Health (Amendment) Bill 2021

First Stage: 25 Feb 2021
Oireachtas Link: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/bills/bill/2021/23/?highlight%5B0%5D=health&highlight%5B1%5D=amendment&highlight%5B2%5D=bill

Bill entitled an Act, to make exceptional provision, in the public interest and having regard to the manifest and grave risk to human life and public health posed by the spread of the disease known as Covid-19 and variants of that disease and in order to mitigate, where practicable, the effect of the spread of that disease; to amend the Health Act 1947 to make further and better provision for the enforcement of regulations under section 31A of that Act; to provide for the mandatory quarantine of persons coming into the State from certain areas from where there is known to be sustained human transmission of Covid-19 or any variant of concern, or from which there is a high risk of importation of infection or contamination with Covid-19 or any variant of concern by travel from that area; to provide for the designation of such areas by the Minister; to provide for the mandatory quarantine of persons coming into the State who fail to comply with certain requirements relating to testing for the disease; to provide for the designation of facilities for such quarantine; to provide for the conveying of persons to those facilities; to provide for the making of service agreements to facilitate such quarantine; to provide for alternatives to such quarantine for persons coming into the State where such persons indicate an intention to apply for international protection or where such persons are children who are not accompanied by an adult; and to provide for related matters.

Ivana's Contributions

Second Stage: 01/03/2021

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to the House. On behalf of the Labour Party I voice my support for the Bill, although we do not believe it goes far enough. Others have pointed out that we are in an emergency, and indeed we are debating this Bill in emergency time. I am glad the time has been extended somewhat. To take all Stages of such a far-reaching Bill in one day shows just how urgent matters are. With more than 4,000 deaths and more than 200,000 people infected with Covid, we know exactly the sort of emergency we are facing. This is why we disagree with the Minister when he says the Bill strikes a proportionate balance between protecting public health and the common good on the one hand and the limited restriction of individual rights on the other. We believe that the balance should be more fairly set by imposing stricter restrictions on inward travel in order that those of us resident in Ireland can see a gradual lifting of the heavy and draconian restrictions under which all of us are currently living.

That is the reality. The balance is skewed in favour of non-essential international travel to and from Ireland and against travel outside of our 5 km zones and the reopening of our schools and workplaces.

To face some facts, we in Ireland have been living under one of the most restrictive lockdowns in Europe for the past year. The Minister is nodding because that is uncontroversial and we all know that has been the case. We have been subject, for the most part and entirely since Christmas, to a 5 km limit for the purposes of exercise. Our workplaces are closed, thousands of people are out of work, nearly 500,000 people are on State supports, businesses and offices remain closed and children are being denied a return to school. I welcome the limited return of schools today but I am conscious of the many children, including all of those with additional needs, who are still facing a lengthy period of homeschooling - what a euphemism - in the months to come.

We are living under restrictive lockdowns and yet we are somehow so inured or institutionalised to the restrictions involved that we see restrictions on inward travel as somehow draconian and breaching civil liberties. I have been surprised at the few people who contacted me to object to Labour's stance in support of a national aggressive suppression strategy and who say that we are trampling on civil liberties. What would be normal protections for civil liberties are already being undermined because of the emergency we are in? To impose tighter restrictions on international travel seems to me to strike a much more proportionate balance. We have received overwhelming support for our stance.

As Deputies Kelly and Duncan Smith put it in the Dáil, we need tighter restrictions and a more extensive law on mandatory hotel quarantine as part of a package of measures to suppress the transmission of Covid. That package of measures should include rapid testing and an accelerated vaccination programme. None of us is saying that mandatory hotel quarantine is a silver bullet but it is an essential part of the package of measures we need to take in this country to address the spread of Covid.

I entirely agree with my colleague, Senator Sherlock, and with others who have urged against any whiff of xenophobia, as the Minister put it. I am an internationalist. I do not like the idea of border controls. Not many of us do. Many of us, including me, did not like the idea of adopting a zero Covid strategy initially because of the restrictions on travel but that has changed since Christmas and the spread of the new variants. As Senator Sherlock did, I will call them by their names and not by the countries they originated in. I mention the B1351 and the P1 variants. We know from studies by Dr. Paddy Mallon, from the work of the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group and from the arguments put forward by Aoife McLysaght, Tomás Ryan, Gabriel Scally and so many others, of the dangers of increased spread of the virus due to a lack of controls on travel. We must accept, therefore, that travel is a factor. We must also accept the need for more extensive controls on borders and a more robust policy on this island and a cross-Border strategy.

