Seanad debates

Monday, 29 March 2021

Living with Covid-19: Statements


10:30 am

Sharon Keogan (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I warmly welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad. I addressed the Minister for Health earlier on the Covid-19 vaccination programme. I commented on the state of progress with the vaccination programme and made fair comments about well-publicised flaws and delays in it, as well as speaking about the state of the nation in lockdown. I spoke about the effects of the policy of the Government and NPHET on the people of Ireland; the vulnerable, those with disabilities, children missing education, people struggling financially and those in grief. Quite simply, I take a holistic view of the events of the past 13 months.

I do not believe it is good public policy to take drastic action without a full evaluation of the costs of such action, including the devastating effect it is having on people's lives and health. Some of my colleagues in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have accused me of personalising the debate. The irony and hypocrisy of it, as they are the people who viciously ganged up and attacked me repeatedly. I ask them to point out what I said that was a personal attack on the Minister for Health. Can I not say that I do not have confidence in his management of the crisis? The selective hearing of my Government colleagues is remarkable at best, and disingenuous and malicious at worst. Contrary to what they claim, I acknowledged the difficulty of the multiple aspects of his ministerial brief.I actually empathise with the Minister. I suggested bringing in a Minister to deal specifically with Covid and vaccinations, which would allow him to concentrate on mending the ailing healthcare system.

Why is the Government trying to play the victim card in the political arena? Is the Oireachtas no longer a safe place? Is it now a place where one cannot criticise, debate or ask questions? The attitudes of my colleagues in this House are repugnant to the very fundamental principle of a parliamentary democracy and to freedom of expression itself. Some of the laws and policy decisions made over the past 13 months were previously unimaginable. They are so grave that they are almost without precedent. Am I not entitled to criticise the performance of the Minister or the Government, their policy decisions, the laws that pass, the blind subservience to NPHET or their faltering and incoherent response to the pandemic?

The Government and the Minister have falsely accused me of being a vaccine sceptic, which is a derogatory label designed to undermine me. They clearly need to go back to school and practise their comprehension. I asked valid questions about the approach of the Government and about the efficacy of a vaccine that has been developed in a matter of months. It is simply a fact that most vaccines take about 12 years to be developed, put through clinical trials and approved by regulators as safe and effective. That is 12 years, not nine months. I read scientific journals like The Lancetand the British Medical Journal, which were quoted on the RTÉ website and posed similar questions about the data on the vaccines and the extent to which they have reduced hospitalisations and deaths. Am I not permitted to ask for information and clarification?

It is the members of Government who are the vaccine sceptics. They supported the suspension of 30,000 vaccinations using AstraZeneca on a mere whiff of an issue. Some 11 million people have been vaccinated in the UK without any clinical evidence of medical complications. That decision was not supported by the data or the science, like so many of the Government's decisions. Day after day we hear one report or another about vaccine delays and targets being missed while our nearest neighbours in the UK are going full steam ahead. Northern Ireland, with a population of 1.8 million, has administered over 100,000 more vaccines than we have south of the Border. We have given one dose of a vaccine to a population roughly the size of Cork city and county.

Our living with Covid plan - if such a thing exists - and our vaccination programme are rapidly descending into a farce. I am not a proponent of the blunt application of lockdown policies without adequate evidence for them being effective and beneficial. We have locked people up in hotels that have been likened to prisons and we have heard media reports of some people absconding from these hotel cells. Whatever about mandatory quarantine for international travellers, we cannot lock our people up any longer. They have endured enough. Accelerating the vaccination roll-out is of paramount importance. I propose giving the sole responsibility for this task to a new Minister. The Minister for Health could then concentrate on salvaging the wrecked health system. That is perhaps the only solution if we are serious about getting out of this never-ending rolling lockdown. I realise I am not going to make any friends by saying these things but I am not here to make friends. I am here to try to improve people's lives and to goad the Government into action.


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