Monday, 1 March 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, to delete line 2 and substitute the following:“ ‘designated state’—
(a) on the coming into operation of this Act, means any country, territory, region or other place outside the State other than Northern Ireland,
(b) if at any time after passing a resolution under section 9(5)of the Health (Amendment) Act 2021both Houses of the Oireachtas so resolve, has the meaning assigned to it by section 38E(1);”.
I will speak specifically to amendment No. 1 although I realise it is part of a group. Amendment No. 1 is the Labour Party amendment and the one that was tabled in the Dáil and saw, almost uniquely, a uniting of Opposition parties. Almost all Opposition Deputies were in support of it.As I said on Second Stage, the Labour Party supports the Bill but believes that it does not go far enough. I listened very carefully to the debate on Second Stage and to the Minister's response. I thank him for his kind words about the Seanad and agree with him. As an aside, the Seanad is generally a good forum, and a respectful and courteous place or arena for debate. That is usually the way we conduct our debates. It is unfortunate that some Government Senators personalised the debate but not the Minister because it is important that we debate these issues rationally, courteously and respectfully.
I note, very importantly, the safeguards in the Bill that the Labour Party very much supports - the sunset clause and the careful appeals mechanism. I take issue with the Minister and his rhetorical question, that he put in a proportionality test and that to extend the list of countries too far would be disproportionate and would mean the Bill was not legally robust. That is not my legal view. That is not the view of many constitutional lawyers who have spoken about the principle of extending mandatory hotel quarantine. I would argue that there is a clear evidence basis for extending further the list of countries. Indeed, as the Minister said, the list of countries has been extended from 20, initially, last week to 33 now. The clear evidence we have that has been presented by the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group and, in particular, the evidence in the study conducted by Professor Paddy Mallon and his colleagues, provides adequate justification to satisfy a proportionality test were we to see an extension of the list of countries to cover all arrivals that are on non-essential business from other countries. This is not, in the Labour Party amendment, a travel ban. It is simply an imposition of mandatory hotel quarantine restrictions on those who travel for non-essential purposes into and out of the country. Our amendment would define all states outside Ireland as capable of being designated states. It would be subject, of course, to the sunset clause but it would facilitate a curbing of transmission or it would help, as part of a package of measures, to curb the onward transmission of the virus.
I noted the Minister's comments that we currently have mandatory home quarantine and that this is enforceable. The key point is that it is enforceable but it is not enforced and we all know this. Around the country everyone has seen the real visibility of friends and neighbours coming back from other countries and that, as we know, has undermined the public's compliance with measures. I would stress again, as I said on Second Stage, that it is very hard to continue to justify the draconian restrictions that everyone resident in Ireland continues to live under, with the 5 km restriction and so on, yet see a failure to enforce and a failure to send a clear message about the current ban on non-essential international travel. If friends and neighbours are coming back from holidays or dental appointments in the Canary Islands, it is very hard to see relatives and friends being stopped from going outside 5 km for exercise and continue to live under draconian restrictions. That is a key point.
Others have made the point about the difficulty with consistency, that if we now have 33 countries on the quarantine list then why not extend that further. Why not work with the other jurisdictions on these islands to have the sort of travel corridor we see between Australia and New Zealand? Why do we not work with other countries? It was interesting to listen to the Government Senators say that Ireland is the only country in the EU to adopt mandatory hotel quarantine through this legislation. Yes, but the UK has had mandatory hotel quarantine in place since 15 February. While we may be the only country in the EU to adopt this sort of measure, our nearest neighbour has already adopted it and has a list of 33 countries. We have seen in other EU countries border controls being imposed in recent weeks as the new variants have spread through countries like Germany and elsewhere. So there is a clear concern among EU member states about the transmissibility of new variants and the need to ensure curbs on transmission through stricter border controls.
I am conscious of the time although I am glad that the time for this debate has been extended to 4.30 p.m. so that gives us a little more time. I urge the Minister, as Government Senators have said, some of whom have been very critical of the Government, that it is better late than never. The Labour Party amendment gives us a chance to enable the adoption of a coherent strategy to suppress Covid, not just to live with it.We know that the Government's proposed plan for living with Covid has meant rolling lockdowns, with the prospect of further lockdowns as the vaccination programme goes on. Unless we see a rapid acceleration of that programme, we are facing prolonged and further lockdowns. Looking at the NPHET briefings, I note its concerns about the autumn and, unless the whole world is vaccinated fully, it may not necessarily be safe to open up fully in individual countries.
I am a huge proponent of vaccines. We all wish the Minister the very best with the vaccination programme. I do not agree with Senator McDowell and think it is wonderful to see photographs of Catherine McGuinness and other individuals getting their vaccines. I know from friends who have received it how joyful an occasion it is. However, the programme is progressing so slowly. I know that it is about supply. We are hopeful that the vaccination programme will accelerate in the coming months.
