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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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  3 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Paul Murphy: Information on Paul Murphy Zoom on Paul Murphy]  This Bill is very far from fit for purpose. It does not achieve what we need it to achieve and if the Government does not accept the amendments, I urge the other Opposition parties to join us on Fifth Stage to vote against the Bill and ask the Government to come back with a proposal for proper, mandatory hotel quarantine.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall I rise to speak to this group of amendments and, in particular, amendments Nos. 33, 36 and 38 in my name, on behalf of the Social Democrats. All Opposition parties are represented in the context of this group of amendments because we are very much on the same page and have the same opinion on what needs to be done in order to increase our firepower in responding to Covid. It is quite clear that the Government is not serious about this matter at all. It is going through the motions. Yesterday, I referred to what is happening as a box-ticking exercise. The Bill will not achieve what we need to achieve in terms of controlling the importation of the virus. It will simply not do that. It is not even a half measure.

From the very beginning, the Government's record on travel has been abysmal. I have often referred to it as the single biggest failing of the Government response to Covid. Sometimes people ask about the scandal involving all of the deaths in the nursing homes, the fact that young people have been out of school for so long or all of the mental health problems. Yes, those are all really serious but the point is that last summer we had an opportunity to change the course of where the country was going when we got the daily figures down to four. At that stage, if the Government had controlled travel, this would be a very different country and we would not have the recent scandalous history we have had. It is so blindingly obvious that in a pandemic, as well as all the internal measures that need to be put in place, one has to stop the importation of the virus. That was blindingly obvious last year when we thought there was just the one type of virus, but it is all the more important at this stage with the various variants because we simply do not know what way the virus will behave. There are so many unknowns about this into the future. That is why it is essential that measures are put in place to stop us importing the virus. It is so blindingly obvious that we must ask why the Government did not take steps to address this. Why did the previous Government not do it either?

I wonder from where the pressure on the Government is coming. What kind of lobbying has there been? At various stages when the Government announced a new approach or new measures to combat the virus, it did not speak to the Opposition parties. It spoke to the business lobbies and cleared it with them that it was okay. It seems that they are its masters. There are many questions about why we did not do this. There was a lot of opposition to interfering with international business travel, for example, but that could have been dealt with. There was also much concern about the aviation industry, and rightly so. Those of us on the north side of Dublin are only too conscious of the damage that has been done to the aviation industry. Regrettably, that was happening anyway because of the fact that the world is dealing with a pandemic and there was no substantial demand for aviation and international travel. Of course, the Government should have moved at an early stage and moved in a much more determined way to support aviation, Aer Lingus and the many workers associated with aviation in this country and provided the necessary supports so that the industry could survive. Unfortunately, those supports are inadequate. We have not done enough.

It showed a very warped, strange way of thinking when, a couple of weeks ago, I raised the need for quarantining and the Taoiseach accused me and my party of being hypocritical because we were looking for supports for the aviation sector. They are two sides of the same coin. Given the damage that has been done to aviation by the pandemic, the Government should have been supporting it and ensuring that there would be a future for aviation when we get through the pandemic. Pretending somehow that aviation will survive in a pandemic is just dishonest. That is what is hypocritical. It is logical, on the one hand, to look for controls to prevent the importation of the virus and also to seek proper supports for aviation, on the other. The two go hand in hand. That is why many of us have been talking about that for so long.

To return to why the Government is not taking action in a way that it is obvious it should be doing, one again has to ask what other pressures it has come under. Questions have been asked by Deputy Bríd Smith about seasonal workers, for example. Low-paid workers have been coming in from Brazil and eastern Europe in large numbers. Be they seasonal or not, many industries are dependent on that business model. Large numbers of pretty vulnerable people are coming here from other places in the world very often to work in poor conditions for low pay and little security. Is the concern that there is a threat to that business model? We know the meat industry is dependent on large numbers of low-paid workers. We know about the outbreaks in the sector that we see happening again now. Why is nothing being done about that? Is it that the Government is coming under pressure from business interests not to interfere with that business model? If that is the case, the public will not forgive the Government for its failures in this area.

The Opposition is united on this issue. We are all speaking with one voice. The public are saying it is obvious. Why is the Government not taking steps to control the importation of the virus? Let us look at what happened from the very beginning, at the half measures that were put in place. It started off with self-isolation. A tiny fraction of that was overseen and checked. I have been tracking it month on month since the very beginning. Then we moved to the advice being to restrict one's movements. There was no oversight or monitoring of this whatsoever. A fraction of people were contacted. The authorities even stopped ringing people and started sending out text messages. They no longer expected people to restrict their movements. Then we had what happened over Christmas, when people were advised to quarantine in their bedrooms when they came home for the holidays. That was absolute nonsense. Did the Minister really think anyone would adhere to that?

We are back into a similar situation whereby people coming here from most countries other than the 20 that are on the designated list are being told to quarantine at home. That is nonsense. Quarantine at home is a contradiction in terms. Quarantine means isolating from other people so that one does not pass on the virus. People cannot do that if they are sharing accommodation with family members, house mates or whoever else. The idea is that gardaí are going to go around knocking on doors and checking that people are isolating in their own homes. The Minister did not even understand it himself. He fluffed it when he was trying to explain the process. I do not think any of his colleagues understand it or have any confidence that it will work. Again, it is just a case of throwing shapes and introducing half measures. The Government is not serious about this.

The Government's idea is to bring in legislation relating to 20 designated countries. I have checked the data that were provided in respect of arrivals here since Christmas. Approximately 75,000 people have flown into this country in that time.

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