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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021

Vol. 1015 No. 5

Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages

NEW SECTIONS

I move amendment No. 1:

"In page 5, between lines 1 and 2, to insert the following:

“Definition

1. In this Act, “relevant statutory instrument” means any regulation made under:

(a) the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020;

b) the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020;

(c) the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020;

(d) the Health (Amendment) Act 2020; (e) the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021; and

(f) the Health (Amendment) (No. 3) Act 2021.”."

I expected this amendment to be grouped with others because it is relevant to a number of other amendments. I will speak to this one as quickly as I can. Essentially, it proposes to include in the Bill a definition of a relevant statutory instrument. The reason is we want any statutory instruments which may arise from the emergency powers the Minister for Health has been given, to be properly debated, scrutinised and voted on, if possible.

This a bit like Groundhog Day because we are having the same conversation over and over again, the reason being we have had so many of these Bills. As they were not consolidated in one Bill, we are routinely coming back to the House to approve motions to allow for the sunset clauses to be extended without debate or scrutiny. We have sometimes reached the maximum number of motions that can be moved in respect of primary legislation. We have therefore had many similar debates on these issues.

We had a lengthy Second Stage debate on the substance of the opposition to what is being proposed in the Bill. I may be wrong - the Minister does not tend to answer questions on amendments when he is asked in advance - but I am working on the basis that none of the amendments will be accepted. I am working on that basis because that is what happened when similar amendments were tabled to previous Bills. In many ways, unfortunately, we will go through the motions again, which illustrates and proves my point that the Government is not listening and is not willing to accept eminently sensible amendments. Many of them have been proposed by parties across the Opposition for all the right reasons.

In his Second Stage contribution, the Minister spoke about his desire to improve communication and consultation with the Opposition. To date, I have not seen any evidence of that. However, I look forward to him again articulating clearly what that improved communication, consultation and dialogue will entail. It has to be said that, over the course of recent months, the communication has been poor. The most recent regulations were introduced without consultation with the Opposition or debate in this House. No time was provided for any of them.

People often have questions about what the regulations entail. As Members of the Opposition, we are asked our opinion on the workings of those regulations. Of course, we have not been briefed and we are not acquainted with the rationale behind many of them, which leaves us at a disadvantage.

It is not unreasonable to provide that statutory instruments be laid before the House. It is certainly not unreasonable that the Opposition would be briefed on those statutory instruments when they are put in place or that we would have a vote on them. The Minister stated on Second Stage that he had made an awful lot of statutory instruments and regulations and asked whether it would it be a good use of our time to debate and approve many of them. That can be done and worked out at the Business Committee. That is the purpose of the Business Committee. Some of the regulations have more profound implications than others. Some have real implications given their impact on businesses, citizens and individuals, while others may be more technical in nature.

Some might be more technical in nature, although they are obviously all important. That is why in later amendments we provide for the Oireachtas health committee to be able to waive scrutiny in the Dáil by saying that the statutory instruments could be laid after the Minister has made the regulations, with the approval of that committee.

It almost does not matter what mechanism anybody in the Opposition has tried to bring forward in order to have any level of accountability, transparency or democratic oversight for these emergency powers. They have all been blocked and voted down and the Government has given a reason or excuse as to why it cannot be done. That does not wash in the real world when people can see the Dáil is sitting. We are sitting tonight until midnight. The Dáil is sitting and has been sitting over the past number of months, pretty much as normal, and is well capable of scrutinising statutory instruments or regulations. It is certainly well capable of scrutinising primary legislation, as we are doing now, and yet we are not being given that opportunity. It is important to restate the reason we are here. The reason we have submitted these amendments is that we simply have not had any reciprocation from the Government about any of the legitimate and genuine concerns that have been raised by the Opposition on the manner in which these statutory instruments are being brought in.

I said this already on Second Stage and I will say it again. There is a big difference between supporting public health measures and supporting giving the Minister emergency powers. The question is how we bring in those public health measures in a fairer and more democratic way, in which there is at least some level of oversight. At the moment there is not any. For that reason, unless amendments are accepted I do not see how I can be in a position to support the Bill. However, I will listen to the Minister's responses as we work our way through the amendments.

We were here last Friday discussing this and I made my views very well known at that time. We have tabled a number of amendments. I thank Brian Ó Domhnaill in our office for doing the research on this but it is all a useless, futile effort. I said this last week and I will say it again. When the Minister was on an taobh seo den Teach he was opposed to these powers. He stood up vigorously opposing them.

Each and every one of us, including myself and my five colleagues in the Rural Independent Group, supported these measures from day one. I have said since time immemorial that I staggered out of the Cabinet room that day because of the ferocity of what we were told would happen, and the shock and fear. Thankfully, and thanks to the heroic efforts of front-line staff and everybody else, nothing like that happened in our country. Unfortunately we lost a lot of lives and one life is one too many. Some of them were lost in very dubious circumstances when people with Covid were put into nursing homes without telling the management but that is for another day.

NPHET has lost the support and confidence of the people and the Minister has lost our support. One of the main reasons is that the Opposition's duty is to scrutinise, examine and have pre-legislative scrutiny. I asked the Taoiseach today during Leaders' Questions, which is something I take very seriously, about the analysis of how beneficial the Covid certificates have been and what impact they have made, looking for information to be brought before the House. He gave no answer - ní raibh aon fhreagra - but he got out of it by saying pre-legislative scrutiny was too slow and would take too long. That was an outrageous statement for a Head of Government in a democracy and a republic to make. We are just going to steamroll ahead and not worry about the implications because it is too slow. It is not too slow.

The Minister has these powers and does not know what it is like to be Minister for Health. I wished him well when he was appointed and I still do not wish him any animosity. He has had emergency powers since day one so he does not know what it is like to be Minister without this strong arm signing these statutory instruments. I keep asking him about this but he will not answer. Is it the heavy hand of pharma that is pushing him to sign these draconian pieces of legislation, or whose hand is it? The Irish Council for Civil Liberties and human rights organisations are totally against this too, although they were with the Minister for a long time. Many people's rights were trodden on and removed but that was due to the fear and the lack of time and space. The Minister could have consulted us on this after last July, or brought the Bill in for pre-legislative scrutiny in September. He knew these measures would expire in February but it was last Thursday evening before we got the explanatory memorandum - not even the Bill itself.

The Minister and his officials in the Department of Health, and whoever else, are running riot and running amok. They treat this House with total disdain. The Minister just comes in here and sits through the debate writing away. He keeps his head down and says nothing and does not listen to us. Our sovereign duty is to scrutinise. We were elected for that reason. The Taoiseach said today that we do not have time, that it would take six months, as if to say people were being awkward or belligerent. I do not know anybody who goes to any committee to be awkward or belligerent by asking questions and scrutinising.

I said last week that the Minister was afraid to answer the questions to which I want answers about the powers of detention. Some of the later amendments are pretty draconian. I had legal people go through the Bill. Oireachtas Members, colleagues of mine, were contacted about this and they started laughing and said there was nothing like that in the Bill. That is the way. They keep their heads down, put a bag over their heads and vote blindly. Of course that is in the Bill. I again thank the people from the Alliance for Justice who helped me go through the Bill and examine it in detail so I know what I am talking about, because it is not easy to follow this legislation. The Minister has a whole Department and advisers and officials to do this but he would not come to pre-legislative scrutiny. It is getting worse. The Taoiseach said today that pre-legislative scrutiny was taking too long and could take up to six months. Those were his words. I do not know anybody who would have delayed it for that length of time. There was a special Covid committee of which my Independent colleague Deputy McNamara was chair and its recommendations are gathering dust somewhere as well.

The sad part is that we in the Opposition were briefed weekly, or fortnightly at worst, from the start of the pandemic right up to last October. We have never had a briefing with the Minister, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste and NPHET. We had a briefing with NPHET two weeks ago, after 12 months. Why lock us out of the situation? The Government needs us and the more support it has for legislation the better. Why lock us out completely and disrespect the Opposition like this, telling us carte blanche that our views do not count and do not matter? We are all in this together but clearly we are not. The Minister forgot about the Opposition when he needed it. When he was in opposition he was at some of those briefings with me, Deputy Cullinane and others from all groups. When he took over he should have known the value of them and the value of having a united approach. We are not going to be obstreperous but we are certainly not going to defend this. It is my duty to defend the human rights and liberties of people when I see them threatened. I have been called the tin hat brigade and all kinds of names but when I have legal advice telling me exactly what is in the legislation, my antenna goes up immediately. Why does the Minister need these powers? He did not lay before us any segment of a report about how many times those powers were used since they were introduced in 2020, whether that was once, twice or 100 times. We should know that when renewing legislation.

This Bill rolls four pieces of legislation into one. They were all emergency Bills and they were all rushed. None of them had pre-legislative scrutiny and we have had no pre-legislative scrutiny on this either. I am honestly very concerned. That is why I called a vote on Second Stage and I will be calling any vote I can tonight as well. I will be answerable to the people. I have made my best efforts to understand what is in this Bill despite the limited time we had before last week. It is just not good enough. The Taoiseach said this morning that pre-legislative scrutiny would take too long.

It is alarming that the head of Government would tell Parliament that it could not discuss legislation and should just take the legislation from the drafters and nod away. I will not be nodding anyway. That is one thing that is certain. I will be ós comhair an Bille seo. It is draconian and rushed and rushed legislation is bad. The Government has abandoned the Opposition because it does not brief us. When replying, the Minister might explain why we have not been given a briefing in 13 months. It was late October 2020 when we last had a briefing. Health spokespersons received a briefing from some of NPHET a fortnight ago last Monday, but that was all. I support Deputy Cullinane's amendment.

I spoke on this Bill last Friday. I support the Government's efforts. The science does not lie. Consider the number of hospitalisations. The Government and NPHET asked people to reduce their social contacts, which people have since done over the past number of weeks. It is working and there are fewer people in hospital with Covid.

It is easy for the people opposite. I feel strongly on this. Some of the stuff is bizarre. Yesterday, Sinn Féin said that it supported public health. I have seen a Sinn Féin councillor in Wexford calling on people to come out onto the street to support parents who were protesting against children having to wear masks in primary schools, yet Sinn Féin Members say in the Dáil that they support public health. I was nearly attacked last week when I was making my statement. They will say one thing in here but their public representatives across the country, or in my county at least, will ask for something else. God help the country if Sinn Féin was in government right now and having to deal with this situation. Sinn Féin went to ground when the pandemic hit the country in March 2020. No public representative from Sinn Féin was to be seen. Sinn Féin put a hand up to see which way the wind was blowing, which is how it has worked for the past year and a half.

Deputy Mattie McGrath spoke about pre-legislative scrutiny. What the Taoiseach said today in the Chamber was that debating this would take up to six months if we were to have pre-legislative scrutiny in committee. The pandemic would be far out of reach of any attempt to catch up to it if we were to take such a blasé approach. It is something that we have to act on immediately. The Government has to make decisions quickly. We might not get all of them right and, at times, the communications can be a little out of kilter. I actually agree with the Government's approach, in that we should have one voice. In recent months, there have been too many voices speaking about Covid - NPHET, the Government and so on. It is NPHET's job to advise the Government and it is the Government's job to make decisions. I was privileged to sit at the Cabinet table for nine and a half years. Things have not changed. There are many organisations, including NPHET, that advise the Government on health-related matters. It is then up to the Government to communicate the message. Difficult decisions have needed to be made over the past while.

Last week, I spoke about the roll-out of the vaccine to five- to 11-year-olds. I thank the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, NIAC, and the Minister for the swift response. This is a good day. I ask that there be no delay in the roll-out. I have three kids all under the age of 11. They will be the first in the queue. They want to be, so it will be of their own free will that they will. The roll-out is only right and proper. I encourage as many parents and guardians as possible to ask their children to get vaccinated because the vaccine saves lives. According to the science, Covid has been rampant in primary schools whereas there have been fewer outbreaks in secondary schools and third level institutions despite their students having many more social contacts.

Answering questions earlier, the Taoiseach referred to how, for health or other reasons, there were people who could not take the vaccine. I would like something to be done for them. Being honest, I wrongly did not have enough sympathy for them. They were being tarred with the same brush as anti-vaxxers and so on. I understand from what the Taoiseach said that the Department is looking to see whether anything can be done. I do not know what can be done. It would be very difficult. How do we tell who is an anti-vaxxer and who is not? There are some very genuine people, though. Most of those who, due to health reasons, are unable to have the vaccine do not mix or go out. They have been minding themselves and are very careful. Will the Minister consider this issue?

