Let us be clear - we have asked each party and group to indicate whether it is making statements, asking questions or making statements and asking questions. They have all indicated. The Fianna Fáil leader is first. Deputy Micheál Martin has ten minutes for his statement.
Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements
The Taoiseach is first.
Mea maxima culpa.
Thanks for clarifying that I am making a statement.
Not just yet, a Cheann Comhairle.
A sign of things to come.
Mar a tharlaíonn ar laethanta eile, smaoinímid inniu ar dóibh siúd a fuair bás, daoine a raibh saol agus scéalta acu agus ar bhain tábhacht agus brí lena saolta. Cuimhneofar orthu. Tá an Rialtas buíoch de chuile dhuine atá ag obair go dian chun dul i ngleic leis an gcoróinvíreas. Tá siad ag glacadh a bpáirt sa ghéarchéim seo. Má tá daoine ag glacadh páirt tríd a gcuid oibre nó má tá siad ag fanacht sa bhaile, tá torthaí ar ár gcomhiarracht agus táimid ag cur an aicíd faoi chois. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil na teorainneacha deacair agus go bhfuil sé bearránach ach caithfimid leanúint ar aghaidh. Tá muid faoi chomaoin acu siúd atá ag obair chun dul i ngleic leis an víreas seo gach lá agus ag cuimhne na ndaoine a fuair bás. Tá muid faoi chomaoin ag ár bpobal féin.
I offer my condolences to all of those who have lost loved ones since we last met, to everyone grieving as best they can in most difficult circumstances. As of last night, we had 976 Covid-19 deaths confirmed by laboratory. A further 214 deaths are suspected, giving us a likely overall figure of 1,190. Of laboratory-confirmed cases, 453 died in hospitals, 430 in long-term care settings, including nursing homes, and 93 at home. Of the total deaths, 697 had been residents in long-term care. This is a tapestry of sorrow, suffering and loss for our nation.
As always, we are grateful for the extraordinary work of our nurses, our doctors and our healthcare staff, who are giving their all to save lives and are bringing us through the worst of this emergency. As a country, we owe so much to so many and when this is over we will have the opportunity to thank them properly.
I know the lockdown is difficult and people are feeling frustrated, cooped up, even trapped, but we must keep doing what we are doing because it is working. We owe it to those who are fighting the virus every day and we owe it to the memory of those who have been lost. As a country, we owe it to each other.
People want to know when things are going to go back to new normal. I can inform the Dáil that a plan is being developed to ease the lockdown, a roadmap to reopen Ireland, a roadmap to what will be a new normal. Unfortunately for those who would like an immediate return to a pre-Covid-19 world, the easement of the current restrictions will be slow and gradual and will be done in a stepwise, tiered manner. It will require continuous effort to suppress and control the virus. Therefore, the lifting of restrictions will not necessarily mirror the manner in which they were escalated.
Public health and safety and our healthcare capacity will continue to be the foundation for decision making. Our five criteria are as follows: the progress of the disease, healthcare capacity and resilience, testing and contact tracing capacity, the ability to shield and care for at-risk groups and the risk of secondary morbidity and mortality due to the restrictions themselves.
As we manage the gradual lifting of restrictions, we will prioritise public health advice and give careful consideration on how best to mitigate and manage the economic and other health and social impacts.
Any changes to the restrictions will be made every two to four weeks because we need to leave a period between changes to assess accurately their impact, but we will intervene earlier if things appear to be going off track. Restrictions may have to be reintroduced if it looks as if the virus is going to surge back. We expect to have this plan completed tomorrow for approval by Cabinet. I thank the party leaders for their inputs yesterday and I welcome the views of Deputies here today. I want to find a consensus, if one exists.
It has always been my assessment that we have been fighting Covid-19 on six fronts: by ensuring we have sufficient personal protective equipment, PPE, to make sure our staff are protected; through testing and tracing; by ensuring we have sufficient ICU capacity, hospital beds and ventilators; through the economic and welfare package to protect business incomes and livelihoods; through societal actions, such as social distancing; and by protecting vulnerable groups, including people in care homes, prisoners, Travellers, Roma, the homeless and those in asylum seeker accommodation centres. It never was, nor ever should be, a case of prioritising one of these over another. We must fight the virus on all six fronts every day and deal with the new challenges that arise.
As the World Health Organization states, countries need to have a comprehensive strategy and Ireland's has been comprehensive, far-reaching and inclusive. More than 150,000 tests for Covid-19 have been carried out in Ireland. That places Ireland sixth out of the 27 EU countries on a per capita basis and that is now a higher number than in many countries that have led the way on testing, such as Germany, South Korea and Singapore. We will continue to increase capacity and improve turnaround times but there will be bumps in the road. I thank all the staff involved, including the GPs and occupational healthcare staff who are assessing people for tests and counselling them on the results. There is an extraordinary team effort in our testing centres, including people in administration, swab-takers, medical scientists and staff in our laboratories doing the tests and the IT professionals and managers who make sure all of it comes together. I thank them all.
There has been much public focus on nursing homes recently, and rightly so. This is an area in which much work has been going on behind the scenes for a considerable period to protect as many people as possible. Ireland took the lead in deciding to test asymptomatic residents and staff in nursing homes where there has been an outbreak and other countries are now following suit. From the very start, we counted nursing home deaths alongside hospital deaths every day, and I see other countries are now starting to do that as well. In recent weeks, we have provided a funding package for nursing homes and deliveries of PPE are now regular. A total of 558 deliveries of PPE are now happening daily, three quarters of which go to nursing homes and long-term care homes. There are now 23 community response teams in operation across the country and they are being helped in their work by 16 infection prevention and control staff. Approximately 200 HSE staff have been redeployed to private nursing home facilities and home care workers and home care hours are being redeployed to long-term care. We have an agreement with unions to allow HSE staff to work in nursing homes. It is voluntary, but we are asking people to volunteer to help out and take up posts in nursing homes.
The Government has taken a focused approach towards vulnerable groups, including homeless people, Travellers, Roma, drug users, prisoners and residents in Department of Justice and Equality accommodation centres. This involves testing, treating, isolating and cocooning, as well as tending to other health conditions. I have met and spoken to many people in organisations that are caring for these groups and am satisfied that we have a robust and well-resourced response in place.
There has been much debate about comparisons with cases, deaths and death rates in other countries. On the face of it, we compare well with our neighbourhood in western Europe but not so well with other parts of the world. However, the more I study these figures, the more it seems that the data are not yet comparable. In fact, the data are not even comparable between the North and the South on this island. Countries are at different stages in the pandemic. Some have peaked and others have not. Some parts of the world, including eastern Europe and much of the southern hemisphere, appear to have been barely affected by the virus so far - and I hope that does not change - while western Europe, China and the United States have been the epicentres. The scale of testing also varies greatly. Our policy is to test, test, test, and we are in the top tier of countries in that regard. Countries also vary in their demographic make-up and different countries count data differently.
Our policy is to count all cases, including laboratory-confirmed and suspected, and all locations, including hospitals, care homes and private homes. We also count all cases regardless of whether there is an underlying condition that may have been the main cause of death. We are only one of four European countries that does so, to the best of our knowledge. The only truly comparable data will be mortality displacement figures, what are often called excess deaths. We may not have these figures for some months. In any case, it is not a competition. Every country is doing its best in difficult circumstances and different circumstances.
I am increasingly concerned that some people who need medical care are not seeking it. I met a GP in DCU yesterday at one of our community assessment hubs. He said he had not diagnosed anyone in his practice with cancer for a month. He had never experienced that before. We know cancer has not gone away. Perhaps people are afraid of contracting Covid-19. Perhaps they do not want to be a burden on our hard-pressed healthcare staff. My message today to everyone, however, is to seek help if you need it. GP surgeries are open, emergency departments are open, and ambulances are operating. Please seek medical attention if you need it.
It is now seven weeks since I announced the first actions we were taking to slow the virus in its tracks and push it back. I said then that acting together as one nation we could save many lives. By staying apart we have come together as a nation and we have saved many lives but we are not out of danger yet. More lives are at risk and we cannot falter now. In the days to come we will provide a pathway for how we will emerge from this crisis and give hope to people that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but it cannot be false hope. We are still in the tunnel and we have some distance to go. As before, I look forward to hearing Members' observations and suggestions.
Go raibh maith agat, a Thaoisigh, agus gabh mo leithscéal as ucht an dul amú a bhí orm ag an tús. Téimid anois go dtí ceannaire Fhianna Fáil, an Teachta Micheál Martin. Tá deich nóiméad aige chun ráiteas a dhéanamh.
