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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 6 Apr 2022

Vol. 284 No. 6

Covid-19: Statements

I welcome the Minister to the House.

I am delighted to be here to discuss the current situation in respect of Covid. As Members will be aware, all remaining mandatory public health measures were removed on 28 February. As recommended by our medical advisers, we have transitioned from regulation and population-wide restrictions to a focus on public health advice, personal judgment and personal protective behaviours.

The overall situation is improving. The number of people receiving general hospital care has fallen. However, we continue to have high levels of infection and a significant number of cases in hospitals. The total number of Covid-19 cases in hospital increased from approximately 600 to approximately 1,600 through March. The burden this has placed on patients and healthcare workers has been relentless. I wish to acknowledge the ongoing efforts across the healthcare system during these times. Thankfully, in line with a reduction in case numbers, there has been a reduction in the number of Covid patients in hospital. The number has fallen from 1,600 to 1,333 this afternoon.

Of those in hospital with Covid, approximately half are there because of Covid, with the other half categorised as asymptomatic infectious. When it comes to the patients in intensive care with Covid, approximately one third of them are there because of Covid. That number has fallen significantly in the past month. Importantly, of those with Covid in hospital, only two in five have had a booster vaccine, while approximately half of those in ICU with Covid have had a booster vaccine. To give a sense of how this works out, there were recently 1,600 Covid patients in hospital but the number of them who were in hospital on that day because of Covid and who had been boosted was a much lower figure of 370. Similarly on a particular day there were approximately 50 patients in ICU with Covid, but only 18 of them were there because of Covid and only nine of those had been boosted. That underlines how essential it still is that people get their booster vaccine. It is one of the three main public health messages right now: first, get your vaccine or booster; second, if you have symptoms, stay at home for 48 hours until those symptoms have largely resolved or, if you have a positive test, stay home for seven days; and, third, wear a mask in the appropriate settings, including public transport, crowded spaces, healthcare settings, nursing homes or while visiting a person who is at higher risk for Covid.

The current BA.2 sublineage is now the dominant variant in Ireland, accounting for approximately 95% of all cases. There has been an overall reduction in PCR testing volumes and test positivity, which is an encouraging sign, while the total daily number of positive antigen tests has also decreased.

As regards vaccination, more than 10.7 million doses have now been administered, including nearly 3 million booster doses. We have a very high vaccine and booster rate which has obviously been essential in our national response. However, there are still approximately 700,000 men and women aged 16 or older who have had their first two doses, so are very much in favour and supportive of boosters, but have not yet had their booster vaccine. A large part of that is because so many people got Covid a few months back and there has to be a three-month wait between having had Covid and getting the booster. It is really important that those 700,000 people get the booster as soon as they can. The booster uptake rate remains too low in younger groups. For example, a little over half of those aged 18 to 39 have had the booster. There is a host of initiatives going on to target these groups, including a high level of public communication and advertising.

As regards the paediatric vaccination programme, as of 27 March, approximately 120,000 first doses had been administered, with 101,000 fully vaccinated. More than 133,000 children aged five to 11 have now registered for a vaccination.

We are also working hard to address and support the health and other needs of Ukrainian refugees entering Ireland, including making sure they have full and rapid access to vaccinations.

As regards new and emerging treatments for Covid-19, a new therapeutics advisory group was established to evaluate, advise and recommend on all the therapeutics that could be used here. Therapeutics have been administered, though it is important to note that the treatments are not for widespread use.

The benefit is limited to particular cohorts of higher risk, more vulnerable patients. My colleagues at the Department of Health through the office of the Chief Medical Officer and in conjunction with the HSE, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, and the National Virus Reference Laboratory, NVRL, continue to monitor the epidemiological profile of Covid-19 every day and the Government gets regular updates on that. As we move forward, the Government will continue to ensure that our response is agile and flexible, and that we can move quickly in response to any new emerging threat which obviously we are monitoring here and around the world very closely.

I thank the Minister for taking time out of his schedule to update us. Thankfully, Covid-19 has in one sense blended into the background of all the other political issues and is not the main political issue. However, we all know that it is still a concern in our hospitals and communities. While the case numbers are high, we are not seeing as many people get as sick. That is a result of the success of the roll-out of the vaccination programme, which was overwhelmingly successful in this country. People bought into it. They trusted what the Minister, the officials in his Department and the people in the HSE were doing. That is very good.

