Dáil debates

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Extension of Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020: Motion


4:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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As agreed on the Order of Business today, the motion on the extension of Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, the motion on the extension of the Health (Amendment) Act 2020, and the motion on the extension of the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 will be debated together. However, the motions are only being debated together; they are not being moved together. Therefore, they are not being decided by one question. Accordingly, in accordance with the order of the Dáil today, when the Minister for Health opens the debate he will move the first motion, but will speak to all three motions, as will all other Deputies.

At the conclusion of the debate, the three motions and amendments thereto will all be decided separately.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann resolves that the amendments effected by Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 (No. 1 of 2020) shall continue in operation for the period beginning on the 10th day of November, 2021 and ending on the 9th day of February, 2022."

I am here to introduce a resolution to extend the sunset clause of three pieces of Covid-19 legislation: Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 (No. 1 of 2020), the Health (Amendment) Act 2020 (No. 19 of 2020), and the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 (No. 14 of 2020). Members will know that these Acts are due to expire on this day week. They provide for time-limited emergency powers to protect human life and public health. These are powers that this House has already passed in order to meet the significant challenges we have faced to date in dealing with Covid-19.

We had all hoped to be well along the road to transitioning away from mandatory requirements to an approach based on public health advice, personal judgment and personal protective behaviours. That, unfortunately, is not the case. This vicious and highly contagious disease has, once again, shown how quickly it can spread. Disease incidence is high and rising. The 14-day incidence is now 668 per 100,000 population, and the five-day average is 2,588 cases. It is rising across all age groups. We are also seeing increasing numbers of people in hospital and ICU, with currently around 515 in hospital, which is nearly 4% higher than this day last week, and 90 Covid patients in ICU, as of this morning.

We are also seeing increasing numbers in hospital. The number is now at 515, which is 4% higher than the same day last week. As of this morning, there are 90 Covid patients in ICU. We are in a place where we have to be concerned about the burden and impact that this level of disease is having, and could have, on our health and social care services in the coming weeks and months. We are already seeing the cancellation of procedures and operations across the country and we have to be concerned that things will deteriorate further.

In its most recent advice to me, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, advised that "the epidemiological situation in Ireland indicates a worsening disease profile with the future trajectory very uncertain". It is for this reason that the Government, on the advice of NPHET, decided to extend a range of public health protective measures on a mandatory basis. This means we need to extend the legislation I have mentioned.

As has always been the case throughout the pandemic, the Government continues to commit to use these exceptional powers in a proportionate way. These are emergency powers directly proportional to our emergency public health environment. Their use is confined to mitigating the impact of the disease on the public's health, and they are not for prolonging a moment longer than is necessary in our democratic system. They are legitimate and necessary powers that are beneficial to our society in a context where public health protection is paramount with this novel and unpredictable disease. The intention is only to use the provisions within these Acts for the measures that are currently in place, for example, the continued requirement for wearing face coverings in certain settings, the use of the Covid pass and other protective measures in the hospitality and events sectors.

As has always been the case with this disease, we cannot predict with certainty what the trajectory of the disease will be. It is responsible for us to ensure we maintain the legislative powers to enable us to continue to respond as necessary and as quickly as possible. The position of NPHET is that the public health management of the Covid-19 pandemic must continue to be agile and responsive and to evolve in the light of changing circumstances, risks and emerging evidence. This will remain the case over the coming months.

I will now provide a summary of the Acts before the House. The Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 allows the Minister for Health to make regulations giving effect to a range of public health measures for the purposes of protecting the public from Covid-19. The Health (Amendment) Act 2020 provides for fixed payment notices in respect of certain alleged offences under the aforementioned Act. The third Act, the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020, provides additional enforcement powers to An Garda Síochána to address breaches of the relevant Covid-19 regulations by businesses or services selling or supplying intoxicating liquor for consumption on the premises.

I remind the Members of the House of each of the sunset provisions in the three Acts that are pertinent to today's debate. The original extension of the sunset clauses in each of these three Acts to 9 November was provided for in the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) Amendment Act 2021. The House approved these extensions when it voted to pass the legislation. Members of the House will remember that I introduced an amendment to the Bill, which originally provided for more than one extension of up to three months for each Act. The amendment I introduced, which was accepted by the House, permitted only one extension of these Acts for a period of up to three months on the passing of a resolution providing for such extensions by both Houses of the Oireachtas. After this one extension has lapsed these Acts will no longer be in operation. The resolution before the House today is to provide for this final extension of the three Acts until 9 February.

