Seanad debates

Monday, 31 May 2021

Covid-19 Vaccination Programme: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Health to the House for the second time today and he has ten minutes.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Seanad for the opportunity to update it on the Covid-19 vaccination programme. The programme has continued uninterrupted since our last session despite the cyberattack on both the HSE and the Department of Health, although this criminal attack on our IT systems has had an impact on the programme as the validation of data and daily reporting of vaccination figures have not been possible.

Ireland's vaccination programme represents one of the greatest public health and logistical challenges the health services have ever faced. It is a testament to the commitment and quality of character of those who work in our health services that they have met this challenge and we are seeing such significant progress with the roll-out despite the attack on our systems. We have made major inroads into the vaccination of people all over Ireland, with the vaccination of the most vulnerable in society now largely completed and what a wonderful thing it is for us to be able to discuss here today.

In the middle of last week, Mr. Des O'Grady from Castleknock received the 100,000th vaccine dose administered just at the Citywest vaccination centre. This was a remarkable achievement for one centre. Mr. O'Grady received one of approximately 300,000 vaccine doses that were administered last week. That followed on from a record week in our vaccination programme the previous week when in excess of 300,000 vaccine doses were administered, including almost 40,000 of the single-dose Janssen vaccine.

It is now estimated that we have administered around 2.7 million vaccine doses. More than half of eligible adults have now received at least one dose, which is an amazing result. I know that colleagues will join me in expressing gratitude on behalf of the Government and of the entire Oireachtas to the many thousands of women and men in every county in the vaccination centres, GP practices, vaccination teams and nursing homes, including therapists, nurses, doctors and clinicians from across the healthcare family, as well as students, volunteers and people who have come out of retirement.

The National Ambulance Service and the Defence Forces have played an extraordinary role. We also have been helped by other Departments and Government agencies. The vaccination programme has been a truly national effort. It is wonderful to think that after what has been a dark and brutal year in many ways, more than half of the adult population has now received at least one dose.I want to pay tribute to everybody who has been involved, right across the board. I was in Citywest this morning meeting the team that is responding to the cyberattack. As with the rest of the vaccine programme, again we are seeing people from right across the country involved. We had the involvement of the Department of Health, the HSE, the Defence Forces, the National Ambulance Service, friends and partners across other Departments and State agencies, as well as private sector partners. It is a huge effort.

The Citywest campus is a physical embodiment of the can-do attitude across healthcare. Our cyberattack response is being run from there. It is a massive vaccination centre. Outpatient appointments are being kept there, including orthopaedic surgeons who are doing outpatient appointments. There are rehabilitation and therapy sessions going on there. It is where we put up some of our staff who cannot self-isolate or who cannot keep those they live with safe. It is also where we accommodate people who need to self-isolate outside of the healthcare world and who have nowhere else to do it. It is an amazing physical manifestation of the can-do attitude in healthcare and right across the country. There are loads of volunteers helping people all over the campus. It has been incredible.

The registration system is open, as colleagues will be aware, for those aged 45 to 49. I am delighted to be able to share with colleagues that the portal will open for those aged 40 to 44 from this Wednesday morning. It will be the same drill as before, in that the first day it will be open for people who are 44, the next day for people who are 43 and so on. That is really good news and more progress is being made this week.

As uptake is going well, I want to share some figures with colleagues. Among those aged 60 to 69, about 90% have started vaccination. For those aged 50 to 59, we have a registration rate in excess of 86%, which is fantastic. Encouragingly, for those aged 40 to 49, between those who have registered and are now being vaccinated through the portal and the fact that there is a large cohort of healthcare workers who are within this age group, we already have a 45% rate of those in their 40s who are either registered or have started their vaccination programme. For those aged over 70, nearly 100% have been vaccinated. When one looks at the European tables for the percentage of vulnerable people vaccinated, in terms of both age and those who are healthcare workers, Ireland leads the EU. We are number one in the entire EU in vaccinating the most vulnerable people and our healthcare workers first. We should be immensely proud as a nation that this is how we went about our business.

The vaccination programme has been extended to encompass pregnant women, with pregnancies of 34 weeks and above being prioritised. An operational plan for the vaccination of pregnant women between 14 and 36 weeks has been implemented. All 19 maternity services have a pathway in place for these vaccinations. We have extended the vaccination programme to those in socially vulnerable groups, such as those in homelessness and addiction. A vaccination pathway is also being provided to those in the Traveller and Roma communities. This pathway was extended to a number of community health organisations at the beginning of last week. A total of 37 vaccination centres are in operation around the country and a 38th will open shortly in University College Dublin, UCD.

The Government is taking measures to secure the future immunity of the Irish people from Covid-19 as well and it is providing a robust framework against variants of the disease, which we are watching closely. Ireland has recently opted into a new purchase agreement at an EU level for up to 1.8 billion messenger ribonucleic acid, mRNA, based vaccine doses, of which we will take a pro ratashare. While the basket of vaccines will be broadened for the future, this is a significant advance purchase by Ireland and the rest of the EU of the Pfizer vaccine, which has proven both reliable and highly effective. The purpose of the agreement is to ensure that member states have access to a vaccine that can be used to provide booster doses if that is required. It can also be adjusted to protect against emerging variants and it can be safely administered to younger people.We have seen the European Medicines Agency, EMA, grant approval in that regard in the last few days for those aged from 12 to 15 years. The agreement is also to ensure that member states have access to vaccines linked to a dependable and secure supply chain - we all know how important that is - and which will be easier to store and more portable than its predecessor. There have been some very encouraging technological advances with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and much easier storage is now possible compared with the super low temperatures we used for this round. All of this will serve as a backbone for our vaccination strategy for the next two years. We will contribute directly to the manufacture of this vaccine as well, which is really exciting. I am sure all Deputies warmly welcome the announcement that Pfizer's Grange Castle plant will play a role and 75 new jobs will be created. Subject to regulatory approval, production at that plant could commence as early as the end of this year, which would be fantastic.