I am quite concerned at the low booster uptake. Many people who are in hospital are not vaccinated or, if they are primarily vaccinated, are not boosted. As the Minister pointed out, some of that is to do with the very high rate of Covid-19 infection over the past couple of months. People are waiting for that to wash through. It would be no harm to have another public awareness campaign in regard to the necessity of the booster because in many people’s minds, this is over and life is back to relative normality. As we know people are still getting infected and are getting quite sick. We all know people who got quite sick over the past couple of months even though they were vaccinated. The public awareness campaign needs to be ramped up a little for the next couple of weeks.

I wish to make reference to the very low mortality rates we have had in Ireland. If we compare that internationally, we will see that it is a really good statistic. We did not throw older people or more vulnerable members of our communities to the wolves. We actually looked after them. When we are assessing this in years to come, the main metric to come out of this will be that we protected the vulnerable people in our communities. That is something we all played our part in. We should all be very proud of that.

I am fascinated with the way other countries, especially in the Far East, are dealing with the pandemic at the moment. I am thinking of China and Hong Kong in particular. They pursued a zero-Covid strategy but are having serious issues at the moment as they seek to handle the pandemic. They are locking down communities again. It is worth noting that when we were debating various Covid legislation, regulations and statements over the past two years, the Minister always pointed out that we could not put a zero-Covid strategy in place, regardless of how attractive that was. We were confident in our plan and our own medical advice. Based on that, we have seen the country through this very difficult period. We are not back to square one as other parts of the world are. Absolutely everybody involved in that effort - the Minister and his officials, Paul Reid and his colleagues in the HSE, the vaccinators, the primary care centre staff and all the front-line workers - is to be commended. It is good that we are in a good place. While the threat is still there, we are in a good place. As the pandemic goes on and we emerge from it, I look forward to discussing the various measures we are going to have to put in place coming into autumn and winter. We are in a dramatically different place from this time last year.

I welcome the Minister, who is a regular visitor, although probably not as regular as he used to be. The pandemic is now something we are living with as opposed to trying to deal with on an emergency basis.

I would like to mention a funny thing that I have noticed from my empirical engagement with people. There is no scientific basis for this. People who are getting Covid-19 now are getting quite sick. I note the Minister's predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Harris, was quite sick with it. Quite a number of people I have engaged with have been quite sick with it. Many Members of the Oireachtas who got it, like the Minister, Deputy Harris, were quite sick with it. It has most definitely not gone away. Certainly, the public awareness in terms of following public health guidelines has dramatically reduced. Empirical evidence is that hand sanitiser dispensers at supermarkets and other public areas are more often empty than they are full. I agree with the principle of continuing public health and public awareness campaigns. They will have to continue.

The announcement by the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, this morning of a fourth booster dose for vulnerable adults is long overdue. To be frank, it should have happened sooner than this. I cannot understand why NIAC is so slow in making its recommendations. We all knew that people had to get a booster vaccine six, eight or ten months ago. Yet, it took NIAC longer than it should have to come with a recommendation on that. We are going to have a conversation about how this kind of advice is coming. NIAC is independent, but vaccinations are happening in other countries. We are not unique. It is going to come to us as well.

I do not know how we are going to manage or deal with this as we go forward. Perhaps we can reconstitute NIAC or join NIAC with a newly defined NPHET. We need to have a debate and conversation on public health and pandemic planning going forward. That can only really be done against the backdrop of a public inquiry into this country’s handling of the pandemic. I believe such an inquiry will endorse the work done by this Government and its predecessor. Per head of population, the number of fatalities - the number of people who tragically lost their lives to Covid-19 - in this country is among the lowest in the European Union. We actually fare pretty well in terms of an international comparison worldwide. It is down to the people. Our handling of this has been about saving lives.

Two years ago, when Covid-19 was raging, people followed the social distancing guidelines and stayed at home. I think it was this week two years ago that the 2 km requirement was introduced. That was done to save lives. People bought into it to save lives, and it worked. That said, we must remember the 5,000 or 6,000 people in this country who lost their lives to Covid-19. That cannot be forgotten. The memorial that took place a couple of weeks ago, on the Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day, was very poignant, appropriate and dignified.

