Friday, 3 December 2021
Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2021: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a second time".
I welcome the opportunity to present the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) (No.2) Bill 2021 to the House. The purpose of this Bill is to extend the period of application of certain emergency provisions that have been key to the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The emergency provisions that are to be extended include Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020; the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020; Health (Amendment) Act 2020; and Part 2 of the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021.
The Bill that provides for the extension of the emergency provisions contained within these Acts until 31 March 2022, with the possibility of one further extension of a maximum period of three months, by way of resolution in both Houses of the Oireachtas, if warranted.
The Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 was passed by the Oireachtas in March 2020, and the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 was passed by the Oireachtas in September 2020. These Acts were extended by way of resolution in October 2020. The Health (Amendment) Act 2020 was passed by the Oireachtas in October 2020. All three Acts were extended by the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Act 2021 in May of this year, and by resolution again in October. The provisions of these Acts are due to expire on 9 February 2022.
The Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021 was passed by the Oireachtas in July this year. It was extended by way of resolution in October, with its provisions due to expire on 9 January 2022.
The legislative provisions contained within these Acts are essential to managing the spread of Covid-19 in our community. Covid-19 cases remain high in Ireland and across most of Europe. This is due to a combination of increased socialisation, the move indoors due to colder weather, evidence of waning immunity and the prevalence of the Delta variant. We need to ensure that basic public health measures such as mask wearing, isolation when symptomatic, and social distancing continue in place and are being enforced. We now also have a new variant, Omicron, of which much is still unknown, although scientists around the world are working hard to analyse the variant and try to understand its behaviour.
When I came before this House in May seeking to extend the provisions of three of these Acts, I recognised the wide-ranging nature of these powers and that I, along with every Member of this House, wished that there was no need for their existence. I would like to reiterate that sentiment now. While it is extremely disappointing that Ireland, Europe and many countries around in the world find ourselves in this situation, we need to continue to provide for the making and enforcement of public health regulations. As we have seen, the trajectory of this virus is ever evolving and the Government needs to be able to respond in a proportionate, rapid and flexible manner to protect public health, our health service, our most vulnerable and our front line workers.
Over 5,500 people have lost their lives during this pandemic. Over 5,500 families have lost someone they loved. Many more are living with the impact of the disease both physically and mentally. With the virus spreading at such high levels in the community and the recent emergence of the Omicron variant, we can unfortunately expect further hospitalisations and possible deaths in the coming weeks and months. We can only imagine the trauma of families and communities affected and I extend my deepest sympathies to them.
Ireland has endured a profound shock to its social and economic life as we deal with the impact of the virus at an individual, community and societal level. It has had an impact on almost all aspects of our lives and, for many, their livelihoods, and continues to do so. 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.
Members know that the trajectory of Covid-19 is uncertain. In the last weeks, we have seen case numbers previously seen only in January this year. The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in hospitals and ICU remain high while demand for testing is higher than it has been at any point in the pandemic and continues to increase. The current level of Covid-19 infection is placing a very substantial additional burden on the delivery of non-Covid care across all aspects of the health service which is likely to increase over the course of the winter period.
Our response is premised on the need to preserve and protect public health by slowing the spread of the virus, reducing its impact on us and limiting its impact on our society and economy. That is why I believe that the public interest is best served by having the provisions in these Acts available if the situation requires them to be utilised for the protection of public health.
The country remains vulnerable to a further deterioration depending on a number of factors, including levels of social contact in the coming weeks and over the festive period, adherence to basic public health protective measures, levels of immunity across the population and what we learn about the characteristics of the Omicron variant in terms of its transmissibility, severity, vaccine evasion, reinfection and more. I ask that everyone prioritise the activities they undertake and limit activities in riskier environments including indoor crowded settings where distancing is difficult, that they take regular antigen tests if they are engaged in activities in riskier environments and hold off on visiting vulnerable people after undertaking these activities.
Incidence is highest in those aged between five and 12 years of age, and it is recommended that families and young children prioritise discretionary activities and social contacts and the wearing of face masks and coverings for those aged nine years and over in certain settings.
The uptake of Covid-19 vaccinations in Ireland has been incredible. I commend each and every person who has availed of the opportunity to be vaccinated. There have been more than 8.3 million doses administered and over 91% of the eligible population, that is, everyone in our country aged 12 years and over, is now fully vaccinated. I would like to emphasise that it is never too late for anyone to get vaccinated. The people who have yet to decide to be vaccinated who choose to do so to protect themselves, everybody else and our health workers make a big difference.
We now know that there is a certain amount of waning immunity from vaccines after several months. The profile depends on each of the vaccines. This is why we are rolling out our booster programme, and I am happy to report it is moving apace. In fact, it is moving at such a pace that when my speech was written, the figure for booster dose given was 878,000, and when I checked just before I got up to speak, it was in excess of 900,000, so it is moving fast. I am referring to boosters and third doses for immunocompromised. Critically, it includes many of our population most at risk, including people aged over 60 years, front-line healthcare workers, immunocompromised people and those living in nursing homes. Those in age groups approved for boosters should take up their vaccine appointment as soon as it is offered and exercise more caution until they receive their booster. I am delighted to be able to say the level of uptake for the cohorts to which it has been offered is very encouraging indeed.
As the booster campaign progresses, it is very important we all take steps to protect ourselves and those around us. The public health message right now is to layer up those protections. This includes acting fast, isolating and getting tested if we have symptoms, wearing a face covering where appropriate, making sure indoor spaces are well ventilated, maintaining social distancing whenever appropriate, covering our coughs and sneezes and hand hygiene. These are measures we have all come to know very well.
I wish to address some of the concerns raised in debate by members of this House and the Seanad during passage of the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19)(Amendment) Act 2021 in May. At that time, colleagues were concerned about the length of the extension to the measures, and others raised concerns about the multiple extensions provided for in the sunset clause in the draft of the Bill. We had a very constructive debate and I agreed with many of the points being raised. I accepted the concerns on the multiple extensions, so I sought Government agreement to amend the Act. The Act we then passed was limited to one extension. That, of course, is why we are here now, as that extension will come to an end. The intention was that there would be a legislative process and this is exactly why we are here. This Bill extends the provisions until the end of March 2022, from 9 January or 9 February depending on which of the Acts it was, with one further extension possible of three months, and that is it. I believe the proposed length of time of the extension is proportionate and reasonable. Given the environment we find ourselves in, it is necessary to protect public health. While I sincerely hope there will be no need for a further extension beyond 31 March next year, as we all do, it is important to provide for this possibility. However, I emphasise to colleagues the sunset clause allows for one extension which requires a resolution of both Houses and that single sunset clause can only be for three months.
The powers granted under these Acts are extraordinary, and the Houses provide an essential function in debating and evaluating their continued use. During the passage of the Act earlier this year, and with the extensions made by way of resolution in the Oireachtas, the Houses carry out important checks on these powers. In the interest of transparency, all regulations are posted online on www.gov.ie, all NPHET minutes and letters are published online, and information on Covid-19 at a national and local level is also published. This includes cases, vaccines, hospitalisations and so forth. These are all things Deputies will be very aware of. Every regulation made under these Acts must be laid before both Houses as soon as possible after it is made and, if a resolution annulling the regulation is passed by either House within the subsequent 21 days, the regulation is annulled. The introduction and continuation of public health measures are kept under constant review by Government. Every Government decision on such measures is informed by public health advice and takes account of societal and economic concerns.
I will now outline some key provisions of the Bill in more detail. The Bill is divided into five sections. Section 1 amends section 2 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 to allow for an extension of the operation of Part 3 of the Act from 9 February 2022 to 31 March 2022, and to allow the provisions to be extended once, for a period of no more than three months, by way of resolution in both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 inserted sections 31A, 31B and 38A into the Health Act 1947. Section 31A provides for the making of regulations for preventing, limiting, minimising, or slowing the spread of Covid-19 and to deal with public health risks arising from the spread of Covid-19. Any regulations made have been made in line with decisions of Government on public health measures. The regulations have restricted events, movement, international travel, and the operation of businesses and services to varying degrees over the past 20 months. Several regulations are still in place, such as the mandatory wearing of face coverings in certain settings, public health measures relatimng to international travel, and the closing of certain premises at midnight. Section 31B allows the Minister for Health to make an "affected area order". The State as a whole has been deemed to be an "affected area" since 7 April 2020. Section 38A provides for powers for certain medical officers of health to order, in certain circumstances, the detention of persons who are suspected to be potential sources of infection with Covid-19 and to provide for enforcement measures in that regard.
Sections 2, 3 and 4 provide for the same amendments and terms of extension for the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers)(Covid-19) Act 2020, the Health (Amendment) Act 2020 and Part 2 of the Health (Amendment)(No. 2) Act 2021, respectively. The Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers)(Covid-19) Act 2020 provides An Garda Síochána with statutory enforcement powers in relation to licensed premises and registered clubs, to ensure strict adherence to public health measures on premises where alcohol is sold for consumption on the premises. It also provides a power of entry for the Garda in relation to the Covid-19 regulations. The Act introduced a range of enforcement measures such as an immediate closure order for the rest of the day, an emergency closure order for up to three days, and a temporary closure order. The first temporary closure order is for up to seven days, but this increases to up to 30 days for second or subsequent failures to comply. The Act also provides for the issuance of a compliance notice and it sets out the grounds for objection to the renewal of a licence. During the drafting of the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19)(Amendment) Act 2021 earlier this year, the Garda Commissioner advised that if the provisions of the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers)(Covid-19) Act 2020 were not extended, then members of An Garda Síochána would not have a clear lawful basis for entering a licensed premises to address breaches of the Covid-19 regulations.
The Health (Amendment) Act 2020 provides for the making of regulations to prescribe penal provisions in regulations made under section 31A of the Health Act 1947 to be fixed penalty provisions. Fixed penalty provisions are currently in place in relation to the wearing of face coverings in certain settings. Part 2 of the Health (Amendment)(No.2) Act 2021 provided for the reopening of indoor hospitality under certain conditions. In essence, the Act gives effect to the Government's decision to enable access to relevant indoor premises for fully vaccinated persons and persons who have recovered from Covid-19, as well as certain children and staff. The Act provides for a robust and enforceable system of verification as well as for powers of enforcement.
Section 5 provides for the Title of the Bill to be the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19)(Amendment)(No. 2) Act 2021, and that its provisions shall come into operation on 10 January 2022 for the Health (Amendment)(No. 2) Act 2021, and 10 February 2022 for the other three Acts.
The decision to extend these measures is not an easy one and I recognise there is disappointment we continue to need these powers. We know that the use of vaccinations alone will not stop the spread of Covid-19 and so we must ensure there are other measures in place to protect public health.
As a Government, we must now act to ensure we can continue to implement public health measures to limit the growth of the virus, especially in the face of the Delta and Omicron variants. We are extending these measures to support our healthcare system and its workers, who have been working tirelessly on the front line for nearly two years. We are extending these measures to ensure people can shop and work in supermarkets, pharmacies, shops and other settings with some degree of comfort, knowing that the wearing of face coverings is still mandatory and enforceable. We are extending these measures to ensure that the use of Covid-19 vaccination certificates continues to be applicable in hospitality and entertainment settings, with the aim of keeping these establishments safe and open.
While great strides have been made in combatting the virus, most notably through the excellent uptake of vaccinations, we are not out of this pandemic yet as recent events have clearly shown. We expect the winter months ahead to be challenging in terms of the spread of the virus and the ongoing pressure on the health system. It is essential that the Government has the option to continue the enforcement of public health measures in the coming months. Through the combination of the roll-out of the booster shots, continued progress on antiviral treatments for Covid-19 and adherence to public health measures, we are aiming to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and are working towards the return to normal functioning of our economy and society.
I very much welcome this opportunity to provide an overview of some of the key provisions in the Bill. I look forward to discussing the Bill in more detail on Committee Stage and to listening to colleagues' contributions during this Second Stage debate. I urge all members of the House to support this Bill and the continued use of public health measures to protect people from this dreadful disease, including our healthcare workers, other workers throughout the country, individuals and families, and to keep everybody safe.
It is a very disappointing day for all of us for a number of reasons. First, we are again being asked to keep on the Statute Book, and keep in use, emergency powers that we all hoped would be long gone. It is equally disappointing because of the recommended changes that have come from NPHET, which the Government will have to decide on over the next number of hours and days. I say that in the context of the public health advice, which is what it is, and my support for public health measures. It is disappointing because many people will feel that we are going backwards even though we had such a major uptake of the vaccine during its roll-out and people have done their absolute best over the past, almost two years, to do what they can to protect themselves and their families. It will feel like this is again a step backwards.
It has to be said that there have been two characteristics to the Government's approach to Covid, which has again landed us in a situation where the Minister is asking us to give him and his Government a blank cheque to extend emergency powers, along with the prospect of additional restrictions to the hospitality sector and household visits, the extension of the use of Covid certificates in certain circumstances and limitations on indoor events. Those two characteristics mean the Government has been very quick to take away income supports for workers and families. We have seen that happen again over the past number of days. It has been far too slow to implement the measures and supports it can and should put in place to keep people safe and to ensure that the first principles of test and trace, isolate and vaccinate work to the extent they should. That is the background against which we are having this discussion today.
I will get to what I and Sinn Féin would do, which is often what the Minister and many of his colleagues ask in response to our criticisms when they are on the airwaves. The last time we had a debate like this, the Minister accused me and my party of being against public health advice because we were against the extension of emergency powers. He cannot have it both ways. I fully support public health measures and their provision. I will not oppose them, but what I cannot do is give what I believe are emergency powers to a Minister who, on several occasions, has not got it right. As I said, he has been too slow to respond on occasion and clumsy at times in how he has approached many of the issues. It has to be said, and I will put it bluntly, that he has made a dog's dinner of some of the responses. All of that has created confusion and led to the mixed messages people have spoken about over the past while. It has created anger, resentment and frustration at a time when people are very tired and fatigued. They want to see strong leadership, but they also want to see a coherent response and be confident that we are making the correct decisions for them.
People want the response to be done correctly and they want proper debate, scrutiny and accountability. I remember when the Merriongate story first appeared in the public domain. What was its characteristic? Confusion. The Tánaiste at the time was not aware of the difference between the guidelines and regulations. We had all of that and I will not go back over that ground. That confusion was created because there was no clarity. There was no debate on the regulations. Even the Tánaiste was not aware of precisely what the regulations were to do. Yet, the Minister is asking this House again to give him a blank cheque to go away and make new regulations.
I have read the media reports and I assume we will again learn about the regulations in the media. There has been no offer of a briefing to the Opposition. I wonder if we will get one over the next number of days. We have again had recommendations coming from NPHET, which I support. It is its right to give public health advice. In more recent times, the Minister and his Government have nuanced that public health advice. That is their right too. It is the Government's job to take the advice and put measures in place that it believes are most appropriate. My point about the nuancing of the message is that we are not asked for our opinion, we are not part of that discussion or debate and we do not have any hand, act or part in the development or creation of those regulations. They are crafted by the Minister and the Government. As he said, they are published and put on the website. Today, if I vote for this Bill without any amendment, I am in effect saying to the Minister to go away and again make those regulations and nuance the public health advice in whatever way he sees fit, without any debate, scrutiny and accountability regarding what people in this House believe. There will no discussion or debate whatsoever.
I come from a school of thought that says if you get your hand burned on one occasion, you do not put it back in the fire. That is what happened to us on previous occasions, in the early stages of this pandemic when the Dáil was not sitting and there was a real crisis in terms of learning about what this virus was, when there was a need to have emergency powers. We are not at that point now because circumstances have changed. There is a difference between that and not needing public health advice or public health measures. Of course we need them, but we do not need the level of emergency powers that, in essence, take powers away from the Oireachtas and give them to the Minister to go and make regulations. We are then all held to account because if there are any mistakes, and there have been many, I am then asked to account for that in the same way as the Minister. It would be correctly pointed out to us that we voted for this, we gave the Minister for Health those powers and we surrendered accountability and transparency. I simply cannot do that.
We have tabled a number of reasonable amendments that are very similar to those we debated last night in respect of a different Bill. They state that the regulations made under the Act require the approval of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Again, we were pragmatic enough to say that in circumstances where it is urgent, the Joint Committee on Health could give the approval of the Houses as soon as is possible. The Minister could make the regulations but they would need retrospective approval from the House. Our amendments would require a report reviewing the use, functions and impact of the provisions of the Acts at least two weeks before a proposed extension and they would mandate reporting of Covid-19 infections in the workplace. We have many more amendments. I assume that other members of the Opposition will also table very similar amendments, as they did yesterday. If the Minister does not accept those amendments, we will be back to a situation where a blank cheque is provided to him and his Government. That is where we will end up, which is very problematic.