Ar dtús báire, déanaim comhbhrón le teaghlaigh gach aon duine a fuair bás de dheasca an choróinvíris. Is géarchéim uafásach í seo ó thaobh cúrsaí sláinte de agus, gan amhras, ó thaobh geilleagair na tíre chomh maith. Tá an-chuid daoine dífhostaithe agus is léir go mbeidh dúshlán ollmhór romhainn amach sa todhchaí. Táimid fíorbhuíoch do gach aon duine atá ag obair sna seirbhísí sláinte agus sna seirbhísí eile a bhfuil tábhacht faoi leith ag baint leo, mar shampla, siopaí agus monarchana éagsúla. An rud is tábhachtaí ar fad ná soiléiriú a thabhairt i gcónaí maidir le gach gné den ghéarchéim seo. Mar shampla, cá bhfuil na clusters éagsúla lonnaithe? An bhfuil fadhbanna faoi leith in áiteanna nó ionaid faoi leith? Is ceisteanna tábhachtacha iad sin agus táimid ag lorg níos mó soiléiriú ar cheisteanna den saghas sin.
Our first thoughts today must be with the 1,190 families who have lost a loved one during this pandemic. Their suffering and the struggles of thousands more who have required urgent care are a reminder to us all that this pandemic has been every bit as serious as we feared. This unique and terrible crisis has required an exceptional response, not only here but throughout most of the world. It is another proof of how much we rely on each other locally, nationally and internationally.
Throughout the past two months ever part of our society has played a role in the response to the pandemic and has felt its impact. I believe that the resolve to do everything possible remains strong. No one believes that the threat is gone and no one expects a rapid reversal of every control measure. However, there is a real and growing uncertainty, and for many a deep unease, founded on the lack of clarity about the next steps. The Government should never forget that Dáil Éireann, much of the media and of course the people have been willing to suspend much of the assertive oversight which a free democracy like ours insists on. This should not be taken as permission to limit debate and expect that people will simply wait to be told what they may be allowed to know.
In fact, the only reasonable response to the controls we have collectively accepted on our rights is for Government actually to increase transparency and meaningful consultation. Every significant study ever undertaken on the response to emergencies has shown that trust depends on transparency and that effectiveness depends on allowing different voices into discussions.
I have consistently said this from the beginning in terms of the location of clusters, for example. Six or seven weeks ago, I would have identified problems in the healthcare settings, particularly in nursing homes. Likewise, I identified other centres such as meat plants and particular locations. In other countries, the incident rates for district by district are just published. There does not seem to be any negative pushback or fall back as a result of that. That should be done here because it might positively impact on human behaviour. Trust depends on transparency and effectiveness.
As we continue to move away from the initial and the most severe phase of responding to the pandemic, there are many hundreds of decisions to be taken which will impact on the health and livelihood of different sectors and communities. They must be given a proper role in discussions. It is simply not good enough that announcements are made by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs about childcare services without meaningful consultation with the childcare sector. It is not good enough that the nursing home sector is not formally represented in key discussions.
I must add a point about the pay deals with the nursing unions already agreed. Apparently the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has no problem with this. However, for some reason, there has been a delay in following through on payments. These agreements are from last year but, apparently, have not followed through yet. The nursing unions have made representations to us in this regard. Given the role the nursing profession has played in this crisis, it is difficult to comprehend why those pay deals have not been honoured and delivered upon.
It is not acceptable that, in area after area, there are background briefings about what is expected to be decided but the relevant groups of employers, managers and workers have not been brought into the discussion to help shape decisions. No one is expecting a perfect response and everybody accepts the pressures under which key parts of the public service are working. However, the spirit of common purpose is not being used enough. Critical discussions simply have to be more systematically opened up to inclusive participation.
As matters stand today, there is widespread unease about the lack of clarity on the basis upon which decisions will be taken. This is not the same as a demand for certain decisions. Simply, it is a wish to be told in direct terms what the triggers are for certain key policy decisions. Such clarity has been provided by Governments in many countries. Last week, the Taoiseach said in response to the Dáil asking for clarity that decisions on lifting restrictions will be taken in light of three general considerations, epidemiology, hospital and intensive care unit capacity, as well as the ability to test and trace quickly. Yesterday, party leaders were told in unequivocal terms that testing is now not an issue in terms of the lifting of restrictions. It was in response to a question put by Deputy Kelly. We need a bit more clarity on that, given what has been said to date on this.
The premature announcement of testing capacity in the past was acknowledged. However, we have been told the capacity is in place to carry out more testing and will be in place later in May. We were also told that, while hospitals are operating well within capacity, as well as at a capacity which other countries have seen as providing for possible increases in Covid-19 cases, there is a desire to be careful on this front which I understand.
Where there is no clarity is what the triggers will be regarding epidemiology. The reproduction number has been below one for some weeks. Public information suggests that the main concern is hotspots rather than broader community spread.
We need more information and more answers about the impact of decisions taken regarding the pandemic response on other health issues. In recent days, doctors in many countries, including Ireland, have been drawing attention to the fact that we must understand that delayed diagnostics and treatment in other areas will lead to higher non-Covid-19 mortality. The Taoiseach referred to this in his remarks as well. Most of the diagnostic capacity of our country is lying idle. So too is much of our national public and private capacity to treat other diseases. Doctors across the country are reporting how people are not presenting with diseases, such as cancer, which have not suddenly become less prevalent.
The private hospital issue has still not been resolved. I think a bit of a mess was made on the contractual issues around that which have delayed treatments. Every effort should be made to bring this to a conclusion to ensure we can get more procedures done in the interest of patient safety and continuity of care.
We need an urgent assessment of what needs to be done to address all of this. A real significant second strand needs to develop a non-Covid-19 strand in terms of our acute hospital system. The continuing spending of many millions of euro on empty wards in private hospitals cannot be justified. I understand the reasons it had to be done initially because we needed the capacity. However, we need to be utilising it to the maximum.
It has been reported that there will be a Cabinet meeting tomorrow and the Taoiseach stated that after it he will announce a strategy for the period ahead. At a minimum, the people need to be given clarity regarding the exact basis on which changes will be triggered. There cannot be more of the "We will tell you when we have decided" approach. The move away from a severe lockdown will only happen in gradual steps. These need to be outlined and sectors need to be given the opportunity to propose actions they can take to operate within health guidelines. While the science is absolutely clear, the shaping of policies to respect the science requires debate. Without a clear proposal from the Government on future steps, Dáil Éireann and the media will not be able to perform their core roles of oversight and debate, and we will be denied the opportunity to represent voices which currently feel marginalised in discussions.
In the coming weeks, a proposed social protection Estimate will be brought before the Dáil. This Estimate is required as a result of the unprecedented scale of the economic impact of the pandemic on policies to respond to it. As we have said to the Government, this requires proper scrutiny and cannot just be presented as a measure to be nodded through. We insist that there be a detailed review of the proposal such as it would receive if normal work arrangements were in place. As part of this, we want a full and open assessment of the economic impact of the pandemic. At present, we have macro-assessments but very little beyond that and we are concerned that there are many issues which have not emerged yet. We want to hear a full assessment of the impact on the finances of public companies. For example, we are currently operating a public transport system, which is receiving almost no revenue, and the National Transport Authority has been less than responsive to its needs. What is to be done to fill this gap?
We can see throughout Europe that governments are preparing bailouts of public companies and nationally critical enterprises. For example, the German Government is preparing an enormous funding package for Lufthansa. When will we be told at least the broad outline of these challenges. What is the current state of local authority finances? What is the assessment of the hit to be taken by higher education institutions? There are many groups of workers who need us to consider their situations. Fixed-term workers in research facilities are critical to the response but they face heightened uncertainty about their status. It is not acceptable that workers abandoned by Debenhams in what looks like an opportunistic timing of store closures are having their names taken by gardaí when they undertake responsible, socially distanced demonstrations. They cannot be deprived of the right to draw attention to the situation.
The NESC report on the just transition regarding climate change emphasised that the digital transition also carries with it major social and economic challenges. If is true that had this developed during the pandemic, it would lead to an acceleration of the digital transformation, we will need an acceleration of measures to help those adversely affected by it.
There is no credible alternative to adopting the use of face coverings, particularly on public transport. Other countries have assessed their role. I believe advice is due shortly in that regard. The shared national effort has achieved much in the past two months. We all know it is not over, but we need an inclusive approach to preparing for what we do next.
Ba mhaith liom cheist a chur. I would like to ask a question and I also ask that the Taoiseach does not talk down the clock as I would like to speak again. I hope we will have an exchange.
Is the Deputy asking a question first?
No. I will say a few words, ask the Taoiseach to respond and then I will say another few words – kind of like a tennis match.