I was at the Joint Committee on Health this morning. I think it was the first time we had Paul Reid and Robert Watt in that we were not actually talking about Covid-19. We were talking about other issues, but Covid-19 needs to be continuously on the agenda. It cannot be off the agenda. Thankfully this fourth wave has now subsided but we need periodically to recalibrate the public mindset to remind people we are living with what is the residue of a pandemic.

I welcome the Minister. It is always good to see him. We know that the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus is more contagious. It is still spreading very fast. As the Minister has indicated, thankfully it appears to be less severe. ICU numbers remain fairly low, although each person in ICU is one too many. In the context of cases, the numbers are small. It is important to note that the virus is still very dangerous for immunocompromised people. Speaking as one of those people, I have no doubt that the vaccines and boosters I received saved me from serious illness a few weeks ago. It is important that the Government does not forget its obligations to immunocompromised people. It must put in place supports to help to keep them safe while retaining access to society during what remains a challenging period for them.

Many people have suffered and continue to suffer from long Covid symptoms, some more severely than others, and it would be good to hear from the Minister what supports are there for people. We need to keep encouraging the wearing of masks in crowded settings, on public transport and generally at places of work to keep one another safe. The importance of vaccination and getting boosters should also continue to be highlighted, particularly in light of the point the Minister has made about the relatively poor take-up of boosters.

Given that NPHET has been stood down, there is now an issue with transparency as to what advice is given to the Minister or the Government. Any public health advice given should be fully published whenever the Minister is given an update.

The underlying problems in the health system have been put on full display again since "normal" services, if we can call them normal, have been resumed. It will not surprise the Minister to hear that I will have to mention the situation at University Hospital Limerick, where there are serious issues of overcrowding and cancelled appointments, and recent reports of rows of ambulances parked outside the hospital, unable to offload patients. Then there are the trolley numbers. The number of patients on trolleys in Limerick was at an all-time high of 1,059 in March of last year. In March of this year, the figure was at its highest ever at 1,671, more than 500 more than last year's record. It is nothing short of scandalous. No doubt the situation is exacerbated by Covid-19, but the problems in accident and emergency departments have been there for years. Now, unfortunately, they are becoming a disaster at University Hospital Limerick. We need to see a plan that allows hospitals to maintain services while still being able to cope with Covid cases. The Government needs to do everything possible to ease the burden on front-line healthcare workers.

I wish to mention those healthcare workers and carers who have worked tirelessly and heroically over the past two years. The Government has given very little recognition to carers, which is regrettable. Carers got no respite and little or no help as services closed down. They were forgotten about and continue to be left behind as they will not be included in the bonus payment for healthcare workers, of which we really need to see the details. The Covid-19 recognition payment for front-line public sector healthcare workers was announced months ago but the detail does not seem to have been worked out yet, which is a little baffling.

In the few seconds left to me I will raise one final issue. As the Minister will know, tomorrow we will deal with the safe access zones Bill and there has been a cross-party coalition of the willing to support the Together for Safety Bill. He will also know that, unfortunately, there has been no Government Bill on the matter to date. I gave the Minister a commitment that we would work with such a Government Bill if it were to arrive. Not only is there no such Bill, however, but the Minister will know that the Department confirmed just two weeks ago to the health committee that there is no timeline as to when the Bill will arrive. The only Bill to deal with safe access zones is the Bill we will debate tomorrow. I ask for an indication that the Minister will continue to facilitate the passage of that Bill. I am sure he and I agree that women and pregnant people should not have to wait one second longer. We have protests daily in Limerick and Dublin at present, during Lent. It is intolerable. Activists from the campaign have been called at work and targeted in the most vicious of ways. I hope for a positive indication from the Minister on that point ahead of tomorrow.

