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 (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I commend front-line workers who kept the country on its feet throughout the pandemic. Sinn Féin supports the waiving of Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland, NMBI, registration fees this year, as we did last year, as a way of showing gratitude for the Trojan work of nurses and midwives during the pandemic. Healthcare workers deserve more than a clap on the back and they certainly deserve more than a once-off bank holiday, as currently reported. Our native Kildare saint, St. Brigid, or the goddess Brigid, as some see her, certainly deserves more than a once-off bank holiday.
I have written to the Minister to ask that the NMBI registration fee be waived this year for the tens of thousands of nurses and midwives who have sacrificed so much in the past two years. It would be a small but important gesture to demonstrate that the political system stands with them and the Government understands the needs of healthcare workers. Sinn Féin will continue to advocate in the interests of these workers.
The substantive motion relates to the extension of measures arising from the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020, the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 and the Health (Amendment) Act 2020. We cannot just roll over these measures without a plan or direction to help our healthcare system to cope better with the immense pressure it is under. It is far too risky an approach and the Government has taken enough risks with people's lives. We have a Government that is kite-flying and the Minister knows it is a recipe for disaster.
Winter is coming and we have been promised a fantastic plan imminently to deal with waiting lists. I hope it will be more successful than the plan put forward by a former Taoiseach, Mr. Enda Kenny, 14 years ago when he promised to end the scandal of long waiting lists and patients on trolleys. We all know how that went. I have reason to be pessimistic, as all we have to do is look at the mess Sláintecare is in.
A constituent of mine was due to have an operation a few weeks ago but it was cancelled at the last minute. The man has been on a waiting list for seven years. The reason for cancellation was that the consultant would not be there on the day but I suspect the consultant got a better offer at a private hospital. The operation was rescheduled for this week and the constituent had to call at 6 a.m. to see if a bed was available but the hospital did not know at the time and he was told to call back at 8 a.m. On calling back at 8 a.m. he was told somebody would call him back and he received a call at 9.40 a.m. to say there was no bed. This was after two weeks of reducing medication and living with the resultant pain and inflammation. What kind of way is that to treat people? The Minister should be absolutely ashamed of himself.
Will he consider our older people as much of the language used around nursing homes is wrong?
When families are spoken to, words such as "dangerous", "damaging", "harmful", "allowed", "permitted", "limited", "booking system" and "restricted" are used. This language reflects the attitudes and culture in our nursing homes. Both need to change drastically to reflect the person-centred care that is referred to in the glossy brochures. We must remember these are homes. They are not prisons or warehouses where our old people go to die. They live in them, and life is for living. We must look after them. The mental health of our older people must be considered. It is equally as important as physical health. Families are willing to take precautions but we must meet them halfway.
The virus is in a new phase. Personal responsibility plays a major part. The new reality is we will live with this virus. Rules must recognise and reflect that we are supposed to be moving out of the emergency period. Almost 90% of the eligible population - those aged over 12 years - are fully vaccinated. We need measures that reflect our current situation and where we are going.
I will be sharing time with Deputy Mick Barry. I will make several different points concerning Covid, but particularly on the repressive powers the Minister proposes to extend now. We oppose those repressive powers and their extension. It is striking to compare the approach taken by the Government in extending significant restrictions on civil liberties to its approach concerning protections and supports for ordinary people. The Government has already cut the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, by €50. There is another cut coming down the line to the PUP on 16 November. The bans on evictions and rent increases have already been removed and we still do not have a mandatory employer sick pay scheme nearly two years into this pandemic. This gives an indication of the Government's priorities and its approach in keeping these repressive powers.
There is a contrast between the reopening of indoor nightclubs and the maintaining and extension of powers to ban and criminalise outdoor protests, when we know the risk of transmission in an outside environment is minimal compared with the dangers of transmission in indoor environments. The priority of the Government and its approach towards civil liberties is clear. This extension of restrictions on civil liberties in the context of the Government discussing the need to live with Covid during a time of high daily case numbers which are increasing poses the question whether the Government will ever repeal these repressive powers and if they are likely to become permanent. All the repressive powers in this State, such as the Special Criminal Court for example, were introduced in response to particular emergencies. The same occurred internationally with legislation introduced following 9/11 in the US, such as the Patriot Act, and 7/7 in Britain. Does the Government plan to introduce further restrictive regulations in the near future due to its failure to deal with the current wave of Covid?