Through our participation in various EU forums and the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, COVAX programme, we are also taking steps to plan access to vaccines for countries less fortunate than we are. That is very important to me and Members of the House. We discussed this issue previously, and I expect we will do so again today. Recent events, including in India, are another reminder of why we need a global and just solution to this pandemic.

We are moving ever closer to meeting our goal of offering vaccinations to everyone in Ireland who wants one. We are vaccinating those at the margins of society, those bringing new life into our communities and those living in the most vulnerable parts of the global community. These are significant achievements for our nation, and they show what is best about our country and public service. I conclude, therefore, by acknowledging all those making our vaccination programme so successful - the healthcare family, members of the Defence Forces, the staff of the National Ambulance Service, as well as vaccinators, general practitioners and all the wonderful staff in general practices, our healthcare workers and volunteers. So many people have contributed again and again, and I thank them all for working so hard to make this vaccination programme a success.

Photo of Lorraine Clifford-LeeLorraine Clifford-Lee (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for such an enthusiastic update on our vaccination roll-out. It is a pity the cyberattack has stopped real-time reporting of the numbers of vaccines being administered because I imagine the daily figures are a sight to behold. We all have family members and know people in our communities who have been vaccinated. From speaking to them, I know it has been such a positive experience. People are arriving at vaccination centres and bumping into neighbours and friends, including old school friends they have not seen in years. Everyone is really happy. They are in and out of the centre in 20 or 30 minutes and it is a very positive experience.

Much credit goes to Professor Brian MacCraith and his team, the Minister, Mr. Paul Reid and everybody working in the vaccination programme, including staff in vaccination centres and those administering the vaccines. It is fantastic. The Taoiseach told us on Friday night that 2.6 million doses of vaccine had been administered, and many more were administered over the weekend. It is a really positive news story. If we think back to one year ago, just before the Government was formed at the start of June 2020, the atmosphere then was so different from the atmosphere today. Back then, people were worried and upset. We did not believe we would get a vaccine so quickly and doubts were cast on our ability to administer vaccines efficiently. All those worries have been put to bed. We are on the road out of the pandemic and we must keep going.

I will address a few points. What are the plans for vaccinating children aged between 12 and 18 years? What is the Minister's thinking on that issue? I would also like an update on the EU's action against AstraZeneca. The Minister mentioned the importance of having a dependable supply chain for the vaccines coming into the country. AstraZeneca deliveries were not what they should have been, which was a major disappointment to everybody in the EU. Mediation is ongoing. I would like an update on that.The Minister met with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, last week regarding healthcare workers who are receiving their second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the next week or so. The INMO representatives looked for an update on the advice about mixing vaccines considering the updated data about the greater risk of blood clotting in younger people. Many of our healthcare workers are younger females. There is a worry about the second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which they are due to get shortly. I ask the Minister to update us on the possibility of mixing vaccines.

On shortening the gap between the first and second doses of AstraZeneca, we know the first shot of AstraZeneca does not give much protection against the B.1.617.2 variant. In the UK, the interval between the first and second shot has been shortened. Has the Minister any plans to reduce it for the many people who have received AstraZeneca?

I raised this last issue with the Minister previously and he stated he would look into it, but the cyberattack has put it back somewhat. The lack of availability on the portal to register for vaccines in Irish is a very important vaccine roll-out issue for a certain cohort in this country. As the Minister knows, there is an obligation on the State to provide all forms to members of the public in both Irish and English, but one must go to the portal to register for a vaccine. Registration can also be done by phone and when the issue was first raised an Irish-speaking line was put in, but the website is not available in Irish. I ask for an update on that and at what point it might be resolved. We will have to live with the vaccination schedule for a long number of months, possibly years, and it is very important the issue is tackled at this point. I would really appreciate answers to those questions. I again say well done to the Minister, his team in the Department, everybody in the HSE and everybody working in the vaccination centres. All of them are doing great. I cannot wait to get my vaccine when the time comes.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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The Minister mentioned my former colleagues in the Defence Forces a number of times in his speech. I record my deep appreciation to the Army and Naval Service for the work they did on the ground in building test centres, being prepared to meet people or have centres ready for them, and to our Air Corps which flew tests to Germany and vaccines to the islands. My one regret in all of that - and it has nothing to with the Minister or his Department - is that we did not find a way of making ex gratiapayments to soldiers, sailors and airmen for the extra work they put in. Most other people who worked overtime were paid overtime, time-and-a-half or double-time money. Soldiers got duty money. That is a matter for another time.

I must compliment the Department. There was a lot of toing and froing, vaccines were coming or they were not, we expected to hit this or that number, but in the end it is moving along in the way we expected it. Nothing is ever certain in that type of situation. I am fortunate enough to have had the first dose of AstraZeneca, which I had grave reservations about taking, largely because of the public relations surrounding it. I am now concerned having listened to some of the medical experts speak about the second dose. It seems the risk of clotting is higher in the second than the first dose. It is now recommended that the second dose is Pfizer or Moderna. The Minister is shaking his head but I am merely telling him what we are hearing on the airwaves. We need clarity on that.

Those who continued to keep this country running while we were without vaccines include staff members in the Houses of the Oireachtas and every local authority in the country.Supermarket workers, truck drivers, bus drivers and Luas drivers went out daily to fulfil the duties that were needed to keep this country running in some way or other. We must place on record our grateful appreciation for those people.

I am somewhat disappointed that we let teachers down with respect to the vaccine. Teachers mix with more of a mixed group of people than anyone else. I am disappointed that we did not move them up the scale for vaccination. Such is life and that is the way things go.

