Wednesday, 15 December 2021
Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, between lines 1 and 2, to insert the following:
1.In this Act, “relevant statutory instrument” means any regulation made under: (a) the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020;
(b) the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020;
(c) the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020;
(d) the Health (Amendment) Act 2020;
(e) the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021; and
(f) the Health (Amendment) (No. 3) Act 2021.”.
As the Minister of State will see, the purpose of this amendment is to provide a definition of "relevant statutory instrument". It is there because we want to gain oversight on the following amendment. I stress that Sinn Féin fully supports public health measures. I want to be crystal clear about that. As I mentioned last week, I was lucky enough to get my booster vaccine. I always take the opportunity to encourage anyone watching or listening who has not been vaccinated to get vaccinated. It is more important now than ever because we just do not know what we are facing.
Our issues with this Bill do not relate to the public health measures; rather, they relate to overall accountability and parliamentary oversight. I had a look at the fairly fractious debate on this legislation in the Dáil. I do not intend to repeat that because many of these arguments have been put back and forth a few times. I am pretty clear that we will probably not reach agreement on the amendments we have tabled. I will be pressing the amendments but, at the same time, we must get our business done. There is very little to be said about this amendment. It just provides a definition of "relevant statutory instrument" because that is important in terms of amendment No. 2.
All statutory instruments regarding the Acts referred to in this amendment are made under the Health Act 1947. As far as the Minister for Health is concerned, the matter is already covered under that Act.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 5, between lines 1 and 2, to insert the following:
"Parliamentary oversight of Covid-19 regulations
1.(1) Every relevant statutory instrument made by the Minister shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas not less than 48 hours before they come into effect and—(a) where, before the date on which paragraph (b)would have effect, a resolution annulling the instrument is passed by either such House, the instrument shall be annulled accordingly but without prejudice to the validity of anything previously done under it, or(2) The period of time to which subsection (1)(b)relates in respect of a relevant statutory instrument that has been subsequently amended is the period of time concerned for that instrument and not to any other period of time by reference to the amending
(b) if, in respect of each House, a resolution confirming the instruments is not passed by it—(i) on the day it is laid before that House or within the next subsequent 14 days on which that House has sat after the instrument was so laid, or(c) where, following the agreement of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health, the need of such a regulation is deemed urgent, every relevant statutory instrument may be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is
(ii) in any other case, within 21 days after the instrument was made, whichever first occurs, then the instrument shall be deemed to be annulled accordingly but without prejudice to the validity of anything previously done under it,
made for the purpose of this section.
(3) Notwithstandingsubsection (2), subsection (1)(b)does not apply to a relevant statutory instrument where, before the date on which subsection (1)(b)would have had effect—(a) the instrument ceases to have effect in accordance with its provisions,
(b) the instrument ceases to have effect in accordance with any subsequent amendment duly made to it or has been duly revoked, or
(c) the instrument has been annulled by either House in accordance with subsection (1)(a).”.
This amendment gets to the meat of the issue. It is about trying to establish parliamentary oversight. That is our key point here. Amendment No. 2 seeks to do a number of things. It provides that a statutory instrument made by the Minster shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas not less than 48 hours before it comes into effect.It talks about statutory instruments being annulled if they do not have the approval of both Houses. However, it also refers to exceptional circumstances where it may be deemed appropriate, because of urgency, that "following the agreement of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health, the need of such a regulation is deemed urgent, every relevant statutory instrument may be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is made for the purpose of this section". We are trying to establish better parliamentary oversight here. We think it is important because all of us are held to account for those statutory instruments when they are introduced. Therefore, it would be helpful, useful and democratic to have some degree of oversight over them. The counterargument that came back was that there are too many of them. I respectfully suggest that this is where the Business Committee comes in. The Business Committee can determine which instruments - obviously I would say only the key ones - would be subject to this type of oversight.
Again, I come back to the principle that we support the public health measures; we are just not happy with the degree of accountability in that regard. That is why I will press this amendment.
The Minister for Health acknowledges that the powers in these Acts are wide ranging and they will only be in place for as long as is absolutely necessary. They are short-term public health measures to enable us to act swiftly to protect public health and the progress that everyone in this country has made sacrifices to achieve.
The Minister has listened to the concerns from the House and in that regard, he is working with his officials to streamline the information flow regarding regulations for public health measures. He has also given an undertaking to the health committee to send new regulations regarding the Health (Preservation and Protection and Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, the Health (Amendment) Act 2020, the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 and the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021 immediately once they are laid. This process of informing the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health of new regulations that have been made has already been initiated following a letter from the Chair of that committee to the Minister recently.
The Oireachtas and all Members of the Houses play an integral part in our democracy and the scrutiny of powers conferred on the Government. Therefore, a number of powers are available to the Oireachtas in relation to the oversight of regulations.
I appreciate the Minister of State’s answers and her constructive comments about commitments the Minister has made. I will try to make my point in a non-adversarial way. There have been real concerns about communications from the Department in recent times. Our concerns about that are why we need some more oversight. If we have particular concerns about particular statutory instruments that are introduced suddenly, as they often are, we should have a means of holding the Government to account. Again, our key emphasis is on parliamentary oversight. That is why we want to press this particular amendment. I do not think there is much more I can say.
The Houses have the power to annul these regulations, which are made under the Health Act 1947, if they so wish. Under section 5(5) of the Health Act 1947, every regulation made under the Act must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as possible after it is made and, if a resolution annulling the regulation is passed by either House within the subsequent 21 days on which that House has sat after the regulation is laid before it, the regulation shall be annulled accordingly. Basically, there is a process on it. We take on board what the Senator said about communication. The Minister himself has responded to the Sinn Féin spokesperson on health on the floor as part of this. He has been open about how he will work with all representatives to ensure that there is good communication.