We cannot rely entirely on vaccination, however. We have to adopt a package of measures to ensure that we do not continue with this lack of coherence in our strategy, rolling lockdowns and prolonged school and workplace closures, and the impact on so many people as a result. If mandatory hotel quarantine for non-essential incoming and outgoing travel is a good and effective way to curb the virus, it should be introduced as part of that package. I simply do not understand why the Government has an ideological or, indeed, a practical objection to extending it.
Many of us take the view that if the variants continue to spread, we will see the list of 33 countries expanded further. We may well be asking ourselves in a month or two months' time why did we not just grasp the nettle when we introduced this legislation and go further to take the radical step towards a national aggressive suppression strategy. We may ask why we did not seek to really clamp down on transmission of the virus and suppress it within this jurisdiction with the powers contained in this legislation. There has been an unfortunate failure to grasp that we did have that chance at zero Covid before and that we could have it again. The Labour Party's amendment, which had united Opposition support in the Dáil, offers us a way to proceed and to ensure we will have a good chance of suppressing the virus and of returning to a reopening of society, schools, workplaces, as well as, crucially, saving lives. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment.
I will not prolong the debate needlessly. I referred to all of our amendments in my earlier contribution.
The purpose of amendment No. 9 is fairly clear. I just want to touch on the point made by Senator Bacik on her amendment and the Minister's concluding statement on Second Stage about the jump from 20-odd countries on the list to 32. We are seeking, as we always do in this House, through our amendments to make this legislation as robust and as steadfast as it can be. We are not advocating a uniformity for the sake of it. We are doing it because, as we have said consistently, this is about suppressing the virus and keeping people safe. We have a divergence of opinion, however, on how best to do this. If these amendments were to be accepted, they would strengthen this legislation. Amendment No. 9 is clear in what it seeks to do and how it is laid out. I endorse what Senator Bacik said in the context of what we can do and what we should be doing in this scenario. It is not beyond us.
No one is looking to be overly repressive. We understand the delicacies involved. We have all come through the past year.I acknowledge and accept many more people out there have come through it with much more difficulty than I have. My family has been lucky, thank God. Many other families have not been so lucky. These amendments are worth reflecting on. They will serve this legislation and the Minister's work going forward. That is the intention behind them.
I believe the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, had an agreement with the UK that anyone from elsewhere in the world travelling on a visa to the UK could automatically come to Ireland. There was an agreement between the two countries. I am wondering, in cases of people travelling on visas to the UK, whether that agreement is still in place, if this legislation will revoke that agreement and if it deals with that aspect of it. My second point concerns the free movement of people within the EU. If the case numbers in some EU countries were to get out of hand, would this legislation cover hotel quarantine for travellers arriving from EU countries?
The fact that travellers must have a negative PCR test result, no matter where they are coming from, probably answers Senator Burke's question.
On the amendment, I have great regard for my colleague, Senator Bacik, but with the greatest respect, I think the amendment is completely over the top. It is correct that the UK has mandatory quarantine measures in place. However, we are a member state of the EU. From the onset of the pandemic to date, the EU has handled the situation much better than the UK. As a matter of fact, Ireland has handled it much better than most European countries, if not all of them. Why would we mandatorily quarantine a person coming from a country that is Covid-free? That does not make sense at all. There must be proportionality about this. As the Minister quite rightly pointed out, this is the most stringent quarantining legislation in Europe.
I listened to Deputy Kelly speaking before Christmas. He wanted everything to remain as it was prior to Christmas until 6 January 2021. Therefore, it is a good job that the Government decided to close everything down on Christmas Eve and did not follow the advice of Deputy Kelly to keep everything open until 6 January. This is an evolving situation, but amendments such as that tabled by the Labour Party are completely and totally over the top. With respect, there is more headline generating going on now than dealing with the problem and the challenges that we face. By and large, the Labour Party put down very reasoned amendments in this House over many years, but I do not know how it can stand over this one. It is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
I am reluctant to join in. I must say that I am a little bit surprised. With very notable exceptions, there has been very constructive debate from many Members on the Government side, but the swinging accusations in this House today have come from the Government benches, and it is not constructive. Let us be clear, there was a moment when we were doing very well in Ireland.A survey across Europe showed the reason we were doing very well was that we had the highest levels of compliance by individuals. Ireland was not doing great on testing or in our public health system readiness, but we had extremely high social compliance. That is why putting in place those measures, so that we show people have been pushed, and listening to people on those issues are really important. When we talk about this we should be clear that Ireland was very close to zero Covid. It was very close to a position where we would have at least kept our numbers very low but decisions were made specifically to emulate the Belgian model. That was the position advocated by the Tánaiste who talked about Belgium. We followed some of the measures in respect of Belgium and we saw the results.
When people pick out sentences that members of the Opposition uttered, we need to be clear that many of us have been advocating consistently for a more cautious, thoughtful approach for nine, ten or 11 months. Let us listen to each other and not try to reinvent history when it comes to the Government's position. I am glad its position is evolving but poor decisions and changes in policy just before December brought us to this position where it may seem that zero Covid is very difficult to achieve. However, that was not always the case.