There is a broader point to be made here concerning the approach of the Government of relying, on the one hand, on repressive powers and, on the other, as was interestingly referred to by a Deputy on the other side of the House, to lean and sway in the direction of the latest demands from business lobbying organisations and to concede, regardless of public health demands, at any given point. We must understand it is clear, as acknowledged by experts in advance, that while vaccines are crucial in the fight against Covid, and everyone should be encouraged to be vaccinated, they are not a silver bullet. To protect Christmas, to ensure we will not be in the situation of having a so-called meaningful Christmas again, and to prevent future lockdowns, we need a vaccine-plus strategy. We need vaccination, ventilation and vastly increased numbers of tests compared with the number currently being conducted.
For more than a year, People Before Profit has been pushing for a proper focus on and investment in ventilation in our schools, offices and hospitality settings. Transmission is taking place in those indoor settings, but the Government repeatedly refuses to take action on this. Instead, it has actually cut back on these services. It is still the situation today that there is no legislation on ventilation. It is a crazy situation, when this is a virus that is primarily carried in the air, that we do not have legislation on the right of workers to have clean air and not to work in environments that contain more than 900 parts per million of CO2 or, in circumstances where that is not possible, to have high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters to ensure Covid does not circulate.
This brings me to the crucial question of schools. We agree that schools must remain open, but the Government should not sell the lie that schools are safe and that they are not a place of transmission. That is patently not true. It should be stated clearly that it is vital for our society that schools remain open, but the supports must be put in place. We need HEPA filters in every classroom in the State, as is the case in parts of Australia. In Ireland, we do not have a single air purifier. We need to return to contact tracing and testing instead of continuing to turn a blind eye to what is happening. It is not possible to fight Covid on the cheap.
Covid-19 will be with us forever; so said the Tánaiste last week. Does the Government, therefore, want the Covid emergency powers to be with us forever too? Serious civil liberties issues were involved in the introduction of these powers in the first place, and that was why I voiced my opposition in the first Dáil debate on them. Today, there are serious civil liberties issues in rolling the powers over every three months, as the Minister seems intent on doing. To take just one example, we were told the requirement of the Covid vaccination passport would stay in place until October. The Government clearly sees them being in place for the whole of the winter. Is it the intention to keep these arrangements in place on a semi-permanent basis? To be clear, I am a strong supporter of vaccination. I appeal to all who are unvaccinated to get vaccinated. However, there are clearly civil liberties issues in keeping such an arrangement in place indefinitely at a time when alternative strategies, for example, those that might involve antigen testing, are available. This is a debate we will clearly need to return to.
I will be voting against the extension of these powers. That said, if a crucial issue arises and there is a need for legislation on a case-by-case basis, I would have no problem voting in favour, for example, of extending the eviction ban and the rent freeze indefinitely. As for extending the powers as a whole, however, I will be voting against that.
The byword from this debate so far came from Deputy Paul Murphy when he said it is not possible to fight Covid on the cheap. Where was the Deputy for the past two years? This has not been done on the cheap. Measures were taken by the Government that were necessary to protect the health of the people. If the Government had not done that, it would have been grossly irresponsible. The measures introduced were done so in good faith and were required at the time to deal with an issue about which it was unknown how far it would extend. Other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have experienced total extended lockdowns of a far longer duration than any we have experienced here, and have had to reintroduce them repeatedly. This also occurred in several European countries. It is now proposed to extend the sunset clause to provide for measures that might have to be taken in the event of the virus going on a further run, and that is the correct decision. We should not avoid making that decision now or avoid the signs clear to all and sundry.
There has been a revival of the virus. The numbers are increasing. The trajectory is going in the wrong direction. In those circumstances, the consequences of doing nothing are far greater than any consequences that might arise from the extension of the sunset clauses. I therefore strongly support these proposals. I would have done so in the Joint Committee on Health in the event these motions had not been taken today.
The Minister and the Government have done the best that could be done in very challenging circumstances. There will be more challenging circumstances in the weeks and months ahead and throughout the winter. In addition to what has been done, every effort must be made to respond as quickly as possible to the situation as it emerges. We must not wait and allow the virus to get a grip and become established.
