The Department has had its entire normal workload of the healthcare system increased by: the resumption of services; mandatory hotel quarantine; all the measures and the incredibly complex regulations that have to be done and redone; the entire vaccine programme; testing, tracing and genome sequencing; and all the other things we are aware of. The Department has done this with not a huge amount of additional resources. What has happened is that the same people have worked seven days a week, week after week. They start very early in the morning; I regularly talk to them at midnight. A vast amount of work goes into turning Government decisions into workable and reasonable regulations and public health measures. I will end by acknowledging the enormous work the Department of Health has done and continues to do through this pandemic.
I should say on behalf of the House that while Members may disagree on the approaches to be taken to particular measures, all of us recognise the enormous contribution those who have been involved in the battle against this pandemic have made, the enormous efforts they have put in and the immeasurable hours and everything else that has been involved. We acknowledge that and thank everyone who has been involved.