Seanad debates

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Vaccination Programme

10:30 am

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. She is always welcome and I thank her and the Cathaoirleach for facilitating this debate. I am raising this issue because the Minister of State will remember that a couple of weeks ago there was a lot of controversy about the continuation of the Covid digital certificate and the recommendations being brought in by the Government. The issue that seemed to upset some people was the continuation of the Covid digital certificate.

My question is how successful that digital certificate has been in recent weeks. I ask that because I was supportive of this initiative and I have seen the advantage of it in recent months. I refer to how people have embraced it, how it has encouraged people to get vaccinated and, most importantly, and this is the part people frequently forget, how the Covid digital certificate is there to support businesses. It is not impeding businesses in any way. It is a little bit of an inconvenience for people to have to check it when people come in, but the whole point of the digital certificate is to allow businesses to remain open.

Some weeks ago, about 370,000 people over the age of 12 were not fully vaccinated. My question is where are we now in respect of those 370,000 people, and I am asking because the impression I get is that there seems to have been an increase in the uptake of the vaccines. If Clonmel is anything to go by, and we are very lucky to have a vaccination centre there, as well as one in Nenagh in Tipperary, there has been an increase in the number of people receiving vaccinations. I have seen that myself. There was a sense before 22 October that if people who had not been vaccinated - for whatever reason, some people have genuine reasons and some people just do not want it or do not want to do what the Government is asking them to do, and it is always going be the case that we will have a percentage of people like that - just got to 22 October, they would then have got over the end line and that would have been it.

I get the sense now, though, that people realise the Covid digital certificate is not going to be gone any time soon. One of the major and positive decisions we made in respect of the Covid digital certificate is that there is no end date for it. There is talk that there might be such a date in future, but I strongly encourage the Department not to have an end date for when the Covid digital certificate will be phased out, because a date, such as 1 January 2022, would give people the ability to decide to wait until that end date arrives and try to get past it that way. If we have learned anything from our experience over the past 18 months, it is that we cannot predict anything and therefore we should not have an end date because it just causes us more problems.

One suggestion I have concerns what is happening in other countries, such as Spain, where it has been successful. I refer to the fact there seems to be a lower uptake of vaccinations among non-English speaking residents in Ireland. If we could start a campaign to encourage those people to get vaccinated, that would be very helpful.We know many people are either sceptical of this or come from countries where there is a scepticism about vaccines even in their governments over years. We could set up a campaign within the Department of Health to encourage such people to get vaccinated.

I welcome the discussions between the Taoiseach and representatives of the hospitality sector, such as the Restaurants Association of Ireland, the Vintners' Federation of Ireland and all the other groups that participated in yesterday's process. Now is the time to encourage all businesses to use digital Covid certificates. It is the mechanism to keep the industry open over Christmas but we need everybody on board. I am sure the Minister of State knows businesses that have not been checking the certificates and I have gone to bars and restaurants where it does not happen. It is different everywhere. Some places are very positive and engaging while others are not. Even the businesses that are quite good may not look for photo identification, and I might refer to that in my concluding remarks. Now is the time for businesses in the hospitality sector to ensure as many bars and restaurants as possible can continue checking the digital Covid certificate over the next two months.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which is important. He has set out the position clearly. On 19 October, the Government approved the reopening of the remaining aspects of the hospitality, entertainment and night-time economy. The hospitality sector has been permitted to reopen only with a full range of protective measures in place and the wide and robust implementation of the EU digital Covid certificate. Thinking back to the debate on the digital Covid certificate in the Dáil - I read the transcript a couple of weeks ago - I recall it being very emotive. Only the Government parties and one Independent supported it at the time. The digital Covid certificate being implemented to allow hospitality to fully reopen was likened to a pig in a poke and an Irish solution to Irish problem. It was labelled discriminatory. I can now see how all parties have engaged with the digital Covid certificate as a solution.

I was in a premises on Sunday morning when I did a bit of shopping. I do not mind mentioning I was in a Starbucks and I was so impressed when I entered the premises. A person is first asked for a digital Covid certificate when sitting down and identification to complement it. After sitting, a person can scan a code at the table to indicate the time and date when he or she is there. Some places are implementing the process well. Unfortunately, as we have heard, 37% of establishments are not up to speed and it is important that they participate fully in the process.