More than 90% of people have had their vaccinations. There are also a number of people who have previously had Covid. The theory is that the combination of these is sufficient to create sufficient resistance to the virus, as a result of which it should wane. That can and may still happen. The weeks ahead of us will be crucial. As the effects of extensive vaccination and the public health measures that can be taken under this proposal, which are the same as those available for the past six months or two years, continue to be seen, we can delay the virus to allow more natural resistance to develop. If that does not happen, other measures may have to be taken. However, we must recognise this virus will not just disappear. It is going to be here for a while so we are going to have to work with it and do whatever can be done to reduce its impact on our society and our freedoms. Nobody wants restrictions. Nobody wants to have anything other than a normal Christmas, but we know from last year, when everybody was fatigued and rightly and understandably wanted restrictions to be relaxed, that sadly it was not the time to relax them. We all took that risk together and we were wrong. The virus marched on. It surged on and has continued to this day. The lesson we must learn is the virus has the ability to surge again and again. Because of that, we have to attack it with every means available to us.
Other speakers have referred to air purification systems. I have spoken about these in the House on several occasions. Their use in indoor situations should be considered urgently. These devices are very effective. They are capable of eliminating 100% of the virus in any given situation where they are sufficient for the square footage of the indoor space concerned. They work very effectively. We may have to resort to using these systems as well. I suggest to the Minister that this be done sooner rather than later. The impact they are likely to have should be investigated in the early days rather than having to do it at a later stage when the situation is much more serious and damage has been done by overcrowding, which makes it very difficult for the hospital system to work. I fully appreciate the difficulties now arising and presenting. The winter plan is about to become available. There are challenges in that regard.
There is also another ongoing issue. Many people seem to forget about it. I have been a Member of this House for more than a couple of years and, during my time here, I have received advice from a great many people who told me we had too many hospitals, hospital beds, consultants and GPs. They said we had too much of everything. In actual fact, the reality is we did not have a sufficient number of any of these. A proper build-up to meet these requirements should have been considered years ago, but medical economists or other kinds of economists had other views and their views were taken on board to the extent we now have a deficiency of accommodation, nurses and consultants. We now have to try to address these issues in the middle of an emergency. That is a crazy situation and it should never have arisen.
There are lessons to be learned from this. On many occasions in recent times we have all referred to the demands having become greater. Why have the demands become greater? Because the population has become much greater. Some ask why our population is increasing and say it should not be. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle and I know well the population has become greater because fewer people have found it necessary to leave this country and go abroad. That is as it should be. We should be able to ensure our growing population's requirement for jobs is, and continues to be, accommodated at home. There is no acceptable excuse for not doing so.
I ask the Minister to bear in mind the urgency of the situation. This could be a bit like Custer's last stand. We again have time to deal with the thing. This is another opportunity. It is an airborne virus which is very active and very aggressive. It will not fizzle out overnight. We have to be in it for the long haul. That means we should now put in place whatever is necessary to defeat it at every level. We must increase the emphasis on repeat vaccinations and the use of air purification plant where and when necessary. Nursing homes are obvious places to locate such devices. They should be used to defeat the virus at an early date rather than allowing it to accelerate to the extent it becomes a major problem again. I fear that, if the virus does re-establish itself to the level it was at eight or ten months ago, we could unfortunately be in for a much more serious situation and may have to introduce much more serious restrictions. I make the point again that we should do whatever needs to be done now. We should go the whole hog and aggressively address the situation and the threat of the virus in every way possible not for just 24 hours or whatever but for as long as it takes. We should do whatever it takes to deal with it in a meaningful way. Then we can walk off and say we did our best and either won or lost. I believe we will win if we go that route. In the course of what we are doing, we have to convince everybody we are doing it for the good and the health of the country.
I forget who it was but somebody suggested we should close down everything. We should not. The country has to try to survive. However, we should have restrictions to the extent necessary to curtail the virus and force it out of the system. If we do not do that, we will be coming back to this situation again and again. I advise that we listen to the lessons of Australia, New Zealand and various jurisdictions all over the globe where appalling numbers of deaths have taken place. Such deaths have taken and are taking place here. They are also taking place on the adjoining island. These deaths will continue to take place unless really aggressive action is taken. I call for that to be done now rather than later.
As the Minister has already heard, last Thursday evening, Sport Ireland issued new guidelines stating young people and their coaches who are not vaccinated cannot participate in indoor sporting matches without vaccination. I spoke to a number of families but will refer to one family in particular. Their 17-year-old son has been training both on his own and with his teammates over the last two years, although mostly on his own. He went to a match in the parochial hall in Gurranabraher in Cork last Saturday, only to be refused entry. The young man was distraught, as were his family and his teammates, because he could not go inside. This came as a great blow to him, his parents and all his teammates.