I feel strongly about another matter. Weddings are being attended by 100, 200 or 250 people, who are mixing and gathering. As I have mentioned on local radio, Covid loves alcohol and alcohol loves Covid. A wedding is an alcohol-fuelled affair, with 50% or 60% of people still drinking at the end of the night. For the life of me, I cannot understand why it is that people who are attending weddings are not asked to produce Covid certificates. Some hotels have been asking people to produce certificates, but it should be mandatory that people attending large settings, including for weddings, be asked to produce Covid certificates. That is only right and proper, and many wedding couples would welcome it because they do not want to put their guests' health at risk. Many hotels have taken it upon themselves to ask people for certificates. Will the Minister consider this matter? It is not too late to do the right thing. Weddings are special occasions and I know that the Minister does not want to put additional stress on couples, but many of them would welcome this move.

I plan on this being my only contribution this evening because I have no amendments tabled. There are some good pro-scrutiny and pro-transparency amendments that we will be supporting and there are other amendments that we will not.

I hope that the Minister can answer my question during the course of this evening. Regardless of how one feels about this legislation or its sister legislation, we can all agree that, legislatively speaking, this is not the best way to tackle Covid in the months and, dare I say it, years ahead. According to the WHO, Covid will be with us in some fashion until 2023, so we will have to come up with a better legislative approach than this where we come back every couple of months to consider extending these legislative provisions. It is becoming repetitive and the debate is getting more base and poorer, which is not a good reflection of our politics and is not how we should be tackling Covid. We are treating each wave as if it is our last and we are not planning for Covid being here into the future.

We are all worried that Covid will throw us another curveball and send us down another unwanted turn. We have to be prepared for that. The majority of us in opposition accept that this will happen and that there will be pain and difficult decisions. However, we have learned from Covid over the past 20 months.

We have learned about different testing measures, contact tracing, mask-wearing, sanitising hands, social distancing, air filtration, CO2 monitors and all the rest. We have practical tools in our armoury, which is where the Opposition broadly wants to focus its energy in terms of implementing what we believe will help. We all know that there is no silver bullet, but I do not think it is helping anybody to have legislation coming on a frequent basis in respect of short-term measures that do not take into account where we are with Covid, where we are going to go with it and how long it is going to be with us.

We will support the Bill. I will not give an ultimatum and say this is the last time we will support such a Bill, but as 2022 dawns I hope that as well as the practical measures we all want to see improved, rolled out and invested in, we will also see a more long-term legislative approach that means we can focus our time in here on other pieces of legislation on other aspects of healthcare and challenges in society. This is not a long-term way to deal with the situation. It is short-term legislation that is being rolled over in an emergency fashion. At some stage, Covid will still be with us and it cannot be an emergency any more. It is just going to be part of how we live our lives and the health service will have to adapt to it. I hope that something will come from the Minister either this evening or in the next couple of days to indicate that this will be the last time we will be debating these sister pieces of legislation, not because we believe Covid is going to go away, but because there is a better, more sophisticated long-term approach that takes into account the reality of Covid and not the hope that this wave is going to be our last.

I wish to make a few brief points on this amendment and on the Bill before us. I accept that the Minister is in a difficult position. I also accept that we need legislation, and I fully support the provisions set out in section 4. The Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act expires on 9 January and there will not be ample opportunity between now and then to debate it and I believe an extension of it is warranted. However, to be honest with the Minister, as someone who has reluctantly supported the provisions in this series of legislative measures, as the one that proposed the sunset clauses for the original legislation, I cannot see the justification for extending it beyond 9 February up to 31 March. There is an onus on the Government to come in here in January – if that means coming back a week earlier, so be it – carry out an evaluation of the situation when we have a better idea of the current variants and the progression of the virus over the Christmas period and provide justification at that point.

When the Minister came into the House on Friday and made the justification for the extensions that he is proposing, he stated that the virus is at quite a high level, not just here in Ireland but right across Europe, and that this is due to a combination of increased socialising. The decision was taken by the Government to increase the socialising, especially in nightclubs, without the use of antigen testing, which many of us in the Opposition had been pleading with him to introduce for ages. I accept that there is a debate between the academics as to whether we should have antigen testing. I also accept that the Minister sought separate specialist advice from the chief scientific officer in respect of that matter. He is to be commended on that, but ultimately, the call must be made by the Government and not by the public health advisers. The Government makes decisions. Public health advisers provide advice, but it is the Government that makes the final decision. We should have been rolling out antigen testing far more liberally at an earlier stage. It is only when the PCR testing has come under undue pressure and been unable to manage the scale of pressure that the public health officials decided to advise on antigen testing in limited cases. We need to have a proper and thorough debate on how we are going to live with Covid-19 because it is going to be with us in one form or another for a considerable period. We also need to have a far broader debate than the one we are having. That is not a debate for today, but it should happen early in the new year.

I want to pick up on the issue of the unvaccinated. There are myriad reasons why people are unvaccinated. There has been much commentary on unvaccinated people. The impression is given that people across the board are doing this out of choice, which is not the case. There are people who, for valid medical reasons, cannot or should not have the vaccine. The National Health Service website states that the possible reasons one would have a medical exemption from the vaccine include:

- people receiving end of life care where vaccination is not in the person’s best interests

- people with learning disabilities or autistic individuals, or people with a combination of impairments where vaccination cannot be provided through reasonable adjustments

- a person with severe allergies to all currently available vaccines

- those who have had an adverse reaction to the first dose (for example, myocarditis).

There are people who, for very legitimate reasons, cannot get vaccinated and they are not being accommodated in the provisions in this legislation or the other legislation. Antigen testing does facilitate those people engaging with society rather than having to continue to cocoon, which they have been doing up to now.

I hate to interrupt the Deputy, but I call on him to speak to the amendment. This is not Second Stage.

This is the final point I will make, and I will not intervene again. The Minister will say, as the Taoiseach said to me yesterday, that the Government will listen to the advice, but it is only certain advice that it is prepared to listen to. Last week, the Ombudsman for Children said there should be a fortnightly review of the use of face masks in schools. That is being ignored by the Government. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children is an expert in dealing with issues regarding children. I accept the office is not an expert in public health advice, but it has recommended that there would be a fortnightly review of the decision. The Government has decided that it will extend the provision until 9 February and perhaps beyond that point. We must take a balanced approach on these issues. We must look at the evidence as it changes and progresses - it will change and progress – and have the support of all of us to progress these measures that are appropriate and based on the evidence available to us at that particular point in time.

I am not addressing anyone in particular, but I ask Deputies to stick to the amendments. We are on amendment No. 1, which is very specific.

I will be very brief. I am deeply concerned. Today, my colleague, Deputy Mattie McGrath, raised the absence of pre-legislative scrutiny. The justification was made on the basis that we did not have the time for it. Did the Minister consider carrying out an impact analysis or any assessment on the possible impact the restrictions and draconian measures would have on people's lives and access to other health services such as cancer screening?

I have said all along that I am very concerned about these measures. I feel that the cure is worse than the disease in most cases. I am aware of cancer patients who were delayed in being transferred to hospital. I am aware of issues with screening which have impacted on people and caused them extra distress. I am also aware of issues regarding people who cannot take the vaccine because they have a number of allergies to medication. I have made personal representations to medical professionals about these issues. I am aware of one constituent who cannot get any sort of answer and who was left in limbo. She cannot receive anything from a medical professional to advise her what she should do due to her allergies to many medications. Something needs to be issued quickly to those people.

I am concerned. The fact is we have 900,000 people on our hospital waiting lists, and we have had an increase of 124,000 since August 2019. We cannot just forget about those people because of the current crisis.

I hate to interrupt. We are past Second Stage. The Deputy makes valid points but we are on amendment No. 1.

I understand but I may not get an opportunity and I am being very brief. These are noteworthy points which my constituents have asked me to raise. I will be as brief as I possibly can be.

The overarching point I will make is that life can and should go on. We cannot stop everything, we cannot down tools and we cannot do this to people. There is heightened anxiety among children. Deputy Naughten referred to the point about the Ombudsman for Children asking for a review of mask wearing every two weeks, which I support. There are deaf children who are in a great deal of distress because they are being forced to wear a mask.

That comes back again to my original point about an impact analysis. If we could not do the pre-legislative scrutiny, why not have an assessment or an impact analysis to consider the ramifications, in particular the legal ramifications, of what has been imposed on people? I believe this will give rise to many legal challenges. People are already distressed. Children are suffering from very high levels of anxiety. Mental health services are in disarray. In my constituency, I am aware that mental health services in Birr, County Offaly, have not resumed since Covid-19 began. Unfortunately, mental health issues, along with other issues, do not go away because we have a pandemic.

We need to be sensible. We need to make sure that we are aware of and dealing with all of the other medical issues out there. Why was the number of ICU beds not increased? Why were hospital staff numbers not increased dramatically? It seems unfair and unjustified the way the Government has gone about this. It is very rushed. It would make more sense and serve the Government better to take the time to consider the serious impact it is having on people. My fear is that more lives will be lost, not because of the pandemic, but because of the Government's inaction on hospital waiting lists and the time that is being lost. I am aware of babies being presented and of phone calls being made to GPs. The parents of these babies are being told to get the Covid test first. If that was meningitis, the time lost could be very serious and could lead to a loss of life. I am concerned and I believe these points need to be raised. That is why I make no apology for raising them. I believe common sense needs to prevail and we need to be fair to people.

As Deputy Shortall does not wish to speak on this amendment, I call the Minister on amendment No. 1.

With the permission of the Chair, I might address the points that were off the amendment.

The Minister should address amendment No. 1.

It is difficult to address some of them as it is a very-----

It is but it is amendment No. 1 that we are trying to deal with here. We want to get through the amendments.

I am happy to do whatever the committee wants and I will be guided by the Chair entirely.

The Minister should address the amendment for the moment.

Okay. A variety of issues have been raised by colleagues. When the Chair deems it the appropriate time, I will address all of those. I have been instructed just to address the amendment and I will come back to the other issues whenever it is appropriate.

Specifically on the amendment, it seeks to insert a definition of “relevant statutory instrument”. All statutory instruments regarding the Acts referred to in the amendment are made under the Health Act 1947 and, therefore, the amendment as it stands does not make sense within the legislation. For that technical reason, I will not be accepting the amendment.

Whenever the Chair deems it appropriate, I am happy to address all of the other concerns that have been raised.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Amendments Nos. 2, 20 and 24 are related and may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 5, between lines 1 and 2, to insert the following:

Parliamentary oversight of Covid-19 regulations

1. (1) Every relevant statutory instrument made by the Minister shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas not less than 48 hours before they come into effect and-

(a) where, before the date on which paragraph (b) would have effect, a resolution annulling the instrument is passed by either such House, the instrument shall be annulled accordingly but without prejudice to the validity of anything previously done under it, or

(b) if, in respect of each House, a resolution confirming the instruments is not passed by it-

(i) on the day it is laid before that House or within the next subsequent 14 days on which that House has sat after the instrument was so laid, or

(ii) in any other case, within 21 days after the instrument was made, whichever first occurs, then the instrument shall be deemed to be annulled accordingly but without prejudice to the validity of anything previously done under it,

(c) where, following the agreement of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health, the need of such a regulation is deemed urgent, every relevant statutory instrument may be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is made for the purpose of this section.

(2) The period of time to which subsection (1)(b) relates in respect of a relevant statutory instrument that has been subsequently amended is the period of time concerned for that instrument and not to any other period of time by reference to the amending instrument.

(3) Notwithstanding subsection (2), subsection (1)(b) does not apply to a relevant statutory instrument where, before the date on which subsection (1)(b) would have had effect-

(a) the instrument ceases to have effect in accordance with its provisions,

(b) the instrument ceases to have effect in accordance with any subsequent amendment duly made to it or has been duly revoked, or

(c) the instrument has been annulled by either House in accordance with subsection(1)(a).”.

On this group of amendments, the Minister may be able to respond to some of the broader points which were made.

Amendment No. 2 seeks to do a number of things. It states: “Every relevant statutory instrument made by the Minister shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas not less than 48 hours before they come into effect”. It talks about the statutory instruments being annulled if they do not have approval of both Houses. However, it also refers to exceptional circumstances where it may be deemed appropriate, because of urgency, that “following the agreement of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health, the need of such a regulation is deemed urgent, every relevant statutory instrument may be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is made for the purpose of this section.” We discussed a very similar amendment on another Bill not long ago.

