Seanad debates

Monday, 29 March 2021

10:30 am

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I want to start by acknowledging the extraordinary efforts that have been made and are continuing to be made by people the length and breadth of the country during this extremely challenging time. I appreciate that so many aspects of normal life have been altered since the emergence of Covid-19 over one year ago.

As Minister of State with responsibility for disability, I have seen how these challenges have taken a huge toll on our people, especially on the most vulnerable members of society. However, I have also seen the extraordinary efforts that are continuing to tackle this unprecedented global pandemic. I wish to sincerely express my deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of those who have died. To lose a loved one is always painful but for it to happen in the midst of a pandemic, when one cannot even hug one's family and friends and when so few can attend a funeral service, compounds the loss. I wish to offer my most sincere condolences to all those families. My heart truly goes out to them at this time.

This year, we have faced the resurgence of the disease that has been driven by a much more contagious variant. The epidemiological situation in Ireland remains fragile. The 14-day incidence rate yesterday increased by 7%, up to 159 from 148 per 100,000 of the population. The positivity rate continues to rise. There are 329 Covid patients in our acute hospitals, with 76 of them in ICUs. Despite the challenges, compliance with the public health guidelines remains high. Public support for the measures to combat this pandemic remains extremely strong.

As the Minister outlined in the previous debate, the roll-out of our vaccine programme continues to give great hope. The positive impact of the vaccine programme is already being experienced, including with the increase in the number of visits now permitted to residential care facilities. As of Friday last, 786,000 Covid vaccines had been administered. We have provided a first vaccine dose to more than 11% of the population, with 567,000 people having received their first dose and 219,000 their second.

Prior to Monday next, 5 April, the Government will be reviewing current level 5 measures and considering the next phase of the response to Covid tomorrow. The revised plan for managing the virus, Covid-19 Resilience & Recovery 2021: The Path Ahead, which was published last month, reviews the lessons from our experience to date, considers the enormous impacts our efforts to manage and suppress the disease have had on our economy and society and sets out a cautious and measured approach to the easing of restrictions over the coming months. The plan also sets out how in-school education and childcare services are being reinstated in a phased manner, with a staggered return over the past month which will be concluded after the Easter break on 12 April. This cautious and measured approach is being taken in order to protect the most vulnerable, while the effective roll-out of the vaccine programme will allow us to lay the foundations for the full recovery of social life, public services and the economy. We need to remain vigilant and agile regarding the uncertainties in the face of the new variants and to capitalise on emerging evidence on available vaccines.

The Government’s public health response is comprehensive and is continually being strengthened. Testing and contact tracing remain key components of the response to the pandemic. In recent weeks, the testing and tracing system responded to a significant increase in demand. I welcome the recent opening of the five new walk-in, no-appointment-necessary testing centres that have been established to actively look for cases of Covid-19. Testing has also restarted in schools and is ongoing in special education and childcare facilities. As schools continue to reopen, the level of testing will increase.

Mandatory hotel quarantine is a new element in our defence. It will play an important role in combating Covid-19, particularly in the context of the dangers posed by variants of concern. The Health (Amendment) Act 2021 was recently enacted and provides for this new measure at designated facilities. All passengers arriving into Ireland who in the previous 14 days travelled from or through a designated state will be required to pre-book accommodation in a designated quarantine facility, and to prepay for their stay. The Act also provides that any travellers arriving without a not-detected polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test result in the previous 72 hours, as currently required, must enter quarantine until a not-detected test result is returned. In tandem with this, the Government is also introducing measures to enhance North-South co-operation on international travel. These are just some of the recent developments in strengthening public health measures to respond to the pandemic.

In the context of disability services, I wish to stress how grateful we all are to the staff working on the front line who are continuing to deliver services for people with disabilities and their families, day in and day out. There have been a total of 317 outbreaks of two or more cases in disability services since the onset of the pandemic, 149 of which have occurred this year. This has been a significant challenge for service users and staff, and services have done their utmost to keep people safe.One of the questions I am asked most frequently is on the roll-out of the vaccination programme for people with disabilities. From the very beginning, the programme has been built on fairness, and the focus has been on ensuring those who face the greatest risk of severe disease and death are prioritised for vaccines. It is important to state it is not just persons with disabilities who have raised these questions; they have also been raised by their carers.

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 in group 4. I am delighted that the HSE has recently begun vaccinating this vulnerable group. The update provided people with disabilities further reassurance on where they align in the vaccine allocation strategy.

It is good to see that over 1,200 people living in disability residential care who are aged 65 or over have been fully vaccinated. An additional 2,500 people in disability services were vaccinated in the week up to 13 March. It is important to note that the disability service staff, who are front-line healthcare workers, are scheduled for vaccination as part of the prioritised health worker cohort. The vaccinations have been ongoing over recent weeks.

At this critical moment, the focus in Ireland must remain on regaining and maintaining control over the disease, preventing a further wave of infection later in the year and protecting our most vulnerable until vaccination can offer widespread protection at population level. I look forward to Senators' contributions.

Mary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State. I got a text today from someone in the group the Minister of State mentioned. A very good friend's son was vaccinated today. The sense of relief for everyone is fantastic.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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We very much appreciate that the Minister of State, along with the other Ministers of State, Deputies Butler and Feighan, and the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, come to this House regularly. She is willing to listen to the views of all Members of this House. I join her in commending the front-line workers. This vaccination programme is the biggest ever in the history of the State. We sometimes forget that, nine months ago, we did not even believe we would have vaccines. While it has to be acknowledged that there are problems, we have got to a position where there is a vaccine. Unfortunately, the Minister of State is following the Minister, who in the previous set of statements pre-empted many of the questions I wanted to ask.

I found it disappointing during the last debate that Senator Keoghan once again decided to launch attacks on the Minister. The Senator has had more positions on Covid than Deputy Paul Murphy has had political parties. It is pretty clear from her raising doubts about the Pfizer vaccine in November to her complaining now about not getting jabs into people's arms quickly enough that, in terms of policy direction, she sort of adopts the Ever Givenapproach, but it is rather clear that she is now foundered.

I would like to ask about a number of issues and specific problems that arise concerning how we are living with Covid. I want to talk about the unfair competition that still exists between supermarkets and some of the independent retailers. It remains a problem. I commend the supermarkets. They, particularly their retail staff, are doing a very difficult job at these times. On Mother's Day recently, I could walk into a supermarket and buy flowers. With Easter coming up, I cannot go into the local florist to buy flowers in the same way. The same applies to children's clothes in that the supermarkets are allowed to sell children's clothes off the shelf but the independent children's clothes retailers are not. I acknowledge we have had the discussion on click-and-collect purchasing but where there are examples of an unfair competitive advantage given to the supermarkets, the issue needs to be addressed.

