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Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Committee Stage (Resumed) and Remaining Stages (Continued)

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1004 No. 6

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Duncan Smith: Information on Duncan Smith Zoom on Duncan Smith] The conditions in which an awful lot of these workers live were highlighted last spring and summer, in the early part of this pandemic, to people beyond those who knew about it already. Three, four or five adults may be sharing a room, sink and toilet. Those are poor conditions and not conducive to living in a pandemic such as this. Have any changes been made in that regard? I hope so, because there has been no shortage of debate on the issue and concern was raised early in the pandemic. There is no excuse for progress not to have been made.

There are a number of different elements to the issue, including the designation of these seasonal workers as essential workers. Will they be subject to mandatory hotel quarantine? I am coming from a point of concern and care about the health of those workers and I want to make that abundantly clear. My concern is that there are loopholes in the existing legislation and the regulations that exist now, as a result of which workers may be being brought into this country right now and working and living in conditions that will damage their health if any of the strains of the virus get into their accommodation, as has happened previously. We saw it with the meat plant workers. There are also growers. Many other parts of the agricultural industry have used workers such as these over the years. This important point needs clarification.

I reflected on the Second Stage debate. Other contributors to the debate have spoken to the fact that this legislation does not seem to be connected to other elements of the public health response. That may sound unfair but it is how I and many others feel. On the suppression strategy within the community, the levels of community transmission remain high. We still are not getting the detail we need as to why that is the case. Where are the outbreaks taking place? How is the virus transmitting within the community? I think compliance generally remains very good but with numbers remaining high and no detail coming from Government on the issue, rumour mills and the blame game start. Young people are blamed for meeting in parks and this, that and all the rest are blamed when probably none of them are the cause of high transmission levels. We need to know. We have no suppression strategy based on a testing and tracing regime that will be rigorous enough to get infection numbers down to low double digits or single figures and keep them there. This mandatory hotel quarantining legislation seems to have been brought in tangentially to all the other measures. It is peculiar because one would think even at this stage, when the legislation is not going to be operational for another few weeks, that we would at least have details about which hotels will be used, which companies will be used for security and food, and all the operational aspects of the strategy. Those details are not there either. Our concern is whether this is going to happen at all.

St. Patrick's Day is coming up. We know that the country is shut down but 10,000 people came into the country through Dublin Airport this time last year. Is the Government aware of how many people are due to come into the country on St. Patrick's weekend? Those people may have booked a year or 18 months ago and are still going to come. Perhaps nobody will come and everyone has cancelled but perhaps they have not. Is there a reason that these measures are being delayed to such an extent? It is absolutely incredible that there was no draft legislation prepared on this issue in 2020. Even Opposition parties and groups with small numbers of Members and resources that are nothing compared to the resources of Government Departments have legislation on various matters. It is on the shelf and ready to go. To think that there was no draft legislation on this issue beggars belief. It is now the last week of February, three weeks before St. Patrick's Day, and we are told that this legislation will not be operational for a couple of weeks.

We hope the vaccine roll-out improves and goes well. The evenings are brighter. We hope the numbers of infection go down but that is all hit-and-hope stuff, rather than any kind of tangible strategy we can look at and in which we can believe. Elements of this Government may believe they will not have to bring in these measures. That is why I feel that an element of this exercise is quite surreal. This debate should be much more energised and feel much more important but for the second session in a row, the Minister is cutting a lonely figure on the Government side of the House. The energy, interest and desire for this legislation to be as workable and strong as possible are coming from this side of the House. That is a concern.

Deputy Paul Murphy: Information on Paul Murphy Zoom on Paul Murphy We should be clear that if these amendments from various parties are not passed, and the Government has clearly stated its objections to them, then this is not a Bill for mandatory hotel quarantine, as is being reported. It is a Bill for a piece of theatre or a joke about mandatory hotel quarantine. It is a Bill to close one window in a house when the other windows and the front and back doors are open. It is a Bill to try to make the Government look good and as if it is responding to the call by 90% of people for mandatory hotel quarantine while it is actually doing something that is extremely ineffective.

We know the Government, at least initially, intends to operate on the basis of a list of 20 countries. That is a tiny percentage of countries and it is not what we need. It is not what the National Public Health Emergency Team, Rise and People Before Profit have been calling for and it is not what 90% of people support.

I will go further than that. I encourage other Members of the Opposition to read section 38E of the Bill, which is not even a step in the direction we need to be travelling. I listened to the Minister's wrap-up on Second Stage. He told Deputies not to vote against the Bill on the basis that they do not agree with the list of 20 states. He said that was a matter for a statutory instrument and the Government could add all the countries it wanted. It is true that the 20 states are not listed in this Bill. It is also true that they will be listed through a statutory instrument. However, this Bill cannot be used to do what is necessary. It cannot be used to put every state on the list, as is proposed by all of our amendments. If they are not accepted, this Bill cannot be used to have mandatory hotel quarantine for all incoming travellers. The Bill sets it up that each state must be added explicitly on a country-by-country basis. Section 38E(4) provides that the Minister shall, on a regular basis, review the situation as it relates to each state. It explicitly starts from the position that no states are on the list and we add them on a state-by-state basis. This Bill will not allow us to do what we need.

If the Government votes down our amendments, as it has stated it will, I do not believe the Opposition should go along with this piece of theatre. We should oppose it and demand that the Government come back with proper mandatory hotel quarantine, which would start from the opposite position, structurally, from the one the Government is taking. Many of the Opposition amendments come from the proposition that every country is on the list to start with. Green zones would then develop in Ireland and elsewhere, would be connected to each other and states could then be taken off the list as the position becomes clear and we develop green corridors. That cannot be done with the unamended version of the Bill.

What would proper mandatory hotel quarantine that would have an impact look like? It would be operated on a public, not-for-profit basis. It is incredible to think of the big contracts that will flow from this legislation. It is unfortunate that we will not get to the amendments which try to prevent that scenario. A proper hotel quarantine system would also include oversight of the implementation of the process, which is vital for public health and, therefore, a necessary restriction of civil liberties. There would be oversight from human rights groups, civil liberties groups and trade unionists to make sure that any powers are not abused. Without those elements, it is clear that this legislation is to be used by the Government to play at mandatory hotel quarantine and pretend it is doing it, while the Californian variant can come in as it wishes. The British variant is already rampant but if there is a new variant in Bristol, or wherever else, it can come in. Travellers can come from any other powerful county in the world without mandatory hotel quarantine.

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