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Seanad Éireann debate -
Monday, 29 Mar 2021

Vol. 275 No. 6

Covid-19 Vaccination Programme: Statements

I welcome the Minister. Fáilte go dtí an Teach. I thank him for taking time out of his day to outline the current situation as regards the roll-out of the vaccination programme.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and colleagues for the opportunity to address the House today on the Government's response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the roll-out of the national vaccination programme. The pandemic represents the greatest public health threat in the history of the State and has required an unprecedented response. Every man, woman and child on the island has sacrificed so much of their personal liberty in our collective efforts to save lives and protect our families and communities. I thank every person, family and community for everything they have done so far.

I am acutely aware of the frustration the public feel in the face of the continuing level 5 restrictions, with a daily case number that remains higher than any of us would like. I have no doubt that, for many, it feels like we are not making progress in our fight against this disease and that there will be no end to this pandemic. I assure the House that the end is in sight and that we are making considerable progress towards it, particularly now that a successful national vaccination programme is under way. As a Government, we are doing all we can to defeat this virus and usher in a return to normality for the people of this country. The vaccination programme represents an enormous source of hope for us all nationally. I understand that public fatigue is at an all-time high. The burden that this pandemic has placed upon our lives has never felt greater for so many of us around the country.

Last year, we could only hope to manage this disease in our society. This year, however, thanks to the unprecedented international co-operation across our research, scientific and business communities, a suite of vaccines is now providing protection against Covid-19 and allowing for a transition back to normality. We finally have a light at the end of the tunnel but we are not out of danger yet and we must hold firm for a little while longer.

The vaccination programme is progressing well and it is having a positive effect. As of 26 March, we have administered approximately 800,000 doses of the vaccine throughout the country, with many more people being vaccinated every day. We continue to expand our vaccination infrastructure, with the HSE advising it has trained more than 11,000 vaccinators.

Last month, the vaccine allocation strategy was revised to take into account the latest clinical and medical advice based on national and international evidence. Those with a medical condition that puts them at very high risk of severe disease and death are now being vaccinated as group 4. Our priority is to vaccinate and protect directly the most vulnerable among us, namely, those most likely to have a poor outcome if they contract the virus. More than one in every eight adults has now received a vaccine, and we are starting to see the vaccine having a very real impact on the lives of our citizens. This is hugely encouraging.

Our nursing homes were among the most vulnerable settings for this virus. Nursing home residents and staff were the among the first to be vaccinated in Ireland. Serial testing for Covid in nursing homes is now showing a positivity rate of less than 0.2%, from which we can take great hope. In January, the country averaged 35 outbreaks per week in nursing homes. In the past four weeks, it has reduced from 35 to 2 per week, which is huge drop that is bringing comfort and relief to nursing home residents and their families as well as to nursing home staff. In-person visits to nursing homes have been taking place since 22 March. I expect all nursing home providers will facilitate visiting in line with the new guidance given the important role of visiting, social connections and communication with family and friends in the context of residents' overall health and well-being.

Covid-19 infections in long-term residential care among healthcare workers and in those aged 85 and over have fallen dramatically. The number of cases of Covid over the past two weeks among those aged 85 and older was 12% below what it was during the previous two weeks. This contrasts with a lower 5% decrease in case numbers in those aged under 85, where the vast majority are awaiting vaccination. Our medical experts expect to see drops in cases for the other age groups as they too are vaccinated.

I acknowledge the frustrations of many people with the roll-out. However, it has been our intention from the beginning to vaccinate on the basis of vulnerability to the virus to save as many lives as possible and to bring about a return to normality in Ireland as quickly as possible. This approach has been very successful thus far. We all remember the devastating effect the pandemic had on the nursing home sector last year. Those living in these congregated settings are some of the most vulnerable in our society to this pandemic. In January, 15% of all Covid cases were in nursing home outbreaks. By mid-March, this figure had been reduced from 15% to 1%. I hope this has afforded comfort to the residents of nursing homes and their families and to the staff who have worked tirelessly, often in very perilous conditions, to care for our loved ones. The recent increase of permitted visits to nursing homes will have a profound effect on many families and improve the lives of nursing home residents.

The vaccination programme has already had a big impact on reducing the high levels of hospitalisations due to Covid. The available epidemiological data has shown a 67% fall in the number of cases among those aged over 65, with experts expecting that downward trend to continue as we proceed with the vaccination of that priority group. As the volume of vaccinated people increases, the incidence of disease in our communities will fall.

There will be further progress in the vaccine roll-out. By the end of September we expect to have offered all adults in Ireland a Covid-19 vaccine. Over the next three months, between April and the end of July, we expect to receive over three times the number of vaccines we received over the first three months of this year. We expect to receive an average of 1 million vaccines per month during the next quarter, dependent on the ability of manufacturers to deliver consistent ongoing supply. Despite the challenges, we are consistently one of the top performers in the EU in terms of the speed of our roll-out. Not only are we doing very well in terms of the speed of the roll-out from an EU perspective, acknowledging the UK is head, we are also targeting the most vulnerable and the most complex cases in the country.

The vaccine roll-out represents the gateway to exiting this global crisis. It is one of the most important tools we have to tackle Covid-19. In parallel, the Government is strengthening our public health response, including increasing public health capacity, strengthening testing and contact tracing, increasing supports for self-isolation and enhancing surveillance capacity. Recent measures have been introduced to mitigate the risk of importation of new variants of the virus, including mandatory pre-departure Covid testing measures and more stringent quarantine measures for arrivals from high-risk countries. Our hospitals are under immense pressure, but additional capacity has been put in place across the health service, including in the context of critical care capacity. These are just some of the components of an unprecedented investment that is being made in our public health and social care services.

The most ambitious vaccination programme ever undertaken by the State is less than three months in operation but is already having a profound effect on our ability to beat this virus. I commend all the ongoing efforts of individuals, communities and our health and social care workers across the country. I look forward to the Senators’ contributions on this topic.

Like everybody else, I am eagerly awaiting tomorrow's announcement. It will be a difficult day because many people are expecting changes and feel we deserve such changes in light of the enormous efforts they have made. Many people understand that we are at a very crucial stage in the life cycle of the virus. The Minister has reaffirmed the need to hold firm for another few weeks.

I am very pleased to hear the nursing home statistics the Minister read out. Tomorrow, we need to hear hopeful statistics like that. We also need a roadmap out of this because people need hope. They also need to know if we hold firm we will be getting the 1 million doses of vaccine per month for the next four months and that they will be delivered in as speedy a fashion as they have been delivered to date.

What happened at the Beacon Hospital last week was very unfortunate. People I have spoken to have been horrified that it could happen. The public solidarity that has been shown over the past year has been shaken. I commend the Minister on his swift action and also the swift statements by the Taoiseach regarding the matter. We need to maintain that public solidarity in the vaccine roll-out schedule because, as the Minister outlined, it will be ramping up significantly in the next few months.

I wish to take a moment to reflect on some of the heroes of the pandemic. We have heard of course about the health worker heroes, but another cohort of heroes have gone wholly unnoticed, namely, the young people of Ireland. They have missed school, missed milestones and missed relationships. They have not had opportunities to go to the Gaeltacht, to complete their leaving certificate, to go to debs, or to partake in sports, drama, music or play dates. They have taken it very well and they have adapted well to the changing circumstances. They have dealt with considerable stress in their communities and in their families. I am very conscious that they do not have powerful lobby groups like many other people involved. Sometimes their voices are not heard in debates of this nature. Today, I pay tribute to the young people of Ireland. I suggest that perhaps we could have a national day to celebrate young people once we are out of the woods on this. It would be just a small measure to thank them for the solidarity they have shown. They have played such an important role in the handling of the pandemic that it would be remiss of us not to mark their solidarity.

