Living with Covid has failed and a new strategy is needed

10 February 2021

Speech by Labour Party Leader Alan Kelly on the Labour Party motion calling for an Aggressive Suppression Strategy for Covid-19

Today, the Labour Party is bringing forward an extremely important motion. I would like the Minister and Government to listen to what we say collectively over the next two hours. This is not about being right or wrong or political point-scoring. It is about giving information and having a strategy that we fundamentally believe we must support and work towards together.

Living with Covid-19, the national strategy on which we supported the Government, has failed. The absence of an all-island or, indeed, a two-island approach has left us in need of a strategy. The position at the moment is that the Government will make some sort of pronouncement in two weeks’ time. I am not sure that is a strategy. Strategies have core areas and set out straight what we will do. I am not sure that having the Tánaiste and the Minister with responsibility for housing make statements publicly over the last 48 hours about what will potentially happen in two, four or six weeks’ time is helpful.

It certainly precedes any strategy. We do not have a strategy so I want the Minister to listen to what we say today and put it into a strategy.

We are advocating for a national aggressive suppression strategy, zero Covid by another name. We want to suppress the virus and ensure we get the case numbers down so low – to double digits – that it gives Ireland a chance of having a 2021 that is different from 2020. People are at the end of their tether and they need that chance. Once we have suppressed the virus, we should, with panzer-like speed, provide increased support for public health teams and tackle the virus in areas where it arises again. We need to eliminate community transmission as otherwise we will be in a fourth lockdown. The key test of whatever strategy the Government brings forward will be to prevent that happening.

We have so many unknowns. The vaccine is not the panacea many thought it would be late last year. It will take a considerable period of time to administer and even when it is administered – I wish the Minister the best in getting it out there and we will support him in any way we can – there are many unknowns regarding transmissibility and how the virus affects different people. The biggest issue we face is that of mutations and variants. There is a global issue with this virus whereby, if areas of the world are not vaccinated in a speedy way, variants and mutations will develop and find their way to Ireland. How will we ensure we protect our people? The real worry is that we will have a pandemic within a pandemic because of mutations. The public are ahead of us and they want us to address this issue once and for all.

There are a number of components to this strategy. The most important point is that we put forward a strategy that will have public confidence and that we will see through to get us to a point where we can live in some form of normality later on this year. Having the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister for Transport make a statement to the country in two weeks’ time without details, objectives or being able to confidently predict where we are going is not what we need. There is too much public anxiety and helplessness. I have never seen so many people in a distressed state. I say that openly. This is different from last year. We need to give people hope and direction and deal with that anxiety.

The fundamental component of our strategy is travel. Some say that travel does not account for a huge number of cases but they are wrong. We also thought the B117 variant was not a big issue in Ireland. How did it get here and become the dominant strain? The reason was travel. We need to ensure we have mandatory quarantine of travellers. I cannot understand why, since last May, we have not put in place the infrastructure and legislation to do this. What has happened in the past nine months? Somebody needs to explain that to me because nothing has happened, and that is a failure. We also need to ensure that quarantine applies across the board. The Brazilian and South African variants are on tour. It does not matter where they are from because they could as easily come from any other destination. That is not the way the virus works. Fundamentally, we need to ensure that people who come here are quarantined and take polymerase chain reaction, PCR, tests on arrival, then five days after arrival and again later on. They can then move on.

What is the point in fining people going to airports and ports €500 and then wishing them the best for their holidays? This is driving people insane. We must have the power to tell people they are not going or to impose fines at a level that makes it not worth their while going.

The volume of people travelling is still incredible. If the Minister wants to bring in legislation next week, which I hope he will because the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, said so yesterday, we will facilitate it. We also need to ensure that we have serial testing, in particular, in healthcare settings, and that we have checks 5 km from the Border on all major routes and a significant amount of checks on all minor routes.

Furthermore, and this is something the Minister really needs to listen to, there are too many people who are not working from home. Compared to last year, the volume of traffic, again, this morning, is incredible. Through the Health and Safety Authority, will the Minister ensure that a survey be taken of all employers of more than 20 people as to how many of them are working from home and how many are not? The Minister would have full political support for doing it. It would be a good exercise. I ask the Minister to take that on board. Too many people are certainly working in environments where they could be working from home.

We also need to ensure that we have antigen testing where we cannot necessarily have PCR testing continuously; where there are large amounts of people. I have been advocating for this measure for six months. I have stood up inside the Chamber, brought out antigen tests and asked why they could not be used. In the past two months the European Commission has stated they should be used as part of a mix. Why are they not being used more across the board in order that we can track the virus and bring it down? It is a tool that has not been used enough.

Furthermore, when it comes to our public health teams, when we get this virus down they will have to be resourced to act panzer-like, to go in with the support of An Garda Síochána and whoever else, tackle the virus, which is where we need to get to as a country, and keep it down. They have to be resourced.

I saw a striking “RTÉ Investigates” programme last night on Tallaght Hospital and it showed how deeply in debt we are to all of our healthcare workers. I also listened intently to what the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, and other organisations had to say to the Joint Committee on Health. We must acknowledge this work in the near future. On 6 April last, I stated in the Dáil that we should give recognition to all of these workers in the form of some sort of payment. I recommended a once-off payment of €1,000. They are now looking for compensation for childcare costs, for other additional costs and for working longer hours. We are obliged as a country to do this and to acknowledge the efforts that they have made. The Minister also has to deal with the reality that student nurses are working through this pandemic and this was exemplified repeatedly in the programme broadcast last night. I ask the Minister to deal with those two issues. That will show that we really do support our healthcare workers and we recognise the work that they have done.

I ask the Minister to take on board what the Labour Party is proposing today. We need to suppress this virus and get it down to a point where we can give hope to people in this country. The tools to do so are outlined in our motion and I ask the Minister to bear them in mind.

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