When I went to access a vaccine in Citywest, I was extremely impressed with the overall organisation. A number of activities were going on, as the Minister pointed out in his speech. When I was driving in the gate, I was asked whether I was there for a test or a vaccine and was moved into the appropriate area. There were literally hundreds if not thousands of people passing through the centre when I got my vaccine but, that notwithstanding, the nurse who administered my vaccine took all the time in the world to allay any fears I had and explain things to me.

I cannot tell the Minister the difference vaccination is making to people of my vintage. My wife had the pleasure of her two grandchildren coming to stay last Thursday and Friday for the first time in approximately 18 months. The joy on all three faces was unbelievable. My youngest grandchild said to her father approximately three weeks before that visit that she had a dream in which her nana had a vaccine and they could go back to playing with her on Thursdays. It is great when little kids are thinking like that.

I am concerned that because of the good news out there with respect to the vaccine, we are running a little ahead of ourselves as was demonstrated by the crowds who gathered in Galway, Cork and Dublin at the weekend. People such as the Minister have a difficult task to drive home the message that we are not home yet and have a long way to go.

I am anxious to see the airline industry come back in some guise as quickly as possible. Everybody in Europe is recommending antigen testing. Some pilots had a big demonstration outside Leinster House last week and called for antigen testing. I do not understand why Ireland has not bought into antigen testing. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that issue.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister back to the House. I concur with the credit that has appropriately been given to the people working in the vaccination centres around the country. They are the human beings who are injecting people's arms and making them safe. I commend Mr. Damien McCallion, the HSE's lead for the vaccination roll-out, who has done a phenomenal job. He is out front for good news and bad news. It is critical that people are out front for bad news and that is not always the case. It is often left to the politicians and some great civil servants to share bad news. One only sees some others when there is good news to share and we are reaching milestones. It is important to put my compliment to Mr. McCallion on the record.

There is no doubt but that the Government is now meeting its vaccination target because the supply and systems are in place. I would like to hear where we are with supply. Last week in the Dáil, the Minister said that the best-case scenario for delivery of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in June was 190,000 doses while the worst case scenario was 60,000. Has he an update for the House as to where we are with those figures? What is the Minister's projection for June? What is his projection for the beginning, middle and end of June, respectively? That is important.

It is great that the portal will be open to 40- to 45-year-olds from Wednesday, but I have concerns. My colleague, Deputy Colm Burke, put on the record of the Dáil last week during Leaders' Questions the case of a lady with the blood board. As a healthcare worker, she registered on the HSE portal but still has not got a vaccine and cannot register on the ordinary portal because she has already registered on the HSE portal.That is not fair, especially when that person sees younger people getting the vaccine in their hundreds of thousands. I understand that 3,000 people who have registered through the HSE portal are in a similar situation. That is very worrying. Some of them are in their 50s and 60s. It is most unfair and frustrating for people who happen to work in healthcare to find themselves in a situation where people who are ten, 15, or 20 years younger are getting the vaccine in their droves while they are still waiting for it. Even though they may not be direct front-line healthcare workers, they certainly are healthcare workers and are exposed. What is the Minister's position in respect of that issue and what is he going to do about it?

In terms of an issue which has been raised already, namely, the concerns around the AstraZeneca vaccine, when is NIAC going to provide us with an update on its position? Surely to God it is looking at what is being said internationally in respect of the administration of the second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. I have spoken to healthcare workers who are due to receive the second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine and who are concerned about it. We and NIAC cannot ignore what is being said internationally. The people deserve for NIAC to provide its most updated advice on the matter. If that updated advice is the same, we need to hear it again.

Photo of Emer CurrieEmer Currie (Fine Gael)
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I have never been happier to tick the box which states I am in the 40 to 44 age group than when I did so today. The purpose of the digital green certificate is to facilitate the safe movement of citizens within the EU during the pandemic. It is valid in all EU member states for people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and others. There are people from the North, who live in the South and availed of the vaccine in the North. They are wondering where they stand respect of this issue. There are also people who normally live in the South but returned to the North to work from home during lockdown. They, too, have questions.

The digital green certificate should be available to everybody on this island. It is an opportunity for North-South relationships to shine at a sensitive time, irrespective of what is actually happening with the common travel area issue. Third level students from colleges in Northern Ireland will still be able to study in Europe under the Erasmus+ programme. The European health insurance card provides access to emergency healthcare in all EU member states. In respect of the digital green certificate, the Irish Government should put in place special measures to ensure all people on this island can get access to a digital green certificate and not just those with Irish passports.

I would also quickly like to ask the Minister about the Sinopharm vaccine that is being administered to teachers in schools in the United Arab Emirates. Will that vaccine also be recognised here?

Photo of Annie HoeyAnnie Hoey (Labour)
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Unfortunately, I do not have any personal experience of getting the vaccine yet. I hope I will have that experience soon. I can speak very highly of my dad's experience. The first time we talked about vaccines in the House after Christmas, I recalled how my father and his friend, who are both hard of hearing, roared down the phone at each other about getting the vaccine. They are both long vaccinated now. As I said last week, there is certainly a lot more spring in people' step. They are looking forward.

I agree with Senator Clifford-Lee that it is a great shame we are not getting the real-time updates on the vaccine roll-out because people really want to know how it is getting along and what is happening. The cyber attack is a shame for many reasons, but that is particularly the case because it is detracting away from what is good news at a time when we are all desperate for good news. I welcome the pace at which the programme is progressing. I raised concerns a few weeks ago about the older people who had been cocooning. I also raised the issue at the Joint Committee on Health. I must say all of those who contacted me have had their issues resolved and have been vaccinated since then. There is a great sense of positivity in my area.

I do not want to go down the road of claiming the whole system has fallen apart because I know of someone who has fallen through the cracks. However, I ask the Minister to provide an update on the situation in respect of the homeless and those in shared accommodation who are facing homelessness. A few people have contacted me. They are registering through the vaccine portal system. It seems to me they are very vulnerable to contracting Covid in shared accommodation or when they are moved from one accommodation to another for whatever reason.I am wondering if the Minister has an update on that.