The Minister of State referred to those in cohort 4. There is still a problem associated with some of those with serious illnesses. I am aware of the case of a student with muscular dystrophy who is afraid to go back into school until she gets the vaccine. I heard the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, say it is really urgent that the people in this cohort get vaccinated as quickly as possible to provide them with security.The Acting Chairperson referred to the sense of relief when these people and their families know that vaccines are available.

I wish to raise with the Minister of State the question of family carers, in which respect she has been a strong advocate. It is essential that family carers be designated as key workers. My colleague, Senator Dooley, tabled a Commencement matter on this issue. We need to know who will be designated as key workers in the next cohort. I would include the likes of gardaí as well, but being included is important to family carers. They are not looking to jump ahead of the elderly or vulnerable, but they want to know whether they will be categorised as being within that cohort.

The debate will move quickly once a large number of people have been vaccinated and a question about vaccine certificates will arise. We need clarity, and not just about travel, although clarity will be important for the aviation industry, tourism and so on. We also need clarity regarding live events. I would love there to be live outdoor theatre or music events. We could learn some lessons from Israel. If we are to come back together as a community, this is important. Giving some indication to the hospitality sector would be useful as well - the Oireachtas committee chatted with the Vintners Federation of Ireland last week - even if it were just to say that it could reopen on 15 June subject to certain targets being reached. That would provide the sector with some certainty. It needs lead-in time.

I wish to mention an issue that I always raise and about which the Minister of State is also passionate, which is the impact of Covid on young people. They have missed many rites of passage. I am passionate about this issue, but I will not discuss it now because I am out of time. In our strategy, we must ensure that young people's voices are heard and they are given a fair deal when we recover.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. Not unlike her, I will express my condolences to those who have lost loved ones during this horrific period in our history. To lose a loved one is one thing, but to lose a loved one and then be on your own in your grief must be terrible.

I compliment the front-line staff, including our hospital workers, cleaners, retail staff and everyone else who keeps the economy going, including my beloved Defence Forces, which have always been available whenever called upon.

We need a Minister who is directly responsible for vaccinations and nothing else. The purpose would be to ensure that we always had up-to-date information. People constantly ask me what age group is being vaccinated currently, but the honest answer is "I do not know". I would also like to see a move away from the bad news every evening at 6 p.m. to some of the good news. Many good things are happening in the country. While one could argue that the Government is suffering from a certain degree of paralysis, there is work being done of which the people are not aware. They need to be made aware of it because many good people are working hard to get this country up and running again.

Hotel quarantining is a serious issue. No one is centrally in charge. It is a mix. The Defence Forces are filling an administrative liaison role, the hotel company is responsible for security and so on and the Department of Health or the HSE is responsible for the overall programme. There needs to be a more co-ordinated approach. It is a bit late in the day to complain that it took so long to get quarantine in place. It should have been in place at the start of this year. In fact, it should have been in place at the end of last year, but we are where we are and we have to make it work.

Will someone on the "Six One" news this evening tell me what age group is being vaccinated currently and when the next group will be taken? We seem to be working in age groups of every five years.Are we finished vaccinating those over 80 years? Are we now dealing with those between 75 and 80 years or are we dealing with those between 70 and 75 years? How soon can old codgers like me with underlying conditions expect their vaccine? That is the kind of information we need.

I listened to the Chief Medical Officer this morning. Pat Kenny has been on about antigen testing and Professor Luke O'Neill has been on about this for months. Today I heard there is a report on the Minister's desk now. What are we doing with a report at this stage? The EU has sanctioned antigen testing and has recommended it as one of the tools. It is not the be-all and end-all by any means, but it is a tool that can be used. My colleague, Senator Byrne, was just talking about concerts. This weekend there was a concert in Madrid or Barcelona attended by 5,000, I think. They all had to have an antigen test before they went in.

Covid-19 has stolen a year of my grandchildren's lives from school and a year of experiencing normal social interactions. For those aged 16 to mid-20s, it has stolen the most exciting years of their lives. Old codgers like me are losing out on that valuable year with our grandchildren that we will never get to live again. I would like to see something more positive coming, and antigen testing is one such area.

Much work is being done around aerosol transmission at the moment. Ireland seems to be behind the curve on this. Many countries have mechanical solutions which may be put in place in a Chamber such as this which allows for rapid air changing to reduce the level of infection. Why have we not got that here? Why are we still behind the curve? Are we so paralysed by a system that has to have all the legal imperatives in place before we can do anything?

I wish the Minister of State well as things go forward but I would like to see a staged opening up of the country, although I do not want to see major shows or matches right away.

John McGahon (Fine Gael)
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I will follow on from Senator Craughwell's remarks about aerosol transmissions. A year ago, people were mad about washing and sanitising their hands, and we were afraid that touching a surface someone with Covid had touched might mean we might get Covid. That is not as serious as we thought and science is looking more at airborne transmission. The German Parliament uses an aerosol cooling system to increase the flow of air in the building. The national Parliament of Belgium is also doing it and the European Parliament is considering it. I would be interested in knowing the science behind it. I think it is less about political paralysis here than maybe the science and data here are different from other countries, and other countries are ahead of us because they might have looked at it sooner. It is definitely the way forward, however, in making our larger public spaces safer as this continues. It is not just parliaments but supermarkets and other large indoor places. This type of science will be very important over the next year to 18 months. It is about understanding how it is transmitted through the air and how to reduce that.

I know we have had a debate about vaccines, and I could talk about that all day, but I want to make one point about vaccine numbers and vaccinations. I am massively pro-European. The EU is the best thing that has happened to this country. However, just because one is pro-European does not mean one cannot criticise it every once in a while. At the start of the process when countries such as Israel, the US and the UK went to the vaccine companies and asked how much they wanted and signed off on that, the EU tried to negotiate a price and organise the best value for money. That is like a person negotiating with a fireman over how much it will cost to save their house as it is burning down. It was complaining about nickel and dime when we should have gone straight in last January and asked how much the companies wanted, agreed to that and signed. As a result the EU has had a slower rate of vaccination. That is not to be critical; it is just a legitimate point. Ireland has been consistently in the top eight EU countries in the vaccination roll-out and that is the most important point. I will follow on from another point Senator Craughwell made. RTÉ sent me a push notification last Thursday, and on the news that night, the lead story was that there were 604 new cases and another 13 deaths. The same day 27,000 people got their first jab, RTÉ news was leading with the 13 deaths and 604 new cases. The BBC news includes a counter in the top left-hand corner of the screen recording the number of people vaccinated and it rises from 20 million to 25 million as it happens. We need to move away from the concept of recording case numbers now because it is no longer the yardstick by which to measure anything. It was for the first couple of months when we were scaring the bejayus out of the country but it is not anymore. We need to base the opening of society on data such as admissions to intensive care units or really severe cases. Those decisions should not be based on the fact there are, say, 700 new cases in Dublin and none in west Cork and that results in the whole country being locked down. The reopening of the country must be based on a different form of metric and measurement.