The vaccine roll-out is very important and I share everyone's concerns about who is getting it. I am also concerned about the global roll-out of the vaccine.
I am concerned that Ireland, as a member of the UN Security Council, needs to do more to address the blockages with regard to intellectual property to ensure we see a push to scale up production. Those issues really matter. The slow roll-out of the vaccine globally is not the solution. The solutions we have are prevention, precaution and protective measures, which are what these amendments are about. There are some precautionary measures in the Bill but I am concerned that they will not work as they should because they are limited and contain very large loopholes. As a result, people will appear in the media stating that travel bans or limits do not work. Our objective is not a travel ban but to raise the bar on travel so that it comes at a cost, not only to society but also to individuals in that they must consider the cost to themselves financially but also in planning the time.
I hope that when the Minister responds he will not simply push back, as he has and I know he will, on the blanket application of mandatory hotel quarantine, as proposed by the Labour Party and Sinn Féin. I will support their proposals, although I believe my amendment, which is somewhat more moderate, is a good compromise. The Senators make a very strong case. If the Minister rejects that case, the onus is on him to prove that there is real enforcement of all the other measures. Can we prove that we are enforcing the mandatory quarantine which the Minister says exists for every person, irrespective of whether he or she is from a designated country?
What measures are being taken around essential travel? We hear a great deal about tourism and holidays. I am concerned about business travel, people who have a meeting two or three days after their arrival and then leave a week later. What measures are being taken in respect of those people? A Government Minister, perhaps the Tánaiste, gave the example of a meeting in London. What is being done with regard to meetings and that kind of travel? Cheltenham was mentioned. What exactly will we do ensure there is no Cheltenham spike, as happened last year. This time last year, many of us called for restrictions on international travel to avoid events such as Cheltenham having a negative impact in Ireland.
My amendments in this group, amendments Nos. 10 and 11, represent a midpoint where we will have full application of hotel quarantine, which is a good idea, to ensure we do everything we can to create a seal. This will allow us to address and aggressively track and trace cases of Covid-19 and also ensure that large areas of the country are protected from Covid-19.The 5 km and 20 km limits are ironic because those who arrive at our airports and ports are not limited but can travel to any part of the country. At a minimum it would address this.
My amendments seem to recognise the concerns the Minister has raised in respect of EU law. They also try to ensure we will have an equity of the application of criteria. They suggest that where designations are being made under the sections as outlined by the Minister in respect of variants and Covid risk levels, those health criteria and considerations should be equitably applied in respect of all other non-EU countries and territories with the exception of Northern Ireland.
I recognise there may be places where EU responses need to be collectively addressed and there may be EU-wide measures in respect of the restrictions on motion and the measures to enforce the restrictions on movement. I have tried to leave this space in the legislation while also pressing the Minister to ensure we have equitable application because there is a concern. It does not really ring true that we would have predominantly countries from the global south on the list and other countries, such as the United States, are very prominently not on the list at present. There is fear at the moment because of incredibly high instances of Covid-19 in the United States. Just yesterday, it had 50,925 new cases and it has one of the highest death rates in the world. It also has the B117 and B1351 variants and the P1 variant. As I already mentioned, the B1427 and B1429 variants are particularly prevalent on the west coast of the United States.
The legislation would seem to suggest the designated country factors would certainly apply to the United States. This is the concern. Will there be equitable application? Will it simply produce a list of countries that we do not mind offending or that are somehow on our diplomatic list? It looks like this at present and it is a concern. I understand why some of the countries are there but there are very clear gaps with regard to what countries are being designated at present. What assurances can the Minister give us that this will be addressed? It really should not be the case.
There is another factor, which is, of course, major international hubs. People do not simply travel directly from a country. In fact, many of the countries on the list do not have direct flights to Ireland. What are the measures in respect of people travelling for great lengths of time through major international air hubs where people come from every country? I am concerned that this is the type of loophole that will lead to the legislation not being as successful as it should be and, as a result, in a couple of months' time we will have people pushing back and saying we should not have restrictions on air travel because it does not make a difference. This is my concern and I hope the Minister can address it.
I also hope the Minister will consider accepting my amendment in this regard. If he will not accept it in its letter, I hope he will be able to convey to me how he hopes to apply it in spirit. I also hope the Minister might consider my other amendment, which makes reference to Covid-19 or any variant thereof. It is just to be very clear on this. Perhaps the Minister will assure us that all variants will be covered by the legislation. It is a concern I have heard expressed by people with regard to the legal tightness of the language.
If we do not have time to address this matter fully today, I hope the Minister will return to the House and speak to us about what is happening in respect of all those people coming from non-designated countries. At present, it seems they fill in a form and one or two will get a call from a garda. This seems to be what is happening and it is not enough.