This leaves coaches, the vast majority of whom are volunteers, in the very uncomfortable and unfair position whereby they have to turn away young people at the door because of guidelines issued at the last moment. These guidelines should have been issued at the start. Sport Ireland should have ensured they were in place.
Once again, those engaged in indoor sport feel they are an afterthought when it comes to the protocols and restrictions for the return to sport. Can something be done to meet Sport Ireland to discuss basketball and any other sports that have been affected and ensure that a solution is found so that young people can get back to playing and enjoying their games?
I have been told this week that Sciath na Scol in Cork which, for anyone who does not know, involves Gaelic games for children, has been postponed until the new year. I was in my club, St. Vincent's, last night where loads of kids were training outdoors. The same children were going into school today, but cannot play Gaelic games in their schools. It is an outdoor activity which we are telling people is the safest way to exercise. How does it make sense that every GAA club in the country is playing matches at the weekend but none of the schools can? Schools are organising challenge matches. Games are still going ahead, but the competitions are not. Who is making these decisions? If it is right for children to play in club matches, why can the same not happen in schools?
Last week Dr. Ronan Glynn advised parents to cut back on their children's after-school activities, something I found unbelievable. I am a person who has supported all of the public health advice and encouraged everyone to get vaccinated, sanitise their hands and keep the 2 m rule. I have been very supportive of making sure everyone stays safe. I am a coach and administrator. Approximately one in five children have not come back to our club after the pandemic. Different sporting organisations are trying to get children and young people back to sports because we know how vital it is for their mental health and social skills. The statements being released are contradictory to what the health advice is. Young people have been put through enough. My daughter is in a class of 33 children for five or six hours a day. She cannot go into a field and play Gaelic games with her school. This does not make sense. It is not fair and it needs to be sorted out.
On 17 May 2020, the then Taoiseach, and current Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar, said in the Chamber that we must try to find, isolate, test and care for every case and trace every contact. We are not trying to find contacts in schools. We are not even trying to contact trace children any more. This is a bad message to send out to children because it is confusing, out of touch with reality and chaotic.
This is not the first time the Government has sent out mixed messages. There is a kind of chaos around what people are being told. We need to give people clear guidance. Many families have elderly parents and grandparents. They may have vulnerable family members who might be scared because without knowing where Covid is how can they protect them? It is time to stop dithering and burying our heads in the sand, and make clear decisions to put ordinary people first.
The extension of emergency health legislation is a serious matter and so too is our progression through the Covid pandemic, with all of its associated challenges. At present we know there are approximately 3,500 healthcare workers and professionals out of work, which in itself is putting a burden on our community and hospitals.
We know that 40% of those in hospital are doubly vaccinated, but I think that figure is higher. At the weekend, out of 18 Covid patients in University Hospital Waterford, 15 were doubly vaccinated. That points to what we all know is the case, namely, that vaccines are waning. The decision to offer boosters to healthcare workers is welcome, but it has been unduly delayed. I am sure the Minister follows the reports of the CDC. Weeks ago it recommended booster vaccines for healthcare workers and those who were vaccinated over six months ago. How long are we going to wait for NIAC to put this into place?
We still have record transmission rates in our schools, although we cannot say so definitively because we no longer have any testing regime in place. In a lot of cases, the symptoms are misunderstood by parents who have sent their children to school when they should have kept them at home. There is no HSA activity on site. Many classes have fewer than half of the students attending and many teachers are out due to being designated as Covid close contacts.
Something we have touched on many times is antigen testing. My sister in law is a school secretary in the UK. There has been antigen testing in the community there for almost eight months. At the start, children were brought into school halls for rapid testing before they were allowed into school. The UK has managed to keep all of its schools operational with very little fallout from Covid. Yet, we have had three reports on antigen testing and we are still not using it.
What about vaccine hesitancy in the community? A Covid certificate is needed to go into a nightclub, but not to visit somebody in a nursing home. There are still unvaccinated healthcare personnel in the community sector treating vulnerable and elderly patients. What supports are we providing to community nursing care? We are providing very little, as the Minister knows, because we withdrew them all on the basis that if there was an outbreak we would send in the HSA.
We have pressures in our hospital accident and emergency departments and ICUs, testing and vaccination and the deferral of other activity. Who will say we may have to have localised restrictions?
We need a public information campaign on pregnancy. As the Minister will be aware, over the weekend there was discussion about people undergoing fertility treatments who were being told not to get the vaccine.