I thank the Minister for his update. We thank him and his colleagues for the work they are doing. We look forward to those millions of vaccine doses coming into the country.

I welcome the Minister to the House. It is always good to have the opportunity to address him in person. I acknowledge his job is no easy task at the best of times, not to mention during the circumstances pertaining since he took office. He inherited the responsibility for a health service that had, for years, suffered from a lack of capacity in key areas such as ICU. I note that the Tánaiste and his Government ignored pleas to expand capacity in these areas, a failure the nation has been paying a heavy price for over the past 13 months. Need I mention the national children's hospital project that has been plagued by incompetence, delays and skyrocketing cost overruns? I can empathise with the Minister on that front. However, we are well over a year into this global pandemic. Our healthcare system is in turmoil, our national debt is ballooning, people have lost jobs and been put on the PUP, businesses are on life support, our children have lost out on invaluable time in education, and all of our lives have been continuously put on hold for the past 13 months.

The scale of the damage being done to people, including to their mental and physical health, and to the country is incalculable. I have heard anecdotal reports that suicide and domestic violence are on the rise, with women and children being trapped with their abusers for months on end with little to no relief. Families have been deprived of the ability to attend the funerals of loved ones. Their grief has been amplified. Public worship has been outlawed in a most cavalier fashion without a body of solid and empirical evidence to support this move. The same can be said of construction. The cessation of construction is exacerbating the housing crisis and the chronic economic crisis.

From its ivory tower, NPHET has force-fed the public a diet consisting of crude Covid statistic fear and admissions on a daily basis. This is hardly a diet that is conducive to good public health, mental or otherwise. NPHET would better serve the public through the adoption of a holistic approach and a nuanced strategy that takes account of all aspects of public health in the short, medium and long term, as well as the societal effects of its diktats. I distinctly recall the Chief Medical Officer saying it was not his job to consider the consequences of his advice and that another body should perhaps be set up to do this. That body is called the Government. This Government, as well as the previous one, has totally abdicated its responsibility to take decisions to govern. The Tánaiste said in an interview with Claire Byrne that NPHET's advice had not been thought through and that it had no answers to obvious and valid questions he had put to it on the consequences of its advice.

Regarding consequences, the Minister and the Government need to take note that the Irish Hospital Consultants Association is predicting that almost 1 million people will be on hospital waiting lists by the end of this year. These are people with serious and life-threatening conditions, cardiovascular disease, cancer and many other people with debilitating diseases. The life-threatening wait for treatments is set to get worse, with 700 hospital consultant positions remaining unfilled. Consultants say more beds and staff are desperately needed to deal with more than 900 inpatient and outpatient hospital appointments that have been cancelled to focus on Covid. Consultants have criticised the HSE's approach to mental health, the e-health technology project, recruitment, ICU capacity, and equipment. The allocation of 1% of additional Covid spending to mental health is "grossly inadequate" according to Professor Alan Irvine.

In light of this appalling vista, and I have only described the tip of the proverbial iceberg, I ask the Minister when will he admit he is out of his depth? We are at a point in this crisis where we need a Minister for Health who is willing to fight to get vaccines for the people of this country. The Department of Health and the HSE have been about as dynamic during the vaccination roll-out as a ship beached in the Suez Canal. It is simply unacceptable to sit and continue to wait for the European procurement system to deliver the vaccines our people urgently need. We need somebody who will act with a sense of urgency and provide much needed clarity and leadership.

This is the Minister's first role in any Government. I put it to him that he has lost trust and confidence on account of his mismanagement of this crisis. I am referring to the poor communication from him, the mixed messaging, the never-ending doom and gloom, the squandering of taxpayers' money on a failed tracking and tracing system, and the stalling of mandatory quarantine and PCR testing for foreign visitors to our country for the entire year. Meanwhile, Irish people cannot stray 5 km from their homes without fear of being stopped by gardaí or being asked for a reason for their doing so. I will continue later on.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. As always, he is very welcome to the House. This is a very positive day for my family because my sister-in-law, Una Hannify, who has Down's syndrome, is getting her vaccine in St. Raphael's School, Kildare. People are very happy about that.

By and large, the vaccine programme has been rolled out as effectively as it can be given the shortage of supply and so on but the problem is that there is a great degree of public distrust following what happened at the Beacon Hospital last week. That is absolutely not the Minister's fault and it would be very unfair of anybody to lay blame at his door but what we need now is full transparency and accountability. There needs to be a full review and audit accounting for every vaccine administered by the Beacon clinic since the start of the roll-out of the vaccine programme. I understand an official from the HSE went to the Beacon to take over the running of the vaccination centre there. It is now suspended. I sincerely hope that individual is now going to carry out an audit to ensure all of the other vaccines were administered to appropriate people.

We have a lot of questions, and there are many questions that need to be answered. We need to know whether the members of the non-executive board of directors got vaccinated, particularly those who are not in direct contact with people on the front line. We need to find out if family members got vaccinated. The silence from the Beacon since its statement on Friday has been deafening. It is regrettable that it has not provided full clarity on what has happened with all the vaccines.

A newspaper report over the weekend referred to the vaccination of people in childcare facilities who perhaps did not need to be vaccinated. That is also regrettable but we certainly need more clarity from the Beacon Hospital on what the hell went on there. We need to abandon the Beacon now as a facility as opposed to suspending it. On a scale of selfishness between one and ten, what happened at the Beacon was at the upper end. It would get a nine or ten in terms of absolute selfishness. The Minister cannot be held responsible for that but he can be held responsible for dealing with it. On that, I would like to know whether there are spot checks in general in areas where the vaccine is being rolled out. Are there spot checks in other centres and perhaps large GP practices where there is buddying up just to make sure things are being done right and that when we reach the end of the line and people have to be called in, vaccination will be carried out appropriately? I have no doubt that, in the vast majority of cases, this is the case.

I have a concern about availability in section 38 and section 39 organisations. This matter has been brought to my attention. In some cases, vaccination is very slow and vaccines are not being made available. In other cases, there is all sorts of speculation and rumour. We need full clarity. The only way this can be provided is by constantly auditing and inspecting.

The other aspect of the vaccination programme that needs to be addressed concerns people with underlying medical issues, the vulnerable and the sick. At this stage, they need to be given an indicative timeline as to when they are going to get vaccinated. There are people with serious underlying conditions who are still waiting to be contacted by a body, be it a general practice, consultant, hospital or day facility, to tell them when they are going to be vaccinated.

It is incumbent on all parties to communicate a timeline to people. People are reasonable. All they want to know is that they are on a list and will get the vaccine at some stage in the near future. People not receiving any communication is a problem. They are beginning to doubt whether they are on a list. Some people have GPs, others are under consultants and others still are under both. Some are being told by their consultants to go to their GPs or vice versa. That is not fair or good enough, as the Minister knows.

Regarding tomorrow's announcement, I will probably go against what has been said by many. I want NPHET and the Government to be conservative in what they reopen. We have gone a long way in tackling this disease. People are being vaccinated and a great job will be done in that regard over the next three months. For the sake of another six to eight weeks, why undo the great work that has been done? Let us be careful and cautious. I appeal to people to follow public health advice, as difficult and all as that is.

I wish the Minister well in what is an extremely difficult job.

I thank the Minister for attending to outline the vaccination programme. Having this discussion is worthwhile, particularly in light of Friday's revelations.

