There are three motions before the House. These are: No. 3, the extension of Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020; No. 4, the extension of Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020; and No. 5, the extension of Health (Amendment) Act 2020. The three motions will be debated together and decided separately. I call Senator Clifford-Lee to move No. 3.
Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020: Motion
That Seanad Éireann resolves that the amendments effected by Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 (No. 1 of 2020) shall continue in operation for the period beginning on the 10th day of November, 2021 and ending on the 9th day of February, 2022.
I thank the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach. I am here to introduce a resolution to extend the sunset clauses of three Covid-19-related Acts. The first is Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and Other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, No. 1 of 2020; the second is the Health (Amendment) Act 2020, No. 19 of 2020; and the third is the Criminal Justice (Enforcement (Covid-19) Act 2020, No. 14 of 2020.
The House will know that these Acts are due to expire next week. They provide for time-limited emergency powers to protect human life and public health. These are powers that this House has already passed to meet the significant challenges we have faced to date in with Covid-19. We had hoped to be well along the road to transitioning away from mandatory requirements to an approach based on public health advice, personal judgement and personal protective behaviours. This, unfortunately, is not the case. This vicious disease has once again shown how quickly it can spread. Yesterday in the Dáil, we had an in-depth debate on these resolutions. Opinion is, of course, inevitably divided on the powers that these Acts provide and, in particular, on the extension for the three further months permitted given the temporary nature of the provisions. In this context, it is important to reiterate the public health environment that we are now experiencing.
Disease incidence is very high and rising. The 14-day incidence is nearly 700 per 100,000 of population, the 5-day case average is a little over 2,800 and reported cases today are likely to be well in excess of 3,000. Cases numbers are rising across nearly all age groups. While we are seeing a stabilisation in the numbers of people with Covid-19 in hospital, this is likely to increase again off the back of the current higher daily case numbers. We are in a place where we have to be concerned about the burden and impact that this level of disease is having, and could have, on our health and social care services in the coming weeks and months and, obviously, on public health and, indeed, on public life.
We are already seeing the cancellation of procedures and operations across the country and we have to be concerned that things could deteriorate further. In its most recent advice to me, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, advised that the epidemiological situation in Ireland indicates a worsening disease profile, with the future trajectory very uncertain. It is for this reason that the Government, on the advice of the NPHET, decided to extend a range of public health protective measures on a mandatory basis. This means we need to extend these pieces of legislation that are before the House.
As has always been the case through the pandemic, the Government continues to commit to use these exceptional powers in a proportionate way. These are emergency powers directly proportional to the emergency public health environment. Their use is confined to mitigating the impact of the disease on the health of the public and they are not for prolonging a moment longer than is necessary in society.
I will provide a summary of each of the Acts. The Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 allows me, as Minister, to make regulations giving effect to a range of public health measures for the purposes of protecting the public from Covid-19. The Health (Amendment) Act 2020 provides for fixed payment notices in respect of certain alleged offences under the aforementioned Act. The Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 provides additional enforcement powers to An Garda Síochána to address breaches of the relevant Covid-19 regulations by any business or service selling or supplying intoxicating liquor for consumption on the premises.
I remind colleagues of each of the sunset provisions in the three Acts that are pertinent to this debate. The original extension of the sunset clauses in each of these three Acts to 9 November next was provided for in the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) Amendment Act 2021. This House approved these extensions when it voted to pass the legislation. Members will remember that I introduced an amendment to that Act, which originally provided for more than one extension of up to three months for each Act. The amendment I introduced and which was accepted by the House permitted only one extension of these Acts for a period of up to three months on the passing of a resolution providing for such extensions by both Houses of the Oireachtas, which is what we are here to discuss. After this one extension has lapsed, these Acts will no longer be operational. The resolution before the House today is to provide for this final extension of the three Acts until 9 February. Any requirements to extend these provisions beyond 9 February will require new legislation.
All present understand and appreciate the impact on people of this disease and the emergency measures put in place to deal with its harmful effects. I have highlighted previously that Ireland is not alone in this crisis. Indeed, across Europe and much of the rest of the world, Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on individuals, communities, societies and economies. We are again seeing a changing situation across the EU, with rising incidences in many countries. The measures we have decided to retain in Ireland are included in those that other countries are currently reaching for to deal with this surge in the Delta variant.
These are not easy decisions for us to make. They do not sit easily with us in government and I know they do not sit easily with any Member of the Oireachtas. It is the stated hope of the Government that we will not have to be in a position to use the provisions in these Acts any longer than is currently the case, but I must again reiterate the caveat that we simply cannot know what will face us in the coming months.
Of course, the reason we are able to keep so much open in spite of the current case numbers being so high is our vaccination programme and, critically, the fact that so many people across the country have stepped forward to protect themselves and everybody else, as well as the healthcare system and workers. I acknowledge the very broad, generous and strong support right across the political spectrum in this House and the Dáil in encouraging people to step up and get vaccinated. It has been really important and I thank all colleagues in the Chamber for their help in that regard. As Members will be aware, we are continuing to send our message and are still reaching out to the 7% who have yet to be vaccinated. Those who are unvaccinated account for a highly disproportionate burden on the healthcare system because they are so much more at risk. Approximately half of Covid hospitalisations and nearly two in three ICU Covid admissions are from this very small group who are yet unvaccinated.
I am very happy to be able to share with colleagues that it appears that recent appeals to people to step forward, do the right thing and get vaccinated are being received well. In the past two weeks, there have been approximately 24,000 new registrations, and more people who had not got around to getting a second dose are coming forward to get it. That is very encouraging. Obviously, we need to continue with that and I ask all colleagues for their help in getting that message out and encouraging people to do the right thing and get vaccinated.
As colleagues will be aware, the booster programme for the most vulnerable is now well under way. Those who are immuno-compromised are receiving a third dose. Residents of long-term residential care aged 65 or over have been receiving a booster dose, as have those aged 80 or over in the community. As colleagues will be aware, we are starting this week with those aged 60 to 79. Earlier this week, I was very happy to be able to authorise booster vaccines for healthcare workers. Adding up all those groups, we are at approximately 1.3 million people in terms of boosters. We may go further, but it is very encouraging that that is happening right now.
The continuance in operation of these emergency powers maintains the potential and flexibility to respond to this emerging Covid threat that is jeopardising public health. It is a surge that we cannot allow to go unchecked. The Government must act with caution to ensure the most vulnerable continue to be protected to the best of our ability. In essence, the motions before the House ask for agreement such that we would be able to continue with Covid measures on a regulatory basis for the next 13 weeks. That is it. When this one sunset clause ends, there will have to be a whole new suite of legislation should we seek to be able to continue with this.
This relates to things like the Covid pass which has allowed large section of society to open and stay open. Was it not wonderful to see the entertainment sector, artists, musicians and singers being able to get back to what they love to do? That was only possible because of the Covid pass. Much of the opening up of sporting events was only possible because of the Covid pass. The opening and keeping open of hospitality such as pubs and restaurants was possible because of the Covid pass. The mandating of face masks in retail, transport, healthcare settings and other settings is among the things that are only possible because of this legislation and these regulations. Were the House to vote against this one extension, essentially, next week the State would no longer be able to insist on the use of face masks in places where public health experts tell us they are essential, the use of Covid passes or the use of a great number of measures that have very wide public support.