If we look at what is being proposed by NPHET, and again I can only go by what is in the public domain, it is back to front that its advice is published even before the Government makes any decision. There is all this speculation about what it means, we are asked for our view, there is radio silence from the Government for a couple of days, it then makes a decision and we have to react to it without any engagement whatsoever with anybody else in the Oireachtas. That is what happens.
Let us look at what is being proposed. For the hospitality sector, six people per table will be allowed, there will no multiple bookings, it will be table service only and there will be an 11.30 p.m. curfew.
I assume that all of that will have to be done by way of new regulations. Nightclubs will be closed to all intents and purposes. How else could the advice being given be read? Live venues will have only a 50% seating capacity. Household visits will be reduced to four, including the host household, per home. There is to be extension of the Covid certificates to gyms and hotels. Again, I assume that would require regulation. As for indoor events, there is to be 50% capacity for cultural, entertainment, community and sporting events. Again, I assume that all that would require regulation. If it requires regulation, I do not know what provisions, of all the advice that has been given, the Cabinet will sign off on. I have no idea. Maybe the Minister will accept all of them; maybe he will not. Maybe he will not go the full distance regarding the 11.30 p.m. curfew. Who knows?
We have to wait and see what the Government does, which is precisely my point. We vote for this, the Cabinet goes off and makes a decision, the Minister makes the regulations, they do not come back to this House and our view is immaterial, yet we are then held to account in the same way that the Government is. I have no doubt whatsoever but that if the Minister were standing where I am, he would see the difficulty in which that places me and many other members of the Opposition. Therefore, when he appeals to people to vote for this legislation, he should at least make a distinction between that and supporting emergency powers and public health advice. I have been very clear right through this pandemic that public health advice has to be heeded and supported. It is the job of the public health experts to give advice to the Government. Yes, on occasion there can be nuancing of that for practical reasons because the job of the Government is to look at a whole-of-society response. I get that, and we in the Opposition have done that on occasion as well. As closely as possible, however, we have stuck to the public health advice because that is the right thing to do. These are experts who give advice. We cannot change it. It is what it is. Then we have to make decisions, but we do not make the decisions. The Minister makes the decisions.
I wish to go back to some of the issues on which the Government has failed and fallen down in recent times. There has been some movement on antigen testing, which I welcome. Unlike some others, I welcome the fact that antigen testing is now being used in respect of travel for people who are vaccinated. That is an appropriate use of antigen testing. However, it can be made free and accessible. The Government could decide to provide for that. There could be a really strong communication campaign on how people should use the tests and in what circumstances they should and should not. Then we could hardwire antigen testing into our overall response. That was not done. That was a failure of government.
We have talked about ventilation in schools and in workplaces time and again, and again the Minister's Government has dragged its feet. We had expert groups on antigen testing and for far too long the Government ignored the advice from the advisory panel on antigen testing. We had an expert group on ventilation. The Government just binned the reports and did not listen whatsoever. We had people resign from that group, people who were on the group who were quite critical of the fact that we have not responded. It is flabbergasting to people that we are again at a point when more restrictions are being considered and we have not done what we need to do in respect of ventilation in schools and workplaces.
Consider the ICU capacity in our hospitals. Again, the Government flunked that one and we do not have the capacity that is needed. Contact tracing in schools was ended. We went from the bizarre situation whereby schools were the safest environments you could possibly imagine and we did not need contact tracing, air circulation or ventilation, and all of a sudden the one cohort of the population that was unvaccinated, the Government says, is now the problem. It finally accepted that measures had to be taken in schools, and what did it mandate? Mask wearing, which is the public health advice, but none of the other issues such as contact tracing or ventilation were acted on and children are now freezing in schools because windows are open. That is the level of frustration that principals, teachers and parents have. The Government took away the supports for workers and for families, with a 40% reduction in the EWSS and a sliding scale reduction to the PUP. Looking at the booster jab roll-out, the Government reduced the capacity that was there in the summer when the vaccines were being rolled out. That capacity was scaled down and we are now not rolling out the booster jab as quickly as we can. That is the central problem.
I will finish my contribution by reminding the Minister of a number of things. If he wants the support of the Opposition, he has to work with it. We have to be part of the solution. Decisions have to come before the Dáil to be made. The Government brought forward a Bill on mandatory hotel quarantine last night through primary legislation. We had proper debate and scrutiny on it and we supported it. I cannot support the emergency powers Bill as it is if the amendments are not accepted. I cannot understand why they are not being accepted. Similar amendments will be tabled, I am sure, by the Labour Party, the Social Democrats and others. It is really frustrating for us, as I said last night, to hear the Minister time and again say the Government will change and will engage with the Opposition and that there will be briefings and discussion, yet I have not been informed of any briefing flowing from NPHET's recommendations, which end up in the public domain. We are all asked about them. I have been invited onto media programmes, as I am sure others in the Opposition have, and we speculate in the dark. We can go only on what is in the media, and I assume we will not be briefed for the coming days if at all. Yet the Minister then expects us just to give him a blank cheque to go and put in place whatever regulations he likes. He is unable to respond quickly. He has been too slow to respond in too many areas. The approach of the Government far too often has been clumsy, and a dog's dinner has been made of so many of the regulations and guidelines in the past. The confusion even tripped up the Government's own Ministers. That is not something I want to see continue and is not something I will support. I very much hope the amendments will be accepted. I know we are in a difficult situation. It is difficult for everybody. It is difficult for all the workers and families out there who will be listening to the news later and watching the recommendations and the changes which are coming. None of them are easy for anybody. Some people will lose their jobs. Some businesses will feel all that, but there is a real frustration out there that while all this is happening, the Government is not getting it right in so many places. I simply will not give the Minister or this Government any blank cheque.
I wish to put on the record that I support public health measures and advice. Sinn Féin has been consistent in our approach on Covid and public health. I also commend the public on how they have carried themselves right throughout this pandemic and how they have looked after themselves and others. This is despite the mixed messages, kite-flying and sometimes off-the-wall regulations the Minister has proposed.
What I do not support is the way in which these measures have been brought in and implemented. It frightens me to hand the Minister a blank cheque, a cheque he has used in the past for things such as the €9 meal, which was pure nonsense. The best way to ensure that public health measures are followed is to bring the public with you, and the Government has lost the public along the way. Kite-flying and a Cabinet with more leaks than a sieve have led to public mistrust in the Government. The people I speak to cannot take the Government at face value. There have been impractical, complicated and unworkable rules for business. I was getting my hair cut this morning and was talking to my barber, Lenny. He is concerned about another lockdown. During the first lockdown he put all the safety measures in place - masks, screens, sanitisers, air filtration, online booking systems - at great expense to himself only to be told that the shop would be closed down again. He asked me again this morning, "Will this happen again, Mark?" He has had no reassurance from the Government, and I could not reassure him because I cannot second-guess this Government any more. Lenny and other small businesses that have followed the public health guidelines are to be commended, but they looked on in shock and horror at how the Government flouted its own advice by attending things such as the private soirée in the Merrion. This was a kick in the teeth for small businesses and the public and they feel that nobody has been held accountable.
I will not interrupt Deputy Lahart if he does not interrupt me.
It seems to be one rule for some and other rules for the piglets.
We have tabled several amendments to this Bill and if they are not accepted, we cannot support the Bill. The Government has had plenty of time to address our concerns. Covid is an absolutely horrible virus. I can speak at first hand of how nasty it is, and I still have symptoms of long Covid. Nobody wants the Government to get this right more than me, and I mean that. I am immunocompromised. I am doubly vaxxed. I got my booster last week. I will follow to the end any common-sense, researched measures that are brought in. What I cannot accept, however, is the Government's lack of planning and pass-the-buck policy. It did it with the antigen tests.
It is now passing on the cost of the antigen test to the public. For example, there is no Lidl or Tesco within walking distance of my constituency office. If people want an antigen test, they have to go to the pharmacy. They are not sold in singles but in multipacks, which cost €30 each. That might not seem much to the Minister but €30 on top of the rise in the cost of living is insurmountable to some families I represent.
Deputy Cullinane touched on the failure in our schools. The Government had two years to reduce class sizes, introduce contact tracing and put proper air filtration systems in place but it did none of this. It passed the buck to the schools, which are already under enough pressure. No child should be refused entry to a school for not wearing a mask. What happens if home is not a safe place to send a child? Has that entered the Minister's thoughts?
Parents have contacted me numerous times to say their GPs are not writing waivers or notes to say their child cannot wear a mask. Has the Minister had consultation with the GPs or did he just land them with this? Failure to prepare is to prepare to fail.
During the previous debate we had here, the Minister interrupted me as I was speaking on the extension of powers under the Mental Health Act, especially around involuntary admissions to psychiatric wards by tribunals. He told me he would send me a note. I still have not received that note. I sent him an email, which he has not acknowledged. I took the Minister at his word. I can resend the email I sent last month. He expects us and the public to take him at his word but we get mixed messages and he does not follow through. He needs to restore public confidence in this Government and bring in practical, researched, easy-to-follow solutions so it is not put on the likes of schools or small businesses to carry the brunt of this.
Even compared to this morning's debate, right now feels like a very sad time. The people that have been on to me this afternoon, particularly in the past hour and a half, are angry but also disconsolate and sad about where we are going with this virus. They have known for a number of weeks that we have been heading towards restrictions. The figures have been too high in respect of case numbers and, particularly, hospitalisations and ICU admissions. While the mortality rate has gone done and the vaccines have played a significant role in that, between four and six people per day are still dying from this virus.
Many of us saw this day coming in terms of restrictions being announced. The frustration is that we in opposition have asked for changes over recent weeks, including long-term measures. As I have said, we cannot operate as if this wave will be the last. We hope it will but we have to plan that it is not. That is why we needed a strategy on antigen testing that worked.
The Taoiseach in response to me said he saw a role for regular antigen testing in households as a key measure in 2022 to suppress the virus. A couple of days later, the Minister said the Government would not subsidise antigen testing but let the market do it. Deputy Ward indicated succinctly the cost of those tests. They are not affordable for people on low incomes or social welfare payments. Antigen tests only work if done serially or regularly in a pattern. That science has been clear from the start and that is why we needed them subsidised or free.
Today, I received a reply to a parliamentary question to the Minister on staffing in our vaccination centres. He said there are struggles there and the people we had in the summer when the vaccine roll-out was firing on all cylinders have gone back to work in primary care, college, back into retirement or are in our PCR testing or swabbing centres. We are in bad shape. It is clear from his response today that we do not have enough people working on our booster programme. That is the emergency measure and power we need: a booster programme that is firing on all cylinders and getting people into pharmacies, GP surgeries, vaccination centres and pop-up vaccination centres.
I am deeply concerned. It was confirmed to me earlier what we have been hearing for several weeks, namely, that there are staffing issues in the booster programme. I ask that every effort be made. I know it is not easy. There is not a large number of skilled vaccinators out there but our backs are to the wall with this virus. We need to pull out every stop we can, even if it requires short-term training. Whatever it requires, we need to get vaccinators into all those centres and environments and get people jabbed as soon as possible.
With the restrictions recommended by NPHET today, my heart again goes out to the arts community, those working in hospitality and taxi drivers. Many taxi drivers recently came off support payments. December gets them through January and February and the rug has been taken out from under them. We have space in next week's schedule. I do not mind sitting next Friday if it means we are bringing back emergency legislation for support measures such as the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, for these workers who will be out of work. The fact these supports have been wound down while we reintroduce restrictions will mean people will lose their jobs and incomes is what angers me the most. We need to protect these vulnerable workers who, even at the best of times, can have irregular work. Now they are in the worst of times and have very few supports. They face a December that is even darker than last December, if that is even possible.
I ask the Minister, if we are extending the powers to 22 January, to at least have a weekly briefing in that period for spokespersons from NPHET please. We need it. As Deputy Cullinane stated, we are asked to go on media. To the people in our communities, we may as well be in government. We are Deputies and we have to have answers. We are giving advice and responses based on media reports and corridor rumours. It is not good enough on an issue like this. We need to know and to have briefings. Can we have regular briefings while we go into the teeth of this dark period?
In the Minister's opening statement, he said: "With the virus spreading at such high levels in the community and the recent emergence of the Omicron variant, we can unfortunately expect further hospitalisations and possible deaths in the coming weeks and months." Will he speak to that? Is that because the emerging data suggests the omicron variant is vaccine-resistant? Is there increased morbidity with this variant? What is the science? I know it is emerging science on a new variant, but what is the latest? I do not want to take our information from snapshots of news articles on Twitter and so on, but that is where people are. Something is shared that says omicron is very mild and something else that says omicron is really serious. The Minister has stated we expect further hospitalisations and deaths because of the emergence of the omicron variant. It would be most helpful if he would articulate the science behind that as best he can.
We need a long-term strategy to address the Covid-19 pandemic. We are back in a panic situation and being submerged into the depths of what will be a long December and January. We have plateaued at levels that are far too high. We have had a couple of weeks where discussions about the pressures on our ICU departments and hospitals were front and centre of the debates in this House and the media. We moved on to PCR, antigen and HEPA filters.
However, the pressure in our hospitals is worse now than it was last week or three weeks ago and it is only going to get worse. We need to imagine ourselves being inside those buildings and just how bad it is. We need to remind ourselves of the "Prime Time" documentaries, when the cameras were allowed in to show how bad it was, and how shocked we were. It is as bad now as it was then.
I do not know what the strategy might be for the unvaccinated but we have to speak about them and the damage they are doing to our health service. If there are people out there who are hesitant for medical or other reasons that we can understand and we can speak to them, we should do that. There are others who have staked a flag on the issue of vaccination as some kind of front line on freedoms, such as were outside the back gate demonstrating today. They have gone as far as taking people out of hospitals, causing real damage. People are dying because of this. I have said that previously. This is an issue on which I am not asking for an answer because I do think there is an answer. We have to be strong in condemning in the strongest terms that reckless messaging and activity that is killing people. We know from the figures that the majority of people in ICU are unvaccinated. Whether those people are active in that regard, they can be influenced by it. The power of social media messaging is so complex now it is reaching into every corner of our State. If people are vulnerable on the issue of vaccination and they have concerns about it, this is a very powerful and potent message and a dangerous one that is killing people. It is making people very sick and it is crippling our hospital services. We cannot have this debate without mentioning that.
People say that the Government has lost the dressing room. I think we are there now. People are fed up, angry and sad. They do not see an end to this pandemic. What they do see are certain tools that they want to see the Government supporting. They want Government to ensure that there are not two-day delays in PCR testing, that they have access to antigen testing and that there is good air quality in their schools. HEPA filters will play a role in that, but they are not a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. The public want clarity on policies on this and investment in these areas. The public are pragmatic. They do not want to see people die or to see our hospitals under such pressure. As difficult as they are, the public can understand restrictions. They would probably swallow them if they believed that the right decisions were being made in long-term planning for improving our health service and resourcing our doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants and hospital staff and for pandemic-proofing our health system and ensuring the roll-out of the booster jab is operating as best it can, but they are angry because they do not see these things happening. They fear there is another dark winter ahead and there is no hope coming from within this building from the Government. That is a problem.
The financial supports have to be revisited. These restrictions are not going to be a circuit breaker. Whether they will work is an unknown, but they will not be a circuit breaker. This is going to be slow down and slow out, which means people are going to be out of work and not earning a living for a long time. Twenty-one months into this pandemic, that is unacceptable.
We need to be careful about language in this House, particularly at this time. I uphold - one might ask who I am to uphold it - the right of every Deputy to express his or her views but, like me, Deputies will have noted an increase in the public temperature over the past week and, therefore, there is a need for measured comments and measured responses. I have heard members of the Opposition speak of a complete failure in our schools. Where is the evidence that there has been a complete failure in our schools? This afternoon, I visited Firhouse Community College, which was holding a raffle for Pieta House and the transition year students had constructed a wooden shed. It was a fabulous occasion. There was no comment among the teachers, the principal or the students about this, although I am sure if I had been able to stay longer we might have got into a conversation about it. Every school is open, including every post-primary school. Everybody in this House knows that every part of the school community is doing its absolute best. There is not a scintilla of evidence that there is a complete failure in our schools.
