I genuinely welcome the fact that this legislation on hotel quarantine has been brought here today but it is not enough. It is nowhere near enough. What has been proposed in respect of mandatory hotel quarantine is the absolute minimum. It is a lax regime that will only cover 20 countries. We do not know when it will be put in place. Perhaps when the Minister responds on Committee Stage, he might clarify when he expects it to be in place.
It has taken nine months to get here. NPHET recommended this nine months ago. It is startling that we are here today. I understand that the Minister spoke with his counterpart in New Zealand on this issue recently. That is a positive development. However, the fact that this regime was only considered recently does not show urgency. It is a real worry, given the emergence of the variants. We are facing a pandemic within a pandemic in respect of the variants. It is a genuine worry. I would like to know, step by step, what the Government and various different Departments - because I respect that this issue falls across a number of Departments - were doing on the issue of hotel quarantine over the past nine months. Is it true that there was a significant opposition to this measure within the Civil Service, as well as from a political perspective, in some quarters?
The country will struggle to believe why the Government has failed to act decisively and competently on this issue, especially when people have made such sacrifices and have taken hope from the roll-out of the vaccine. Everyone is talking about it. It is unacceptable that doors have been left open in such a haphazard way and with such inadequate protections. I have no doubt but that psychologically, there has been some opposition to this within the Government. I question why this has happened.
If one speaks to members of the public, one will see that people coming into the country are normally most welcome. Those who come into the country now are still welcome but they must abide by what is required, which is quarantine. Considering that on one side of the equation, people are welcome into the country, and on the other side, people must stay within 5 km of their homes, the public do not understand it. They cannot comprehend it and they certainly do not appreciate it.
I want to say something to the Minister, and it is not meant disrespectfully at all. I am perplexed as to why the Minister is bringing this legislation to the House. If I was having a heart-to-heart with him, I would tell him that he could have done without having to bring this legislation in. To be fair to the Minister, I do not believe that this legislation should have been dumped on him. The responsibility should fall with the Departments of Justice or of Transport, but particularly with the Department of Justice. It is complex legislation and the Minister has enough on his plate. I will criticise him and compliment him but I want to be fair on this issue. It is not legislation that the Minister or his Minister of State should be introducing to this House. He has been treated unfairly. His colleagues in the two other parties have dumped this on him. That is not a good sign for collegiality in this pandemic. It is a very bad sign, given all of the Minister's current responsibilities.
I was much taken by what the Tánaiste said on two radio programmes this morning, when he stated that he does not believe in mandatory quarantine because he thought a differential approach is necessary. He referred to the approaches taken in the Isle of Man and Iceland. Jesus, that is laughable. The next thing we know, we will be going on an Oireachtas field trip to the Isle of Man so see why there are no infections there. The issue at hand is not about the Isle of Man or Iceland. The issue is that a structure must be put in place to prevent infection coming into the country. Most importantly, it is about preventing the variants coming into the country, because the variants are on tour. I have criticised the fact that 2,000 people from Brazil have been allowed to come into the country without mandatory quarantine, primarily to work in meat factories. The reality is that there are many variants now. There is talk of Bristol and California variants. Hopefully they can be dealt with, but they could come in from anywhere. The British variant is now the dominant variant. It did not just come here by itself. It had to come through human contact, as Dr. Gabriel Scally has stated. Why do we have a choice between locking up our people within 5 km or putting in place a regime to ensure that people must mandatorily quarantine to protect our people?
The public is of the view that the Government strategy is wrong, as it has said all along, but the Government is deciding, for some psychological reason, that it had better put the people who are coming into the country, even for non-essential travel, above the people living in this country, whose movements are restricted to within 5 km. That is the equation and it is damn well wrong. All the surveys that have been done show that the public supports what I and other members of the Opposition are saying on this issue. In an Ireland Thinks poll on 18 January, for example, 90% of those surveyed agreed that people coming to Ireland should have to quarantine in a hotel. Other polls show similar results. People were rightly outraged a number of weeks ago by Conor McMorrow's report for "Prime Time", a programme in which I participated. That report really brought to light and into people's homes the reality of the volume of people coming into the country after nice little breaks in Lanzarote and other places. It got a degree of agitation going to ensure the Government looked at increasing fines but what it is introducing does not go far enough.
We need to protect our own people. We, as legislators, and the Minister and his colleagues, as the Government, have a duty to protect our own people to the maximum. This legislation fails to do so. That is why we in the Labour Party, together with others, will be introducing an amendment to the Bill to make hotel quarantine mandatory, except for essential and logistic workers. We are failing our people. I have a question that I must ask in this regard. If the variants get a further foothold in the country in the coming weeks and months and become a real issue for the implementation of the plan that was announced yesterday, will the Minister and the Government accept that they have failed the people? I am saying this now to give him an opportunity to take it on board. If we keep going along the road he is going and these variants transfer into our country on a larger scale, it will be a failure on his part and, to be fair to him, a failure of the Government.
Apart from all the variants, there is also an issue in that when people arrive into the country, they must, on the basis of an honour-bound system, quarantine themselves, which is legally covered, but the Government does not, for some reason, require them to go for PCR testing. Surely that is just illogical. Surely the Government could put in place a structure to ensure such testing is mandatory in all cases and a regime to implement it. I ask the Minister at least to consider that. It is a fair consideration to put forward because this is a key component of the weakness that is in the Government plan. I will not restate what I said this morning in regard to the seven different actions we would put forward to stem and suppress the virus. I will say that, above all, we need to deal with this issue of travel. Whatever jigsaw of measures is put in place, if we are not dealing with the issue of travel in a concrete, efficient and deliberate way through a regime of hotel quarantine, we are leaving ourselves open to failure and to letting down the people.
The Minister said in his statement that this is a radical legislative provision. It might be such in normal times but when it comes to protecting our own people, a year into a pandemic where I have never seen people so worried, stressed, depressed, upset and disillusioned, it cannot be called radical legislation. In fact, it is anything but radical. It is weak legislation because it does not change much at all. It would be radical to have legislation to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for everyone. I ask the Minister to reflect on that. My party and I will be putting down an amendment to that effect and we will be pushing it.