I do not want to focus on the supply issues, given that April and May are key months, but the slow roll-out is frustrating as we see the UK exceed 50% of its population. Our slow roll-out must be laid at the door of the EU and the lack of urgency therein. I hope that we manage to catch up and have the full vaccination programme that we have been promised for the next three months.

I wish to focus on the lack of strategy in and overview of our vaccination programme and its roll-out in recent weeks. We have a priority list, which many agree is fair and balanced since its revisions. I welcome that the Government took people's views on board, including about underlying conditions. However, that is it. At a simple level, we do not have a central list of, or any way of knowing, who has been vaccinated. I welcome that multiple sectors of society are facilitating vaccinations, for example, large vaccination centres and GPs, but it is a major oversight that we do not have a co-ordinated list. Senator Conway touched on this matter in terms of people being bounced around. A friend of mine has stage 4 cancer and had been attending two hospitals but her treatment is not active at the moment because she is in between treatments. She was not sure about her vaccination. Each hospital said that the other hospital or her GP was responsible for it, whereas her GP said that the hospitals she was attending were responsible. Why did we not build a simple database tied to PPS numbers, which are the only identifiers this country has, to know who had been vaccinated? As the months go on, this will unfortunately become a greater problem.

As of 25 March, 760,000 vaccine doses have been administered. Today in The Irish Times, Mr. Paul Cullen reported that the HSE gave 220,000 as the number of front-line health workers who had been vaccinated. However, according to his figures, only 80,000 of those worked for the HSE. Even if sections 38 and 39 organisations were taken into account, it is difficult to see how these numbers add up. Mr. Cullen did not get follow-up information when he requested it. The administration of vaccines in residential care facilities is welcome. There are 32,000 residents in nursing homes and approximately 20,000 to 30,000 staff. The numbers in this regard are not adding up either. Where are the vaccines going?

I am not naive or demanding enough to say that we must have perfection over progress. Everyone who gets vaccinated is welcome. However, a question arises, particularly in light of what happened with the Beacon Hospital, about whether the vaccines are going to the people with underlying health conditions who need vaccination the most or whether they are going to people who are even tangentially involved in or in the vicinity of the HSE. This is a real concern.

If more things happen like what happened in the Beacon, which was the epitome of antisocial behaviour and entitlement, that is, sending those vaccines to a school that was known to someone and passing over a load of other schools and facilities, there is a concern that it will undermine the programme. I ask that clear guidance be given that the vaccines go to front-line health workers or people on the priority lists and that there be spot checks and follow ups to ensure this. We are all hearing of someone who knows someone who is tangentially connected and may get vaccinated.

I welcome the Minister saying that there are 11,000 HSE-trained vaccinators, however I expect we are all hearing stories of people who have found it so difficult to become vaccinators that they have given up. We need as many people as possible who can be to be trained in becoming vaccinators, particularly as supply is ramped up in the next three months. We need to simplify and clarify the process. It is a real issue that can hinder the roll-out over the next three months.

I welcome the Minister back to the House; I am sure his time is precious during the crisis. I welcome the resumption of visits to the old folks homes. It is massive and means so much to people to be able to see their families twice a week. It is a step in the right direction and it is hard not to get teary-eyed thinking of people being able to see their families again. I am pleased that we can do 105,000 vaccinations in the next week, which is quite impressive. No one has had to do this before. There will always be faults but everyone here, including ourselves, want this to be dealt with as soon as possible in the best and fairest way. What happened in the Beacon, and in another case where there were 15 vaccines, is appalling, of course, but it is probably 50 vaccines out of 900,000 we have distributed to date. I do not know if it should be the big news story of the day. We have to give people hope and everyone is trying to do their best, including the Minister. It is massive that we are going to have 37 mass vaccination centres, which we see working so well in other countries. We must all support everyone in every way we can with the roll out.

However, it is never perfect. On the vaccine distribution, everyone has a PPS number. I have friends who run old folks homes where all have been vaccinated except for four new patients. The manager has had, say, ten different phone calls from three different sections of the HSE looking to arrange the vaccines of those four. I do not know what is happening there but somehow there is a disconnect. That needs to be looked into because we need to ensure that the vaccine is only going to one person, yet they are being offered it from three different avenues in the same organisation. My computer science degree is very old but even I could write a programme to see how to use PPS numbers to ensure there is no overlap.

The second thing I wish to highlight is the importance of resuming some procedures outside of vaccinations in hospitals. People are facing life-threatening illnesses and hospitals are probably the safest places now. Everyone who works in them has been vaccinated and they all use PPE. The health and safety standards in hospitals are as safe as anywhere in Ireland yet people cannot go in for procedures. For example, my friend's five-year-old daughter is one of 18 people in the world with a form of dwarfism where she has been on life support three times. She has missed her last three appointments, which would have seen what the next steps were for her to give her the quality of life she needs. Everyone cannot be prioritised and everyone has a story, but when can we give them some hope of resuming appointments? This girl has a consultant in Crumlin hospital where it is very safe and where everyone has been vaccinated. We need to strike a balance.

I hope the Minister is getting some sleep at night. This whole situation is torturous. I believe that if there were no issues around the supply of vaccines, we would be much further ahead by now. If there is any way we can support the Minister further, I volunteer to do that.

I thank the Minister for coming in because I know he has an extremely busy schedule at the moment. This week is going to be crucial for him and the Government. There are a number of concerns and I will try to go through them as quickly as I can. The first is fundamental. As we know, the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, has identified and prioritised 15 groups for vaccination. Does the Government know how many people are in each group? That is fundamental. I am asking because it appears that the Government does not know the answer to that question and it is causing confusion and a lack of confidence.

Like my colleague from the Labour Party, I will reference Paul Cullen's article in the The Irish Times today because it is good. It states: "The HSE says 220,000 “front-line” healthcare workers have been vaccinated, yet only 80,000 of these work for the State health provider." Mr. Cullen goes on to make the point that the other groups do not seem to make up that total. He also states:

Some 177,000 people have been vaccinated in long-term residential care facilities. There are 32,000 residents in nursing homes, and about 20,000-30,000 staff.

A breakdown of those groups would be useful because if the Minister would be able to give us that, it would give confidence to the general public. It is worrying that the Department of Health has not been able to give that breakdown to my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, who has been asking for it for the past couple of months, or to The Irish Times for that particular article. That suggests the Department does not know, which raises the more fundamental question that if the Government does not know the numbers of people in each group, how can it plan the roll-out from here? That is fundamental.

It is a pity we were not given a copy of the Minister's speech because it would have been helpful to go through it. I caught a reference to a figure that 800,000 people had been vaccinated by 26 March. That is good and I welcome that clarity. Can the Minister tell us if we will hit the target of the vaccination of 250,000 people each week from next week onwards, as we need to? That is fundamental, although I fully accept that is subject to delivery. I accept the Minister's point that the vaccines must arrive. Is the capacity there?

The Minister mentioned that 11,000 dedicated vaccinators had been trained up and that is a welcome figure. However, I am confused because when I spoke to the head of University Hospital Limerick on Friday of last week, she said there were 100 additional dedicated staff. Senators Conway and others were also on that call. I am finding it hard to marry those figures. The Minister will acknowledge that concern. Is the capacity in place to make sure we hit the target of 250,000 vaccinations per week?

I will move on to the people who received vaccines when they should not have. This is fundamental because it is adding to a lack of confidence among the general public. I call for the Department to initiate a full investigation across all areas because the last thing we need is more leakage and other examples of people who, through contacts or privilege, have got the vaccine when they should not have. There has been a drip-feed of revelations over the past number of weeks and they have been damaging to the Department. The best approach would be for the Minister to tell us clearly if there are more examples of that sort of practice happening. He should tell us that today when he is responding. Has he been made aware of any further examples of people being given the vaccine ahead of their place in the queue?

