Covid-19: Statements

I call on the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to make a statement. He has 20 minutes.

I will be sharing my time with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. We will take ten minutes each.

I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the situation regarding Covid-19 in Ireland, as well as the measures being taken to address the threats posed. I will come to Omicron shortly, but I would like to start on a more positive note. In spite of the very significant threat posed by the Delta variant, it is clear that the national effort being made over the last number of weeks has been working. The efforts of every single person, every family and every business have all been working. These have been in tandem with a big increase in testing, in PCR and antigen testing, a wider roll-out and use of the Covid-19 pass, the roll-out of flu vaccines, serial testing in nursing homes and many more measures.

It is because of all of these measures, but most importantly because of the efforts that people have been making, that the number of cases, which had been rising very rapidly, has levelled off. It is because of the successful roll-out of the booster programme as well as the important fact that people are looking to get the booster vaccine, that we have also recently seen a steady reduction in hospitalisations, including a steady reduction in the number of people in critical care.

This is important. I want to acknowledge, in short, that the national effort taken against the Delta variant has been working.

What has changed now is the emergence of the new Omicron variant. We know it is taking over from the Delta variant quickly. We know it is significantly more transmissible. To give colleagues a sense of this, last week the Omicron variant made up about 1% of all new cases in Ireland. By the weekend, it had gone from 1% to 5%. By Tuesday, we were reporting that 14% of new cases were the Omicron variant. I can confirm to the House that as of today, the Omicron variant makes up 27% of all new cases. We have therefore gone from 1% to 27% in approximately a week. We know that the variant is spreading rapidly. Yesterday, the UK recorded its highest number of cases in one day since the pandemic began. We know that the variant is going to result in an increase in cases in Ireland soon. The only question is how high that increase will be.

The advice I have so far is that vaccines provide significant protection against severe illness from the Omicron variant, which is important. However, they provide less protection against symptomatic infection than they do against the Delta variant. They provide significantly less protection against becoming symptomatic. The strong advice I have is that the booster critically provides a dramatic and an essential additional level of protection against the Omicron variant, both from becoming symptomatic and from becoming severely ill.

I urge every single person who is eligible for the booster vaccine to get it as a matter of urgency. This is particularly true for people in the high-risk categories. These groups, as defined by the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, are as follows: everyone aged 50 and above, anyone who has an underlying condition, all of our healthcare workers, all of our residents in long-term residential care and pregnant women.

The epidemiological situation both here and internationally, as well as the emerging evidence in relation to the Omicron variant, is being kept under close review. My Department, the HSE, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre and the National Virus Reference Laboratory, NVRL, are meeting on a regular basis to review the evolving situation. As we are all aware, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, is meeting today, right now in fact, to assess the current situation. The Government will of course consider any advice and analysis offered by NPHET.

Given the seriousness and the urgency of the threat posed by the Omicron variant, a number of actions have already been swiftly implemented. To protect our healthcare system and our economy, we have responded quickly with new travel measures, which colleagues will be aware of. As Deputies are also aware, the Government agreed to introduce a package of new public health measures, which took effect from 7 December. These are aimed at reducing the current levels of socialising across society to interrupt or indeed slow down the spread of Covid-19 in the community. We are not alone, of course. Many EU countries are introducing new Covid-19 restrictions. These include reintroducing measures, some of which we have retained here, such as the use of face masks and Covid-19 certificates. Others are having to go further, including for example a partial lockdown in the Netherlands and the introduction of stricter measures in Germany. It is fair to say that the situation across the EU remains fluid and uncertain.

Our national vaccination programme is one of the most important tools we have in responding to Covid-19 and, in this case, in responding to the new threat posed by the Omicron variant. We have a high level of vaccination by international standards. We should be proud of it as a nation. Critically, as well as having one of the highest levels of people vaccinated, we have always prioritised the most vulnerable first. This is important. In fact, Ireland has the highest percentage levels of vaccination anywhere in Europe among those who are over the age of 50, 60 and 70 and among the higher at-risk groups. This is welcome. It will have saved, and will continue to save, many lives and will keep many people safe.

We have taken the same approach with the booster programme, where we have prioritised those most at risk first. A large majority of these groups have now received a booster vaccine. Our aim is that by the end of the year, which is within the next two weeks, everyone in those groups defined by NIAC will have had a booster, will have an appointment for a booster or will have had an opportunity to go and get a booster at a walk-in clinic.

We are also doing well on the total number of people who have received the boosters, and not just at primary vaccination. Now, the figure is approximately 1.4 million people, or about a third of adults in the country. It puts Ireland third in the EU and it puts us eighth in the world in number of adults who have received a booster.

I want to take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks to everybody working right across the country, in every one of our constituencies and in every county, who has been working night and day to make this vaccine programme such a success.