It was also stated that there is no hope from Government. The Government moved very quickly this week. It met the Licensed Vintners' Association, the Irish Hotels Federation and the Restaurants Association of Ireland to respond as quickly as possible to the issues, concerns, anxieties and awful challenges that they face. The Government will continue to do that. A sum of €600 million per month is being expended by the Government on behalf of taxpayers and citizens on support measures for businesses. I accept, as much as anybody, that, to borrow a quote, "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart". I know people are fraught and anxious. I know also that, for example, some members of my extended family can travel into this country this Christmas; they could not do that last year. Despite Opposition Deputies saying that there is no hope from this Government, almost 1 million people have been administered a third dose of vaccine. A year and a half ago, we did not think we would have a vaccine.
Members of the Opposition need to be measured in their comments. If not, what they say will be exploited and we will see more demonstrations such as took place today and they will increase.
Deputies opposite are entitled to constructively criticise the Government and to oppose the Government but if ever the country needed some semblance of the centre to hold, it is now.
All Government decisions in the past year and a half have been predicated on science. When science starts to contradict itself that creates problems. When scientists say schools are safe and they then say they never said that, that creates the kind of chink that the people who were outside this House today need. It cannot happen. When circulars are issued with blunt language, probably unknown to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, for whom I have huge admiration, the Minister then has to go out and give the practical, reasonable, real Government response to the public that we trust our schools to deal with the issue of masks and children and to make the right decisions and be sensitive to the needs of those children around whom we need to be sensitive. I accept that this week some of those issues created a degree of panic and uncertainty. When we have gymnastics by science on antigen testing, again that leads to the kind of fraught responses that we have had this week. When schools receive a circular stating, "This is a requirement and it must be enacted tomorrow morning", that is not helpful. In those circumstances, it can sometimes be helpful for Government to state that if sometimes its messaging appears confusing, a little inconsistent or even contradictory, it is because we are in the teeth of something we have never faced before.
Ours is not a perfect world and I ask colleagues, in all reasonableness, whether they could do better. Will they ask themselves which measures they would not have implemented? Would they stand over all the statements they have made over the past year? I read reports in the media today about the Government losing the room. I ask those journalists to examine the column inches that were published in the past 18 months and consider whether they would stand over all of them now. The Government is made up of human beings who are dependent on scientific advice in the teeth of a pandemic involving a virus we cannot even see and that keeps mutating and evolving.
The Minister knows I have a huge amount of respect for him because he keeps calm. I have not seen him lose the head under all the pressure and burden of decision-making that is on him and his colleagues. He should remember the conclusion of the poem from which the following lines are taken:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you...
He should hold that to his heart. There is a lot of anxiety out there but I ask the Opposition to be measured in its response. There is a responsibility on it, too, in this fraught time. The Government will make the decisions it has to make in the best interests of the people. It does not always get it right, and that is pointed out really quickly when that happens, but I ask colleagues seriously whether they could do any better. I wish the Minister and his colleagues well in the decisions they have to make. I take the points, as I know he will, about the need to communicate those decisions a little more clearly. Sometimes people issue stuff that is outside the realm of the Government, which must then respond to it.
My heart bleeds for Deputy Lahart. If I closed my eyes, it could nearly have been Deputy Durkan talking, who is usually there with his sad stories of what is going on with the Government and how Members opposite are so sensitive. Schools and parents were given 16 hours last weekend to implement new measures for schoolchildren. Perhaps Deputy Lahart will have a small bit of sensitivity for them.
We in Sinn Féin have always said we will support measures in the interest of public health, based on public health advice. What we will not support is the way the Government is seeking to impose restrictions with little consultation, no scrutiny or review of the effectiveness of the measures they are seeking to extend, and a complete disregard for the impact that last-minute measures, mixed messaging and kite-flying have on families, businesses and services. That is why we have submitted a number of amendments to ensure the regulations are scrutinised and subject to the approval of the Houses of the Oireachtas or, where urgent, that of the Joint Committee on Health. We also demand that a report reviewing the use and impact of the provisions in the Bill be provided two weeks before an extension is proposed.
We ask for these measures for very good reason. There has been an unacceptable level of consultation with, and briefing of, the Opposition in the drafting and setting of new regulations and guidance. At every turn, the Government has avoided scrutiny of the measures it seeks to extend. This makes for poor decision-making, which is something we cannot afford given the challenges facing our health and livelihoods. We have seen the consequences of this in impractical and unworkable rules being imposed on businesses, schools and families. This lack of transparency always results in the key stakeholders being excluded. Where was the consultation with schools, principals, parents and GPs on the face mask rules? A quick email to principals the evening before the rules were due to come into effect was an outrageous example of incompetence on the part of the Government, which had a week to decide on the measures but left schools and parents with just hours to prepare. This attitude gives the impression the Government is either out of its depth or is putting politics above the welfare of the State. Ministers kept repeating that the schools were safe but took no action to ensure this was the case, sending children back to school with no mitigation measures. Open windows were the solution; now it is children having to wear masks. In the first 36 hours of antigen testing being available for pod contacts in schools, 10,000 tests were being ordered. The Government cannot pretend there is no Covid in our schools.
What about businesses? Unclear guidance, mixed messages and impractical rules are damaging them. The Government response is an insult to every business owner who needs the EWSS and PUP payments restored immediately. Businesses are screaming for help. They are looking for certainty and a plan. The time for mixed messaging, no accountability and a lack of scrutiny of the Government's measures must end. Sinn Féin has tabled a number of motions that had the express purpose of keeping people safe, ensuring draft regulations are not repeated and there is full scrutiny to assist families and businesses through this crisis. If our amendments to this Bill are not accepted, we will not support it. The Minister has had plenty of time to address our concerns and correct the democratic deficit. We might be able to worry about his sensitivities after he does that.
When the country first shut down last March in an attempt the flatten the curve of infections, we knew absolutely nothing about this virus. We did not know how it was spread or how quickly it was transmitted. Everyone in this House was on board when, shortly after, we were asked to pass emergency legislation. It was a global emergency and we all understood speed was of the essence. Human rights organisations flagged the importance of balancing public health measures and the rule of law with human rights. We went ahead without the safeguards we would all have liked because we knew there was not the time to put them in place. That was 22 months ago, yet we are still operating on the narrative that there is no time for a review of the legislation and no time for oversight, proportionality tests or human rights assessments.
I mean in now way to diminish the current seriousness of the pandemic but we are not operating in the same conditions as we were when we were originally asked to enact the predecessor of this legislation. This Bill, which follows the series of Bills that went before it, will again extend the sunset clause set out last year, which was some comfort, with no changes to the content. Time and again, we were promised reviews and that the latest extension would be the last. We are now being asked to trust the Minister again in extending the provisions for another three months, with a possible additional three months after that. Many of the measures in the Bill are necessary. The requirements on wearing masks are a very important aspect of the public health measures and I accept that their enforcement is needed for the adult population. However, can we really guarantee that every single measure in the Bill and every single regulation that was passed or signed is needed? I understand that in excess of 90 regulations have been signed, which has resulted in the Policing Authority expressing concerns about navigating them. We cannot guarantee they are all necessary, nor can the Minister, because there have been no reviews of the emergency legislation or measures.
There are internationally recognised standards and frameworks for emergency laws and they exist for a reason. Such laws, by their very nature, bypass scrutiny. In this case, we are, in effect, dealing with rollover legislation. Human rights organisations in the State have been asking from the outset that the Government adopt a human rights law framework for public health measures. It is on this basis that I have submitted a number of amendments to the Bill requiring that the regulations receive approval by both Houses of the Oireachtas and that the State's human rights watchdog, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, be consulted on any measures that will impact on human rights. I am not talking about things taking forever, but consultation is necessary. A human rights law framework recognises that, in certain circumstances, limits may be put on individual rights, as when we needed last year to protect the rights of life and health that were most pressing, including for the people working in our hospitals, supermarkets and so on. However, such limits must be evidence-based, proportionate and temporary. We need to consider those conditions. We must have a careful analysis of the Covid legislation and regulations to date and more oversight over any future legislation.
None of the current legislation we have seen this week has been through pre-legislative scrutiny. No outside bodies were consulted and the legislation itself was published at the last minute, giving the Opposition very little time to analyse the legislation and the regulations properly. In fact, we had to have our amendments in yesterday, before the debate started and before we had heard the Minister’s opening statement today. I ask the Minister to consider the amendments tabled to this Bill. There is a sense of dismissiveness where Opposition amendments are treated as just something we have got to go through, and the Government will get the approval because it has the numbers in the Dáil. That is not the way to deal with this. It was not the way it was dealt with at the beginning of the pandemic.
Ensuring interference with rights is proportionate requires a careful balance of numerous factors, such as scientific evidence, analysis of the nature of the threat to the public health, careful analysis of what measures are needed to respond appropriately to that threat, what impact these measures will have on rights, how to keep interference with rights to a minimum, and how best to protect the most at risk and to prevent discrimination.
There have been terrible mixed messages. Good advice came from an expert group on environmental science about the use antigen testing. However, it seems a hierarchy of expertise is being listened to. Some of that is about the practical measures. There is a public sector duty in this country to promote equality, eliminate discrimination and protect the human rights of Members, staff and the persons to whom they provide services. This applies to all public sector actors, including the HSE, the Department of Health, the Chief Medical Officer and NPHET. For that reason, I have submitted amendments to add a general non-discrimination clause to the list of things the Minister must consider when drafting amendments. We are elected to legislate to ensure the laws passed in this country are considered and appropriate. Likewise, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, was formed by the State as its human rights watchdog. It is explicitly mandated to keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness of the law and practice in the State relating to human rights and equality. I simply ask that it and we be allowed to do our jobs. Further scrutiny of regulations by the Oireachtas and by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission would help prevent the unintended consequences we have already seen from the regulations, such as the rise in domestic violence, the isolation of older people in nursing homes and who are cocooning, the isolation of single people, the unsafe conditions for people in crowded and substandard accommodation like, for example, direct provision, and gardaí not being clear on - although this was much more at the beginning - what was guidance and what was law. I saw some of that myself.
A fundamental principle of a law is that it must be clear, precise and accessible. Everyone in this country needs to know what is legal, and what is not legal but guidance. In fact, the public is good at taking guidance. We have seen that in recent weeks, where they restricted their movements in droves, so much so that it has caused a knock-on consequence for several sectors, including the hospitality sector, events, taxi drivers, hairdressers and everyone else.
Throughout the last 22 months, it has been difficult for ourselves as legislators, for An Garda Síochána and for the public to differentiate between what is required of us legally, what is being recommended to us through guidelines, and what is just the personal opinion of individual Members, Ministers or of NPHET. We were told at one point that HIQA would do a review on children and mask wearing. We were waiting for that review and I do not believe HIQA did it. However, there was an announcement late in the day at 9 o'clock at night when circulars were sent to schools with regulations to be implemented and mandated the following morning at 9 o'clock. I am sure the Minister is getting the same calls as I am from people who are upset. I have no doubt there is a high level of virus circulating among primary school pupils. However, we continuously heard from NPHET that schools were safe. That is what most people heard. It was qualified by Dr. Ronan Glynn, who said, “we said that they were safer”. That is not how people heard it.
The Minister now has to explain to children, primary school pupils and their parents why there is a value in mask wearing, what it sets out to achieve, the time limit on its implementation and which people can be excluded from wearing masks. On the points that were made earlier, people are certainly telling me that the GPs are not providing letters. People are upset. Yesterday, I was contacted by a parent whose child has autism. They went to the GP to be sure there would not be an issue. This has been a lightning rod for people because they have not had time to think it out nor have they had the rationale explained to them so that they can in turn explain that rationale to their children as well as being able to accept it themselves. Some people have serious problems with this. I am not sure if it is a majority of people, but there are certainly people who have serious problems with this. A communication piece is hugely missing.
There is no doubt it is a different experience for a child who is looking at a teacher who is talking from behind a mask. It is a different experience for children to talk to each other while wearing masks. This sends a message that they may have reason to feel a little more unsafe by virtue of the fact this protection is required.
The Minister set out this message, but he ignored the advice from environmental health about HEPA air filtration systems in schools. I am hearing from teachers who are saying they have a problem getting substitute teachers. Many teachers are out with colds and flu because windows and doors in schools have to be open. If the doors are not open then the CO2 monitor will show the air has reached an unsafe level. They are wearing three coats, they have blue hands, and they are like that for five or six hours a day. I am probably exaggerating about the three coats, but the children are cold. They are sitting in a classroom that is at 10°C. You would not ask somebody to work in that kind of an environment. There has to be a rethink about situations in many of our schools and classes where there are a good number of pupils. Most primary school class sizes in my area, and I am sure in the Minister’s area too, are somewhere around 30 pupils. That is a lot of people in a classroom. It is difficult to achieve good air quality. There is a part-solution here that would be enormously helpful. Somebody has got to go back to the drawing board fairly quickly, look at this and start taking the advice of people who are the environmental scientists. They need to look at and listen to the evidence from those people, rather than from those who are not experts in environmental science.
On boosters, I was one of the fortunate people who was in the cohort the Minister talked about. I was in Citywest last Friday. I was in a good humour to queue for a long time. I was happy to be there and happy to get the booster. However, people were there who were frozen cold because they did not know that they were going to be standing outside for two hours and then another hour and a half inside. It was worse the next day. I felt sorry for the people inside, because there were not enough people administering the vaccinations. That is where the logjam was. Some of it was a timetabling thing. It could have been timetabled better.
We have to throw everything at this in terms of the number of vaccinations.
It is not fair on the people on the front line. Some of them are getting complaints but the complaints are going to the wrong people. We should be saluting these people. It was not the same scenario in the vaccination centre for the booster as it was for my first and second doses. It felt a lot more chaotic as regards the length of time I was there. Whoever can be put in to assist should be. The pharmacies can be a great solution there. The boosters are going to be very important and we all acknowledge that. The Janssen vaccine wanes fairly quickly and a large cohort of young people, who will be out and about, got that. There will have to be a serious look at the duration between when they got it and when they will get the booster, or the second dose or whatever you want to call it. I am not put out by what people call it.
Those practical measures are the things we need to see and we need to see them at speed. We have gone from accepting that this is a pandemic to a point where we have to accept that this is endemic. The CEO of Pfizer said he anticipates that an annual vaccine will be required but we have to put other measures in place so we can live as normally as possible. We have to stop going from wave to wave and we must have an armoury of things that can be used. The likes of air filtration systems are part of that because the last thing any of us want is our schools closing. We have to keep them open but we have to keep them open safely. That includes teachers and pupils. There is a finite number of teachers and we have to keep them as healthy as possible. I was surprised that they were not included in the antigen testing regime. We have to accept that our climate does not allow for a lot of outdoor activity in the winter, although it is fine in the summer or when the weather is okay.
Regarding this emergency legislation, we have to get back to people being briefed. People are ringing me up and asking if there is going to be another lockdown and so on and asking what I can tell them, but we are relying on the media. It is not good enough that we would not have a briefing to break down what the issues are. We cannot be advocates for some of these measures because we simply do not have the information. We cannot have an input and we are excluded from regular briefings. Then things come like a bolt out of the blue, like this legislation, without the kinds of safeguards we require. We are 22 months on. How do we not have time to consult with the very people who will be the watchdogs, at the time we need them, that is, when there is emergency legislation? The idea of excluding the State's watchdog on human rights, namely, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, from this kind of legislation is just not acceptable.
I hope the Minister will look at the amendments we have tabled. They have been put down in good faith and we would like them to be taken in good faith. I appeal to the Minister to do something about the communication on mask-wearing in schools. He also needs to go back to the drawing board on ventilation in classrooms. Children cannot go through the winter with all the windows open, particularly when there is another avenue that could go some way towards assisting good quality air in classrooms and perhaps keeping the level of the virus down in the primary school cohort. It is going to be some time before they are offered a vaccine and there may well be a different attitude when it comes to that. There will need to be some serious reassurance of parents because adults will take a vaccine themselves but will be more thoughtful about their children, so we need more advanced warning and thought on that.
It is now 22 months since this House enacted legislation that imposed very significant restrictions on people's lives and freedoms. At the time Deputy Donnelly and I, as well as Deputy Lahart, were in opposition on the other side of the Chamber. In fairness to this Dáil, every party in this Chamber agreed with that legislation, which was enacted back in March 2020. All Independent Deputies supported it as well. It is important, however, that we reflect on the powers that were given as a result of that legislation because they were extraordinary. We were given the power to restrict people's freedom of movement and stop people from leaving their houses unless they had a reasonable excuse. There were powers to close down schools and to allow children to be educated at home and there were even powers to close businesses and restrict people from playing sport. They were extraordinary powers that this House delegated to the Minister for Health.