We all understand and appreciate the impact on people of this disease and the emergency measures put in place to deal with its harmful effects. I have highlighted before that Ireland is not alone in this crisis. Indeed, all across Europe and much of the rest of the world, Covid-19 has adversely impacted on societies and economies to devastating effect. We are again seeing a changing situation across Europe with rising incidence in many countries. The measures we have decided to retain in Ireland are among those that other countries are now reaching for.

Ireland has endured a profound shock to its social and economic life as we dealt with, and deal with, the impacts of the disease at individual, community and societal level. It has had an impact on almost all aspects of our lives and, for many, their livelihoods. Our strategy to manage the adverse impacts of Covid has been guided by an evolving understanding of the disease and its emerging variants, the impacts of restrictions on health and well-being as well as other aspects of society and the economy.

The House will know that extraordinary measures have been introduced to protect public health and the most vulnerable in our society. These were difficult and challenging decisions in a crisis, with an evolving understanding of the disease, its impact, how best to manage it, what vaccines might offer and what variants might do to undermine our plans. Members of the House will know that by passing these instruments, we are prolonging on a temporary basis only the emergency health platform from which we can deal with and manage the disease. Any requirement to extend these provisions beyond 9 February will require new legislation.

These are not easy decisions for all of us in the House to make. They do not sit easily with us and they do not sit easily with the Government. It is the stated hope of the Government and, I have no doubt, of all Members of the House that we will not have to be in a position to use the provisions in these Acts any further than is currently the case. However, I must again reiterate the caveat that we simply cannot know what will face us over the coming months.

The reason we are able to keep so much open in light of such high case numbers is, of course, our vaccination programme, which continues to be a great success. It is the envy of much of the world as 93% of people eligible for a vaccination have come forward to protect themselves and to protect each other. We continue to see more and more people come forward, with more than 24,000 new registrations recently. Our booster programme for the most vulnerable is well under way. Those who are immunocompromised are receiving a third dose. Residents of long-term residential care aged 65 and over are receiving their booster, as are those aged 80 and over in the community. This week, we are beginning with booster doses for those aged between 60 and 79. Last night, I authorised booster vaccines for our healthcare workers. These will get under way either this weekend or early next week.

The continuance in operation of these emergency powers maintains the potential and flexibility to respond to an emerging Covid threat that could jeopardise public health and safety to unacceptable levels were it to go unchecked. The Government must act with caution to ensure the most vulnerable continue to be protected to the best of our ability. I commend the motion to the House.

4:15 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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This is not the first time we have been here, where we have come back to see an extension of the emergency powers. From the outset I will say that I will oppose the motion, as I have previous motions the Minister has brought forward. I say this, and I hope the Minister accepts it, not because I oppose continuing levels of public health measures. In fact, I support them. I support the wearing of face masks, testing requirements, travel restrictions, passenger locator forms and other measures deemed essential to combating the spread of Covid-19. I accept that some restrictions will need to be maintained and some public health measures will obviously have to remain in place so long as they are necessary.

It is also reasonable to say that circumstances have changed since the legislation was first introduced in the first wave of early 2020. We are in a different place now and the Minister acknowledges this. I am opposed in principle to continuing emergency powers almost two years into a pandemic. I remember the very first debate and subsequent debates where the Minister made it very clear these were powers he did not want. These are powers which are and were rightly seen as draconian that should be in place only for as long as they are necessary. The time has come when they are no longer necessary.

I would have preferred if the Minister had brought forward appropriate primary legislation today that would not needlessly and unaccountably devolve the powers of the Oireachtas to the Minister for Health. It is the Oireachtas that makes the law and not the Government or Departments. We have a constitutional duty to protect the separation of these institutions. I say this because time and again regulations have been crafted by the Minister for Health. Sometimes the regulations have been good. Sometimes they have been not so good. Very often, there have been many problems with those regulations. We saw the fiasco of the most recent regulations on the reopening of nightclubs. We had meeting after meeting. Every time we thought there was agreement there were more talks. We had a bizarre situation where for almost a week there were no regulations as the discussions were ongoing.

There was no debate in this House, no democratic accountability, no insight, no oversight and no discussion with the Opposition to any satisfactory degree, which is unacceptable. We need to stop doing that. If there are regulations that are substantial, they should come before this House for proper debate. I support the amendment which has been tabled by Deputy Shortall which calls for exactly that.