We are talking about September and that deadline is creating a little concern. Many third level students have had a year and a half away from campuses and when they are hearing that it is not entirely certain whether they will be going back in September, that causes a lot of stress for them. I know this is matter is also the responsibility of the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science but I wonder if the Minister has any thoughts on that and on how it will play out. Students are keen to get back onto campus, as are many lecturers.

We are talking about the reopening of the tertiary economy and we have to be aware of the fact that many of the workers in that sector are of an age whereby they will not be vaccinated even possibly before the reopening of the economy. Whatever one's opinion of the scenes on South William Street at the weekend, the fact remains that there is a large cohort of society that has been locked up for 15 months. Many of them have been working in essential front-line and front-facing roles and they will be key workers in reopening society. Members might bear in mind that many people who will be participating in the reopening of society will not have been vaccinated yet and they will only be getting into the vaccination process in July and August.

A person has written to me about Erasmus+ and exchange students. Hopefully, we will have many students going away on Erasmus+ and exchanges this September. They will be required to fly out in August in order to attend their orientation and there are a number of colleges or universities which have stated that Covid-19 vaccinations will be a requirement for all students and staff to be on campus and that they are planning full in-person return to campuses. We are talking about a cohort of those aged 18 to 24 who might not be getting their vaccines until well into July and then we are looking at four weeks after that for the second dose. There will possibly be a cohort of exchange and Erasmus+ students who have already spent a lot of time and money preparing, winning scholarships and all these other important things in order to be able to avail of Erasmus+ or exchange opportunities. Those students may not be able to go and if they are able to go they will either have to travel even earlier and try to sort out accommodation in order to quarantine or they will travel over at the time when they already have their flights booked and will perhaps have to miss the first two weeks or orientation for their new semester in their institutions abroad. Has that matter been raised with the Minister's office? Does he have any thoughts on how that will be dealt with? It is only something I became aware of today; otherwise I would not be landing it on the Minister right now. It is an issue we need to consider. As I said, those students have been through a lot during the past 18 months or so. I would hate to see Erasmus+ or exchange students missing out on this opportunity of a lifetime because they are going to fall into the age cohort which will be getting the vaccines later on and, therefore, that could lock them out of part of their exchange or at least out of availing of opportunities at the beginning.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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The Minister is welcome. It is good to see him in the House. If we think back to a year ago, we did not even know if we would have vaccines. We did not know what kind of state the country and the world would be in so even having vaccinations is the first bit of great news. We can be so much in the middle of it that we can forget that we could have been looking at lockdown forever. We are in such a good position now that we are getting over 300,000 vaccinations done per week. I commend the Minister, the Department and, in particular, all of those front-line workers who are administering these vaccinations. I also commend all of those who were going to work not knowing if there would be a vaccine at the end of it.

Even though we are in a race against time, this is about public health and it is about how many people we can get vaccinated and how quickly we can get it done. We also have to remember that within the system, there are those who are more vulnerable. It is fantastic that the Minister says we are number one in the EU for vaccinating the most vulnerable but I know of some who feel they have been left out so I would love to hear the Minister's views on cohort 7. I am a member of cohort 7 and there are some within it who feel that things have not been going quickly enough. From my point of view, maybe some of that is to do with the lack of digitalisation of our healthcare system which means that it can be difficult to identify exactly who is high risk and who is not. I am looking forward to my vaccine in the coming weeks so I know the mop-ups are happening. I hope that many of the people who have been in contact with me will get their vaccinations.

Earlier, we saw the news that only 2% of prisoners have been vaccinated. That is disappointing. I know there have been problems getting the vaccine in quickly enough for prison staff, and that has to be a priority, but the Minister might provide an update because this news has only just broken and reached me today. Some 36 prisoners at Mountjoy Prison had contracted Covid-19 at a certain point. People are in that congregated setting so it seems to be an area of concern.

There is more news today that was trending on Twitter about B.1.617.2 and how it is dominant in the UK. How prepared do we feel for that? Do we feel that if we can keep ramping up vaccinations we will be prepared as a country?

I am delighted to see that Pfizer will be opened to 12- to 16-year-olds. I echo what Senator Clifford Lee said about when we might see that in Ireland. Those are the young people who have been out of school for the longest amount of time. They have been kept at home and they have been away from their friends during a critical time for young people to be social. I would love some great news for that age group, who have left school earlier, having left last Friday.

There were some comments about concerns that were raised in respect of the gatherings in Galway, Dublin and elsewhere. It is completely understandable that, having been locked down for a year and a half, people want to go out and enjoy the good weather. We have to ensure that there are spaces available for them. I was disappointed to see Middle Arch closed after Friday night. I passed by on Friday night and I saw what it was like. I do not envy the police and the volunteers but we need to ensure that we do not only call for an outdoor summer but that we put in place everything to allow people to enjoy that. I know that is not just down to the Department of Health but it is important to put it on the record that we need to have all the facilities in place. The money is there so why are the facilities not in place and how fast can we draw that money down?

I welcome the Minister's comments on Covid-19 vaccines global access, COVAX. Unfortunately it does not come up all that often any more. We need to remember that we have that global responsibility. Where are we as a country on that? This can be a real model for us in that global outreach and responsibility and I would love to see us do it across the board when it comes to climate change and everything. This could be the model and I am delighted that the Minister mentioned it.

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister. I echo what others have said about thanking those who have been vaccinating and running the vaccination centres. I drove someone to Citywest to get a vaccination. There is definitely a lovely atmosphere there and it is well organised. We are lucky that we have low vaccine hesitancy rates and that most people one talks to are chomping at the bit to get the call to get their vaccine. That is to be welcomed because we know that the more people who are vaccinated the more we can open society and that the quicker the process is progressed the quicker we can improve our lives.

