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Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 9 Dec 2021

Vol. 281 No. 6

Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2021: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the opportunity to present the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) (No.2) Bill 2021 to the House. The purpose of this Bill is to extend the period of application of certain emergency provisions that have been key to the Government's response and the national response to the pandemic. The emergency provisions that are to be extended include Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020, the Health (Amendment) Act 2020, and Part 2 of the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021.

The Bill is divided into five sections. Section 1 amends section 2 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 to allow for an extension of operation of Part 3 of the Act from 9 February 2022 to 31 March 2022, and to allow the provisions to be extended further for no more than three months by way of resolution in both Houses of the Oireachtas.

The Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 inserted sections 31A, 31B and 38A into the Health Act 1947. Section 31A provides for the making of regulations for preventing, limiting, minimising, or slowing the spread of Covid-19 to a region where an affected area order applies. Many regulations are no longer required, but some are still necessary, such as the mandatory wearing of face coverings in certain settings, public health measures for international travel, and the curtailing of certain businesses. Section 31B allows the Minister for Health to make an affected area order. The State as a whole has been deemed to be an affected area since 7 April 2020. Section 38A provides for powers for certain medical officers of health to order, in certain circumstances, the detention of persons who are suspected to be potential sources of infection of Covid-19 and to provide for enforcement measures in that regard.

Sections 2, 3 and 4 provide for the same amendments and terms of extension to be applied to the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020, the Health (Amendment) Act 2020 and Part 2 of the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021, respectively. The Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 provides An Garda Síochána with statutory enforcement powers in relation to licensed premises and registered clubs and to ensure adherence to public health measures in premises where alcohol is sold for consumption on those premises. The Act provides An Garda Síochána with the power of entry and a range of enforcement measures, and it sets out the grounds for objection to the renewal of a licence. Earlier this year, the Garda Commissioner advised that if the provisions of the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 were not extended, members of An Garda Síochána would have no lawful basis for entering a licensed premises to ensure adherence to the Covid-19 regulations.

The Health (Amendment) Act 2020 provides for penal provisions in regulations made under section 38A of the Health Act 1947 to be fixed penalty provisions. Fixed penalty provisions are currently in place in relation to the wearing of face coverings in certain settings. Part 2 of the Health (Amendment) (No.2) Act 2021 provides for the operation of indoor hospitality under certain conditions. This enables access for fully vaccinated people and people who are immune from Covid-19 on the basis they have recovered from Covid-19, as well as certain children and staff, to certain indoor settings. The Act provides a robust system of verification, with powers of enforcement.

Section 5 provides for the Title of the Act as the Health and Criminal Justice (Amendment) (No.2) Act 2021, and that its provisions shall come into operation on 10 January 2022 for the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 2021, and 10 February 2022 for the other three Acts.

I do not need to tell the members of this House that the trajectory of Covid-19 is uncertain. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, in its letter of 2 December, stated that the overall epidemiological situation remains concerning and delicately balanced, that, "Covid-19 incidence across the country is very high, and while it is stable at present, the situation remains precarious." Demand for testing is higher than it has been at any point in the pandemic, and the high number of Covid-19 cases in the community and in hospitals continues to place a significant burden on care being delivered by staff and services across the wider health and social care services.

The World Health Organization reports that understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take some time. Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of transmission and reinfection from the Omicron variant. Modelling shows that if the Omicron variant becomes dominant over the coming weeks and if it is associated with even moderate reductions in vaccine effectiveness and increases in transmissibility, the risk of a surge in disease is high to very high.

Any such surge would, of course, be amplified by expected increased social contact through the Christmas period.

The risk is increased further if the level of infection-induced immunity in the population is lower or if the Omicron variant evades immunity from prior infection to some degree. The more pessimistic scenarios show 750 to 1,300 people requiring general hospital care and 200 to 400 people requiring critical care, and those peaks will be in January.

On a more optimistic note, the roll-out of the vaccination programme continues to be a success. With more than 8.4 million doses administered, approximately 92% of those aged 12 and over are now fully vaccinated and 93% are fully or partially vaccinated. Despite the surge in Covid-19 cases from the Delta variant, we are not seeing the same level of mortality as in earlier waves, because of the vaccine protection. I urge anyone who has not yet received a vaccine to do so now, particularly in light of the emergence of this new variant.

Nearly a year into our vaccination programme, we know a great deal about the effectiveness of the vaccines. This includes that there is a certain amount of waning immunity after six months or thereabouts - it is different for each of the vaccines. This is why we are rolling out our booster programme, which is continuing apace. We now have well over 1 million people who have received a booster or a third dose in the case of those who are immunocompromised. Today we started appointments and walk-ins for people in their 50s and the HSE continues to increase capacity for the coming weeks. People who are eligible and are at five months since their last vaccine dose, or three months for the Johnson & Johnson, J&J, vaccine, can get an appointment to or a walk-in slot in vaccine centres or seek an appointment with a participating GP or pharmacy. I encourage all people to avail of their booster shot as soon as an appointment is offered or is available, in order to better protect them and others from Covid-19. This is particularly important now in the context of the new Omicron variant.

