Covid-19 (Business, Enterprise and Innovation): Statements

I welcome the opportunity to address the Chamber and update Deputies on the work under way in my Department to help the enterprise sector meet the business challenges presented by Covid-19. Clearly, Covid-19 has resulted in a profound impact across the economy with unprecedented speed. Figures from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection indicate that it had issued payments to 591,000 people in respect of their applications for the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment and 36,100 payments in receipt of Covid-19 illness benefits up to last Tuesday, 28 April. These payments are in addition to the 212,000 people on the live register on 20 April.

More than 50,000 businesses have now registered for the Government's temporary wage subsidy scheme, with more than 400,000 employees receiving payment under the scheme. These figures reflect the impact of closures across the economy, with those sectors most dependent on public footfall, such as recreation, tourism and hospitality and other service-orientated sectors, being closed. As a result of Covid-19, we have gone from a position where we had full employment just two months ago with more people at work than ever before, to a position where we now have more than 1 million people in receipt of income support of some form.

While large parts of the economy and society have ceased activities, we should remember that significant parts of our economy and business sector have continued to operate and implement the physical distancing guidelines. These sectors that continue to operate safely include the essential retail sector, from supermarkets to pharmacies, filling stations, large parts of manufacturing and financial services, ICT, energy and communications sectors, and other sectors such as transport and freight and waste management.

My Department has put a range of business supports in place, including a €450 million Covid-19 working capital scheme from the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, which supports loans from €25,000 to €1.5 million. Almost 2,000 applications have already been received under that scheme, which demonstrates the strong appetite for working capital among businesses. Loans of up to €50,000 are available for small businesses from Microfinance Ireland, with the first six months interest-free and repayment-free. As of 28 April, 321 applications had been received, and 186 of these have been approved, to a value of €5.2 million. A further 71 applications are in progress. An additional €200 million is also being made available to the future growth loan scheme for Covid-19. A €180 million sustaining enterprise fund can be accessed by Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland. This provides financial support of up to €800,000 for manufacturing and internationally traded services firms.

The business continuity grant of €2,500 run by local enterprise offices, LEOs, are for businesses across every sector that employ up to 50 people. There have been almost 3,000 applications for that scheme to date, and it is proving very popular with small businesses. Grant aid of up to €5,000 is now available through LEOs to help businesses get online and continue trading during the Covid-19 emergency. Additionally, a new €2 million online retail scheme is open to retailers employing more than ten people to support companies in the indigenous retail sector. Grants of between €10,000 and €40,000 are available under that scheme. A Covid-19 business financial planning grant of €5,000 is available through Enterprise Ireland to help companies develop a robust financial plan. A new lean business continuity grant of €2,500 is available for training or advisory services supports related to the continued operation of businesses during this pandemic. It is open to small, medium or large client companies of Enterprise Ireland or Údarás na Gaeltachta.

In addition to these new supports, it is also important to remember the full range of existing Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, LEO and Údarás na Gaeltachta grant and advisory supports that continue to be available to businesses. As I mentioned earlier, the wage subsidy scheme has proven very successful and in excess of 50,000 businesses have registered, with more than 400,000 employees receiving payment under the scheme. That is 400,000 more people staying connected with their employer and who are still in a job. I have engaged with business representative groups on the scheme and I know there were some anomalies at the start. In fairness, the Revenue Commissioners have demonstrated great flexibility in listening, and responding, to those concerns. It does not matter if a business is open or closed. As long as the business can demonstrate a 25% impact in the form of reduction in turnover, the company is eligible to apply for the scheme.

It is important to remember as well that the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment of €350 is also available to the self-employed. That is important, as with some small businesses where the wage subsidy scheme may not have been suitable, the pandemic unemployment payment has been a vital support.

It is sometimes hard to believe that Covid-19 has only been with us for two months. The world has changed and the economic landscape in Ireland has utterly changed. We have put a number of supports in place to help businesses deal with the initial shock of Covid-19; there is no doubt that more will be needed. As a Minister, I want to ensure businesses are supported throughout this crisis. As I have said previously, it is about providing the right supports at the right time. As a Government, we will continue to develop and adapt our suite of supports as the situation develops. I am working with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and colleagues across government on the next stage of our response for businesses.

Turning to the question of relaxing restrictions, the Government has made it clear that the number one imperative is to ensure public health. We are dealing with a deadly virus so the relaxation of restrictions must be carried out in line with public health guidance and be prudently introduced on a phased basis over time. We must ensure safe practices backed up by guidance and, where necessary, enforcement. We have seen businesses quickly change their practices and contactless delivery is an example of this.

Businesses can adjust in a safe way provided there is rigorous adherence to public health guidelines. I thank all those in these sectors for the sacrifices they make every day to sustain essential services and for their rigorous adherence to physical distancing guidelines.

That is why I and my Department are focusing specifically on helping businesses to understand what physical distancing in the workplace involves. We have worked with the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, an agency within my Department, and the HSE to produce two protocols and guides for manufacturing industry and the retail sector on workplace protection and improvement. These guides set out a range of measures, including staggering of start times and shift work. I encourage all businesses, regardless of whether they are open, to familiarise themselves with these protocols.

All employers have obligations to their staff and to the public to ensure that all necessary measures are being taken to adhere to the public health advice and recommendations in their workplaces. The Health and Safety Authority, HSA, under my Department is working closely with the Department of Health and the HSE to set out clear Covid-19 specific guidance for safe workplaces, which all businesses must adhere to when they are allowed to reopen. I expect these to be available shortly. These will be backed up not only by further advice at sectoral level over time but also through inspections and enforcement using the full suite of resources available across the State. If a company or an employee has a question, the Health and Safety Authority already offers advice and support and can be contacted in this regard.

I know the question of when we can begin to lift the current restrictions and start getting things back to normal is on the minds of many people and to the fore for many business owners and leaders throughout the country. As the Taoiseach has said, the Government continues to consider the broad range of public health, societal and economic impacts and options for lifting the current restrictions. I stress that the unwinding of restrictions will need to be gradual and proceed over a number of months. I assure workers and employers that the Government is committed to ensuring that as the economy reopens, we will do everything we reasonably can to save those businesses that are viable. As we unwind restrictions, we must do so in a way that supports our longer-term economic prospects. Sectoral issues are being worked on at official level across relevant Departments. We must also be mindful of the need to focus on economic recovery, an issue I expect to be to the fore of any new Government's agenda.

These are difficult and unprecedented days for businesses in Ireland. The recovery task ahead of us is monumental, but it is because of the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit we have in Ireland that we have reason to be positive. Absolute Nutrition, a small food company in Rathcoole, has increased its sales by over 200% through online sales since the first case of Covid-19. Gunpowder Gin in Drumshanbo, a household name, is now making hand sanitiser. Yesterday I was at the Combilift facility in my county of Monaghan. That company has come up with a unique device that can split ventilators. That ability of businesses to respond and adapt will be crucial in the weeks and months ahead. I am determined that we will continue to support businesses and ensure that as many people as possible will have jobs to return to with employers who have businesses that will succeed in the future.

We need to remember that we had a strong economy before the pandemic. We must now do everything in our power to ensure we have a strong economy after the pandemic. I look forward to hearing Deputies' views on this.

I will be sharing time with Deputies MacSharry and Niall Collins.

Last night on "The Tonight Show", Professor Sam McConkey reaffirmed the importance of a strong economy to maintain a strong public health system. Covid-19 will not go away any time soon. We must examine how the economy can coexist while not compromising the health of our citizens.

The attempts by the Government to blame any further extension of the lockdown on non-compliance by the public are deeply unfair. The vast majority of the public understand their responsibilities. We must start to look at how we can reopen sectors where social distance already exists. It is deeply unfair that garden centres are being prevented from opening but Lidl and Aldi continue to sell similar products.

A roadmap needs to be published to give certainty. Some businesses will need time to make necessary changes. They need to know what financial supports will be in place for them to so do. Chambers Ireland stated this morning that one in four businesses will need to spend €8,000 to make the necessary modifications. Any road map must include a task force populated by expert membership which can advise on a sector-by-sector basis. Every further week that the Government fails to act will lead to further subsidies in the long run and make it much more difficult for businesses to survive.

The Government announcements to date are inadequate in terms of their size and structure. Some 95% of Government supports are based on businesses taking on more debt and the uptake of them to date has been very slow. The figures referred to by the Minister are very low when compared with the number of people availing of the temporary wage subsidy. The Government is telling businesses which have seen their turnover radically reduced or even eliminated to take on further debt at 4.5% but it is currently borrowing at less than 0.25%. It is trying to make a margin of 4.25% on the back of struggling businesses. The Government must look at how other European countries are availing of relaxed State aid rules to ensure they inject liquidity directly into sustainable businesses.

On business interruption insurance policies, at a briefing I attended in the Minister's Department, she indicated she would be meeting the CEOs of insurance companies. Has that happened? If so, what was their response? What actions are she and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, taking to ensure that legitimate policyholders who have business interruption insurance covering infectious diseases will receive a payout? A hairdresser recently outlined on a radio programme that there is no clear path for how she will reopen her business or to show how she can conduct her business while maintaining social distancing requirements. In spite of that, her insurance company expects her to continue to pay public liability insurance.

