Mandatory Hotel Quarantine Extension: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann resolves that the relevant period, within the meaning of section 9 of the Health (Amendment) Act 2021 (No. 1 of 2021), shall stand extended for the period beginning on the 1st day of August, 2021 and ending on the 31st day of October, 2021.

On behalf of the Minister for Health, I propose a motion to extend the Health (Amendment) Act 2021, which provides for mandatory hotel quarantine, to 31 October 2021. The Act contains a sunset clause at section 9 and unless extended by a resolution, passed by each House of the Oireachtas before 31 July 2021, it will lapse on that date.

The Act allows for the extension of up to a maximum of three months. This would be the second extension. It has already been extended once, from 8 June 2021 to 31 July 2021. The Act requires travellers, who in the 14 days prior to their arrival in Ireland have been in one or more designated states, to quarantine in a designated facility for 14 days. The quarantine period is reduced if a negative Covid-19 test is returned after ten days. Those who do not present evidence of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours prior to arrival are required to quarantine in a designated facility until they return a negative test. A number of exemptions from the obligation to quarantine are in place, including for those who have received a full course vaccine approved by the European Medicines Agency, EMA.

Mandatory hotel quarantine has been in operation since the 26 March 2021. It is an exceptional and temporary measure. It continues to be an important safeguard in managing the risk of importation of cases and variants of concern. A single-service provider is providing full-board accommodation service to guests in facilities, designated exclusively for the purpose of quarantine, as well as ground transportation, security services, and health and well-being services for guests within its facilities.

The provision of the Act allows travellers to request a review of decisions related to their quarantine. This can only be undertaken once quarantine has begun and on a limited number of grounds. Reviews are conducted by independent appeals officers. A seven-day week service is provided. Decisions must be returned within 24 hours of receipt of the request for review. Requests for review are based on specific grounds established in the law. Notice of rights and obligations is provided to passengers on arrival in the State, usually by the first team to encounter relevant passengers. This notice is also available on the Government quarantine information page.

The Department of Health has begun to issue the mandatory hotel quarantine experience survey to recent residents. This will be an ongoing process that will help ensure the quality of the service being delivered. Medical services are available on site 24-7. It is also possible for a person to leave quarantine in the case of medical emergency and to attend urgent medical appointments. Special arrangements have been made to allow those seeking international protection or unaccompanied minors to undertake their quarantine in alternative appropriate circumstances.

There is a strong case for the continuation of mandatory hotel quarantine until the 31 October 2021. From December 2020 to 15 May 2021, 93 travel-related outbreaks and 327 cases were recorded. These were linked to 30 countries. There were 39 further travel-related outbreaks linked to 132 cases reported to the public health department in June 2021. Up to 12 July 2021, 8,395 people have quarantined in designated facilities. Of these residents, 376 have tested positive for Covid-19. Experience has shown that had those persons not been quarantined, a significant number of additional cases in the community would have resulted.

From March to June 2021, of the samples suitable for whole genome sequencing, the Alpha variant was detected in 30.1% of cases. Beta or Gamma was detected in 24.7% of the cases, while Delta or Kappa was detected in 8.2% in travellers from 35 countries. Without mandatory hotel quarantine, there is a risk that new variants could be imported and would not be identified. In addition, many countries have been unable to adequately monitor new variants, which adds to the risk of circulation.

Mandatory hotel quarantine is creating space for the continued great progress of our vaccination programme. We can be proud that more than 4.73 million vaccine doses have been administered, despite the significant challenges of the HSE cyberattack. As of 13 July, more than 2.6 million people had received a first dose, with more than 2 million fully vaccinated. This means that in excess of 71% of the eligible population has received a first dose, while more than 56% have been fully vaccinated.

Currently, 61 states have been designated by a risk assessment in respect of Covid incidence rates and variants of concern. However, following consideration of the predominance of the Delta variant in Ireland, the progress of our vaccination programme and the Government's commitment to aligning with the EU approach, a review of the list of designated states is under way.