The House will also be interested in the latest advice from the national immunisation advisory committee. I received and accepted this advice in the past two days. We will now proceed to offer vaccines to five to 11-year-olds in the coming weeks. A full operational plan is being worked on by my Department and by the HSE, and we will receive the first delivery of paediatric vaccines in approximately a week's time. Full information for parents is also being developed to ensure they can make an informed choice for their children.

As our booster and vaccination campaign progresses, we must all take steps to protect ourselves and those around us by continuing to follow basic public health guidance. I ask that people continue to reduce their discretionary social contacts where they can, prioritise the activities they undertake, particularly when it pertains to the higher-risk activities, and take regular antigen tests if they engage in activities in the higher-risk environments. This message is particularly important as we approach Christmas, with many families planning to spend the holidays together after what has been a very difficult year for so many people in this country.

Ireland has done well in our work to keep people safe during Covid, while keeping as few measures in place as possible. This is thanks to a national effort involving every family, every community, many businesses and many different programmes rolled out by the State. We have all seen that in this evolving pandemic, nothing is certain and we must be able to adjust and to adapt. Sometimes we need to be able to adjust and adapt very quickly. Sometimes that may mean for a short period of time taking a small step backwards to ensure we can move forward quicker in the future. The measures provided for in this Bill are, unfortunately, necessary for now to ensure that we can keep people safe, and continue to respond to the new challenges this disease poses.

In essence, what this Bill is about is being able to keep measures in place, such as the Covid pass and face masks. There may be other measures around it but at present, these are some of the main measures pertaining to this Bill. Without this Bill we would lose the statutory ability to be able to respond as necessary and in a proportionate manner to the ongoing threat to public health that Covid causes.

The timing of the Bill is set deliberately in order that it has a sunset clause, which is the end of March. It can only be extended for one period, which requires votes from both Houses, and that period can be for a maximum of three months. There are important democratic safeguards in place to make sure that the powers in the Bill are proportionate, that they are time limited, and that they have significant oversight and input from the Oireachtas.

I hope that all Members of the House will support the Bill as we keep individuals, families and communities safe, as we keep our health workers, our nurses, our doctors and everyone working across the healthcare system safe. We also will be keeping safe non-Covid patients as we protect our healthcare capacity for those who need it, both for the Covid patients who, thankfully, are the minority and for the non-Covid who make up the majority.

I thank the Minister for the good outline on this necessary legislation. It is unfortunately, as we always say when we are passing or renewing such extraordinary legislation in this House, but it is necessary. The Omicron variant has shown that the situation of the pandemic and the virus is continually evolving and we need to stay on top of it. The Minister, his officials and his colleagues in the Department have done a very good job.

The vaccination campaign was an overwhelming success. The boosters are going well. I acknowledge there have been some hiccups in relation to double appointments and people not showing up and there is a little confusion there. I know that the Minister will work over the coming days to clear up that confusion.

From today, anybody aged 50 and upwards can avail of their booster shot. Many people are looking forward to the day that they become eligible for their booster. I know I am. I become eligible on Christmas Day. I hope the Minister is keeping the vaccination and booster centres open over Christmas, because I will be there if they are open.

This legislation is to allow the regulation of the Covid pass and face masks. We have had a very positive reaction to both of these measures in Ireland. People have been very open. They understand that they are there to protect public health and to allow us live as best we can in the middle of this pandemic. I hope that everybody in this House would support these measures.

I welcome the vaccine programme for the five to 11-year-olds. The Minister stated that his Department and the HSE are working on an operational plan. I read this morning that child-only vaccination centres are being planned. This is to be welcomed. It is really positive.

The priority list was published also, I believe, yesterday. What I would like the Minister to indicate is when those vaccines will be delivered to the first children in the priority list. If the vaccines are arriving in a week, will it be this side of, or after, Christmas?

The Minister knows he has my support. He is doing a great job. The Minister's officials are doing a great job. I look forward to the day when we are not in here discussing this and we are discussing all the other wonderful health measures that the Minister and his colleagues are working on. For now, I am happy to have the Minister here discussing this. It is keeping our country safe and keeping as much open as possible. I thank the Minister.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber.

You would have to laugh, if it were not so serious, at the phrase "extraordinary time-limited measures" contained in this Bill's explanatory memorandum. As each Bill was passed, that "time-limited nature" was stressed so heavily and yet each sunset clause extension was used in its entirety - every single one, for the full amount. When we were debating those, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, stressed that this was the end of it, and once those dates came and went, new legislation would have to be drawn up. New legislation being drawn up would give the Houses a chance to go through the detail of each Bill and afford the Bills the scrutiny that they are supposed to receive in these Houses.

Of course, that would be inconvenient to the Government so someone came up with this new brainwave. To be honest, I was shocked that this was allowed after all the posturing on how extraordinary these measures are, and as for the time limits, you can literally scribble out the end dates and pencil in any other date you want. It displays the most cynical and underhanded attitude towards this House that I have ever seen in my time here. It undermines the integrity of the law, of the processes and operation of the Oireachtas, and betrays what little of the public trust that is left.

Let us be honest here. We are not voting for the continuation of emergency powers until the end of March. We are extending them until the end of June. That means that, at the drop of a hat, when someone in Timbuktu discovers the Sigma variant, NPHET and the Cabinet can, if they feel like it, introduce a full level 5 lockdown without consulting anyone in the Dáil or Seanad.

Does the Senator really believe that? Incredible.

