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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 Dec 2021

Vol. 1015 No. 2

Health (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages

SECTION 1

Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 6 are related and may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 4, after line 33, to insert the following:

“ “relevant statutory instrument” means any regulation made under the sections inserted in the Act of 1947 by—

(a) this Act,

(b) the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020,

(c) the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020,

(d) the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020,

(e) the Health (Amendment) Act 2020, and

(f) the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021.”.

I do not intend to speak for long on these amendments. They all relate to the issues I raised in my Second Stage contribution. Other Deputies expressed similar sentiments. I can only assume from experience that none of the amendments will be accepted. Nonetheless, it is important for us to make the points that need to be made. I am calling for a level of scrutiny, debate and oversight when statutory instruments and regulations are introduced by this House. Ideally, statutory instruments and regulations would not only be laid before the House but would be subject to proper debate and scrutiny within 48 hours of coming into effect. In some circumstances, where it might be necessary to move quicker and as a last resort, we accept that statutory instruments could be brought in afterwards and retrospectively approved.

I will not labour the point other than to say that if the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, will not accept the amendments, I ask that the House be notified when regulations are made. Let us hope the regulations will not have to be made and we will not see any more restrictions. Let us hope it will not be necessary to introduce new regulations given all the other measures that have been put in place and the fact that people are responding.

Tomorrow, the House will discuss the emergency powers Bill when we will have similar amendments. All of us hope that mandatory hotel quarantine will not be necessary and that the other travel-related measures which have been introduced will suffice. If it is the case that the Minister needs to bring in statutory instruments or regulations, I ask that Oireachtas Members be notified and receive the necessary briefing. That is what the amendments propose. I will not labour the point because we have spoken about this several times. I think the Minister understands the points that have been made. I hope he accepts the amendments but, if not, I hope he will at least accept the spirit behind them and ensure that Oireachtas Members are given proper briefings and information if and when statutory instruments and regulations arise as a result of the passing of this Bill, which I will support.

I have spoken about this principle previously, including this morning and when I spoke previously in debates on Covid-19 legislation, most of which I have supported. This is just a safeguard but it is also about better communication on what the Minister is doing. This is wide-ranging legislation, as is tomorrow's Bill. The least we can expect is clarity on the statutory instruments and regulations the Minister is introducing under this legislation. He has a free hand as this is enabling legislation in the main which gives him huge powers.

From the point of view of this side of the House, it is important that we are aware of what the regulations are. There are currently no arrangements for notifying us of that. However, that applies not only to Members but also the general public. There has been much confusion about messaging. We have seen over the past couple of weeks kites being flown about what NPHET will recommend. Then we have what NPHET actually recommends and then the Government's response to those recommendations. All of that might be okay for practising a particular type of politics but from the point of view of the public, there is a lot of confusion about what is actually being proposed. That also applies to those who are expected to implement and enforce those regulations. There has been considerable confusion about that in the past, for example, on the part of An Garda Síochána. Gardaí were expected to enforce regulations that had not even been signed and we were left rooting around trying to find these regulations to see what they mean.

Last week, at the Joint Committee on Health, I asked where we could get a clear list of regulations. I was referred to the website, which showed ten different statutory instruments under the emergency legislation. Work was under way to consolidate each of these so they are not even available on the website at the moment.

This is about better communication. My amendment makes a reasonable proposal. I agree with the two amendments Deputy Cullinane tabled. I am proposing that we would at least be notified in advance of new regulations coming into force, they would be laid before the Houses two days before they come into force and we would be notified of that. I hope the Minister considers this reasonable.

I will speak briefly in support of all of these amendments, which add a modicum of democratic accountability to the significant power being given to the Minister. We favoured mandatory hotel quarantine at a certain point in time. We called for it to be introduced across the board as part of a public health system. We said it should not be outsourced and called for appropriate oversight to exist to ensure people’s civil liberties and human rights were not being contravened. We have now had the experience of the Government's version of mandatory hotel quarantine. It did quarantine in a partial way, with particular countries targeted and others not. It outsourced it en masse to private corporations. It was not part of a public health system - health service staff were not involved in it - and it did not take account of the serious issues raised about civil liberties and so on.

Here we are again. The Government has come back and said it wants the capacity to bring in mandatory hotel quarantine without having to come back to the Dáil, as is correctly proposed in these amendments. That is a real problem for us and we, therefore, oppose the Bill. What will be the purpose of this, especially now in this concrete situation? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it will be the Government engaging in theatre - potentially racist theatre - by saying it is doing something about this problem. This discussion has arisen in the context of the Omicron variant and all the talk about southern Africa. However, Omicron had been detected in 26 countries as of yesterday.

It could be up to 27 by now. Only three of those countries are in Africa, and the UK has the second highest number of detected Omicron cases in the world. However, the Government is not going to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for the UK. That illustrates that the way in which this is going to be used, in the context of fortress Europe policies and so on, is extremely troublesome as regards the amount of power being given and the way it will be used to try to pretend we are doing something when we are not actually addressing the issues.

The first question is whether mandatory quarantine works. Mandatory quarantine was introduced at a time when people were talking about zero Covid and when there was a strong belief, at the start of the whole process, that it was possible to put a fence around the country and protect it from incoming viruses and variants. I do not think anybody would agree that zero Covid could possibly work at this point in time. I also do not think anybody would agree that mandatory quarantine actually works, because the minute a variant is identified in any part of the world, you can bet your bottom dollar it is likely to be here already and likely to be in circulation in other parts of the world anyway. Someone might make an argument that mandatory quarantine should be used to stem the flow and so on but the Government is looking in the wrong places. It is leaning on the people through restrictions and radically reducing people's rights, and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has indicated that there is a significant human rights aspect to these types of detentions, yet the obvious stuff with regard to protection of life is not being focused upon. Most of the deaths that have happened in this State since the start of the illness have happened in a hospital or nursing home. Most of the people who have died caught Covid in a nursing home or hospital. They are the locations of most damage, pain and suffering and yet they are the areas that get the least debate and discussion in this Chamber. I cannot remember the last time we had a focus in the national media, or politically, on those two sectors.

We are now focusing on children in schools, when no child under the age of 14 has died since the start of the pandemic. Some 55 people under the age of 44 in the whole State have died with Covid in the last two years. That is fewer than have died as a result of car accidents. It is important and shocking that these deaths have happened and our hearts go out to the families who have lost their loved ones in these circumstances. All of those cases are tragic situations, and we as a society need to make sure we do our best to protect each life that exists, but my worry is that the Government is involved in window-dressing to a certain extent, in the same way that masks for schoolchildren is window-dressing. Increasing hospital capacity, bringing ICU beds up from 300 to 560 and increasing hospital beds from 14,000 to 22,000 are the actual actions that would make a significant difference in the saving and protection of life, and in making sure society can function.

