Business of Special Committee

I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

I want to register an objection to the fact that, two weeks in a row, we have asked the acting Chief Medical Officer and NPHET to come before the committee. We expected them to come in today but they are not coming. It is extraordinary. We have had one party leaders' briefing, which included the acting CMO and NPHET, since the new Government was elected. On two occasions now we have asked for the acting CMO and NPHET to come in here in the context of rising infections, the case numbers going in the wrong direction and many worries about the strategy being pursued and we cannot get key people at the front line of the State's response to Covid-19 to come in here.

It is unacceptable and frustrating and adds to my much repeated concern about the expert advisory group's and NPHET's minutes being published months after the meetings take place. Getting information from NPHET is like pulling teeth. What is happening is unacceptable.

I call Deputy Shortall. She will be followed by Deputy Cullinane.

My understanding was that representatives from NPHET were due to come in last week.

That is correct. They were invited to come.

For whatever reason, they did not. My expectation certainly was that they were coming in this week.

That was mine too.

This is the last week for this committee to meet and we had intended bringing in all the health bodies that are relevant in the context of dealing with Covid. I am quite taken aback that they are not here. I would like to know the reason. Today we are concentrating on testing and tracing. The HSE has a certain amount of information to provide to us, but many aspects of testing and tracing are determined by NPHET. When we put questions to Paul Reid, frequently the response is that NPHET determines what is done. It is highly unsatisfactory that we are here today during the last week of the committee discussing the issue of testing and tracing, and one of the key bodies is not here. When were the representatives from NPHET invited? What explanation did they give for not attending?

I will call Deputy Cullinane, followed by the clerk to the committee, Mr. McEnery. We can go into private session, but before we do, I would like to-----

I would like-----

Yes, and then Deputy O'Dowd.

I echo what the two previous speakers said. It is unacceptable that the representatives from NPHET are not here. We asked them and expected them to be here last week. Members of the committee appreciate that NPHET is very busy, as indeed are the witnesses from the HSE who are here today, the Department and the Minister. We are busy as well. I appreciate that NPHET is on the front line in giving advice to Government. The point has been made that almost all the decisions being made that have a real impact on people's lives are being made on the basis of advice from NPHET. A dangerous narrative has now taken hold that asking any questions and having any debate on the issue somehow undermines NPHET. That is both wrong and unacceptable.

All of us, in government or opposition, have a responsibility to probe, analyse and debate. That is healthy for decision-making. It is wrong that the people in question are not here. I am not saying that is why they are not here. I do not know why they are not. As Deputy Shortall stated, we need to get a reason. This is two weeks in a row without representatives from NPHET being here. We need to bear in mind that this committee was established to probe and analyse the advice that is given because that is our only filter. We have a debate in the Dáil this week, the first debate we have actually had on either the winter plan or the plan for living with the virus.

Representatives from NPHET will not be in a position to be in the Dáil.

They will not be there either. I want to make another point. There are not even any briefings for Opposition health spokespersons or party leaders on these issues. That makes no sense at a time when we are told that we are all in this together, as we should be. I do not think anybody is being irresponsible. Some people and groups outside this House, including those on the far right, are being irresponsible. There is consensus in this place that public health and saving people's lives come first. Every piece of advice needs to be subject to debate and scrutiny. It is unacceptable that they are not here and it does not serve us well. It feeds into a pattern that asking any questions of NPHET is somehow seen as an attempt to undermine public health advice. That is dangerous, wrong and not healthy.

Surely one would expect the answers to bolster the message rather than detract from it, but they are not here to answer.

I have great respect for NPHET, whose professionalism is world class. We beat the virus in the first round when it came to our country initially. I have no issue with representatives from NPHET being asked to come here. If they can appear before the media, and they do every day, they must come in here.

It is wrong to say there is a conspiracy of silence among them. They answer all the questions they are asked. I see them being asked questions on television. They have been on television frequently. What concerns me are the comments yesterday, as reported in The Irish Times, to the effect that when somebody in NPHET was asked about this, that person said it was a matter for the Department of Health. Therefore, from what I am reading, I do not believe it is NPHET representatives who do not want to appear before us. I suggest that this committee honour its statutory obligation to ensure probity and transparency and ask representatives to attend. We will meet specially, if need be. If any issue arises, the Minister should clear it up with urgency and immediately. I believe NPHET representatives are very transparent and open, and they have done a fantastic job.

I support what has been said by my colleagues on the committee. Obviously, this is an extraordinary event. No one is going to get everything right in respect of this, whether it is the Government, NPHET or this committee, but one thing is for sure, that is, that we will improve our decision-making processes if we discuss the issues and question people in respect of the decisions they are making. That is inevitably going to improve the decision-making process. Nobody is suggesting that we undermine NPHET or try in some way to second-guess its public health advice. We do, however, have to take account of factors that NPHET does not take into account. It is primarily motivated by public health considerations and directed by public health advice in respect of Covid. We, as elected representative of the people of Ireland, must consider other factors. It would be to the mutual benefit of everyone if the representatives made themselves available.

It was very clear when Dr. Ronan Glynn was before this committee a number of weeks ago — it may have been five or six weeks ago-----

It was the middle of August, the Deputy might recall. The representatives did not attend but they did make themselves available the next week.

That is correct. It was extremely helpful because, at that point, Dr. Glynn was very clearly signalling the danger we were facing, particularly regarding Dublin. Therefore, through that conversation, the committee had the benefit of being able to get that information early. It did not undermine NPHET in any way, nor did it seek to do so in any way, and it was completely constructive. I would very much like to see the representatives of NPHET here again, if possible.

Does anyone else wish to contribute before we go into private session briefly in order that the clerk, Mr. McEnery, can explain the correspondence with NPHET regarding its representatives' non-attendance today?

What is the requirement to go into private session?

Apparently the clerk cannot speak in public session. I have not been furnished with any reason as to why NPHET representatives are not present today. I am aware there has been extensive correspondence with them for two weeks now.

The committee went into private session at 10.13 a.m. and resumed in public session at 10.17 a.m.