Cohort 4 is a brilliant idea. I know of a family with a young lad in his 20s who has one of the rarest diseases in Ireland at the moment. His father is his carer and they are based in Galway. They have been under lock and key at home, waiting for a vaccine to come along, and they are still waiting to get word about when the vaccine will come to them. It is important for those types of families that clarity is brought to the situation as soon as possible. It is the responsibility of GPs and doctors to identify patients on their lists who would qualify for cohort 4, and when the required level of vaccines come into the practice, they can start to vaccinate cohort 4. That is, essentially, how cohort 4 works.

I will turn to the situation in Dundalk. Who is being vaccinated there depends on the different doctors and when they ordered the vaccines into their practices. At the moment in Dundalk, people who are 80 and over are being vaccinated. Some people in cohort 4 have been vaccinated, as Senator Seery Kearney mentioned earlier. The programme is moving at a different pace depending on where a person is in the country.

There is no advice at the moment for someone who has been fully vaccinated in, for example, the United States and his or her eligibility to fly into Ireland tomorrow. Such a person should not be required to go into quarantine. That is one of the ways we are going to open up international travel. We need clarity on that matter. If someone is vaccinated in another country, how does he or she get into Ireland without any problems and without having to go into quarantine or anything like that? A person who has been vaccinated and can show proof should be allowed into the country. I would appreciate some clarity on that issue from the Minister of State.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to have a debate on living with Covid-19. I am conscious we had an earlier debate on vaccinations but it is inevitable the two issues overlap. I do not think anyone who has spoken so far in this debate has done so without mentioning vaccinations and I will be the same. The issues are bound up.

All of us are, of course, having this debate in eager anticipation of tomorrow's Government announcement as to where we are going with the plan for future months. After three months of such a tough lockdown, it is absolutely understandable that all of us are very much hoping to see some easing of restrictions, although we are always mindful of the public health requirements. If I were to give a wish list, the first item on it would be that schools all return on 12 April. I speak not only as a parent of two teenagers, but generally. All of us are conscious of the lost generation and the loss to children that prolonged school closures has represented. A whole cohort of secondary school children has had no in-person schooling since before Christmas. That is an immense thing. If we reopen schools, it will be hugely beneficial for our young people and children.

It has been widely signalled the 5 km restriction is due to be lifted, and I very much welcome that. We are seeing a considerable amount of congestion. Anyone who lives in Dublin city centre, or the centre of any other city, will be conscious the restriction needs to be lifted. People have been living under that for a long time. Any of us with relatives or friends in other European countries will be conscious that geographic restrictions are quite unusual. Even in Belgium, where there have been very high rates of community transmission, geographic restrictions are not in place. Those restrictions need to be lifted. There has also been some signalling there may be changes to the restrictions on outdoor sporting activities for children. That would also be welcome.

What we are seeing now when we talk about living with Covid is the result of a failure to move more assertively and intensively at an earlier stage. The Labour Party, in particular Deputy Kelly, put forward in January the need for an aggressive national suppression strategy in line with the zero Covid principles being enunciated by the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group, ISAG, here.I want to pay tribute to them because they have been proved right. Of course, had we put in place, for example, the stricter measures around mandatory hotel quarantine, we would have seen a much greater impact in terms of restrictions and, indeed, it may well have been that restrictions would not have needed to be in place so long. I welcome the fact that we now have at least a limited scheme of hotel quarantine but the difficulty is that it is in some ways like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. It is very much piecemeal. There is also a certain sense of inequity, as we have seen in recent days. People feel that just because they come in from a particular country, which does not necessarily have a higher rate than other countries, they are still subject to this rule. We need to revisit that list of 33 countries to make sure that is not inequitable to people.

For those who were disparaging about zero Covid, I want to quote Ms Jacinda Ardern. I looked again at what the New Zealand Prime Minister said in justifying zero Covid. She said that she did not worry that elimination might prove impossible, because even if New Zealand did not get there, it would still saves lives. She said, "The alternative is to set a lesser goal, and ... still misfire". Those words resonate with me. I looked at the figures and in New Zealand, which has a population of 5 million, only 26 died. Then I looked at our figures. Some 4,666 people here have died of Covid in the past year. Of course, like others, I extend sincere condolences and sympathies to the families of all those affected, all those who died and all those who have been ill. We have a similar population to New Zealand, we are an island nation and our death toll has been 180 times that of New Zealand. Ms Ardern was criticised that this was not practical, etc., but look at the immense cost, grief, dreadful trauma and huge pressure so many people have faced here? I want to pay tribute to front-line workers, as others have done, but think of the trauma and grief we could have avoided had we moved more swiftly earlier, and think of the enormous impact as a result. As we say, we are where we are now, but it is worth reflecting on that. As we move through this, hopefully, we will have time to look back on where we got things wrong and where we got things right. It is worth revisiting that point about Ms Ardern and her clear and coherent policy from the start.

I want to finish on a more positive theme, that is, the issue of vaccination. Last Tuesday's "Prime Time" programme, with Ms Oonagh Smith reporting on the joy of vaccination, brought home to us that there is a way through this. To echo others, we need to push that good news story more than we are. It is positive to see that as of Friday, 11% of our population had their first dose and 4.4% are fully vaccinated. We need to hear more about that and to promote the need for everyone to avail of vaccines when they are available.

Lynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for the second time today. I, too, would like to start by extending my condolences to the families of those who have lost loved ones to Covid. As a State, we should look at how we can properly commemorate them in the future. Today, our focus is on what will come out of the Cabinet sub-committee which is meeting to discuss what might be feasible for 5 April in terms of restrictions. People are waiting with bated breath to see what new freedoms they may have in terms of the 5 km exercise limit. Everybody has found that 5 km restriction really difficult because it has gone on for so long. We have to remember that we are lucky that we get to travel in here to do our jobs and get outside of that 5 km limit. People will also be interested to see whether certain sectors, such as construction and children's sports, will open up.