I am going to make the same points I made last January with regard to the mandatory hotel quarantine proposals that were introduced then. I questioned how on earth we were going to stop a variant coming in by limiting people coming into some frontiers of the State from some countries. At the time I asked the Minister if the purpose of mandatory hotel quarantining was to stop new variants coming in and he accepted that it was. If that was the purpose of it, and if that could be achieved, I would be prepared to look at what is proposed but it is simply impossible. Stopping people from some countries is not going to stop a variant coming in because we know that this new variant is widespread around the world. It is in the United Kingdom and we are not, as previous speakers have said, going to introduce any restrictions on travel to the United Kingdom. I am not suggesting that we should but I am pointing out the futility of what we are doing. It is utterly futile, but it is not free.

Some 10,294 people entered mandatory hotel quarantine. They were detained, realistically. There was a deprivation of liberty involved, although whether it was a classic detention or not is an ongoing debate. Of those 10,000 people, 593 tested positive. When the Government ended mandatory hotel quarantining I was surprised by the reaction, even by the standards of spin. Spin is not unique to this Government. Right across most western states governments now celebrate every measure as a great success that will keep us safe. I am not expecting the Government to keep me safe from Covid because I do not think it should be expected to keep people safe from Covid. Unfortunately, that is simply not possible. We are in the midst of a pandemic. People need to be cautious; I am not suggesting that they should not be, but I question this idea that we elect a government to keep us safe and that it can do so no matter what happens, whether it is a pandemic or an earthquake. The Government has to be seen to be doing something so it adopts often futile measures.

The success of mandatory hotel quarantining was celebrated and lauded. However, only 593 cases were detected there. During the time that mandatory hotel quarantining was in operation, 151,350 cases were detected in the State, so mandatory hotel quarantining detected 0.39% of cases. Sincerely, what was the point of that? What did it achieve other than maybe to act as a deterrent to people from certain countries coming to Ireland? If that is what it is about, let us be honest about it. Let us say we want to prevent immigration from certain states in southern Africa, because that is all it will potentially achieve. I do not think the idea of entering mandatory hotel quarantine is necessarily a huge deterrent to people who are desperate to come to Ireland, for whatever reason. We had a debate last night about people smuggling. I am not saying that everybody who comes from southern Africa is desperate to come to Ireland. Some are but many are not, and there are returning Irish citizens coming from those countries as well. What is the point of detecting 0.39% of cases? If we were going to prevent this and further variants coming into the country, and if I thought it was even possible to do that, then I would consider supporting this measure but we all know it is not possible because it is already here and in every country of the European Union. This will not be the last variant. I expect there will be further variants because that is what we have been told by many experts.

The director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory at UCD, Dr. Cillian De Gascun, said that it was blind luck that the case of Omicron that is in Ireland was detected. If we are going to rely on blind luck, then let us not pretend that this measure is going to do anything other than pretend to people that it will keep them safe when it is not going to have any impact whatsoever. If it detects 0.39% of a new variant coming into the country, what difference will that make? We in Ireland are probably no worse in this regard than most countries in the European Union but we are going to have to live with the fact that we are in the midst of a pandemic. We must accept the limitations that that will bring to our lives but we should not add to those limitations just for the sake of doing so, such as by putting masks on children, which Deputy Tóibín referred to.

I am willing to accept that masks in a supermarket or for a fleeting encounter on a bus might make a difference, but if someone is going to sit a couple of feet away from someone else for six hours per day and breathe the same poorly ventilated air, I cannot accept that a mask is going to stop the transmission of a respiratory virus where people are infectious. The reason for masks in this instance is because we followed the fiction for so long that schools were safe. Schools were not safe. They are absolutely necessary-----

We are wandering now, Deputy.

Could the Deputy wander back to the subject matter of these amendments?

Just because something is necessary does not mean it is safe. This measure will do nothing to make us safer. It is simply tokenism of the worst kind.

Before he contributes on the Bill, will the Minister tell us what the last chapter of mandatory hotel quarantining cost the State?

I will speak to the amendments briefly. The spirit of all three amendments is the same, but I support amendment No. 6 in particular. It reads: "Before prescribing regulations made under this section, the Minister shall notify and lay before each House of the Oireachtas". This is the most basic requirement, given the extraordinary powers the Dáil seems intent on giving the Minister.

Turning to the regulations that the Minister will be allowed to introduce, the proposed section 38S starts on page 24 of the Bill and continues to page 28 and gives the Minister the most extraordinary range of powers without any scrutiny. The updated submission from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, tells us that he has had this power to make regulations restricting rights under emergency legislation without Oireachtas scrutiny since March 2020. That is not acceptable. The ICCL believes that the process for making these regulations could be improved significantly and has called for a mandatory consultation with the Minister for Justice and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission before regulations are made. The amendments call for scrutiny by the Dáil.

Restrictions on liberty must be targeted and proportionate and what they are trying to achieve must be set out clearly. That last has never happened in this Dáil since the pandemic. We all worked with the Government in the beginning, and here we are nearly two years into the pandemic yet we have not even begun to put a human rights framework on the restrictions that we are introducing. It is in this context that I am supporting the amendments. While I have made it clear that I am not supporting the Bill, the amendments seek to bring some level of scrutiny to the extraordinary powers that the Oireachtas is giving the Minister without any analysis or human rights assessment of those powers or any analysis of the powers he has had to date.

As some of my colleagues have said, we are left in a position of trying to explain to people on the ground what we have passed in the Dáil. We learn from press releases and announcements on the plinth outside and various programmes. That manner of communicating, along with the spin that has dominated the message from the transitional Government and this Government since day one, has undermined confidence in the political system, with appalling consequences for the future. Losing more trust in the political system and in politicians is a warning for the future. The Minister has a chance now to show his bona fides and accept these amendments and accept, at least in theory, that his regulations must be scrutinised by the Dáil.

Mandatory quarantining cannot stop Omicron, yet that is the only reason mandatory quarantining is being considered. What is the point? What is the endgame of putting a large amount of resources and money into putting a draconian measure into place? Although we did not agree with the Minister's version of mandatory quarantining, we called for mandatory quarantining when the population was not vaccinated and it was believed that vaccination could produce the possibility of the disease's elimination. We believed it was preferable to try to eliminate the disease in Ireland until a vaccine arrived. There was an objective - keep the disease out until we got the vaccine and it was possible to reopen. We now know that, even with more than 90% of the population vaccinated, we cannot eliminate the disease and we cannot stop the variants, so there is no point in this measure.

