I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to the House and invite him to speak.
Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage
I welcome the opportunity to present the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021 to the House. The purpose of the Bill is to extend the period of application of certain emergency provisions that have been critical to the Government's response to the pandemic. The emergency provisions that are to be extended are in the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020, the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 and the Health (Amendment) Act 2020. As the House knows, certain emergency provisions in all these Acts expire on 9 June next. The Bill I am presenting to the House today provides that the operation of the emergency provisions concerned in these Acts be extended for an initial period of five months to 9 November next. Any further extensions are limited to a maximum of three months at a time thereafter and must be approved by a resolution passed by each House of the Oireachtas.
These legislative provisions are very important for breaking the chains of transmission of Covid-19, protecting public health and life, and protecting critical services, including our health service, education and other priorities. The Members of this House will know the trajectory of the Covid-19 disease continues to be precarious, and there are still considerable uncertainties regarding what measures may be needed over the course of the rest of this year. Our response is premised on the need to preserve and protect public health by slowing the spread of the disease, reducing its impact on us and limiting its impact on our society and economy. The public interest is best served by having the provisions in these Acts available for times when they are required for the protection of public health.
Vaccinations offer significant protection at an individual and population level but it will be some time yet before there is a sufficient level of the entire population fully vaccinated. Moreover, while there is emerging evidence regarding the efficacy of available vaccines, information is incomplete regarding the impact these vaccines will have on transmission, the length of vaccine induced immunity and the potential impact variants may have on vaccine effectiveness. In general, international agencies are continuing to advise a range of non-pharmaceutical measures are used until there is a greater understanding of the role of vaccination on the course of the pandemic. We have made significant progress in suppressing the spread of this virus but we are not out of the woods yet.
I will now outline some key provisions of the Bill in more detail. The Bill is divided into five sections. Section 1 amends section 2 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 to allow for an extension of operation of Part 3 of the Act from 10 June 2021 to the later date of 9 November 2021, or a date specified in a resolution passed by each House of the Oireachtas under new a subsection (6), to be inserted into section 2. Subsection (6) provides that each House of the Oireachtas may pass a resolution from time to time to extend the date of operation of Part 3 for a period that does not exceed three months at a time. The Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 inserted sections 31A, 31B and 38A into the Health Act 1947. Section 31B allows the Minister for Health to make an affected area notice. The State as a whole has been deemed to be an affected area since 7 April 2020. Section 31A provides for the making of regulations for preventing, limiting, minimising or slowing the spread of Covid-19 to a region where an affected areas order applies.
Section 2 of the Bill amends section 1 of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 to allow for an extension of operation of Part 5 of the Act along the same terms, with the effect that Part 5 of the Act is extended from 10 June 2021 to 9 November 2021 or the date specified in a resolution passed by each House of the Oireachtas, with the Houses being able to pass a resolution from time to time extending its operation for a period that does not exceed three months at a time. The emergency measures in the public interest Act amends the Mental Health Act 2001 to adopt a cascading approach to the role of the independent consultant psychiatrist and the role of mental health tribunals, which review orders involuntarily detaining patients, whereby pre-Covid measures are retained in the Act but, where it is not possible to operate these measures safely, there are provisions in place to ensure the review of detention can continue remotely in the current public health emergency.
Sections 3 and 4 of the Bill provide for the same amendments and terms of extension for the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 and the Health (Amendment) Act 2020, respectively.
The Health (Amendment) Act 2020 provides for the making of regulations to prescribe penal provisions in the regulations made under section 31A of the Health Act 1947 to be fixed-penalty provisions and dwelling-event provisions.
The Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 provides An Garda Síochána with statutory enforcement powers in regard to licensed premises and registered clubs to ensure adherence with public health measures on premises where alcohol is sold for consumption on the premises.
In considering whether this Act should continue in operation, the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, consulted the Garda Commissioner. Commissioner Harris advised that if the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 were not extended beyond 9 June 2021, members of An Garda Síochána would not have a clear lawful basis for entering a licensed premises to address breaches of the Covid-19 regulations. Liquor licensing legislation would not provide a power of entry for the specific purpose of addressing breaches of Covid-19 public health regulations.
I compliment the Garda Síochána on its work during this national effort. It has continued to take a measured approach at all times. It continues to engage, educate and encourage, and to enforce only as a last resort.
Section 5 of the Bill provides for the Title of the Act as the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021 and provides that the legislation shall come into operation on 10 June 2021.
As I have said before in the Oireachtas and elsewhere, these powers do not sit easily with me. However, I believe they have been required up to now to support public health measures and advice and guidance. The Government wants to lead our return to normality as quickly as possible, but also safely. We want our society and economy to return to normal functioning as soon as possible but we do not want to have to go backwards.
I welcome this opportunity to provide an overview of the key provisions in the Bill and I look forward to discussing the Bill in more detail on Committee Stage and to listening to colleagues' contributions during this Second Stage debate. The Government believes ensuring the continuation of these measures is the responsible thing to do. I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House and outlining quite comprehensively the measures contained in the Bill and their necessity. Some colleagues will recall passing the Bill in March 2020.
Some of us were also Members of the previous Seanad and I remember passing that Bill with a very heavy heart. It was outlined that the powers contained in it were vital to protect the population of this country. They were vital and we have seen their necessity. They are serious powers and that is why we are back here. It is right and proper that we are debating their necessity. When we passed that Bill originally, I remember there was a great sense of foreboding in the air and people were fearful, distressed and upset. The mood has changed completely since that day. I was in Malahide this morning to grab some coffee. People were out and about, talking to one another. There was a great sense of joy in the air because things are opening again. While we look forward to further announcements this Friday, it is necessary that we pass this Bill because, as the Minister has outlined, we are not out of the woods yet; far from it. We must continue to protect public health, life and our critical services. I believe the powers contained in this Bill are proportionate. The Minister has outlined that some will last for five months and others for three months and that we will be back in the House debating whether they are necessary at that point.
I hope we can have a respectful and positive debate today. I hope colleagues across the House will engage in positive discussion on this Bill. When we discussed other health measures in the Minister's presence previously, sound bites and hysteria were generated in this Chamber. Members were trying to get national or local headlines and that was not appropriate, given the seriousness of the situation. We are all working hard here and must respect one another’s motivations. We must be positive and be leaders, not only in this House, but within our communities. People have sacrificed an awful lot and will continue to do so but we must not give in to the latest fad, be that to shut down the country, open up the country, let people come in, not let people come in or whatever is floating in a given week.
I know the pressures people are under. I am talking to them every day. The aviation industry is hugely important to people in the constituency in which I live. I have friends, neighbours and colleagues who work in the airport or who work for airlines and they have been devastated by this. I have every faith that the Minister is doing the best for public health. We are vaccinating an enormous number of people. Almost 300,000 people were vaccinated last week, which is incredible. We all know of friends, family members, neighbours and colleagues who have been vaccinated. I have not been lucky enough yet to get the call, but I look forward to the day that happens. The older and more vulnerable people in our communities have received their first and even their second dose. We are getting there; we are not there yet and these powers are necessary.
