Mandatory Hotel Quarantine Extension: Motion

I move:

That Seanad Éireann resolves that the relevant period, within the meaning of section 9 of the Health (Amendment) Act 2021 (No. 1 of 2021), shall stand extended for the period beginning on the 1st day of August, 2021 and ending on the 31st day of October, 2021.

Following our earlier session, when the House discussed amendments to the mandatory hotel quarantine provisions of the Health Act 1947, I am now proposing to extend the provisions of the Health (Amendment) Act 2021 with regard to mandatory hotel quarantine to 31 October. The Act contains a sunset clause in section 9. Unless it is extended by resolution passed by each House of the Oireachtas before 31 July, it will lapse on that date. The Act allows for extensions of up to a maximum of three months. It has already been extended once from 8 June to 31 July.

The Act requires travellers, who in the 14 days prior to their arrival in Ireland have been in one or more designated states, to quarantine in a designated facility for up to 14 days unless they are otherwise exempt. The quarantine period can be reduced if a negative Covid test is returned after ten days. Also, those who do not present evidence of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours prior to arrival are currently required to quarantine in a designated facility until they return a negative test. This requirement is in place regardless of where they travelled from, unless they are exempt – for example if they have received the full course of a vaccine that has been authorised by the European Medicines Agency, EMA.

Mandatory hotel quarantine has been in operation since 26 March and is an exceptional and temporary measure. It continues to be an important safeguard in managing the risk of importation of cases and variants of concern.

A single service provider is providing full board accommodation services to guests in facilities designated exclusively for the purpose of quarantine, as well as ground transportation, security services and health and well-being services for guests within its facilities.

The provisions of the Act allow travellers to request a review of decisions relating to their quarantine. This can only be undertaken once quarantine has begun and on a limited number of grounds. Reviews are conducted by independent appeals officers and a seven-day-a-week service is provided. Decisions must be returned within 24 hours of receipt of the request for review. Requests for review are based on the specific grounds established in the law.

A notice of rights and obligations is provided to passengers on arrival in the State, usually by the first team to encounter relevant passengers. Medical services are available on-site, 24-7. It is also possible for a person to leave quarantine in the case of a medical emergency and to attend urgent medical appointments. Special arrangements have been made to allow those seeking international protection or unaccompanied minors to undertake their quarantine in alternative appropriate circumstances.

Up to 13 July, 8,420 people have quarantined in designated facilities. Latest figures show that 376 residents have tested positive for Covid-19. Cases were recorded in travellers from 35 countries. If these people had not been in mandatory hotel quarantine, it is likely to have resulted in a significant number of additional cases in the community. We know that variants of concern are being identified in mandatory hotel quarantine and without it, there is a risk that new variants could be imported and would not be identified. In addition, many countries have been unable to adequately monitor new variants, which adds to the risk of circulation. Mandatory hotel quarantine is creating space for the continued great progress of our vaccination system. We can be proud that 5 million vaccines have now been administered. Despite the significant challenges of the HSE cyberattack, as of 15 July, more than 2.72 million people have received a first dose and more than 2.2 million people are fully vaccinated.

Currently, 61 states are designated on a risk assessment based on Covid incidence rates and variants of concern. We are all keenly aware of the rapidly evolving nature of this pandemic. There is flexibility built into the mandatory hotel quarantine system to allow it to adapt to any changes in context, particularly with the system for the designation and revocation of states. We need to have mandatory hotel quarantine in place in the coming months to allow for further progress on our vaccination programme. Mandatory hotel quarantine will not be in place for any longer than is necessary to protect public health. It is important to have it in place right now as we re-open our society, economy and international travel while dealing, at the same time, with the situation of cases we were discussing earlier this morning.

It is good to see the senior Minister coming into the House to discuss these important issues.

I thank the Minister for introducing this motion today. It is a proportionate response to the threat we are facing. The mandatory hotel quarantine system is working, as he has outlined, and a significant number of cases have been caught and dealt with within the system. If these cases had not been caught, I am sure we would be in a much worse state.

We need to protect our communities and people living here. Everybody understands the need to have mandatory hotel quarantine. I hope this motion will have full support across the Chamber today. There have been some tweaks to the hotel quarantine system in relation to people who need to get out for humanitarian reasons, medical treatment and things like that, which has been good. It is good that this House and the Lower House have oversight of it. I am sure we will be back here in October, if the legislation needs to be extended and further scrutinised. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil group, I am very happy to give the Minister full support for this motion today.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I echo the Acting Chairman's observations on the Minister's presence here. It speaks volume and he is always very welcome.

We do not necessarily want to extend this legislation because nobody wants to quarantine people who are coming to our country. This is a country where the céad míle fáilte is something that we are very proud of but unfortunately, due to the public health emergency, it is necessary. I repeat what I said earlier on; we have managed this pandemic exceptionally well. Sadly, and unfortunately, more than 5,000 people have lost their lives in this country as a result of this pandemic but it could have been much worse. Had we not taken what could be described as draconian measures and done all that we did, many thousands more would have died. We must look at what has happened in the UK with the situation of people who have, sadly, died and the number of those who have contracted Covid there. That is a salutary lesson in terms of what we are doing and the reasons for it.