I proposed a Bill with my colleague, an Teachta Daly, on this very issue which was not opposed by the Government on First Stage. Essentially, we called for all of those regulations that are a product of the emergency powers that were given to the Minister to come before this House no later than two weeks after they were crafted to be properly discussed and debated. Of course, that has not happened. This will be the third extension of Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020. It is also the tenth time that the Government has introduced more emergency powers for the Minister for Health or has sought to extend existing emergency powers already in place. That is not counting the initial Acts which we all supported in early 2020. Every time we call for more oversight, more engagement and more scrutiny and every time that is ignored. We end up with all of the messing that sometimes goes on, with mixed messages, different things being said by different Ministers, various interpretations of guidelines versus regulations, and so on. It all comes back to a clumsy approach by the Government and a lack of any real engagement with the Opposition and, indeed, with the public. The Minister devalues this House when he continues with the route that he is on. He devalues the role of the Oireachtas in crafting legislation and in having a proper debate so that where there are deficiencies or where a lack of certainty exists, this House can play, as it does, a very important role in scrutiny, oversight and debate. We have been deprived of that because of these emergency powers which we agreed to give to the Government in the very early stages of the pandemic for justifiable reasons because we were in an emergency. Everybody accepted that when the emergency was over, those powers should be scrapped. Yet the Minister is coming here again in a completely different set of circumstances looking for this Act, and all of the other Acts, to be extended by a further three months. That is not acceptable and is not the way that these types of issues should be dealt with.

I will raise a number of issues with regard to the booster jab, which was mentioned by the Minister. First, I welcome the fact that the booster jab will be given to those on the front line in healthcare. I have been calling for this for some time and it is the right move. I know that NIAC made a recommendation and the Minister has authorised that use and this needs to happen very quickly.

We know how difficult this is for those on the front line in healthcare at the moment. Many of them have had Covid-19, and in some instances have had it multiple times. Many are out of work. These workers are on the front line and at the coalface of dealing with this virus. It was the right thing to do, as belated as it was.

I also raised privately with the Minister a number of weeks ago a difficulty which some blood cancer patients are having in getting their booster jabs. The problem is that they do not know who is going to roll it out. Many of them would have received their initial jabs, for example, from the Beacon Hospital. They contact the Beacon Hospital and are told to go to their GP. They go to their GP and are told to go back to the Beacon Hospital. They do not know what to do and are simply looking for clarity. Do they have to take any action themselves or is this something that they will be contacted on? That is a reasonable question that they want to have answered because they are simply looking for clarity.

We need to be planning now for the roll-out of the booster jab for the entire population at some point. NIAC will make a recommendation on when the appropriate time for that is. I understand that we also have to play our part to ensure that the rest of the world and developing countries have access to the vaccines. It is prudent that we start planning now for the roll-out of the booster jab for the entire population.

While we will deal more substantially with some of the wider health issues this evening in a Private Members’ motion I am tabling - I hope that the Minister will be here for that debate - I have to say that what is happening in our hospitals at the moment is absolutely shocking. When one talks to people on the front line, one finds that they are beyond exhaustion. I have never seen anything like it. When one looks at what is happening in hospitals in places around the country like Limerick, Sligo, Kerry and Galway, one sees that overcrowding is at record levels for this time of the year. The sheer volume of unscheduled care which is hitting those acute hospitals is forcing them again to have to cancel scheduled care and not just electives. We are seeing where some hospitals have to cancel time-sensitive care also. That has had to happen time and again during this pandemic. We all know the consequences of that, with a very significant amount of built-up missed care that has to be caught up with. That is, in part, why we are seeing many presentations now to emergency departments where people are presenting in greater numbers but they are also sicker when they present because many of them are people who, perhaps, did not get the level of care that they should have got because of all of the measures that had been put in place in hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is a very difficult time period. We have over 500 people a day, on average, on hospital trolleys. Those on the front line are wondering what is going to happen for the rest of November as we progress towards December and January. Many of them talk to me about moral injury where they cannot take a break or take annual leave because of the pressures they are being put under by hospital management to stay for as long as they can because of the sheer volume of work and the number of patients who need to be treated. That is simply not sustainable. I said to the Minister as far back as the summer, in June, that we needed to prepare for the winter and for what was coming at us because we could potentially have a change in the pattern of Covid-19, we could have the flu with us and we also could have, as I see it now, more people presenting with respiratory and other illnesses in to our emergency departments.

We have real problems with GP access and with out-of-hours GP access. Many people cannot get access to a GP in their surgery, which is also forcing more people into emergency departments who probably should not be there. A perfect storm has hit the health service. The victims are patients, who have been left on trolleys or are now having their care cancelled, and those on the front line who have had enough.