Senator Buttimer, please take your seat.

Of course, once July arrives the legislation will lapse and we will be free from restrictions - wink wink, nudge nudge. I hope the Minister realises there is no coming back from this. After this, no one will take a sunset clause seriously again; no one in this room or outside it. Once you throw this integral element of legislation under the bus, there is no pulling it back. Future Dáileanna and Seanaid and future generations, when presented with time-sensitive legislation by the government of their day, will be able to point to the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, and the Cabinet of Micheál Martin and say that sunset clauses are not worth the paper they are written on.

Aside from that, I have become very concerned over recent days at the bigger picture of the global response to Covid. Let us run through a few recent developments and see if we can join the dots. First, we have a tale of two countries. Germany's new Government wants to make vaccinations compulsory whereas Austria's brand new Government has lifted its lockdown for everyone except for the unvaccinated. Germany cut straight to the chase: your body belongs to the state and, under threat of force, you will comply. Austria insidiously preserves the illusion of freedom while locking people in their homes until they freely choose to undergo the rite of passage and be reborn into the new normal. It is simple, really. Take the jab and get your freedoms back, except for point 2.

The Israeli ministry of health has announced it will soon approve the fourth vaccine shot. It will mean that all those with three shots who do not get a fourth shot will have their Covid passes revoked, as happened to those with two shots. That precious Covid cert upon which your freedoms hinge can be invalidated by the wave of a wand and you will have to obey it again to get it back, and again and again and again because of point 3.

Pfizer's CEO has said that people will likely need to have an annual Covid vaccination for many years to come. In other news, the CEO of Coca-Cola recommends a can with every meal, because I am sure he is just concerned for people's safety. Let us check the stock markets. What is that? Point 4. In the week that Omicron was discovered, the wealth of the eight top Pfizer and Moderna shareholders rose by a combined €9 billion.

I will outline the lesson takeaways. Governments globally have collectively made ordinary participation in society contingent upon consumption of the product of a private company, under direct or indirect threat of force. Over the past two years, the livelihoods of ordinary people have been steadily siphoned into the pockets of pharma and tech giants. The only hope we have is in recognising this is entirely unsustainable and will end. I hope this will be sooner rather than later.

I want to bring up another issue. As the Minister may be aware, in the UK a certificate has been brought in for those who for some reason, be it medical or other, may have the first vaccination and cannot get the second or may not be able to get any vaccine. Those people have been given a cert. It is absolutely disgusting that those who are not vaccinated have had their freedoms curtailed and I do not believe they should have, but the people who have been medically unable to take a vaccine have had their freedoms curtailed as well. I want the Minister to look at the legislation the UK has brought in for that cohort of people. Please do it immediately because we are letting down the people of Ireland.

The Minister is very welcome to the House. I begin by referencing an article by Ms Caitlín Griffin that was published in the Irish Examiner on 12 September: "1,346 cases of Covid confirmed as expert says mask-wearing is needed in primary schools". The one thing we have learned is that this pandemic or virus has a trajectory all of its own, as the Minister has said. I like Senator Keogan on a personal level but what we listened to in the House today is absolutely appalling. We are legislators, Members of the Oireachtas and parliamentarians who are entitled to have our views and interrogate the Government and Opposition about legislation, but let us do that based on science and facts. I ask Members to be careful and cognisant of the science and the facts in the use of language around this pandemic.

The fundamental thing we are all charged with, and the man sitting at the top of this Chamber, the Minister for Health, has taken a seal of office of which this is part, is to work to protect the public health of the nation, and to distil that down, that means the citizens of this country. We can disagree on many things, but Senator Clifford-Lee is correct that nobody in Government wants to come to this House with legislation making demands again of the people. I have had the privilege of being a Member of this House and the Lower House for 14 years. We have been through bank guarantees and tumultuous times in terms of social legislation, the economy and this pandemic. I believe I can say we all serve with one objective: to serve the people and to do good. That is why we are here today and that is what we are about. The vaccine programme has worked. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had had no vaccination programme? Senator Keogan and others should cast their minds to the world we live in today and the reimposition of restrictions and the reintroduction of social distancing and mask wearing in many parts of the world.

The challenge we face is vaccinating those in the developing world who are being left behind. There is a job work for the Government in terms of the vaccination programme around the world and, in particular, on the continent of Africa. We must be proactive, not just in words but in our deeds. To be fair to the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, he has done and is doing work, as is the Government, but we must ensure Ireland leads in that regard.

The Minister in his speech referred to members of An Garda Síochána and the need to continue with this legislation to ensure members of the Garda have the lawful basis to enter a licensed premises to ensure adherence to Covid-19 regulations. I appeal to the Minister for consideration to be given by the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, and by the Government to fast-tracking members of An Garda Síochána for receipt of the third booster vaccine. I say so for a number of reasons. I spoke last Monday at a meeting of the joint policing committee organised by Cork City Council. I am not asking for this to be populist but the reasons I do are, one, members of An Garda Síochána at this time of year are expected to go into licensed premises to ensure adherence to Covid regulations. Two, we are asking that there would be high visibility of members of An Garda Síochána on our high streets at this peak time of Christmas. Three, as part of their operations to combat drink and drug driving, gardaí will man checkpoints and engage with motorists and their passengers.