I want to add my voice of sympathy and to extend my condolences to everybody who has buried a loved one in these most heartbreaking of circumstances. It is important to acknowledge that from the start the right model and approach was adopted in response to the public health emergency and credit is due to everybody for that. The approach being test, isolate and trace and to do that in a comprehensive manner. The same is true of the advice given by way of public health notice to the general public on hand hygiene and to remain connected but to stay physically apart. All of that has been an outstanding success. The emergency measures and restrictions that have been introduced have been very difficult for people and families. We should acknowledge that some are struggling but the country and communities have rallied magnificently. Front-line staff, especially those within the health services, are to be congratulated and thanked. The best way we can thank them is to pay them well and to respect their work, not just in the heat of an emergency but always.
We have made extraordinary asks of people and we will continue to ask that precautions are observed. Therefore, it has been most unhelpful that members of Government have engaged in thinking out loud and kite flying, and created nearly an impression that 5 May was a red-letter day when we all would be liberated from these restrictions. That caused confusion. It was doubly unfair, having done that, to then criticise complacency and almost point the finger at the public or sections of the public. I hope we will not have a repeat of that.
I very much welcome, and the Taoiseach might confirm, that tomorrow he will set out the roadmap ahead. Having made extraordinary asks of the people, they are at a minimum due the respect of being given clear comprehensive information and it being done very transparently.
I want to raise a number of issues with the Taoiseach, the first of which is testing and tracing. We now have a target of 100,000 tests per week. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm for the Dáil that target will be met, and he might set out how it will be met. I am mindful that announcements have been made previously, citing very large ambitious targets, and these never matched what was happening on the ground. At what point and at what date will we have the 100,000 tests, will that happen in real time, and will we have the tracing to match and complement that?
I want to raise also with the Taoiseach protection for vulnerable groups, which he cites as the second condition for any easing of measures. Looking at what is happening in the nursing homes, one could not be confident that we have the provisions, resources and protections necessary for that very vulnerable group of people. When will nursing homes have enough staff? When will they have adequate personal protection equipment? When will the testing of nursing home staff and residents be completed?
Thank you. There are two questions there, Taoiseach.
I counted more than that, a Cheann Comhairle, but I will get straight into answering them. On the question about the roadmap for reopening Ireland and the roadmap to a new normal, I confirm it is our intention to share that with the public tomorrow, but that is subject to the outcome of a National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, meeting in the morning and subject to a Cabinet meeting in the afternoon, so it is not entirely under my control.
The target capacity for testing is 100,000 a week. I emphasise it is the capacity to do 100,000 tests a week. It is not a target to carry out and do 100,000 tests a week. The number of tests that is done per week will depend on the number that is needed, the clinical criteria and other matters. We will not look to test 100,000 people a week. We will want the capacity to test 100,000 people a week. As I mentioned earlier, we are already in the top six in the European Union in terms of testing per head, and well ahead of many other countries, for example, Germany, that are cited as being the models for testing.
On nursing homes, as I mentioned in my contribution, I am informed that PPE deliveries are now regular. We want to know if there are any issues in any particular nursing home that is not getting PPE. Testing is largely complete. I ask the Deputy to bear in mind the plan continues to be to test nursing home staff and residents in all nursing homes, but not necessarily all residents in all nursing homes, because if there is a nursing home that has not had the coronavirus, there is a risk in bringing somebody into it to carry out the tests, so we need to make sure that we get that right clinically. I think those were the questions.
I thank the Taoiseach. This is a problem now. The announcement was made of 100,000 tests per week and the presumption is that to do that one must have the necessary capacity. I believe the correct approach is for these 100,000 tests to be real tests, not some notion where we say theoretically we have the capacity to do this. The Taoiseach will know as well as I that from the beginning of this pandemic, the best international scientific and medical advice was test, test, test, then isolate, then trace, trace, trace.
It is very dangerous to propose unwinding emergency measures in the absence of comprehensive testing. I reiterate that the 100,000 tests have to be real tests. That figure cannot be a target or an aspiration. Some 100,000 tests must go through the laboratories, with the results returned to the persons concerned in a timely fashion. I am very worried that the Government's announcement of its roadmap out of the emergency measures, which we all want to see, will show a reticence and a lack of ambition or intent concerning the level of testing that is needed. I am sure the Taoiseach will not challenge the view of the WHO and others to the effect that governments must test, test, test. How do we keep our population safe in the absence of that very comprehensive testing? I am troubled and concerned to hear the Taoiseach confirm that this is an aspirational target for the building of capacity rather than the carrying out of tests. I put it to him that carrying out 100,000 tests per week is necessary because we need to know where the virus is. That is what all the experts tell us. It is only by knowing where in the population it is that we can actually isolate it and carry out tracing.
There is a contradiction in the position of the Government. We have heard talk of testing people with no symptoms. That strikes me as a wise approach, but it is in total contradiction to what has been set out here. I put it to the Taoiseach that the 100,000 tests should be real tests, not an aspiration or a target, and I ask him to take action to ensure that is the case.
I thank the Deputy. There is no big reveal here. This has been on the record for days if not weeks. The target is to have the capacity to carry out 100,000 tests per week and to do so within a good turnaround time. We are not going to carry out random testing just to hit a figure of 100,000. The target is not to carry out 100,000 tests. It is to carry out as many tests as are necessary. We believe that we need a capacity of 100,000 to be able to do that. If we ever carry out random testing, it will be through a seroprevalence survey. We will only do a seroprevalence survey when we have a serological test that is up to scratch and can provide useful results. We are not there yet. The tests have been developed. The antibody tests are not up to standard. The Deputy may have seen the health technology assessment produced by-----
They may be.
-----HIQA which goes through that in detail. However, we may have-----
Abbot Diagnostics might have produced one, apparently.
Roche Diagnostics may have done so as well. However, they have not done so yet. I want to answer Deputy McDonald's question. The Deputy did not leave any time to ask any.
I am just trying to be helpful. I apologise.
We may get to the point in the next couple of weeks or months where a company produces a serological test which works, in which case we will raise the 100,000 figure to a much higher one. However, that test does not exist yet. The number of tests is based, as always, on the clinical criteria.
I was very interested to hear the Taoiseach set out the six WHO criteria for the management of the crisis. I want to go through each in turn to assess how we are doing. First and foremost, on the critical issue of social isolation my sense is that we have done well as a country. We have shown that a western democratic system, without some of the strict controls seen in other countries, is, by and large able, to self-regulate. The Garda has done a good job but people have largely self-regulated. As shown by the figures from the chief medical officer, CMO, and others, this self-regulation is working. It is bringing the rate of reproduction of the virus right down. It is a great commendation of the Irish people that we have shown that capability. We should not ignore that.
I was talking to a colleague, Deputy Stephen Matthews, this morning about PPE. He was telling me anecdotally about a sail-making company. Its business collapsed because there were no orders with the downturn. It has managed to turn that round and started to produce gowns at scale, using some materials it got which were not being used in another industry. It was adaptive and quick. As much as there is still a pressure point with PPE in our nursing homes, with what the State did to organise those 300 Aer Lingus flights I think an assessment comparing us with other countries would show we are also doing well in that regard.
On the positive side, I recall at the start of this process that I talked directly to people involved in intensive care units in hospitals around the country. They had a sense of terror because they saw what had happened in Spain when the health system was overrun. That was a daunting prospect. While the workers in the front line there have had a really difficult time, any assessment would show that we were quick and flexible in scaling up our ICU and other hospital capacity, and that we have avoided that overrun of the system, which was the fundamental fear. Great credit is due to the HSE and people in our hospital system for that flexibility. Even if some of it is now seen as overcapacity, we have that contingency, with minimal numbers in Citywest so far, thank God. We have contracted many private hospitals and, as Deputy Micheál Martin says, we are underutilising the beds now, but we did not have to build emergency field hospitals. We did it in our flexible way and we did it well, by and large. In those three of the six categories, I think one would have to say that the State has reacted quickly and well.
With regard to how vulnerable groups are protected, on "Prime Time" the other night, a professor from UCD made the point that our nursing home system was not able to adapt as quickly as we saw our hospital system adapt to the changed circumstances. A tragedy has unfolded there, as has happened in other countries, since we are not unique. It is not only for the patients but also the workers, who have a high relative incidence of infection, as I understand from discussions with Dr. Tony Holohan yesterday. If there are lessons to be learned and changes need to be made here and now, it is the need for us to look at our nursing home systems and how they can adapt now and for any potential future waves of this pandemic. It is not just our nursing homes, and is happening with some people in direct provision or elsewhere, such as the examples Deputy Micheál Martin mentioned, including meat factories, where we were not able to make the changes that we were able to make in our hospital system. That is something that we have to address now and also learn lessons about for the future.
