Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Questions (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Alan Kelly

Question:

5. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the vaccine roll-out group chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [21938/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the vaccine roll-out group chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [24662/21]

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Bríd Smith

Question:

7. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the vaccine roll-out group chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [24665/21]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

8. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the vaccine roll-out group chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [24668/21]

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Mick Barry

Question:

9. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the vaccine roll-out group chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [26139/21]

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Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the vaccine roll-out group chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [25952/21]

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Oral answers (31 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 10, inclusive, together.

A Covid-19 vaccination subgroup chaired by the Secretary to the Government has met on two occasions to discuss elements of Covid-19 vaccinations in the context of the overall Government strategy on Covid-19, including a roll-out of the vaccination programme, operationalisation of recent changes to the programme following NIAC advice and communications. Membership of the subgroup included senior officials from my Department and the Department of Health, including the Chief Medical Officer; from the HSE, including its chief executive officer; and the chair of the high-level task force on Covid-19 vaccination, along with the chiefs of staff to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan. No further meetings of the group are scheduled. However, it may meet again if required.

The roll-out of the national vaccination programme continues at pace. As of last Friday, in excess of 2 million vaccine doses had been administered in Ireland. Some 36% of the eligible population have now received a first dose and more than 13% of the eligible population are fully vaccinated.

Deputies first learned of this group when it was reported on in The Irish Times on 19 April. It was set up to avoid some of the serious political and logistical differences that were beginning to emerge. Is it a formal group? Is it constituted formally or is it just an informal group? We are hearing today that the vaccine roll-out is moving to those aged between 45 and 49, which is very welcome. They will be offered the option of receiving AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson. If they do not want one of those vaccines, they may have to wait for an mRNA vaccine. I welcome this but it is a departure. I am not saying it is a negative departure, but it is a departure because, obviously, an option is being given to people. Has this been thought through as regards knock-on effects? I believe, like the Taoiseach, every citizen should take the vaccine that is offered to them.

I am the most pro-vaccine person one could ever meet but I have to admit there are people, for instance, in the 60 to 70 age group, who did not take the AstraZeneca vaccine as they wanted an option. I am not saying that is right; I am just saying it is reality. Some people did not take it because of the 16-week gap between doses of AstraZeneca but now another group is being offered an option. The Taoiseach can see where others will go with regard to this issue. Has he thought about this? Which age group does he expect will be receiving their vaccines by the end of June in order to reach the 82% target and the 55% second dose target? I presume it will be those aged 25 and up.

What consideration has the roll-out group given to our contribution to the international effort to get as many people vaccinated as possible? Has where the State is going to go in that regard towards the end of the year in terms of giving vaccines to other countries been projected and planned?

Finally, I refer to a very important question that I do not think has been raised. At the beginning of May, the European Medicines Agency, EMA, started to evaluate an application by Pfizer to extend the use of its vaccine to the 12 to 15 age group. At the start of May, Canada became the first country in the world to approve its use for those aged 12 and up, followed by the United States a week later. Are we planning for this? If so, where are we planning for it? Is this group looking at it or is there a timeframe in place with regard to being able to vaccinate those aged under 16?

I got my notification that I will get my vaccine tomorrow in the Aviva Stadium. I am delighted with that and I would like to thank-----

The Deputy might score a few goals while he is there.

Would a football match not be nice? I wish to thank all the front-line healthcare workers and all those involved in carrying out the vaccination programme. Nothing tangible has really been done in terms of a meaningful "thank you" to all healthcare workers. There should be some sort of financial acknowledgement for healthcare workers and, indeed, other groups such as the student nurses and midwives whose issues I and my colleagues have raised many times in the House and who should be paid for their placements. Along with the psychologists and all the other healthcare workers and allied professionals who have been undervalued, they need payback from the Government after Covid.

No matter how successful the vaccination programme turns out to be, if large swathes of the world are not vaccinated, we will get variants and we will have problems and this crisis will continue. I do not for the life of me understand why the Government and the EU do not understand the absolute urgency and imperative of sharing the vaccine technology and lifting the intellectual property restrictions and patent restrictions on getting the vaccine produced globally at the levels necessary to vaccinate the global population.

I wish to make one additional point on Israel and Palestine. If the Taoiseach wants proof that Israel is an apartheid and racist state, not a normal state, its vaccination programme is a perfect demonstration of that. It vaccinates Israeli citizens but not Palestinians, which, by the way, is very stupid from a health point of view apart from anything else, but also demonstrates the apartheid nature of the state and why we need to treat it the way apartheid South Africa was treated.

I think we are all grateful for the success of the vaccine roll-out so far. Long may it continue that there is no problem with supplies, vaccinators or any of the other organisational issues that have to be implemented. I echo what has been said about a people's vaccine. To restate the obvious, none of us are protected until all of us are protected. The crisis in India has not abated. In fact, the Indian variant is now causing significant worry throughout the UK. Does the Taoiseach think it is good enough for the major companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and AstraZeneca that have paid out $26 billion in dividends to their shareholders in the past nine to 12 months, creating a new wave of vaccine billionaires, which is enough money to vaccinate the entire continent of Africa, not to be willing to share the intellectual property rights? Will the Taoiseach, as Leader of the Government, along with Joe Biden, going by his indications thus far, go to the World Trade Organization, WTO, or instruct our representation at that organisation or in the EU to go to the WTO and state that the companies must relax the patents on the intellectual property rights over these vaccines? We must do so because, otherwise, this is vaccine apartheid. One in every five people in the richer countries have had a vaccination. Guess how many have been vaccinated in the poorer countries? It is one in every 500 people.

