I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am here to today to address the House on the Health (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2021. The purpose of the Bill is to strengthen Ireland's ability to respond to the ongoing and emerging threat to public health from Covid-19 and specifically, as colleagues will be aware, the new Omicron variant that has emerged. The Bill is being introduced in the context of the emergence of this new variant.
It strikes a fair and proportionate balance between the protection of public health and the common good in the situation we face, on the one hand, and the limited restriction of individual rights on the other. It is of note that the UK introduced hotel quarantine very quickly in response to the emergence and the potential risk, which is still being evaluated, of the new variant. The Irish Government has decided at this point to reintroduce the legal basis for hotel quarantine should it be deemed necessary to reintroduce hotel quarantine in response to the threat posed by the Omicron variant.
Unfortunately, the threat of the emergence of variants of the disease has not gone away. The coronavirus has served up something none of us wanted to see. The World Health Organization designated the variant B.1.1.529, named Omicron, a variant of concern on 26 November. This owes to the constellation of 32 spike protein mutations which suggest the potential for increased transmissibility and immune escape. We are waiting to see more emerge from the scientific and medical communities on those very important questions.
Yesterday, as the House will be aware, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre was notified of one confirmed case of Omicron in Ireland, and my expectation is that we will see more. The Government has implemented a number of measures to minimise potential risk posed by the spread of this variant. These actions are intended to limit the spread of the variant while we await further evidence relating to its transmissibility and the impact it has on disease severity, vaccines and treatments.
From 29 November, additional restrictions have applied to travel from seven scheduled countries; namely, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. We also announced that from 3 December people travelling to Ireland, regardless of vaccination, recovery status or travel history, will be required to complete a pre-departure Covid test. Work to introduce regulations giving effect to this requirement is progressing. The requirement to complete a Covid-19 passenger locator form prior to travel remains in place.
Unfortunately, these measures may not be enough. We all hope they will be. With the increasing public health concern about the impact of the Omicron variant, in particular its potential impact on vaccination effectiveness, hotel quarantine may be necessary for a limited time in the interests of the protection of public health and to control transmission. Travel measures such as hotel quarantine give us time to further increase vaccination rates, including boosters, and time to deploy some very promising antiviral drugs that are in the pipeline. We know that the system of hotel quarantine we had in place worked. During the period of hotel quarantine earlier this year, 17,846 tests took place on residents. Some 593 residents in hotel quarantine tested positive for Covid-19. These data do not take account of cases which were avoided in the community as a result of hotel quarantine or, probably the biggest benefit, incoming travellers who delayed travel to Ireland as a result of the imposition of quarantine. Essentially, once we brought in hotel quarantine, the number of incoming travellers from the countries about which we were most concerned fell very dramatically.
Many of the measures we have introduced, though challenging, have worked. As a nation, we should be very proud of the solidarity that has marked the approach in Ireland and from people here. We have one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, and our booster campaign is going well. Every death, it goes without saying, is an individual tragedy and one too many. It is worth noting that the latest data from the ECDC show that Ireland has the fifth lowest overall mortality rate out of the 27 EU countries plus the United Kingdom.
The Bill before the House would permit the reintroduction of hotel quarantine should it be required. By having the legislative provisions in place, we will be in a better position to react quickly should a decision to move forward be taken. The legislation will be commenced if and when it is appropriate to do so. The provisions of this Bill are fundamentally the same as those contained in the previous legislation permitting hotel quarantine, but there are some changes we propose to make in response to lessons learnt during the previous experience, and I will talk through those changes.
The Bill is divided into five sections. Sections 1 and 2 set out definitions and interpretative provisions.
Section 3 is the main body of the Bill and inserts new sections 38N to 38Z, inclusive, into the 1947 Act. This section specifically provides for the reintroduction of mandatory hotel quarantine and related matters. Travellers who have been in a "designated state" within the 14 days prior to their arrival in Ireland will be obliged to undergo a 14-day period of quarantine. The Bill includes a provision to allow exit from quarantine before the completion of 14 days if travellers return a "not-detected" Covid test on arrival and a further such test on day ten of quarantine. There are a limited number of other circumstances under which travellers may leave quarantine, including, for example, for medical treatment or other humanitarian reasons. The Bill also contains provision for travellers who arrive without the relevant pre-travel Covid test to be obliged to enter hotel quarantine. Unlike the previous system, however, there is a provision which allows the Minister to designate classes of people for whom failure to present a valid pre-travel test result will mean an obligation to enter hotel quarantine. Essentially, this allows for a greater degree of flexibility to focus on those who present the greatest risk.
