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I want to use my voice to say I am unhappy with the continued encroachment on our human rights without any analysis or the Government framing the debate within that and an acknowledgement that, when we do so, it must be temporary, proportionate and, when it is discriminatory, it must be based on fact, targeted and for a short time.“ (Irish Deputy Catherine Connolly, 2 Dec. 2021)

Connolly criticises Government’s ‘moronic’ response to COVID-19 pandemic https://youtu.be/RlJ91ByciE0

Deputy Catherine Connolly
Dáil Éireann debate Éireann debate –
Thursday, 2 Dec 2021
Vol. 1015 No. 2
Health (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2021: Second Stage
I welcome this opportunity and I often claim there is no debate but we got time today to debate this Bill. However, I deplore the fact that the Bill only became available to Deputies late on Tuesday night. We had yesterday to look at it and it is up for discussion this morning. I could not possibly get through that Bill and analyse it in the manner that it deserves in that time so that is unacceptable. It should have been teased out in a committee.

I am probably one of the few who does not welcome this Bill. I always preface my comments by saying it is a serious virus with variants which were eminently foreseeable from the start. I gave my permission to draconian legislation, and I use every opportunity because sometimes I only have two or three minutes although on this occasion I have longer, to say I reluctantly gave that permission and agreed with the Government because we were facing a serious threat. I did so on the basis of a contract of information with the Government that it would come back proactively on a regular basis, which never happened. We have reacted over and over.

I want to put what I have read of the Bill into perspective. I look at the human rights aspect of this and I will put it in the perspective of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL. Mandatory hotel quarantine was introduced on 26 March and came to an end at about 25 April. I want to examine the human rights issues because Members have overwhelmingly welcomed the Bill, which I understand. However, I do not understand the failure to put in context the constant encroachment on human rights without any analysis or assessment whatsoever. The ICCL stated:

Mandatory hotel quarantine undoubtedly amounts to a form of State detention. Persons who travel into Ireland from designated States [and this is going back to April] must make a booking and so on.

The main point is that it is “a form of State detention”. If a person is deprived of his or her liberty we have law and judicial pronouncements on this going back a long time. In the context of the mental health tribunal, Justice Dunne stated in the Supreme Court in 2019 that: “It has always been a hallmark of a constitutional democracy such as ours that the deprivation of the liberty of an individual is not to be lightly undertaken.” When we do that it must be a last resort and proportionate because other ways have failed. The ICCL went on to state:

Ireland has strong constitutional protections for individual liberty. The detention of persons by the State must adhere to very strict rules in order not to fall foul of these protections. In its current form [and this is going back to April], mandatory hotel quarantine fails to meet these standards and encroaches unnecessarily on the right to liberty. The present system has significant deficiencies which call into question the ongoing legality of the system as a whole, and the necessity and proportionality of the detention of certain categories of persons.

That document, dated April 2021, goes on to talk about the inadequate appeal system, stating that it:

Fails to meet essential standards for an effective review of detention. ICCL is concerned at reports of conditions and the behaviour of staff in MHQ [mandatory hotel quarantine] and the failure to put in place an independent inspection system. For all of these reasons, ICCL believes the present MHQ [mandatory hotel quarantine] system is not compatible with the Constitution and with Ireland’s human rights obligations.

The ICCL is not a way-out radical organisation; it was moderate in its statement in April.

Some changes were made, although not enough were made in my opinion. Mandatory hotel quarantine lapsed in September and rightly so. The Government is coming forward to be ready in case the situation gets worse and I understand that. However, I have no analysis before me of what the Department has done to examine the mandatory hotel quarantine system to date. We know from some of the content of the Minister’s speech, from a reply to a parliamentary question asked by my colleague, Deputy Pringle, and from other Deputies that at its peak eight hotels were in use and that the busiest day was 9 May 2021, when 1,008 persons were in accommodation in mandatory hotel quarantine. Some 10,398 people entered mandatory hotel quarantine accommodation. We know from today’s information how many tests were done. The Minister said that 17,846 tests took place on residents and of those 10,398 people, only 593 residents tested positive. I understand that the Minister goes on to say that does not take into account how the community was saved from transmission by that but it is extraordinary that so few of those 10,398 people tested positive.

I know the Minister has five minutes at the end of the debate so I would love him to answer why a human rights assessment has not been done. I realise we are back in a crisis situation with high figures in Ireland again in recent weeks. I come back to the new variant from southern Africa which has given the impetus to this but there have been many months in which a human rights assessment should have been carried out so that we could learn. I realise that a review was carried out and low costs have come forward but we still do not know the cost of the last six months of mandatory hotel quarantine.

I refer to appeals. We have no idea why some appeals succeeded and others did not. We have no idea if it was consistent, what themes emerged as appeal issues or anything like that so that we can learn from the process.

Looking back, we know that it was very inconsistent. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties pointed out that it was “not clear that the appeals process was effectively or consistently applying the criteria contained within the Act”. For example, a man who flew in from Israel to be with his dying father who was in intensive care and was expected to pass shortly, was denied two appeals for an exemption on humanitarian ground six. It is difficult to imagine what could constitute a humanitarian appeal if being with one’s dying parent does not. I recognise that this case was dealt with and I am not asking the Minister to go back into the detail of it in his response. That is over and various appeals were made subsequent to the two appeals that failed. What I am asking is what we have learned. What mechanisms have been put in place to improve the appeals system so that similar situations do not arise again? I am really disappointed that this type of information is not before us this morning. From day one, when I agreed to the original legislation, I did so in the knowledge that what I was agreeing to was draconian and represented the most severe encroachment on basic human rights. I did so because of a threat but almost two years down the road, I expect a completely different approach to legislation from the Government that is based on proportionality and analysis.