The Government has to get the communication right on this on this occasion. We cannot have a repeat of the mistakes with the flying of kites, the mixed messages and the race to be first to the microphone because we need effective communication to keep everybody on board. We are at a fragile point in this pandemic. The social contract with the public is breaking down. They are frustrated and weary at the length of this lockdown and, I suppose, at the slow roll-out of the vaccination. The public needs not only the right words, but the right actions.

I would like to talk about some of the things that my party would like to see happening. Others have mentioned the mandatory quarantine. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, was clear early this year. It said every effort should be made to ensure that discretion, as it currently applies to the need for the restriction of movement and polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing post arrival in Ireland, is removed.The Government's partial quarantine cannot be described as every effort. I do not think anybody advocates lightly for mandatory hotel quarantine. We understand it is a significant step for the State to take, but when people have been locked inside their homes and restricted to 5 km for so long, it is incredibly frustrating for them to see people travelling into the country. It is leaving us further exposed to the importation of the virus and the threat of more infectious variants, and it risks the progress that has been so hard won by the sacrifices made by people during the lockdown. We need a system of real mandatory quarantine for all non-essential arrivals from all countries. This is the only thing that will really get the job done. It will send a message to international travellers that now is not the time to come here. It is time to get this right. The task then would be to re-open as safely and as soon as possible. Ignoring the need for a proper system of mandatory quarantine jeopardises that aim to reopen.

The dogs on the streets know contact tracing is required. It was one of the first things the World Health Organization told every country to get right if they wanted to stay ahead of the virus. Dr. Mike Ryan warned that Ireland was essentially driving blind in reopening its economy without setting up a strong system of contact tracing to beat the flare-ups of the coronavirus. We missed an opportunity during the summer, when our numbers were so low and it seemed like the virus had retreated. We should have been building up our public health defences, but instead we let go many of the contact tracers. We should look at how other countries are doing it. Dr. Mike Ryan, again, has said to look at Australia and how they have chased the virus down relentlessly through their well-resourced contact tracing system.

Of course, I have to mention the vaccine, because the end of the pandemic is in sight. While it is brilliant the vaccination programme is being rolled out, confidence in the programme is not at a high. Confidence was dealt a further blow last week when it emerged a private hospital had provided vaccines to teachers in the private school attended by the children of the hospital's CEO. We welcome the decision to suspend the vaccination programme at the Beacon Hospital, but is it really a punishment? Prior to the Minister making that decision, the Beacon Hospital was already considering pulling the plug on the vaccine roll-out. We need to see proper accountability to restore confidence in the vaccination programme because the whole affair has revealed again that, in Irish society, it is who one knows, and one can get doors opened and get benefits and privileges if one knows the right people and mixes in the right circles. If we want to bring the entire population along with us on this, let us hope, final lockdown, then we must get these things right.

Photo of Frances BlackFrances Black (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I start by sending my condolences to all those who have lost loved ones in this awful pandemic. I also commend all the front-line workers who are doing an absolutely incredible job.

It is an extremely challenging time for everyone at the moment, and no doubt about it. We are all doing our best, but I think that the Minister might agree with me on the following. The idea of wartime solidarity and the we are all in this together sentiment seems to have faded somewhat with the sheer length of this ongoing virus battle. We cannot and will not give up hope, and we will continue to work together to create a safer environment for everyone.

We are all struggling, but the reality is that there are some members of the public whom this current lockdown is affecting in a greater way. I have seen through my own work as a therapist and through my ongoing work on the Joint Committee on Health. I want to use this opportunity today to highlight those who need more support and protection, and this includes vulnerable adults and those suffering with mental health difficulties. The Covid-19 pandemic has served to amplify existing concerns about the protection and human rights of vulnerable adults in Ireland. Safeguarding and protection teams have reported an increase in safeguarding concerns for public and private care home residents due to the lack of access and visitation for families. These visits act as both safeguarding and quality assurance measures, and their absence is notable and worrying.It is absolutely terrifying to think of how widespread the abuse, neglect and exploitation of adults is in Ireland. We now know, from the research on adult safeguarding, that most abuse occurs in the home, behind closed doors, for a variety of reasons. This abuse may by psychological, physical or financial. According to a report commissioned by the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland, 20% of adults have experienced financial abuse and the physical abuse of vulnerable adults has been witnessed or suspected by one in three adults. In 2018, 11,780 safeguarding concerns were notified to HSE safeguarding and protection teams across Ireland, according to the national safeguarding office annual report.

For this reason, as individuals are at present restricted in their movements due to Covid-19, it is imperative and urgent that we enact specific and comprehensive legislation to safeguard and protect not only vulnerable adults, but all adults who may be susceptible to abuse. We need to see the establishment of an independent agency. A number of additional protections are required to ensure that adults at risk are fully safeguarded. These protections include a duty to report, a mandatory response, a duty to provide assistance and a duty to co-operate for financial institutions and local authorities. There must be a power of entry in situations of immediate concern for the safety of an individual at risk and a duty to secure the involvement of the adult at risk. There must be a power to obtain information, it must be honoured and this information must be shared appropriately, in light of the general data protection regulation, GDPR.

Senator Kelleher and the Civil Engagement Group proposed the Adult Safeguarding Bill in 2017. This passed Second Stage in the Seanad in April 2017 with cross-party support. This Bill defined harm and abuse and proposed the establishment of a national safeguarding authority with a variety of powers to support people and to intervene in situations of abuse in addition to instituting a reporting regime. I call for a full hearing on this Bill.

Finally, I will talk about sport. As the Minister of State knows, sport is about more than just games and competitions. It is also about connection, community, prospects, sanctuary, the shaping of character and discipline. For many youths in working-class communities, it is a life-saving activity. The absence of sport can be devastating for individuals and their families. The current restrictions on youth sport can be better tailored to meet the needs of young people and their families. The definitions of what is essential and non-essential have become somewhat arbitrary. I encourage a return to community sport. Every football club with which we have engaged takes the pandemic and young people's health seriously. No club is calling for the return of leagues or matches. Instead, they are asking for a Covid-conscious return to the pitch which follows health guidelines and ensures that kids work in pods. The clubs can mirror the phased return of schools in a return to outdoor sport. Engagement and connection with sport are directly correlated with many young people's mental and physical well-being not only in the short term but in a potentially long-lasting way which can result in young people dropping out of sport for good with devastating impacts on their future prospects.

