Houses of the Oireachtas

All parliamentary debates are now being published on our new website. The publication of debates on this website will cease in December 2018.

Go to oireachtas.ie

 Header Item Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions (Continued)
 Header Item Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1005 No. 6
Unrevised

First Page Previous Page Page of 78 Next Page Last Page

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick: Information on Peter Fitzpatrick Zoom on Peter Fitzpatrick] As things stand, the North will, in effect, be leaving lockdown at some stage in June, just like other parts of the UK.

I have very real concerns that the North has raced ahead of us in the fight against Covid. I stated from the start that we should have taken an all-island approach to this pandemic. If the North continues at its current pace and reopens fully in June, we in the South will face some very difficult times. One can imagine the chaos if all retail is fully reopened in Newry while we in Dundalk remain in lockdown. This will cause a lot of businesses along the Border to close. Those business owners have sacrificed a great deal in fighting the coronavirus and they must be fully supported. We simply cannot allow a situation whereby one part of the island is open and another part is, in effect, closed.

I am sure the Tánaiste is aware of the situation in Northern Ireland but I will remind him of it. As of 31 March, total vaccinations administered in the North numbered 887,598. Everyone over the age of 45 in that jurisdiction can enrol for vaccination. A new vaccination centre was opened in the SSE Arena in the past week and more than 350 community pharmacies have joined the vaccination programme. There is even a vaccination date calculation system available online where citizens can get an estimated date for their vaccination. The death rate from Covid in the North is at its lowest in six months. Almost half of the adult population has had at least one vaccination and the plan is that society will be reopened there before the end of June.

If we compare the situation in the South, it is clear that we are nowhere near opening our society in June. Statistics do not lie. The latest figures show that 806,541 vaccinations have been administered in the South. We have a population that is approximately three and a half times that of Northern Ireland. At this stage, if we had kept in line with the North, we should have administered at least 3.1 million vaccines. Looking at it in those terms, we are behind the North by just under 2.3 million vaccinations. That is a staggering statistic. There is no doubt that the Tánaiste will blame the supply chain and say that the vaccines have simply not been delivered by the manufacturers.

The question I would like answered is why the North did not have the same problem with supply that we have. Nor does it seem to be an issue in the rest of the UK. Questions need to be answered as to why the Government has failed miserably so far in securing more vaccines. The message from the Government continues to be vague and, at best, confusing. We are told now that the vaccination programme is to be changed to an age-based system. What is the rationale for that? Has the advice been changed and who took the decision to change the roll-out programme? What is the situation with teachers, SNAs and members of the Garda? Are they no longer considered a priority?

The North will be fully open before the end of June. What plans has the Government in place to ensure the South can keep up with the North in terms of the reopening of society? Can the Tánaiste confirm that teachers, SNAs and members of the Garda are no longer deemed to be priority groups for receiving vaccination? Can he also confirm that changes to the vaccination roll-out programme are the result of new advice and, if so, why has the advice changed and what was the basis for this change in approach?

The Tánaiste: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I answered some of those questions earlier but I am happy to expand further on them. First of all, the vaccine roll-out is going really well in Northern Ireland. I want to congratulate the authorities in Northern Ireland, and in Britain, on the fabulous job they have done in securing vaccines and getting them to people very quickly. That is happening because the UK had a different set of contracts from the EU. Northern Ireland is part of the UK and benefited from that on this occasion. We do not know the exact reasons but it appears that the United Kingdom got preference for the AstraZeneca vaccine over the European Union because of research grants that were given to the University of Oxford by the UK, whereas the EU did not seek such a concession in regard to the grants we gave Pfizer-BioNTech to develop the vaccine in Germany.

However, we will catch up and we are catching up. As I mentioned earlier, we are now much more confident about supplies, and supplies are firming up. More than 1.1 million doses have already arrived in the country. Once they get here, most are in people's arms within three days and almost all within seven days. Over 800,000 vaccines have been given already and 112,000 arrived last night alone. We expect to have up to 1 million doses given by 7 April and to be giving an average of 1 million doses per month in April, May and June. We anticipate that the vast majority of adults, or certainly a clear majority of adults, will have had their first dose or both doses by the end of May, and more than 80% of adults will have been offered their first dose by the end of June. We are on track to achieve that.

Northern Ireland is following the UK approach, as I said, and that approach is based on age-based cohorts. Why were age-based cohorts chosen in Northern Ireland and the UK? It is because it is the fairest way to do it, the quickest way to do it and the best way to do it in terms of vaccinating those most vulnerable first. We are taking this approach in order that we can open the country more quickly, not as quickly as Northern Ireland but more quickly than would be the case if we followed a much more complicated and slower approach.

Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick: Information on Peter Fitzpatrick Zoom on Peter Fitzpatrick I thank the Tánaiste. The bottom line is that the North is way ahead of us in its vaccination roll-out programme and, as a result, will open its society much earlier than us. As I said, this will cause untold damage to the economy in the South, particularly to businesses along the Border, in areas like Dundalk.

I asked the Tánaiste about members of the Garda, teachers and SNAs. The Government made promises to those groups and it has failed miserably to deliver them. In June, when the North opens up, we will depend on the Garda to help patrol the Border. More than 1 million students are going back to school on 12 April. In fairness to teachers and SNAs, they have done a fantastic job over the past number of months under a false promise from the Government. Why did the Government make those false promises? I agree that there are a lot of people who particularly need the vaccine. However, the Government makes promise after promise and then reneges on them and blames someone else. That is not fair and it is about time the Government stood by its actions instead of blaming somebody else. Gardaí are breaking up house parties and stopping people from crossing the Border. Teachers and SNAs have done a fantastic job. Why did the Government make false promises to those people? I ask the Tánaiste, please, to answer that question.

The Tánaiste: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I think it is the case that Britain and Northern Ireland are going to open up faster than here, largely as a consequence of the fact that the vaccine roll-out is happening faster there. However, the difference is going to be a couple of weeks. If one goes to Northern Ireland or England now, one is not going to find restaurants or non-essential retail open. None of those services are open there yet. They are a few weeks ahead of us but not as much as people may think. The Deputy should bear in mind that we are far ahead of other EU countries and most of the world in terms of our vaccine roll-out. There are 200 countries in the world, 27 in the EU and we are in the top tier when it comes to all of these things.

In regard to vaccine priority, nobody doubts the essential work and the quality of work that is done by teachers, retail workers, SNAs, carers and the ten or 20 professions I could mention whom we all respect and whose work has been essential during this pandemic. The reason we have gone to an age-based cohort is that it is the fastest way of doing it. It is also the fairest way of doing it because people in their 50s and 60s are at much higher risk of getting very sick or dying from this virus than people in their 30s and 40s, regardless of their profession. It is based on scientific advice. If the Deputy wants to make a submission to NIAC, if he is sincere about this, he should do so. He should set down which people he thinks should be prioritised, in which order, and then present the evidence that they are more at risk than people in their 50s and 60s.

Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick: Information on Peter Fitzpatrick Zoom on Peter Fitzpatrick I did not make a promise to gardaí and teachers. The Tánaiste made that promise.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly That completes Leaders' Questions. Táimid ag bogadh ar aghaidh. I understand that, at the request of Members, Questions on Promised Legislation have been cancelled for today because Deputies wanted a break. It seems I am wrong. It must have had to do with Lá na nAmadán.

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Deputy Pearse Doherty: Information on Pearse Doherty Zoom on Pearse Doherty There are so many problems with the vaccine roll-out that it is hard to know where to start. We learned from a meeting of a certain parliamentary party that despite the assurances that we would have 1 million vaccines rolled out in April, the number will, in fact, be just over 800,000. We were told that mandatory hotel quarantine is to be extended. Now, we understand there is no such agreement at Cabinet and, indeed, there are legal difficulties in that regard. This morning, it is reported that the Tánaiste told the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party that the list of workers who would receive priority vaccination was never defined. I am sure he is not sticking with that story because I have to hand a press release issued by the Minister for Health, which clearly defines who was supposed to get the vaccine. It refers to key workers in essential jobs who cannot avoid high risk of exposure, including workers in the food supply system, public and commercial transport and other vital services. It goes on to mention "those who are essential to education and who face disease exposure - primary and second level school staff, special needs assistants, childcare workers, maintenance workers, school bus drivers etc."

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly We are over time. The Tánaiste to respond.

Deputy Pearse Doherty: Information on Pearse Doherty Zoom on Pearse Doherty Those groups were all defined. Does the Tánaiste understand that there is anger now because people look at what has happened as a breach of a commitment? Does he acknowledge that the Government has broken its commitment to those employees at this point in time?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Catherine Connolly Zoom on Catherine Connolly I ask Deputies to co-operate with the time restrictions to allow as many people as possible to speak.


Last Updated: 19/04/2021 16:08:24 First Page Previous Page Page of 78 Next Page Last Page