The reason we did so was because of the great fear we had. It was a fear of a pandemic about which we knew so little and which seemed to be posing such a threat around the world. It initially started in China but when it came into Italy it sent shock waves throughout the rest of Europe. After that, we had significant lockdowns. Relative to the rest of the world, we probably imposed some of the most strict and lengthy lockdowns in the world. The reason the Irish public went along with that, and the reason the body politic remained united in respect of it, was, to be blunt, because of fear and because of hope. The fear was one of this unknown disease and what it was going to do to the public and the fact that so many people were dying as a result of it throughout the world, but the hope was also hugely important. The hope was that vaccines were coming on the horizon. One of the most remarkable achievements of mankind so far in this century has been to produce vaccines that have been so effective in protecting people from this dangerous disease.
The Minister does not generally get credit from the media or the Opposition but what they cannot take away from him is the fact that he presided over an extremely successful vaccination programme and he is continuing to do so. What we managed to achieve in this country is quite extraordinary. We have 93% of the adult population vaccinated. If we had said that to people in this House before the vaccination programme started, they would have thought it highly unlikely that that level of success could be achieved. We are also now seeing the extent to which the vaccines are effective. The Minister mentioned that 50% of the people in ICU are unvaccinated and do not have underlying conditions, whereas the 50% who are vaccinated do, regrettably, have underlying conditions. Obviously we wish all people in hospital well and we want to ensure those patients get out of ICU.
The purpose of the lockdowns and restrictions was to ensure our health system did not become overrun. That was the primary objective and that was the reason it was justified and accepted in this House. Today, there are 528 people in hospital, 110 of whom are in ICU. Our health system is not being overrun. We need to recognise that there are threats to the healthcare system but also we need to recognise that the Irish public have been through an awful lot. Many people are concerned today because notwithstanding the fact that we have 93% of the population vaccinated and that we had some of the lengthiest and strictest lockdowns in the world we are considering reimposing restrictions.
The Cabinet has a difficult task, but it is important we take into account that factor as well as where the public is in respect of this issue. When NPHET puts out information to the effect it is making recommendations to the Government, that puts the Government in a difficult position, but when making decisions, it is important we try to retain the level of agreement and consensus that has existed in this House and among the public to date. My concern is that it is probably inevitable that support will become more fractured and fragmented as time goes on.
Twenty months ago, I emphasised what I thought was the importance of considering the consequences of the restrictions. We all see the consequences of the pandemic in the more than 5,700 Covid-associated deaths and the number of people who have been to hospital, but we do not appreciate the damage the restrictions can have on various sections of our population. I have always been concerned about the impact lockdowns have on children. The closure of schools was devastating to children and we need a much broader perception of what public health is when considering issues in respect of schools. It is a great achievement that our schools have remained open, but there should be no question mark over them closing. It is fundamental to the educational, social, physical, personal and public health development of children in general that they stay open.
I have noticed that the levels of anxiety in society have increased significantly recently. There is a fear we are in an endless cycle of new variants each year that will inevitably result in the Government and the Oireachtas supporting further restrictions on people's movements. However, we need to recognise we are in a different position today than we were in March or even December 2020. The benefits of vaccination mean something and are significant. One of the great advantages of there being such widespread vaccination is we can now have a broader assessment of what risk is. At the beginning of the pandemic, risk was viewed exclusively in terms of the impact the pandemic was having on our public health system and the impact the disease was having on individuals. We must now recognise we need a broader assessment of risk. When considering restrictions, we need to recognise the damage they can do to the public at large, in particular children and other young people.
I will support the legislation. It is important the Minister would have this power. I know he will be careful in exercising it because he will take into account the factors I have mentioned.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Bill. Sinn Féin has submitted a number of amendments. I will focus on one for the moment, which reads: "Require regulations made under the Acts to require the approval of the Houses of the Oireachtas or, where urgent, the Joint Committee on Health, with approval of the Houses following as soon as possible." What member of a democratically elected Government would have a problem with that? Accountability and oversight are compatible with good government and good governance. Without our amendments being accepted, we cannot support the mechanism and method of how these measures are being introduced and implemented.
Consistently, there has been an appalling lack of consultation by the Government with relevant stakeholders, most recently school principals, parents and GPs regarding face masks and children. There has never been a greater example of "We have tried nothing and we are all out of ideas" when it comes to this Government, schools and managing Covid. For a Government that has so many well-paid advisers, the communications concerning Covid have been consistently mind-boggling. This has caused confusion and created a vacuum where misinformation was given the oxygen to spread. That is unforgivable. The Government had an opportunity to bring people with it, but not only did it miss that opportunity, it ignored it completely.
The Government gave itself a week to make the decision on face masks for kids and then gave schools 16 hours to communicate it and enforce it with a hard-line attitude that we have not even seen in operation in the Dáil at times. The guidelines issued take no consideration of so many factors that it is difficult to know where to begin, but I will start with this one. A medical certificate must be provided to the school confirming a pupil falls into one of three exempted categories, the first being any pupil with difficulty breathing or any other relevant medical condition. The first question most people would ask would be what a relevant medical condition was. GPs are already operating beyond capacity, yet the Minister for Education stated on national radio that kids with glasses could get certificates of exemption.
We are all in agreement that no children should be penalised or have their education withheld. As difficult as Covid has been for us as adults over the past two years, the pressure, anxiety and stress it has placed on children are incalculable. As adults and legislators, we need to stop trying to force children to look at Covid as we do, that is, through adult eyes.
The Opposition, school communities and parents have raised concerns vocally about the safety of schools, but we were met with the constant mantra of "Schools are safe". The Government could not even stand over that statement because contact tracing had ceased.
It would be more comfortable. My foot is sore today.
I will state categorically that People Before Profit will not be supporting this legislation. We opposed the renewal of these measures in the past and we are opposing them again. They are to be extended to March and possibly beyond. We are opposing them because we do not trust the Government with these laws, nor do we any longer have hope that it will do the right thing in a manner that will build and maintain social solidarity throughout the pandemic and secure public health.
In 2020, our citizens responded to the health measures with admirable social solidarity. They respected lockdowns, they respected social distancing and they took care of one another. We now have a very high vaccination rate. The Minister went through the figures - more than 91% are fully vaccinated and the partially vaccinated represent, I believe, 95%. Of the 5% of people who remain unvaccinated, a large cohort are marginalised communities to whom the Government could do much more to reach out in an attempt to educate and convince them it is the right thing to do.
I disagree with people who are opposed to vaccinations, but I do not scapegoat them. They are not the largest part of the problem, particularly given that our society has such a high level of fully vaccinated people. The pandemic is still spreading. That is not the fault of the unvaccinated, yet this legislation could scapegoat them.
The majority of people support vaccinations. We saw the queues last week when it was announced that boosters would be available in places like Citywest. The queues were enormous. People waited nearly five hours to get their boosters. They are enthusiastically embracing the vaccination programme. As such, the situation cannot be framed as the unvaccinated being the problem.
I wish to discuss what I view as a much wider problem. To start with the global issue, there is a major problem in the spread of the variants. Delta and, lately, Omicron have become frightening. I watched a newsreel about South Africa today. South Africa's hospitals are being overwhelmed, mostly by young patients. However, that is not the result of a biological evolutionary process in the virus alone. It is also the result of private ownership of the pharmaceutical industry and its drive to increase its profits at all costs. South Africa, other countries and the WHO have repeatedly asked to lift the patents on these vaccines to enable countries to control the virus in their own way and produce vaccines across the developing world. Tragically, this Government has enthusiastically supported the EU in backing the global pharmaceutical industry in its refusal to remove the patents.
This is the most brutal case of putting profit before the health of the population of the world. Now we have a greater pool of unvaccinated people in the developing world, which gives the virus more and more scope to mutate.
I heard the remarks of Deputy Lahart about how the Government has followed the science and taken the advice at every step. That is just not true. Last Christmas, clear advice was given to the Government that it could choose to open up the economy or allow people to visit each other's homes over the Christmas period, but it could not do both. What did it do? The Government did both. It ignored the advice. That has led to a further lockdown and endangering thousands of lives.
The failure to respond to the scientific evidence that Covid-19 is an airborne disease and the failure to legislate and regulate for cleaner air in all workplaces, most importantly, including schools, is outrageous. That was a choice. An expert group was set up and scientific advice was given, but the Government chose to ignore it. There have been shambolic and dangerous policies in schools. We have put at risk thousands of unvaccinated children, teachers, families, SNAs and other staff. Alongside the totally inadequate conditions, we stopped testing and tracing in schools, which was a deliberate policy to hide the number of cases.
There are incoherent and inconsistent policies around antigen testing. This should have been available from the start, but the Government has been dithering and procrastinating and is worried about the cost of it. These tests have become another excuse for rip-off Ireland. In Britain, France and Finland, those tests are free to people who are worried about being contaminated with Covid or those who are showing symptoms. In Portugal and Germany, they cost as little as €1 each. Here, they are as high as €8 each. It is rip-off Ireland all over again. There has been mixed and confused messaging that has undermined public confidence in public health measures like, dare I say it, golfgate and Merriongate. Despite that, people still responded in an overwhelmingly responsible manner.
The Government has failed us. It has failed to introduce a comprehensive national sick pay scheme. It has failed to increase hospital bed capacity or ICU capacity. It failed to pay student nurses and other student cohorts who worked so hard for us during the pandemic. We failed to give nurses more leave or to increase their pay and it is one of the main reasons we continually hear nurses talk about emigrating. We failed to take private hospital capacity into public ownership, despite vast sums of money being paid to those private entities. We failed with an ineffective and outsourced mandatory hotel quarantine system that has served as a racist theatre, where we single out countries from which people may or may not come freely into this country. Now, elected representatives are being asked to extend this legislation that will impact on people's rights without the parliamentary scrutiny or robust analysis other Deputies talked about.
The majority of people in this country will continue to do the right thing if they have confidence in the Government to maintain social solidarity, but that confidence is constantly being eroded, in particular by dishonest messaging. It was totally dishonest to talk about the schools being safe. Overnight, it has been replaced with a contradictory, unrealisable instruction to principals to take instruction on masks from the Department. I want to go into the issue in detail because this is worrying principals and teachers right across the country. I will read from a letter a deputy principal sent to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. The Minister will probably get sight of it:
I am concerned that the ambiguity surrounding the memo given to us leaves us in a very vulnerable position as a school. This memo issued as a pdf not on departmental paper and it is not at all signed. It is unclear under whose authority this has been issued. The memo states that we should refuse entry to schoolchildren, which is in stark contrast to all other circulars and statutory instruments regarding access to education. Usually there are protocols and procedures in place that involve discussions with parents and lengthy interventions before we would take such a drastic step as to exclude a child from school. Is this memo legally binding and if so, can you clarify its status in terms of legal instruments?
I am finished the quote. I am not directly asking the question myself, although it would be useful if it could be answered. I know not everybody is going to be able to see what I am holding, but I can and civil servants and Ministers here will be familiar with it. I have in my hand what an official memo from the Department looks like. It is on headed paper, it has Oireachtas written all the way across it and it is signed. What was sent out to the schools instructing them that where a medical certificate is not provided by a pupil, they will be refused entry into the school was not on headed paper and was not signed. It was not in the format that one could accept as a legally binding document. That must be urgently clarified to schools, parents and children.
I believe the recommendation for everybody who can, to mask up, is the right thing to do. People Before Profit sees it as part of a suite of measures that will help prevent the spread of the virus. I ask the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, if measures come in suites to help prevent the spread of the virus. I do not mean bags of sweets, I mean S-U-I-T-E-S. If they come as packages of things that we must do, then where are the high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters for schools? Science has told us that they help in the fight against the spread of an airborne virus. We will give the kids masks but not filters. We will give schools instructions to exclude kids, but we will not give them the testing and tracing that they need.
This heavy-handed approach, combined with the failure to heed the science has only served to increase anxiety and hesitancy. The powers given to the Garda in this legislation are also disproportionately applied and worrying. In May, we got figures for fines for fixed-payment notices issued by the Garda. At that time, of the 6,066 fines issued, almost half were issued in two Garda stations, Blanchardstown and Ballymun. This is obviously where the Garda were working the hardest – in working class areas, where 70% of those who were fined were under 35 years of age. The disproportionate application of those powers is extremely worrying. That is why we do not believe they should be extended. We should depend on the social solidarity and goodwill of people responding to a Government that seems to know what it is doing, but not to a Government that does not seem to know what it is up to.
In the same vein, how many managers of meat plants have been issued with fines for their failure to protect workers in those meat plants? Only last week we heard of an outbreak in a meat plant with 260 cases. The previous week we heard of a grant being given to the meat industry of €78 million, allegedly to help it through Brexit, but we could not spend €12 million on providing every classroom with a HEPAfilter. This week, the Government voted against giving those meat plant workers the right to a sick pay scheme that would help to keep them safe and would mean that they would not feel obliged to go into work and spread the virus when they had symptoms or when they were sick. What fines have been issued to directors and managers of nursing homes? The outbreaks in nursing homes are rising again. Where is the increased capacity in the Health and Safety Authority to inspect workplaces? We were told there is one extra inspector this year. The Government's strategy to quell the virus with practical measures is weak and instead it relies entirely on personal behaviour. There is a very good article in The Irish Timestoday. When I grow up I want to be able to write like Orla Muldoon. She is a professor at the Centre for Social Issues Research at the University of Limerick:
Eulogising personal responsibility is usually a counter-narrative designed to obscure systemic failures.
The failures in our systems are serious: an overburdened health service going back many years, a PCR testing system that cannot meet demand, a track and trace system that has not been able to keep up with the levels of reported infections, historically overcrowded classrooms where mitigations have been too long coming...
To continue with personal responsibility as a solution to the greatest crisis of our times is a political choice. It is also a shameful abdication of political responsibility and leadership.
I could not agree with her more. Covid-19 has brought into sharp relief the utter failure of the capitalist economic model to protect our health and the utter failure of this right-wing Government.
In the same breath as we seek to extend far-reaching powers, this Government has cut the pandemic unemployment payment to the bone and is due to end it completely as this legislation is extended. There is no intention in the legislation to reintroduce the eviction ban as we face into the winter. There is no intention to ban rent increases. There are no measures to deal with the energy crisis and the rising prices that people are facing while they are expected to stay at home longer. The only response to the energy crisis is for the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to announce this week that he is allowing the building of another seven gas-fired power stations to fuel data centres at a huge cost to the Exchequer.
I do not want to be all negative and I want to finish on what we could do. First, we need to replace the Government. We need to get rid of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and replace the Government with a genuine left-wing government that will defy the rules of the capitalist system and take measures that are necessary to protect people's health. We need to increase hospital capacity to reach the EU average level of beds per 1,000 of the population and increase the ICU capacity to 500 beds, given we only have 5.6 beds per 100,000 of population whereas the average in Europe is 12 ICU beds per 100,000. We need to bring staffing levels of public health teams up to the recommended levels as they are currently at one third of the recommendation, take private capacity of hospitals into public ownership and ensure an integrated, single-tier health system for Covid and non-Covid healthcare. We need to resource the test and trace infrastructure to ensure rapid access to testing, including walk-in test centres, free antigen tests and state-of-the-art contact tracing, restore the contact tracing in schools in full, and work with teachers and their unions to help resolve the staffing crisis in the schools. We need to establish legal minimum requirements for ventilation and air filtration in our workplaces and provide resources to ensure this happens. We need to pay the nurses, midwives and student nurses, and abolish the fees they must pay to enter college to have these careers. We need to speed up the booster vaccine programme, with priority for the vulnerable elderly, healthcare workers and those areas of our society where there is low vaccine coverage. Most important, we need to demand a waiver on the intellectual property rights of vaccine production. We need to restore the PUP for those losing their jobs and their earnings because of any new advice that may come out today. Ultimately, we have to move away from the disgraceful health service we have lived with for decades and increase our capacity to a system where we always have about 20% of overhead in case of emergency.
They might seem like way-over-the-top socialist policies but that is what we need to do. That is why I say that if Covid has shown us anything, it is the utter failure of the capitalist mode of production and economic activity to protect the health of human beings on the planet.
First, I want to comment on the previous speaker. I am not sure where she gets the money tree from but she is like the Sinn Féin Party: there is money for everything, give it all free, charge nothing and give everyone whatever they want. I suppose that is socialist politics and nobody-----
Please have the manners not to interrupt anybody. I made a comment like every parliamentarian. I was elected to this House, like the Deputy, to give my view. The Deputy wants to give everything for free - the money tree is there - and pay for absolutely nothing.