Erin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State is very welcome back to the House. We are here to talk about living with Covid. We are kind of coping with Covid. Our families, our children, our young people, our old people, people who have lost their jobs and people who are losing their businesses are all on tenterhooks. We are all just waiting with bated breath for our vaccines. I am taking to prayer. Let us hope to get more supply. Everything seems to be hooked on the supply of vaccines. We must try to come up with a plan B. I ask that serious consideration be given to antigen testing, which Senator Craughwell talked about earlier. There is a real need for community in this country. We need to get back out there and to talk to our neighbours and friends. We need sport. I really hope that outdoor sports and activities can start again.I see in my children that they need to get back to playing GAA. They are wilting without their friends and without the ability to put on their Cooley Kickhams jersey and get out there as part of their under-sevens and under-eights teams. It is really important and that applies to everyone from young children to young adults. That collegiality and mental health aspect is brought about by taking part in sport. I see that in my club at home, Glenmore Athletic Club. We have tried so hard over the past year to build a virtual collegiality, with virtual competitions such as to see whether the females in the club can cover more kilometres than the men. It is all done through WhatsApp and Facebook. We have got to the point, however, where we are all really exhausted by it. We see another video on Facebook, such as another "Jerusalema" dance, and it is great and positive but we are just exhausted.

I hope that next week we will see some light and some return to normality. There will be a boost from the increased supply of vaccines but that will not sort out the matter for all of us. Alongside Covid vaccines, there needs to be antigen testing in order that people can test themselves. Thankfully, both my parents have received their first vaccination doses. Perhaps with antigen testing, I could visit their house, even to sit outside on the patio, and be comfortable while having a cup of tea and a chat with them. We need a roadmap, although I hate to use that word because the roadmap has turned corners and bends in and out.

As well as sport, we need to reopen construction, which is an essential service given that we are in the middle of a housing crisis. The issue of antigen testing applies in this case too. Many construction sites offer antigen testing. Construction companies have very thorough health and safety measures in any event and Covid adds another layer to that health and safety.

The mental health of all of us has been damaged over the past year but an avalanche is coming for people who have been stuck at home cocooning and are now afraid to go back out into the real world. We have to consider our mental health and the health of the public, and get cancer screening back up and running with additional resources. We need to look after our families, our older and young people and children, and hope for those better days ahead.

Emer Currie (Fine Gael)
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I am sharing time with Senator Carrigy.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I will be measured in what I suggest. I ask her to be realistic about both the numbers and the restrictions. The numbers are volatile and people are struggling, as can be seen with slipping compliance to the rules, so I ask her to be conservative but compassionate. I back increasing the travel restriction to perhaps 10 km, or something more realistic for rural areas, and allowing people to meet one other family outside in a public space in order that children can have a playdate and parents can have a bit of a break. I back allowing outdoor sports for children in small controlled numbers and Foróige programme groups to meet in small groups. I back increasing the rate of vaccination for staff in special schools and gardaí. Moreover, I want the Minister of State to consider the utilisation of outdoor spaces and amenities such as Dublin Zoo, an issue I have raised a great deal over the past week.People need more space. We are all congregating in the same public spaces. They are not actually controlled environments in the way places like Dublin Zoo or Fota Wildlife Park are, which can control the numbers through their gates. My local parks are being closed because of numbers at the weekend. I am speaking about St. Catherine's Park and Millennium Park in Dublin 15. Before Christmas, the zoo showed that one can pre-book and there is no queuing up or interaction. It had restricted numbers, a one-way system and no indoor areas. Everything was outdoors and people moved along. It can also comply with travel restrictions. We need to think about things like this which will give people a bit more breathing space. That is what this is. It is breathing space and a lifeline to people who might get to visit and also to those businesses and charities.

I agree that we need to prioritise people's mental health. Children must come first. I say that as someone who stands here knowing that not all classes have gone back to school. I also wish to share my condolences. I do not think there is a person here who would disagree with zero Covid. To do that, however, we must get Stormont or the two islands on board to make it work.

Micheál Carrigy (Fine Gael)
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I agree with Senator McGreehan that it is not living with Covid-19 but coping with Covid-19. It is important to remember those who have died due to Covid-19, and their families, and express our sympathies. The restrictions have prevented people from comforting one another at a time of grief, which has made it more difficult for families to mourn. It is something Senator Keogan and I know on a personal level having both lost a parent during Covid-19.

The restrictions were in place, however, to contain the number of positive cases and limit the numbers of those who died. Some people out there are suffering more than others due to the pandemic. Our hearts go out to those who have lost jobs and have been on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. It is important that we, as a Government, have the supports in place for all to survive and be able to rebuild their businesses when we reopen the economy.

We must also pay tribute to our health staff and front-line workers in the health service and throughout society. Over the last week, people and politicians have sought to open various areas in society. I urge caution, however. Our infection rates are high. We must prioritise the reopening of our schools on 12 April and that we do not return to a situation where our children with special needs are not in a school setting.

The biggest area in the loss of faith from the public has been our lack of communication on the vaccination roll-out. Over the next three months, however, the programme will see a high percentage of our population vaccinated. With that, the risk reduces and hopefully we will be in a position to go back to the new normal. After that, however, it is important that the proper support measures are put in place, especially for the mental health issues that will arise.

Sharon Keogan (Independent)
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I warmly welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad. I addressed the Minister for Health earlier on the Covid-19 vaccination programme. I commented on the state of progress with the vaccination programme and made fair comments about well-publicised flaws and delays in it, as well as speaking about the state of the nation in lockdown. I spoke about the effects of the policy of the Government and NPHET on the people of Ireland; the vulnerable, those with disabilities, children missing education, people struggling financially and those in grief. Quite simply, I take a holistic view of the events of the past 13 months.

I do not believe it is good public policy to take drastic action without a full evaluation of the costs of such action, including the devastating effect it is having on people's lives and health. Some of my colleagues in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have accused me of personalising the debate. The irony and hypocrisy of it, as they are the people who viciously ganged up and attacked me repeatedly. I ask them to point out what I said that was a personal attack on the Minister for Health. Can I not say that I do not have confidence in his management of the crisis? The selective hearing of my Government colleagues is remarkable at best, and disingenuous and malicious at worst. Contrary to what they claim, I acknowledged the difficulty of the multiple aspects of his ministerial brief.I actually empathise with the Minister. I suggested bringing in a Minister to deal specifically with Covid and vaccinations, which would allow him to concentrate on mending the ailing healthcare system.

Why is the Government trying to play the victim card in the political arena? Is the Oireachtas no longer a safe place? Is it now a place where one cannot criticise, debate or ask questions? The attitudes of my colleagues in this House are repugnant to the very fundamental principle of a parliamentary democracy and to freedom of expression itself. Some of the laws and policy decisions made over the past 13 months were previously unimaginable. They are so grave that they are almost without precedent. Am I not entitled to criticise the performance of the Minister or the Government, their policy decisions, the laws that pass, the blind subservience to NPHET or their faltering and incoherent response to the pandemic?

