Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements

Every day there is some good news with the declining number of new cases, but it is tempered by sadness and grief at the loss of more lives. Although the numbers are small, every single one is heartbreaking, and our condolences go to all of the families and friends affected. While we may be adjusting our lives to a new normal, we will never get used to the deaths caused by Covid-19, and we continue to mourn their loss and reaffirm our desire to do everything we can to honour their memory.

As of last night, 1,659 people have died in our State from Covid-19 and a further 534 in Northern Ireland. In total, 25,111 people in the Republic of Ireland have been diagnosed with the disease. In total, almost 350,000 tests have been carried out, with more than 22,000 in the past week, of which 389 were positive, resulting in a positivity rate of 1.7%. This rate continues to decline. Given these numbers, we can see we are making real and measurable progress. When I spoke in the Dáil last week, we had 73 new cases recorded the night before. There were 47 last night. We had 268 people in hospital this time last week with Covid. This is now down to 165. We had 48 people in ICU and this is now down to 36. Whereas 17 new deaths were reported last Wednesday night, it was three last night.

We are nearing the end of phase 1 of our plan to reopen business and society. The Cabinet will meet tomorrow morning to decide whether it is safe to move to phase 2, and this decision will be made on the basis of the available medical data and the expert advice from NPHET alongside reports from key Departments, including the Department of Health and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. As I have always said, we need to be confident it is safe before making that move. I am concerned that this week many people were calling for us to accelerate things and jump ahead before we even had the data from recent days, the data that will tell us the impact that the phase 1 lifting of restrictions had on the spread of the disease.

I believe it is better to adopt the slow and steady approach than to go too far too fast and risk falling backwards. Our plan to reopen the country can be accelerated but only if it is safe to do so. Given the trend of the numbers I am confident that we will be able to proceed to phase two on Monday. If Cabinet approves this move tomorrow it will mean a further lifting of restrictions on Monday. The economy will continue to reopen. More people will go back to work and we will see more businesses resume trading, particularly in the retail sector. More outdoor sporting and fitness activities will be allowed, including team sports training in small groups, as long as social distancing can be maintained and there is no physical contact. We will also be able to meet in small groups indoors as well as outdoors, travel up to 20 km from home for exercise, and people who work alone or can effectively social distance will be allowed to return to their workplaces more frequently.

I hope that as the world returns to a new normality we will see international air travel resume, in the first instance through air bridges with countries that have suppressed the virus to an extent similar to ours. With air bridges we can lift travel requirements if people are flying to or from another country where the virus has been successfully suppressed. This, however, is some weeks away and it is far too soon for anyone to book their holidays but summer is not yet lost.

Amárach, déanfaidh an Rialtas cinneadh maidir le dul ar aghaidh go céim 2 dár bplean chun Éire a athoscailt. Beidh an cinneadh seo bunaithe ar chomhairle leighis na saineolaithe go bhfuil sé slán sábháilte. Ní thógfaimid aon riosca má tá baol ann. Impímid ar an bpobal aon riosca nach bhfuil gá leis a sheachaint. Ó seo amach, tá súil agam go gcuirfimid go mór leis an dlúthpháirtíocht a chonaiceamar le linn na míonna seo caite agus go n-oibreoimid le chéile chun Éire níos fearr a bhaint amach. Ní mór dúinn infreastruchtúr shláinte phoiblí agus folláine a thógáil, athbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar conas a sholáthraímid cúram do dhaoine aosta, an cur chuige atá againn maidir le tinneas san ionad oibre a athrú, cothromaíocht idir an saol agus an obair a ghlacadh, taisteal nach bhfuil gá leis a laghdú, agus meas dár dtimpeallacht nádúrtha a chothú.

Last week, I said I would provide an update on the new proposals from the European Commission. The post-2020 multi-annual financial framework will total €1.85 trillion over seven years and will include a completely new €750 billion allocation for what is being called next generation EU. These euro will be used to protect lives and livelihoods, repair the Single Market and build a lasting recovery across Europe. It will be funded through one-off Commission borrowing on the financial markets as an exceptional response to the unprecedented circumstances we now face. I welcome the broad thrust of last week's proposals and will work with colleagues in the European Council to reach early agreement on a substantial front-loaded recovery instrument. This will reinforce the three safety nets of up to €540 billion for citizens, businesses and countries that we have already agreed. Every EU member state has been affected by this emergency, some more so than others. We need to kick-start economic and social recovery and get funds flowing to sectors and regions that need them most. To overcome the new challenges arising from Covid-19 the EU budget must also deal with issues which were vital to Ireland before the crisis including CAP, cohesion, research and innovation. I believe we must use this opportunity to set Europe on the right path for the future building a greener, fairer, more resilient, digital and sustainable Union. In doing so we must be honest with the Irish people. We are now net contributors to the EU budget. A bigger EU budget means we pay in more as well as getting more out. However, the value of our membership is incalculable in terms of security access to Single Market, European citizenship and the cost-sharing gains from joint projects and joint programmes. It is money well spent.

In recent days the world has watched in horror the events following the killing of George Floyd. It has prompted a palpable outpouring of emotion and spontaneous expressions of solidarity against the poison of racism. We have also seen genuine revulsion at the heavy-handed response in some instances towards peaceful protesters and journalists.

We have witnessed the absence of moral leadership or of words of understanding, comfort or healing from whence they should have come. It is right to be angered by injustice. Racism too is a virus, transmitted at an early age, perpetuated by prejudice, sustained by systems, often unrecognised by those whom it infects, possible to counteract and correct for, but never easy to cure.