I want to make a number of brief points. I know Members who have not spoken will want to come in, and we want to get through as many of the groups of amendments as possible. Therefore, we will certainly co-operate with the Chair to make sure that happens.

I accept this is a very difficult situation for everybody. It is certainly difficult for citizens and there is a lot of fatigue out there at the moment, which we can all accept. It is difficult for workers, for businesses and for families. We are two years into a pandemic that nobody saw coming and nobody wants. Nobody wants to see public health measures in place which impact on people's lives but they need to be put in place at times, and public health measures are very important and have been important to keep us safe.

It is equally important to acknowledge that mistakes were made. Mistakes were made by this Government. I would imagine that mistakes were made by Governments around the world but, certainly, a lot of mistakes were made by this Government. The problem is that if we support emergency legislation and we support the provisions of this Bill, I can then be held to the same standard as the Minister.

I want to give the Minister one example because communication is coming up all of the time. The Government is now talking about communication, not just the Opposition, who have been saying for a long time that there have been communications failures. Even the Government has been acknowledging in more recent times that there have been real communications failures at the heart of Government in regard to the Covid response. I did a radio interview at the weekend and I was asked some reasonable questions about my interpretation of regulations and additional public health measures that were brought into effect. The last meeting we had with the CMO was one of the rare occasions where the Opposition had a chance to actually put questions to the CMO. It was a very good, constructive meeting. He set out, as did Professor Nolan, the trajectory of the disease, the possibility of increased hospitalisations, the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario, although none of it was good. He said that, at that particular point in time, they were not looking at additional public health measures, and I believe he was right at that point, and maybe they were not. Not even a week later, recommendations were made in regard to children wearing masks in schools and recommendations were then made, which seemed to come out of the blue, that children should reduce their social contacts. We then got into the whole issue of whether children should go to pantos or go to social events, or pick one over the other, and, all of a sudden, we had more confusion and mixed messages. We had the public health experts saying one thing - that this should happen now and they were telling parents they should not go to any of these - and the Government maybe saying something a little bit different, which is what happens. That happened very quickly afterwards.

That was then followed by the additional public health measures that had an impact on the hospitality sector and the nightclub sector, and other measures.

I was asked my opinion on the regulations that provided for all of that. As I was giving the response, I was reminded that the Tánaiste was only speaking to the media on the same morning, thinking out loud as he does, asking and questioning the wisdom of the public health measures he signed off on. He is a member of the Cabinet sub-committee and I am sure he had all of the information on the potential risk of hospitalisations over the coming weeks. The point he was making was that hospitalisations seemed to be coming down and he expressed a presumption that we might have moved too quick with some of the public health measures. I did not say that; it was the Tánaiste. He sat at the Cabinet sub-committee and signed off on the measures and then signed off on the regulations as a member of Government but he was thinking out loud about whether any of this was necessary.

How in God's name is that fair to the Opposition? We have had no briefing since the meeting we had with the CMO. We have received no information or data on where we are with the trajectory of hospitalisations. We all celebrate and welcome the number of hospitalisations coming down. It is fantastic that they have come down in recent days - we all hope they will continue to come down - but I am assuming that the Minister has all that information and that the Tánaiste has it as well. I offer all of that as a good example of the position the Opposition finds itself in, which is not fair or reasonable. We are asked all of these questions and we are trying to figure out, without the detail the Government has, if it makes sense. At times, some of it does not make sense to people. There may be a public health rationale for it, but I am not in a position to answer those questions because I have not been given the relevant information. That is the problem. Then we are asked to give the Minister a blank cheque in this Bill to make regulations that we do not have any hand, act or part in drawing up. That is the fundamental point. Look what happened again in recent days. We have been saying for some time, as have others in opposition, that there have been mixed messages, that mistakes have been made, that there has been a lack of decision-making or poor decision-making and that there have been communication failures. The Government has been ham-fisted and gone about it in the wrong way again. It has given an impression that it is trying to gag public health officials.

There is an acknowledgement that at the very least there have been communication failures. One of the biggest communication failures that has been at the heart of Government is its failure to communicate with the Opposition. The Government has failed miserably in that regard in recent months. The Government’s communication strategy involves different Ministers saying different things and interpreting public health advice in different ways. The public health experts say one thing and the Government says something else. That leaves people confused and then we are all held to account.

I agree with Deputy Duncan Smith that we are having circular arguments. The reason for that is we are not seeing any changes or improvements. I wish it was different. I will not even respond to the political charges Deputy Kehoe made. I have been asked a million times if I support public health measures. I can be walked through every single one of them and I support them, as do the vast majority of Members of this House. That is because we know what is needed to keep people safe. However, I am not prepared to accept the clumsy way in which the Government have gone about it time and again. There is wisdom in what Deputy Duncan Smith said when he said that when we come back next year we have to look at how we do all of this. The quarrel is not about the public health measures as such. Rather, it is about: how they are all being put in place; how they are being communicated; the input from the Opposition or lack thereof; the lack of democratic oversight; and the lack of accountability and transparency, which are unacceptable.

If the Minister does not accept any of the amendments that try to give a semblance of democratic oversight, I cannot support this Bill, which gives the Government a blank cheque and which I am held to the same standard as the Minister on in respect of mistakes he has made in the past. I am assuming, given what I have seen already, that there is potential for mistakes to be made again in the future. That is not what I should do as a member of the Opposition. For that reason, I will be pressing amendment No. 2 and possibly some of the other amendments as well.

I want to speak on amendment No. 20, which is in this group. The Minister is not making it easy for us to support the legislation. We have already stated that we will support it, as we supported the previous legislation last month, but the Minister does not make it easy because he does not meet people halfway at all. This legislation grants wide-ranging powers to Government to introduce emergency measures and to do that by regulation. Each time we have debated emergency legislation, I have tabled amendments asking the Minister to provide notice to the Opposition when he passes regulations. I have not asked for a vote of the Dáil on that but I have asked the Minister, in order to improve communication and in order that everybody is aware of what is happening, to provide 48 hours of notice to Members of this House and to the public, and to lay the regulations before the Houses before they are implemented. That is a reasonable proposal and it is regrettable that the Minster did not meet us halfway in that regard. I also asked on a number of occasions that we would review the impact of the legislation prior to any rollover of it. Again, that is good practice and we have seen what happened in recent times when that legislation applied. We could see what the pros and cons of it were, if there were issues or difficulties, how many times enforcement actions were taken, what needs to change and if lessons are to be learned. That is good practice and it was a reasonable request but the Minister did not accede to that. That makes it difficult to work with the Minister.

Overall, in the past year the Minister has been remiss in providing provide adequate information by way of briefings to the Opposition. He should have done that and we should have all been working on this together and trying to achieve the best possible outcome. This legislation and the Government approach are all the weaker as a result of the failure to work with other people and listen to what other people are suggesting. The Minister has refused to listen to anyone else, certainly not to people on this side of the House. Even outside the House, he has refused to listen to anybody beyond NPHET. The latter is a good public health body and it has done a lot of good work in the past but it has not gotten everything right and there needs to be an acknowledgement of that. There are two standout areas; the first is ventilation and the second is antigen tests. The reason a subgroup of NPHET was set up at the end of last year is that the expertise on ventilation did not exist within NPHET. That expert group provided advice on ventilation in January and it provided a second report in March. The Minister chose to ignore those two reports. That is infuriating for people who are asking why the Minister is not listening to the science.

I interrupted other Deputies to remind them to speak to the amendment.

They did not get time to-----

The Deputy can speak for as long as she wants but the amendment is on regulations.

It would work much better if the Minister listened to the science, but he did not do that with ventilation and antigen tests, even though expert groups were set up for those matters. Members of the Opposition and the public are asking why the Government is mishandling this to the extent that it is and they are asking why it is not doing the logical and obvious things it has been advised to do. The fact that the Government has not done that means it needs an extension of special powers now. That has happened because serious mistakes have been made. In November, the Government suddenly started talking about antigen tests and now, in December, it is suddenly accepting that there is a need for air purification systems in schools. We paid an enormous price for the Government’s failure to listen to the science on that. That is why it is so difficult to support legislation which is about doing other things that are necessary.

The Minister's response on those obvious, practical things that would have made such a difference to the trajectory of the virus is really hard to understand. Not only does it cause annoyance and frustration among people, particularly those on this side of the House, the mistakes being made are costing the country dearly.

There is a need for regulations, undoubtedly, particularly with regard to Covid certificates and mask-wearing. They are the two stand out areas for which we need regulation and enforcement and we are supportive of those but we take exception to the fact that the Minister has not addressed the other issues and as I said, they have been very serious mistakes. In the context of this legislation, given how draconian it is, I strongly appeal to the Minister to at least agree the kind of safeguards that would be entailed with providing notice of the regulations. That is good practice but it also important from the point of view of making people aware of them.

We know that the public health messaging has been very poor, especially of late, when announcements are made or things are leaked by NPHET or whoever. NPHET says one thing, a kite is flown for a few days and then Government decides, depending on what way the public reacts. That has resulted in a very high level of confusion about the rules and the regulations. Even at this stage, trying to get basic information on the regulations - how they operate, how long one has to do this or that, what is allowed, how many individuals can be seated at tables and all those practical things that people are trying to find out - is really difficult because of the confusing messaging. Things must improve on that front because people are not only frustrated, they are confused as well. The vast majority of people want to do the right thing. In that context, it is really important that the Minister listens to the science on the key issues of antigen testing and ventilation. Of course, he should have listened to that science a long time ago, earlier in the year. I appeal to him, at least in relation to providing notice and clarity about regulations that are introduced, to give the kind of notice provided for in amendment No. 20.

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?

I will be as brief as I can. I wish to speak to amendment No. 24. Like the previous speakers, I feel the Minister seems to have set his face against accepting any idea, suggestion, engagement or interaction with the Opposition. I do not want to be repetitive. That is what is happening now. We have been locked out of everything for more than 13 months. That includes the other Opposition groups and the one I lead. The Minister knows best; he knows it all.

This amendment simply asks for things we should know, such as the number of times the section was invoked, what impact it had, whether there was any analysis as to whether there could have been a better outcome and whether we can improve it. Surely, what we are about in this House, in politics and in public and community life, is to make things better for everyone. Deputy McNamara is much more learned than me in legal matters. As he said, this the last chance we are going to get. If the Minister does not accept any of these amendments then he is away again on his merry way to sign stacks of statutory instruments on a whim. He probably will not even read them all. The powers the Minister is granting himself and that we are granting him in this House are extraordinary. It seems like the House is happy to do it. The first vote on Second Stage was in double figures. As I said, some Teachtaí Dála are telling the public these powers are not all in the Bill but they clearly are.

I do not want to delay the process but I have huge issues with the Covid certificates. I raised it with the Taoiseach and got no answers. I also want to know about the position of people who have recovered from Covid. Why was the period nine months and why was it reduced to six months? Is the Covid certificate just a tool to get to 93% or 94% or whatever percentage the Government wants to tell people it has rolled out vaccines to, so it can pat itself on the back? We know there is a third jab. The Tánaiste said at some stage it was not a booster but a third jab. Will there be four, five and six doses? When is it going to stop? I understand 22.5 million doses have been purchased ahead of time.

The Government has a plot here, and it thickens. It does not take a very bright person to see where it is going. That is why the Government is losing the public. That is why NPHET has lost the support of the public as well. We must weigh up the greater good. There has been no impact analysis on how the Covid certificate diminished in any shape or form the spread of Covid-19 infections. None. I asked for it today and all the Taoiseach could tell me was he had no answers. I asked him if he would lay before the House the science, information and everything else. The answer was "No". It is like the day of the last briefing we had in Government Buildings. I questioned Dr. Holohan three times about the churches being closed despite being fine big airy buildings.

We are wandering away from the amendments.

I will finish because there others and many more amendments to get to, including from ourselves. He told me that he would deal with the pandemic and we will do the science later. People are fed up with the science being done later. As I said today, they are war-weary. We cannot afford this. Consider the business people, or mental health, or the backlog of cancer and other issues that are killing our people. All our eggs are in the one basket. It is a very dodgy basket and the bottom is going to fall out of it one of these days and we will have nothing but gliogar.

