Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann resolves that Part 2 of the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021 (No. 24 of 2021) shall continue in operation for the period beginning on the 10th day of October, 2021 and ending on the 9th day of January, 2022.

The purpose of this motion is to extend the sunset clause of part 2 of the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021, which is due to expire on 9 October and which provides that each House of the Oireachtas may, on or before, 9 October 2021, pass a resolution to continue part 2 in operation for a period not exceeding three months. Part 2 of the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021 provides for the reopening of indoor hospitality under certain conditions. In essence, the Act gives effect to the Government's decision to enable access to relevant indoor premises for fully vaccinated persons and persons who are immune from Covid-19, on the basis they have recovered from Covid-19, as well as certain children and staff. It enabled the reopening of indoor hospitality premises such as pubs, cafés, restaurants and other licensed premises in a safe and sustainable manner and, importantly, in line with public health advice. The Act placed the reopening of indoor hospitality on a safer footing and path against the backdrop of the Delta variant, which has continued to circulate extensively, as we know all too well, especially among people who have either not yet been vaccinated or who are not fully protected by vaccination. The Act and the associated regulations were of vital importance in ensuring that hospitality businesses could reopen safely and begin to recover from a very difficult, but unfortunately necessary, period of closure for everyone working in that sector.

The decision to require proof of vaccination or recovery to access indoor hospitality arose in the context of advice from NPHET on 28 June last. That advice was that indoor activities "which, by their nature are high risk activities which will involve significant levels of social mixing in indoor environments, should only be permitted for those who have been fully protected by vaccination or who have had COVID-19 infection in the previous nine months". NPHET advised that easing of these measures should only proceed when supported by a robust, non-reproducible and enforceable system of verification of vaccination or immunity status. The Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021 embodies this system of verification.

In passing the legislation in July, the House recognised the intrinsic value of its provisions in getting indoor hospitality businesses open, while at the same time protecting public health from a variant that continues to be dangerous, unpredictable and virulent. The measures in the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021 balance both of these requirements and have enabled and permitted indoor hospitality premises to continue trading while maximising the opportunity to protect public health.

We have lived through remarkable and somewhat unprecedented times. We cannot overestimate the burden and serious threat Covid-19 has been up to now and that it continues to be to the health and well-being, first and foremost, of our society and, second, of our economy, particularly if we let our guard down. Recent public health advice is that the public health management of Covid-19 in Ireland should transition, in broad terms, from a focus on regulation and population-wide restrictions to a focus on public health advice, personal judgment and personal protective behaviours, subject to certain criteria.

I have highlighted previously the fact that Ireland is not alone in this crisis. Indeed, all across Europe and much of the rest of the world, Covid-19 has adversely impacted on societies and economies and has taken the most brutal of tolls. The Government agreed Ireland’s next plan in its response to the pandemic, which is entitled Covid-19: Reframing the Challenge, Continuing Our Recovery and Reconnecting. This recognises that Covid-19 has had a global impact - sending shock waves around the world - with its effects felt in every corner of society. More than 5,000 people have lost their lives in Ireland during this pandemic and many more are living with the impact of the disease physically and mentally. We can only imagine the trauma of families and communities who have been directly affected. That is a matter is for another day, but we need to be discussing and moving on long Covid as well. The latter will require significant focus.

Ireland has endured a profound shock to its social and economic life as we continue to deal with the impact of the disease at an individual, community and societal level. It has had an impact on almost all aspects of our lives and, for many people, their livelihoods. Our strategy to manage the adverse impacts of Covid-19 has been guided by an evolving understanding of the disease and its emerging variants, the impacts of restrictions on health and well-being and other aspects of society and the economy.

This House will be all too familiar with the fact that extraordinary measures to protect public health and the most vulnerable in our society from this disease and its effects have been introduced.

These were difficult and challenging decisions made in a crisis scenario and with an evolving understanding of the disease, its impact, how best to manage it, what vaccines might offer in terms of protection and what variants might do to undermine our plans. As Covid-19: Reframing the Challenge, Continuing Our Recovery and Reconnecting recognises, the public health management of the Covid-19 pandemic has evolved and must continue to evolve in light of changing circumstances and risks.

Covid-19: Reframing the Challenge, Continuing Our Recovery and Reconnecting includes a series of planned measures, such as the transitioning of the public health response and interim arrangements pending transition. For indoor hospitality, the Government’s agreed plan specifies that "No further changes are proposed to the current arrangements in respect of the hospitality sector until the final transition point is reached". The Government decided to remove further statutory restrictions in respect of events and activities from 22 October 2021 on the basis of meeting certain criteria. These include the achievement of, or close to, 90% of people aged 16 and over being fully vaccinated. In effect, the statutory regime in place to support the protection of public health is to be largely wound down in line with agreed removal of restrictions, as appropriate. The Chief Medical Officer, CMO, has advised that the future trajectory of the disease cannot be predicted with certainty. As a result, a response to the disease that is agile and flexible, with an ability to pivot rapidly and respond to any new emerging threats, needs to be ensured.

The Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021 is an important part of any response, should the potential for one arise in the future. While that is unlikely, it cannot be fully ruled out because of the uncertainty of the future trajectory of the virus in light of how novel it is. The following point is important. I want to assure the House and colleagues that existing regulations under the Act are due to be revoked with effect from 22 October, in line with the Government’s plan for this phase of Covid-19. Obviously, that is pending final Government approval and final analysis from our public health teams. However, the intention is that the restrictions on indoor hospitality will end on 22 October. We are not seeking, by means of this motion, to extend the timeline past 22 October. Rather, we are looking to extend the legal framework, should that be required, in the subsequent 12 weeks.

It is proposed to continue the provisions of the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021 for a period of three months, without any regulations providing for restrictions on the indoor hospitality sector being imposed. The continuance in operation of the Act is solely to align with the public health advice that the possibility of the reintroduction of any given measure cannot be fully ruled out at this point. The purpose of the continuance is to enable us to respond to the disease and what challenges its transmission might pose. In effect, we must continue to ensure our response is agile and flexible, with an ability to pivot rapidly and respond to any emerging threat that might arise.

It is in this context that the motion to extend the operation of Part 2 of the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021 has been presented to this House. The continuance in operation of the Act maintains the potential and flexibility to respond to an emerging Covid-19 threat that could jeopardise public health and safety were it to go unchecked. The Government, while working to reframe the challenge and reopen society, must also act cautiously and prudently to ensure that the most vulnerable continue to be protected to the best of our ability, should the need for that arise as a result of the behaviour of this unpredictable and virulent virus.

We are doing well in terms of the trajectory of this disease. Members will be aware that Government was presented with four potential scenarios, namely, optimistic, central 1, central 2, and pessimistic. Decisions taken at that time, including, for example, opening up hospitality in a safe way, were taken with a view to maximising the potential for the trajectory to meet the optimistic scenario in order to save as many lives as possible, to avoid as much serious illness as possible, to protect our healthcare system and to be able to reopen our schools, colleges and society. That has been the strategy. I am happy to be able to report to colleagues that we are broadly in line with the optimistic scenario as a result of having taken those policy decisions. We all welcomed Bloomberg's recent ranking of Ireland in the context of its response to Covid-19. The measures that have been taken that over the past number of months - which we all debated before the summer recess - have done what they were meant to do.

The purpose of the motion before the House is simply to extend the legal framework. I cannot pre-empt a Government decision on public health advice. What I can say to colleagues is that so far, the trajectory of the disease as we come closer to 22 October, is broadly tracking the optimistic scenario. This is encouraging. We would all pay tribute to the fact that this has only happened because individuals, communities, families, schools and businesses have continued to adhere to the public health advice. That puts us in this position.

If the Government makes the decision coming up to 22 October to stick with that date, then the existing restrictions on the hospitality sector will be removed at that point. The motion does not seek to extend those restrictions at all; it simply seeks a 13-week extension of the legal framework in the event that something should happen during the winter. We are coming into a tough time. The legal framework is a safety net to be kept in place for 13 weeks in order to see us through November, December and the start of January. I am seeking agreement from the House that we would do that. I reiterate that I am asking this on the basis of the public health advice from the CMO.

I thank the Minister and call on Deputy Cullinane. Is the Deputy sharing with Deputy Ward?

I am indeed. I have ten minutes and Deputy Ward will have 15.

Deputy Ward will have five minutes.

Ten and five, apologies. It is 15 minutes in total.

That was optimistic.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. First, I want to say that it is important for us to reflect on what we have achieved over the past 20 months and on the difficult and traumatic experience that society and people have gone through. It is hard to believe that the first case of Covid-19 was reported 20 months ago. It has been more than 19 months since the first restrictions were imposed. We all remember that we were hopeful that the restrictions would be lifted in a matter of weeks, or maybe in a matter of months. At that point, I do not think anybody would have predicted that 19 months later we would still be sitting here in the Dáil, in limited circumstances, with restrictions put in place, albeit with a date of the 22 October for the lifting of the remaining restrictions.

All of this shows how agile we are as a people. We can respond and deal with all of this trauma in the best way we can. We have seen the best of many people right through this difficult period. I am also conscious that we are not yet fully through Covid. Many people might see 22 October as independence day, which, in many ways, it is. However, we will have to have to remain vigilant and ensure that we continue to monitor the trajectory of the disease. What we can say for certain is that the vaccine roll-out, as well as the almost unprecedented, incredible take-up of that vaccine in this State, has put us in this strong position.