I refer to a trade credit scheme. A major impediment to the resumption of normal trade is that suppliers will be reluctant to offer credit in the current circumstances. A Government-backed trade credit system will be needed to ensure there is confidence in the system. France and Germany have applied to the European Commission to ensure they can provide a Government-backed trade credit scheme. What are the Government's intentions in that regard?

On commercial leases, large institutional investors are putting the squeeze on businesses. What action will the Government take to ensure that ceases?

When will we have a clear road map and a task force? When will the Government review the penal conditions attached to the liquidity supports available from the Minister's Department? Will there be grants and interest-free loans? I ask the Minister to address her meeting with the CEOs of insurance companies. Will she commit to exploring the introduction of a Government-backed trade credit scheme?

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute on this issue.

I am very conscious that I am one of the very few that have had the opportunity to do this. I want to express our thanks as a party to all people on the front line, not just in the health service but those manning supermarkets, filling stations, doing deliveries, manufacturing and so on. It is to their eternal credit and we appreciate their efforts.

Will the Minister tell us what is the situation in Europe? Have there been discussions on a mechanism to be adopted to shelve, park, warehouse, whatever terminology she wishes to use, the entire cost of this process? It will run to many hundreds of billions of euro internationally and in Ireland it will be in the tens of billions of euro. It is essential that a mechanism needs to be identified, whatever it is. This country cannot look ahead to another lost decade of austerity to underpin measures that will need to be taken to underpin our economy. Where are we in terms of agreement in the European context? Where are the Germans and Dutch, in particular, on agreeing a mechanism? We are going to have to embrace mechanisms similar to the Marshall Plan in 1948 and indeed the London agreements of the 1950s in terms of write-downs of debt and considerations in that regard if, either the present outgoing Government or any new Government that may be formed, is going to take the sorts of measures that will support people, business and employment, and to look after the social supports that we will need to continue for those unable to look after themselves, because we will not be able to do it if we are looking at austerity as the only way of achieving it.

I am choosing to use my time to pool several questions and then the Minister can respond rather than going in and out, which will just waste time. We will have to consider the sunken costs that all businesses are facing at the moment, be they utilities, insurance, security, IT or others. In order to stand still there are substantial costs. Those costs will have to be dealt with by way of direct grant aid. We cannot strangle the business community with debt that it cannot manage and feel we have dealt with it. There will have to be an element of helicopter money, direct grant aid or free money, whatever the Minister likes to call it.

The Deputy has five minutes for questions and answers. We are coming up to half time.

The Minister can log those questions. I am conscious that I have very limited time. The Minister will have much more speaking time than me in the future so if she cannot answer them during my time, she can do it during her own time, perhaps to the media outside the Chamber.

The Order of Business was approved and there is 15 minutes in total.

I know that but I am being creative with the order and we are wasting each other's time.

The Deputy is eating into his colleague's time.

No. He will have five minutes too.

In terms of working capital, as my colleague said, interest free loans will be needed. On laundering it through the SBCI with its innovation clause expecting viable businesses to be able to reinvent the wheel in order to get money at 5% because the costs have to be paid to the pillar banks which are going to get it out there, if the rate is less than 0.25% it needs to be that for working capital money for businesses.

How long can people expect to receive the €350 a week payment? Many businesses feel that until they are back up and running it needs to be maintained. There are going to be redundancies. That is a fact. How will they be funded? Can we get back to the 60% that was once given, or closer to 100%, to assist with that? Not all people will be able to get back into full employment immediately. In a Border constituency, as is the Minister's, tourism and agriculture represent a huge part of the economy. Where are we on a plan for those sectors because nothing has been forthcoming and there is huge concern. While I appreciate this is a health issue, the public needs to know what is happening because it might inform us and expert opinion about how to manage the way out. What are the demographics of the people being sick and of those who are deceased and where in the country are these happening? It is very clear anecdotally that there are flash points and we need clear detail and data provided by Government so that people, experts and we as Members can be informed to advise the Minister on what decisions to take.

At the outset of the pandemic the focus was rightly on the medical and health response and on a financial buffer for families and workers.

It is fair to say that a lot of the critique and narrative that has followed on from that centres on what we are doing for SMEs. The message I am getting - I am sure others are getting it too - is that SMEs feel not enough is being done for them. Employees have had the opportunity to sign up to the Covid-19 payment and the wage subsidy scheme but employers - the SMEs, the people who hope to take employees back and get their businesses open again - feel that not enough is being done for them and that they are being left behind. This is critically important. In Limerick and the mid-west region where I come from, 55,000 people signed up to the Covid-19 payment, with 22,000 of them coming from Limerick alone. If a single employer in Limerick employing 10,000 or 15,000 people - as was the case in the past with Dell - closed, there would be an immediate response to that employer. More needs to be done. The Department's Covid-19 business tracker support data shows that around 2,300 SMEs have availed of various supports. That is a shockingly low number given that the total number of SMEs in the country is well in excess of 100,000. We must have more focus on employers. The Central Bank tells us that SMEs are going to need €2.4 billion over the next three months. What are they going to need beyond that? We must look at SMEs through two sets of lenses. What do we do for them to get them through the Covid period and what do we do to reboot and kick-start them after the crisis is over and the pandemic has gone away? That is a huge job of work. The point must be made that funding from Europe, whether through the European Investment Bank, EIB, the European Central Bank, ECB, or any other avenue, is available to the State at zero or very low interest but is being passed on or made available to SMEs at rates of 4%, 5% or even 5.5%. Why are the pillar banks and State agencies taking that kind of margin? Why is that cost being imposed on SMEs? We should be allowed to pass the money that we are getting at zero or near to zero cost on to SMEs in grant form, in liquidity form or in loan form at zero cost. That must be a major focus. The State needs to reform the SBCI and the other vehicles that we are using to get the funding through and avoid using the pillar banks which are basically price gouging.

We need to have a State-led business interruption response. We are hearing calls for a zero VAT rate, for rates breaks and various other measures from the representative bodies of small businesses including hoteliers, retailers and those in the hospitality industry. This is particularly important in the absence of such a response from the insurance industry. FBD, in particular, must be called out for its shameful reneging on valid business interruption policies. I have seen correspondence with some policy holders specifically telling them that they are covered for the coronavirus. I am sure other Deputies have also seen such correspondence. The way that FBD has treated policy holders and businesses is outrageous in the extreme. They have paid their premiums and are now likely to have to resort to legal avenues to pursue the insurance companies who should be stepping up to the plate. The Government should also be stepping up to the plate and ensuring that business interruption payments flow to businesses.

I have a number of questions I want to put to the Minister. Is she aware of the SME recovery plan that has been drafted by the various representative organisations in conjunction with the former Secretary General of the Department of Finance, Mr. John Moran? Under the four headings of crisis management, financing, taxation and cost-flexing, it outlines a suite of measures to help businesses to get through the period, to kick-start and reopen. Will the Minister engage with them on this plan? I refer here to real and meaningful engagement. Can the Minister pursue the option of getting finance, grants and liquidity to business at zero cost? If we are getting money at 0%, can we not pass it on thus? Will the Minister consider giving businesses grants rather than loading them with more debt? Finally, will she work on behalf of the many policy holders who have been reneged on shamefully by FBD, in the main, as well as by some other insurance companies?

The Deputy might avoid naming individual companies. The time has expired for those questions. The Minister might agree to provide written responses to Members. We will move on to the Sinn Féin Members.

We find ourselves in a time of unprecedented crisis. People have been on lockdown for weeks. Most businesses have closed their doors and continue to endure enormous financial losses. They do not know when they can get back to normal or even if they will survive. Hundreds of thousands of people are out of work and there are many uncertainties. Despite those uncertainties, a few things are very clear. This crisis is not going away any time soon and SMEs are going to be the major losers if we do not act immediately to save them.

The response from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation to this reality has been poor. It is shocking that, other than a few initial announcements made in the first couple of weeks of this crisis, no real solutions have been offered to SMEs almost two months later. The three main schemes that were announced are not fit for purpose. The credit guarantee scheme and the Microfinance Ireland loan scheme have interest rates that are too high for most SMEs to consider. The credit guarantee scheme allows for lending using criteria and interest rates set by the banks before this crisis hit. Microfinance Ireland loans have interest rates of between 4.5% and 5.5%. The future growth loans are designed for planning for eight to ten years into the future. None of these options reflects the reality facing thousands upon thousands of SMEs in the State at present.

If the Government needs proof of that, it does not need to look further than the Department's website which is tracking the take-up of Covid-19 schemes. According to the uptake tracker, as of 23 April only 209 loans had been approved. The uptake of the credit guarantee scheme is unclear because the figures provided for approvals go back to 2012, which is bizarre. Does the Minister have the figures for the number of approvals since the scheme was repackaged for Covid-19? Has she made inquiries as to what those figures are?

The sustaining enterprise fund has had one application according to the tracker. The SBCI Covid-19 working capital scheme has had 56 approvals. Microfinance Ireland loans have had only 153 approvals. The number of applications is higher than the number of approvals, but not by a very high margin. Just over 2,000 businesses have availed of these schemes. These are remarkable figures at a time when tens of thousands of businesses are in major difficulty.

Businesses are accumulating debt, have no cash flow and will fail unless something radical is done right now. The figures for uptakes should tell the Minister all she needs to know and should be a wake-up call. Other countries have managed to introduce interest-free lending options for small businesses within a week. The process was streamlined to ensure that businesses could have money in their accounts within days of making their applications. That is what we need to do. Some 80% of small businesses cannot make their quarterly rents during this period. That should send another alarming message to the Minister.