Every time that I stand up in this House, whether it is for 20 minutes or two minutes, I am conscious of Galway and I always use it as an example. In Connemara I know two people, well into their seventies, who cannot get home care. Why is that? It is because there is no home care available from the private company upon which the HSE relies to provide such care. There are also issues with the pandemic. I understand those practical issues but what I do not understand is the failure of the Minister to come proactively before the Dáil to explain the situation on the ground; to explain that we have not opened our respite and day centres, that we have huge difficulties with providing home care and to provide an analysis of that. I have my own views on it. I foresaw this happening because I sat on a health forum for ten years of my life, every two months and rarely missed a meeting. I saw the dismantling of our health system and the privatisation and commodification of it on every level. Sometimes I am utterly filled with frustration when I listen to the level of the debate from all sides in relation to the health system when it was the absolute policy of various Governments, but particularly by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, to privatise the health service and break it down. As I have said previously, back in 2006 language such as “the beds are being refurbished” was used. I had heard of houses being refurbished, but never beds. A new language started to creep in.

Back to the present day and the topic we are discussing this morning. I make my comments in the context of a crisis being used to further encroach on human rights without any analysis and the easy acceptance of this by a lot of Deputies.

The latest crisis or threat comes from omicron. I am sure the Minister will not take this very well but that is actually an anagram of moronic. I nearly forgot the word anagram in my tiredness because it was 2 a.m. when I got to bed. I looked up the word moronic. I do not want to insult anybody but it means idiotic or stupid and to me, that is what has characterised the Government’s approach generally, not just the approach of the Minister for Health, to the Covid pandemic crisis over the last two years.

We had a situation a few weeks ago where we were talking about nightclubs. We saw images of young people and older people on the streets with no social distancing. Our time was consumed with debating whether nightclubs should open and whether people should wear masks inside when at the same time, day centres and respite centres were not open and people were at home without care. There was no analysis of that. Instead, the Government’s time was taken up with whether people could go into nightclubs.

There has been no analysis in relation to ventilation although many Deputies, including Deputy Shortall this morning, have raised it repeatedly. The message is always to wash our hands, which we all do to the point of damage at this stage because it is the right thing to do but there is absolutely no mention of ventilation in any of the announcements.

This legislation was published on Tuesday. I got to look at it today and while I was sitting in the Chair on occasion. It will be guillotined later and passed through even though there is no emergency today. The Oireachtas Library and Research Service managed to produce, under pressure, a briefing paper. Once again, for the umpteenth time, I want to thank them for their work. The service clarified that it was not publishing a Bill digest because of the timeframe between the Bill’s publication on 1 December and the Second Stage debate on 2 December. The Minister is introducing this legislation so that he will be able to act in the future but he has not given the House time to analyse, reflect or discuss.

There are one or two good points in the Bill which I welcome. I welcome that there will be a ministerial mechanism available to allow a person to leave mandatory hotel quarantine. I also welcome the pre-application process and the clarifying of same.

What I do not welcome is the fact that the Minister will have more power and will be able to decide what is right and designate same in writing, without any discussion in the Dáil. Forgive me for flicking through papers but that is reflective of the way we have been led into this debate. The Minister will be able to designate in writing and make certain orders under this Act. In the past, regulations have been published way after the event. Deputies have been left with no information, with staff scrambling to try to understand the regulations and we are doing that all over again. I see no provision for hardship cases in this. This is a very costly business but I see nothing in the Bill about hardship cases, even though this has been raised many times.

The constant confusion and obfuscation in relation to PCR and antigen testing is simply unacceptable. Reference is made to three days for a PCR test and two days for an antigen test. I heard the interview, mentioned by others, with an assistant professor from UCD, a virologist, who had huge difficulty understanding the science behind this. We are told all of the time to respect the scientific advice but this man, this academic said that he had great difficulty understanding it. Each and every one of us must try to read, listen and come to our own conclusions and make our own decisions, as best we can, in the knowledge that we must protect ourselves and each other.

Instead of that type of debate, what we have is a demonisation of people who, for many reasons – they are not a homogenous group – have decided not to be vaccinated. We have unacceptably gone down the road of “them and us” or “us and them”. Now we are looking at children, with an announcement that they must wear masks. Whether that is right or wrong, I have the greatest difficulty with it. I am delighted, although delight may not be the best word, that my sons are older and I do not have to make those decisions for them. The flippant way that we are referring to this, that it will do them no harm, is simply appalling. It is unacceptable to me. It is so wrong that these decisions are being made in this manner.

Tiredness has got to me, actually, from last night. I only use that as an example. I would say tiredness has got to all the Deputies given what has been done with the Clár Oibre for the Dáil, the number of items put in and the late sittings and the early sitting this morning. It is difficult to deal with this.

However, I want to use my voice to say I am unhappy with the continued encroachment on our human rights without any analysis or the Government framing the debate within that and an acknowledgement that, when we do so, it must be temporary, proportionate and, when it is discriminatory, it must be based on fact, targeted and for a short time.

I refer to the latest variant. The word is moronic. We have punished South Africa for being good and for analysing the virus and sharing that knowledge with us rather than embracing them.

We now know that virus is in Ireland and other countries, not necessarily from South Africa or any country at all.

To say we have gone down the demonisation route might be too strong but certainly it is a punishment route in our approach to dealing with Covid. For all those reasons, I will not be supporting this legislation”. © Houses of the Oireachtas 2021 CC-BY-4.0: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/2021-12-02/2/#spk_11 Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License