I appeal to Senators not to take potshots today or to drum up empty sound bites just to get on to their local radio. This is too serious and too essential. We should be leaders who show an example to people how we can all co-operate and speak positively on this matter. I know Senators have specific issues with this Bill. Let us engage in a positive manner and not launch personal attacks on anybody. Let us come out of here with a positive message and provide leadership for the country. It is what people are calling out for. I thank the Minister for the leadership he has shown and the tireless work he and the Ministers of State have contributed.
I commend everyone involved in the vaccination schedule, as well as the swabbers at the testing centres. I had to bring my six-year-old daughter for a test a number of months ago as she was a close contact. The compassion and good humour shown by those who dealt with her there is something that will always stick with me. Anyone who has had the experience of going for a vaccination or having a test will commend all those involved in the system. I thank them and all the healthcare workers.
As some Senators are arriving now, I remind them that they will have five minutes each, even for party or Independent spokespersons.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. The purpose of this Bill is to extend the emergency provision contained in a number of pieces of emergency legislation enacted at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Without this extension, the emergency provisions would expire on 9 June 2021 and along with them the emergency powers to circumscribe the rights of individuals and impose penal sanctions on them. This legislation was enacted under the aegis of expedience given the nature of the Covid emergency. Since then, there have been consistent calls for an in-depth examination of the human rights implications these measures carry. Has the Government conducted any human rights-proofing analysis? If not, there must be some extraordinary excusing circumstances to render this analysis impracticable. The simple fact of the matter is that no such circumstance exists to preclude such an analysis. The truth is that the Government simply did not bother with human rights proofing as if it was some unnecessary, insignificant or inconvenient matter. The result is that this Bill is being hastily passed through the Oireachtas with mere lip service paid to the human rights implications it will have - déjà vu. How often must we be corralled into the same flawed parliamentary process that has distinct and troubling overtones of executive over-reach? Those on the other side of the House can deny it but their actions speak louder than their empty rhetoric.
The Bill essentially has the effect of allowing for an extension of five months to 9 November 2021 of all emergency provisions and will provide that they may be extended by a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas for up to three months at a time. The open-endedness of this Bill that permits a further three-month extension means that these measures may be permitted by law on a continual and potentially perpetual basis. This can no longer be said to be a necessary or proportionate response. To impose such measures where they are not necessary will result in a loss of trust in Government, which is of great importance during a pandemic when such public trust in Government is vital to ensure compliance with the public health advice.
Therefore, I propose that the Bill be amended to extend the emergency powers only until 30 September 2021. I propose to amend the following sections. Section 1 should instead provide that Part 3 continue in operation for a period beginning on 10 June 2021 to the end of 30 September 2021. While I recognise that the enactment of legislation to allow for these emergency powers was in the past arguably necessary, I can no longer accept an extension beyond 30 September. The extension of these powers in the absence of a robust analysis and compelling evidence to the contrary is not demonstrably necessary and by virtue of that, disproportionate. Therefore, I philosophically object to the continuation of the harshest and longest Covid-19 measures across Europe and the curtailing of the fundamental rights of the citizen. Article 28 of the Constitution of Ireland only permits limitation on individual rights in times of war and armed rebellion. There is no express provision for limitations to be placed in times of public health emergency such as the Covid-19 pandemic. In the absence of any express constitutional permission, legislation restricting the rights of the individual is subject to a requirement of necessity and proportionality, as laid down by the courts in Heaney v. Ireland. Under Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the measures limiting human rights must come within a permitted timeframe of human rights law. Under this framework, the Government is required to take measures only when they are necessary. Each measure that restricts or limits a right must then satisfy a test of proportionality. In a democratic society, the restriction must be necessary to meet a pressing need and must be proportionate to a legitimate aim to be achieved. The aim here is the prevention of the spread of Covid-19 within the community thereby preserving public health. As it is required by such obligations under international law and the decisions of the Irish courts, a further restriction on individual rights through this proposed extension is subject to a requirement of proportionality.
I submit that this proposed extension can no longer be satisfied.
I also want to raise the issue of the rollout of the vaccines in pharmacies. We need to get the vaccines out quicker and the pharmacies are there and are ready and willing to do it.
Like Senator Clifford-Lee, I welcome the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to the House and commend him on the very difficult job he is doing and the manner in which he is doing it. Time will tell. It has been challenging and difficult, and nobody has got everything right, but, by and large, everything that could be done has been done. In the fullness of time, we will have a review of all of the measures. There will be a set of learnings and that set of learnings will influence how we do things in future pandemics.
I want to make clear that this country has performed very well when we look at other countries. Sadly, too many people have lost their lives, but many more would have lost their lives had we not taken the measures we took. It is with a heavy heart, and I am sure the Minister shares my view, that we come before this House having to renew these emergency measures. It is not something that any Government wants to do, not something any Minister wants to propose and not something any Oireachtas wants to pass. Unfortunately, however, in order to protect human life, to protect our citizens and to ensure the most vulnerable are protected as much as possible, it is necessary.
Nobody foresaw that this pandemic was going to last as long as it has lasted but that is the reality. There have been very many variants, including the UK variant that caused the deadly third wave in January, and we now have the Indian variant, which was very well described by Tony Holohan as being a black cloud on the horizon of a blue sky. We need to acknowledge when things have been got right, and things have been got right.
I am delighted that I will be going back to County Clare on Wednesday to get the vaccine. I registered on the portal on Friday of last week, when the turn for my age arrived, and I got a text yesterday. A turnaround of two or three days is pretty remarkable. Some 300,000 vaccines were administered last week, so the commitment of 250,000 a week for the month of May has certainly been achieved and surpassed.
I commend all GP practices throughout the country. They administered the vaccines with huge efficiency and with great empathy, and put hope and joy into people's arms. It was great to get the feedback and to hear the stories of people going to their GP to get their vaccinations. The GPs played a very important role in the administration of the Covid-19 vaccine, as have the amazing men and women who work in the vaccine centres throughout the country, who have done phenomenal work as well.
It has been said and it is the case that the vaccine is the only way out of this pandemic. However, it is important to reiterate also the public health advice on the simple things like, where possible, working from home, keeping one's distance and staying 2 m apart, and observing hand washing and the various hygiene measures. I suggest that some of those measures, in particular in regard to sanitising stations and so on, are here to stay because it is good public health practice. I would like to see public buildings, supermarkets, hotels and so on continuing to provide sanitation stations for people to sanitise their hands when we return to normal. Certainly, one of the learnings from this pandemic is that sanitising hands reduces the spread of infection.
We have all seen the benefits of working from home. Having people work remotely has played an important part in suburban areas of the cities but particularly in rural towns.
There is a man I meet in Lahinch every morning as he gets a newspaper and a scone. He used to work in a city. He has been working from home for the past 12 months and would hope to continue working from home in future, because he can do the work he was doing in the office easily from his home in Lahinch. That means an extra €5 per day is being spent in the local shop. It is helping with the carbon footprint and quality of life.
I support the Bill before the House today but only with a heavy heart because it is necessary. I hope it will be the last time we put forward and vote on such draconian emergency measures in the House.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I will begin by saying something about the vaccine roll-out. I am starting to hear of more and more friends and family getting their calls to get a first jab. Some are getting a second jab. There is certainly a sense of buoyancy about the place. People have more pep in their step. My vaccine seems a million miles away but I am sure it will come. When I was hobbling through town today, I saw more light in the air literally and metaphorically. It has to be commended that people are feeling a little more optimistic.
