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Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1004 No. 6

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Mark Ward: Information on Mark Ward Zoom on Mark Ward] In fairness to the public, they have been brilliant in playing their part in suppressing this pandemic. They have jumped through hoops and have made great sacrifices in trying to suppress the virus. Some nine months ago, the National Public Health Emergency Team called for the mandatory quarantine of passengers. This did not happen and we are now fighting new variants of this virus. We have gone from a crisis to an emergency under this Government. We cannot drive 5 km to see our parents but we can fly into this country with relative impunity. Half-cooked measures just will not work any more.

If this Government is serious about tackling this emergency, it needs to support the Sinn Féin amendments. These include a requirement for all people arriving to have a post-arrival PCR test and to extend the quarantine requirements to all arrivals into the State, not just those from the 20 states designated. I heard the previous speaker, who is of the Minister's own party, support these measures. I hope he will support the Sinn Féin amendment when the vote comes. Not only are we not all in the same boat but it looks like we are not all on the same plane either. I sometimes question whether we are even on the same planet.

Deputy Catherine Connolly: Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation. While I welcome the introduction of quarantine, I deplore the fact that it is being introduced on a piecemeal basis. This makes absolutely no sense in light of the serious threat we face. A previous Fianna Fáil speaker used the term "bolt of lightning". There was no bolt of lightning here. To go into the background to this, on 11 February 2020, more than a year ago, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a public health emergency of international concern. On 27 February, the first case in Northern Ireland was reported. On 29 February, the first case in the Republic was reported. Significantly, there is no 29 February this year. On 11 March, almost a year ago, the director general of the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. He said that it is "not a word to use lightly or carelessly." He also said the WHO had "been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction." I draw the attention of both Ministers, whom I welcome to the Chamber, to that latter point. That was on 11 March last year. Alarming levels of inaction were being spoken about a year ago.

  We ignored the existing structure that was in place for dealing with emergencies, the name of which I have forgotten but I will come to it in a minute. We simply bypassed and ignored it without explanation. We ignored the fact that public health was at a crisis point both in the hospitals and in the regional bases of the public health service across the country. This area was totally at a crisis point and still is, with a postponed strike pending. We ignored the report on public health. It is more than a year later. We did nothing throughout the pandemic, not to mention having done nothing when the report was published.

  A year later, we still have no clear message or strategy and are relying on the roll-out of vaccination, which is only one part of what should be a zero Covid strategy. We have been laughed at for suggesting this but I do not think it is a laughing matter. An awful lot of very respected people have been completely ignored in this regard. These include Dr. Gabriel Scally, who has almost been sanctified in his own lifetime for his work on the cervical smear debacle, which is very unusual. His views have been utterly ignored. He has been a consistent voice in saying that this must be treated on an all-island basis with regard to the ports and airports and that we must take a zero Covid approach. He is utterly ignored when it suits the Government to do so.

  Appalling messages are coming out. I am glad the Minister for Justice is here today. The Minister for Transport and the Taoiseach should also be here because this is an extremely serious matter. One year later, we are going to look at quarantine. The figures are startling but, before I come to them, I will say that the manner in which announcements have been made is simply unacceptable. I will not waste my few minutes going through them. There was an announcement made through the Irish Mirror and another through Raidió na Gaeltachta. There was also the Minister's debacle on "Claire Byrne Live" and his comments on Twitter at 12 midnight while a Minister of State said something completely different.

  All the while, there is no enforcement with regard to passenger locator forms, an operation which has now been privatised. There has been no oversight over self-isolation over the last year. Untested troops are going through Shannon Airport, yet this Government saw fit to follow up on social welfare recipients. We ignored direct provision and nursing homes. I am on the record as having continuously highlighted the issue of nursing homes since as far back as March. We ignored the Covid committee set up to monitor the situation. None of its very good recommendations have been implemented.

  Today we are dealing with a report from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which highlights serious concerns with regard to human rights arising from draconian legislation. I put my name to that legislation, most reluctantly, on the basis that there would be some quid pro quo and the Government would come back to us in an honest manner and deal with issues in the Dáil, rather than in the Irish Mirror or on Raidió na Gaeltachta, cé go bhfuil meas an-mhór agam ar an raidió. This is the place for announcements to instil confidence in the people. We are dealing with the people in a draconian manner with increased fines while putting an extra burden on An Garda Síochána. At a point when our relationship with An Garda had made a turn for the better, we are making the lives of gardaí impossible.

  I hope the Minister will accept the amendments which make quarantine absolutely mandatory for all travellers into the country with a view to dealing with the pandemic.

Deputy Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle We can reach zero Covid. We can, and we could, if the Government would just put the health and well-being of all of the residents of the country before business interests, profits, lobbyists and, it seems, the European Union.

I was inclined to support the Bill before us today but now I am not so sure. The Health (Amendment) Bill 2021 will belatedly provide for mandatory quarantine for some people coming from designated countries. It will also provide for mandatory quarantine for people who arrive in the country without a negative PCR test. The Bill could really be known as the shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted Bill, seeing as how some of us have been calling for these measures since May last year.

The Government knows that I am a proponent of a zero Covid strategy and that I have been since last October when we were in the midst of the second wave. The third wave, since our so-called meaningful Christmas, has been more deadly and devastating than everything else we have had to endure since March last year. At our weekly Business Committee meetings, I have pleaded each week for the Oireachtas to properly plan for the months ahead, correctly saying that there was no point in planning week by week as there would not be any significant change to the lockdown for a number of months.

There are now a number of new variants of Covid-19, or SARS CoV-2, in the country. The most dominant strain on the island is now the highly transmissible UK variant. There are at least three other variants outlined in the Bill. I do not agree with the names of the variants being specified in the Bill as we have absolutely no idea what other variants of this virus could arise. Any legislation we introduce now should have the ability to address any future variations. I have studied SI 53/2020, the Infectious Diseases (Amendment) Regulations 2020, and I ask for reassurance that any and all variants will be covered under the extensive list.

I do not want to be too negative. I was dismayed to hear media reports that the Brazilian variant could possibly be immune from the current vaccines. Surely, we cannot know that yet. I do not think it is fair for such speculative reports to be broadcast in our media as things stand.

The feeling of hope around the vaccine roll-out is palpable. It is wonderful to see people sharing images of their vaccination certificates or of their family members’ joy in getting the vaccination. The Government and HSE need to improve their communications around the importance and safety of the vaccines. Now is not the time for misinformation or conspiracy theories. I also would like to see a far speedier roll-out of vaccines, but would not we all? That is out of our hands. Given how atrociously the UK Government handled the start of the pandemic, it is strange to see it plan for a summer reopening. I suppose that is the benefit of having a health system like the NHS; public health works when it is needed. Alternatively, it may be down to the fact that it is only giving one dose of vaccine to its citizens. We do not know if that decision will come home to roost. We have to see what the story is in that regard.

I welcome the foresight of the Government in introducing a three-month sunset clause as set out in sections 9(3), 9(4) and 9(5) of the Bill. I was actually pleasantly surprised to see some provisions with which I agree in a Government Bill. It makes sense that these measures would be reviewed on a three-monthly basis. It has been positive to see the position of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, on the calls for mandatory quarantine. Of course, we do not want to infringe on people’s rights, but we have a responsibility to protect people’s lives, health and livelihoods. The ICCL's submission sets out the balance that could, and should, be met in this regard. We can do both and it is vitally important we do so. All travellers to the island should have to quarantine.

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