The key policy in terms of Covid-19 has moved to vaccination and recent news on delays is disappointing. At this point, any problems in the roll-out of the vaccine will have far-reaching effects into people's lives. I welcome the fact that 50% of the adult population will have its first dose by the end of May but there is concern that the 80% target for the end of June will not be met. It is repeated time and again by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste that 80% of the adult population would have received its first dose by the end of June.The Tánaiste has also made several vague statements to grab headlines but is also unfairly raising hopes of everyone being offered a vaccine by the end of that month. His statements are unhelpful, particularly to the Minister for Health in his work, especially in light of yet more problems on the supply side. There has been a drop from what was to be 470,000 single dose vaccines to half that number, or it could reach as low as 60,000 available doses, and this will significantly delay the full vaccination process. There are also reductions in expected AstraZeneca deliveries and a question over that vaccine's effectiveness against new variants. There is a real concern that problems on the supply side will delay or derail our reopening plan.

Others have mentioned the need for two jabs of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines to give a proper level of protection against symptomatic disease from the B.1.617.2 variant, as is the case for the Kent or B.1.1.7 variant. We must ramp up supply and get as many people as possible vaccinated in order to protect us against the Indian variant. We have heard reports today from the British Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, SAGE, that the B.1.617.2 variant could be 50% more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 variant. That said, the Chief Medical Officer has given a positive outlook on Covid-19 in the State overall, although he has warned that we should keep an eye on those variants on local spikes of new cases, if any.

I will comment on some of what has been said over the weekend about the scenes on South William Street and other parts of the city. I worked in a café in Dublin years ago and public toilets were an issue even then. We were one of the few cafés that allowed tourists and others to come in to use public toilets. Nobody is excusing the rubbish left behind but it is not just people who are drinking who need toilets. People with disabilities or irritable bowel syndrome need somewhere to go to the toilet. We also need to provide bins as we cannot tell people they must holiday outside but not in particular areas.

This speaks to a privileged position of some, who assume everybody has a garden they can use or that people are not sharing overcrowded accommodation. People might not want to be in their parents' gardens but out somewhere else meeting their friends. We need to put in place facilities for that type of outdoor summer. We cannot close public spaces. We should instead increase their number. The scenes of hundreds of people on the street caused concern but they comprised smaller groups who had gone out to meet friends. The best time to have formulated a strategy on outdoor socialising was six weeks ago but the next best time is now. We must give people public space and facilities, including toilets, bins and everything else that goes with such activity.

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
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The Minister is again welcome to the House. I join others in commending all those people who have done really important and extraordinary work in rolling out vaccines. However, in hearing everybody's stories about how wonderful it has been to get a vaccine and what it meant for children and families, there is a heartbreaking component to the discussion. It is that there are people all over this planet with families, some of them going to work on the front line of health services, who are years away from vaccination. They are just like us, with families like ours and with hopes and fears like ours.

I look at the six months we have lost in a process for a trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, TRIPS, waiver, which was proposed and would have allowed and supported the scaling up of vaccine roll-out internationally. Let us be clear that it is BioNTech's incredible work with the mRNA vaccine and of course it should be celebrated. Nonetheless, we are talking about booster doses for us while the rest of the world does not have access to a vaccine. That is entirely due to the fact that we are guarding a profit mechanism, which is a choice. There are now 62 countries, even including the United States, calling for a waiver on intellectual property. Every argument put forward by Europe has been debunked by experts, including the World Health Organization and others.

We know there are 144 facilities with manufacturing capacity in 35 countries that could be scaled up but we are still seeing mechanisms talking about licensing. The European Union, having been embarrassed into some kind of action, is now talking about letting a few partners in the global south into manufacturing through licensing rather than a temporary TRIPS waiver. The COVAX process is fine but that is about vaccinating 20% of the world. Let us be clear that the Covid technology access pool, a mechanism of the World Health Organization, is required to ensure quality in the roll-out. The European Union bears responsibility if we continue to be the main blocker of access to vaccines for the world.

We might need to attach our name to all the variants that may come, and certainly if variants are coming in six months when they should not have to. Maybe they should be named after us since they will arise because of the European Union. The B.1.617.2 variant and others are coming now but we can do more. We could be in a different place in January 2022 but Europe must stop its obstruction of the process. The European Parliament has now called on the European Union to take action and I have certainly been glad to add my voice to the voices of other parliamentarians across Europe in saying we need to allow global access to vaccines. The Minister is aware the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade has also called for that.

There are still issues with the Irish programme, particularly with group 9 and overcrowded settings. The Minister might agree that prisoners could and should fall into that category. There are concerns about cohort 7 as a whole falling through the cracks. Traveller organisations have been clear they want a dual approach to vaccines, as it seems that the HSE, since March, has basically only been offering the Janssen vaccine to Travellers. This appears to come from an assumption of vaccine hesitancy and that a single dose would be preferable but we know much of that population is under 50 and are not, therefore, the ideal candidates for the Janssen vaccine because of its heightened risk for people under 50. It is really important there is a another route. I have more detailed notes from my colleague, Senator Flynn, on this and she has been very clear about the NIAC advice on the age cohort overlap.

I am also concerned about young people who are part of cohort 7 and still waiting for a vaccine. They will lose their unemployment payment and many will be asked to work in hospitality or similar jobs. They may be in cohort 7 and be asthmatic. There are people in their 20s and 30s in that space falling between those gaps.

There have been very positive experiences at the centres but I have heard of single parents having difficulty. They are sometimes not in the position to have somebody caring for their child and need to bring the child to the vaccine centre. That has been brought to my attention.

