Monday, 29 March 2021
Living with Covid-19: Statements
I want to start by acknowledging the extraordinary efforts that have been made and are continuing to be made by people the length and breadth of the country during this extremely challenging time. I appreciate that so many aspects of normal life have been altered since the emergence of Covid-19 over one year ago.
As Minister of State with responsibility for disability, I have seen how these challenges have taken a huge toll on our people, especially on the most vulnerable members of society. However, I have also seen the extraordinary efforts that are continuing to tackle this unprecedented global pandemic. I wish to sincerely express my deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of those who have died. To lose a loved one is always painful but for it to happen in the midst of a pandemic, when one cannot even hug one's family and friends and when so few can attend a funeral service, compounds the loss. I wish to offer my most sincere condolences to all those families. My heart truly goes out to them at this time.
This year, we have faced the resurgence of the disease that has been driven by a much more contagious variant. The epidemiological situation in Ireland remains fragile. The 14-day incidence rate yesterday increased by 7%, up to 159 from 148 per 100,000 of the population. The positivity rate continues to rise. There are 329 Covid patients in our acute hospitals, with 76 of them in ICUs. Despite the challenges, compliance with the public health guidelines remains high. Public support for the measures to combat this pandemic remains extremely strong.
As the Minister outlined in the previous debate, the roll-out of our vaccine programme continues to give great hope. The positive impact of the vaccine programme is already being experienced, including with the increase in the number of visits now permitted to residential care facilities. As of Friday last, 786,000 Covid vaccines had been administered. We have provided a first vaccine dose to more than 11% of the population, with 567,000 people having received their first dose and 219,000 their second.
Prior to Monday next, 5 April, the Government will be reviewing current level 5 measures and considering the next phase of the response to Covid tomorrow. The revised plan for managing the virus, Covid-19 Resilience & Recovery 2021: The Path Ahead, which was published last month, reviews the lessons from our experience to date, considers the enormous impacts our efforts to manage and suppress the disease have had on our economy and society and sets out a cautious and measured approach to the easing of restrictions over the coming months. The plan also sets out how in-school education and childcare services are being reinstated in a phased manner, with a staggered return over the past month which will be concluded after the Easter break on 12 April. This cautious and measured approach is being taken in order to protect the most vulnerable, while the effective roll-out of the vaccine programme will allow us to lay the foundations for the full recovery of social life, public services and the economy. We need to remain vigilant and agile regarding the uncertainties in the face of the new variants and to capitalise on emerging evidence on available vaccines.
The Government’s public health response is comprehensive and is continually being strengthened. Testing and contact tracing remain key components of the response to the pandemic. In recent weeks, the testing and tracing system responded to a significant increase in demand. I welcome the recent opening of the five new walk-in, no-appointment-necessary testing centres that have been established to actively look for cases of Covid-19. Testing has also restarted in schools and is ongoing in special education and childcare facilities. As schools continue to reopen, the level of testing will increase.
Mandatory hotel quarantine is a new element in our defence. It will play an important role in combating Covid-19, particularly in the context of the dangers posed by variants of concern. The Health (Amendment) Act 2021 was recently enacted and provides for this new measure at designated facilities. All passengers arriving into Ireland who in the previous 14 days travelled from or through a designated state will be required to pre-book accommodation in a designated quarantine facility, and to prepay for their stay. The Act also provides that any travellers arriving without a not-detected polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test result in the previous 72 hours, as currently required, must enter quarantine until a not-detected test result is returned. In tandem with this, the Government is also introducing measures to enhance North-South co-operation on international travel. These are just some of the recent developments in strengthening public health measures to respond to the pandemic.
In the context of disability services, I wish to stress how grateful we all are to the staff working on the front line who are continuing to deliver services for people with disabilities and their families, day in and day out. There have been a total of 317 outbreaks of two or more cases in disability services since the onset of the pandemic, 149 of which have occurred this year. This has been a significant challenge for service users and staff, and services have done their utmost to keep people safe.One of the questions I am asked most frequently is on the roll-out of the vaccination programme for people with disabilities. From the very beginning, the programme has been built on fairness, and the focus has been on ensuring those who face the greatest risk of severe disease and death are prioritised for vaccines. It is important to state it is not just persons with disabilities who have raised these questions; they have also been raised by their carers.
Last month, the vaccine allocation strategy was revised to take into account the latest clinical and medical advice based on national and international evidence. Those with a medical condition that puts them at very high risk of severe disease and death are now being vaccinated in group 4. I am delighted that the HSE has recently begun vaccinating this vulnerable group. The update provided people with disabilities further reassurance on where they align in the vaccine allocation strategy.
It is good to see that over 1,200 people living in disability residential care who are aged 65 or over have been fully vaccinated. An additional 2,500 people in disability services were vaccinated in the week up to 13 March. It is important to note that the disability service staff, who are front-line healthcare workers, are scheduled for vaccination as part of the prioritised health worker cohort. The vaccinations have been ongoing over recent weeks.
At this critical moment, the focus in Ireland must remain on regaining and maintaining control over the disease, preventing a further wave of infection later in the year and protecting our most vulnerable until vaccination can offer widespread protection at population level. I look forward to Senators' contributions.