Wednesday, 20 October 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 had been assessing the social and economic impacts of Covid-19 and overseeing the cross-Government response. The committee met most recently on Monday, 30 August. The committee will meet again next week. On 31 August, the Government published the statement, Covid-19: Reframing the Challenge, Continuing our Recovery and Reconnecting. Since 1 September, we have continued our careful and gradual approach to reopening, while supporting maximum reach of the vaccine programme and allowing time to achieve the full benefits for all those currently being vaccinated. The plan included a proposed transition in our approach to public health management of the disease from 22 October, subject to vaccination levels and the incidents and behaviour of the disease at the time. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, met on Monday evening and provided advice to Government. Given the urgency of the matter and the time available, this advice was considered by the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination on Monday evening, in advance of discussion and decisions being taken by the full Cabinet yesterday morning.
At that meeting, continuing with a cautious approach, the Government agreed that the remaining aspects of the hospitality, entertainment and night-time economy sectors can re-open, with the full range of protective measures in place and the wide and robust implementation of the Covid-19 pass, in light of the high level of disease in the community at this point in time and the uncertain trajectory of the disease. Protective measures include requirement for Covid-19 pass, vaccine or recovery certificate for indoor hospitality and events, social distancing and the wearing of face masks as appropriate. Masks can be removed obviously for alcohol consumption or food consumption. There is table service only in hospitality settings, with a maximum of ten adults per table and a maximum of 15 including children, as well as collection of contact tracing data. Event-specific sectoral guidance will issue for indoor live music and drama, live entertainment and sporting events. Specific sectoral guidance on night clubs will issue, setting out appropriate protective measures. This will include Covid-19 passes, contact tracing data collection, amongst other measures. Covid-19 passes and fixed capacity limits will not apply for outdoor events. However, sectors should ensure appropriate protective measures are in place.
Organisers of indoor and outdoor group activities should ensure that appropriate protective measures are in place and, where indoor groups have a mix of vaccinated and non-vaccinated people indoors, pods of six should apply. Fixed capacity limits will not apply to those indoor and outdoor group activities. Religious services and weddings can proceed without capacity limits but with all other protective measures remaining in place. Return to workplaces will continue on a phased and cautious basis for specific business requirements. Sector-specific guidance and protocols including with regard to work, hospitality, culture and sporting events will be reviewed and strengthened where appropriate. Compliance activities will be reinforced by relevant bodies and through wider public and stakeholder communications. The meeting with the regulators' forum will be convened to discuss further with relevant Departments and agencies.
I am surprised the committee has not been meeting more often considering where we are at. That said, is it working with the Cabinet health committee in relation to the issues with Covid-19 care and their impact on non-Covid-19 care, particularly in the days and weeks ahead? Second, has any decision been taken on the recognition for front-line workers and healthcare workers, in terms of a payment or the proposed bank holiday?
The Taoiseach might inform us as to when those sector-specific guidelines will be agreed and when the concerns and the confusion of those engaged in the night-time economy will be addressed, in order that their minds can be put to rest. I want to also raise with the Taoiseach the Owenacurra Centre in Midleton, County Cork, which closed its short-term respite and mental health day care services throughout the pandemic. In June, families of long-term patients learned that the HSE intends to permanently close the facility under the guise of inspection reports undertaken by the Mental Health Commission. To be clear, the commission has not called for the closure of Owenacurra. Rather, it has reported urgent action and that investment is needed to make the centre safe. This is not some antiquated 19th-century building. It was built in the 1960s. It requires modernisation after years of under-investment. My time is limited, but I ask the Taoiseach to act on that.
We do not offer antigen testing, which is unfair to those who cannot get a vaccine. The simple application of an antigen test would solve this. Is this being considered at all? Antigen testing is being considered for close contacts. How will this work? Will people have to apply? Who do they apply to? Why can we not give antigen tests freely, maybe to test centres, in order that people who need them can acquire them? Another area of confusion concerns the booster programme. While I welcome the programme, I have had many queries about it. Some GPs locally tell me they cannot administer it. There do not seem to be guidelines on what to do or where to go to access it.
My last question is on ventilation. What are schools meant to do when they have exhausted all recommendations and the CO2 monitors the Department supplied to them are still recording inadequate levels? Some schools in Carlow contacted me on this. It is worrying because the figures have risen so much again. Ventilation seems to be one of the biggest issues going forward. I ask that the Taoiseach address this and come back to me. We need to support people, businesses and individuals who are trying to recover. As we have asked a lot of the Irish people, we need to help them to protect themselves.
Our ability to reopen society to cope with Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 healthcare is critically dependent on our intensive care unit capacity which, before Covid-19 and still, remains chronically under-resourced, understaffed, and about half of the capacity of the EU average per 100,000 population. I had an eye-opener in respect of the failure of the Government to address this problem when an ICU nurse came into my clinic this week. She has been offered a job in a Dublin hospital as an ICU nurse, but she is on a Stamp 1 visa and needs a Stamp 4 visa. She went to get an appointment at the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, to get her Stamp 4 visa. She was told that she could not get an appointment until December, in which case she will lose the job and we will be down one ICU nurse. That is, in effect, one ICU bed. That backlog is unacceptable. It shows a lack of focus in ensuring that we get ICU nurses where they are available. I ask the Taoiseach to look into the case, about which I have written to the Ministers for Health and for Justice.