It is telling that the WHO has from the word "Go" on Omicron said that there should be no knee-jerk travel restrictions and that there should be tests. We have started to test. That is the sort of thing we need to do - identify the cases, isolate them, trace, have the hospital capacity to deal with the cases and start taking the sort of measures that can limit the transmission in buildings, as we discussed on the ventilation Bill, and so on.

This measure is pointless, so I do not understand why the Minister would pursue it at this stage. We will oppose the measure because it is pointless. If the Minister can set out a reason or objective, then I will be all ears, but I do not see any purpose to this. On that basis, we oppose the measure.

I thank colleagues for their contributions. I will speak directly to the amendments in a moment, but with the Ceann Comhairle's indulgence, I might first address the various points that have been made, given that there has been a useful broader discussion.

I will start with Deputy Boyd Barrett. I am delighted to hear that he is all ears. I am not surprised that he is opposing the measure or that Deputy Paul Murphy said his grouping would also. Deputy Boyd Barrett has opposed almost all, and maybe all, legislation that we have brought through to try to fight Covid.

Maybe not all. I stand to be corrected on that. As is his right, the Deputy advocated articulately for a zero Covid approach. He also advocated for mandatory hotel quarantining for everyone regardless of whether there was any risk or rationale for doing so. It would not have been constitutional as a public health measure. It was interesting to hear Deputy Paul Murphy speak about the need for us to respect civil liberties. The mandatory hotel quarantine system that he advocated for did not remotely seek to achieve any balance between the rights of the person in terms of his or her liberties and the rights of other people in terms of keeping the community safe. It did not matter where people were coming from or what the public health assessment was, everyone would have had to go into quarantine. I was curious to see if he would support this, given that he supported-----

Equality of treatment.

Yes. Equality of treatment. Everything for everyone regardless of whether there was a rationale to deprive them of their liberties.

Why did the Government not put the US on the list?

Deputy, please allow the Minister.

That is what equality of treatment would have achieved and is what the Deputy advocated for.

That is not what the Government did.

I was curious to see what reason he would give for not supporting the Bill this time, given that it seems to be very much in line with what he advocated for in the past, albeit a much more modest version.

However, the Deputy is opposing it. Members should remember that we are not here to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine. We are here because we have very serious public health advice in the context of the new variant, which I hope will prove not to be as deadly serious but, as yet, we do not know. The advice we got was that it may be necessary, if this variant turns out to have some really sinister characteristics in terms of severity, vaccine escape, transmissibility and so forth, to bring in this most serious but targeted measure. That is the public health advice. We are not here to introduce it; we are here to bring in a legislative basis, such that if it is required very quickly, it can be brought in. That is what this debate is about.

Deputy Boyd Barrett has said in good faith that he is all ears and he asked about the rationale. Deputy McNamara may have left the Chamber but he fairly asked, as did I, what is the rationale. In response to Deputy Connolly's point, this is not a light-touch piece of regulation. We all obviously treat this deadly seriously. This is about depriving people of their civil liberties – people who have done nothing wrong. We only do that in the most extreme circumstances, as we did earlier this year. The moment that it was no longer deemed necessary, we closed it down and the legislation lapsed, which is why we are here this evening. The legislative basis went away, as it should. There must be sunset clauses on these provisions.

One could ask why we need it now. What the Government has decided to do is to act on the public health advice, which is to be ready to put targeted, mandatory hotel quarantine in place if needed. Why? We all know why. It is the potential threat of the Omicron variant. We all hope that the characteristics that are found show this not to be such a big threat, but right now, we do not know. We are all reading opinion and hypotheses based on limited data, but we do not know. More time is required. That is the rationale. If the Omicron variant turns out to be a very sinister and serious threat relative to Delta, such that it would for example outperform or replace Delta and have significant ability to evade vaccines and cause severe illness, in that situation the Chief Medical Officer might say we do need to bring in this measure.

No one is suggesting that this will stop Omicron. We know it is here. More and more cases will be found and confirmed through genome sequencing in the coming days and weeks. What are we trying to do? What would be the point if the legislation is implemented? The point would be to slow it down. Similarly, I will be signing regulations this evening for preflight departure tests for people coming into the country, regardless of vaccine status. At the moment, as we all know, if one is unvaccinated or has not had Covid in the past six months, if one is coming into Ireland now one needs a preflight PCR test. That is the current situation. What we are saying is that for those who are vaccinated, for a short period they will also need either a PCR test or an antigen test. It is an extra layer of security. Will it stop the Omicron variant coming in? No, of course it will not. None of us suggests that it would.

It is all about layers of protection. The regulations I will be signing this evening in terms of international travel is one layer. It is imperfect. Hotel quarantine would be another layer. It is imperfect. We have home quarantine in place for the seven listed countries. Is it perfect? No, of course it is not, but it is another layer. It is about putting layers of protection in place to slow down the variant. Why does slowing it down matter rather than perhaps letting it spread here? It is because we are moving very quickly through a booster campaign which is hugely effective. There are very promising antivirals to which we will have access quite shortly as well. Things are changing in a very positive way in terms of the total arsenal of weapons we have available. Slowing this down may prove to be very important. Of course, we do not know yet because there is more we still need to find out.

I do not for a moment believe I will have changed Deputy Boyd Barrett's mind. I do not believe he is going to vote differently - I fully respect how he is going to vote - but I did want to address the question he and others raised in good faith and that I asked of the CMO, which is why we are here. As Deputy Connolly says, this is really serious legislation that we are proposing. That is the rationale. The Deputy can agree or disagree. We can debate it further, but that is the reason for the legislation.

In response to Deputy Tóibín's point, I agree with an awful lot of what he says. We do need more healthcare capacity. We are putting it in as quickly as the system is able to manage, in terms of hospital beds, ICU beds, home care, diagnostics and operating theatres. We do need more and more. We will continue to do that. Do we need very strong measures in nursing homes, hospitals and other healthcare settings? Absolutely, we do. There are layers of protection in place, none of which is perfect, but it seems to have worked quite well in the more recent waves.

Deputy Tóibín states hotel quarantine is imperfect. Absolutely, it is imperfect. Hopefully, it will not be needed. Hopefully, the information we get on this new variant is such that we do not need to bring it in. I do not want to bring it in. None of us want to bring it in. Hopefully, the CMO does not believe there is a point where it might be warranted, but critically, we want to be able to do it quickly if it is required. That is the answer to the Deputy's question in that regard.