I am going to speak to amendment Nos. 2, 20 and 24. I will be as brief as I can. It will probably be my last contribution on this this evening. That we would see the regulations is the most basic requirement. If we take the three amendments together, there are different requests in them. Some want the regulations to come before us so there is a period of time where we can annul them but that does not prevent the Minister bringing them into force. Amendment No. 20 or amendment No. 24 says he must bring it in afterwards so we can scrutinise the regulations. I have no idea why he is not doing that. I try to understand. I desperately try to be rational and reasonable and I have no idea. It is the most basic request from the ICCL. This draconian legislation is being rolled over. It will be even easier now as we are consolidating it into one piece of legislation and we will not get an opportunity to speak on it again. Deputy McNamara has set out what the Minister might or might not be able to do or not do under those regulations with absolutely no scrutiny.

I want to say something on the Taoiseach's comment that we do not have time for pre-legislative scrutiny. That was the most extraordinary comment I have ever heard in relation to a piece of legislation in my life.

It belies the fact we unanimously gave the Minister and the Government the power back in March. We stood here and gave it that power on the basis of a contract the Government would be honest and come back to us. It has never happened. This morning the Taoiseach told us we have discussed legislation. We never have. Last week was the first opportunity I had. I had two 20-minute slots and I am on record as thanking the system for that. I would say that will be the last time I or anybody else gets that type of time.

You would nearly give up at this point. I am going to stick to the amendments and why they are important. It is about scrutiny and oversight of the regulation so we can monitor what is happening. Why is that important? It is because of all the inconsistencies we have itemised. Practically everybody on the Opposition side has done so. I will stick to the ones I know personally. There is the six months' immunity Deputy McNamara referred to. I raised that last week. I am still waiting on a response from the Department and the Minister's office on why there is a distinction between six months' immunity and HIQA and NPHET saying nine months. It seems Deputy McNamara has seen something else in relation to endurance. It is simply unacceptable a member of my family has a pass saying six months when NPHET and HIQA said nine months and other authorities said longer. It is a positive thing that the Government would look at those who have had Covid and how they have managed to survive and not get it again. It is something we should be looking at. We should be looking at those who have not taken vaccinations for various reasons and how they have managed to survive Covid. Vaccination is only one part of tackling this public health crisis and it must always and everywhere be voluntary.

I will finish on something else Deputy McNamara raised, and which I raised last week. At what point will this stop? I do not mean the ever-changing virus. I do not mean the need for us to make our people safe and have a public health structure on the ground that is fit for purpose and hospitals that are fit for purpose. When will the never-ending regulations without scrutiny stop? I mean the ones that give the Minister unlimited power to decide I need three boosters to have a cup of coffee or I need five boosters to have a pint or six boosters to stay a couple of hours to have dinner. At what stage will that stop or has the Minister ever even thought about that? They are very serious topics that should be discussed. We should discuss where we are going with the pharma solution to this, which should be only one part of it. Of course, all the while the rich countries, including this one, seem to have endless pockets and the poorer countries have no access, and there is no equity of access for them.

I indicated on Second Stage that I was against this Bill. I was keeping an open mind about amendments, but it seems that the Minister has indicated by his silence that he will not accept any of them. That is entirely unacceptable and undemocratic. The approach of the Government poses the most serious threat to our democratic system and to the sense of solidarity we all should have with one another in dealing with the public health crisis.

We have probably covered many of the issues between this contribution and the last. I will, with the Ceann Comhairle's permission, address the various points that have been raised.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions. I will address Deputy McNamara's points. He stated that the amendments we are discussing right now give the Oireachtas the power to scrutinise the regulations. I fundamentally disagree with that statement. The Oireachtas already has that power. These amendments to the Bill do not give the Oireachtas power to scrutinise what the Government does. The Oireachtas has the power to scrutinise anything the Government does. Not only that, the Oireachtas has the power to annul every single regulation that I sign and that is put before this House. I signed one about half an hour before we started this debate and the Oireachtas can annul that regulation if it likes. It is very important-----

What was it about?

It is very important that we understand that-----

We have not got the numbers.

It is very important that we understand that the Oireachtas absolutely has the power to annul any regulation laid before it.

What did the Minister sign today? He makes the most ridiculous-----

Please, Deputy McNamara.

Deputy McNamara has taken to shouting regularly during people's contributions. I have sat in the Chamber for hours listening very carefully. I am trying to address all the points the Deputy raised. Will he afford me the respect of allowing me to answer his questions?

Please do not say we can scrutinise regulations when we cannot.

The Deputy has stood in the Chamber month after month and demanded-----

It is a fact that we cannot scrutinise the regulations.

The system is that Members get an opportunity to speak and the Minister gets an opportunity to respond. The Minister did not interrupt anybody else so please do not interrupt him.

I have a point of order. I would ask the Minister how we can scrutinise the regulations.

The Minister introduced the topic. He said that we could do so at any time when we cannot.

Let us hear the Minister out and it may become clearer for the Deputy.

Deputy McNamara has repeatedly demanded that I, on behalf of the Government, be accountable to this House. He is right to demand that, but in order to hold me to account he has to let me finish and answer him. I am trying to answer him.

The point I am making is that either House of the Oireachtas already has the power to annul any regulation it wants at any time it wants, but these amendments go much further. They do not just make these Houses the legislative body, which they are, they also make them the regulator. It is in the amendments that every single regulation proposed would have to be voted on and passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. A very important democratic safeguard is in place, which is that either House can annul any regulation. If we move to a position whereby any regulation the Government wants to pass has to be voted on and passed actively by these Houses, we have moved into a completely different place where the legislative body becomes the regulator. I will speak to why that simply will not work in my contribution later on.

The Deputy asked directly whether the Covid pass was about vaccine uptake or keeping people safe. The rationale is based on keeping people safe. The rationale, which any of us are free to disagree with, is that the Covid pass is being applied to higher risk environments. There is a very real concern that there are two risks to unvaccinated people who go into those higher risk environments. The first and most important is that they are at a much higher risk of serious illness if they are unvaccinated and, second, there is also a higher transmission risk. These are the two public health rationales for the Covid pass.

Various Deputies asked a very important question on the group of people who do not necessarily choose not to get vaccinated, but who cannot be vaccinated. We know there are situations where people cannot be vaccinated. I am very happy to keep this under constant review and I have spoken to public health officials about it previously. The last time we discussed it, the point was made to me that many of the people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons are more vulnerable much of the time, by virtue of having an underlying condition. By giving an exemption, we would be saying to a higher risk individual that there is an exemption allowing that person to go into a higher risk environment. There is a real and genuine concern about that. We can debate whether it is right or wrong but the concern is motivated only by keeping those people safe. That is the rationale at present. It is something we need to keep under review for obvious reasons, some of which have been debated here.

No one is suggesting permanent immunity. I heard the Deputy and I understand the modelling. The point about the modelling was that it did not model the different curves. As the Deputy is aware, the data we now have is that different vaccines wane to different levels and at different speeds. I have not seen exactly what the Deputy referenced, but my guess is that a piece of modelling was probably done by the modelling team that simply did not factor in any waning. That is not a judgment as to whether there is waning or not. It might simply have occurred before the modelling team had the ability to model for it. To be clear, nobody is suggesting these vaccines do not wane. I suggest we have incontrovertible evidence that they do, hence the importance of the boosters.

Specifically on the Deputy's constituent, I can clarify that the Covid pass is not required for swimming pools. They are exempt so that is some good news, hopefully. Nor is the pass required for personal services. I know the Deputy was not suggesting that it is, but he referenced haircuts. My heart breaks for that person and that is the case for all of us. This is an awful situation to be in, but in that individual case that is the situation.

Deputy Nolan raised a major concern, which is the impact of all of this on non-Covid care, and whether it is having an effect and already leading to more severe illness. I think it is. Have there been delays in diagnosis? Undoubtedly, there have been. There is a huge issue with the impact this has had on non-Covid care in Ireland and everywhere else. It is very serious. However, where I disagree with Deputy Nolan, and Deputy McGrath might have made the same point, is that somehow having these measures in place is the cause of some of the impacts on non-Covid care. The opposite is the case. One of the benefits of these measures in suppressing the virus is to free up as much of the healthcare system for cancer care, paediatrics and everything else that is required.

I acknowledge Deputy Shortall's support for the Bill. She said that I may not be that easy to work with. My response is that the Deputy may not have been the easiest to work with at all times either. However, I have genuinely tried to make meaningful moves that do not seem to be acknowledged. There was a request that members of the Joint Committee on Health be notified of regulations. I have signed three regulations since then and my understanding is that committee members should have been notified of all of them. I have written to the Department and corresponded with the Chair of the committee to that effect. That is something that was requested.

The committee got those notifications.

The Deputy asked for an impact report before we come back on mandatory hotel quarantine and I committed to doing that and discussing it at whatever length the Dáil and Seanad wanted. There was a serious and substantive request for a change to a Bill in July, which was to add one sunset clause. It was a request from Deputies Shortall and Cullinane and others in this House. It was a matter of substance such that I had to go back to Government and get an updated Government decision on it and then we came back. That is one of the reasons we are here. There was a major request for a change to a Bill. I listened carefully. I went back to Government. I got a different Government decision and I came back and we amended it.

In my ten years in opposition, I do not remember any of us in opposition succeeding in having major changes such as those made. I know it can be frustrating, but genuine efforts and substantive changes are being made to Bills through the process. This Bill has been crafted cognisant of that ask from the Opposition the last time. Only one roll over is allowed in this Bill, because of what the Opposition asked for the last time we were here on it.

The Deputy has quite rightly asked for more briefings. There was a briefing the week before last and I am organising one for this week as well, especially in the context of Omicron and everything we are learning about it. I refute the claim. It is not fair to say I am not listening or genuinely trying to engage with the Oireachtas and Opposition. I really am and they are examples of changes.

Ventilation and antigen testing were the two issues I raised.

That is my next point. When the Deputy suggests that I or others are not listening to the science, she knows that it is simply not true. It is a good sound bite, but the Deputy, I and everyone in here knows the Government's response has been public health led. The Deputy suggests I will not listen to anyone other than NPHET and then gives the example of antigen testing. I set up an expert group, led by the chief scientific officer, to give me advice other than that of NPHET. I took that advice and then I set up an implementation group, led by Professor Horgan, and that is the reason much of the work on antigen testing happened. It is simply not true and I know the Deputy knows it is not true, to suggest-----

(Interruptions).

I will just finish this sentence and then I will come back to the Deputy.

It was six months after the Minister got advice from Professor Mark Ferguson.

The Deputy knows it is not true to suggest I will not listen to anyone other than NPHET on antigen testing.

I recognise the Deputy has been advocating for ventilation consistently for a long period of time. It has been looked at several times. There was the group that reported into NPHET, as the Deputy knows. NPHET did not endorse its view, but noted it. We have this group in the HSE called antimicrobial resistance and infection control, AMRIC, which was originally set up for antimicrobial resistance, but is providing expert advice on this. I will point out another group that does excellent work, the scientific advisory group for emergencies, SAGE, that advised the UK Government. It recently published a paper on ventilation and HEPA filters, on which much of the conversation has been around. It did not conclude this should be used in every school. It said it could have a role to play, but that more data and evidence were required.

Having looked at the evidence, the experts are concluding that it is not as clear cut. However, I welcome, and have no doubt the Deputy welcomes, the recent announcements of additional funding in education. The Deputy's amendment is more modest and is not about the Oireachtas having to vote through all regulations. On the face of it, it seems like a reasonable one I would like to be able to accept. The reason I cannot accept it is the timing issue. I am trying to meet the Deputy halfway. We have put in place, based on the debate we had last week, timely updates for all of the Deputies on the regulations.

I asked again today for the Department not just to send the regulation, but a briefing note on it. Of course, the Dáil can schedule its time to debate any of those. The reason I cannot accept the amendment is the 48 hours. There is a need, sometimes, to be able to move very quickly. Last week, when we found out about Omicron, there was a Cabinet meeting on Friday, while we were all here debating Second Stage of this Bill. Cabinet made decisions. I was here and did not attend the meeting. We, in the Department of Health, needed to regulate and have those regulations signed by midnight on Monday, which we did.

However, if we just think it through, it would be reasonable if we are laying things before the Dáil for 48 hours. There would be 48 hours where the Dáil and the Oireachtas were sitting, rather than over a weekend. If we were to do this, we would have had to lay them before the Dáil yesterday, allow for yesterday and today, and then potentially have them come into effect tomorrow. Sometimes, there is a need to move. I am genuinely trying to find a way of going as far as I can, without removing the Government's ability, on occasion, to move very quickly. We are monitoring Omicron on a daily basis in terms of responses. That is the rationale, but I am trying to go as far as I can, other than that.