There was a very good debate in the Dáil yesterday on a private Members' motion in respect of healthcare workers and there was a genuine expression of support for healthcare workers from right across the Dáil. I know all Members of this House feel exactly the same in that regard. The motions today allow us to continue to protect healthcare workers such as nurses, midwives, doctors, students, therapists and everyone else working in the healthcare community in hospitals, communities, mental health services and disability services right across the country. I am asking the House for agreement to the extension of these measures for 13 weeks - at which point there can be no further roll-overs - in order to protect public life, the healthcare system, patients, healthcare workers and jobs and keep the economy open. I commend the motion to the House.
The Minister is very welcome to the House. It is unfortunate that we are in this position. I do not think anyone present wants to be in it. The Minister stated that it is not an easy decision for this House or the Lower House to extend these extraordinary powers. We hoped we would be in a much better position. The uptake of the vaccine was extraordinary and very well received in this country but the viciousness of Covid is apparent to us all, as is the impact it is having on healthcare and the impact it will have in the future.
It is proportional that we extend these powers for 13 weeks. It is a relatively short period. I hope we will then be able to reassess the situation and if, unfortunately, needs be, we will be able to proceed with further legislation, but I hope we will not be in that position. I hope we will get through the winter, but these powers are needed to protect ongoing education and healthcare. They are the two most important functions of the State. If a state cannot keep its citizens healthy and educated, it has failed. That is why these powers are necessary.
I wish to raise a couple of issues to which the Minister might respond when he responds to the debate. I have had a number of queries from constituents worried about the lack of contact tracing in schools. Our children are back in school and contact tracing is not ongoing because children generally do not pick up Covid in schools. Our schools have been excellent at maintaining hygiene and other good practices within their environments. However, I have had a number of vulnerable parents who are getting increasingly concerned contact me. These parents are immunocompromised. The Minister might address that point and whether there are any plans to reintroduce contact tracing in schools.
The booster programme is under way. It is unfortunate that that did not happen a couple of weeks ago. I understand that the more vulnerable sectors of society, such as people in long-term residential care and people over the age of 80, have received their boosters or are in the process of receiving them. In addition, our healthcare workers, thankfully, are now getting their booster shots. Will the Minister comment on other vulnerable communities? I refer specifically to homeless communities and the Traveller and Roma communities, who have less positive outcomes from the health system. They are medically vulnerable as well. Are there any plans to give booster shots to those vulnerable communities?
There is also the issue of fake Covid certificates. I have become more aware that they are freely available online and that people are using them. Is the Minister planning any public awareness campaign about the existence of these fake Covid certificates or will there be any clampdown on their availability?
Finally, a number of people who got their first Covid shot had an adverse reaction to it but have not been able to avail of a second shot. Therefore, they do not have Covid certificates, which rules them out from accessing a lot of areas of society. Will these people be able to have a second shot of a different vaccine in order to obtain a Covid certificate? These people are not vaccine-hesitant. Because of their reaction to the first shot, will they be able to get a different vaccine? The Minister might address that.
Members across the House might have concerns about extending these extraordinary powers. I do too and I think every right-minded person does. Given, however, the extraordinary situation in which we find ourselves, it is reasonable and proportionate that we extend these powers for 13 weeks.
I am glad everyone has the right time for the debate. It takes me a couple of days after the clocks go back to adjust. I am glad we are still limiting our clock changes to twice a year. The Government seems satisfied more with changing the sunset clauses in its legislation.
It is with great pleasure that I inform the Minister that I am one of the reckless elected Members who will vote against the motion. It really was a show in the Lower House yesterday - I will touch on that in a moment - but the Minister's speech gives too great an opportunity for scrutiny.
He stated: "We are in a place where we have to be concerned about the burden and the impact that this level of disease is having ... on our health ... services." We are coming up to two years of Covid. That is two years to plan, two years to mobilise and two years to pull out all the stops and beef up our healthcare system to the point that is necessary to deal with this problem. I spoke last month of how Sweden doubled its ICU capacity to tackle the pandemic, with the number of ICU beds in its capital quadrupling. Drastic action was taken not in the form of foisting responsibility for disease control onto the population by enforcing lockdowns but by rising to the challenge and protecting the people. If our health system is now burdened, it is not the fault of people who choose not to get vaccinated or children who want to go to school or play basketball. Responsibility begins and ends with the Minister and his remit. He said these laws were "not for prolonging a moment longer than is necessary", yet we are prolonging them for as long as is possible under the parent Act, that is, the full three-month period.
He also stated: "The intention is only to use the provisions within these Acts for the measures that are currently in place." Quick, start the clock, because the last time the Minister came into this House and used that line in respect of the use of Covid certificates, it was less than two weeks before the Cabinet changed its mind. I will keep an eye on the news on 17 November.
He then stated: "Our strategy to manage the adverse impacts of Covid has been guided by an evolving understanding of the disease." What nonsense. Our understanding of the vaccines has evolved. Their real-world efficacy is falling far below test results, but the Government cannot acknowledge that, aside from boosters for the elderly, because it has never had a single plan other lockdown and waiting for the vaccine. Now, with a 93% vaccination rate, we are no better off and the Government is, let us be honest, entertaining the idea of another lockdown, although it will wait until its media scare people for a few more weeks until it is open about it.
The Minister said: "The Government must act with caution to ensure the most vulnerable continue to be protected." Who is he talking about? That was the line being used when the narrative was that we just needed to have the over-80s, the over-70s or the over-60s vaxxed and that then we would go back to normal. What is the narrative now? Where are the goalposts? They have been moved so many times I have lost track. Maybe the Government has quietly packed the goalposts back into their container and we will just keep playing for the heck of it.
As for yesterday's fiasco, "Fully vaccinated individuals with breakthrough infections have peak viral load similar to unvaccinated cases and can efficiently transmit infection in household settings, including to fully vaccinated contacts." That is a direct quote from Community Transmission and Viral Load Kinetics of the SARS-CoV-2 Delta (B.1.617.2) Variant in Vaccinated and Unvaccinated Individuals in the UK: A Prospective, Longitudinal, Cohort Study, which was published last month in The Lancet medical journal of infectious diseases. Inconvenient science is still science - or should we just follow the State-sanctioned science? It was this finding that Deputy Verona Murphy was getting at yesterday, a finding published in one of the world's oldest and best known medical journals, which the Minister labelled anti-vaccine information. Of course, that has been one of the most useful social tools in controlling the debate on Covid - simply slap the label "anti-vax" on an opponent and suddenly any of his or her questions or critique do not have to be taken seriously. It is beyond ridiculous that for months now, in both Houses, any Members wishing to ask bona fide questions about vaccines have been forced to qualify them with, "I am not an anti-vaxxer but". It is a cheap trick to insulate those in power from criticism and it makes for sorry behaviour from a Cabinet Minister. The Minister can slap any label he wants on me. I do not give two hoots about how he or anyone else will try to limit and police my speech. I know who I am and I know what I am about, and that is standing up for the people of this country and for their civil liberties and freedom of speech and holding this Government to account for its stubbornly stagnated, faltering Covid response, which has simultaneously failed to suppress the virus while adopting the most overreaching and constrictive lockdown measures in Europe.
