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A Ceann Comhairle, Deputies,
I welcome the opportunity to brief members of this House and the wider public on the very important and sensitive issue of the COVID-19 crisis. I believe it is very valuable to have these statements taking place in the Dáil today and I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies.
As we have seen around the world, the COVID-19 crisis can change day-to-day life in unprecedented ways for people, bringing both practical and emotional challenges. For many organisations, business as usual is not an option.
I wish to take this opportunity to set out the procedures in place across a number of key agencies and services under my Department’s remit, namely: the Immigration Services, An Garda Síochána, the Courts Service and the Irish Prison Service. One essential characteristic that all of these services have in common is the high degree of interaction between their personnel and members of the public. Therefore, in the context of COVID-19, particular care is needed.
My Department has established a cross-functional COVID-19 response team comprising senior officials from within the Department and from the key agencies I’ve mentioned. This team, in turn, inputs to national structures established to manage the risk of COVID-19. Its focus is to put in place a coordinated approach to COVID-19 response in relation to, for example, employees’ health, welfare and the ability to perform their roles; the provision of information on good respiratory and hand hygiene practices; contingency planning; and response for service provision aligned with HSE guidance, interagency coordination and communication.
I will now touch on the arrangements being put in place at this time as across our services.
The current EU advice is for borders to remain open and for persons to follow the travel advice issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
From an immigration perspective there are a number of aspects of the system which involves engagement with persons moving into the State or non-EEA nationals who engage with the system. Obviously, the most visible of these is at Dublin Airport where Border Management immigration officers of my Department immigrate approximately 16 million persons per annum.
There is a very close working relationship between staff at the Airport, the DAA and the HSE. Immigration personnel closely follow all advice from the HSE and, in the event that a suspected case arises, the clear protocols laid down are carefully followed.
The immigration services of my Department are also working closely with the HSE on a daily basis across a number of areas, including accommodation centres for international protection applicants, the public offices used for registration of immigration permissions, and the international protection offices. Along with guidelines on good respiratory and hand-hygiene practices, hand-sanitisers have been provided. COVID-19 risk assessments have been issued to each of these service areas and, together with the HSE my officials are ensuring information is kept updated on a daily basis and any changing circumstances are responded to effectively.
With regards to the visa regime, in line with other EU Member States and overall Chinese Government policy, the public offices to accept visa applications in China remain closed until 16th March and the matter will be reviewed prior to that date.
Finally, in accordance with best practice, contingency planning is also in hand to ensure that priority immigration services can continue to be provided, should circumstances change.
An Garda Síochána
An Garda Síochána are, likewise, closely following HSE and Department of Health Guidelines when issuing advice via An Garda Síochána’s CMO to staff on this matter and will continue to do so. Garda management have plans in place to manage on a case by case basis any issues that arise in their workforce, which totals over 17,500 people.
An Garda Síochána have been attending meetings of the Health Threat Co-ordination Group on a weekly basis and monitors any updates received from these meetings and the Department of Health/CMO.
An Garda Síochána continues to operate as normal and will keep their procedures when dealing with members of the public under constant review.
The Courts Service has established a contingency planning group to review its plans to meet the challenges caused by the arrival of COVID-19 in Ireland. Business continuity plans for courthouses and buildings are being updated and reviewed and official HSE guidance is now issued to staff. Communications plans are being developed for Judges, staff and court users.
An extensive ICT contingency plan is being prepared in the event of Courts Service buildings being unavailable and the issues associated with closing services, if deemed necessary, are being examined. Additional sanitisation of public offices and courtrooms have been arranged and hygiene supplies for public offices and hand sanitisers for public areas will be installed in the coming days.
Irish Prison Services
The Irish Prison Service (IPS) continues to work closely with the HSE in developing contingency plans specifically for the management of Covid-19 should it present in prisons, in line with best international practice to reduce the risk of exposure to staff, prisoners, visitors and to people in the wider community. This includes maintaining safe prisons with all essential services including inter alia staffing, healthcare, catering provision and the maintenance of plant and equipment.
The Irish Prison Service has dedicated its Executive Clinical Lead, Infection Control Manager to COVID-19 preparedness, along with additional resources. The Irish Prison Service has adapted the HSE/HPSC Guidance to a prison setting and this is checked on a daily basis and updated as necessary.
A comprehensive information pack on COVID-19 has been made available to all Irish Prison Service staff and an educational module on COVID-19 has been completed and rolled out to all staff in the most at risk prisons. Furthermore, hygiene control training for all staff in all prisons will be completed within the next week.
The Irish Prison Service has secured hygiene supplies should a need arise for the introduction of more robust screening procedures, possible suspect or confirmed cases in prisons. The IPS is also coordinating its efforts with the justice agencies that it interacts with.
Finally, the Irish Prison Service are currently considering various options for enhanced screening processes for newly committed prisoners, visitors, staff, contractors and in-reach service providers to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection arising at prison level.
Ceann Comhairle, all these efforts have a clear purpose: to continue to deliver the best possible services to help ensure a safe, fair and inclusive Ireland. I wish to commend all of our officials and staff working on the “front line” to deliver these public services at such a challenging time.