We have one of the strictest mandatory quarantine regimes in Europe and it is working. Sadly, this virus can be imported very easily. I commend the people who are managing the hotel quarantine system - it is certainly not easy - and, by and large, they are doing a good job. I also acknowledge the citizens who freely entered mandatory hotel quarantine because they knew it was the right thing to do even though it cost them to do so. The vast majority of them did it because they knew it was the right thing to do and they were buying into the meitheal that we are all involved with in dealing with this disease.

Unfortunately, we will be faced with a significant Delta wave of this virus in the months of August and September. We, therefore, must support this motion and extend the relevant period. As the Minister has quite rightly said, it will not be in existence a day longer than it is needed. It is just another measure in the suite of measures that the Government has introduced to support people.

The simple messages must always be articulated. We all have a part to play in this. The Government, the medical profession and the front-line workers can only do so much. Each citizen of this country must remain focused on doing what he or she has been doing, including not meeting unnecessarily, keeping a safe distance apart, following basic hygiene measures, wearing masks and not letting one's guard down. We did it in the first lockdown and we have continued to do it. While we will get to the end of this pandemic, it requires buy-in from everybody. As we break up for the summer holidays, I encourage everybody in the country to continue this united effort against the pandemic to save as many lives as we possibly can.

Senator Keogan had wished to change slots with Senator Boylan but she is not here. I presume the Senator wants to go ahead now. Alternatively, I can call on Senator Martin and come back to her.

Now is fine. I thank the Acting Chairperson and appreciate that he has changed that around for me.

I thank the Minister for once again coming into this Chamber to listen to us. Sometimes I have been quite critical of him and his Department and of the way it has handled this situation. I thank him for the respect he has shown Opposition Senators and the manner in which he has treated us - he has treated us quite fairly. He will not get any pushback from me about this motion on section 9.

We are where we are because of this pandemic. We all know the challenges that we must face as a people and as a nation. We all know what we need to do to protect ourselves and mandatory hotel quarantining is part of that. As nearly 5 million vaccines have been administered, which the Minister has overseen, we have to think about where this will end. England will lift its restrictions on Monday. Similarly, Scotland will move to level 0. In Wales, formal social distancing rules are set to come to an end on 7 August. Northern Ireland is ahead of us. What is so different about us? What is so different about the virus in Ireland that causes it not to be the same as it is in England or anywhere else?

Either they are right or we are. If we are right, in the coming weeks bodies will be piling up outside our borders and the Delta variant will be ravaging countries deprived of our leadership. And if they are right, we are needlessly dragging out the suffering that lockdowns and restrictions have brought on society. I understand the extension of this cautionary measure. I hope this regulation and this Act are not needed for any longer than is necessary.

I am a little disappointed that the Minister was not able to take our amendments earlier during the previous debate. As Senators, we spend some time scrutinising legislation. It is not easy for many of us, particularly those of us who may not be from a legal background. We take time to analyse the legislation, however, and when we see faults, we might suggest amendments. It is a shame that the Minister did not accept any of those amendments of behalf of the Opposition. I thank the Minister very much. I will be supporting the motion. I wish him a lovely and safe summer.

This is a sweeping measure. It probably quite rightly belongs in the realm of draconian measures. In my humble opinion and following advice, however, it is absolutely necessary. I and the Green Party grouping in Seanad Éireann will, therefore, support this in the interests of safety for all.

As the Minister said previously, no Minister enjoys or relishes introducing such measures but they have at their heart the public health considerations. In the context of the immediately preceding debate on indoor hospitality, this one is far more draconian in its make-up. At least in the previous one, a person can still enjoy dining or a drink outside. People do not have that choice in respect of this. They do not have that choice in certain circumstances. One just cannot board an aeroplane because there is obviously no outdoor terrace facility on the wing of an aeroplane. It would be very breezy, cold and dangerous. It is part of the overall jigsaw of protecting people.

In my humble opinion, it engages civil rights issues. Civil rights advocates are perfectly within their remit to question these. We live in a democracy. This is in line with public health advice, however. I agree when the Minister and a previous speaker, Senator Conway, said solidarity is at the heart of this. The Minister said in the previous debate that differentiation is different from discrimination. Perhaps I am one of the privileged ones who can now, for instance, dine or have a drink or meal inside. It sounds a little bit like tokenism to decide to stay outside, although no one should hold their breath because any prolific socialising days I had are long since over with having young children. I am going to try to make it outdoors, however, to stand with those who just cannot get indoors at the moment. It is a short-term, measured balance, which is not ideal. It is either that, however, or up to 160,000 or more jobs are on the line that we will never get back.

