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Home > Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate. Drug treatment programmes.

[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Topical issue debate. Drug treatment programmes. (22 Sep 2020)

External website: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/dail/2...


Deputy Louise O'Reilly: I will go briefly through the sequence of this matter if the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, does not mind. On 20 August my colleague, an Teachta Gould, wrote to the Minister of State seeking information and an update on the status of drug and alcohol support group meetings. I do not think anyone will dispute how important they are. We know they are. On 26 August an Teachta Gould received a reply. In the intervening time he had to write to both the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach directly because no reply had been forthcoming from the Minister of State's office. The Minister of State advised at that stage that it may not be the time to introduce exceptions to the public health advice. On 3 September a Fianna Fáil backbencher made a video announcing that the meetings would be restarted and put it up on social media, but on 4 September, curiously, National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, issued its advice. That was a day later, so there is obviously some class of communication with the backbenches of Fianna Fáil that is not going directly into the Minister of State's office. I am sure he will wish to investigate that. On 8 September we got the official announcement, and now we hear that these vital meetings have been stopped from 19 September.

 

The people who go to these meetings do so because they need support. The meetings are the very definition of an essential service. These people rely wholeheartedly on this service. I will read to the Minister of State some quotes. We in Sinn Féin, an Teachta Gould in particular, have received a lot of correspondence from people. I will anonymise it, obviously:

 

I was in shock and very angry as we had only started the meetings back up in July and now they are shut down again. In the meetings everyone wears masks, adheres to all the safety regulations. Before I started AA I was suicidal, and the people and programme in AA saved my life.

 

This is another quote:

 

The problem is most people only know an alcoholic in active addiction. The alcoholic in recovery is a completely different person. However, we are all tarred with the one brush. This we can understand because at one time all of us in recovery were also in active addiction. It is no exaggeration to say our continued recovery depends on meetings.

 

Here is a final quote:

 

I am a recovering alcoholic and I go to meetings to stay sober. When the meetings stopped it was a huge struggle. Unfortunately, some people drank and some will never make it back to meetings.

 

This is very high-stakes, very important stuff and a really serious peer-to-peer support of the very best kind.

 

As the Minister of State can see from the testaments, this is the type of support that keeps people out of active addiction and in recovery. It can keep them going and save their lives. That is what they said. These meetings have saved lives. If that does not qualify as an essential service, I am at a loss to know what does.

 

It is not lost on me or on anyone listening to this debate that bookmakers and off-licenses are open and yet these vital addiction and recovery support meetings have been forcibly closed. I urge the Minister of State to rethink this and to engage with the groups which organise these meetings and to proactively find a way to ensure the meetings can take place safely. They are a lifeline. We know there will be rolling restrictions and that this is an issue that will be faced not only by Dublin but by other counties as we try to get ahead of this virus. The Minister of State is compounding the issue these people have in terms of dealing with their recovery and their addiction and moving on with their lives. I urge the Minister of State to rethink the suspension of these vital meetings.

 

Deputy Frankie Feighan: I thank the Deputy for her views. We have found ourselves in a complex and difficult situation and I take this opportunity to update the House on the holding of drug and alcohol support group meetings in Dublin. Last week, the Government published Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19. The framework states that no organised indoor gatherings should take place when level 3 restrictions are in place and Dublin moved to level 3 from midnight on 19 September for a period of three weeks. The level 3 restrictions apply to all indoor meetings. However, organised outdoor gatherings of up to 15 people are still permitted.

 

I acknowledge the importance of drugs and alcohol meetings for people in recovery from addiction problems. The Covid-19 pandemic has created uncertainty and anxiety for everyone, particularly those affected by drug and alcohol addiction. My full intention, as Minister of State with responsibility for this area, is to do all I can to ensure we achieve the restoration of these essential addiction treatment services in Dublin as quickly as possible. Having spoken to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, about this issue on several occasions this week, I state for the record of the House that it is his full intention to ensure that these services are returned. However, we must ensure they can be held in a safe environment for the majority of the users of the services in a level 3 restriction area.

 

Individuals affected by problem drug and alcohol use often have higher levels of physical comorbidity and alcohol may make an individual‘s immune system less effective. As a result, this cohort of people are more vulnerable to the effects of respiratory disease and infection in general. These risks to the health of participants in support group meetings cannot be ignored in the context of the serious danger of Covid-19, which is an enveloping respiratory disease.

 

I agree with Deputy O'Reilly and other elected representatives who have contacted me concerning the importance of this issue since Friday. The drugs policy unit in my Department is currently actively working on developing safe solutions to enable the restoration of all drug and alcohol treatment services nationwide. I have asked the unit to make contact with the HSE, event organisers, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, AA, SMART Recovery, and other relevant stakeholders to develop a plan to achieve this outcome as quickly as possible.

 

The situation regarding Covid-19 is evolving and is having a major impact in Ireland and across the world. The measures in place and public health advice have been adapted to the changing circumstances and this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. We are dealing with changing circumstances on a daily basis. Real progress has been made on suppressing the virus due to the huge effort by our citizens. By working together we have saved lives and limited the impact of the disease on society in Ireland. We must all continue to do everything possible to avoid the virus spreading. I assure anyone listening to this debate who is in recovery for addiction in Dublin that I and the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, are working hard to ensure services can reopen in a safe manner as quickly as possible.

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