Monday, 31 May 2021
Health (Amendment) Act 2021: Motion
That Seanad Éireann resolves that the relevant period, within the meaning of section 9 of the Health (Amendment) Act 2021 (No. 1 of 2021), shall stand extended for the period beginning on the 8th day of June, 2021 and ending on the 31st day of July, 2021.
I propose the continuation into force of the Health (Amendment) Act 2021 to 31 July 2021.
To remind the House, this Act provides for the mandatory quarantine in designated facilities of persons coming into the State from certain areas. Commonly referred to as mandatory hotel quarantine, it has been operational since 26 March 2021. It has been an important part of the public health measures to combat the transmission of Covid-19, in particular variants of concern.
The Act contains a sunset clause at section 9 and, unless extended by a resolution passed by each House of the Oireachtas prior to 7 June 2021, it will expire on that date. Notwithstanding this, subject to the passing of the proposed resolutions by each House, it is important to note that the Act does provide for further extensions of up to three months. Any further proposed extensions would be informed by the public health situation in July.
The Act requires travellers who, in the 14 days prior to their arrival in Ireland, have been in or transited through one or more designated States, to undergo a 14-day mandatory quarantine in a designated facility. This requirement is subject to a number of exemptions and can be reduced if a negative Covid test is taken on or after day ten. The Act also requires those travellers without a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival to enter mandatory hotel quarantine until they return a negative test. These tests are turned around very quickly by the HSE.
My Department has led on the implementation of mandatory hotel quarantine supported by several Departments, including the Departments of Defence, Foreign Affairs, Transport, Justice, and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Also involved were the Defence Forces, An Garda Síochána, the Border Management Unit, the Garda National Immigration Bureau, Revenue Customs and the HSE. A single service provider is providing full-board accommodation to guests in facilities designated exclusively for the purpose of quarantine, as well as ground transportation, security services, and health and well-being services for guests within their facilities.
The provisions of the Act allow travellers to request a review of decisions relating to their quarantine. However, this can only be undertaken once quarantine has begun and on a limited number of grounds. The Department of Justice is supporting my Department in relation to the review process, which provides a seven-day-a-week service. Decisions must be returned within 24 hours of receipt of the request for review. Requests for review are based on the specific grounds established in law. Appeals officers have been selected from a group of barristers who are also providing a service in terms of the International Protection Appeals Tribunal. As of 26 May, there have been a total of 1,563 appeals. Of these, 175 or 11% have been granted and 1,388 have been refused.
Medical services are available on-site 24-7. It is also possible for a person to leave quarantine in the case of a medical emergency and to attend urgent medical appointments. Special arrangements have been made to allow those seeking international protection or unaccompanied minors to undertake their quarantine in alternative appropriate circumstances.
A procedure is in place, within missions of the Department of Foreign Affairs, for deferrals of prepayment for Irish citizens and residents abroad in hardship circumstances. A procedure is also in place for Erasmus students. They should contact the Erasmus office in their third level institutes, which will then make the booking on their behalf. The standard costs associated with mandatory hotel quarantine are covered by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.As of 27 May, 4,616 people have entered mandatory hotel quarantine. Of these, 178 residents tested positive for Covid-19. According to the latest available HSE data, 59 cases associated with variants of concern have been detected. We are awaiting the results of whole genome sequencing on some additional samples at this time. This data does not take account of cases which have been avoided in the community as a result of mandatory hotel quarantine. While home quarantine could be effective as a measure for lower risk travellers, there are significant practical and legal challenges in monitoring and enforcing home quarantine for higher risk travellers.
The high level of people with asymptomatic infection remains a challenge. This creates the risk that new variants could be imported and would not be identified during the testing process in the absence of mandatory hotel quarantine. In addition, many countries have been unable to adequately monitor new variants, which adds to the risk of circulation. While we have recently seen encouraging research which indicates that the vaccines we are using are effective against emerging variants, we need to remain vigilant. Some 2.7 million vaccines have been administered to date. That means that over half of the adult population has received a first dose. Despite this positive progress, we must remain vigilant.
As the Taoiseach announced on Friday, from 19 July Ireland will operate the EU digital Covid certificate, DCC, for travel originating within the EU or European Economic Area. Also from that date, Ireland will broadly align itself to the EU approach to non-essential travel from third countries. This proposed extension does not preclude adaptation of the operation of mandatory hotel quarantine in response to the introduction of the digital Covid certificate. The legislation permits the designation of states and the revocation of such designations, and the creation of further categories of exempted traveller. As I mention this, I am pleased to share with the House that we recently revoked the designated status of Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the United States.
In light of the risks associated with variants of concern, it is essential that cases arriving in Ireland are detected and traced as effectively as possible. In this regard, it is important to recall that many cases, 30% to 40%, are asymptomatic. Without mandatory hotel quarantine, it is likely that certain persons infected with new variants may arrive and not subsequently present for testing due to a lack of symptoms. I would like to re-emphasise that mandatory hotel quarantining has worked and is working very effectively. It has been effective in supporting the public health measures to combat the transmission of Covid-19 in Ireland and in particular, as that relates to the variants of concern. It has contributed to the reduction in case numbers and the creation of space in which the vaccination programme can be rolled out. In turn, this is supporting the continued reopening of our economy and society, and it is also playing an important role in supporting our safe return to international travel.