Unfortunately, we are back to a situation that we all wished we would not have to revisit, and it is unfortunate we are back. I know people can blame Government policy and Government decisions and everything like that, but I laugh when I hear people on the Opposition benches standing up to say they accept the public health advice and in the next breath they rubbish it. One issue that has come through today is the wearing of face masks for nine-year-olds.
I was very fortunate and lucky to be at the Cabinet table for nine and half years. Unfortunately, part of that was when Covid hit this country. The Opposition parties ran for the hills when difficult decisions had to be made. After a number of months, they wet their finger and put it up to see what way the wind was blowing, and said, “Now we will go with whatever way the wind is blowing.” Fortunately for them, maybe, they do not have to make the decisions and they do not have to defend the decisions. They can be all things to all men, and that is exactly what they have been for the past 18 to 24 months.
The Government has a responsibility to protect the citizens of this State. I think they might not always have got it right but they have done their best on every single occasion. The public might not want to hear the messaging from Government. This is where there is a responsibility on the Opposition with regard to the mixed messaging and everything like that. They understand the process. They understand when the NPHET advice comes in and the Government has to have time to consider it.
There is also a responsibility on our media and our national broadcaster. Over recent weeks, they have been disgraceful in some of the coverage they have given this issue of Covid-19. I often think they nearly wish for it to continue because it covers plenty of hours on our national airwaves. It is totally irresponsible behaviour given some of their broadcasting and media coverage over the past while, specifically over recent weeks. They understand the process very well. They are professional people. They are being paid very well to understand it. However, because it does not suit their narrative, they muddy the waters, create a bit of hysteria, mud throwing, and everything like that. I would call on our national broadcaster to be more responsible in its messaging, to be more responsible in its production, to be more responsible when its presenters are going out, and to give some fair coverage and responsible coverage. Some people on this side of the Dáil will be afraid----
Well, then, you should use them. Have manners. Did I interrupt you?
I call on our national broadcaster to be responsible in its broadcasting. That is why it is being given the licence fee to do so.
It is very difficult for the Government to impose restrictions. It has not been easy on the citizens of this State. It has not been easy for the social fabric or the economic fabric of this State. Yesterday, with my colleague Deputy Durkan and many others, I met people from the hospitality sector. It has been a really difficult time for them over the past 18 months and now they have further restrictions. The Minister is sitting at the Cabinet table. I understand an announcement is coming up regarding economic supports for this sector and I plead with the Minister that they are given every support possible. They were very thankful yesterday for the supports they have been given over recent months, and it was responsible of them to recognise that.
We still have huge amount to learn about the new variant and we are learning as we go along. Maybe if there had been no new variant, we might not be in this serious situation we are in today.
People spoke about antigen tests. In some European countries there are pop-up antigen tests free of charge. It is not a swab up the nose and, although I am only going on hearsay, my understanding is it is a saliva test. We have time between now and Christmas, or up to the middle of December, to have pop-up test facilities across Dublin, Limerick, Cork and the bigger cities, which would be a very worthwhile project. People would get their email and when went into a restaurant would be able to say they had their antigen test in one of these pop-up facilities.
I encourage the Minister to look at that aspect.
My other issue concerns vaccinations for children aged five to 12. I plead with the Minister to ensure we roll out this vaccination process as soon and as fast as possible. It has been proven that the vaccines are working in secondary schools. The highest rate of infection now is to be found in our primary schools. I plead with the Minister, therefore, to get the roll-out of the vaccination process underway for those aged five to 12. It is of the utmost importance. I spoke with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, about this issue at a committee meeting yesterday. In his opening statement, the Minister said that 91% of those aged 12 years old and older have taken the opportunity to get vaccinated. What we are witnessing here is unique, compared to the rest of the world. We should, indeed, also make more financial supports available to Third World countries in respect of the roll-out of vaccines.
I could speak here for the next hour on this issue, but I plead with the Minister to look at the points I have raised. I commend him on the job he is doing. I also commend the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the three Government parties. This is a very difficult time. The Opposition has no responsibility here. It does not want the responsibility and it will never take it in respect of this traumatic time we are witnessing as a country.
I agree that the Government has responsibility. It is in power, and therefore it has the information and all the resources of government to be able to do what needs to be done. Our difficulty from time to time has not been regarding measures, but the lack of a coherent plan and clear messaging. These aspects must be improved. We all accept that this is an incredibly difficult situation. Everyone here, particularly from an Opposition perspective, has spoken about how we do not get the briefings. We are not aware of all the ins and outs of the situation and all the information. Sometimes where we get our briefings from is RTÉ. I suppose that is no different now.
I see in a notification from RTÉ that the Taoiseach has said that when he spoke to the CMO, the CMO and his team were exceptionally clear about their worries and that has been accepted by the Government. We are talking about a form of restrictions between 7 December 2021 and 9 January 2022. Nightclubs are to be closed, there is to be strict social distancing in bars and restaurants, with table service only, a distance of 1 m between tables, no multiple bookings and 50% capacity at entertainment, cultural, community and sporting events. In addition, Covid passes will be required for gyms, leisure centres, hotel bars and restaurants. Household visits are also now reduced to those involving four households. There may be some variation regarding that last issue.
We accept that we are in a really dangerous situation. People are talking about the potential danger posed not only by the Delta variant that we have been dealing with already, but what we now face from Omicron as well. Whatever we do, though, we must ensure we make up for where the messaging has not been clear. I call for the Government to engage more with the Opposition. That must happen. I do not think that using this form of emergency powers almost two years into this process is the correct way to deal with this issue. When the Government has come up with sensible solutions, we have supported them, and that is what we must have now.
Difficulty arises sometimes when NPHET guidelines are issued, but then no narrative or declarations follow from the Government. That adds to the possibilities. Everyone here has spoken about the messaging to schools. At best, it was fast and imperfect. I engaged with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and she spoke about flexibility and common sense. I hope that will occur in schools. The messaging in this regard, however, must be improved.
We know the situation we are dealing with. We must deal with the issue on an international basis in respect of a waiver of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, known as the TRIPS Agreement, and thereby ensure the maximum output of vaccines across the world. We must also get our booster process, PCR testing and everything we can do in operation as fast as possible. We know our healthcare system is under stress and that there are weaknesses there. However, all the tools that we can bring to bear in this regard must be brought to bear. Therefore, I again ask the Minister for a greater level of engagement. I think he will be happy with the response that he will get. People out there and in here want to do the right thing. We must, however, sell what needs to be done to the public, and that requires good, decent and clear messaging.
We in Aontú will be opposing the extension of this legislation. We are the only political party in the Chamber that has opposed each extension of these measures. Governance of this country is at a low ebb. It is incredible that even today, details of NPHET's proposals concerning potential restrictions were leaked to the media before that information was even given to the Government. Nobody thought of giving that information to the Opposition to allow us to look at these recommendations. Now we have a situation whereby the Opposition has been forced to learn about these restrictions through the media. The democratic structures of this State right now are an afterthought. Will the Government do anything about the leak? Absolutely not. How can a Government that has been built on leaks do anything about leaks from other organisations?
It is important to state that there is good news. The hospitalisation figures regarding Covid-19 are falling. We would not know this currently by the narrative that is out there, but thankfully the numbers of those requiring care in ICUs and hospitalisation more generally are down. The incidence of the virus is highest among the very young, but there is good news there as well. The damage done to the very young is thankfully low. Nobody under the age of 14 has died from Covid-19 in the last two years in this State.
For 19 months, in fairness to the Government as well, it also made the point that young people were protected from the worst aspects of this virus. However, for some strange reason, the Government has significantly flipped its message in the last four weeks. The truth of the matter is that Covid-19 is going nowhere fast. Whether they are vaccinated or not, most people in this country are likely to get Covid-19. We need to be careful and we must protect the vulnerable. The best way to do that, though, is by creating hospital capacity. Inaction with regard to capacity is one of the biggest threats to the protection that can be afforded to people with Covid-19 in this State, as well to the 1 million people on the waiting lists for treatment. The differential between the number of ICU beds that exist and the number there should be is 260. That is double the number of ICU beds taken up by people with Covid-19. The lack of Government investment, therefore, is a bigger threat to ICU capacity than Covid-19, and that is saying something.
In addition, regarding hospital capacity, some 70,000 people applied to the Be on Call for Ireland campaign. People came home from Australia and elsewhere to help with human resources and hospital capacity, but only 400 of those people were employed. That is an incredible thing. No matter what kind of marketing bumf we get from the Minister opposite, the truth of the matter is that the dial has hardly been moved when it comes to increasing healthcare capacity.
One of the other big issues in this regard has been access to antigen testing at specific venues. We in Aontú have been calling for that for more than a year. It is one of the biggest failures of this Government. It has been talking about it for 14 months, and has been refusing to decide. When it finally did make decisions in this regard, it then quickly U-turned, and finally outsourced the matter of antigen testing to Lidl and Aldi.
Nursing homes and hospitals have been at the epicentre of the Covid-19 crisis in this State. The majority of people who have died in this State have caught Covid-19 in a hospital or nursing home. These are two areas for which the Minister is directly responsible. It is incredible. We have brought much information to light in this regard. In the first six months of 2020, some 10,000 people were moved from hospitals into nursing homes. The advice at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic was to stop visitors going into nursing homes, but the Government overturned that. For another month, visitors were circulating in nursing homes.
We have called for an investigation regarding this matter, but the Government has refused. Therefore, we in Aontú have drafted a Bill and submitted it. We hope to be able to speak to it soon. It is intended to facilitate the setting up of an investigation into what happened in the nursing homes. We must remember that more people died in nursing homes and hospitals than in any other institutions since the founding of this State. There must be an investigation into this issue.
Instead of building capacity and doing the simple things right, such as air filtration, PCR tests and contact tracing, something else has happened.
The Government has leaned on the people of Ireland with great cost and look at what it has done. It has been a complete Horlicks in a range of matters from the very start. We had the €9 meal we were told was safer than €8 meals and pubs had to keep records of meals sold for 28 days. There were calls to bring in the Army to control students. There was a limit of ten people at a funeral in the largest buildings in town when dozens of people were in queues for wine and crisps in the shops directly opposite. We had people able to drink pints while standing in public spaces but not allowed to do it sitting down, and this led to riot police charging at people a couple of streets away from this Dáil Chamber. We heard debates on whether socks were essential items of clothing and saw nightclubs closed.
Incredibly, parents, teachers and students were given a 16-hour space in which to implement a diktat putting masks on nine-year-old children. The idea the Government would refuse education to a nine-year-old child with glasses who cannot see when wearing a mask because the spectacles fog up is absolutely incredible. There is the nonsense of being able to get a Covid-19 test in this State before travelling abroad and the same test allowing re-entry into the country. The Zappone Merrion Hotel affair also demonstrated the rules were for the little people and not the Government. The Government has been a fiasco factory for over 18 months. It has relied on yo-yo restrictions over and back and they have caused enormous damage to the fabric of our society. Everywhere we look, people are afraid because of what is happening in this country.
Covid-19 is going nowhere and we must live with it. That means we must do our best to protect life but also do our best to keep society open. We are being told to follow the science but every time I put in a question, I am told there is none. I asked NPHET if any research was done on the Covid-19 pass but it said there was not. The Covid-19 pass lets people into hospitality who have Covid-19 and can stop people who do not have Covid-19 from using the hospitality. It is incredible. I asked the Government a week ago now if there was any evidence to support the mandatory wearing of masks by young children in schools but none has been forthcoming.
I know the Minister is busy but I ask him to listen to the facts. I have information, some of which is from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre website. Additional data have been released to me as well. In the past four weeks there were 26 outbreaks in nursing homes, 81 outbreaks in hospitals, 27 outbreaks in residential centres for people with disabilities and seven outbreaks in refuges for women. In the same period there were three outbreaks in hotels, four outbreaks in pubs and two outbreaks in restaurants. Right now there are 20 times more outbreaks in hospitals than there are in pubs in this State. That information was given to me by the Minister's Department and it contains such damning figures. Again, the locations where people should be most protected are those where probably the most damage is happening in the State.
I only have a little time left. Unfortunately, the Minister is presiding over a crumbling health service while pontificating to struggling small and medium-sized enterprises, including pubs and restaurant owners etc., on keeping people safe.
If we want to reduce infection rates in hospitals, we must start introducing antigen tests for people wishing to access those hospital buildings. The problem is the Government is blind to such possibilities. It was going to wind up NPHET a month ago and Mr. Paul Reid said in August that when we hit a 20% vaccination rate, the whole country would open. The truth is the level of transmission between those who are vaccinated is far higher than expected. The vaccine has absolutely done tremendous work in reducing the level of damage caused by the illness with respect to mortality and morbidity but it has not stopped transmission. The Government has not taken this into consideration with its current policies and actions. We must introduce antigen testing to replace the Covid-19 pass so we can reduce the level of illness in hospitals.
The Government has gotten away with its actions in large part because the Opposition has been atrocious over the past while. Sinn Féin sat on the fence for almost two years, afraid to make a mistake while it waits to be part of the Government. The smaller parties have gone down a zero Covid cul-de-sac from the start. The Social Democrats, for example, said the country should not open until we get to a level of fewer than ten cases per day. It is an incredible figure and if the policy had been followed, the country would never have opened at all. It is incredible the country's smallest and newest political movement in this Dáil has provided the strongest opposition to the disastrous policies from this Government.
We are debating again a serious policy, a Bill "to provide for the continuation in operation [...] of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020, the Health (Amendment) Act 2020 and the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021, in the public interest and having regard to the continuing manifest and grave risk to human life and public health posed by the spread of the disease known as Covid-19 [...] in order to mitigate, where practicable, the effects of the spread of that disease; and to provide for related matters." That is from the Bill itself.
I listen to science and I took account of swabbing, mask use, testing and tracing, ventilation, social distancing, rapid and not so rapid testing. The truth is we would not be in our current space if not for our society and the development of Covid-19 vaccines. They have put us in a singularly more positive place than we could have hoped to have been 12 months ago. We have one of the highest vaccine take-up rates in Europe now. That said, many are still decrying the actions taken to date, including the mandatory implementation of restrictions, the closing of businesses and schools, restrictions to civil liberties etc.
The Omicron variant is still being assessed for the possibility of a higher rate of transmissibility. The key to understanding restrictions is to comprehend that a higher level of infection nationally will lead to a higher number of people being significantly ill. These additional sick people, combined with our current hospital population, would completely overwhelm our healthcare system, and this is what we are trying to defend against.
I am not a fan of restrictions. I am a member of the Regional Independent Group, which was first to propose an amendment in this House that would add a sunset clause to the legislation the Minister is proposing to extend. In my previous contribution to the Minister some weeks ago, I asked that he would not return to the House without seeking a new mandate for an extension of powers. That said, the new variant is, unfortunately, a game changer. We cannot afford to delay in trying to suppress this virus in our general population and society. Some of the powers being debated, including the right to detain people under certain circumstances, should only be exercised as a last resort and we need a definite date for their termination.
I will speak to what we are doing and what we are not. With air travel, we have not yet implemented a testing system, and it has been announced that it is again delayed for another 48 hours. The system will require people arriving to the State, whether vaccinated or not, to have a negative Covid-19 test result. Those people travelling with an antigen test result would need it done within 48 hours of the arrival into the country and it must be professionally administered. Those with a PCR test result have a longer window of 72 hours.
I will reflect what a Galway man has passed to me. He is travelling to Birmingham tonight with three family members and has booked antigen tests in the UK at a cost of £116. He and his family are returning on Sunday night and rapid testing may not detect a virus he could contract in the UK before returning freely to Ireland. The Minister knows I have lobbied for antigen testing for close to two years. Why are we using them now in a fashion we know is ineffective? Why do we not require subsequent antigen or PCR testing days later for those who are returning on flights from abroad? Communications is a key area and one might ask how senior establishment figures who rubbished antigen testing for more than 12 months can suddenly embrace it and see it used in a way for which it was never designed or intended to be used.
Given that we are being asked to extend these health regulations, at what point will NPHET solely advise the Government and stop advising the people?
We have had various examples of recommendations from public health officials where the Government has challenged, endorsed or ignored the advice. This mixed messaging is causing further anxiety and some distrust in the general population. Leaders lead; followers follow.