Indefinite retention of the data used to access the vaccine portal falls outside the scope of GDPR. We should not have another obstacle to people being vaccinated. We know that where there is an imbalance of power, we must be very clear on the statutory basis for any measure. We cannot ask people to consent to indefinite retention of data as a condition of getting something that might save their lives. I am concerned that we are on legally ambiguous ground. Perhaps we will have an opportunity to engage on the matter to ensure we do it properly.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber. He is aware St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr who in very difficult circumstances stuck to the faith, in spite of unrelenting criticism at times. In fairness, the Minister has been subject to much abuse but has stuck to delivering the programme. Many of those who criticised the Minister said we would never achieve the targets we discussed. I know some critics from earlier this year have acknowledged that the Government's programme - the largest vaccination programme in the State - has been a success, and others need to acknowledge this as well.The only interruptions have been around matters regarding supply, which are beyond our control. In thanking all of those involved in the programme, the Minister and those who oversaw it deserve some credit. Those who were tweeting and criticising the Minister earlier in the year might do well to reflect on some of their predictions at the time and admit they were wrong.

I want to raise a number of points. I certainly would agree with the point made by Senator Higgins on the TRIPS waiver. We have a responsibility. It is not just about COVAX. We are not going to solve this problem until it is solved in the entire world. There will always be a risk. Ireland's generosity with regard to India is something that could prove as an example and I hope at European level the Minister will support the TRIPS waiver.

There continues to be anecdotal evidence that some people are being called for vaccination twice and some people are not showing up. I know it was a bigger problem previously but I am aware it is an issue. I hear from vaccinators that sometimes people are being called to two different centres. It may just be a glitch in the system.

I want to speak about the vaccine bonus. We have a high take-up rate and we have to give the vaccine bonus. I am aware that today the EU Commission has proposed that those who are fully vaccinated would be exempt of any requirement to quarantine or show testing when travelling within the EU. As part of the vaccine bonus we have to look at telling people that when they have their vaccine they are entitled to travel more freely. There has to be a reward because of the high take-up of the vaccine.

My colleague, Senator Clifford-Lee, asked when young people will be vaccinated. As we roll through the age groups, and I am looking forward to getting my vaccine soon, will the Minister give us an indication in his response that by the time we get to the end of August and we are looking at the resumption of schools and colleges, he can guarantee that all of those who may be starting or going back to third level will be vaccinated? We want people back on our campuses? Once it is safe to do so, will the roll-out continue to students at second level?

This is wonderful because when we think about last summer we never imagined we would have vaccines. People never thought we would be in the situation we are in now or that we would see vaccines. It shows the wonder and importance of research, innovation and science and why we need to continue to invest in them. We also need to look at the experiences we have all had during this period. Some of them have to do with health and medicine but there have also been social experiences. I spoke earlier about how we will deal with grief and loss, which are very human emotions that many of us have experienced over the course of the lockdown. We need to look at partnering with higher education institutions to conduct research into this area.

Being Minister for Health is a challenge at the best of times but particularly at present when we are facing what I hope is a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. We also have all of the other challenges with the health service. Unfortunately, as we are coming out of the pandemic the Minister will be hit with all of the other issues. As he knows, there are further backlogs in elective surgery. It is important there is communication on how we will deal with these. It may not be possible during this session but at some stage I ask the Minister to come to the House to speak about the post-Covid plan for Sláintecare and the rest of the health service.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I congratulate the Minister on the fine job he is doing and ask him to convey our thanks to all those involved. Approximately two weeks ago I met Fórsa and its representatives spoke about the various categories of employees involved behind the scenes. We are very quick to thank those on the front line but behind the scenes are the administrators and a heap of people who absolutely deserve our thanks. Just when they were on top of vaccines and Covid they got the cyberattack. Extraordinary hard work has gone into this area.

We are very clear and transparent in our messaging. I appreciate this but when we hear news of supply issues and a potential delay, it is also important in our messaging that we reassure people as to roughly when they will be vaccinated. The telephone calls I receive are from people whose anxiety is being heightened. Perhaps we underestimate the heightened level of anxiety everyone has been at over the past 12 to 18 months. Perhaps we need to acknowledge these feelings and the disappointment. This is not a criticism but an add-on that in our anxiety to be transparent sometimes we overlook this issue.

Others have mentioned this but I have promised that I will also raise the issue of people in their 60s awaiting their second dose of AstraZeneca. They have little cards telling them their next appointment will be in July. I appreciate they are considered fully vaccinated 28 days after the first dose of AstraZeneca for the purposes of visiting other houses but there is some question mark over the level of protection against the so-called Indian variant. For them there is a level of anxiety and frustration when they see that people in their 40s who perhaps do not have underlying conditions and in a lower-risk category are going to be fully vaccinated sooner. I would appreciate the Minister addressing this issue and ask for the ideas we have on it.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister. I acknowledge the work of the HSE on rolling out the vaccination programme nationwide. Many people did not believe the Minister, the Government or our specialists in NIAC or the HSE that the issue initially was a supply issue but clearly it was. It has been proven that once the supplies come into the country, the HSE and the State are very efficient at ensuring the vaccines get into people's arms. This is a compliment to the HSE staff, the teams working in the vaccination centres, GPs, testers, swabbers and laboratory analysts who continue the work they have been doing for over a year.

I acknowledge all those who continue, despite the difficulties, to abide in so far as they can by the health requirements we have been asked to abide by over the past 14 months. It is difficult and wearing on people. Now they see so many of their friends, colleagues and family being vaccinated, particularly parents, loved ones, grannies and grandads. This cohort being vaccinated has given an extra boost to people's morale and belief in the system. It is certainly to be welcomed.

As we have seen in Galway and Dublin, the lockdown has raised the issues of celebrating outdoors, bins and public toilets. These need to be sorted anyway for various festivals and gatherings in warm weather. We do not get sunny days that often but when we get a warm spell we will have people congregating and it is important that facilities are in place.