If may make a brief comment, again I appreciate the comments the Minister of State made. Another point I would make is that as we all know, there is a shrill and poisonous minority out there who have given people a hard time about public health measures, about vaccines and so on. We have all come across them. They represent the far right in an insidious and nasty way. My point is that building in more parliamentary oversight is important to try to negate some of the arguments, invalid as they are, that this group makes. Again, that is why I will press this particular amendment.
I move amendment No. 3:
"In page 5, lines 5 to 18, to delete all words from and including “amended—” in line 5 down to and including line 18 and substitute the following: “amended in subsection (3) by the substitution of the following paragraph for paragraph (b):“(b) Part 3, continues in operation only until the 9th day of February 2022.”.”."
There is much to be said on these amendments. They are simple. They take the date of 9 February 2022 as a sunset clause for the Covid-19 regulations. The amendment was put forward by the Rural Independent Group in the Dáil, but only two amendments were moved on the account of the Stages of the Bill being rushed through. We have become used to that in these instances when the Government does not wish to be challenged.
I spoke last week about the often nonsensical approach of imposing restrictions based on the worst fears and pessimistic scenarios, particularly when our modelling of such scenarios has never once been accurate, insofar as they have been subsequently borne out. As of yet, all medical reports on the severity of the Omicron variant point towards symptoms being between not present and mild. However, the Government and the media panic machine have instead homed in on transmissibility and case numbers. These case numbers of course have been useless as a snapshot of public health ever since the vaccines severed the link between cases and hospitalisations. On top of that, the Omicron symptoms are mild, even in unvaccinated persons. None of this matters, of course. The Government has made up its mind and we are just here to go through the motions in order that the whip can be cracked and restrictions can continue to loom as a possibility all the way into the summer.
I recommend the amendments to the House. It is well past high time to send an unequivocal message to the Irish people that we are taking a step towards living with Covid-19 and doing away with yo-yoing lockdowns and foisting responsibility for the Covid-19 response on to the public.
I wish to speak briefly to this amendment. I want to respond because I cannot let some of the points made by Senator Keogan go unchallenged. The modelling is a new kind of method employed for a new disease. Modelling depends on human behaviour. Human behaviour differs from country to country and society to society. It is entirely incorrect to say that the modelling should be completely disregarded because it has been inaccurate. It is a moveable feast. When people see the modelling, they amend their own behaviours.
The reports from South Africa on the Omicron variant cannot be taken to be exactly as fact as to how it would happen here. This is because South Africa has a young population. Previous strains of Covid-19 were widespread and affected many people and because of that, many people have already had Covid-19. Therefore, when those people get Omicron, they are getting Covid-19 for the second time. Of course, that will be milder. We cannot take that and hope for the best.
I remember the dark days of last January and February. I know families that were impacted. I do not want to see that again this Christmas. We are living with Covid-19. My kids are going to school every day. I can go to the supermarket. I can meet my friend for a cup of coffee. I can come into work when I need to come in. I can work from home when I need to. People are going about their daily business. People are going for their routine medical health checks. Businesses are operating as best they can. We are living with Covid-19. That is what living with Covid-19 means.
On the point about Ministers rushing in to try to pass legislation, the situation changes rapidly.Nobody would suggest that we pass legislation way in advance or that the measures are not needed. Obviously, the Government is looking at the situation. It will only do something if it is absolutely necessary. It will not do it way ahead of schedule because it might not be necessary and because they are harsh measures that involve restrictions on our freedom. However, they are absolutely necessary.
The public is behind this. The Government has put in place financial supports for businesses that have been badly impacted by the restrictions. The country is doing the best it can. Bandying about old tropes that we have all heard a million times does not move this debate on one bit and does not help us to live with Covid.
I will speak to amendments Nos. 4 and 5. Here again, we are talking about parliamentary oversight. We are trying to build in flexibility. That is why amendment No. 4 gives the Minister the option in circumstances where we have an urgent need to get approval for statutory instruments, to refer them to the Joint Committee on Health.
Amendment No. 5 certainly has merit. What we are asking for is a review of the functions and impact of the provisions of the legislation, including on human rights and mental well-being. That is something that we can all relate to. There has been a significant strain on families and communities as a result of Covid. It would be useful for parliamentary oversight to have that report. These are reasonable amendments and I commend them to the House.
I thank all Senators who spoke on these amendments. The public health measures are kept under constant review in order to take account of changing circumstances. The public health measures in place from time to time to suppress disease transmission are intended to minimise the risks to public health while striking the right balance in prioritising some activities over others and protecting key societal interests. The Government has adapted measures to address the public health risk at a given time, in addition to taking account of learnings and emerging evidence, new variants and any specific contextual considerations.
The Minister is conscious of the impacts that the public health measures have had on our society. All regulations are prepared in consultation with the Attorney General and across Government in order to ensure that the impact on human rights and mental well-being is minimal and proportionate. In this evolving Covid-19 environment, the balance in terms of protecting public health and human rights is at the forefront of consideration and consultation.
Throughout the pandemic, Government decision-making on public health measures has been informed by public health, economic and social considerations, with inputs from across Government to understand and assess both the impacts of the pandemic and the impacts of the restrictions imposed to manage it. For example, in 2020, as part of the process set out in the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business, public health, economic and social impact assessments were prepared and published on gov.ie. The Government is aware of the impacts of the restrictions on businesses and on people's daily lives and has put in place a number of supports to assist and to address the impact. In those circumstances, I have to reject these amendments.
