Friday, 16 July 2021
Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2021: Second and Subsequent Stages
I am pleased to address the House on the Health (Amendment)(No. 2)Bill 2021. The Bill makes provision to open indoor hospitality under certain conditions and makes minor amendments to the system of mandatory hotel quarantine. The Bill will give effect to the Government’s decision to enable access to relevant indoor premises for fully vaccinated persons and persons who are immune from Covid-19 by virtue of the fact that they have recovered from the disease.
On 28 June 2021, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, advised that indoor activities expected to reopen on 5 July "which, by their nature are high risk activities involving significant levels of social mixing in indoor environments, should only be permitted for those who have been fully protected by vaccination or who have had Covid-19 infection in the previous nine months". NPHET advised that easing of these measures should only proceed when supported by a robust, non-reproducible and enforceable system of verification of vaccination or immunity status.
The Delta variant is much more transmissible than anything we have seen so far in this pandemic. Yesterday, almost 1,000 new cases were reported. Today's figure is likely to be significantly higher than that and these figures will continue to grow. We are seeing particularly high infection rates in those aged 16 to 24, as well as rapid growth in the number of infections among those aged 24 to 29. The most up-to-date modelling includes the changes recommended by the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, which allowed us to accelerate the vaccine programme for younger age groups. The second-best scenario presented by NPHET now shows over 200 people in ICU in just a few months’ time. That would mean the curtailment of a lot of planned healthcare for people in Ireland, which is something we have to avoid.Two things we have in our favour are the vaccine programme, which is going from strength to strength, and our ability to respond to this variant by following the public health advice and keeping each other safe. Right now, for people who are not yet fully vaccinated, it is as important as any time since the start of this pandemic to continue to follow the public health advice. If they become symptomatic, they should self-isolate immediately and get tested and they should please avoid higher risk activities like indoor socialising and international travel.
During the debate in the Dáil on this Bill, there were calls from some quarters to open up hospitality fully. We have seen from some other countries just how quickly that can further accelerate the increase in cases and hospitalisations. Others have been calling for opening up just with a test, even an antigen test. Again, given the rapidly increasing prevalence of the disease, particularly among those not yet fully vaccinated, I hope these calls will be dropped and that the proposed approach, which is a safe one, will be supported. Every week that we can maintain these higher levels of protection helps. Every week, several hundred thousand vaccine doses are being administered. Today, the online portal opens for those aged 25 to 29, which is ahead of schedule. By the end of this week, all second doses of AstraZeneca will have been administered. Three in every five adults are now fully vaccinated and this weekend we will administer the 5 millionth dose of vaccine.
On the Bill, section 1 sets out the Short Title, commencement and operational provisions, which are time limited. Section 2 is a standard definitions section.
Section 3 inserts new sections, 31AB to 31AL, into the Health Act 1947. Section 31AB provides that it shall be lawful for an indoor operator that is otherwise not permitted to open to grant access to a relevant indoor premises under the following conditions: that reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that only permitted persons are admitted; that operators do not knowingly allow access to persons who are not permitted persons; that personal data should not be retained; and that the operator must adhere to guidelines set by certain bodies prescribed by the Minister. The section provides that the Minister may make regulations across specific areas, which will allow adjustment, if necessary, to the arrangements in light of experience and in response to evolving circumstances. Section 31AC provides that an operator may request evidence that a person is permitted. Providing a forged or fraudulent document is an offence with a fine of up to €2,500. Sections 31AD to 31AK relate to compliance, inspection, cessation orders and appeals. Powers include the power to seek emergency closure orders. Section 31AL provides that data shall only be processed to verify proof of immunity and will be retained for no longer than required. Section 4 provides for various definitions.
Section 5 amends section 38B of the Health Act 1947 and introduces a provision for a public health doctor to assess that a person who is in quarantine because he or she has been in a designated state and has received a positive Covid test no longer poses a threat of infection. It provides for a change in definition of the pre-travel testing requirement for a PCR test to a test as defined in regulations. This allows for any changes in pre-testing requirements to be incorporated automatically. It also inserts section 38B(3A) into that Act, which would allow travellers obliged to quarantine as a result of arriving from a non-designated state without a valid pre-travel test to undergo post-arrival testing rather than being automatically obliged to enter quarantine.
Section 6 amends section 38G of the Act of 1947. Section 38G(dd) will permit the Minister to make regulations, as public health advice allows, for tests other than PCR tests for the purposes of hotel quarantine. It will allow the Minister to regulate on the administration of new tests and any fees payable by applicable travellers. Section 38G(de) will permit the Minister, having regard to the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, to regulate for a testing pathway alternative to mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers who arrive without a valid pre-travel test or are otherwise exempt from the requirement to undergo mandatory hotel quarantine.
Section 7 amends section 38K of the 1947 Act with consequential amendments from drafting changes and corrects a drafting error in the Health (Amendment) (No. 1) Act 2021, section 38G(1)(a).
With this Bill, we have an opportunity to get tens of thousands of men and women back to work, and to do so safely. Some people advocate moving faster, opening fully or opening with testing, but that would not be safe right now. Others advocate keeping the sector closed. How would that be fair to the men and women all over Ireland who have suffered for so long and who want to get back to work, when we have been advised that they can be brought back to work safely? Nothing about this pandemic is easy and nothing about it is fair. What we have to do each time is find a way forward that works and that is what this Bill seeks to do. It will get tens of thousands of men and women, many of whom have been out of work for a year and a half, back to work safely and in a way that does not put their safety or that of their customers at risk. This is the way forward that will achieve that. I commend the Bill to the House.
The Minister is very welcome and I thank him for bringing this very important legislation to the House. I commend him and his team in the Department of Health, as well as the HSE staff who have been working so hard during this pandemic. The Minister hit the nail on the head when he said that this Bill is about getting people back to work and doing so safely. People have been unemployed for months on end and it is heartbreaking to see people who have built their businesses up not being able to get back to what they love doing.
I accept the advice of the Chief Medical Officer that indoor dining is a high-risk activity and is not safe for people who are unvaccinated. I have friends who have had Covid and they have told me exactly how they suffered. These are young, fit and healthy people and they are still suffering. They still find it difficult to get back to activities like jogging or even to run upstairs in their house or run after their kids. It is not a nice thing to have and we have to ensure we stay as safe as possible. We do not want to flood the hospitals. We want our children to go back to school at the end of August and this is what we need to do in order for that to happen.
I was very disappointed with some people who claim to represent workers and the interests of people working in low-paid industries because what has been suggested by some quarters is not safe for workers. It would put workers and young people at risk. We have seen a spike in cases among those aged 16 to 24 and we have evidence from other European countries that were ahead of us and did open indoor dining. They are now regretting that decision. We have been acting cautiously but in the best interests of the Irish public. Many people support these measures. I have spoken to many people in my area and around the country and they understand why this is happening. People are eager to take up the vaccine. Some 60% of the adult population are fully vaccinated and 75% are partially vaccinated. I am one of those partially vaccinated people and I look forward to getting my second vaccine dose. I certainly would not expect to be admitted to an activity like dining indoors unless I was fully vaccinated.