I thank the Minister for that comprehensive update on the current operating environment of the mandatory hotel quarantine system. It is right and proper that we are back here debating it and we will be back debating it in another number of weeks. It is a draconian measure and we all acknowledged that when we were first debating it. It is very dramatic to require inbound passengers from certain countries to quarantine in a hotel. It is depriving them of their freedom and their ability to move around but it is very necessary. It was welcomed by a lot of groups when it happened.
As the Minister pointed out, over 4,500 people have entered mandatory hotel quarantine since it began, and 178 Covid-19 cases were detected as a result. That is significant because as we know, each one of those cases would have resulted in multiple infections if they had been allowed to circulate, particularly the 59 cases of variants of concern that have been detected within the mandatory hotel quarantine system. It is very welcome. It has avoided the onward community transmission, which has allowed our economy and country to open up. The beautiful weather at the weekend meant that we all saw people out and about in their communities and moving around the country. That was possible because we have managed to control these variants of concern. This system has worked, as the Minister outlined, and I am glad to see that it will be continuing. However, it is under constant review and the four countries the Minister named that have been taken off the mandatory quarantine list are significant. Many Irish people live in Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the USA. Our tourism industry will also depend a great deal on visitors coming from the USA this summer, so I am glad to see it has been taken off the mandatory quarantine list.
As we continue this debate, I hope our colleagues here and in the other House will refrain from engaging in hypocrisy regarding this system. We heard about a zero Covid strategy when we were debating this and other health measures previously. It was explained that the deployment of such a strategy in this country would require a very hard lockdown for many months. I hope that colleagues will not be hypocritical and call for the mandatory hotel quarantine system to be abandoned when only a short time ago they were calling for a zero Covid strategy. It is right and proper that we are extending this measure for the next couple of weeks. The digital green certificate is coming in on 19 July and that will be a game changer. I hope, therefore, that we can engage in respectful debate for the rest of this afternoon.
I reiterate the view I have continuously expressed, namely, that we, as a nation, must learn to live with Covid-19. The virus is not going anywhere, especially in the current climate whereby variants from abroad pose additional risks. The Government and the approach it takes must evolve alongside this virus. I absolutely agree that the use of mandatory hotel quarantine should remain in place where essential. I wish to highlight and discuss, however, the structure, the practice and the conditions - an aspect which is of particular concern - within these quarantine hotels. Foreign travel must resume, albeit in a safe way. I stated this point previously also.
The most efficient and humane way of doing this is to place an emphasis on effective testing and tracing, as I have always stated. The use of mandatory stays at quarantine hotels should only be an exceptional measure and not the norm. I accept that Ireland is at a critical stage in its vaccination roll-out and that it is essential that this process is not undermined. I also acknowledge that the risks posed by variants from abroad are clear. The focus in the context of international travel out of and back into the State should be on PCR testing, with mandatory hotel quarantine being used only where necessary and once all other avenues have been exhausted. Where mandatory hotel quarantine is imposed on an individual, it is of the utmost importance that this is done in a humane and ethical manner, as guaranteed by an individual's rights. In fact, the Government has a responsibility to ensure that inhumane or degrading treatment does not occur in quarantine hotels. It is as simple as having respect for the integrity of the people involved, which I do not believe is happening now.
The imposition of quarantine in these hotels at its core is very simply a deprivation of individual liberty. Strong safeguards are provided for in the Constitution regarding the deprivation of liberty and these must be adhered to. Article 40.4.1° of the Constitution provides that, "No citizen shall be deprived of his personal liberty save in accordance with law". This has the effect of specifying a deprivation of liberty, such as a stay in a quarantine hotel, must be lawful. While I agree that it is the case that mandatory hotel quarantine has been imposed lawfully, the constitutional safeguards in place must be followed, and I believe they have been ignored. In fact, as previously stated, these hotels have been likened to prison cells.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, in its briefing on the issue of mandatory quarantine hotels, points out that the effects of a stay in such a hotel would not impact only on an individual's right to liberty but equally on those of the family and the private life of the individual concerned. These rights are strongly protected under our Constitution. The briefing also highlights key issues concerning the conditions in these hotels, to which I will draw attention.There have been reports of concern surrounding access to fresh air, exercise, quality of food, water when requested and the size of rooms, which are of particular importance to families with small children or children with special needs. How can there possibly be concerns occurring about the quality of food and access to water when the cost of a stay is €2,000? What has the Government done to address this? The Government has not done anything to address these issues.
The Minister appears to be taking a reactive approach in creating classes of persons who will not be subject to mandatory quarantine. There has been no proactive response, thought or foresight into what class of person may fall outside the scope of a mandatory stay. Instead, the Minister simply places a blanket requirement on a group of individuals and waits until a problem has occurred before addressing it. The simple fact is that the emphasis should be placed on furthering the effectiveness of testing and tracing. An individual should be required to hold a negative PCR test before entry to the State and proper follow-up must be carried out in tracing.