This is, therefore, all about proportionality and reasonableness. It is a measured, pragmatic approach that no one relishes but it must be done. As I said, therefore, I confirm that the Green Party grouping is happy to support this motion. We make no apologies for seeking it to come back before the House today. I do not mean this pejoratively but in a sense, I would categorise it as draconian. It was, therefore, a good balance and checks exercise in a legislative assembly democracy to bring it back to renew it. Doing that will instil confidence among the people of Ireland that it is not an unfettered, unbridled power that will run away on people. I can assure the people concerned that each and every legislator here is firmly keeping his or her eyes on this and monitoring the situation. We do not enjoy introducing such measures but if the expert advice tells us we should do it, I, for one, will not depart from such advice.

I commend the Minister on the continued roll-out of the vaccination programme, which is like a campaign at this stage. He is a campaigning Minister. I am hoping, in a few weeks' time, we will see a huge seismic turn for the better in this whole campaign. As the Minister well knows, vaccination is key.

I wish to ask the Minister a series of questions about people who have been fully vaccinated with WHO-approved vaccines but not EMA-approved vaccines and who are still required to go into mandatory hotel quarantining. When will people who have to travel for medical reasons and do not fall into the current exemptions be provided for?

I would also like to get a bit of clarity about how countries are designated and removed from the list. I see it as being quite vague and I would like to see more transparency. As the global north becomes more vaccinated, the overwhelming majority of countries on the red list will be poorer countries and countries in the global south. Hotel quarantine will, therefore, impact people travelling from Africa, Asia and Latin America and disproportionately affect people of colour.

I will take a moment to reiterate the call for patents to be removed on Covid-19 vaccines in order that we can boost production, stop new variants emerging and stand with our brothers and sisters across the globe. They will view the position of Ireland and the European Commission, which are in the hands of big pharma, as a betrayal and it will not be forgotten. It does not bode well for the series of challenges we face in our world, particularly climate change.

How much is mandatory hotel quarantine currently costing the Exchequer? How much will it cost as a result of the extension into October? This is obviously a very privatised system that relies on big hotel groups in this way. I watched the Dáil debate in which it was said that the system has detected 350 active Covid-19 cases. Could the Minister confirm that or clarify what the number might be?

I will come back on some of those medical exemptions. The regulation, which is set out and available online, essentially states that urgent critical care is covered. If there are other areas Senator Warfield wants to talk to me about afterwards, I am more than happy to give him a view.

The Senator asked how the states are designated. Global analysis is carried out on a rolling basis of states all over the world. Two main criteria are used. One is variants of concern and whether they are detected. Many countries in which it is highly likely there are variants of concern do not have, for example, the whole genome-sequencing facilities that we have. The other is where there are very high incidence rates. They are the two main criteria. Essentially, I get a letter from the Chief Medical Officer laying out the current global situation and outlining what states he proposes are to be designated or dedesignated because states are coming off the list as well. That is how that works. If the Senator would like a more detailed note on that, I would be more than happy to get that for him.

I agree with the Senator fully in terms of the need for a global vaccine solution. I do not believe there is a silver bullet. Some very good analysis has been done looking at the supply chain right the way from raw ingredients, some of which are an issue, through to manufacturing, which is very complex.

Ireland had a very significant amount of vaccine withheld from us because of manufacturing questions raised in the US by the Food and Drug Administration, FDA. Even in countries with highly sophisticated pharmaceutical manufacturing capability it does not always go right. Supply chains and logistics are also a concern. Some friends of mine working in developing nations are involved in this. One, who is looking at this in an African country, told me that due to the refrigeration and transport requirements for the mRNA vaccines which are quite delicate compounds, it would be very difficult to successfully and safely roll these things out. There are many issues.

I have been advised that waivers and various mechanisms are possible in terms of other countries manufacturing compounds that do not require broad IP waivers. I noted that President Biden called for it. I said in the Dáil that it was a good idea given the current situation. I am happy to repeat that again today. However, an IP waiver will not solve the problem. There is a whole supply chain that must be dealt with. I agree that we will be judged, and we should be judged, on whether or not we play our part as global citizens. The last information I saw showed that Europe as a region had exported more vaccines to other countries than any other part of the world. That is something we need to continue to push on.

I am very happy to provide a note on the costs of mandatory hotel quarantine. I spoke about active cases in my opening statement. There are 376 positive tests at this point.

I thank the Senators for their contributions and the House for its support. This is a bit like the debate we just had on the hospitality sector in that none of us wants to be here debating it. None of us wants to be in a world where we need mandatory hotel quarantine or where there are stipulations on what is safe or not safe to do in restaurants and pubs. It is one of the things that is necessary. Ireland has taken a leading role on mandatory hotel quarantine in Europe. We have the most comprehensive protections in place. If we look at its effectiveness against various variants, we were talking about variants in Brazil, South Africa and other places but they fell off dramatically once we introduced mandatory hotel quarantine so it has worked. We are seeing the damage that variants can do. I thank the House for what is again hopefully a temporary extension to the system to keep people safe while we reach higher levels of full vaccination which we need to achieve.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 3.24 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.