I do not believe we are living with Covid. Half this country does not believe we are living with it either. People say that this is new norm. It is not and should not be the new norm. People have had their civil liberties taken away from them over the past two years and were told that they could not go outside a 5 km radius of their homes. Those over 70 were told that they could not leave their homes.
I know only too well what it is to lose somebody. My mother died last January because she caught Covid, but she also had cancer. I lost my mother last year. I am well aware of the sacrifices that this nation has made and the losses and deaths we have all suffered, but this is not living with Covid. Face masks for our children, Covid certificates to enter into the hospitality industry, Covid certificates to go on aeroplanes and a PCR test to get back into one's own country is far from living with Covid.
With regards to the modelling, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, has constantly got it wrong. The national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, has also got it wrong.
I have included the date stipulated in the amendment, 9 February 2022, in various other amendments as well. It is clear that the Government has no intention of accepting any amendments today. What we are doing is pointless. The fact that the Minister is not here, meaning no disrespect to the Minister of State, clearly shows that he does not deem our amendments worthy of discussion with him. Indeed, the number of Senators from the Government parties in the House today clearly shows what they think of the Irish public. While I understand that public health measures have to be taken, there is a fine line to tread in the context of what we can call living with Covid. What we are doing today is certainly not living with Covid.
Over the past couple of days, those in the media have been mooting that schools will close down on Friday and that certain non-essential businesses will be closed on Monday. Why have the Minister or the Taoiseach not come out straight away and said that this is not to happen and that our children will continue to school until-----
It is still in the newspapers. It is still being mooted. Journalists are still reporting it. Why are the Minister and the Taoiseach not coming out to discuss the matter? It is being reported that more restrictive measures may be imposed on the hospitality sector, namely, that closing times will be brought back such that they may open until 10 p.m. instead of midnight. We need to give the people who are in business who have made so many sacrifices over the past two years in the name of public health hope over the next couple of weeks. This is prime time for local business and the last thing we need is the media putting sound bites out there that more restrictions are coming. That is not what we need. We need leadership in this regard.
Deputy Rabbitte is an excellent Minister of State. She is able, qualified and empowered under her seal of office to come in here and take amendments on health legislation. The Senator's comments are completely uncalled for. Of course the senior Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has interest in this legislation. The Minister has been in here on several occasions to discuss this matter and engage with Senators. To say that the Minister is not showing respect and only sending the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, is, to be honest, deplorable.
On the Government party numbers, we have Senators here from the Government parties. I note that there are not any Senators from the Independent Group here with Senator Keogan to discuss her amendments. Senator Keogan is the only one here.
The Taoiseach said last night on the news that the schools will not be closing early. If journalists want to speculate, that is fine. Nobody in this House would say that the Government should be silencing journalists, particularly in a free and open democracy. People can talk. Politicians can talk and speculate, members of the public can speculate and journalists can legitimately report on that speculation, but the man in charge of this country and the Government is the Taoiseach and he said last night clearly that the schools will not be closing. I do not know how we can be clearer than that.
The certainty that businesses have been afforded is that the financial supports will continue and that has been greatly welcomed by the particularly badly affected industries. I know many who work in the hospitality industry and have businesses themselves. I understand the difficult situation they are in but, thankfully, the Government has responded to that. They want to protect their patrons, employees and family members as much as anybody else.
I thank Senators Keogan, Clifford-Lee and Gavan for their contributions. I want to respond to what has been said, and, as Senators can imagine, my reply is not scripted.
I have no choice but to answer Senator Keogan because she posed the question. Last night, the Taoiseach appeared on the news. He clearly stated that schools will not be closing.On mixed messaging, one could say the Senator and I are creating a conversation around mixed messaging today because, as we know, the Taoiseach has clearly stated that schools will remain open and, as Senator Clifford-Lee has stated, schools will remain open. If journalists wish to speculate, we cannot prevent them doing that. That is their right. At the same time, we are talking about living with Covid. In living with Covid we will ensure that education continues, be that higher education, the early years sector or the primary and post-primary sectors, to ensure that my daughter and the daughters of everybody else around the country who are doing their leaving certificate can sit their Christmas exams. That is awfully important for these young people. They need that stability living alongside Covid.
Living with Covid is also about not speculating whether restaurants might be forced to close at 10 p.m. or whatever. There is a closing time in place now for our public houses and restaurants. Nobody other than journalists is speculating. It is very clear that there is a roadmap in place. We are trying to live as best we can with a virus that does not heed us. It dictates its only pace and that pace is based on public behaviour. In adhering to the basic fundamentals of social distancing, washing our hands, wearing face masks and all of the other advices set out by public health, we will control and manage the virus.
That we are living with a virus within our community is testament that a high number of people believe that Covid exists. Some 93% of our population have been vaccinated. More than 1.5 million have got their booster. All of these people accept that Covid is here and that it is real and they wish to respond to it. Language is important. On the last occasion I was in this Chamber and we were discussing other Stages of this Bill, we discussed the importance of language. We are living alongside Covid and there is a booster campaign under way. I encourage everybody to get the booster jab. I believe that 92% of the population accept that Covid is real, not only in Ireland but across Europe and the globe. It is not that the Government is driving a particular agenda, rather it is that the Government is responding as best and prudently as it can to keep lives and livelihoods equal and protected.
I endorse all that has been said by the Minister of State and Senator Clifford-Lee. It is because of this virus the Government has to bring in restrictions. I take great heart from the research made available yesterday which states that following on from what has been articulated in terms of the difficulties and challenges that this new variant is causing, 80% of people have altered their behaviour, changed their plans and propose to reduce the number of people they will meet over the Christmas period.