We are disappointed and frustrated with how the motion has been proposed. The way the Government has been handling wide-reaching emergency legislation in recent weeks, via motions and guillotined debates, shows contempt for the Opposition. No Opposition briefing has been provided in advance of the motion to inform us of the up-to-date epidemiological circumstances in countries on the designated state list, yet we are expected to vote in favour of it, which would again extend the broad powers contained in the Health (Amendment) Act 2021 to people arriving from 61 countries throughout the world. These are significant matters but that is not reflected in this one-line motion and this is not the way to do business.

The introduction of mandatory hotel quarantine during the height of the crisis here was the correct decision. It has left us in a stronger position to move ahead with the reopening of travel from next week and, as the Minister of State outlined, it played an important role at a time when we were in the early stages of the vaccine roll-out and even before that - with the risk of the Alpha, Beta and Gamma variants - when it contributed significantly to protecting the vaccine roll-out. We support mandatory hotel quarantine going forward and believe there is a place for it in certain circumstances during the ongoing pandemic, as many countries are going to continue to face considerable challenges, whether that is rampant spread or new variants. As I said, however, these powers are very far reaching, and expecting us to rubber-stamp a motion such as this, with little to no debate, is simply not appropriate.

It seems many of the issues with the current system have not yet been addressed. People who have been fully vaccinated with WHO-approved, but not EMA-approved, vaccines are still required to go into mandatory hotel quarantine and this is a source of frustration for people. I ask the Minister of State to continue with efforts to resolve this, presumably by working with European counterparts and colleagues. People who have to travel for medical issues that do not fall under the current exemptions are still not provided for, resulting in numerous problems and confusion in this area. The lack of clarity over how countries are designated or removed from the list remains vague, something on which we have called for increased transparency.

As our office, like others I am sure, has been inundated with complaints about issues with the system, I welcome that a survey on user satisfaction is to be commenced among people who are or have been in mandatory hotel quarantine. It would be appropriate and useful if there were a dedicated point of contact for representatives because many queries arise from time to time. Moreover, the information provided online about the rules and exemptions needs to be improved. That will be an increasingly important feature as we move past 19 July. I accept that the Department of Foreign Affairs web page and gov.ie have information, while the Re-open EU app is useful and provides information. It is important that the information be widely available for people because it will be a source of frustration.

As I said, we would have liked the opportunity to contribute more significantly to this as a policy. For the Government to take as a given that we would support every measure at the outset and rubber-stamp them at every opportunity when it brings them to the House is not good enough. We need a proper debate on these issues. We could have had that, with opportunity for input from the Opposition, but we have been curtailed, as we have been this morning. That is a source of frustration for all of us in the Opposition.

I am sharing time with Deputy Barry.

The socialist left is the only political force in Ireland that has consistently told the truth to people about Covid. That was epitomised by the discussion on the reopening of hospitality in November of last year, when the Government bowed to private business lobbying and reopened at the cost of more than 2,000 unnecessary, fully avoidable deaths. The rest of the Opposition went along with that and, in general, the approach in the course of the pandemic was to go along with the basic thrust of whatever the Government was doing, whatever lobbying was taking place, and then perhaps to pick this or that aspect to oppose to pose some form of opposition.

The same is happening right now. It is only we who are saying clearly that it is not safe to reopen indoor hospitality. That is not a truth we want to say or a situation we want to be in but it is the truth. Let us look at what is happening throughout the world. The figures from the Netherlands today show a 500% increase in the number of Covid cases in one week as a result of the reopening of indoor hospitality or with that as a key cause. What is very frustrating about that from our point of view is that the policies we advocated, namely, a zero Covid approach based on socialist policies that puts people's interests first, we would not be in these circumstances. We are faced with telling the truth to people about the difficult choices that need to be made, as a result of bad decisions taken again and again that put private profit first, when we could be in very different circumstances.