We can no longer subject healthy individuals to a two-week stay in one of these hotels as liberally as we have. I do not disagree that mandatory quarantine hotels must be used, but only where the risk is extremely high, such as when a variant of particular concern has been detected. We must implement these stays cautiously, with proper scrutiny and only where they are absolutely necessary given the circumstances. I call on the Government to also address the conditions in these hotels where they have been clearly highlighted as an area of concern. We can no longer subject our population to these arbitrary stays as flippantly or liberally as we have been seen to. The Government should exhaust all other possible methods before subjecting an individual to hotel quarantine.
On the issue of unaccompanied minors, Tusla obviously takes these children into care when they come in and they are placed in what are called emergency homes. What level of care is the Minister undertaking to look after the parents or individuals in the homes those unaccompanied minors are going into?
I welcome the Minister to the House. Of course, nobody wants to put these measures through. Mandatory quarantining was seen as trendy because it had worked in other countries. People who called for mandatory quarantining probably did not appreciate the absolute consequences of it, but it works and has worked. The Minister outlined the figures including 59 people with Covid-19 variants, which had they circulated within our community would mean many more thousands of cases and, sadly, fatalities. It was a big price for those 59 people to pay, as it was for the 4,000 people who found themselves in mandatory quarantining, but it was necessary. In the fullness of time, when the history books are written and a review of the Covid pandemic is carried out, it will be seen that while it was a restrictive measure and, indeed, among the most restrictive in Europe, it was taken in good faith and done to some extent because of significant political pressure from the Opposition. It will be seen as one of the key measures that helped us in fighting this pandemic.
When a country needs to come off the list, it should do so. The Minister has not delayed in taking countries off the list when they were deemed not to be the risk they previously were. Similarly, the Minister and his advisors have not been afraid of adding countries to the list when that was deemed necessary. Like everything else, it is necessary to take a flexible approach to mandatory quarantining. A flexible approach is necessary in putting countries on, and taking them off, the list.
I ask the Minister to reflect on the appeals process in his summing up. We saw some very tough cases that went to appeal. Some of them, thankfully, resolved themselves because the people involved ended up having negative tests or vaccinations and so on.However, there were some very difficult cases that did not necessarily succeed. Certainly at the beginning of mandatory quarantine, the appeal system was so rigid, strict and defined that it became irrelevant because so few people succeeded in having the decision to enter them into mandatory quarantine overturned. Perhaps the Minister will talk to us a little about the appeal process and if there is humanity, compassion and slight flexibility in it. Too much flexibility goes against the principle of mandatory hotel quarantine and the reasons and rationale behind it. However, in a situation where somebody is returning home because one of his or her parents is about to die within days, there is a strong argument that compassion and flexibility should enter the system, provided the person in question has demonstrated a negative PCR test. If we lose compassion and humanity, and the flexibility that brings compassion and humanity, the system can be justifiably criticised but too much flexibility goes against the principle of mandatory hotel quarantine and what people are trying to achieve with this difficult and tough measure.
I pay tribute to the people who are working in the hotels accommodating mandatory quarantine because it is not an easy job. It is difficult because those workers are not allowing people the type of flexibility we all take for granted in life. It is not an easy job but they are doing it in the interests of our State and the health of our nation. I salute them.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I welcome the opportunity to debate this motion, which would provide for a relatively short extension of the powers to operate mandatory hotel quarantine until 31 July. The Labour Party will not be opposing that short extension. In fact, Labour argued for the introduction of mandatory hotel quarantine.
As my colleague, Deputy Nash, said last week in the Dáil, mandatory hotel quarantine is not a tool with which any of us are comfortable but it is one we recognise has been necessary and effective in the fight against Covid-19. The Minister put that clearly in his speech to the House today and the speech he made to the Dáil last week. We are all conscious that the context in which mandatory quarantine was introduced was very different to the one we are in now. It was introduced at a time when the numbers of infections and transmission were rising. We also saw the transmission of new variants. None of us at that time, back in March, were fully informed as to how effective the vaccines were going to be against variants. We were at a much earlier stage in the vaccination programme and very much recognised the importance of this as one of a panoply or package of measures to be used against the virus. That was the dreadful context of the introduction of mandatory quarantine. Any discussion of the package of measures we have been using against Covid must recall how many thousands of people have died from the virus in Ireland. The total of 4,900 is extraordinary. Senator Malcolm Byrne spoke earlier about the need for a collective review of the grief that so many people have had to suppress. Those people have been unable to grieve properly or in the usual way. They have not had the normal supports that are available to people who have suffered a bereavement and we should all reflect on that matter.