I have said to the Minister numerous times that the political unity, by and large - although there have been differences - we have had throughout the past 19 or 20 months has, in and of itself, played a huge part. While we have had disagreements, we have all been able to get through the last 19 or 20 months in the best way we can. I remember that before a single dose of the vaccine arrived, opinion polls conducted by certain newspapers indicated that the vaccine uptake would be maybe 40%, 50% or 60%. It was also stated that there would be huge levels of vaccine hesitancy. This has not happened. It has not happened because of the leadership that was given by the politicians but, more importantly, by the medical professionals and those who were able to stand up, speak clearly and communicate to people the benefits of getting vaccinated. It is tremendous to see what we have been able to do.

I cannot support this motion and the Minister set out the reason in his opening remarks. The current regulations cease to exist on 9 October, and I get that, while the restrictions in this area and many other areas are due to be lifted on 22 October, and I get that also. There will, therefore, be a gap of a couple of weeks. However, the Minister is seeking a three-month extension to bring us up to 9 January 2022. That is a move I cannot support. On the first day the Minister's predecessor brought forward proposals for emergency powers, we all accepted that they could only be in place for as long as they were necessary and that we could not continue to extend these powers and the sunset clauses forever and a day because they had to come to an end at some point. People expect those emergency powers will come to an end. It is not that they expect every and any restriction to cease because there will continue to be some public health measures in place, for example, mask wearing, but the vast majority of restrictions will come to an end.

The Minister stated that the reason for extending the restrictions to January 2022 is that "the re-introduction of any given measure cannot be fully ruled out". That is a factual statement and I accept it. This, he continued, is "in order to enable us to respond to the disease and what challenges its transmission might pose for us. In effect, we must continue to ensure our response is agile and flexible." The Act, the Minister added, "maintains the potential and flexibility to respond to an emerging Covid-19 threat."

The Minister knows - I say this with sincerity - that if there were to be a change in the trajectory of the disease, Members would be capable, as they have done in the past, of coming into the House to agree new regulations, powers, laws or whatever else might be necessary at a given time and would respond in the agile way described by the Minister, without being required to keep powers which we agreed from the start would not be kept longer than necessary. This is important for people's public confidence, having come through all that they have and done what was asked of them. The majority of people abided by the restrictions most of the time, which is what got us through this. They will want to know that when restrictions come to an end on 22 October, emergency powers will, insofar as possible, also come to an end and we will not keep them on the Statute Book. That would not be the right way to do it. At any point in the future, we can come back to these measures if public health advice changes. We hope and expect it will not, but I am confident, given where we are and our extremely high vaccine uptake, we will not have to consider the reintroduction of new measures in January next year. That is my hope and while we cannot rule anything out, I am sincerely of that view, as are the public health experts and, I am sure, the Minister. We are all in a positive mindset around where we will be in the time ahead.

Maintaining the powers provided for in this Act is wrong. We explained why we voted against extensions in the past and I will repeat those reasons to the Minister directly. What the House did was unprecedented. We passed legislation to give the Minister emergency powers to make regulations. We asked that he bring the regulations before the Dáil and Seanad in order for us to scrutinise them and afford us proper democratic scrutiny of regulations. At times, there has been confusion. We went through some of that during the summer when this confusion caused all sorts of unnecessary political turmoil, as the Minister will know. The confusion around regulations, guidelines and all of that arose because we did not have proper democratic debate in this House. Even Ministers, including the Tánaiste, were unaware of what was a guideline and what was a regulation, and what was right and what was wrong. It ended up creating unnecessary problems for everybody, including for the hospitality and entertainment sectors. We are being asked to do the same here. We may well see regulations in the future in which Members will have no hand, act or part. We will not be able to vote on them, debate them or respond to them in a democratic way, other than through the airwaves or if we are lucky enough to get an opportunity to converse with the Minister afterwards in the Chamber or through the media. That is not the way it should be done.

I would be remiss of me, in my last few minutes, not to mention the maternity restrictions. We know these restrictions are presenting a major difficulty and challenge for women and their partners. I was in Cork yesterday meeting the CEOs of hospitals and health campaigning groups as part of my role as Opposition health spokesperson. I met a number of women who have campaigned for these restrictions to be lifted. They are reasonable people and understand the practicality of infection control. They know there are issues in terms of unvaccinated pregnant women and possibly unvaccinated staff. They know there are infection control measures that will still need to be in place. However, they are looking towards 22 October, when restrictions will be lifted and people will be allowed to go to nightclubs, restaurants and bars unrestricted, yet there is absolutely no guarantee that we will have unrestricted access for partners of pregnant women at all stages of pregnancy. That is fundamentally wrong at this stage.

I am not an expert in infection control, and I understand we have to listen to experts, but we also have to listen to the experiences of women. My colleague, an Teachta Ó Laoghaire, recounted his personal experience of what he and his partner went through. Many other people have told their stories as well. This issue needs to be dealt with. When I met the women in Cork yesterday, they asked me who is in charge and who makes the decisions. The Minister says an easing is needed. The HSE clinical directors and others have said we can look at easing the restrictions. The entire political system seems to agree that it needs to be done, yet it has not happened and nor is there a date for it. We know what will happen on 22 October for the hospitality sector, including nightclubs, bars and restaurants. However, I cannot look a pregnant woman in the eye and say restrictions on her partner will also be lifted. That is wrong. There will be a protest tomorrow, as I am sure the Minister is aware, seeking common sense solutions. The Oireachtas and Minister should support these women and ensure those restrictions come to an end.

As my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, said, when the Covid outbreak first began and restrictions were introduced in response to the emergency, there was a lot of political unity because we did not know what we were dealing with and we were all pulling in the same direction. We agreed with some measures introduced by the Government, but there were times when there were disagreements and we challenged that when debates where allowed. We challenged the Government the last time the emergency powers were extended. At the time, we debated the reasons some people in the hospitality sector could work in a restaurant but could not eat in the same restaurant. We have moved on since then.

Some 87% of the eligible population are fully vaccinated. We need to recognise and reflect on that because we are moving out of the emergency and people are becoming optimistic. One can sense from the atmosphere in the country that people's moods are lifting. As the Sinn Féin spokesperson on mental health, I deal with people all the time and they now see light at the end of the tunnel. Extending these emergency powers sends out the wrong message. The Minister said he may not use these emergency powers and hopes he will not have to use them. It is as though we gave him a blank cheque the last time. This is a blank cheque that he will probably never have to cash.

We need to put our energy into how we will move out of Covid and into the next stage. We need to devise an exit plan for Covid. It should be for the 32 counties, on an all-island basis. We saw that having different restrictions and measures in both jurisdictions did not work. We need unity and an all-island approach to this matter.

We will also have to consider the long-term effects of Covid because we do not know how long Covid will impact on society and the Minister for Health's remit. I have a personal disclaimer to make on this because I have an interest in this topic as a person who recently had Covid. I visited my doctor yesterday and he told me we do not know what the long-term effects will be. I still have some lingering effects from Covid and hopefully, day by day, I will get better, but we do not know and that is the issue. We need to put in place a plan for how we will assist people and society to move on from the effects of Covid. We do not know its effects, as the Minister said, because it is a new virus.

In my last few minutes, I will comment on the extension of other emergency health legislation in respect of Part 5 of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 and its impact in respect of the Mental Health Act 2001. This provision was originally brought in to reduce the number of interactions that people were going to have in the context of Covid-19. It allows mental health tribunals to be reduced to a one-member paper-based tribunal and for minimum personal interaction between the relevant people. Since this measure was brought in, my understanding is that more than 800 tribunals have taken place and this emergency legislation has not been used once. It is, therefore, a power that has been extended but not used, so there is no point to it. It is proposed to extend the measure until 2022. I call for it to be repealed. It is not necessary and could have many unintended consequences. Representatives of Mental Health Reform stated at a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Health that "the legislation in itself continues to be problematic in its removal of safeguards for service users and its infringements of service users' rights, [such as] [...] the right to a tribunal". I urge the Minister to look at that.

That will be removed.

It will be removed in October. That is fine. I appreciate the Minister responding to me on this point. If this measure is removed in October, the powers will still remain in place until February 2022. It is similar to the powers in this legislation in that there is no need for them.

It is not necessarily in line with 22 October. Regarding the point made by the Deputy, however, great work has been done in this regard to ensure this provision did not have to be used. I will get a detailed note for the Deputy.

This brings me back to the mood of people in the State and that they are feeling lifted. When we extend emergency powers like this, the fear that people have is that such powers are being extended because they are going to be used. This is why we will not support this proposal.

I can only assume the Government has learned from what happened in December 2020 when decisions were made which were against public health advice. People may remember that we then had more cases of Covid-19 and more deaths from Covid in January 2021 than we did in all of 2020. I understand where the Government is coming from in this regard. It wants to end restrictions entirely on 22 October, while leaving the legal framework in place until early January 2022 in case anything happens. The Labour Party can understand where the Minister is coming from in this respect.