The Government policy of hear no evil, see no evil in the schools is now unfortunately coming to fruition. I want pay tribute to Ms Vicky Barron, the principal of CBS Primary School in Wexford town. The school made the decision to close because more than 10% of their pupils had Covid-19. She appropriately made the point on the radio that the HSE says this is not a school outbreak. What is it, then? It did not come out of the walls. Incredibly, the school has now been pressurised by the Department to reopen. The school has sent letters to parents to say it has been instructed to return to face-to-face learning with immediate effect.
The consequence of that is to place pupils, families and staff in danger. The Government has been incredibly reckless on the question of schools. There is not one high-efficiency particulate absorbing, HEPA, filter in the entire country which has been provided by the Department. There is not a carbon dioxide monitor in every classroom. There was the terrible decision to stop contact tracing. Will the Taoiseach now heed the calls from the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, and others to restart and expand contact tracing and to invest in ventilation and air filtration?
Deputy Calleary raised a number of issues. The programme for reopening continued without a hitch right up until this weekend. That is why there was no necessity for meetings. I had conversations with the Chief Medical Officer to keep track of progression. We are progressing well. Society has reopened effectively. The economy has bounced back with thousands more jobs and the number receiving the pandemic unemployment payment reduced to under 100,000. The situation was okay. The public health people were happy with schools. Last Wednesday, the senior officials group was alerted by public health officials about the deteriorating situation. They wanted some more days to see how the data would unfold in terms of a pattern. They decided to meet on Monday. We were apprised of that on Monday evening and took a decision on Tuesday morning, which has led to a different timeline for the sectors involved. The Cabinet Covid committee will meet again next week.
On the recognition of front-line workers, there is a consultation with social partners, including employers, employee unions, and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to try to identify the best means and approach to recognise front-line healthcare workers for their work during Covid. The Covid committee is independent of and separate from the healthcare committee, which deals with wider issues regarding capacity and so on.
Deputy McDonald asked about sector-specific guidance. Throughout the pandemic, different Departments have worked with sectors and agencies to provide sector-specific guidance. We will do that with the various areas that are being reopened as a result of NPHET's advice and the Government decision yesterday. The Minister and the HSE are dealing with the Owenacurra Centre in Cork. It is not really a matter for the Covid committee.
In response to Deputy Murnane O'Connor, PCR testing is available for those who cannot get a vaccine and so is antigen testing. The booster vaccination has already been made available for those aged over 80 and is being administered. We have not come across any issues with that with immunosuppressed residents in nursing homes. It will be extended to the over-60s. The HSE will put that into operation. It seems that GPs will be involved with over-70s and vaccination centres could be used for over-60s. Those are preliminary statements and it remains to be put into operation by the HSE, which will make decisions and announce them shortly.
I talked with the Minister for Education about the issues raised with regard to CO2 monitoring because ventilation is important and CO2 monitors create awareness if there is an issue in a classroom. We will get a report about that.
In response to Deputy Boyd Barrett, I am not responsible for the issuing of visas for individual applications but I have made it clear that we want as rapid an acceleration of the recruitment of healthcare professionals as we can possibly have in the current situation. Substantial resources have been made available. Some 6,000 additional healthcare workers were recruited last year, with 8,000 to be recruited in 2022. The systems need to make sure that they work in an accelerated way.
In response to Deputy Paul Murphy's question, I strongly reject his assertions that the Government has been, in his words, "incredibly reckless" with regard to schools. The Deputy wanted zero Covid and who swore by public health advice. The Minister for Education has consistently followed public health advice in respect of schools, yet the Deputy just ignored it in his contribution.
The Deputy refers to the HSE and Government. Public health advice has informed the contact tracing decision and it will inform how each outbreak is dealt with. When the Deputy asks what it is, if not a school outbreak, outbreaks happen in communities too. If public health advice is being given to principals, I cannot second-guess it and the Deputy should not second-guess it, because he is not an expert in public health and he should not pretend to be. It is unwarranted to comment that we hear no evil and we see no evil.
-----to be in school with friends and learning and that we can provide for all aspects of a child's development, including emotional and intellectual. That is best provided in school. We are taking every step that we can, subject to public health advice, to make sure that that happens. We take that seriously. The public health authorities have engaged with the unions at different times of the pandemic over issues that union representatives have raised in respect of the pandemic and its impact on schools, teachers, special needs assistants and all staff who work in our schools. That will remain the case. The Minister for Education has been adamant that she will abide by public health advice in respect of the pandemic and the protection of children, teachers and all the staff in education.
I said that the Minister has also got advice on ventilation. The recommendation to the Minister was to provide CO2monitors in schools across the country. Those CO2monitors have been provided by the Minister.