In that dreadful context, mandatory quarantine was clearly a necessary measure. All of us will be conscious of hard cases and many of us have been approached by individuals for whom mandatory hotel quarantine was particularly tough for many reasons. Looking at the numbers the Minister has cited, we are all conscious of the impact that being detained in a hotel for that period will have had. We know about the number of appeals and the difficulties with the conditions in some of the hotels. It is, therefore, important that we move with agility and flexibility in operating the system for the few weeks that this motion extends the powers, as is recognised on a cross-party basis. I welcome the way in which the Government moved on exemptions and, for example, resolved issues around babies born abroad through surrogacy, an issue around travellers coming into Ireland who are fully vaccinated and, of course, the cases of students for whom particular provision has been made, as the Minister said. In respect of essential travel, looking at the list of categories, it is most important that it be kept under review. As Senator Conway stated, compassion must be brought into it. It is also important that agility and flexibility are brought to bear on the countries that are covered by the order. I welcome the revoking of the designation of the countries mentioned by the Minister, namely, France, Belgium, the US and Luxembourg.
All of us look forward to the roll-out of the EU digital green certificate from 19 July 2021. We all fervently hope that it will not be necessary to continue to operate the same level of mandatory hotel quarantine beyond 31 July. I am glad we are dealing with a motion to extend the powers only until that date and not for the three months that would have been possible under the legislation. It is sensible that they are being extended for a shorter period. It is preferable, in any case, because it is vital that the Oireachtas bring scrutiny to bear on any motions extending draconian powers of detention and the sort of emergency powers that we have seen and the related legislation under debate in the Dáil and Seanad this week and last week. It is important that we use the shortest period necessary for extending the use of emergency powers. At the same time, we need to be conscious of the need to extend supports, such as the PUP, EWSS and the ban on evictions. It is important that these supports are extended for as long as necessary to protect those who are going to be most impacted by continued restrictions.
I very much welcome the cautious reopening and the announcement made by the Taoiseach last week. Deputy Ó Ríordáin sounded a very optimistic note when he welcomed the announcement of the reopening on RTÉ's "Morning Ireland" last week. All of us are very anxious to see a return to some semblance of normality. That is hugely important after all of the closures and the many impacts on businesses, individuals, communities and families that we have seen over the last 16 or 17 months.
I pay tribute to the staff who have operated mandatory hotel quarantine under very difficult conditions. All of us should be aware that they are front-line workers too. I also pay tribute to all of those involved in the massive roll-out of the vaccination programme. I was delighted to receive my first vaccination in the Aviva Stadium on Lansdowne Road just over a week ago. I pay tribute to the huge effort that is going into making the vaccination programme so successful every day.
I am delighted that Senator Bacik got a boost from receiving her first jab. I wish every Senator well in the upcoming by-election. Senator Bacik goes into the by-election as a candidate from the Upper House. I know that in our other workplaces, we always wish people well, no matter what jersey they wear. I hope she also gets a boost in the by-election, notwithstanding that the Green Party might win.
I commend the Minister on this continued dedicated efforts on behalf of the people of Ireland. He stated that mandatory quarantining is very effective. The statistics speak for themselves. I know the Minister is aware of civil rights issues in this country and how people have fought for freedom. However, we must strike that balance. It must be done in a respectful and thoughtful way. There are countervailing rights and people's safety and livelihoods must be put first. Nobody wants a fourth wave to come down the tracks. I believe the Government has struck the right note and balance by seeking the support of this House for the proposed extension of the powers to the end of July, as distinct from kicking the extension much further down the line, which would have caused difficulties. This is the case, even if it means that we will have to come back and review the provisions at a later stage. Although they are necessary, the powers are extreme. The Government is treating the issue with the sensitivity it deserves.
The Minister also indicated that he is satisfied that the turnaround of the second PCR test for those in hotel quarantine, processed by the HSE, is efficient. I am glad to hear that. If the results were delayed unnecessarily, it would annoy a section of the people who have no hidden agenda. They do not in any way wish to undermine the Government. People are hugely into civil rights in this country. Advocacy is alive and well.We should thank those advocacy groups and be grateful for them.
I will stray slightly from the script and refer to rapid antigen testing. I am aware that advisers to the Government have a different view on it, but the Minister and the Government are ultimately in charge. The tests are an extra layer of protection. I do not see why there is opposition to the tests if they are treated as an extra layer of protection. They are not a silver bullet, but they can only do good. Perhaps the people who are advising against them think we are not adults and will lose the run of ourselves if we get one and will think we will be safe for forever and a day. That is not the case.
In addition, the Act empowers the Minister to prescribe from time to time other classes of persons who should be exempted from the requirements surrounding mandatory hotel quarantine. To date, the Minister has enacted regulations exempting transit passengers, certain essential workers, families returning to Ireland with children born abroad, fully vaccinated people, international sports people and those returning to Ireland who have travelled for unavoidable, imperative and time-sensitive medical reasons such as, but not limited to, undergoing cancer treatment abroad. Family members or carers of children born abroad or of people who are exempted for medical reasons are also exempted when travelling together, as are children or other dependants of fully vaccinated people. I support that.