My questions are straightforward. Businesses need access to interest-free loans and grants, relief on overheads and bills and a debt write-down for those who have accumulated debt. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that interest-free loans or loans with very low interest rates are available to SMEs for the rest of this crisis and thereafter? What plans does she have to introduce a grant system for businesses which need access to cash now? Has she considered that the costs of reopening businesses should be grant aided? Will she introduce a moratorium on overheads, rates, rent and insurance to minimise the accumulation of debt by SMEs during this crisis? What plans does she have to allow for a debt write-down to ensure that businesses will not fail during this crisis?

I do not want any more spin, waffle or half-baked solutions. The figures for the uptake of the schemes announced clearly show that the proposals and solutions that have been put forward are not acceptable to businesses in the current climate.

They are not what they need. We have all spoken to people about this, and those with small businesses are sick with worry over it. They have been contacting me daily, including owners of gyms, hairdressers, transport companies and hospitality businesses. They are all terrified that their businesses are going to fail and their staff will lose their jobs. They need help now. The consequences for small businesses of not providing the solutions I have outlined are enormous. We have to avoid mass closures of businesses or the economy will not recover, at least for the foreseeable future. We cannot allow hundreds of thousands of people to remain unemployed. The knock-on effects on the economy and on people's lives will be dire. The Minister said that she wants to implement the right supports at the right time. This is now the time.

We live in strange times. I was re-elected in February, and this is the first opportunity I have had to speak in the new Dáil. I thank those who trusted me with their vote in the election in Limerick city and the parts of Tipperary I represent. I thank them very much and I will do my best to represent them as best I can.

As I said, we live in strange and difficult times. I thank all the people at home who have observed the advice we have given them, and done their best to flatten the curve and make sure people are safe and lives are saved. As the Minister will be well aware, I am constantly fighting for better conditions in working facilities, and for the staff in University Hospital Limerick in particular. The staff do incredible work there, including doctors, nurses and porters and support staff who are vital during these hard times. I thank all those people in particular. In addition, I also thank those who work in our supply companies, food shops, transport and delivery services, pharmacies and others keeping the show on the road. Their work often goes unnoticed and undervalued but it is essential work and should be treated as such by the Government going forward.

As my party's spokesperson on workers' rights, I want to raise three key issues. As time is limited I will keep it short so she will have time to answer. First, can the Minister outline her plans to ensure workers will be safe when they return to work? For instance, will businesses be legally obliged to provide hand sanitiser, Perspex glass and other protective equipment? What legal protections will workers have if employers do not provide these items?

My second question relates to protections for those working from home. It is estimated that approximately 90% of employees are now working from home, based on a recent survey by Some 44% of those surveyed said they were now working longer hours than previously, while many have an additional workload and others said they were finding it hard to turn off. We need legislation to govern this area, and not just in the context of this crisis. This will lead to a change in the way people work and many will find themselves working from home in the future. This is not just about the crisis we are going through at the moment. The country and the world have changed and we need to legislate to make sure we are protecting those workers. For instance, we need to make sure they have a law on the right to disconnect. Can the Minister update me on the Government's position on protecting those workers who will end up working from home?

Finally, can the Minister update the House on plans to introduce a living wage, as set out in Fine Gael's joint document with Fianna Fáil? I have been raising this issue with her for a number of years, as well as with her predecessors. The Thirty-second Dáil passed a motion supporting a living wage last October and I am delighted that the Government has seen the light and followed Sinn Féin's lead on this. We have published our own plan on how we would implement it while protecting financially vulnerable businesses. Can the Minister put some meat on the bones of the Government's plan to introduce a living wage, about which we have read a lot in the media? Is it just an aspiration on paper which the Government has no intention of reaching? The Minister might answer my questions now, or if not, she might send me a written response.

I thank the Deputies for raising these various matters. Many issues have been raised so I will try to get through them as quickly as I can.

Regarding worker protection, the HSA plays a key role alongside the HSE. We are preparing a document, which we will publish shortly. It will include specific guidance around how to implement physical distancing in the workplace, respiratory hygiene and hand hygiene. We are working closely with the HSE and the HSA to ensure we have those guidelines, as it is important for employees and employers to know whether they have the right conditions in place for those who are continuing to work or hope to return to work. We are also engaging with the unions and employers so as to have their input in ensuring a safe and protective workplace.

A number of issues were raised with-----

The Minister can reply to me with a written response, but another Deputy-----

Deputy Clarke was signalling but I did not have her name. I call Deputy Clarke. My apologies.

Before I begin, as this is my first speech in the Chamber, I would like to thank the people of Longford and Westmeath for putting their faith in me to represent them here. It is a great privilege. When I walked through the doors across the way for the first time, though, never did I imagine that my maiden speech would be in the middle of a pandemic, yet here we are.

We are all aware that we are living in very uncertain and worrying times, and judging by the stability impact report that the Minister delivered last week, none more so than our small businesses, which are facing a bleak future. With GDP set to fall by 10.5% and modified domestic demand by 15%, and an unemployment rate of 22%, the document states that, although there will be a difficult journey ahead, Ireland faces it from a position of strength. However, that belief is not shared or agreed with by many small businesses in my constituency. In fact, it is vastly at odds with our position. Thousands of families are out of work. Granted, most of them have availed of the relevant supports that have been put in place, but those who run a small business employing up to ten people are anxious that the lack of supports for them will force them to keep their doors closed when the economy starts moving again. Business owners across Longford and Westmeath have contacted me stating that they have run out of personal savings and disposable cash to cover rent, rates, insurance and other fixed overheads as well as a loss of stock that will make it unviable for them to reopen, whenever that might be. These small and medium-sized businesses have always been the backbone of towns, villages and local communities the length and breadth of my constituency. They are a vital part of the fabric of everyday life.

The impact of Covid-19 on SMEs over the coming months and years is not yet known, but we have an opportunity to face it from a position that supports smaller businesses, which have proven themselves in the past and put their shoulder to the wheel. They are willing and able to do it again, but it would be dependent on a comprehensive Government response that included viable and sustainable supports that were sufficient in scale and ease of access to assist them in recommencing trade.

These issues are particularly prevalent in the retail, hospitality, salon, childcare, tourism and manufacturing sectors. The businesses in question cannot be chastised by banks that we own, banks that we bailed out yet apply unfeasible interest rates that make it impossible for businesses to gain access to working capital when needed. Make no mistake - it is needed now more than ever.

As my colleague, Deputy Doherty, outlined to the House last week, far more payments are made through the pandemic unemployment payment than through the temporary wage subsidy scheme. This issue needs to be addressed if we are to prevent the relationship between employer and employee from being permanently severed.

Businesses in my constituency have made it clear to me that the SME credit guarantee scheme and the Covid-19 working capital scheme need to be reformed immediately in a manner that will allow them to reopen their doors, continue providing employment and provide services in the communities in which they are ingrained.

AIB held its AGM yesterday. What issues did the Minister raise? Did any of them concern accessing liquidity credit for small business owners that are not in a position to take on additional debt and feed into a banking system that seeks to profiteer from a time of crisis?

The Government has been big on announcements but short on delivery. What has been announced does not match what is being delivered on the ground.

Mistakes are being made and must be rectified. Many business owners put their lives and souls into creating and maintaining employment through the most recent economic crash and if those businesses close, it will sound the death knell for many already vulnerable towns and villages as people are forced to seek employment elsewhere.

This crisis is an unprecedented event. We have never before faced or recovered from anything like it. It is certain that without sufficient supports that are easy to access, this pause in trading will become a loss of business and will result in permanent job losses. We must support our SME sector as much as we can with zero-interest-applied loans and, where necessary, 100% State guarantees.

I congratulate Deputy Clarke on her maiden contribution.

There will be contributions from four Fine Gael Deputies, so I only have approximately two minutes. I will ask a quick question and request a response from the Minister.

I will speak about the small business sector in Limerick and north Tipperary, constituencies which I represent. The Government has put in place measures to ensure businesses in those areas can come through the Covid-19 crisis but the biggest challenge that we face is to get businesses reopened. We must ensure that the liquidity crisis does not become a solvency crisis for those small businesses. That is the big challenge we face. It was also the big challenge during the most recent crisis and is the biggest one we now face. Has the Minister looked at doing sectoral plans? I believe that is the key. There must be proper preparation and examination of how various industries are impacted by social distancing and above all, to ensure that those businesses can be viable. Businesses want a sight line. They are not looking for things to be opened up overnight but want to see, over the coming months, measures put in place to ensure that a liquidity crisis does not become a solvency crisis for the SME sector. The Minister might just respond on that point.

I thank the Deputy for raising that issue. The Taoiseach announced earlier that a comprehensive plan is being developed for how restrictions will be eased and what that will look like. Unfortunately, it will not be like flicking on a switch that means everything can go back to normal. However, we will have the roadmap and supports in place. We are engaging with businesses on protocols. We are working with the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, the HSA, IBEC, and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. I have had conference calls with every representative body and have listened to all of their concerns, as I am listening to the concerns Deputies have expressed today on behalf of people from all parts of the country. I am putting together a package of supports with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe. We must target the right places at the right time because this is taxpayers' money and it is not infinite. We want to get the best value for the investment that we put in.