With regard to testing, the fifth of the six categories that the Taoiseach set out, we started by making the correct strategic decision, unlike the UK, as one example, in that we did not abandon community testing. We were willing to try to keep up testing even as the wave of the virus hit. It is clear that we have not succeeded in delivering what we promised. Everyone has anecdotes about this, including Deputy McDonald. In our house, our son was tested 35 days ago and we still have not got the result. He is as healthy as anything, thank God, but everyone has those stories and the undermining of public confidence due to those delays is regrettable. Even though a variety of factors may be out of the control of health facilities, such as reagents, we should acknowledge that we were not able to deliver what we promised and we sure as hell have to start delivering what we promise now. In the next phase of managing this crisis, what Paul Reid and the deputy chief medical officer are saying is that the test really becomes critical when one starts to open up the economy, so that clusters can be identified and the people isolated quickly, then contact tracing can be done.
I turn now to how this State does in managing this. On testing, while we have problems going back six or seven weeks, the real test will be in the next six months to a year. Ireland is world leading in information technology and many medical health capabilities. We should be best in class and we should ensure our testing system is as fast as anywhere and our contact tracing system is absolutely rock solid and quick.
The sixth and last category the Taoiseach mentioned was economic welfare, and that is also the one we have to face and address now. I again commend the State and the Government. The initial response was quick, which is part of what we needed to do, in providing the pandemic unemployment payments and immediate supports for business. That is only the first phase of what we need to do, however. The unlocking of restrictions cannot come quickly enough, not just for the sense of public morale, but also because our economy is in a shocking state and we need to start lifting it. Anything we do must be commensurate with not allowing the virus to come back. That is a given. It is not one versus the other, but a question of whether we can do both.
We should target our measures at certain key issues. First, it is clear that young people are the ones that suffer disproportionately the most. The statistics I saw this week showed that the level of take-up of the pandemic unemployment payment among young people, aged 18 to 24, was twice that of any other age category. They are the ones who are probably out of work in greatest numbers and we need to focus on them. Second, I refer to small businesses. Taking the latest figures for the unemployment payments as an indicator of where this is hitting home, in the accommodation and food sector, where there are typically large numbers of small Irish businesses, the level of use of such payments because of the lockdown is seven times the level of lay offs in the industrial and public administrative sectors. I come from the small business sector and perhaps I have a particular interest in it. It is the heart of our economy, the strength of our community and a major employer. It is not just that, however; it is part of our culture. High street and family businesses mean a lot to people. It is only when a person is involved in one that he or she knows what it is like. It is everything for that person and there is often also a family history as well. We are in real danger of losing many of those small family businesses if we do not act quickly to try to help them recover.
How we do that is the real challenge. We are facing a difficult choice this weekend regarding this four or five-stage roll out. I hope we can start doing something this weekend, even if it is something very small. I have a friend being buried this morning at a funeral where the restrictions mean it is only possible to have ten people present. This lovely woman was from a big family. It is also only possible to be in the funeral home for 15 minutes. I think we can do a funeral with social distancing, perhaps not the big funerals of the past but with some slight easing of some of the restrictions. Another example would be allowing people to go for a walk. We can trust our people to do social distancing so that our older people are able to get out, exercise and get fresh air. As I mentioned last week as well, many of the small businesses I referred to work in tourism. I know some of what is planned from reading the newspapers yesterday. The talk is that we will be opening up in the late summer and it might then be possible to go on a holiday in Ireland. We should also look to the prospect of getting our people, particularly our young people, out walking, swimming, meeting carefully and helping our small businesses to recover. That too is part of the test we have as to how we manage this whole crisis.
I commence my contribution by paying my respects to all the people who have lost their lives and their families. May those who have died rest in peace. I also again thank all the workers making such sacrifices for us all. Coming up to May Day, I hope that will be acknowledged in some significant way this year above all years.
There are four areas I will speak to today. The first relates to the transparency of the Government's actions and the second relates to testing and Government contributions around that. The third area relates to how we all use language and the fourth area relates to the Taoiseach's proposed roadmap. Last week I asked a number of questions regarding transparency of decision making. I again restate my support for the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET.
Last night the Taoiseach wrote to me in reply to some of my questions except he did not answer them. I will write to him again. I still do not know why minutes are not recorded from the beginning of every meeting and signed off afterwards. I still do not know how people are appointed to NPHET. The letters from the chief executive and chairperson of the Health Service Executive, HSE, to the Minister for Health and his Department regarding concerns around governance have still not been published. Please publish these letters. On behalf of the people of Ireland I ask for this to be done in a transparent way. What is there to hide?
Since last week I have been inundated by people asking about the transparency of decision making. People are concerned about this now more than ever. Transparency is not a luxury in our democracy. There must also be rebalancing in democratic accountability; it is fantastic that so many members of NPHET appear in the media but the odd time they need to appear before some formation of these Houses. We have received unpublished legal advice given to the Business Committee on how we can meet but what the Labour Party raised at the beginning of this matter on setting up a committee on Covid-19 must be realised. The laws allow this to happen and it should happen imminently. It happens in New Zealand and it even happens in the United Kingdom, as much as we might deride it.
In a letter to the President of the European Commission, the European Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, has stated that maintaining high standards of good administration may seem particularly challenging in these times but it is exactly during such times that high standards across all areas of public life are needed more than ever. She is not wrong. We must be able to speak clearly and honestly with citizens in order to maintain democratic processes and we must show everything transparently.
I believe the Minister for Health and NPHET have overstepped the mark, legally speaking, on decision making related to testing, and this led to those letters being written. Under section 70 of the Health Act 1970, it is the function of the HSE to "make arrangements for carrying out tests on persons without charge, for the purpose of ascertaining the presence of a particular disease, defect or condition that may be prescribed". Under the 2014 Act, the Minister must lay before the Houses any general written directions regarding its statutory functions but in this case, that did not happen. The Minister prescribes the disease for which tests will occur and the HSE is responsible for making the arrangements to test for that disease. The Minister and some members of NPHET have been demanding a quantum of tests beyond the HSE's capacity without first consulting the executive.
I have gone back to log where this requirement to meet 15,000 tests per day appeared first and it seems to have been on 18 March or 19 March, following the visit to the National Virus Reference Laboratory by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris. The Taoiseach referenced this visit a number of times. The Minister, Deputy Harris, said on the following day that the 15,000 tests target would be reached in "the next few days". Following the Chief Medical Officer's appearance on "The Late Late Show" on 17 April, the number suddenly changed to 100,000 tests per week. It was mooted that this target would need to be achieved within ten days, and the following day NPHET indicated this needed to happen urgently. We understood that the lifting of restrictions on 5 May was conditional on this happening but that now seems to have changed. It is not now conditional on that number being reached.
During all this, bizarrely, nobody asked the HSE if it could deliver this level of testing and the answer was clearly "No". It is why those letters were written. The executive did not have control over all the labs or the other levers, and this is why it could not deliver that level of testing. Government actions throughout all this must have a basis in law and the actions with respect to the instructions to the HSE did not have that basis.
I also raise the use of language, which is critical these days. The poet Eavan Boland passed away this week; through her poems she often indicated that the language we use is the making of us.
She said that language has the power to redeem the damages that have been made. As we remember and her life that quote is very apt for how we communicate in these days. At times over the past two weeks the kite flying and tone from Government has simply been unacceptable. The Government, including the Taoiseach and in particular the Minister for Health, and indeed some members of the NPHET have been creating a narrative that the citizens of Ireland who are doing their best to stick to the rules that are in place are in some way to blame for these restrictions not being lifted when the real reason is nothing of the sort.
The Taoiseach cannot dangle citizens' freedom in front of them and say, "If you adhere to the rules then we'll give you your freedom." The relationship the people have with the State during this pandemic is not a transactional one. It is one that needs to be built on trust and respect. The CEO of the HSE, Paul Reid tweeted about this on Monday in a very direct and timely way:
One of the best lessons I learned in life is the difference between committment and compliance. Committment has to win hearts and minds. This is what we need to do now and not just talk about compliance.
I believe the Taoiseach needs to listen to Paul Reid a lot more.
The people have been very patient since 13 March when schools and crèches closed. We all know that and we thank them. What they need now is honesty and clear communication. People need hope and not to feel shamed.
The whole pandemic, as we all know, is having an extraordinary impact on the well-being of our nation. The over-70s feel that more than most. I think of my own parents. This weekend the Government needs to give them hope more than anyone else. These people in the later years of their lives have been the most disciplined in this crisis and have contributed more than anyone else to creating this great country. Many of them now feel patronised by how they are being treated. I, for one, urge the Government to give them some hope this weekend, however small.
On Friday when the Taoiseach updates people on restrictions and sets out a roadmap, he needs to remember that these need to be his decisions and his Government's roadmap, not the NPHET's or the CMO's. I do not believe we can continue with the CMO making pronouncements all the time before they are considered by the Taoiseach or the Government. I think the Taoiseach agrees with me on that. The Taoiseach needs to be holistic and assess where we are at and the impact of further restrictions. What will the impact be on the rest of our health services?