The Minister is very welcome to the House. It has been over two years since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Globally, it has taken more than 6 million lives. On the island of Ireland more than 10,000 people have died. Thankfully, however, because of the Minister's and the Department's work and the miraculously swift vaccine roll-out, many lives have been saved and we have been able to return to some kind of normality. I must mention, however, that these miracle vaccines remain inaccessible in much of the world, a fact that reflects rather poorly on us in the developed world. To vaccinated people, Covid-19 poses much less of a threat than it once did. That is an immense relief, and policymaking has rightly changed to reflect that development. However, we cannot forget the large number of people who remain vulnerable and those who suffer persistent illness after contracting Covid-19. This House voted to support a full TRIPS waiver in December. Unfortunately, when it appeared there was hope for a waiver, it quickly became apparent that a full TRIPS waiver was still being blocked. The global south is still not being given equitable access to vaccination. If we are serious about ending the public health emergency, we need a full TRIPS waiver and no more evasions or delays to equitable global access to vaccination.

The removal of mask mandates on public transport was, I believe, premature and put at risk those who provide and rely on public transport, as my colleagues, Senators Higgins and Flynn, raised in the House last February. We need to consider the reintroduction of mask mandates in enclosed indoor public settings. It has overwhelming public support. A recent Amárach Research poll found that 65% of respondents favoured mask mandates in public indoor spaces. Mandating masks in certain public spaces such as public transportation and supermarkets means that those individuals trying to reduce their risk of exposure are supported. We should acknowledge that sections of the trade union movement representing some of the most at-risk workers, such as the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, and the National Bus and Rail Union, NBRU, have called for the reintroduction of a mask mandate in certain settings. The pandemic has been a lesson in just how much we rely on the labour of healthcare and public transportation workers. When they ask us to reintroduce measures that protect their health and safety while at work, we should demonstrate real gratitude by taking action on their behalf. A poll by AA Ireland found that 41% of people indicated that they were less likely to use public transportation after the end of the requirement for mask wearing. Just 4% said they were more likely to use public transport services. The lapse of this measure has therefore made our public services less accessible to the public. I have heard from people who are older or otherwise medically vulnerable whose mobility has been limited by their feeling unsafe on public transportation. That is a really worrying situation. Public spaces should feel safe and accessible to everyone.

I wish to touch on a publication produced by the Joint Committee on Health about vitamin D deficiency in Ireland and its relation to Covid-19 outcomes. The report looked at studies done around the world that found that increased levels of vitamin D produced better public health outcomes when dealing with the pandemic. Finland, for example, a country that mandated that certain food products be enriched with high levels of vitamin D, has the lowest number of Covid cases and deaths in the EU. The report recommended that vitamin D supplements be given to healthcare workers, care home residents and medically vulnerable individuals. It also suggested that the supplements be available at Covid testing locations. These recommendations should be revisited.

Finally, I wish to highlight comments made by John Wenger, chair of the Expert Group on the Role of Ventilation in Reducing Transmission of Covid-19. He expressed disappointment with the lack of Government action to support the delivery of ventilation upgrades, despite the delivery of two reports in 2021 that showed that ventilation is an essential element of an effective public health response. Ventilation is essential to creating a long-term strategy of dealing with Covid. We all want to limit the spread of this disease while imposing on people's lives as minimally as possible. It is a significant challenge, but that does not excuse the stalled progress in this area. These are ways in which we can reduce the impact of Covid on many people's lives. We cannot ignore this Covid wave, so let us take common-sense action and keep people safe.

I have asked Senator McGahon to take the Chair in a few minutes to allow me to make a short contribution. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I will move on to Senator Seery Kearney, who is sharing time with Senator Buttimer, two minutes each. If Senator Seery Kearney watches the clock, she will know when to hand over.

I will keep an eye on it.

Every time the Minister has come before the Seanad to discuss Covid there have been these cautious statements and fears and worries about extending the regulations and whether they involved overreach. I am very grateful and thrilled that we are here today and those regulations are no more. There is, however, still a need for caution and care when it comes to the protocols of mask wearing and washing our hands and, most of all, the booster. One would be forgiven for thinking Covid had gone away. I noted last night that we got through a whole news bulletin without Covid being mentioned, which was extraordinary. This time two years ago I had fears about my family members making it to the summer alive, so to make it through a whole news bulletin in that way was really good. There is a danger in that, and everything is relative. Naturally, we are horrified by what we see in Ukraine, so it is easy to forget about Covid, unless you work in healthcare. The people who work in healthcare are to be congratulated, lauded and empathised with for just how difficult it is. We need a new booster campaign to tell the people who were unable to avail of the booster in the first round at Christmas and in December that they are now eligible. We should get out that information.