From our previous conversations, the Minister knows the stories I have relayed to her from businesses in Kildare and Laois, as well as my dealings with the Irish SME Association, Chambers Ireland, County Kildare Chamber and others regarding the challenges that businesses face right now. The Minister has talked about a reboot phase during which we get business back up and running, and the roadmap for businesses will be critical. A next stage of supports for businesses is required.

What can businesses do now? Many businesses need to reopen and want to prepare for that. Business owners are contacting each Member of this House to ask what can they do at this time to prepare for reopening. I think in particular about lessons that might be learned from the retail sector that has stayed open, and I have due regard to all the staff who have allowed that to happen and provided a vital service for our country. What lessons can be learned by businesses that are now closed? What can business owners do while their businesses are closed to ensure they are best prepared for being able to be open with social distancing and all the measures that are required?

Small businesses are having to change and adapt. Online sales have sky-rocketed during the crisis. What supports are available for the online activities of small businesses? What level of interest has there been in the applications for loans of up to €50,000 from Microfinance Ireland in recent times?

I thank the Deputy for his question. There are lots of things that businesses can do now, while they remain closed, to prepare to go back to work.

Any businesses on the wage subsidy scheme can bring in their staff and start to talk to them and look at how they can plan to go back to work. The NSAI guidelines on retail protection and improvement are available online. I recommend that businesses should look at that document. Another document gives guidelines for manufacturing and how firms can best comply with the new norm. We are in a new world now where we must have social distancing.

There are several other issues that we need to look at. Business operators should talk to their local enterprise offices and get the €2,500 business continuity support. This scheme gives businesses a voucher to enable them to bring in experts and look at financial planning. Do they need to make an application to the bank? The experts will give businesses the advice they are seeking. I would also recommend trading online. I gave an example earlier of one company that has increased its turnover by 200% because it went online. A trading online voucher of €2,500 is available from the local enterprise offices. When companies spend that they can go back and get another one. A total of €5,000 is available. There are far more online transactions now in retail etc.

I thank the Minister for the work that her, her team and her Department are doing. A huge amount of support has been provided to the business community and employees from the State. What people want to know next is how can their business get going again and how can they start. Obviously, we know it will not be a matter of flicking on a switch and that it will be gradual and that businesses will not be operating at full capacity when they do start. We need to take a number of issues into consideration. I know some of these areas do not come under the Minister's remit but in terms of the viability of businesses we need to look at rates and charges flexibility as well as continued supports and flexibility from our banks. We need to look at the issue of VAT, in particular for our hospitality and tourism sectors. There is also the issue of commercial rents. We need to continue to try to transform and address the issue of insurance.

I have heard several proposals, many of which have been raised already by Deputies, that aim to provide support to businesses directly from the Department. Such supports could be in the form of a re-start grant, working capital loan or re-employment incentives. Perhaps these could be linked with our employment scheme currently in operation as well as supports for seasonal workers. Can the Minister assure me that in putting forward a roadmap and making sure we are providing as much financial and other supports to businesses that she will take all of these into consideration?

While the Minister might not be able to give an answer in detail, can she confirm that the Department is still working on the potential consequences of Brexit? While we hope that there will be an agreement to extend the transition period, it has not happened yet. While the current crisis is Covid-19, Brexit is still on the horizon.

I thank the Minister of State. I will take the last question first. All of the preparation that we did for Brexit has been extremely useful in how we are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many structures were in place and we had many different supports. We have been able to expand and improve on them. We certainly have not forgotten about Brexit. Although, I will be honest: all our focus currently is on supporting businesses and helping them to deal with the impact of this pandemic. It is clear what we have to do. First, as Deputy Heydon said, we had the initial shock. Now we are in the sustainment phase. The third phase is the reboot phase. That is when we need to put in place additional supports. We have already put in place the wage subsidy scheme and the enhanced pandemic unemployment payment. These have cost over €4 billion. This was the right thing to do. I know many companies have taken on board the wage subsidy scheme and they have been able to use it very effectively. It has proved very popular.

The one thing that people and businesses ask for is cashflow. Their first port of call is the banks. I spoke with the heads of the three major banks yesterday. All said that two thirds of the requests made to them were for payment breaks. There is a three-month moratorium arrangement on loans. I understand the period has been extended to six months. The banks have said they are working with businesses. A business operator should go to her bank first. The next port of call is the different supports that are available. The local enterprise offices, Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland are available to work with clients and businesses to help them through this difficult period.

I thank the Minister on behalf of the many businesses and employees for her swift action in introducing a number of supports, along with the Department of Finance. These supports will help businesses to keep open and keep their staff employed, thereby maintaining that link with their employees which is important. Much swift action has been taken in this regard, as well as supports through the wage subsidy and other payments for employees who are out of work at the moment but who hope to get back to work.

That is phase one. In phase two, there will be a need for more supports as one develops the next stage of the response. I urge the Minister to bear in mind the other sectors and SMEs which might not always fall into her Department's category. While IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and LEO clients come under her Department's remit, many other SMEs do not and these are the lifeblood of our local economies. These could be shops, play centres, restaurants and so forth which normally do not get the Department's support. Will she keep in mind they may need cash supports to reopen? Some may need support to stay closed during the next couple of weeks while they wait their turn as restrictions are lifted.

I welcome the Minister's plans to announce more supports and a step-by-step plan for restrictions to be removed.

I thank the Minister of State.

I know the Minister got correspondence from Play Activity and Leisure Ireland, PALI, the body which represents play centres, bowling alleys, pet farms and activity centres. Will she bear in mind that this sector needs much help too?

The Minister may have had the opportunity to read the recent National Economic and Social Council report on employment vulnerability as part of a just transition. It reports on the challenges of moving to a low-carbon and eventually to a zero-carbon economy, as well as the opportunities for innovation, employment retraining and investment.

Just transition is described in that document as a bridge from where we are now to a future where all jobs are green and decent, where poverty is eradicated and our communities are thriving and resilient. It is a systemic and whole-of-economy approach to sustainability. It is a driver of job creation. It embeds social justice and climate justice into economic policy. We have an obligation to address our global climate chaos. Adhering to the principles of a just transition is how we bring everybody along on that challenge of long-term carbon emission reductions and ensures the impacts of climate policy are fair on the individual.

The next decade will be a green decade. We are in a moment of complete change. The green new deal, the EU financial supports, will be transformative in creating the future economy that works for all of us. It is up to us to grasp that opportunity. In this context, will the Minister consider creating an office of just transition in her Department?

There has been much speculation about the easing of health restrictions and which businesses may be permitted to open on a phased basis, obviously in line with best medical and health advice. A significant challenge to business owners across the retail sector, professional services, the hospitality and tourism industry, as well as others, will be the requirement to manage their workplaces in line with social distancing, limiting numbers of staff and customers in attendance and strict adherence to that guidance.

Along with the valid concerns that other Deputies have raised this afternoon about requests for support around cash flow, liquidity, rates, rents, insurance and other pressures, there is also a need for clear guidance on what social distance structural changes will be required in order to trade again. This relates to alterations to the shop floor, offices, customer and staff areas and, in general, the normal work practices which will have to be changed. All of these issues will have to be addressed.

I have raised previously with the Minister for Finance increasing the amount and the application of the business continuity voucher system to cover this. In response it was indicated other measures were being considered. Will the Minister outline her Department's progress on these other measures and support measures available to business to actually implement structural alterations to the workplace, guidance as to what those alterations may look like, changes in work practice and health requirements that might be required? The Minister covered many of the supports in her opening statement. I am referring to the practical measures that might be taken. While the doors to those businesses are closed, they could be carrying out practical measures. I have read the two National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, documents to which the Minister referred. While they cover many of the areas of concern, they do not fully cover my concerns about the practical structural changes that could be made now while the doors of those businesses are actually closed.

The Minister will be aware that women returning from maternity leave are experiencing difficulty and being denied acceptance onto the temporary wage subsidy scheme. To qualify, an employee must have been on the payroll through January and February. However, in the case of maternity leave, that may not have been the case. Trade unions have raised this problem and I have been contacted by those affected. Could the Minister clarify whether this is an anomaly in the scheme and whether it will be addressed and rectified quickly in order to grant women returning to work after maternity leave the same rights and supports as other workers?

Could she provide clarity on the position of commercial renters during this crisis and whether they are included in the eviction moratorium as set out in the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act? Could she provide clear information to commercial tenants and landlords on how these tenancy protections are to be implemented?

Finally, I ask her to liaise with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to confirm when the Waterford to Limerick Junction rail line will be reopened. I believe it has been closed by Irish Rail due to Covid-19. This rail line provides a vital link between the south-east and the west for passengers and needs to be restored as soon as possible. Regarding Brexit and exports, the Limerick Junction to Rosslare Port and the Dublin to Rosslare lines should be assessed for investment to provide an improved commuter service and also to maintain a business and trade transport link directly to the rest of Europe.

I thank the Deputy for raising those issues. I welcome the publication of the NESC report on vulnerable employment. My Department is already engaged in a number of activities outlined in the report as key drivers of the response to the just transition. The Department has been engaged in the process and we are committed to it.

The regional enterprise plans are all focused on climate change. There are specific initiatives for the midlands where Bord na Móna announced job losses. A just transition facilitator was appointed by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which comes under the remit of the Minister, Deputy Bruton. Support is available to firms for energy efficiency from the LEO, through Enterprise Ireland. A dedicated team in my Department is working with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment's team. There is a specific pillar in the Future Jobs Ireland initiative on how we transition to a low-carbon economy. A lot of work is going on in that particular space.