The people of Ireland can and will adjust when necessary. Unfortunately, restrictions are necessary to deal with the 20% who, perhaps, do not adjust for whatever reason. We have to take cognisance of the 80%. We also have to take cognisance of the 95% of our population who have been vaccinated. We are in a different situation this Christmas than we were in last Christmas. It is a meitheal effort, led by Government. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has done a phenomenal job in terms of protecting disability services and ensuring that respite and day care facilities have been able to open. It has been extraordinarily difficult. In terms of the Department of Health, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, particularly deserves enormous credit, as does the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, for what she has done in terms of older people and what she has been able to achieve during these very difficult times.
Politics is not an easy business. Nobody gets into politics because they believe it will be an easy business. They do it because they believe that by getting stuck in and working hard they will make a real difference to the lives of ordinary, decent people who look up to politicians to represent and articulate for them. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, hold portfolios in the Department of Health, which is a difficult area, but they have been able to carve out benefits and some sort of normality and existence for the most vulnerable people in our society. They deserve great credit for that.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 5, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following: "(b) by the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (5):"(6) Regulations introduced under the sections of, or amendments made by, this Act may only come into effect following the approval of the Houses of the Oireachtas or, where deemed urgent, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health.".".
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 5, line 15, after "2022," to insert the following: "and following the laying before the Houses of the Oireachtas of a report, following a review of the functions and impact of the provisions of the Act, including the impact on human rights and mental well-being, at least two weeks before such a resolution is made,".
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 5, to delete lines 21 to 32 and substitute the following:
"amended by the substitution of the following subsection for subsection (3): “(3) This Act continues in operation only until the 9th day of February 2022.".".
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 5, line 30, after "2022," to insert the following: "and following the laying before the Houses of the Oireachtas of a report, following a review of the functions and impact of the provisions of the Act, including the impact on human rights and mental well-being, at least two weeks before such a resolution is made,".
We are into a cycle now of repetition of wording that I have previously raised, so I will, probably, just be pressing my amendments from this point onwards. There is real merit in ensuring that we do understand and report on the impact of these provisions on human rights and mental well-being. That would be a useful thing for society. As I have made my point on this already, I will say no more.
Everything we do in this House has to be predicated on human rights. It is very difficult to bring through legislation that in any way impacts on civil liberties, but the reality is that we are in a health emergency. We are in a pandemic the likes of which has not occurred previously in our lifetime or that of previous generations. As I understand it, the last pandemic dates back over 100 years. Hopefully, it will be a long time before this occurs again. I believe the Irish people understand the reasons for this measure. They show that in their actions and in terms of the number of people who have availed of the vaccine. It is great that an increasing number of people are taking the booster vaccine.
My only criticism of Government is as I outlined on the Order of Business yesterday. On 30 November I called for all of the resources of the State to be deployed to ensure that as many booster vaccines as possible would be administered in the quickest time possible. That is now happening this week. We have learned from this pandemic that whatever happens in the UK, we are only a few days or a week at most away from it. What was happening in the UK towards the end of November was a signpost to us that we needed to act quickly. We should have instructed our pharmacies, particularly in places such as Portumna and Ennistymon where I come from, to open on Sundays to facilitate people. People would be happy to travel to get the booster.We need to bring back retired people who are in a position to give vaccines, and we need to use the Defence Forces where practical and possible. The call that took place yesterday with the 2,000 GPs should have happened two or three weeks ago. We were behind the curve, unfortunately, instead of being front and centre leading the charge. While the members of NIAC are great people, they are conservative and cautious and they need to be adventurous and liberal with this. I know they are doing their best and medical people are cautious by nature but this is a runaway train and we have to try to keep up with it. This legislation is important. All the points have been made at this stage so we will just let it pass through.
I will make a brief comment on the booster campaign. I agree with Senator Conway that the enthusiasm shown for the booster campaign is very heartening. It was a great decision to reduce the period between the second and third doses of the vaccine. It should be available to all age cohorts. Some people are more enthusiastic about getting it than others. Some people work different hours so slots should be opened up to everybody of all ages in order to make sure that every available minute and hour is used by people getting the booster. Some university students are now finished for the Christmas period and could attend at different times to other people.
It should be all hands on deck between now and Christmas Day to get as many boosters into arms as possible, even if we have to stay open until midnight. I know those in the vaccination centres are overworked and the people administering the vaccines are exhausted. It was a progressive and welcome move from the GPs to decide to ramp up over the next week or so. I encourage more pharmacies to get in on the action as well. I thank the Minister of State and all her colleagues in the Department. I would like her to bring that message about the campaign being opened up to everyone back to the Department.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 5, lines 34 to 36, to delete all words from and including “amended—” in line 34 down to and including line 36 and in page 6, to delete lines 1 to 8 and substitute the following: “amended by the substitution of the following subsection for subsection (3):“(3) This Act continues in operation only until the 9th day of February 2022.”.”.
I think the Senator understands perfectly why I cannot accept this amendment. We have discussed this previously. It is repetition at this stage so I will stand back and let the process take its course.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 6, between lines 3 and 4, to insert the following: “(b) by the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (3):“(4) Regulations introduced under the sections of, or amendments made by, this Act may only come into effect following the approval of the Houses of the Oireachtas or, where deemed urgent, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health.”.”.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 6, line 6, after “2022,” to insert the following: “and following the laying before the Houses of the Oireachtas of a report, following a review of the functions and impact of the provisions of the Act, including the impact on human rights and mental well-being, at least two weeks before such a resolution is made,”.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 6, lines 10 to 22, to delete all words from and including “amended—” in line 10 down to and including line 22 and substitute the following: “amended by the substitution of the following subsection for subsection (3):“(3) Part 2 shall continue in operation only until the 9th day of February 2022.”.”.
