I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and colleagues for the opportunity to update the House on the Government's response to the roll-out of the national vaccination programme and to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, the Government announced a plan that we all hope will be a permanent path out of this pandemic. Because people to date have backed the level 5 measures advised by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, the public health doctors, Ireland now has one of the lowest Covid rates in Europe. While other countries, sadly, are imposing new lockdowns, in Ireland we are having a national conversation about a cautious, but steady, path out of the pandemic. The progress made in fighting Covid has been hard won by every person and household across the nation playing their part. We need to protect that progress and to protect the prospect of having what could be a really a good summer. For that to happen, the advice from NPHET is clear; as a nation, we need to keep the virus down for that bit longer. The analysis from NPHET shows that every week we can do this makes a difference. Every week we do this makes it possible to consider more and better options for the summer. Every week we do this gives time for enough people, particularly those most vulnerable to Covid, to be vaccinated. As the acting chief medical officer said this week, the next six to eight weeks are vital.
To that end, I thank colleagues across the House for their broad support of the measures announced this week. Many of our neighbours in Europe are suffering brutal resurgences of Covid-19. Some are experiencing a very real shortage of hospital beds, including critical care beds. I take this opportunity to ask colleagues across the political spectrum for their help in engaging with people to reinforce this important message. While the end may be in sight - we hope it is in sight - the Covid situation in Ireland is still highly volatile. It would take very little for another surge to happen here and so it is as important as ever, possibly even more important than ever, that we stick with the measures in place for that bit longer.
On a positive note, I was glad to note on Tuesday evening that the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in hospitals had dropped below 300, for the first time this year, to 290 . Our national vaccination programme is a huge achievement. It represents our best line of defence within our ongoing comprehensive public health programme. Our national vaccination programme will not replace our existing public health guidance in the short term, but it will allow us all to resume a sense of normality in the future.