I want to be concrete about that; it is not some abstract point. Seven weeks ago, we first raised in the Dáil that we had a crisis on her hands with the spread of the Delta variant in Britain and we needed to do something to slow the spread. We said we needed to bring in mandatory hotel quarantine for England, Scotland and Wales. If we had done that five, six or seven weeks ago - even possibly four weeks ago - we would not be in the circumstances we are in today. We would not have to say it is not safe to reopen indoor hospitality. I warned the Taoiseach on 16 June that if the gamble not to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine did not pay off, we would be in a crisis, with negative consequences for people's health and long Covid, and there would be additional unnecessary deaths. Here we are at precisely that point.

We are opposed to the Government's mandatory hotel quarantine because it is ineffective, it is privatised and outsourced and it is not part of the public health system or under the democratic control and oversight of trade unionists, human rights and civil liberty activists and so on. In effect, without effective mandatory hotel quarantine, which would include proper quarantine of England, Scotland and Wales, we are left with a kind of racist theatre that has the pretence of doing something when, in reality, we have plague island next door, with Delta cases coming in freely, and we wonder why we are in the circumstances we are in.

Currently, there are 61 countries on the red list. The vast majority are from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The only European countries are Turkey and Russia. As the richer countries get their people vaccinated, the mandatory hotel quarantine system impacts more heavily on those from poorer countries and, while certainly not exclusively, on people of colour. As time goes on this will increasingly be the case. Mandatory hotel quarantine will impact hardest on our migrant communities, again, especially those from Africa, Asia and Latin America and disproportionately on people of colour. It will not really be possible for the vast majority of people to travel for events like weddings and funerals. These are real impositions, especially when alternatives are available. Home quarantining is seen as something of a joke but that need not be the case. There is talk of €22.5 million being spent on extending mandatory hotel quarantine. If the bulk of that money was put into funding HSE quarantine check teams instead of outsourcing work to big private hotel groups, home quarantine could become a realistic option, focusing in particular on people travelling from areas where there are variants on concern.

I thank the Minister of State for bringing this motion to the House and for her opening remarks. I thank everyone involved in the mandatory hotel quarantining system, specifically hotel staff, Department officials, private security firms and members of the Defence Forces. It is important to remember that the mandatory hotel quarantining system was established at the peak of the third wave. Despite all its imperfections, which everyone can appreciate at this stage, it has achieved many limited goals. First, it has assisted in reducing the severity and duration of the third wave earlier this year. I think everyone can appreciate that. Second, it has detected over 350 active Covid cases. As a result of preventing those cases from infecting further people in the community downstream, it has reduced the number of active Covid cases being imported to this country. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it has delayed the onset of the fourth wave which is commencing now. That delay is important because it has allowed our vaccination programme to scale up and has bought us time.

I fully appreciate there are imperfections with hotel quarantining. First, the common travel area has complicated matters remarkably from a public health perspective, particularly in light of what is happening in England and how it is addressing the issue. That is beyond our control, however. We have been in a common travel area for a long time and I fully appreciate the complexities associated with that. The second big issue is the wide open land Border with Northern Ireland, which gives people the opportunity to circumvent our mandatory hotel quarantining system and complicates the process. I very much agree with Deputy O'Rourke that there are minor peripheral issues that need to be resolved. If the system is extended again, perhaps we can address those in the future.

I look forward to the time when mandatory hotel quarantining will not be required. With the success of our vaccination programme, which is the envy of the world, this country is approaching herd immunity and will achieve it in the next couple of months. Does the Minister of State have in mind a ballpark date for commencing the wind-down of mandatory hotel quarantining, bearing in mind that we are approaching herd immunity in this jurisdiction?

I support the motion. It is prudent and sensible, particularly with the onset of the fourth wave. I hope it will not have to be extended beyond 31 October because at that stage it will have done its job, we will have achieved herd immunity and we can get on with our lives.

Some Deputies will be caught unawares because the debate has moved quickly. I will slowly move on through the next slots. Unfortunately, no one is here. I will ask the Minister of State to reply unless we have another speaker.