I advise some caution, however. Previous speakers mentioned the great vaccination rate we have, but we also have a level of vaccination hesitancy which must be tackled. I understand that 13% of young people are expressing vaccination hesitancy, with 8% of those aged between 18 and 24 years saying they have no intention of getting vaccinated, while another 5% state they are unsure. A recent survey showed that total of 13% overall. We must, therefore, move beyond this level of complacency. I am not necessarily saying the Minister is complacent but there may be a sense of complacency in wider society in respect of all of us being behind the vaccination drive and that everything is fine on that level. It is not, however. As late as last Saturday, I met a gentleman who proudly told me he was not vaccinated. While we have not had the same type of mass anti-vaccination protests in Ireland as in other European countries, it is an issue. We should not let up in stating why vaccination is important, particularly with regard to that cohort of young people who are more in touch with misinformation online concerning vaccination and campaigning videos and so on in the social media space. This is not something on which the Government or any of us in politics can take a complacent line.

Reflecting on the Minister's words about how far we have travelled, the last 20 months or so have possibly been the most traumatic period in any of our lives. It is having its effect. It is having a long-term effect, not just in the form of long Covid but also in the mental health strain being experienced by many families. Many Deputies will understand that. I spoke to the principal of a school on Thursday who referred to the number of suicide attempts he is encountering and dealing with in his school community. This is replicated throughout the country, with women in particular trying to kill themselves in recent months because of the level of strain and stress they were feeling. Children have been coming across these situations as well. Problematic, difficult and stressful situations in homes were exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19 and the feeling it was not possible to move outside the family space. People cracked as a result. I totally buy into the idea of having a feel-good factor. We are all going to football matches and restaurants again. We are all having coffee inside, meeting family and friends and hugging granny again. However, some people have cracked under the strain and we are still dealing with that.

Turning to my special area of interest, education, we spoke passionately in this House for months about the need for a catch-up fund. The Government delivered to a degree in that regard, but it is going to take years to repair the profound damage done to children, disadvantaged children in particular, in the education sector. Regarding a sector that has opened, the entertainment, restaurant and hospitality sector, we cannot return to the situation where workers in the sector, who are particularly vulnerable, were open to exploitation and receiving low pay. Statistics from the OECD suggest that 23% of Irish workers pre-Covid were on low pay. There is an epidemic of low pay across the very sector that was shut down for so long. We cannot ask those people now going back into the workforce to return to the vulnerability they felt in their workplaces before Covid struck.

We are minded to support what the Minister is doing based on him having learned the lesson from the catastrophic mistake made last year. The biggest criticism the Opposition can make of the Government is that it does not learn. If the Government has learned from the decisions it made last December and is mindful not to repeat them, the Labour Party is minded to support what it is doing.

I make the point again that we cannot have any complacency when it comes to the vaccination roll-out. That is particularly the case with young people who are being bombarded with messages from bad actors trying to influence them in a particular way. I remind the Minister of the statistics I spoke of earlier in that regard.

If we are talking about hospitality and encouraging people to go out and meet again, we must examine the vulnerability of people working in those sectors. We must look at the impact of long Covid, as the Minister also identified. We must also be mindful, however, that people in Irish society cracked under the strain of the impact of Covid-19. It is completely legitimate for people to put their hands up and say they did not cope during Covid-19 and just did not make it. We must deal with this issue and fund and resource approaches to addressing it. We must reflect on it and build something much better in future. As Members across the House will know, while many people working in communities and on the front line were dealing with the physical health needs of people in respect of Covid or the restrictive measures within schools or the community, many were also dealing with the mental health strain. That is something we must all deal with collectively in future.

We have made significant progress in the fight against Covid-19. I do not think anyone here can deny that. Challenges remain, however. Thanks to the determination of the Irish people and our healthcare professionals and prudent action by the Government, we have managed to mitigate some of the worst scenarios outlined in March 2020. It is noteworthy that in the time since then, we have seen fantastic uptake of vaccines against Covid-19.

This has allowed us to roll back many of the restrictions that had profound implications for so many people on this island but, in particular, the vulnerable, elderly and young. Many other countries are unfortunately not in the same position.

Given our success in tackling the spread of the virus and the fast and efficient roll-out of the vaccine programme, combined with the easing of restrictions, it is tempting to think the virus is defeated. Unfortunately, we must remain cautious in the months ahead. The virus has not been eradicated and much work remains to be done domestically and internationally.

In many respects, it is amazing that we have reached this point so quickly. As other speakers have outlined, an uptake of 40% or 50% was envisaged at one point. That we are now at 92% is a testament to the work of scientists in Ireland and globally and the resolve of the people. Prudent action by the Government helped limit the scale of the pandemic over the past 19 months. We must continue this approach if we are to secure and consolidate our success to date. This will include not only how we engage with the issue here in Ireland, but also how we engage with our partners and allies in supporting less fortunate countries in the world.

It is in our interest to see wide availability of vaccines in poorer countries, many of which have not yet begun administering vaccinations to large sections of their populations or even, in some cases, their healthcare workers. It is not for a lack of ambition on their part, but rather a lack of access to vaccine doses. I am pleased that EU programmes and pharmaceutical companies are increasing their efforts to address this problem. Ireland must continue to make a significant contribution to this effort. I commend the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Cabinet on making the decision to distribute excess vaccines to a number of countries, including Uganda. We must lobby our partners in the European Union to donate surplus vaccines they currently hold.

I take the opportunity to plug the UNICEF campaign, Get a Vaccine, Give a Vaccine, which is a worthy endeavour. As I mentioned in the House in previous discussions about the overseas aid development fund, Irish people are, per capita, the most generous in the world, which is an extraordinary feat. This is one of the most worthy endeavours to engage with. The longer we allow the virus to spread among unvaccinated populations, the more likely it will be that we see new variants emerge. That is especially appropriate in the context of the global south. We cannot say whether the new variants will be more or less virulent than the ones we have experienced, but we must consider if this is a gamble worth taking.

We have seen with our own eyes just how quickly Covid-19 spread across the world, infecting country after country like falling dominos. The interconnectivity of our world has brought us wealth, both cultural and economic. It has brought us new experiences and new breakthroughs in technology and research, but it has also exposed us to new risks.

In recent weeks, discussions on booster shots have entered the public discourse. It is important that the Minister sets out a clear and phased roll-out plan for booster shots at the earliest opportunity. I accept that data are still being collected, analysed and formulated as we speak. However, booster vaccines will form a key part of the next phase of our emergence from this pandemic.

This week, The Lancet published a study from the United States showing that protection from Covid-19 diminished to 47% six months after receiving the second dose of an mRNA vaccine. While this may worry some, it is vital that we highlight that the same study shows that this decline in protection did not translate into serious illness resulting in hospitalisation. This is a crucial point in the study and underscores the importance of getting a vaccine. In light of the study and the growing evidence from Israeli studies, we should consider providing an mRNA booster to older or vulnerable people who may have received non-mRNA vaccines. As I have said many times in the past 19 months, we must ultimately be guided by the experts and the science in these decisions. I am confident the Government will continue this form of decision-making. I believe we can provide booster shots to those who will need them and also share vaccines with other nations.

I am encouraged by the proactive approaches the Government is taking, in particular in establishing pop-up vaccination clinics on nine university campuses and third level institutions, including Dublin City University in my local area, which many Fingal residents attend. This will provide anyone who has not yet availed of the vaccine with an opportunity to do so. Importantly, it will also cater for international students who may not yet be fully vaccinated. Moreover, the roll-out of the distribution of free face masks at more than 200 locations nationwide will be an example of the timely reminders society will need in the months ahead.

We must approach 22 October and the removal of further restrictions with caution and a preparedness to act should the situation deteriorate over the winter. As our society returns to more normal social interactions in the months ahead, ensuring that our hospitals are able to cope with what is traditionally a busy season should remain a key priority.

It is my hope that some good may emerge from what has been a deeply scarring and traumatic period for society and the families of those whose lives were tragically lost during the pandemic. The rapid development of not one but several vaccines should inspire every person and government around the world. It should encourage us to pursue and build upon the progress we have made through our support for research and development apparatuses around the country and internationally. This week, we are talking about harmonised minimum taxation rates for corporate entities. In the process, we should also review our taxation on research and development to encourage pharmaceutical companies to locate and carry out research here.

The use of new technologies and methods of developing medicines, which has led to the development of mRNA vaccines, gives us a glimpse into what may be possible in the future. Encouraging and facilitating the medical and scientific communities to pursue these new avenues offers the potential to develop a wide range of new treatments and perhaps even cures for other illnesses and viruses, which have afflicted untold millions the world over.

The pandemic has shown us that with mobilisation of political and public will, we can make significant changes and progress in a relatively short period. I hope that in future this will help inspire new generations to tackle the biggest problems of the day and inspire us to achieve goals in other sectors of society.

I will conclude with this point, as Deputy Dillon has arrived in the Chamber. I respect the right of citizens to protest. In fact, I would encourage it because protest brings about change. In the 1990s, I remember being enraged because the third level institute that I attended did not have a library. We protested on a bridge and a couple of years later we got a library. I was also enraged at certain times in the mid-noughties when the economic crisis was taking hold and, like many thousands of others, I protested. However, there is a big difference between protesting in the case of a legitimate cause in a public place and protesting at a politician's or medic's home. That is disgraceful. It is demeaning to the individuals who are doing it and they need to cop on. People can protest outside Leinster House, the Department of Health or wherever they like, but they should not protest outside a politician's home. It is a disgrace. I do not say that because the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, is present, but because it has happened to me and many other Members of this House over the years.