Something has to happen and a real plan has to be put in place. I do not have any faith in the waiting list plan of the Minister. I ask him to forget about it. What I have seen of the Minister’s waiting list plan is not going to work. Wait times are going to go up because electives and procedures are being cancelled. The Minister very much needs to take a fundamental look at doing something profound and urgent to address the real crisis we have in our hospitals.

4:25 pm

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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An tAire Sláinte is asking this House for the power to make up restrictions and regulations, as he sees fit, for another three months. This is the tenth time since the emergency powers were first agreed to deal with the immediate challenges posed by the onset of the pandemic that we are being expected to renew the blank cheque and to suspend normal parliamentary oversight. That is as the public sees it.

It is borne out by the chaotic scenes in respect of live events only last week and again the week before that. We are being asked to sign off on regulations that we have not seen. Last week, businesses and workers in the live events and nightlife industry were expected to comply with regulations that they had not seen or had any advance notice of. That is a joke. It makes a mockery of the whole notion of the rule of law. Ministers are placing themselves above democratic oversight. People are expected to abide by laws before they even have a chance to read them. The arrogance of Ministers demanding a blank cheque from the Dáil is matched by the sheer contempt with which they have treated the arts and culture sectors since the start of the pandemic.

For months, live events and nightlife were literally the only aspect of reopening for which Government had still to prepare a plan. The Departments of Health; Enterprise, Trade and Employment; the Environment, Climate and Communications; and Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media all knew this. We kept hearing about pilot test events and oversight groups which were supposedly planning for a planned reopening. How did we then find ourselves on the morning of 22 October, the long-announced date for the reopening, with no plan having been released for live events? Guidelines were issued only late in the afternoon of the reopening date and none of them were backed up by legally binding regulations. We know that the Attorney General has helpfully explained the distinction between advisory guidelines which do not carry any weight and legally binding regulations.

That was explained when the Tánaiste needed to be rescued from the fallout of the cronies' dinner he attended with others in the Merrion Hotel. Yet again, the Government was trying to blur the line between what is law and what is advisory, to cover its own failure to plan. Many club owners were unable to open on 22 October because the Government had left them completely in the dark as to what was required on that date. If that was not bad enough, the same happened last week, when regulations that were meant to come into effect on 29 October were published only that day. Again, many businesses simply could not reopen, which meant people were laid off and workers went without a night's pay almost two years after their dreams of reopening were crushed.

I sit on a cross-party committee on which colleagues from all parties focus on the music and entertainment sector. We have written today to the Ministers, Deputies Catherine Martin and Humphreys, and the Tánaiste, to demand action to help to mitigate the damage the Government has done. We state in that letter:

Events and gigs have been cancelled, numbers attending events have reduced dramatically and this is leading to great uncertainty about the viability of future work. The impracticality of new restrictions along with the mass confusion over to whom and to where restrictions apply is reducing employment opportunities and, in some cases, leading to zero opportunity.

The Government is not just limiting opportunities with confused guidelines; it is imposing cuts. Last week saw many musicians, artists and arts workers forced off the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and moved on to the jobseeker's allowance or, in some cases, given nothing. Why was no alternative support plan put in place to replace the PUP at least until the music and events sector can fully recover next spring or summer? We know the Departments of Social Protection and Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media were given a detailed proposal on Covid support for arts workers that would have seen those workers moved from PUP to a part-time job incentive scheme for the self-employed. Why was no action taken to deliver that proposal? Why has the Minister ignored repeated requests to provide a hardship fund to help artists who are struggling as a result of the public health emergency and the restrictions and regulations which the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is seeking to extend today?

4:35 pm

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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Even two years ago, the notion that the Dáil would be proposing to extend any types of restrictions on the way we live our lives would have been unthinkable. The prospect of a global pandemic that has thus far taken the lives of more than 5,000 Irish citizens and millions of lives across the globe was the stuff of science fiction, thrillers and horror movies. It is through the lens of that catastrophic and ongoing loss of life, the ongoing health impact for thousands who have had Covid-19 and the moral duty on us to do all we can to protect and save lives that we must view this extension. It is time for reflection but it is also time to remind the Government that it cannot rely on restrictions alone to combat the dangers of the virus.

There are things the Government still needs to do from a practical and policy point of view to allow some semblance of normality to return as we face into the challenge of the next few months in trying to live alongside this deadly virus. Where is the serial testing plan for nursing homes, as my colleague, Deputy Kelly, asked earlier? Why are we still waiting for the introduction of a statutory sick pay scheme? What is the status of a structured roll-out of antigen testing in schools and workplaces? First, however, we should reflect that yesterday, 1 November 2021, there were 2,855 new cases, compared with 546 cases on 1 November 2020. On 2 January 2021, there were 3,392 new cases. Where will we be in January 2022 and how can we prevent another January like this year's occurring? A total of 75% of the population is fully vaccinated but we are by no means out of the woods. We must approach this winter with precautionary measures and continue to manage regulation in an informed way.