However, as I am sure colleagues will agree, given the scale of the threat posed by the Omicron variant, given how fast it is moving and given just how much extra protection these boosters provide, we are going further. Last night, I announced a significant scaling up of the programme to bring us to in excess of 300,000 doses a week on average over the coming weeks. I would like to thank our healthcare workers, our GPs, our pharmacists, our service men and women in the Defence Forces and so many others right across the country. We have put out a national call over the last number of days and, by God, people have responded. I want to thank everybody for responding to that call to arms.

Capacity is being increased across the board, in the vaccine centres, in the GP surgeries and in the pharmacies. The vaccine centres will now be open from 8 a.m to 8 p.m., seven days a week. Additional staff are being deployed. Extra booths are being added where possible. Staff from the Defence Forces are coming in. We are redeploying staff from other parts of the health service. We are opening three new centres - one in Cork and two in Dublin.

While three quarters of GPs were already involved in the vaccine programme and doing incredibly valuable work, now nearly all of the 1,300 GP clinics across the country have agreed to get involved and to increase their capacity where they have the ability to do so. Obviously, they still have serious obligations to keep their patients well on non-Covid-19 issues.

The GPs will continue to prioritise the NIAC groups. However, as of today, they also now have the ability to move through all of their patient groups as the capacity allows. The number of pharmacies has increased immediately from 550 to 700. We are pushing to get up to 1,000 in the next two weeks. Critically, for GPs and pharmacies, last night I approved the waiving of the 15-minute post-vaccine wait on foot of a recommendation from NIAC. The GPs and the pharmacists asked us to waive that. Given the context of the urgency we have right now, it would help them, so that is in place as of today as well.

High-risk children will start to be vaccinated next week, initially through the paediatric hospitals, and then through the vaccine centres. The following week, from 28 December, the online portal will open for the parents of high-risk children to register them. It will be on a self-identification basis. The vaccines for this group will start on 3 January. From mid-January, the vaccine centres will open to other children and other adult cohorts. We all know that many parents have many questions. Comprehensive materials are being put up on the HSE website. Next week, those in their 40s will begin to receive appointments for the following week for vaccines to begin.

I see that I am out of time. I want to finish by saying it is an urgent situation. I would like to wish all my colleagues a happy Christmas. I acknowledge the broad political support there has been for the national effort and particularly for the vaccine programme. This is urgent and I want to thank all of my colleagues for everything they have done and continue to do. We need to this do together. I have no doubt that we will. I wish everyone a happy Christmas.

I am pleased to be here today with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to provide the House with an update on the important measures that we have taken to address the continuing the impact of Covid-19 on the educational experience of our children and young people.

The operation of schools has been and continues to be a key priority for the Government. I do not underestimate for a moment the significant challenge that the pandemic has presented for schools in their operation and in their everyday running.

I sincerely acknowledge the hard work and commitment of all education partners, working together with the Department of Education and public health, to ensure that our schools have been in a position to operate throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. I also acknowledge the work of public health, whose support has been critical in these efforts.

As Members will be aware, the operation of schools is vital for our children and young people. From social development, to academic learning, to well-being, school is a crucial service for them. If the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it is the vital importance of our education system. Significant resources have been made available to schools throughout the pandemic to support them in their continued operation. However, the education system is not defined by Covid-19. Budget 2022 includes a number of investments in our education system that will create a stronger, brighter future for our learners. We have further reduced the primary staffing schedule from the present historic low of 25:1 to 24:1 from September 2022 onwards. The primary staffing schedule reduced by one point, to an historic low level of 25:1, in 2021 and further investment in new teaching posts will see the general average reduced to 24:1 in 2022. We have provided an additional annual allocation to the DEIS programme of €18 million in 2022, growing to €23 million the following year. Together with a further one point improvement in the staffing schedule for DEIS urban band 1 schools, this will create the largest ever education package to tackle educational disadvantage and represents an increase of more than 20% in funding for the DEIS programme in 2022 and 2023.

The budget for 2022 includes a capital allocation of €20 million to schools for the purchase of books, audiobooks and other media for the purposes of improving their existing literacy resource banks. This funding is additional to that given for the school book rental scheme and is intended to promote the joy of literature, words and reading within our schools and classrooms. The budget also seeks to support our excellent school leaders by extending administrative principal status to all teaching principals in schools with two or more special classes, or in special schools where a principal was previously a teaching principal. Furthermore, provision has been made for a minimum of one day of administrative leave per week for teaching principals. I look forward to advancing these initiatives, together with our partners in education.