More than 7.6 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have now been administered since the programme began last December. This figure encompasses both primary vaccination and the administration of booster doses. Vaccination of those not yet inoculated remains an immediate focus of the programme. In recognition of this priority, the HSE has established an uptake improvement group, which has deployed initiatives that include pop-up clinics and targeted media campaigns.

In addition to the full reopening of the hospitality sector on 19 October, the Minister for Health announced an update to Ireland's Covid-19 vaccination programme in extending the booster vaccination to those aged between 60 and 79. The change was made on foot of a recommendation from the national immunisation advisory committee that a booster dose of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine should be offered to all those aged 60 to 79 who have completed their primary vaccination course. The recommendation has subsequently been updated to include provision of a half dose of Moderna's Spikevax vaccine to be offered to those aged 60 to 79. Persons aged over 60 will be offered an mRNA vaccine regardless of the type of vaccine used for their primary vaccination course. The booster dose should be given after an interval of six months, or at least five months, following the previous dose of any authorised Covid-19 vaccine.

I am pleased to report to the House that significant progress has been made in the weeks since the announcement. An estimated 336,000 persons aged over 70 are in scope for booster vaccination and nearly 33,000 doses have been administered to date. GPs are responsible for the administration of booster doses to this cohort and I express my sincere thanks for their ongoing contribution to the success of the vaccination programme.

The HSE anticipates that the booster vaccination of those aged over 70 and residing in the community will be completed by the end of November. Those aged 60 to 69 are being vaccinated through community vaccination centres and 13,000 doses have been administered to date. It is expected that the roll-out of booster doses for those aged between 60 and 69 will be substantially completed by the end of December. The roll-out of booster doses to those aged 60 to 79 is occurring in parallel with the vaccination of those aged 80 and living in the community and to healthcare workers, with the process for those in long-term care facilities having been substantially completed.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State. The question is fairly simple and the Department might be able to respond to it. The key figure I am seeking is how many first doses have been administered since 19 October, as this would give an indication of how many people have been vaccinated since the announcement. How many people took a first dose in the two weeks prior to 19 October, as it would indicate the percentage increase of people who have taken a first dose? This could strengthen the Government's case for how it takes decisions to protect people's lives and people could see the long-term strategy.

The Minister of State is correct in her comments on the opposition to this. She knows where I am from and I must listen to utter rubbish quite a lot in Tipperary from people who go whichever way the wind blows. Some of the comments relate to the decisions we make as a Government to protect people's lives and they are just outrageous. The majority of people do not listen to that rubbish.

I have another suggestion that the Department might consider. We all know places where the process of asking for a digital Covid certificate is done well but identification may not be requested. These certificates may remain for a long time. Has the Department considered the option of photo identification being part of the digital Covid certificate? The majority of pubs and restaurants are seeking these certificates. We encourage those that are not doing so to do it. The photo identification element is important. It would make no difference to the restaurant or bar that must check a certificate in any case but it would discourage people from using fake Covid certificates or certificates from somebody else. More powers should be given to the Garda to fine people rather than bars or restaurants, as this is about discouraging people from using other people's Covid certificates.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I do not disagree with anything the Senator said. Every decision taken by this and the previous Government was to protect people's health and to ensure they could be kept as safe as possible. I know the Government had to make tough decisions. The difference is we have vaccination and booster programmes now, along with the digital Covid certificates.

I will try to get data on first doses given since 19 October and I am sure it will be easy enough to get. I take on board the Senator's point relating to photo identification being part of the certificate and I will pass it on. It is only by coming into the Dáil and Seanad that we hear suggestions and that is a good one.

We started the booster roll-out four weeks ago for those aged over 80 and in long-term residential care facilities. Already in the past two weeks we have seen a fall in the number of people in nursing homes contracting Covid-19 because of the booster shot. It is certainly working. Of all breakouts in nursing homes in the past four months, 83% have comprised five people or fewer. That is heartening as previously they could have involved up to 40 staff and members of the community. There is no doubt the data indicate the booster shot is working. I am glad the decision was made that our front-line workers will also receive it now. As far as I am concerned, that cannot happen fast enough. I thank the Senator for his constructive approach.