I have never supported the two-tier society the vaccine passport has created. I suggest the Minister look at the scientific data on the efficacy of these experimental vaccines and start looking for a refund.
I am not sure how to follow that, although I am perhaps unsurprised as Senator Keogan has gone back and forth and taken different approaches to this crisis over the past year and a bit. She has contradicted herself on a number of occasions. It is unsurprising that she uses language about experimental vaccines that we know have worked. The vaccine programme has been a universal success in this country and I have complimented the Minister on that previously. That is not to say I am uncritical of how we have dealt with it and that mistakes have not been made; they have.
I have reservations about aspects of what the motion proposes. In fairness, the Minister has also expressed reservations. It is not where we wanted to be. I listened to what he had to say about where the current figures place us on this spectrum. Even in that regard, we can be quite proud of where we are on that relative to our counterparts in this part of the world and in other parts of the world.
The figures are worrying. Sometimes the job of Government is to make unpopular but courageous decisions to do things that people do not want us to do because they are in the common good. The real challenge is in identifying where exactly that line is. The danger is pushing through something that is unnecessary simply because a particular expert has advised the Minister to do it. That said, I am very conscious of what has been said by the relevant experts in this case. There appears to be unanimity among them as to what we should do in respect of this. I am also not uncritical of what they have done and said in the past. At times they have gone too far. It is our job as a Legislature to consider what they say, assess it critically and make a decision based not just on the scientific evidence.
One of the issues that has dogged us throughout this pandemic has been the debate between those who say we must slavishly follow the scientific advice and those who acknowledge that for us as legislators and for the Minister as a member of Government our job is not to slavishly follow that advice but to critically analyse it and to make a decision that does not simply take account of the scientific element because that is only one element. We must also counter that with the economic effects, the social effects, and the effects on individuals from the point of view of their own physical and mental health.
All of these factors must be weighed up in arriving at a decision, which is why I recognise that there are times when the Minister and his Government colleagues have made decisions that do not exactly mirror the scientific advice. That is exactly right and proper. I see no contradiction in that. I see no difficulty with the idea that we should listen to the advice of experts, parse it and take from it what we need before making a decision that is hopefully in the best interest of everybody in the country.
In considering what we are being asked to do today, we must also consider the legislation we are being asked to renew. The Minister has pointed to the sunset clause that is coming next year and that this will be the final extension of this legislation. That is as we voted for when these various Acts were being passed. We all hope there will be no further need for legislation in this vein or any need to legislate for the restrictions and the infringements, if I can put it in those terms, on people in this country.
I also welcome the booster programme and the suggestion that boosters will be available particularly to those in the most vulnerable categories. We all hope that as we get to the end of this year, we will hear much more positive news than the figures the Minister has outlined today and how we might address them.
We need to examine the effectiveness of the laws. Based on what the Minister has told us, we do not have any analysis of how often they have been used. How often have these significant powers included in these Acts been deployed by the relevant authorities, be it An Garda Síochána or anyone else? How many cases have arisen from that? How many successful prosecutions have there been? It is important for us to have that information to make a proper assessment of the necessity for this legislation or otherwise? I say that in circumstances where I have every intention of voting for this motion, reluctantly or otherwise. None of us is happy about it, but I accept what the Minister has said that it is necessary on the basis of the advice he has received.
Many of the legislative instruments he is asking us to extend are ineffective and unusable. I said that during the debate on the Health (Amendment) Act 2020 last year when we identified in the Seanad on a Friday evening some significant flaws with the legislation. In particular, the definitions of an occupier and things like that render it absolutely useless. I have no concern that that legislation will be used to trammel any individuals rights because it is not constructed in a way that makes it usable. Nonetheless, there are other important powers in the legislation we are renewing.
The Minister made reference to the vaccine passport. I absolutely and fundamentally disagree with the comments of Senator Keogan on the creation of a two-tier society. We would all like to be able to do whatever we would like to do without the restrictions being in place, but that is a fact of life. The reality is that we need to make tough decisions from time to time. I genuinely feel for people who are unable to avail of the vaccine for whatever reason, particularly because of their own health. I do not feel for people who choose not to do so. That choice is not just about themselves, but also about the people they live with, the people they work with and the people they meet in the street, the supermarket or wherever it might be. I have little enough sympathy for those people.
However, there is a cohort of people in society who are unfortunately caught in the situation where they cannot be vaccinated for whatever legitimate reason, meaning that there are certain aspects of social interaction and ordinary activity in society that are not open to them, which is regrettable. Unfortunately, some people choose to capitalise on that and to focus on terms like "two-tier society", which are grossly unfair in circumstances where we are facing something that has life-and-death consequences for certain people. We cannot be cavalier about it like that and we should not try to score political points from it.
As I have said, I will support the motion. I would like the Minister to address the two issues I have raised. First, how much has the legislation been used or required? I am not talking about the restrictions that we know about, such as the vaccine passports; I am talking about the times when the State or any State agency has been required to take action on foot of the particularly penal provisions that remain in these Acts. What has the outcome of them been?
Second, many of the provisions we are being asked to renew today are ineffectual; obviously many others are not. A concern was expressed in this Chamber at the time of the passing of the Health (Amendment) Act 2020 that I think is correct. It was passed on a Friday night to be in place for the weekend, but I do not believe it has ever been used - perhaps for that reason. The Minister might be able to confirm that.
It is a horrible political cliché that we are where we are, but that is the reality of the situation. We had all hoped to be further along the road than we are now, but we are not there. I acknowledge that in those circumstances we need to maintain certain measures.
It is good to see the Minister, who is very welcome. He will not be surprised to know that Sinn Féin will oppose the motion. I wish to make it clear that we are not opposed to continuing reasonable levels of restrictions, such as face masks, testing requirements, travel restrictions and measures deemed essential to combating the spread of Covid-19. We accept that some restrictions will need to be maintained, but circumstances have changed since this legislation was introduced in the first wave in early 2020. We are opposed, in principle, to continuing emergency powers nearly two years into the pandemic.
We believe that the onus is on Government to bring forward more appropriate primary legislation that does not needlessly and unaccountably devolve the powers of the Oireachtas to the Minister for Health. It is the Oireachtas that makes the law, not the Government or Departments. We have a constitutional duty to protect the separation of these institutions.
This will be the third extension of Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020. This is the tenth time that the Government has either introduced more emergency powers for the Minister for Health or sought to extend existing emergency powers in place, not counting the initial Acts, which we all supported in early 2020.
Each time, we have called for more oversight, engagement, and scrutiny on new regulations. In February, Deputies Daly and Cullinane introduced the Health (Parliamentary Oversight of Certain Instruments Relating to Covid-19) Bill, which would ensure a debate on new regulations within two weeks and encourage a more co-operative framework from Government. The Government did not oppose this on First Stage but has not taken it on board in any subsequent Bills or Acts.
The Government's defence is that it has limited extension of operation by way of resolution to one occurrence with further extensions requiring an amendment to the primary legislation, but that is not good enough. Whether for mandatory quarantine, travel restrictions, Garda powers, offences, Covid-19 certs for travel or hospitality, or other restrictions generally, there has been a total lack of accountability to the Oireachtas by the Minister for Health.