The high level of uptake is certainly encouraging. It must be killing all the vaccine deniers and Covid deniers to see people are willing to go forward and get a vaccine.

It will be important that students go back on campus and I am sure the Minister is working with the Minister responsible for further education, Deputy Harris, on this issue. Antigen testing has been spoken about, particularly with regard to campuses where there is high throughput. Rapid antigen testing would be hugely important.

I have previously asked about booster vaccinations. Is it too early to ask whether they will be necessary or what will be needed later this year or next year?

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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In order to get all speakers in because time is tight, is it agreed that we reduce speaking time from five minutes to four minutes? Agreed.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister even though I am one of the people who was quite critical in the very beginning of how the Covid pandemic was handled. I have always believed this could have been given to another Minister. Health is too big a portfolio. We needed a Minister responsible for vaccination and Covid-19 to support the Minister for Health in his role. Nevertheless, he has done a remarkably good job. He has certainly taken criticism on board as it was meant to be taken.

Thirty-seven vaccination centres are operating seven days a week. While people are heralding the 300,000 figure - and I thank everybody involved in that - we are looking at 1,600 people vaccinated per day in each of those centres. If that is broken down to 12 hours a day, it is 97 people per hour. My main criticism is about why we are not using the pharmacies. Why are they waiting? They have the capacity to deliver. Pharmacists are trained, experienced vaccinators and they are ready to start vaccinating. Community pharmacists have the capacity to administer at least 50,000 Covid-19 vaccines per week. They can help the Government reach its ambitious targets. More than 1,200 pharmacists have submitted expressions of interest to the HSE to participate in the vaccination programme. Some 2,000 fully-trained vaccinators are ready to go.

More than half the Irish population live within 1 km of a pharmacy while 85% live within 5 km of one. Yet people in rural communities are being asked to travel significant distances to vaccination centres. As there is only one vaccination centre in all of County Galway, for a person from Ballyconneely in Connemara it is a 3.5 hour round trip to get to the vaccination centre in Ballybrit. People in my county of Meath are being sent all over the place, to Louth, Dublin, Cavan and Westmeath. Why are people in rural areas being asked to travel, often long distances, when they can get vaccinated in their own communities? By allowing pharmacists to vaccinate it is made easier, convenient and local for people.

I want to know the reason for this delay. In December 2020, the Government's national Covid-19 vaccination strategy and implementation plan identified community pharmacists as having a central role in the vaccination roll-out along with GPs and mass vaccination centres. In January 2021, an agreement was reached with the Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, as with the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, on the fees to be paid to community pharmacists for administering the vaccine. In February 2021, it was announced that GPs alone would vaccinate the over-70s; no clinical reason was given for this decision. In March and April 2021, the Minister consistently stated that pharmacists would partake in community vaccinations but in May 2021, with mass roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine under way, people were still unable to be vaccinated by local pharmacists. No reasons were given for this delay. The Taoiseach, the Minister, the CEO of the HSE and the chair of the vaccine task force have all consistently stated that community pharmacists will be involved. However, here we are in May and we still have no idea when or if they will be rolled out.

The reopening of Ireland's economy and society depends on the pace of the vaccine roll-out. Some 2,000 vaccinators are ready and waiting to roll out the vaccine in 1,200 pharmacies in their communities. The vaccination recruitment programme closes tomorrow at 12 noon. Can that deadline be extended? Some 1,200 pharmacists want to partake in helping their country out but they cannot register as vaccinators on a Saturday or Sunday. At this moment in time, they cannot volunteer to do that. Why do people who have had two vaccinations have to wait until 19 July to be allowed to leave this country?

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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At present, 90% of those aged 60 to 69 have started vaccination. For those aged 50 to 59, 90% have registered and almost 80% have started vaccination. Almost 100% of citizens over the age of 70 are now fully vaccinated. It was an extraordinary challenge but it has been a huge success. I often say that when a challenge is thrown down to Irish people, they like it and they respond. We have fantastic people in our medical service, including our GPs and their staff, people in the health service and the Minister himself. The Minister took some stern criticism all along, as Senator Keogan said, but he took it on the chin, kept doing the right thing and kept his head down. We can now see this is turning out to be a wonderful success. It is a tribute to the Minister and all the people in the health service.

I regret that when he tried to commence the debate here on the possibility of vaccinating students it was shot down. After last weekend, when we saw how young people in particular want to get back out and return to college, maybe that was the one debate we should have had.

I am very confident that the pace of vaccination will continue. Very shortly, almost 3 million people will have had their first vaccination. It is a real, good, success story. One has to think about all that has happened, including issues with delays, supply and, in recent times, IT and the cyberattack. Despite that, the Minister, health service workers and doctors continued to keep going. I say well done. The Minister might give us some explanation on how the second dose will work out for certain categories of people as regards term. Again, I ask the Minister to comment on the vaccination of students because that is a very important issue we need to tackle.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I received my vaccination at the Breaffy House complex. It was a massive success and worked like clockwork. The staff were brilliant, there were no problems, no time waiting and it was a great success all round.

In 1928, Michael Collins's sister, Margaret Collins-O'Driscoll, had to speak against her own party in support of vaccination against smallpox, a disease which inflicted terrible misery on Irish people at the time. She spoke eloquently about vaccination at the time. Some people who are anti-vaccines should read what she said. I support the case for community pharmacists. Some people feel very comfortable going into their local pharmacist and it is an issue the Minister should look at.

Questions were asked about AstraZeneca and whether the timeframe for the second jab will be shortened. If it could be, it would facilitate many people, especially those who might want to travel and go on holiday.

I ask the Minister about the State and whether, as a nation, we have failed the Irish people on records and the holding of records. In the Department of Social Protection many people came up against the social welfare card. Did the Minister's Department have proper records of the age profile of people who were going to be vaccinated? When former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan, tried to introduce a property tax, his Department had no records. No local authority or Department could tell him how many houses were in the country or who had septic tanks and so forth. The Department had to get all those records.