The Taoiseach has spoken about secondary morbidity. I know of a consultant in Limerick who diagnoses cancer eight times a week but has not done so for the last four weeks. These people are walking around not knowing they have cancer. We have a lack of screening for bowel and cervical cancer. BreastCheck is not operating. We also know we have elevated mental health risks. On top of that are the socioeconomic impacts of maintaining restrictions. All of this needs to be considered and that is the Government's role.
We need to start a conversation about what society living with Covid-19 looks like to bring citizens with us, not making them feel like they are in the bold corner. Citizens need to see a coherent staged exit strategy from these restrictions. Businesses need to plan for the new world. Their instructions on what they need to do need to happen this weekend - not when they need to do it, but what they need to do to prepare.
Nobody expects the Taoiseach to get everything absolutely right in the coming weeks - I certainly do not. However, we expect to see a vision from him and action from him, actions he will stand over. They are his actions and his Government's actions. We cannot allow perfection to get in the way of progress because we will not be able in any way in these unusual times to perform such an act. We need to remember that collectively we are all here to serve the citizens. This weekend those citizens need to see political direction. They need to see a plan and they deserve to be given hope. I wish the Taoiseach well.
I wish to express appreciation for the outstanding work that is being done on the front line, particularly by health workers, and to offer the condolences of the Social Democrats to the many families who have lost loved ones in this pandemic.
Since the first case of Covid-19 in this country two months ago, we have been told that the strategy was to establish a robust test and trace regime which could rapidly identify each new case, trace the contacts, isolate them and thereby contain the virus. We needed to do that at sufficient scale for it to work. Unfortunately, we have never come close to the scale required. Testing among healthcare workers has been reasonably satisfactory but, in the main, the curve has been flattened and the virus somewhat contained as a result of the severe restrictions on movement introduced on 27 March. It has been exceptionally difficult to get clear and straight answers from the Government and the health authorities about the reasons for the delays in achieving the strategy originally set out. Members have had to ask questions three, four or five times to get anything close to a reasonable answer. That has particularly been the case in respect of the severe shortages of reagents. Why the Government will not come clean on that issue remains a mystery.
While the public has played its part, increasingly it is being seen that the Government has not delivered on its side of the deal. This is leading to a loss of confidence and growing frustration among many people. The authorities need to level with the people, clearly explain what is happening, including the problems, and provide straight answers to questions. Unfortunately, there has been obfuscation and spin about the entire test and trace strategy. Regrettably, after several weeks of lockdown and sacrifice, the failure to implement the strategy will mean the lifting of the restrictions will be delayed even further. The Taoiseach yesterday disregarded that being the main reason for not lifting the restrictions. It was somewhat disingenuous of him to so comment. Unless we have a clear test and trace strategy as originally proposed, the number in hospitals and ICUs will grow. The Taoiseach is putting forward a circular argument. The problem at the nub of this is that we have not delivered on the original strategy.
Two weeks ago, I asked the Taoiseach to consider establishing an expert task force to plan and oversee the lifting of restrictions. He told me the Cabinet subcommittee is the task force, but it is not. With all due respect to that subcommittee, it does not contain the kind of expertise required for this very challenging and complex task force. Such a task force should be guided by public health experts and must have representation from a range of other sectors including general health - and mental health in particular, which is now a growing issue - as well as education, business, transport, industry and so on. It is critical that it have the necessary risk assessment and logistics skills for the planning and management of such a major and important undertaking. Its work should be done in public, with clear explanations and accountability for each of its decisions. The phases of lifting the restrictions and very clear metrics for triggering each phase should also be published. The price people are paying and that they will continue to pay for a long time demands openness and transparency about decisions which impact on their lives, livelihoods and futures. What we have had is decision making behind closed doors, political spin, kite-flying, media leaks and a very unsettling absence of candour. That will not be tolerated for much longer at political and other levels.
The public is getting very frustrated and will not tolerate any further obfuscation in the strategy.
I want to move to the question of the cost of responding to the health crisis and the ensuing economic crisis. The actions to date, including the Covid-19 payment, and the wage substitute scheme have been correct but the next steps, in respect of a phased return to work, supports for SMEs and dealing with personal debt in particular will be crucial. That is why we need an expert-led task force. The longer it takes to implement the test and trace strategy, the longer this will be delayed and the costlier it will be. Last week's stability programme update, SPU, not surprisingly painted a very stark picture of the challenges ahead and we know that the cost of responding will be substantial. Of particular concern is the fact that the SPU spending projections actually fall below the budget projections for next year. That is inexplicable. The aim of economic strategy must be to provide an economic stimulus rather than retrenchment and austerity. This can only happen if the ECB provides zero funding or negative interest rate funding to member states.
The big question of course is who will pay for all of this. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the last recession where Ireland was saddled with huge debt which resulted in severe austerity the impact of which is still being felt. Within the EU this must be viewed as a Europe-wide problem and we need a Europe-wide solution. It would be entirely unacceptable for the ECB to respond with costly loans. That is why the Government must vigorously pursue a fair and just response to the devastation caused by this deadly pandemic. The Government must be open and transparent about what that strategy is. That is why I am asking the Taoiseach to outline the approach that he took last week to the European Council meeting and which indeed he will take to the follow-up meeting tomorrow. It is important that he tells us what his attitude is to a longer term lifting of the fiscal rules. Does he support the idea of corona bonds? What exactly is his strategy in Europe?
I do support the proposal to have corona bonds. That is not a secret. I think I said that a week or two ago. Everyone should know that. It is essentially a mechanism by which we would collectivise European debt solely for the purpose of paying for the cost of the crisis. It could be just health spending or go beyond that to include the money necessary to re-stimulate the economy. As anyone familiar with European issues will know, that would require a change to the European treaties. It is highly unlikely that is going to happen because in order to change the European treaties every country needs to want to do that and some countries need to hold referendums on it. For that reason alternative solutions are being developed. We expect the European Commission to come to us next week with proposals on how we can use the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, the seven-year budget for the EU, and borrowing perhaps by the Commission as a means to do something similar. A proposal has already been developed involving the European Stability Mechanism, ESM, by ECOFIN, the Council of finance ministers. That was approved last week by the European Council.
In terms of the fiscal rules when it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact the break clause, or the get out clause, has been activated. I have always been of the view that the fiscal rules can, or should, be amended, depending on the circumstances that we face. Something that people often miss when we debate the fiscal rules is that the rules are there for a reason. Somebody did not just invent fiscal rules because they thought they would be a great idea. The fundamental idea behind them is that if we are part of a single currency, and of a European Union, sooner or later we have to balance the books. Yes, in times of growth, when the economy is going well, it makes sense to rein in spending, to run a surplus to pay down the debt so that in difficult times, such as the very difficult times we are about to go into, we can borrow, spend and re-stimulate the economy and avoid austerity. Anyone who thinks that the fiscal rules can be got rid of so that countries never have to balance their books, never have to stop borrowing or never have to rein in spending at some point is living in fantasy land and no future Government can operate on that basis.
What the next Government can do is increase spending and borrowing to pay for the crisis, stimulate the economy, get people back to work, get businesses open and get the country going again but at a certain point, when the country returns to growth, one does need to balance the books. No country will survive if it thinks it can base its fiscal policy on always borrowing more, always having a bigger deficit and never balancing the books. That is Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Weimar Germany; it does not work.
I have been looking for transparency on the advice on which the Taoiseach is basing his decisions since 20 February, at the first briefing. I have asked on six occasions for the minutes, written advice and position papers of the expert advisory group that advises NPHET and the Government but have never even received the courtesy of an answer. Will the Taoiseach publish the minutes, written advice and any papers the group has produced?
Tomorrow is May day. The Taoiseach heaped praise upon front-line healthcare workers earlier, as everybody rightly has done. Could he then explain why the hundreds of nurses and other healthcare workers who have applied under "Be On Call for Ireland" to work for the health service in this public health emergency have been given the worst possible contracts with CPL, an agency recruitment firm, namely, three-month temporary contracts with no sick leave and no rights under the Unfair Dismissals Act. Is that the way to treat the heroic healthcare workers who have volunteered to work in this public health emergency?
I thank the Deputy but I am afraid I do not have the details of that. That is new information to me so I will have to check up on it but as far as I understand it, anyone is entitled to access the provisions of the Unfair Dismissals Act. That is a law that applies to all workers and obviously there are sick pay and sick leave arrangements in place for everyone at the moment who needs to take time off, particularly as a consequence of Covid-19 but I will certainly check that and come back to the Deputy with a written reply. Quite a number of Deputies have asked questions that are for NPHET and the expert advisory group. I am not on NPHET or the expert advisory group. Others have asked questions relating to the HSE and have asked me to publish documents that are not in my possession or the possession of my Department. I am very happy to answer questions that I know the answer to and am very happy to publish documents that I have, but some of the questions that are being asked are really questions for the CMO and the CEO of the HSE. I cannot answer questions on their behalf but I can ask them to answer Members' questions and will do so.