We are fundamentally opposed to the principle of indefinitely extending emergency powers to the Minister without adequate parliamentary oversight and no engagement. We have, time and again, requested more robust, constitutionally compliant legislation with regular scrutiny and engagement on the regulations rather than the every-so-often theatre of motions to renew emergency powers long after that phase has passed.
The most recent example of why the Government's approach is bad for lawmaking is the latest hospitality regulations and the litany of problems in this regard, including having no back-up plan and leaving several days of no regulations at all. There will be no more blank cheques from this side of the House.
I refer to the issue of vaccines because it has come up. It is important to be clear about vaccines. I went to London at the end of August with a number of friends, all of whom were vaccinated, like myself. Three of them caught Covid-19. They are clear that the vaccines stopped them from going to hospital and potentially losing their lives. I want to be clear on one message from Sinn Féin, that is, we fully support vaccines. We have no time for people who doubt vaccines. We believe in the science. It is important for that message to go out from all sides of this House.
There is another issue, which I mentioned on the Minister's most recent visit to this House and which I will raise again now. When we talk about vaccines, we must talk about vaccine justice. To date, the Government has not spoken out and called for a waiver of intellectual property, IP, rights for these vaccines. When the Minister was in this Chamber a few weeks ago, he said in reply to me that he believes that the call for a waiver of IP rights has merit. That was nice to hear, but, unfortunately, it does nothing. We know that only 2% of people in Africa are vaccinated. This Government has been silent. It has not spoken publicly and called for a waiver of IP rights on vaccines. That means there is still a situation where private companies, often imbued with millions in taxpayers' money from different governments, decide who gets the vaccine and who does not. There should be no profit in a pandemic and I encourage anyone who has not yet signed that petition to do so. When the history of this awful time is written, is the Minister prepared to say that he did not make a public call for a waiver on IP rights? It is morally bankrupt. I am saying that to him because I may not have another opportunity to say it before Christmas. I am horrified that this Government will not stand up for justice and the developing world, or make a clear call on the EU and European Commission to change their policy and waive IP rights so that other countries can produce these life-saving vaccines and save their own people. It is morally bankrupt, as I say, that this Government has not, to date, had the moral decency to stand up and do that. I am calling on the Minister to do that today. It is not enough for him to say he thinks the idea has merit. He and the Government need to make that call. We need to stand up for the people of the world right now. Regrettably, this Government is still aligning itself with big pharma. That is a disgrace in the light of what is happening in the world.
Everybody knows where I stand on the TRIPS waiver. I spoke about the issue at the pre-COP26 conference and in both our sessions here with Members of the European Parliament, MEPs. The EU needs to stand behind a TRIPS waiver. However, that is not what we are talking about here today. I completely understand that the Minister is here and that is why Senator Gavan brought up the issue but let us go back to what we are here to talk about because it is important. I feel for people who have a fear around the vaccine and feel something is being done to them by the Government. However, all of us here know that is not the case. We have an obligation, as legislators and politicians, to stand up against that kind of rhetoric and say that these are not powers that extend to everything. These powers will extend for a further three months and that is all. They are not forcing anybody to do anything. They are merely intended to protect front-line workers and those in the hospitality sector. We are giving more supports, and continuing supports, to the Garda. I am quite shocked, although I do not know why, at Sinn Féin representatives speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They are in favour of vaccines but they are not in favour of protecting those who are vaccinated. Human rights are not about us being able to do whatever we want; they are also about protection. Workers in the hospitality sector do not have an option but to work in that sector. They should be protected against those who put them in harm's way. That is fundamentally what is happening if people go into pubs, restaurants and so on when they are not vaccinated. We know it. We can see the statistics. The 14-day incidence rate has gone up even in the few days since I started researching this matter. It is stunning. If this was a year ago, we would have been shocked but we are almost becoming immune to it. We are in a serious situation. People are dying. The Minister has outlined that two thirds of those in ICUs are unvaccinated. This is a no-brainer. We must make sure that everyone in society is protected, even in instances where they do not want to be protected because that is ultimately what will protect our workers. It is the job of a government not to stand on the fence. A factually incorrect statement was made to the effect that the emergency measures are being indefinitely extended. How is a three-month extension indefinite? It simply is not. It is unfortunate that those sorts of terms are being used because it puts people into a situation where they feel fear.
Some of the arguments are ideological and that is unfortunate. Research has shown that of those who are against vaccines, 52% are on the right of the political spectrum and only 7% are on the left. I do not say that to put people into categories but people who have that fear need to be aware that they are sometimes being pushed into a belief that they should be afraid of vaccines by people who are coming from a very ideological place that those people would probably disagree with if they understood what was behind it. It is important to point that out. I have personal experience of the people who contact me and send constant emails fearmongering about the illegality of vaccines. They are often the same people who were against numerous other things. Unfortunately, we do have to categorise some of those people who are against vaccines and having any of these powers in place.
I share concerns, of course, and our job is to bring to light anything we feel is going beyond the reach of what we think is constitutional. Of course we need to do that, and Senator Ward, in particular, has raised issues about previous legislation. We were here late one Friday night discussing that issue and that is what this House is about. However, we are now talking about a three-month extension of powers. It is not allowing the Government to do whatever it wants. We are in the Oireachtas so when Senator Gavan says that this legislation is allowing the Minister and the Government to do whatever they want, that is not the case. We are voting on this.
Those are my few thoughts on the matter. I am supportive of these measures. Every time we look at extending restrictions and powers, we need to have the Minister here to explain, as is right. We should be allowed to freely raise our objections every time. We must end the factually incorrect statements and scaremongering-----
-----because it is putting people in fear of something that is saving not only their lives but also the lives of front-line workers. It is our job to state the facts and to vote with our hearts.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. We are rapidly hurtling into winter. It is getting chilly. We can see the numbers of people interacting with our health service. The health service and our hospitals are very busy every year, but this season will possibly be busier than we have seen before. Our system is going to be under enormous pressure because of the impact of the ongoing pandemic. People also have continuing regular healthcare needs.
There is also a backlog which seems to be eternally growing.
Our health service is going to be under enormous pressure this year and while the Minister for Health may know what we may potentially be facing into, I am not sure that people do. I have family members and I know people who are working in healthcare and who are completely exhausted. They are incredibly tired. We have to be honest. We often use the phrase "perfect storm" in politics. We love talking about a perfect storm appearing but we do face the three things I have outlined with regard to what this winter is going to look like for those healthcare workers. Some people are saying that we have to use the measures we are talking about, looking at what happened last winter when numbers increase and it was very difficult. They say we have no choice. The flu will come back this winter. I am getting my flu vaccine next week. We could face an even more detrimental situation in our hospitals. I do not necessarily want to bring this to the Minister's mind; rather, I want to highlight it for others. We have healthcare workers who are still battling through and working. I have never seen a healthcare worker who was not tired but I have never seen the ones I know as drained of every last ounce of anything they have. The trolley watch figures from the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation are particularly high. There were 35 people on trolleys in Cork University Hospital only a couple of days ago. I worry about what is going to come down the line with regard to hospital trolley numbers. Healthcare workers in particular are feeling the impact in this regard.