Photo of John McGahonJohn McGahon (Fine Gael)
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I will follow up on the calls to consider having people in their 20s vaccinated sooner. While it is highly unlikely to happen, I am concerned about the authoritarian nature of some of the comments that have come out over the past 48 hours regarding the scenes in Dublin. Young people have put their lives on hold for the past 15 months. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. I am sick of the sanctimony and of the moralising towards young people. Young people are outside because they have basically been locked up for 15 months. They are now being told that they are not allowed walk up streets. We have been closing more and more public spaces to try to push them further away. We should open up more public spaces to give them more opportunities to socialise outside after the 15 months they have had.

We are the lucky ones. The best years of our lives are past us. I ask Members to imagine being between 17 and 22 years of age and being locked up inside for the past 15 months.Now, gardaí are coming along, taking their cans from them and emptying them. People are saying they are not allowed to walk on the streets, and Dublin City Council is trying to shut down every public space they have. That is wrong. I have been full steam behind all the measures we have introduced over the past year and a half because it was the right thing to do, but it is not now. All the vulnerable are vaccinated and we are flying through the vaccination process, yet some people in our society cannot stop the sanctimonious moralising towards young people, who have made the biggest sacrifice. We should be doing more to facilitate socialising for them outdoors. If we could consider that, I would appreciate it.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Members for their contributions and ideas, and their appreciation of the massive national effort. All Members of the Oireachtas owe a debt of gratitude to workers throughout the country for the phenomenal work that has been done.

Many very important topics were covered and I will not be able to deal with all of them in the time available, so I will respond to those that were raised most often. First, to respond to the last speaker, God almighty, I hope our best days are not behind all of us, although perhaps they are. What happened over the weekend in the three cities is more a facet of urban living than of rural living. It is a reflection of many different things. People have been cooped up for a long time and it has been a brutal year for many. I do not subscribe to the idea that it has been harder for one generation than for others. Yes, younger people have had a brutal time. At a time when they should be out socialising they are not. Plenty of older people have had a brutal time as well and have been in fear of their lives every day.

Ireland's success in dealing with Covid and the vaccinations and in suppressing the virus has been due to collective action and collective responsibility. We would not have been able to suppress the virus the way we have done without collective action; we would not be in our current position in terms of reopening without collective action. This has been a national effort. Every town, county and community has worked to support and mind each other and to help each other to get through this. The Government, local authorities and city councils, community groups and individuals have a role. There is individual and collective responsibility. We all understand the reason for what happened over the weekend. The apparatus of the State must do everything possible to facilitate safe outdoor social interaction. That is the message. At the same time, individuals must continue to take individual responsibility for their actions. People have done that and continue to do it, regardless of whether they are 22 years old or 82 years old. That is what we have done. We will get through this by means of the apparatus of the State doing what it can, which it must do, and people following the guidelines.

We are not out of the woods yet. The concerns that have been raised with me are driven by one thing, a concern for the people who were seen outdoors. This virus is highly contagious. We are dealing with an Indian variant that is even more contagious. Even for younger people who are more resilient to this disease and who have not been vaccinated, there is very sobering evidence regarding long Covid and serious health impacts for people regardless of their age. Any expressions from the Department of Health have been driven by concern for the people involved. That is my view on this. We have reached our current position through collective action and solidarity. When I spoke to Dr. Michael Ryan of the WHO some time ago, he said that Ireland stands out globally in terms of the united national approach we have taken to this. That is it. We just have to continue minding each other. It is not a problem if people are meeting up outside. It is good if people are meeting outdoors, but we must watch how we do it. The apparatus of the State must facilitate that in every way it can. Then we are relying on individuals, groups and families to do what is sensible for a little longer. That is my opinion on it.

Will we reduce the interval between AstraZeneca doses? The current advice we have is not to do so. It was brought up to 16 weeks and it is back to 12 weeks. There are no plans at present to decrease it any further. That is partly because one facet of getting all the vaccines administered as soon as they arrive is that the second doses are committed.

I am running out of time.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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What about pharmacists?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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As regards cohort 7, there was a question about whether we need better patient records. We do, absolutely. This was shown clearly for cohorts 4 and 7 in particular. It is a priority and this week we plan to vaccinate approximately 30,000 people in that cohort.

I will make two final comments.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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Can the Minister give a quick update on the supply? What is the latest position?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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That is not one of the two. I am sorry, but I will give the Senator the figures afterwards.

I have very good news about pharmacies. The role of pharmacies and pharmacists is something I have been pushing from day one. I have engaged with the HSE every week about it. Pharmacists will be playing a role very soon, in early June. That is the update as of a few hours ago. Where that is particularly important is in some of the areas that are further from the vaccination centres. That is some very good news.

Finally, I will return to the impact of the vaccination programme. Reasonable questions were asked about second doses of this, first doses of the other and whether this or that group can get vaccinated, and I am sorry there is no time to answer all of them now. The impact is absolutely extraordinary, regardless of what vaccines people are getting or are scheduled to get based on their age, profession or whatever. I will outline the latest information. Believe it or not, the percentage of cases over the past two weeks in those who are 65 years of age or older is 2%. Almost 80% of cases are in those who are 45 or and younger. The reduction in cases for healthcare workers and for long-term residential care is 97% to 99%. It has been extraordinary.

I thank colleagues for their time and their contributions, which are greatly appreciated. I have taken many detailed notes which I will reflect on with the Department and the Government.

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his commitment to the House today. It is great to see on both sides of the House some Members boasting that they have received the vaccination and others boasting that they are too young to get it. That is good.

Sitting suspended at 5.48 p.m. and resumed at 6.03 p.m.