Some of the rhetoric around this Bill has been populist and reckless. That language is very dangerous and insulting. I hope we do not have a repeat in this House of some of the ridiculous language we heard in the Dáil the other night. I hope we can act responsibly and maturely and stop whipping up anger, upset and terror among the population. People are stressed out enough at the moment without feeling that there is some kind of ulterior motive here. I would ask the people using language about apartheid to talk to somebody who actually lived through apartheid in South Africa and tell me if they would compare not being able to go indoors without being fully vaccinated to what they suffered through. This is also nothing like the discriminatory laws in the American deep south and to compare it is deeply insulting. I do not want anybody listening to any of our debates to get upset that certain struggles are being compared to what is being done with this Bill, as happened to some of those listening to the Dáil debates.
I look forward to the debate. I wish to raise one issue regarding the vaccine certificates that some people have already received. As the Minister knows, there is an issue with the Irish language on the certificates as the síntí fada have not come out on them.I call on the Minister to reissue those certificates and not leave it up to the people who got them. He should reissue those certificates and make sure any mistakes are rectified for those who have not yet received them. I would appreciate it if the Minister would look into reissuing certificates to people who have received distorted ones. I look forward to hearing from all colleagues during the debate, which I hope is respectful and mindful. I look forward to indoor dining reopening, allowing workers to get back to what they do best.
The Minister is very welcome to the House, as always, although, to be honest, I wish he was not here. I wish none of us were here because I am shocked and deeply disappointed that this legislation has been drafted and is before us today. In a mere couple of months, medical apartheid has gone from being discounted by the media as a scaremongering conspiracy theory-----
-----to Government policy. Scientists and policymakers alike have warned about this since vaccines were still in development. Articles in The New York Timesand The Washington Postas far back as October 2020 discussed, in dire tones, the social consequences of creating a vaccinated overclass. It has been an odd feeling seeing people-----
I ask Senators to be quiet for a moment. I would like to hear Senator Keogan without interruption unless there is a point of order based on Standing Orders. The Senator has been asked to withdraw her remark and she might like to respond to that but, otherwise, I ask her to continue.
I will continue with my speech. It has been an odd feeling seeing people celebrate receiving their Covid passes online. It is dystopic to see people so glad to be granted this piecemeal freedom by the Government as if these fundamental rights were its to give and take as it sees fit. However, I do not blame people for grasping at any sliver of hope that might allow them finally escape the miasma of fear that has descended on this country, called down by incessant panic-inducing media coverage, a dearth of effective communication by this Government and a slapstick succession of backtracks, fumbled plans and fudged decisions.
That all Stages of this legislation will be passed in 90 minutes on the last day of the sitting of this House is a disgrace. That the Government has put its backbenchers in the position of sticking a smile on and voting in favour of this, not to mention its waiving of pre-legislative scrutiny, is an insult to its own party members, many of whom share serious concerns about this targeted dividing of society. The Deputy Leader of this House said online only last month:
I believe the government have made the wrong decision to proceed with a plan to allow only fully vaccinated people back to indoor hospitality. We are splitting the people & leaving younger people behind, the very cohort that have shouldered the greatest burden to protect others.
However, the whip has been cracked and the line must be toed. It is a sorry way to do business.
It is not as if the reopening of society took us by surprise. It has been talked about for more than 18 months yet, time and time again, aspirational roadmaps were found to be worth less than the paper they were written on. Members of the Government could not conjure up anything more insightful or effective than sitting on their hands and adopting a wait-and-see approach, kicking dates down the line as vaccines were trundled out. At least NPHET, for all its faults, had the decency to model multiple scenarios, none of which the Government thought merited a contingency plan. Instead, we have a plan that was hashed out over two weeks in consultation with the hospitality industry, which was given no other option. I support the full reopening of hospitality for everyone, which the Bill does not complete.
Were all this the case regarding harmless legislation, it would still be indefensible. The reality is that I have never seen the floor of this House sullied by a Bill so repugnant to human rights and civil liberties. That it would be the policy of this Government to draw a line down this country and ever so graciously bestow on one cohort its erstwhile suspended rights, while continuing to limit the freedom of others, demonstrates the blatant lightness of regard towards the gravity of such an act. There has been much performative outrage recently over the drawing of certain historical comparisons on the authoritarian nature of this legislation. However, you do not need to look beyond the history of these shores to see the legacy of a divided people and a Government that treats some of its subjects as lesser.
While businesses will rejoice at this piecemeal legislation, the Government is selling them a pup which will prove damaging to their businesses, as it is completely unenforceable. I support the call made by Deputy Tóibín in the Lower House that this Bill be referred to the Supreme Court by the President in order for its constitutionality to be examined. Failing this, I call on independent bodies, such as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, to challenge this Bill, which sets a dangerous precedent for Government-sanctioned discrimination. We went into this pandemic together and we should come of it together in an expression of solidarity that is entirely absent from this law. For all these reasons and many more, which I have not been given time to discuss, I will oppose this Bill.
I have the floor now. The language the Senator used was disgraceful and totally unbecoming to this Chamber, whose Members have always been very honourable and have conducted their business with dignity and respect. Quoting history and using the type of language the Senator used is totally appalling. I welcome the Minister to the House and I am sorry he had to put up with that tirade but such is life.
None of us want this Bill; of course we do not. We want to see a normal society where hospitality operates as normal but, unfortunately, we have had a pandemic, as a result of which more than 5,000 of our citizens have lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands of people have got sick with Covid. Thankfully, many of them have recovered but there are people who are suffering from long Covid and who have life-changing injuries and conditions as a result. We have to tread cautiously. We all want to see hospitality open but we want to protect as many people as we possibly can from contracting Covid. We are in the midst of what will be a significant fourth wave involving the Delta variant. What is being done in trying to allow hospitality to open in safe way while at the same time ensuring as many people as possible are protected is a fine line. I have no doubt that this Bill will not get everything right but, to be fair, it is a very good stab at getting the hundreds of thousands of people in hospitality back to work.
I represent County Clare and, as the Minster knows, it is heavily reliant on the tourism industry. In Clare, there are peak visitors for about two to three months of the year. August is a particularly busy time as it usually when occupancy rates in our hotels are nearly 100%. Restaurants, bars and various other hospitality venues are very busy during the months of July and August. We have lost July at this stage. People are making as much as they can out of outside dining. Many people have spent a lot of money to facilitate outdoor hospitality but many venues and businesses are just not in a position to offer that.
We have a responsibility as a Government to facilitate the opening of those businesses and to do so in a safe way. Facilitating people who are fully vaccinated or who have recovered from Covid with the digital certificate is probably the best we can do. From talking to people I know that many will not avail of indoor hospitality because they are still nervous and concerned. Even with businesses opening on 26 July, I suspect many citizens will not take up the opportunity for inside dining. I have been in the Oireachtas for ten years and we have never been in a situation where, on the last day of term, we were bringing legislation through to facilitate the opening of restaurants, bars and so on but that is just life.Two years ago, nobody had heard of Covid.
I believe we need a strategy for long Covid. More and more people are suffering from long Covid. The conditions from which they suffer range from lack of taste to inability to smell and many other conditions, so we need to look at putting a plan in place to address this and support those with long Covid. Will the Minister come back to us and outline what the Department plans to do in terms of supporting people with long Covid?
