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Vaccination Programme and Covid-19: Statements (Continued)

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1005 No. 6
Unrevised

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Niamh Smyth: Information on Niamh Smyth Zoom on Niamh Smyth] They are housebound and need call-outs from the ambulance service in order to get vaccinated. This has not been done in the cases I am talking about. I have contacted the individuals' GPs and they have made the referrals. I just want the Minister to give me a little feedback on the roadmap for the people in question who are waiting on their vaccine.

Deputy Stephen Donnelly: Information on Stephen Donnelly Zoom on Stephen Donnelly I thank the Deputy for the question. Those who are housebound are an absolute priority for us. We are talking about people who are very vulnerable and who, as the Deputy says, are often elderly. It is essential that they be protected as quickly as possible. The National Ambulance Service is working very hard to this end. It is moving through the country. The people the Deputy is talking about are being identified by their GPs and the data are being fed to the National Ambulance Service, which is contacting the relevant households, making arrangements and going to see the individuals in question.

I was talking to one of the National Ambulance Service managers the other day on this exact issue. I commend the service. One of the things the manager said to me in passing was that while the ambulance service staff go to the houses in question primarily to deliver the vaccines, they also spot issues and identify opportunities to make things a little better and connect the individuals with local health and social care services. I share the Deputy's view. It is essential that we vaccinate the cohort as quickly as possible. The National Ambulance Service is engaging as quickly as it can with the cohort.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton I support the prioritisation of older people and those at higher risk. The CSO data have been showing for weeks that the risk to people with underlying health conditions is 44 times higher than it is for those in younger categories. For those in their 60s, the risk is 18 times higher. Therefore, the prioritisation is absolutely justified, but the arrangement should not have been sprung upon the people in the way it was. The evidence has been available for a long time and the way it was dealt with is unacceptable.

I would like to see more information. I ask the Minister to provide more on the additional risk associated with variant B117. Earlier, we heard on the radio from an individual in the UK that the hospitalisation rate is 50% higher and that the ICU admission rate is 100% higher but I have not seen these data come from Irish sources. If they did, they would help to explain some of the decisions being made. Can the Minister provide accurate numbers in respect of each of the categories now provided for? People crave a date but if they could see the accurate numbers, including the numbers for each week, they would get some idea of the progress. I refer, in particular, to the numbers in the very high-risk category and the next category of risk. Can the Minister illustrate how, in respect of those over 65 and those with underlying health conditions who have been vaccinated, our elimination of 92% of fatalities and 100% of the ICU risk has been factored into the decisions? I do not see any explanation of how the lower-risk profile is changing the way we will make decisions.

Deputy Aindrias Moynihan: Information on Aindrias Moynihan Zoom on Aindrias Moynihan I propose to ask a few questions and also to use my two minutes to get some answers. While the proposed changes in the restrictions, such as the removal of the 5 km radius and the opening of construction, were widely discussed and in the public domain for some time, and while people recognise the arguments in each case, the idea of reprioritisation on an age basis did not feature. It appears to have come out of the blue for so many people, such as teachers and gardaí, who were not expecting the kind of change in question. How much background discussion went into the proposed change? What research informed the decision? It appears to have emerged late in the day. Why would that be? If the goalposts have moved, people want to be assured they will not be moving again. What is the possibility of that?

Antigen testing can offer an easing of restrictions in so many areas. It can show that people are Covid clear and it is fast. I had the opportunity to try it out myself yesterday. Many people, including opticians and staff in meat factories, are using it. To what extent is it proposed to roll it out? It really offers an opportunity to people to try to get back to some semblance of what was normal. How quickly could it be done, and how much research is being conducted?

Deputy Stephen Donnelly: Information on Stephen Donnelly Zoom on Stephen Donnelly I thank the Deputy for his questions. Antigen testing is a matter the Deputy and I have been discussing for some time. I am of the view that there is a greater role for it than we have seen to date. I appointed an expert group, led by Professor Mark Ferguson, to examine this issue. The group has reported back and I am publishing the report today. It is important to note that there are highly credible experts on both sides of the argument, some of whom are very strong supporters of rapid testing and others of whom have valid concerns about some of the risks associated with it. Nonetheless, having heard the various views, my view is that there is a greater role for it. I am launching the report today and I will be working with various Departments to support the ramping up of rapid testing.

With regard to the research on vaccinating according to age, NIAC conducted extensive research on both domestic and international evidence. We have seen a very strong link between the risk of Covid and age. It is also important to note there is a strong link with occupation. NIAC examined the data on clusters and outbreaks in Ireland and on the various sectors. The only sector found to have a significantly higher risk of severe illness or death from Covid was the healthcare sector. That really underlined the recommendations made, which NPHET brought to me earlier this week.

Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan: Information on Christopher O'Sullivan Zoom on Christopher O'Sullivan I thank the Minister. I want to speak up for and ask questions on behalf of the hundreds of teachers who have contacted my office over the past couple of days. They are looking for a greater explanation for the reasoning behind the change to the vaccine roll-out programme and their removal from the cohort of key workers. They have some very fair requests. Their main request is simple, namely that after all those with underlying health conditions are dealt with, they be included among the category 9 cohort of those working in crowded workplaces. It is quite clear that teachers right across Ireland are working in crowded workplaces. Their class sizes are among the highest in Europe. They are working in circumstances where social distancing is quite difficult. I refer in particular to special needs assistants who, because of the nature of their work and how they assist their students, will always require an element of close contact. All those who have contacted me are asking for — it is quite a fair request — is that they be considered to be in the bracket containing those working in crowded workplaces. They are looking for an explanation and answers. Can they be considered to be in the bracket? If not, why?

Deputy Stephen Donnelly: Information on Stephen Donnelly Zoom on Stephen Donnelly I thank the Deputy for his questions. The reason NIAC made its proposal, the reason NPHET endorsed it and the reason I brought it to the Cabinet and the Cabinet agreed to it was the very strong evidence that the single biggest predictor in terms of risk is age, particularly when, as we are aware, those with underlying conditions are already prioritised in cohorts 4 and 7, for example. The group we are now talking about comprises people who do not have underlying conditions. Let me give the Deputy and other colleagues a sense of how strong the link is. A person in his or her early 50s is three times more likely to be hospitalised, ten times more likely to end up in intensive care and 15 times more likely to die than someone in his or her 20s or 30s. A person in his or her early 60s, who will be part of the first group in terms of prioritisation, is five times more likely to be hospitalised, more than 20 times more likely to end up in intensive care and more than 70 times more likely to die than someone in his or her 20s or 30s. As I am sure all colleagues have been doing, I have been talking to essential workers and front-line workers, including teachers. I hear from every teacher and front-line worker I talk to about these figures that if I am telling them the people I am prioritising are 20, 40 or 70 times more likely to die than they are, they should be vaccinated first.


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