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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 Michael Fitzmaurice: Information on Michael Fitzmaurice Zoom on Michael Fitzmaurice] I do not blame the Minister but the big problem is that the way the EU has gone about doing its deals has been an unmitigated disaster. If we went down to marts in Castlerea or Roscommon, got some of those dealers and brought them to deal with the vaccine suppliers, we would have got better results. We should be looking outside to see if we can do deals with whosoever have vaccines. From what I see, some of those in Europe do not have a clue what they are at.

I ask the Minister and the Government to give consideration to the construction sector. Many people do not understand all the elements of this situation. The Government has not gone to the banks. The banks are not granting moratoriums, even though it has been stated by Europe since after Christmas that the banks should give moratoriums to help with the situation in countries. The banks have given the two fingers to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, as usual. Either this House or the Central Bank needs to rein in the banks.

People do not understand that we need subcontractors to do the groundwork and shift the muck in the construction sector. They have major payments to make because their equipment is leased. There is no moratorium in place in that regard. Everybody is talking about the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and all of this kind of stuff coming out. Let us drill down, however, into what payments these people have. There is nothing contained in those payments to help these subcontractors.

I appeal to the Government to consider the construction sector. One would nearly have to throw the virus at one person roofing a house in Portumna to infect him or her. The statistics in this regard should be examined. In one industry in this country, 800 people were infected within one week.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh): Information on Aengus Ó Snodaigh Zoom on Aengus Ó Snodaigh I thank Teachta Fitzmaurice, but his time is up.

Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice: Information on Michael Fitzmaurice Zoom on Michael Fitzmaurice Meanwhile, there were about 22 infections with the virus in the construction sector. Have we lost the courage to make decisions because we got a bite on the arse at Christmas? I was one of those people who said we should then open up things. I put my hand up in that regard. However, I ask the Government to not lose courage and for its members to stand up and be counted. Getting one bite of a dog does not mean just giving up as a result.

Deputy Cormac Devlin: Information on Cormac Devlin Zoom on Cormac Devlin I welcome this opportunity to examine the Health (Amendment) Bill 2021, which provides for the establishment of mandatory quarantine for travellers arriving into the State in order to limit the spread of Covid-19. I thank the Ministers present and their ministerial colleagues in the Departments of Health and Justice for their efforts during this global pandemic. I equally acknowledge the untimely deaths of the 4,237 people who have succumbed to the virus in Ireland. Once again, I offer my deep condolences to all those who lost loved ones during this pandemic.

Like everyone in Ireland, I am extremely grateful for the efforts of our front-line healthcare workers, who have worked so tirelessly and diligently to keep people safe over the past year. Thankfully the numbers of people hospitalised due to Covid-19 have reduced and other indicators are beginning to become more regular and normal, which is encouraging. However, we cannot let our guard down and it is right that we continue to suppress the virus during the month of March. This will ensure our GPs, nurses and medics can continue to roll out vaccinations without the pressure of dealing with a fourth wave of cases.

News this week that 82% of adults will be offered their first jab by the end of June is very encouraging. I also welcome the changes to the vaccine roll-out sequence to prioritise people with a high risk of complications from Covid , including people with serious underlying conditions. However, more must be done for carers in particular, as the Minister will know, and these people should be categorised as essential workers. I ask for that situation to be reviewed. The roll-out of vaccines with GPs has been going well but not surprisingly, there have been teething issues. Some people are being asked to travel excessive distances. In Dublin, people aged over 80 years old have been offered vaccinations in the Helix in Dublin City University, DCU. This is an excessive journey for some people. We must look at having more local hubs. I ask the Minister to examine both this issue and the reports of vaccinations not arriving at GP practices and appointments being cancelled at short notice.

While the vaccine is being distributed and Covid case numbers are low, we must make every effort to avoid importing new cases. This where this new Bill comes in, as a proactive measure to introduce mandatory hotel quarantining to provide an extra level of protection against new variants entering from high-risk countries. The main aim of the Bill is to amend the Health Act 1947 to provide for mandatory quarantine in designated facilities for people travelling into the State, particularly from certain areas where there is significant transmission of Covid-19 or variants of concern.