I will outline some concerns with the process of the Bill. The measures have been extended to 9 November. There has been a question as to why it could not have been extended until September. There are proposals for 80% of the adult population to be vaccinated by June. International travel may resume in August. In the context of talking about proportionality, it seems to be something of a jump to extend these powers until November. I can certainly see why September might have seemed more proportionate. I imagine there will be amendments on that point tomorrow.
The Minister has said these powers do not sit easily with him. That is probably an apt description and I do not imagine they sit easily with many people. The principles of the right to protest, freedom of religion and private and family life are all fundamental. They are important issues and I would have preferred more rigorous analysis of the proportionality of these regulations and the impact on these three areas. That certainly would have given the public more confidence that we were not simply steamrolling things through. It is important to have meaningful debate around these things. We only have one hour and 45 minutes today. There will be one hour available tomorrow to try to get through amendments. As we have been in this state for 15 months, I am unsure whether it is as much of an emergency as it was in March. Consequently, more time could have been given to this.
There probably will be an amendment coming on one point. There should be a hard date set in stone for review before any extension. A human rights analysis of these restrictions is important. If we have to go to November, then so be it but what if we are genuinely looking at an extension three months after that? We do not know how this virus will go. I hope to goodness that it is on the way out the door. However, this should not be renewed without vigorous debate and scrutiny. We need to ensure our rights are respected and that the most basic tenets of our democracy are protected. I would like to hear a commitment from the Minister for a review of how these laws are being implemented and how often they have had to be implemented in a report or whatever form it may be in order that we have a clear understanding if it appears, heaven forbid, in October that we have to extend the measures for a further three months. It will be important to get a commitment. If we are going into October and looking at extending the measures for a further three months, then we will be in a dire state. There will be provision to extend the measures from time to time without the appropriate clause. As has been said in the House, I do not believe we will be extending these until the end of time. I hope we will not be extending them until the end of time but it would be great if we could provide for some sort of implementation or review should we have to go beyond November. That is important.
I am somewhat concerned about the time period given for this. Pre-legislative scrutiny, PLS, was waived. It is disappointing that the pre-legislative scrutiny was waived for such extraordinary legislation. The Joint Committee on Health has people from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, and mental health advocates appearing before it tomorrow. We could have worked out the timing better to have heard from these representatives, had more time been given to this. I believe we are doing this backwards to some extent.
We only got the briefing on Friday evening. To be fair, it was a great briefing and the officials were very helpful to us but we only got it after the deadline for amendments had passed so I feel like we are chasing our tail a little bit on this. Everyone recognises the real seriousness of the situation. We are not out of the woods yet by any means. Even though there is lot of optimism in the air people really want to know that we, as legislators, are giving this Bill the full legislative once-over scrutiny and robust debate that it deserves and it feels like we are doing things in a slightly awkward order. As we said, we recognise the need for very serious measures and hope that we do not ever have to stand up here again extending them at any point.
The Minister is welcome to the Chamber as always. May I extend my heartiest congratulations to him, on the heroic work of the HSE, and the Irish Government, on the incredibly efficient way the vaccination programme is being rolled out. I got my jab the other day in the Punchestown centre. The centre had a wonderful atmosphere and there was a stunningly efficient roll out. I am told that Kildare efficiency is replicated or near replicated throughout the Republic of Ireland and are we not so fortunate?
I must disagree with the Minister in respect of extending the draconian emergency powers all the way to November. We have been through one of the most challenging times in all our lifetimes and this pandemic has tested everyone. Initially, it was fear that engulfed us and many feared death as a dangerous virus circulated within communities. We tuned into a media that was dominated by death and case number statistics. At the beginning we knew that science struggled to understand and overcome the threat. We retreated into our homes. We stayed apart even though it went against the grain of who we are as social creatures. We kept a stony distance from the people we love. A series of immensely mentally draining lockdowns sucked the heart out of our nation. A control culture evolved and we lost basic freedoms to move and socialise. We have lost people, families have been shattered, businesses have been destroyed and the health service has been stretched like never before. We must never forget the heroes of the hour: all those on the front line.
Optimism, fellow Senators, has returned and hope has been harnessed by the wonders of scientific genius. The vaccination programme is instilling even more hope. Hope is breathing again. We may soon have much of our old lives back but now we need to renew, reinvigorate and reenergise. We need to renew our spirit as a people and look forward. We need to rebuild. We need to move away from a sense of being controlled to finding our feet again. We will need to assess what we have been through and learn from it. We need to move away from draconian restrictions and reclaim our sense of freedom and autonomy. We must harness hope and let optimism triumph over pessimism.
Optimism and optimists are never afraid of failure. They keep trying. Pessimists are governed by a fear of failure. They prefer to be in control and are always prepared for the worst case scenario. We have to live again and the last thing that we need is a plan for a future, theoretical curtailing of our basic freedoms. Let us move on and bask in the glory of success. Let us plan for doomsday scenarios when we feel them approaching but not in anticipation of them possibly happening. With an approach like that we allow the possibility of hope to die. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties said about this legislation, particularly about extending the most draconian measures all the way to November:
This is one of the most draconian pieces of legislation our State has ever seen. And while most of us accept it was necessary to rush it through in March 2020, June 2021 is a different time. We have learned lessons and we must apply those lessons in law. We cannot set a precedent where government can continue to grant itself powers like these without first meaningfully bringing them before the people - via our elected representatives in the Oireachtas.
I say "well done" to the Minister. He has taken a few hits. He has probably switched out of the media but he is a resilient man and a listening person. It would be churlish of people who have criticised him in the past not to have the gumption and good grace to accept that, as things go, fingers crossed, he is presiding over a most efficient vaccine roll-out. It is important to give credit where credit is due. This extension to November, however, will dampen hope. I ask the Minister to look at it. The Bill is only on Second Stage. Is it really necessary to kick these draconian powers all the way to November? I think that could damage our hope, and I say this in the context of the most successful vaccine roll-out and where we expect to be with the high percentages come November. I would not mind coming in here in a few months' time, but a carte blanche until November? I know it is only a theoretical button but it is such a frightening button of draconian power to press. It does not sit well with me, and we should do this as reluctantly as possible.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Since we last had this debate, an extreme wave of Covid-19 in January caught people by surprise. Thanks to the sacrifices made by the public and the valiant efforts of our front-line healthcare workers, we have brought this virus under control. The vaccine roll-out is, after a rocky start, as people have said, under way. The cases, though not as low as we would like, are stable. With the vast majority of older and vulnerable people vaccinated, many ask why we still need these regulations in place. The third wave taught us that we must be prepared to act quickly and decisively when the virus is resurgent. There are no guarantees that a fourth wave could not happen. The recent surge in India reminds us that we must all remain vigilant to mutant variants. The continued global pandemic - and it remains a pandemic - presents ample opportunity for further mutations. While there is an epidemic anywhere, especially in large nations such as India which are heavily integrated into the global economy, we all remain at risk. Despite progress on vaccination programmes the world over, the risk of vaccine-resistant strains grows. Much of the global south will not be vaccinated until well into 2023. The State must stand prepared to act decisively to keep mutant strains out and, if they slip through, to clamp down and eliminate them.
