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.