I am pleased to address the House on the Health (Amendment)(No. 2)Bill 2021. The Bill makes provision to open indoor hospitality under certain conditions and makes minor amendments to the system of mandatory hotel quarantine. The Bill will give effect to the Government’s decision to enable access to relevant indoor premises for fully vaccinated persons and persons who are immune from Covid-19 by virtue of the fact that they have recovered from the disease.
On 28 June 2021, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, advised that indoor activities expected to reopen on 5 July "which, by their nature are high risk activities involving significant levels of social mixing in indoor environments, should only be permitted for those who have been fully protected by vaccination or who have had Covid-19 infection in the previous nine months". NPHET advised that easing of these measures should only proceed when supported by a robust, non-reproducible and enforceable system of verification of vaccination or immunity status.
The Delta variant is much more transmissible than anything we have seen so far in this pandemic. Yesterday, almost 1,000 new cases were reported. Today's figure is likely to be significantly higher than that and these figures will continue to grow. We are seeing particularly high infection rates in those aged 16 to 24, as well as rapid growth in the number of infections among those aged 24 to 29. The most up-to-date modelling includes the changes recommended by the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, which allowed us to accelerate the vaccine programme for younger age groups. The second-best scenario presented by NPHET now shows over 200 people in ICU in just a few months’ time. That would mean the curtailment of a lot of planned healthcare for people in Ireland, which is something we have to avoid.
Two things we have in our favour are the vaccine programme, which is going from strength to strength, and our ability to respond to this variant by following the public health advice and keeping each other safe. Right now, for people who are not yet fully vaccinated, it is as important as any time since the start of this pandemic to continue to follow the public health advice. If they become symptomatic, they should self-isolate immediately and get tested and they should please avoid higher risk activities like indoor socialising and international travel.
During the debate in the Dáil on this Bill, there were calls from some quarters to open up hospitality fully. We have seen from some other countries just how quickly that can further accelerate the increase in cases and hospitalisations. Others have been calling for opening up just with a test, even an antigen test. Again, given the rapidly increasing prevalence of the disease, particularly among those not yet fully vaccinated, I hope these calls will be dropped and that the proposed approach, which is a safe one, will be supported. Every week that we can maintain these higher levels of protection helps. Every week, several hundred thousand vaccine doses are being administered. Today, the online portal opens for those aged 25 to 29, which is ahead of schedule. By the end of this week, all second doses of AstraZeneca will have been administered. Three in every five adults are now fully vaccinated and this weekend we will administer the 5 millionth dose of vaccine.
On the Bill, section 1 sets out the Short Title, commencement and operational provisions, which are time limited. Section 2 is a standard definitions section.
Section 3 inserts new sections, 31AB to 31AL, into the Health Act 1947. Section 31AB provides that it shall be lawful for an indoor operator that is otherwise not permitted to open to grant access to a relevant indoor premises under the following conditions: that reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that only permitted persons are admitted; that operators do not knowingly allow access to persons who are not permitted persons; that personal data should not be retained; and that the operator must adhere to guidelines set by certain bodies prescribed by the Minister. The section provides that the Minister may make regulations across specific areas, which will allow adjustment, if necessary, to the arrangements in light of experience and in response to evolving circumstances. Section 31AC provides that an operator may request evidence that a person is permitted. Providing a forged or fraudulent document is an offence with a fine of up to €2,500. Sections 31AD to 31AK relate to compliance, inspection, cessation orders and appeals. Powers include the power to seek emergency closure orders. Section 31AL provides that data shall only be processed to verify proof of immunity and will be retained for no longer than required. Section 4 provides for various definitions.
Section 5 amends section 38B of the Health Act 1947 and introduces a provision for a public health doctor to assess that a person who is in quarantine because he or she has been in a designated state and has received a positive Covid test no longer poses a threat of infection. It provides for a change in definition of the pre-travel testing requirement for a PCR test to a test as defined in regulations. This allows for any changes in pre-testing requirements to be incorporated automatically. It also inserts section 38B(3A) into that Act, which would allow travellers obliged to quarantine as a result of arriving from a non-designated state without a valid pre-travel test to undergo post-arrival testing rather than being automatically obliged to enter quarantine.
Section 6 amends section 38G of the Act of 1947. Section 38G(dd) will permit the Minister to make regulations, as public health advice allows, for tests other than PCR tests for the purposes of hotel quarantine. It will allow the Minister to regulate on the administration of new tests and any fees payable by applicable travellers. Section 38G(de) will permit the Minister, having regard to the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, to regulate for a testing pathway alternative to mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers who arrive without a valid pre-travel test or are otherwise exempt from the requirement to undergo mandatory hotel quarantine.
Section 7 amends section 38K of the 1947 Act with consequential amendments from drafting changes and corrects a drafting error in the Health (Amendment) (No. 1) Act 2021, section 38G(1)(a).
With this Bill, we have an opportunity to get tens of thousands of men and women back to work, and to do so safely. Some people advocate moving faster, opening fully or opening with testing, but that would not be safe right now. Others advocate keeping the sector closed. How would that be fair to the men and women all over Ireland who have suffered for so long and who want to get back to work, when we have been advised that they can be brought back to work safely? Nothing about this pandemic is easy and nothing about it is fair. What we have to do each time is find a way forward that works and that is what this Bill seeks to do. It will get tens of thousands of men and women, many of whom have been out of work for a year and a half, back to work safely and in a way that does not put their safety or that of their customers at risk. This is the way forward that will achieve that. I commend the Bill to the House.