Perhaps the Minister can assure the people of Ireland that he will continue to operate in such time-sensitive ways, because there are unintended consequences of legislation which will require an immediate response through secondary legislation. That is totally in the Minister's power. There are examples that we have not even thought about now which could get caught in this. I know the Minister will be alive to that. He does not want the courts trying to adjudicate on these matters. I wish the newly appointed future Chief Justice, Mr. Justice O'Donnell, well. The Government has nominated him and he will be a proponent and advocate of judicial restraint. It is not up to the Judiciary to tidy up legislation. The Judiciary does not like to go there. These matters should not be resolved in the courts. I am glad to see that, after an initial foray, common sense has broken out. I do not like to see people with such compelling cases having to resort to the High Court. However, that has not happened recently, and I commend the Minister on playing his part in ensuring those matters are kept to a minimum.
Finally, I wish the Minister well with the vaccination programme. I note with a wry sense of irony that when there is good news, real-time statistics are not available due to the cyberattack to give an uplift and morale boost to people. The statistics were so depressing for so many months and now the vaccination breakdown, which would have uplifted so many people, is not available to us. Hopefully, the statistics will be available soon. I commend the Minister and the Government on the great work being done on the vaccine roll-out.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. In the motion before us the Government is proposing an extension of this legislation to 31 July. Before we have even voted on the motion, and there appears to be unanimous support for it across the House, many people will already begin asking when the next date will be. People will want to keep a rolling watch on how we proceed on this issue in the broader context of the easing of restrictions that, thankfully, is being rolled out over the next weeks and months.
It is important to remember, as was acknowledged by the Minister and other Senators, that this is a serious limitation on people's civil liberties. It is not normal, and it should never be seen or treated as normal. These are draconian emergency powers. That is why Members of the House wish to engage with the Minister on this matter and to ensure this is done as properly and appropriately as possible. Colleagues have spoken about some of the concerns about conditions in some of the hotels. It is right to raise that issue. My colleagues in the Dáil, Deputies Cullinane and O'Rourke, spoke extensively last week with the Minister in that House. The reason Sinn Féin gave for supporting quarantine at the time was that it would be helpful in containing the virus and that it was necessary to prevent the importation of new variants. It is significant that the Minister has said mandatory hotel quarantine has worked and has helped to contain the virus and prevent some new strains from entering the State. This fact is already being broadcast by journalists on social media. It is a vindication of NPHET's position and the position of those of us on the Opposition benches who called for the measure. NPHET began calling for it in May of last year but its request was not acted upon until ten months later. Medical advice cannot be selected on political grounds. As with any other public health measure, this has to be re-evaluated at all times. All of us have to listen to the public health advice. Our public health advisers will evaluate the status of Covid and its variants at any particular time and give the appropriate advice to the Government.
I want to make this point because it is key. None of us wants mandatory quarantine to remain in place a second longer than is necessary. It is the same for any public health measure. As the Minister said, mandatory hotel quarantine has worked to keep some of the new variants out and keep people safe.
As the restrictions more broadly unwind, it is important, as previous speakers noted, that we understand how the European digital green certificate for travel will work. The Minister has an opportunity this afternoon, and I hope he will take it, to outline some of the context of the changing nature of the restrictions pertaining to the quarantine in hotels. I have a particular interest, to be quite honest, to find out whether Irish citizens resident in the North will be able to avail of the digital green certificate. In the broader Brexit context, the Government offered to step in on issues such as the European health insurance card, retaining access to Erasmus funding and programmes for people in the North. In the context of our being in a post-Brexit environment and in light of the loss of so many rights and entitlements for Irish citizens in the North, I would welcome the Minister taking the opportunity today to clarify the position in this regard for us.
This brings me back to a point I made last week in another debate on health and Covid regarding the encouraging continued engagement between the Minister and his counterpart in the North. Obviously, in the context of travel and the fact we live on an island, it is crucial that the Ministers engage continuously as we navigate our way through this and, hopefully, start to emerge from it collectively and sensibly at the other end. We have seen what can happen when states take their eye off the ball. Like others, we support the extension proposed this afternoon because it is about keeping people safe. Also like others, we want to keep a particular and vigorous watching brief on this as we move forward.
I welcome the Minister. We are debating the resolution. I thank the Minister because this week he will accept limiting some of the powers because resolution is not the ideal way to extend legislation. I am conscious that this is for a limited period until July.
With regard to mandatory hotel quarantine, the Minister outlined the important impact it has already had. We can see the number of cases that have been caught and prevented from having a multiplier effect and the capture of new variants. More than 1% or 2% of those who entered the system had the new variant and its capture is significant. However, I am conscious that some of the issues we flagged when the original legislation went through have arisen. The Minister is aware that at the time we debated the original legislation, I tabled amendments in respect of certain details on how the rights of persons in mandatory hotel quarantine should be respected.There are some human rights concerns in terms of addressing questions of how people engage with pharmacies or needs related to medical conditions and so forth. We have seen some of those playing out and perhaps we could have had more detail about that in the legislation, which would have allowed us to avoid some of those concerns.
