Tuesday, 13 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 18, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on Covid-19 was re-established by this Government last summer to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19 and oversee the cross-government response. The committee, which I chair, meets regularly as required. It last met on 28 June. The date of the next meeting has not yet been set.
A Covid-19 oversight group chaired by the Secretary to the Government meets regularly to provide advice to the Government in the strategic economic and social policy responses to the management of the disease and to consider National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, advices. Membership of the oversight group includes senior officials from my Department and the Departments of Health; Public Expenditure and Reform; Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Finance; Foreign Affairs; and Justice. It also includes the Chief Medical Officer, the chief executive officer of the HSE, the chair of the Irish epidemiological modelling advisory group, the director general of the Central Statistics Office and the chair of the vaccines task force, along with the chiefs of staff to the Taoiseach, Tånaiste and Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. Senior officials from other Departments attend as required.
The Government continues to follow its plan to review and monitor the control of the virus and follow the prevailing public health advice in support of a safe and gradual reopening, in line with Resilience and Recovery: The Path Ahead. As the House is aware, the Government's most recent announcement indicated that the next phase of reopening will be based on a cautious approach with an emphasis on lower risk activities, following advice from NPHET that the incidence of the Delta variant in Ireland poses a significant risk, particularly to those who are not yet fully vaccinated. It is a difficult decision for many sectors, particularly for many businesses which had hoped to open last week.
The vaccination programme continues to make significant progress however, with over 4.7 million doses of the vaccine now administered and almost 57% of the adult population now fully vaccinated. Since last Monday, those aged between 18 and 34 have been receiving Janssen vaccines through participating pharmacies. Registration of those aged between 30 and 34 for an mRNA vaccine began last Wednesday through the vaccination portal. Since 5 July, the numbers permitted at outdoor events increased as planned to a maximum of 200 attendees for the majority of stadiums and to 500 for stadiums and venues with capacity greater than 5,000, with appropriate protective measures. There is no limit on the numbers of people taking part in household visits once all are fully vaccinated, or have had a confirmed case of Covid-19 infection in the previous nine months. In line with current advice, unvaccinated households may have visitors from one other unvaccinated household. Fifty guests are permitted to attend wedding receptions with protective measures and the number of mourners permitted at funerals continues to be limited to 50, regardless of size of venue. People should continue to work from home unless it is necessary to attend in person. Indoor activities such as organised events, group training, exercise and dance will not yet proceed.
Following engagement with the hospitality industry representative bodies on the range of options to operationalise the NPHET advice of 28 June, and in the context of the overriding objectives to protect public health and to mitigate the potential for further restrictions arising from the Delta variant or other variants, the Government has agreed a phased approach to reopen the hospitality sector in a cautious but progressive manner, commencing with those who are fully protected by vaccination or prior infection.
I ask the Taoiseach to clarify the role of GPs in providing certification on either recovery or vaccination because multiple positions have been put into the public domain. We need clarity from the Taoiseach on that matter.
Sinn Féin will later bring before the Dáil a motion in support of families' calls for the Government to establish a public inquiry into the neglect and deaths of their loved ones in nursing homes during the pandemic. By May of last year, nearly 1,000 nursing home residents had died from Covid but when the third wave hit in January of this year, the hard lessons still had not been learned. Twenty-one residents in Ballynoe nursing home in Cork died from Covid in the first two months of this year. A HIQA report following an unannounced visit in January to Cahercalla nursing home in County Clare described management's response to an outbreak of Covid as "chaotic and disorganised". The home failed on every point of inspection in that report. Last year, I met with families of those who died from Covid in Dealgan House Nursing Home. They have raised their concerns with politicians and all of the statutory bodies over the past year.
Nursing home staff are to be commended on the care they have provided throughout this pandemic but it is clear that the sector requires urgent reform. The current system of oversight is simply not working and this has cost lives. Sinn Féin's motion reflects the serious shortfalls in care, governance, safeguarding and investment that have been starkly exposed over the past 16 months. It also sets out the remedies and solutions needed to provide residents with the care and protection they need and to which they are entitled. I call on the Taoiseach and his Government colleagues to support the motion, establish a public inquiry and put in place the regulatory and safeguarding protections so urgently needed.
The caretaker Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mr. Mark Rutte, said yesterday, "We had poor judgment, which we regret and for which we apologise." In a society with a higher vaccination rate than ours, he rushed a reopening and the cases multiplied by 20 times within a fortnight.
The legislation is being rushed through the Dáil and Seanad, and rushed down to Áras an Úachtaráin. Concerns related to civil liberties and workers rights are not being heeded. The voices being listened to are those of the publicans and restaurateurs. Although it often has been far from the reality, the battle against the virus has, at least in words, been waged by the Government under the banner of social solidarity. That is now being thrown to the wind. People are now to be discriminated against on the grounds of their health status. People who are in early pregnancy will be locked out, as will people who have health conditions that mean they cannot take the vaccine and young people who are unable to access a vaccine through a pharmacy. How can the Taoiseach not see and admit that his two-tier indoor hospitality proposals are divisive?