This underscores the importance of maintaining and enhancing our mandatory hotel quarantine system. It is the most important defence in the fight to keep variants of concern at bay. It is integral to maintaining the very welcome easing of restrictions into the summer months. We all want this to happen and we all want this relaxation to stay. We all support the public health measures and interventions which allow us to keep the virus under control but we cannot support this Bill in its current form. We support the provisions for further extensions, where necessary, of emergency legislation. The Government must retain the authority to act swiftly in the face of threat, but we cannot support a carte blanche for a Minister. We especially cannot support an unquestionable extension of emergency powers without parliamentary oversight into November of this year. We will propose a Committee Stage amendment to limit the current extension to 9 July. As we near that date, the provisions of this Bill would allow the Minister once again to seek the Houses' approval for an extension. If that is the public health advice, no doubt the House will oblige, but the Minister cannot continue to issue decrees with far-reaching consequences for society, workers and businesses and for the rights of the individual without parliamentary scrutiny and debate.
The last time we had this debate we told the Minister that when he deems it necessary to implement harsh restrictions, it is his and the Government's obligation to seek the approval of the Oireachtas. It is the sole right of the Oireachtas to legislate and to enforce restrictions on constitutional rights in the interest of the common good. It is not for the Government, a select and unrepresentative group of these Houses, to make that determination alone. The level of co-operation with the Opposition seen during the very early stages of the pandemic does not exist today. The Minister was given extraordinary powers in good faith by Members of this House. To push the sunset clause out until 9 November is to push it too far. It would be appropriate for the Minister to return to the House in late June or July to extend the emergency powers once again if necessary and to explain the context in which they are needed. This has to be part of an overall strategy which people can see and which shows how far we are from exiting from these types of restrictions and the sort of yo-yo situation about which people talk. We do not see such a clear plan coming from the Government yet. In the absence of this plan, we have a Government which seeks these powers for a further six months. That is a step too far for us, not because we do not want restrictions or do not believe public health measures should be implemented but because we believe in scrutiny and accountability. To that end we will also introduce an amendment which would require a statutory instrument issued under the emergency legislation to be approved by the Houses of the Oireachtas within two weeks of its issuing.
This would give the Minister and Government scope to act swiftly and decisively, where necessary, and to require, as is right, that they explain these actions to the Houses. We need notice from the Minister when he publishes statutory instruments and member of the public deserve explanations and answers in circumstances where they have questions. We find out that statutory instruments have been introduced when they go up on the website. Not even the health spokespersons for Opposition parties are given a heads-up. We get no emails from the Department to say that the Minister is going to publish a statutory instrument which will be available online or to offer us a briefing or clarification on it.
None of that to which I refer happens. This is not the first time we have said this to the Minister. I say all of this in good faith to him. I want this to change. Transparency is, after all, the Minister's friend. The more information that we have, the better equipped we will be to respond to queries from people outside this Chamber and to reassure them that the measures he is taking are proportionate and appropriate. As part of our way out of the pandemic, we have to ensure that our defences and capacity in a number of areas are built up.
When the very tragic wave of infection in India began, it took from weeks to almost a month for it to be added to the mandatory hotel quarantine list. The variant emerged and then, eventually, quarantine was put in place.
We need to act on an all-Ireland basis. While the Minister seeks emergency powers in these areas, he needs to co-operate more with his counterpart in the North. We heard just this morning from the North's Minister, Robin Swann, MLA, that he has been seeking a meeting with our Minister for two weeks. I am not satisfied that we have got cross-Border testing and tracing right. There is a significant amount of work to do in that regard. I thank the Acting Chairperson for her indulgence. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity this afternoon to address in public the remarks made by the North's Minister, Robin Swann, this morning. It is a cause of genuine concern and upset that Ministers have not been engaging as closely as they need to be at such an important time.
I am sharing time with my colleague, Senator Higgins. I will take two minutes and she will have three.
The Minister is very welcome. I commend him on all the phenomenal work that he has done on the vaccine. I was in and out myself in half an hour, which was brilliant. I thank the Minister for that.
I co-signed some of the amendments tabled to this Bill by Senator Higgins with my colleague from the Civil Engagement Group, Senator Ruane. These amendments are vital if we are to extend the emergency provisions from 9 June to 9 November. The rationale for extension is understood because we are still in a position of uncertainty regarding the Covid-19 crisis. Although the situation looks to be improving, it is volatile and could deteriorate quickly. Due to that potential outcome we need protections.
As a result of the extensive powers given to the Government under the Act, it is appropriate that the Oireachtas should engage in regular and detailed scrutiny of the legislation because, up to this point, the degree of scrutiny afforded has been neither detailed nor regular. I am concerned about this matter. I do not think it is reasonable for the Government to propose that only one hour be given to the debate on Committee and Remaining Stages. Parliamentarians from both sides, Government and Opposition, have engaged in good faith with proposals which aimed to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. The majority of Deputies and Senators recognised the necessity of the laws which have been passed in the past year. The Department must recognise the gravity of the laws which the Oireachtas is being asked to renew. It is quite clear that one hour is not enough time to deal with the amendments to the Bill, which renews drastic public health measures across six items of legislation.
Before I finish and hand over to my colleague, I thank the Seanad Office for accommodating my request to have the submission of amendments deadline postponed until I and the other members of the Joint Committee on Health had an opportunity to be briefed and to ask questions about the Bill. Senator Higgins will now provide the details of our response to the Bill.
We came back to the Seanad during the election period. It was not, in fact, this Seanad but the previous one, the 25th, that passed the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act. This is the first time that this Seanad has had the opportunity to scrutinise that legislation but that opportunity is being deeply curtailed by an inadequate period for debate and in the absence of proper pre-legislative scrutiny.
There were lengthy debates of previous Bills as they came through in the last Government. There is a reason this Bill is being debated now, rather than a resolution. It was anticipated as it was important that there would be a hard sunset point, not simply one where things could be renewed by resolution. We are skipping the normal scrutiny of legislation, not having the usual kind of oversight and transferring from the Oireachtas substantial powers to the Minister, powers that a Minister would not normally exercise by statutory instrument. We have given the Minister the power to do more than he normally would by statutory instrument. Anyone looking back on the debates will see the then Ministers, Deputies Harris and Coveney, speaking on the sunset clause and how there would be chances for future debates, and that they wanted to allow one extension in order to deal with an emergency scenario but that the extensions would not be infinite. People have talked about November. My main concern is that as this Bill is currently worded, these powers could be extended until 2027 because it allows three-monthly renewals by resolution. Yes, that is the House deciding as a resolution, but it is not the same as pre-legislative scrutiny. It puts us in the position of all or nothing. It is as though we cannot talk about the bath water or change it without throwing out the baby. It is literally saying to us that each time one is for or against emergency powers rather than seeking insight from Members of the Oireachtas as to how the legislation might be improved. Senators McDowell and Ward, among others, have already pointed out ways in which the legislative drafting could have been improved in these powers. It is vitally important if the Minister asks us again to skip through the process and hand powers over - this is about trust, the public's trust-----
We spoke about leadership. One thing that will affect whether we extend in November is whether we have a TRIPS waiver so that the world can be vaccinated. Let us be very clear.
Thank you Senator Higgins. I need to ask you to stop.