The failure of public health officials to acknowledge other voices which have often been proved correct continues to be a significant cause of concern to me and many others. Public health messaging needs to be curtailed to Government communications only so that the Government alone should advocate public health actions and accept that responsibility. Were the Government to take sole initiative and exercise sole responsibility, it would reduce the ambiguity and mixed messaging that is causing distress to many.
I refer to some reports that were done nationally, not by public health professionals but by joint committees of the Oireachtas. The health committee did a key report on antigen testing, which it strongly recommended but that was resisted until recently. Another report was published by that committee on the potential of vitamin D supplementation. It too has been, and continues to be, ignored, including by our most senior and prominent public health visionaries. There are thousands of reports in the EU advocating vitamin D supplementation as mitigation against Covid-19 infection and serious disease progression. In Ireland, a year-long study charting the possible relationships between low vitamin D concentration and adverse outcomes has been published in Irish medical journals recently. It is not the double blind, randomised control trial protocol signally demanded by our public health officials and it can never be as we cannot deprive a control group of vitamin D. There is significant and ample evidence to base a public campaign on vitamin D supplementation across society, yet we continue to ignore a simple and probably very beneficial Covid mitigation exercise.
With regard to restrictions and their further extensions, we must support the hospitality sector. The recent announcement to reduce employer supports and temporarily the support to redundant employees must be rethought in light of new public health restrictions and messaging. While the public sector and multinationals have continued to function largely without financial impact, that is not true of SMEs. They employ close to 1 million people in this country. If we are all in this together, no one must be left behind.
We are facing into a very difficult Christmas and new year. We are not alone in facing this challenge as there is a resurgence of Covid across Europe and the world, but we must learn from our past mistakes. We cannot continue to delay, deny or to defend our recent failures brought about by our failure to act in a timely and supportive way. We must rely on the full analysis of the scientific community, national and international, and we have to act in defence of the science. We must act quickly and use all available technology to mitigate the pandemic. Most of all, people want clarity. If there are significant further restrictions in the offing, the Government needs to be straight with the people and explain what it is doing and why, and why there are no other choices or better possibilities. It is time for the Government to become proactive in the fight against Covid and to use all the State's intellect and intellectual actors to design the best way out of this pandemic. We cannot just wait for multiple European reports to tell us what our hospital doctors and medics have said for months without being listened to. We must retrace our steps around community and hospital care. We must ensure that every resource available is brought to bear to suppress this latest wave. We need the public to be fully on board and for that we need action based on facts, not listening to the voices advocating science fiction.
I have listened to the various remedies that have been put forward. They are interesting but they are confusing because they are contradictory with the exception of a few speakers. Deputy Bríd Smith suggested a return to communism to resolve the problem of Covid.
The point is this: that is an extreme remedy. Everyone forgets that we had that for 50 years and it failed. We could go back in that direction again, try out another experiment and say, "That is the way to go." Then we think of Venezuela where the cactus blows around the streets. One can imagine the music of Ennio Morricone as Clint Eastwood rides into town in the midst of it all. That scenario will solve no problems at all; it will only make what we have worse. One thing is certain. The front-line workers have been tremendous in how they have done the job in the face of an appalling attack from the virus. The Government has responded to the virus in every way possible. That should be acknowledged and the Government complimented for it. Had the Government run away and or gone off in different directions every day, we would have a bigger problem.
It has not. That is the simple answer and we would want to watch out for that. What has happened is the Opposition has changed its views hourly and daily. It forgets one thing. The virus has changed almost every day and the urgency of the virus has also changed. It has become necessary to do different things in a different fashion in a different sequence on a daily basis.
Let us consider other countries across the globe. They have had the same problems as this country and they have had to change their tactics. They have had to take much more extreme measures than in this country in an effort to curtail the virus. Of course there are some things we can do. Air purification for indoor settings such as schools was mentioned. I think that could work. I am not certain about whether the costs would be prohibitive but it may well have to happen. Some of these inventions have the capacity to remove 100% of the virus. There is a very strong case for them, particularly in indoor settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. The Minister could examine that to see how it might fit in because it would have an impact and make a difference, which we need.
I can understand why Opposition Members, although not all of them, would resort to political allegations. That is fine but the only thing wrong with that is this situation is too serious to allow politics to cloud our vision. We must look at what is before us and how best to deal with it. To be fair, some of the Opposition continue to do that. At this point, we are either against it or for it. There is no sense in pretending it does not exist and that it does not affect us or that it will happen to somebody else. There is a tendency to ignore the fact that more than 5,000 people have died and that some children have been affected and those in other younger age groups, and that there were very serious consequences for them. We tend to forget that as well. The consequences do not go away with the passage time. We must take account of the seriousness of the pandemic. All measures we think of must be put in place to ensure that we curtail its progress.
I wonder how best to proceed from here. Do we listen to the people who protest at the gate and say there should be no vaccines and it is all a conspiracy? That is grand but that affects our families, which it has the capacity to do in every instance. All the sacrifice and good work done by the front-line workers, and by the Minister and the Government, will go to nought if we start to ignore the advice that we have been given. If the Government did not do the right thing we would be guilty of absolute abdication of responsibility. It would been charged with criminal negligence. It is a difficult task and there are more brickbats than plaudits, unfortunately, but that is the way life is. However, the Government has to keep its eye on the ball.
It must keep its eye on the target. It must stay with it. It must call on the public to use their best judgment as well and so far they have, and they have co-operated. However, all the sacrifices the public has made so far will be to no avail unless we continue right down to the end. That spot of light may remain far away in the distance for a long time more - we do not know. However, if we put out the light and stop doing the best things to deal with the situation we will find ourselves in a situation that will be beyond recovery.
In conclusion, I simply tell the Minister to stick with it. He should take the right decisions. He should not be afraid to do what is likely to have a positive impact insofar as the virus is concerned. It is a difficult and challenging road. There will be more challenges and people will ask is this really worth it. They may ask whether we should have done anything. They may ask whether we should let people die, a Darwinian theory suggested in some places, so that eventually we get a resistance to the virus. I think we are doing the right thing. I think the Minister is doing the right thing. He should just continue and hope that sufficient support and co-operation with the policies pursued by the Government on behalf of the people will eventually wear the virus down.
Tá sé tábhachtach go bhfuil an deis againn labhairt ar an mBille seo. Níl a fhios agam cén fáth go bhfuilimid ag glacadh roinnt den Bhille ag an staid seo mar níl deifir ag baint leis. D’fhéadfadh muid déileáil leis san athbhliain nuair a bheidh an Dáil ar ais agus nuair nach mbeadh an brú céanna orainn mar ní chríochnaíonn roinnt de na srianta go Feabhra nó Márta 2022. Tuigim an deifir ó thaobh roinnt den reachtaíocht ach ní thuigim é don mhéid iomlán. Tá an Rialtas ag triail gach rud a chur isteach i ngné amháin. Tá súil agam nuair atá an Bille seo críochnaithe go mbeidh orainn teacht ar ais i bhfad Éireann níos rialta chun déileáil leis na cinntí atá anseo, seachas an chumhacht seo a thabhairt don Aire agus fanacht go dtí go dtagann sé ar ais againne. In aon chás ina bhfuil srianta á chur ar chearta daoine, ba chóir go mbeadh níos mó oversight ag Tithe an Oireachtais air ná mar atá anseo. Seachas a bheith ag teacht ar ais ag an mBille i dtrí mhí nó sé mhí nó a leithéid, ba chóir go mbeadh muid ag teacht ar ais agus ag déileáil le haon srianta mar seo mí ar mhí, más gá.
I sat here and listened to much of the debate. I listened to Deputy Lahart speaking about the Opposition. He was giving out and saying we should be more measured in what we say and that we were not acknowledging the huge and great work being done in the area of education. I have absolutely no problem saying school principals and communities are doing tremendous work, given the restrictions and the way they are hamstrung by overcrowded classrooms and a lack of investment over the years in the school buildings themselves. Since it was announced they were all going to get CO2 monitors, there has been mixed messaging from Ministers, Departments and education and training boards. There has also been a lack of planning with the messages being sent out. Who forgot to tell the IMO and GPs they were going to face a wave of parents looking for genuine letters of exemption for children who have problems breathing if they wear a mask for a whole day? Somebody forget to tell those doctors because in cases I have dealt with GPs are refusing to issue such letters because they are afraid of the flood of applications. We are now in a situation where the measures are in place and most children I know in secondary school have accepted them thus far and have worked well with them. However, I am sorry to say they are freezing in their classrooms at this stage. We need to get real about a situation where we have children in classrooms wearing their coats, scarves, gloves and hats. Anything else we do on these issues must be tied to a financial package, which should have been announced at the same time as the Minister was bringing in this legislation. The EWSS and the PUP should have been reinstated in full for those sectors and for the people whose livelihoods are going to be affected by additional restrictions.
Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhairle. I thank you for your fíor-fháilte. I am glad to see you are back in full swing as well.
This evening, we are once more in a situation where restrictions are being rolled out. They have been drip-fed to us all week which has put businesses into disarray. People are contacting the offices of all politicians about the cancellations and the uncertainty. I am not talking only about hospitality but about boutiques, shops and clothes shops. People were spending a little for Christmas. Deposits have been paid and people are now looking for them back, and whatever else. The people have gone through hell and back.
Either the vaccine passes are useless and we should get rid of them, or they work and we certainly do not need further restrictions. It must be one or the other. Both situations cannot be true at the same time. However, this Government, while acting as though the vaccine passes do not work by implementing restrictions, continues to discuss the extension and widespread use of other restrictions. It is bizarre. Where is the logic? Where is the science it always talks about? The Minister has failed dismally to get this situation under control. NPHET has failed in its duties and has lost the support of the public. It lost it a long time ago. The Government has failed to build up hospital bed capacity and ICU capacity despite being given the resources to do so. I put on record the HSE and the Department of Health got an extra €3.884 billion on top of the €20 billion-odd they had for 2020. That is not to mention what they have spent this year which we are just coming to the close of. I shudder to think we have so little capacity in our ICUs and that it has been so little increased. The waste has been shocking. The Government has failed to build up hospital bed capacity and ICU capacity despite being given the huge resources, as I said, and huge additional powers that are in this legislation and which I will refer to in a minute.
Thanks to a parliamentary question from Deputy Tóibín, we know 26 new outbreaks have taken place in our nursing homes, 81 in hospital settings and 27 in residential care for people with disabilities. These are places we need to protect and have not protected. There have been seven in refuges and places of respite for women. However, once again we are picking on hospitality. It is an easy group to pick on and one that has been hammered all the way through although there have been very few cases in hospitality. I have the figures somewhere but cases in hotels, pubs and so on would not come up to the figure for hospital outbreaks. I think there have been about 12 hospitality outbreaks in all in the last four weeks. It is shocking.
I have serious concerns about the powers of NPHET, its level of control over almost every element of Irish society at present and its lack of accountability. A very eminent paediatrician contacted me today saying paediatricians were not consulted about the mask-wearing enforcement for children. Although it is only a requirement, the Government is putting the fear of God into school boards of management and principals. I have been contacted my numerous such people who have a duty of care to the children, and they know that. They have huge responsibilities and they know that as well. The boards are voluntary ones that do tremendous work, as do the principals and their staff, and now they are in this perilous situation. I understand NPHET has no paediatrician among its extensive advisory groups. HIQA has advised them twice already, I think, not to mask young children, that it was not good for them, and that advice has been thrown in the bin. Thus, if we want to use HIQA to tell the nursing homes to do something then we do that but when it gives advice NPHET does not like we just bin it. Who holds NPHET to account when it is wide of the mark? When there are leaks and misinformation coming out of NPHET, leading to despair within an industry, who does it answer to? When NPHET ignores bodies such as HIQA, implements restrictions on our children with no debate, no requirement for legislation, no pre-legislative scrutiny and no parental consent how can we say we are operating in a functional and democratic society? We clearly are not.
The Minister, and his Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Cabinet, have abdicated their responsibility to NPHET. Sideshows and competition for the airwaves are going on. If it is not one of them, it is the other and the mixed messaging has been appalling. Members of NPHET have no business being on the airwaves. This Government has been duly elected and voted in, not thanks to me, as part of a cobbled up coalition. It is hiding behind NPHET. The Government wants to let it do this because it thinks it is good or it does not have the gumption to face NPHET down when it needs to. Yes, listen to its science, when it is correct, and its advice, but the Government makes decisions for our people. I asked the Minister previously in this House, when he was going to sign all these statutory instruments that are in this legislation tonight - when he was in the Opposition he railed against them - and knowing the conventions, who was pushing his hand? Is it the heavy hand of big pharma that is pushing the Minister to sign instrument after instrument, one more draconian than the next?
As I said, we are again facing severe restrictions, with Christmas coming on top of them, when people want to be happy and celebrate the holy season and the birth of Our Lord. The Government tells us more than 93% of our population is vaccinated. Where does this end? We have arrived at a situation whereby the hospitality sector is once again facing frightening restrictions and NPHET wants to tell the public who they can and cannot have in their homes. Will we get serious? This is not fair. People in the hospitality sector and other industries will be forced onto the PUP but what about all the people coming off those payments? They will not be able to get back on them again and they need to be supported into the future and the new year. What about the music and entertainment industry and many other areas I could talk about all night long?
I will refer to this draconian legislation the Government is implementing. We only got the Bill yesterday and a briefing note late last Thursday for what is a conglomeration of four previous Acts now put into one. The Minister did not call it an omnibus, but he could. It is giving the Government new and dangerous powers. Power is a dangerous thing. The Minister has never sat in the offices of the Department of Health without these powers. He does not know what it is like to be an ordinary Minister with normal powers. The extension of section 2, Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, which amends the principal 1974 Act by the insertion of section 38A, raises serious legal and ethical concerns surrounding the detention and isolation of persons in certain circumstances. These are not my words but those of legal experts who have voluntarily helped me to put this together tonight.
I remind the Minister that internment was introduced in 1971 in the Six Counties. Section 38A contravenes Article 5, the right to liberty, Article 6, the right to a fair trial and Article 8, the right to private and family life of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 40.4 of the Constitution. Has the Minister read or looked at all this? Who is drafting this legislation for him? Why does he think he has the power to bring in instruments that deal with all this? There is no sufficient evidence base for the extension of this sweeping power, which provides a medical officer with the power to make an order, in writing, for:
the detention and isolation of such person in a hospital or other place specified in the order [we do not know what that is yet] (including ... other hospital[s] or other place as may subsequently be appropriate and specified in the order) [which the Minister may fill in and sign with no recourse to the Dáil] until such time as ... [that] medical officer certifies that the person's detention is no longer required for the purposes of this section.
That is quite draconian by any yardstick. The medical officer can invoke the powers under section 38A(1) where he or she:
believes in good faith that -
(a) a person is a potential source of infection, and
(b) the person is a potential risk to public health, and
(c) his or her detention and isolation is appropriate in order to- (i) prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of Covid-19, and
(ii) minimise the risk to human life and public health,
and (d) such [a] person cannot be effectively isolated, refuses to remain or appears unlikely to remain in his or her home or other accommodation ... agreed, by the Health Service Executive.
The Minister should pay attention to the Government's own services. I just quoted the figures, courtesy of Deputy Tóibín, of outbreaks in hospital settings in the past four weeks and compared them with outbreaks in other areas. They are minuscule in those other areas compared with what is going on under the Minister's watch, yet he is penalising the people. The necessity of the extension of this measure has not been demonstrated. In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2014, the Health Service Executive should and must provide details of how many orders have been made under section 38A(1) since the inception of the emergency legislation in March 2020. We have not got those details and I hope the Minister knows it. It is in the interests of transparency, openness and the public interest for such information to be published before any debate on the necessity to extend power to detain and isolate a person, depriving him or her of his or her rights to a fair trial and to his or her private family life and liberty. Is that why there was no pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill and why it was not brought to committee? The fact is the Minister is bringing together three or four Acts that have had no pre-legislative scrutiny, were rushed through the Dáil with little debate and passed because of the Government majority. Did he not want pre-legislative scrutiny because he might be asked these questions?
According to section 38A(2) a medical officer in exercising this power shall have regard to "the fact that Covid-19 is recently declared by the World Health Organisation to be a pandemic". It was declared a pandemic in March 2020. How long will the clock be stopped at 2020? The WHO also has many questions to answer and Minister cannot say this is a necessary implement now, some 21 months later. It is now 21 months since the announcement of these emergency powers and the State has had ample opportunity to put in place public health measures for the purpose of preventing, limiting, diminishing or slowing the spread of Covid-19, referred to under section 38A, with the consequential effect that this measure is no longer justifiable. Such a power can only be justified if the State can show a grave risk to life. Recent statistics issued by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, showed a dramatic decrease, thank God, in Covid-19 related deaths since 2020. These are the basic, naked facts and the science proves them, but the Minister uses science selectively.