I have read the contract and it is very clear. It is a temporary, special purpose contract for three months. At a time when we need permanent increases in staffing in our health service we are giving the worst contracts possible to people seeking to work in the public health emergency. I ask the Taoiseach to issue an instruction to NPHET to tell the expert advisory group to publish the minutes and advice of the group so that we can hear what the scientists and clinicians are actually saying.
I have a further question on the leaving certificate. Why is the Government continuing with the leaving certificate when we do not know where we are going to be and especially given the stress and uncertainty being suffered by students, a majority of whom are looking for certification that does not require them to go through the stress of sitting the exam? Indeed, many of them may have underlying health conditions and would be very worried about going into an exam environment. Can the Taoiseach answer that question please?
Just to go back to what the Deputy mentioned earlier, NPHET has agreed to publish the minutes of its meetings and its advice to Government is already published.
In terms of the expert advisory group, that is not advice that I ever see and it is not in my possession. There may or may not be reasons it can or cannot publish it. The CMO is the best person to answer that question.
There was a good debate on the leaving certificate in the Chamber last week, and the vast majority of Members who spoke from most parties, from what I have been informed, spoke in favour of the decision to continue with the leaving certificate. The plan to do exactly that is being developed at the moment by the Department of Education and Skills, with a view to the exams starting on 29 July. The thinking behind that is that the alternative, that is, predictive marking, raises all sorts of difficulties. Some students are concerned that their teachers might not give them a grade they believe is fair. It was suggested that results could be based on mock exams, but students did not realise those exams would be the basis for working out their results. There are major difficulties with predictive marking. It is not impossible, but if it were done we would be dealing with a raft of issues.
We are now beginning to see the long-term economic impact of this emergency. The question of who will pay is going to loom extremely large. Will we bail out workers or will we, once again, bail out big businesses? Unfortunately, the indication from the Government so far in terms of its attitude to the airline industry is that the same mistakes of the past will be repeated and CEOs and big businesses will be bailed out.
Millions of flights have been cancelled and tens of thousands of people are due and entitled to full cash refunds, but the airlines have dragged their feet, using all manner of obstructions. The Government has now taken the side of the airlines and pushed for the European Commission to scrap normal consumer rights and allow airlines off the hook. Instead of refunds, the Government wants the airlines to be able to keep the cash and issue vouchers instead, which is effectively bailing out the airlines with consumers' money. Why is the Government taking the side of the airline companies instead of passengers?
I thank the Deputy. If he is fair to us and looks at all the major actions that have been taken by the Government to date, he will find they have been taken in order to bail out people and workers. There has been a massive expansion of the welfare budget in the past couple of weeks in order to provide the pandemic unemployment payment of €350 per week. If one compares that to the payment in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, where it is less than £100 per week, or to what is happening in other countries, that is a very big bailout of people and workers.
We have also introduced sick pay arrangements that we have never had before in this country. Again, that is very much a bailout of people and workers. The temporary wage subsidy scheme is now being availed of by 40,000 or 50,000 companies. That money only goes to companies if they are paying it to their workers. It is not a bailout of the bosses, shareholders or people who own those companies. Money is going to companies for the sole purpose of paying a portion of the salaries of their workers.
On the airline industry, as far as I understand it the law has not changed and people are entitled to a cash refund. I will have to check that, but my knowledge is that the law has not changed. However, we have to be practical about this. I do not want to see airlines fail. Whether they are publicly or privately owned is not my major concern. I want to see Ryanair and Aer Lingus operate some time later in the summer, possibly August, and I would not like to be in a situation whereby we have to bail out airlines because they have failed.
The Taoiseach is correct when he says that is the law, but his Government and 11 others have written to the European Commission calling for the law to be changed. I find it hard to believe that the Taoiseach is not aware that is the position of his Government.
The second more general question concerns the future of airlines because they are, in a sense, the banks of this crisis. IAG is cutting one-third of its jobs in British Airways. It is, unfortunately, likely to move to do the same in Aer Lingus. Is it not time to accept that the privatisation of Aer Lingus has been a failure, resulting in job losses and wage cuts and putting regional airports at risk? We are now paying the wages for Aer Lingus in any case.
Instead of bailing out private, big, polluting industries, is it not time to renationalise Aer Lingus under the democratic control of the workers and in that way plan for sustainable transport networks, with a significant reduction in airline travel?
The Government has not taken a formal position on the matter of vouchers or refunds. There may be something at Department level. I will have to check, but, even so, I doubt that any law could be changed retrospectively. I may be wrong about that but I have never come across anyone changing a consumer protection law retrospectively. It might be changed prospectively but I do not see how it could be changed retrospectively. I will get a briefing on that issue but there is no Government decision on it.
Objectively, the liberalisation of air travel in the world has been an extraordinary success. The connectivity Ryanair provided was not possible when airlines were owned by national governments. Ryanair totally disrupted air travel, democratised it and made it possible for ordinary people to afford to fly to all parts of Europe. Liberalisation has been a huge success in terms of aviation and socialists have been proved wrong in that regard. Aer Lingus has been a real success too, and has never had more staff or flights than it has now. What has happened to the airline industry-----
Some 6,000 staff-----
-----is because of a virus. Regardless of whether they are national carriers, public companies or private companies, they have all been downed because of a virus, not because of any ideology.
We now move to the Regional Group. Deputy Lowry is taking five minutes for a statement and five for questions.
The entire world is currently transfixed by Covid-19, which is understandable. This virus has impacted on people's lives like nothing else in living memory. However, other significant issues remain to be dealt with. I refer specifically to Brexit. Serious and unresolved matters surrounding Britain's exit from the European Union are more crucial now than even before the onset of Covid-19. Brexit implications are looming large. We now face a double whammy with the combination of a no-deal Brexit plus the economic battering of Covid-19. The impact of the two together will have massive and far-reaching consequences for Ireland. The EU has wisely advised that Britain extend its transition period to avoid compounding the economic damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic with a rushed Brexit. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has stated on several occasions that he is adamantly against seeking an extension. This intransigence leaves us with a huge dilemma. The political declaration envisages a no tariff restriction trade regime for agrifood and the manufacture of products on the island of Ireland. However, the declaration also requires the UK to achieve regulatory and technological alignment with the EU, in order to avoid EU-UK tariffs. This remains a major problem as there is no clarity as to how this will be achieved in the short timeframe between now and the end of December. As of now, the UK will leave the Single Market and the customs union on 1 January next year. This raises the question of how advanced our preparations are for implementing new measures around customs procedures, regulatory checks for goods, foods, animals and bloodstock crossing the Irish Sea. The timeframe for preparations and action is now very limited. The outcome of the EU-UK talks on a future relationship is of critical importance to Ireland and has the potential to have a devastating impact on our economy.
Ireland has always been uniquely exposed to Brexit compared to other EU states. The UK is Ireland's third largest export market with a value of €16 billion. Ireland is also heavily reliant on the UK for food imports. Nearly half of all food imports come from the UK and €1 billion in goods and services is exchanged between Ireland and Britain on a weekly basis. Our exports, agrifood sector and tourism are alarmingly dependent on Britain. In that context, I have a number of questions for the Taoiseach.
Will the Government make a commitment to maintain all the existing Brexit funding and support programmes, given the cost of the pandemic? Will the Government provide specific assurances that the agrifood sector, which is the sector most exposed to Brexit, will be sufficiently supported ahead of the transition period on 31 December? What preparations has the Government made to help prepare businesses for the new situation on 1 January? When will businesses know the details regarding checks and controls and when does the Taoiseach anticipate the EU and UK will agree same? Does he accept that these decisions need to be made soon in view of the short lead-in time so that the necessary customs and duties infrastructure is put in place? Business needs certainty about these issues.
What progress is being made on the implementation of the Irish protocol of the withdrawal agreement in respect of controls and checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Will the Taoiseach outline the implications for the Republic? Has the Taoiseach had recent contact with Prime Minister Johnson or does he intend to put our concerns directly to him?
I wish to ask a specific question relating to beef farmers. As the Taoiseach will be aware, markets are curtailed, demand has dropped, prices have slumped and cash flow is now a major issue for beef farmers throughout the country, including Tipperary. Will the Government commit to bringing direct payments to beef farmers forward from October to July? These moneys are due under EU funding and the measure I am proposing would greatly assist the cash flow for this category of farmers.
I thank the Deputy for reminding us about Brexit because it has not gone away, you know. In many ways, we planned for a potential shock to our economy to occur in early 2020. We thought that might be Brexit and managed to avoid it, and instead we found ourselves dealing with a much sharper shock in the form of Covid-19, which has affected the economy in the way that it has.