This legislation is regrettable but necessary. I wish the hundreds of thousands of people who work in the hospitality industry the very best with the long overdue reopening. I wish them every success and hope people support indoor dining and the hospitality industry as best they can and, most importantly, for the owners and operators of pubs and restaurants, do everything as safely as possible.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I cannot support this legislation. This plan is unworkable. I do not need to tell the House that young people put their lives on hold to protect older people and their families and friends. They did that to reduce the risk of getting long Covid, as the previous speaker outlined. Many of us have met or know people who have had to endure long Covid. Young people sacrificed their personal freedoms. They had to listen to whataboutery, as it were, on more than one occasion. It got a bit like The Valley of the Squinting Windowsat times.
This legislation is not based on public health advice or scientific advice and is hardly enforceable because it is incredibly light touch. It will be done on a nod-and-wink basis. Regarding the HSE, An Garda Síochána and the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, I wonder how it will be enforced. The detail regarding compliance officers is quite sketchy. The Department and Government have been unable so far to say how many compliance officers there will be or what exactly they will do. I would welcome the Minister's comments on that in his response. There has been no investment that I am aware of in the HSA or the HSE to do this work. God knows, the HSE has enough to do. Whatever about An Garda Síochána monitoring businesses that may have been open when they should not have been during the strictest level five lockdowns, it will not touch this with a bargepole.
I am also concerned about the lack of engagement with workers, unions and with the Six Counties. There does not seem to have been co-operation with the North. It has been covered here by the Minister. Yesterday, Dr. Tony Holohan encouraged vaccinated people to be very careful when using hospitality venues and going indoors, but what about the young people who must work indoors? What about the young people who are working in these establishments where there is food, where people will not be wearing masks and where there will be unvaccinated people aged under 18? I cannot support the proposals that lock young people out because they have not received a vaccine but where, as unvaccinated workers, they will be asked to come in.It is not beyond us to come up with a plan that includes everyone and keeps a lid on the fourth wave.
While I will not be supporting the Bill, we are tabling some sensible amendments that I hope will be taken on board. Obviously, there is a significant majority in this House so I ask that these amendments, particularly those relating to PCR testing, be taken on board if the Bill passes.
Due to the fluid and ever-changing nature of the challenge, it is impossible to have a perfect response. I welcome constructive criticism. I welcome and will defend the right of people to offer constructive criticism but I would ask people to beware of populism. Populism concocts enemies, misrepresents social problems for its own benefit and proposes slogans as solutions. Its effect is to divide communities. Like everywhere else in the world, in Ireland, we must be on our guard against populism. Populism seeks out legitimate social problems - not to cure them but to use them to undermine the very fabric of the society. In that way, populism is wholly destructive. It sets out a them-and-us narrative and imagines conspiracy where there is none. It alleges fraud and wickedness where none exists. At times, populism can be full of raw negative emotion, and indeed it can be anti-intellectual and have an adverse impact on society, especially the vulnerable, so I urge people to temper their remarks in a constructive way. This country must deal with the pandemic, but if nakedly challenged as an opportunistic breeding ground for populism, it must be countered with positive energy aimed at solutions.
Despite the success of the vaccination programme, on which I commend the Minister, there is still a prevailing sense of insecurity or uncertainty affecting many of us at a subconscious level. We are internalising worries about variants and new working dynamics, and even being physically close to people again is causing anxiety. We took so many basic things for granted. We are hoping that, some time soon, mentally challenging restrictions will be about to ease and fade into the distance. We are clinging to this hope. Hope is fostered in conversations where the potential for a sense of the restoration of normality is now being actively discussed. We all want the spontaneity of life to return. Any positive or cautiously optimistic conversation that infers or countenances a return to more normality will lift the heart of the nation and ease all our minds. However, in truth, we are treading on thin ice. In these unprecedented times, we must try to advance relaxations and get rid of restrictions in a safe way to make sure they work.
We are social creatures. Our hospitality sector is on its knees and we have lost some people in that sector due to the mental pressures caused by financial stresses. I know this at first hand as a founder of New Beginning at the time of the previous crash. We had the great and the good. The big, the old and the bold came before me in my office and were reduced to tears because they could not earn a livelihood. They were in bits. They crumbled before me or the courts in a far colder environment. Apart from the many livelihoods in the hospitality sector, I understand there are up to 180,000 jobs on the line, many of them in rural Ireland. We cannot sit idly by and watch the hospitality sector collapse and blow an enormous hole in our economy.
Another significant stakeholder we often might forget about is the customer - Mr. or Miss citizen of Ireland. Tragically, we lost some of those customers whose reliance on that vital community interaction sustained them. They clung on to that natural social interaction. We are in new territory as we predict, test and measure. That is how it has always been. There is nothing definite about the future. We have to take risks, and I emphasise, as the Government has emphasised, these include risks in compliance with public health standards. These are calculated risks and measured risks. When facing a period of unprecedented challenge, calculated risks can and should be taken or else we stay in the darkness unaware of the light that is not too far away if we only reach out.A fear of fear leaves people helpless when in crisis and measured risk-taking builds confidence. We cannot hide in the darkness but need to reach out to light. We must ensure growing hospitalisation numbers do not further pressurise already burdened front-line staff and we must protect lives but we must also protect livelihoods. It is a double balancing act. These livelihoods are crucial to people.
We must not ignore this when faced with the moral dilemma. It is possible to strike a balance when it is a temporary or short-term balance. It is a proportionate response. Nobody has the ideal solutions but we must try to do our best. We must take measured risks and hold on to hope, which sustains us during times of upheaval and uncertainty.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I am certainly one of the people who is very worried about the current infection numbers, where they will go and the possibility that restrictions in some other form will need to be reimposed. That is shared by many in the community. Alongside that worry is the sense that for workers, young people, those living on their own and families, we must now start to learn to live with Covid-19.
Looking at this Bill, there are three very clear reasons I and my party are very deeply concerned about the legislation. We cannot stand by the discrimination that is such a key part of this Bill. Not only are young people being excluded but it also affects people who for whatever reason cannot take the vaccination. That might include pregnant women before the 14th week of pregnancy or those with other health conditions.
On the design of the legislation, we all know that no legislation is worth the paper on which it is written unless it can be enforced. It has been said by others and the Minister has heard it all week. Do we really expect that cafés, restaurants and bars will have the staff to police this system? Any of us who have been to a café, bar or restaurant know we wait for a service and they are typically just about staffed for the current requirements, so expecting them to have additional staff to try to police this system does not seem realistic. The question must be asked of why we are putting a system in place that is potentially designed to fail, which will lead to widespread non-compliance and an even worse position than we currently see with infection rates.
This brings me to the heart of my biggest concern with this legislation. The Government has failed on a number of counts to proactively implement provisions so we can start living with Covid-19. We have known for many months now that the vaccine is clearly the most crucial plank of our response to the pandemic. It is like driving a car where the vaccine is the engine but we will not get too far with just the engine and we need many other moving parts. There is an absolute need to put the other complementary parts in place, including antigen testing.
