Monday, 29 March 2021
Living with Covid-19: Statements
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for the second time today. I, too, would like to start by extending my condolences to the families of those who have lost loved ones to Covid. As a State, we should look at how we can properly commemorate them in the future. Today, our focus is on what will come out of the Cabinet sub-committee which is meeting to discuss what might be feasible for 5 April in terms of restrictions. People are waiting with bated breath to see what new freedoms they may have in terms of the 5 km exercise limit. Everybody has found that 5 km restriction really difficult because it has gone on for so long. We have to remember that we are lucky that we get to travel in here to do our jobs and get outside of that 5 km limit. People will also be interested to see whether certain sectors, such as construction and children's sports, will open up.
The Government has to get the communication right on this on this occasion. We cannot have a repeat of the mistakes with the flying of kites, the mixed messages and the race to be first to the microphone because we need effective communication to keep everybody on board. We are at a fragile point in this pandemic. The social contract with the public is breaking down. They are frustrated and weary at the length of this lockdown and, I suppose, at the slow roll-out of the vaccination. The public needs not only the right words, but the right actions.
I would like to talk about some of the things that my party would like to see happening. Others have mentioned the mandatory quarantine. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, was clear early this year. It said every effort should be made to ensure that discretion, as it currently applies to the need for the restriction of movement and polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing post arrival in Ireland, is removed.The Government's partial quarantine cannot be described as every effort. I do not think anybody advocates lightly for mandatory hotel quarantine. We understand it is a significant step for the State to take, but when people have been locked inside their homes and restricted to 5 km for so long, it is incredibly frustrating for them to see people travelling into the country. It is leaving us further exposed to the importation of the virus and the threat of more infectious variants, and it risks the progress that has been so hard won by the sacrifices made by people during the lockdown. We need a system of real mandatory quarantine for all non-essential arrivals from all countries. This is the only thing that will really get the job done. It will send a message to international travellers that now is not the time to come here. It is time to get this right. The task then would be to re-open as safely and as soon as possible. Ignoring the need for a proper system of mandatory quarantine jeopardises that aim to reopen.
The dogs on the streets know contact tracing is required. It was one of the first things the World Health Organization told every country to get right if they wanted to stay ahead of the virus. Dr. Mike Ryan warned that Ireland was essentially driving blind in reopening its economy without setting up a strong system of contact tracing to beat the flare-ups of the coronavirus. We missed an opportunity during the summer, when our numbers were so low and it seemed like the virus had retreated. We should have been building up our public health defences, but instead we let go many of the contact tracers. We should look at how other countries are doing it. Dr. Mike Ryan, again, has said to look at Australia and how they have chased the virus down relentlessly through their well-resourced contact tracing system.
Of course, I have to mention the vaccine, because the end of the pandemic is in sight. While it is brilliant the vaccination programme is being rolled out, confidence in the programme is not at a high. Confidence was dealt a further blow last week when it emerged a private hospital had provided vaccines to teachers in the private school attended by the children of the hospital's CEO. We welcome the decision to suspend the vaccination programme at the Beacon Hospital, but is it really a punishment? Prior to the Minister making that decision, the Beacon Hospital was already considering pulling the plug on the vaccine roll-out. We need to see proper accountability to restore confidence in the vaccination programme because the whole affair has revealed again that, in Irish society, it is who one knows, and one can get doors opened and get benefits and privileges if one knows the right people and mixes in the right circles. If we want to bring the entire population along with us on this, let us hope, final lockdown, then we must get these things right.