I was not going to come back in but I take issue with colleagues in government who have suggested our Labour Party amendment is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.Covid-19 is very far from being the latter. It was unfortunate language and I am sure it was not intended. Unfortunately, this is an emergency and we are all well aware of it. We all know how many people have died so tragically after being infected and how many lost their livelihoods or had businesses disrupted or shutdown for good. There has been a major imposition on children, people with disabilities and all of us in society. This is a case that clearly calls for the sort of emergency measures we would never contemplate in any other context. I am urging colleagues to support the amendment because it goes further. The Minister knows we support the Bill but we want it to go further.
By going further, extending the powers for mandatory hotel quarantine and ensuring that the laws banning non-essential inward and outward travel are enforced, as well as enforceable, this will help to engender and create an even stronger sense of public goodwill and solidarity, which we saw so strongly during the first lockdown but which has clearly been eroded by the reports about people engaging in non-essential travel. There is no question about that. It is eroding public compliance and goodwill and creating a great deal of discontent and disquiet, as well as being scientifically proven to have helped cause greater levels of transmission.
I remind colleagues of the study by Professor Paddy Mallon and colleagues which made it clear that the types of virus circulating in the first wave disappeared through the first effective lockdown last year but that the second wave was dominated by new variants from overseas, with the most devastating third wave spread by inward travel and social mixing over Christmas. The latter spread new variants far more widely. I make no apology for having changed views. All of us have changed views as we have gone through the past year, seeing the awful ways in which the virus has changed with dangerous new variants emerging. It is absolutely right for us to then change policy accordingly. Where the Government is to be criticised is for not changing sufficiently to take account of the new variants and not changing to ensure that we see greater consistency in a more effective approach taken in line with scientific evidence.
We all hope very much that the strategy for living with Covid works. My party and I strongly support the accelerated vaccination programme. We will do all we can to assist it and be constructive. Nonetheless, we are all very anxious about inward and outward travel and the evidence which demonstrates that the spread of the virus is accelerated when we do not impose controls on non-essential travel into and out of Ireland. That is the crucial point we make with the amendment. We are not proposing a ban on travel, we are simply proposing a way of making it more inconvenient for people to engage in the sort of non-essential travel we have seen too much of in recent months. In this way, we can help in a package of measures to suppress the virus and address the onward transmission issues.
To those who say travel only accounts for a tiny proportion of cases, the evidence is again clear that a small number of cases can be traced to inward travel but that travel reseeds and helps to spread new and far more easily transmissible variants. We need to invest far more in public health and our capacity to track back so we know the source and can control outbreaks where they occur. We are all rooting for strategies to address Covid-19 to work and we all want to see suppression of Covid-19. We differ in the approach to be taken and my party seeks an aggressive suppression strategy. Our amendment is in line with that.
My understanding of the amendment is that it seeks to take from the hands of the Minister the right to designate certain countries that require measures to be put in place and replace it with a blanket application to every country, territory or place outside the State. That is fine on one level and it appears to be what the Labour Party and others advocate. I accept their right to do it. As Senator Conway stated, however, it is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. We can worry about the wording but it is not that unfortunate an expression; nobody is suggesting Covid-19 is a small matter. It is not what Senator Conway was suggesting. He did suggest it is an overly onerous and inflexible measure that does not allow the Department, the Minister or the State to react to changes.If there is one thing we have learned about Covid it is that the situation changes all of the time.
With regard to section 2 and the new section 38E, were we to pass this amendment and change the section to specify that section 38E will define a designated state as applying to every country outside the State, as Senator Conway has noted that would prevent us in the future from removing the restriction, for example, from those countries where there is no Covid. The point was made that many countries on the list currently do not have direct flights to Ireland, which of course is true but they do have onward tickets and it is possible to identify people who have travelled from a particular country. This can also be asked of somebody on arrival in the State.
We cannot pass this amendment because the whole purpose of this House is to set down a framework for laws. In many instances, as we have done in thousands of items of legislation, we delegate to the Minister of the day the power to make regulations because it is much easier to change regulations. Examples of this include everything from the misuse of drugs regulations to television licence regulations. Regulations allow for flexibility because the Minister, the Department, the officials, the advisers and the people on the ground know when things need to change. If, for example, we decide that we are not going to designate Iceland any longer because Iceland has no Covid, then we should be able to do that. We should not have to come back here to pass a new Bill to do that. It should be possible for the Minister to do that at the stroke of a pen. The proposed legislation as currently phrased allows the Minister to do that. This amendment would prevent the Minister from doing that and would mean that the framework we are trying to put in place would be rigid and inflexible. This is why we cannot pass the amendment.
I will make a brief contribution. I do not wish to delay the debate on the legislation as we have a lot of work to get through. I believe it is disingenuous of some Members to point the finger at the Government for changing its position. This virus has been changing and evolving over the past 12 months. Positions change when the facts change. We have been moving rapidly and have done a good job in Ireland, despite what some people want to say. We have maintained social solidarity.