I appeal to the Minister to ensure that the national immunisation advisory committee allows for members of the Garda, who are front-line workers, to be fast-tracked in the vaccination booster programme.

I am a member of the Joint Committee on Transport which yesterday had a good debate with a number of officials from across Departments. It is a source of concern that 100 people arriving into Dublin have been referred to members of the Garda for breaches of the Covid-19 regulations. What are members of the Garda going to do, those people having been referred to them? I believe there is a need to explain to people their obligations regarding travel under the Covid-19 regulations. There is also a need to explain to people what they must do before and on entering Ireland.

We have no certainty with this virus. Perhaps Senator Keogan is right that we will be back here in June, asking for this legislation to be extended. However, what is the alternative? Is it to allow people to die while we follow a herd immunity approach? I do not think that works. Our nearest neighbour has changed its policy again this morning. A number of Senators spoke, on the Order of Business, about the import that could have in the North of Ireland regarding the vaccine and the Covid certificate. We should stand up to that. The fundamental point the Minister has made today is one around which we should all rally. Vaccination works. People should get vaccinated because it helps to protect, preserve and save lives. I know the Minister cannot force people to take the vaccine and we do not want it to become mandatory. However, we do need to encourage people. I heard on "Morning Ireland" this morning that two vaccination centres in Ireland were over capacity and turning people away. A part of me thought it was great that was the case because it meant people were coming to get vaccinated. Could we use pharmacies, pharmacists and GPs more in the vaccination programme? We have seen that vaccination works. I wish the Minister well and thank him for being here.

It is nice to see the Minister again. It feels a little like Groundhog Day, to be fair. I will start by stating something that should be obvious to us all but perhaps it needs to be said anyway, that is, the vaccine programme is absolutely essential and everybody should get vaccinated. I was fortunate enough to get my third vaccine on Monday and I am delighted to have had it. I encourage everybody to do the same. There should be no ambiguity about that. We need to follow science.

My party fully supports public health measures and their provision, and we will not oppose them. However, we are not comfortable with this Bill. I know the views of my colleagues in the Dáil on this issue have had a good airing. We want to work with the Minister, as he saw around the hotel quarantine legislation that we supported last week. There was adequate debate about, and oversight of, that Bill. We tabled a number of very reasonable amendments in the Dáil designed to ensure oversight. The aim was to ensure that as regulations come in, we, in both Houses, get some say over them. We recognised, in our amendments, that it may not be possible to apply that oversight before the regulations come in. Trying to be reasonable, we suggested we could look at them afterwards. We want some degree of oversight of these regulations because it is important. As everybody has said, these are extreme emergency powers. Our argument with the Minister does not relate to the public health measures. Our argument relates to the lack of oversight. We were disappointed when the Minister did not take on board any amendments on Committee Stage in the Dáil. For that reason, we will be opposing the Bill. We will also give the Minister an opportunity on Committee Stage in the Seanad to revisit our amendments and perhaps with a bit more thought, he might adopt one or two of them. As I said, we want to work with the Minister. We want to ensure we have oversight.

There is a fair degree of frustration, as the Minister would acknowledge, over the lack of consultation at times about key measures. Mistakes have been made on a number of occasions. I do want to revisit all of them here today but I will revisit some of them. The lack of communication about schools is the most recent mistake. There was an appalling lack of consultation with stakeholders. The Government gave itself a week to decide but initially gave schools only 16 hours to be ready, which caused panic and resentment. I can also reference previous regulations that we did not support, such as the €9 meal and the recording of what people ate. There have also been impractical, complicated and unworkable rules for businesses. There was also the mess over Merriongate. We need to have some say because the fact of the matter is that all of us, regardless of what party we are from or if we are Independents, are held responsible for the regulations the Minister brings in. We should have some degree of oversight of them. I do not think that is an unreasonable request.

I will revisit the issue of schools, in particular. I have three teenagers who are in school today, wearing scarves, hats, gloves and coats. Like most people, I am at a loss as to why measures for schools were not taken during the summer, in particular the provision of filtration systems and HEPA filters. There has been mixed messaging. The Government kept repeating that schools were safe. We know that one in five positive cases of Covid in the past week has been a child of primary school age. Kids and staff are left freezing in schools, relying on open windows and sharing CO2 monitors between classrooms for ventilation and there still has been no movement on the issue of HEPA filtration. We do not have a clear picture of the extent of Covid in our schools because the Government removed testing and tracing, with the replacement antigen testing regime passing the buck onto parents and principals to identify their own contacts and test their own children. We need the return of contact tracing to schools. That would be a positive development. In the first 36 hours antigen testing was available for pod contacts in schools, 10,000 tests were ordered. We cannot pretend there is no Covid in our schools. Principals should not have to do the HSE's contact tracing job for them. They have enough on their plates. We need to bring back school-specific contact tracing teams.

