Indoor dining law passed in Dáil, Donnelly rejects discrimination claims

Minister defends indoor dining legislation as Opposition and FG TDs express concern

People will soon be able to eat indoors as Government last night passed legislation allowing indoor dining for the vaccinated.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

People will soon be able to eat indoors as Government last night passed legislation allowing indoor dining for the vaccinated. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

The Government has defended its indoor dining legislation against allegations of discrimination, saying the European Union already differentiates between the vaccinated and unvaccinated in international travel.

The Health Amendment No 2 Bill was passed by 74 votes to 68 after a manual vote. Four Government TDs were formally unaccounted for - Fine Gael’s Michael Ring, John Paul Phelan and Alan Dillon and Fianna Fail TD Marc MacSharry. Willie O’Dea was ill and at home. Mr Dillon later confirmed he was paired and is on paternity leave. Mr MacSharry said he had told the whip earlier that he would not be present.Independent TD Michael Lowry supported the Government. All other parties and Independents voted against the legislation.

With Government TDs expressing concerns about the law’s constitutionality and Opposition TDs repeatedly claiming it is discriminatory and unenforceable, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said: “The principle is there.”

He was speaking during a heated debate on the Health Amendment Bill, which restricts access to indoor dining to those who have been fully vaccinated, or recovered from Covid-19, and some children and staff.

“The entire European Union digital Covid-19 certificate is based on vaccination status,” siad Mr Donnelly, adding: “We’ve already accepted the principle.”

Acknowledging that the plan is “imperfect”, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said it was a better “middle path – a safe path” between either fully reopening hospitality without restrictions or keeping it closed until there is herd immunity.

Similar approach

He said the State was taking a similar approach to the one that has been employed for some time by Denmark as well as Germany and which France, Portugal and Greece are also going to implement.

Mr Varadkar added: “If things go well we may not have to use this system for very long. And in the meantime, we might be able to use it to reopen other sectors currently closed, like live music, for example, the arts, leisure and entertainment facilities.”

He said the Bill also facilitates PCR and antigen testing although it would take time to establish.

The Bill also includes measures to ease the mandatory hotel quarantine regime and create “flexibility” by allowing alternative testing processes for passengers arriving without a test. It removes the obligation on some or all travellers to have a pre-travel test and allows those who have recovered from Covid-19 to be released from quarantine.

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said the Government had weeks to prepare for this but had come back with a plan that is “unfair, impractical, unworkable and is discriminatory”.

Labour leader Alan Kelly claimed it was “an Irish solution to an Irish problem” and would operate on a “nod, nod, wink, wink” basis. He said antigen testing could have been used rather than this “profoundly discriminatory” legislation.

Social Democrats joint leader Róisín Shortall said: “You’re asking us to buy a pig in a poke saying: ‘Trust us and leave all the details to us.’”

Ms Shortall warned that the Government was breaching “fundamental principles” including through the passing of personal data to random people.

People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy appealed to the Government to “hold off on the reopening of indoor hospitality. We’re almost there – six, seven eight weeks until a very high level of vaccination.”

Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín said the party would be “sending a letter to President Michael D Higgins requesting that this Bill be referred to the Supreme Court”.

Mr Tóibín said other countries had included some form of testing and not vaccine alone because “without doing that it is blatantly discriminatory” and that applied to travel across the EU as well.

A number of Government backbenchers also expressed concern about the constitutionality of the Bill.

Constitutional issues

Former Fine Gael minister Michael Creed said the Taoiseach himself had indicated that there were constitutional and civil-liberty issues and “I’d like to be reassured we’re not being asked to trespass in an area where the courts may ultimately find against the legislation”.

Fine Gael TD John Paul Phelan said “the argument probably is constitutional but I have grave reservations” as he asked the Minister to indicate “when he believes that the testing alternative to the vaccine passport will be available”.

Mr Donnelly said the Bill provided for both PCR and antigen testing.

He told TDs that the legislation “can and will be enforced” but “primarily, it is about trusting people to do the right thing”.