Seanad debates

Friday, 4 June 2021

Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021: [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] Report and Final Stages


9:30 am

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)

They fundamentally do not believe that there should be any public health measures in place. They believe that the civil liberty argument takes total precedence over the right to safety, human life, human health, etc. That is their position and for them to vote against the Bill is therefore rational. I utterly disagree with that view but at least if one holds that view and votes against this Bill, that is a rational vote based on the fact that one believes that freedom is more important than life, and that is fine. Many other people also voted against the Bill, which I found disappointing. They have always supported the fact that public health measures are needed and even in the debate accepted that these public health measures are needed now.

As I am sure colleagues are aware, the Chief Medical Officer and I will meet with Limerick city and county Deputies and Senators later today. There is a serious outbreak in Limerick, with more than 100 cases from Wednesday reported yesterday. We are looking closely at it today. It goes right across society. It is from post-third level gatherings and parties, workplaces, commutes, household gatherings and is across the board. I was talking with the Chief Medical Officer about this yesterday and I asked if the Indian variant, or delta variant, is at play here, and he said that it was not. He said it is the B.1.1.7 variant, whichever name we are giving that one. We all understand the B.1.1.7 variant. It is just that at play. What is happening in Limerick right now is eminently solvable and I have no doubt that the people of Limerick city and county are already stepping up to deal with this and fantastic work is going on on the ground. It reminds us of just how serious the situation is and can quickly become, and why public health measures are needed.

There were Deputies who, to their credit, believe that we need public health measures but believe that the date of November is wrong, which is valid. They tabled amendments accordingly and could have voted on those amendments. None of the amendments were taken and so they voted against the entire Bill. That is disappointing and reckless. Members of the Dáil who believe in and support public health measures, who fully back the idea that we need public health measures for what is happening in Limerick and different parts of the country, voted against the entire Bill. That meant they were voting against the State having any ability to respond to an ongoing pandemic which, in my view, was an extraordinarily reckless thing for them to do. Luckily the Bill passed the Dáil and is back here. It was disappointing because I listened carefully to the Joint Committee on Health and to the Seanad and went to the trouble of substantively changing the Bill to have only one three-month extension.So it was very disappointing when that had been done as well, that they still voted against the entire Bill, simply on a disagreement as to whether the date should be November, September or some other date. I want to register that, as it was a very reckless thing to do.

There was a very productive debate here in the Seanad and in the Dáil with regard to oversight. These are extraordinary powers. I have used the word "draconian", as have many Senators and Deputies. They are extraordinary powers and we want them to be gone as quickly as possible. On Monday next there will be more relaxation of those rules. Interestingly, were this Bill not to pass, we would not be able to continue on Monday with the steady and safe unwinding of the measures. What would happen is there would simply be no measures on Monday morning whatsoever and that would be an extraordinarily foolhardy thing to do in terms of the safety of people living on this island.

There is very substantial analysis, oversight and checks in place for this, which there should be. In terms of analysis, some Members of this House and of the Dáil said there was no analysis available as to how these decisions are being made. The decisions are based on advice from NPHET and other sources. Public health, social and economic advice comes to me and to the Government. All of the NPHET advice is online. All of the analysis it uses is online. The presentations NPHET uses internally and for the Government are all available online. The papers it discusses and endorses, for example, the detailed papers on ventilation and other really good work, are all available online. The Garda data are available. Colleagues very reasonably sought data on how the powers are being used and enforced. Those facts and figures are available. They are published. I would be very happy to provide colleagues with any further information I could. There were some very reasonable questions on geography, demographics and so forth in terms of who the enforcement powers were being used on.

The next level of oversight is the Oireachtas itself. I hope that the process we are going through is proof of that. There was a meeting with the health committee and there was a very healthy debate here and in the Dáil. As a result of this we are making very substantial changes to the Bill, which is the substance of what we are here to discuss. There have been regular debates in both Houses.

The next level of oversight is the Government itself. It is worth stating that while this Bill gives powers to the officeholder who is the Minister for Health, which is me, to make these regulations, the process by which these regulations are made is after a decision of the Government. Regulations are not being made in the Department of Health without recourse to the rest of the Government. What happens is that NPHET meets and it does a very detailed analysis. All of the analysis is available publicly. It presents to the Cabinet Covid committee. Others who present to the committee include the HSE and the vaccine task force. A lot of information is considered. The Covid committee then essentially makes recommendations to the Government. The Government makes its decisions, whatever they may be, in terms of public health measures, whether that is to bring in public health measures or at the moment, thank goodness, unwinding all of the public health measures. Then the Department of Health essentially uses the Government decision to write the regulations, which I then look at. We have a further round of consultation with relevant line Ministers and then and only then are the regulations signed. They are published before they come into effect. It is important that colleagues understand that. These regulations are not something that the Department of Health or I do in isolation. There is a very clear all-of-Government approach to all of this.

Then there is a mechanism whereby the Oireachtas can seek to annul those regulations. The regulations are laid before the Houses. It is my understanding that it is section 5(5) of the Health Act 1947 - I may have it slightly wrong - but there is a section whereby the Oireachtas can seek to annul the regulations.It was triggered over the substantial meal regulation, which I am sure we will all remember. There was a debate on the matter and a vote to seek to annul the regulation. Therefore, there is a mechanism for the Oireachtas to state it is not happy with any regulation and it wants a debate on it. It can trigger this to annul regulations.

The next layer of oversight is the courts. It is important for us to remember that this Act is not seeking an extension simply to allow the introduction of whatever measures one wants; the measures introduced must be proportionate, and that is laid down in the Acts. Anyone can challenge the proportionality. As colleagues will be aware, there have been numerous court cases. There are several cases before the courts right now, including on the domestic measures. There were several cases concerning hotel quarantine and there was a case concerning pubs and restaurants. Numerous cases have been taken whereby people exercised their right to challenge the proportionality of these measures. The courts have a role and the measures must be proportionate. This is one of the reasons we could not simply introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for any country, regardless of the risk.

I will leave it at that. I just wanted to lay out for colleagues where we have got to. I hope colleagues will support the amendments. They are essentially amendments that the Seanad asked for. It was dead right to ask for them. We have now made them. If there are Members of the Seanad who simply do not believe we should have public health measures in place — there are certainly such Members in the Dáil — I could not disagree more strongly with them. It is a view and it is obviously anyone's right to hold it. If such individuals voted against this Bill, it would be rational but I appeal to colleagues in the Seanad who fundamentally agree with the premise that we need to continue with public health measures from Monday onwards, which is really what we are being asked about, to support the Bill, even though they may disagree with the date in November.

As I said on the last occasion, there is no right date. It is a public health-informed date. The UK, for example, has opted for the end of September. We have opted for the start of November. We are about five weeks behind the UK vaccine programme so it lines up quite well in terms of the projected rates of the disease and so forth. September, to me and public health officials, is too early, partly because we will see many people going back to school, work and third level education in that month. The public health view is that one would want to have the ability — I hope it will not be needed — to address any issue arising. An example I gave on the last occasion concerned masks in that there might be situations in which it will still be appropriate to have face coverings. I have no idea whether that will arise. That is the public health view. We believe there will be a lot of social interaction in August and that many people will be going back to education and work in September. The view, therefore, is that for September and October, we will want to retain the ability to introduce what I emphasise as proportionate measures. If the disease rate is very low, as I hope it will be, there may just be a need for very targeted, proportionate measures. By November, or the end of October, essentially, it is hoped there will be no more need for them. Regardless of whether colleagues believe the date should be in November, October or September, if they fundamentally believe that from next Monday onwards we will still need public health measures, they should support the Bill itself.


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