Perhaps Members of the Opposition will acknowledge their own changing position. On the one hand, people were calling before Christmas for the wet pubs to reopen and now suddenly they want to have a completely different and disproportionate regime put in place. Senator Ward rightly pointed out that the current proposed legislation will give the Minister the flexibility that is needed to move in a rapidly changing environment.
Quite honestly, it is very surprising to hear Senator Bacik advocating for this completely disproportionate measure. I am surprised because I am used to Senator Bacik's contributions in the previous Seanad in particular. I feel that maybe this one is not in keeping with her own views on the issue. Non-essential travel-----
I am not personalising the debate. I believe that the Opposition are being completely negligent in trying to say that we are personalising the debate and that we are trying to throw angry language and anxiety-inducing statements into the debate. We need to be responsible. People are anxious enough at the moment. We are putting in place very important legislation. Taking potshots at the Government to get likes on social media is not the position we need to be in at the moment. People are really suffering and we need to have a co-ordinated approach to this. People need to just come on board. Non-essential travel into Ireland is down to an absolute trickle. I live not far from Dublin Airport. I talk with workers in Dublin Airport on a regular basis. Inward travel is down to an absolute trickle. To suggest anything else on anybody's behalf is completely negligent. It is irresponsible because that is not what is happening. People are anxious and they do not need to be led astray by suggestions that floods of people are coming into the State on holidays and for God knows what else. That is not the case. The proportionate measures contained in the legislation are right and proper.There are 33 countries on that list and countries can be added or removed from the list if the situations in those countries improve. I mention the sunset clause. We will be back in here in three months and we can debate the merits or demerits of it at that stage. I know the Minister is open to improving anything in the system. His door has always been open and I have gone to his office with many concerns and queries, as I am sure other Members have in recent months. We need this legislation and we need it to be proportionate to the threat we are facing. It is going in line with all the other measures, including the roll-out of the vaccine schedule and the schools reopening. It is incumbent on us all to pull together for the last few months of this and to try to make sure we will be in a better position in a couple of months.
Nobody wants to personalise the debate. We are all here to serve the people and to do the best we can throughout this crisis. Last July in this House, I was one of the first to call for PCR testing at our airports and ports. We want to keep our country open for business and we want to do it safely. PCR testing was only introduced in December. Members on this side of the House have provided good ideas but they have not been taken on board by the Government. The Government has no real solution for Covid except lockdowns and vaccinations and we have to wait for the vaccinations to be rolled out.
There are countries on this list, and I will take the United Arab Emirates from the category 2 list as an example. Some 61 doses of vaccine per 100 people have been administered in the United Arab Emirates and in Ireland we have administered a vaccine to eight of every 100 people. What is the scientific rationale and evidence for having the United Arab Emirates on that list?
We are here to offer constructive criticism and to do our best to support the Government in what it is doing. There are eminent people on this side of the House who know a lot more about legislation than I do. There are also some of us on this side of the House who have good ideas on how to run companies and businesses, and it is important the Government takes those perspectives on board.
I thank my colleagues for all their contributions. It is an important and healthy debate and long may we continue to have it. Nobody has all of the answers. The Government does not have all of the answers, nor is there a government anywhere in all of the world that does. It is essential we have a debate and that we listen to each other because we are ultimately trying to achieve the same thing. We want to keep people safe, out of hospital and alive and we want to try to open up normal life in our country as much as we can.
The toll on people, life, health, mental health, isolation and loneliness has been brutal, vicious and prolonged. People are at their wit's end and we all know it. We all know lots of people, including friends, family, constituents, neighbours and colleagues who have had enough and it is wearing people down. What I, the Government and all of us want is to find some way of suppressing this virus while allowing people to have some sort of a life. People are talking to me and saying they have not hugged their mums or dads in a year, they have not seen their grannies in a year and they have not seen their friends. It is brutal and the measures that are in place are taking a real toll.The great challenge we have, and every country has, is that the very things we all need to do, that is, meet people, meet up with friends, play a bit of sport, go and see a bit of live music, go to our friend's house, go to the pub or whatever, are exactly the things that this virus needs to replicate. It is harder now than ever for a few reasons. The first is that people are tired. Many people have been left in an awful state of mental health and isolation. Economically, people have lost their jobs and their businesses. It has been brutal. That is part of it. We are a year in now and we are facing this. The second reason is the variant, which now is well in excess of 90% of new cases. It is like dealing with a different disease. It is much more contagious and it turns out it is more severe. The data from the UK show it causes significantly more hospitalisation and death and it needs just the slightest opportunities to spread. That is what we are dealing with. We can all, hopefully, leave as much of our politics as we can outside the door because, ultimately, that is all this is about. That is all anybody is trying to do here. I thank the Senators for the debate and long may it continue.