Speaking of the vaccination queue, Sinn Féin has put a fundamental emphasis on family carers, as the Minister knows. When will he instruct NIAC to look at family carers and apply ethical principles to this group? Family carers are recognised as health and social care workers in the national carers' strategy but, inexplicably, they are not counted as such for the purpose of the vaccine roll-out. One family carer stated that her son is developing a stutter because of a lack of interaction and conversation with people. The child is only three and cannot be vaccinated. If he gets sick, he will have to go to hospital but his carer, his mother, will not be vaccinated. Parents are having to make impossible decisions and it is the responsibility of the Minister to fix that. I ask him to do so as a matter of the most urgent priority.

I raise the issue of Limerick. We are all completely puzzled as to why we in Limerick do not have a vaccination centre. Why has the Government put the vaccination centre for Limerick in County Clare? It is impossible for people living in Abbeyfeale or Newcastle West to get to the vaccination centre. The other problem is that the vaccination centre is not accessible by public transport.

Unless one has a car, one must organise a taxi in order to get there. It makes no sense. The HSE referred to figures from the Central Statistics Office. Is it saying there has been a sudden displacement of people from Limerick to Clare? It just does not make sense and people in Limerick are angry about that. It is a basic thing that there should be a vaccination centre in each county, yet the Government has failed to deliver one for Limerick. It makes no sense and I would like an answer on that issue. I appreciate the Minister taking the time to come to the House.

The Minister is welcome. It is important to emphasise that vaccination cannot be our only plan. I worry that so much now is focused on the end goal of vaccination that we do not have as much emphasis as we need on the many preventative and other measures we will need to use in the months ahead. With all due respect to the Minister, it was unhelpful for the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, to state that we will not get the case numbers below 500. It has also been unhelpful to see the amount of energy put into challenging independent scientific advice that seeks a more aggressive and ambitious reduction, even on a regional level, in terms of cases. More needs to be done and a signal of ambition in respect of that aspect must go out very strongly.

As regards the vaccination programme, there are a few technical issues. I refer to the issue of access to public transport, which has been mentioned. At least some of the vaccination centres should have better public transport accessibility. That is very important.

On the issue of the number of vaccinators, I know the HSE received 4,000 applications from individuals. Many of them are facing a significant number of difficulties in getting those applications processed. We need to scale up the number. Crucially, that must not come at the cost of retaining testers and contact tracers and increasing recruitment in this regard. It is disappointing that we are only now seeing the message that they will trace back five days. For more than 12 months, I and others have been calling for that to be done because it is how one catches asymptomatic cases and reduces the numbers.

On prioritisation, as other Members stated, a significant amount of thought has gone into the list. However, I note the importance of prioritising those who are caring for and supporting vulnerable persons. I refer to professional and family carers, as well as personal needs assistants and special needs assistants, who we know from the experience in the UK have a higher vulnerability. In that regard, I appeal to the Minister to speak to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, around accommodating remote learning for children in whose families there are vulnerable members. The children should not be marked as absent where a member of their family is being cared for. A very blunt approach has been taken in that regard and families have struggled when the child is not the person who is vulnerable, but there is a vulnerable person at home. There needs to be room for nuance in such situations. Of course, allowing remote learning for such children would reduce the numbers in classrooms overall and create greater safety for everyone.

My main focus is on the issue of justice. Reference has been made to the outrageous situation at the Beacon Hospital and the fact that prioritisation was made based on wealth and connections, which should never be the case. All Members know that is what we do not want to see. It is absolutely crucial not just that the situation at the Beacon Hospital be addressed but also that those bad practices at senior level by the CEO are addressed and shown to be unacceptable to people in this State.

On a wider level, we need to apply those principles internationally and globally. We know from Oxfam that 14% of the world's population are now in possession of 53% of the effective vaccines. The issue is not simply a moral question around distribution of the vaccine; it is the artificial scarcity in supply of vaccines that relates directly to the prioritisation of the maximisation of profit over the sharing of intellectual property, technical know-how and other manufacturing information. The WHO has warned that we are on the verge of catastrophic moral failure. That will be on us. We will all be the people about whom we rage in the newspapers if we do not step up. The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence has highlighted the need to act on this issue, and not just to support Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, COVAX, but also the Covid-19 technology access pool, C-TAP, initiated by the WHO. Indeed, there should be consideration of a trade and intellectual property rules, TRIPS, waiver. Shamefully, just a month ago Europe and the United States blocked a request from 100 countries and the WHO for a temporary waiving of intellectual property in order to allow a massive scale-up in global vaccine production and access.

We will be back around the table to take the decision in late April or early May. The US is now considering a temporary waiver. Ireland needs to show moral leadership on this. We need to signal we want to support a massive global scale-up. It should be borne in mind that €6.5 billion of public money and €1.5 billion of civil society money went into the development of vaccines. We have funded this. It is a public health good.

It is not just a question of having a politics of principle or a politics of patronage in which people trade supplies with each other, it is also a question of collective safety. Until we are all safe, none of us is safe. We will see new variants emerge everywhere in the world that is unprotected which will affect all of us and the vaccines will stop working for everyone. It is a huge moral moment. I want the Minister of State to show leadership and demand leadership from her Government colleagues, including the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. It is great to have her here. It is good to have an opportunity to discuss the vaccine roll-out because as the Minister of State has said, vaccinating an entire population against a virus which, as far as we are aware, only came into existence just over a year ago is probably the most important public health initiative in living memory. It is quite remarkable, so we must acknowledge the good work that has been done in extremely difficult times.

It is worth noting we are at almost 800,000 first doses and that 80% of the population should have their first vaccine by the middle of June. It is a significant achievement by the Government, the country and the people to get to that point. It is worth acknowledging that.

I concur with what Senator Garvey said on nursing homes. It is going really well and physically meeting their loved ones again has made a big difference to many families and residents in the nursing homes in particular. It has been a huge boost to those families. The mass vaccination site in Breaffy in Castlebar in my home county, County Mayo, has been working well. It has been positive. People like to see it up and running in their area.

I commend the Minister of State on her quick action on the Beacon Hospital story. She and the Government were put in a difficult position. The privilege displayed by those involved provoked mass outrage and the right decision was taken to suspend the vaccination programme at the hospital. The words of the Minister for State, other Government colleagues and the Taoiseach were strong in putting it back on the board of the hospital to take action because people want to see consequences. It was handled quite well.

While we all have different views on how things are working, all the contributions to the debate have been constructive, except for Senator Keogan's contribution, who I have to take issue with. We do not come to this House to kick other people to elevate ourselves. That is not how we do our work. Take issue with a person's policy or work but do not come in here to personalise the debate.

I cannot keep up. Senator Keogan is on public record last November as having questioned level 5 restrictions, the deadliness of Covid-19 and asking the Minister for information on how many people who died of just Covid or if other factors were at play. She even suggested exploring restrictions for those most affected and letting everybody continue living. The Senator wanted to leave people behind.

Senator Keogan criticised the communications of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and the Government on Covid-19. In November, she questioned the need for daily number announcements and press conferences, so she did not even want the communications. Senator Keogan went from being vaccine sceptical to wanting full vaccination, and from zero Covid to saying "let it rip". I am finding it hard to keep up.