The Labour Party agrees with this motion to extend the existing legislation because we are entering a very difficult winter. The sickness and loss of life we saw late last year and early this year cannot be allowed to happen again. With infection numbers on the rise, we must be vigilant and take responsible actions to help save lives. Given where the numbers currently are and the continued pressure on the health service, it is necessary, in our assessment, to maintain safeguarding measures in various public settings. We continue to support the extension of certain criminal justice measures and the mandatory wearing of masks. Action to protect workers and the public throughout the winter period must be maintained.

Will the enforcement agencies get serious about dealing with establishments that routinely flout the regulations on the checking of certificates? This is causing fear and anxiety and it needs to be tackled head-on from a public confidence point of view. I am glad that the calls by the Labour Party's health spokesperson, Deputy Duncan Smith, and others, including me, for front-line healthcare workers to be given booster vaccinations have been heeded. With the rising number of Covid hospitalisations, the longer we leave the booster campaign, the more challenging it will be as we will likely lose vaccinators to other employment, as has been the case in the past. The delivery of booster shots needs to start now. I welcome the Minister's announcement that the intention is to begin the programme next weekend or early next week. With 3,500 healthcare workers currently out sick, there can be no further delay. The level of hospitalisations relating to Covid has increased over recent weeks. The prudent and careful thing to do is to give healthcare workers the best possible protection as we face into an uncertain winter. This is a critical time for our hospitals and front-line workers, as all speakers will undoubtedly note. Health staff are exhausted and all the analysis shows that their mental well-being has been badly impacted by the pandemic. They must have the best possible protection as they face another uncertain winter of fighting this virus.

On a separate but related matter, the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the flu vaccine free of charge to everyone this year. The Covid vaccine roll-out means we have the infrastructure in place and the institutional knowledge and experience to deliver such a programme to all citizens. Doing so would have the potential to take pressure off emergency departments throughout the country this winter season. I cannot for the life of me understand why it did not happen. There is a real dread among healthcare staff and, indeed, among all of us about what lies ahead this winter. We need to ensure the HSE can deploy surge capacity at short notice if we experience a sudden spike in cases, and to prepare our acute hospitals for the weeks ahead. I will put to the Minister a question that was raised earlier today with the Tánaiste at Leaders' Questions by my party leader, Deputy Kelly. The HSE winter plan is normally published in September. When can we expect to see that plan and what will it contain?

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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We are far from being out of the woods yet. Yesterday, the Department of Health confirmed 2,855 new cases of Covid-19, which is very worrying, with 515 people in hospital, of whom 91 are in ICUs. On the previous occasion on which an extension of these powers was proposed, last May, there were 448 cases, 99 people in hospital and 44 in ICU. We are far from being in the clear. The increase in cases is hugely concerning and we must do all we can to protect people's lives.

As the use of antigen testing is increasing, I am concerned that those tests are not catching some cases. A constituent contacted me recently whose workplace was impacted when a staff member had a negative result on an antigen test but a positive result on a PCR test. Are concerns being raised with the Minister about the proposals to roll out antigen testing? I also want to ask about the provision of free antigen testing. Many people have contacted me to point out that the tests are expensive. Will the Minister respond to me in writing on that point?

I welcome the announcement last night of the extension of the provision of booster vaccines to healthcare workers. Those vaccines will be administered from this weekend. Will the Minister comment on the booster vaccine programme for the community? I have had a large number of calls about booster shots for the over-60s. There is confusion about the timeline and also in regard to communication. I know how hard the Minister and his Department are working but it seems to me there is a fall-down in terms of communication. Whether the information is given out through newspapers, other media or by doctors, it is important that people get it. I know how hard doctors are working but I reiterate that we are still falling down when it comes to communication.

It is important that we take the opportunity to applaud the vaccinators.

For nearly two years now it has been very hard for people, and it is important that we recognise the hard work that is being done. It is also important that 90% of the population aged 12 years and over is fully vaccinated, and to point out to the Irish people that the progress in that regard has been very welcome. Vaccination is going to be our protection. Our collective efforts have protected thousands of people. They have been sick but because they have had the vaccination they are on the mend, thank God.

