I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing time with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler.
I am pleased to address the House on the Health (Amendment) Bill 2021. The purpose of the Bill is to improve Ireland’s ability to respond to the ongoing threats to public health from Covid-19. It does this by amending the Health Act 1947 to allow for the introduction of mandatory quarantine at designated facilities for all passengers arriving from countries where there are variants of the Covid virus that present a particularly high risk. The Bill also provides for mandatory quarantine for passengers who arrive in breach of the pre-departure negative PCR test requirement, until such time as a not-detected test result has been returned.
It is almost a year since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Ireland. The pandemic has had a very significant impact on life in Ireland, not just in terms of morbidity and mortality but also in terms of our way of life. To reduce transmission of this awful virus, we have had to live with public health measures that have required enormous personal sacrifices and taken a huge toll on people across the country. It has been a difficult winter. I truly hope that the roll-out of the vaccination programme is providing some much-needed hope and light. We are making progress and have administered over 350,000 vaccine doses. We are building capacity to be able to administer more than 250,000 doses a week to prepare for a significant increase in supply from April. Depending on vaccines arriving as scheduled, we will administer, on average, more than 1 million doses per month during April, May and June.
Unfortunately, we still face challenges. New variants of Covid-19 have emerged that can be more transmissible and may cause more serious infection. The variant first identified in South Africa is understood to be 50% more transmissible than the original strain. Less is currently known about the variant which originated in Brazil in terms of transmissibility and disease severity. There are, naturally, serious concerns that the vaccines which have been developed to date may not be as effective against variants of the virus as they are against the original strain. It is vital, therefore, that the vaccination programme is enabled to provide the maximum level of protection to our population in the coming months.
We have already introduced measures to limit the importation of the so-called variants of concern. A regime of mandatory home quarantine is now in operation. Arriving passengers, regardless of nationality, are required to present a Covid-19 passenger locator form and evidence of a negative pre-departure PCR test taken no more than three days before travel. We have also stepped up enforcement measures in respect of regulations which prohibit non-essential travel abroad, and people travelling abroad without an essential purpose can be subject to fines and prosecution. This is being enforced by An Garda Síochána.
We have significantly increased the amount of genome sequencing we are carrying out. Currently, arrivals from countries that are designated as category 2 states due to the presence of variants of concern must complete the full 14-day period of quarantine at home. These regulations were made pending the preparation of primary legislation to require travellers from designated high-risk countries to quarantine at designated facilities. This is the purpose of the Bill. While travel volumes are significantly depressed compared to the same period last year, there are still approximately 1,000 to 3,500 arrivals into the country each day, with 10,500 people arriving into Dublin Airport last week. Furthermore, there is a need to provide for a further increase in the fixed penalty for non-essential travel overseas to deter people further from travelling to a port or airport for the purpose of leaving the State without reasonable excuse.
The proposals in the Bill may be regarded by some as harsh and by others as insufficient. While the UK has introduced mandatory hotel quarantine, very few countries in Europe have introduced such a regime. However, the Government believes that the risk of importing variants and their potential impact on our vaccination programme means that we must act.
We believe that this Bill strikes a fair and proportionate balance between the protection of public health and the common good in the unprecedented emergency which we face, on the one hand, and the limited restriction of individual rights, on the other. We believe we can learn from the experience of the relatively small number of countries that have imposed such measures. Last week, I spoke to the New Zealand minister with responsibility for Covid-19 who outlined to me how their system works. We will, undoubtedly, face operational challenges just as they did. We may not get everything exactly right from the very start, so where we need to learn and to adapt the arrangements, this will be done. I am committed to ensuring that happens in a fair and transparent manner and we will constantly strive to improve.
I will now outline some key provisions of the Bill in more detail. The Bill is divided into nine sections. Sections 1 and 2 set out definitions and interpretative provisions. Sections 3 to 6, inclusive, amend the Health Act 1947 to increase the penalties for existing offences relating to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is intended to permit the fixed penalty notice for travellers going to or from an airport without reasonable excuse to be increased.
Section 7, the longest part of the Bill, relates specifically to the introduction of mandatory quarantine and related matters. The Bill inserts a number of new sections in the Health Act 1947. These will be numbered in the 1947 Act as sections 38B to 38M, inclusive.
Travellers who have been in a designated state within the 14 days prior to their arrival in Ireland will be obliged to undergo a 14-day period of quarantine. The Bill includes a provision to allow exit from quarantine before the completion of 14 days if travellers return a not-detected Covid test upon arrival and a further such test on day 10 of quarantine. There is a limited number of other circumstances under which travellers may leave quarantine, such as for medical treatment or other humanitarian reasons. The Bill also includes provisions requiring travellers who arrive in Ireland from any other country without a not-detected PCR test, that is, if an individual arrives without their preflight PCR test, to be quarantined until a not-detected test is returned, or for a full ten-day period if deemed necessary on public health grounds. Travellers who test positive for Covid during quarantine will be required to remain in quarantine until they have satisfied the criteria for release.
Travellers will be required to pre-book their accommodation in designated facilities. Appropriate provision is made for unaccompanied minors or those seeking international protection.
The Bill includes provision for travellers to appeal a decision that they are subject to mandatory quarantine, while Section 38B(25) includes categories of travellers who are exempt from the requirement to quarantine, such as drivers of HGVs, maritime or air crew, or elected officials travelling for official reasons. It will be possible to designate other exemptions by regulation.
Section 38C sets out the power to return travellers to quarantine if they have left inappropriately. Section 38D sets out offences associated with the Bill and establishes the relevant penalties. Section 38E sets out the power and the process for the Minister to designate the states relevant to mandatory quarantine and Section 38F makes provision for the designation of facilities and to require passengers to pay for quarantine. Section 38G sets out the regulation-making powers of the Minister and sets guiding principles for use in that process. Sections 38H and 38I provide the authority for the Minister to make arrangements for transport and accommodation and related matters for quarantine purposes. Sections 38J and 38K set out requirements and obligations related to record-keeping and data protection. Section 38L allows the Minister to make arrangements with other Ministers to carry out some of the functions associated with the requirement to quarantine as they relate to the designation of facilities for quarantine, making service contracts, and data protection. Section 38M establishes a requirement of travel organisers, such as airlines, to inform a traveller of his or her obligation to pre-book their quarantine, check that those bookings have been made and potentially refuse to allow travel where a booking has not been made.
Section 8 of the Bill makes minor consequential amendments to section 42 of 1947 Act.
Section 9 sets out the Short Title and operation of the Bill and establishes that the quarantine-related provisions of the Bill will fall three months from its passing, unless resolutions extending them are passed in both Houses of the Oireachtas. This sunset clause is an important feature of the Bill and reflects the exceptional nature of its provisions, which are required in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In parallel with the drafting of this Bill and its consideration by the Oireachtas, a concerted cross-Government approach is being taken to prepare for the introduction of mandatory quarantine at designated facilities. This includes the service design, specifications needed to ensure the quarantine is of a high standard, hotel, security and ancillary services, as well as the health services and testing services required to meet public health requirements.
In conclusion, I welcome this opportunity to provide an overview of some of the key provisions in the Bill and I look forward to discussing the Bill in more detail on Committee Stage and to listening to colleagues' contributions during this Second Stage debate. This is a radical measure but these are no ordinary times. I commend the Bill to the House.