The deferral of new healthcare appointments is an issue. I submitted a question to the Minister's Department on the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, for University Hospital Waterford. We put an extra €4 billion into the health budget this year, yet there has been no additional recruitment to the cardiac section in Waterford to expand cardiology hours. I ask the Minister to respond to the question as soon as he can.
In terms of the effects of lockdown, there has been a 30% increase in the number of patients attending hospital with cirrhosis of the liver. There are problems right across the community. We need to mitigate them.
Antiviral drugs have been available for some time, including one from Merck, Molnupiravir, which has meant a 50% reduction in Covid deaths in early introduction. We have made no efforts whatsoever to get into a buying group, as far as I know, even though other countries are doing so. We need mitigation measures and we need to be doing a lot more than we are currently doing.
I have had contact with many disgruntled constituents who are wondering why we did not open on 22 October as was planned. I share many of their concerns. There seems to be an attitude from the Government to try to extend its power with these restrictions under the guise of being precautionary, yet as soon as they are passed they are being used as a matter of course rather than as an emergency power.
I also have another major concern which needs to be met head-on. Why are Government Members and policies being designed to scapegoat those who decided, for whatever reason, that they did not want, or could not take, the vaccine? We have the highest vaccination rates in Europe. I would like to commend all of the hard-working staff in all of the vaccination centres who have been very confident in their roll out of the vaccine programme. The constant scapegoating of the unvaccinated does not stand up to scrutiny or evidence and is completely unwarranted.
Every time we see evidence of a failure in Government policy, the narrative shifts to find the latest random thing to blame it on. There has yet to be any evidence presented which shows that vaccine passports actually serve any purpose in preventing transmission. In fact, recent studies have shown that a vaccinated person is every bit as likely to transmit this virus as a non-vaccinated person. Therefore, why is the Government continuing to divide society on this basis? Some of the language used by Ministers-----
Sorry, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I am now a little disjointed, as they say. Last year I called for the introduction of antigen tests. The Minister will hardly have as much to say about the antigen testing we have all been calling for for over 12 months. He has had Deputy Shanahan tell him that it has been rolled out for over eight months in the UK. Imagine sending out antigen tests in the post. No disrespect to An Post, but the reality is that every other country has seen fit to send a pack of at least ten antigen tests to every household for use as rapid tests. The people of those countries do not have to ring a phone line that may or may not be answered in order to expect tests to arrive in the post. How ridiculous does that sound? Has the Minister anything to say about that matter? He does not.
No, you cannot. Deputy Murphy is speaking. She has the floor and, like any Deputy, you will have the floor too - at the end, presumably. I cannot see to the bottom of the list but I think you will be allowed back in.
Thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
I think we all know there is a percentage chance of not just the antigen test being wrong but equally the PCR test being wrong. Surely it is better to have a slightly lower accuracy level but with an immediate result, which would be more effective at identifying infectious cases, and containment as opposed to what we are seeing, which is 3,000 cases a day for the want of being able to roll out PCR testing and then testing, tracing and isolating, as we should now, two years into this virus.
I hope the Government will take back the message that it needs to stop blaming, scapegoating, ostracising and discriminating against those who are not vaccinated. I do not think history will look back kindly on some of the distasteful comments made last week, but I hope we can put in place an armoury of supports for our vaccination programme. The fact is that we have the highest vaccination rates in Europe.
The extension of these extraordinary powers for a further three months will impact gravely the normal conduct of life in society. It will also impact the fundamental civil rights of every citizen in 2022, with no guarantee the Government will not move to introduce new laws at that stage to extend the curtailment even further. When the Government introduced these emergency powers, we were told they would be subject to ongoing review and would be repealed if circumstances allowed and when the vaccination rates exceeded the 70% threshold. However, we have not had any published review of the impact of these measures at all. Furthermore, our vaccination rate, which was pushed as the silver bullet, has far exceeded the herd immunity rate of 70% the Government endorsed, yet the Government now wants to curtail people's freedoms indefinitely, it would appear.
This Government has shown that everything it touches becomes a mess. It has let our fisherman and farmers down. It has let our cancer patients and those suffering with mental health down. It is defunding our roads and adding to the national debt every single day while increasing taxes on every citizen. That same Government wants us to support another extension to the emergency powers in order that it can continue to restrict travel to and from Ireland, restrict travel within Ireland, stop gatherings from taking place and close premises such as schools and businesses when it wants to do so. I for one am certainly against that.