I know we are talking about extending the emergency regulations but I will speak about our winter plan because it is relevant. We do not have our winter plan yet. Last year, we had it in September. It is now November. Is there a date for when that winter plan will be released? It is already seven weeks later than it should be. When talking about the extension of powers, the necessity for that and healthcare services, it is very important that we also have other legislation and plans to back that up, such as our winter plan.
If we have to extend these measures, there are other things that we and members of the public have to do and other things that we, as legislators, need to look at. One of things that has come up a good bit is the issue of clean air and air quality. Ventilation is one of the issues which has been most under-assessed or underutilised in dealing with Covid, especially considering that it is an airborne disease. In conjunction with the extension of powers, do we have a regulatory proposal for the winter months regarding ventilation and clean air in workplaces as people go back to work? We are shivering in our offices because we have every last window open, but that is something we have taken on ourselves. Do we have a regulatory proposal? If we are telling people that things are deadly serious and that we must extend these extraordinary powers, they would probably like to see guidance and leadership in related areas.
I believe it was 24 May when we last discussed these matters. Many people talked about an analysis, review or report on these regulations and how they have been used. They talked about a sort of human rights analysis of the measures. I know we are saying these powers are not used very often but we are once again being asked to extend these extraordinary regulations, as we have been over the last 18-month period. The Minister said that they did not sit easy with him when he was last here to talk to us. We therefore have a responsibility to get a review of how, when and why they have been used. We are turning to the public and saying that we must take these measures but without being able to say how, when and why they are being used. The Minister must understand why that is causing frustration, annoyance and a sense of distrust.
We, as politicians, can get access to information through asking questions and so on. That is why we are here. However, it is important for members of the public to be able to understand how, when and why these regulations are being used. They have been more than understanding and more than willing to come with us. People have really put their best foot forward but, if we keep saying that we need a review as to how and why these powers are being used, there is an onus on us to be able to give a really comprehensive answer at some point. If - heaven and God almighty forbid - we find ourselves coming back here in February having to pass further legislation or regulation, it would be extremely difficult to say that we have to extend these regulations again without having engaged in some sort of analysis as to how and why they are used. I flag this issue because I mentioned it on 24 May.
As already stated, we recognise that these measures are extremely harsh and difficult. We hope that they will not have to be used. A colleague of mine said that, given the situation that is unfolding this winter, which mirrors the situation we saw last year, we may have no option but to use these measures but, as I have said, I believe the situation in our healthcare settings may be even more difficult. I again put it to the Minister that there are staff who are worked to the bone. I know there have been conversations about compensation and how they will be repaid but, if the winter we believe is coming does come, that conversation may need to be jogged on a little bit.
I will end with something I always talk about, the issue of our student nurses and midwives. If we are talking about extending these regulations because we are still in a crisis situation with regard to Covid, that means our hospitals are still in a crisis situation and that our student nurses and midwives are still working in a crisis situation. On 1 September, we ceased the €100 weekly payment. I know there is discussion about extending that and whether it will be put on the table again, but I will put it on the record today that, if we are extending these measures because there is an emergency situation, we need to recognise that our student nurses and midwives are working in that emergency situation. That €100 Covid payment needs to be continued for them.
The Minister is very welcome. It is only a few short weeks since we gathered in this Chamber to debate the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021, which saw the sunset clause on emergency powers extended by resolution until the 9 January 2022. We were all hopeful in the intervening weeks that the epidemiological situation would improve to such an extent that these emergency powers, while provided for in legislation, would not be required. Unfortunately, the epidemiological situation has deteriorated further in the interim and we are currently seeing infection rates as high as those at the beginning of this calendar year. That is really sad. The current trajectory of the disease is of concern, especially as we head into the winter months. I am worried about the impact that the current infection rates will have on our families, friends and communities. I am also very concerned about the impact that the disease will have on and in our hospitals.
I advised in that last debate that we needed to continue to progress with caution and I maintain that view today as it relates to the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Act 2021. I would love to be able to stand here and confidently say that early 2022 will herald the end of this awful disease and spell the end for the powers required to contain it. However, as we have learned over the course of this pandemic, Covid-19 can make a fool of our best-made plans.
The powers as legislated for in the Health and Criminal Justice (COVID-19) (Amendment) Act 2021 may well be required past the proposed end date of 9 February 2022. This is something we need to acknowledge openly in both Houses. We cannot say with any sort of certainty that this will be the last time that we require this legislation as Covid-19 may simply demand these responses of us. I know that this is not what the Irish people want to hear but we really do need to be clear and transparent with them.
I again stress the importance of this, and any future emergency legislation, containing an end point. This is something that myself and my colleagues in the Civil Engagement Group brought attention to during the Second Stage debate on this legislation earlier this year. The legislation as enacted is far reaching and has significant implications for our society. Because of this, we must ensure that it undergoes the correct democratic oversight and scrutiny as opposed to being continually extended by simple motion and resolution. The fact that the legislation, when first introduced, did not provide for this was highly unsatisfactory. I am thankful that the Minister was very receptive to making amendments to take account of this and that he ultimately inserted a sunset clause into the legislation to state that it can only be extended once by resolution, for a period of three months.
While I and my colleagues in the Civil Engagement Group would have liked this amendment to go further, I am glad that this is the last occasion on which we will need to pass legislation of this nature by simple resolution. It may be the case that we will require similar legislation past 9 February 2022 but we must ensure that it first undergoes the necessary scrutiny in both Houses. My colleague, Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, previously called for a review of the emergency legislation passed during the course of the pandemic. It is very important in light of the extension by resolution of this legislation and the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021 a review of this nature is reconsidered to ensure that the legislation and the powers it provides for are both compliant with human rights law. Additionally we must ensure that the enforcement of the powers, as set out in the legislation, occurs fairly across Irish society. My colleague, Senator Ruane, spoke about this in the context of the Joint Committee on Justice highlighting the extent to which certain communities were subject to greater scrutiny than others. I implore those responsible for these emergency powers to be especially mindful of this moving forward.
Lastly, I wish to speak of the importance of the Government's support for the TRIPS waiver. This is something my colleague, Senator Higgins, has continually drawn attention to in this House. While we can rightly be proud of the success of the Covid-19 vaccination programme in the country, it will be a futile effort if we do not support the speedy delivery of Covid-19 vaccines globally. Without that new variants of concern will continue to arise, threatening the progress we have made on this island in recent months, and endangering the lives and livelihoods of people around the world.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I listened to the debate in my office before I in came to speak. I am reminded of the old phrase that you govern in prose and campaign in poetry. It is easy for some Members to come in and make sincere speeches. It is fair to say none of us wants to be here today to support the continuation of the legislation. Senator Black made the most pertinent point of the afternoon when she said we may well be here again in February. We may well be, but our debate needs to be put in context. We have seen a change in the information from NPHET and NIAC and a slowness in transmitting that information to us. I am happy to support this legislation because it is the right thing to do. I respect the rights of all people whose viewpoint differs from mine.