There were various questions about whether it works. I think it is fair to say it does work. If we go back to the operation of the previous quarantine regime we had, the total number of cases was not insignificant, but as a percentage of all cases it was very low. The real benefit of it was reducing the volumes of people coming in from the higher risk countries. If we look at those volumes, the arrivals dropped off a cliff. The biggest public health benefit we get is that we reduce incoming travel from the highest risk places for a period. It most definitely worked from that perspective. Deputy McNamara asked about the cost. It was €24.7 million. I can provide any Deputy who would like it with a breakdown of the cost.

Deputy Connolly raised many issues. I fully respect her position in terms of voting against this Bill. I also agree with an awful lot of what she said in terms of how serious this is. Where I differ, and why I am proposing it and she is opposing it, is because I believe that in terms of balancing a very significant public health threat, taking such extraordinary measures is warranted in a targeted and time-limited way. I fully hear her in terms of how serious what we are proposing is and how serious what we did previously was. The Deputy raised one issue in terms of consultation. I want to clarify that for all of the regulations, there is a legal requirement as part of the process for me to consult with all relevant line Ministers.

I will now speak to the amendments. First, I fully appreciate the spirit of the amendments. More can be done, and I would like to work with colleagues to improve the process in terms of engagement on the regulations, legislation and the pandemic generally. I would very much like to meet with colleagues and work through what would make that easier.

It may not always feel like it, but genuine efforts are made on an ongoing basis. For example, in one of the pieces of legislation we had not that long ago, an amendment was tabled from the Opposition on sunset clauses, which we accepted. There is a lot of information online. Members of the House last year and earlier this year were rightly looking for very comprehensive daily, weekly and monthly information and geographic information. They sought very granular breakdowns. I hope Deputies will appreciate that we have gone to great lengths to try to provide that in great detail online in terms of vaccinations, hospitalisations, ICU, geographies and in many other areas. I hope that is valuable.

I also gave a commitment at the health committee recently to make sure that its members are aware of these amendments specifically. I immediately sent it copies of the regulations.

I am very happy to give an undertaking this evening that that would be for health spokespersons, all Oireachtas Members or anybody who wanted that. There will be no problem in doing that.

Specifically with reference to what these amendments would do, while I fully accept their spirit, I cannot accept them. We can and should do more by way of engagement. If these amendments were passed, the Government would agree certain actions. Those would be written up into regulations. Line Ministers would be consulted on those regulations and after a consultation period, I would then sign the regulations but they could not be activated straightaway because once I signed them, they would have to be laid before the Houses for a minimum of 48 hours before they could come into effect. That is, first of all, creating a two-day delay. Once they had been laid before both Houses, if both Houses did not vote to accept the regulations, the regulations would fall. That really would not work.

It would not work for the Oireachtas, by the way, either. Not including the hotel quarantine regulations, I signed in excess of 130 Covid-19 regulations. Presumably, the purpose of them being laid before the Houses and voted on is that there would have to be debate, which we would all quite rightly want to have. With some 130 such debates in the last 18 months in the Dáil and the Seanad as well as with votes, one can imagine the time that would have taken up. It would most definitely have meant that very important legislation that the Oireachtas needed to deal with would simply never get seen to. A vast amount of time would be required by the Oireachtas to scrutinise, debate and then vote on 130 plus regulations, which does not include the mandatory hotel quarantine ones.

Essentially that would take up a great amount of time here which would mean very important priority legislation would not happen. It would slow down our ability to respond and would also create great uncertainty. The Minister for Health would sign these into law, they would become law but they could not be activated under law for 48 hours. It is possible that they could then fall as law within 14 days if both Houses did not vote on them. One can imagine that this would create significant uncertainty for patients, for people travelling, for enforcement, for operators and so forth. For all of those reasons, I cannot accept the amendments but, as I said, we can and I would like to do more.

In the spirit of the Second Stage debate, and since we had the Second Stage debate, I met the Department to discuss the regulations on travel this evening and have asked it to create comprehensive briefing notes for all Members of the Oireachtas in an effort to try to start putting this into action. All Members will, therefore, be receiving a briefing note on that and I would like to continue doing that.

Some of the regulations are very minor things but some are obviously very serious and of great import and, of course, all of the Members should be able to see them, have them sent directly to them and receive briefing notes on them when they are material. Some of them are not really material. I appreciate the amendments and I understand why they have been tabled which is why I cannot accept them but there is more that we can do.

Is Deputy Cullinane pressing the amendment?

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 1 agreed to.
NEW SECTION

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 4, after line 33, to insert the following:

Parliamentary oversight of Covid-19 regulations

2. (1) Every relevant statutory instrument made by the Minister shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas not less than 48 hours before they come into effect and—

(a) where, before the date on which paragraph (b) would have effect, a resolution annulling the instrument is passed by either such House, the instrument shall be annulled accordingly but without prejudice to the validity of anything previously done under it,

(b) if, in respect of each House, a resolution confirming the instruments is not passed by it—

(i) on the day it is laid before that House or within the next subsequent 14 days on which that House has sat after the instrument was so laid, or

(ii) in any other case, within 21 days after the instrument was made, whichever first occurs, then the instrument shall be deemed to be annulled accordingly but without prejudice to the validity of anything previously done under it, and

(c) where, following the agreement of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health, the need for such a regulation is deemed urgent, every relevant statutory instrument

may be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is made for the purpose of this section.

(2) The period of time to which subsection (1)(b) relates in respect of a relevant statutory instrument that has been subsequently amended is the period of time concerned for that instrument and not to any other period of time by reference to the amending instrument.

(3) Notwithstanding subsection (2), subsection (1)(b) does not apply to a relevant statutory instrument where, before the date on which subsection (1)(b) would have

had effect—

(a) the instrument ceases to have effect in accordance with its provisions,

(b) the instrument ceases to have effect in accordance with any subsequent amendment duly made to it or has been duly revoked, or

(c) the instrument has been annulled by either House in accordance with subsection (1)(a).”.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 2 agreed to.
SECTION 3

Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 are related and can be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 5, line 19, to delete “section 38S(1)(g)(i)” and substitute “section 38S(1)(j)(i)”.