Amendments Nos. 12 and 15 were tabled by Deputy Cullinane in the Lower House. They address one of the huge problems with the Government's response to Covid, which is the complete lack of data. There has been no investigation into the evidence-based proportionality of measures and the effect their implementation has had on either Covid or people's lives and livelihoods. Time and again, impact assessments, rationales, reports and reviews have been asked for in this House and those requests have been met with titbits of hastily pulled together figures, if even that. These amendments place an explicit onus on the Government to prove that its approach is appropriate and proportionate, considering the impact of these decisions on the lives of all the people in this country, instead of limiting its views of public health to the Covid case numbers.
I am an Independent Senator. I do not need anyone else in this Chamber. I do not have a political party behind me and my amendments are solely in my name. Senator Clifford-Lee pointed out that I am here on my own. These are my amendments so obviously I would be here on my own to talk about them.
Civil liberties have gone out the window since these new public health measures were introduced. All we are seeking is that a data impact assessment statement be put before this House regarding the measures we have taken, the lives and livelihoods that have been affected, the years that have been missed and the effect that has had on all our society, including young people, our elderly, those who are in isolation and those in business. All we want is an impact assessment or statement outlining the impacts of the Covid restrictions and measures we have introduced. I would like that to be brought before the House as part of this Bill.
Amendment No. 15 is about parliamentary oversight. It would be useful to all of us if we could collect data on the impact of these provisions. The different aspects of the report are broken down very well in the amendment. It should cover information on implementation of these provisions, information on breaches, an assessment of how the public duty of equality and human rights has been reflected in their application, concerns identified and recommendations for improvement, and other such relevant information. Information on these sorts of areas would be regarded as a very reasonable request, frankly. This report would also go some way towards addressing some of the concerns expressed by organisations like the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. We fully understand and support public health measures. It is the oversight issue that causes us concerns and that is why we urge the Minister of State to support this amendment.
There is merit in what is being proposed here regarding oversight and the availability of information. The more information people have, the more informed they are about why decisions have to be made, the purpose of those decisions and the effect they will have. Information is powerful and no organisation should ever be afraid of sharing as much information as possible. I believe there will be a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. That is only right and proper because if we do not learn lessons about how to do things better, we will not be properly equipped for future pandemics. We have now been through one so we have to be able to write the handbook. Hopefully it will be a long time before we have another one but it may not be. We are dealing with the spending of billions of euro of public money.Lessons have to be learned in terms of time lapses and so on. A couple of decisions were made which I could not understand. I could not understand why the task force headed up by Brian MacCraith was stood down when we knew we would have to give booster vaccines. I cannot fathom why it was stood down. There could be a logical reason but it is not evident to me.
I also could not understand the logic of letting staff go from the vaccination centres when we experienced a lull towards the end of the summer and then struggling to rehire them. Those decisions were clearly made by officials in the Department for some reason. It was probably being penny-wise and pound-foolish. There are certain areas we need to scrutinise and we have to ask questions as to why these things happened. We may get satisfactory answers. I intend to pursue it through the health committee when the opportunity presents itself.
On the availability of data and information, I do not think we are the worst in the world at it. We had the figures every evening. Sadly, we had the number of people who died published every evening. In the UK, what is released is the number of people who died who had tested positive for Covid in the previous 28 days. What has gone on in England and the non-availability of data and information has not helped us. We have been far better at it but we have seen the chaos there over recent weeks and know they are chaotic at the best of times. Had they been more upfront with their information, it would have assisted us.
Europe has lessons to learn. At the start of the vaccine roll-out, Europe did not paint itself in glory in its handling of that. It got its act together. I have said many times that had Phil Hogan still been Trade Commissioner at the time the vaccine difficulties presented themselves, they would have been sorted out more quickly because he had the experience of dealing with agriculture for the previous five years and the intricacies and difficulties that presented. Europe has now gone to the other extreme and that is a good thing.
What has gone on in the Third World and the lack of information and data there is frightening. Unless everyone is jabbed, we are not dealing with it. That is a major problem.
In terms of us, this country and information, we can give ourselves a B+. We want an A1 but, compared to other countries, we are way ahead.
I welcome the Minister of State. She is here as a Minister in her own right and I have had the benefit of working with her in a committee. We had differing views but she is a competent and capable person with whom I have worked closely and grown to respect and admire in her brief in the disability sector, where she has done powerful work. It ill behoves any of us to make references to people in Ministries as being less than others. They are not. I do not mean to be partisan, patronising or adversarial to anybody but can we please not denigrate each other with comments on the competencies of people here? We are elected. The Minister of State is a fine Minister. We might not agree on everything, and do not, but the Minister of State is most welcome and I have every confidence in her. I will have a row with her in a second, but that is the second part of my contribution.
Senator Conway made a good point. I was listening in the office and came down to support him. I said at the Fine Gael parliamentary party that I cannot comprehend why the Brian MacCraith task force was stood down. I have a fear which I referenced yesterday in this House when I spoke about the HSE paramedic ambulance service in Cork. The reply I got from the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, was positive and indicated that there would be a resumption of the service in the short to medium term. I made the point yesterday that in the HSE world that could be in the never-never. I fear that with this new booster vaccination programme, we should not have got rid of the task force.
Let us look at it from a number of perspectives. Our vaccination programmes one and two have worked extraordinarily well by any standard across the world. What are we hoping to do? We hope that people are immunised and that we slow the transmission of this new variant. That requires a number of things to be done. The first is that we expedite the vaccination programme with our pharmacists and GPs. Many pharmacists want to play a role and I encourage Government and the HSE to work with them. Our primary healthcare system works well when it is resourced properly. Our doctors are doing phenomenal work and we should use them as well.