I am not in any doubt that this virus is an extremely dangerous one and I always encourage people to sanitise and be extremely careful going about their day-to-day duties. Most people are, but people need to be worked with and not dictated to. What people want is to be continuously properly reminded and so on but not dictated to, and this is a form of dictating to people. It is also a handy way of taking the eye off the ball. The real ball in my locality has been the fact that there is no SouthDoc service in Castletownbere. We also had the issue in Bantry General Hospital where consultants were not there for 19 or 20 days during the summer. Those are the real issues. The other issue is the eye off the ball as to where the endoscopy unit for Bantry General Hospital is. It was promised to the people three and four years ago - nothing. There is not a sod turned. Look at Clonakilty Community Hospital. Has the funding been available to the hospital for its extension so it can be brought up to HIQA standards? That is what we need to concentrate on.
I would like the Minister's attention because the very first thing I want to do is publicly and humbly thank him and acknowledge a very important job he did, which was the help, kindness, care and consideration he gave to two small babies, Theo Whelan and baby Kate Mynard. As good as it is to come in here and attack the Minister and fight with him and say, "Minister, do this and do that", I publicly thank him for his involvement in that. He, his officials and others worked and helped to save those babies' lives. I will ask questions of the Minister but I will also stand up and publicly thank him. I got an opportunity another evening to mention it here, barely, but he is here now as the Minister for Health and I just say to him "thank you".
With that out of the way, I certainly do not agree with the question we are asked here because it is whether the public interest is being served by these extensions. We believe that it must be concluded that the public interest is not being served by giving the Government the powers to curtail people's rights and freedoms at a time when over 90% of our people are vaccinated. During this pandemic the Government has rushed some extraordinary laws through this House and signed into law some extraordinary regulations. These measures have curtailed people's freedoms in a most extraordinary way. The Garda has been given the power to do things we would never have thought it would be given. We believe that now the time has come to have people's individual freedoms restored and Garda powers returned to what they should be. The Government will use the Dáil to rubber-stamp these extraordinary measures.
I have 13 seconds left. We believe that this extension is a very lazy use of exceptional powers instead of the Government ramping up rapid antigen testing, which the Government has utterly failed to do and which the rural Independents called for at least 15 months ago. The Government has also failed to increase Ireland's ICU bed capacity.
These exceptional powers the Government has introduced have many people in Kerry, especially youngsters, very upset with those powers, which are being dictated in respect of sports for youngsters. We had Sport Ireland come out late last week saying children and youngsters attending all basketball playing would have to produce vaccine passports. This is very wrong in places like Rathmore, Gneevgullia, Killarney, Firies and all the various places where all the youngsters and all the clubs had paid their membership, and it was only after that that Sport Ireland came out and said what it said. In reality, volunteers are being asked to demand that youngsters attending events produce vaccine passports. We have to remember that under-12s have not been vaccinated at all yet. It is very unfair. The whole basketball season has been thrown into mayhem, and I ask the Minister and the Government to deal with this in an honourable way. It is not fair to ask volunteers to demand vaccine passports of youngsters before they are allowed in to play basketball.
Why did they not do that in the first place before the clubs registered? Why did they not ask for that and spell out what was going to be demanded rather than doing it when the money had been collected by Sport Ireland? That is very unfair to the youngsters of Rathmore, Gneevgullia, Killarney, Tralee and all of Kerry.
I thank the Acting Chairman, I think there is only one "Independent" in the title.
While looking at this debate in my office I noticed that there was a tweet a couple of minutes ago and indeed it was from your good self, the Minister for Health, saying that everybody who opposed this was reckless. With regard to being reckless, it was reckless to have such a disregard for Parliament and for the Dáil, not for me or Deputy Connolly, or any of the Deputies here, but for the people that we represent because it is the essence of democracy. One thing that Fianna Fáil always had, that party the Minister joined so late in the day, was a fairly healthy respect for parliamentary democracy.
