Seanad debates

Monday, 29 March 2021

Covid-19 Vaccination Programme: Statements

 

10:30 am

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)

I thank the Cathaoirleach and colleagues for the opportunity to address the House today on the Government's response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the roll-out of the national vaccination programme. The pandemic represents the greatest public health threat in the history of the State and has required an unprecedented response. Every man, woman and child on the island has sacrificed so much of their personal liberty in our collective efforts to save lives and protect our families and communities. I thank every person, family and community for everything they have done so far.

I am acutely aware of the frustration the public feel in the face of the continuing level 5 restrictions, with a daily case number that remains higher than any of us would like. I have no doubt that, for many, it feels like we are not making progress in our fight against this disease and that there will be no end to this pandemic. I assure the House that the end is in sight and that we are making considerable progress towards it, particularly now that a successful national vaccination programme is under way. As a Government, we are doing all we can to defeat this virus and usher in a return to normality for the people of this country. The vaccination programme represents an enormous source of hope for us all nationally. I understand that public fatigue is at an all-time high. The burden that this pandemic has placed upon our lives has never felt greater for so many of us around the country.

Last year, we could only hope to manage this disease in our society. This year, however, thanks to the unprecedented international co-operation across our research, scientific and business communities, a suite of vaccines is now providing protection against Covid-19 and allowing for a transition back to normality. We finally have a light at the end of the tunnel but we are not out of danger yet and we must hold firm for a little while longer.The vaccination programme is progressing well and it is having a positive effect. As of 26 March, we have administered approximately 800,000 doses of the vaccine throughout the country, with many more people being vaccinated every day. We continue to expand our vaccination infrastructure, with the HSE advising it has trained more than 11,000 vaccinators.

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 as group 4. Our priority is to vaccinate and protect directly the most vulnerable among us, namely, those most likely to have a poor outcome if they contract the virus. More than one in every eight adults has now received a vaccine, and we are starting to see the vaccine having a very real impact of the lives of our citizens. This is hugely encouraging.

Our nursing homes were among the most vulnerable settings for this virus. Nursing home residents and staff were the among the first to be vaccinated in Ireland. Serial testing for Covid in nursing homes is now showing a positivity rate of less than 0.2%, from which we can take great hope. In January, the country averaged 35 outbreaks per week in nursing homes. In the past four weeks, it has reduced from 35 to 2 per week, which is huge drop that is bringing comfort and relief to nursing home residents and their families as well as to nursing home staff. In-person visits to nursing homes have been taking place since 22 March. I expect all nursing home providers will facilitate visiting in line with the new guidance given the important role of visiting, social connections and communication with family and friends in the context of residents' overall health and well-being.

Covid-19 infections in long-term residential care among healthcare workers and in those aged 85 and over have fallen dramatically. The number of cases of Covid over the past two weeks among those aged 85 and older was 12% below what it was during the previous two weeks. This contrasts with a lower 5% decrease in case numbers in those aged under 85, where the vast majority are awaiting vaccination. Our medical experts expect to see drops in cases for the other age groups as they too are vaccinated.

I acknowledge the frustrations of many people with the with the roll-out. However, it has been our intention from the beginning to vaccinate on the basis of vulnerability to the virus to save as many lives as possible and to bring about a return to normality in Ireland as quickly as possible. This approach has been very successful thus far. We all remember the devastating effect the pandemic had on the nursing home sector last year. Those living in these congregated settings are some of the most vulnerable in our society to this pandemic. In January, 15% of all Covid cases were in nursing home outbreaks. By mid-March, this figure had been reduced from 15% to 1%. I hope this has afforded comfort to the residents of nursing homes and their families and to the staff who have worked tirelessly, often in very perilous conditions, to care for our loved ones. The recent increase of permitted visits to nursing homes will have a profound effect on many families and improve the lives of nursing home residents.

The vaccination programme has already had a big impact on reducing the high levels of hospitalisations due to Covid. The available epidemiological data has shown a 67% fall in the number of cases among those aged over 65, with experts expecting that downward trend to continue as we proceed with the vaccination of that priority group. As the volume of vaccinated people increases, the incidence of disease in our communities will fall.

There will be further progress in the vaccine roll-out.By the end of September we expect to have offered all adults in Ireland a Covid-19 vaccine. Over the next three months, between April and the end of July, we expect to receive over three times the number of vaccines we received over the first three months of this year. We expect to receive an average of 1 million vaccines per month during the next quarter, dependent on the ability of manufacturers to deliver consistent ongoing supply. Despite the challenges, we are consistently one of the top performers in the EU in terms of the speed of our roll-out. Not only are we doing very well in terms of the speed out the roll-out from an EU perspective, acknowledging the UK is head, we are also targeting the most vulnerable and the most complex cases in the country. The vaccine roll-out represents the gateway to exiting this global crisis. It is one of the most important tools we have to tackle Covid-19. In parallel, the Government is strengthening our public health response, including increasing public health capacity, strengthening testing and contact tracing, increasing supports for self-isolation and enhancing surveillance capacity. Recent measures have been introduced to mitigate the risk of importation of new variants of the virus, including mandatory pre-departure Covid testing measures and more stringent quarantine measures for arrivals from high-risk countries. Our hospitals are under immense pressure, but additional capacity has been put in place across the health service, including in the context of critical care capacity. These are just some of the components of an unprecedented investment that is being made in our public health and social care services.

The most ambitious vaccination programme ever undertaken by the State is less than three months in operation but is already having a profound effect on our ability to beat this virus. I commend all the ongoing efforts of individuals, communities and our health and social care workers across the country. I look forward to the Senators’ contributions on this topic.

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