The Government and the Minister have falsely accused me of being a vaccine sceptic, which is a derogatory label designed to undermine me. They clearly need to go back to school and practise their comprehension. I asked valid questions about the approach of the Government and about the efficacy of a vaccine that has been developed in a matter of months. It is simply a fact that most vaccines take about 12 years to be developed, put through clinical trials and approved by regulators as safe and effective. That is 12 years, not nine months. I read scientific journals like The Lancetand the British Medical Journal, which were quoted on the RTÉ website and posed similar questions about the data on the vaccines and the extent to which they have reduced hospitalisations and deaths. Am I not permitted to ask for information and clarification?

It is the members of Government who are the vaccine sceptics. They supported the suspension of 30,000 vaccinations using AstraZeneca on a mere whiff of an issue. Some 11 million people have been vaccinated in the UK without any clinical evidence of medical complications. That decision was not supported by the data or the science, like so many of the Government's decisions. Day after day we hear one report or another about vaccine delays and targets being missed while our nearest neighbours in the UK are going full steam ahead. Northern Ireland, with a population of 1.8 million, has administered over 100,000 more vaccines than we have south of the Border. We have given one dose of a vaccine to a population roughly the size of Cork city and county.

Our living with Covid plan - if such a thing exists - and our vaccination programme are rapidly descending into a farce. I am not a proponent of the blunt application of lockdown policies without adequate evidence for them being effective and beneficial. We have locked people up in hotels that have been likened to prisons and we have heard media reports of some people absconding from these hotel cells. Whatever about mandatory quarantine for international travellers, we cannot lock our people up any longer. They have endured enough. Accelerating the vaccination roll-out is of paramount importance. I propose giving the sole responsibility for this task to a new Minister. The Minister for Health could then concentrate on salvaging the wrecked health system. That is perhaps the only solution if we are serious about getting out of this never-ending rolling lockdown. I realise I am not going to make any friends by saying these things but I am not here to make friends. I am here to try to improve people's lives and to goad the Government into action.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Members for a valuable expression of views today. While I certainly do not agree with Senator Keogan in much of what she said, of course she has every right to express her views. However, my understanding of the rules of this House is that statements on a particular issue are statements and Senators are not allowed to ask questions. We all accept that. If we want to change that I am sure there are ways we can do so.

I have no problem standing here and complimenting the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Rabbitte and Butler. However, I want to give pride of place to the people of this nation for their outstanding patience and for suffering so much. It is fair to say that they have been very tolerant. Even though they are extremely upset and annoyed at times about the way they are boxed in, they see the difficulty of the situation.Senator Keogan contradicted herself. If I heard her correctly, she spoke about the Government suspending the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine and she then made a statement regarding vaccines being developed over nine months when usually that takes 12 years. The Senator cannot have it both ways.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Senator to address his remarks through the Chair.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I am entitled to comment, but I accept what the Acting Chairperson says. I do not believe there is any point in our appointing a Minister with responsibility for vaccines. We already have two Ministers of State at the Department of Health and a Minister for Health. Backed up with officialdom, they are doing a very good job. I acknowledge that there have been bumps along the way, but there have been bumps all over Europe and in many countries. AstraZeneca sought to give vaccines to countries outside Europe rather than inside Europe. It is important that the UK and Europe get together on this matter. The bottom line is we are dealing with people's lives.

It is important that we all appeal to the people to remain calm at Easter and to not break the rules. By all means, they can go for a walk, but they know what they should not do. A sizeable minority continue to break the rules. I understand how difficult it is for people, but the sizeable majority are continuing to keep the rules. We need a way forward. I hope that the upcoming announcement from the Government will be about the opening up of particular areas, including, as mentioned, an extension of the 5 km restriction and the recommencement of sports such as football. Young people and others need to be allowed to get back to the training fields. I am involved with a number of sports clubs. As far as I am aware, there was no record of outbreaks where young people were training on fields. Many of the outbreaks in the football arena came from intercounty matches, etc. I agree with the comments of Senator Keogan and others in regard to the recommencement of sports. I know the Minister of State will be acutely aware of this need in her own area.

There has been much said about people missing out on education. The Minister for Education and the Government, working with the officials of the Department of Education, have done a good job in terms of education. Children missing out on education is very regrettable, but it is better that than children missing a parent, in my view. We were hit with a pandemic that stopped the world. That is the reality. The Irish Government and other governments were faced with a situation they had never before faced. It is sometimes easy for us as politicians, and for the public, to be critical of things from where we stand, but I have no doubt that a huge burden is on the shoulders of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, every night before they go to bed and, again, every morning when they get up. They have to deal with all sorts of situations.

As I said, everything has not been perfect. One would swear sometimes from what one hears and reads that Ireland had the worst record in the world in terms of dealing with Covid. Ireland has one of the best records in that regard. When it comes to the quarantine of people, few countries have done what Ireland has done. Two or three people absconded from quarantine; that is not a crisis. As far as I am concerned, the purpose of quarantine is to stop people coming into this country, but if up to 5,000 people arrived here, I do not know how we would cater for them all in terms of quarantine.

I express the view that everybody is entitled to their view.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this important debate. It is an important debate for society in terms of how we live with Covid and how we ensure we get society, industry and our economy back on the road. There are so many aspects to this debate that we need to start talking about, including how we are going to reopen Ireland as a society, but also the vaccines and vaccine roll-out. It is important to acknowledge that the miracle of the vaccines was a miracle of science. We are so lucky. Luck was on our side because the majority of the work had already been done because of SARS. But for the SARS outbreak a few years ago, we would have been years waiting for a Covid-19 vaccine. That is the truth behind how the vaccines were rolled out so quickly.Reading any of the medical journals or talking to the doctors will indicate that this was based on nothing more than the comprehensive work done during the SARS outbreak. Because we had the data and had the knowledge behind it and because Covid-19 was connected to it literally through a family connection, we then had the ability to move forward to produce a vaccine which will hopefully ensure that we get living again in our society in the next few months. That is the miracle of science. I acknowledge everyone who was involved in ensuring that happened. That is an important statement to make.

We need to ensure that we can rebuild our economy and society. Considerable work needs to be done in the health service to ensure that it can reboot after what we have seen. Last week, I spoke about speech therapy for children of three or four years of age which is now happening via Zoom. It is tough to try to get a three-year-old to communicate for 30 minutes. In fairness, the teacher is doing a fantastic job, but it really is a tough process. We need to start looking at the core investments that are required for our children in particular to ensure we can provide those services. We need to try to rebuild those services, particularly speech therapy for that very young cohort who have unfortunately missed out for the past 18 months. That will be a real challenge for our health service.

