Donnelly defends decision to scrap Covid pass in hospitality sector

Further 4,731 PCR-confirmed cases reported, 3,395 positive antigens registered

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly says the public health rationale for use of Covid passes in hospitality has now lapsed. Photograph: iStock

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly says the public health rationale for use of Covid passes in hospitality has now lapsed. Photograph: iStock

 

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has defended the decision to scrap the requirement for the Covid-19 pass to access hospitality, saying that “for now” the sector should open up fully.

He said that while there had been “secondary benefits”, such as reassuring the medically vulnerable that they were sitting next to a vaccinated person and driving demand for booster shots and primary vaccines, the public health rationale had now lapsed.

Speaking on Newstalk’s On The Record programme, he said the pass “was broadly supported and it did work but I am satisfied that for now anyway, the rationale is there to open up hospitality fully”. He said unvaccinated people were “putting themselves at risk”.

“I think it is on them, if they choose not to get vaccinated they are knowingly putting themselves at significantly higher risk. But ultimately that is a choice for them,” he said, agreeing the political judgment had been made that it is a choice for these people rather than a public duty to protect them.

“The emergency powers we brought in are very serious, and we’re talking about curtailing peoples’ civil liberties, their economic liberties. They should only be done when there’s a very strong public health rationale,” he said. Mr Donnelly also indicated that emergency powers due to expire at the end of March would be allowed to do so unless there is “a clear and present danger that needs to be addressed”.

A further 4,731 PCR-confirmed Covid-19 cases were reported on Sunday and 3,395 people registered a positive antigen test through the Health Service Executive’s online portal.

There were 845 patients with the disease in hospital on Sunday, an increase of nine on Saturday, including 79 people in intensive care units, an increase of one.

Mr Donnelly said that a little less than half of those in hospital with the disease have “incidental” Covid, and are not being treated for the disease – “and that number has been growing and growing”.

Hospital Report

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU
228 28

Meanwhile, only about one in five patients in intensive care with Covid has had a booster, and almost all of them have underlying conditions, he said. There was also a large number who are long-stay patients, likely infected with the Delta variant.

Review

Mr Donnelly also signalled that he will seek Government approval for a review on how the health service handled Covid. “I’ll be bringing a memo to Government shortly to look at the establishment of a group looking at the health service,” he said.

“The sooner we can get that feedback the better,” he said, adding that the group will also look at the future of public health in Ireland.

It comes amid ongoing speculation about the format a Covid inquiry or review may take, with the Sunday Times reporting that Coalition leaders will begin talks on an expert group to examine the handling of the pandemic. The newspaper said a decision has been taken not to have a commission of inquiry or to set up a special Oireachtas committee on the issue.

Speaking on Sunday afternoon on RTÉ’s This Week programme, Mr Donnelly said he was not aware of any decisions made at Government level regarding the structure of an inquiry.

Covid has left a “mammoth” backlog in the health service requiring widespread modernisation of the system, Mr Donnelly said.

He said there would be a “big focus” on waiting lists, women’s health and patient outcomes, but that “essentially what we have to do is modernise our health services so people can access really good-quality services right throughout their lives”.

He said there were about 600,000 people awaiting an outpatient appointment, and that capacity would be built up in the public health service to address this. However, money has been made available through the National Treatment Purchase Fund to provide for private care and care within the HSE in the interim, he said.

Meanwhile, the mask requirement and other measures in schools and childcare facilities will be reviewed by the National Public Health Emergency Team in the coming weeks, he said, but he argued they were being retained because the level of vaccination among children is significantly lower than in the adult population.

Future of Nphet

Amid ongoing speculation about the future of Nphet, he said there were “no detailed plans” on whether the team would be stood down, but repeated that there is work ongoing in the Department of Health and HSE on the medium term infrastructure required to manage the Covid response – including “looking at the advice generally”.

He indicated that a future testing system for Covid, however, could be at a lower scale – especially if there is a lot of virus present, as then “the purpose or public health function of testing and tracing becomes less relevant”.

Regarding boosters, Mr Donnelly told This Week that among those aged 18-40, it is estimated that 70 to 80 per cent now have boosted immunity due to infection or getting another shot.

He also expressed the hope that new developments in vaccine technology might engender longer-lasting immunity to Covid, perhaps up to a year, enabling the rollout of an annual vaccination campaign along the lines of the flu shot. He said he “fully expects” to get advice on future campaigns from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee.

He defended the decision not to give GPs the €1,000 bonus for work done on the Covid frontlines, saying it was “not to diminish their work” but that the payment was generally for those who worked on-site in high-risk Covid environments.

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