These are technical amendments arising from a drafting error in the Bill. They are very minor and refer to drafting matters and if any Member would like me to go into a detailed note, I have one, but these are essentially just technical amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 6, line 37, to delete “subsection (6)” and substitute “subsection (7)”.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 16, between lines 7 and 8, to insert the following:

“(fa) who, being ordinarily resident in the State, is returning to the State having travelled to another state for—

(i) an unavoidable, imperative and time-sensitive medical reason,

or

(ii) a termination of pregnancy,

and the reason is certified by a person who is a registered medical practitioner or a person holding an equivalent qualification outside the State,”.

We raised this issue yesterday on Questions on Promised Legislation through our leader, Deputy Kelly. I raised the matter today on Questions on Promised Legislation with the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, whose response I interpreted as being quite positive. I was hoping, somewhat naïvely, that we had come to the Chamber tonight with a view that the Minister might be accepting this amendment.

This amendment aims to ensure that for people travelling for the reason of the termination of a pregnancy, this would be included in the definition of an exempted traveller from having to take a polymerase chain reaction, PCR, or antigen test. We all hope we are debating mandatory hotel quarantine in the abstract and that we will not have to bring it in any way, shape or form.

What is not abstract in any way is the impact that the legislation, as currently drafted, will have on people who are having to travel for a termination. There is an exemption in section 3(26)(f) for a person: “who travels to the State for an unavoidable, imperative and timesensitive medical reason and that reason is certified by a person who is a registered medical practitioner or a person holding an equivalent qualification outside the State” from both providing a negative antigen and PCR test. This differs from regulations which underpin the previous Health (Amendment) Act in this area which said that a person was an exempted traveller where the person “is returning to the State having travelled to a state for an unavoidable, imperative and time-sensitive medical reason.”

The issue here is that the Minister’s Department has refused to clarify if a termination is considered an exempted group travelling for medical purposes. That is quite frankly unacceptable given where we are in this country in this. If people are travelling for a termination, they are usually later on in their gestation for a medical emergency and need emergency intervention. They are in a great deal of pain, having to travel at short notice, are travelling on a Monday for procedure on a Tuesday to come back on a Wednesday. To impose on them a requirement for a PCR and antigen test, for even the logistical never mind even the cost reasons - and we can discuss cost at whichever level it is - in situations where people are usually having to travel at the last minute and to pay high fares for such flights, is quite frankly unacceptable. It is immoral and lacks any kind of compassion and is out of step with where Ireland is now and where the Minister would like to see it. We have been in contact with the Abortion Support Network in the UK and it said that this is an issue and it is dealing with women coming from our country.

We raised this on Questions on Promised Legislation yesterday and today. I flagged this on Second Stage this morning also but unless the Minister says something which is going to give real comfort that this is going to be included, I will be pushing this to a vote.

I will be very brief on this amendment. I commend the Deputy on tabling this amendment as it is a very important one which I was hoping the Minister would accept. We have already talked about what this legislation is intended to do. The Minister set out the rationale for that and it is not going to stop this new variant from coming. If we were to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine, this would be to slow it down. These are the layers of protection the Minister talked about. If that is the case, then we can make exceptions in very limited circumstances.

When we last talked about mandatory hotel quarantine, one of the things that was said to us was that it was the hard cases when they happened which would become problematic. For the vast majority of people it is an inconvenience, yet it is a curtailment of their civil liberties for a time period. For the majority of people, however, I would think that it is something that they would be prepared to do if it meant that it was playing a part in the overall arsenal of tools that we have to deal with Covid-19. In circumstances, as the legislation states, where a persons is come back from “unavoidable, imperative and time-sensitive medical treatment” or a termination of pregnancy, I have to say to the Minister that an exception could be made.

I support this amendment and I hope this Minister does, too.

I welcome some of the points the Minister made earlier in relation to more engagement with the Opposition. I am still not clear what that is. We have been talking about these issues for a year and a half. We have heard lots of promises and the Minister has made promises. They simply have not materialised. It would be important for the Minister to write to Members of the Oireachtas to set out what he is going to do when he makes statutory instruments and regulations. At the very least, we should receive an email to tell us that the Minister has signed them and they are up on the website. That would be a start, and the absolute minimum. That does not even happen. I am interested to hear what it is the Minister is going to do, as opposed to him just telling us here that he might do more.

I am fully supportive of this amendment.

I strongly support this amendment. I must say, it was news to me that there could be issues for people in these circumstances, needing a termination. Obviously, given its nature, it is a very time-sensitive issue. The Minister must absolutely clarify what the situation is for people who find themselves in these circumstances. Unless he can do that, I strongly urge him to accept this amendment. It would be intolerable for anybody to find themselves in these circumstances. I commend Deputy Smith on bringing forward this amendment. I look forward to hearing the Minister's clarification on it.

I, too, welcome what the Minister has said about providing better communication regarding statutory instruments and regulations. If we were just starting off in the early stages of the pandemic, it would be fine to hear that, but we are all here with the experience of 20 months. In the last 18 months since the current Government came into office, in particular, we have had to plead with the Minister and the Taoiseach for basic information. We have had to beg them to arrange briefings for us, either at a political level - and there have been hardly any briefings at a political level, which are very much necessary - or indeed, briefings from NPHET or the HSE. We beg for these briefings and I think there have been two since early summer, which happened after us putting a lot of pressure on. That is not acceptable. We should be receiving regular updates on this, particularly in light of the comments I made earlier where I said that in the main, Members on the Opposition side of this House have been supportive of measures that the Government has been taking. The least the Minister could do is to include us in information, such as the modelling, the inside recommendations and the data of NPHET, but we have been left outside entirely. It is very hard to believe that things are going to change at this point. I am sure the Minister understands why we do not place much credibility on those undertakings.

The final point I wish to make concerns amendment No. 6. This amendment is not proposing a vote; it is simply proposing that any new regulations would be notified to Members and laid before the Houses. The purpose of the amendment is to allow for better communication, as I said earlier, and to alert us, as Members of the House, to what is happening, so that we know what the Government is proposing. It is also to alert enforcement agencies and the general public with clear, concise and factual information, as opposed to the kind of spin that people are trying to find their way through. There is far too much spin. I just wanted to clarify that. What the Minister said earlier about a vote and delays that may apply to other proposals does not apply to amendment No. 6. I will press that further when we get to that point.

On amendment No. 5, I am strongly supportive of it. I call on the Minister to provide crystal-clear clarification on the issue.