As the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is well aware, the success of the vaccination programme has afforded us incredible flexibility in the reopening of society. The roll-out of the programme has been a fantastic success. As the Minister outlined, to have that recognised internationally, with Ireland in pole position in Bloomberg's Covid resilience ranking, shows how far we have come since the public health crisis emerged.

I thank the Minister for his recent visits to the vaccination centre in Breaffy and the test centre in MacHale Park, Castlebar. As he mentioned during his visit, we had important news regarding Mayo University Hospital, with more than €18 million allocated for an extension to the emergency department. I invite the Minister to visit the hospital and demonstrate the need for this important project to be progressed without delay.

The easing of public health restrictions and the reopening of sectors has made an incredible difference to the real economy, with people again on the streets, in shops and back at work. Later this month, we will see a significant reduction in the remaining restrictions. This is a result of human effort and sacrifice over the past 18 months and the benefits of the vaccine roll-out. I hope the sectors that have yet to feel the recovery will open. I highlight in particular the entertainment and events industry, as well as inbound tourism operators, which will continue to require ongoing support from the State, as their sector recovers and they get fully back on their feet.

However, Covid-19 remains a threat and should continue to be treated seriously. The possibility of variants means we need to achieve a balance between prudence and popularity. While some may oppose this mechanism to extend public health restrictions in the event they are required, I feel it would be irresponsible to block up the fire escape just because it looks like it may not be required. Until Covid-19 is well and truly in the rear mirror, I agree with the Minister and prefer to have a legal mechanism in place that, hopefully, will not be required. This is in stark contrast to a situation where its provisions may be required quickly and not be in existence.

One final item worth mentioning is that lessons must be learned on how we deal with and plan to prevent cross-contamination in our healthcare settings, particularly nursing homes and acute settings in hospitals. We need to ensure they are better prepared to combat this situation in the future. With over 5,200 deaths, we have to recognise that this has impacted every county, town and village the length and breadth of Ireland and has cast a long shadow on the many families who have suffered the most.

I do not think anybody for one second is saying that Covid is gone or that Covid is defeated. It is nothing I have had said to me and it is certainly not something that I think. However, I am struck today by one question, a very short and pointed question, and that is: why? Why is it that if, as the Minister himself said, these restrictions will be lifted on 22 October, the Minister is looking for this legislation to be extended? I see no proper justification in his opening statement for this legislation to be extended.

The Minister should know that these discretionary powers would be much better utilised in sorting out the unjust and unequal discrepancies that exist in our health service. This is particularly the case in maternity services where, despite assurances by the Minister, the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach that there was no real reason for these restrictions to be in place, they remain in place today. While others here may talk of protesting about libraries, the women who will be protesting outside the gates of Leinster House again tomorrow are protesting for themselves, for their partners, for their husbands and for their unborn children, which is slightly more important than the lack of a library.

My constituency office has been inundated since the very beginning of restrictions with calls from women and partners about maternity restrictions. At the beginning, they understood. They did not like it but they understood as they could see the reasoning behind it. Those days are gone. To see those restrictions remain in place today is shocking. It truly is shocking, particularly when other services across the country have started to reopen. People can go to an open-air concert but they cannot go with their partner to a scan. There is no logic in that, no sense in that, no justification in that.

When women tell me they are dreading going into hospital by themselves to have their baby, I understand what they are saying. I have been lucky. I have brought four children into this world, not an easy feat at the best of times. I will sing the praises of the maternity services until I shed this mortal coil but there was one thing they could not provide and that was the emotional support that I needed at those times.

There is no uniformity across the hospital services despite the reassurance that has been given. For all that this emergency legislation was introduced, where was it used to ensure that these women were getting a fair and just service? I do not see it being used anywhere and it certainly has not been used in any hospital I am aware of. I know the Minister is aware of that because I remember mentioning to him the point about doulas and at that time, he agreed it was not correct practice.

As the Government speaks of reframing the challenge, let us reframe that challenge. What is Covid going to look like for the next six or nine months? We have moved out of the emergency phase, thankfully, we have seen the end of lockdowns and we hope that cocooning is something that never comes back. Again, the question presents as to why we are even discussing the extension of this Bill. The powers of the Oireachtas need to be returned to the Oireachtas. There is no door closed to the Minister to come back into this House to reintroduce this Bill, should the situation arise over the coming months.

Where is the plan from the Minister to deal with the waiting lists in our hospitals or to deal with the mental health strategy? I see no emergency legislation to deal with them. I see no emergency legislation to deal with the chronic backlog of gynaecological appointments. At this point, when we speak of vaccinations, let us speak of the other vaccinations. Let us speak of the school-age vaccinations schedule that is due to take place in clinical settings. When we translate that lovely-worded sentence into the reality in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath, it means that parents are being asked to travel a 90-minute round-trip to get their child vaccinated with little to no public transport service. How is that going to affect them? What is going to be the fall-off from that when parents literally cannot get their children to the vaccination they want to get for them? That programme sounds lovely on paper but in reality, the barriers to that service are profound. The Minister spoke of balance. Where is the balance in that?

I will leave the Minister with this. He should please stop treating people like fools because they are not. They have endured and they have adhered to rules, even the ones that at the time made no sense, but they did it and they did it for the greater good. They said their last goodbyes to loved ones and their first hellos to loved ones through windowpanes because they were told it was for the greater good. Those days are gone. We have got to put our faith in people who have signed up to a vaccination programme, who have done all that is asked of them, because they are capable of making an educated decision.

I move amendment No. 1:

“To delete the words ‘9th day of January, 2022’ and to substitute the words ‘22nd day of October, 2021’ therefor.”.

The purpose of the amendment is to try to reach a compromise in this regard. We are all very concerned about the extent of the emergency powers that the Government took upon itself over the past couple of years when responding to the pandemic. Many of us were very clear about expressing our concerns and certainly on the last occasion we debated this legislation, I and others expressed very strong concern about the approach that has been taken to requiring people to be vaccinated on entering hospitality and the discriminatory aspect of that. It really was a first that admission was going to be granted to people on the basis of health status, and we had not had anything like that before.

We are now in a situation where, thankfully, the omens are good, there has been a very high level of compliance among the public and enormous effort has been put in at the level of the public in terms of adhering to the advice, the public health advice in particular, notwithstanding the fact we had a very high mortality rate. It is important that we recognise those 5,200 people who sadly passed with Covid. It is important that we acknowledge all of the many thousands of people who have been bereaved as a result of that and, in addition, of course, all of the many people, practically everybody in the country, who have been affected by Covid. The national effort was highly commendable. It is also, of course, important to recognise all of those who kept the show on the road in terms of health services, kept our supermarkets open, kept our public transport going and all of that. We should never forget that we owe all of those front-line people right across the board a huge debt of gratitude. We also, of course, have to recognise the incredible work of the HSE in implementing the vaccination programme. That was done very successfully. It has been our saviour and has got us to a point now where we are enjoying many of the normal aspects of life and, hopefully, we will do that to an even greater extent.

That is why all of the indications are that we are on track in terms of the roadmap. Hopefully, everything will go well up to 22 October and most of the outstanding restrictions will be lifted. For that reason, it is very hard to justify why the Government would be seeking to retain such far-reaching emergency powers beyond 22 October.

As others have said, in the event that things go wrong - we all hope sincerely and all the indications are that this will not be the case - there is no difficulty with the Minister coming back in here looking for additional powers or looking to reimpose particular restrictions if the circumstances warrant that but as of now, that is not likely to be the case. It is wonderful that this is the situation.

As a compromise, I am proposing that the power to establish restrictions would only remain with the Government up until the point in the roadmap where most of those restrictions are due to be lifted, that is, 22 October. I ask the Minister to consider that. It is a reasonable proposal that we continue along the road of the roadmap - most people accept that and the vast majority of people are adhering to the requirements under the roadmap - but we expect that in less than three weeks' time, there will not be any need for legislation to underpin the restrictions. I put it to the Minister and ask him to consider this proposal on the clear undertaking that if things do go wrong and if there is a new variant or whatever, there would be full co-operation right across this House in responding to that in an appropriate manner. It is on that basis that I propose this amendment.

Other people have referred to the issue of ventilation. I have been talking about this for a very long time. An expert group was established under NPHET that produced two reports making clear recommendations on ventilation and I simply cannot understand why the Minister is not taking that expert advice. It is extraordinary how lax the whole situation is in relation to ventilation. There is a view taken that we are still talking about cleaning surfaces, washing hands etc. as being the primary way of reducing spread when we have known for a long time that Covid is airborne. For that reason, that should be the primary focus in relation to public health advice. I was flabbergasted that the recent new public health messaging going out in the media did not mention ventilation. It is extraordinary. I cannot understand why that is the case. It is a huge missed opportunity. There also is a lot of justified criticism in relation to the tardiness of being ready in the schools, delays with the CO2 monitors, them not being available to other than mainstream classes, and, of course, the lack of clear advice in relation to that. It is a very urgent matter and it should still be addressed at this point.