I had another concern when the legislation went through. While I very much supported mandatory hotel quarantine, and this related to concerns about cost, it should not be that we regard mandatory hotel quarantine as a deterrent whereby it becomes so financially laborious that only some people can afford it. I note that Dr. Mike Ryan of the World Health Organization has specifically stated there should be no financial penalties and states could and should subsidise to a greater degree the cost of mandatory hotel quarantine. This means it would not unfairly burden individuals with the cost of what are public health actions. That was the direction from the World Health Organization and I had amendments in respect of that. I understand there has been some case-by-case engagement on that matter but perhaps the Minister will provide some clarity on it. It is a concern and it should not be the case that this is expensive. People travelling for essential reasons come from every income bracket in society and should not be in the position where they feel they cannot, for example, travel because of what may be an emergency for them.
I also had concerns in respect of visas. There is a parallel measure whereby visas from certain countries were being restricted, despite the presence of mandatory hotel quarantine. We know people had said they would have been happy to go through mandatory hotel quarantine but wanted their family to be able to join them. I understand the rules changed on 20 May but I urge engagement with the Department of Justice to ensure all those provisions introduced in January that restricted access to visas for essential workers and their families would be changed. Some visa access was restored last week on 20 May but it is really important we do not end up having a parallel system whereby, effectively, the fact that a person is from a certain country is used to determine whether that person is welcome in Ireland. That is instead of there being appropriate public health measures that are required for those people to go through. These are different processes.
I have an overriding concern about the all-or-nothing approach. We have mandatory hotel quarantine and the Minister is aware of some of the concerns. There is now a move to argue that a second PCR test should allow a person to move from that quarantine. I am concerned for all those people not in mandatory hotel quarantine. What will happen as this system begins to be dismantled? The people coming into the country are still meant to be isolating and we still need to ensure there is testing. Will the Minister indicate what will be the procedures for those people? For example, the United States has now come off the list for mandatory hotel quarantine but will we nonetheless make a follow-up phone call after five days to inform people arriving from there where they can get a test? People are still meant to be isolating in that context.
I am thinking in particular of the B1.617.2 variant, which we have seen having an extremely severe impact in the UK even on those people who are vaccinated. It is still very appropriate that we are clear that people not being in mandatory hotel quarantine does not mean they can go about their business as they wish. After arriving, people should still be expected to self-isolate and the State should follow up to check that this happens up until the PCR test after five days. Will the Minister speak to that component, which will be part of our ongoing safety?
I welcome the Minister to the House to speak to this very important motion. I welcome the Government's decision to sign up to the European Union's digital Covid certificate. The vast majority of us welcome the return of international travel with a caveat. There is a lot of hypocrisy on the part of members of the media and members of the Opposition who had a silver bullet in their arsenal in January and February, and all of a sudden they have changed tack again. That is the joy of being in opposition. To be fair to the Minister, he has a job in the Government to be responsible and to take action, which he does.
The robustness of the mandatory hotel quarantine system is evidenced by the figures of the variants and by the numbers of people who have tested positive. We know of the case in Melbourne involving one person who tested negative then traversed across the city. I listened to Professor Luke O'Neill on Newstalk this morning, and I was aghast at the number of people infected or contaminated, whichever word one wants to use, by one person in a short period. The individual in question had been in mandatory hotel quarantine.
The easing of measures relating to hotel quarantine is absolutely necessary from an international aviation perspective. This has been debated for a long time by the transport committee. The relaxation for European member states is to be welcomed. Many of us had hoped that the common travel would be the pilot test but given what is happening with the Indian variant in the UK, I understand where we are going with that.
Professor Mark Ferguson was before the committee to discuss the use of antigen testing. We have heard previous speakers refer to antigen testing. I am aware that Dr. Holohan, in his capacity as Chief Medical Officer, wrote to the Minister for Health. We need to have a real debate about PCR testing versus antigen testing so that we can give confidence to people that if we use the model of antigen testing, it will be robust and that it will reveal proper results, which I believe it will.
The decision last Friday signified for many people a return to some type of normality for Ireland, as an island nation. Given that we are hugely in need of connectivity, we need to have an absolutely urgent reintroduction of the aviation task force with a view to recovery for our aviation sector. I am aware that the Government has made decisions, but our travel sector, including those who work as travel agents and in hospitality, the pilots, airline staff, and the ground staff in Dublin, Cork and Shannon, have been severely and profoundly affected. In the context of the pandemic, the industry has taken a gargantuan hit. If one spoke last week to the men and women who were, in a very dignified manner, protesting here or at the convention centre, one could not but be impressed by their sincerity and professionalism, as they balanced their real need with the public health considerations. It was not just populism. It was a real and honest cry for help. I met with staff from Cork Airport and with the other staff who protested here in Dublin last week to discuss the need for the Government to do more for the aviation sector.
I will not speak on the vaccination programme, but I commend all involved. I ask that the Minister would look up and follow up on the vaccination centre at the Munster Technological University, formerly the Cork Institute of Technology. I would like to get an update on that. I believe it is one centre that could be used continually in the fight against Covid-19.