It will not surprise the Minister when I again raise the issue of the Government's blockage of the intellectual property, IP, waiver so that developing countries can generate their own generic versions of these drugs. I support Senator Buttimer, who said the Government needs to do much more for the developing world. I hope he was referring to the Government changing its stance on the waiver of IP for vaccines. The Tánaiste made a statement in this Chamber earlier this week that was absolutely false and mistaken. He said that if we dropped the IP waiver, it would still take two to three years for these countries to be able to produce their own vaccines. I want to put on the record of the House that experienced manufacturers that are willing to make hundreds of millions of doses have come forward from all over the world, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Senegal, Denmark and Canada. Biolyse Pharma in Canada has approached Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca and has stated it could be producing vaccines within six months. Incepta Pharmaceuticals in Bangladesh estimates it can make between 600 million and 1 billion doses. Teva Pharmaceuticals in Israel and Bavarian Nordic in Denmark have also asked to assist in the manufacture of vaccines but the IP rights are preventing them from doing so. The Government is continuing to support that stance.

The Director General of the World Trade Organization has reported that the Governments of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, South Africa and Senegal have all said they have facilities that could be retooled to produce coronavirus vaccines. UNICEF data suggests that when counting only those manufacturers already involved in some way in Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing, only half of them are working to produce the approved vaccines. This suggests plenty of capacity that could be repurposed. I need to put that on the record of the House so that we can be clear on this issue. The EU, including Ireland, is blocking moves to temporarily drop IP rights to enable the world to develop those vaccines so that we can really mean it when we say no one is safe until everybody is safe. It is an appalling stance for the Government to take. It is not good enough for the Minister to say he is personally in favour. It is certainly not good enough for the Tánaiste to say he has an open mind on the issue. I do not have an open mind on the issue. I am absolutely clear that the western world, Europe, and our Government, in particular, need to do more. There should be a public call for the waiving of IP rights so that we can finally allow the world to get vaccinated and move away from the appalling rate of vaccination of African people, which currently stands at 4%. It is not good enough.

To be frank we need to see much more from the Minister and the Government in relation to that.

I welcome the Minister. Many of us saw this day when we would need to have extra restrictions coming. I remember saying here that it would be a nightmare to have to come back here and do all that again, but here we are. I suppose that is the nature of the pandemic. I hope we are operating as though this is the last time it is going to happen. We can hope it is the last time but we must plan as though it is not.

We need a strategy and antigen testing that works. The Taoiseach told my colleague Deputy Duncan Smith that he saw a role for regular antigen testing in households as a key measure in 2022 to suppress the virus. A couple of days later, the Minister for Health said the Government would not subsidise the tests and would let the market deal with the price. There has been a lot of discussion on this but I am firmly of the belief that antigen tests are not affordable to people on low incomes or social welfare payments. Antigen tests only work if they are done regularly. Science has been clear about that from the start. Therefore I appeal again that they be subsidised or made more accessible. We should not allow the market to decide about something as serious as antigen testing kits, which we now recognise as a key tool to tackle this pandemic.

Last week, my colleague Deputy Duncan Smith, who is our health spokesperson, received a reply to a parliamentary question on the staffing of vaccination centres. During the summer the vaccine roll-out was firing on all cylinders but I understand that many of those workers have gone back into primary care, back to college, back into retirement or into PCR testing and swabbing. Does the Minister believe we have enough people working on the booster programme? Is he confident we have the staffing level to get us to where we need to be? We are in an emergency situation once again so I hope we have a booster programme that is firing on all cylinders.

Following the new restrictions announced last week, I want to mention the arts community, performers, taxi drivers and the pantomimes which are coming up. That is a sector that has been badly hit, as many sectors have been. There is an announcement today on the EWSS. It is really important that we do not wind down supports while we reintroduce restrictions that could potentially mean people lose their jobs and incomes. It is vital that we protect vulnerable workers, including workers who often have irregular work at the best of times and can struggle, particularly now that we are back in the worst of times and they are in need of those supports.

I wanted to mention the question of a long-term strategy around the Covid pandemic. Unfortunately we are back in a difficult situation with Omicron. There is something of a panic situation. We are thinking about what December and January might look like. Infections are plateauing at levels which are very high. For a couple of weeks, we discussed the pressures on ICUs and hospitals. That was very much a feature in the media but we have moved on a little to talking about PCR and HEPA filters.

It is important we remember, as I am sure we all do, that the pressures on our hospitals are ongoing and are possibly worse. I appeal to the people for whom the restrictions might be difficult to follow to think about being inside those hospitals and how bad it is. We can remind ourselves of how shocked we were when we saw the "RTÉ Investigates" documentary, which showed how bad things were. Some people may have forgotten that front-line workers are still working night and day against this pandemic. I hate the phrase, but I feel like we may have lost the dressing room. People are frustrated. Last Christmas, the vaccine was on the horizon and it seemed like we were on our way out of this. Now we are facing another Christmas. I think people are just sad and frustrated. We want to see an end to the pandemic but we also want to see every tool used by the Government. We do not want to see two-day delays in PCR testing. We need everyone to have access to antigen testing. There has to be good quality air in our schools. HEPA filters will play a role in that but they are not a silver bullet. The public is very pragmatic. No one wants to see anyone die or our hospitals under pressure. As difficult as the restrictions are, the public can understand them. It is sometimes our role to have to go out and explain those restrictions. The public might be more on our side if they thought these restrictions were being made in the context of a framework of long-term planning for improving our health service, resourcing our doctors, nurses, health care assistants and hospital staff, and pandemic proofing. We have spoken about hospitals not being able to deal with things because of backlogs. That will be a challenge for the Government. However, if people feel that everything is being done in every way to support our healthcare system, they might not be so frustrated.