Of course, Deputy McGrath opposes this. He has opposed everything on Covid. Of course, he wants pre-legislative scrutiny, but what he did not point out was that the officials briefed the Joint Committee on Health. I acknowledge and thank the committee for agreeing to waive pre-legislative scrutiny, as it has done before. Let us be honest. The Deputy has been against public health measures from day 1.

That is not true.

It is true. He has accused me and here he goes. He cannot listen to it.

On a point of order-----

No, it is not a point of order.

I am on record as saying it. That is not true. It is simply an untruth. The Minister knows that. When he was in opposition with me, we attended meetings in Government Buildings. We supported all the measures from the start, until the genie got out of the bottle and we knew the kind of a fraud the Minister was.

The Deputy is a great man for giving insults-----

There is nothing factual. The Minister should stick to the facts.

He has accused me and Government of being Nazis. He said in this House last week that we should be brought to the Hague for war crimes. He is a great man for throwing out horrendous insults, but he cannot take it. He cannot listen to the response.

I listen to the truth.

There he goes again. He is not able to listen to the response.

I am. It is the truth I want.

He just gives it, but he is not able to take it. He is not able to listen to any criticism.

I supported the measures at the outset. We all did.

He does not support the measures and he has voted and advocated consistently in a way that would put peoples lives and those of our nurses and doctors at risk. His record on this issue on opposing all of the measures required to keep people safe in this country speaks for itself. What does he do? He accuses people of being Nazis and says they should be tried for war crimes.

The Minister continues to mislead the House.

The Deputy is a disgrace-----

He continues to mislead the House.

-----and he continues to be such.

What the Minister is saying is factually incorrect.

He is not able to take the criticism.

I am able to take it.

He is able to lash it out. He says horrible things.

I ask the Minister to have the record straight.

He says horrible things to people in this House all the time, to people elected to represent the people, but he is not able to take it.

I am well able to take it, but I want the truth. The Minister does not know what the truth is.

I acknowledge the point made by Deputies Smith and Naughten. We need a medium- to long-term approach. It does not work for anybody to keep going through cycle after cycle and I am open to meeting with Deputies to discuss it. We are thinking through more medium-term responses, operationally, but I would be open to any ideas from the Oireachtas. Obviously, the reason we are in here again and again is we have put in the sunset clauses. It is one of the important safeguards. We are here going through the full legislative process now, because we have the sunset clauses in place. In one way, we are here for the very best of reasons, which is these powers fall automatically, as they should. However, I would be open to thoughts from any colleagues on how else that could be done. The Deputy had mentioned people who were unvaccinated as well. We might have addressed that.

Deputy Naughten made reference to face masks being worn by children and asked whether this could be constantly reviewed. It is reviewed a lot. Specific to these amendments and this Bill, face masks for children are advisory.

They are not regulated for so would not fall into scope. I appreciate it is something we need to keep under review all the time.

I acknowledge Deputy Cullinane has been constructive in many ways over the last year and a half. For example, he supported the mandatory hotel quarantining Bill. However, he has been firm in his criticism of this so I will be equally firm in my response. What I have heard sounds like sloganeering. The Deputy's concerns are legitimate in respect of making sure there is democratic accountability in place but the things he has said are demonstrably false. He said we have never made any serious change to the legislation. We have made changes he looked for. I covered that earlier. One of the reasons we are here is that the Deputy and his party looked for substantial changes to these powers. I listened carefully, went back to the Government, secured a different decision and amended the legislation. That was the Bill in June this year. I noted the Deputy still voted against that Bill. He asked for a substantial change, got it and his party still voted against the Bill. This is from memory and I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong. Similarly, I understand his party will vote against the Bill this evening. We made changes and amended the legislation, as the Deputy's party wanted, but it still voted against it.

The Deputy says there is no reciprocity, but there is. Maybe he wants more and maybe we can do more but to suggest there is no reciprocity is not true. He is simply ignoring it.

A core part of the criticism from Sinn Féin is that there is not sufficient Oireachtas engagement and the Oireachtas is being ignored. I will go through what happened last week and this week. We are not even finished this week, so it is the past week and a half. On Wednesday last week, I had Seanad statements on Covid and Covid measures. On Thursday, we had the Health (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill in the Dáil. On Friday, we had Second Stage of this Bill, as well as a Private Members' Bill, and the Deputy and I along with many other Deputies took part in Oral Questions. All three of those sessions happened on Friday. Today, we had the Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill, which is not relevant to Covid, and now we are here again for many hours. That is the level of Oireachtas engagement there has been in recent days.

In terms of Oireachtas briefings, the week before last there was one such briefing and we are organising another one for this week. Officials briefed the health committee on this and other Bills. Comprehensive information is being provided daily on vaccinations, hospitalisations, critical care and so forth. NPHET advice and minutes are published. All regulations are laid before this House and either House can annul them. All regulations are published online. As per this session, the legislation falls because it includes sunset clauses and the full legislative process comes into play. Between this week and last, there have been seven Topical Issue matters on health in the Dáil, two Commencement matters in the Seanad, and the Deputy, I and others spent this morning in the health committee discussing the termination of pregnancy review. Last week, I answered 499 parliamentary questions. This week, up to the time I got the note, I had answered 212 parliamentary questions to Members of this House. I respectfully suggest that the allegation or criticism that I am not engaging with this House is unjustified. That is just what has happened this and last week. It is a pretty comprehensive level of engagement.

The core proposal in these amendments is that any regulation the Government wanted to bring through would be laid before the House for a minimum of 48 hours. It is reasonable to assume that would be done on sitting days, we would not do it on a Friday to have the regulation come through on a Monday and the House would have to vote on each regulation for it to come into effect. That is the core of what is being proposed in the amendments. If the Dáil is to vote on each regulation, I take it as given that there would have to be debate before any such vote. That is a reasonable assumption to make. I conservatively suggest the standard debates here, to go through all the groups, involve sessions of three and a half hours. If we were to implement this approach, the Government would lay these regulations a minimum of 48 hours before they could come into effect and, for them to come into effect, there would be a Dáil debate lasting three and a half hours during which every Deputy would have the opportunity to speak. There would also be a vote on each regulation. That is how this proposal would be given meaningful effect.

I asked for a note on how that would play out in terms of Dáil time taken. Since July, I have signed 171 Covid regulations, including three in the seven days since we debated Second Stage of this Bill. To have three and a half hours of debate on each of 171 Covid regulations would amount to about 600 hours of debate. If we took six hours on every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the Dáil sits, which is most of the time that is given to all legislation, it would take 33 weeks of Dáil sittings to get through 600 hours. Since last July, the Dáil has sat for 52 weeks. This measure would take out 33 of the last 52 weeks the Dáil has sat.

There are only 52 weeks in a year.

It is over the year and a half since July last year. Making the modest assumptions that each of these regulations has to be voted on, which is what the regulations say, and would involve three and a half hours of debate - this does not include the Seanad - it would essentially take up all the capacity the Dáil has to legislate. After Oral Questions, the Order of Business, Leaders' Questions and all of that, let us assume there are about six hours left in any given sitting day. Overnight, these regulations would more or less end the Dáil's ability to legislate. They would require six hours a day, three days per week for 33 weeks. That is not practical or something the Dáil could do because we would be able to do very little else. Given that it is not practicable, are there things we can do to address the legitimate concerns raised by colleagues today, last week and before that? I hope colleagues will accept that the briefings, notification on regulations, explanatory notes on regulations and various other matters we have discussed constitute a genuine attempt to meet the spirit of what they ask for because we simply cannot implement these regulations.

To make a political point to Deputy Cullinane, I have tried and am trying to meet the spirit of what is being asked for. He and I know the regulations he has tabled cannot be implemented. If he votes against the Bill because the Government will not amend it in a way that would essentially end the Dáil's ability to legislate, then he is consciously and deliberately voting against a public health-led approach. I do not believe he believes that. I believe he supports the public health approach and that he and his party accept there has to be a statutory basis for some of these regulations and public health measures.

Therefore, I would put it to the Deputy that it simply is not a reasonable position to say "we support public health, we accept there has to be a statutory basis, but we are going to vote against that statutory basis unless you do something that cannot be done." That is not fair on the people we are trying to protect from Covid and I do not think it would be fair on the health care workers, doctors, nurses and everyone else working in our hospital system. I do not believe that would be reasonable. I would ask the Deputy to meet me half way. I am genuinely trying to do things differently. I am asking not that the Deputy withdraw his amendments, but that he not vote against the Bill. He should by all means vote for his amendments, but I ask him to think again about voting against the Bill because the message that sends to all of our health care workers and to everyone who is going to get Covid and be very sick - unfortunately, many people still will get it and be very sick - is entirely the wrong message.

I had not intended to come back in but in light of the Minister's response I have no choice. I want to put a number of points on the record. The Minister's argument that I and Sinn Féin would consciously and deliberately vote against a public health-led response to this pandemic would hold some water if when I was asked privately and publicly if I support public health measures my answer had not always been "Yes". There are many different opinions on Covid. There are people who believe that, at times, we should have gone further and others who believe, as was articulated by some Members of the House this evening, that we have gone too far. I do not recall that I have ever said during my time as health spokesperson for Sinn Féin that I did not support a public health measure that was brought in. There are things I would have done differently. There are certainly things I would have handled better. For example, when the regulation and the change with regard to the requirement for children to wear a face mask was brought in, I said that I would have come at that differently. I would have looked at it as an advisory measure. I certainly would not have sent out instructions through the Department that children should, for example, be excluded from schools. I would have done things a bit differently. At no time during this pandemic have I or Sinn Féin said publicly or privately, inside this Chamber our outside of it, that we were against public health measures. We all get criticism from different sections of society for different positions that we adopt. None of this is done for any political gain because there is no winning in this, in my view. There is no political win for anybody. This is an absolute disaster that has been landed in our laps and everybody is trying to do their absolute best. That is the first point I want to make.

I have never in any of my contributions said that there was a limit on statements on Covid. We have had copious amounts of statements on Covid, which I called for and welcomed. We have also had numerous sessions of statements in regard to the public health response. Even though we were limited and constrained for a long time by the cyberattack in regard to parliamentary questions, I understood that and I never complained about it. There was a great deal of information we were looking for that we could not get, but I never once said that the Minister was not responding to parliamentary questions. I cannot recall the Minister mentioned, but I presume it is accurate. I regularly table parliamentary questions and I get an appropriate response on most occasions. I also never said that the Minister does not take Topical Issues or that Topical Issues on health are not heard. Very often one of the criticisms across the board is that a Minister of State as opposed to the Minister takes Topical Issues, but that is not the issue. The point the Minister was making is that there is a lot of oversight in regard to health generally and Covid. I never said that that was not the case. What I did say was that in regard to crucial decisions that are made in respect of public health advice, which the Government then has to heed and implement, there is no input from the Opposition at almost any level. That is the point that the Minister entirely misses.

I will get to the specifics of the amendments and respond to the some of the points that the Minister made and, as he requested, try to meet him half way. To be honest, we have tried to do that throughout this pandemic. Some of what I will say we already said months ago, but for whatever reason the Minister did not heed it. It is important to be frank and to put that back on the Minister. Essentially, this Bill gives the Minister the power to make regulations. The public health advice is given, it is made public and that causes some difficulties for Government because it can be days before it makes a decision. I have heard many in government talk about that. That is why the Government is now getting some push back from within in regard to the role of NPHET and communications. Essentially, the public health advice comes, the Cabinet sub-committee meets, the Cabinet makes a decision on what elements of that public health advice will be heeded and implemented. Following agreement at Cabinet, the Minister for Health then brings forward regulations. Nobody on the Opposition benches has any input into that process. I ask the Minister to understand this from where I stand. I am then asked to give him and the Government the power to make those regulations and to interpret the public health advice not as I or anybody from the Opposition sees fit but as the Government sees fit. The Minister puts the regulations in place and, as I have pointed out on numerous occasions, very often the Government has not got it right. All sorts of miscommunications, mismanagement and bad decision making arises, as it has on many occasions. If I support the Minister being given a blank cheque, I am as culpable as anybody else. I am not prepared to put myself in that position because I do not believe it is right.

I will return to the point I was making in regard to the public health advice. The Minister receives the public health advice. Taking one element of the most recent advice he was given as an example, if I am correct the letter sent to the Minister by NPHET advised that bars should close at 11.30 p.m. but the Government chose not to implement that part of the advice. That was a decision the Minister made. I am not saying it was the right or wrong decision, but that the Government does not always literally follow every piece of advice given by NPHET and that is what ends up in the regulations. The Government sits, as it is entitled to do; the Cabinet sub-committee meets, as it is entitled to do; and the Cabinet meets, as it is entitled to do. The Cabinet has to look at all of the different implications of all of the measures that are brought in, exercise what it sees as its best judgment and make decisions. The regulations flow from that. We do not have any hand, act or part in any of that, as I have said in the past. I welcome that the Minister has said that more briefings will be provided and that the Joint Committee on Health has in more recent times been given more notice in regard to regulations. That is going in the right direction.