We must ensure that we follow of New Zealand and other countries and do repeat what we did last summer. We came close to zero Covid, as Fintan O'Toole pointed out in the The Irish Times on Saturday, and we blew it. Had we known then what we know now, we could have adopted a much more effective strategy to tackle and suppress the virus and save lives and livelihoods. Now we know more and now is the time. The amendment that Labour has tabled will give us that chance. As Cillian de Gascun stated, if we do not have quarantine for incoming travel, tackling Covid becomes like "trying to fix a leak with the tap running ... If you can turn off, at least it gives you an opportunity to fix the leak." Let us take the opportunity. We are supporting the Bill but we want to make it more extensive and for it to give us more effective strategies to fight this awful virus.

Committee and Remaining Stages: 01/03/2021

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 5, to delete line 2 and substitute the following:

“ ‘designated state’—

(a) on the coming into operation of this Act, means any country, territory, region or other place outside the State other than Northern Ireland,

(b) if at any time after passing a resolution under section 9(5) of the Health (Amendment) Act 2021 both Houses of the Oireachtas so resolve, has the meaning assigned to it by section 38E(1);”.

I will speak specifically to amendment No. 1 although I realise it is part of a group. Amendment No. 1 is the Labour Party amendment and the one that was tabled in the Dáil and saw, almost uniquely, a uniting of Opposition parties. Almost all Opposition Deputies were in support of it.

As I said on Second Stage, the Labour Party supports the Bill but believes that it does not go far enough. I listened very carefully to the debate on Second Stage and to the Minister's response. I thank him for his kind words about the Seanad and agree with him. As an aside, the Seanad is generally a good forum, and a respectful and courteous place or arena for debate. That is usually the way we conduct our debates. It is unfortunate that some Government Senators personalised the debate but not the Minister because it is important that we debate these issues rationally, courteously and respectfully.

I note, very importantly, the safeguards in the Bill that the Labour Party very much supports - the sunset clause and the careful appeals mechanism. I take issue with the Minister and his rhetorical question, that he put in a proportionality test and that to extend the list of countries too far would be disproportionate and would mean the Bill was not legally robust. That is not my legal view. That is not the view of many constitutional lawyers who have spoken about the principle of extending mandatory hotel quarantine. I would argue that there is a clear evidence basis for extending further the list of countries. Indeed, as the Minister said, the list of countries has been extended from 20, initially, last week to 33 now. The clear evidence we have that has been presented by the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group and, in particular, the evidence in the study conducted by Professor Paddy Mallon and his colleagues, provides adequate justification to satisfy a proportionality test were we to see an extension of the list of countries to cover all arrivals that are on non-essential business from other countries. This is not, in the Labour Party amendment, a travel ban. It is simply an imposition of mandatory hotel quarantine restrictions on those who travel for non-essential purposes into and out of the country. Our amendment would define all states outside Ireland as capable of being designated states. It would be subject, of course, to the sunset clause but it would facilitate a curbing of transmission or it would help, as part of a package of measures, to curb the onward transmission of the virus.

I noted the Minister's comments that we currently have mandatory home quarantine and that this is enforceable. The key point is that it is enforceable but it is not enforced and we all know this. Around the country everyone has seen the real visibility of friends and neighbours coming back from other countries and that, as we know, has undermined the public's compliance with measures. I would stress again, as I said on Second Stage, that it is very hard to continue to justify the draconian restrictions that everyone resident in Ireland continues to live under, with the 5 km restriction and so on, yet see a failure to enforce and a failure to send a clear message about the current ban on non-essential international travel. If friends and neighbours are coming back from holidays or dental appointments in the Canary Islands, it is very hard to see relatives and friends being stopped from going outside 5 km for exercise and continue to live under draconian restrictions. That is a key point.

Others have made the point about the difficulty with consistency, that if we now have 33 countries on the quarantine list then why not extend that further. Why not work with the other jurisdictions on these islands to have the sort of travel corridor we see between Australia and New Zealand? Why do we not work with other countries? It was interesting to listen to the Government Senators say that Ireland is the only country in the EU to adopt mandatory hotel quarantine through this legislation. Yes, but the UK has had mandatory hotel quarantine in place since 15 February. While we may be the only country in the EU to adopt this sort of measure, our nearest neighbour has already adopted it and has a list of 33 countries. We have seen in other EU countries border controls being imposed in recent weeks as the new variants have spread through countries like Germany and elsewhere. So there is a clear concern among EU member states about the transmissibility of new variants and the need to ensure curbs on transmission through stricter border controls.

I am conscious of the time although I am glad that the time for this debate has been extended to 4.30 p.m. so that gives us a little more time. I urge the Minister, as Government Senators have said, some of whom have been very critical of the Government, that it is better late than never. The Labour Party amendment gives us a chance to enable the adoption of a coherent strategy to suppress Covid, not just to live with it.