The Deputy also asked about supports for businesses that need to change to comply with new guidelines, for example, in manufacturing plants. Enterprise Ireland is available to advise on structural changes. In addition, business continuity vouchers are available through LEOs. Those who need to change could take that into account because it is another issue they will have to address in terms of opening up their businesses. For example, they may need to put up Perspex screens or take a number of other such measures. They can use the business continuity grant for that purpose. Anybody can apply for it through the LEOs and plan how best they can do that. We will see how we can help them in the future with the obvious changes they will have to make.

Regarding the access of those on maternity leave to the wage subsidy scheme, the operation of the scheme is a matter for the Minister for Finance but I will raise this with him. I understand women who are due to finish statutory maternity leave, paid or unpaid, but who cannot return to their employment due to Covid-19, are entitled to the pandemic unemployment payment from when they are due to return to work. They should engage with their employer to see whether they can avail of the wage subsidy scheme. I will raise the matter with the Minister for Finance.

I will also raise the matter of the rail line between Limerick Junction and Waterford with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

Another issue raised concerned commercial rents and tenants.

Commercial rents are a real concern for many businesses. A recent survey from Retail Excellence estimated that only 18% of retail businesses paid their rent due at the start of April for quarter 2. Despite that, we are not hearing widespread reports of businesses being threatened with eviction. That tells me that the vast majority of landlords are taking a practical and commonsense approach to this. I encourage them to do that. Landlords are businesses too and they should recognise that this is a unique situation. If one has a good reliable tenant, one will not want to lose him or her because maybe not everybody will need rented property when we get to the other side of this. Unfortunately, there will be businesses which may not be able to return. That is the reality. Landlords who have good tenants should be looking after them. If landlords got flexibility from the banks, we would ask them to pass that on to their tenants. Of course, in saying all this, there will always be exceptions. We are examining what can be done in those cases. I have raised the matter around protections for businesses with the Attorney General. I have asked him to look at what has been done in other countries and to see whether it is possible to put similar protections in place here.

I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to address the House in these surreal times. In my long sojourn here I never envisaged the day I would come in to see seats in Dáil Éireann roped off from Members but that is the reality we face now.

Clearly, from everything we know, businesses in Ireland have never faced the unique pressures that they are facing and that exist right now. Government supports will remain vital if we are to achieve our collective responsibility, which is to keep businesses and jobs afloat. I want to use the few minutes I have to make a number of points that have been made directly to me by businesses. I could raise any number of points but I will raise nine particular issues.

Let me start with issue number one, which is the point raised by Deputy Matthews, and that is security of tenure and lease security. We acted decisively and clearly, and rightly, to protect private tenants from eviction in this time. I am afraid we have to act with the same degree of certainty and getting advices is not what is required. People are now worried. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, rightly says that the bulk of landlords are decent but some are not. Some leases are being terminated. We need to legislate in that regard. I would like to hear the Minister's view on that.

In terms of business rates, there has been talks about leeway and forbearance on business rates. Let us be quite clear. We should have a clear understandable pattern right across the country in every local authority that there will be a forbearance in the same way as, for example, businesses are affected by 25% to access the Minister's wage subsidy schemes. They should have forbearance on rates but that cannot be carried by local authorities. Thirty per cent plus of the revenue of local authorities is rates. Therefore, it must be a national scheme supported by central government.

The third point I want to raise is in relation to a point raised forcibly to me by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, RMT, the maritime union that represents seafarers. They have raised real concerns with me that shipping companies are utilising this crisis to force compulsory redundancy or alteration of work patterns that had been hard fought and won over decades. The pay and conditions of both deck workers and port workers have to be protected. I would like the Minister to take particular interest in this. Obviously, it will be primarily an issue too for her colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

The fourth issue I want to raise is in respect of businesses and companies getting State support. It is vital, as I say, that they get that support but it must be a condition of ongoing State support that such businesses engage with the industrial relations machinery of the State.

This unparalleled crisis simply cannot be used by a minority of companies and businesses as a cover to undermine workers' pay and conditions. That has to be implicit in the rules and regulations governing any drawdown of support. Many of my colleagues have already talked about the supports that are actually available. I will not recite them again because they have been effectively recited by previous speakers. I refer to the actual degree of drawdown of some of the supports the Minister listed when we asked what is available, particularly to small and medium-sized enterprises. The actual drawdown has been pitifully small. When cash flow is short and liquidity is difficult one does not want to add significantly to one's debt. The most recent rate at which the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, has said the State can borrow is 0.25%. Why is that banks are lending on at 4% or 5%? When I contacted her about various companies that require supports, the Minister wrote to me saying that the first thing a business should do is go to its bank. She said it again today. I had a conversation with the director of banking and the head of SME lending of the second largest bank in the country. If one talks to the banks, one realises that they really are taking a business-as-usual approach whereby they determine who might be viable in this crisis. If they give a borrower an overdraft, it is at an interest rate of more than 8%. That is no help at all to people and companies who are stuck in this situation.

The extent of the crisis requires not a business-as-usual approach, but rather an understanding that money must be available in the same way as when the banks were faced with a crisis in 2008 and 2009. They did not adopt a business-as-usual approach then. They marched hotfoot down to Merrion Street and made it crystal clear that they wanted a complete and total bailout. What happened? The banks' debts were socialised and put on the backs of the people. It is time the banks were forced to realise that they need to pay back the debt they owe to the SME sector. It cannot be up to them to determine whether a business is viable in the middle of an unprecedented storm, and if it is determined to be viable, to lend it money at a punitive rate.

By the way, if a bank gives a borrower a three-month or six-month moratorium on his or her payments, that will be added up at the end, with the interest rate clocking up all the time. The banks' great forbearance will actually make them more money. That is not an acceptable approach. That is not what is required of the banking sector. I ask the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation to pass that message on to her Cabinet colleagues.

A critical issue that has been raised with me is the issue of insurance. I want to underscore this because I had a difficult conversation today with a very significant businessman in my own constituency. From a different perspective, it is the issue of liability or the duty of care. It will now be impossible for companies and businesses to get Covid-19 insurance. Any renewal of insurance will not cover that. It will be impossible for businesses to open without that insurance. That is what they are telling me directly. They cannot take the risk of being liable for their employees or their customers becoming victims of Covid-19 if they are not insured against it. We must have a solution to that, some sort of indemnity or insurability. One cannot sue if one gets the flu when visiting the local supermarket. We need to address that issue or businesses will not re-open when this phase passes. I ask the Minister to look at the issue of insurance liability as a matter of urgency.

There are a couple of other points I want to raise quickly.

My colleague, Deputy Nash, has already raised the importance of monitoring when businesses start to slowly open up again. The Minister stated that this is a matter for the Health and Safety Authority. We are all getting calls from individual workers who are sometimes petrified. Who do they reach out to? Who will go into the workplaces to speak? I spoke to an individual who was working in a call centre during the early stages of this. The centre has since closed. That individual was terrified to complain, even though the employees were working cheek by jowl. Who will monitor the position in order to insist and ensure that guidelines are observed? Do we have the capacity and scope to do that? The regional impact will not be uniform. The various authorities in the south east are telling us that half of all jobs are already affected. Will the Government carry out a regional impact analysis so that we can have a regional differentiated response?

My final point relates to seasonal businesses. I have tried to outline for the Minister the nine important issues. I come from a county that relies on tourism. Some very successful businesses do not operate in January and February and are now excluded from the schemes the Minister has put in place. What will I say to those who would normally have looked forward to a very successful summer season but who cannot get the wage subsidy scheme supports because they did not operate in January or February?

I welcome this debate. I am of the view that we should just be following the normal format for oral questions because not having the responses to other questions is problematic.

In the first instance, health must be the reference point. The return to a safe working environment whereby there will not be an resurgence of the virus is what we all aspire to. Over a number of weeks, the Social Democrats have sought the establishment of an expert task force. What we do from here needs to be done sector by sector and a sequence needs to be laid out in the context of which industries should return and in what order. Some details in that regard may be announced in the context of the roadmap, either tomorrow or the day after. We have all been contacted by business people. They often state that they cannot take on further loans because they do not have any income. It does not matter if the interest rate that applies is 0%, 5% or 10% if these people do not have the money to pay back such loans. Obviously, the interest rate matters but there is still an issue. If we look at the cost of creating jobs for IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, we know about the tax forgone and the social welfare rates. There is a cost-benefit analysis when retaining jobs. That is critically important.

I have looked at points made about timelines for reopening. Chambers Ireland referred to most businesses needing two weeks. That lead-in period has to be taken into consideration and people have to be given notice so that they can use the time well. Depending on the sectors in which they operate, there will be an outlay for most businesses as a result of physical distancing and other measures. There should be some grant funding for that. I can foresee a situation where we will have a row in months to come about VAT. That is distinctive.

I will skip over a number of matters and hopefully leave the Minister time to reply. I want to refer to the Health and Safety Authority. A number of people have contacted me about something which is open but which should not be open. When one looks for the enforcement mechanism, one discovers that there is no such mechanism. One is told to ring the Garda. Will the Minister address what will change in the context of the Health and Safety Authority and enforcement as it applies to non-compliant businesses? There will be such businesses.