The Minister said that if we were to do what is proposed in these amendments we would never get anything else done, which is nonsense and a bit of theatre to back up his argument. The Business Committee structures the business of the House. The Business Committee can act in a responsible way, which, on most occasions, it does. On some occasions, there can be a bit of play acting from both sides. By and large, the Business Committee works and the business of the House is done in an orderly way. If in a particular week there are a number of regulations, they can be grouped and debated in one slot if necessary. The problem is there is zero accountability or debate in regard to regulations, not even in terms of approval. The Minister can agree or disagree as to whether or not there would be a degree of approval needed from the Oireachtas, but there is also no debate afterwards. On the vast majority of occasions, there has been no debate before the regulations have been made, no debate after they have been made, no scrutiny and no briefings. That is the bottom line. If the Minister believes there is a different way to do it and, if he can find a way to ensure that there is some level of democratic oversight, then I would be willing to meet him half way and to support that.

I want to put it back to the Minister. I have heard a great deal of politics being played by people on both sides of this House in regard to Covid. Covid has been one of the biggest challenges that has faced humanity and people on this island and in this State. I have never sought to play politics with it. I have always sought to do the right thing by public health advice, to keep people safe and to encourage them, as I do now, to follow the public health advice, get vaccinated and to get the booster jab.

I am not afraid to say any of this because it is right and appropriate. We have always said that and I have always advocated for appropriate public health responses. However, I also have a responsibility to hold the Minister and the Government to account. I make no apologies whatsoever for saying that the communication skills of the Government have been quite poor. The criticism of the Minister does not always come from me; I have heard a lot of criticism of him from people in the media. Many people have questioned his ability to communicate the public health messages. He needs to look to himself when he talks about people's views around the Covid response. There is much criticism of the Government and some criticism of the Minister in regard to his communication skills.

The greatest failure of the Government, however, is its lack of planning in many areas. This was dealt with by a number of previous speakers, including Deputy Shortall, who talked about antigen testing. Yes, an expert group was set up, but it took an awful long time for the Minister, apparently, to convince others in the Cabinet to accept many of its recommendations. It took far too long for there to be any movement on antigen testing. I will not even go into the whole area of ventilation. Again, an expert group was set up and it seems that many of its recommendations were binned. We have to interpret all of that information in the same way the Minister does. We are looking at all the advice that is given to the Government but we do not get it in the same way the Minister does.

I am making these points because I think democratic oversight is really important. We are talking about emergency powers that are very draconian. We are discussing public health measures that have a real and profound impact on people's lives. I have never said public health measures are not necessary. However, if the Government is free to interpret public health advice in a nuanced way and have a view on how it should be implemented, as it has done, then surely the same right should be afforded to the Opposition. We have never been given that opportunity. The Minister and the Government can be flexible when it comes to public health advice, as they have been, but that flexibility does not seem to be afforded to the Opposition.

I finish on the point on which I started. There have been far too many mistakes by the Government in making regulations and the interpretation of guidelines and regulations. As I said, that has landed the Tánaiste and other members of the Cabinet in trouble in the past. Mistakes were made on other issues as well, which were dealt with by previous speakers. We have had our hands burned far too many times. I am not going to give the Minister a blank cheque to make regulations to do what I have seen done in the past, without any level of democratic oversight. It is not beyond the wit of the Oireachtas to find appropriate ways to ensure that oversight is there, if it is not to be done by way of these amendments. To have no oversight, accountability or transparency is absolutely unacceptable. If the Minister were standing in the position I am in and if Fine Gael Deputies were sitting on these benches and having exactly the same experience I have had, there is not a chance they would give a Sinn Féin Government a blank cheque in the way the Minister expects our party to give one to him and the Government. That is not going to happen.

The Minister said the Dáil has the power to scrutinise and annul regulations. For the avoidance of any doubt, I completely accept that the Dáil has the power to annul regulations, but it does not have the power to scrutinise them and therein lies the problem. The choice is either to annul or not to annul. I am sure that if a motion were put down to annul a regulation, the response from the Government would be to say that chaos would reign because there would be no fallback. We would be told, "If you annul this, there will be no provision in place immediately after you annul it." In fact, the reason I am sure of this is that it is exactly what the Government did on the one occasion a motion was brought forward to annul a regulation, which was done by the Rural Independent Group in Private Members' time. There is no possibility to scrutinise a regulation and ask what the basis is for it, whether there is a different way we could approach it and whether we could change and improve it. That power is not there. There is the power to annul or not to annul, and that is insufficient. It was insufficient at the very beginning of the Covid pandemic and now, two years on, the Minister is looking for powers that will extend for a further length of time. We need a little nuance. We need to be able to tease out and scrutinise measures and propose better solutions. In fairness to the Minister, he is not suggesting that he, NPHET or anybody else has a monopoly on wisdom. Surely we can all bring a perspective to these matters. Such views may not always be right but we can always benefit from listening to other people and perspectives. That is why I am supporting this amendment.

The Minister said the Oireachtas would become the regulator if these amendments were accepted. He will correct me if I am wrong but I think he meant the Oireachtas would become the legislator rather than the regulator. In any event, the Oireachtas becoming the legislator or having the power to make laws is not a bad thing. It is democracy and it is what we were elected to do. He pointed out that 171 regulations have been made. With respect, I suggest that is part of the problem. There is a new regulation every couple of days and people do not know what is lawful and not lawful because things are changing so quickly. I remind the Minister of the time during the summer when nobody knew what was lawful for an outdoor gathering. It took the Attorney General coming out with a clarification reminiscent of Rudy Giuliani during the Trump years to explain that, in fact, the Tánaiste did not break the law. The law was not what we thought it was or what people were told it was. The line was, "Hey guys, this is the law and we did not break it."

I am not saying regulations are not necessary but if we had fewer of them and if more thought was put into the ones we do have and there was more scrutiny of them, perhaps the public would have more buy-in to them or at least be more aware of what they are. If the public is not aware of them, at least the Tánaiste would be. We also need to bear in mind that these regulations are not just academic matters. They affect the lives and livelihoods of people across the country. At this point, the power to bring them in unchecked and without any scrutiny of them is undemocratic because it is not necessary. There should be an ability to scrutinise.

The Minister mentioned that he answered 490-plus parliamentary questions this week alone. I think I got the number right. The response I get to the majority of questions I put in to him is that it is a service level matter for the HSE, which will get back to me in due course. I am waiting two years for the HSE to clarify certain issues. Last May, we were given a figure for the number of people who died from Covid-19 in the mid-west. I asked whether it was the primary or a secondary cause, differentiation between the two being noted on death certificates. It is important to differentiate in this way. People can die primarily from Covid or they can die with Covid. We need to know what the increase in mortality is from the virus. I also had a parliamentary question about the incidence of pericarditis and myocarditis, to which I got no response whatsoever. We need to know whether there has been an increase in those conditions. If not, that is great, but if there is such an increase, we need to know about it. Just because the Minister is replying to parliamentary questions does not mean he is giving answers to them.

The Minister explained that the rationale for the Covid pass was public safety, notwithstanding what the Tánaiste said in the Seanad. I asked a specific question regarding what the Tánaiste had additionally said about further boosters possibly being necessary. Will the Covid pass be limited to people who have had boosters, if that is what is recommended? Will that happen or will it not? I would like an answer to that because if this amendment is not passed, it is something I will not be able to ask the Minister, or request an answer on, in the future.

Will people with natural immunity be allowed access to those premises as is envisaged in the Bill before us, contains provisions the Minister is seeking to roll over from previous legislation? That was a specific question I asked which was not addressed. I did not suggest that it is permanent; I stated that NPHET modelling was predicated upon infection-induced immunity. It was predicated upon being permanent. I said clearly that I had not read any medical journal to that effect, but I read medical journals which suggested that it is enduring and that immunity provided by vaccines wanes. However, the system we have in place is the opposite of that, whereby persons who have vaccine-induced immunity have permanent Covid-19 passes - I have asked the Minister if he will be changing that or not - whereas persons who have an immunity which is based on recovery have time-limited passes, even though the science suggests the opposite to be the case. I asked specifically about immunity.

I thank the Minister for the clarity around swimming pools, particularly because that is not what my constituents had understood. There is confusion because of the sheer volume of the regulations and how quickly they change. People often do not know what is the law and what is not. However, I thank the Minister for that clarification because I can tell him that it will come as welcome news to a family in Clare tonight.

To correct the record, when this pandemic commenced, we were all, as Opposition leaders, summoned to Government Buildings. The record will prove that was there was unanimity on all sides of this House - among independents and everybody else. We in the Rural Independent Group put our shoulders firmly to the wheel and accepted the public health advice. We did everything were asked to do. Of course we did. That was until we found out that there was an unaccountable body, NPHET, many other agencies and the previous Minister involved. Then the current Minister took over. The ironic thing is that he seems to have memory loss. He was with us at those meetings because he was an Opposition Deputy at the time. The record will show this. If the Minster does not want to correct the record, I cannot make him correct it and neither can the Ceann Comhairle. It is disingenuous of the Minister to suggest what he did. We went, we found out and we saw what was happening. Thankfully, it did not end up the way we thought. The fear of God was put into us - maybe with good reason at the time - but we saw how matters panned out as time passed. It is our duty as Opposition Deputies to hold Government account. That is our definite duty under the Constitution.

The Minister said that he signed 171 regulations. He did not sign 71, 21, 11 or 17, but 171. That is a frightful number of statutory instruments and regulations to which we have no access and no recourse to question, to deal with, to amend, to support or to do anything with. They are just signed by the Minister. He said he signed one this evening before he came in here. He may have indicated that he signed two - I am not sure. I asked the Taoiseach about pre-legislative scrutiny earlier and he made the most alarming statement. The head of the Government, the Minister’s leader, said that pre-legislative scrutiny would take too long and is too slow. That says it all.

We are here and we have tabled amendments. The Rural Independent Group tabled an amendment the purpose of which is to bring these measures to an end in February, but it will not be reached. The Minister is making a great play about all the time that he has given to the Bill. There is a three-hour debate on Committee and Remaining Stages. There were three hours of debate last week. The Minister never replied to any of the questions that I had put to him. Those questions were drafted, voluntarily, by legal people. They related to the draconian powers in respect of detention and everything else, and why the Minister wanted them. Some of the amendments before us this evening ask the Minister to lay before the House reports on the number of times those powers have been invoked. All that he told us was that he had those powers all the time.

Fair play is fine play with me. My voting record here will always show that because it is on the record of the House and no one can lie about it. Tens of thousands of people signed up for Ireland’s call. I do not know what to think. I put down several parliamentary questions to the Department and I could never a the figure as to how many people were taken on and how man were willing to come back here from all over the world in the spirit of meitheal. Ní neart go cur le chéile. They came to help out in a time of need. Everybody put their shoulder to the wheel. From those in the front-line services, to the people who were just able to walk, to people who were 100 years of age and more. Everybody did it.

On messaging, we have no members of the media - or very few - to question the Minister. We have a few journalists who stand out there. There is no media scrutiny. The Department and the HSE have paid vast amounts of money to media outlets. Through parliamentary questions I am trying to elicit information on the exact amounts that were paid and to which exact outlets. That is buying the media, as far as I am concerned, and buying silence. Some €3.884 billion extra was spent by the HSE and Department of Health in the period from March to December 2020. I have no idea yet what has been spent in 2021, but I am sure it surpasses the €3.884 billion that was spend in the nine months of the pandemic in 2020. Much of it was recklessly spent on buildings and procurement. There was no proper tender process, no accountability, no nothing. The Minister expects us to be silent, to support him and to give him a blank cheque, as Deputy Cullinane said.

There was a whole mess in respect of antigen testing and an abject refusal to entertain its use. Many of us are using antigen tests on a daily basis in order to monitor whether we might be infected. The Minister has draconian powers and he can detain people if his officials think that people are being reckless. He was going to pay for the antigen tests. When he was finally dragged, kicking and screaming, into the world of antigen tests 18 months after they became available, the Minister stated that he was going to pay for them, subsidise them and everything else. Then, hey presto, he decided that the market would dictate the position. The market is not much good to people who cannot afford antigen tests. There are many who cannot afford them. Those in big families cannot afford them. Whether they cost €4 each or €8 each, it does not make much difference. We cannot find out how much it costs for PCR tests. I am told that 1 million PCR tests were carried out in the past number of weeks. Who is paying that bill? What is the cost to the taxpayer?

