I welcome the opportunity to present the Health (Amendment) Bill to the House.
The Bill provides for mandatory quarantine at a designated facility for passengers arriving from designated category 2 countries and for those who arrive in breach of the pre-departure negative polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test requirement.
We can all see the impact of the Covid pandemic, one year now after the first case was identified in Ireland. We have all seen the impact on life in our communities, the suffering caused by Covid and the measures needed to suppress it.
We have seen the economic impact on so many businesses and individuals. We have seen the strong community spirit in the face of this disease.
The roll-out of our vaccination programme is providing assurance that the worst of this pandemic will pass. We have administered more than 400,000 vaccine doses to date. We will have the capacity to deliver over 250,000 vaccines per week from April in anticipation of a significant increase in supply. Last week, we saw signs that the earliest part of our vaccination campaign, for healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities, is already having an impact. Nonetheless, we continue to face significant challenges and we must remain vigilant. It is as important as ever that we continue to follow the public health measures currently in place. We must also deal with the new challenges we face as new variants of Covid-19 emerge. These variants may be more transmissible, may be more severe in the context of hospitalisation and death and may have the potential to undermine our vaccination programme. It is for this reason that the Government has already moved to introduce measures to limit the importation of variants of concern.
A regime of mandatory home quarantine is in operation. Arriving passengers, regardless of nationality, are required to present a Covid-19 passenger locator form and evidence of a negative pre-departure PCR test, taken no more than 72 hours before travel. We have suspended visa-free travel from South America and South Africa. We have stepped up enforcement measures in respect of regulations which prohibit non-essential travel abroad and people travelling abroad. Currently, arrivals from countries that are designated as category 2 states must complete the full 14-day period of quarantine at home. This category now includes 33 countries, with 13 having been added towards the end of last week.
As the number of international travellers arriving in the country remains between 1,000 and 3,500 per day, we are now reinforcing these measures with the introduction of mandatory quarantine in designated facilities for those arriving from category 2 states, and with increased penalties for non-essential travel. The measures contained in the Bill provide for a robust system of mandatory quarantine in designated facilities for travellers arriving from designated states, with only minor exceptions. Ireland will be the only country in the EU to introduce quarantine requirements at this level.
It is worth pausing here. There were several hours of debate on this Bill in the Dáil last week. It was a largely very constructive and well-meant debate, notwithstanding the usual few contributions. However, a great deal of dramatic and entirely incorrect language was used to refer to the Bill as window-dressing and to the Government as not being serious about this issue. Some described the Bill as a sham. I want to restate that Ireland will be the only country in the EU to bring in a system of mandatory quarantine of this nature. The position is very serious and we are taking a serious step.
The Government recognises that what is proposed will place a significant demand on travellers, even though there are those who would prefer the introduction of harsher measures. The measures proposed strike a balance between the need for strong steps to react to a serious threat to public health in an unprecedented emergency and the protection of civil liberties and human rights. I take this opportunity to emphasise that the measures provided for in the Bill will be applicable to all travellers from a designated state and that a person’s nationality has no bearing on the matter.
I will go off-script for a moment. The Oireachtas has a really important role to play in this debate. For me, from a small number of quarters, some aspects of the debate have had a whiff of xenophobia about them. I have heard it said that we must protect our people from foreign people. That is not what this is about. In fact, we are moving away from describing variants as, for example, the Brazilian variant or the South African variant. We are moving towards calling them by their designations, such as B117. Throughout history, xenophobia and racism have been linked to the perceived fear of the importation of disease. Cholera, for example, was known as the Jewish disease. British literature from the 18th and 19th centuries, when referring to and demonising the Irish, often described them as bringing disease into the UK. The Oireachtas has a most important role to play. These are extremely serious public health measures and we need to ensure that people understand they are not a reaction to foreigners or anything of that nature.
These are deadly serious public health measures but we need to ensure people understand that they are not a reaction to foreigners or anything like that. The vast majority are Irish people returning. I want to emphasise that.
Sections 1 and 2 set out definitions and interpretative provisions. Sections 3 to 6, inclusive, amend the Health Act 1947 to increase the penalties for existing offences relating to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is intended to permit the fixed penalty notice for travellers going to or from an airport without reasonable excuse to be increased.
Section 7 relates specifically to the introduction of mandatory quarantine and related matters. The Bill inserts a number of new sections into the Health Act 1947. These will be numbered in the 1947 Act as sections 38B to 38M.
Travellers who have been in a "designated state" within the 14 days prior to their arrival in Ireland will be obliged to undergo a 14-day period of quarantine. The Bill includes a provision to allow exit from quarantine after ten days under certain circumstances. There are a limited number of other circumstances under which travellers may leave quarantine, such as for medical treatment or other humanitarian reasons.
The Bill also includes provisions requiring travellers who arrive in Ireland from any other country without a negative PCR test to be quarantined until a negative test is returned, or for a full ten-day period if deemed necessary on public health grounds. Travellers who test positive for Covid during quarantine will be required to remain in quarantine until they have satisfied criteria for release.
Travellers will be required to pre-book their accommodation in designated facilities. Appropriate provision is made for the protection of unaccompanied minors or those seeking international protection. The Bill includes provision for travellers to appeal a decision that they are subject to mandatory quarantine, while section 38B(25) includes categories of travellers who are exempt from the requirement to quarantine, such as drivers of HGVs, maritime or air crew, or elected officials travelling for official reasons. It will be possible to designate other exemptions by regulation.
Section 38C sets out the power to return travellers to quarantine if they have left inappropriately.
Section 38D sets out offences associated with the Bill and establishes the relevant penalties.
Section 38E sets out the power and the process for the Minister to designate the states relevant to mandatory quarantine.
Section 38F makes provision for the designation of facilities and to require passengers to pay for quarantine.
Section 38G sets out the regulation-making powers of the Minister and sets guiding principles for use in that process.
Sections 38H and 38I provide the authority for the Minister to make arrangements for transport and accommodation and related matters for quarantine purposes.
Sections 38J and 38K set out requirements and obligations related to record-keeping and data protection.
Section 38L allows the Minister to make arrangements with other Ministers to carry out some of the functions associated with the requirement to quarantine as they relate to the designation of facilities for quarantine, making service contracts, and data protection.
Section 38M establishes a requirement of travel organisers, such as airlines, to inform a traveller of their obligation to pre-book their quarantine, check that those bookings have been made and potentially refuse to allow travel where a booking has not been made.
Section 8 of the Bill makes minor consequential amendments to section 42 of 1947 Act.
Section 9 sets out the Short Title and operation of the Bill and establishes that the quarantine-related provisions of the Bill will fall three months from its passing, unless resolutions extending them are passed in both Houses of the Oireachtas. This is an important sunset clause. It is a very short period, given the sweeping nature of these powers.
I would like to thank Senators in advance for their contributions to this debate and look forward to hearing their contributions.