That is vaccine apartheid. We are guilty of supporting it unless the Taoiseach speaks up and instructs our representatives in the EU, and wherever we can make representations in foreign affairs or on the UN Security Council, to state that we support the people's vaccine campaign. We want to see that vaccine being accessible to everybody at great levels of production throughout the world.

There is no more glaring example or indictment of capitalism than the situation with Covid vaccines. The truth, pure and simple, is that major pharmaceutical companies and their search for profit maximisation are standing in the way of vaccines getting into the arms of, literally, billions of people around the world. That is devastating for those people but, as has been said, it is devastating for the entire world.

The Government's position on this is not clear. When the Biden Administration, under pressure, announced that it supported the waiver of intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines, the Minister for Foreign Affairs tweeted: "This is a very significant announcement ... - it won’t solve all [Covid] vaccine manufacturing & supply issues, but [it's] a big step & the right decision in response to a global demand emergency." Since then, it is clear that Angela Merkel has been lobbied by the private pharmaceutical companies and is not supporting, and it seems the EU will not support, even the Biden position on a waiver of intellectual property.

Which side is the Government on? Is it on the side of the billions of people seeking access to vaccines or is it on the side of big pharma? Will it take a position in advance of the World Trade Organization, WTO, meeting? Will it argue for the EU to take a position at the meeting of voting in favour of the India-South Africa waiver proposal?

A young man left mandatory hotel quarantine in Dublin yesterday. He is an Irish student at the University of Pittsburgh. He got a second vaccination in the US on Monday, 3 May, but was taken into quarantine when he arrived home to Ireland on Thursday, 6 May. He was told by the authorities that he should have waited seven days after his second vaccination before travelling. This means that he would have been free to travel here on Monday, 10 May, but the State decided to quarantine him for much longer than that, until 17 May, yesterday, and to charge him €2,000 to boot. Why? This case also raises the issue of a double standard in the treatment of Erasmus students arriving from European colleges compared to students travelling from colleges outside the EU. The State pays the quarantine fees for Erasmus students, so why not do so for students studying in the US, such as this chap, or for those studying in other places outside the EU?

We are nearly a week into the cyberattack on the HSE and the Department of Health. We are told it will take weeks to resolve this matter. Obviously, the operational capacity of the entire system has been completely undermined and patients will suffer as a result. The picture emerging from our public health system in respect of its IT capacities and technology is not a good one. Speaking to the media yesterday, the former head of the HSE said that while those working in the organisation's ICT team are highly skilled and motivated, expenditure on IT security during his time was about a quarter of what is spent in other countries' health systems. Can the Taoiseach confirm if that is true? The HSE's former chief information officer also shared this view on the public airwaves this morning, so it is not a good situation.

I ask the Taoiseach to clarify the annual spend on IT systems in the Department of Health and the HSE. Who provides cybersecurity to the HSE and the Department of Health? Can he clarify if the Minister for Health immediately informed the HSE chief of this attack, and did he in turn inform his senior management and information communication technology, ICT, teams?

Many Members have raised the issue of historic underinvestment in information technology. It is now absolutely clear that significant and immediate investment is very urgently needed. I am sure we can at least agree on that point.

The Taoiseach has two minutes for a response.

Deputy Kelly raised the issue of the advice from NIAC. The most recent advice is now being considered by the HSE. The Chief Medical Office is overseeing that as well. That will have to come to Government. It has not yet come to Government for a formal decision. The key objective for Government is to get as many vaccines out there as we possibly can. Vaccination registration is opening this week for those aged between 45 and 49, which is very positive.

A number of Deputies have spoken about the international vaccine effort. President Biden's gesture in relation to the waiving of intellectual property rights was mentioned. The only democratic block that has led the way substantially on vaccines is Europe. It has facilitated the export of 200 million vaccines to approximately 90 countries around the world. America has not shared any. Today, it stated something about sending out 20 million vaccines, yet all the Deputies got up to praise that statement. The reality is Europe is leading the world in vaccine production, manufacture and export. Europe has administered 200 million vaccines to its own citizens.

Will intellectual property, IP, be waived?

It has facilitated the export of 200 million vaccines.

Will the IP be waived?

The Deputy's whole strategy on this issue has always been to reduce everything to the single transferable slogan and sound bite as if that would magic up vaccines-----

Will the intellectual property be waived?

-----in the morning, which the Deputy knows it would not.

Will the IP be waived?

Will Deputy Murphy allow me to respond? I heard him and did not interrupt him.

The Taoiseach should try to answer.

The Deputy should have courtesy. I am giving my reply. The key to getting vaccines distributed around the world is to get them produced at volume in the first instance. That is the point - to get the manufacturing capacity in place. Those with the know-how, can do that much more effectively-----

I thank the Taoiseach. We need to move on to Question No. 11.

There is this idea in regard to just waiving intellectual property. The negotiations will take quite some time and we will approach them constructively on behalf of the European Union-----

It would be much better if the Taoiseach and the Deputy did not have a one-to-one exchange. Our time is up on this block of questions.

I ask for two or three minutes.

No, I am sorry. I will tell the Taoiseach why. Deputies posing questions need to realise that they need to ask questions rather than make lengthy statements.

It is then very difficult for me to-----

The Taoiseach cannot really be expected to respond to lengthy statements if Deputies do not leave him the time to do so. It is not fair to him or to the process.

That is my difficulty and-----

Let us go on to Question No. 11.

The only difficulty with that is my part answer might be mischaracterised in subsequent debate and commentary. However, I take the Ceann Comhairle's point. There is nothing he or I can do about it.