The House is running ahead of schedule. I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on this motion. Hotel quarantine has been fairly well debated over the last while. There is something I cannot understand. We have been contacted by many people about this issue, for instance, people who were travelling from Abu Dhabi or countries in that region and had parents going into hospital for a serious operation. They had been vaccinated, and were actually fully vaccinated long before many EU citizens, but the vaccine was not recognised by the EU. This put them in a quagmire when it came to quarantine.

We have to look at whether we are closing the country or not. People can travel from abroad into the North and come down across the Border pretty handy with no major problem. We cannot account for everyone in a country but most people are fairly responsible. I heard a discussion on "The Pat Kenny Show" on my way to Dublin. The person being interviewed said she did not know if vaccinated people from the UK with a certificate still needed to quarantine here. Some things are still not clear. We have to start moving on. The Delta variant is here and hopefully we will get on top of it. In my opinion, however, you either do full duck or no dinner and we never did the full duck. The half-hearted quarantine system that we are using is basically a token gesture.

I feel for Irish people abroad, especially those in Abu Dhabi and countries in that region. Some are teaching and some want to come home. This is their country. They are paying large sums to quarantine. There is an appeals system but I do not know how it works, to be frank, because the answer that emerges from it is generally "No". People might make an appeal for someone whose mother or father is having an operation. No one knows how things like this will go in a hospital. Thankfully, in some of the cases we were involved in, everything went well but if someone is trying to come home to see their parents before a serious operation, we should accommodate them in a special way and have our arms open to those who are vaccinated.

There should be more research done to find out if the vaccines used in these other countries stand up. The EU, rather than wobbling and twisting about the vaccine, should recognise these vaccines. The statistics from those countries, if they are to be believed, show the different vaccines are as good as the ones that are available in Europe. We have to move on as a country. We have to get up and running and get open. We introduced hotel quarantining too late. The time to stop the Delta variant was a good while ago.

It is here now so we would not be stopping something from coming in. Ireland, as a country, now has to move on, open up and bring people in to try to get the tourism sector and all the other sectors up and running.

This was meant to be a debate of one hour and 45 minutes. It is now down to 45 minutes. As usual, everything is rushed, fumbled and illogical. There is confusion. It is unreal. The Government should be named "the Government of Utter and Total Confusion".

On mandatory hotel quarantine, I am not going to be a hypocrite. I called for it at the very start when we were locking down our people. We allowed open borders. I will not be a hypocrite. I called for mandatory hotel quarantine and said we should have it. Many people were aghast and could not believe we had open borders when there were so many restrictions, affecting everything from worship and matches to games, work, school and play of any kind. I raised this with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, formerly the Taoiseach, on this floor. We were told we were good Europeans and had to do it. I always referred to how Hungary and Poland proceeded. We could not do that. We introduced quarantining late in the day. We tendered it out and got a company to administer it. I have heard nothing but complaints about it. Young Irish teachers out in Dubai who are trying to come home for the summer have to quarantine. Some have children. This is expensive. No thought at all was put into the costs involved, including the human and psychological costs. There is the financial cost also. People cannot afford to stay in hotels. They could quarantine at home just as well. Now we are extending the timeframe in the legislation again until October, I believe. I am not sure of the date. I am totally opposed to the extension because it is too late. Anybody who is a sheep farmer will know that if you let one sheep out the gap, the others will all go after it and make a bigger gap. You would want a good sheepdog to bring them back.

There was confusion this morning again over what is happening with the reopening of hospitality. There is utter confusion. It is not fair to the public. There are plenty of paid civil servants and there are advisers by the dozen. They are not in sync. The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, is saying one thing and the Tánaiste is saying another. It is really a vying for the airwaves. NPHET is also vying for the airwaves. I am opposed to the extension because it is illogical. It is too little too late. If the system had been run properly at first, we might have been in a different place.