I will not take much time; I wish to ask a question. I am a bit puzzled. My understanding is that the highest rate of Omicron is in the UK. Would the Minister ever envisage introducing mandatory hotel quarantine for people coming from the UK? Although I support the amendment, if the Minister does not envisage that, then the amendment will not really be applicable. I am not arguing against it; I am trying to figure out what is in the Minister's head. If the Minister is not going to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for people coming from the UK, then this amendment will not be necessary, because the vast majority of terminations, in cases where women are forced to go abroad, take place in the UK. It illustrates a point about the lack of sufficient abortion services in this country. I ask the Minister to clarify whether he envisages introducing mandatory hotel quarantine for people coming from the country with the highest rate of Omicron. If he envisages doing so, I ask him to clarify if that would make this amendment irrelevant or not. I hope he follows my line of questioning.

It really directly follows on from that and goes back to the point I made earlier in asking what the point is here. My understanding is that the Minister does not envisage introducing mandatory hotel quarantine for UK arrivals, or at least, that is the signal we got. What we were talking about is states like South Africa, where there have been restrictions placed on travel. I think they are pointless, as does the WHO. The restrictions are punishing the people who helped us to identify Omicron, which may not even have originated in South Africa. It quite possibly did not originate there. In any event, it is in the UK. Every single day, people are travelling north, south, east, west, and so on. It all seems rather pointless. I am beginning to wonder whether we are debating a piece of legislation, which I know everybody is saying we do not want to have to put into place, when the Government does not even envisage any remote possibility that it is going to be deployed.

I support Deputy Duncan Smith's amendment, because the thought that somebody coming back from having a termination would be put in mandatory hotel quarantine against the background of something that seems rather pointless, in any event, seems absolutely unbearable. It begs the question of what the whole point of this is and what the Government sees happening. The Minister was scoring a few political points - and fair enough - about our position before, but our position was linked to a strategy. There was a purpose. The purpose was to keep the virus out until we got vaccinated, because we were close enough to elimination. If we eliminated it pending a vaccine, we could open up. The Minister disagreed with that strategy, but it was a legitimate strategy. It was a strategy that was followed by New Zealand.

I am trying to find out what the strategy is here. If the strategy was to keep out Omicron or even slow it down, then the restrictions would be applied now. They would apply, for example, to England and the Netherlands - not just to South Africa and the rest of them. If the Government wanted to slow down the virus, they would apply the restrictions now. If we do it in two or three weeks, when Professor Tony Holohan or somebody decides that Omicron is actually a real problem, it will be absolutely too late. I do not see the logic of what the Government is doing. I am not out to score political points; I am just trying to understand the point. I do not really see the point, unless the Minister is actually telling us that he is thinking, in the relatively short term, that it is a serious possibility that mandatory hotel quarantine could be required for people coming from the UK, the Netherlands or wherever. In the case of abortion services, obviously, we are primarily talking about the UK.

I think it is incredible that a Bill that is supposed to be about the saving of lives has seemingly turned into a debate about the ending of other individual human beings' lives. Many people watching the debate will be quite confused.

On Government powers, if you give Government powers, as sure as night follows day, the Government will use those powers. That has been the way of every step during this pandemic.

On the pre-flight test regarding vaccination status, that is an admission that vaccines do not stop transmission. It is also an admission that it is now necessary to test people for access to places. It is an argument that we, in Aontú, have been making since the start of the debate on the introduction of the Covid pass. It is great to see that the Government has come onto that ground at last. Covid is spreading among vaccinated people quite regularly and normally in this country. The Covid pass has no effect in stopping that transmission.

The problem that I have with regard to the vaccination mentioned by the Minister is that he talked about PCR tests 72 hours before departure. During the week, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage said that a person could get a PCR test in Ireland, fly out of Ireland, and come back within the 72 hours and use the pre-flight PCR test as the PCR test to get them back into the country.

Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case?

The comments were not on the amendment, which is what I want to address. For clarity, the regulations will provide for up to 72 hours for a PCR test and 48 hours for an antigen test. We have had a 72-hour requirement for PCR tests for some time. Regardless, therefore, of the regulations we bring in tonight, the current rules are that, for those 12 years or older, someone who is unvaccinated and who has not had Covid within the past six months has to get a PCR test within 72 hours of coming in. We are already doing that. For those people, the regulations today will not change anything. They change something for those who are vaccinated or who have recently recovered.

The closer to the flight, the better. The fact it is 72 hours rather than 48 hours is purely an operational consideration for people. It can take some time. A person has to book a PCR test, wait for it and wait for a result, and it is not always possible. We can imagine a situation where somebody is trying to get it within 48 hours of a flight taking off, and it is just not possible to do. The closer to the flight, the better. It is to leave time to ensure the test can happen.

Will the test that was taken in Ireland suffice even after the person has travelled to another country and come back?

Yes, the stipulation is not around where the test was taken but when. We can all find cases where it will not work terribly well. We can all find circumstances where a person could, technically, get a PCR test here before leaving, go to London-----

You could go to South Africa.

-----for a day and come home. You could not go to South Africa because you would have to home quarantine for ten days. In extremis, we can all find things in the legislation that do not necessarily work. We can also say there are people who are fully vaccinated who still end up in hospital, but that does not mean we do not provide vaccination. None of the measures are perfect. They are all imperfect layers of protection. We could spend the evening finding any ways of saying any particular measures do not work in certain cases. We know that. It is all about layers of imperfect measures that add up, I hope, to decent protection.

We should focus on the amendment.

I beg your pardon. Yes, we should. It is late. I will not accept the amendment, but for the right reasons. What we want to achieve will be covered in the regulations. As far as I am concerned, the rationale is laid out in the regulations and the legislation, which relates to an imperative, time-sensitive medical reason. A termination of pregnancy absolutely qualifies, unambiguously. We have ended up with the Bill as it is now because when the original Bill was drafted, we were concerned about people who needed to get into the country quickly for urgent medical care and we wanted to provide an exemption for them from hotel quarantine. That was in the original legislation. We then quickly added to it, partly through debate in this House, for people who needed to leave the country for medical reasons. Obviously, they need to come back into the country. That might be a child going to Dresden for proton therapy for cancer or a woman, as Deputy Smith said, going to the UK for a termination of pregnancy, so we put that in the regulations.

The regulations have an advantage over the legislation in that they are more adaptable. For example, when we regulated, we were able to say it applied not only to the person travelling for care but also to somebody who was caring for them. It allowed us greater flexibility in that regard. There is an additional protection here, which I think we will all welcome, relating to applying for exemptions. They can be got ahead of time if there is any doubt.

