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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 Stephen Donnelly: Information on Stephen Donnelly Zoom on Stephen Donnelly] We are trying to find the best solution we can, through legislation, to respond to the current situation. I thank Deputies for their amendments. Much work went into them. I also thank Deputies for their contributions. I acknowledge that the vast majority of contributions are made in the best of faith to try to find the best answer for the Irish people. That is exactly what I am doing, what the Government position is and what this legislation aims to do.

One of the big issues, which lies at the very core of this set of amendments, is whether we let public health decide which countries are subject to mandatory hotel quarantine, whether we let the Oireachtas decide or whether we have a blanket ban - as per these amendments - for all countries outside the island of Ireland. Essentially, the question before us with this amendment is who is best placed to decide that - the Oireachtas or public health. The legislation, as it is crafted, states that it is public health, whereas the amendment claims it should simply be a blanket ban.

There have been many references to there just being 20 countries on the list. I assure colleagues that that is absolutely not the case. It is not about 20 countries. It is a reality, as of now, that 20 countries have been designated as category 2 states. If the legislation passes, then those are the states for which hotel quarantine will apply. The argument being made is that hotel quarantine will therefore only apply to these 20 states. I assure the House that that is not the case. In fact, NPHET met earlier today and one of the things it discussed was the potential to add more states to the list. After this debate, I will be meeting the deputy Chief Medical Officer, CMO, to get his and NPHET's advice on whether we should add additional countries to the category 2 list.

If the Bill passes through the Dáil today, it is my understanding that it will be in the Seanad on Monday. It is entirely possible that by the time we debate this Bill in the Seanad, the list of 20 will be added to and the number could be significantly higher than that. I do not know yet because I need to meet the deputy CMO and get the advice of NPHET. If the Bill then passes through the Seanad, it could be in excess of that number again by the time the President signs it into law, if he deems that appropriate, or shortly thereafter when the hotel quarantining system comes into operation. NPHET is watching very closely what is happening in South America, Africa, the UK and elsewhere across the globe. I have no doubt that it will be advising me to add additional countries to the list. To date, I have taken that advice and we have designated the countries it recommended as category 2 countries. I reassure colleagues that this is not about 20, 30, 50 or 70 countries; it is about whether public health should advise the Government as to what those countries are. That is how the matter is framed.

I would make the same point on the considerations of NPHET and the CMO. Section 38E empowers the Minister for Health to designate, in writing, additional states "where there is known to be sustained human transmission of Covid-19 or any variant of concern or from which there is a high risk of importation of infection or contamination with Covid-19 or any variant of concern by travel from that state". Some Deputies have raised concerns and suggested that if we had a Brazilian variant, for example, the CMO could only advise the quarantining of travellers from Brazil and not states linked with travel from Brazil. The answer in the legislation is that the CMO can essentially advise that any state be added to the list through these mechanisms. It does not just have to be South Africa, for example. In that same vein, the deputy CMO recently advised on quite a number of states in Africa and they were added to the list. There is a very wide net of risk that NPHET and the CMO can consider.

There is another issue here which is very important and speaks to another reason we should not just have a global ban. Colleagues appreciate that the legislation has to be legally robust. It has to be in line with EU law and the Constitution. I assure Deputies that there has been a lot of back and forth between the Departments of Health, Justice, Foreign Affairs, Transport and the Attorney General's office to ensure that what we have before us is legally robust and constitutionally sound. As part of that, I am advised that we must have a test of proportionality so I ask Deputies to consider that. We are all here acting in good faith but I do not think any of us want to pass amendments which could ultimately lead to issues with legality. We all agree that this legislation has to be legally robust.

There has been much talk about this Bill being minimalist. Different language has been used, claiming that it is minimalist, that it is not serious, that it is a pretence or theatre-----

Deputy Duncan Smith: Information on Duncan Smith Zoom on Duncan Smith On a point of order, the question has been put and we would like a vote on this amendment. Under Standing Order 78, regarding the closure of a debate, I understand that it is our entitlement that a vote be taken. We are anxious that we have a vote on this. I ask the Minister to accept that and not to talk the clock down. This is an important group of amendments on which to vote and I ask that we move forward with that vote.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly The Minister is entitled to respond. There is no motion before me so I am going to let him respond. He has heard what the Deputy said and perhaps he will facilitate it.

Deputy Stephen Donnelly: Information on Stephen Donnelly Zoom on Stephen Donnelly There has been much talk about this legislation being a sham, a piece of theatre and minimalist. It is very important that members of the public, who many be watching this debate, understand that these allegations are untrue and that what we are doing is very real. I am basing that on the evidence. I have with me the latest report from the Department on quarantining across Europe. I will quickly go through the countries. I am happy to share this document with Deputies afterwards. One of the questions I asked the Department is whether there is mandatory hotel quarantine in European countries. There is none in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria or Croatia. Cyprus has it but only for travellers from the UK. There is no hotel quarantine in Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France or Germany. Greece has it in limited circumstances if a test comes back positive. Hungary has it for people arriving from the UK. In Iceland, it is only used if there is no alternative - in other words, people can quarantine in other places.

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