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Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions (Continued)

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1003 No. 7

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The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I accept that the Deputy's thinking has evolved significantly regarding the issue of travel, and I think that would be true for most Members of the House. The Deputy, as early as last November, was clear that the return of people to Ireland to meet their families was something which should be welcomed and facilitated. I think she used the phrase "For them, coming home this Christmas is an essential journey". We have learned clearly with the variant now that the situation is much different and far more perilous in terms of our behaviour, because the variant now constitutes about 70% of all cases in this country. How we behave in this country will therefore be critical in suppressing the incidence of the virus and keeping it down at low levels.

As I said last week, measures have already been taken regarding travel. The Garda has had checkpoints at the airports already and those are continuing. Fines have been issued to people in breach of the level 5 regulations, whether they have been travelling abroad or coming in from abroad. Those actions have happened. Regulations have been signed to give effect to those aspects, and to increase the fine from €100 to €500. Regulations regarding mandatory quarantining, particularly concerning specific countries, on the advice of the CMO will also be introduced.

Legislation will be introduced to the House quickly. We would appreciate the support of the House in getting that legislation through. Mandatory home quarantine is important. There are legal and enforceability considerations here as well, as well as public health advice. The public health advice concerning self-isolation will continue in specific cases. Policing people in their bedrooms, however, raises obvious challenges. The concept of home quarantine is important in suppressing the virus. About 50% of the 800 people who came in yesterday would have been Irish citizens travelling back in from holidaying abroad.

The measures we have brought in, including the obligation to have a negative polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test, for example, are having a deterrent effect. The two-pronged strategy consists of, first, deterring people from travelling into and out of Ireland, including Irish people travelling on holidays, and, second, protecting people from any new variants of the virus which emerge over time and which would be worrying from a public health perspective. We will be guided at all times by the CMO in adding countries to the quarantine list or in strengthening the quarantining provisions. Travel into the country has collapsed, however, and our objective is to keep it at very low levels for the foreseeable future, bar essential workers and the entirety of the supply chain, which it is particularly important to protect.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald Self-isolation has always meant isolating oneself in a single room. Many people who have been very sick fought this virus while isolated in a single room. What the Taoiseach and his Government are now describing is a very loose, very sloppy and very inadequate response. It is one which relies on the discretion of the individual, but does not even ask for full self-isolation. It is suggested that a person landing in Ireland can go back to a household, mix with others and then run the real risk of spreading this virus and, potentially, new strains of it. Gardaí cannot, of course, police every bedroom or home in the country. We are not asking them to do so, and neither should the Taoiseach. Therefore, not alone is it necessary to have a system of mandatory hotel quarantine, but it is also the efficient and reasonable request to make of the authorities of this State. It is a no-brainer.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl The Deputy's time is up. I thank Deputy McDonald.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald I cannot understand the Taoiseach's resistance on this issue. The clearest message that can be sent to non-essential travellers to stay away is mandatory quarantine. Why in God's name is the Taoiseach resisting something which is so obviously necessary?

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin There are compelling legal reasons it is not possible to do what Deputy McDonald is suggesting. That is particularly the case in respect of Irish citizens coming into the country. Regarding having the capacity to home quarantine or, indeed, to self-isolate, those people must be facilitated in that context as well. There are legal issues in this regard as well. We have our Constitution, which has a clear framework concerning personal liberties and freedoms.

Balancing is required, therefore, in respect of getting something in place which can be robust in resisting legal challenge. It must be remembered that throughout the pandemic we have had legal challenges, of one kind or another, regarding measures we have introduced. We had to defend ourselves against airlines early on regarding the advisories which we issued in respect of reducing non-essential travel. We were successful in defending our position.

In coming to a framework on quarantining, we want to make absolutely sure that we are on a firm footing on public health grounds and legally.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl I thank the Taoiseach, but his time is up.

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin That is an important input. Having said that, we are willing to work with other Members of the House in getting procedures which are as robust as possible, because I believe in prolonged suppression of the virus and in getting the numbers down to the lowest level possible and keeping them there. I will work with people in achieving that objective.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall Quite honestly, I do not think anybody knows what the Taoiseach is saying. What exactly is he talking about regarding travel? I have consistently said that the failure of this Government and the last Government to address the issue of travel has been the biggest single failing in the response to Covid-19. At no point have we had a coherent and effective system to address the threat posed by inward travel. As my colleague said, this virus does not come in on the wind; it comes in via people travelling on planes and boats. We have never had a serious attempt to tackle that aspect.

At this point, people are getting pretty fed up of all the sacrifices they are making. Life is very difficult for everybody at the moment. People expect that the Government will play its part in doing the things it should be doing. I refer to having proper testing and tracing in place and ensuring we have effective restrictions to drive down the virus to a very low level, which we did last summer. People also expect the Government to deal with the issue of the importation of the virus. The Government has not done any of those things adequately, and that is why we are in this situation now. We are in a third wave, without any prospect of getting out of it for the foreseeable future. The Taoiseach is not setting out any pathway ahead and no strategy is in place to deal with this situation.

What exactly is the Taoiseach talking about regarding restrictions on travel? The question of mandatory hotel quarantine is absolutely essential and we should be doing that for everybody. I cannot understand why the Taoiseach will not go with that policy, which has proved so successful in other countries where it has been operated. He just has not provided any explanation in that regard.

What does the Taoiseach understand the term "home quarantining" to mean? Two of his Ministers - the Minister for Health last night, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs today - have conveyed very confused understandings of what that term means. In the context of international travel, therefore, what does the Taoiseach mean by the term "home quarantining"? What are people being expected to do? Whatever about having home quarantining to reduce community cases, the point here is that we are talking about international travel and the threat of new and stronger variants of the virus which we do not know anything about. What does the Taoiseach mean by "mandatory home quarantining"? How does he see that working? What is the requirement for somebody sharing accommodation with family or housemates? How does the Taoiseach see that working, and how does he see it being policed?

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I disagree with the Deputy's assessments of the Government's responses to the pandemic. We are in an unprecedented era of the most draconian measures regarding people's movements and personal liberties that we have ever experienced. We are in this situation because of a global pandemic. That is in respect of the level 5 restrictions which we now have in operation regarding people's personal movements.

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