We know that the Government's proposed plan for living with Covid has meant rolling lockdowns, with the prospect of further lockdowns as the vaccination programme goes on. Unless we see a rapid acceleration of that programme, we are facing prolonged and further lockdowns. Looking at the NPHET briefings, I note its concerns about the autumn and, unless the whole world is vaccinated fully, it may not necessarily be safe to open up fully in individual countries.

I am a huge proponent of vaccines. We all wish the Minister the very best with the vaccination programme. I do not agree with Senator McDowell and think it is wonderful to see photographs of Catherine McGuinness and other individuals getting their vaccines. I know from friends who have received it how joyful an occasion it is. However, the programme is progressing so slowly. I know that it is about supply. We are hopeful that the vaccination programme will accelerate in the coming months.

We cannot rely entirely on vaccination, however. We have to adopt a package of measures to ensure that we do not continue with this lack of coherence in our strategy, rolling lockdowns and prolonged school and workplace closures, and the impact on so many people as a result. If mandatory hotel quarantine for non-essential incoming and outgoing travel is a good and effective way to curb the virus, it should be introduced as part of that package. I simply do not understand why the Government has an ideological or, indeed, a practical objection to extending it.

Many of us take the view that if the variants continue to spread, we will see the list of 33 countries expanded further. We may well be asking ourselves in a month or two months' time why did we not just grasp the nettle when we introduced this legislation and go further to take the radical step towards a national aggressive suppression strategy. We may ask why we did not seek to really clamp down on transmission of the virus and suppress it within this jurisdiction with the powers contained in this legislation. There has been an unfortunate failure to grasp that we did have that chance at zero Covid before and that we could have it again. The Labour Party's amendment, which had united Opposition support in the Dáil, offers us a way to proceed and to ensure we will have a good chance of suppressing the virus and of returning to a reopening of society, schools, workplaces, as well as, crucially, saving lives. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment.

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I was not going to come back in but I take issue with colleagues in government who have suggested our Labour Party amendment is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Covid-19 is very far from being the latter. It was unfortunate language and I am sure it was not intended. Unfortunately, this is an emergency and we are all well aware of it. We all know how many people have died so tragically after being infected and how many lost their livelihoods or had businesses disrupted or shutdown for good. There has been a major imposition on children, people with disabilities and all of us in society. This is a case that clearly calls for the sort of emergency measures we would never contemplate in any other context. I am urging colleagues to support the amendment because it goes further. The Minister knows we support the Bill but we want it to go further.

By going further, extending the powers for mandatory hotel quarantine and ensuring that the laws banning non-essential inward and outward travel are enforced, as well as enforceable, this will help to engender and create an even stronger sense of public goodwill and solidarity, which we saw so strongly during the first lockdown but which has clearly been eroded by the reports about people engaging in non-essential travel. There is no question about that. It is eroding public compliance and goodwill and creating a great deal of discontent and disquiet, as well as being scientifically proven to have helped cause greater levels of transmission.

I remind colleagues of the study by Professor Paddy Mallon and colleagues which made it clear that the types of virus circulating in the first wave disappeared through the first effective lockdown last year but that the second wave was dominated by new variants from overseas, with the most devastating third wave spread by inward travel and social mixing over Christmas. The latter spread new variants far more widely. I make no apology for having changed views. All of us have changed views as we have gone through the past year, seeing the awful ways in which the virus has changed with dangerous new variants emerging. It is absolutely right for us to then change policy accordingly. Where the Government is to be criticised is for not changing sufficiently to take account of the new variants and not changing to ensure that we see greater consistency in a more effective approach taken in line with scientific evidence.

We all hope very much that the strategy for living with Covid works. My party and I strongly support the accelerated vaccination programme. We will do all we can to assist it and be constructive. Nonetheless, we are all very anxious about inward and outward travel and the evidence which demonstrates that the spread of the virus is accelerated when we do not impose controls on non-essential travel into and out of Ireland. That is the crucial point we make with the amendment. We are not proposing a ban on travel, we are simply proposing a way of making it more inconvenient for people to engage in the sort of non-essential travel we have seen too much of in recent months. In this way, we can help in a package of measures to suppress the virus and address the onward transmission issues.

To those who say travel only accounts for a tiny proportion of cases, the evidence is again clear that a small number of cases can be traced to inward travel but that travel reseeds and helps to spread new and far more easily transmissible variants. We need to invest far more in public health and our capacity to track back so we know the source and can control outbreaks where they occur. We are all rooting for strategies to address Covid-19 to work and we all want to see suppression of Covid-19. We differ in the approach to be taken and my party seeks an aggressive suppression strategy. Our amendment is in line with that.