I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this subject. In the first instance, I am one of those who would be reluctant to observe restrictions on persons travelling about their business and their enjoyment in the country. However, the call had to be made, and was made at the appropriate time. It was felt then that the restrictions were important in curtailing the degree to which the virus could spread. They served and will continue to serve their purpose. This is a matter of opinion and of argument. People will say "For" and "Against", and we have to wait until afterwards to find out. As the fellow said, "If we had the benefit of hindsight beforehand we would never make any mistakes." It is an add-on that is a belt and braces to the campaign against the virus.

Deputy Shortall mentioned the point about air purification and ventilation - the two are somewhat related. I have raised this on a number of occasions in the past as well that there are provisions now whereby enclosed settings can be fitted out with air purification plants that can eliminate 100% of the virus. The availability of such technology nowadays is something that should be borne in mind because we are talking about an airborne virus and air purification has to be an element in dealing with it in certain circumstances. I acknowledge it is not in all circumstances but it certainly is a possibility that we should not ignore. To take it into account and to be able to rely on it is something that we should avail of, as required. The Minister, if he gets an opportunity, might make reference to such technology as a means of curtailing, in the event of there being particular sources of spreading identified in the future. It would be helpful. While scientists will argue as to whether it is possible to achieve 100% air purification, I believe it is. I believe that science has advanced to that extent now and given that it has, we should be happy to rely on it.

In general, I congratulate the Minister and the Government for their efforts in curtailing Covid-19. It was a difficult call. It was an appalling thing to have to do and to spend money just to stay in the same spot, to run faster, to employ more people and to put people in the front line at risk who came forward again and again, many of whom suffered loss of life - their own and their families' lives - by being in the front line. Whatever happens from here on in, one cannot quantify the extent to which we are obligated to those front-line operators. They did it willingly. They made their contribution. They put their shoulder to the wheel. They did the job that had to be done, which is a great commendation of their efforts, notwithstanding the fact that there was loss of life. More than 5,000 people lost their lives and that is not a small thing.

There are those also who deny that a virus ever existed. We have in the past couple of weeks seen situations whereby people have advised sufferers of the virus that they should go home, that they should not receive treatment, that it was all a farce, that it was all a game, all a conspiracy by Administrations to restrict their movement etc. It is sad that people take the advice from such quarters but, unfortunately, they do. As long as they do, we will have tragic consequences.

The Minister and the Government are to be complimented on the leadership they gave and NPHET has to be complimented on its leadership and the advice it, including the Chief Medical Officer, gave throughout. It was, very often, a lonely place to be telling people that they were sorry but they would have to restrict their activities, they could not go on holidays and they could not do what they normally do and go where they wanted to within their own country because of the existence of this virus. That was a difficult thing to do but they did it in the interests of the community at large. If they had not done so, we would find ourselves with numerous lockdowns, as they continue to have in other countries far from here, such as Australia and New Zealand, where it still goes on and, in fact, throughout Europe where emergencies are arising on a fairly regular basis and there then have to be introduced dramatic means of curtailing activity and containing the spread of the disease.

We have done it in this country. Everybody has co-operated. The public have co-operated as well. It has been done with the minimum of incursion on the rights and the lives of the people, but at the same time with sufficient emphasis on restrictions to ensure that the disease did not spread.

I will finish, if I might, on an attendant subject. Previous speakers made reference to the waiting lists in hospitals. It naturally follows it was never possible to keep waiting lists down and at the same time deal with Covid. It could not happen that way, notwithstanding the extra cost, the extra expenditure, the extra investment etc.

Insofar as hospital beds are concerned, however, I remember not so long ago when we were advised by experts that we had far too many hospital beds in this country, that we should close them down, that they were a drain on the health budget and that fewer of them would suffice. They were wrong, particularly in the context of an increasing population. It was totally contradictory to suggest that. With the population increasing to almost double what it was in the 1950s, we found ourselves in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s with people telling us that what we needed was fewer facilities.

That is not what we needed, though. We needed a clear indication that we had to accommodate that increased population.

We must also increase the skills in our hospitals and the wider health services. That is being done. If we are to compete with all others and deal effectively and efficiently with our people throughout the country, we must be able to attend to our people quickly, effectively and efficiently. We must be able to compete with all others, not only throughout Europe, but globally. Health services are a more global issue now than they used to be. As we on the health committee have been told many times over the past five or seven years, we operate on New York, London or Sydney prices when we have to appoint people. I understand that but it is a fact of life that we now need to invest heavily in medical infrastructure in order to achieve the effective and efficient delivery of services to people when they want them, not in three months' time. We have all encountered instances of people attending hospital only to be told to come back in six months' time. That is incredible stuff and I cannot believe that we are still seeing that kind of thing. Can Deputies imagine a person who is suffering what could be a life-threatening illness being told that the hospital can do nothing for him or her for at least six months but will talk to the person then? Particularly given the pervasive nature of some of the illnesses in question and the degree to which they can progress rapidly, the person who is ill needs to be informed that the hospital can deal with his or her illness quickly, arrest its progress and, resultantly, improve the patient's chances. That is the way we must proceed in future. We have the wherewithal to do it effectively and efficiently. It would be an investment in the future if we made the provision for that now. Yesterday's announcement of a review of the economic plan is part and parcel of that in terms of recognising what we have to do now. If we do not do it now under normal conditions, we will have to do it under emergency conditions at a later stage. When we must respond to something in a manner akin to a fire brigade, it means we have not been making sufficient provision.

I compliment the Government on its work on Covid, as well as those in the health services throughout the public and private sectors on the manner in which they responded, the sacrifices they made, the risks they took and the commitment they gave for what has been almost two years. We must recognise that achievement and congratulate all and sundry. We must also recognise that we must look carefully and critically at future requirements in terms of infrastructural investment in order to ensure that we do not find ourselves saying that, had we done something X number of years ago, we would have been much better off.

My final point is on the children's hospital. It continues to progress and I am glad to see it is progressing satisfactorily. Concerns were expressed about cost overruns. Like the Minister, I was a member of the committee for a four-year period. I did not see any accurate costing undertaken before the €1.48 billion was identified. That was the first time there was a cost accountant's imprimatur on it. That costing identified the cost at that stage. There will be situations where costs increase. That applies across the board of the economy, although not to the extent they should be allowed to go unbridled. Rather, cost increases should not stop progress or restrict us in our need to invest in hospital perfection and centres of excellence.

We are here today to pass even more legislation on indoor dining despite serious reservations from the Opposition. Meanwhile, we are failing to act on addiction recovery meetings undertaken, for example, by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and SMART Recovery. When I first raised this issue last year when these groups were not able to meet, the Minister confirmed that they were providing an essential healthcare service. Having spoken to people in recovery and hearing about the vital work that these groups do, I could not agree more. Recovery is a difficult journey and the pandemic has made it much harder. Sadly, instead of being an ally to those in recovery, the Government has been a barrier. These groups are still extremely limited, in that they can only meet with a maximum of 20 people in a room with 2 m of social distancing between each. This means that they are still being forced to turn away people who are in recovery and need these vital meetings. At a time when indoor sports and events can see up to 100 people in a room, this is downright insulting to those in recovery. How can the Minister stand over this?

The Minister told me that he would resolve this issue by 9 September. A month later and I am now being told that it will all be sorted by 22 October, when most restrictions are lifted, but what I am hearing on the ground is that this might not be true and that these groups are still asking for specific guidelines to be published allowing them to return to normal meetings. Last week, I published Sinn Féin's recovery charter. I suggest that the Government read through it because I am not sure that the Government understands what recovery means and what people in recovery need. These are essential healthcare services and they are not asking for a lot. Can they please be given the guidelines they are requesting?

There is a healthcare crisis in Cork. Cork University Hospital, CUH, the Mercy hospital and other Cork hospitals are severely overcrowded, understaffed and on their knees owing to the pressure they are facing. Yesterday, the Government published the national development plan with the promise yet again of a new hospital for Cork. We still have no timeline or location for that hospital. We know that the planned hospital will not meet Cork's needs because it is not ambitious enough. I am asking that it be on the northside of the city because the people of the northside have no hospital. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael closed down the old North Infirmary hospital and the orthopaedic hospital. I am asking that the area be given a full elective inpatient surgery hospital that is open 24-7, not the part-time 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 8 p.m., Monday to Friday hospital that has been planned. The latter would mean that the new hospital would not be able to perform operations like hip or knee replacements or any surgery that would require a patient to stay overnight. What good is that when we have a crisis? A full 24-7 hospital is urgent and needed now. It was needed three years ago when it was announced in the previous development plan. It was needed ten years ago when it was announced by the then Government. The people of Cork are sick of false promises from and failed deliveries by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and now the Green Party. We need to take the pressure off the healthcare services in Cork because there are 75,000 people on waiting lists in the city and county. Those people and the doctors, nurses and other staff in the hospitals cannot wait any longer. Will the Minister deliver the 24-7 hospital that Cork needs on the northside?

People Before Profit has proactively supported the vaccination campaign and has encouraged people to get vaccinated as a critical measure to give us a layer of protection against Covid-19. The vaccination programme undoubtedly has done this, putting us in a position whereby, fingers crossed, we can edge our way out of the grim period we have been through and the terrible hardships, mental stress and anguish that people have had to endure for the past year and a half.

