We are meeting today to take unprecedented actions to respond to an unprecedented emergency. A Cheann Comhairle, I am grateful to you, and to all our public representatives for facilitating this work. I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the staff in Leinster House for going about their business with such efficiency while following the recommended guidelines on physical distance. Our laws derive their legitimacy, in the first place, from being passed by a democratically elected Oireachtas. Such work enables our democratic life to continue in these most trying of circumstances, and it is precisely at times like this that we need to see it in action the most.
I also want to put on record the constructive role played by the Opposition parties and Independents to date, in the main. The Government is grateful to them for their understanding, goodwill and co-operation and it has been an example of politics working well. It shows that when faced by a common foe we can put aside our differences and work together for the good of our country, to protect livelihoods and save lives.
Following my speech, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, will provide an economic overview of the Bill and give a detailed outline of what is proposed. Later, after the contributions of each party and grouping in this Chamber, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, will conclude by looking at the Bill more broadly and how it will affect business. On Committee and Remaining Stages we will have Government contributions from various Ministers including Deputies Harris, Donohoe, English, Kehoe and Humphreys to ensure that the many questions and concerns can be answered.
Unfortunately we cannot stop this virus but working together we can slow it in its tracks, push it back and put it back in its box. Our national objective is to suppress the virus and flatten the curve. We can succeed if everyone takes sustained action. Nothing less will do. That includes all of us here, in the sense of having no unnecessary meetings, using video conferencing and the telephone, and keeping physical distance.
As a doctor and also as a politician I know the value of repetition. Give the best advice and then give it again, and keep repeating it until it becomes second nature and ingrained. I want to advise everyone in the public to follow the public health advice and to keep following these five basic steps; simple steps that are vital to protect us all from the virus: regular hand washing, coughing etiquette, not touching your face, maintaining a physical distance, and staying at home if feeling unwell.
For the past three and a half years so much of our political time and energy was taken up by the issue of Brexit. Who would have thought quite a different crisis would bring our country to a standstill? Time was expended preparing for the impact of a possible no-deal Brexit, and more time was spent ensuring we avoided an outcome that did not see a return of a hard border on the island of Europe, or borders between Ireland and Britain. They were simpler times perhaps. In one sense, this was valuable time that in other circumstances might have been directed at other pressing national issues. However there has been one very positive side effect. Because of the thousands of hours devoted by our civil servants and officials to prepare for all possible eventualities, and because of the work our Ministers did to ensure that we would be able to withstand the worst effects of a no-deal Brexit we are now in a better position than if we were starting to think about some of these issues for the first time. For example, the time spent thinking about supply lines, about the impact of a shock to the economy, the money we set aside thanks to prudent management of our finances – all of this is now being deployed against a single, different kind of national threat. When it comes to so many of our plans that we had on the shelf, we are simply rubbing out "Brexit" and writing in "coronavirus".
We did not expect or predict a pandemic of this kind, although plans were present and afoot to deal with it. We were very much prepared for an economic crisis and, as a result, we are in a much stronger position today, going into this crisis with a budget surplus, falling debt, a rainy day fund and cash on hand. I assure the public that, although the challenges will be great, we are ready to face them. Although the cost of these measures will be very high, we are prepared to pay the price, even if it takes a number of years. We can bear it and we will be able to pay back what we borrow as a nation. We will do so willingly because it is the right thing to do and we owe it to our fellow citizens to protect their lives and livelihoods.
We believe that, by maintaining the link between employees, employers and companies, it will be easier for us to bounce back when this is all over. These actions will keep our economic infrastructure intact and will also give business the best chance of making it through the crisis.
We are also making sure the self-employed are covered. I know the sacrifices that many of our self-employed people have made to build up their businesses and practices. I know how worried they are now. We will do all we can to help sustain the self-employed and bring them through this emergency as well.
Today we are asking the Oireachtas to pass emergency legislation to respond to the Covid-19 emergency. These emergency actions will mitigate the impact of the virus and enable us to continue to provide public services. Today's legislation, to last for the duration of the emergency, will freeze rents, prevent evictions, make it easier for healthcare professionals to re-register to return to work and enable former members of the Defence Forces to re-join at the rank they left with no penalties. We know that the financial impact of mass redundancies over a short period will have a serious impact on the ability of business to recover. Accordingly, we are extending the time periods under which a person who has been laid off and kept on short time due to Covid-19 can claim a redundancy payment from their employer.
So much work is taking place to help save and protect lives. For example, we have also approved a framework agreement with private hospitals to ensure they can operate effectively as public hospitals under section 38 of the Health Act for the duration of the emergency. This will add more than 2,000 beds, nine laboratories, critical-care capacity and thousands of staff to our health service.
Some, of course, have asked and might ask why these things were not done before, why we have previously objected to measures such as rent freezes, for example, or a moratorium on evictions or co-opting private healthcare. The truth is these are extraordinary times. For example, property rights are always subject to the common good in our Constitution. I do not think anyone would argue but that this is an extraordinary situation in which the common good overrides. We know rent freezes, for example, in places like San Francisco did not work. Landlords just sold up and often sold on to owner-occupiers meaning fewer properties were available to rent. We know in Berlin that even the announcement of a rent freeze caused investors, developers and builders to build fewer homes and more hotels and offices instead because the return was better. In normal circumstances, a rent freeze would actually make things worse. It would reduce the supply of places to rent, freeze out people who need to rent for the first time, such as students, migrants and young people who want to leave home.
This is a temporary policy and only for a few weeks - hopefully only for 12 weeks. However, that is not to say that some emergency policy changes might not make sense as longer term policy changes as well. When it comes to childcare, our plan always had been to expand ECCE, early childhood care and education, and to expand the national childcare scheme incrementally, thereby reducing the amount parents have to pay. In some ways we have done that in one fell swoop, an incremental measure done very quickly. The House might decide not to roll back that entirely.
Another area is sick pay. Workers in the low-paid sectors should not have to be out of work for six days to qualify for income support. Six days is far too long. It is bad policy both in terms of social justice, the economy and public health.
Desperate times do not call for desperate measures, rather they call for composure and radical responses which would provide hope and bring maximum benefit to those who need them most. This legislation is designed to do exactly that. We will be remembered for what happened after this emergency visited our shores when we faced our greatest challenges. I believe it will be a story of a great national effort to withstand the worst of it, to come out less scathed than other countries and how every person played their part.
Finally, I want to acknowledge that this emergency has already cost lives and I extend my condolences to all the families who have been bereaved and the friends of those who have died as well. It has also cost people their jobs and it is going to get worse before it gets better.
People are afraid and they are looking for reassurance from us. Politicians do not always have a good reputation. Very often we do not deserve one but we have an opportunity as a House, all parties and Independents, to shine in the next couple of weeks, not as individuals but as a group, as a body politic. We can show that the ideals that first motivated us all to enter politics can sustain us and ring true when our country needs help the most. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.