Although we have lifted all restrictions, it is necessary for us to ask what other protocols should be recommended. The first time someone stretched to shake my hand, I had a moment that we will all have in everybody's company; it is a question of doing it or not. It would be good to have some sort of information to say what would be good to do. We would not be heightening anxiety or exaggerating things but rather showing that we are still aware of how we need to get used to living with Covid-19.

I have a concern around the leaving certificate and State exams and we need a contingency plan for them. I appreciate this is not for the Minister's Department and it is not his gig but while Covid-19 remains prevalent, what happens when we still have an isolation period?

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for his contribution and work. I thank all involved in the Covid-19 response. There are key points that I wish to make on Covid-19 today. We were premature in getting rid of the mask mandate. Our vaccination programme worked without it being mandatory so we must have a real incentive for the vaccine booster programme. It is important that the replacement for the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, can be put in place as a matter of urgency to give the Minister and the Government the best advice so we can continue to be careful around Covid-19. The WHO speaks about mitigation and mask-wearing is a help in such mitigation. It is important that we reissue a call to people to wear masks.

I have a worry about the leaving certificate and we should come back to it.

My final point is about the Chief Medical Officer, CMO. I wish him well in his new position at Trinity College but it is wrong that the State would second him and pay him in tandem with the appointment of a new CMO who the State would also have to pay. I heard the Minister this morning on "Morning Ireland" and I watched the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, speak last night. I heard the Taoiseach speaking about this in the Dáil yesterday. Somebody signed off on this and it is not good enough. I take issue with it and I do not normally do so. It is wrong in any language. The Minister of State was correct in saying on this morning's "Morning Ireland" that we can learn from the pandemic and we should be prepared for future pandemics. I agree with the Minister in that respect and would walk to the end of the Earth to support him on it. What is happening with the secondment, however, is wrong and it should not be allowed. I thank the Minister for his work nonetheless, along with all the front-line staff and everybody who is involved with the fight against Covid-19.

I usually do not disagree with Senator Buttimer but I do not agree with that point. My understanding of such secondments is that Ministers do not sign off on them. I thought the Minister did quite well in this morning's two interviews in the media that I heard. We will differ on the matter and I am sure the Minister will clarify it further. Dr. Holohan has made a major contribution over a period, which we all acknowledge. He took much abuse as well.

It is really great to see the Minister here again. Like others, I commend him on always coming here to deal with the matter head-on. It is great to see the senior Minister coming before us. I know I often say "well done" on the work that has been done and the Minister is always anxious to say that people on the front line, including doctors, nurses, porters and everybody else, have helped out in society to deal with Covid-19. I acknowledge that today.

It strikes me that a number of young people have not taken the booster. When this is said to them, they say they will not take it. I agree with others who have said we must think about how to target such people and incentivise them to take the booster. Even in some of my family circle, people have said they will not take the booster even when we say that Covid-19 is still around and ask would it not be a wise course of action. We need to target such people again.

I wear a mask in any crowded area and I will continue to do that. Some people have come up to me and told me I could stop wearing a mask. It is a question of speaking with people. Every time I hear the Minister speak he mentions masks and the booster vaccine. Having watched this over the past couple of days, it seems 50% or 60% of people are wearing masks. Some people will never do it, even if it had a legal basis. We must pump out the message continuously and this will lead to more people wearing a mask.

Senator Conway mentioned how people have got very sick and they have become sick with Covid-19 recently. How many of those people would have survived if they had not received a vaccination? Many more people would be deceased at this point if it had not been administered. It is regrettable that between 5,000 and 6,000 people have lost their lives but it is true to say that in a European or world context, we have done very well in fighting this pandemic.

Caution is important and we must keep putting out that message. I agree with the Minister that we must allow society get back to functioning again. The economy, families and communities have suffered terribly. People's well-being also suffered because sport was affected and the usual way we live our lives was completely disrupted. It was a shock to us all and a shock to the world. We must use the phrase "live with Covid" time and again. I only speak as a layperson but I believe we will have to deal with Covid-19 for a long time to come. It is important we are able to manage it and be aware of what is happening. We must be able to watch out for any difficulties that arise.