I do not want to single out termination of pregnancy, given I think it should be considered as part of mainstream healthcare. I do not want to create a list including termination of pregnancy, urgent cancer treatment or whatever it may be. As far as I am concerned, that is one of many urgent medical reasons people can travel. If we bring in mandatory hotel quarantine - we all hope we will not - I give a clear undertaking here the regulations will reflect that. As far as I am concerned, there can be no question as to whether termination of pregnancy qualifies as imperative, urgent and time sensitive, as per the legislation. I hope that speaks directly to what the Deputy wants to achieve. It is certainly what I want to achieve and what most Deputies will want to achieve.

Amendment put:
The Dáil divided: Tá, 47; Níl, 63; Staon, 0.

  • Andrews, Chris.
  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Berry, Cathal.
  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Browne, Martin.
  • Buckley, Pat.
  • Cairns, Holly.
  • Carthy, Matt.
  • Clarke, Sorca.
  • Connolly, Catherine.
  • Cronin, Réada.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Pa.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donnelly, Paul.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Farrell, Mairéad.
  • Funchion, Kathleen.
  • Gannon, Gary.
  • Gould, Thomas.
  • Guirke, Johnny.
  • Kenny, Gino.
  • Kenny, Martin.
  • Kerrane, Claire.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McNamara, Michael.
  • Munster, Imelda.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Mythen, Johnny.
  • Nash, Ged.
  • O'Callaghan, Cian.
  • O'Rourke, Darren.
  • Ó Broin, Eoin.
  • Ó Murchú, Ruairí.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Quinlivan, Maurice.
  • Ryan, Patricia.
  • Shanahan, Matt.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Smith, Bríd.
  • Smith, Duncan.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Tully, Pauline.
  • Ward, Mark.

Níl

  • Browne, James.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Butler, Mary.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Canney, Seán.
  • Cannon, Ciarán.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Carroll MacNeill, Jennifer.
  • Chambers, Jack.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Costello, Patrick.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Crowe, Cathal.
  • Devlin, Cormac.
  • Dillon, Alan.
  • Donnelly, Stephen.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Duffy, Francis Noel.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Flaherty, Joe.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Fleming, Sean.
  • Foley, Norma.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Higgins, Emer.
  • Hourigan, Neasa.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Lahart, John.
  • Lawless, James.
  • Leddin, Brian.
  • Madigan, Josepha.
  • Martin, Catherine.
  • Matthews, Steven.
  • McAuliffe, Paul.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • Moynihan, Aindrias.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Noonan, Malcolm.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Brien, Joe.
  • O'Connor, James.
  • O'Dea, Willie.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Dowd, Fergus.
  • O'Gorman, Roderic.
  • O'Sullivan, Christopher.
  • O'Sullivan, Pádraig.
  • Ó Cathasaigh, Marc.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Rabbitte, Anne.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.
  • Varadkar, Leo.

Staon

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Duncan Smith and Róisín Shortall; Níl, Deputies Jack Chambers and Brendan Griffin.
Amendment declared lost.

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 27, between lines 32 and 33, to insert the following:

“(1A) Before prescribing regulations made under this section, the Minister shall notify and lay before each House of the Oireachtas a copy of the regulations not less than 48 hours before they come into effect.”.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 48; Níl, 60; Staon, 0.

  • Andrews, Chris.
  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Berry, Cathal.
  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Browne, Martin.
  • Buckley, Pat.
  • Cairns, Holly.
  • Canney, Seán.
  • Carthy, Matt.
  • Clarke, Sorca.
  • Connolly, Catherine.
  • Cronin, Réada.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Pa.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donnelly, Paul.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Farrell, Mairéad.
  • Funchion, Kathleen.
  • Gannon, Gary.
  • Gould, Thomas.
  • Guirke, Johnny.
  • Kenny, Gino.
  • Kenny, Martin.
  • Kerrane, Claire.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McNamara, Michael.
  • Munster, Imelda.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Mythen, Johnny.
  • Nash, Ged.
  • O'Callaghan, Cian.
  • O'Rourke, Darren.
  • Ó Broin, Eoin.
  • Ó Murchú, Ruairí.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Quinlivan, Maurice.
  • Ryan, Patricia.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Smith, Bríd.
  • Smith, Duncan.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.
  • Tully, Pauline.
  • Ward, Mark.

Níl

  • Browne, James.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Butler, Mary.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Cannon, Ciarán.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Carroll MacNeill, Jennifer.
  • Chambers, Jack.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Costello, Patrick.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Crowe, Cathal.
  • Devlin, Cormac.
  • Dillon, Alan.
  • Donnelly, Stephen.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Duffy, Francis Noel.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Flaherty, Joe.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Fleming, Sean.
  • Foley, Norma.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Higgins, Emer.
  • Hourigan, Neasa.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Lahart, John.
  • Lawless, James.
  • Leddin, Brian.
  • Madigan, Josepha.
  • Martin, Catherine.
  • Matthews, Steven.
  • McAuliffe, Paul.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • Moynihan, Aindrias.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Noonan, Malcolm.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Brien, Joe.
  • O'Dea, Willie.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Dowd, Fergus.
  • O'Gorman, Roderic.
  • O'Sullivan, Christopher.
  • O'Sullivan, Pádraig.
  • Ó Cathasaigh, Marc.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Rabbitte, Anne.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Varadkar, Leo.

Staon

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Róisín Shortall and Cian O'Callaghan; Níl, Deputies Jack Chambers and Brendan Griffin.
Amendment declared lost.
Sections 3 and 4 agreed to.
NEW SECTION

I move amendment No. 7:

Report of the Minister

5. Not less than two weeks before any motion for a renewal of the provisions of this Act, a report on how they have been applied or enforced shall be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas. The report shall include:

(a) information, including statistical breakdown, on implementation of these provisions;

(b) information, including statistical breakdown, on breaches of these provisions;

(c) information on how public duty of equality and human rights has been reflected in their application; and

(d) concerns identified and recommendations for improvement.”.

We have discussed some of this already, but this is a different element to what we have looked for. When regulations and statutory instruments are put in place by the Minister, they are laid before the House before they come into effect. They are debated, voted on, and so on. This amendment seeks to provide for this to happen not less than two weeks before any motion for a renewal of the provisions of the Act. As the Minister will be aware, on several occasions motions had to be brought forward to extend the sunset clauses. Very often the criticism from the Opposition, which was justifiable, was that those renewals were sought without any information being laid before the House regarding the statistical breakdown on the implementation of the provisions that were in place, breaches of the provisions, if any, and how the public duty of equality and human rights had been reflected in their application.

Several Deputies spoke about this earlier. We have had no look-back at any of the previous regulations or statutory instruments that were introduced. Essentially, this amendment is seeking to have a look-back and a report that will examine all of this and recommend improvements. That is a reasonable request from the Opposition. If the Minister does not accept the amendment, I will be pressing it.