However, as of 27 October, a total of 5,436 Covid-19 related deaths have been reported in Ireland. There were 67 deaths notified in the week up to 27 October. These are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Each life has to be mourned. Every family has been affected in some way, and it is hard. This means that through the coming winter, possibly in the face of high levels of infection, we will remain dependent on public understanding and buy-in to the basic public health measures to minimise opportunities for this virus to transmit. Again, communication is very important, and we must ensure we mind each other, wash our hands, maintain social distance and wear a mask. The increase is very concerning. I spoke to many elderly people recently and there are concerns about going back out into the community. That is something we must look at.

I have a question about ventilation, particularly in schools. Schools in Carlow have exhausted a lot of recommendations to increase the ventilation, but the CO2 monitors supplied to the schools by the Department are still recording inadequate levels of ventilation. What is the update on this? I raised it with the Taoiseach two weeks ago so I wonder if there is an update on it.

I also have a question about hospital visits, something that has affected me, and in particular for families who have somebody who is near the end of life. I understand we must be mindful of staff and patients in hospitals, but where somebody is coming to the end of his or her life there have to be compassionate grounds for visiting. That is not there, and I have gone through this myself. I ask the Minister to look at compassionate grounds for visiting, particularly for families who have a member in hospital who is near the end of life. The Minister will know, and I know, from dealing with people in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny that it is very hard if somebody cannot get in to visit a loved one in a hospital when it is known that the person does not have a long time to live. I ask him to examine this and revert to me on it.

I realise we must support people and that businesses and individuals are trying to support our recovery. We must look out for each other, help each other and protect ourselves. It is all about minding and protecting each other. Hopefully, by early next year we will see changes, because it is very hard. I find from working in the community and trying to get back to as much normality as possible that people need a roadmap. We just need to make sure that we look after each other. I support this motion.

4:45 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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We are back in this situation again. We probably all bore ourselves at this stage by saying that we accept that this pandemic is going to continue into the future and that we are still in an incredibly precarious situation. Many of us have probably enjoyed, for want of a better term, the reopening of certain events, but obviously we are looking at everything with trepidation as regards the numbers. The situation has continued and there are very bad circumstances in hospitals. Staff are out and staff are under severe pressure, having been through unreal pressure for a significant time.

The roll-out of boosters for front-line staff is necessary. We all recognise that. We probably hoped that it would have happened earlier. We must ensure that there are no hiccups in the roll-out because any mitigations that can be operated must be carried out, particularly in respect of those who are working at the coalface in medical care. I believe there has to be a wider roadmap and timeline regarding booster vaccines. There is no doubt that there has to be a flu vaccine campaign that is as strong as possible because we know that we are almost in a situation that is the worst of all worlds. Obviously there will be Covid-19, there are people who are presenting with respiratory disorders and there are people presenting with many other disorders and illnesses, some of which have been exacerbated by people not presenting during the pandemic and, therefore, we must ensure that all due diligence and everything possible is done from the point of view of ensuring safety in the hospitals.

We have said many times previously that there has been a failure to deal with the capacity that should be available in respect of ICU, high-dependency units, HDU, and all the other requirements, and that is going to lead to difficulties now. However, we must do everything possible from the point of view of reducing the pressure. At the same time, we all are fed up to some degree of coming back to the House to enact emergency legislation. We accept that there are certain mitigations, guidelines and rules for the ways we need to live our lives into the future, whether that involves masks and the precautions we can take either individually or as a group. We need to look at something closer to primary legislation rather than the continuity of emergency legislation. We need rules to be dealt with in the House, with back and forth regarding the rights and wrongs. We could deal with some of the anomalies that have occurred throughout the many levels and many reopenings. That is what must be done rather than this continuity of emergency legislation.

In the wider area of health, a number of Members were at the INMO protest outside the House earlier. A large number of students were at it, given that we are still dealing with the issue of pay for student nurses and midwives. They called for movement. There is a possibility of movement in respect of first years, but we need greater clarity with regard to the second and third years. The report on pay and allowances must be published as soon as possible. That is their request.

As we are dealing with the issues in the pandemic, it would be remiss of me not to raise the Dealgan House Nursing Home and the fact that it is more than a year since the Minister engaged with the families. He said they need a mechanism to provide the truth. They need an answer as soon as possible. My view is that a public inquiry is the only thing that will work in that case.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To insert the following after "9th day of February, 2022": "and any new regulations introduced under this legislation shall be brought before the Dáil for prior approval."

The Minister is today seeking yet a further extension in the special powers that were granted to him last year in dire emergency circumstances. It is true that when the initial legislation was agreed by the Dáil we knew very little about Covid-19. Our level of knowledge has increased greatly since then and we know there are many other things that have to be done to reduce the incidence of Covid, even though many of those things have not been taken on board by the Government. I will refer to those momentarily.