The Deputy should come back to the amendment.

I am, but I have to reply because the Minister explicitly replied to all the amendments and all of our statements. He accused me, wrongly, of not supporting any of the public health measures. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows this. She is on record here countless times saying that we all supported the measures. However, when the runaway train forgot to stop and when the doors of the carriages were locked, nobody could get on. There was demonisation of people who, for whatever reason, medical or otherwise, could not take vaccines. There has been demonisation and the stigmatisation of people regarding masks and everything else. Then there are the narratives in the media. It is not a good place for a modern democracy to be in; it is a bad place. Untold damage is being done. Families are being divided. Communities are being divided. It is shameful. The power of the media and the money behind it are quite shocking also.

The Minister made an alarming statement that we should roll over any statutory instruments or any pieces of legislation. We cannot. We saw the vote tonight. I was one of the tellers for it. I was proud that the vote was called last Friday evening. The vote was defeated by double figures, because the Government has the cobbled together majority of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, as well as Government Independents who are more Fine Gael than Fine Gael themselves. They are supporting all of the legislation, no matter what it is. They tell people when they ring up “That is not in the legislation at all. Mattie McGrath is only imagining it.” I got this information from eminent lawyers from Lawyers for Justice Ireland who researched the Bill when we did not get proper details about it and the Minister failed to provide information on it to us.

I will take no lectures from the Minister. I will be as robust in debate as anybody else. I am waiting with bated breath to find out what was spent in 2020. Where is the endgame? Where is the endgame? The concept of flattening the curve was for two weeks in the first instance. The Minister has put many different acronyms on the restrictions, but we are going on and on and on. The demonising of people and the stigmatising of people that is going on is shocking. Fear is being driven into people.

I am glad that the Minister clarified for Deputy McNamara the matter relating to the autistic child. We have all received those heart-rending emails and phone calls to our offices about deaf people, those with hearing impairments and those with different speech and language defects and problems.

There are people with learning disabilities, or learning difficulties - I do not want to be accused of using the wrong language - and ordinary people who have a plethora of problems, and teachers are trying to teach them in the classroom. There is the whole area of ventilation and what the Minister was going to do for the schools but none of that has materialised. We are now turning to the children. We were told so many times that schools were the safest place someone could be but that has suddenly changed. There are mixed messages coming from the Government and the media.

My group and I will not be withdrawing our amendment and we will not be giving the Minister a blank check. He got one to the tune of €3.884 billion, on top of the €19 billion of current annual spending. God knows, I am sure it will be €6 billion for the full year, or at least €4.5 billion or €5 billion. That spending went on unchecked and unfettered and was not accountable to this House.

The Minister spoke about all the parliamentary questions he answered and all the Topical Issue debates that were had. I have very seldom seen him here for a Topical Issue debate. It is always Ministers of State. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing those debates but we cannot elicit the answers. My duty is to get answers from Ministers and to represent the people. Does the Minister want the whole House to go? Does he want to steamroll everybody and crush them into the ground like we did at first? That was because we were in fear and we had to accept the science. We could not question it because it was too serious a situation.

We are paid to scrutinise legislation and understand the impact it will have. There has been no regulatory impact analysis of any of the measures the Minister brought in but it has had an impact on mental health, cancer services, scoliosis surgeries and a plethora of people. The Minister said that was being done to fight Covid and free up spaces but they have not been freed up. We did not take over any of the capacity in the private hospitals. We did not do many of the things we should have done for the people who have cancers growing inside them and all kinds of problems and worries. I spoke to someone today whose daughter is waiting nearly two years for a mammogram. It is shocking. That causes worry, stress and fear. The Minister can spare me the lecture. If he had not been with us in opposition at the start and did not know anything else it would be different. The weight of big pharma on his hand signing those 171 regulations must be enormous.

The Minister talks about public health advice as if it is a uniform issue. He acts as if it is singular and there are no differences of opinion in public health advice, or that it is given down from on high. The truth of the matter is there are many different public health advices. Every single country in the EU has a chief medical officer who delivers public health advice and much of that advice differs vastly. It is even contradictory in some cases. This idea that there is infallibility among public health advice and therefore as elected representatives we have no other option but to kneel down in front of it and not challenge it is wrong.

The truth of the matter is that there are many different competing public health advices right around the European Union and they are having different results in those countries. In some European countries the public health advice was to increase hospital capacity at this time of need. Despite the Minister's utterances the dial on hospital capacity here has not moved significantly enough to deal with the crisis. Other public health advice in places like Denmark, for example, was to implement venue access antigen testing. There are no silver bullets in this fight but that is one of the most important tools we have and it has been opposed by the public health advice in this State for a long time. There is now some movement on it. The Government has introduced testing access for coming into Ireland but it has still not done it for venue access. Proper air ventilation is public health advice but that is not being followed. Contact tracing is public health advice in many countries and yet it is not happening here.

Let us get rid of the fallacy that there is a singular public health advice and that therefore nobody should question it. One thing we have learned in this country for generations, to our cost, is not to question people in authority. That has done enormous damage in many ways in this country in the past. The Minister himself, when he was an Opposition Deputy, questioned public health decisions. When the HSE intercepted - and I am using the Minister's word here - PPE, oxygen and staff that were destined for nursing homes, Deputy Donnelly disagreed with that public health decision. He was right to do so because that decision led to a weakness in the nursing home sector's ability to deal with the crisis that was happening there. Public health advice opposed closing nursing homes to visitors for a full month between 3 March 2020 and April 2020 and allowed people to circulate in those nursing homes seeding the illness. Public health advice moved 10,000 people from hospitals into nursing homes in the first six months of 2020 and did not PCR test all of them. The Minister should not use public health to try to dampen down dissent or challenge in this Chamber because it is the wrong thing to do.

NPHET has gotten decisions wrong. No organisation would get every decision right and I am not saying that is possible. In the teeth of a fast-moving Covid crisis it is natural for organisations to get things wrong but its latest predictions with regard to the level of hospital cases and ICU cases and so on have been widely off the mark. Even its most optimistic predictions have been widely off the mark.

To be honest, I think the Minister is being too hard on Sinn Féin. In fairness to Sinn Féin it has been on the same page as the Government for most of the last 18 months. It may have flip-flopped a little around Covid passes and so on by supporting them, being against them and supporting them again. I might buy Deputy Cullinane a cushion for Christmas because his rear end must be sore from the fences he has been sitting on over the last while.

That was a backhanded compliment.

It is important that this Dáil and our elected representatives have the opportunity to push hard at the people who are behind the decisions and who are making them. There is no doubt in my mind that many decisions have emanated from NPHET which we have not been able to challenge. I have asked journalists to attend press conferences and ask questions of NPHET so we could get a better understanding of what is happening in this country. I ask the Minister to think about that. An elected representative asking a journalist to ask questions of the people who are creating the decisions, if not necessarily implementing them, is an incredibly dangerous situation in a political system. I have seen members of the Cabinet make decisions in Government Buildings and get a taxi straight to RTÉ to announce them while the elected representatives watch it here on TV. These are incredible situations. The Bills that have gone through here have been waved through without pre-legislative scrutiny. There is no excuse for that.

I remind the Deputy to speak to the amendment.

It is the scrutiny element of the amendment that I am speaking to now. I will come to a close now but I have a question similar to the one that was asked earlier. The Covid pass currently allows people with Covid to circulate in hospitality and stops people who may not have Covid from doing so. If the Government's logic is to be followed, it will have to change it to cover only people who have had boosters. That is the same logic we are using now. The Tánaiste said people may have to have four vaccinations. Does that mean four vaccinations will be necessary to apply for the Covid pass?

I will try to be brief. The point I want to make is about this debate and about scrutiny. There was a vote on waiving pre-legislative scrutiny. The Taoiseach told us this morning that it would take too long and the Minister went through what would be required to scrutinise every regulation. Where is the oversight? Where is Report Stage? We have 20 amendments. At best we will get to four of them. This debate is being guillotined. To be fair to the previous Government, because the House was in control of its agenda no legislation was guillotined between 2016 and 2020 and we managed. There was a degree of give and take to make sure that was the case. This is draconian legislation.

Some of us spent a great deal of time drafting amendments before Second Stage. None of this is the way we want to see any legislation being debated, never mind draconian legislation.

If there are Government amendments remaining when a debate is concluded by guillotine, they are accepted but there is no obligation on a Minister to accept any other amendments. The Minister may surprise me and be disposed towards accepting one or two Opposition amendments. It would be useful if he indicated whether that is the case. Otherwise, the House might not have enough time to accept them. The Dáil reform committee will have to examine how we deal with Committee Stage where there is a guillotine. I do not favour the use of guillotines, but where they are imposed, there must be some way of apportioning time across the various amendments. This is a question for the Dáil reform committee as opposed to the Government, though.

Like most people, I want things that work. It is very frustrating when we believe that there are things that will work or their sequencing should be different but they do not happen. That was obviously the case with air filtration. I spoke about this matter on Second Stage last week. We were watching children being cold in school in the winter months and then we got an announcement. We were expecting the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, to carry out an analysis of mask wearing by children but that did not happen. Instead, there was an announcement and mask wearing was to be implemented just hours later. That kind of approach costs public support and was a lightning rod, as there was a lack of any kind of public information or rationale that could be used to explain it to children. The message all of this sent to children was "I am safe. I am not safe. Why am I wearing a mask?"

Some of my amendments relate to human rights and issues such as maternity hospitals, curtailments and the increased amount of domestic abuse. I would like to get to speak about some of these issues, which is why I tabled my amendments. My final amendment relates to who can seek detentions under the Mental Health Act. This part of the Bill goes against some fairly significant constitutional provisions. We will not get a chance to deal with any of these issues, though. Will the Minister indicate whether he feels he can accept any of the amendments? If they are not being taken, then that is fine. If it is possible to accept any of them but they fall because of the guillotine, though, then it is a poor way of doing business. The Dáil reform committee must re-examine this matter. I have attended several Committee Stage debates where only a handful of amendments were discussed. Deputies were not really talking about them, though. They knew that they would not get to make the points they wanted to make under their own amendments, so they contributed on the first few amendments because their time was limited. This is not the way to do business, but that is a matter for the Dáil reform committee.

To say I am disappointed that the Taoiseach would say today that there was no time for pre-legislative scrutiny would be an understatement. Every Deputy who has spoken has expressed the same view.

I will only go through one or two points because other Deputies wish to speak. At no time have I ever not taken public health advice, but I have given advice to people who had concerns about being vaccinated. I have always told them that, if they have concerns, they should seek medical advice from their doctors. At no time have I discriminated against anyone who has, or has not, been vaccinated. As the Minister mentioned, the best advice we can give is that people should get medical advice.

I have a concern about the booster jabs. As the Taoiseach stated, 50% of people have not turned up for their booster appointments. Does the Minister know that, when NPHET went on its run, people were being told that the over-70s cohort was receiving boosters even before the Government was told? They were then told that boosters were being given to the 60- to 70-year-old cohort. Now they are being told that, because so many people did not turn up, the 50- to 60-year-old cohort is being given boosters. A number of people in the 60- to 70-year-old cohort have called my office to say that, worried they had been missed, they had contacted their GPs and got the booster weeks ago, yet they still have not got a message from the HSE to say that they are due a booster. Doctors are contacting the people on their books who are in those age groups and asking them to come in for their boosters because they have not been called by the HSE but there is no portal for doctors to tell the HSE who has got the booster. The HSE does not know who has been given the booster because the system is wrong. When people received texts calling them for their boosters, there was no way for them to say whether they had already received theirs. The data that the HSE has are not accurate because it does not have the information from the GPs.

NPHET damaged the hospitality sector by leaking health advice before discussing it with the Government. NPHET came out a week before the Government to say on national television what would happen. This caused cancellations across the country and reduced the hospitality sector's business by 50% before the Government even announced the restrictions. NPHET has run wild and the Government allowed it to do so from the very start. As such, the Government is the cause of the hospitality sector and other sectors being penalised by NPHET coming out with statements without Government approval. NPHET has cost this country millions of euro but the Government has not sanctioned it for that. The Government has let NPHET run this country.

Deputy, I might-----

I will return to the amendment.

There are three amendments being discussed.