I will, as always, mention the student nurses and midwives. They have been working from September until now. The Minister spoke about the reintroduction of that payment. There is no answer on that yet.

There is an answer on that. It was approved.

I will be sure to tell the people who have mentioned it to me.

We need to talk about the long term. We keep coming in here to discuss these emergency measures but according to the WHO, Covid will be with us until 2023. I hope we can come up with a better legislative approach than repeatedly coming into the House and having the same arguments over an hour, when we all recognise what we need to do. The debate in the public is becoming more base. It is becoming poorer. People are engaging at a much more base level. That is a challenge for the Minister in terms of how we tackle Covid in the long term. We have testing, contact tracing, mask wearing, hand sanitising, air filtration and so on. All of us in the Opposition are very supportive of those measures. We need to enact them on a more long-term basis rather than repeatedly coming in with short-term measures.

The Minister spoke of the need for this legislation to empower the gardaí to enforce legislation for the protection of people on health grounds, for example by breaking up big gatherings. I would love it if the Government could empower the gardaí to break up gatherings outside our maternity hospitals, such as Holles Street hospital around the corner, by enacting the safe access zone legislation that we have been promised for three years, long before this pandemic began.

The Labour Party will not oppose this Bill. As I have said many times, we are uncomfortable with these measures but we recognise they are necessary. However, we must consider how we deal with the question of long-term living with Covid. I hope we do not need to have emergency measures again and again.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I will not speak at length because many of the issues have been covered. I welcome the legislation but join others across the House in saying it is difficult. They are uncomfortable regulations and legislative measures to have in place. Nobody wants to be working in a pandemic with restrictions on civil liberties but there is a recognition that what is being done is in the interests of public health and trying to keep our citizens safe. We have lost many people during the pandemic but it could have been a lot worse if we had not had guidelines and restrictions to keep people safe. People take a degree of comfort from rules. We know what we are dealing with and this gives us a degree of control over what is an uncontrollable situation. It has been evolving and will continue to evolve. While we could have predicted a new variant, we did not know what to expect in terms of what it might mean for how we live our day-to-day lives.

It is particularly difficult for some sectors. I want to acknowledge the hospitality sector at this time of year. Christmas is a big time for hospitality businesses. In my own county of Mayo, many businesses are experiencing lots of cancellations, last-minute cancellations and no-shows. Other Senators have raised that as well. It is important to send out the message that while there are some restrictions in place, we have regained many of the freedoms we did not have last year. The reason we have been able to do that is because of the fantastically successful vaccination programme. I encourage people to support their local hospitality businesses by going for dinner in smaller groups, by buying a cup of coffee or by having lunch out.

As I said, it is a difficult period for them. I acknowledge the level of support the Government has extended to those businesses and to the hospitality sector in particular. I know that is appreciated on the ground. There is an appreciation from businesses that they have had a huge level of support from the Government in dealing with these restrictions, as difficult as the situation has been. While they are still open it is in some ways more difficult to manage now because they do not know what numbers they will have coming in and there is potential for no-shows and cancellations.

Senator Hoey made a point about the rolling nature of this legislation. If we are going to be doing this for the next year or two - God help us - we probably do need to find an improved way of dealing with this legislatively. I take issue with Senator Keogan's comment that the sunset clause is not worth the paper it is written on. I utterly reject that. The very fact that we are having a debate, that there is voteable legislation before the House, which will be approved by the Members of both Houses before its operation is continued, is proof of the democratic process. Without the sunset clause we would not be having this debate so it is worth something. It is important to acknowledge that the Government did not bring in this legislation, which contains some quite strong regulations and restrictions, for the long term. It was intended for short periods to facilitate public health measures, in the acknowledgment that it is significant to ask citizens to agree to this. The short-term nature of it is a positive and it is an acknowledgement by the Government that what we are looking for citizens to do and agree to is a big ask. It is also a big ask of An Garda Síochána and our public health front-line workers.

When this legislation first came before the House there was a lot of scaremongering and suggestions that it would be abused and that it was the thin end of the wedge and an attempt to restrict civil liberties on a long-term basis. That has proven to be incorrect and false. That has not happened. We can take some solace and security from the knowledge that the Government has acted honourably all the way through. This is a very short extension but I acknowledge that it is still a big ask of citizens.

We are heading into the Christmas period. There is a lot of positivity. We are still able to get out and about, meet our friends and family and have Christmas dinner with our loved ones. There are some restrictions but it will be nothing like it was last year. That is an important point to make. We have come a long way and we have a long way to go still but these measures are there to reassure people and keep them safe.

I call the Minister to conclude the debate. I will not restrict his time beyond an hour.

I will try not to use the full hour. I thank colleagues for their time and their contributions. These debates are genuinely invaluable, to listen to new ideas and be challenged on what may or may not be working. Of course we are not getting everything right; no government is. It is very important that we listen to the challenges and in this House most of the challenges are very reasonable. That is not always the case in the Lower House but it is here. Various issues have been raised such as the TRIPS waiver, safe access zones and many more. We have covered some of them previously and we may be covering some others next week. I will confine my response specifically to the legislation before us.