The Minister has heard plenty of Deputies and Senators talking about the need to get over the disgraceful dithering on antigen testing and put in place a system for it. It is about making sure there is education about how to use an antigen test and what is or is not possible with the use of antigen testing, including what to expect with its level of sensitivity. In England, even when a person is vaccinated, they are given an antigen test going out the door. In Austria, every household has been allocated five antigen tests. We have also seen what happens in Denmark, with the widespread use of antigen testing.
What have we done about ventilation? There have been comments today about people standing with workers and I hope the Government will accept our amendments on ventilation standards, which must be put in place.
At the heart of this is the question of what we are doing to protect workers in this sector. I have heard much rhetoric that these measures are in place to protect young workers but hotels have been open since 2 June and young workers have been in those hotels serving unvaccinated people like me and many others in this Chamber. I know from speaking with others that many people have made a trip to a hotel. We are told the reason we wear masks is not to protect ourselves but to protect others from us. We must put in place all those other complimentary measures to the vaccine programme to ensure we can begin to live with Covid-19.
The young workers in these sectors desperately want to go back to work. This may be their full-time job or they may be students who must earn a crust in order to provide for the college year. We know their pay level is the minimum rate or barely above it. Their average earnings in this sector are 45% of earnings across the sector as a whole. It is indicative of where these workers live and their capacity to be resilient against infection if they must isolate, for example. We have a number of amendments and I hope the Government will support them.
I will share my time with Senator Dolan. There is no doubt we all went into this together but we did not all feel the effects in the same way. We did not all experience this pandemic equally and there is no doubt that despite what have been unprecedented supports from the Government for the hospitality industry, that sector has suffered immeasurable financial and other losses. Many of these businesses are family-owned and the people involved may have their whole lives mortgaged. Is it reasonable for us to give them hope of opening, which we did just after Easter, only for them to be gutted when that could not happen on 5 July in the way we all had hoped? These people are hurt and the Government must come forward with a solution that assists businesses in their opening while holding public health together. Our people must be protected as much as possible from the Delta variant while we have increasing numbers of people being vaccinated.
"Populism concocts enemies" is possibly the best phrase I have heard this week so I say "well done" to Senator Martin. It is exactly what is going on here and I regret that it has been brought into this House. It was also evident in the other Chamber. It is really a despicable way to respond to what is a fluid and frightening position. I am very proud to be part of a Government that makes decisions, although they are difficult and at times there are holes in the logic. We are grappling with that while making decisions for the people of Ireland, their health and their well-being. These are difficult decisions.
Each day brings shocking numbers like those we heard yesterday. How can anybody say we should be opening hospitality completely and throwing open the doors when over 1,000 people were diagnosed with Covid-19 yesterday? It would demonstrate absolute recklessness to do that. It is a disgrace to suggest it.
I say "well said" to my colleague, Senator Seery Kearney, who has expressed what I wanted to say. Nothing is fair about what we had to do in the past year or so. It has not been equal and we do not all face the same risk when it comes to Covid-19. We do not all face the same potential horror that we could end up hospitalised. It attacks the more vulnerable in our community and society. As a Government, we must ensure we put measures in place to support our community and society.
In east Galway and Roscommon, there are many businesses with indoor dining and spaces, including vintners and pubs, and maybe one person might be running the business. The challenge is how such businesses will monitor customers at the door as well as trying to operate inside. The question of resources in such small places is a concern.I welcome that the Covid cert can be downloaded to the Covid tracker app. We need to find ways to make it simple for people to show that they have been vaccinated. Let us make this process as simple as possible. This system is there to support the hospitality sector. In the United States it was called a "she-session" rather than a recession because more than 50% of jobs lost were women's jobs, particularly lower income jobs. We need to ensure we put measures in place to help people get back on their feet again. We need to consider the resourcing for very small places to manage the monitoring of that and simplify it. The Covid tracker app is a really good way of doing that. What other ways can we consider to simplify the monitoring part of this?
The Minister is welcome, but I oppose the Bill. The time has long passed since the Government could seek to get the benefit of the doubt over its Covid-19 measures. Ministers have consistently shown such rank contempt for both Houses that any request for new powers ought to be flatly denied. As usual it will be nodded through by Government Senators as was done by Government Deputies before us.
During the Dáil debate on the Bill, I was struck by the sheer number of points and questions put by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Deputies which the Minister directly and deliberately ignored. I have had direct experience of this. As he knows, on the floor of this House, I asked him detailed questions about the unconstitutional ban on public Mass. That question was dodged on the promise of giving a written response. It took two months to issue and when it arrived it was a cop-out answer. That causes major concerns to me and others about parliamentary accountability these days.
There is a fundamental injustice underpinning this Bill. The notion of intergenerational solidarity, so extensively promoted by the Government when it suits, has been abandoned. A commitment made and restated by the Tánaiste as recently as four weeks ago that there would be no discrimination between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated has been cynically abandoned. All it took was a wave of the magic wand by NPHET for a set of apocalyptic projections to be accepted by the Cabinet virtually without question.
As the Minister ignored questions posed by Government backbenchers in the Dáil, I do not have great confidence that I will get answers here, but I will ask them anyway. Why are we seeking to divide younger people from older people who are vaccinated when the Government explicitly said at all times in the last 12 months that it would not do that? What is the target date for the introduction of antigen and PCR testing as an alternative to the vaccination passport for entry to pubs and indoor dining? Under this Bill private businesses would be privy to personal medical information. How will this information be held? Does it not put business owners in an appalling position regarding the legal obligations over retention, handling and destruction of information?
Throughout the summer of 2020, restaurants and pubs which serve food were open and thriving although there were restrictions on social distancing, contact tracing, advanced bookings and so on. If the Minister had told anyone back then that 12 months later 4 million vaccine doses would have been administered with 55% of the population fully vaccinated but that those pubs and restaurants would be closed for indoor hospitality until 19 July and that people would have fewer freedoms for summer 2021 than they had in summer 2020, they would have called for the men and women in white coats - it is an equal opportunity profession. However, the fact that we are here is an absolute indictment of the Irish political and policy-making system.
NPHET's worst-case scenario, dropped in its usual bombshell fashion a couple of weeks ago, was that without continuing restrictions 2,170 could die in Ireland by the end of September due to the Delta variant. As recently as yesterday, it claimed that even with the restrictions in place, 1,800 could be dead in that time. One of the problems we have had since last year is that NPHET's apocalyptic predictions have never been tested because it is in the glorious position of being able to predict anything at all in the full knowledge that the Government will implement whatever restrictions it seeks. The fact that its worst-case scenario did not ultimately happen is then taken as evidence, ipso facto, that the restrictions sought were justified and had the desired effect. The story of Chicken Little and the sky falling comes to mind.
For the first time, on this occasion, we will have a direct ability to gauge whether NPHET is correct because of the near total relaxation of restrictions planned for the United Kingdom next week. If NPHET's doomsday predictions of the Delta variant are accurate, we should see bodies literally pile up in the UK over the next ten weeks. If more than 2,000 would die in Ireland with no restrictions, going by NPHET's maths we should expect to see at least 32,000 deaths in the UK by the end of September with 900 dead in Northern Ireland. Does anybody believe there is the slightest chance that will happen here? The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Either 32,000 more deaths will occur in the UK before the end of September or NPHET's modelling of the impact of the Delta variant is, at best, entirely wrong.