The Department has always been guided by advice from our public health authorities, including NPHET and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, in respect of the infection prevention and control measures appropriate for schools. We are appreciative of the priority and guidance these expert bodies have provided to the education sector throughout the pandemic and we continue to engage with them where further measures are recommended or needed. The wearing of face masks by children aged nine years and older in a number of settings, including for children in third class and above in primary schools, has now been introduced on a temporary basis and will be subject to review in mid-February 2022. A set of frequently asked questions relating to face masks and face coverings in primary schools was published online and sent directly to primary schools. The FAQs provide further guidance to schools regarding the use of face masks or face coverings in the third to sixth class cohort. Advice from the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, on supporting children in wearing face coverings in primary schools was also published online and forwarded to schools. Further resources have also been published by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA.

As I have set out previously, any engagement between parents and schools will take place in a spirit of partnership and co-operation to ensure the safety of the whole school community. The guidance seeks a solution-focused approach between schools and parents to resolve any issues that may arise. Where significant issues have not been resolved locally, contact should be made with the Department’s Covid-19 support helpline by email or telephone and a departmental inspector will provide further support. The guidance recognises that in the case of certain children with additional needs, schools may be already aware of difficulties they may face regarding the appropriate use of face coverings. Schools will be best placed to identify those children whose complex needs are such that the wearing of face coverings may not be possible for them, and to discuss this with parents and guardians as required. In such circumstances, schools do not require medical certification to provide an exemption to the wearing of face coverings.

The Chief Medical Officer recently confirmed that it is his view that there is a role for the use of antigen tests as an additional tool in our schools. The Department of Health and the HSE, working in collaboration with the Department of Education, have introduced a programme where antigen tests will be made available to children in primary schools when a case of Covid-19 arises. Parents and guardians of a primary schoolchild with a confirmed case of Covid-19 following a PCR test are asked to inform their school’s principal. The school principal will then inform the parents of other children in the pod of a confirmed case. Where there are two cases in a class in more than one pod within a seven-day period, antigen testing is being made available to every child in the class.

It is important that parents inform principals quickly if a child receives a "detected" PCR test for Covid-19. By doing this, the choice to participate in antigen testing can be offered to other parents quickly. It is important that everyone continues to follow all the public health advice in using this new programme. No personal details of the child will be shared. These parents will be provided with the option to receive free antigen tests for their child, which they will be able to order using a freephone number or online portal for delivery to their home. It is not mandatory for children to participate in antigen testing. Children who are in a pod where a child has tested positive for Covid-19 can continue to attend school whether they participate in antigen testing. School principals will not be required to gather evidence of participation or of any antigen test results. Information materials for parents has been shared with schools and publicised directly to parents.

While Covid-19 has had an effect on all aspects of education, it is clear that some students have been impacted more than others, especially students with additional educational needs and those who are at risk of educational disadvantage. The Covid learning and support scheme, CLASS, was introduced to mitigate the adverse impacts of Covid-19 on learning loss and well-being arising from the periods of school closures in 2020 and 2021. Under the programme, a block of additional teaching hours is being provided to schools, from which each school can provide additional teaching support for the pupils who have experienced difficulties in settling back into school and engaging with learning. These hours are additional to any other teaching hours allocated to the school, such as special education teacher or English as an additional language hours. Schools have the flexibility to identify the pupils who have been most affected by the school closures, and schools can use these additional hours throughout the year to support these students. It is a matter for each school to recruit the teachers required to provide the hours or, alternatively, a school can offer additional teaching hours to teachers already in the school who have less than full teaching contracts. Any registered teacher may be recruited to provide CLASS hours, irrespective of whether the teacher is otherwise employed by the school.

Ventilation is one part of a layered strategy of protective measures to control the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. Updated guidance for schools on practical steps for the deployment of good ventilation practices was provided in early May. The guidance outlines that CO2 monitors can play a part in providing a useful general indication that areas and rooms may not be adequately ventilated. As such, a number of portable CO2 monitors were sent directly to primary and secondary schools as part of a free scheme. In excess of 36,000 monitors have been provided. To assist schools with this work, the Department recently announced the payment of a minor works grant totalling €45 million for primary schools and special schools as part of additional support in the context of Covid-19, and €17 million was allocated for post-primary schools. Schools that identify inadequate ventilation in a room can use their minor works grant, including for the purchase of HEPA air cleaners where identified as necessary. Schools may also apply for emergency works grant assistance to address larger-scale issues, as has always been the procedure.

Well-being is a central focus of schools and the Department. Specific supports have been put in place for schools to allow for well-being measures.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to address the House. I am very appreciative of the tremendous support that has been given by all our partners in education and the school communities on the ground, as well as Deputies, in what has been a particularly unprecedented time in the education sector. I am appreciative of their support and I wish them a happy Christmas.

Debate adjourned.