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.