Senator Rónán Mullen

Clergy presiding at funerals also a vulnerable category doing ‘essential work’

Independent Senator Rónán Mullen has said that a lack of joined-up thinking at the HSE over the roll-out of the Covid vaccine may have cost lives among elderly members of religious orders.

Senator Mullen was speaking as news broke that the HSE was planning to start vaccinating members of religious communities in ‘congregated settings’.

“In recent days, I have heard of groups of elderly religious dying in their community houses. I am concerned that not enough was done early enough to prioritise vaccination for these. These religious have been at pains to say they wanted no special treatment. But when the vaccine was being rolled out in nursing homes, it should have been obvious that any group of older people living together was particularly vulnerable, especially with carers coming in and out to look after people in some cases,” Mullen said.

Senator Mullen said it was worrying to hear the HSE claim that it did not know how many clergy lived in congregated settings and that it had ‘no line of sight outside what is registered with HIQA’. “On 20th January last I told the Seanad about the case of a group of religious in a non-HIQA regulated nursing home that had not yet been vaccinated. I told the Minister for Health about this four days earlier.”

In a letter to the HSE last Monday, Senator Mullen also drew attention to “elderly or infirm religious living in a religious community, some with in-house care facilities and others receiving care from outside care providers (nurses and healthcare assistants privately employed or contracted from providers).”

“Given the varying levels of vulnerability among older persons and the dangers of cross-infection where care personnel are moving from one setting to another, it would seem to me to be both logical and prudent that any persons over 65 living in the same residential care setting and any person involved in giving care to people in that setting would be administered the vaccination in the context of any such onsite visit,” Mullen wrote.

“The HSE must get on top of this crisis quickly and offer the vaccination to any religious community with three or more people over 65 living in it,” Mullen said today. “The information they need is easily obtainable from AMRI (the Association of Leaders of Religious and Missionaries in Ireland). There is a finite number of religious congregations and houses in Ireland. It would be the work of one or two days to collate this information and distribute it to vaccination teams.”

Senator Mullen welcomed the news that the HSE plans to begin vaccinating in religious congregated settings next week. “I acknowledge the pressure they are under. But I am concerned that nobody seems to have considered the nearly 7,000 Religious Order Priests, Sisters and Brothers living around the country, most of whom are elderly, when the vaccine rollout was being planned originally.”

“This is concerning, since these communities have been receiving PPE and other supports from HSE since the earlier phases of the pandemic. Sadly, a lack of institutional joined-up thinking may have cost more lives,” Mullen said.

Senator Mullen also said that parish clergy should be prioritised as ‘essential workers’ because of their work presiding at funerals. “There is a constant challenge to get ahead of the curve when combatting this virus. I have heard from a number of clergy who are extremely busy with funerals during this pandemic. Many of these are older and many are nervous. They are performing a vital role of comfort and consolation to people and in this situation social distancing is not always so easy.”

“Clergy have been among the least-supported people during this pandemic. Their parishes face a financial crisis and they get no pandemic unemployment payment. But they are there for people at this vital time and their health should be protected,” Mullen concluded.