Our view and our record on this are both clear. We believe that vaccination was critical to respond to the Covid-19 crisis and that more than 90% of adults have been vaccinated is a tremendous show of solidarity and wisdom on the part of the people of this country in the face of a really horrendous society-wide and global threat. It would, however, be a mistake to imagine that that success has been achieved through coercion or mandatory measures. Overwhelmingly, the pressure on Government and politicians to take public health measures, which were, in some cases, very difficult, in the face of the pandemic quite often came as a result of people calling for them. They did so on a voluntary basis because they listened, reasoned out the information they were being given and concluded that compliance with public health measures and vaccination were the right things to do to address the threat that Covid represented, particularly to people who were vulnerable, the elderly and so on. In my view, coercion and legal requirements were not in any sense the significant factor in assuring the levels of compliance and support we have achieved for the public health campaign and the vaccination campaign. I do not accept some of the slightly inflammatory explanations with regard to extending the emergency powers contained in the legislation. I do not agree with some of the language that has been used around that. Such language is not helpful. I am of the opinion that what is proposed in the motion is not the right thing to do. We opposed previous legislation in this area because it has the potential to be counterproductive. I have great faith in the wisdom and common sense of ordinary people. That faith should have been reinforced as a result of what we witnessed the people of this country do over the past while.

The use of coercive or discriminatory measures to achieve compliance with measures that are necessary to protect public health gives succour to a small minority of forces that are trying to undermine the public health effort. It gives them ammunition that we do not need to give them. It also unnecessarily discriminates against people who have genuine worries which, in many cases, I do not share. We need education and information to try to address those concerns. We should not be seen in any way to persecute those people or discriminate against them. I am not saying that is the intention, but the problem is, sometimes, that ends up being the effect of these measures. That is counterproductive and, for that reason, we will oppose this proposed extension.

I will give an example. The other day, I met a man on the street who told me he wants to get vaccinated but he is terrified of needles. He is hoping that a pill or spray will be developed that will enable him to get vaccinated. I heard Luke O'Neill say that he is hopeful that such a spray will become available. I do not love needles, but some people are genuinely scared of them. For that reason, they may not get vaccinated. There are some who had bad reactions to vaccinations in the past and who are, therefore, genuinely afraid. They are not conspiracy theorists. They are not trying to whip up opposition to the vaccination campaign, they are genuinely concerned. Some people have concerns about the speed at which the vaccines were developed. I do not share them. The evidence is there, but I understand that some people may have not yet been convinced. I do not think the best approach is to, if you like, discriminate against those people when we have achieved the high levels of vaccination and compliance with public health measures on a voluntary basis through the enthusiasm and, often, endurance of hardship of ordinary people in compliance. This is a mistake and it is unnecessary.

The Opposition has always facilitated the Government. Where it is necessary to respond to particular stages in the development of the pandemic, we will facilitate any reasonable request by the Government, but I do not think this is necessary. What is proposed is potentially somewhat counterproductive. For that reason, we will oppose it. I ask the Minister to reconsider whether it is necessary.

We are in a better position now as regards where we are from a health point of view. There have been very dark days. During some of those dark days, the Dáil could not meet in this setting and instead had to meet in the convention centre. While that might have suited me in that I am able to get up and walk around, it probably did not suit other Members who might be somewhat more normal. That has been said before. I will probably be dreadfully sorry about saying what I have just said.

Are you sure we can be described as "more normal"?

Yes. Everything is in context. We are in a better place. We have had huge buy-in from the community in regard to vaccination and adherence to guidelines and rules, although people were not always happy to do so. That was often uncomfortable for an awful lot of them and for many of us, but we are now at this particular place. On 22 October, we move to the next stage, which will bring us to whatever normality means in this day and age. As has been said by many of my Sinn Féin colleagues and by many Deputies across this House, into the future if the need arises for further legislation to deal with any particular issues that arise from the pandemic - touch wood that will not happen - hopefully we, as Dáil, can deal with them in this House. The Government will find the Opposition willing and able in that regard.

Earlier, Deputy Ward made the point that this measure is possibly a blank cheque that might never be cashed by the Minister. I hope that is the case. On that basis, we do not need this to happen, but we are where we are. I hope that the Minister and other members of Government will take on board what has been said by the Opposition on this matter. We still need to continue the conversation as regards how we secure ourselves by securing the rest of the world and those wider conversations in regard to vaccines. Many have said that a trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, TRIPS, waiver was not necessary or that it was not needed in respect of bulking up capacity and production. As much as I may have believed that at the time, I was not ideologically wedded to it. I am open to anything that is shown to be a solution. I never for a moment accepted that pharmaceutical companies would not try to make a profit in this particular set of circumstances. We, the European Commission and the international community need to maintain a conversation on this and to ensure that we have a roadmap and a plan. I accept that there are logistical difficulties in regard to parts of the developing world and ensuring that we have a proper vaccine roll-out. That is the only means by which we can ensure we get to the next stage. As we move forward, we will also need extra capacity in terms of booster shots where vaccines wear-off or we do not get the same bang for buck after a period. We would all agree that our focus needs to be on the most vulnerable. We need to make sure all of that goes as smoothly as possible.

I would think much has been learned in relation to how we have operated over the past while. We will not necessarily have the glitches and difficulties we had at the early stages. That is what needs to happen. However, this legislation is not the road map we need at this time. We must show people we are entering into changed circumstances. We want them to adhere to whatever guidelines must pertain at any particular time. If there is a need for something to be done, it could be done quite easily within this House on a cohesive, well-planned and thought-out sort of way, and I know the Government will not find an Opposition that is wanting. Go raibh maith agaibh go léir. The first bit I said can be struck from the record.

Covid-19 has challenged the country, our society and our economy like never before. With this disease, the country has travelled on a roller coaster journey. It has been a journey of high consequent mortality in the elderly, a hospital intensive care crisis that has tested staff to the limit, deferral of significant other health procedures and activity and lockdown of our population to suppress disease transmission. In addition we agreed to eye-watering economic measures to stabilise our economy and prevent a wholesale bankruptcy for a whole slew of businesses, large and small, in every economic sector of the State. Despite the naked populism decrying scientific analysis and promoting a herd immunity that could be possible only through widespread death and chronic illness, visited across all age groups in our population, science has, in the form of the vaccines, delivered a way out of the abyss. We must be forever grateful to the many scientists and health researchers who worked around the clock for many months to find solutions to some, if not all, of Covid's ravages. As many question the route Ireland took in fighting Covid, we might also note the current experience of New Zealand. After an extended period of operating a largely zero-Covid strategy, it has now decided to move to a vaccination strategy, given the increasing transmission rates of the Delta variant there.

Today we discuss the possible next round of further easing restrictions, while keeping monitoring and surveillance of potential disease resurgence in place, only because the people, as they have done previously, recognised the science and the vaccines' benefits and chose to put their trust in that science. I congratulate the people of my own constituency of Waterford, who have made it the county with the highest vaccination rate in the country. I believe it is also the highest rate in Europe for any administered county area. Thus, not only has County Waterford been recognised as the best place to live in the country, we now also carry the title of safest county in the country as a result of vaccine uptake.

The Minister has outlined that Government is looking to extend the powers of the present Act purely as a safety net. He says it is the Government's intention to fully open and lift all restrictions on indoor hospitality, subject to public health advice, on October 22. While the Government is looking at an extension of the sunset clause, I must voice some concerns about the extension of this legislation. Indeed, I am on the record of the House as supporting an amendment to the previous extension of powers which would shorten the sunset period and then review the data. That amendment was not accepted at the time. The Minister is asking Oireachtas Members to give their support to again extending significant powers to Government while also advising his best guesstimate is these powers will not require invoking beyond 22 October. I have concerns that the rate of transmission, though at low levels on that date, may be still a cause for concern. I have concerns we may not be totally out of the woods even then. That significant reason may describe why we must be able to implement significant infection control and disease-retarding initiatives, as required, by extending this period even further. Should that prove to be the case, the full appropriation of powers Government has been granted to severely limit the movement of people in our State, or designate what personal data they must offer as a result, is a power that cannot be extended again, beyond the Minister's new proposed deadline. Even with future compelling evidence to support ongoing restrictions, the Minister must return to the House with new legislation seeking a new mandate for its implementation past the three-month window he has now proposed.

It would be remiss of me, when given the opportunity, to not commend once more our scientific researchers and our national clinical and healthcare staff across so many of our health services, who have taken the utmost risks with their lives and their health. They stayed at their posts to carry out the duties they were born to do. They represent the very best of what is cherished and desired in any country, people or society. They should feel justifiably proud of their contribution to contemporary Irish history.

Yesterday New Zealand admitted zero-Covid was not workable. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was big enough to admit she was wrong. Here, the supporters of zero-Covid have so far remained completely silent. The Social Democrats, People Before Profit-Solidarity, the Labour Party and even Sinn Féin, at some stage, were ardent supporters of the idea of zero-Covid. The Social Democrats went so far as to say everything should be shut down until we got lower than ten cases per day. On that logic, we would still be in full lockdown. The fact the majority of the opposition parties in this Dáíl supported that policy gave the Government a blank cheque to implement the most severe and costly restrictions seen in the whole of Europe. The opposition parties offered no challenge to the Government and no critique of the extreme outlier policy pursued by the Government. Real opposition is critically important for a functioning democracy. If we do not have that there is a major chance of seeing big, extreme policy swings within the country.