Why should we go with the approach in this legislation? That is to say if, having looked at the evidence from around the world, the Chief Medical Officer tells the Minister for Health that he thinks I need to add the following 20 countries or 13 countries, I or whosoever is in this role as Minister for Health, takes that advice on and then can designate those countries quickly on the same day. Why do that rather than the alternative being proposed by some Senators and some other political parties, which is essentially just do it for the entire world? It is because behind that proposal is zero Covid. Senator Bacik has referenced it and referenced the independent scientific group, and zero Covid was referenced in the Dáil as well. For what it is worth, zero Covid is a very seductive idea. We can look at New Zealand and ask can we not just have that. We can ask whether we can not simply stop people coming into the country, after which we can all go about living our lives. We can ask whether we can not simply have what New Zealand has because, dear God, what we have now is very tough. That is part of the question. The answer that I have got from the Chief Medical Officer, from NPHET and from various experts - I accept there are highly credible people on both sides of this argument - is that it does not work in Ireland. New Zealand is an island 3,500 km into the Pacific Ocean that was not dealing with a more contagious variant, that got down to a very low level and was able to successfully implement it. Australia did something similar, although they had waves of it, with one of the waves coming from their hotel quarantine facilities. It is something we have to be cognisant of as we set it up.
I will make a few points on why we should not pursue zero Covid. Senator Bacik has repeatedly used the phrase "an aggressive suppression strategy". I would argue we have an aggressive suppression strategy but why not go zero Covid? In reality, if one lines up what we are now doing, including with this legislation, with the policy measures that are zero Covid, there is not much difference between them at this point. The main difference is time. For anyone who is advocating zero Covid at this point - people in my own party are advocating it as are many others, because everyone is sick of what is going on and asking could we not just do that and would that not be great - it would be great but here is what it would require. It would require keeping the level 5 measures in place now for months and months. I do not know how long, but September, October or November. It would require not opening the schools. It would probably require going back to a 2 km measure for our homes.It would require a great deal of enforcement. It would require that there be no construction, no education and no businesses. There would be none of the little bits that we have like the coffee shops where one can pick up a coffee on one's walks. There would be no sports, no arts - nothing. To begin zero Covid, we would require everybody except the most essential workers to go home for months and months and months and months. That is what would be required to get to the starting point of zero Covid.
I will compare that to what is going on in the country. We know from the data we have that people are finding it harder to comply. One of the most important measures we watch for whether we are staying on top of this is the number of close contacts. It went down to two in January and it is now 2.6. In the past five weeks, it went up by 0.1 a week. This week, it has gone up by 0.2 and the overall figure has therefore gone from two to 2.6. The R-nought number is now close to 1. It is still below 1, but it is much closer to it now. The mobility data are moving and everybody who is on the road knows this. We can see more traffic. It is also getting warm. It is March now and soon it will be April and May. It is not possible to get everybody to stay at home and to close the schools, colleges, businesses and everything else until perhaps July, August or September. Who knows how long it would take? I do not know. Nobody knows.
We must think about the severity of the measures we already have in place. Almost nothing is open. We all know from Professor Nolan’s work that the case numbers fell incredibly quickly but have plateaued. While we are seeing a massive reduction in the healthcare settings, we will see community infection beginning to rise.
I will set out my view. There is no question that zero Covid has worked for New Zealand. We would all prefer that level of disease prevalence in the country. Based on what is required to get there and on the current level of compliance with level 5, the public health advice is that it is just not possible, no matter how much people might want it, particularly with this B117 variant because it is so much more contagious.
What I said to my own political party when this was discussed at our parliamentary party meeting, and what I say to my colleagues here, is that the public health advice is that it is probably not possible. Anyone who would like to try to get there would have to stand over even harsher measures than those we have in place right now, potentially right through until the autumn. If that is what people are proposing, that is fair enough but that is what is required. In the Dáil, I heard certain members of the Opposition suggest that we could get there in four to six weeks. That is nonsense. There is not a chance that we could do so.
When we talk about zero Covid, we must talk about what it would actually require and whether the Irish nation or indeed any western European nation at this stage would be able to do that with the toll it would take. There would not be very much non-elective healthcare going on either.
I ask colleagues to think about that. If zero Covid is not the answer, and I do not think it is, why are we doing what we are doing? The advice I have from the Attorney General is that this must have a proportionality test because it is about depriving people of their liberty for two weeks in a designated facility, which is a very serious thing to do. There needs to be a proportionality test. The second point is that it is public health-led.
The language used by Senator Higgins in putting forward this idea is that there must be consistency and that there is a question as to whether there has been favouritism. These are charges that are essentially being made against the public health officials providing this advice. I doubt if that is what the Senator means, and it may be that this is a charge that she is making against the Government, but this is a public health recommendation that we are getting.I point-blank refute the idea that our Chief Medical Officer is somehow playing favourites with one region of the world versus another. This is based on public health advice-----
It looks right across. It is not fair to charge our Chief Medical Officer with playing favourites when it comes to giving advice on category 2 countries.