The joint committee, which is made up of the EU and the UK, can extend economic Brexit happening, if one likes, for another year but they have not yet taken that decision and the UK Government has expressed its view that it wants to go ahead on 1 January 2021. That ultimately is its decision rather than ours, but the option is there to extend it another year should the UK Government wish to do so.
So far, the Covid-19 crisis has not influenced our Brexit strategy, but it does fundamentally change the context because it has totally changed how trade works, the state of our economy and our fiscal capacity. I can provide a commitment that we will maintain all existing Brexit funding and support programmes, notwithstanding the Covid-19 pandemic, but some of these are going to be matters for the next Government. I can give an assurance to the agrifood sector, which is the most exposed to Brexit, that it will be sufficiently supported ahead of the transition on 31 December.
I was asked as well about when we would know the details regarding the checks and controls and when I anticipated that the EU and the UK would agree to these issues. I do not know for certain, but it had always been envisaged that it would be done by June or July before the traditional summer breaks, thus giving business a good six months to prepare for any of those changes that were going to take place. They are not agreed as of yet, but I totally agree that business needs as long a lead-in time as possible and not a short lead-in time.
All farmers have been badly affected by Covid-19 - we will have seen how the milk price has fallen - but beef farmers have been suffering for years now, and this situation on top of that has made things really severe for them. I think the Deputy suggested that we bring forward direct payments for beef farmers, and perhaps all farmers, from October to July of this year. They are EU funds that farmers will be getting anyway, so it might make sense to bring them forward. It is not money that they would not be getting anyway, but at the very least it might help with cash flow. I do think that is a good idea, and I have spoken to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine about it to see if it is possible.
In terms of my contacts with the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, just in the last couple of days I contacted him to wish him well on the birth of a baby boy. Previously, I was in contact with him regarding his illness.
We have not had a chance to speak about substantive issues such as Covid-19 and Brexit since the middle of March, but now that he has gone back to work this week, I am sure we will.
First and most important, I and the other members of the Rural Independent Group express how sorry we are for all of those who have been devastated by the loss of loved members of their families. I also want to put on the record of the Dáil that a very special friend of our own, Gene Tangney from the Black Valley, is now on day 26 of being in an induced state, fighting this virus. I hope that Gene will come out on the right side of this battle. He is a great character. The Tangney family have been close friends of mine for many years and my heart and soul are with him in his battle and I want him to get better.
Many compliments are rightly being paid to our nurses and healthcare workers. Tweets are being put out by Government and by people, but I want the Taoiseach to pay those workers. They should be paid the allowances in the deal agreed before Covid-19. I want them to be paid immediately because they are only looking for what is rightfully theirs.
Seasonal workers are losing out very badly on the €350 per week Covid-19 payment. They should also be included in that payment because if this had happened a couple of weeks later, these people would have been employed from 6 March on and would have been paid it.
People who are over 66 are not looking for €350 per week. They are saying to me very clearly that they want the balance between their pension and €350. I spoke to a couple yesterday who were running a public house and have paid taxes for years. They now find that their income is gone and they are left with just their pensions but still have all the bills relating to the business and keeping the building intact.
I am sure the Taoiseach is aware of the situation, which I spoke about on the phone today with the Minister for Justice and Equality, regarding the direct provision centre in Cahersiveen and the public healthcare concerns we have about that centre, for the people who are in it, for the people who are working there, and for the people in Cahersiveen and south Kerry. Will the Taoiseach please make a statement on that?
With regard to the leaving certificate, I am terribly disappointed that the students were not listened to, because they really feel they were not. A great campaign was organised, which I supported. Those students were not listened to when it came to the sitting of the leaving certificate.
During the week, I met with the Kerry representatives of the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, who diligently put together a very important programme of what they need, and what our beef farmers and our family farmers in County Kerry and throughout the country need. For example, there is €25 million that is there from last year which should immediately be made available to our beef farmers. As Deputy Lowry rightly stated, the October payments should be brought forward to July, which would be a massive help to our family farms and their budgets. It would get them over a hump because they are in a desperate way.
I also want to give an example of what local authorities are going through in terms of a funding crisis. In Kerry, our tourism sector is worth more than €600 million alone to the local economy, and it is now expected to take a loss of close to €500 million. That will be detrimental to our local economy. The effect on businesses will be huge. They will not be able to afford their commercial rates, which have now, rightly, been frozen, and I thank the Government and our local authorities for that. Taking Kerry as an example, however, the projected rates income when passing the budget last November was €42 million. It is now, from initial projections, looking like it will be as low as €24 million. That authority has now sought a compensation package from Government so that it can carry on its activities and essential services. This is not just the case for Kerry Country Council but also for other local authorities throughout the country, whom I compliment on their work.
I also compliment the people in University Hospital Kerry, Killarney Community Hospital, and hospitals in Kenmare, Cahersiveen and Valentia, the staff in our nursing homes, who are working so diligently in this major fight, gardaí and our local authority workers. Everyone is putting their shoulders to the wheel. I want us all as politicians to work together.
I want us to do this in a hard-working fashion to try to ensure that, first of all, we do what is most important, that is, protect the health of our citizens. Second, we need to try to get the economy and the wheels going. I want the Taoiseach to give our people optimism in the coming days. I know he has important announcements to make. I am pleading with the Taoiseach. I know public health concerns are the most important but we must also give people something to look forward to and give them confidence. We must let them see that there is leadership in the country and that we are all going to work our way out of this together. We must let the older people - those who are over 70 years old and who are inside their homes - see that we are fighting on their behalf. We must let them see that we as a country will rise out of this. It is the same as everything we have taken on over the years: we will take this on and we will win, taking into account healthcare, of course, which is of vital importance.
I wish to commiserate with all the families who have lost loved ones to this deadly disease. I want to thank all the people, each and every one, for the extraordinary sacrifice they have made and undertaken in the past six or seven weeks.
I am calling on the Taoiseach to get as many people back to work as soon as is safely possible. This includes construction work and builders who may be working on one-off houses. I want the Taoiseach to explore the possibility of getting those people back as soon as possible as well as in industries where social distancing is possible. Many companies and businesspeople will be unable to return, sadly.
For farmers, I am asking the Taoiseach to open up the marts and at least allow competition in the market.
We should allow those over 70 years of age out of confinement, even with a mask to go to the local shop. It is not fair on them when we see people coming here off ferries and planes and going in their midst and close to them into holiday homes and local shops. No one is monitoring whether they are isolating when they come in off these ferries.
Like Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, I am asking the Taoiseach to consider those over 66 years of age who were employing people and who gave employment. We should bring their pension up to €350.
What about the seasonal workers? Kerry depends so much on hotel workers, bus drivers and all that. If the lockdown had not come for another week or two, all these people would have been back to work. Now, they are running down their stamps. Some of them do not have any stamps left. They are not entitled to jobseeker's welfare because their partners have other incomes. They are left behind.
Following the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael budget, tonight 2 cent per litre is being added by way of carbon tax to the price of petrol and diesel while the whole of the country is closed down - that is the fact of it. They are doing their best to get the Green Party on board. What will the carbon tax charge be when they have the Green Party with them? They are talking about reducing the national herd. We read today that the US is in serious trouble in providing beef yet we are supposed to reduce the national herd. I am amazed that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are considering blocking the Shannon liquefied natural gas project. North Kerry has been starved of jobs for years. Millions of euro have been put into this project, not to mind the importance of having access to this natural gas.
Why is the Government not calling for an investigation into how and when this virus began in China? Is it the case that the Government does not want to know? I can tell the Taoiseach that all those who have lost loved ones to this deadly disease would like to know and be told the truth. They cannot touch, embrace or talk to their loved ones who are gone forever. This virus was in China long before 20 January.
Some of the PPE the Government paid for and went out of its way to thank publicly the Chinese for was given to them by the Italians in early December. I am asking the Government not to buy another bottle from the Chinese to contain this virus until we know the truth. The people are entitled to the truth. I am calling on the United Nations to carry out an international investigation into what happened. We need to know. If the Chinese are culpable, or whoever it is, they will have a job in compensating the world. They will never compensate for the people who have died but they should be made to pay compensation in respect of the money countries around the world have lost, none more so than Ireland.
We move finally to the Independent Group and Deputies Pringle and Harkin. Is the group giving some time to Deputy McNamara? Is it statements and questions?
Yes. I have two questions to which the Taoiseach can respond. Then it will be Deputy Harkin, who is sharing time with Deputy McNamara.
My first question has been topical for several days. It relates to people travelling from Northern Ireland into the Republic. We have been told that the Garda cannot stop them and tell them to go home. If that is the case, how has it happened? What does the Government intend to do about it? I do not believe that it is prevalent or that there are hordes of people coming across the Border. It is frustrating, however, for those who are trying to manage and live with the restrictions we have in the South.