What scaling up will there be and will additional legislation be needed for enforcement? We all know, for example, the construction sector is varied in terms of compliance. Many building workers are located in Northern Ireland and routinely come up and down. That is something that must be specifically considered. Workers do not come exclusively from Northern Ireland but also come from other parts of the UK and Europe. That has to be considered in the context of the return of the construction sector with regard to ports, airports and the movement of employees.

I will skip through these points quickly. I asked a question regarding the hairdressing sector and I got a response. That sector includes many other areas such as beauticians, nail bars, probably play centres and many other areas. The Minister directed me towards the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, document. It is a very good document but is too general. It is not specific to some areas and work will need to be done with particular sectors because they are not all the same. I ask the Minister to address that issue. I got a response from the Minister regarding Retail Excellence Ireland, REI. I ask her to address the issue regarding the rent freeze on the commercial side. There is a real problem in that area, with people being asked for rent quarterly in advance. I am hearing from some people of being under threat where there is not a direct relationship with the landlord but where they are renting in a building from a pension fund, a vulture fund or some landlord more anonymous than an individual. I will leave time for the Minister to answer those questions.

I thank Deputy Catherine Murphy for the questions and will start with the last question first. Regarding commercial rents and landlords, I outlined where many of them are giving that latitude and are working with their tenants, and rightly so. There always will be, however, a cohort that does not do that. I spoke to the Minister for Justice and Equality about this issue and I requested the Attorney General to look at this issue and at how models in other countries have worked. The difficulty is there could be constitutional issues involved because commercial tenants and landlords are subject to commercial and contract law. There could be issues in that respect because many such contracts are complex and that is why this is taking a bit longer. The Deputy should believe that there is a willingness to try to address the issue but we have to do it in a way that will work. That is the update on that matter.

Regarding the exit plan or strategy, we hope and expect to be in a position to share that with the public in the next couple of days. The plan will set out different steps we need to take in order that we can reopen the country and our society based on different levels at different intervals. We need to get the advice from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, on Friday as to when we should start the process of reopening the country and the economy. In doing so, we really have to look at things such as the number of patients in the ICUs and the position in respect of Covid-19. Those numbers are just not good enough yet, as we know.

I accept that but I would like the Minister to address some of the questions I asked on hairdressing, for example, and other areas like that.

I will do that. The HSA is available today and anybody with concerns about a workplace should contact it. The NSAI guidelines the Deputy referred to are also available. The HSA and the HSE are working together-----

Essentially, I am asking the Minister a very specific question. Is it going to be scaled up? There will be non-compliant industries and we need to know if there will be a means of enforcement.

The HSA is working with the HSE on this. It is detailed and complex work. I hope to have that work completed and published shortly. It will set out clearly what is expected of both employers and employees. We have other protocols in place now and these guidelines set out a range of measures. I hope to have the next set of guidelines shortly for publication. We are working with unions and employers to ensure we get it right. I absolutely understand, as I know the Deputy does, that people must be sure they are safe in their workplace. Employers also want to make sure they are putting in the right protections. Nobody wants to cause difficulty for workers so we need to give both parties confidence that the right processes are in place and employees should have the confidence to go to work and feel safe. That will happen.

What about the movement of construction workers across boundaries?

As I stated, the HSA and the HSE are working together with different employers and unions to bring about a document that everybody can work with. That should be ready shortly.

The Solidarity-People Before Profit group now has ten minutes. I take it they will use a question and answer format.

Yes, and I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy. We should acknowledge that tomorrow is May Day, International Workers' Day, and to that end we have taken an initiative in our group to have this building, Dublin City Hall and several other town halls across the country lit up in red in honour of our front-line workers and all other workers. Never has it been more unequivocally obvious the role that workers everywhere play in making the wheels turn around in society. We need to honour all front-line and other workers tomorrow, on May Day.

I welcome the written confirmation from the Minister for Health to Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett that the Health Protection Surveillance Centre will investigate an alleged outbreak of Covid-19 in Liffey Meats, which is located in the constituency of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. That is welcome and it must be done urgently.

I cannot believe my ears listening to the answers being given to questions put by other Deputies and which I will put again. We are seven weeks into this crisis and she stated that people are working hard on a document, writing guidelines and working with the HSE to instruct employers how to implement Covid-19 regulations. That is not good enough. No agency in the State has power of enforcement and we are asking about it today. Will the Minister extend the remit of the HSA in order that its inspectors can step on a Bus Éireann bus to ensure a driver is protected, walk on to a building site and close it down if it is non-compliant or go into a non-essential workplace and close it if it is non-compliant? Will she answer that simple question about extending the remit?

My second question concerns the restrictions, if any, that have been placed on companies that seek to liquidate during this period. We are all aware of what happened with Debenhams and we saw the protests yesterday. I am sure we will see more of them. This morning, another company called Instant UpRight in Citywest attempted to move all its equipment and stock from that centre in order to transport it to Latvia. It wants to close the premises here in order to do that. Many companies are using this crisis as an opportunity to do things they would not normally get away with. Light-touch regulation in times of normal business is dangerous but in a pandemic, it could be fatal. The effects will be felt by workers who are about to lose their livelihoods. Will the Minister impose restrictions on companies so they will not be allowed to liquidate during the period of crisis? That can be done through extension of emergency powers or a statutory instrument?

With respect to companies not complying with regulations, environmental health officers already have the power to close companies not complying with rules. That power exists.

They have not done it.

Is that the HSE?

Yes, the HSE environmental health officers currently have the power, but I have said clearly that we will have the guidelines as a matter of urgency. A good deal of work has gone into them.

We are seven weeks into the crisis now.

I ask the Minister to respond.

Okay. As I said to the Deputy, I will have them as a matter of urgency. It is a comprehensive document which takes on board many issues that employers and employees are rightly concerned about. We will have that document as a matter of urgency.

What about my second question?

The Deputy's second question was about the Debenhams workers. I am sorry to hear about what happened to the Debenhams workers. It is obviously a very difficult time for them. As far as we are concerned, Debenhams should be engaging with its workers and with the unions. The Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, is available for the workers to give assistance.

I asked if the Minister would restrict companies from liquidating during the period of the crisis?

That is obviously being looked at in terms of the examinership. The Company Law Review Group is looking at all those issues and will bring recommendations to us.

I will ask a question, get a response and then ask another question, if that is okay. The buck must stop with the Minister and the Government is scandalously disregarding the health and safety of workers. It is an utter disgrace that there is nowhere for workers to go to seek an on-site inspection.


The Minister says the HSE. I have an email from the HSE.

A minute ago the Minister said the HSE. On 23 April the HSE responded to an email from me about Keelings which stated, "Further to your email of the 20/4/20 below, please be advised that the HSE environmental health service has no statutory role in the inspection of employee living accommodation or workplace health and safety."

Two weeks ago the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister for Finance told me in the Dáil and in a written answer to a parliamentary question to contact the HSE. The HSE has now clearly stated it has no role in that. We send workers repeatedly to the HSA and the HSA has stated clearly and publicly that it does not have the powers to enforce the public health guidelines. We have raised this repeatedly over the course of a month and we have laid out the answer, which is for the Minister to sign a ministerial order or a statutory instrument to expand the powers of the HSA. I ask the Minister to answer a question clearly. How many on-site inspections of workplaces have taken place regarding coronavirus guidelines? How many on-site inspections have been carried out by the HSA, the HSE or the WRC? We need to stop workers being passed from Billy to Jack. They need somewhere to go when they have a problem and feel unsafe at work.

I thank the Deputy. The NSAI protocols dealing with what should happen in the workplace are in place. The HSA is available to go to any company or to any employee who is concerned. It will phone up, go on site, see the issue and talk. The best solution here is between employers and employees working together to get the right solution. That is the first thing.

Second, if there is a case where the rules are being blatantly ignored and the guidelines are not being adhered to, the environmental health officers in the HSE have the power to go in and take action. As I have said before, the HSA is working with the HSE to develop a more detailed set of guidelines that will cover many eventualities on which workers and employers need to have guidance. That is taking place. As a matter of urgency, those will be published.

How many on-site inspections have taken place?

I do not have that figure to hand but I will provide the Deputy with that information.

If the HSE has the role the Minister stated it does, why does the confusion persist? The email I originally received from the HSE stated it was looking into the matter, etc. I then received a considered response, which stated that it does not have any role in this area.

To bring this to reality rather than making an abstract point, I refer to Keelings. I wrote to the Minister to draw her attention to an internal document, which makes it obvious that Keelings is operating on the basis of supposed family units of more than 50 people and that the workers may be required to change family unit. It is a disaster waiting to happen in terms of workers' health and safety. What are those workers meant to be doing? Does the Minister agree that there needs to be an on-site inspection of that premises? I have written to the HSE and the HSA. How will an on-site inspection take place?

Several different issues were raised in the letter my Department received from the Deputy. To be clear, the HSE and the environmental health officers it employs currently have the power to close a site if that is necessary.

I will revert to the Deputy on the issue of workers' living accommodation. I am not sure who is responsible for inspecting it.

The HSE also stated that it has no role in the inspection of workplace health and safety. That is clear in its response.

The HSA has the authority to inspect any workplace. There have been many cases involving such inspections. When the pandemic started, a food company was very concerned about whether it could continue to operate. The HSA and the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, went to its premises and worked with the employers and employees. It has not had a day's bother since the pandemic started. It makes bread every day without any problems. Employers and employees should be aware that there are solutions. The HSA will make itself available to any company that wishes for it to visit a premises. It will work with the company and outline the steps that need to be taken. Some companies are doing the right thing. They may be worried they are not doing enough. Some employees are concerned. I have heard their concerns and I understand them. Some are worried that their employers are not taking the right actions. I have told such employees to contact the HSA. It will visit any premises and is happy to work with employers and employees to ensure a premises is safe, which is what we all want.