All in all, the Government has done a good job and the Minister has given good leadership. Again, I say "well done" to all the people on the front lines, including the carers who have done much good work. There are also people in the community, such as postal workers and others who did much work to help people during the period of Covid-19. I say "well done" to the Minister but we must be cautious and careful as we move along.

I have followed regulations at each point but I am against the concept of reintroducing the mandatory wearing of masks in certain settings. It is not about being anti-mask but rather about acknowledging or realising what stage of the pandemic we are in now compared with before. I am more than happy to wear a mask on a train or bus or if I feel I am in a crowded place. I am happy to do that because I am an adult and I can take personal responsibility for that. At this stage we should not be turning around to say we should reintroduce mandatory mask-wearing in certain settings etc. We are past that stage of the pandemic, to be frank. We can see what is happening in Italy and Germany, where it is mandatory to wear the highest grade of mask, yet case numbers are still going the same way they are here. There is no definitive proof that masks are a great help, although it is fair to say they are a mitigation measure. When case numbers go up, it may be the case that we should be seen to do something so the idea is that we should start wearing masks again as a result. I have seen it here in the Houses of the Oireachtas over the past two weeks. It is a level of performance and a case of being seen to do something rather than listening to the science. We have listened to and trusted science for the past two and a half years. We do not have the CMO, NPHET or anybody else at a scientific level saying we should reintroduce mandatory mask-wearing. That is my view. It is not about being anti-mask but we should have that debate. We are now at a different stage of the debate and I trust in the personal responsibility of people. I will wear a mask in places I do not feel comfortable or where there are too many people. That is no problem but let us leave it to the personal responsibility of people. That is my view because we are at a different stage of the pandemic than before.

It took Vladimir Putin and war on the European Continent to end Covid-19 because for the past three months nobody has been talking about it in the media. I have said for the past two years that the media hyped up anxiety and tensions and we can see people are much more relaxed and at ease now. It has not gone away but people are now more relaxed about living with Covid-19 now. It is the natural ebb and flow of the virus. We must get on with living life now.

I thank the Minister for coming to discuss this important topic today. I agree with Senator McGahon about the hype in the media, which led to some people feeling uncertain and further scaremongering. I understand the seriousness of the virus and I know of many people who died. We will have a commemoration service in Limerick this coming Sunday for people who died in Limerick during the pandemic. I pay tribute to them and to the staff in the hospital.

I know the Minister is aware of the high numbers at University Hospital Limerick. I pay tribute to the staff who have been working under very difficult circumstances. Covid certainly has not helped in terms of the numbers on trolleys and the number of people who are in and out of University Hospital Limerick. Simple operations and everyday procedures have been cancelled. It is really not acceptable. It is going to have to be looked at again. Many people wear masks in certain circumstances, but I think a clear message needs to be sent out that Covid has not gone away. Perhaps we are failing to get that message out. Some people are being very blasé and think that because they have had Covid, they will not get it again. We all know that is misinformation and people can get Covid again. While I do not believe it should be compulsory, I believe people should be advised to wear a mask in certain circumstances, for example, if they are going indoors or into a crowd. I am aware the Government is doing something in that regard. We are all adults, and need to take personal responsibility. I think it is important we get the message out there that Covid has not gone away. We all have to take responsibility and wear masks where appropriate.

I thank all Members for their valuable contributions. I call the Minister to respond.

I thank colleagues for their contributions. I would like to start by echoing the sentiments of Senator Murphy. This has been a brutal time. Thousands of people living in Ireland have died and many thousands more have been very sick. It has been the most difficult of times. Relative to most other countries in the world, Ireland has done well in protecting people and keeping them safe. The credit for that goes to the national effort. It is not about Government or all of us in the Oireachtas. Obviously, all of us here have a role to play, but what has characterised Ireland's response to Covid is solidarity and a national effort, where people have stepped up, taken care of each other, looked after each other and kept each other safe throughout the country. When we look back on it in years to come, it is something Ireland will rightly be proud of, while obviously being cognisant of the horrific toll it has taken on life, health and so many aspects of our country.