Some people would say it is an attempt to scare the public. Will there be any accountability for NPHET and the Government if these projections are shown to be wildly inaccurate? Will the media and the political system simply shrug shoulders in an outbreak of collective amnesia and move on to the next set of projections?
I regret I do not have time to accept it.
Yesterday the Tánaiste told the Dáil there is a prospect that the 45% of the population who are not fully vaccinated could overwhelm hospitals this summer. What is the basis for that claim? I do not ask these questions to be obstructive. We have put up with a lot, but I have a real fear that our culture and our society is changing. People are now being governed through fear which is bad for our society. We have this form of democracy which is changing into administrative control of people. We have moved from protecting the vulnerable to protecting the fearful. I am concerned about this approach and the impact it will have on our society.
I welcome the Minister to the House. As someone involved in the industry, it is hard to take what I have heard today. It is even harder to take what was said in the Dáil Chamber on Wednesday night. As the Minister and other speakers have said, Covid is not fair. Nobody disputes that Covid discriminates and has a greater impact on certain sectors of society than on others. We have all seen discrepancies throughout this process.
At the start of the pandemic, we asked the elderly to stay at home and not to go out which was frightening for them at the time. Young people have been affected most. All I can say to them is that they will probably have a bit longer to recover from it then the rest of us. That may be a positive. They have certainly taken the brunt of this. Even with the reopening of indoor hospitality, they are at the forefront of this because they are not vaccinated. We have asked leaving cert students to go back before other students. University students have not been able to attend college. Throughout this, there have been discrepancies and inconsistencies but that is what we had to do to deal with the crisis.
Regarding the reopening of my industry, accusations were made in the Dáil Chamber. I was disappointed that one Senator claimed there was widespread and wholesale non-compliance with the regulation, which is hurtful and disappointing. The industry is trying to reopen more than 13,000 premises with probably 150,000 employees who have not had the opportunity to work properly in more than 18 months. There are complications in it and we will have to deal with certain issues. However, when we opened indoor dining last year, we had our paper and pen. We took the names and the numbers for everybody who came in, which shows that we can deal with this. All I can ask is for the people themselves to make their own decision. If they are not happy with the premises, nobody is forcing them to go in. They can turn around and walk out the door.
Before making my last point, I thank the Minister and everybody else who got us to where we are today. I offer a special thanks to all the front-line workers and emergency workers who went out and served the country in the middle of the pandemic. I thank them because we were also discriminating against them. While we sat at home in safety, we put them at risk. There is risk throughout all of this.
I want to focus on what was said in the Dáil on Wednesday night.I am not too sure of the process that must be followed but I will ask the Cathaoirleach later what I can do about the misleading and false information that was given on the floor of the lower House on Wednesday night by Deputy Paul Murphy. He stated: "In November, the middle road was bowing to the pressure of the lobbyists to open hospitality in December and cause the deaths of more than 1,000 people in January and more than 1,000 people in February." I have had a problem with this since last December. Our hospitality sector was blamed for the outbreak in January but there is no evidence of that. Where is Deputy Murphy's evidence the hospitality sector caused 1,000 deaths in January and 1,000 more in February? We must call it out. I am disappointed with our national radio stations. Our own Taoiseach went on and tried to say it was not just hospitality but wider society which led to the death. Everyone in here knows about the house parties that were going on at Christmastime and on New Year's Eve. Hospitality only opened up for ten days leading into that period. I, therefore, for ask the record of the House be corrected in that regard. The Opposition is playing every side. Opposition Members are playing every angle they can but they our playing with our industry and people's jobs and livelihoods. I ask them to reflect on that when they make those outlandish statements about the hospitality sector. We will do our best. We have a safety charter in place. The hotel industry has been open since 2 June and young people are working in that sector. Dr. Tony Holohan has said the young people are a low risk in this sector. Opposition Members should not be selective when they pick on Dr. Holohan and his remarks. I thank the Acting Chairperson.
None of us are particularly happy about this legislation, save for the fact it does an important thing. Unfortunately, the Government is faced with Hobson's choice. Something must be done and the consequences of doing that mean certain people are going to be lose out. To say I am very uncomfortable with the discrimination that has been mentioned is an understatement. I do not like it. I would have less of a problem, for example, if there were people who chose not to take a vaccine, but for people who have not yet had the chance yet to get a vaccine to be part of a group that does not get to experience something is unfortunate in the extreme and not something I want to suggest I am happy about for a moment. At the same time, all Members will have received emails from restaurant owners, bar owners and small business owners throughout the country who are on their knees, need the support of the State and need to get back to business. We have taken significant steps forward in that regard with the outdoor dining scheme, which has worked well. However, we must also move forward in another area and we must put in place regulation that is going to facilitate the return to business, where possible, for those people. The "where possible" bit is of course the part we probably do not all agree on.
Earlier other Senators referred to how this was going to be policed. That is a red herring. I am much more concerned about the disadvantaging of or discrimination against certain groups. I am less worried about the policing. It does not suit business owners and I accept that but it is already the case, for example, that restaurants must police certain aspects if they are operating under a liquor licence. That is in the same vein as this. I am less concerned about the staffing of that policing because in the same way that when one arrives at a restaurant one is seated at one's table, that is the point at which the policing, mar dhea, takes place. There is an opportunity for the person who is admitting the party to the restaurant to ascertain the status of that person in a relatively straightforward way and the systems there are tremendously important.
On the whole, the legislation is not ideal. We are not happy about it and I have heard others say how unhappy they are with it as well but it is a step forward and a necessary evil. The Government is in an invidious position and it is doing its best. This is the most workable solution to getting as many people as possible back to work and back into a functional economy.
I echo the words of Senator Ward. People say I have a vested interest here as I grew up in the hospitality industry and we have a gastropub at home. It is run by my brother and sister-in-law so I have nothing to do with it but I understand the challenges they are facing. I hear from my family members on a daily basis about staff and the different issues surrounding them but we must try to get the hospitality sector open in as safe a way as possible. While many of us are not happy about the fact people are being discriminated against, we must still think about getting as many people out because we have heard so much about people's mental health and different issues that are affecting them. I believe in doing it in the safest way possible. While it was a difficult decision for the Government, the way in which the Minister is bringing in the legislation is probably the best. Some people will not be able of avail of indoor dining but, as has been said, they have a choice and that is what it is about. It is about allowing people to make that choice. Nobody is forcing them to go inside the door of a premises.
Today sees the portal opening for those aged between 25 and 29 to register for vaccination. Many of our young people have availed of the vaccines available from the pharmacies for those aged 18 and above. That is a successful programme that is being rolled out. There are two issues. Part 1 of the Bill it refers to PCR testing and Part 3 provides for the introduction of antigen testing. Today, six of the education and training boards have launched antigen testing on a pilot scheme and that must be acknowledged. I have two questions for the Minister. What about those who are unable to avail of the vaccine due to different conditions such as pregnancy or allergy problems? Are they going to be left out in the cold? That is something I would like him to consider. Will priority be given to people who are working in the industry with respect to their vaccination appointments?
