Tuesday, 6 July 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I tabled this matter not to scaremonger or bring about a spiral of fear but to raise a very practical question. My concern does not pertain to those who are vaccinated, it relates to those who are unvaccinated coming from the UK by air or sea. Immunologists and scientists are extremely concerned about the situation. The UK is going to return to the herd immunity strategy it launched at the beginning of the pandemic.
On 15 June, we changed our travel restrictions for travellers from the UK when the Delta variant began to take off there. We increased the number of days required in home quarantine up to ten days and following a second PCR test. There has been a quantitative change in the context of the 19 July or "Freedom Day", as Boris Johnson calls it. To date, 86% of people in the UK have received their first jab and 64% have received their second. The timeline is that all adults will not be fully vaccinated until mid-September. The north east of England is seeing a massive surge in cases. South Tyneside has recorded an increase of 195% in the past seven days and the jump in cases in the same period in Sunderland was 131%. The Delta variant now accounts for all new cases of Covid-19 in the UK. The authorities in the UK expect to have 50,000 cases per day by 19 July and there could be as many as 100,000 cases per day later in the summer when the children are going back to school.
Euro 2020 is taking place, including a semi-final at Wembley tonight, with thousands of supporters out on the streets. In Scotland, there was a huge surge in cases after the national team's matches. Nicola Sturgeon has stated that the Delta variant will just rip through the population. We are also opening for non-essential travel from Europe on 19 July. The vaccines have protected people, but the chain has been broken to a certain degree. We do not know how much it has been broken. There are fewer people in hospital, fewer people in ICU and fewer deaths, but my concern is that with the Delta variant running rampant, the UK could become a variant Petri dish or factory. Mutations could develop in light of how the Delta variant is running through the population in the UK. We must protect our vaccination programme from the point of view our population. We must learn from the experience at Christmas, when the Alpha variant came in as a result of people travelling here from the UK who did not quarantine as they were asked.
Some 50% of our adults have been fully vaccinated but only 69% of people have had a first dose. We are moving quickly and we hope to have most of the population vaccinated by August. It would be a great success if we did that. We still have to rely on the public health advice. We need more public health consultants and teams. We must continue with our track-and-trace process and ensure that people social distance, wash their hands, wear masks and self-isolate. There must be serious discussion with NPHET and the HSE on whether mandatory hotel quarantine is put in place for those travelling to Ireland in order to keep more infection and possible mutations of the Delta variant out until our vaccination programme is fully implemented. I am not trying to increase the fear factor, but we have come so far and the population has done so well and we should remember that asking people to quarantine for ten days in their own homes did not happen at Christmas. We have learned from the experience and we should consider mandatory hotel quarantine now.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. The script I am going to read is the one he has provided.
Government advice to avoid non-essential travel, including from Great Britain, will remain in place until 18 July. The common travel area allows Irish and British citizens to move freely between Ireland and the UK. Throughout the course of the pandemic, however, the Government has targeted public health interventions for travel. Evidence on the epidemiological situation is given close consideration due to the high volume of travel between Ireland and the UK. Currently, passengers travelling from the UK are required to complete a Covid-19 passenger locator form. Those arriving from Great Britain must also have evidence of a negative pre-departure PCR test, taken no more than 72 hours before arrival, and are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Legally, passengers can exit quarantine with a negative PCR test taken five days after arrival. At present, however, additional advisory measures apply following travel from Great Britain. Passengers are advised to continue to quarantine until a test can be taken after the tenth day and the result is negative.
The Department has put in place enhanced communications with relevant travellers to promote awareness of these measures, including on-board announcements on all relevant flights and ferries, radio advertisements and additional calls and texts issued through the passenger locator form to provide public health advice. From 19 July, Ireland's approach to international travel will broadly align with the EU, including on the operation of digital Covid certificates. Discussions are ongoing between the European Commission and certain third countries, including the UK, to facilitate the mutual recognition of digital Covid certificates.
Those who have been in a designated state within 14 days prior to their arrival into the State must quarantine in a designated facility. From 19 July, the list of designated states will broadly align with the countries to which the EU has applied an "emergency brake". There are also certain other circumstances where arrivals from non-designated states must quarantine in a designated facility, for example, those who arrive without evidence of a negative pre-arrival PCR test. There are some exemptions from the obligation to undergo mandatory hotel quarantine, including for example essential workers or those who have received the full course of a Covid-19 vaccine which has been approved for use by the European Medicines Agency. The mandatory hotel quarantine policy will continue to be kept under ongoing review, informed by the trajectory of the pandemic, the progress of our vaccination programme and the management of risks to public health. Ireland and the UK remain in close contact at political and official level on our respective approaches to managing travel in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, including in the context of our systems for mandatory hotel quarantine.
I know the Minister of State is standing in for the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, but I do not think there is a sense of urgency in this reply, to be honest. Our population has gone through 18 months of severe restrictions and we are still maintaining those restrictions because we are obviously concerned about our families and the people around us who we love. Even the WHO’s Mike Ryan said today there is a huge danger from our neighbours, the UK, unless we start talking about this now and unless we start looking at what we have to do. I am not talking about mandatory hotel quarantine for the next ten months but until our vaccination programme is robust enough to be able to protect our population. We should at least give that break to our population and that security that at least we are making an attempt.
On the question in regard to the North and people flying through Belfast, we should be talking to our counterparts in the North and if not having checks on the Border, then, perhaps, a kilometre or two beyond the Border, checking people flying in and coming down from Belfast. We have to give ourselves all the chances we can to stop this disease coming in again, on top of the Delta presence that we know is going to increase quickly. We are trying to deal with that but we have more infection coming in from the UK and also possible variants. That is the crucial thing that could break the chain of the vaccination programme unless we take this seriously.
I urge the Minister of State to go back to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, the HSE and NPHET to ask them to seriously discuss this, so we have something in place for 19 July and are not responding by bringing in something in two weeks time, when it is too late. It is very important that we protect our population.
I thank the Deputy. I will take back to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, exactly what she has relayed here on the floor of the Dáil. The Minister and his team are being proactive. It was only last Friday that they took the twin-track approach to the vaccination for those aged 18 to 34 when we are still coming down through the cohorts. That is in order to keep pace with the Delta variant and to try to get as much of the population vaccinated as quickly as possible. It was very good to hear that we will have 50% of the population fully vaccinated today. I know that does not allay any of the Deputy’s fears, as outlined in her questions, but I will take on board exactly what she has said and bring it back to the Minister who, hopefully, will be able to answer her in the coming days.