There are 500,000 family carers in this State. They provide 19 million unpaid caring hours per week and they save the State €20 billion every year. They do their work looking after vulnerable loved ones with compassion and love and their value is immeasurable. The challenges and the risks they face during the pandemic have increased dramatically.
I want the Taoiseach to listen to the words of Mike Molloy who cares for his mother who suffers from Parkinson’s:
I'm part of an army of hundreds of thousands of people in this country, the forgotten frontline if you like; who do what they do because of the most basic and yet the most beautiful of human emotions, Love. I am a Family Carer!
We may care for different people. In my case it's my elderly mother who suffers from Parkinson's but even though the condition or vulnerability of the person we love is different, our daily lives are similar. From early morning to late at night we ensure that the person we love is well and safe.
This is challenging at any time but the pandemic has made it nearly impossible. The gripping fear we have of the virus somehow managing to slip into our homes through the only few activities...grocery shopping and pharmacy deliveries, that we can and must partake in, is huge.
We live largely like prisoners under some form of house arrest with people for whom the consequence of Covid can easily be serious illness or even death.
Mike goes on to express the heartache and anger felt by family carers at not being given a place in the vaccine roll-out queue. He powerfully outlines the reason why this needs to happen. It is something my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, has raised with the Minister for Health on a number of occasions. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has announced that the vaccine allocation groups are to be reconfigured and it is absolutely essential that family carers are given their place as part of this reconfiguration.
The Oireachtas Committee on Health has unanimously agreed to write to the National Immunisation Advisory Committee on prioritising family carers for the vaccine because family carers are frontline health workers and deserve to be recognised as such. Carers employed by the HSE are included in the rollout and it only makes sense that family carers are given their place too.
Indeed, family carers have been prioritised for vaccination, as the Taoiseach knows, in the North. It is high time that we followed suit.
We have all had a tough year, but family carers have walked a particularly hard road during this pandemic. I held a meeting with hundreds of them last week and they told me that the prospect of the vaccine is the light at the end of a long and dark tunnel. They said that it was like a punch in the stomach to be told that they would have to wait to be vaccinated along with the general population. They feel their lives and the clear risks they face do not matter.
Yesterday the Taoiseach referred to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and described it as a "game changer". Today, I am asking for a game changer for family carers. This means ensuring they are prioritised for vaccination. I ask the Taoiseach to give family carers the certainty they need and to confirm that they will have a place on the priority list to be vaccinated.