Seanad debates

Monday, 29 March 2021

Covid-19 Vaccination Programme: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)

The Minister is welcome. It is important to emphasise that vaccination cannot be our only plan. I worry that so much now is focused on the end goal of vaccination that we do not have as much emphasis as we need on the many preventative and other measures we will need to use in the months ahead. With all due respect to the Minister, it was unhelpful for the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, to state that we will not get the case numbers below 500. It has also been unhelpful to see the amount of energy put into challenging independent scientific advice that seeks a more aggressive and ambitious reduction, even on a regional level, in terms of cases. More needs to be done and a signal of ambition in respect of that aspect must go out very strongly.

As regards the vaccination programme, there are a few technical issues. I refer to the issue of access to public transport, which has been mentioned. At least some of the vaccination centres should have better public transport accessibility. That is very important.

On the issue of the number of vaccinators, I know the HSE received 4,000 applications from individuals. Many of them are facing a significant number of difficulties in getting those applications processed. We need to scale up the number. Crucially, that must not come at the cost of retaining testers and contact tracers and increasing recruitment in this regard. It is disappointing that we are only now seeing the message that they will trace back five days. For more than 12 months, I and others have been calling for that to be done because it is how one catches asymptomatic cases and reduces the numbers.

On prioritisation, as other Members stated, a significant amount of thought has gone into the list. However, I note the importance of prioritising those who are caring for and supporting vulnerable persons. I refer to professional and family carers, as well as personal needs assistants and special needs assistants, who we know from the experience in the UK have a higher vulnerability. In that regard, I appeal to the Minister to speak to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, around accommodating remote learning for children in whose families in which are vulnerable members. The children should not be marked as absent where a member of their family is being cared for. A very blunt approach has been taken in that regard and families have struggled when the child is not the person who is vulnerable, but there is a vulnerable person at home. There needs to be room for nuance in such situations. Of course, allowing remote learning for such children would reduce the numbers in classrooms overall and create greater safety for everyone.

My main focus is on the issue of justice. Reference has been made to the outrageous situation at the Beacon Hospital and the fact that prioritisation was made based on wealth and connections, which should never be the case. All Members know that is what we do not want to see. It is absolutely crucial not just that the situation at the Beacon Hospital be addressed but also that those bad practices at senior level by the CEO are addressed and shown to be unacceptable to people in this State.

On a wider level, we need to apply those principles internationally and globally. We know from Oxfam that 14% of the world's population are now in possession of 53% of the effective vaccines. The issue is not simply a moral question around distribution of the vaccine; it is the artificial scarcity in supply of vaccines that relates directly to the prioritisation of the maximisation of profit over the sharing of intellectual property, technical know-how and other manufacturing information. The WHO has warned that we are on the verge of catastrophic moral failure. That will be on us. We will all be the people about whom we rage in the newspapers if we do not step up. The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence has highlighted the need to act on this issue, and not just to support Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, COVAX, but also the Covid-19 technology access pool, C-TAP, initiated by the WHO. Indeed, there should be consideration of a trade and intellectual property rules, TRIPS, waiver. Shamefully, just a month ago Europe and the United States blocked a request from 100 countries and the WHO for a temporary waiving of intellectual property in order to allow a massive scale-up in global vaccine production and access.We will be back around the table to take the decision will in late April or early May. The US is now considering a temporary waiver. Ireland needs to show moral leadership on this. We need to signal we want to support a massive global scale-up. It should be borne in mind that €6.5 billion of public money and €1.5 billion of civil society money went into the development of vaccines. We have funded this. It is a public health good.

It is not just a question of having a politics of principle or a politics of patronage in which people trade supplies with each other, it is also a question of collective safety. Until we are all safe, none of us is safe. We will see new variants emerge everywhere in the world that is unprotected which will affect all of us and the vaccines will stop working for everyone. It is a huge moral moment. I want the Minister of State to show leadership and demand leadership from her Government colleagues, including the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.


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