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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 Michael McNamara: Information on Michael McNamara Zoom on Michael McNamara] I question how this measure can be enforced. This proposed law is very general in parts and I dare say almost impossible to enforce. There is a specific measure regarding going to an airport or port for the purpose of leaving the State and that aspect is quite clear. When travel restrictions ease, however, it will be possible to go to Belfast for the purpose of travel. People will have left the State by the time they get to Belfast, clearly, but they can go there for the purpose of leaving the island. Will that be prohibited by the State once the current restrictions are eased slightly? Is making Belfast airport the busiest airport on the island the only thing this measure is going to achieve? I wonder about that aspect. If we cannot quarantine everyone, then at least we should be able to test everybody. I have called for testing of everybody entering the State since last May and it is not unreasonable.

On the issue of testing, I have a problem with this Bill because it specifies PCR testing. It is very unusual for a Bill like this to specify a particular type of testing. For example, the type of testing for road traffic offences is never specified in the relevant legislation. It is just stated that the Garda members can have an apparatus and then details of the apparatus will be set out in secondary legislation by the Minister. I have no problem with testing. In fact, it is vital that we test. If the advice the Minister has is that PCR testing is the best type of testing to use now, then that is the advice and I would expect the Minister to follow it.

All this legislation is intended to be in force for a short time initially, but if it rolls on for much longer we cannot be certain that in six months' time, PCR testing will be recognised as the only type of testing suitable for this situation. The Minister will not then be able to change it because it will be set out in primary legislation. When this legislation goes to the Seanad, I urge the Minister to consider having a reference to "testing" set out in the Bill, or the Act when it is ultimately enacted, with the Minister having the right to specify the type of testing, which would of course be done in accordance with medical and scientific advice. The type of testing recommended will inevitably change, just as testing and treatments for any virus, disease or infection changes over time. I do not think specifying the type of testing to be used is something suitable for primary legislation. I think it will create problems for the Minister or his successors down the line. They will then have to come back to amend primary legislation, when something like this should be delegated to being dealt with in secondary legislation.

I can see Deputy Shortall encouraging me to finish, but she takes as much time, if not significantly more time dare I say it, in her contributions here as I do. I am trying to be brief, but it is important that some points were made regarding this legislation. I have made them and I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to have done so.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly I call Deputy O'Rourke.

Deputy Darren O'Rourke: Information on Darren O'Rourke Zoom on Darren O'Rourke I welcome the opportunity to speak about this Bill on Committee Stage. I support several of the amendments. Amendment No. 31 is in my name and that of Deputy Cullinane.

I will echo several comments made thus far regarding the analysis that the Government's approach to this issue not being a serious one. It strikes me that the evidence shows that this Government dragged along in this regard. It has not just been this Government but the previous one as well. I remember discussing with the then Minister, Shane Ross, the need to improve measures regarding international travel at our ports and airports. Every step of the way, Sinn Féin has called for the Government of the day to implement stricter measures. We can track that process over time.

Let us recall the introduction of the passenger locator form. It was initially a voluntary measure but that caused a media furore. Out of embarrassment, the Government then made the passenger locator form mandatory. The Government then continuously failed to follow up in this regard. Several Deputies tracked this situation over time and the follow-up has been pathetic to the extent that it raises serious questions about the Government's commitment to and seriousness about having the passenger locator form as an effective measure.

What was the passenger locator form? It was the Government's tool to monitor adherence to quarantine and restriction of movement measures. The Government essentially turned a blind eye at every turn. Even when the Government was embarrassed by the figures which were made public, it did nothing to improve that situation. Those figures regarding adherence in respect of passenger locator forms ranged at various times from 7% to 18%. Some people got a follow-up call, but most people did not. Those people who got a follow-up call were not really obliged to do anything, including not even having to give accurate information. It was a tick-box effort. In fairness, the passenger locator forms then moved online and there was greater adherence to completing them in the first instance but it was not a measure the Government was really serious about.

The same thing could be said about the experience over time in respect of testing. My own background is in medical science and I could not believe the Government's reluctance to introduce a testing regime at our ports and airports. I raised this matter for months with various Ministers and all I got was an outline of what would happen in the future. Reference was made to all the considerations necessary, the weaknesses of testing and the complications to be taken into account. Under significant pressure, the Government did eventually introduce a testing regime before Christmas. That testing regime was voluntary and expensive. A mandatory testing regime was only introduced when we had in the region of 8,000 cases a day.

The test that was introduced was one undertaken 72 hours pre-departure. As NPHET has said about tests conducted 72 hours pre-departure, if I am going away, I can get a PCR test now, have my going away party, mingle with as many people as I like wherever I am and then I can still turn up at the airport in a couple of days' time with my negative PCR test. That is the weakness of that measure. It is acknowledged that test will miss in the region of 40% of cases and that is a statement of scientific fact. The Government and NPHET know that but they are still insistent that we not have a mandatory, across-the-board, post-arrival PCR testing regime in place. In fact, Sinn Féin submitted an amendment to this Bill, which has been ruled out of order, that specifically requested the introduction of a mandatory, across-the-board, post-arrival PCR testing regime. It was ruled out of order because it might be a charge on the Exchequer. That is simply incredible.

In its letter of 14 January, NPHET requested "every effort be made to ensure that discretion as it currently applies to the need for restriction of movements and PCR testing post-arrival in Ireland is removed". We have done nothing on the second aspect because we are afraid it might have a cost on the Exchequer. Regarding making every effort to address discretion on the restriction of movement, that is why the Opposition is broadly speaking with one voice regarding this group of amendments on this matter. The premise of the Government's approach is that we will look at other countries, see when virus variants arise which are of concern and then consider the situation on an ongoing basis. We know, however, that the real world does not operate that way. At that stage, it is too late.

The Government is looking for credit in this regard. The Minister for Transport referred to this point earlier, and it is contained in the Government's new living with Covid-19 document published only a few days ago.

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