The Minister has stated Ireland is not alone in this crisis but Ireland is alone in the way it managed this crisis. The Minister spoke about protecting public health but the majority of people who died of Covid caught it in a nursing home or hospital. These are the two areas that are either owned or managed by the Government. The major weakness in the battle against Covid was the lack of accident and emergency and ICU bed capacity. This was a political choice by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for generations. While the Minister's Government is trying to extend what is probably the most draconian legislation Europe has seen on the basis there is still an outstanding threat, his Department, his Government and his HSE are actually seeking to close ICU and accident and emergency beds in Our Lady's Hospital, Navan today. How can anybody get their heads around the fact there is a policy to close accident and emergency and ICU beds at this juncture in our battle against Covid?

Covid is a real illness and there is no doubt the management of it is a very difficult issue but no other country in Europe imposed restrictions as long or severe as Ireland did. The consequences have been massive for the country. Health waiting lists have surged from 741,000 people to 907,000 in that two-year period. Tens of thousands of patients have gone without diagnoses or treatment, many of them with life-threatening illnesses. Ireland, Saudi Arabia and North Korea were the three countries that banned public religious services in this period. For the first quarter of this year, 10,000 homes were not built. Ireland had the biggest housing crisis in Europe and was the only country that prohibited the building of houses in the first quarter of this year. Ireland has spent €41 billion on Covid-related costs over the past two years. This is a massive figure. It is comparable to the bank bailout. We saw a 21% increase in expenditure last year. The European average was 10%. Countries like France spent 5% extra. That massive difference in expenditure by the State was not down to Covid. If we were dealing with Covid in the same manner as other European countries, we would have been at the European average. We were double the European average when it came to that expenditure.

The extension of these radical and draconian restrictions is wrong but it also shows the Government and the Opposition have learned nothing with regard to this. We need a full, independent and public investigation into the Government's handling of Covid over these past two years.

Were the organisations representing the restaurateurs and publicans consulted about this extension?

Was An Garda Síochána consulted? Where did the date of 22 October for the reopening of everything come from and where did it go? Why are we extending this legislation for a further three months?

We all see the waiting lists despite the additional €3.884 billion that was invested in the health service in 2020, never mind 2021. I want to know why the Government closed St. Brigid's District Hospital in Carrick-On-Suir in the middle of the so-called pandemic. If it was fit for patients at that time, why is it not fit now? I also demand an international inquiry, totally independent of Ireland, into how people were sent to nursing homes with Covid-19. So many died in places like Castlerea and we want to know what went on. Will the Minister meet Irish Nurses for Transparency and Openness, INfTO, who want to tell their stories of suppression, bullying and intimidation and what really went on inside nursing homes?

Emergency provisions need to remain in place until we are completely rid of Covid-19 permanently. However, there are aspects of this that need to be looked at. We are very aware of the people who contracted Covid-19 and who will get paid while they are out sick for the recommended number of days. We have a shortage across so many industries due to the PUP. I am talking here about construction, haulage, all aspects of healthcare and hospitality. Some people are on the payment for legitimate reasons but others are exploiting the situation. We now know that close contacts do not have to remain out of work but what is the policy with regard to people who are unable to get the vaccine because of underlying conditions or fear? Have provisions be made for them? I refer to healthcare workers, including nurses, who worked during the pandemic when there were no vaccines available who are now being pushed out. Is this part of a policy and is it correct?

I do not agree with the continuation of the measures. Surely a better course of action would have been to allow the legislation to fall as planned and then, if an urgent necessity arose, the Dáil could consider new proposals at that stage as opposed to giving all of the power and authority to the Minister. As Deputies, we are acting in a reckless and undemocratic manner if we approve this motion. Instead Dáil Éireann, the people's Chamber, should be given the power to reintroduce any required extraordinary powers. To approve this motion means this Chamber once again delegates legislative power to the Minister for Health which raises very serious and valid human rights and equality concerns. People have suffered enough and business people in particular have suffered enough. People deserve the respect they have earned. The majority of the people in this country have done everything in their power to make sure to do the right thing. Churches have been closed. The accident and emergency unit in Bantry was closed. We talk about a pandemic but what happened in Bantry General Hospital during the summer was scandalous. Southdoc in Castletownbere is closed at the moment and all of this needs to be investigated further.

First, it is wrong to discuss this without remembering all of the people who died and who were very sick; all of those lovely people who are gone. For us to be debating without first of all remembering those very important people would be wrong. I want to remember everybody that is gone from us or who was very sick during the pandemic. Having said that, I would not agree to extend the Minister's powers beyond nine o'clock tonight because I do not think the people of Ireland would agree with it. That is a fact; not beyond nine o'clock tonight would I agree. The majority of Deputies in here, including my colleagues on this side of the House, are saying the same thing, namely that enough is enough. The people want to be allowed to continue and be responsible for themselves and I rely on the people. I rely on them, the people who elected us. They are the people I trust. They are the people I want to ensure will be in charge of their own destiny.

It is also very important to remember that people have suffered financially and business-wise. Of course, as I said, the people who lost loved ones suffered an awful lot but they want to try to get back to normal as well. What we want to do is ensure we do so in a safe fashion but we cannot give the Government a blank cheque. The people of Ireland will not thank any Deputy who votes to give the Minister a blank cheque for the next number of months. The people do not want that. They do not agree with it and they will not agree to it. Enough is enough.

There was an instance some months ago where three or four people on one of the largest construction jobs in Ireland got Covid. A Deputy stood up in the National Convention Centre and said we should send them all home and shut it down. There were 5,000 or 6,000 people working there and this man said he represented the working man but he never did a day's work in his life. He would not know what a day's work was if it came up and hit him in the face and he was talking about shutting down one of the finest and biggest construction jobs in Ireland. Any person talking that type of nonsense should be told enough is enough.

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak. The Minister got these powers when there was an exceptional need and we all accepted there was a need at that time. We extended them in the middle of the summer although I was against doing that at the time. However, it looked like that was going to be the one and only extension but here is the Minister again, barefaced and looking for another extension. I can tell him that I am not voting for it because there is no exceptional need now and no emergency at the present time. I will tell the Minister where there is an emergency, however. There is an emergency in Kerry, with more than 2,200 people waiting for elective surgery. Many more will not be accepted onto the waiting lists because consultants have written to GPs to tell them not to refer any more patients. I am appealing to the Deputy from Kerry who has a very powerful position in this Government. He is the Chief Whip and I ask him to talk to the Minister for Health about the problems in Kerry rather than going on local radio in Kerry to tell the people what they already know. People are suffering, they are in pain and agony. They need to be seen by consultants and to be operated on. Deputy Griffin should not be telling the people what they already know. I ask the Minister for Health to talk with Deputy Griffin who is the Government Chief Whip. We need a scheme to help the people who have been waiting for far too long. That is what I am asking the Minister to do.

Just for clarification, Deputy Griffin is talking to me, as is Deputy Norma Foley.

The Minister is not listening to them-----

No, please Deputy-----

Otherwise the consultants would not have written to all of us last week telling us that they were coming together for the first time because-----

Deputy Healy-Rae, contain yourself.

-----the situation in the hospitals in Kerry is dire at the present. The Minister is not listening to the Deputies.

Thank you Deputy Healy-Rae. You have made your point.

I am listening very carefully.

I doubt that they are talking at all, that is the honest truth.

We are moving on to the Rural Independent Group. Sorry, we have had the Rural Independent Group. We had better not go back-----

We will go again.

We will go again and we will tell them the very same and more.

Next is the Independent Group. Deputy Catherine Connolly is sharing time with Deputies McNamara and Fitzmaurice.

I will be as focused as I can. I will not be supporting this legislation. I did not support it initially. The only emergency legislation I supported was back in March of last year. I make my comments in the full knowledge that 5,249 people have died and that Covid-19 cases have risen again, with 1,124 new cases reported and 349 people in hospital. I make my comments fully aware of that and of the fact that the virus is still a major problem.

This legislation was passed in July. It was introduced on 13 July and passed by the Dáil on 14 July by 74 votes to 68. There was no pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government built in discrimination on the basis of health for the first time ever in Irish law. The Government built discrimination into the law on the basis of a person's health status. Discrimination was built in on every level. I have just checked the figures for those who were vaccinated earlier this year. By 1 April, an interesting date, a total of 22,988 people had been vaccinated. They are all now well over the six-month effectiveness threshold. We have heard Deputies refer to The Lancet and the reduction in effectiveness of the vaccine five months after the last dose. We are now discriminating against those who had the double dose as well as those who did not. Then we have the people, including a member of my own family, who contracted Covid-19 who have a certificate for six months. Interestingly, in the Minister's speech today he referred to nine months for such people. There is no clarity on anything. An all-party committee made recommendations that were absolutely ignored. I, among other Deputies, spoke out from the beginning on nursing homes and on the utter failure of the Government and NPHET to consider the vulnerability of nursing homes, meat plants and direct provision centres.

This legislation is not necessary and it should not be made part of our law. The Minister has come before us with a speech.