I thank the Minister for coming into the House again. I want to ask a number of questions before talking more generally about the legislation. This is about the broader area of the hospitality and entertainment sectors and plans for reopening more generally. It is important to these groups that clarity is provided. There were plans that theatres, arts venues and other similar indoor entertainment venues would be able to allow up to 100 patrons entry in the coming weeks. I would be grateful for clarity on if or when that will be happening. There is an issue around when amusement arcades will be able to open, which the Minister will be familiar with from his experience with Bray, as I am with Wexford. I ask him to offer clarity on that. We are still awaiting clarity on drama camps, particularly indoor ones. The other significant concern is that the plan was always that from 5 August weddings could have up to 100 guests. I ask for clarity from the Minister on whether that will still proceed.
On the broader issue, this is not legislation that anybody wants to see being introduced. Nobody here wants this legislation and the sooner we achieve practically full vaccination of our population, the sooner we will be in a situation where we do not need this legislation. I keep hearing from those opposite that we need a plan. The Government's plan has been very clear, namely, we open things as safely as is possible.We started with schools, construction and other sectors of the economy and society. The important thing is that those premises can open safely and resume business. As Senator Casey stated eloquently, the last thing that businesses want is to reopen and have to shut down again. That would be a disaster for them and nobody wants to see that. The Netherlands opened its doors and is now having to reintroduce restrictions. This Government has a plan and it has worked so far.
In response to what Senator Mullen said, I must point out that we have had 5,000 deaths in this country. Each of those deaths represents an individual but the rate of mortality per 100,000 citizens is among the lowest in the world. If we had adopted some of the approaches that are being suggested by the Opposition, the rates of mortality would be much higher. Is that the approach that those opposite wanted us to follow?
No country has got everything right. People will recall that everyone was calling for us to follow the examples of Australia and New Zealand. Less than 10% of the population is fully vaccinated in those countries. There are big issues around their vaccination programmes. We do not hear those who are arguing for the Australia and New Zealand approach saying we should have followed their approach on vaccination. Every country has made mistake and this Government has made mistakes too. However, there has been a clear plan to which the Minister has stuck. He has been willing to take constructive criticism and to engage on it. We now have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. The vaccination programme is going exceptionally well. As Senator Maria Byrne remarked, hopefully we will be in a situation where all those people who are working in hospitality and wider society will be vaccinated in the coming weeks.
I am going to take on Senator Keogan, who has she suddenly started to express concern about young people. I raised in this House the impact that Covid was having on young people last November. Soon after that, the Senator was sneered at my concern about the lack of opportunity for young people to build relationships and so on. During that debate, the Senator also questioned the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine. The one thing I will say about the Senator is that she is consistent in her inconsistencies on this matter.
The Government has a plan. We do not want to be introducing this legislation but it is to allow things to reopen safely. I hope that everybody is vaccinated as soon as possible so we do not have to reply on this legislation.
This Bill is entitled an Act "to make, on a temporary basis, exceptional provision, in the public interest and having regard to the manifest and grave risk to human life and public health posed by the spread of the disease known as Covid-19". It is temporary, for a period of up to three months, during exceptional circumstances and in the public interest. That is what the Bill is about. Am I 100% happy? I am not, but what are the alternatives? Opening against public health advice and strengthening the Delta variant, which did not exist when we set the reopening dates three months ago, would be more dangerous. Leaving all the business closed until we achieve herd immunity for all citizens might take a number of months. No one wants businesses to open and have to shut down again.
I fully support the Bill because it is a temporary provision to allow indoor hospitality to reopen in a safe and sustainable way. That is safer than the alternative route of fully reopening. The Bill is about getting businesses open and people back to work. There are in the region of 20,000 pubs and restaurants in the country and more than 250,000 people working in the hospitality industry. The vast majority of those businesses have been closed for 12 months or more. As tourism spokesman, I have met numerous groups representing this industry. What I have taken from those meetings is that over 50%, in some cases up to 70%, of the income of those businesses is earned during the months of June to September. We need to protect those businesses and give them an opportunity to maintain their livelihoods. I trust them to operate professionally and efficiently when they reopen within the health guidelines. I compliment Senator Casey, who spoke for the industry. We need to listen to the people in the industry. I am glad that when the decision not to reopen was taken, the Government sat down with the industry. At a meeting of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party, I said we should meet with the industry before making those decisions and work together. That has happened and that is why these proposals are on the table.
We have a situation at the minute where people are travelling to Northern Ireland for holidays. We want people to spend their time in this country to make sure we get businesses reopened, people back to work and ensure they can maintain their livelihoods. It is regrettable that the Opposition parties are using this for political purposes. They are playing with people's jobs and livelihoods.
I will be fully supporting the Bill. As numerous Senators have mentioned, I would ask that we look at the issue of PCR and antigen testing. That issue must be looked at. Many other countries across Europe are implementing that testing and we should consider it.
This Bill is about reopening our hospitality industry, which has been closed for 15 months. It is an industry that employs 250,000 people. When the most recent crisis hit this country, the tourism industry rebuilt itself and brought people back into the country. The industry will get this country back on its feet again.
I welcome the Minister. It has been absolutely extraordinary to listen to the lectures from people. There has been an honesty to the debate from the Government side. Not one of us, including the Minister, want to be here with this legislation. None of us do. However, there is a fundamental line at which many people, particularly Senator Keogan, have not looked. On the first page of the Bill, the phrase "having regard to the manifest and grave risk to human life and public health" is used. We, as legislators, are charged with the duty of passing legislation. To be fair to Senator Warfield, there is merit to what he is suggesting regarding young people and antigen testing. The Joint Committee on Transport and Communications has made the case for antigen testing for a long time.
The fundamental point is that we are passing legislation to reopen indoor hospitality and dining. There are conditions attached. If you talk honestly to the people who work in the hospitality sector at every level, they want us to pass legislation to allow them to reopen. That is what they want. However, we must not fail to learn from what has happened around the world. Senator Malcolm Byrne referred to what has happened in Australia and New Zealand. There has been a surge in cases in 49 states in America. I heard what Paul Reid said on "Morning Ireland" earlier. I challenge everyone to go back and listen to what he said in the context of the number of young people who are being admitted to hospital. Each of us knows people who have had Covid. Unfortunately, we also know of people who died from Covid. None of us ever wants to go back to the dark days of Covid at the beginning of last year and this year.Will I share time with Senator Lombard?
I thank Senator Buttimer for sharing time and compliment him on his speech. It is important legislation and we just need to progress with it. It is not perfect legislation but it gives the opportunity for our society to open up in a safe and practical way. That is the most important thing: safe and practical. In my part of the world, in west Cork, we will have thousands of visitors coming to us in the next few weeks. We need to have a safe model that will protect our communities and societies. This model is not perfect but it is the safest model that is there. That is why this legislation needs to be passed today and enacted as soon as possible. We will lose another weekend if it is not passed in the next few hours. It is important society reopens slowly but surely. It is a positive step and far from perfect but talking down this legislation with populist talk, nothing more or less, for some kind of political goal is sad and a poor reflection of politics. We need leadership here. What we really do not need is the populist jargon we have unfortunately heard in the past few days.