We are not passively in a situation, we can choose to accelerate the vaccination of the world and minimise the risk of new variants by supporting a TRIPS waiver and I hope the Minister will champion that. I know some of his colleagues have.
I ask Members to stick to the speaking times. There will be Senators on the list who will not get to speak at this rate.
Like Senator Higgins, I had the privilege of being a Member of the Twenty-fifth Seanad and discussing the legislation. Not in our wildest nightmares did we think that we would still be here still discussing it and extending sunset clauses. I am on the record as saying that the legislation was draconian at the time, and it is still. No one is happy that our lives are being micromanaged at a very personal level and so many of us are being effected but no one is happy that the coronavirus is taking over all our lives, all over the world and we do not know where it will go. At one stage last summer we thought it was under control but we never thought we would be in a fourth wave. With the emergence of new variants and a serious surge in Limerick, we do not know where we will be in a few months. It is with reluctance that Fianna Fáil is supporting the legislation and the extension of the sunset clause. The Minister should take on board Members' remarks about returning to the House and letting us have some sort of input into ways the legislation might be improved. We have such great talent in the House, it would be remiss not to take the contributions on board.
I congratulate the Minister on his vaccination programme. It hit the 300,000 mark last week. I do not think we ever thought we would get to that. My mother, the person for whom I had most concern, has been vaccinated and I am glad she has received her second vaccination. We hear of more and more people getting vaccinated. It is wonderful and the programme seems to be working. Saying that, there is more the Minister can do in his position. Earlier, I said that we need to look more seriously at rolling out antigen testing.
On Thursday, the European Parliament passed a proposal on the use of the digital green certificate. Antigen testing is central to the roll-out of that. As the Minister will be aware, however, some officials in the Department and the HSE are reluctant to go with antigen testing. We all know it is not a silver bullet and that it is only 50% effective, but when the rest of Europe is happy to get on board with antigen testing and use it as an efficient too, it is not good enough that we are not doing likewise.
We read in the newspapers at the weekend about the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine contacting the HSE with regard to rolling out antigen testing at meat factories. Over the course of four months, the Department has tried to persuade the HSE to facilitate antigen testing but it has never happened. The HSE has never given a proper response as to why it is so reluctant in this regard. Pilots are outside the gates of Leinster House today seeking the rapid roll-out of antigen testing, which is something I support.
I am curious to hear the Minister's take on antigen testing. Is he, along with his colleagues in Cabinet, committed to the digital green certificate initiative? What dialogue has he had with his counterpart in the Department of Foreign Affairs to ensure this issue will be meaningfully examined? We are all aware of the draconian powers before the House but, as my colleague stated, we want to be ambitious and to hope for the future. Part of that hope is about foreign holidays and having a few days in the sun. People want to be cautious, however, and antigen testing plays an important role in that.
So many of our elderly, including my mother, were so rigid in following the guidelines and stayed at home for the entire period. Many are still reluctant to leave the house despite having been vaccinated. As a State, we need to do something to thank our elderly for looking after themselves. Perhaps there could be an initiative within the Minister's Department to let them know it is safe to be out and about. I have spoken to people who are so down and do not see a future. It is really upsetting to hear. We need to thank our elderly and give them something back, although I do not know how that could be done. Perhaps a survey could be done on how we could give back to those who looked after us in the past.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis as ucht na méide oibre atá déanta go dtí seo ar an ábhar seo, ábhar atá an-tábhachtach ar fad dúinn.
I congratulate the Minister. From the word go, he has been in a very difficult position and we now see the fruits of the labour in which he has been involved over recent years. Many Senators mentioned the vaccination programme and there is no doubt it is tremendously important, as I have seen with my parents. My mother got her second dose on Saturday and the vaccine has transformed their lives. Vaccination is beginning to reopen society and is working.
It was in that light that many of us earlier met members of Recover Irish Aviation, the group of pilots who attended outside Leinster House in what was a very impactful and reasonable demonstration and request. Many of the restrictions that are in place here are no longer in existence in many other countries throughout the European Union or the wider developed world. Obviously, there are other countries that have severe problems and simply do not have access to vaccines, and that is another day's work. In countries such as those in the European Union and the United States, however, progress has been made. Some of the pilots who spoke to me earlier had this morning arrived from New York, which is now behaving normally.
In the context of the progress we are making here and the different place in which we find ourselves from where we were when these Acts were originally passed, is there space to take a more pragmatic approach to the restrictions that are in place, examining measures such as rapid antigen testing? One of my sisters had a baby two weeks ago in Switzerland, and my other sister, who lives in London, was able to travel to see her having passed just an antigen test, and no problem has arisen as a result. That facility, however, is not available to Irish residents who wish to travel outside Ireland, and there is something we can do in that regard. There is an economic pressure on the aviation sector in particular. It is the gateway into and out of this country. As a small island off the coast of Europe, we must continue to engage with aviation and allow it to reopen in the best and safest way.
This legislation is technical in essence. I respect the reason it has been brought to push further out the sunset of 9 June. However, that date did not come as a surprise. We knew it was coming. It was a hard stop in respect of the legislation. It is somewhat frustrating for us in this House to find ourselves once again in a situation where this legislation comes with very little opportunity for it to be properly scrutinised.
I know the Bill does not do very much except to extend those dates and I accept it is not a great feat of drafting to be able to do that. However, I have a problem with the fact that when the other Bills were going through this House last year, we identified reasonable problems and genuine issues with the legislation that has put in place many of the restrictions and the powers for gardaí. I spoke to the Minister afterwards and was under the impression that when we got another Bill on the subject, those issues would be addressed. In this Bill, they are not addressed and that is a real missed opportunity. This is not a complex Bill. There was room in it to fix sections of the amended Health Act 1947 which simply do not work.
I remember standing in this Chamber late on a Friday night last year, pushing through legislation so it would be signed by the President the next morning and be in effect for the weekend. I understand why the Government wanted to do that. It is entirely reasonable to have the legislation in place. However, the legislation was largely dysfunctional, and that view was expressed by many Members of this House. There was an iron-clad, easy opportunity to fix that in this Bill and it has not been done. That is the most frustrating thing. I recognise how much the Minister has done to safeguard us all and that his Department has done to roll out the protections and the solutions in terms of the vaccine programme. That is progress but with that we also had an opportunity to fix the problems we knew were there. That is a real missed opportunity.
I do not want to be negative about this. I think it is necessary. A Senator referred to the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, saying that this is the most draconian legislation in the history of the State and that is probably true. It is draconian but this is also the greatest health crisis we have faced as a State. I understand the need for this legislation. I may not be happy with it, any more than any other citizen who is restricted by it. While I will support this legislation, I think there is a real missed opportunity to fix some of the lacunae in the Acts that have already become law.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I endorse the remarks made around the House on his personal achievements as Minister. He has not, as Senator Ward said, been there for years. He has been there for less than a year and during that year he has had a torrid time. Cowardly keyboard warriors have used anonymity in the most vile campaign of abuse against him and I totally dissociate myself from that. I compliment those, including our Oireachtas colleague, Deputy Berry, who are doing the jabbing most efficiently and courteously.