However, Senator Keogan has been consistent in that, every time a member of my party comes into this House, she puts the boot in. I can tell her it has been well noted on this side of the House. It is just not the way to do business. The Senator can have her say but do not come in here to put the boot into another colleague who is here to do his job. Being Minister for Health is really difficult on the best of occasions. It is the most difficult brief any Minister in Government will hold. We all know that. It is one of the briefs people actually run away from because it is so challenging. We now have a Minister who is not only Minister for Health, but for Covid, vaccination and hotel quarantine.

He is doing a remarkable job and it is amazing he is holding it together, as a person and as a human being, with the workload that is on his shoulders. As colleagues in this House, from all parties and none, the very least we can do is get behind the team that is fighting on behalf of this country to get us back open and get our children back to school, our businesses back up and running and everyone vaccinated. That would be a far more productive use of our time than coming in here throwing scuds at one another, to get a few popular lines in one of the newspapers or a clap on the back for five minutes for a Facebook post. That is all the Senator will get out of it. What she will not get is anything good for the public or the people that we serve.

I have many matters to talk about but on behalf of the Fine Gael Party, I will back up Senator Chambers's comments. I am sure we all agree that Senator Keogan's comments are an absolute disgrace. They are personalised comments about a Minister who, as most Senators would agree, is one of the most accountable Ministers in coming to this Chamber on a weekly basis. There is no one more accountable than the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, in terms of the work he is doing.

Tell me what I said that was wrong.

Absolutely everything the Senator said was wrong. She criticised his performance even though hospital numbers have dropped from more than 2,000 in January to 331 today. It is a disgrace that the Senator can be critical of the Minister when the figures have dropped by that much due to the decisions he made and on the back of the work and commitment of the people. I agree with everything Senator Chambers said.

On the vaccination centres, there is one open in Clonmel and I commend the work done there by all the nurses and people involved. It was set up in Clonmel Park Hotel, there are vaccinations going on at the moment and it is doing wonderful work. There is another centre in Nenagh. We are quite lucky in having two in Tipperary but it is a large, long county and they are doing extremely good work. The over-70s are being vaccinated by general practitioners, GPs, but, after that cohort, can the Minister outline exactly who will be vaccinated in vaccination centres and who by GPs?

The GPs have done fantastic work. In my home town of Cahir they vaccinated 400 or 500 on St. Patrick's Day. They are now vaccinating those aged 70 to 75 and have really ramped it up in the last number of weeks. It is a credit to the work they are doing there. My father received his first vaccination and it is a celebration when anyone gets it. It is really welcome. Any of the rubbish the Minister has listened to is not the way it is on the ground.

On the Beacon issue, it is disappointing but the Minister has acted swiftly which is really important. Are there any other cases the Minister is aware of that have happened since, as they are just not acceptable?

I did not hear the earlier comments as I was, and still am, on a Zoom call. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on the progress made on vaccinations thus far. As of yesterday evening, 548,948 individuals have received their first dose and 211,223 have received their second dose. There are very important projections on the number of vaccines that will be available for distribution in the month of April, which are up to 250,000 a week. It is very important that we meet those targets and continue to do so in May and June.

There have been issues, some of which I have raised with the Minister, Paul Reid and others at the Joint Committee on Health. I acknowledge that they have been largely sorted. This includes the issue of the over-70s in hospital who were not getting their vaccinations but they are now, after some cajoling. I am thankful the Minister got that sorted. A number of other matters, including GPs not getting their first supply initially, have been rectified as well.

I agree with the Minister's action on the Beacon. Those involved in the Beacon decision were absolutely tone deaf to where we are at present. That is all I will say on it. When we, as public representatives, are advocating on behalf of people such as gardaí, special needs assistants, SNAs, teachers and others in society, it is so wrong that there was queue skipping of that order.

I have spoken before about the situation on the islands. The over 70s have largely received their first, and in some cases their second, dose. There are some queries about whether all of the other residents will be vaccinated on the islands. Will the supplies be transported to the islands or will all other residents have to come in from the islands to get their vaccination? I argue that the former should take place and similar to what happened with the over 70s, all others on the island should get their vaccination on the island itself.

The next phase is the mass vaccination across the country. We need to ensure this will work smoothly. We need to have a pipeline of individuals. We need to ensure that if there are extra vaccines available of an evening that there can be an orderly queue of people who can receive it at short notice. I thank the Minister and commend him on the progress made to date.

As of last Thursday, 25 March, just over 211,000 people, about 4% of the population, have been fully vaccinated. Most of these are older people over the age of 80 years, and front-line health workers. I want to discuss what this means for ordinary people who have been fully vaccinated but first I want to address events which occurred yesterday near Our Lady of Lourdes church in Mullahoran, County Cavan. It appears the local parish priest has been levied with a €500 fine by the gardaí for saying mass. Yesterday, The Irish Times reported that gardaí established checkpoints nearby, effectively, to challenge locals about approaching the church. I have no problem with gardaí asking people where they are going as long it is clear as to what is lawful, what is unlawful and what is just a matter of public health guidelines. Challenging people and levying fines in circumstances where there is doubt about what the law provides for, takes one into the area of harassment. It reminds me of what used to happen behind the Iron Curtain before 1989-1990. It is extremely important that our gardaí do not go one iota further than what the law provides for. I raise this issue because it happened at the end of a week during which the Government has refused to say whether or not it is an offence to say mass, to cause a mass to be organised, to organise mass or, indeed, to attend one. I raised this issue in the House on Friday. I and others have struggled to get the Government to be clear about what is against the law and, although important, what is just a matter of public health guidelines.

The Minister knows that people, such as Professor Oran Doyle, have been very critical about what the professor has called "a masterpiece of misdirection" where the State has been appearing to let on that certain things are against the law when they may not be. I also note The Irish Catholic reported yesterday that in the course of its defence of proceedings in the High Court, the Government had stated that it is, in fact, an offence to celebrate mass. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, told the Dáil last October that "religious services are non-penal in that there is no penalty attached to them" and yet we have a priest being slapped with a €500 fine.

There is no hostility here. This is Holy Week and Easter, which is a very important time for many people. People understand and they want to be part of the national effort. They do not want to be patronised. They want to be levelled with. I want the Minister to say which version of events is correct. Is it the one he gave in the Dáil saying it was not a penal offence or the apparent position being now taken by the State? We are talking about two regulations here. Regulation 4 makes it a criminal offence to leave one’s place of residence without a reasonable excuse. There is a non-exhaustive list given there. Regulation 8 prohibits and makes it a criminal offence for a person to organise a relevant event. I am happy to give way to the Minister now because I would like him to answer and to bring the necessary clarity to that. I would be very grateful if he would. Has the Minister any interest in answering this? I am happy to give way to him, if he wants to answer that question now.

I am just making the offer.

We are allowed to do it under the Standing Orders.


It frequently happens that Members give way here. I have made the offer. He is not forced to take it up but I just want to make the offer.


What would be so wrong with that? Is this not about getting clarity?

It is censorship.

I am not going to call it censorship. I will speak for myself on this issue. It would be setting a good precedent to give way in this House to allow issues to be clarified. I have great respect for the Minister and the job he is trying to do but there is a-----

I thought the Senator was not going to be adversarial.

This is not a breach of Standing Orders.


I have given way to Senator Buttimer in recent weeks and he was damn glad to avail of the privilege.

I commend the Leader, Senator Regina Doherty, and the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, on comments they made yesterday on this matter.

On the roll-out, Professor Liam Fanning of UCC has suggested that fully vaccinated people should be allowed to meet in pods. I wonder whether the Minister has a view on that.