I am struck by the figures and the 14-day incident rate. The debate we have seen in our country about vaccination in other parts of the world, and the lack of vaccination in parts of the world, leads me to ask a basic question: where would we be today if we did not have the vaccination programme? In asking that, individually and collectively we all have a responsibility in terms of measures we can take. That includes the hospitality sector, us, individually, the sporting organisations and those who are involved in running public transport and in our education settings and so on.
The Lancet study published last week shows that the low risk of infection by those who are vaccinated means that vaccinations work. I am concerned about the situation in our schools. I spoke about it during today's Order of Business. I know what we have said and what NPHET has said, but for some reason that I cannot comprehend, we have stopped contact tracing in our schools. I genuinely believe, as somebody who taught in a school and is familiar with the workings of the contact tracing in our education system prior to the mid-term break, that we should reverse that decision and go back to contact tracing in schools. It is about security. I heard Colm Henry this morning speaking about how the school setting is not the place that the virus spreads in, and that it is more the home setting. He may well be right but schools are still a reservoir of infection. We have seen it with the substitution issue where teachers and pupils are absent. That is causing concern to all involved in education.
Senator Keogan mentioned bed capacity. We have increased bed capacity in our ICUs and in our hospitals but we need to see a fundamental reappraisal of bed capacity in the future, in Sláintecare. I had a Commencement matter for tomorrow, which was not selected, on the elective hospital for Cork but I will resubmit it for next week. As part of our living with Covid-19 and emerging from Covid-19, we need a debate on usage of our public hospitals. We are back to pre-pandemic levels in emergency departments. In fact, in some cases we are gone beyond it, which is a source of concern also.
The measures, for which the Minister has asked permission to continue, are ones we should support. I understand there are differences of opinion on that, and I accept them. We do not want to see civil liberties taken away. We do not want to go back to another lockdown nor to the 5 km limit again. We must put public health at the heart of what we do.
Reluctantly, I support the motion but I hope we will have a firm debate again around the issue of our health provision.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I will start by saying that I tuned in to "Prime Time" last night and heard the Minister give an extensive and comprehensive interview. He touched on many of the issues Members are asking about today. I want to acknowledge public broadcasting and the media and the role they too have to play in this. It occurred to me while listening to the Minister last night that I had entered two places of hospitality in which I was not asked for a certificate or ID and I turned around and left. The Minister said last night in his interview with Miriam O'Callaghan that it is up to us as citizens to challenge places and say that they are putting people's health at risk. The places to which I refer were jam-packed. If we are going to have legislation, we have to have some enforcement but we also have to take measures ourselves.
As the Minister pointed out, Covid-19 incidence is rising rapidly and we have to be concerned. There is no community and no family that is not touched and impacted by this terrible pandemic. We have to do something about it. I recall when the Minister, Deputy Coveney, came to the House a long time ago and talked about this thing called Covid-19, and we in the previous Seanad were shocked. We thought this was only going to be thing for weeks. All of us have been affected as have all our communities, our families, our loved-ones and our businesses, but we have to tackle this disease. I am going to support the Minister and I am not going to apologise about supporting him. It is the right thing to do.
The Government has sought professional advice. Someone has to share that advice. There would be more shortcomings, and more criticism, if the Minister came into the House and said he had conflicts himself. The Minister has set out the advice he has been given. In the most recent advice to him, he stated that the National Public Health Emergency Team advised that the epidemiological situation in Ireland indicates a worsening disease profile with a very uncertain future trajectory. Those are the facts.
One of the thing we have had to learn is to take advice, and to seek advice. We have also to listen to it but, more importantly, act on it. This is the right thing to do. As the Minister clearly said, this is a measure until February 2022. There may be more legislation. We can never predict. However, this motion proposes to extend this to February 2022 and I support that.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I wish to underline the independent nature of the members of the Independent group to say that there is no unanimity among them, as is obvious already.
I fully accept that we are in an emergency and that emergency measures have to be taken. I am one of these people who rejects completely the suggestion of a two-tier society. In my view, the responsible thing to do is to become vaccinated. Maybe there are some people who, for some reason, fear a vaccination or have some hesitation about vaccination but that is their problem, so to speak. For the great majority of people, to keep one's workmates, family members, elderly relatives and those whom one deals with in day-to-day life safe, the responsible thing to do is to be vaccinated. I have no problem with saying that for some things - like going into a crowded nightclub, pub or restaurant where ventilation, however it is going to be done, in winter months is going to be limited - there is nothing wrong with requiring people to prove that they have been vaccinated. It is their choice to stay at home, if they so want. If they want to go into a restaurant, which is higher risk, then in my view they just have to take the consequence of their own decision not to be vaccinated.
It is just as well that Senator Gavan spoke before me because he might have been embarrassed to have to say that he would agree with everything that I am about to say. It is a little bit the other way around. I agree with him completely about one fundamental issue, and this is the reason that I am going to vote against the Minister's resolutions. Simply, what is being done in these Houses is wrong. We had a temporary Covid committee, under the chairmanship of Deputy McNamara. It was in a position week on week, if people turned up to it and were willing to turn up to it, to give constant scrutiny to examine the trends over a week, and to examine the reasonableness of one measure rather than another. The permanent Government of Ireland, and I have presided over a Department that is part of the permanent Government of Ireland, found it inconvenient that there should be such a forum of parliamentarians to which it would be responsible. I accept the need for emergency legislation but in an emergency, what about Leinster House? Can we not adapt our arrangements to establish a committee, which the Minister must come into it every week-----
-----or every ten days or whatever it is and say this is what has happened over the last week? The Garda checkpoints are either justified or unjustified. The 5 km rule is either paying off or it is not. Vaccinations are having this effect or that effect. Schools are or are not a vector for infection. It is or is not safe to reopen this, that or the other in terms of universities or the like.
There should be a forum where the same group of Members of the Oireachtas hear the same issues dealt with week on week, and can monitor them. There is absolutely no excuse why such a forum, if we are in an emergency, was not maintained in existence and amplified, and that the permanent Government became fully available to the members of that committee to explain in detail exactly which vaccine, for instance, was more effective than the last. I am an AstraZeneca double-dose man myself but I do not know whether my dosage is right or wrong. I do not know now that I am coming up to six months since my last dosage whether I need a booster. The Minister has said that I am going to get one if I want one. That is great and I am going to take it but I believe that all of these facts should be tested. We should know whether one vaccine is more or less more effective than another. Are we continuing to buy them or are we sending them to the Third World because they are ineffective or whatever?
I do not say the following on a personal or political level. There is no excuse for the Minister coming in and saying that we may have legislation and regulations. There may be, as Senator Ward has said, a need for another Bill. That will be tightly Whipped. The one advantage of the committees is that the Whip does not work on them. One must answer the question there and then. One cannot just avoid it and say here is the regulation so vote it down if you like, if one can get five, ten or 20 Deputies or Senators to vote it down. There is no excuse whatsoever, in my view, for not having a permanent committee of the Oireachtas supervising this emergency, none whatsoever except institutional self-protection.