I fully endorse what has been said by virtually every speaker in this House. This should not be coming before the House in these circumstances. This day has been clear for a long time. It is not a mystery that the sunset clause was coming today. This amendment is not just to bring things out to next November. As Senator Higgins said, it is to put in place the power to indefinitely keep re-extending these powers ad nauseam. It is not a time-limited measure. When the Houses of the Oireachtas are confronted with the motion to extend, it is a binary "Yes" or "No" with no inquiry as to whether it was good, bad or indifferent, whether the regulations did or did not work well or whether right or wrong things were done. There is none of that, just vote "Yes" or "No" and the party whips will see it through. That is what we are voting for today.
These Houses of the Oireachtas have failed miserably over the last year. The Oireachtas Commission should not be proud of what it has done. The fact we are apportioning a couple of hours today and an hour tomorrow to this legislation is a scandal and should be called out for what it is. There was, before this Government was formed, an all-party Dáil committee chaired by Deputy McNamara.
Its function was to keep the Covid scrutiny issue under control. It was disbanded and a complete untruth was propagated as to why it was being disbanded, which was that the sectoral committees would deal with the Covid crisis quite adequately and that that was the way to go. That suits Ministers and, perhaps, the establishment in this House, but it did not happen. NPHET was never made accountable to that committee; it appeared before it on one occasion or, maybe, two and it was not a pretty sight.
We now have to understand that it is our duty to insist on accountability and that we cannot just give a licence or a broad blank cheque to the Government to continue as if nothing has happened. As a Parliament, we have to get our act together too. It may be politically unpopular, but that involves acknowledging that every Member of this House and his or her staff are vital workers in the democratic process and should get the jab as quickly as possible so that we can resume normal business and have normal scrutiny of parliamentary activity as the Constitution requires. It requires a little bit of courage to say that that should be done. I know there are people who will say that that is jumping the queue, but it is not. Today, the queue has brought us to the point where we are rubber-stamping legislation and giving an open-ended licence to continue to keep these emergency measures in place.
There are many issues that I would like to address today if I had more time. I would like to address the announcement by the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, regarding the new immigration and card entry system into the UK and how that is going to integrate with the Irish common travel area. I would like to talk about how our relationship with the Schengen travel arrangement is going to function. There are many issues that we are allowing to go undebated and undiscussed in this House. I would like to know if this legislation is really necessary and, if there is a third or fourth wave, or a new variant, it is ever sensible to say that intercounty travel should be banned. Is it ever sensible to do that? I want Professor Philip Nolan to come before a committee and demonstrate to me that banning intercounty travel and imposing a 5 km route is the way to deal with this issue.
We should not be doing what we are doing today. It is wrong and it is weak. There are no longer leaders and Whips meetings to decide on the business of this House. That is scandalous. In the last session, when I and others supported this emergency legislation as first tabled, it was on the basis of a prior discussion as to how much time would be available. Now, that has disappeared. I appeal to the Members of this House to make it very clear to the Oireachtas Commission in particular that we want to get back to business. We do not want this House to be in suspension. The amendments we tabled on 30 September were to allow this House to come back and function normally and to allow the Government time, if there was a case for an extension, to make it to a fully functioning Oireachtas of both Houses.
I allowed Senator McDowell some indulgence because I have a lot of sympathy for what he had to say. The next speaking slot is Senator Kyne who is sharing time with Senator Burke. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to the Chamber. The vaccination performance over the last number of weeks in particular is welcome. For a long time, one would have had a hard time trying to find someone who had received a vaccine, but now we are meeting plenty of people who have had it, including family members and, thankfully, parents. It is, dare I say it, a shot in the arm for society in terms of providing hope for the future and that is welcome.
On the Bill, it is regrettable that it has to be brought forward. It is a contingency in case it is required. I hope that over the coming months the necessity for measures like this will lessen. The vast majority of people have abided by and supported the health measures that have been in place, but, of course, as always, there are people who have not.
Those who have abided by the health measures are looking at those who have not. It is difficult for the former, because they are seeing people not complying while they are. That is why regulations such as these are necessary.
Similar to Senator Ward, I met members of Recover Irish Aviation. I have received communication previously from the Irish Air Line Pilots Association, IALPA, regarding its industry, which is on its knees across the world. We understand why that is the case, but it needs a roadmap and the early resumption of travel. The digital green certificate will be an important game changer in that respect but the industry needs to be able to plan and ensure that its pilots have the required hours of training in advance of that date. It needs to know when that reopening will take place.
The US is important to us in terms of the economy, our mutual relationship, emigration, and the many visitors from there who come to Ireland annually. As quickly as possible, we need to consider countries like the US when allowing vaccinated people to enter Ireland.
Together with the pathway towards resuming aviation that the Minister is planning, the digital green certificate will be important. I hope he will announce the pathway, or its date, after this week's Cabinet meeting. The industry needs hope and certainty. Technical issues also arise, for example, pilots requiring a certain amount of training before they can get back into the skies. We know the importance of the aviation sector to an island nation. We know the relationships within the European Union, as well as the competition in the EU's aviation sector. We also know of our particular relationship with the United States - our historic ties, the number of US tourists that visit Ireland annually and the importance of the US to our economy, including Shannon and the regions. We need to consider the United States in particular in terms of measures that could be put in place to support the resumption of unfettered travel between both jurisdictions.
I have great sympathy for the aviation sector. We have seen decisions being made somewhat opportunistically, for example, the decision regarding cabin crew services in Shannon. Why waste a good crisis and all of that? If we lose services, getting them back will be more difficult. There would be opportunities for other airlines to come to Ireland, provide routes and see the weaknesses in Aer Lingus or whatever else, but the damage that could be done to our airline industry into the future would be significant.
The pathway will be very important. Ireland should participate fully in the digital green certificate at the earliest opportunity, be that 1 July, which would be preferable, or the end of July. I thank the Minister for his work to date.
I welcome the Minister to the House. He has had a difficult time in his first year as Minister for Health and I congratulate him on the great work he is doing under difficult circumstances.
Many people have had a tough time. We in the public service, including the Civil Service, have been well looked after and all of us on the public purse have much to be thankful for, but many small businesses and people in the hospitality and services industries are at their wits' end. As Senator McDowell asked, when we look back, will we see that something could have been done differently?
We have had several debates on Covid-19 during the past 12 months but they have all been in the format of statements. Perhaps such debates could be structured differently. When one makes a statement during such a debate at times one wonders if anybody is listening and perhaps nobody is listening. Perhaps such debates could be structured in a different way to ensure we get something constructive from them. Senator McDowell has put his finger on it. We are here at a crunch time to extend the time limit and we have not said whether we learned anything from the past six or eight months. We should have learned much from the last few lockdowns. The Government came to the conclusion people are safer outdoors but it was nearly pushing everybody indoors given that people could not travel beyond 5 km.
I come from a large county which has some of the finest walks in the world but they are miles away from everybody, even within the county. People could not travel to those areas and one would wonder why. They would be much healthier in those areas than inside a house. That is an aspect we should have considered. Perhaps Senator McDowell was right in what he said about a county lockdown or perhaps a regional lockdown. Some of the problem arose from what happened in the Minister's county when people from Dublin travelled to the Wicklow Mountains in large numbers and perhaps the small degree of bad press at that stage was part of the problem.
Were they doing any harm?
The conclusion the Government has come to is that there is no danger in people being outdoors. That is an aspect to be considered.