My main concern about the continuation of this legislation is based on the experiences I have had over recent weeks and months. I will give an example. I encountered very special circumstances where a family member wanted to come back to be with a dying parent. It did not happen because of the quarantining. The person could not even come home for the burial because of the quarantining. An exception could have been made in that instance. A case was made but it was not accepted.

Every one of us is for nothing else but putting in place the best public health and safety regulations but there can be exceptions to everything, and they can be handled properly and well. We have had people quarantining in houses. A person in a house getting ready to leave this world could have been allowed a visit by a relative who could have quarantined in that house. There was a total lack of compassion, understanding and communication. We have enough people working for the State and in Departments to deal with circumstances of special concern that are brought to their attention. We have the machinery of State to help those affected. Unfortunately, in the system of mandatory quarantine in hotels, there has been no compassion or understanding. I am very angry about that. How could we be expected to rubber-stamp this measure and allow it to continue for the forthcoming months into the fall of the year? That is why I would not support it. That is why I would oppose it. That is why I would not agree with it.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions and for the challenges voiced. It made for an interesting discussion, which is important. On behalf of the Minister for Health, I thank the guests of the designated hotel facilities who continue to do what the legislation asked them to do. We know it was not easy. We put in a strict and comprehensive set of procedures at the designated facilities. The vast majority of the residents have co-operated with the challenging measures without question.

Deputy Berry asked if I could supply a definite end date. I hope this is the last time this legislation will need to be extended. As the Minister indicated, any further extensions would be proposed based on a strong public health rationale at the time.

Given the Covid-19 experiences in other countries, Ireland has done relatively well. This is partly due to the measures we have put in place, including mandatory hotel quarantine. Much credit is due to our front-line healthcare workers for their skill and dedication. They have been under enormous pressure for such a long time.

I thank the Departments of Defence, Foreign Affairs, Justice, Transport and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth for their valuable assistance in the implementation of the mandatory hotel quarantine system. Many thanks are also due to An Garda Síochána, the Border Management Unit, the Garda National Immigration Bureau, the Revenue Commissioners, Customs and Excise, the HSE and the National Ambulance Service. Special thanks go to our Defence Forces for performing the important State liaison officer role.

Several questions were asked. I sought responses while I was here. I believe Deputies Fitzmaurice and Michael Healy-Rae talked about the appeals system. An average of 30 appeals are managed per day. The service operates seven days per week and the statutory turnaround time of 24 hours is being achieved without difficulty. A panel of barristers is in place that is well versed in the processing of appeals. The chief appeals officer role is now filled by an official within the Department of Health. As of 12 July, there were 2,839 appeals, 417 of which were granted and 2,422 of which were refused. This is a grant rate of 14%.

The same Deputies asked why only certain vaccines are being recognised in Ireland. Ireland's procedure for Covid-19 vaccines is based on participation in an EU procurement process and approval by the Commission following a recommendation by the EMA. Covid-19 vaccines can be approved and used only if they comply with all the requirements concerning quality, safety and efficiency set out in the EU pharmaceutical legislation. No vaccine will be used until market authorisation by the EMA is obtained, and any authorised vaccines will be subject to ongoing monitoring in Ireland by the Health Products Regulatory Authority. The delivery of vaccines under the advance purchase agreements that the Commission has negotiated on behalf of member states are predicated on a conditional marketing authorisation being obtained by the Commission. The awarding of the conditional marketing authorisation provides a high level of assurance that vaccines have undergone rigorous testing and meet the requirements of an independent regulatory process as regards demonstration.

I thank the staff of the port authorities, the DAA and our commercial partner, Tifco, which has provided accommodation infrastructure and support services of a high standard that have underpinned mandatory hotel quarantine.

These organisations have worked collaboratively with officials in the Department of Health to enable us to establish and manage the operational aspects of the hotel quarantine system to an incredibly high standard, and have helped us to maintain Ireland's strong response to the pandemic.

Question put.

A division has been called. In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time this evening.

Sitting suspended at 9.51 a.m. and resumed at 10 a.m.