As legislators, the requirement for this Bill comes down to a small number of important questions as we try to deal with Covid-19. The first question we have to ask ourselves is whether we need public health measures to respond to Covid-19 and keep people safe from it. We only need this legislation if we believe public health measures are required. I certainly believe that and I think the vast majority of people in this House believe do as well. If we believe public health measures are required, the second important question is whether any of these measures require a legal basis. Can they all be advisory or are there some measures that require a legal basis? My view, and I think that of most people in this House, is that a legal basis should only be put in place where absolutely necessary. Everything should be advisory where possible but some measures require a legal basis.

At the moment, for example, there is a legal requirement for people to wear face masks on public transport, in retail outlets and in various other settings. There is a legal basis for the Covid pass. It is not up to a pub, restaurant or any other setting to decide whether they want to use the Covid pass and it is not up to the customers either. It is a legal requirement. There is also a legal basis for the international travel regulations. Do we as legislators believe that we need public health measures, and are going to need them for the next while, and that there are some where a legal basis is unfortunately required? I believe and I hope that most, if not all, of us believe the answer to both of those questions is "Yes" and, therefore, a legal basis is required. This is the Bill that gives us that legal basis. Without this Bill we would have no legal basis and everything would become advisory. That would pose a material risk to public health, life, healthcare services, education services, the economy and society. I am absolutely of the view that this Bill is required. I do not like this Bill. I do not want these powers. I wish these powers did not exist and I think we will all celebrate when they are gone but for now I believe they are needed.

So far we have lost 5,788 women and men in our country to Covid. As I am sure colleagues will know from talking to healthcare professionals, or friends or family who have lost their lives to Covid, it is horrific. I have spoken with nurses who have spent their careers in critical care. They are hardened, experienced medical professionals who have seen large numbers of people in very difficult circumstances, including dying from a wide variety of diseases, and they are telling me that they are traumatised by what they are seeing when it comes to patients dying from Covid in critical care. The combination of what this disease does to people, coupled with the isolation and loneliness of being in critical care at that time, is horrific. I am sure we all know people who have Covid or have had it. Many are now suffering from longer-term effects, some of which are serious. It has affected many people and families.

It is also essential that we protect non-Covid care. We have to protect our healthcare workers, including nurses, doctors, and all our healthcare professionals across the board. We have to protect patients. Every time our critical care beds get filled up with Covid patients there are other patients whose scheduled important surgeries and procedures are cancelled. It happens again and again. The impact on everybody else and on all our other patients is profound. It is only because of all of that that I am absolutely sure, as Minister for Health, that we need public health measures and that some of them need a legal basis. That is the only reason I am here asking for the House to support this Bill.

Two very reasonable counterarguments have been made. The first is the Sinn Féin position, which others also articulated during the Dáil debates on this Bill. I know Sinn Féin is voting against this. I fundamentally disagree with it doing so but that is its right. However, I acknowledge that some of the people who are going to vote against this Bill have supported and continue to support a public health approach. I want to acknowledge that very clearly. The first of the two arguments being made is that while Members support public health measures, there is insufficient Oireachtas engagement and oversight of the regulations. They say that what they are voting against is the mechanism.

The amendments essentially give the power of regulation to the Oireachtas. The Oireachtas already has the power of regulation and every regulation laid before both Houses can be annulled by either House. The amendments we will be discussing next week go further and state the regulations do not go into effect without a vote in the affirmative from both Houses. The Seanad and the Dáil are the Legislature and they are required to vote through this legislation. A new argument is being put forward to say that not only should the Oireachtas be the Legislature but it should also be the regulator because no regulation can pass without votes from both Houses. That is not how regulation and statutory instruments work and we all understand that.

I took a look back on Oireachtas engagement in the past two weeks to see if there was a lot of it. I think we meet here and debate these issues regularly. There is Oireachtas engagement on legislation, which is exactly what we are doing now. All regulations are laid before the Seanad and the Dáil, all of them can be annulled by the Seanad or the Dáil and all of them can be debated by the Seanad and the Dáil. The Oireachtas organises its own business in that regard. All regulations are published online and daily information updates are provided, which I hope colleagues find helpful, on vaccines, cases, hospitalisations and critical care. A huge amount of such information is published every day. A lot of that came from requests from the Oireachtas. Members of the Oireachtas felt, quite rightly, that the most up-to-date information was required because we are dealing with a national emergency and so that has been provided, as is right and proper. There have not been enough Oireachtas briefings this year. I organised to hold one two weeks ago and I have organised to hold one this week as well in the context of the Omicron variant in particular. I want to see more of those briefings held.

Last Wednesday we had statements on Covid in the Seanad and on Thursday we debated the Health (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2021. Last Friday we had a session in the Seanad on the same Bill and there were three sessions in the Dáil, including Second Stage of this Bill, a Private Members’ Bill and oral questions to the Minister. Yesterday the Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill 2021 and this Bill were before the Dáil and today we are discussing this Bill in the Seanad. In the past week or two there have also been multiple Topical Issue and Commencement matters in the Dáil and Seanad, respectively. The Committee on Health has discussed the review of termination of pregnancy. I know this is not a matter for the Seanad but I asked for a note on how many parliamentary questions I answered last week to the Dáil and the answer is 499. Understandably, by far the largest number of parliamentary questions go to the Department of Health. As of midday yesterday I had answered in excess of 200 of those.