The issue of the Keelings workers has been aired in the media in recent days. We discovered that Keelings informed the workers that it was advised that 49 could be quarantined at a time. It told them that it was advised by the NPHET, the Government or the Department. When this information was publicised recently, Keelings reduced it to 19 people. Who is advising Keelings on this? From where is the advice coming? What is the proper advice?
On the regulations, I asked the Attorney General, the Minister for Health and the Minister for Justice and Equality to examine this issue several days ago, which they have. Having looked at the different options, it is their view that the regulations do not need to be amended. However, what is required is greater co-operation between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána. People coming from Northern Ireland into the Republic are breaching Northern Ireland law and vice versa. Unless we prohibit people crossing the Border, which we are just not going to do, what is required is co-operation. Somebody going beyond the 2 km restriction without a very good reason, such as being a cross-Border worker, is breaching the law in one jurisdiction. What is really required is co-operation between the police authorities. We will not to make it illegal for people from Northern Ireland to come into the Republic of Ireland for reasons with which the Deputy will agree. Enforcement is going to be the issue which will require co-operation between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána. I am reassured by what the Garda Commissioner said about this in recent days.
I am afraid I cannot answer definitively the Deputy's straight question as to who is advising Keelings. As far as that debacle is concerned, it is probably a case of there being many arms of government and all of those arms not having spoken to each other. I believe that is what went wrong in this case. We do now have a much better procedure in place. Anyone entering the airport has to fill in a form, declare where they are staying, give their mobile number and other such information to ensure they self-isolate and self-restrict for 14 days. We now have a mechanism by which Department of Justice and Equality staff can check with people to ensure they are following those instructions.
Each day as we gather in the Dáil, the numbers of those who have died as a result of Covid-19 increase.
It is really important that we remember those people and sympathise with their families, all of whom are grieving in isolation.
It is also important that each time we recognise the great efforts made by those in the healthcare sector. While we have made real progress at individual and Government level in containing Covid-19, there is a number of unresolved issues in the healthcare system. First, we hear that nurses have not yet been paid the agreed increases. Some hospitals are paying but others are not and that needs to be resolved now. Another pressing issue that arises among the people to whom I have spoken is the fact that some nursing homes are still not adequately staffed and do not have adequate levels of PPE, which is a concern if either patients or staff contract the coronavirus. I have heard the panic in the voices of some of the people in this sector. While progress is being made, we were slow off the mark in the first place. Immediate and urgent efforts are needed. I emphasise that point.
Another issue that has not been addressed was mentioned briefly elsewhere this morning. I refer to the contract that has been offered to private consultants and private hospitals. I fully support the actions taken regarding the take-over of private hospitals. We can view it as a success that more than 2,000 beds are currently not being used. However, there is a need for flexibility in the contract being offered to the consultants. They must be insured in order to be able to treat their emergency, non-Covid-19 patients. If they do not sign the contract by next Sunday, they will not have insurance, but if they do sign it they will leave all their other patients in limbo. All patients matter. That should be the bottom line. Whatever ideological struggles are going on, now is not the time for them. We need to focus on Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 patients. As the Taoiseach stated, cancer has not gone away. We need a flexible solution and we can fight our territorial battles later. It is patients who matter now.
I want to briefly mention domestic violence. We had a top-class awareness campaign from the Department of Justice and Equality and some really good inter-agency response. Gardaí, for example, are proactively following up on calls on domestic violence prior to the Covid-19 crisis. That is great reassurance for people. However, some individuals still have to leave their homes. There is no emergency refuge accommodation in my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim so people have to access rental accommodation. We need a timely way of helping those people, and one way is to allow them to avail of short-term rent supplement. I ask the Taoiseach to please reconsider this as an emergency solution.
My final comment relates to an issue that has also been raised previously . I refer to refunds or vouchers from airlines. As the Taoiseach stated, customers are fully entitled to refunds. The Government should stand on the right side of this issue, namely, with the customers. I heard the Taoiseach indicate that airlines may need support – they probably will – but one of the ways we could do that is to look again at fifth freedom rights relating to cargo transport. There should be full refunds for customers.
Tomorrow, it is widely anticipated that the Taoiseach will announce some easing of restrictions. Tomorrow is May Day. It is the start of the mayfly season on Lough Corrib and Lough Derg. Fishing is something that people have done for generations, through the Spanish influenza, which was far more deadly than this disease has proven to date, and before that. By definition, it is a solitary activity by its nature. I ask the Taoiseach to bear that in mind in easing restrictions.
The idea that An Garda Síochána's time would be taken up with stopping people going out in boats spaced out across large lakes, such as Lough Derg and Lough Corrib, is ridiculous. It highlights the need to make sure that our restrictions are necessary and proportionate. I would ask the Taoiseach to look at that issue in how mayfly fishing is treated. I am not talking about people on jet skis and dangerous activities. I am talking about something that has happened for generations.
That concludes the questions and statements. Would the Taoiseach like to make a concluding statement?
I will certainly seek advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, on mayfly fishing. The issue of solitary fishing in general - people fishing on a local lake or river on their own - has come up on a number occasions. It is something that I will seek advice on.
Deputy Harkin mentioned the issue of domestic violence. There is a concern at present that the fact that people are at home so much more than they would normally be poses a real risk of an increase in both domestic violence and child abuse. That is something we are most aware of. Everyone can understand the concerns. It is something the Government is attuned to. In terms of domestic violence, there are two new women's refuges that have opened in recent months, in Galway and in Dublin. However, the north west is an obvious and gapping gap in the provision of domestic refuges for women and I hope that is something we can sort out sooner rather than later. In the meantime, hotel accommodation can be used. I do not see why rent supplement could not be used, and I will get that checked out. That is a good suggestion.
In terms of the pay agreement with the nursing unions, I have seen reports in the media about that but I will get that checked out this week. The pay increases that were agreed with the nursing unions are linked to a new contract, reforms and the adoption of more modern work practices in the interests of patients and taxpayers. There is a linkage. However, I believe that public bodies should honour the agreement, as unions should.
On the issue of the capacity in hospitals, our private hospitals are 33% occupied, our public hospitals approximately 80% occupied, our intensive care units, ICUs, approximately half-occupied and Citywest largely unoccupied. That is not necessarily bad. The reason that is the case is because we wanted to be prepared to make sure that our hospitals and ICUs were not overwhelmed the way those in other countries were. It is good that we had such spare capacity. We may need it yet. This could yet go wrong. I would not like us to make the mistake of relinquishing that capacity only to find out in a few months' time or over the winter that we really need it. It is possible over the next couple of weeks to use some of that capacity to bring back online some elective healthcare treatments and other interventions that should be happening but we need to be wise about it. We would all like to see more orthopaedic operations starting again but some of those operations can take up an ICU bed for 12 days and the position can change quickly in 12 days when it comes to this virus. We need to be smart about that. It is not bad that we have spare capacity in the health service. It is an unusual experience in Ireland, not necessarily bad. We should retain some spare capacity for as long as we can.
Deputy Eamon Ryan spoke eloquently on the issue of nursing homes, which have been badly affected. That is extremely sad and tragic. We see across Europe between 40% and 60% of all deaths are occurring to people who had been residents in nursing homes. If one thinks about it, a nursing home is really one big household with many staff coming in and out and it is hard to keep the virus out. Once it gets in, it is easy for it to spread. If we were to cocoon people in nursing homes the way we have at home, one would essentially, as Professor McConkey pointed out, have to put the nursing home into lockdown and have the staff stay overnight and not see their own families. That would be extremely difficult, and possibly impossible, to do. It raises questions for the future as to what our nursing home and elder care models should be. I think we all agree that we need much more investment in homecare so that fewer people must go to nursing homes as early as they do. The Government was able to increase funding for homecare by 40%. I doubt the next Government will have that kind of money and we will have to come up with a new model for funding homecare to make sure that it is an option for more people for longer. What we have been doing for a long time is moving towards much more modern nursing homes, replacing nursing homes with 150 or 200 bed, single-room occupancy nursing homes. Maybe that was not the right answer.
We have seen some outbreaks happen in some of the most modern nursing homes, places like St. Mary's Hospital in the Phoenix Park, a facility with almost all modern buildings and single or double rooms that is under public control, linked with the Mater Hospital and with consultants on site. Maybe we need to consider a different model, something similar to what we have done in the disability sector, with people placed in houses of three, four or five rather than big nursing homes of 150, even if they are all single rooms. Maybe I am wrong, but that is the kind of thing we are going to have to think about.
The other issue is that of clinical governance. The view until now has been that everyone who is a resident of a nursing home is a resident and should be allowed to have the GP of his or her choice. The effect of this has been that a nursing home of 120 or 130 residents could have 20 or 30 different GPs but no one person who is in charge as a medical director. There is a person in charge but that person is not a medical person. We have a lot to think about across Europe about the future of nursing care and nursing home care as a consequence of this.