The reasoning and rationale for this measure no longer exists and the State has not provided sufficient proof to justify any extension of such a draconian power. The existence of the Omicron variant, and ever-emerging new variants, is not sufficient for such powers to remain in a democratic society. We will get variants, like all the storms, with a different acronym for every one of them. The very fact the medical officer can make an order under section 38A(1) if a person is a potential source of infection and a potential risk to public health raises fundamental issues surrounding the subjective implementation of these terms. It is deeply concerning that one medical officer has the power to make such an order based on his or her belief, in good faith, that a person is a potential source of infection. In effect, this means that a person can be made subject to a detention and isolation order without testing positive for Covid-19. That is truly shocking in my opinion and in the opinion of the legal experts, whom I thank for formulating that opinion with me. This means a person could be detained and isolated by a medical officer as a result of that officer's subjective view of what constitutes a potential source of infection and a potential risk to public health.
There are no safeguards in place to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of the person who could be deprived of his or her liberty on the word of said medical officer. For example, in this current climate, it is not beyond the imagination that a medical officer could make such an order for detention and isolation under section 38A(1), simply because a person is unvaccinated, for whatever reason, whether it is because he or she is unable to take the vaccine or because of choice. The power of detention process is open to abuse as the Act requires only one medical officer to make an order for detention. That is quite serious and dangerous in a so-called democracy and a so-called republic. Under section 38(A), the medical officer:
may in writing order the detention and isolation of such person in a hospital or other place specified in the order (including such other hospital or other place as may subsequently be appropriate and specified in the order).
You could end up in the Curragh Camp or anywhere.
It will be up to the Minister's officials and his hand to sign the order. Does the Minister realise what he is taking upon himself? I think he does. I think he is punch-drunk with these powers and he has not a clue how to run the Department or rein in or deal with the pandemic in the medical system.
I will continue from where I left off: "(including such other hospital or other place as may subsequently be appropriate and specified in the order) until such time as the medical officer certifies that the person's detention is no longer required for the purposes of this section". I do not see that as anything different from what happened in the North in 1971. The extensive power to detain a person in any place specified in the order is not defined under the Act, which effectively means that a person could be detained anywhere at the discretion of the medical officer. There are no definitions. Most legislation has definitions and appeal systems. This is more rushed legislation. There has been no pre-legislative scrutiny on it. The Government is getting away with blue murder - if it gets away with this and if enough people vote for it. I hope they will not. I and my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group certainly will not.
The Act does not specify the maximum period of detention, which is also very serious. It states that a medical officer may, in writing, order the detention and isolation of a person in a hospital until such time as the medical officer certifies that the person's detention is no longer required. In other words, that person would be there at the whim of the medical officer. The medical officer is under a duty to review the detention no later than 14 days. The detained person can be incarcerated for 14 days. He or she has no right to request a review by another person other than that medical officer, not even another medical physician, but there are no details on this process. That breaches the rules of fair procedure, due process and natural justice. Has the Minister ever heard of those? Has he lost sight of them all? He was Independent, like me, then he was with the Social Democrat and then he jumped to Fianna Fáil. Then, through whatever sleazy deal, he became Minister for Health. Has he lost his moral compass and his respect for the people's rights and the Constitution? He must have done.
The State has failed to justify the proportionality and necessity for such a far-reaching measure, depriving people of their right to liberty. That is very serious 100 years after the likes of Treacy, Breen, Liam Lynch and Michael Collins fought so hard and unfortunately died in the War of Independence and the Civil War and all the people who sacrificed their lives. I have heard people here looking for people to ring snitch lines. That has come from parties I am very surprised with. They are looking for people to report on people and so on. We are dividing society and creating an apartheid and it is totally wrong.
The variant is not a specific enough reason for these measures. We have some clinical trial data from the pre-Alpha strains and lab data for Delta. We may overlook some data, but we have no epidemiological information that the vaccination has had any impact on the epidemic. For Omicron, the genetic data suggest the vaccines may not work. It will take at least two weeks to find out whether they work in the labs. As the example of Delta has shown, even lab data are not enough to justify any restrictions or mandates. We need evidence that the restrictions and mandates have an effect. Just having them there is not good enough. It is not good enough for the Minister to do what he is doing just because he wants these measures in place and likes his powers and wants to keep them to beat down our resilient, brilliant people, many of whom we have so sadly lost. Even one life lost is sad, but many people have succumbed to this virus. A significant number of people have died in nursing homes and hospitals. I have called time and time again for an internationally led investigation of what happened and the incarceration that went on here. I believe the Hague will have to be invoked and that people will have to be brought before the world courts there.
The UK and Ireland had a narrow peak in late January and a nadir in late May. The EU's nadir was a month later. For the current wave, this means that Ireland's deaths, thankfully, are flat and not going up as in the EU, thank God. The UK and Ireland are past the peak of the Delta variant. That is the science and they are the facts, thankfully. The number of deaths per million per day is 1,000 in the EU, which is horrific, 100 in the UK and ten in Ireland. The 1:10 Ireland-UK ratio per capitahas been the same for the past 18 months. There is ample science if the Minister wants to listen to it. The people put their shoulders to the wheel and invoked the sense of the meitheal of our good old country of Ireland and helped one another, ag cabhrú le gach duine, but now they are downtrodden and broken and the Minister is trying to kill their spirit and their resolve. The Government has that done to many sections of society such as our music, our culture, ár dteanga and many other areas. I ask the Minister to withdraw this legislation and to bring it back to pre-legislative scrutiny. It is time to give people hope. Ní neart go cur le chéile. Together we can fight this and go on honestly and truthfully, facing the people with truth.
I am weary from talking about Covid. The people I represent are weary. We are all, I think, weary at this stage, nobody more, I suspect, than the Minister. Notwithstanding that, I am here, along with some of my colleagues, to oppose this Bill and to try to explain in brief why I am opposing it.
In March 2020, in the first substantive debate on the pandemic after the last general election, I recall sitting over there beside Deputy Connolly and we were both very concerned, as I think many people were, by the extraordinary powers that were being given over to the Government to make law and regulation without any degree of accountability or debate. However, we agreed to them because we were concerned about the news that was coming in and we were told they would be in place for a short period. During the first lockdown we were told we were locking down to flatten the curve for just a few short weeks. Covid was not eliminated but the curve was flattened. Slowly it started to spread again. Then we had another lockdown in October. That lockdown was in order that we could all save Christmas or have a meaningful Christmas. I always thought that was a dubious basis on which to lock down, but it was one that was dreamt up by members of NPHET, no less, so people generally went along with it. Then we locked down after Christmas and it was a very long lockdown. We were told the restrictions would be eased slowly in order that we would not have to go back. We were told we would lock down until enough people were vaccinated. We were told - not by the Minister, I accept, but by various experts in the media - that would be 80%. Then we were told that 80% of adults would not be enough and that we needed more people vaccinated so we needed to stay locked down a little longer to achieve that, and we did that. All the while the Minister wielded these extraordinary powers the Dáil had granted to him for a very short period. Those powers were extended, extended again and extended while we were told they would not be used, and now we are told they will be used. Now we are told the powers which are to expire - because we were told they would not need to be used - are being rolled over again. The Minister tells us they will be rolled over until 31 March and that some of the measures can be further rolled over again and again but others can be rolled over only once. Of course, however, another piece of legislation such as this can be introduced.
Until when are we locking down or imposing restrictions? When is the end point? I listened carefully to the debate.
Deputy Durkan said we need to see this out to the end. I respectfully ask what that means.
I do not know of any immunologist or serious academic on the issue of Covid-19 who says it will end. Safety is always relative and complete safety is impossible to attain. Increasingly, people have elected governments to keep them safe and governments have taken more and more powers to keep people safe. Yet, unfortunately, safety is unattainable. Again I ask when is the end. Are we talking about the end of Covid? If we are, I fear we are deluding ourselves. If we are talking about locking down and restricting essential freedoms until the end of Covid, we are talking about restricting them forever because nobody suggests Covid will come to an end. Will we impose these restrictions until we reach the end of liberal democracy as we know it?
I am not just talking about Ireland. The Minister has left for, I am sure, good reason but, in fact, some of our restrictions look mild compared with what we see on the television screens from Australia, in particular, and many other countries. We are, in my view, witnessing the end of liberal democracy or even democracy as we know it. Democracy is more than a tyranny of the majority. It is the ability to question regulations and laws, to ask the basis for them and to probe whether the underlying assumptions are correct. We have not had that because those who effectively determine what we should do are not amenable to this Dáil because they are not Members of it and do not have a duty to come before it. They advise the Minister. Rather, they advise the public and the media what they will advise the Minister and put it up to the Minister to do that. If he does, he has them to fall back on. If he does not do it and things go wrong, which they will because we will not be safe and Covid will not end, then he will be pilloried for not having followed the public health advice. However, the public health advice is focused on one thing only: the suppression of Covid-19. That is something I support and always have but I do not accept it is the only basis on which we should be running our society or economy. I am not saying economic rights or the economy are more important but our healthcare system is dependent upon an economy to function.
I will go a little bit into these powers. We had a Covid committee at one point. The Minister, who, unfortunately, is not here at the moment, was a member of that committee. We had a former Supreme Court judge from the United Kingdom address us. He said:
[I]f the Government is going to confer extremely drastic powers on the Executive or Ministers, it is extremely important to have a very high level of parliamentary scrutiny. These powers should only be available subject to parliamentary confirmation and regulation and they should have a very limited duration and be open to renewal. It seems to me that for democracy it is absolutely fundamental that the Legislature should not forfeit pretty well day-to-day control of what Ministers are doing with powers which in any normal circumstances would be regarded as inconsistent with basic democratic laws.
I have read the Health Act 1947 of Ireland ... [which is what we are essentially extending. He said:] it seems to me that the provisions for parliamentary scrutiny are virtually non-existent. That seems to me, as a democrat, to be questionable.
Deputies do not have to go to England to find this criticism. A group of academics in Trinity College Dublin examined the whole thing and reported in August. They came to the conclusion that, "The relationship between the government and NPHET—and the locus of power in that relationship—isn’t always clear." That is essentially the construct we are extending and rolling over in the legislation. That is why I opposed it as a democrat who was democratically elected. The people can get rid of me at the next election and possibly they will.
We will see. The assistant professor in Trinity said:
The overarching finding of this report is a significant lack of transparency in how and why important decisions were made during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ireland.
Transparency and clarity are key aspects of public health governance and one of our recommendations of this report is the need for far more. [That is, far more transparency.] If we don’t have clear lines of decision-making and accountability, and a clear sense of the power resting with the government, then the idea that we can have even notional democratic oversight for ... [those] powers seems very remote. ... [That] is undoubtedly a cause for concern.
It is because that construct is being rolled over that I must, in conscience, oppose this. I do not oppose public health doctors giving public health advice. I oppose the abdication of parliamentary accountability in a democracy to public health doctors. I believe it is wrong, dangerous and will end in a crisis because Covid-19 shows no signs of ending and nobody is predicting it will end. On that basis, I oppose the Bill.
When I saw stuff coming up on my phone today, it reminded me of the song about "the day the music died". For the youngsters of this country, the announcement this evening is devastating. It is devastating not alone for them but for any person who talks about being a politician or being involved in politics because we politicians saw what was coming from NPHET today on our phones. It was not from a Minister. We did not get any briefing.
It is similar to every bit of emergency legislation that has come in to this Dáil in the past year. Some of it was got ready on a Thursday or Friday and, over the weekend, every journalist was able to write about what we would look at next week. If we are elected by the people, we should be informed. Government Ministers, especially, should be informed of what is coming down the line and not reading it on a phone, like we did two to three hours ago, before our Taoiseach came out to tell the people. It was not a new story because it was on the phones before he came out. We knew what was going to happen.
Unfortunately, Ministers are in a no-win position. The likes of NPHET will make their decisions. If a Minister does not go with it, he or she is made a pariah in the media.
Between the media and the doctors running this country, we are like the last link in the chain. We come in here and we vote one way or the other, be it on a Wednesday, Friday or Saturday evening, but all we are really doing is endorsing what unelected people have advised be done. I worry where we as a nation are going. Sometimes, you have to stand up and be counted. Everyone in this House and society in general wants to suppress Covid and to get rid of it. Some of the youngsters in Ireland have never been to a disco. That is sad. It is all right for us, we have lived life, been to places and we did not have to wear masks for years, but the youngsters who are of an age to go out do not know what is to go into a normal place. This will be the second Christmas they do not have a lot to look forward to. This Christmas they will be under the feet of their mothers and fathers, which is not a normal Christmas.
If I want to travel from some other country into this country, I have to get a negative PCR test 72 hours beforehand or a negative antigen test 48 hours beforehand and I can sit beside another person on the aeroplane for up to two hours while, at the same time, when it comes to the local pub, I cannot go to the bar, I cannot sit at a table with more than six persons and I have to produce a document confirming that I am vaccinated and, if not, I have to go outside to a shed with my drink. Where are we going as a country? We need to make sure that we bring people with us.
I worry about democracy. There will always be debate, disagreement, people who have different views, right and wrong, and people to whom you could not tell one thing or the other. I worry when I look at what is happening in Australia and what is being talked about in Austria and in Germany by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her sidekick, Ursula. I hope Ireland does not go down that road. I believe in democracy and the political system, whether on one side or the other. We should always respect each other. We should not shut down debate and questioning. Unfortunately, in the media you are put into a box. You could be the biggest supporter of something, but if you ask a question against it you are now put into a little corner and you are one of them. That is not the way politics should be done.
I worry as well about powers. We were told by the so-called experts that if we reached an 85% or 90% vaccination rate, it would be happy days, happy Christmas and happy everything. I talk to people from around the country. Ordinary, hard-working people are asking me if this is ever going to end. They were told this and that a year ago, something else six months ago and now we are back to square one. I understand that Covid is a virus and that nobody knows the ins and outs of it but, my God, we are at a crossroads in our country. We need to give people hope, in particular those working in the hospitality sector. In a normal year, disc jockeys would have 16 nights' work over Christmas. This year, they will have none and they will get only approximately €200 per week because the PUP will come back. They are not part of an employment because they are subcontractors. That is the reality. What did they earn in the past year? The PUP came down and because they had no tax, they were not open. Will this be a happy Christmas for them? Definitely not. Make hay when the sun shines is a lesson we in rural Ireland always learned. Unfortunately, those people have gone into darkness tonight. I urge the Government to think of all aspects of the hospitality sector.
As a Dáil, we need to start scrutinising some of the decisions that are coming forward. The Government cannot keep wobbling, twisting and turning. We need leadership or we will lose the people around this country who, in fairness, have made an honest effort this past year. We need to bring everybody with us. If someone has a reaction to a vaccine, let us not be afraid to talk about it. Let us talk about it and not shut it down. In being open and transparent we bring people with us. I do not believe in bringing in more and more powers. Powers will not solve this. I have trust in the people of Ireland, who are making an honest effort. We do not need to make criminals out of them.
When I spoke earlier this week - I think it was yesterday but I have lost track of time - I was weary and I forgot the word "anagram" in regard to Omicron, the new variant, which is further down the Greek alphabet. Inexplicably, we missed many of the letters and came to that one. The word "Omicron" as an anagram it means moronic. It was not I who came up with that but somebody who came into my office and shared her concerns with me. The word "moronic" is terribly derogatory, but there are many meanings to it, such as foolish, idiotic and stupid. Many of those words are characteristics of the Government over the past two years. I say that reluctantly and as someone who believes Covid has been extremely dangerous and that people have suffered from it, including all of our families, in one way or another, through not attending funerals, not being able to visit nursing homes and so on. It is unfortunate that we have to preface our comments with that. That is what we have come to in this country.
A pandemic was declared on 11 March 2020, having declared the outbreak of a public health emergency of international concern on 30 January 2021. The first case in Ireland was on 29 February 2020. It is important to say this because our memories dim after a while. As stated by Deputy McNamara - I was near him; I did not know him that well at the time and I would say I still do not know him but that is neither here nor there - I had a reluctance in passing the legislation because I feared what was going to happen with no oversight. I said there was no need for a committee because I foolishly thought the Dáil would retain session of this and monitor it. The next battle we had to fight was on the Business Committee, of which I am not a member but on which I sat for a number of sessions because Deputy Pringle was, I think, isolating at the time. There was a danger that even the Dáil would not sit and that we would get briefings. We went through all of that and then the Dáil sat for a day or two per week but with reduced numbers and all of that. That was the background.