At 2.18 p.m. we complete the entire debate. The Minister is scheduled to come in at 2.11 p.m. We have approximately ten minutes. Senators Doherty, Currie and Crowe are trying to come. Would the Senators agree to four minutes each? Is that agreed? Agreed. I thank the Senators for agreeing to that.
I am a fast talker. Few Bills like this one have come before the Oireachtas in our time here in the past ten years. It is a difficult Bill to support because it is dividing society and excluding. That is obvious and accepted by everybody. It is not something anybody or any Government would do lightly. In some parts, it is even going against NPHET's advice, which is not something we have done since before Christmas and we do not do that lightly. I appreciate the dilemma the Government is facing between securing the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people who are going back to work in the next couple of weeks and an industry that supports Ireland and on which we rely so heavily. I will be supporting this Bill but it is qualified support because we must all see, with a sense of urgency we have not seen to date, an implementation plan on the introduction of antigen test screening in hospitality, transport and all of the aspects of life we have not seen or people have not been able to access for the past 16 months.
We need to see it in and around the same time as we expect our restaurants and pubs to open on 26 July. I have to be honest, we have seen so much flapping around with regard to antigen tests for months. We have had illogical resistance. We have had insults to the Irish people's intelligence in that we could not possibly use them and all the while, the HSE was using antigen tests to make sure its own staff were returning to work safely. We have enjoyed social cohesion in this country, in the main, over the course of this pandemic but we are really testing people's patience with this law. If we do not provide the mechanism to allow the people who are being excluded by this law to partake in Irish society, we are at risk of losing that social cohesion and solidarity we have enjoyed for the past 16 months.
Including the children of vaccinated adults in this law does allow families to make decisions for themselves and that is probably to be welcomed, but the inconsistency of the messaging between Government and our Chief Medical Officer, CMO, is absolutely jarring. The Government is saying it is okay for kids to go for their burger and chips indoors with their mammies and daddies but we also have the Government and the CMO saying it is not advisable and "I would not do it if I was you". At the same time, we are telling our kids they cannot have indoor summer camps which we all know they need for their mental health and well-being but in six weeks' time we will tell all parents it is safe for our children to go back to school. Which is it? There has to be consistency in our messaging and I am sorry to say that has not been employed for the past couple of months.
This is emergency legislation which is why we are taking all Stages of it together. It is emergency legislation to allow people to eat and drink inside. The irony here is we still have women, up and down the length and breadth of this country, who are giving birth to their children on their own and, in some cases, losing their babies on their own. That says an awful lot about our priorities.
This is an extension of the plan we have been following, which is that we are about protecting lives and livelihoods. We are in a race against time, in terms of dealing with Delta and getting people vaccinated but also making sure hospitality has a chance to survive over the summer. It is about indoor hospitality. When it comes to hotels, they will continue to follow social distancing to allow that mix of vaccinated and non-vaccinated people. There is nothing in here specifically about weddings. Is it implied that weddings will continue to operate in that way, in that they will have social distancing or will be handled the same way as hotels? It is not clear.
It is also not clearly acknowledged that weddings do not always happen in hotels. They can happen in specific wedding venues and in marquees and people's back gardens. We need to be really clear about this with people. When we are talking about indoor premises, are couples and people attending weddings covered within that? If they are attending a wedding in an indoor hospitality venue that is not a hotel, are they covered within that? I ask again about August and clarity around the 100 people who may attend. People who are getting married need to know that now and there is a role for antigen testing in the context of weddings.
I am coming back to issues I have raised many times, but there is still a lack of clarity around northerners and people who got their vaccines in the North. My colleague, Deputy Neale Richmond, raised the issue with the Taoiseach the other day and the Taoiseach said there is no issue on that. There is no issue on what? We really do need to know how it will work. Will the digital Covid-19 certificate integrate with the Northern Ireland Covid-19 passport? Does it align on the same destinations or does it depend on what airport one uses? If people depart from Dublin and have the Northern Ireland Covid-19 passport, does that mean they are subject to the rules of Ireland, as a country? If they go from Belfast, is that a third country? There are loads of questions people are asking and, without clarity, people are flying blind.
I would like an update around the WHO recognised vaccines for people versus the European Medicines Agency, EMA. There is only one strategy here based on division and it is not the Government. This is the staggered reopening based on the vaccination programme. Part of the opposition will jump on any opportunity to create a them and us situation. People that might jump on that bandwagon need to think very carefully about that, because I do not want to go down the road of a them and us society.
I will indeed. I welcome the Minister to the House and thank Senators Doherty and Currie. I want to support this Bill. As all Members of the House have said, it is far from the preferred way of reopening indoor hospitality. It is far from the ideal way of doing so. I compliment the Government which is doing an exceptional job. Vaccinations for another section of the youth, those aged 25 to 29, opened today which is very welcome. We need to reopen without restrictions and something is needed until we can complete the vaccination programme. This would appear to be the best compromise. Having spent most of my life working in the hospitality sector, the summer period is absolutely crucial for all businesses. The feedback I have gotten from businesses across Galway city and County Galway is that while it is not ideal, they would far prefer to open up indoors in this manner than remain closed any longer.The hospitality sector has been hit incredibly hard by the pandemic despite unprecedented Government supports. Thousands of small businesses remain under considerable pressure from the impact of a crisis not of their making. They need to open in the weeks ahead during the peak period of the year. In Galway or any other city or county, the reality is that one day in July is like a week in November. I ask the Government to act swiftly to try to reopen society in the coming days.
I recognise that there are concerns and criticisms about the reopening on the other side of the House. Those who have knowledge of the sector, such as Senator Casey and others, recognise the significant pressure businesses, the majority of which are small family run businesses, are under. They all agree that in the absence of being able to fully reopen that this is the best possible route to go down. Other colleagues have mentioned mental health, which, as I know from talking to various people, is a significant concern. We need to support people. This is a temporary measure and, at the rate our vaccination programme is delivering, I hope that it will be very short-lived. I look forward to a full resumption of indoor hospitality in the near future as we continue to emerge from Covid.
Other Senators raised the timeframe relating to antigen testing. When will we get certainty about that? It would be a matter of asking the general public to take personal responsibility.
I thank Senators for their contributions. There was a marked difference between them and some of those made in the Dáil. I congratulated Deputy Bacik on entering the Dáil but suggested to her that she would see some different styles of debate there compared with what that which obtains in the Seanad. I thank everybody for a useful debate, which included much criticism that I listened to carefully and must take on board.
I have a closing speech but I have taken many notes and would prefer to try to address the various themes that were raised. The first of those relates to solidarity. We all want solidarity. When I was talking to Dr. Mike Ryan from the WHO last year, he said that Ireland is distinguished internationally by the level of political and social solidarity we have shown. He said that it is one reason we will come out of this with one of the lowest mortality and case rates. It is critical that we have solidarity. I have been talking to many unvaccinated people about these proposals. They have said that we can open up and get tens of thousands of people back to work tomorrow. The unvaccinated people say they can still go for dinner or for a drink but will have a drink in the beer garden and if that means that tens of thousands of people can get back to work, including many of their friends, then we should do it now. They say that people have been out of work for a year and a half and that we should get them back to work. They tell me that all I am asking them to do is drink in the beer garden and it is no problem. That is what solidarity means. It means taking a hit for the greater good and for other people.