Many Members have mentioned the 5 km issue, which I hope can be addressed tomorrow. I believe that society has moved ahead of the politicians and NPHET regarding the 5 km limit. The weather has changed, and we are not in winter anymore. We have come into the springtime, even though one might not think it after the past few days. The clocks have gone forward and we have the extra hour in the evening time. People want to get out and take walks whether it is in urban, rural, scenic or coastal areas. I hope the 5 km limit can be addressed in the next 48 hours. If that can be addressed, normal living to some degree can resume.

The building sector is particularly important in trying to open up our society and economy. At present, construction work is happening for Irish Water and local authorities, including the building of social housing, but private home developments have stalled. Unless we free that up, the flood of workers who are leaving my part of the world and going to the UK will continue. We will have a real shortage of skilled workers when we try to recommence the building of housing. The knock-on effect will be that the majority of houses will remain unfinished.

At the weekend, I read that we could be down by up to 80,000 houses, which would lead to the start of a housing crisis all over again. I accept that is not entirely of our making, but we need to ensure that we keep our trained craftworkers. They are leaving at the moment. We now need to ensure that we reopen all construction. Construction is somewhat like agriculture; it is mainly based outside with one person and a machine. Obviously, there is social distancing because of the nature of the work. I hope we can address that key issue tomorrow.

I return to my original point. Were it not for the miracle of science, the miracle of the vaccine, the miracle of the scientists and the good work that was done particularly during SARS epidemic, we would be light years away from where we are now.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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There were two well-known Fine Gael brothers who were both Members of the Dáil, the Mitchells. I cannot remember which one of them was reputed to have said that it is much easier to sound intelligent by being negative. Unfortunately, far too many politicians and commentators have sought to show their intelligence through negativity during this pandemic. It would be fine if it did not have the profound impact that it has had on society. Some political parties and individuals have taken that route, I presume in the belief that they can appear intelligent and will make some political gain from it. That would be fine if it did not have such a profound impact on the lives of individuals. People are deeply affected and genuinely worried.Some are of the belief that there must be another way because there are so many people who have been so negatively disposed towards the Government and who have sought to indicate that there was always a better way. Those people will point to far-flung locations without effectively tracing or tracking the similarities or the differences that pertain in those locations.

We have done reasonably well. Mistakes were made but everybody was starting at this afresh. Some countries have done better and some have done infinitely worse but we are among the best countries in terms of the roll-out of the vaccine. That is the reality and there has been an issue with supply. Some are suggesting that we should have been able to get vaccines from all over the world. Had we not bought into the European model, we would have been priced out of the market, which is what happened when we were trying to get PPE in the early stages of the pandemic last year. The countries with the greatest sources of wealth were grabbing pallets off the forklifts of agents that were operating for Ireland in Hong Kong and China.

We have a job of work to try to hold the Irish people with us. They have come through the worst of it, the vaccine is there and the solution is to get that rolled out as quickly as possible. People have moved on and the reason that numbers are plateauing or perhaps rising a little bit is that people are unable to live within the restrictions as they are currently set. We have to recognise that the restrictions are no longer enforceable and let us stop making criminals out of people. We need to increase the limits to how far people can travel. We can refine it and let people travel within or between counties. Maybe we will restrict what they do when they travel but there are many people whose elderly parents or grandparents are vaccinated or will be vaccinated in the coming days with the significant volume of AstraZeneca vaccine that is on the way. People should be allowed to travel. If there is somebody who has spent the past 12 months here in Dublin and his or her elderly parents are in Cork, Waterford, Clare or wherever have been vaccinated, they should be allowed to travel to see them. That is the reality. We can put restrictions on places such as Kilkee, Lahinch and Liscannor and limit activities there so we do not have an influx of people from Dublin who want to spend the weekend in a beauty spot, whether it is in Wicklow, west Clare or wherever. We can take more careful decisions, rather than continue with this blanket 5 km ban. I know others have talked about 10 km or 15 km travel restrictions but that will not cut it in most situations. We should continue to put restrictions on what people might do when they get there but we should give them the capacity to travel.

I mention play dates, children playing sports and club members playing sports. We have to get that moving again. There are so many children suffering from massive anxiety. I hear it through my constituency office and from friends that people are really worried about children. In fairness to gardaí, they are being helpful to people who present at checkpoints and indicate that they are taking a child to see his or her best friend whom he or she has not seen since Christmas or whenever, and that needs to continue. We need to get construction back and to get people back playing sports. Clubs can be back training in a non-contact way and we should let people play golf and tennis if that is what they want to do, as well as letting people participate in equestrian sports.

People have gotten much more used to social distancing and staying out of harm's way and we can see that in the way the normal flu has not circulated at all this year. We will be living with Covid long after everyone is vaccinated. There will be new strains and people will die with Covid. I met public health doctors in the mid-west region the other day in a virtual way. There are people who have illnesses and who are effectively termed to be at end of life but if they have Covid at end of life then Covid goes on the death certificate. It does not matter if one was dying of cancer, a brain tumour or a multiplicity of other conditions, the death is recorded as being due to Covid. We have to be careful that when we get to the point of people being vaccinated, we do not get hung up on deaths with Covid because people in many situations will have died for another reason. Like others, I extend my condolences to all those who have died with Covid. I pay a huge tribute to the many people who have worked on the front lines and to those who have often not appeared on the front lines but who are working hard behind the scenes.

Barry Ward (Fine Gael)
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I echo what many previious speakers said about the struggles and difficulties we have had. So many Senators have acknowledged the large number of people who have lost family members, friends and colleagues. There is no doubt about the enormity of the tragedy that is Covid. In the context of living with Covid, it is extremely important that the Government take cognisance not only of the advice of NPHET but also of its own role in governing this country, having regard to the strong feelings people have about where we are now and what the Cabinet can do at its meeting to decide how to relax measures. I recognise that it is an extremely difficult decision. It cannot be gainsaid how difficult it is and how delicate it is to balance the importance of keeping us all safe and allowing people to live to whatever extent is possible. In that regard, I agree with Senators who called for allowing outdoor, non-contact sports to resume. Golf is one of my parents' saving graces. They could play golf in a socially distant matter. The clubhouse would not be open but they could go out onto the course. Tennis is another example of the many sports in the context of which this could be achieved. It equally applies to other aspects of the economy.