Rightly, the Act leaves the designation of high-risk category 2 countries to the Minister for Health, which will allow him flexibility to add new countries when necessary. The list has 20 countries and passengers who arrive from these countries are subject to stricter quarantine requirements and must complete 14 days of quarantine. I also welcome the three-month sunset clause, which will ensure this necessary but extremely strict law will only continue as long as is absolutely required.

I conclude by asking all Deputies in this House to be cautious about the language they use concerning international variants of Covid. Talk of people from Brazil, for example, who it should be noted are legally resident in Ireland, importing the P1 variant to meat plants and other places is regrettable. This kind of inflammatory, socially divisive rhetoric should be avoided. I thank the Minister for introducing this important legislation and I hope it will be supported by all Deputies.

Minister for Justice (Deputy Helen McEntee): Information on Helen McEntee Zoom on Helen McEntee I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on the Health (Amendment) Bill 2021. The Government this week took the decision to extend significant restrictions. This was not a decision we took lightly but while reflecting on a number mentioned by many Deputies today, namely, those 4,237 people who have died because of Covid-19. Everything we are doing is to keep that number as low as possible. However, our schools are beginning to reopen and we will again review the current level of restrictions in April. It is our firm hope that we will then be in a position to ease and relax some of these restrictions but we ask people to continue to abide by them until we get to that point.

I know that we are asking a huge amount of people and that the public rightly expects the Government to keep our side of this bargain by protecting us from Covid-19, while also looking beyond the pandemic. In that sense, I appreciate that many people, Deputies and Senators have wished to see legislation passed to allow for mandatory quarantining in designated facilities. It is important, however, that this is done with the utmost care and attention to detail. One year ago, it would have been almost inconceivable that we would be in a position where penal regulations would be in place to bar people from travelling to airports and ports or that we would seek to place individuals entering our country into a mandatory quarantine system. It is essential we remember how extraordinary a step this is and that the legislative basis for doing so is rooted in public health grounds. That is firmly the basis of this Bill. The public health advice is clear: everybody should avoid non-essential travel completely.

This legislation is being undertaken by my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I sincerely thank him and all his colleagues in the Department for all the work they are doing and will continue to do to try keep us safe during this pandemic. Officials in my Department have worked closely with their colleagues in the Department of Health on the drafting of this Bill and we will continue to provide assistance and support. There is ongoing co-operation between our Departments, and more generally across Government, as we continue to deal with the unprecedented challenges presented by Covid-19.

The extraordinary nature of the battle against Covid-19 and the efforts of all of us in this House to keep the public safe are reflected in the extraordinary measures contained in this Bill. Although we are introducing mandatory quarantine to protect public health, we must strongly consider the civil rights and liberties of those we are asking to quarantine as we take this step and as we consider how to put these measures into operation. We have had to do that every step of the way with all of the measures we have introduced in the last year.

As it has throughout the pandemic, An Garda Síochána is continuing to support the public health regulations through a graduated response and in keeping with our country’s long history of policing by consent. This approach has seen the Garda use the four Es approach, namely, to engage, explain and encourage and, only as a last resort, to enforce. As many Deputies are aware, the Garda is already implementing a system of fixed-charge notices for those found in breach of those Covid-19 regulations which have been designated as penal provisions. This system allows for a speedier system of fines, without the requirement for a person to be brought before the courts and prosecuted. More than 9,000 such fines have been issued to date, including more than three hundred €500 fines for non-essential travel to airports or ports. Those fines have unfortunately only been issued in the last two to three weeks. I urge people who are thinking of travelling where there is no need to do so to not travel. Many people leaving and coming back into the country are Irish citizens who are resident and working here. I encourage them not to travel.

We have introduced mandatory PCR testing for everybody entering the State, mandatory quarantining for everybody entering the State and we are now introducing mandatory hotel quarantining for those coming into the State from at-risk countries, and the Minister will have an opportunity to extend that list, but also for those who have no PCR test.

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