All of us recognise that we have come on a journey. Dr. Colm Henry used the phrase "V-Day" when describing scenes from last weekend. We all know it is not a victory day and that we all need to keep our collective guard up. I commend the Minister on his work and his sincerity.
I welcome the Minister back to the House and support the motion extending mandatory hotel quarantine to 30 July. It is a hugely draconian measure and I am delighted that its extension is only for a very short period. I am also delighted that the Minister has taken France, Belgium and the USA off the list. The French are now our nearest EU neighbours and there is a lot more activity between France and Ireland, with more ferries running between our two nations, for example. I would have had a problem with the motion before us were it not for the fact that France has been taken off the list.
I welcome the European green certificate. Countries such as Portugal, France, Italy and Greece are opening up for the tourist season and we must do the same. There must be a balance between the economy and public health. In fairness to the Government, over the last year and a half it has struck a very good balance in most cases. Nobody can get everything right and the same is true of the Government but a fair balance has been struck.
Like Senator Conway, I would like to hear a little more on the appeal system. My heart went out to the family that came from Australia just after mandatory hotel quarantine was introduced. They could have isolated at home which would have been of benefit to them both mentally and financially. An enormous cost was borne by that family in having to quarantine in one of our quarantine hotels. They should have been allowed to self-isolate in a house as a family. Have there been any cases of people contracting Covid-19 in the quarantine hotels?
I welcome the motion.
I welcome the Minister to the House. Mandatory hotel quarantine was due to lapse very shortly on 7 June and we are here today to extend the relevant legislation until 31 July. We have seen how important the quarantine system has been, with potentially 59 cases identified. The figures do not include asymptomatic cases, which account for between 30% and 40% of all Covid-19 cases. There has been a fall in the detection of variants of concern since we introduced mandatory hotel quarantine. Mandatory hotel quarantine was introduced because we were in a very vulnerable position and we have reduced the risk. The system was about keeping people safe and healthy and it was very important to introduce it at the time.
I note that the Minister has removed France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the USA from the list. I have received representations from organic farmers who would typically use seasonal workers, including students, in the summer so the removal of the aforementioned countries from the list has been very important to them. As my party's Seanad spokesperson on education I am very happy to see that the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will cover the costs for any Erasmus+ students who have to enter mandatory hotel quarantine.
The Government's vaccination roll-out programme has seen 2.7 million vaccines administered already, equating to half of the adult population. This is absolutely incredible, particularly given everything that the HSE has been through recently. The fact that the Covid-19 vaccination programme was kept separate from the rest of the HSE has meant that it was not so negatively impacted by the HSE cyberattack. The HSE email system is still not working.I have a question about the unique health identifier number allocated to individuals, which was mentioned briefly. We are able to use the vaccination roll-out as a way to drive that system forward. The Minister's Department allocated major funds to information technology, particularly in the health sector, and it is very needed. Where I worked previously we were always fighting to have electronic health records and now they are examining sharing care records and how that can be brought forward. I would appreciate if the Minister would comment on that.
The Minister mentioned that from 19 July we will operate a digital Covid certificate for aviation. That will be crucial. We have heard many times from the groups affected, and everyone has seen them protesting outside the House. The impact of the pandemic on their incomes has been shocking. By doing this we will have a chance to get that sector of our economy back up and running.
I acknowledge the work the Minister, his Department and officials are doing and thank him for giving of his time. We are all looking forward to getting our vaccine and moving into a safer place. I thank the Minister and the teams in the HSE for achieving that.
I had some closing remarks but instead I might address the points raised. I ask Members to bear with me as I go back and forward through some of the technical notes. I will start with the appeals process and exemptions. There were quite a few questions on that. The exemptions that were in the Act are as follows: those holding an annex 3 certificate, that is those ensuring the availability of goods and essential services; those arriving in the State who are heavy goods vehicle drivers, airline pilots, air crew, maritime crew arriving and performing their duties; travel to the State pursuant to an arrest warrant, extradition of another mandatory legal obligation; members of An Garda Síochána or the Defence Forces in the course of their duties; travelling to the State for unavoidable, imperative and time-sensitive medical reasons certified by a medical practitioner; and having been outside the State to perform the functions of an office holder, which would cover this House, diplomats and other categories of persons in that realm.
The Act also empowers the Minister for Health to add exemptions based on statutory instrument and what has been added is as follows: an exemption for passengers transiting through an Irish port or airport; an exemption for athletes competing in international events; an exemption for new born infants born abroad returning to the State with their families; an exemption for travellers who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19; an exemption for travellers coming back after receiving unavoidable, imperative and time-sensitive medical treatment together with their carers and-or dependants; and an exemption for travellers providing essential services to the State. Those are the original and the added exemptions.