Lastly, I agree with Senator Gavan about intellectual property rights. All of the pharmaceutical companies were given huge sums of money by governments across the developed world to develop vaccines. For a situation to exist in which those companies, which have these intellectual property rights, now control which people in the Third World, who cannot afford any of these vaccines themselves, should or should not have vaccinations and, in effect, on a global basis, which countries should have higher rates of death than others is wholly unconscionable and I do support what Senator Gavan said about that.
A new coalition.
It is no laughing matter, Senator Buttimer.
I thank colleagues for their time, contributions, challenges and ideas.
These are extraordinary measures, these are extraordinary times and these sorts of powers should never sit comfortably with any Parliament. I do not think that there is any Member of either House that they do sit properly with. It is not just right and proper but essential that we have serious debate even on something that is a relatively modest proposal in terms of a 13-week extension followed by a need for legislation. These are serious powers and they must be interrogated seriously.
I had my closing remarks but I am not going to make them. What I am going to do is try to address the various points that were raised by colleagues, some of which pertained to this matter and some of which pertained to the wider Covid situation. So, with the indulgence of the Acting Chairperson, I will try to address the various issues in the order in which I think they were raised.
In terms of contact tracing in schools, we all want to do what is best for the children ultimately. That is the primary motivation of all of the policy recommendations in terms of schools. There was contact tracing, as colleagues will be aware, for schools. It came at a very serious cost to the children because children missed two weeks of schools. Indeed, after returning a child could miss another two weeks of schools if he or she was deemed to be a close contact.
Public health worked with the Department of Health in the round to say what are the risks in terms of Covid versus the known damage of these children being taken out of schools for weeks at a time. We are all very aware of the damage that was done last year, which was unavoidable, with children not being in school.
This morning, Dr. Henry gave an excellent interview on “Morning Ireland” when he went through some of the facts and figures. We found that the positivity rate on contact tracing in schools was a really small fraction of the positivity rate for the same cohort of children in the household. In other words, the data that public health has, and on which it bases its advice to me, is that the schools are low-risk environments. Great credit goes to the teachers, principals, parents and the students themselves because the infection prevention and control measures in the schools are working, and continue to work.
When public health and the Department of Health looked at this in the round they concluded that given the low-risk nature of schools, given that the infections in the main are happening for school children in households - so it is not on sportsfields and not in classrooms but in households - the thing to do was to continue protocols for household close contacts, which are happening and there are a whole set of protocols for that, but not to have them in the schools because we wanted to keep the students at school. However, I, the Minister for Education and the Chief Medical Officer are reviewing the potential for rapid testing. I know rapid testing is something that some of the education partners, for example, are considering. I have outlined why the decision was made in terms of contact tracing in schools but obviously we can keep that under review.
In terms of a booster vaccine for vulnerable groups, that is something that is being kept under review. NIAC is looking across a whole gamut of different individuals. Some of the vulnerable groups will have been picked up. People who are immuno-compromised are already receiving boosters. For that group, the booster has been deemed a third dose. Anyone who is 60 years and over in those cohorts will be covered by a booster vaccination.
NIAC is currently looking at those with underlying conditions. We are forensically going through the most vulnerable populations, as we did at the start of the year, and going to them. I will raise the progress on the vulnerable groups with the Chief Medical Officer and Professor Butler.
With regard to fake Covid certificates and the question about enforcement data, I will ask the Department to provide all Members of the Seanad with the latest information on enforcement data. It is all available online. The enforcement data is published on garda.ie. I believe the latest data there is up to about mid-October, but I will ask the Department for a full report on that for the Seanad. As regards fake Covid certificates, it is a serious offence under the legislation to do this. There is a tiered set of penalties for first, second and third offences. The first offence starts with a fine of up to €4,000 and-or one month in prison. It is important that people who are thinking about falsifying Covid certificates understand that there is the potential to end up in jail for up to a month for doing that. It is a really serious offence. Essentially, what they are doing is choosing to put other people's safety at risk by falsifying documentation and bypassing important Covid safety protocols. Everyone who is going into a pub or a restaurant is doing so with a clear understanding that everyone else in the venue is fully vaccinated. It is a very important additional protection. That brings us to compliance, which I will address later. There must be rigorous compliance in terms of both checking the certificates and cross-checking identity. An absolutely zero tolerance approach must be taken to false certificates and that is reflected in the legislation.
Covid passes for those who cannot be vaccinated is something we have discussed previously. It is a difficult balance. In many cases the reason people cannot be vaccinated is that there are underlying conditions that put them at higher risk. When I have discussed this with officials and public health doctors previously they have pointed out that it is not fair to say to people who cannot get vaccinated, the vast majority of whom would choose to be vaccinated, that they cannot avail of pubs and restaurants indoors. The counter to that is that while it may not be fair, if they have an underlying condition that puts them at higher risk of Covid-19, there is a real risk to them in some of these situations. There is no clean or easy answer to this. It is a deeply unfair situation. It is a small number of people, but it is an unenviable position. The current position is based solely on their health and safety and minimising the risk of exposing them to Covid.
Regarding the position outlined by Senator Gavan on behalf of his party, we discussed this last night. I have made a point of not getting into political charges when it comes to Covid, because it has to remain above politics. Last night, when I heard the position put forward by Sinn Féin while I was in the Dáil, I made the decision to call that out. The reason is that I feel very strongly about the position that is being taken. We are in a situation where we have had in excess of 3,000 cases for two days in a row. It is very serious. It is essential that we can continue to regulate through the winter months. I find it hard to understand how a party that takes itself seriously - not an Independent Member, and I was formerly an Independent Deputy, or an individual - and talks about itself being in government would actually vote against us being able to regulate on Covid through the winter. I feel very strongly about that and that is why I called it out last night.
One of the arguments put forward by that party last night, not here, was that it was not appropriate for these to be regulations and that it all should be legislation that the Oireachtas can adapt. After last night's debate I asked the Department for a note on how many Covid regulations I have signed just in my time in office. The answer was 133, not including mandatory hotel quarantine. The officials are looking at how many were in mandatory hotel quarantine. If we just take the 133, I do not believe any of us would seriously suggest that there should have been 133 separate legislative processes. It just would not be feasible. It would swamp the Department of Health, the political system and the Oireachtas. As Senators will be aware, the Oireachtas legislates and governments regulate through statutory instruments. I fully accept that these are not normal statutory instruments. They are extraordinary statutory instruments given the powers contained in them. Normally one could make a very reasonable argument, and Senator McDowell did the last time we had this debate, that they are of such import that they would be comparable to what would be contained in legislation, with all the important checks and balances that the legislative process brings. The counter to that is that we simply could not legislate 133 times and whatever number we had to do for mandatory hotel quarantine. It is not a comfortable position for any of us. The Houses can annul the regulations when they are put forward.
In terms of parliamentary oversight and, indeed, it was raised at the end of the debate with regard to the Oireachtas Covid committee, that is a matter for the Oireachtas, not the Government. I have no issue with an Oireachtas Covid committee. In fact, I was a member of the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response before I was appointed to office. I have regularly come to the Dáil and the Seanad for questions and answers. The Department of Health received 63% of all parliamentary questions for the summer term, just to give a sense of how much the Department and the HSE are trying to answer questions. I am very open to more Oireachtas oversight in the Dáil and the Seanad, and committees can do things that neither House can do easily. However, it is a matter for the Oireachtas, not the Government, as to whether it wishes to instigate a standing Covid committee.