It is important to acknowledge that the vaccination programme has been successful and is taking on massive momentum. However, we should also look at the impact of the pandemic on young people, about which I spoke to the Taoiseach last week. We must also look at long Covid. I ask the Taoiseach, if he gets time in the coming weeks, to watch last night's episode of "Panorama". Long Covid is having an effect on previously healthy people. The Cabinet sub-committee should put some work into the impact of the pandemic on young people and how we can get them through it.
I also have concerns about the legislation for the Covid certificate, although I welcome it. I know the Taoiseach is listening to advice from NPHET and health professionals. However, my office has heard the concerns of people in their 40s and 50s who have not received vaccines and are waiting for appointments. That is a big concern. Some people with medical issues cannot get a vaccine and I understand they will not be able to get a letter from a doctor or the HSE. There is big confusion here. I acknowledge that the Government has been working hard on this issue.
As Deputy Calleary said, young people have been especially affected by the pandemic. Young people who may not be vaccinated will be working in the hospitality sector. There is an old saying that the devil is in the detail. The detail of this reopening of hospitality must be communicated properly. A man rang me today. He is not vaccinated so will not be able to enjoy indoor dining. He asked whether, if he goes for an outdoor meal, it means he will not be allowed to use the toilet inside and if there will be a toilet outside. These are the questions that need to be asked. We must communicate. I know how hard the Taoiseach and the Cabinet have worked on this, and I welcome that, but I firmly believe communication is the key to make sure we deliver.
I am very strongly of the view that the vaccination programme is the key to getting us out of this grim pandemic and reopening society. In that context, I believe the legislation the Government is pushing through is damaging and divisive. It is a gift to those who are anti-vaccination. Even civil liberties groups, such as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, have warned that it raises profound questions about discrimination and the ethics of demanding medical or health information from people.
The council wrote to the Taoiseach to the effect that it smacked of mandatory vaccination insofar as the Government is denying entry to people who, for example, have health issues and cannot be vaccinated, have not been vaccinated yet or have not been entirely convinced of the efficacy of vaccines. It is very important to say that the World Health Organization has consistently opposed anything that smacks of mandatory vaccination as threatening to undermine the vaccination programme. I believe it to be very divisive. It causes problems that could undermine the public health effort and, of course, it threatens the health of young workers who will have to work in hospitality when they are unvaccinated.
The Taoiseach is making a serious and reckless mistake again. The Government is risking the health of hospitality workers who are mostly unvaccinated. It is risking hundreds of unnecessary deaths, tens of thousands of potential cases of long Covid and a fourth wave and another lockdown, which people would find utterly demoralising.
I have two specific questions to ask the Taoiseach. Has NPHET agreed to the Government's alteration of its recommendation by saying that children aged under 18 of parents who have been vaccinated are now allowed to go into indoor hospitality? Obviously, they are not part of a family bubble once they are inside a pub or restaurant, eating or drinking and not wearing a mask. How does that make any sense? Has NPHET agreed to it?
How is there still no legislation, 500 days after the first case of Covid-19 in Ireland, with regard to ventilation? There is more talk about it and more reference to guidelines. That is great but if the Government does not actually bring in legislation, it is not worth a whole lot.
Generally, in response to this issue, there are choices facing Government and the Oireachtas. We can decide not open indoor hospitality at all. That is a decision we can take. Is that what people want us to do? If so, they should please articulate that. I think Deputy Murphy is of the view that we should not. He has been straight about it. I do not know what Deputy Boyd Barrett's view on it is.
I do not know what delay means. Do we delay until vaccination? That is fine. NPHET is of the view that if we restrict it with a verifiable and enforceable approach to the vaccinated and those who have recovered from Covid-19, that is a safe way of doing it and that is what the legislation reflects. We are, therefore, doing this in context of public health advice.
Public health advice did not reference children. I take that point. The children will be part of a family bubble, however. They will be part of the family bubble in terms of dining out. They cannot be drinking in a pub for obvious reasons given their age but they will be in a family bubble. That is in line with public health advice in terms of the issue of the vaccinated and recovery from Covid-19. That all has been preceded in the first phase of this reopening of indoor dining and hospitality. There is no desire to be divisive at all but there is a desire to protect. That is the only issue here in terms of not allowing the unvaccinated indoors. It is not about mandatory vaccination. It is nothing to do with that. We have managed outdoor hospitality well since we have reopened it and it has gone well, insofar as it can. The next phase will be more challenging and difficult.
I do not underestimate the Delta variant. It is very serious. We are not in a similar place to we were prior to Christmas, however. We have achieved substantial vaccination already both in terms of first doses and people who are fully vaccinated. This is about balance and there are risks involved. It will require vigilance and adherence on the part of everyone. It will require personal responsibility to adhere to the law and to the basic principle that I can go indoors if I am vaccinated or if I have recovered from Covid-19. That is very important to facilitate this latest phase of the reopening of our economy and society. It is about balance. It is also about protecting workers. The Chief Medical Officer has been very clear that workers will obviously have protections but they will also be serving a vaccinated cohort, which significantly, gives added protection.
Long Covid is an issue I take very seriously. We need to follow through and do some more research in terms of the numbers of people who could get long Covid and the long-term implications of the disease.