There appears to be a difference between how GPs and dentists are treated in terms of how they are to be paid for administering vaccines. GPs, it appears, are being paid €35 per dose administered. Dentists are being recruited to work in mass vaccination centres but are being offered €27 an hour. That disparity may eventually cause a widespread refusal among dentists to volunteer. It seems a strange situation. My dentist mentioned this to me in recent days and said there is anger about it. I would be grateful for a response on that.

Senator Mullen went over time and used his time to try to change the entire system of the House. He cannot do that in the middle of a five-minute speech.

On a point order, I have been in this House for longer than the Acting Chairperson. I am not going to say she has a better knowledge of-----

The Minister is here to talk about the vaccine roll-out, not about Senator Mullen's ideas and thoughts on changing the whole system in the Seanad.

On a point of order, I do not think you know-----

Excuse me, Senator, you must speak through the Chair. Please take your seat.


The Senator will not waste our time discussing changing the system. He should sit down.

Do not abuse your position.

Respect the Chair and the system used in the Seanad. Please sit down and respect the rules of the Seanad.


We will not waste the Minister's time on this.

Senator Garvey is not in government when she is in the Chair. Please remember that.

On a point of order, I have been referred to by two Senators this afternoon.

Two Senators referred to me.

Excuse me, we have an emergency to deal with here. We have the Minister in the House.

I am glad the Government is actually cognisant that we have an emergency.

If Senator Keogan plays with fire, she will get burned. This is a waste of time.


Senator Keogan, you should respect the Seanad and my position as Chair. Do not be so disrespectful in the House. We would all love to demand one-on-one conversations with the Minister. We are moving to Senator Gallagher. We will hear from the Minister at the end of the discussion.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach fosta. The Minister is welcome to the House. I thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to discuss this very important issue in the Seanad.

I sincerely thank the vast majority of citizens of this country who have been doing all they possibly can. Many of them have made great sacrifices in their efforts to contain this deadly virus. Many have lost loved ones in difficult and trying circumstances.

I also pay tribute to the front-line workers and all those who have worked throughout the pandemic for the benefit of us all.

As I am sure the Minister is well aware, people are tired and weary, and the vaccine roll-out is the one thing that keeps them going. Everyone needs hope and the vaccine is our hope.

In County Monaghan, many GPs have consistently given up much of their free time to roll out the vaccine, which I witnessed at the weekend. It was amazing to see the smiles on people's faces after they had been vaccinated. Many of them were elderly and they looked as if they had been given a new lease of life, which is welcome.

I welcome the information the Minister delivered here this afternoon. He said that we will receive 1 million vaccines in the months of April, May and June, with the old caveat of subject to supply. I appreciate the news that, subject to supply, four in every five adults will have received at least one vaccine dose by the end of June. That is hugely positive information and I sincerely hope that we can live up to those expectations.

I compliment the HSE and the people who have rolled out the vaccine for ensuring that it takes less than seven days for the vaccine to go from its arrival into this country to being administered in somebody's arm. With that news any reasonable individual would cut some slack because the infrastructure has been built from scratch in the middle of a pandemic. Everyone tries to do their best but we must accept that mistakes will always happen. However, we do not have to accept the example at the weekend of what happened at the Beacon Hospital. The person or persons responsible for the incident stuck their two fingers up to the rest of us, to the people who have lost their lives, and to the people with underlying conditions who have not left their homes in 13 months. The people responsible do not care and seem to have adopted a mentality of I am all right Jack, which is very disappointing.

I ask the Minister to comment on a number of things, if possible. Is he happy that we have the necessary infrastructure in place to distribute the 1 million vaccines over the next three months? I spoke to some people who received their vaccine at the weekend and they asked me what can they do after they receive the second dose in the next number of weeks and how will their lives change. Those people need to know what they can do that they are not fit to do at the moment. It is important they receive direction.

I have been contacted by a number of people with queries about an online portal. I ask the Minister to indicate where we are at with an online portal. I think people in the UK have been able to avail of an online portal. I spoke to relations of mine who have lived in the UK for a number of years and they told me that the portal has been hugely successful, so I look forward to an online portal being used here.

I have been contacted by a number of young people abroad. Many of them are school teachers in places like Abu Dhabi and other places of the Middle East and elsewhere. Most of them have received their second vaccination and hope to come home in the summer. Will they have to quarantine or will the fact that they have been fully vaccinated eliminate the need to quarantine?

Finally, as Senator Chambers outlined in her contribution, the role of the Minister for Health is a huge task at the best of times and his has been multiplied by a hundred with the pandemic. I compliment him on his efforts and urge him to keep up his good work.

Senators Burke and Buttimer will share time. They have two and a half minutes each, and I will give a 30-second warning.

I welcome the Minister to the House and wish him well with his portfolio. I sympathise with him on having the most difficult job in this country at this point in time, with everybody watching what he is doing.

It will be very difficult, in the two minutes I have, to say a great deal on this matter. I will not go back over the issues raised by the many other Senators but I welcome the return of visits to nursing homes. That is very welcome. Allowing it again is a great initiative, vaccination having been carried out in most nursing homes.

There are many large pharmaceutical companies in the country. Have any plans been made that would allow these companies, which may have spare capacity because there has been no flu this year, to produces vaccines? I have no doubt that there will be a need for booster vaccines in the coming years. What is our plan in that regard? An audit should be carried out in respect of the production of vaccines in this country. This may involve the Minister's Department and the Departments of Finance and of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and would aim to determine how to bring about a situation in which we could produce our own vaccines.

I am aware that there is a proposal before Government in respect of the production of vaccines in Ireland. This would create jobs and would come at no cost to the taxpayer. The Taoiseach is aware of the proposal. Some very high-powered people, at the very highest level in the world, are involved. I hope that the Minister will pursue this as it would allow vaccines to be produced in this country for next year and would give us the safeguard of having our own vaccines here. I would welcome it if the Minister could see what he can do in that regard.

I thank Senator Burke for sharing time. I welcome the Minister and wish him well. The vaccination programme is the single most important public health campaign in a century and we must have confidence in it. I commend the Minister for the work he is doing. I ask him to expedite work with regard to the role of our pharmacists in the vaccination programme. Our pharmacists play a key role. Under SI 60/2021, the remuneration of pharmacists involved in the vaccination programme has been set. I ask that this be adhered to and followed up on. The vaccination programme is the gateway out of Covid-19 and will allow us to celebrate mass and remember the passion of Our Lord during Holy Week rather than engaging in rhetoric in this House. We all support what the Minister is doing. It is important the public health response keeps all of our citizens safe. That is what it aims to do - to keep all of our citizens safe.

How many pharmacists are involved in the vaccination programme? I do not expect the Minister to have the answer with him but I ask him to come back to me on it. We need more pharmacists employed in the mass vaccination centres. The programme is a critical platform through which to give people a new sense of hope as we stand on the cusp of a decision by Government, in conjunction with NPHET. I ask that the contract signed with the pharmacists be in keeping with the statutory instrument.

We should also communicate more clearly with people. As the Minister knows quite well, there is great frustration because of the lack of supply. We should look at and work with the points made by Senator Burke regarding the pharmaceutical industry here. The Minister should level with people, communicate with them and give them a sense of hope. A generation of people over 80 and between 75 and 80 have got their first and second jabs and they are looking forward to the summer with optimism.

The Minister has a difficult job. I chaired the Joint Committee on Health and Children for five years so I know the pressures he is under. He should be assured that we will work with him and walk with him. Ní neart go cur le chéile. It is together we can win, not through the gamesmanship we are seeing today.