The other central arm of our vaccination programme, which has been extraordinarily successful, has been our vaccination centres, particularly walk-in centres. Last weekend in Cork there were queues of an hour or an hour and a half, depending on when you went, but people wanted to go and get vaccinated. In County Cork, for example, there is one in Cork city and one in Bantry. To me it makes no sense to have just those two augmenting the work done elsewhere. I hope and believe it is in train that the HSE will react and act on this. It is about saving lives and preventing the spread of the disease. You can take Mallow, Clonakilty, which Senator Lombard mentioned, or east Cork.
I will raise another contentious point. I am being excoriated on social media this morning for my contribution on this issue on the Order of Business. My good friend, Senator Keogan, will have a different viewpoint to me on this, which is fair enough. I respect that. It is not a silver bullet or panacea. We are talking about a multilayered approach but we should give it consideration. I asked on the Order of Business today, although Senator Clifford-Lee is a parent and will probably disagree with me, that our primary schools should close on Friday.
I say this for a number of reasons. First, the level of absenteeism among staff and pupils, whether they are close contacts or have Covid, is quite high. Second, the Minister, Deputy Foley, has rightly made a huge change in the substitution requirements being proffered in schools. I recognise that parents, when they hear people like me saying this, are saying they have childcare needs to be met, work to be done, have not the luxury of being able to work from home anymore, cannot afford childcare or cannot put their traditional childminders, such as grandparents, at risk. I accept and appreciate that and I said it is not a silver bullet. However, using a multilayered approach, we must try to limit the spread of Covid. Where is our most unvaccinated cohort? In my opinion, they are in our primary schools because that group of young people is not vaccinated. Covid is spreading in that cohort quite strongly.
I say that not to be populist or alarmist, but to be helpful and constructive. Schools are closing next week anyway. At secondary or post-primary, there is a higher number of vaccinated people and they are in the end-of-term exams in many cases, which poses a challenge and difficulty. I cite the example of the Netherlands, where they have closed their elementary schools early next week to prevent infecting other family members. As a Government and society, we have been good at protecting our most vulnerable, whether it is the disabled, the elderly or those with underlying health conditions.We have been very proactive in tackling the core group of the most vulnerable. I am very aware as a teacher of the importance of schools and education in the overall, rounded development of our young people. I will be excoriated when I leave here, including on social media, but one cannot live by that. It is a different world that does not necessarily agree with any of us. However, while I accept that schools are where children should be it is Monday and Tuesday of next week. It is two days.
Well okay, but they get a half day on Wednesday so it is two and half days. I am not going to have a row with the Senator. My point is that if we are seriously looking at how we can prevent the spread of the disease, that is one part of our arsenal.
The people who work in our vaccination centres deserve great credit. There have been issues arising from a breakdown in communication which is disappointing. I appeal to the Minister of State that she would go back to the HSE on the matter of redeployment of people. I do not mean to be adversarial. I know that some will say that I am trying to be adversarial but I am not. I am trying to be helpful. We are nearly at Christmas. If we want to come forward to January, how do we prevent a spike and our most vulnerable becoming unwell? Part of what we should do is to close our primary schools early. I accept that there are people who will disagree with me. That is fair enough. We live in a democracy and I am a democrat.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I hope that she does not take my remarks as controversial or adversarial. It is something I have read about and considered over recent weeks. We hear of people talking about young people wearing masks in school. The majority of young children in school today are coping admirably with wearing a mask. They get on with it. It has become part of their daily lives whether it is going to the shops, to mass or interacting with other family members. We should support and thank our young people for what they have done.
The Senator certainly brings a colourful approach to the debate and I thank him. There is no script that could be prepared for me that would have the answers for that. I will take on board much of what he has said and I will respond. I can only talk from a health perspective at all times because that is where I sit. I am a Minister of State within the Department of Health. For me to talk about education would be misusing my time and misinforming people.
The amendment relates to openness and transparency and the lessons that have been learned and what we have taken on board. To be fair to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, he told Deputy Cullinane that he had information on 2020 that he had no problem sharing. I was there for that part of the debate. It would be wonderful to share that information. Much has happened even in recent weeks in where we are with the debate, the roll out and with NIAC's further approval of vaccinating young people. The conversation has really moved on and to the point where Senator Buttimer joined us. I do wonder about what happened with the role of Professor MacCraith. There was something working wonderfully then as any of us who travelled around and saw our vaccination centres observed. The Senator spoke of Cork. I talk about Galway. There was a pop-up centre in Connemara because there was a problem crossing the bridge. Galway is the second largest county in the country and we needed to ensure that everyone could get access to vaccination centres. The pop-up centre in Connemara proved incredibly successful. That needs to be reinstated this minute so that people have the same access. If one wants to accelerate something one needs to see what worked really well the last time. What worked well the last time was the role played by the Army in logistics. They are the people who can roll anything out. They were the spine. We had vaccinators, people coming forward and the medicine, but the role played by the Army made the process work very well. We need to see how the Army's involvement can be accelerated.