If the Minister wants to talk about recklessness, it is reckless to run down a health service the way our health service has been run down. The Minister did not run it down, but there are three members of the Cabinet in which he sits who had collective responsibility for running it down. The Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, when he was the Minister for Health, came up with the HSE as a way to spend money on reports. The Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar, when he was the Minister could not get out of there fast enough. The Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, caused a general election when he was the Minister for Health. We thought he was the most inept Minister for Health ever, or at least we were told that by some Fianna Fáil canvassers before the last election. That was reckless to run down a health service the way they did. It was reckless to fail to do anything about it when getting into office, which is what the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has done. Where is the additional capacity that he spoke about and that he asked about when he was on the Covid committee? It is simply not there. Cholera hospitals were built in this city in response to a cholera outbreak. TB sanatoria were built all over the State in response to that. We had €23 billion. What was the €23 billion spent on apart from masks that are now clogging up our sewerage systems, which was junk that was brought in from China? What was the €23 billion spent on? We have nothing to show for it. Such a wanton waste of Exchequer funding is simply reckless.
If the Minister wants to talk about recklessness, it is reckless to deny children the ability to play sports during a pandemic when they are locked up in their homes. It is reckless to tell them it is safe to sit in a classroom for six hours a day but not safe to play sports. It is reckless because of the effect it has on their formation and particularly on their mental health. This is the case with some children whose parents have come to me to complain about what is going on. It is reckless to fail to look at schools and their ventilation, and to spend €23 billion without remedying this. Last winter it was understandable because it was all new but we are heading into our second winter with nothing done. I put it to the Minister that this is reckless.
Above all, it is reckless to fail to look at the science and to pretend that we are following the science but instead lurch from hysterical reaction to hysterical reaction. Let us look at the vaccines and let us look at their efficiency and efficacy. There are studies about this. Vaccines of course have stopped people from getting seriously ill, but now we know of waning immunity. We now know that how infectious somebody is, whether they are vaccinated or not, varies relatively little. We know that there is an enduring immunity from recovery. There are also question marks still about masks and about how small are the particles by which the virus is spread. Are they so small that masks do not capture them? If the Minister wants to talk about recklessness let us talk about it, but also have an honest reflection upon his role and how reckless he has been.
I do not want to get into a slagging match but if the Deputy is correct and the Minister has tweeted the comment that has been attributed to him about people being reckless, this it is entirely unacceptable during a debate in the Dáil, and particularly in the context of the failure by the Government to carry out any human rights assessment of the legislation, a point I have repeatedly made. Rather than speak for myself, let me quote the Irish Council for Civil Liberties:
Our position remains the same: the system is discriminatory and has been developed without any meaningful consideration of human rights. We know of no known human rights impact assessment having been carried out before its implementation, since July, or now ahead of its proposed extension...
ICCL believes vaccination, and all medical treatment, should be a choice...
To omit testing to the certificate system, unlike most of our peers across Europe...is deeply discriminatory. Across the EU, testing is available as an alternative to vaccination...
Let me place once again on the record that I dearly value human safety and human health. We all make choices based on knowledge. I make my comments today knowing that the 550 Covid patients are in hospital with 91 in intensive care, and all of the other facts.
In my remaining time let me address what is going on here. We are being asked to extend draconian legislation without the slightest justification in the Minister's response as to why, without any human rights assessment and without any explanation of the contradictions. Somebody close to me had Covid and has recovered over six months although they were told nine months. In one of his speeches, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, referred to a grace period of nine months which then became six months. There are many other contradictions, such as have been read out today relating to Basketball Ireland. There are at least three or four emails there where people point out contradictions over and over in the way they have been treated. Last week, a mother called up when her daughter was a contact. The mother was told an antigen test would be sent out, which was never sent out. There are any number of contradictions.
I would also like to stick with the utter danger there is to our democracy in the way the Government is dealing with this pandemic. We are certainly not all in it together. It is discriminatory and unacceptable, and it frightens me almost as much as the pandemic has frightened me, in terms of trying to protect people. On a personal level I do not have the same view but I certainly realise how significant this is. The World Health Organization has adopted a different approach around booster vaccination. I am glad that the decision has been made to allow healthcare staff to have the choice of a booster if that is what they want. I am absolutely dispirited about the twisting of language and the divide and conquer aspect. There is a demonisation rather than building up a public health system to face this pandemic and the next one, which is inevitable. There is a failure of the Government to clarify what improvements have been made or to take responsibility for the damning situation that has existed in our hospitals, and which continues to exist, as well as no public health on the ground.