I thank the Minister. She has made that matter clear.

In reopening the economy, all steps must be taken to ensure we remain conscious of the need to minimise the spread of Covid-19. We must all accept that we will have to live with Covid-19 for the foreseeable future.

On the guidance that has been worked on for the past seven weeks by the HSA and the HSE, businesses need to know by this weekend what they need to do to prepare to open. As the Minister rightly stated, the HSA is advising and inspecting businesses on physical distancing. What advice was given to companies such as meat processing facilities? The Dáil has been told that there is a significant problem in several such plants.

Companies do not have the resources to fund the measures that need to be taken with respect to sterilisation, physical distancing within the workforce, staff training, health and safety and PPE. They need financial assistance.

That has to come in the form of grant aid, not loans. Will the Minister give a commitment on that?

The NSAI has guidelines on how companies should operate. They are available and companies should be adhering to them. There is no doubt about that. If there are issues and concerns, they should contact the Health and Safety Authority, HSA. We are developing a much more detailed set of guidelines to cover many more issues that are going to arise, and we will publish them as soon as we can. The NSAI guidelines are there currently for the manufacturing and processing plants that the Deputy refers to. I urge companies to get a copy of those and make sure they are complying with them because none of us wants to see people going into plants where they are not protected or safe because that is only adding to the spread of this virus. If they have worries, they should go to the HSA, which will visit any of those. The employees can call the HSA and explain they are not happy and it will come to see exactly what is happening. It is to everybody's benefit that they work together and put the right protections in place.

As the Minister knows, there has been a problem with nursing homes and we do not see one in processing facilities around the country. Will the Minister come back to me on the issue of grant aid for getting businesses up and running in terms of the cost of training staff and equipping premises?

The wage subsidy scheme must be prioritised as the primary support for workers and provide for a continuity between workers and their employers. Will the Minister clarify whether the wage subsidy will be continued beyond June, as I think it will, and will be tapered off in line with a recovery in the economy to maintain that linkage where at all possible? Will the Minister comment on actions by some companies such as Bord na Móna which are being allowed to avail of the wage subsidy scheme and lay off staff and put them on welfare payments through the pandemic unemployment payment? Should it not be the case that employers that are availing of the wage subsidy scheme should keep all of their staff on the books rather than lay off the majority and keep a small proportion on the books?

Will there be provision made for forgiveness for debt during the lockdown for businesses? Will Government increase the funding to local authorities in order for rates bills during the lockdown to be written off?

As the Deputy will be aware, the wage subsidy scheme is very successful and many more companies are taking it up. It is still available to companies that did not take it up. There are no barriers to entry into it. They can have a mix. Some companies found themselves in a position of being able to hold on to some staff and maybe lay others off. It is permitted within the scheme to have a mix of the wage subsidy scheme and to let some staff go, unfortunately, to go on unemployment benefit.

Rates have been deferred, as the Deputy knows, and that is welcome. I am working very closely with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to prepare a suite of supports to reboot and assist companies in getting back to work. We all want to see as many companies getting back to full operation and as many people as possible returning to work. We are working on a suite of supports, and we will certainly take on board all the suggestions we have heard here today as we design that package.

We need to continue a tapered wage subsidy scheme beyond June of this year, and deferring rates will not be sufficient. Rates need to be written off. Much work will need to be done on the provision of liquidity, particularly working capital for businesses.

To deal with risk, there will need to be a State-backed bond scheme. Banks should also be instructed to apply forbearance and to reset the covenant criteria to take into account the extraordinary circumstances that businesses are facing. This covenant issue will become far bigger during the year unless it is addressed now. The Government also needs to introduce direct reliefs in particular sectors, including for instance the restoration of the lower VAT rate scheme for the hospitality and tourism sector. There must be continued forbearance by Revenue in terms of allowing businesses sufficient time to repay parked VAT, PRSI and PAYE bills from earlier in the year. Will the Minister give an assurance that this will be provided?

In terms of liquidity, we have the €450 million working capital facility, which provides loans from €25,000 up to €3 million at a reduced rate of 4%. Some Deputies believe that rate should be even lower but the normal price for overdraft facilities in the market is 8%, so it is a considerably reduced price. As part of that, businesses can avail of loans of up to €500,000 that are unsecured, which is important. Businesses that do not have security can still apply for the Covid-19 working capital facility. The loans are for up to three years.

In terms of the banks, I spoke to the heads of the three main banks yesterday and the day before and they have assured me that they have given forbearance. Two thirds of the requests coming in are for payment breaks and the other one third are for an increase in overdraft facilities. They tell me that they are working with their customers and have extended their forbearance from three to six months, which will be of comfort to some people. They also tell me that people are averse to borrowing and I understand that. I absolutely understand that because people got scalded before and lost their shirts and everything else, with huge debts. Every lender has a duty of care to its customers as well, which I also understand.

Deputy Naughten raised a number of different issues. We are working on a suite of supports. We are working very hard and have consulted all of the different representative groups. I have had conference calls with them all. I have spoken to all of the LEO representatives, to 22 representatives from chambers of commerce throughout the country and to the board of ISME. I have spoken to many different stakeholders and the issues the Deputy has raised are coming through. As part of the suite of supports, we will examine all of those suggestions. As the Deputy will appreciate, we are trying to get the best supports targeted at the right place and at the right time. We all want the same thing at the end of the day, which is to get these businesses back up and running.

I wish to address a number of issues. First, with regard to loans, supports and grants, the one thing I am being told by hoteliers, publicans and small business people is that they do not want loans. Quite simply, loans have to be paid back and they are already burdened with loans. If assistance is going to be given out, it will have to be in the form of grants. In other words, it will have to be money that they do not have to pay back because quite simply, they will not be able to pay it back.

I also want to raise the very serious situation with regard to the Debenhams workers. I have met some of those workers who were working very diligently in a retail outlet in Tralee. One thing they said to me very strongly, and I am delighted it is the case, is that Debenhams is going strong online and its sales are strong. If its sales are strong, why is it leaving the important people, those worked for the company, served its customers every day, sold its goods and operated in County Kerry, in the great town of Tralee behind? What is this Government going to do to intervene on behalf of and in support of the Debenhams workers? They have been protesting for the past number of days. They were out again yesterday and I want to hear the Minister say what she will be able to do to support them.

I want to come back to hoteliers. I am very glad that Kerry is the tourism capital not just of Ireland but of the western world. Having said that, the success we have had in tourism over the years has now resulted in the fact that we have been impacted more than any other part of the country because we have so many hoteliers, public houses, restaurants and good people working in those businesses.

I raised with the Taoiseach the very important issue of seasonal workers. When the virus first began to spread and criteria were set for the Covid-19 payment of €350 per week it meant that many seasonal workers who would have been working during March and April had not started work on 6 March or subsequent to that. Those people are losing out on the €350 payment. I am very upset about that.

When we are talking about the recovery and getting back to work, I want to give the Minister an example of what we are talking about. There are currently 83 Clúid Housing units under construction on a 6 acre site in Killarney. What would be wrong with people on that site going back to work next week? There would be absolutely nothing wrong with it. I am not being smart about social distancing, but a man working on one side of the site would have to walk a long way to meet another person if the site was reopened. It is perfectly reasonable, sensible and practical for such workers to return to sites. If people want social isolation, they should go out and work on a digger. Who would get near such a person?

I refer to coach companies. I wish to raise an important matter with the Minister. I am aware of coach operators in Kerry who bought new coaches in February and March. They are registered but have not yet been driven on the roads. They are brand new and have never done a mile on a road. They will be devalued by €30,000 this year because of the registration plates on them. The owners want to know if the coaches can be deregistered and instead of being a coach registered in 2020 start next January as a 2021 coach. It is a practical proposal. If the Department could agree to that, it would save those companies a lot of money and would mean a lot to them.

I ask for specific answers to my specific questions because they are important. It is nice to compliment people when they are doing work. I want to compliment the Minister and those in her Department on the work they are doing. I am asking on my bended knees that the Minister be practical about things like this. There are sensible proposals that the Department can implement to help small business.

There are plenty of other cases similar to the 83 units being built in Killarney. This is about social and affordable housing, putting people into homes and getting men and women out on the road and back into work again in a safe way. No one is saying that anything should happen that does not ensure safe distancing from other people. Those who operate small companies, such as haulage businesses which would put lorries on the roads, will work in the best and safest way.

Unless there is time, the Minister will not be able to answer any of the questions.

Many companies will not recover. We need to assist every employer who is going to attempt to carry on in any way we can because every job is valuable. As I said in my questions to the Taoiseach, I ask the Minister to explore every avenue when it comes to construction work, building companies and the construction of one-off houses. Every situation is different. I am sure that each person in the State realises the importance of social distancing and will be doing everything they can to ensure that they follow the guidelines.

However, they need advice in respect of vans and work vehicles. They need help regarding the cost of insurance, rates and electricity bills. They need assistance with those matters. My understanding of rates is that if people are not making any money, they would not have to pay the rates at all, or a reduced rate if on a lower income. We need to assist the local authorities because the amount of revenue they are going to lose will be massive. Clarity is needed in the context of hardware stores. Are they exempted at present? What about machinery stores?