The Senator mentioned community. The role of GPs is important. Senator Clifford-Lee mentioned GPs. Our GPs have always had broad shoulders in the vaccine roll-out and the boosters. However, it is getting complicated. We have new people coming forward to get vaccinated and that is very welcome but there are boosters on top of that. In addition, there is the younger cohort. We have to see how it can be best done. To give my tuppence worth, I disagree with the Senator on closing the schools but perhaps I would use the time differently. This might be where I would look to my community health organisations and send them into the schools and use the time appropriately rather than having parents having to take time off or overburdening vaccination centres and clogging up car parks. We could bring the people to the schools and deal with those of younger years and who are medically compromised, that is special schools and special classes and units. We could start there and go right into the schools. When one goes into one school one may as well finish the job rather than leave a cohort unvaccinated. That would be my thinking if I was in charge of logistics. They are there. They are supported by their teachers who they know well. If family want to be there in support they can. They can sit at their desk for the 15 minutes afterwards so we do not have to use the space in GP surgeries or vaccination centres.
We need to have an agile approach. The HSE is fantastic for doing the job but we need to expand things to allow others to assist the roll-out. Community health organisations would know exactly how to do it. My view is that we could use the two and half days next week to get the vaccines into the young people in the schools so they were protected and when they meet granny and grandad they have protection around them because we know that they are going to meet. We may as well protect everyone. NIAC has given approval. Perhaps we should see how we can use the resources a little differently. The Senator is right. There is no silver bullet. It is a case of talking and communicating about what measures can work. Some CHOs will respond differently to others. Were all staff to down tools for ten days for the greater good to ensure a successful vaccination roll-out, that might be a way to go. I have gone on a little but that is all because of Senator Buttimer.
There were comments about certain countries not getting it right. Many countries did not do things right. We are part of that. England has done something that we have not done. It has brought in Covid certificates for the medically exempt. I ask the Minister of State to look at that. There is no reason those who cannot be vaccinated for whatever reason cannot have a Covid certificate. They are banned now from gyms and swimming pools which was their one way of looking after themselves. There are people who were looking after their rehabilitation and physical and mental well-being and that has been taken away from them. The UK may have got a lot of things wrong but it got that right. They have looked after those who are medically exempt.
People have spoken about Europe getting its act together. Certain countries are making vaccines mandatory. We do not want to go down that road. The Minister of State spoke about going into schools but she forgot the one thing that is required, that is, the parents' consent to vaccinate those children.That is, therefore, the most important thing. I just want to-----
I am sorry; I do not interrupt anybody. Senators can come in after me.
Consent, obviously, is the most important thing. I want to read out a tweet the WHO sent out this week:
As school holidays approach, we must also acknowledge that children contaminate their parents and grandparents at home, with a ten times increased risk for these adults to develop severe disease, be hospitalized or die when non-vaccinated.
A subsequent tweet from the WHO reads:
The use of masks and ventilation, and regular testing, should be a standard at all primary schools and vaccinating children should be discussed and considered nationally, as part of school protection measure.
We failed in ventilating our schools. Money was only allocated this week and schools now can apply for that. We failed when we took away community testing. We brought in sending antigen tests out to the schools at the end of November. For three months before that, however, we fiddled around doing nothing.
I will read another tweet from the WHO:
Finally, my third call: is not to mandate vaccination if you haven’t reached out first to the communities. Mandates around vaccination are an absolute last resort and only applicable when all other feasible options to improve vaccination uptake have been exhausted.
We are two years into Covid-19. People's choice around vaccination is their choice. It has got nothing to do with me or with the Minister of State. If someone decides not to have the vaccination, that is their choice and I respect that choice. People are now more aware of what they must do to keep themselves safe. We all know the mitigating measures and the lines of defence we need to take.
People might try to swing someone into a far right group just because that person stands up for those people who do not want to take the vaccine. I will stand up for those people in here. Whether I am vaccinated or not is absolutely nobody's business. I believe we all received an email today from a journalist. This journalist was seeking to find out whether I was vaccinated and if I was taking the booster. It is nobody's business. My medical history is my business. It is nobody's business. Those are the things I wanted to speak to the Minister of State about.
I am really not happy about what is happening in Austria, which is mandating every single citizen to be vaccinated and fining, interning and detaining them if they are not vaccinated. We do not want to go down that road. We should not even consider going down that road. We must be very careful, however. There are people out there who we have left behind, that is, those who are medically exempt. Before we leave these House on Friday evening or before the Minister of State leaves on Thursday evening, we must ensure that legislation is brought forward in order that those people who are medically exempt will be able to access a medical Covid certificate.
I will be very brief. I was interested in Senator Buttimer's points about the schools and there is a certain logic to what he said. We have to be guided by science and by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, however. Personally, I would be quite reluctant to see that happen. It is incredibly challenging for working families in particular. It is, therefore, far better if we can keep our children in school.
I will make the point, which is generally accepted now, that one of the things the Government has not gotten right is the lack of filtration in schools. It has been a massive own goal, frankly. My kids go to school now with scarves, hats and coats on and they stay there all day wearing that gear. It is not conducive to learning but it is necessary because the windows have to be open. I am not quite sure why those filtration systems were not invested in last summer but I would suggest that we get them rolled out as soon as we can. Again, I agree with Senator Buttimer. There is no silver bullet here; no one action will fix things . If I have a particular ask, however, which certainly many colleagues, friends and neighbours of mine have raised, and that is to get those filtration systems into the schools. Let us use the Christmas period in particular to see what we can get done as quickly as possible in that regard.
I will make a final point. I want to be very respectful because I know Senator Keogan and get on well with her and respect her entirely. I worry about some of the language being used at times, however. That is all I would say. A common message we should all give is that it is really important to get vaccinated and get our boosters. In Britain, 1,000 people are dying per week at the minute. That is, therefore, a stark reality that all of us have to face and grapple with. That is all I will say at this point. I thank the Minister of State.
