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 Header Item Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)
 Header Item Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1004 No. 6

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  12 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Stephen Donnelly: Information on Stephen Donnelly Zoom on Stephen Donnelly]  I acknowledge the significant work done since the recent Cabinet decision. This is complex and sensitive legislation. The establishment and operation of a system of mandatory quarantine, including at designated facilities, is complex and sensitive. We all agree with that. The work to date has required input and efforts across Government. I thank my colleagues, including the Ministers for Justice and Transport, Deputies McEntee and Ryan, respectively, both of whom are here, as well as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and others for all their work. I commend the Bill to the House.

  Question put.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until immediately prior to the taking of Committee Stage.

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly Impím ar na Teachtaí go léir cloí leis na srianta ama. Please stick to the time.

Deputy Pearse Doherty: Information on Pearse Doherty Zoom on Pearse Doherty D'inis an tAire Sláinte dúinn sa Dáil inné go bhfuil idir 1,000 agus 3,500 duine ag taisteal isteach go hÉirinn achan lá. An tseachtain seo caite, tháinig 10,500 duine isteach trí Aerfort Bhaile Átha Cliath amháin. Tá muintir na tíre glasáilte taobh istigh de shrianta 5 km agus ag an am céanna tá daoine ag teacht isteach ar saoire chun na tíre gan chosc agus gan bhac. Níl plean an Rialtais maidir le coraintín éigeanteach fada go leor agus tá sé sin soiléir. Ní maith ar bith leithjab a dhéanamh agus coraintín in óstáin a chur ar fáil go héigeanteach do chúpla duine as cúpla tír ar fud na cruinne. Tá Sinn Féin ag rá leis an Rialtas go soiléir go gcaithfidh coraintín éigeanteach in óstáin a bheith ann d'achan duine atá ag taisteal isteach go hÉirinn gan cúis riachtanach.

Yesterday, the Minister for Health told the Dáil that approximately 1,000 to 3,500 people are arriving through Irish airports each day, with approximately 10,500 people arriving into Dublin Airport alone last week. Most right-thinking people would find these figures concerning and disturbing in view of the great sacrifices many have made during the past year, particularly in recent months. It makes no sense to people that they cannot travel beyond 5 km yet those who travel to Ireland on their holidays can arrive in the State virtually unimpeded. That is the policy the Government intends to pursue with the legislation before the House and that it will press ahead with this afternoon. The Government intends to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals from 20 countries, only two of which, it should be noted, have direct flights to Ireland. Rather than taking any meaningful action to prevent the importation of new strains or variants, the Government is putting in place a system that we know is unfit for purpose. This is absolutely bizarre and unacceptable. There is no urgency or meaningful action. In fact, this is a dereliction of the Government's duty.

The Minister for Transport bears responsibility for this. I am sure the Minister will respond by stating that new countries can be added to the so-called red lists and so on. On what grounds would they be added? Once a cluster of Covid-19 or a new strain develops in a given country, we know that the virus spreads before it is identified. The Government approach amounts to locking the stable doors after the horses have bolted. What is the logic in this approach? I cannot get my head around it.

The Government has a choice today. Amendments have been tabled. I am sure the Minister is aware of the amendments Sinn Féin has tabled. We want to work constructively. We want a system that works and that ensures the best protection for the people. One of our amendments is to ensure that anyone coming to the State, irrespective of which country he or she is travelling from, will be subject to mandatory hotel quarantine. We are of the view that such quarantine should apply to all non-essential travel. That is what is needed. That is what the people want. Will the Government accept the amendment, particularly as the system it is proposing will not work?

Mandatory quarantine in one's home is farcical and unenforceable. The Minister said last weekend that gardaí are already carrying out checks at people's homes to ensure they were quarantining after returning from abroad. Yet, the general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, Antoinette Cunningham, stated on RTÉ radio yesterday that her members do not have a clue what the Minister was talking about. She said that there has been no consultation, guidelines or operational instructions in respect of that role. Can the Minister respond to that? This is a holy mess. If gardaí do not have an idea about what they are supposed to be doing, how can anyone else have one? The only proper way to deal with this is to ensure mandatory hotel quarantine for non-essential travel. Will the Minister accept the reality that this is what is needed?

Minister for Transport (Deputy Eamon Ryan): Information on Eamon Ryan Zoom on Eamon Ryan We agree on this: we have to reduce right down the volume of people travelling in and out of this country and to restrict and stop non-essential travel. That is what we are doing and what the Garda Síochána is doing. As I understand it, the Minister for Justice will have all the details in terms of those being fined at our airports for doing exactly that. The latter is a clear signal that this is not simply advisory. We are saying that there should not be any non-essential travel. Where people do come, I believe it is appropriate to set up the hotels under the legislation that just completed Second Stage. The legislation caters for those coming here from the designated countries to which the Deputy referred and makes provision for those travelling from other countries to quarantine at specific houses. That is the approach we are going to take.

In the case of people coming in without providing polymerase chain reaction, PCR, tests, gardaí are checking on them in their homes. This does not happen in every case because the Garda authorities have make decisions on how to use and deploy resources. A Garda spokesman confirmed last night that this is what is being done. I expect the Minister for Justice will also ensure that the resources are deployed. I believe it is appropriate to do what gardaí are doing. They are doing a really good job at Dublin Airport and elsewhere. Several thousand fines have been imposed on people who are not abiding by the guidance and rules that are in place.

The Deputy seemed to criticise us and indicate that we may adjust the rules depending on health advice, but it is health advice that we are following. We are following the best advice from the World Health Organization, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and our national health authorities. I heard Mike Ryan address a conference organised by the Royal Irish Academy some weeks ago. When asked whether we could simply stop everything in terms of travel and whether it would work, he said "No" and indicated that the focus should be on acting fast where variants of the virus are identified and scaling up the genome sequencing testing, which the Government has done. We are now meeting the European standard whereby 10% of all PCR cases tested are checked for genome sequencing. This follows World Health Organization and European advice. Similarly, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control set out its advice on the Monday before last and we are following that pretty much to the letter.

I am of the view that what I have outlined is appropriate. It is particularly appropriate in our circumstances because there are two jurisdictions on this island. That gives rise to certain considerations in terms of how we manage travel. I believe the approach we have taken whereby we are working with the UK Government is appropriate. We are taking this approach because we do not have a Northern Ireland counterpart with devolved powers in respect of travel. We are working in co-operation on the basis of a two-island strategy which allows us to minimise risk. The UK authorities are following a similar strategy to ourselves. It is not exactly the same, however. In that context, different health authorities will identify different countries or different risks. The two strategies are similar and have similar back-up rules in terms of fines and so on. I believe the approach being taken is appropriate as we roll out the vaccines.

One thing is absolutely clear, and I agree 100% with Deputy Doherty on it. The large amount of travel taking place for non-essential services has to stop. That is why gardaí are outside the airports issuing €500 fines. We have to police this and ensure that anyone who comes in without a PCR test is checked up on. This is done on the basis of random checks on people in their houses. It is one of the series of measures we need to put in place.

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