There was a related question on appeals. The figures are as follows and these are from 26 May: there have been 1,563 appeals of which 175 have been granted. As of 20 May, the breakdown for what at the time was 157 granted appeals is as follows: 62 individuals were exempt, either because of a vaccine, a PCR test or some other reason for exemption. Two of the appeals related to individuals who had completed quarantine. Essentially, that was related to getting a PCR test and leaving before check-out. One appeal was in respect of an individual who had a negative PCR test after quarantining. Some 50 appeals were granted for medical and exceptional grounds and 42 appeals were granted on humanitarian grounds. They are the figures on appeals.
There were several questions on the digital Covid certificate and how it will work. We are working through the details of that and it is entirely possible we will be back here discussing it soon. Essentially, while I am seeking approval from the Seanad today for an extension for hotel quarantine to 31 July, what will happen is that on 19 July there will be a co-ordination between home quarantine, mandatory hotel quarantine and the digital Covid certificate. Many details on that are being worked through and member states have different choices in how that will be implemented.I imagine that, whatever portion of mandatory hotel quarantine is left, we will seek to extend it beyond 31 July on the basis that the variants of concern will still exist. From 19 July, the public health advice about non-essential travel will be lifted, so people can travel. If they qualify based on the digital Covid certificate, they can travel unimpeded, so when they come home, there will be no hotel quarantine, PCR test requirement or home quarantine. They can simply go about their business.
I will address how the digital Covid certificate will operate from Ireland's perspective. It is about passengers coming into Ireland. What passengers do on their way out is a matter for the countries they are going to, so we will not have any requirements regarding people leaving the country. The regulation relating to non-essential travel will be lifted. It is all about what happens for people who are coming back into the country. The first category is people arriving from EU or EEA countries. There are three qualifying criteria. One is that they are fully vaccinated against Covid-19. The second is that they have recovered from Covid-19 in the past nine months, so they have a lab-confirmed test result in the past nine months. The third is to have a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival to the State.
The second group is for countries outside the EU and EEA, if coming from a country that does not have an emergency brake. "Emergency brake" is the European language being used at the moment for what we have listed as category 2 countries, if someone is coming from outside the EU or EEA and it is not deemed to be one of the high-risk countries. If a passenger has valid proof of vaccination, no travel-related testing or quarantine is required. If the passenger does not have valid proof of vaccination, he or she needs to present evidence of a negative PCR test within 72 hours prior to arrival, self-quarantine, which is essentially home quarantine, and then undergo post-arrival testing, which is the day five test.
The third category is people coming in from or having gone through countries in the past 14 days that are outside the EU but to which the EU has applied the emergency brake. If a passenger has valid proof of vaccination, he or she needs to produce a negative three-day preflight PCR test, undergo self-quarantine at home, and then undergo the day five test. If a passenger does not have proof of vaccination, he or she needs to produce evidence of a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival and to undergo mandatory hotel quarantine and post-arrival testing. That third category is the case where we envisage the hotel quarantine remaining in effect. It essentially applies to non-EU, non-EEA countries that have been designated with the so-called emergency brake, where a person is not fully vaccinated. In that case a hotel quarantine is required. It is also required in cases where the preflight PCR test is required and people arrive without it, but for a short period. They would tend to be tested the day they arrive or the next day, get the results, and then leave. That is how Ireland proposes to participate in the digital Covid certificate.
There was a question about ability to pay. I confirm to colleagues that 157 certificates have been issued, so in those cases that fee has been waived or deferred using a certificate issued by our embassy or consular office abroad.
With unaccompanied minors, there are two possibilities. The first is that they go into the care of Tusla. Tusla then carries that out and it is the correct agency to do that. Alternatively, if the minor has somewhere safe to go in Ireland, he or she can go to that place and be quarantined in that place.
I will finish by reiterating that nobody wants hotel quarantine. My understanding is there are very limited situations in which any of us can be deprived of our liberty, and rightly so. One is a custodial sentence, another is through mental incapacitation, and this is another. It is a very serious thing for us to do to anybody because nobody going into quarantine has done anything wrong. They are not guilty of anything. In terms of balancing human rights and civil liberties, it is about balancing the rights of these people coming in with the rights of everyone in the country to be protected against these variants of concern.
The figures are compelling. If we look at the number of variants of concern which have been detected, the figure we used was 59, if memory services correct. As of 27 May, there were 59 variant of concern cases. The figure is likely to be higher than that because the genome sequencing takes time and we are still getting results on that. If we call it 60, and we broadly assume a 90% reduction in both the number of cases that would be coming in and the number of variant of concern cases being imported, because those going into hotel quarantine have already gone through a lot, having got their preflight PCR tests and so forth, we would be looking at either having successfully stopped ever coming in or having identified and isolated perhaps 600 variant of concern Covid cases. That is a very large number of variant of concern cases. We are watching the Indian variant situation very carefully but potentially to have stopped or identified approximately 600 incoming variant of concern cases is a very significant positive in terms of our national response. On that basis, I believe the very significant imposition on innocent people that this quarantine system entails is proportionate and warranted.
I have laid out how we would envisage it working in the future. Essentially, it would be on a reduced basis because it would take account of the EU, the EEA and people being vaccinated, and it would look only at higher risk countries as designated by the European Union.