Senator Keogan is correct. At one level, it is no business of a journalist to be inquiring as to the vaccination status of any Member of the Oireachtas. It is an intrusion of privacy and I fully concur with her. I answered the question for one reason. I am a proponent of vaccination, whether it is the HPV vaccine or the Covid-19 vaccine. I am a big believer in vaccination. We are role models as legislators, and, in my opinion, if we expect people to get vaccinated, and we stand up here and make comments and act with responsibility around legislation, then I believe we should be able to say that we are vaccinated. I have gotten the two doses and the booster. The Minister of State used the lovely phrase in her response about being agile and she is right.
I say to Senator Gavan that I completely accept and understand the challenges. I would not like for anybody to think that I do not understand the challenges of the working family or, indeed, the stay-at-home family or mum or dad who are working at home with children. I know from speaking with my own family members that it poses many different challenges in getting all the competing balances right. I accept that. I will make the point again; there is no silver bullet. What we are fundamentally trying to do, however, is prevent the spread of the virus and there are two parts that work. One is vaccination, and where we should have unanimity in this House is on our vaccination programme. It works and it has worked. Imagine where we would be right now if we did not have the vaccine or the booster. Just imagine that.
I will finish on this point because I am not here for an argument or a row - anything but. Senator Gavan is kind of right, even though it kills me to say it. We have an issue with filtration in schools. As a teacher, I know from talking to many of my former colleagues and friends that there is an issue with filtration in schools. That is something we need to address in the long term when we emerge from a post-pandemic world around how our schools operate in terms of air quality, interaction and so forth.
I will make this fundamental point in conclusion. As we know, there are issues with civil liberties and human rights and none of us wants to see them trampled on or want them to be denied. When I see the amendment before me and when I talk about the impact on human rights and mental well-being, while none of us wants to be in this situation, all of us are hugely aware of the impact on the mental health of people. Our language, including my own in terms of asking that the schools close early, is important. That is why I made my call; not in an adversarial way but in a way that is trying to be helpful.
In terms of the report of the Minister of State on the amendment, I think we can drag people up to the top of the cliff and down again in terms of creating anxiety and spreading panic. Part of my difficulty with our public service broadcaster is that it drives people into panic in many different ways. There is a need for balanced reporting on Covid-19 and its impact on people.
I believe we have done a hugely positive job as a Government, however. Our HSE staff have worked extraordinarily hard and the men and women who work on the front line in our ICUs and hospitals deserve much more than a bank holiday or whatever. We owe them a debt of gratitude that we will never be able to pay.However, there are long-term repercussions from Covid that we as a society must overcome. As for where we are today, as Senator Gavan said, we are in a much better place when compared with our nearest neighbours because we took responsibility collectively, as a Government and society, to prevent the spread and we worked very hard.
Like Senator Conway, I appeal to the Minister of State to bring back Professor Brian MacCraith, the Army logistical people and the people from the outside who have gone back to their respective careers. We cannot afford to have whatever else emerge again next January or February. I am aware NPHET will make more recommendations to the Government this evening or tomorrow. I have no idea what they are. Society is waiting with trepidation. Back in the day, George Hamilton used the phrase, "A nation holds its breath". I think the nation is weary now but our role as legislators and people who lead in communities is to bring the public with us. Again, I make my contribution in a positive way that is not intended to be adversarial.
Vaccination is a choice. I need to make that clear. It is a choice for parents. I believe in a choice-based approach.
The only people I forgot to mention when I spoke about what has been successful were retired people who got involved in the vaccination process. Perhaps we could put out a cry for help for them to come back on board. The retired community gave invaluable time. They have experience and a skill set that should be embraced and used at this time.
On medical exemptions, I have already worked with the HSE in the disability area for an exemption mask pass for persons with disabilities. That is already designed with the HSE and has been done. The pass can be issued. It is encoded, with HSE backing, for persons who have a disability and cannot wear a mask. That is what I have done within my Department. I will take on board what Senators said on medical exemptions and bring it back to the Minister. From a disability point of view, I have a mask pass designed, approved and ready for roll-out.
On air filtration systems, it is welcome that the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, has given funding to the schools. They need to use the time over the Christmas period to ensure it is rolled out.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 6, line 20, after “2022,” to insert the following: “and following the laying before the Houses of the Oireachtas of a report, following a review of the functions and impact of the provisions of the Act, including the impact on human rights and mental well-being, at least two weeks before such a resolution is made,”.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 6, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following: “(c) by the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (5):“(6) Regulations introduced under the sections of, or amendments made by, this Act may only come into effect following the approval of the Houses of the Oireachtas or, where deemed urgent, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health.”.”.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 6, between lines 23 and 23, to insert the following:
“Report of Minister 5. (1) Any resolution approving or continuing provisions made under the Acts referred to in this Act may not be made unless a report, following a review of the functions and impact of the same, including the impact on human rights and mental well-being, is laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas at least two weeks before such a resolution is made.
(2) The report shall include:(a) information on implementation of these provisions;
(b) information on breaches of these provisions;
(c) an assessment on how the public duty of equality and human rights has been
reflected in their application;
(d) concerns identified and recommendations for improvement; and
(e) other such relevant information.”.
Garret Ahearn, Catherine Ardagh, Niall Blaney, Jerry Buttimer, Malcolm Byrne, Maria Byrne, Shane Cassells, Martin Conway, Ollie Crowe, John Cummins, Emer Currie, Paul Daly, Aisling Dolan, Robbie Gallagher, Róisín Garvey, Seán Kyne, Tim Lombard, John McGahon, Erin McGreehan, Rebecca Moynihan, Fiona O'Loughlin, Joe O'Reilly, Pauline O'Reilly, Lynn Ruane, Mark Wall, Diarmuid Wilson.