Time to Take Radical Measures on Quarantine
1 March 2021
Speaking today in the Seanad on the government’s Health (Amendment) Bill 2021, Senator Ivana Bacik spoke on behalf of Labour to voice critical support for the Bill.
Senator Bacik said:
‘We in Labour do not believe that an appropriate balance has been struck with this Bill; it should go much further in restricting non-essential travel into and out of Ireland.
All of us resident in Ireland have been prohibited from leaving our homes for non-essential reasons for most of the past year; subject to a 5km limit for purposes of exercise. Harsh restrictions continue to apply – meantime thousands of people have died, businesses and offices remain closed, half a million people are out of work and dependent on State supports.
While it is welcome to see so many children returning to school today, the vast majority of our school children are still facing prolonged school closures. And most secondary school pupils are only told they may return to school on 12 April if numbers are right.
Yet we have all become so inured, so institutionalised to these harsh and draconian restrictions, that certain people are now objecting to the minimal restriction on inward travel proposed in this Bill as somehow representing an unduly harsh restriction on civil liberties.
They fail to grasp that the Zero Covid or National Aggressive Suppression Strategy that we in Labour have been advocating would actually enable us to re-open fully; for the price of minimal inconvenience for those who persist in non-essential travel abroad.
Few of those objecting to this Bill have taken time to review the science. I chaired a Labour webinar two weeks ago with Prof Gabriel Scally and Tomas Ryan; I have attended online briefings from Prof Aoife McLysaght and have read reports of the study conducted by Prof Paddy Mallon.
It’s become increasingly clear from all this evidence that has been made more and more available in recent months that, as Cillian de Gascun – director of UCD National Virus Reference Lab and member of NPhet - has said, without quarantine for incoming travel, tackling Covid becomes like ‘trying to fix a leak with the tap running’. If you can turn off the tap, at least it gives you an opportunity to fix the leak.’
It’s clear now that the types of virus circulating in the first wave disappeared in our first, effective lockdown which started this time last year; and that the second wave was dominated by new variants from overseas; this most awful and devastating third wave was then spread by inward travel and social mixing over Christmas, which spread the so-called ‘UK variant’ more widely – the far more transmissible and dangerous variant.
Since then, we have seen still more frightening variants detected here; the B1351 variant first identified in South Africa and the P1 variant detected in Brazil. I agree entirely with Senator Marie Sherlock that we should start calling these variants by their true names and not by reference to the country in which they were first identified.
This is an important point. The dreadful riots at the weekend in Dublin show us the importance of not spreading fake news or disinformation; of how quickly resentment at ongoing lockdowns can feed racism and xenophobia.
So when we call for stricter border controls to prevent and curb transmission rates, we must be mindful of language.
I am an internationalist; I don’t like the idea of border controls. I didn’t support Zero Covid measures initially; nor did Labour. Only with the emergence of the third wave, the news about the new variants and the clear scientific evidence, did we call for a National Aggressive Suppression Strategy.
And the support for this is growing. It’s become increasingly clear that while only a small number of cases can be directly traced back to inward travel, such travel re-seeds and helps to spread new and far more easily transmissible variants.
To say otherwise is to miss the point – and people know this. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee; accept that travel is a factor, and that even with the hoped-for acceleration of the vaccination programme, we are still going to have to take steps against new variants emerging that are vaccine-resistant. People know this and support for mandatory hotel quarantine is strong.
The reality is that the increased awareness of the numbers of those engaging in non-essential travel out of Ireland has caused real concern among those – the silent majority – continuing to do their best to abide by the rules, trapped inside their homes and their 5km zones.
It’s increasingly hard to justify the 5km zone to elderly parents who are stopped by gardai when they venture 6 or 7 km away from home to have a walk by the sea; yet they see friends and neighbours coming back from Dubai, South Africa or Lanzarote from holidays or dental appointments.
And this is the real tragedy of the government’s failure to endorse the Labour approach. As Fintan O’Toole pointed out on Saturday, we had Zero Covid or close to it last summer – and we blew our chance to save lives and livelihoods then through a lack of political will to adopt clearer restrictions on incoming travel and a robust cross-Border strategy.
There’s still time to change – today’s Labour amendment gives us that chance.