Some people here and in the Dáil suggest that solidarity means that if they cannot have something, then nobody should be allowed to have it. That is not what solidarity involves. I have not met any unvaccinated person who has said that because it is not how people outside this bubble think. People outside this bubble think that we are doing great. We are faced with a significant wave of the Delta variant. Unvaccinated people say that this has been a horrible experience for our country but that if we can get tens of thousands of men and women back to work, then let us do so and that all they have to do is to wait until they get the Janssen vaccine at their local pharmacy or the Pfizer vaccine at a vaccination centre, which is not a problem. That is what solidarity means.
The only Senator who I will refer to directly is Senator Mullen. I will not take any lectures from Senator Mullen, who campaigned against gay marriage. He can keep his lectures on solidarity to himself.
What about staff? People are saying, as an act of solidarity, to let everyone into the pubs. Think about that for a second. They are saying to put people's lives at risk as an act of solidarity. We have to be careful when we talk about solidarity. Outside of this place, people get what this means.
Some contributors stated that this is not enforceable. At the same time, however, they tabled amendments to bring in things like antigen testing, which would make it much harder to enforce. Pubs and restaurants are capable of asking people their age before they serve them a drink. They are capable of engaging with people and asking to see their proof of vaccination. Here is mine. At the top of the Covid tracker application is my QR code. It is no more complicated than that. Senator Casey asked if pubs and restaurants are capable of keeping their staff and patrons safe. Of course they are. In the not too distant past, pubs would not let you in if they did not like your shoes. They could refuse admission based on nothing more than saying "Look at the head on you". They are capable of asking to look at a person's QR code. Workers and their safety are absolutely being considered. I will be clear that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and representative groups for the sector were in the room. They do not like all of it. None of us, including me, like all of it. The representative groups and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions said that we have serious priorities on this. We have to ensure that the protocols are fully enforced but they are willing to go along with it because it gets tens of thousands of men and women back to work, which we are trying to do.
We are not discriminating against people. We are differentiating. Differentiation is already in place in the context of international travel. Whether a person is fully vaccinated matters. When we brought that in, nobody suggested that it was discriminatory. People said that was based on what is safe or not. Under-18s are not allowed to be served alcohol in our pubs and restaurants. I do not think anybody here would argue that that is discriminatory. We say that is the case because it is safe. You are not allowed to smoke inside but that is not discriminatory. It is a public health measure to keep people safe. This is a public health measure to keep people safe. Unvaccinated people who I have spoken to get that. The only place that this does not seem to resonate is in the Oireachtas.
I hate the phrase, but when people who are 70 or older were asked to cocoon on public health grounds to keep them safe, I never heard one voice individual say that was discriminatory and that, as a result, the entire country would have to cocoon because we had to implement all the measures together. We do not and we never have. People aged 70 and over had to isolate in order to keep themselves safe. Unvaccinated people need to keep out of the restaurants for a short period to keep themselves safe. No one suggested that younger people should cocoon as an act of solidarity with those in their 70s. People have had to do different things right from the start of this pandemic based on safety and none of it is fair. There is nothing fair about this virus or the fact that it kills more older people than younger people. There is nothing fair for countries all over the world which cannot get their hands on vaccines while we are using 300,000 a week. There is nothing fair about this pandemic. It is brutal and ugly but we are all trying to do our best.
Several Senators have reasonably asked how bad it could get. We do not know how bad it could get.
I met Professor Nolan and Dr. Holohan this morning and they admitted that there is a great deal of uncertainty in this regard.How transmissible is this virus in children? We do not know that yet. What response will there be from society? Will we have the same level of response as we had the last time? I hope so but we do not know. We do not know how bad it will get but there are things we do know. We know there were 1,000 cases yesterday and there will be approximately 1,200 cases today. We know the numbers in hospital have doubled in the past three weeks and that because of exponential growth, they will continue to double. I was talking to Philip Nolan this morning about more than 200 people being in intensive care in a few months and that I was beginning to talk through with the Department that we will have to start up building up additional surge capacity for ICU now in case it happens. These are things we do know. We know the range given for fatalities for just three months is between 335 and 1,760. In the War of Independence approximately 2,300 people died. That puts in context what the deaths of 1,760 people would mean. We must do everything we can to push that down.
Reasonable questions have been asked regarding the use of PCR and antigen testing. The Government's approach is a phased one. The Bill provides for the possibility of using PCR and antigen testing. People who are concerned about that should have no issue voting for the Bill. We must bear in mind how contagious the Delta variant is, that case numbers are roaring and the spike in cases. I want to share with colleagues, as soon as I can, the data I saw this morning on the infection rate for the 16- to 18-year-old group. That group is now at the same infection rate as at the peak in the October wave and the line is vertical on the page. The line is also vertical for the 19- to 24-year-old group. There are very quick infection rates for these groups. Thank God most of them will be fine because of their age but they will not all be fine. Many of them will get long Covid and we are only beginning to understand that. The situation is very serious. We are taking a cautious approach. Might we use PCR and antigen testing in the future? Yes, and that is facilitated in the Bill. We should remember a PCR test can take about five days to be detect the virus, from the day the person is infected until the day it can detect the virus. If a person gets infected on a Wednesday and, in good faith, gets tested on the Friday and has a negative PCR test, that person may well be contagious shortly after that, and may go out to restaurants and bars on a Friday night, the Saturday night or the Sunday night carrying this super contagious variant. We are taking an approach where we may well use PCR and antigen testing but not yet. We are watching what is happening in Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Cyrus. We will be cautious abut this and we will do it in the safest way possible. That is why the Bill is structured as it is. It is possible in the regulation to bring testing in.
I will finish on this point and I thank the Leas-Cathaoirleach for his indulgence. I do not want this legislation; none of us wants it. My hope is that long before the three-month period expires at which time this legislation will automatically fall, we will not need it because we will have reached a level of vaccination and people will have continued to follow the public health measures to such an extent the risk profile falls and we can all get back to living normal lives.
I thank the Minister. He has given us some grave data. That is why I did not want to interrupt him. It is not something to be taken lightly or frivolously. It is very serious. I thank him for his detailed response. As the time permitted for this debate has expired, I am required to put the following question in accordance with the Order of the Seanad on this day: "That the Bill is hereby read a Second Time, in respect of each of the sections undisposed of, the section is hereby agreed to in Committee, the Preamble and the Title are hereby agreed to in Committee, the Bill is accordingly reported to the House without amendment, Fourth Stage is hereby completed, and the Bill is hereby received for final consideration and passed."
Catherine Ardagh, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Malcolm Byrne, , Micheál Carrigy, Shane Cassells, Lorraine Clifford-Lee, Martin Conway, Ollie Crowe, John Cummins, Emer Currie, Aidan Davitt, Regina Doherty, Aisling Dolan, Timmy Dooley, Robbie Gallagher, Róisín Garvey, Seán Kyne, Tim Lombard, Vincent P Martin, John McGahon, Eugene Murphy, Fiona O'Loughlin, Joe O'Reilly, Pauline O'Reilly, Mary Seery Kearney, Barry Ward, Diarmuid Wilson.