In respect of the position of Sinn Féin, which was highly critical of the Government's position in the Dáil debate, I will point out the following. The regime we are bringing in is very similar to the UK regime. As Senator Bacik said, it is pretty much the same countries that feature on both lists. They are very similar. I cannot find any Sinn Féin opposition to the UK proposal. There may have been but certainly a media trawl found no vocal opposition from Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland to the UK's proposal, which is exactly what we are bringing in here. If this Bill passes the House and the President signs it later this week, there will be hotel quarantine in place in England, Scotland, Wales - by proxy through England - and Ireland. The only jurisdiction on the two islands where there will not be hotel quarantine is Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin should reflect on that and see if it is something on which it wants to engage with its coalition partners in Northern Ireland because it is a gap in the biodefences of the two islands.
A charge that has been repeatedly made is that this Bill is better late than never. I have a briefing table issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs, which I will quickly summarise for the House. The system here will be the most comprehensive system of quarantine anywhere in the European Union. The charge made against the Government is that it is too late. We are moving first in the European Union. We will be the only country in the European Union with this in place. It is simply not credible to suggest this is better late than never. According to the table, there is no mandatory quarantine in a hotel or government facility, in other words, a designated facility, in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. In addition, in Cyprus and Hungary, it applies only to persons travelling from the UK; in Greece, it only applies if a person arriving has a positive test; in Iceland, it applies only if there is no alternative, in other words, where persons cannot go to their home to quarantine; in Norway, it applies to people travelling from high-risk areas but people can also do home quarantine, which we also have; and in the UK, the system almost the same as our measures. That is the position in Europe so to suggest this is some sort of laggard move on the part of Ireland simply does not stack up.
The vaccine programme is slightly off topic but it was raised by a number of Senators. One contributor described it as a debacle, while another said it was progressing slowly. We would all love it to move at the speed it is moving in the UK. We have to accept that the UK is not in the EU, whereas we are part of the EU. We managed to advance purchase 18.5 million doses, which we would not have been able to do had we been outside the EU. Are the UK and Israel ahead of most other countries? Yes, they are and we accept that is the case. In the EU context, which is what we can control, we have consistently been one of the fastest roll-out countries. Not only that, but we are prioritising the highest risk people, which takes more time and effort and is more complex.
I want to say a few words in defence of the people who are rolling out the vaccination programme. The HSE is working seven days a week on this. We have covered long-term residential care facilities and we have made significant inroads into cohort 2, healthcare workers.Cohort 3 has started and there has now been a prioritisation for patients with conditions that put them at high risk. The country needs some hope. Everybody needs some hope. The vaccination programme is that hope. For it to be described in the Oireachtas as a debacle is nonsense and it does a disservice to the people rolling it out.
I was in Dublin City University, DCU, where there were 102 GP clinics and almost 1,000 people aged 85 and over. The Order of Malta was there and Dublin Airport sent wheelchairs. Medical students, general practitioners, practice nurses, DCU staff and the HSE were there also. The Air Corps has been flying vaccines to the islands in the west. I am proud to be part of this national effort and to be an Irish citizen or a resident here watching the apparatus of the State and our healthcare workers step up.
I encourage any of the Senators who can to go to a GP clinic to meet the GPs and people being vaccinated. The hope, emotion and energy is incredible. I encourage people to take a look. Of course, it is not all working perfectly and there will be many days and months when it does not work perfectly. We have never done anything like this before. However, the work going on across the country with our vaccination teams needs to be acknowledged.
I apologise for not getting all the miscellaneous questions but I will try to go through some questions. One Senator asked if this applied to EU countries as well as non-EU countries. Yes, it does. Austria is one of the designated countries. I was asked if we were looking at ports as well as airports. Yes, absolutely. It has to be done.
A question was asked about transiting through third countries. The way the legislation is set up is that one has been in one of these countries if one spends time in one, if one of these countries is one's country of origin or if one is transiting through one of them. The UAE is in because of the public health analysis and, in part, because there is much transit through the UAE. It catches a broad range of journeys. One cannot fly from Johannesburg to Schiphol Airport and come to Dublin claiming to have never been through Johannesburg. The legislation refers to being in one of these countries in the last 14 days, so it counts. There are very few exceptions. I asked the Department to draw up some examples of different types of trips and transiting different countries along the way. I am happy to send that to colleagues if it will be useful. It catches many people.
I was asked if all variants covered. That may refer to amendment No. 11. The answer is yes. All current and future variants are covered.
I respect the positions being put here, which are contrary to the Government position. They are all are being made will the best of intentions. Not all were made with the best of intentions by everybody in the Dáil last week but we are all trying to do the same thing. There is no monopoly on wisdom or on how to do this fully and comprehensively.
Senator Bacik asked if I would accept the amendment. I will not accept it for the reasons I have laid out but I ask, in turn, that the House does not vote on the amendment. The debate has been had and I respect the views. For what it is worth, my view is that the people need to see unity from their politicians. Some of what happened in the Dáil was politics. I spent ten years in those seats, so I am not averse to it. However, taking photographs of the voting monitors after the vote and sending them around social media and saying the Government has left the people at risk, I do not know about that. The more unity we have after the debates, the better.Obviously, it is in no way my right, nor would I suggest it is in any way. People will call the votes they want and they are perfectly entitled to do that. That is my counter ask.