Colleagues will recall that in the summer, the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021 contained some amendments to the original legislation in this area. These provisions are included in this Bill as well and allow the Minister to prescribe alternative testing to PCR testing prior to arrival in the State. Also provided for is an updated approach to dealing with any travellers who arrive in the State not in compliance with pre-travel testing requirements. Another important development is to provide that a public health doctor can permit a traveller in hotel quarantine who has tested positive for Covid-19 to be released after the initial ten-day period of quarantine where the doctor believes that the traveller does not pose a risk of infection.
Colleagues will be aware that some travellers might have spent some time in hotel quarantine and then tested positive, which could extend quite considerably the total time spent in quarantine. Travellers will be required to pre-book their accommodation in designated facilities, as before. Appropriate provision is made for unaccompanied minors or those seeking international protection, as before. As before, the Bill includes provision for travellers to appeal a decision that they be subject to mandatory quarantine. Section 38N(25) includes categories of travellers who are exempt from the requirement to quarantine, such as those requiring urgent medical treatment, drivers of heavy goods vehicles, maritime or air crew or elected officials travelling for official reasons. There is also provision for other groups to be exempted by regulation, as was the case previously.
Section 38O sets out the power to return travellers to quarantine if they have left inappropriately.
Section 38P sets out offences associated with the Bill and establishes the relevant penalties.
Section 38Q sets out the power and the process for the Minister to designate the states relevant to mandatory hotel quarantine, and section 38R makes provision for the designation of facilities and to require travellers to pay for quarantine.
Section 38S sets out the regulation-making powers of the Minister and sets guiding principles for use in that process.
Sections 38T and 38U provide the authority for the Minister to make arrangements for transport and accommodation and related matters for quarantine purposes.
Sections 38V and 38W set out requirements and obligations related to record-keeping and data protection.
Section 38X allows the Minister to make arrangements with other Ministers to carry out some of the functions associated with the requirement to quarantine as they relate to the designation of facilities for quarantine, making service contracts, and data protection.
Section 38Y establishes a requirement of travel organisers, such as airlines, to inform a traveller of their obligation to pre-book their quarantine, to check that those bookings have been made and, potentially, to refuse to allow travel where a booking has not been made.
Section 38Z provides for another important change that is new in this Bill. There will be a provision to facilitate travellers to seek clarity before travelling on the possibility of not being required to complete hotel quarantine.
This could be for medical reasons, by virtue of having to care for a dependent person, or for other humanitarian reasons. Travellers will also be able to seek clarity that they will be permitted to leave quarantine temporarily for medical or humanitarian reasons. As colleagues are aware, on the previous occasion there was considerable concern about some travellers coming in who were likely to be exempt for the reasons we have discussed previously but who could not start an appeal until they were in the hotel. In the most urgent cases we made provision for those appeals to be heard very quickly and same-day decisions were made. We want to go further with this and provide such that travellers can, where possible, get an answer before they travel as to whether they will need to enter hotel quarantine.
Section 4 of the Bill makes minor consequential amendments to section 42 of 1947 Act. Section 5 sets out the Short Title and operation of the Bill and establishes that the quarantine-related provisions of the Bill will fall three months from its passing, unless, as before, resolutions extending them are passed in both Houses of the Oireachtas. This sunset clause is an important feature of the Bill and reflects the exceptional nature of its provisions, which are required in the context of Covid-19. Of course, we are here today because the previous sunset clauses took effect and the legislation fell. We need to legislate again, which is the point today.
As I said earlier, I believe the Bill strikes a fair and proportionate balance between the protection of public health and the common good in the situation we face on the one hand, and the limited restriction of individual rights on the other. Should it be deemed necessary to respond more comprehensively to the importation of this new variant, we must be able to act quickly. Having the legislation on the Statute Book for a temporary period of time will allow for the rapid response we all hope will not be required. I hope we agree that given what we are facing, a rapid response may be necessary.