The advice at the moment is to get vaccinated or boosted, to wear a mask in the appropriate settings, and to stay at home if you are symptomatic. It is very important we continue to get that message out. I acknowledge the comments from several colleagues who have asked that we push further on communications. We can, and we are doing so. We have been communicating the whole time, but as one Senator pointed out, the war in Ukraine has dominated news coverage for very understandable reasons. It has been quite difficult to get the same level of messaging out there, but we will continue and redouble our efforts to do that. We have to reach the 700,000 people who are clearly supportive of vaccines and are protected by them, who have had their two doses and have protected their country, friends and families in doing so, and tell them it is equally important they get their third dose. At the same time, I received advice from the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, late last night on a second booster for those aged 65 and over and the immunocompromised. There is more subtlety and nuance to it, but that is the main message. In its letter to me, NIAC emphasised how important it is for people to get the booster and for pregnant women to get the vaccine.

There has been a lot of very useful talk and contributions made on the future and what we are doing to prepare for the future. There are multiple things going on at the moment. The first is the day-to-day surveillance of the epidemiological situation. That is being led by the Department and the Chief Medical Officer and his team. They are pulling in experts as required. I assure Senators there is an ongoing daily surveillance of what is happening in Ireland and around the world, and what is happening in our hospitals, nursing homes, communities and so forth. I am getting ongoing advice. As I said earlier, we need to publish that advice. Some of it has been put up online in recent days. The advice is coming in regularly. Absolutely, Members of the Oireachtas and members of the public and the media have a right to see it. We will ensure it is made available.

The second thing that is happening, as colleagues will be aware, is that Professor Brady is leading a piece of work at the moment that is looking back at Ireland's performance in Covid, including lessons learned, what we did well and what we did not do so well, and decisions we got right and decisions we did not get right, with a view to informing the future of public health and what we can learn from that. It is a very important piece of work. I am expecting a report from that group in the summer.

The third thing that is happening is that I am establishing a new Covid advisory group. There is a team looking at the day-to-day epidemiology and another team looking backwards to review what went well and did not go well and what we can learn. The advisory group will look at the medium to long term in respect of Covid. It will focus on issues such as technologies we should be deploying, the advances made in testing and tracing, ventilation, diagnosis and treatment, and advances made in the deployment of resources nationally to help fight Covid. Obviously, we do not want to see another variant of concern but we have to plan on the basis that one could emerge. I am putting together an expert multidisciplinary group to look at that. I have spoken to many members over the past week or so who have agreed to take part in it. We will be announcing more details on the group shortly.

Finally, research is ongoing. I have the greatest of respect for Senator Buttimer but I am afraid I will have to disagree with him on this issue. It is essential that we have world-class research teams looking at future pandemic preparedness. It is something many Asian countries did when it came to SARS. They learnt from the SARS outbreak and invested a lot of money in looking to the future. They determined that if another pandemic were to arrive, they would be prepared. Dr. Holohan is going to be leading a lot of that thinking and research in Trinity College Dublin. There will be a broad collaboration across academic institutions and the healthcare system. There will be links with the WHO, Europe and the HERA Institute, which is looking at the pandemic. It is essential we undertake world-class research and have teams of researchers who are going to ensure Ireland is as prepared as we possibly can be in the years to come for a future pandemic. There is a lot of work going on in terms of the current situation, what has happened, the medium term and the long term.

This debate was originally supposed to be on mask wearing, so I will finish on that issue, because various people have raised it. The advice is very clear that masks still have an important role to play. People on public transport should be wearing masks. It is particularly important to wear a mask in crowded indoor settings. It is essential that visitors to nursing homes or healthcare settings also wear masks. That advice is the same. The question is whether we want to have it on a regulatory basis and whether we want to be fining people and potentially arresting them for non-compliance. My view and that of the Government and, indeed, the advice of public health is that we do not. We are transitioning from an emergency phase of Covid to a living with Covid phase. It is fair to say we do not have the level of compliance, for example, on public transport, that we would like. We need to do more and we will continue to communicate that. Obviously, we all have a role in that. Notwithstanding some variant of concern that may arise, going forward, we want to operate on the basis of responsibility, personal choice and solidarity, which I think has worked very well in Ireland right through the pandemic.

I thank the Minister for his contribution and wish him well. He is facing many challenges and he could have done without the challenge of Covid. There are many challenges in health. We all wish him well. I thank my fellow Senators for their contributions, and the staff, including the ushers, for their assistance and help. That concludes the statements.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 2.20 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 2.30 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 2.20 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.