In effect, these amendments would give the Oireachtas - the Dáil and the Seanad - the power to scrutinise the regulations that the Minister makes. That is very important. I have spoken previously, as have many Deputies , on the importance of parliamentary scrutiny. I spoke about it on Second Stage and cited an expert who appeared before the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, of which the Minister was once a member. I also referred to legal academics in Ireland who cited the importance of that in a democracy and the fact that it was being diminished, at the very least, by the approach taken to the making of regulations to date. I have proposed similar amendments in the past, as has Sinn Féin, and I am happy to support Deputy Cullinane's amendment.
Philosophically, it is very important that any regulations the Minister makes are scrutinised adequately by this House. It is also very important on a practical level. I want to go into the practical reasons to reinforce the importance of this amendment and to urge people to support it. As the Minister knows, this Bill proposes to roll over the Health (Amendment) (No.2) Act which was passed in July of this year. Effectively, that was the Act which facilitated Covid passes. In that Act, the Minister was given the power to introduce regulations. These are regulations that the Dáil cannot scrutinise; it can annul or leave them in place but it cannot debate, scrutinise or propose any amendments to them. As I said, in that Act, the Minister was given the power to introduce regulations requiring proof of immunity. Proof of immunity was actually defined in the parent Act, the Act passed democratically by this House. I opposed that Act because I feared it would be abused and unfortunately, I believe it has been. Proof of immunity is set out as "(a) an EU Digital Covid Certificate", "(b) a document as may be prescribed, in written or electronic form, issued by a body implementing a vaccination programme (howsoever described)" or "(c) any form of written information or proof verifying, in such manner as may be prescribed, in relation to the person to whom the document is issued, that the person has recovered from Covid-19". Therefore the Act envisages three types of proof of immunity, namely, an EU Covid pass, a vaccine certificate or proof of recovery. This is important because the Minister has never made mention of proof of recovery in the regulations he has introduced. He has merely confined the proof of immunity to an EU Covid pass, which was introduced a lot earlier in the year when a great deal less was known about immunity. It was introduced for a specific purpose only, namely, to facilitate travel between member states. Those who do not have proof of vaccination or who cannot prove recovery within a tight period of six months can get an antigen test to enter most EU member states or, in the very special case of Ireland, a PCR test and that enables them to travel freely. However, that will not enable them to access facilities in Ireland because the Minister, by regulation, notwithstanding that it was clearly envisaged in the Bill that proof of recovery would be included, has limited it to proof of vaccination or a Covid pass.
The Covid pass only provides for recovery within the last six months. That is quite important because at a meeting of NPHET on 11 November, the chair of the Irish epidemiological modelling advisory group confirmed that natural immunity is built into and explicit in his modelling. He said that as is standard for these models, "infection-induced immunity is assumed to be permanent". NPHET modelling, which all of the measures introduced by the Minister are a response to, is assuming that immunity is permanent. This is a step forward, the idea that immunity is permanent or any assumption that it is permanent. I am not plucking this out of the sky. I am plucking it from the published minutes of the NPHET meeting of 11 November. NPHET is modelling on the basis that immunity is permanent.
When the Minister introduced the previous legislation, which he is now seeking to roll over, to the House in July, the advice was that immunity lasted for at least nine months. Of course, Covid was more recent in July than it is now so less was known about the duration of immunity. Notwithstanding knowing that immunity was in place for nine months, the Minister limited Covid passes to persons who had recovered within six months. Why was that done? It was done to keep people and premises safe. I have asked the Minister to provide evidence that Covid passes make premises safe. When the Tánaiste, who is a medical doctor - I do not know how relevant that is but a lot of people seem to think it is relevant - was asked the same question in the Seanad he said the following:
With regard to the Covid pass and vaccine passes, there is good evidence that they have worked. At the very least they have encouraged more and more people to get vaccinated. I am not sure we would have reached so high a level of vaccination as 93% or 94% were it not for the Covid pass system. There is good evidence that countries that have it have higher levels of vaccination. At the very least, it has worked on this level if it has not, perhaps, been as effective as we hoped in terms of transmission. It has certainly been effective in encouraging people to get vaccinated. We see people who are not yet vaccinated still coming to get vaccinated for the first time and this is encouraging.
Therefore, as I asked at the time, was the Covid pass about encouraging or coercing people to get vaccinated or was it about keeping premises safe? The purpose of the legislation is to make a premises more safe, not to coerce or encourage people, depending on one's view, or to treat the livelihoods of people who work in the hospitality sector, who work in bars up and down the length and breadth of this country as collateral damage in an attempt to encourage people to get vaccinated, but rather to make the particular premises safer. I have not seen any evidence yet that these Covid passes are making premises safer.
The Tánaiste has only said that they have worked to encourage people to get vaccinated. However, the self-same Minister, who is also a medical doctor, said today that we might need a fourth booster to make us safe from the latest variant, Omicron.
I am asking this now because I will not have the power to ask these questions later, and nor will the Dáil, because there is no power to scrutinise the regulations the Minister brings in. Deputy Cullinane is proposing that we have that power. I am supporting that because it is important. That is because we will not be able to ask the Minister in a couple of days, weeks or months. Therefore, I am asking now as we consider whether to vote on the amendment. Will it be possible that you will require a booster in order to have a Covid pass, or even two?
