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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 Jim O'Callaghan: Information on Jim O'Callaghan Zoom on Jim O'Callaghan] I welcome that they are starting back next Monday. All children should be getting back to school in the next two weeks. We are damaging them, and we need to get them back to school.

On 5 April, we need to ensure that we let people out so that they can play their sport, not just children but elderly people who want to play golf or people who want to take exercise and play team sport. We need to recognise that we have to live with some level of risk. Yesterday, Denmark announced it was lifting restrictions significantly, but its government expressly stated it is taking a calculated risk in what it is doing because it recognises it cannot keep restrictions in place indefinitely.

We also need to look at the areas of tracing and testing. At present, it appears that our tracing only goes back 48 hours. We need to focus on that more. If the vaccination programme works and we see a reduction in the disease because of vaccination, we will need to be careful of new variants coming in. The way to be effective and careful in response to new variants is by having a very effective tracing system that goes back more than 48 hours.

We need to start to be more receptive to antigen immediate testing. Obviously, I appreciate that PCR testing is a more reliable way of assessing and appraising the extent of infections. However, for the purposes of opening businesses and getting our lives back to normal, we need to use immediate antigen testing. Let us not be too concerned that it may not be 100% effective. We know it is largely effective in identifying people who are infectious.

I believe we have hope in the future. The Government has a responsibility to ensure that a single message goes out to the Irish public. I welcome that politicians and representatives from NPHET were on the same platform the other evening and that should continue. One of my regrets is that we allowed the situation to develop from last March where we had two alternative sources of authority coming from the State. That is not a good idea. The State and Government need to speak with one voice on this.

I commend the Minister and I will be supporting the legislation, which provides flexibility to allow us to respond to variants as they come in.

Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire: Information on Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire Zoom on Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire As the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is leaving, I take the opportunity to join Deputy Fitzmaurice in saying that the situation he and his family faced is regrettable and needs to be condemned. There is no place for it in our society. Criticism of Ministers is one thing, but targeting of a home like that is unacceptable.

Deputy Jim O'Callaghan made an interesting point about what we are asking of the Irish people and what we are asking of people taking flights into this country. It is welcome that people in government are making that point. Unfortunately, it has taken far too long for Ministers to hear that point and for action to be taken in this area. People feel enormous frustration and anger, particularly this week. There is a sense of drip feeding, confusion and contradiction. Even when things are announced the public do not have much faith that that is what will happen because so many things have fallen through or are being delayed.

We had the fiasco with special education in January. There is not necessarily much confidence that we will see success with schools in the coming weeks. I certainly hope that we do, but people have an attitude that they will believe it when they see it. That is caused by the poor communication and co-ordination on the part of the Government, and the feeling that there is a profound lack of leadership. That is really aggravating people because they feel they have sacrificed an enormous amount over the past year and the least they deserve is a feeling that there is a plan, a strategy and a coherent approach to get us out of this. People are angry that they are hearing such information, which is crucial to their lives and impacts on their liberty and their enjoyment of so many aspects of their life, through side comments and interviews rather than being addressed directly.

I welcome some movement on the hotel quarantine plans, but it is a day late and a dollar short. I am alarmed that it is taken so long for the Bill to come before the Dáil. NPHET first recommended mandatory hotel quarantining on 8 May last year. There has been a delay of 293 days in the Minister's drafting this legislation and bringing it before the Dáil. All sorts of reasons were advanced as to why that was the case. However, I agree with Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's point. When we are asking people to make such enormous sacrifices, it is incomprehensible that such a lax approach is being taken to an area of such high risk as international travel, particularly given the impact that variants from different parts of the world have had on the trajectory of the disease, and the impact they could have on hospitalisations and indeed death. The risks that are involved in not managing international travel well enough are enormous.

Even after today, this system will not be in operation for some weeks. It is simply not good enough. Mandatory hotel quarantining for arrivals from only 20 countries is not sufficient. This legislation does not go far enough. It is difficult to ask the public to continue to make the enormous sacrifices they have been making, including staying at home under level 5 restrictions and doing all that they can to ensure that Covid does not spread, when the Government is not doing all it can to stop Covid and its variants coming into the country. My colleagues have submitted amendments that would see these provisions extended and I hope the Government will consider them.

Travel restrictions will have a severe impact on the aviation sector. Government and the European institutions need to ensure that the aviation sector, particularly outside the major capitals, is supported. I have been raising concerns about my local airport, Cork Airport, for several months. About 2,200 jobs rely directly on the airport with a further 10,000 jobs relying on it indirectly. There are workers who are on the breadline and put to the pin of their collars. We need additional Government support. Travel restrictions, while necessary, will obviously have an impact on airline workers, ancillary staff and all airport-connected workers. We need to act swiftly to protect these workers and their families. Wage supports alone are not enough. The Government cannot continue to ignore the plight of aviation workers. They need payment breaks from lenders. They need protection from credit rating impairment. They need tailored supports, particularly workers facing possible further job losses.

The Government needs to use the €245 million connectivity fund to support the aviation sector. To reach its full potential, Cork needs a viable international airport. We need to ensure that airports such as Cork Airport are protected in this context and I ask the Government to ensure that is the case.

Deputy Louise O'Reilly: Information on Louise O'Reilly Zoom on Louise O'Reilly It is nine months since NPHET recommended that discretionary elements of travel should end, which is nearly 300 days. Consistently, throughout this crisis, NPHET and others have called for real checks and controls at our airports and seaports. In April of last year, Sinn Féin called for a quarantine regime for people entering the State. On 5 May, I stated in the media that our failure to impose New Zealand-style entry restrictions was undermining the efforts to combat Covid-19, but nothing was done and so here we are today with the Government eventually trying to do something about it.

The Bill will not deal with the entire threat of the importation of this virus from outside the State. While people throughout the State adhere to public health measures, people are coming into and going from this country at their leisure. Dublin Airport is in my constituency and hardly a day goes by that I do not get phone calls from people working in the airport or living in the environs of the airport, advising me that people are tripping through the airport. We have seen it on RTÉ's coverage, and we know it is happening. The Bill does not go far enough in addressing what we all know is going on. We have had enough time to get this right, but the measures proposed do not go far enough. We could have asked numerous countries for advice on how to implement this system. I am sure that officials in Australia or New Zealand would have been happy to provide direction based on their experience in this regard.

Why does the Bill not come under the remit of the Minister for Transport, with the support of the Minister for Justice or a Minister of State in her Department? We can argue about how well we think the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is doing his job - I have my own view on that - but what help is he getting from his Government partners? According to media reports, Fine Gael Deputies and Senators are slating the Minister at their parliamentary party meetings.

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