These emergency powers are very wide-ranging and gave the Minister carte blancheto introduce whatever regulations were deemed necessary. While people were prepared to do that in the very difficult emergency circumstances last year, the situation has changed somewhat. Every time we have discussed these draconian powers, I have always made the point that prior to the introduction of any regulations under this legislation, the Minister should bring those regulations to the Dáil. We should be able to scrutinise them and we should have a role in deciding whether they should get the go-ahead. Experience has borne out the wisdom of that kind of approach.

On occasion, the introduction of regulations can only be described as chaotic, for example, the enforcement regulations for the Garda. Gardaí were being told to go out and enforce these before the regulations were actually passed at a time there was no training for the enforcement of regulations. There was no publicity for them. There was no briefing on them for Members or anybody else. Very often the Minister and other Ministers were not au faitwith the provisions of those regulations.

The Minister was given a blank cheque, which I believe was wrong. The regulations should have been brought back before the House. What he has done, and is proposing to continue to do, has wide-ranging implications for people's fundamental freedoms. There is a need for much greater scrutiny and much greater consultation in respect of these. I ask him to consider the Social Democrats' amendments to each of the three motions. These amendments propose that no new regulations be introduced without prior Dáil approval. The Minister has had considerable co-operation from this side of the House and in that spirit of co-operation I ask him to consider supporting these amendments as reasonable safeguards.

We know little about what has happened in respect of enforcement. No data are available on the level of enforcement of specific regulations by gardaí. For example, we have no data on prosecutions, which is not a healthy situation from the point of view of accountability for the enforcement of law. We should be getting regular reports on the extent of enforcement of these draconian powers.

I have grave concern over the Government's response to what is happening with Covid. In its most recent letter, NPHET has indicated that since early October, case counts are following the pessimistic scenario. In its letter, it made projections that during November case numbers would be likely to be up at between 2,500 and 3,000. We were up at the top of that range in October and case numbers are continuing to rise. The numbers in hospitals and in ICU are concerning. Apart from that are the implications of downstream cancellation of essential surgeries. Cancer care, heart surgeries and other procedures are being sacrificed. Separate to the cost associated with people who have Covid and are in serious condition, enormous costs are being paid by other people who are being denied access to regular healthcare, which is a matter of real concern.

My concern is that numbers are going in the wrong direction and nothing the Minister is proposing to do will change the direction of those worrying figures. He hopes the figures will plateau at the end of November. I do not know what that is based on. Why will they plateau and what will happen if they do not? There seems to be a significant element of wishful thinking on the part of Government. The Minister is repeating the mistakes of the past by relying almost exclusively on vaccinations. While it is great to have vaccinations and boosters, they will not solve the problem on their own. The other measures need to be prioritised. The Government continues to ignore the critical issue of ventilation in schools. The same applies in hospitality and in the workplace. If the Government continues to do that, the figures will continue to rise, which is unacceptable. The Minister needs to stop the wishful thinking and start doing the things that we know work.

Finally, I quote Orla Hegarty who wrote, "The tools of prevention are well understood and available, many at no cost." Why are we not using those tools?

4:55 pm

Photo of James O'ConnorJames O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for being here today to discuss the potential for the extension of the emergency powers that were enacted to try to protect people from contracting Covid-19 and to deal with the ongoing crisis that faces the country and the rest of the world. It is important to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of healthcare and other workers who have been working on the front line of the Covid-19 crisis in different sectors. In particular, I mention An Garda Síochána, the HSE and hospitals.

We are in a precarious position, as has been stated by some responsible Deputies. I have listened carefully to the debate over the past hour. I am not sure I am entirely happy with what I have heard some Opposition Members say about the Government's measures. However, above all else, there is an acknowledgement by every Member that enforcing lockdowns is an horrifically blunt instrument that we do not want to see. We are all aware of how much damage it does to people's mental health and well-being, as well as to the economy. The economy has been one of the topics of lesser importance relating to Covid-19, which is welcome; it is all about people's health, which is only right.

I have continually supported the measures the Government has introduced on the basis that it was in the best interests considering the situation in which we found ourselves. I do not want us to be back in that situation again but that is outside the control of every politician here. I am far from an expert. Looking around the Dáil, very few people are qualified with specific knowledge in epidemiology and other areas of medicine. It is important for us to listen to expert advice, which can be contested and which is not always right.