I support what Senator Kyne said. We met pilots and people from the travel industry today. They are going through a very difficult period. On one hand that is an issue but, on the other hand, our tourism industry could suffer greatly. As has been said on numerous occasions, as an island nation we need air transport and connectivity. Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and all those countries are opening up but we are not opening up to the same degree. We must have a plan in the short term, as we need to open up by 1 July, certainly for travel. We can see most of the hotels in Dublin are closed. The pilots are adamant that antigen testing could be of great benefit to them and to that industry. It is being used all over the world but the National Public Health Emergency Team does not seem to have any great confidence in it and one would wonder why. Many Members of this and the other House have put forward that antigen testing should be used more. I certainly agree with it, even if it catches only one person. We have the farcical situation where those in the Department of Health are going to the airport to get antigen testing done. That is what we have been told but antigen testing cannot be used at the airport. Those are matters we should discuss in greater detail and at more length because, as Senator McDowell said, this House has failed. It is not only this Bill but several Bills we have debated in detail. The debate on the previous Bill was guillotined. I am not in favour of guillotining debate but in some cases it must be used, for example, when there is an emergency but there is no great emergency here at times. We should consider that aspect. We should debate such matters in great detail.
In the remaining time Senators Ahearn and Buttimer will have three minutes each. Is that agreed? Agreed.
It is agreed reluctantly.
I thank the Acting Chairperson. I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and thank him for the work he has been doing for the past year, particularly in recent weeks. The number of people being vaccinated is phenomenal. If truth be told, six months ago no one would have thought that would be possible. If Members from all parties were to be honest, I do not think we would have ever fully believed the HSE could get 3,000 people vaccinated a week. What is being done is phenomenal.
In my community, Tipperary, I note how excited people are after getting fully vaccinated and the freedom they feel on the back of it. I commend the Minister on that.
As most Members said, no one welcomes this Bill. It is necessary. Many referred to the extension of the date but no one envisages that the measures will have to be used in the period in question. They will be used only if necessary. With this virus, we do not know where we will be any time soon. We should bear that in mind. The virus tears up all our plans every time so having some sort of certainty in this Bill is probably the right thing to do, even though it is impossible to welcome it.
As others said, there are so many sectors under major pressure. I encourage the Minister to examine the aviation sector as a whole. The antigen testing route is a genuine game changer for the industry. It needs to be taken to give people options to open up the industry and travel. It would make a big difference if we could achieve this, including in respect of Aer Lingus, its routes and challenges. We heard last week what happened regarding routes from Shannon and Cork. The routes are exceedingly important and we do not want to lose them. It is not Aer Lingus which controls the routes; it is International Airlines Group, IAG. We have 23 routes that are very valuable and we do not want to lose them.
I wish to raise a local, but important, issue concerning the maternity ward in my local hospital, Tipperary University Hospital, Clonmel. It is still one of a small number of hospitals that are not adhering to the recommendations and guidance of the Minister on partners. The hospital's view is based on a very short timeframe for labour. If my wife were asked about this, she would say labour lasted from the minute she walked into the hospital, or lasted for 36 or 37 hours. It is devastating for partners that they cannot go in. When other hospitals are allowing it, it is really frustrating that the hospital in Clonmel is not. I call on the hospital to relax its measures in line with what other hospitals are doing. I would appreciate it if the Minister could comment on that.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I respect the need for the Bill and the extension of the dates. The remarks of Senators McDowell and Burke are to be noted by all of us.
The vaccination programme is working. Today, we heard that 300,000 Covid-19 vaccines were administered last week, and that is to be the case again this week. It is proof that the vaccination programme is working.
The Minister, in his speech, praised members of An Garda Síochána. I still contend that, even at this late stage, they should be prioritised in the vaccination programme. They are on the front line dealing with people. I urge the Minister to re-evaluate the position on this.
I, too, commend the Minister on his work. I join Senator McDowell in condemning the faceless, anonymous trolls on social media. They have no courage; they are nothing but cowards. At least the Minister has the courage to put his name on a ballot paper, take an oath of office and work. I commend him on his work.
Healthcare staff at all levels should be commended. We praise them for their work. This morning, many of us spoke to and met members of the Irish Air Line Pilots' Association and other representatives of the aviation sector. Some of us involved in the transport committee have been very much engaged on addressing the need for antigen testing as part of a suite of measures to combat Covid-19. Equally, with the EU digital Covid certificate, there should now be no excuse for Ireland not to participate, although I know it will, and not to get involved early. There should be no procrastination over that. The time for conservatism is over in this regard because if we believe in the science, we should agree that a fully vaccinated person should be able to travel with a negative Covid test and a full vaccine without mandatory hotel quarantine. If we agree we are European and part of the European community and believe in the EU digital Covid certificate, we should agree that a fully vaccinated person with a negative test should be able to travel and have, to echo the Minister, unimpeded travel access across the EU. Late July and August are far too late. It is way too slow, notwithstanding the health concerns over the Indian variant and so on. The efficacy of the vaccine has been proven.
I am now of the age to have had the privilege of going to Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Thursday night to get the first dose of the vaccine.
I commend the men and women who worked there last Thursday night. To those who go on local radio, "Liveline", or elsewhere, and criticise the vaccination programme, I can tell them that be it in City Hall, Cork, or Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork, the level of activity and positivity present is to be commended. It was absolutely superb, and I commend and thank the people for that.
Before I hand over to the Minister, I congratulate him for the vaccine programme. It has brought a great sense of relief as people are vaccinated, and within my own family. We stood outside, where there was a powerful demonstration with pilots. I think we need to open up our aviation sector. I support antigen testing. Obviously, we must tell people how to do it properly. I believe the Minister has experienced the frustration across the House due to the draconian measures and in the administration of legislation. We are frustrated and it is regrettable that these measures are so draconian. I stand in support of the Minister. The anonymous trolls are quite appalling and cowardly. Well done on your job.
I thank the Acting Chairperson for that. I thank colleagues very sincerely for their contributions, ideas and challenges which are essential. It is fair to say that none of us want this Bill. This is a deeply unwelcome Bill. I remember sitting almost exactly where Senator McDowell is right now, when I was debating this Bill with the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and I described the powers as draconian. I still think they are draconian. I think this Bill is draconian. There is no question about it. Legislation and powers like this should never sit easily with anyone in a democracy and they should certainly never sit easily in our Republic. We must handle them with the utmost care and caution. They do not sit easily with me in my Department. I doubt they sit easily with any Member of this House or the Dáil, nor should they.
They are necessary for what will hopefully be a very short period of time, which is why I stand here proposing them and ask the House to support them. They must be used very carefully. I have taken notes from, I hope, all speakers. I may have missed some pieces and I apologise if I have. There were a number of broad questions, one of which was on the timing and whether 9 November is right. I think there was a suggestion for the end of June, the start of July, September, November. I do not think there is a right answer. There is no correct date. The date of 9 November is no more correct than a week or two before or after it. We did check with public health advice in terms of the broad timing of this measure. How much time do we believe we need given where we are at with the epidemic, the variants, international travel and, critically, the vaccine programme?