I thank Senator Garvey for chairing this debate. I regret that she has been subjected to rudeness by some Senators.

Easter is a time of renewal, new life and hope, so it is appropriate that we use our final sitting day before Easter to talk about our line of hope, the vaccination programme. The Minister is, as always, very welcome to the House. I take this opportunity to commend him and his office and Department on all the work being done in the name of eradicating Covid and allowing us to live our lives in a new normal. It is completely wrong that the Minister, or any Minister of any party, would be subjected to threats to him and his family. It is appalling and we stand with him as Minister. It should not happen to anybody.

The vaccination programme is heading to a new phase and today is a red letter day in my house. The O'Loughlins in Cappanargid are very happy because this morning my mother received her second vaccination dose and my brother Cathal, who has Down's syndrome, received his first dose. We feel they will be in a position to go gallivanting, if there is a place in which to go gallivanting, in a month, six weeks or whatever. It gives us as a family great hope. Having spoken to other families and friends, when they are in that position where they can see neighbours and relatives, I know it gives everybody a great lift. We have to remind ourselves all the time that the vaccination programme is being rolled out. I accept that we are at the behest of the vagaries of the vaccine production in regard to what we get. It is notable that we are above average in the EU in terms of the roll-out. While I acknowledge that the Minister probably cannot comment on this matter, the EU has let itself down in the procurement of vaccines. It was well behind the curve in putting in its orders and we are all suffering because of that.

Those in nursing homes have had the opportunity to have two visits a week since their second doses came to fruition, which is very important. It is a sign of hope and it means so much to older people and their families.

I have to comment, as others have done, on what happened at Beacon Hospital, where 20 vaccine doses were given to teachers from a private school. It was completely inappropriate and tone deaf to where the rest of us are. I am glad the message went out loud and clear from the Minister and Paul Reid, as CEO of the HSE, that this was completely unacceptable. It meant the clear protocols were not followed and 20 vulnerable people did not get their vaccines when they should have. No private school should have received vaccines from a private hospital because that would mean taking them away from the vulnerable.

To return to where we are in regard to living with Covid, the virus situation remains very fragile. The numbers are still high, unfortunately, and my county is one with increasing numbers. Having gone through an additional lockdown in Kildare, that is something we did not want to see. We have to take that into consideration in respect of any easing of restrictions, which will have to be cautious and limited, but there is room for some change. Allowing some outdoor meet-ups, sport for children and sports such as golf and tennis would be appropriate. The reopening of schools is very important and the fact they will all be back on 12 April is something we have to aspire to.

A total of €2.5 million in fines has been collected from those who have breached the Covid restrictions.

I ask that this €2.5 million be put into a specific fund for positive mental health for young people. They are a group who really need extra help and support.

Thanks to the time we have wasted arguing over nothing, the remaining speakers will have 20 seconds each. I must call the Minister in a minute or two. I apologise for that but there is nothing I can do about it. We lost time due to people-----

On a point of order-----

I am sorry, the Senator is not going to waste any more time now. I call Senator Dolan who has 20 seconds.

There is nothing in Standing Orders to prevent-----


It is you who wasted time-----

I thank the Minister for the short time I will get today. I will make three points, however. First, I welcome that the notice GPs are given about the vaccines they receive has gone from one day to two days. I know from speaking to a local GP that the number was down by 120 this week. I ask for confirmation on that. We know a big surge is coming in the last two days of March. Is it the case that they will not see this drop next week and the week after in terms of vaccine doses?

Second, pharmacies, particularly smaller pharmacies in regional towns with only one pharmacist, very much want to and will be very efficient and effective at rolling this out. Can we look at any other administrative or logistical supports for pharmacies in terms of small pharmacists?

I will make one very brief point and ask a question regarding long-term illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, diabetes and cystic fibrosis. I understand some of those cohorts have been split in two, which has resulted in some confusion.

A person from counties Kilkenny or Wexford might attend a consultant in counties Kildare or Dublin. Where will a person who falls into this cohort be vaccinated? Is that patient administered in his or her own county or will he or she be contacted by his or her consultant? Is it more difficult if somebody has multiple illnesses and multiple consultants are involved? I would like some clarity on that. If the Minister cannot give it here, I would appreciate if he could let us know separately.

I thank the Minister very much for coming into the Chamber. We look forward to hearing all the answers to those challenges he faces. I apologise for the delay and the disrespect shown into the Seanad Chamber today.

Excuse me. I am sorry but I have never seen-----


I am going to ignore that comment. I will let the Minister speak. What he has to say about the vaccinations is much more important than the Senator's particular cause or issue.


Have a bit of respect for the House and for the Minister. We are facing a pandemic. That is much more important than the Senator's issue.

We take our role very seriously-----


Will the Minister stand up, please? I am sorry; I really apologise for that.

It is no problem at all. I thank the Acting Chairperson for her chairing of today's session. I thank all colleagues for the debate we had today. I try to come to the Seanad as much as possible.

We appreciate that.

The quality of the debate, challenge, questions and ideas is always very high. I thank colleagues for their very thoughtful contributions because the reality is there is no monopoly on wisdom when it comes to dealing with this pandemic. Nobody has all the answers, including this Government, me, Ireland or any country around the world. The reality is that this is completely unprecedented and is at a scale and pace that Ireland and many other countries have never seen before. The Government, the Oireachtas and parliaments all over the world are doing their best and are getting some things right. Governments around the world, including ours, are getting some things wrong and missing others. There is no question about that. The more debates and ideas we can have across the political spectrum and in both Houses, therefore, the better.

It has been the most difficult of years for many people. We heard again today about people who cannot attend mass. It is the cornerstone of spirituality in many people's lives and they have not been able to go. People cannot see their friends. The other day I spoke to someone I have known for many years and who would be very susceptible to this disease if he got it. He said he has not been able to hug his children in a year. I do not know about anyone in the Chamber, but I have not hugged my mum nor seen my granny in a year.

It will take many years to understand the cost of this pandemic. It has been awful. The vaccine programme is so important because it is going to bring an end to this. Six or seven months ago, I spoke to eminent scientists who have been involved in many vaccine programmes over the years and who stated that we might or might not get a vaccine for this disease. They said we might get one in two to five years. They referenced other diseases we deal with all the time, such as the common cold and HIV, for which there is no cure yet. I hear the frustration loudly, as do we all, but the fact that we are standing here today talking about four authorised vaccines - three are currently being used and a fourth one is on its way - with levels of effectiveness beyond anybody's wildest dreams is something profoundly good and hopeful.

Every one of us would have taken somebody's arm off to be where we are now six or nine months ago. I hear the frustration and I have the same frustration - we all do. Our vaccinators, doctors, nurses, medical students, the National Ambulance Service and everyone who is involved in this share the same frustration. So many people are doing such an important job. They all feel it. We all feel it. We want the vaccines and we want them now because they will stop the torture that has been the past year for so many people due to the isolation, the loneliness, the pain and the anxiety. I fully understand why people are pushing so hard to get the vaccines as quickly as possible.

I assure the House that we have opted in to all our pro rata top-ups with the EU. I wish the EU process had been quicker, as do we all. It is right and proper that we focus on countries that are going quicker than us. The main one, because it is so close to us and we have the two jurisdictions on own island, is the UK. Britain and Northern Ireland are going quicker and we would all love it if we were where they are. However, we spend less time thinking about the fact that we are still in the top handful of countries on earth for vaccinations. A very important debate continues around global justice. If the vaccines arrive as they are contracted to do, four in every five adults in Ireland will have been offered at least one vaccine dose by the end of June. It is nearly April. That is where matters stand. Can Senators imagine the countries around the world that are looking at us and are quite confused when they hear us attacking each other and about the negativity around our vaccine programme? Some countries are wondering what year they are going to get vaccines. I am not trying to dismiss this issue. I do not diminish the criticism, the frustration and the push for us to do more and quicker and better. I get that and fully accept all of it. While I believe the teams running the vaccine programme are doing an outstanding job, of course things have not worked perfectly.

