Statements on Living with Covid-19

29 March 2021

Ivana Bacik

I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to have a debate on living with Covid-19. I am conscious we had an earlier debate on vaccinations but it is inevitable the two issues overlap. I do not think anyone who has spoken so far in this debate has done so without mentioning vaccinations and I will be the same. The issues are bound up.

All of us are, of course, having this debate in eager anticipation of tomorrow's Government announcement as to where we are going with the plan for future months. After three months of such a tough lockdown, it is absolutely understandable that all of us are very much hoping to see some easing of restrictions, although we are always mindful of the public health requirements. If I were to give a wish list, the first item on it would be that schools all return on 12 April. I speak not only as a parent of two teenagers, but generally. All of us are conscious of the lost generation and the loss to children that prolonged school closures has represented. A whole cohort of secondary school children has had no in-person schooling since before Christmas. That is an immense thing. If we reopen schools, it will be hugely beneficial for our young people and children.

It has been widely signalled the 5 km restriction is due to be lifted, and I very much welcome that. We are seeing a considerable amount of congestion. Anyone who lives in Dublin city centre, or the centre of any other city, will be conscious the restriction needs to be lifted. People have been living under that for a long time. Any of us with relatives or friends in other European countries will be conscious that geographic restrictions are quite unusual. Even in Belgium, where there have been very high rates of community transmission, geographic restrictions are not in place. Those restrictions need to be lifted. There has also been some signalling there may be changes to the restrictions on outdoor sporting activities for children. That would also be welcome.

What we are seeing now when we talk about living with Covid is the result of a failure to move more assertively and intensively at an earlier stage. The Labour Party, in particular Deputy Kelly, put forward in January the need for an aggressive national suppression strategy in line with the zero Covid principles being enunciated by the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group, ISAG, here.

I want to pay tribute to them because they have been proved right. Of course, had we put in place, for example, the stricter measures around mandatory hotel quarantine, we would have seen a much greater impact in terms of restrictions and, indeed, it may well have been that restrictions would not have needed to be in place so long. I welcome the fact that we now have at least a limited scheme of hotel quarantine but the difficulty is that it is in some ways like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. It is very much piecemeal. There is also a certain sense of inequity, as we have seen in recent days. People feel that just because they come in from a particular country, which does not necessarily have a higher rate than other countries, they are still subject to this rule. We need to revisit that list of 33 countries to make sure that is not inequitable to people.

For those who were disparaging about zero Covid, I want to quote Ms Jacinda Ardern. I looked again at what the New Zealand Prime Minister said in justifying zero Covid. She said that she did not worry that elimination might prove impossible, because even if New Zealand did not get there, it would still saves lives. She said, "The alternative is to set a lesser goal, and ... still misfire". Those words resonate with me. I looked at the figures and in New Zealand, which has a population of 5 million, only 26 died. Then I looked at our figures. Some 4,666 people here have died of Covid in the past year. Of course, like others, I extend sincere condolences and sympathies to the families of all those affected, all those who died and all those who have been ill. We have a similar population to New Zealand, we are an island nation and our death toll has been 180 times that of New Zealand. Ms Ardern was criticised that this was not practical, etc., but look at the immense cost, grief, dreadful trauma and huge pressure so many people have faced here? I want to pay tribute to front-line workers, as others have done, but think of the trauma and grief we could have avoided had we moved more swiftly earlier, and think of the enormous impact as a result. As we say, we are where we are now, but it is worth reflecting on that. As we move through this, hopefully, we will have time to look back on where we got things wrong and where we got things right. It is worth revisiting that point about Ms Ardern and her clear and coherent policy from the start.

I want to finish on a more positive theme, that is, the issue of vaccination. Last Tuesday's "Prime Time" programme, with Ms Oonagh Smith reporting on the joy of vaccination, brought home to us that there is a way through this. To echo others, we need to push that good news story more than we are. It is positive to see that as of Friday, 11% of our population had their first dose and 4.4% are fully vaccinated. We need to hear more about that and to promote the need for everyone to avail of vaccines when they are available.