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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 Helen McEntee: Information on Helen McEntee Zoom on Helen McEntee] We are the first country in the EU to introduce this type of hotel quarantine. It is important to note that those who are serving their period of mandatory quarantine have committed no crime. It would, therefore, not be appropriate for members of An Garda Síochána to provide a permanent presence at such locations. However, where issues arise and where there are public order incidents or attempts to breach the regulations that are in place for public safety, my Department and An Garda Síochána will provide assistance.

I assure the House that there is ongoing co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the Government on Covid measures and other issues. Officials in my Department are in daily contact with Garda management and, as Minister for Justice, I speak regularly to the Garda Commissioner. Contact between the Department and An Garda Síochána includes consultation on any measures the Government is considering to protect public health and how such measures will be put into operation.

The Government's aim in taking this very serious step is to ensure that, insofar as possible, we avoid the possibility of Covid-19 being reimported to Ireland through different variants while we are in the process of bringing down our numbers and implementing the vaccination programme. This would undermine the many sacrifices that people have made to protect the most vulnerable in society. This is a very important protection but, as I mentioned, it is really important we ensure that our legislative approach reflects the balance between the protection of public health and the constitutional freedoms that all legislation much respect. I believe this Bill does so and that the measures will remain in place only as long as public health circumstances require.

We all acknowledge that people throughout the country have made very significant sacrifices in the past year, with lives and businesses put on hold. However, as the Taoiseach said this week, the end is in sight if we stick with the guidelines a little longer. I thank again the Minister for Health and his team for the considerable work that has been done on this legislation. I urge all Deputies to support the Bill.

Deputy Jim O'Callaghan: Information on Jim O'Callaghan Zoom on Jim O'Callaghan I acknowledge the extraordinary sacrifices that Irish people have made in responding to this pandemic over the past year. During that time, their constitutional and personal rights and their civil liberties have been significantly infringed and, in many cases, fully restricted. The people have gone along with that because they recognise, to a large extent, that those restrictions have been necessary in our ongoing battle against this pandemic. As politicians, however, we need repeatedly to acknowledge that sacrifice and to recognise that the actions we are taking are having a significant impact on people's lives. One reason that people have grown increasingly frustrated is that they perhaps perceive that the body politic is slightly too casual in imposing restrictions on them. I do not agree but it is important that we repeatedly recognise and acknowledge that these are severe restrictions on their rights.

The rights of citizens have been infringed in that their movement and ability to earn a livelihood have been restricted and their ability to engage in the types of entertainment they want to engage in has been severely curtailed, as has their ability even to form personal relationships. It was important today that the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission published its report and I urge the Minister to take on board many of its recommendations. Citizens have had their rights significantly restricted, and while they are prepared to go along with that, they do not want the political system to interfere with their rights in a casual way or in a way that takes this interference for granted. We are all aware of the significant impact the pandemic has had on public life and the lives of people. We referred to the 4,200 people who have died as a result of the pandemic. People are prepared to have their rights and liberties restricted but we need to ensure that is not done in a casual way.

I have spoken repeatedly in the Chamber since last May about the significant and extraordinary impact the restrictions have had on the lives of children and young people. They have been impacted much more than any other group in our society. Their education and employment have been interfered with. We need to put a greater focus on them as a priority in our response to this pandemic. It is not just me who is saying this. I ask Deputies to take on board the statement by the Ombudsman for Children two weeks ago that, in the future when we look back on this time, people will say adults let down children.

We need to take into account the sacrifices that people are making when we consider this legislation. I am supportive of introducing mandatory quarantining because such draconian measures are being imposed on Irish citizens, so it is not too much to ask that we impose restrictions on people travelling into this country from other jurisdictions. It is also important that we know the reason we are introducing this mandatory quarantining. It is not for the purpose of trying to stop Covid coming into Ireland; the virus is here already. The purpose is to try to stop variants coming into the country that will have an impact on our ability to respond to this pandemic. We need to recognise that although we are preparing for what is happening in the immediate future, we also need to prepare for next autumn. We need to put in place measures now to ensure that if some variant is not responsive to the vaccines, we can respond to that next autumn without the necessity of reimposing draconian measures.

I emphasise that there is hope out there. Part of the reason that people are finding this so frustrating is they are concerned about there being a lack of hope and that it is inevitable that we will have rolling and continuing lockdowns, which will prevent people from living the lives they want to live. Hope is on the horizon in the form of vaccination. The vaccination programme in this country is going well and will be very effective. When we get our elderly population, our population in nursing homes and our vulnerable population vaccinated, we will see a remarkable transformation.

I mentioned that young people have been severely restricted by these restrictions, but it is also the case that very many people over the age of 70 have been locked up for a year. It is too much to expect that once they are vaccinated, they will be required to remain locked up. They probably will not tolerate that. People in their 70s are aware they have a limited number of years left and want to get out and live their lives, as does everyone else. We need to recognise, therefore, that once vaccines are administered to people over the age of 70 and to the vulnerable, there will be an unquenchable desire to get out and enjoy freedom.

We need to be realistic with the population about the impact of the vaccination. It will have a very positive impact on hospitalisations and deaths. Results from Israel and Imperial College London reveal that it is having a significant impact in reducing the number of hospitalisations, serious illnesses and deaths. Nonetheless, no vaccine will be 100% effective, so we need to be aware that even after the vaccines are rolled out, there will continue to be positive Covid tests, people will continue to go to hospital as a result of Covid and, unfortunately, people will also continue to die as a result of Covid. We need to be realistic about this because if we are not and if we do not talk about it, we will lull people into a false sense of security that the number of Covid deaths will drop and stop immediately once the vaccination programme is rolled out.

We also need to examine how we will manage through March and what our timelines are for when we get to 5 April. As politicians, we all know that March will be a very difficult month. We have seen an increase in the number of representations from citizens who are simply fed up and concerned about the impact this is having on their elderly family members and their children and younger family members. As a Government, we need to offer them a practical lifting of the restrictions on 5 April. Obviously, everyone is aware that we have to try not to let our guard down during March and I believe the majority of people will do that. They are committed to ensuring we get the figures as low as possible, but they have to be given some hope for the future. As I have said previously, we need to get children back to school as quickly as possible.

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