At that time, the language was very inclusive, such as "We are all in it together." Very nice words were said at different times. The then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, said: "We must protect the most vulnerable members of our society." The Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, then Taoiseach, said: "The question is how we can take what we have learned in recent weeks and some of the things we have done to build a better society in the aftermath of Covid-19, how we can honour the sacrifices made in every community in our country and renew our society by developing a new social contract." Deputy Donnelly, now the Minister for Health, said: "When we are considering powers as serious and extensive as this we must as an Oireachtas make sure there are checks and balances." The then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar also said, "When faced with a common foe we can put aside our differences and work together for the good of the country." At the time, I expressed my own concerns, which I will not quote. I will stay in the present and look back. What happened to those lovely words and the "meitheal" that Deputy Mattie McGrath so often mentions, "the coming together", "bringing out the best in people" and "we are all in it together". It started to go very quickly, did it not? The 70 year olds were told to stay indoors. They were told in such a duplicitous way it was appalling. They were led to believe that it was an order, that it was in legislation from the Government when all the time it was not.
Indeed, when they dared to step out and go for a walk, we nearly had a situation where one neighbour was turned against the other. People would question others for being out and tell them they must stay inside. Does the Minister remember that? I remember it very well because it upset me at the time.
I am jumping forward and back in the timeline but the points I want to make are important. When the vaccinations arrived, people aged 60 to 69 were told to take AstraZeneca or leave it and go to the bottom of the list. Does the Minister remember that language? Then the language around the virus started to change. The virus was personified; it became nasty and vicious. The Minister referred to it yesterday, if I recall correctly, as "sinister", with reference to possible new variants. I do not think viruses are nasty, vicious or sinister. People and policies can be nasty and vicious but viruses cannot. By their very nature, they change and alter all the time. The experts told us from day one to expect alterations and variations. I do not have a science background but I read and try to understand the information. The new variant is no big change from what we should have been expecting. There will be constant variations.
There were also changes in the language around the distinction between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. For a while, it was very sweet and everybody was encouraged to come forward, which the vast majority did. Then, however, we started to demonise and discriminate against those who did not come forward, saying they were responsible for all the outbreaks. I even heard that today from a Labour Party Deputy, who keeps using this language around the unvaccinated, who are like the unwashed and responsible for all the problems. I fundamentally object to that type of language. It is not the way to deal with the threat facing us from Covid and the variations of the virus that are going to come. It is a public health problem and I will refer presently to some of the reasons it has overrun our country.
As I said, we demonised those who are not vaccinated, who are only a small group and never a homogenous one. There are many reasons, most of them acceptable, why a person might not take a vaccine. Then the facts made it difficult to continue demonising them, which I will come back to. In the meantime, Covid passports were brought in, not to restrict, supposedly, but to allow us to travel. However, the use of the passports was extended to other areas, with people needing them to go for a coffee or get their hair done. When people go into some coffee shops, they get a little card saying they have had two coffees today, making seven in total, and will soon get a complementary one. I am sure the Minister has seen the wrongs of the cards, with their tick marks, showing the number of Pfizer injections people have had. It raises the question as to whether he intends to have the Covid passport updated to include information on whether the holder has had the booster. I am posing these questions because they are points that should be up for discussion. At what point do we stop? Will it be at two boosters or five boosters? Will there be a distinction between the colleagues sitting behind me if one has the booster and the other does not? Will one be able to go into a coffee shop and have coffee there and the other will not? Next year, when another variant arrives, will we up the requirement again for a Covid passport, which was supposed to be a temporary measure? None of these questions has ever been discussed in this House.
I welcome the 20 minutes I have been given to contribute to this debate, as I welcomed the time I was given yesterday. It is very important to have this time to discuss the legislation. However, it was published only in the past few days. As we struggle to work through the Bill - rightly so; it is my job as a parliamentarian to do so - the Taoiseach is outside giving a statement to the media, members of which already know what it contains and have already been prepped. The only uninformed people are the Deputies in this august Chamber struggling with legislation that will give the Minister unfettered powers until next March and potentially until June. The Taoiseach did not see fit, almost two years into a pandemic, to come in and talk to the elected Members of the Dáil and inspire confidence in us in order that we can go out and inspire confidence in our constituents and explain why all of this is happening.
The Government repeated the mantra that schools were safe and I believed it. Now we are masking children. When the discriminatory talk about the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated was wearing thin, we moved on to children. Now the children are the greatest problem. The children who get Covid but have no symptoms are being treated as the greatest threat, not in order to protect other children but to protect adults. I am no expert in this but I have a difficulty with the message changing all the time. In fact, the message seems to have more variations than the virus, with very serious consequences for our democracy. On testing and tracing, schools have repeatedly pointed out that it was stopped. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and the Minister for Education said it did not happen, but it did and there were consequences to it.
I raised the question with the Minister this morning as to the distinction between somebody who has been vaccinated and somebody who has had Covid and has been certified as such. I am still none the wiser other than that there is an EU regulation that says the immunity applies only for six months. I have gone through all the letters from NPHET to the Minster and it is stated more than once that the advice from HIQA to NPHET, which the latter accepted, is that the period of immunity is nine months. Can the Minister explain why he has accepted and cited ad nauseamadvice from NPHET and HIQA but not on this point, with no information or analysis as to why?
I have a difficulty with the bellicose and warlike language that is being used, mostly by men, with honourable exceptions. This is not a war. It is a public health crisis arising from a very serious virus that is threatening our health, which comes on top of a public health system in which hospitals were already creaking at the seams, a primary care system that is non-existent and a public health infrastructure in which public health doctors are nowhere to be seen. We had the Crowe Horwath report from 2018 or 2019 identifying the deficiencies in our public health system. Other than the Minister coming in here and rattling off numbers, such as there being 2.2 extra doctors here or there or something like that, I am none the wiser as to what steps have been taken in a public health crisis to put public health doctors, nurses and experts in place to instil trust in communities.
There are very few extra hospital beds and the total is way below what was set out in various capacity reviews, including the review of ICU beds. We are none the wiser in regard to private hospitals, what deal has been done, how much it is costing and why they have not been used to more capacity. I do not have time to go through the details I have of waiting lists for people in Galway, including pain lists and orthopaedic lists of two and three years in length. Home help provision is non-existent in Connemara. The private company cannot provide any more home helps for many reasons, Covid being one of them. We have commercialised and made a product of our health system. That was being done for years and along came Covid on top of it.
Then we have the warlike language of adding more tools to our armour to fight the battle on the front line. Nurses and doctors have done great work, but so have the cleaners who struggled to keep our hospitals clean and the porters who have run from ward to ward and from ward to X-ray department without enough trolleys. When we pay tribute to nurses and doctors, I would prefer if we paid tribute to all the people involved in our health system, who were struggling well before Covid and will struggle well after it until we recognise that we cannot continue to have what we currently have in this country, which is a private system supported by public money and used to undermine completely the public health system. Recently, a person I know went to Merlin Park University Hospital, which is set on 150 acres.
We should be building a state-of-the-art new hospital at Merlin Park University Hospital for the million people whom the hospital serves. That person went as a public patient for a scan, paid by public money, to a private facility on public lands in Merlin Park University Hospital. Such is the complexity of what we have done with the private system into the public system in Ireland, it is extremely difficult to disentangle it.
The Minister will ask what has that got to do with all of this. This determined how we dealt with Covid-19, when it came along. It was difficult for all of us because it was new, but as the years went by - and it has now been years because we are in the second year of the pandemic - we did not learn. When I say “we”, I mean the Government and NPHET, which is not what any properly representative committee should be in terms of mental health, nursing homes and so on.
During that time, we tried to learn because we set up an all-party committee. Deputy McNamara, who is sitting behind me, was the Chair. I took the trouble of reading its report. It made many recommendations. It even published an interim report with 22 recommendations. The report talked about many things, including nursing homes and how an inquiry was necessary. Nothing has happened of course. We have completely ignored a cross-party committee that made recommendations that were practical, and that were not way out. I do not think the Minister has ever come in and answered why the recommendations were ignored.
This legislation seeks to put four pieces of legislation together. In theory, I have no difficulty with that. It is much better to have one piece of legislation as long as we ensure we have enough time to speak about it and its implications. However, there has been no input from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, into this legislation. It has not been run by it nor by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC. There is an obligation on the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission to look at all legislation that has implications for human rights. It has been utterly ignored.
I almost did not speak today. I was truly weary of hearing my own voice all over again on this. I am sure the feeling is shared by all the Members on this side of the House. How do we keep saying this? How do we get across that we want to work with the Government? We see Covid-19 as serious, but the restrictions on fundamental human freedoms going into their second year without any analysis is totally unacceptable and is the most serious threat to our democracy.
On the redress and compensation scheme, the Minister will remember the report that was done by Mr. Justice Charles Meenan about medical negligence generally. One of its recommendations was that a no-fault compensation scheme would be set up. Does the Minister remember that? Has he ever pondered that, thought about it or come back to us on it?
We have heard a Member - I think it was one of the Fianna Fáil backbenchers - praise Pfizer and the pharmaceutical companies for the wonderful work they have done and for the power of private companies to come up trumps. They did not make a mention of the public money. We still do not know how much it has cost. We do not know the nature of the deal. However, we do know that an indemnity has been given to them forever and ever. There has not been a single word of discussion about that little deal. Again, the Government will tell us that it was Europe that did that, just like it did with the regulations saying there are only six months' immunity and not nine months. These are basic things we should be discussing in the House. Maybe the Minister could tell us tonight, and if he cannot tell us tonight, maybe, when he is sending me the details of the regulation that says we can only give six months' immunity for someone who had Covid-19 and not nine months and he has dealt with that paragraph, he might come back to the deal with the pharmaceutical companies. How much public money has been given and to which companies?
I will draw to a close as I will not go over time. I have outlined the discrimination between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, the discrimination between who could get which vaccination and the discrimination between young and old. Then, there is the ultimate discrimination between us in Ireland, a rich country that has 92% of its population vaccinated, and all the other countries that have not even one dose of the vaccination. The Minister might explain that to us. He might explain what discussion has taken place about waiving the intellectual property right so that we can all benefit and truly all of us be in it together. He might explain to us how, with a figure of 92% or 94% vaccinated, depending on which Minister or which Taoiseach is talking, we could have such high rates of transmission if the vaccination is so effective. Maybe we could have some honesty about the waning effectiveness of vaccination. Maybe we could have some honesty about telling people to go out, drink, eat and be merry while there are no day centres and no respite. Maybe the Minister can tell us how people can go out and drink when there are transmission rates from vaccination. As I understand it, the vaccination is to prevent hospitalisation and getting sick, but it does not prevent transmission. How does the Minister explain all of those contradictory messages and tell us we are all in it together? I go back to the word “moronic”.
I thank the Deputies for their contributions this evening. I acknowledge the broad support for an approach in Ireland which is led by public health and by evidence. I acknowledge the broad support for vaccines, the broad support in the House for boosters, the broad support in the House for testing, both for PCR testing and for antigen testing, and the broad support for an approach to Covid-19 where the benefits of us all following the public health advice are so important. It is supported by not all but most Members of this House, both in government and in opposition. I acknowledge that and I thank colleagues for that.
The public health advice right now is as important as ever. If any of us are symptomatic, we should stay at home and get a test. If we are going out, we should use the layers of protection we have all become used to and, indeed, that we use here in the House. These are hand hygiene, cough etiquette, masks, ventilation and so forth. For a few weeks, we should reduce our discretionary social contacts, particularly in the higher risk areas, which we are aware of. Finally and probably most importantly, we should get vaccinated and, indeed, get a booster vaccine when it becomes available.
Right now, approximately half of the Covid-19 hospitalisations and approximately half of our Covid-19 patients are from the small group of people who have to date chosen not to get vaccinated. Approximately half of the patients in ICU who have Covid-19 are from this group who have to date chosen not to get vaccinated. It is a horrific illness. I have spoken to ICU nurses who have many years of experience. They have seen much more than we hope most or all of us in the House will ever see in terms of human struggle and people dying in difficult ways. An ICU nurse with decades of experience has told me they are traumatised and are suffering from post-traumatic stress because of how horrific Covid-19 has been for the patients in their care in the ICU wards. I appeal to anyone who is still considering whether to get vaccinated to do so to protect themselves, first and foremost, and second, to protect those around them.
I thought it was interesting and I wanted to share with colleagues that now about two thirds of our hospital patients are Covid-19 patients, whether they are in a hospital ward bed or in ICU. Approximately two in every three of these patients are now under the age of 45. That is relevant as well. We should engage with younger people. Not every person under the age of 45 is necessarily younger, but there has been understanding that those who are older-----
That is an important message. There is genuine concern in Ireland right now. We are all aware of it. We are all talking to our constituents, families and friends and there is real concern. New measures have just been announced by an Taoiseach for the coming weeks. People are hearing about initial reports and are listening to initial reports and views on the Omicron variant, and they are, quite naturally, concerned. All of us have a role to play at the moment, at what is a very difficult time for people all over Ireland.
On the Omicron variant, we are going to have to wait a bit longer for the medical and scientific community to give us more definitive answers. They need more time. They are doing a lot of theoretical work on what the characteristics of the virus might mean in terms of the mutations and so forth. They are also looking at real world evidence around transmission patterns, the speed of transmission, levels of infection, levels of severity, the impact of the vaccines, reinfection and so forth. We are going to have to wait to get definitive answers on that. However, expert groups all over the world are signalling that we need to take this variant very seriously, and because of that we are acting in a precautionary way. We all hope for the best but we cannot just plan according to the best-case scenario. We have to take the expert advice very seriously.
The measures announced this evening follow clear public health advice. NPHET is concerned about two things. It is concerned about higher social interaction in December, which we all know happens, combined with the potential impact of this new variant. That is why it has advised the Government to take the measures that have been taken tonight. That is why the Government has decided to take those measures and has moved very quickly in doing so. I was handed the letter from the Chief Medical Officer while sitting here during our debate last night, and as I sit here now, the measures have already been announced. We are moving very quickly on this. We all appreciate that some of these measures are going to be very difficult for people to hear, particularly businesses that will be badly affected by them. This is going to land very badly with some people because it is going to have a tough impact on them, their plans and their staff. That is why it is very important that financial supports were included in the measures put forward.
It is also important that people know, even in the context of concerns about this new variant, that the national effort is working. It is important we remember that. The efforts individuals and families have made in recent weeks in response to public health advice are working and the huge efforts so many businesses are making to protect their staff and customers are working. The programmes of work the Government has put in place are also working. There is a lot going on on the Government's side. We are continuing with vaccines and boosters. There is a huge amount of PCR testing and antigen testing going on as well as a huge amount of testing and tracing. We have international measures in place, including the Covid pass. We are working hard to make sure we will have access to the antiviral drugs when they become available. There are very significant protections in place for nursing homes. There is the flu vaccine programme, the winter plan and much more. The combination of the efforts individuals and families are making, the efforts businesses are making and the efforts the Government, the HSE and various arms of the State are making is working.
Cases have stabilised. They are too high but they have stabilised. Covid hospitalisations are too high but they have stabilised, as have Covid ICU admissions. It is important that we remember this. This is a tough time. The entire world is worried about this Omicron variant but the efforts the Irish people have made, and continue to make, are working. Even in the face of this incredibly contagious variant called Delta, people's efforts are bearing fruit. It is important we remember that.
I appeal for as much solidarity as possible. I acknowledge that I and the Government have a role to play in that and I have heard what colleagues said, both today and yesterday. I ask that that be reciprocated. Some of what I have heard this evening from some in Sinn Féin, albeit not everyone, and others is people saying they support the public health-led approach and public health advice, but then rubbishing that advice in certain sectors like schools. Schools are following the public advice to the letter.
If we support the public health advice, let us do that. There are some false claims being put around this evening, like the claim that the rise in transmission in young children is because of a lack of contact tracing in schools. That simply is not the case. The rise in cases in children has followed the rise in cases in the population.
Deputy Ward seemed to be deeply critical of everything the Government is doing on Covid but then he shared with the House that he is doubly vaccinated and got his booster last week. Clearly, we are not doing everything wrong.
I have heard colleagues. We will meet and let us talk about how we can increase engagement. There is a lot of engagement but I have heard colleagues clearly on that matter. However, I have a request of them too. Let us try, for the next few weeks, to work as closely together as we can-----