He has not told us what report has been produced or whether there has been a review. The legislation from July provided that compliance officers could be appointed or designated. How many were designated? How many compliance notices were issued? How many cessation orders and appeals were issued? There has been no assessment, as required under EU regulation, of the impact on data retention, among other things, including discrimination.

The Minister is before us asking that we renew the legislation, almost on a whim. He tells us that the regulations will go but we are to leave the legislation in place. This is the most serious element of the draconian series of Acts we brought in, ostensibly because there was a crisis. There is at least an onus on the Government and its backbench Deputies, who did not turn up today and avail of their time, to tell the House it has reviewed the legislation, outline what the review found, state the reasons it needs to be renewed and seek our assistance to do so. That is what a rational, reasonable Government would do. I thank the people who stood in solidarity, all of us together, until the Government split that solidarity by drawing a distinction and enshrining discrimination in the law.

I opposed this legislation when it was introduced in July and I am opposing it being rolled over again. In July, I predicted that it would be rolled over. Many Government Deputies said they found it unpalatable and they were concerned by it, but that it was for a limited period of time, so they would accept it. Now, they are accepting it because, well, it is a power that will not be used. I am suspicious of powers that will not be used being placed in the hands of civil servants or pliable Ministers who do whatever their civil servants want.

The Minister's speech referred to three different groups. Those who are vaccinated and those who have an immunity from recovery are two groups addressed in the law. However, when the legislation was introduced there was a third group, which the Minister may recall discussing, namely, those who were to have a certificate based on having tested negative for Covid-19. We were to see these certificates in the course of the summer. Where are they now? What happened to them?

The legislation provides for three different proofs of immunity. One is the EU digital Covid certificate. There was another certificate of a type prescribed by the Minister in regulations made under section 31AB.(4). It would have enabled the Minister to allow people who had a negative test to enter a bar. The silence now is as deafening as it was throughout the summer. We do not know what happened to that form of proof. The third proof of immunity was to be "any form of written information or proof verifying, in such manner as may be prescribed, in relation to the person to whom the document is issued, that the person has recovered from Covid-19." What happened to that? The Minister did not do anything with that either, notwithstanding that the recommendations from the start were that all those who had contracted Covid in the previous nine months would get an immunity certificate so that they could go about their lives. The reason was that the EU Covid certificate was those who had contracted Covid in the previous six months because at the time that certificate was introduced, the evidence was slightly different. It is still evolving. A recent study based on a considerable amount of data from the Maccabi Institute for Health Services Research in Israel showed that immunity acquired following recovery from Covid is far greater than the immunity acquired through the vaccine. That does not mean people should go out and get Covid because there are considerable risks involved in that and I am not suggesting people take that approach. You have to be careful to qualify everything because if you question any of this, you are labelled an anti-vaxxer for having legitimate questions.

I will raise the case of a constituent. All five members of her family had Covid in January. In May and August, two of children received a single dose of vaccine. In July, in response to a query, the HSE replied when a senior medical officer of the National Immunisation Office stated the children would be considered vaccination with a single dose. In September, the HSE issued immunisation guidelines based on the advice of the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, stating that a single dose would suffice for those who are under 50 and were immunocompetent. This family went looking for their certificates throughout August and September. The woman did not give a reason but it was presumably in order that they could travel and go about their lives. After calling three times a week for over four weeks, they got Covid certificates which suggest that they were partially vaccinated, contrary to the scientific advice that the Minister received from NIAC and the evolving scientific information coming out of the international community.

The Deputy's time is up.

If the Minister will not listen to the law passed by this Parliament, will he at least listen to the science? That is the mantra we have been listening to for over 18 months now.

I will start by adding my voice to the words spoken from across the House on the vaccine programme, by giving thanks from Dáil Éireann to the women and men all over Ireland who worked so hard to create this extraordinary success for our nation. It really has been a national effort. The HSE was involved with the Department of Health, the Defence Forces, GPs, the private sector, community pharmacists, volunteers, people coming out of retirement, students, the Order of Malta, St. John's Ambulance and the Civil Defence. It has been a truly national effort and I want to add my voice to those of others across the House who acknowledged it.

As of yesterday, the percentage of those aged 18 years and over who have had at least one dose of vaccine, which I hope will translate into their becoming fully vaccinated, stands at 95%. That is fantastic. We all remember the discussions in December and January about what might happen by the end of September. We are now at the start of October. It has been fantastic. I also add my voice to those of colleagues who encouraged those remaining few who are still thinking of getting vaccinated to do so. Some have decided that under no circumstances will they get vaccinated. That is what it is. Some are still thinking about it, however. There are people who have a fear of needles, for instance, as has been pointed out to me in the vaccination centres. Vaccination is so important because vaccines are so effective and the consequences are so serious.

I have been in most of the vaccination centres around the country. One of the conversations that struck me most was a discussion with two ICU nurses, both of whom had decades of experience in intensive care units and have seen a lot. They are hardened, experienced professionals. They told me they were traumatised by what they saw Covid do to people. They spoke of the horrific way it attacks people and how it attacks multiple organs and the respiratory system. They spoke of how isolated these people were. Having spent decades treating people in intensive care, the sickest people in the country, they said they were traumatised by the horror that this disease brings to people. For anyone who is still thinking about getting vaccinated, I add my voice to those of colleagues by asking them to please do so. They will protect themselves and everyone around them. Unfortunately, there are breakthrough infections. They are real but the vaccines are incredibly effective.

I welcome this important debate. These are exceptional measures and whether they are temporary or not, this is an exceptional power.

Are they temporary or not?

It is imperative always that Members of the House take the opportunity-----

How temporary is "temporary"?

Please, Deputy.

-----to debate this legislation because it is very serious.

I will try to address some of the questions Deputies asked. Deputy Ward asked a reasonable question about the mental health provisions. That power is due to expire on 9 November. The Mental Health Commission is not looking for it to be extended and I am not recommending that it be extended. That power will be extinguished on 9 November.

Deputy Gould asked a very important question on addiction services. We are on track for lifting restrictions on 22 October, although there will be final public health recommendations and a Government decision in that regard. Come that date, all of those services will go back to normal. Obviously, we all want to keep the basic measures in mind and in place but there would be no restrictions, other than that these services follow the good advice they should follow.

I have listened carefully to Deputies' comments on the resolution to extend one Part of this Act. It is important to note that we are only looking to extend Part 2.

That Part is specifically around indoor hospitality. It is not about the ability to bring in many other wide-ranging powers but specifically related to hospitality. It is based on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer who has identified this, as have many other countries, as one of the higher risk measures for all of the reasons we understand. For those very reasons, countries around Europe are still imposing this restriction for indoor dining and indoor drinking.

I mentioned already how mindful we still need to be about the precariousness of this disease. It is not one that lends itself to being easily controlled or managed, as we know. The Chief Medical Officer has given his advice for this reason. I am disappointed that some Members of the Opposition will not support the extension. I accept that everyone is coming from the best possible place in trying to find the best balance as we respond. All I would say to those Members who may call a vote on this proposal or who may vote against it is that I imagine that most people, as per the amendment introduced by the Social Democrats, would be okay with extending the measure until 22 October, as it will otherwise fall within the next few days.

Not until 9 o’clock tonight. Did the Minister not hear the contributions?

We are talking about extending a safety net for about 11 weeks on the advice of Chief Medical Officer and I believe all of us will agree that he has advised us well. A reasonable argument has been made by colleagues that if this is needed, Deputies could come back to the House and legislate. I want to take us back to what happened in the week before Christmas last year to show how quickly this can move. It was on the Friday evening in the week before Christmas that the UK Government signalled that it had serious concerns about a variant of concern, namely, the Alpha variant. We worked right through the weekend, as one would expect, and the Government met the following Monday and Tuesday. We made very serious decisions so quickly because they were required quickly. If it had been necessary to draft new legislation, bring it before both Houses, have it debated, passed and then approved by the President, I believe all Deputies will accept that there is no way we could have done that by that Monday or Tuesday. With the best will in the world, that would not have been possible.

There is no scrutiny.

I ask Deputies to consider their position on the proposal. It is a safety net.

Will the Minister consider his position?

Allow the Minister to continue without interruption, please.

It is a safety net lasting for about 11 weeks and it is being done on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer.

It is belt and braces.

If we had another situation, such as the one we had on the Friday evening of the week before Christmas, this would allow us to move quickly. That is all it is. The measure only applies to hospitality and indoor hospitality were it to be invoked.

I ask Deputies to reflect on that. If the majority of us were to vote for and support this proposal, it would send another message of political unity. I acknowledge the political unity there has been on vaccines. While it has not been 100% across the House, it has included the vast majority of colleagues in the House. I believe this is one of the reasons vaccine take-up has been so high in Ireland. In both Houses of the Oireachtas, there has been a very strong message of unity. Nobody has tried to play politics with this, unlike in some other countries and that has been really damaging. I fully respect the positions of Deputies and fully acknowledge that everyone, or nearly everyone, is here with the right intent with regard to doing what is right. I ask colleagues to reflect on that, send another message of unity backing the Chief Medical Officer's advice and leave this safety net in place for 11 weeks.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Wednesday, 6 October 2021.

I thank Members for their co-operation on that business.