That gives a sense of the Dáil and Seanad engagement I have had this week and last week alone. We must always strive to have more Dáil and Seanad engagement and we must have more briefings. We have set a new process in place whereby all Members of the Oireachtas are notified of all regulations that are passed and there is more we are doing. I am engaging with Deputies and Senators across the Houses and across party and political lines to find out how we can make it better. Based on what I have been doing in the past two weeks, it is fair to say there is a significant amount of engagement between me, the Ministers of State at the Department of Health and the Oireachtas. That is not to say it is all right and that we cannot do more. We can do more.

The next argument is that the Dáil and Seanad need to pass all of the regulations. For this House to vote on any regulation, there presumably has to be a debate. I do not know how long the average debate is in the Seanad but in the Dáil an average debate where everyone gets a go is about three and a half hours. It would be reasonable to believe that for every regulation before the Dáil there needs to be a vote, that for every vote there has to be a debate and the minimum amount of time that tends to get set aside for a debate is three and a half hours. How much time would be required of the Oireachtas for it to become the regulator? Since I came into office in July 2020, I have signed 171 Covid regulations. If we assumed there would be a three and a half hour debate in the Dáil alone on 171 regulations, that is about 600 hours of debate. That is equivalent to six hours every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, which would essentially prohibit any other legislation being debated and passed. That would take out 33 weeks of Oireachtas business, not including the time taken to call and pass the votes. The figures are broadly similar for the Seanad, so it would completely stop the Seanad’s ability to legislate on all of the many other things that need to be legislated on.

Most of these regulations are uncontroversial. It would be stroke of the pen stuff. What is being asked for is that where something serious is involved, such as a curtailment of civil liberties, the House would make a decision that it wanted to have a vote.

It is a fair question but I would imagine that the Seanad would still want to discuss everything it votes on and it would be remiss of it not to do so. The Dáil would want to debate everything it votes on, and who decides what regulation is worth discussing or not? In the past week I have signed regulations on face coverings, international travel and other matters. Which of those are material enough to warrant debate?

Whichever we decide.

While I understand the motivation behind this is well meaning and genuine, it is simply not practicable and it is one of the many reasons the Dáil and the Seanad do not regulate in other sectors either. The level of regulation required would mean the Oireachtas would cease to be able to do its job, which is to legislate. However, I am putting new processes in place to make sure Members are directly contacted about new regulations. Given all of that, there is a crystal clear requirement for this Bill and for us to have public health measures, some of which need to have a legal basis. I accept that I and the Government must always strive to do better.

In the Bill we are talking about the ability to regulate for matters like international travel, face coverings and Covid passes for the coming months. Unfortunately the Omicron variant has made the need for that even more obvious. We have had a national effort, which has been working. People, including employers, families and community groups, have responded in recent weeks when the call went out that we all needed to pull back a bit. The response has been incredible and we have seen throughout the country. The vaccine programme and the testing and tracing programmes are working and antigen tests are being rolled out more and more. The public health measures we are deploying have been working and, more importantly, the efforts of individuals and families have been working. As a result, we have seen a stabilisation in case numbers, hospitalisations and the number of people getting very sick and ending up in critical care.

As per the advice from the Chief Medical Officer and as has been said by international public health organisations, things are uncertain. Researchers are looking at this variant and saying it is the most worrying one they have seen. Please God we will find that it will not be so severe, but early indications are that, regardless, we have to take it very seriously for now.

For that reason, I believe this Bill is, unfortunately, necessary. It is time-limited. Colleagues will be aware that during the passage of the previous Bill in June, Opposition amendments were tabled asking there be only one sunset clause. I agreed with that. I actually had to go back to the Government to get a changed Government decision to agree to that. I got it, we brought it in and we amended the legislation. In fact, that is why we are here. I have stitched the same into the Bill. There are four Acts covered under this legislation. For one of them it is an extension of about three months but for the other three it is an extension of less than two months. It is from early February until the end of March. Then we can put in one 13-week extension after that.

Thus, on all of those bases I regretfully commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Minister for concluding the debate.

I asked the Minister something and he did not address it. Could he address it? It concerns people medically-exempt from vaccination. It has been introduced in the UK. Will the Minister look at that in Ireland?

I am sorry. Unfortunately, the Minister has concluded the debate. If the Minister is available outside the Chamber that is grand but he has concluded and we must go along with the process here. We have agreed an Order of Business for how we order our day and this is the process.

Question put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 24; Níl, 7.

  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Malcolm.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Carrigy, Micheál.
  • Cassells, Shane.
  • Chambers, Lisa.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Cummins, John.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dolan, Aisling.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Fitzpatrick, Mary.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Hoey, Annie.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Moynihan, Rebecca.
  • Murphy, Eugene.
  • O'Loughlin, Fiona.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • Ward, Barry.

Níl

  • Boylan, Lynn.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Warfield, Fintan.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Robbie Gallagher and Seán Kyne; Níl, Senators Lynn Boylan and Paul Gavan.
Question declared carried.
Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee has advised the Cathaoirleach that she has entered into a voting pairing arrangement with Senator Eileen Flynn for the duration of Senator Flynn’s maternity leave and accordingly has not voted in this division.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 13 December 2021.
Sitting suspended at 2.27 p.m. until 3.30 p.m.
Barr
Roinn