In the limited time I have left, I will try to address some of the questions raised. If the Acting Chairperson wants me to stay a little longer I will be happy to do so.

Let us talk about the Beacon Hospital for a moment. What happened there was completely unacceptable. There is no excuse whatsoever for what happened. It was clearly against the agreed protocols and the entire ethos of our vaccination programme, which is to vaccinate the most vulnerable first. We do that because we want to minimise the damage this virus can do to our country. By vaccinating the most vulnerable first, as well as our healthcare workers who take care of those who get sick, we minimise the risk, maximise the benefit of the vaccination programme and speed up our ability to open back up again. Some may say that what happened at the Beacon only involved 20 doses in a pool of 800,000 that have been administered. I do not accept that. It is not about the 20 doses, it is about the signal it sent out.

Is the Minister aware of any other similar cases that we could be reading about in the papers in the next few days? We would be better off having all the information if that is the case.

I ask the Senator to allow the Minister to continue without interruption.

What happened is unacceptable. It sent out the wrong signal. For everybody, this stank of privilege. That is what it looked like to everybody. It should not have happened. I have suspended vaccine operations at the Beacon Hospital. I did so following consultation with the HSE. Some people asked why it did not happen immediately. I wanted to make sure there was capacity to put in place alternative vaccination arrangements at very short notice. We did not want a situation whereby we acted instantly and later found that what we were doing was denying good, innocent people the opportunity to be vaccinated. I worked closely with the HSE to ensure alternative arrangements could be put in place very quickly and then we suspended operations at the Beacon Hospital. A letter is also being sent to the board asking for a full account, including, as raised by Senator Conway, whether other vaccines in the care of the Beacon Hospital have gone outside of prioritisation. These vaccines do not belong to the Beacon Hospital or to any hospital; they belong to the Irish people. We are taking what happened there very seriously.

Senator Clifford-Lee spoke well and appropriately about what young people have been through. For the many people who attend college for three years, they are some of the best years of their lives. I studied engineering and a certain amount of it was very boring but college years are good years. Many students will have lost two years of college time or, perhaps, two years in fifth and sixth year class and their time as young people. They have been severely curtailed and that has been incredibly difficult for them. I agree that they need to be acknowledged for the sacrifices they have made.

As referenced earlier by a colleague, because of the level 5 measures and people getting behind them, Ireland has moved from having one of the highest rates anywhere in Europe in the very recent past to having one of the lowest rates. That progress has been hard won by every household in this country.

Is the Chairperson happy for me to continue a little longer?

The Minister must conclude in two minutes as there is a sos scheduled to allow for sanitisation of the Chamber before the next business commences.

The question now, and what the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 will discuss later today, is how we protect the hard-earned progress and having one of the lowest rates. We are surrounded by countries that are seeing a huge surge in cases because they now are experiencing the B117 variant, as we did in December, and they are struggling. From a health perspective, for me, the Department of Health, the HSE and my colleagues in government, the focus is on three particular areas, the first of which is targeted suppression of the virus. We have the full population measures but, as Members will have seen, we have brought in walk-in PCR testing. We are deploying rapid testing. We will engage with employers, unions and others on how to stop unnecessary commutes to work. We will engage with the third level sector regarding various activities that we are know are driving what is going on. Second, we are further increasing the biosecurity against variants at our borders. There are many very serious measures in place, including preflight PCR testing, a ban on non-essential foreign travel and mandatory home quarantine. As colleagues will be aware, we have introduced mandatory hotel quarantine as well. Ireland is moving first in the EU in bringing in measures this comprehensive. We now have, by a country mile, the most comprehensive biosecurity measures on our borders against Covid variants in the EU. Critically, the UK and Ireland are lined up, with both countries having some of the lowest rates of Covid cases anywhere in Europe and that is very valuable. It goes a long way towards dealing with the reality that Northern Ireland has an open border east-west and North-South as well.

Many questions have been asked, but I regret I will not have time to answer them all today. I apologise for that. On the questions regarding cohort 4, I have asked the HSE to do everything it can to speed up contact with those in the cohort.

It is a complex group with many very specific conditions identified by NIAC. As was said earlier, some have comorbidities, several underlying conditions. The answer is that some will be vaccinated by their GPs and some will be vaccinated by the hospital that is taking the lead in their care now. It is a complex group. We all want the group to be communicated with as quickly as possible and I have asked the HSE to redouble its efforts to get out to this group as quickly as it possibly can.

Several colleagues have asked if we are ready for April. In April, May and June we envisage having an average of 1 million vaccines a month. It might be a bit more or it might be a bit less. We need to ensure we are ready to get those vaccines into people's arms. I can confirm that we are ready. I have received repeated assurances from the HSE that the GP clinics and the vaccination centres are available. We have the capacity when these supplies arrive. Someone asked earlier if we are expecting large supplies in the next few days and we are. The plan is then to move very quickly to get those vaccines into people's arms.

Will I finish up there?

One minute. I will be killed, but anyway-----

I offered some of my own time, so I will be-----

Yes, the Senator did. I would prefer to get the Senator a written response because he asked a very reasonable and very important question about what is legal and what is advisory. I want to ensure he gets a precise answer to that question. I will ensure that the Department reverts to him with exactly that. I acknowledge that for many people not being able to attend mass in person - obviously, they can still do it online - is very tough for them. The only reason such restrictions are in place is to keep people alive; that is it.

Over the next 24 hours there will be considerable focus on what the Cabinet decides tomorrow. I have my views on what needs to be done. Regardless of that, enormous progress has been made. We now have one of the lowest rates in Europe. Many lives are being saved by the progress and the sacrifices to date. We need to protect that. This new variant is incredibly contagious. As we can all now see, any little changes to what we do, any relaxations, increase it. We are now in level 5 and we are seeing cases increase; that is how contagious this is.

What can be done will be done. Ultimately in a relatively small period of time, the vaccine programme will start bending that curve of the number of cases downwards again. Then, as a nation, as an Oireachtas, as a people and as a community we will be able to have the conversation that we have all wanted to have for the past year, which is how we begin to reopen, see each other, spend time with each other, hug each other, go to work, go to college, go to school and all those things.

I thank the Minister for his time. Before I ask the acting Leader of the House to suspend the sitting, I wish to say it is important that we recognise that all people in the House are humans and deserve respect. It is good to be reminded that the Minister is also a human who deserves respect. My heart went out to him when I heard that his house had been targeted. There is no "us" and "them" here; we are all in this together and we are all humans who deserve respect.

When I am in the Chair, I would really appreciate if Senator Mullen did not shout at me. Today we agreed that we were having statements. There was no provision for questions and answers. The Senator still got the answer to his question.

I would like Senator Mullen to respect me while I am in the Chair.


May I finish my sentence? The Senator has been in this system much longer than I have. He knows we are having statements. Nowhere here does it say we can have a one-on-one with the Minister during the statements. I am just doing my job as I am instructed to do by the people who know way better than Senator Mullen how to run this House. We should bear that in mind.

I thank the Minister for his time, and I am really sorry about today.

There is nothing in Standing Orders-----

Sitting suspended at 3.10 p.m. until 3.20 p.m.