The final point I wish to make in response to the objections from Sinn Féin is about the depiction of the process. Some of the language used today was quite mild; some of the language used in the Dáil was not. There was reference to chaos, no plan B and all sorts of things in respect of the process of getting to regulation in the hospitality sector. The recent regulations were cited. We have had this narrative many times. The process is as follows - NPHET advises, the Government meets and the Government decides. However, Government decisions do not include regulations. It is broader and at a higher level than that. The next step is regulation. Quite properly, in terms of hospitality and many other regulations, the line Departments immediately engaged with the sectors. Then an agreement was reached, my Department created the regulations and I signed them. That process is somehow depicted as chaotic because the Government, in reaching its decision, does not walk out of Cabinet and say: "Not only have we a decision, but we also have all the fully formed regulations in place". It simply cannot be done like that. It does not work like that. One has to engage with the sector. The argument we seem to be hearing, and I presume there would be no objection to engaging with the sector, is that on top of that we should have a full legislative process as well and that this would somehow result in a clearer or faster process. This constant undermining of the development of the regulations is not helpful. There is a process and there has to be an understanding that it is right and proper that there would be engagement with the people affected, that there is a process in that regard and that then we reach some form of agreement.
These measures are important. Sinn Féin voted against the Covid pass. Not only did it vote against it, there was a very heated debate. It was at the end of the last Dáil session in the convention centre.
Some very serious accusations were thrown about and some of the contributions were very heated indeed. That is fine. They voted against the Covid-19 pass, however, and that is what allowed us to open the sector. We were accused of all sorts of discrimination and apartheid and all sorts of things, but the pass is what allowed us to open the sector.
Turning to the winter plan, and concerning the questions from Senator Hoey, much work has been done and many of the measures are already in place. Last year, we had a comprehensive winter plan that involved spending of €600 million. The majority of those measures are still in place, including beds, patient pathways, diagnostics and many other aspects. We are working through additional measures now.
Regarding global vaccine justice, I agree with the TRIPS Agreement waiver. I said that before and I reiterate it now. I do not think it will solve the problem, but even if it were to prove nothing more than symbolic, then it would be the right thing to do. Analysis has been done at the level of the European Commission concerning the full pathway required in this regard. These are extremely advanced manufacturing processes and similarly advanced global supply chains are also required, while the transportation and storage of the vaccines after manufacture is equally complex. Therefore, a TRIPS Agreement waiver on its own would not solve the problem. A whole supply chain has to be put in place, and much of it is now being put in place.
What can Ireland do? One of the things that we can do, and which the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and I regularly push, is to ensure that Ireland has a strong voice on this issue at the EU table. To its credit, the EU, by a large distance, has exported more vaccines than any other region in the world. As Members will be aware, Ireland has signed up to and has donated in-country vaccines to Uganda. We have also signed up to donate 1 million vaccine doses to COVAX. Those vaccines will not arrive in the country, but will instead go straight from the manufacturers to COVAX. We have much further to go in this regard and I will be bringing such recommendations to the Cabinet. We have the extraordinary luxury in this country of talking about booster vaccines for healthcare workers, when in some countries less than 2% of healthcare workers have had a first vaccination. It is something that we must be cognisant of when we talk about providing booster vaccines for more people here.
I will end by asking for the help of colleagues right across the House. The situation now is serious. We have a plan that is a national response. It includes actions to be undertaken by the Government, industry and individuals. We are doing a great deal in Government. We spoke about the booster vaccines. We are also increasing testing, PCR and rapid testing, and bringing in additional supports for nursing homes, including serial testing. We are signing up to efforts to encourage new drug therapies. We are not there yet, but the signs are encouraging at an EU level. We are also rolling out the flu vaccine and extending the regulations, which is part of what we are doing this evening, and pushing on ventilation, winter planning and more. Therefore, we are doing a wide range of things as a State.
The single most important thing that industry must do is to comply with the regulations and the public health advice. I acknowledge that most outlets in the hospitality, retail and other sectors, are doing a fantastic job. The evidence we have from surveys and compliance data, however, is that far too many premises are not checking Covid-19 passes or, if they are, they are not cross-checking the I.D. There has been a slippage, an understandable one, in aspects such as the use of hand sanitisers and an increase in overcrowding - not everywhere at all, but in some places. What we need therefore is for industry to go that bit further again. I refer to those businesses that are not adhering to the regulations and the public health advice. As I said, many businesses are complying with the measures.
Turning to what individuals can do, this is where much of the public health advice is targeted. The single most effective thing that could happen would be for the 7% of people who have not been vaccinated to get vaccinated. Were that to happen, then our numbers of Covid-19 patients in ICUs would be less than half what they are now. Our Covid-19 hospital patient numbers would also be at about half what they are now. Such a development would take an immense strain off our healthcare system and off our healthcare workers and it would mean that more men, women and children could have elective surgeries. It would be incredibly effective if that were to happen, and we are seeing encouraging initial signs in this regard. As I said, 24,000 people have signed up to be vaccinated for the first time in the last fortnight.
In addition, for a while we must reduce our discretionary social contacts. The public health advice that I have is that the R number is now above 1 and a relatively small reduction in our social contacts would help to bring that number down to 1 or, ideally, below it. Without everything that is going on, the thinking is that the current Delta variant would have an R number of around 6 to 8, which would mean that the virus would spread extraordinarily rapidly. The R number is still relatively low, but exponential growth makes the situation difficult. Therefore, a reduction, even for a short while, in the number of discretionary social contacts is one of the big messages and major requests that our public health experts are asking for. I refer to sticking with the basics that we all know, such as the use of masks, maintaining hand hygiene, etc. Critically, people who are symptomatic should stay out of work or school, or whatever it may be, isolate and get tested. That is very important.
That is where we are at now. This motion is an important part of addressing this situation in respect of being able to regulate for the next 13 weeks through these winter months. If all of us, individuals, industry and the apparatus of the State, can push again, as we have had to do every time we have seen a surge, then we will be able to push the incidence of the virus back down and we will be able to protect the hard-won gains of our society and economy being open.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Byrne, Malcolm.
- Carrigy, Micheál.
- Casey, Pat.
- Cassells, Shane.
- Chambers, Lisa.
- Conway, Martin.
- Crowe, Ollie.
- Cummins, John.
- Currie, Emer.
- Daly, Paul.
- Davitt, Aidan.
- Dolan, Aisling.
- Dooley, Timmy.
- Fitzpatrick, Mary.
- Gallagher, Robbie.
- Garvey, Róisín.
- Horkan, Gerry.
- Kyne, Seán.
- Lombard, Tim.
- McGahon, John.
- McGreehan, Erin.
- Moynihan, Rebecca.
- Murphy, Eugene.
- O'Loughlin, Fiona.
- O'Reilly, Pauline.
- O'Sullivan, Ned.
- Seery Kearney, Mary.
- Wall, Mark.
- Ward, Barry.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
- Black, Frances.
- Boylan, Lynn.
- Gavan, Paul.
- Keogan, Sharon.
- McDowell, Michael.
- Mullen, Rónán.
- Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
- Warfield, Fintan.