I am conscious of time and do not want to prolong the debate. I thank the Minister for his very comprehensive response on our amendment No. 1 and this group of amendments. I fundamentally disagree with his analysis of what it would take to implement a more aggressive suppression strategy, in particular his analysis of how long it would take. However, there is clearly a disagreement.
I will press the amendment. It has been an important and constructive debate and generally a very courteous and respectful one. I thank all colleagues who have participated to support our amendment No. 1 and the other Opposition amendments. I again thank the Minister for engaging with the House.
I thank the Minister for answering the question about other EU countries such as Austria. However, where some other EU country is involved, how is the information transmitted to people who will be travelling? Is it through the airlines or is it a Government notice? They could land here not knowing about this. How is it communicated to them?
It will be communicated in various ways. Some of it will be worked through in the operationalisation of this. One of the main things we want to see is that people are aware of the information when they are booking their flights. There will be a legal requirement for people to pre-book their own accommodation in one of the designated facilities. We are working closely with the carriers such that if travellers have not followed the steps needed ahead of time, including the preflight PCR test and booking quarantine, they will not be allowed on the plane or boat.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and gov.ie will have the updated information. However, what is essential is that people travelling understand and carriers do not let them travel until they have seen the validated documentation.
Ivana Bacik, Victor Boyhan, Lynn Boylan, Gerard Craughwell, Paul Gavan, Alice-Mary Higgins, Annie Hoey, Sharon Keogan, Rebecca Moynihan, Niall Ó Donnghaile, Marie Sherlock, Mark Wall, Fintan Warfield.
Garret Ahearn, Catherine Ardagh, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Malcolm Byrne, Micheál Carrigy, Pat Casey, Shane Cassells, Lisa Chambers, Lorraine Clifford-Lee, Martin Conway, Ollie Crowe, John Cummins, Paul Daly, Regina Doherty, Aisling Dolan, Timmy Dooley, Robbie Gallagher, Róisín Garvey, Pippa Hackett, Seán Kyne, John McGahon, Erin McGreehan, Fiona O'Loughlin, Joe O'Reilly, Mary Seery Kearney, Barry Ward.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 5, line 18, to delete “€4,000” and substitute “€2,000”.
Amendments Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, and to an extent amendment No. 5, are related. They all point to a concern in respect of costs. There has been an incentive here and a wish. In a way, this is other sections of the Health (Amendment) Act that are being addressed. It is regrettable, and I share the concerns mentioned by Senator Ward, that the opportunity was not taken to address many other anomalies within the different sets of legislation that have gone through. The changes in fine levels reflect more of a desire for greater efficacy, but there were other anomalies, for example, the issue of "and-or" in one sentence in legislation, or the issue I proposed, which, unfortunately, has been ruled out of order, of what level of emergency, be it a level 5 or level 20 restriction, the protections against evictions would apply at. An opportunity is being missed here to fix some foreseen and some unforeseen anomalies in the legislation that has gone through, again in a constantly rushed fashion, over the past year.
There is an attempt here to address the question of fines and whether they act as a disincentive or are being absorbed into the cost of planned travel. My concern is the level of fine being proposed now. There is perhaps a big difference between €100 or €500 and €1,000, but for people who are extremely wealthy, the difference between €2,000 and €4,000 is not as huge as it should be to create a disincentive. If a person is disincentivised by a fine of €4,000, he or she will be disincentivised by a fine of €2,000. Those who are in a position to ignore a fine of €2,000 are probably in a position to ignore a fine of €4,000. My concern is that this could have a hugely disproportionate effect and we could end up with a whole category of persons who, effectively, would have a record because they have a debt to the State that they are not going to be able to pay, and we have a lot of people in this country who have an income of €20,000 or less. We must also bear in mind that each member of a household could have to pay such a fine, so this really could be crippling. I tabled amendments Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, to try to represent what I thought were measures that struck that balance between being a disincentive and not inhibiting further. Amendment No. 5, which I would ask the Minister to take on board, gives the Minister the power to address and make changes to charges to address situations where there is an inability to pay, for example, where a person might be an asylum seeker.
I note in the context of Iceland that there is an opportunity there to be looked at whereby hotel quarantine is made available to those who may not be travelling but who may not have the capacity to quarantine at home.
As it is now 4.30 p.m., I am required to put the following question in accordance with the order of the Seanad of this day: "That amendment No. 2 is hereby negatived in Committee, that section 3 is hereby agreed to in Committee, in respect of each of the sections undisposed of, the section is hereby agreed to in Committee, the Preamble and the Title are hereby agreed to in Committee, the Bill is accordingly reported to the House without amendment, Fourth Stage is hereby completed, the Bill is hereby received for final consideration and the Bill is hereby passed."