As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, I have frequently raised the issue of NPHET's hesitancy on antigen testing, which was an enormous mistake. I have travelled a little in Europe recently while it has been safe to do so primarily for reasons of work. Other countries have a very open attitude to antigen testing. The benefit of hindsight is great but it was clearly spelled out by many different experts that antigen testing had a significant role to play in trying to limit the spread of Covid-19. It unacceptable that we have waited until now to roll out a proper State-backed antigen system. There are flaws with it.

Unfortunately, in my area at the moment we have significant and concerning outbreaks of Covid-19. It is also concerning that younger primary schoolchildren seem to be the source of many cases. I ask the Minister to take this point away even if he does not listen to anything else I have said. He needs to speed up the rate at which the HSE sends antigen tests to houses. I have heard of multiple cases locally where people have been waiting for an unacceptable period from the point of getting a phone call from the HSE regarding contact tracing to antigen tests being posted out.

I ask the Minister to fix that and put his shoulder to the wheel on the matter because it will save lives. It is very important.

It will be important over the next number of months to have an open and cross-party conversation with the Irish media about communicating the international position around Covid-19. Bad and all as it has been in Ireland, we must put it in perspective as well. It has been difficult for all age groups in society, and I speak as one of the younger Members in the Oireachtas. Internationally, Covid-19 cases are taking a concerning trajectory. The latest data from Israel seems to indicate a glimmer of hope around the effectiveness of the booster shot. I would like to see a better focus, whether it is once every two or three weeks, with a briefing given to people on what is going on in different countries.

Everybody is so busy with their own lives. I do not blame people who are working and raising families. They may be up the walls with their own lives. Nevertheless, it is important for public buy-in to what we are trying to achieve, which is to limit a major outbreak of Covid-19 in the country and preventing ourselves from going into another lockdown. It is about using the legislation we are debating, and it will be quite important over the next number of months. There is no question that it does damage and we must consider its importance. Only yesterday there were more than 2,800 cases, with approximately 500 people being treated in our hospitals. We have yet to see the full extent of the winter flu and other pressures that generally come on our health system in the winter months. It is an important point to be made.

I hope we will get through the next 12 months with Covid-19 behind us. I had thought it would be the case by now but, unfortunately, it has not been. Building resilience in our healthcare system will be important. One of the greatest impacts the Minister could make would be to consider issues affecting recruitment of healthcare professionals in our system to try to improve efficiency or how easy it would be for people to come to the Republic of Ireland to work in that system. That is whether people are Irish citizens who have trained or gained qualifications in universities or other institutes in the country that teach the skills required to work in healthcare or people who come to Ireland as foreign citizens. This is an arduous process and it is not helping the health system to get in the specialists we require in many different areas so we can bolster our healthcare service in Ireland. Facing the public ahead of the next general election, I would like to be in a position to say this Government made a profound effort to try to improve the efficiency of our existing healthcare service by improving the process of getting a job in the system if a person has appropriate skills.

It is important we reference the booster shot campaign and I welcome the moves made in providing booster shots to those deemed as vulnerable. I encourage the Minister to continue working in that regard so people of all age groups who would like to get the booster shot can have it made available to them once the epidemiological advice indicates it is in their best interests for that to happen.

I referred earlier to the question of younger children contracting Covid-19. In my municipal district there was one significant case, although I will not identify the location. Covid-19 outbreaks in primary and secondary schools are a concern. I had the opportunity to engage with people who have been working, and I acknowledge lobbying in some cases, to see the introduction of some type of air purification systems. I am not an expert on the point but the point is worth making. It is one of the few cases of lobbying I have experienced as a Deputy where individuals are seeking something that may be in the public interest and where the Government could act on it.

I would like the Department of Health and NPHET to give further consideration to air purification systems. I was in some European countries recently where such systems have been rolled out and backed by governments. We have CO2 systems in our schools but we know airborne transmission is one of the key concerns in the spreading of Covid-19 and it is responsible for the vast majority of cases. Consideration of such systems would be worth the effort, time and resources of the Department.

The next couple of months may leave us in quite a precarious position. I do not know if I fully agree with some of the measures taken. I am concerned by the growing rate of cases and the trajectory seems to be of significant concern. I am not being overly critical but I want to be observant. We must act carefully because we cannot end up in a position again that we saw at the start of this year. Let us face it - I was guilty of it as well - many politicians came in here preaching about the need to lift restrictions in the run-up to last Christmas under pressure put on us. Mistakes were made and we all saw the consequences afterwards. I regret that and it is important to say that. I ask the Minister to tread carefully so as not to put us again in a position, if the Government can do it at all, of another elongated lockdown. I hope the vaccines will prevent that from happening and there will be a strong uptake of booster shots to prevent the worst from happening.

Debate adjourned.