I have been listening to the debate and I have been dismayed by the comments of some colleagues on what we should and should not have done, bearing in mind that hindsight is 20-20 vision. I was particularly dismayed by the comments of Senator Bacik, who compared this country to New Zealand. Simply to quote Ms Jacinda Ardern, who said New Zealand would try for zero Covid because it would at least save lives if it did not succeed, and to compare the populations of New Zealand and Ireland and the number of deaths fundamentally ignores the fact that New Zealand is one of the most isolated countries in the world. It is 4,000 km from its nearest neighbour. It does not share a land border with any other country. It does not have a similar economy to ours in terms of the distribution of goods. Just one example of that is the fact that when goods arrive in this country, they come on a trailer on a lorry with a driver, whereas in New Zealand much more container freight arrives and it is handled without the need for personnel. However, the elephant in the room that everybody is ignoring is that we have a land border with another country. We are on an island that is divided between two Governments, albeit with there being one nation. Therefore, we cannot shut down this country any more than we could shut down ourselves. New Zealand can, however. Anybody who compares Ireland to New Zealand, however convenient that analysis might be, is fundamentally misleading us because we are part of a political union that requires interaction with other countries. We have an economy that must be supplied by other countries, and we cannot close the country the way New Zealand does. Senators should please stop making the comparison. It is not just inaccurate, it is disingenuous.

Mary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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Well said. I completely agree with Senator Ward. The comparisons are disingenuous.

I am someone who errs very much on the side of caution. I would prefer to see an extension of the restrictions until our vaccination programme has teeth in a much more fundamental way. That is not to undermine what has been done, which has been tremendous. In April, there will be great hope. I have noted at first hand the sense of hope that comes from vaccination, not only on the part of my elderly parents but also among friends whose good news we heard today.

The higher levels of restriction are manageable if we set targets on numbers. If we set out what we are aiming for, such as lower case numbers, a number to be vaccinated or a lower number in ICUs, and people see a progression towards it, it is a better target than a date or anything of that nature. No matter what decision is made and no matter what happens, including over Easter - I hope we have good news on the other side of Easter - I ask that no services to children with special needs or disability services, which I acknowledge are close to the Minister of State's heart and work, will be closed down again in the course of this pandemic.

Children's activities beyond sport need to be considered in a phased reopening. Not all children play sport; they also do drama and dance.These activities were possible last year in a marquee-type setting where there was full ventilation. Even with masks and proper social distancing, non-sporty children could be facilitated. That is important.

People in Dublin are looking at the Dublin Mountains. They are tantalisingly close but beyond the 5 km limit. Perhaps this matter could be considered. Click-and-collect services need to be resumed. What has happened is fundamentally unfair, as has been well articulated by my colleagues. We are about to change seasons. Children who have grown feet need to be fitted for shoes. Some of the practical issues in living with Covid need to be overcome. The Internet is not the answer to everything.

We need to consider publishing the number of vaccine doses that are expected to be delivered to the country, the number that are actually delivered and correlate the latter with the vaccine roll-out. In that context, the Government will be shown to have done a good job. We will expose truthfully and transparently where the gap has been.

Photo of Shane CassellsShane Cassells (Fianna Fail)
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Where living with Covid is concerned, I thank the Minister of State for the sterling work she has done in her sphere of responsibility, in particular for children with disabilities.

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Senator Seery Kearney raised that issue as well. It is important that, when we reopen after Easter, the education services that we provide to children be the priority, be they in special schools or classes. Students from first year to third year have not returned to school yet. Neither have transition year students – I cannot leave them out. These students need that social engagement. I have two children in my house. One has gone back to school and the other has not. The one who has gone back is blossoming and loving school. The other girl is at home pining and waiting to return. That is how people are living at the moment, but we must provide education, particularly for young people with disabilities.

Adult day services are starting to resume thanks to vaccinations, although there have been 53 outbreaks in disability centres across the country over the past week. It is important that the vaccination programme continue. To give the House some news, as the programme progresses through cohort 4, it will also include under-65s in residential settings. At the beginning of the debate, Senator Craughwell asked at what point the programme was. It varies from community healthcare organisation, CHO, to CHO. Some CHOs have moved to vaccinating people aged between 75 and 80 while others, based on their populations, are struggling to get their over-80s vaccinated. It is not a geographical issue; rather, it has to do with how many vaccines there are and what the CHOs' populations are.

We have almost 11,000 vaccinators. We have our GPs working their socks off. We have also set up walk-in testing centres. Many dishes are spinning at the same time to try to help with the planning for a reopening, with word to come from the Cabinet. Many sacrifices have been made by many families, front-line workers and young people. We expect that to be balanced by NPHET's contribution. We also expect the Government's recognition of those sacrifices.

I come from a small town in rural area and we cannot survive on the Internet any longer. We cannot compete with a certain large supermarket - I will not name it - where people can pick up a pair of shoes when doing their shopping. There is a small clothes shop for children, but it is not open. It provides online services, but it cannot compete. There are certain items one has to go in and try on, for example, shoes for young people. In the past nine months, some kids have reached the point of taking their first steps but have still not received their shoes. The local boutique store sells its jackets and whatever else is in fashion, but there are larger stores that also serve food where people have the choice of picking up the same items.

The general population has moved ahead of us. It is time to catch up. If we do, with certain measures, the population will respond.There needs to be working together. The most important thing is clear communication about the pathway. We need to recognise that we must continue to do it together. As the vaccination roll-out continues, we need to bring everyone together for the final stage, with the help of God. If 1 million vaccines are arriving, it is about getting them into everyone's arms in April, May and June. There needs to be transparency and hope. We should turn it on its head, as Senator Dooley said and move away from the death numbers that are in our faces every night and get to the place of looking at the number of vaccines that have arrived in the country and delivered. It should not all be about what just happened that day. We must be fair to the HSE and the people administering the vaccine, and give a good broad reach of where we are in the delivery of the programme. That would create the hope.

Young people need to get out and meet each other. They are returning to schools. The pod environment worked for us when we opened up last year and I think we need to go back to children going back to their outdoor sports in pods of 15, as well as golf and tennis. On my way here today, I heard something interesting which I think related to Dublin and I think Senators Bacik and Currie referred to it. Parks in certain areas are crowded. It is coming up to Easter and we need to think about freeing up parts of towns or cities where there is no traffic so that people can walk and get out in comfort. As Senator Dooley said, we do not want them going to all the hot spots at the same time but we need to give some flexibility. Hopefully that can be recognised with whatever NPHET presents and what the health sub-committee brings to the Cabinet tomorrow morning. I hope that this discussion here today will be heard and recognised. The members of the Government are listening to their constituents and are also listening to the construction industry, retail and families, parents and children. There are strong voices calling for fairness and flexibility. We will continue to work with this House.

Sitting suspended at 4.42 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.