I will finish and allow other in Deputies.

The Deputy can speak, but only to the amendments.

I turn to the issue of the medical advice we have been given about ventilation in schools. I was the first person to ask for ventilation systems to be installed. That is on the record of the Dáil. I handed the Government the programmes but I was laughed at and told that the Government would look into it. The Government is looking at it now nine months later after we have had children in classrooms with the windows open and the temperature down to 8° Celsius. They are being told that, because their schools are not big enough to provide enough separation distance, they must leave their classrooms and go outside to stand on wet ground under NPHET and Government guidance.

We have asked children to wear masks in school. It has been shown that, if a child wears a mask for that long a time, the carbon monoxide he or she could endure would be damaging to the child's health.

We have got to look at this. We have created safe environments and we have put guidelines in place. The Minister has spoken about medical advice. It has been medically proven that wearing masks long term is damaging to the health of young children. I will allow other speakers to contribute.

I am sorry, as I am slightly late to the debate. I support Deputy Cullinane's amendment. We are not, as Deputy Bríd Smith indicated in the Second Stage debate, supportive of this legislation. That is not in any because we are reluctant or reticent about protecting public health. We think it is critical to protect public health. From the beginning, we have been 150% in favour of promoting vaccination and it is clear that vaccination has reduced the likelihood of illness, hospitalisation and death. At this stage, we would strongly encourage people to take up the vaccine. What is frustrating is the incoherence and often arbitrary and sometimes directionless approach of the Government when it comes to dealing with the pandemic at the stage we are at now.

At this point, I seriously ask the question of where the strategy is heading. Where exactly are we going with this? What is the objective of what we are doing at the moment? I seriously wonder about it and I do not think it has been properly explained. People are right to call out the fact that at the outset of the pandemic we used to have reasonably regular briefings, which we had to ask for, with the key Ministers and the public health experts to thrash out what was being proposed and the basis on which decisions were being made and we had opportunities to question those measures. That is all gone now, and we just have the Government seeking to have quite draconian powers without much accountability in terms of the decisions that are being made. I have a significant problem with that, in particular because I do not know quite where it is going.

Today, the Taoiseach was quick to have little gibes at some of us about the fact that we were for zero Covid but now we are not for this. If for no other reason, I want to explain our rationale on that. Our rationale is very simple. At that stage we did not have more than 90% of the population vaccinated. We were very keenly aware-----

That is all very interesting but the Deputy is supposed to talk about the amendment.

Yes, and the amendment is about the need to scrutinise decisions and powers that the Minister wants to give himself in this Bill. Is that okay?

Has that got anything to do with this amendment?

It does, because I am concerned about the lack of a clear rationale for some of the powers that the Minister wishes to have. I want to explain that we need a rationale for a policy and a strategy. It is not clear at this point what the rationale is because at a particular point in the evolution of this pandemic, everybody believed that there was a possibility that if we got to a certain level of vaccination – the figure that was being floated at that time was about 70% - or immunity through natural infection, that we would reach a point where the R number of Covid-19 would start to decline. Essentially, it would go below one and we could seriously consider the possibility that the disease would fizzle out. That was the belief at the time. We have now discovered that that is not the case; that even with 95% vaccination, a figure nobody ever dreamed possible, that we are not looking at the possibility of the virus disappearing.

How does the Deputy relate all that to the amendments?

Because we do not give draconian powers to the Minister with a lack of accountability to this House unless we know where the strategy is heading.

I admire Deputy Boyd Barrett's ingenuity.

In particular when the Government is not giving clear answers. What is consistent in our approach to this is that when we were campaigning for elimination as a strategy, prior to there being mass vaccination, the whole point was to reduce the likelihood of long protracted periods of very harsh restrictions and rolling lockdowns that went on for long periods precisely because we saw it as a mechanism to reopen society. That is what everybody wants to know, how we reopen society but do it safely in a way that we can cope with Covid-19 and protect lives and health. What I do not understand in that regard, for example, is the reluctance and unwillingness to have a serious discussion about air quality, ventilation and so on, but the Government is very quick to give itself certain quite draconian powers without a clear rationale of where it is heading. I would like to hear from the Minister where he thinks it is all heading in terms of how we are going to get back to some level of normality and how these powers are designed to achieve that.

I would like to know how the Deputy will get back to the amendments that we are debating, and the normality of them.

I will do so clearly. I do not believe in giving wide-ranging powers to the Minister without accountability to this House unless he can give us and the wider public an evidence-based argument that is convincing about what exactly the purpose of all of this is and how it is part of an integrated strategy to cope with Covid-19. That is distinctly lacking. What we end up with then is a Government essentially looking around to point the finger at other people and particular groups and incoherent messages about where the real problem is rather than take responsibility itself for the things it could and should do in order to cope with Covid-19. That is a political exercise rather than an exercise in trying to find the best way to cope with this extremely difficult situation.

That is the reason we will be opposing the Bill and why at the very least the amendment that Deputy Cullinane has put forward is a way of insisting there is some level of accountability and that the Minister does not get a blank cheque when he is not convincing people about where all this is going. In our view, he is failing spectacularly to take measures that it seems to us are a no-brainer in terms of developing our capacity to cope with this situation, whether it is air ventilation, having targets to get ICU up to the level it should be at, staffing resources for public health teams or maintaining on a permanent basis the health capacity, resources and infrastructure that we need to cope with Covid-19. On all of those fronts, we think the Government is failing, but it is quite quick to give itself power to take draconian measures that essentially point the finger at others rather than itself in terms of responsibility to do the things necessary to cope with the pandemic.

The amendment is a good one for the simple reason that regulation is a dangerous thing. In the dark of night, a Minister can sign whatever he or she wants if there is a regulation in place and he or she does not have to come into the Dáil. What would have to happen then is that we would have to go to the courts within six months to challenge a regulation. People might bring up something in a month's time that we might not have a bull's notion about that was in a regulation and bar going to the court there will be no way of resolving it.

Where Ministers are given powers through regulation, we have to be ferociously careful.

There is one other point connected to the amendment. When we put measures into a Bill or into a regulation, we have to watch the knock-on effects. I know of a person who has not been outside the door in 20 months because she can get anaphylactic shock. She has a young family and she is so fed up mentally. She was advised by her doctor not to get a vaccine. That person has got to the stage where she has not had a weekend away because she can go nowhere and bring her kids with her. That woman said to me, “My own relations look at me as if I am different.” Last Sunday, that person went to Roscommon through desperation, after not sleeping for a week, not knowing whether she would have a reaction, but she was going to take it, against advice, just to be able to bring her family somewhere for Christmas. Then, when she went there, she was told, “We do not know, we do not have an emergency department and we do not have the gear here.” The people there were doing their best. It was out in a community centre and they said they were not near a hospital and that they did not have the right gear. They told the woman to wait. They said they would ring Galway and that she might have to go to Galway, but they would wait to see what happened. We try to legislate but there are an awful lot of people we do not think of when we are doing things. Basically, we make them scapegoats in society. That is a genuine, ordinary person, living in an ordinary part of Ireland, doing ordinary things.

There are regulations attached to a Bill and a Minister can sign all of the different regulations without reference to anyone in the House. Once the regulations are put into force, a Minister can sign anytime he or she wants. We have to be very careful with the type of powers we are allowing. I am not saying the Minister will go crazy or anything like that, but this applies to any Minister. The habitats directive was signed in at 1.20 a.m. years ago, and it was and is the bane of our lives right around rural Ireland. These are the consequences of not having enough scrutiny in the House.

As no one else is offering, I call the Minister. I will have to interrupt him at 7.45 p.m.

I thank Deputies for all of the contributions. I will try to move through them as quickly as I can. I will start with the substance of the amendments. I believe we are all agreed that there needs to be as much engagement as possible in the Oireachtas. I have, in good faith, already commenced a process to increase that.

I made a point earlier, before Deputy Boyd Barrett was present, when I went through all of the Dáil engagement there has been just this week and last week. While I enjoy the Deputy’s company, I have spent more time in the company of the people in this Chamber than I have with my own family. We are spending an awful lot of time, right time, proper time, on this debate, on Topical Issues, in committee, in the Seanad and on statements on the legislative process. We are spending an awful lot of time, rightly, on all of this. I have a pretty good idea of where many people in this Chamber right now stand in terms of ventilation, antigen testing, PCR capacity, hospital capacity, communications and exactly the kind of things that get regulated for and that the public advice comes in on. We should acknowledge there is a lot of engagement. I do not believe it is the case that we are off somewhere else doing this and that there is no engagement. We spend an awful lot of time here, rightly.

I want to move to the substance of the amendments. I put a lot of meas on the Deputy’s views generally but also on the amendments in terms of human rights aspects and so forth - I genuinely do. In terms of the amendments we are looking at right now, what would be required if we assumed a very modest debate before each vote by the Dáil and by the Seanad, which would be the minimum the Deputy looks for? It would be 33 weeks of Dáil time. Every Tuesday, every Wednesday and every Thursday in the last year and a half would have been spent just on these regulations. I submit to the House that, in terms of some of the regulations and the time that would be required, that is not viable. I also do not believe that, as a Legislature, we in this House could say that of the 52 sitting weeks we have had in the last year and a half since the Government was formed, it would be reasonable to have spent 33 of those weeks on a modest debate on each regulation.

I will have to interrupt the Minister. The time permitted for this debate having expired, I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of yesterday, 7 December 2021: "That each of the sections undisposed of is hereby agreed to in committee, the Preamble and the Title are hereby agreed to in committee, the Bill is reported to the House without amendment, Report Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed."

Question put:
The Dáil divided: Tá, 87; Níl, 48; Staon, 0.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Brophy, Colm.
  • Browne, James.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Burke, Colm.
  • Burke, Peter.
  • Butler, Mary.
  • Cahill, Jackie.
  • Cairns, Holly.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Cannon, Ciarán.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Carroll MacNeill, Jennifer.
  • Chambers, Jack.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Costello, Patrick.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Crowe, Cathal.
  • Devlin, Cormac.
  • Dillon, Alan.
  • Donnelly, Stephen.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Duffy, Francis Noel.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frankie.
  • Flaherty, Joe.
  • Fleming, Sean.
  • Foley, Norma.
  • Gannon, Gary.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Higgins, Emer.
  • Hourigan, Neasa.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Lahart, John.
  • Lawless, James.
  • Madigan, Josepha.
  • Martin, Catherine.
  • Matthews, Steven.
  • McAuliffe, Paul.
  • McConalogue, Charlie.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • Moynihan, Aindrias.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Nash, Ged.
  • Noonan, Malcolm.
  • O'Brien, Darragh.
  • O'Brien, Joe.
  • O'Callaghan, Cian.
  • O'Callaghan, Jim.
  • O'Connor, James.
  • O'Dea, Willie.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donovan, Patrick.
  • O'Dowd, Fergus.
  • O'Gorman, Roderic.
  • O'Sullivan, Christopher.
  • O'Sullivan, Pádraig.
  • Ó Cathasaigh, Marc.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • Rabbitte, Anne.
  • Richmond, Neale.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Ryan, Eamon.
  • Shanahan, Matt.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Smyth, Niamh.
  • Smyth, Ossian.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Troy, Robert.
  • Varadkar, Leo.
  • Whitmore, Jennifer.

Níl

  • Andrews, Chris.
  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Brady, John.
  • Browne, Martin.
  • Buckley, Pat.
  • Canney, Seán.
  • Carthy, Matt.
  • Clarke, Sorca.
  • Connolly, Catherine.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Cronin, Réada.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Cullinane, David.
  • Daly, Pa.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donnelly, Paul.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Farrell, Mairéad.
  • Fitzmaurice, Michael.
  • Funchion, Kathleen.
  • Gould, Thomas.
  • Guirke, Johnny.
  • Kenny, Gino.
  • Kerrane, Claire.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McNamara, Michael.
  • Munster, Imelda.
  • Murphy, Paul.
  • Murphy, Verona.
  • Mythen, Johnny.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Nolan, Carol.
  • O'Donoghue, Richard.
  • O'Reilly, Louise.
  • O'Rourke, Darren.
  • Ó Broin, Eoin.
  • Ó Murchú, Ruairí.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Quinlivan, Maurice.
  • Ryan, Patricia.
  • Smith, Bríd.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.
  • Tully, Pauline.
  • Ward, Mark.
  • Wynne, Violet-Anne.

Staon

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Jack Chambers and Brendan Griffin; Níl, Deputies David Cullinane and Michael McNamara.
Question declared carried.
Barr
Roinn