It is very important that the Minister answers that question now if he will not agree to an amendment that will enable us to scrutinise that if and when he introduces regulations requiring that. Is it about the Minister giving himself the power to change Covid passes to require further booster shots? Is it one? Is it two? I am not plucking this out of the sky but from what the Tánaiste, a serving member of the Cabinet and a medical doctor, has said and also what he has said on the record of the Upper House.
I am also asking when the Minister will acknowledge immunity from recovery. It is provided for in the law which the Minister introduced and which he is now proposing to roll over. It seems to be provided for in the science or at least the science proposed by those who advise the Minister and to whom he introduces regulations in response. They have said, as is standard for these models, that infection-induced immunity is assumed to be permanent.
I tried to keep abreast of some of the reports in The Lancet, the British Medical Journal and so on. I have not read anything saying it was permanent but I have read reports that said that it is enduring. If it is enduring at the very least, or permanent as NPHET modelling is predicated on, then why when people have recovered and enjoy some degree of immunity, which is as great if not greater than vaccinated persons because we know that they wane over time – notwithstanding the Minister’s criticism of Deputy Verona Murphy when she spoke of a report in The Lancet that suggested that vaccine-based immunity waned over time and it seems some vaccines wane faster than others - are vaccinated people being given a pass to enter a premises in order to keep it safe when we know that their immunity is waning but someone whose immunity is more enduring cannot enter a premises? That is not about public safety, it is about encouraging and coercing people to get a vaccine. That is about holding up the livelihoods of everyone who works in that sector as collateral for the Minister’s crusade. I use the word "crusade" advisedly. The crusaders believed that they were fighting for a glorious cause, a better future bringing enlightenment to the savages that they met along the way and converting them by force or coercion if necessary. That was a good thing. We might view it a little bit differently with the benefit of hindsight but that might be equally so with this. Therefore I ask, simply, that the Minister say whether or not he will contemplate requiring a third or fourth booster for a Covid pass. Will he say why immunity acquired from recovery from Covid more than six months ago is included?
It is important to raise the question of those who cannot take a vaccine now because unless this amendment is accepted, we will not be able to raise it again. I received an email from a concerned constituent. It is someone I know and I also know her daughter who is the subject of an email. This is not someone who made this up to score a point but it is a real person in a real difficulty. Her daughter has been diagnosed with autism. She wrote:
At the outset, I wish to stress, I am not anti-vaccination, and I support the vaccination programme. As a family, we have strictly adhered to all public health guidelines throughout the pandemic. Unfortunately, because of a previous adverse reaction to a vaccine, we were advised not to get our daughter vaccinated. Based on the completion of a benefit risk analysis, we feel this is the correct decision.
However, the recent extension of Covid-19 passes beyond the hospitality sector has posed significant difficulties for our daughter. She now feels very excluded and marginalised in society.
There are many challenges. She can't go to the cinema, she can't have lunch in a cafe or a restaurant, she can't attend a concert, she can't attend teenage discos with her friends or go to the theatre.
She has reluctantly accepted these exclusions but swimming is something she uses as a form of exercise and sensory therapy. This has now been taken away from her.
I would be interested to know how many Covid-19 outbreaks can be attributed to gyms or swimming pools.
For a lot of people, the benefit of regular exercise goes beyond the physical benefits. It is frequently used to help reduce anxiety. There is some medical evidence to show that regular exercise can be as effective in treating anxiety and milder cases of depression as anti depressants. Given the steep rise in mental health issues and the difficulties accessing help due to lengthy waiting lists, restricting peoples access to gyms and swimming pools should surely only be done as a last resort?
Another concern is hairdressers, if Covid-19 passes are extended to hairdressers, the girl will be unable to get her hair cut. This might seem like a very trivial issue to many but she has sensory issues so she needs to have her hair cut regularly.
We are also concerned that Covid-19 passes could be extended to after school extra curricular activities such as speech and drama, and dance classes. Dr Tony Holohan during a recent press conference encouraged businesses to introduce the use of Covid-19 passes if they wished.
The whole Covid-19 pass system is having a negative impact on the girl’s mental health. This is in addition to the whole vilification of unvaccinated people. It would appear that we are no longer all in this together.
As a family we have exercised our way through the tough days of this pandemic - walking, hiking and swimming. [Our daughter’s] access the swimming pool has removed a vital component of our mental health and wellness toolkit.
I would respectfully request that you consider raising these issues with the Minister for Health.
I refer to those who have recovered and the whole issue of expanding the Covid pass. I am asking the Minister to rule it out because I reiterate I will not be able to ask these questions if this amendment is not accepted. Nobody in this House will be, if it is not accepted. I have no doubt the Minister will not accept it. Maybe he will surprise me. However, it really would come as a surprise if he said he was going to accept any scintilla of parliamentary scrutiny of his performance and of the regulations he passes like - as are approaching Christmas - a Caesar in the time of our Lord who is beyond question and reproach. He says this is what will happen. Pass it down to the provinces and let them do it. Will the Minister consider not making persons who have medical advice not to be vaccinated, as this girl has, subject to the Covid pass system? Will he do likewise with the recovered? Will he rule out it being extended into the future to require boosters and more boosters and more boosters?