I come now to Kerry and the importance of the tourism industry, hotels, restaurants, guest houses, bed-and-breakfast establishments and pubs. These businesses are asking that the Government apply a zero rate of VAT for the rest of this year, as well as providing assistance with their buildings and the way they present their premises for people coming in if they are given the green light to open. We realise that we will not have any foreign visitors and we will be depending on people from around the country when things open up to get these businesses going and making a turnover again.

I refer to bus companies that provide transport for schoolchildren. The Government states that the schools are going to reopen in June for those sitting the leaving certificate, but there is a serious problem regarding transporting children. Maybe the Government is talking about reopening schools in urban areas but children in rural areas are entitled to get to school as well and there will be a problem in the context of the size of the buses needed to facilitate the social distancing that is required. I know that no interaction has taken place up until now, but it is very important that the Government interacts with the bus companies and Bus Éireann on how the children are going to be brought to school for the remaining term of this year. In view of the fact that the Government will not relent and forget about the leaving certificate for this year, it must realise now that there is a serious problem with transporting children to school. That needs to be discussed with the contractors to ensure the children are brought there safely and are looked after. It is very important.

Seasonal workers are also important. They are totally left behind and Kerry depends so much on those workers. Most of their stamps have now run out and in the next couple of weeks all of their stamps will be gone. This concerns hotel workers, pub workers and bus drivers. As Deputy Michael Healy-Rae stated, there is a yard full of buses parked in Killarney. It cost millions of euro to fund what has gone into that yard and they are all parked.

I thank the Deputy.

Every one of those buses had a driver, or even two, and those drivers now are not getting paid a cent. They are being left behind. It is wrong. I am sorry to say-----

The time is up.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle.

On a point of order. According to the ethics, Deputies are supposed to declare a possible conflict through a connected person. They are supposed to mention that, so I am doing so.

I am sorry, I must-----

We have to declare-----

I have two buses. That is what I have, honestly.

It is just doing the thing properly. We have to declare our interests.

I thank the Deputies.

Of course, I also have a pub, like all the others.

We know that. We have heard about it.

There needs to be a roadmap-----

A good one too, by all accounts.

There needs to be a roadmap for publicans and the like all around the country.

Deputy, please.

It looks like many will not be reopening, but for those that will try, a roadmap needs to be put in place. They need to be told roughly when they will get to open their doors again.

I am sure the Deputy will reopen in Kilgarvan anyway.

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle.

Since the Minister did not get to respond to those questions, she might consider sending a written response, if possible.

Could the Minister be given one minute to respond?

No. The Deputies took all the minutes that were available. We will move on to the Independent group. Is Deputy Connolly first?

With Deputy Harkin. It will be five minutes and five minutes.

I hope to ask three specific questions, and the Minister might answer them. I will put them as quickly as I can. Two are practical questions. What engagement has the Minister's Department had with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht regarding the aftermath of the decision to close the Irish colleges, affecting 40 colleges, 700 families and 27,000 students? I understand from replies to parliamentary questions that the Minister was going to look at adapting existing packages to address the consequences.

My second question relates to personal protective equipment, PPE. I thank the Parliamentary Budget Office for this document, which I have read. It points out that Ireland relies heavily on other countries for PPE. Given that Ireland's imports of PPE amounted to €340 million more than its exports, making ours the seventh largest PPE trade deficit in the EU, what are the Department's plans to make us not self-sufficient, but to go along that road? I have two masks in my bag here. I do not wish to mention them as a gimmick, only to point out that they are works of art made by a woman in Galway for a nursing home. There is fantastic goodwill on the ground.

My final question is on small to medium enterprises. The Minister will be able to read the specific question that I have already asked. I read the Central Bank's two financial notes that came out last week. According to them, non-agricultural small to medium businesses employ more than 1 million people and, given the various indices and criteria, the requirement for liquidity will be between €2.4 billion and €5.7 billion. These figures are based on existing costs, for example, rents, rates and utilities, but what if companies could reduce those costs?

While I welcome the approach of the Minister's Department to date, particularly the help for employers, I am concerned by her comments today that businesses should go to the bank first. The Department should read what the Central Bank stated. I do not always agree with the Central Bank, but it talked about the non-availability of bank loans for quite a number of the companies in question. It also pointed out the cascade effect on those further up the chain that, while unaffected by Covid-19, could not supply or get money from those lower down. I do not mean "lower down" in that way, but further down the supply chain. Clearly, there is a need for a new roadmap to show how we will provide liquidity to small businesses.

I come from Galway. As with other towns and cities, it is despairing to walk its streets. Businesses have been good in complying with all of the measures, but they need hope now. The Minister mentioned the suspension of rates, but we need more than that. We need a plan that allows businesses to come back, albeit in a sustainable manner.

I will leave the Minister with a little time to answer, as my colleague will use the last five minutes.

The Minister has approximately one and a half minutes.

I thank the Deputy for raising those issues. To be clear, I announced two weeks ago €1 billion worth of liquidity and grant supports for businesses. There is a long list of various supports available. We are considering another package of supports, which we will announce in due course. I am working with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, on that.

After the initial shock, some €4 billion in supports were provided through the wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment. That money is already available, and we must now consider how to reboot companies and get them back up and running. At the end of the day, that is what we all want. We want to get businesses back and people employed and to return to full production as quickly as possible. It will not just be as easy as switching on a light, though. We will have to work with companies and they will have to try to ramp up their production. At least those that have joined the wage subsidy scheme will have that connection with their workers.

We are engaging with the Minister of State with responsibility for the Gaeltacht, Senator Kyne, and are looking at the issues for mná tí and the communities affected. All of the supports that are available to other companies, across the board, are also available to companies in Gaeltacht areas.

Approximately 100 Enterprise Ireland companies are producing personal protective equipment, PPE, and other products to cope with Covid-19. Only yesterday, I visited Combilift in my own county. It has developed a splitter machine which means that one ventilator can serve up to six patients and each can be dealt with individually. That is innovation. Combilift has written the programmes and has been working with the HSE over the past four weeks. It started with Combilift wanting to see how it could help and has now developed into a good prototype that has been tested, working with the HSE. We have enough ventilators in this country but there are developing countries that probably do not have the funding to buy all the ventilators they might need. This innovation means that one ventilator can deal with six patients, each individually. Enterprise Ireland is supporting companies right across the country in how they can make changes.

I had also better mention Old Carrick Mill in Monaghan, which is now making hand sanitiser.

If the Minister is going to mention a distillery in Carrickmacross that is making hand sanitiser, I am going to mention one in Drumshanbo that is doing the same.

I thank the Minister for the actions she has taken so far. She has said many times that we must offer the right support at the right time and in the right place. I want to ask about right now. As the Minister knows, many businesses are facing a mounting wall of debt from rent, rates and utility bills. Those businesses need to pay those bills now. Many do not want to borrow because they have already done so up to the hilt. Would the Minister consider putting in place a small business interruption grant for SMEs to cover these expenses, in whole or in part? They would not be grants for planning or training, which are important, but a business interruption grant to deal with this wall of debt.

I have already asked the Minister about the rate of interest on microfinance loans and she responded that there is a six-month holiday on both repayments and interest rates. Even taking that into consideration, a €10,000 loan over, let us say, three years will cost an Irish loanee twice as much as it would in The Netherlands. Others have spoken about this issue, but given that the NTMA is borrowing at 0.5% interest, would the Minister reconsider the interest rates on microfinance? That might help those who are thinking about borrowing.

My final question relates to tourism. Despite what Deputy Danny Healy-Rae says, we in the north west consider ourselves the jewel in the tourism crown. The industry supports well over 40,000 jobs. The industry will be slow to get back and people are concerned. I know that my question also impacts on other Ministers, but what specific supports does the Minister have in mind, if any, to support the tourism industry?

I have spoken to all the representative bodies of the tourism industry individually at different stages over the past week or so. I know that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, is engaging with the hospitality and tourism sectors about what the Government can do to support them. Those sectors, the pubs, restaurants and hotels, have been impacted more than any other. It is a difficult time for them.

Deputy Harkin rightly said that Microfinance Ireland loans charge no interest for the first six months. There is an option in the Covid-19 working capital facility whereby interest does not have to be paid for the first six months if such a request is made.

The rates charged on the future growth loan scheme are in or around 4%. The rate is 3.5% for €250,000 under a long-term loan arrangement. Those rates are highly competitive in the marketplace. I am told that under the working capital scheme, the overdraft facility generally costs between 7% and 8% but of course it depends on the bank. The rate is 4% and we took the view that it represented good value in the marketplace. Anyway, I take the Deputy's point. Of course we are continually looking at these things to see how we can make them better and more easily accessible to businesses. As I have said in the House on several occasions, we all want to get these businesses back up and running as quickly as we can and to get people back to work as quickly as we can.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire agus b'shin críoch leis an ráiteas ón Aire Gnó, Fiontar agus Nuálaíochta agus ceisteanna agus freagraí maidir le tacaíocht gnó mar gheall ar Covid-19. Rachaimid ar aghaidh i gceann cúig nóiméad go dtí an chéad ábhar eile. We will proceed in the next five minutes to statements by the Minister for Health and questions and answers on Covid-19.

Sitting suspended at 4.15 p.m. and resumed at 4.20 p.m.