I very much welcome the debate in the House today. It is important, given the exceptional and temporary nature of the legislation, that we do have this debate. I have listened carefully and have taken as many notes as I can from colleagues. A lot of views have been expressed. Views have been expressed that this is the appropriate thing to do. Some misinformation on vaccinations has been put onto the official record of the House. There have been zero-Covid views and there have been views expressed around no measures, whatever that may be called, which proposes letting the virus run free to see what happens. Other than the misinformation on vaccines, it is good and healthy that there are a lot of different views and that there is time for these to be debated. There are diverse views and opinions. These are not normal times and this is not normal legislation. It is right and proper that it is looked at.
Emergency powers are temporary in nature but when fully utilised they do have an impact on freedoms. This is why it is right and proper that we debate this and why it is right and proper that there is a sunset clause and that new legislation would be required. This is why we are only looking for extensions of three months. This is serious legislation and these are serious regulations. They do have an impact right across the State, across our communities and across our economy.
Various Deputies have raised issues around sports. I will undertake to discuss those matters with the relevant Department and the relevant line Ministers. We want as much consistency as possible. Colleagues will appreciate at this stage that perfect consistency in comparing hospitality with sports, commerce or construction, and with so many other ways, is difficult. It is a difficult thing. Other than everything being fully open or everything being fully closed there will never be perfect consistency. We have to accept that. I believe everyone will agree that public safety and health is always first and foremost in our minds. The protection of public health from the virus, which continues to spread, is essential.
The Government has always been conscious that public health measures being imposed are proportionate to the harm the virus represents. It is critical that we maintain the ability, on a temporary basis, to respond to the evolving trajectory of Covid. I have listened very carefully to what Members have said during the debate-----
It is interesting that the Deputy who is insistent on trying to stop parliamentary debate is the same one who, when asked recently on national radio, on RTÉ, whether he would encourage people to get vaccinated, refused to answer the question.
Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I have listened very carefully to the debate. It was a very good debate apart from the contributions from Deputy McNamara, which goes without saying.
I have already reminded the House about how mindful we still need to be of the precariousness of this disease. It is not one that lends itself to being easily controlled and managed. As a result, a response to the disease that is agile and flexible, with the ability to pivot rapidly and respond to any emerging threat, needs to be ensured. The approval of these resolutions by the House today recognises that we are still in a global pandemic. We will never forget that over 5,000 of our fellow citizens in this State have already died from Covid. The Delta variant is highly transmissible so we must continue to remain vigilant throughout the pandemic. Therefore, for the moment, we need to have some safeguards at our disposal in case we need to act quickly in the event of further threats and challenges from Covid-19.
I would like to recognise that Labour Party Deputies and others are going to vote in support of the motion. I would, however, like to call out the position of Sinn Féin and some of the others. I believe that voting against an extension of these powers for three months, given the current situation, is reckless. I would like to say why. This evening, the number of cases that will be announced will be in excess of 3,700. We are aware of a very significant increase in cases across all age groups. Indeed, the current case prevalence is higher than at any point other than the very highest peak, in January.
The Chair cannot allow a Minister to get away with saying that because we are not going to line up in a row obediently behind him like little ducks and support what he is saying, we are engaging in reckless behaviour. That is completely wrong.
-----having to go into intensive care units, elective surgery for other men, women and children is being cancelled. The situation right now is serious. When I introduced this legislation some time ago, many in the Opposition asked that the rolling nature of the extensions be changed. I introduced a substantial amendment having listened very carefully to their contributions. I introduced a substantial amendment to allow for just one roll-over. This is it. Sinn Féin and some others in the Opposition, having secured the amendment, with which I agreed, are now voting against even that one roll-over. Let us think about this for a second. We stand up in this House and say we care about healthcare workers but many Members are going to vote against the measures that would protect them. We stand up and say we need the Covid pass in place but many will vote against the very thing required to keep it in place. That is the reality. We all care. I know we all care about our healthcare system and our healthcare workers but our healthcare workers need legislative protection. Men and women in this country who could die from Covid need legislative protection. To have the ability to keep open our economy and the very pubs and restaurants the Deputies are talking about, we need regulations in place. What this motion is about is allowing those regulations to continue to apply for the next three months. I appreciate that none of this is easy. None of us wants to be having this debate about these regulations but they are important. They are saving lives and protecting healthcare workers and our hospitals. They are allowing businesses to remain open. Without these regulations, which many Members of the Opposition said they will vote against, even though they are for just three months – we should remember that at the end of the three months, there will not be another roll-over and legislation will be required-----
All we are asking for is agreement to roll these regulations over for three months, after which new legislation will be required, to protect our healthcare system, men, women and children who are vulnerable to this virus, and our healthcare workers.