The view from public health advice was that we need to be able to exercise public health measures of the type that are covered here into late autumn-early winter. Hence the start of November is the time being proposed. As I have said, it is because of a variety of different factors. One is to do with what stage we will be at with the vaccines. Another is the variants. This week, as Senators will understand, we are looking closely at the Indian variant, what it is doing in the UK and its potential transmission here. Public health advice pointed out that around that time there will be a mass movement back indoors. I have no doubt, unless something unforeseen happens, people will be indoors anyway by that stage. People will be back in restaurants, in pubs and each other’s houses. Indoor life will continue but as we move into early winter, we all move back indoors, and we close the doors. It is the public health view that late autumn-early winter was around the time when one still might want to be able to exercise these sorts of public health measures.
My hope is that we do not have to exercise any of them but if we do, they are lighter touch measures like having to wear masks in particular higher-risk environments or if there are local outbreaks or local outbreaks of variants. There may be more variants coming or variants the vaccines do not work as well on. That is the big question. We are always asking in terms of these variants.
The second set of comments, questions and challenges was around impact and proportionality, which is a critical question. The measures we are using are harsh and have caused huge hardship for people. There has been significant isolation, loneliness and mental health challenges for people. People have lost their loved ones, friends and family. Not only have they lost them but we have not been able to grieve properly those whom we have lost. It has been very difficult for so many people. I say that as somebody who buried my 102-year-old granny very recently. It has been brutal for people so why have these? It is because the other side of the human rights argument is that people have a right to health. People have a right to be protected from the pandemic. If we look back to the first roll-out of measures like quarantine and the kind of public health measures that were deployed many years ago to prevent the damage these pandemics or epidemics do, we can see that a human rights argument was used by public health doctors to say that people have a right to be protected and kept safe as well so what we are always trying to do is balance those rights and obligations. There are no easy answers and I do not think anyone has any monopoly of wisdom on this. Obviously we have never dealt with anything like this and, please God, we will never have to deal with anything like it again but who knows?
Have we got everything right? Of course, not - there is no country or government that has got all of this right but the measures are working. If we look back from January to March or April, we can see that because of the extraordinary solidarity of the Irish people, Ireland went from having the highest rate to the lowest or one of the lowest in a very short period of time. We were one of the earliest European countries to open up primary and secondary education to in-school education for everybody. In spite of our healthcare system and incredible healthcare workers coming under enormous pressure, unlike a lot of other countries, our healthcare system was never overrun. We never ran out of beds or ventilators. We treated everybody and our survival rates in ICUs compared with a lot of other highly developed countries are very good. The measures have worked. In time, there will be look backs and analysis of how Ireland and other countries did. Our excess mortality rate is one of the lowest in Europe. The people who deserve credit for that are certainly not the Government. It is the Irish people who deserve credit for sticking with the measures but the measures work so while they are hard, at least we do know they have worked and Ireland has fared well relative to a lot of other countries. That is not to minimise the awful pain and suffering that has occurred but relative to a lot of the rest of the world, Ireland has done relatively well and it is partly because we can deploy these measures and deploy them very quickly when they are needed.
The Cabinet is meeting on Friday morning to discuss June and whether we can further relax as per what was signalled a month ago and what to do about July and August. We are entering that conversation in the most positive conceivable setting. Just a few months ago, when we were talking about the first easing of restrictions, we had analysis and projections that were very sobering indeed. It seemed very reasonable at the time. It was a case of "here's what happens if we have a R number of 1.2, 1.4 or 1.6. Here's what happens when you open the schools. The R number will go up. Here's what happens when you relax travel."
What people have done is they have really backed the measures, taken care of each other and kept each other safe. We are ahead of the best-case scenario that we were shown at that time. Again, the credit for that lies with the Irish people but at least we know the measures work.
In terms of parliamentary scrutiny and safeguards, the Bill before the House has a very important provision, which is that the powers can only be extended by agreement of both Houses of the Oireachtas due to the sunset clause. In terms of the sequencing of Seanad time, I had nothing to do with that. I hope I turn up here regularly enough and if colleagues would like to debate the various issues raised, I am always happy to come in and debate those, listen to the ideas and the challenges and bring them back to Government and try to implement them.
Various measures were mentioned but as I am conscious of time, I will focus on the one that was mentioned most, which was the aviation sector and the digital green certificate. There will be an announcement, presumably after Cabinet on Friday as it is scheduled to be discussed at Cabinet on Friday. We are in a good position. The Government backs the digital green certificate. Essentially, what that will mean is that people who are fully vaccinated can travel, not only in the EU, but with partner countries outside the EU as well. That would include no home quarantine. That is really what people are looking for, namely, unimpeded travel.
The impact analysis of the vaccines is profoundly positive. I remember talking to very esteemed, very well experienced epidemiologists last August or September, who were telling me they doubted we would have any vaccines of any impact within two or three years, but that maybe within five years we might get a vaccine that would be useful against this, but we might never get one. They referenced HIV-AIDS and all sorts of other viruses and pandemics that have occurred. To be in the position we are in now is extraordinary. One of the things we can do with that is fully support and join up to the digital green certificate and my hope is that will happen as quickly as possible. That will have a very powerful and positive effect on the aviation sector. I know the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is engaging directly with the sector and that the Ministers, Deputies Michael McGrath and Paschal Donohoe, are also looking at economic supports because it has been a brutal time for the sector.
The Minister might get NIAC and NPHET to agree with them.
I apologise for going over time. I want to share my colleagues’ support for the vaccine programme. The credit for the vaccine programme goes to the thousands and thousands of women and men all over our country, in every one of our counties and every constituency, who have gone in, seven days a week, and worked very long shifts. In record time, they have put together a national vaccination programme, built an entire IT infrastructure and dealt with some very difficult logistics in terms of the temperatures these things have to be stored at.
As to our target, people talk about where we will get to by the end of June, July or August. The Government’s target, the bit that we could control, was getting the vaccines into people's arms as soon as they arrived in. We are data-bereft over the last week because of this heinous attack on the HSE’s IT systems but the last data I had showed that in excess of 96% of vaccines were getting out within seven days of them arriving here. Because of that, we can all feel it as we are talking to people, and I registered for my own vaccine over the weekend. I want to thank colleagues. The real credit for that is due to the people who have done enormous work over the last few months to get this programme up and running and to make sure we got this vaccine out and into people's arms as quickly as possible. It really is thanks to our incredible healthcare workers, the help of the Defence Forces and many other partners right across the system, including general practice, volunteers and people coming back from retirement. It really has been an amazing thing to be part of, seeing Ireland in all its facets come together to achieve this very important thing.
- Ahearn, Garret.
- Blaney, Niall.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Byrne, Malcolm.
- Carrigy, Micheál.
- Casey, Pat.
- Chambers, Lisa.
- Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
- Conway, Martin.
- Crowe, Ollie.
- Cummins, John.
- Currie, Emer.
- Daly, Paul.
- Davitt, Aidan.
- Fitzpatrick, Mary.
- Gallagher, Robbie.
- Garvey, Róisín.
- Hoey, Annie.
- Kyne, Seán.
- Martin, Vincent P.
- Moynihan, Rebecca.
- Murphy, Eugene.
- O'Reilly, Joe.
- O'Reilly, Pauline.
- Seery Kearney, Mary.
- Sherlock, Marie.
- Wall, Mark.
- Ward, Barry.
- Keogan, Sharon.
- McDowell, Michael.
- Mullen, Rónán.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.