Monday, 29 March 2021
Covid-19 Vaccination Programme: Statements
Paul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
I thank the Minister for coming in because I know he has an extremely busy schedule at the moment. This week is going to be crucial for him and the Government. There are a number of concerns and I will try to go through them as quickly as I can. The first is fundamental. As we know, the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, has identified and prioritised 15 groups for vaccination. Does the Government know how many people are in each group? That is fundamental. I am asking because it appears that the Government does not know the answer to that question and it is causing confusion and a lack of confidence.
Like my colleague from the Labour Party, I will reference Paul Cullen's article in the The Irish Timestoday because it is good. It states: "The HSE says 220,000 “front-line” healthcare workers have been vaccinated, yet only 80,000 of these work for the State health provider." Mr. Cullen goes on to make the point that the other groups do not seem to make up that total. He also states:
Some 177,000 people have been vaccinated in long-term residential care facilities. There are 32,000 residents in nursing homes, and about 20,000-30,000 staff.
A breakdown of those groups would be useful because if the Minister would be able to give us that, it would give confidence to the general public. It is worrying that the Department of Health has not been able to give that breakdown to my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, who has been asking for it for the past couple of months, or to The Irish Timesfor that particular article. That suggests the Department does not know, which raises the more fundamental question that if the Government does not know the numbers of people in each group, how can it plan the roll-out from here? That is fundamental.
It is a pity we were not given a copy of the Minister's speech because it would have been helpful to go through it. I caught a reference to a figure that 800,000 people had been vaccinated by 26 March. That is good and I welcome that clarity. Can the Minister tell us if we will hit the target of the vaccination of 250,000 people each week from next week onwards, as we need to? That is fundamental, although I fully accept that is subject to delivery. I accept the Minister's point that the vaccines must arrive. Is the capacity there?
The Minister mentioned that 11,000 dedicated vaccinators had been trained up and that is a welcome figure. However, I am confused because when I spoke to the head of University Hospital Limerick on Friday of last week, she said there were 100 additional dedicated staff. Senators Conway and others were also on that call. I am finding it hard to marry those figures. The Minister will acknowledge that concern. Is the capacity in place to make sure we hit the target of 250,000 vaccinations per week?
I will move on to the people who received vaccines when they should not have. This is fundamental because it is adding to a lack of confidence among the general public. I call for the Department to initiate a full investigation across all areas because the last thing we need is more leakage and other examples of people who, through contacts or privilege, have got the vaccine when they should not have. There has been a drip-feed of revelations over the past number of weeks and they have been damaging to the Department. The best approach would be for the Minister to tell us clearly if there are more examples of that sort of practice happening. He should tell us that today when he is responding. Has he been made aware of any further examples of people being given the vaccine ahead of their place in the queue?
Speaking of the vaccination queue, Sinn Féin has put a fundamental emphasis on family carers, as the Minister knows. When will he instruct NIAC to look at family carers and apply ethical principles to this group? Family carers are recognised as health and social care workers in the national carers' strategy but, inexplicably, they are not counted as such for the purpose of the vaccine roll-out. One family carer stated that her son is developing a stutter because of a lack of interaction and conversation with people. The child is only three and cannot be vaccinated. If he gets sick, he will have to go to hospital but his carer, his mother, will not be vaccinated. Parents are having to make impossible decisions and it is the responsibility of the Minister to fix that. I ask him to do so as a matter of the most urgent priority.
I raise the issue of Limerick. We are all completely puzzled as to why we in Limerick do not have a vaccination centre. Why has the Government put the vaccination centre for Limerick in County Clare? It is impossible for people living in Abbeyfeale or Newcastle West to get to the vaccination centre. The other problem is that the vaccination centre is not accessible by public transport.Unless one has a car, one must organise a taxi in order to get there. It makes no sense. The HSE referred to figures from the Central Statistics Office. Is it saying there has been a sudden displacement of people from Limerick to Clare? It just does not make sense and people in Limerick are angry about that. It is a basic thing that there should be a vaccination centre in each county, yet the Government has failed to deliver one for Limerick. It makes no sense and I would like an answer on that issue. I appreciate the Minister taking the time to come to the House.