I support this amendment. It is important that we have the data to inform us when it comes to questions about rolling over legislation. In the main, the Minister has had support where he has made a case for it, but there has been a terrible dearth of data on the implications of any of this legislation. It took quite a long time to get any information - for example, on the rate of enforcement and the numbers of prosecutions - and a breakdown of the detail. We need information in so many other areas. We cannot even get a list of consolidated regulations or statutory instruments. There is no cataloguing of measures the Government has introduced under the emergency legislation. That is bad practice. In most cases, the Minister has got a blank cheque with all the Covid legislation. There is great confusion over the regulations and a genuine lack of clarity. That is why we had the previous vote. With regard to rolling over the legislation, we should have the basic information.

The Minister said that, tonight, after this debate, he will sign new regulations and requirements for people travelling. They will need a PCR test within 72 hours of travel, or an antigen test. I raised this subject with the Minister this morning but he did not respond. I listened to his wrap-up. We have been hearing for the past 20 months that, when it comes to once-off tests and negative results, antigen tests are not reliable. We have been told that the whole time. We know that, when it comes to positive results, antigen tests are really reliable, in the order of 80% plus. A positive result is very reliable; a negative result is not at all reliable. Those of us who have been in favour of antigen tests have made it clear all the time that it is about having a screening tool. Antigen testing is a very useful screening tool. Now, inexplicably and suddenly, the Minister is saying that, to reduce risk from people travelling, it is fine to get a negative antigen test within 48-hour period. I find it hard to understand how that can in any way be meaningful. Professor Gerald Barry said on the radio this morning that it is really a box-ticking exercise.

The Minister confirmed that those who wish to go to, say, London for the weekend can get a PCR test done. That one PCR test will take them to London, where they may go clubbing, go to a match, take the tube and go to an airport to come back again. Again, it is pretty meaningless. It does not really provide any assurance of safety or reduce risk.

We have been making the point that the Government does things that are fairly meaningless and just amount to being able to tick a box to indicate we are doing something. It is hard to see how either of the measures that the Minister is going to sign into regulations this evening will make any difference to anything. They are certainly not going to reduce the risk of the importation of the virus. Can the Minister explain how it is that he is now saying it is acceptable that a negative once-off antigen-test result, which only tells one about a point in time and that is not reliable anyway, can mean anything or be of any use?

It is getting very late.

I will not be long. I have not been here for most of the debate, so I just want to mention that. It is vital that the amendment be supported because all legislation should require a reporting procedure. The Minister will say regulations are published and may be examined in the Oireachtas Library, but they should be brought back to the House here. This is serious legislation and has an impact on people’s lives and the decisions we make here. It is vital to scrutinise it.

I support this amendment and thank Deputy Cullinane for tabling it. This process has been difficult and the time allowed is very short. It is an essential amendment if we are seriously interested in this subject. While the Minister did not use the word “draconian”, he acknowledged this legislation has serious implications for human and fundamental rights. If he means that, he should note that this is the most basic amendment he could opt for. It requires a statistical breakdown and the identification of the concerns. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties states sunset clauses in emergency legislation are meaningless if they are renewed with no detailed review of the legislation’s effectiveness and impact on rights. It adds that all future extensions of legislation must provide for a robust analysis and in-depth scrutiny. This should be done for all legislation that has any sort of penalty, but in this case, in a pandemic in which we are introducing and rolling over draconian legislation, it is the most basic requirement.

The truth is that the Government is travelling blind. It has been blindsided. I am not necessarily saying it is the Government’s fault, because many things have happened that people did not accept. I am not saying anybody could be fully aware of what is going to happen but the Government was going to wrap up NPHET in October. This is how close we were to the Government saying it was all done and dusted. Mr. Paul Reid said that, once we reached a vaccination rate of 80%, all restrictions would be lifted in the State. The level of transmission between people who are vaccinated is far higher than anybody expected. I asked the Chief Medical Officer whether any scientific research was done on whether Covid passes work, and he said there was not. I have asked for evidence about mandatory masks for young children in schools, but the Government has provided none so far. In many ways, we are working in an evidence-free zone so, at the very least, we need to collect the data that have been produced to make sure people can understand them. Have any scientific studies been done on whether mandatory quarantine works?

The points on masks and antigen testing are not relevant to the amendment. You cannot win. The Deputy stood up in this House time and again to say we need antigen tests and asked why we did not have them. When we bring them in-----

Sorry, as a screening tool. The Minister knows they are a screening tool.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. She came in and said we need antigen tests and asked why we did not have them. The Government stated we have antigen tests and the Deputy stood up and said it was outrageous that we have them because an expert said they should not be used. You cannot win, in fairness.

The Minister is completely misrepresenting the point

Countries all over Europe are using antigen tests for exactly this kind of purpose. I have supported them for a long time. The Deputy has said more times than I can count or remember that the Government needs to embrace antigen tests. When we use antigen tests, the first thing the Deputy says is that we should not be using them. That is just extraordinary.

Not for once-off-----

I will speak to the amendment. I fully appreciate its intent. I cannot accept it because of technical concerns, such as the lack of definition in respect of certain matters, but I believe that what the Deputy is seeking to do is entirely appropriate and reasonable. I would like to commit to two things, to go further. First, I have a report on the operation of mandatory hotel quarantine to date. It does not go as far as Deputy Connolly desires in terms of human rights analysis, which is a matter we need to take seriously, but it focuses on hotel quarantine to date in some detail. I would like to share that and I will ask the Department to do so.

I hope to God not only that we will not need an extension, but also that we will not need to bring it in in the first place. If we end up back here having to debate and potentially vote on an extension of those powers, I will absolutely commit to asking the Department to provide all colleagues with whatever analysis is possible on the operation to that date. This can inform the debate. If we want to do a session at the health committee, maybe we could do that too. We could also do a technical briefing. I want to embrace trying to provide more briefings. I cannot accept the amendment but I am happy to commit to doing something equivalent, and to go a bit further on it with regard to providing the information we have to date.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 5 agreed to.
TITLE
Amendment No. 8 not moved.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question put: “That the Bill do now pass.”

Will the Deputies dissenting who are claiming a division please rise in their places?

Deputies Boyd Barrett, Connolly, Gino Kenny, McNamara, Pringle, Bríd Smith and Tóibín rose.

As fewer than ten Members have risen in their places, I declare the question carried. In accordance with Standing Order 82, the names of the Deputies dissenting will be recorded in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Dáil. The Bill will be now be sent to the Seanad.

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