The Ireland I grew up in is a very different place to the one we live in today. In recent decades, we have been enriched by racial diversity, people of colour who came here and more born here. I believe we are fortunate to have a policing model that is based on consent, strict gun control and an unarmed and highly professional police service of which we can be proud, namely, An Garda Síochána. However, we do not need to look across the Atlantic to find racism. We have many examples in our own country. Discrimination on the basis of skin colour is pernicious. Sometimes it is overt: discrimination when it comes to getting a job or a promotion, or being treated less favourably by public authorities, including sometimes by Government officials. Sometimes it manifests itself in the form of hate speech online, bullying in school, name calling in the streets or even in acts of violence. Sometimes it is almost innocent and unknowing and all the more insidious - little things, small but nonetheless othering such as being asked where one comes from originally because one's skin or surname look out of place, how often one goes back to the country one's mother or father was born in, being spoken to more slowly, cultural and character assumptions being made based on one's appearance or being made to feel just that little bit less Irish than everyone else. Sadly, this is the lived experience for many young people of colour growing up in Ireland today.

We have come together as a country in this fight against Covid-19, so let us use that sense of solidarity and community that has been so present in recent weeks to take on racism in our country too and change the experiences of young people of colour in Ireland for the better. We can learn from the mistakes of other countries and make sure we do not follow their path or be subject to their fate.

As Deputies will be aware, the pandemic unemployment payment expires on 8 June. A Government decision on its future will be made tomorrow morning, but I want to give these three assurances to everyone in receipt of the payment today. First, it will be extended for months and not weeks. Second, nobody who was working full-time before the pandemic will see his or her unemployment payment cut. It will stay at €350 per week for those who were working full-time prior to the pandemic hitting. Third, some people who were working part-time will see their payments reduced but their weekly payments will still be more than they were earning on a weekly basis before the pandemic.

In the past three months, this pandemic has claimed the lives of nearly 2,200 people on this island. It is with their families and friends that our first thoughts must be today and we must also remember the nearly 40 people who are in intensive care units today because of Covid-19.

The progress of the disease in Ireland has been severe, and in some areas it has been worse than in most comparable countries. An unprecedented and rapidly evolving public health emergency leads to mistakes being made, and there is no question that mistakes were made here and in many countries. Once we are through the pandemic, we will have to take a deep and urgent look at the lessons we should learn. No full understanding will be possible until at least most of Europe reports that the immediate danger has fully passed. At that stage, we will be able to see a comprehensive like-with-like comparison of figures and the type of detailed scientific work which is needed to explain how a single virus can have radically different impacts in different places and on different groups.

It is important to say that from early March onwards, not only have hard questions from politicians and journalists been vitally important in challenging gaps but this situation remains so, as we know from the questions early on about testing, personal protective equipment, PPE, and so on. Those questions were valid and they raised issues. There should have been greater transparency early on in terms of the outbreaks and where clusters manifested. More information should have been given.

Today our focus must be on having a substantive discussion as to where Ireland goes from here and how quickly we can move to restore as much normality as possible. From the first moments of this pandemic, my party and I have been clear in saying that the primary consideration of policy must be to implement public health advice. We have also been clear, however, in saying that there are many options possible while respecting this advice. Today, more than at any point in the past three months, the legitimate options for opening closed parts of our social, cultural and economic life are larger than ever. It is deeply unfortunate that the Government has settled into a kind of rigid approach to deciding on changes and steps. As predicted three weeks ago by most parties here, we have seen three weeks of on and off-the-record briefings as to what might be done, all leading up to a high-profile announcement tomorrow, to be followed by an already booked marketing campaign. This approach is causing some difficulties, and people in every part of the country are now reporting confusion as to what measures are actually in place. The habit of non-stop briefing of decisions yet to be made means that the difference between the headlines and the guidelines grows significantly by the day.

We need a bit of reality in our discussions today. When the Taoiseach articulates the position at tomorrow's press conference, we need to hear a far more comprehensive explanation of the current status of the pandemic and the detailed rationale for the restrictions which remain in place. Unfortunately, in a number of communities we see examples of restrictions being broken. There was the well-publicised situation in Cork, where a number of students booked houses in a particular area of the city, namely, College Road and Magazine Road, and there were quite significant house parties, leading to socially distanced protests from residents in the area. This is happening at an alarming rate. There is simply no doubt that compliance is fraying. The biggest problem with this is that it is highly divisive. The majority continues to fully respect the guidelines, and the tension between those who ignore the guidelines and those who feel a threat to their health cannot be ignored. In many respects, the restrictions are more onerous on those who are complying with them. There are people who want to comply literally with them and are doing so. Then they watch others who have more or less dispensed with compliance with a lot of guidelines. The spirit of being in this together can only be protected if we get everyone back onto the same agenda.

While we cannot be guided only by practice in other countries, it falls to our Government to explain the circumstances when the policies we pursue differ significantly from those in other countries. Absurdly, it is easier for an Irish person to plan a holiday in much of Europe than it is to plan one here. A range of countries this week signalled their intention to be ready to quickly lift travel restrictions. Their tourism industries have begun working on the assumption that travel from Ireland will be possible without quarantine before the high season. Yesterday it was announced that a review of the aviation sector by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, will be prepared. This is welcome, but what is borderline ridiculous is that it is scheduled to take at least five weeks to complete.

Smaller businesses continue to bear the brunt of the restrictions, which remain severe in the context of their operations, and there is no clarity as to whether or how they can survive. In the hairdressing industry, for example, a lot of anecdotal evidence is now emerging of a black economy developing, of people just availing of hairdressing services informally and of the legitimate operators being marginalised as a result. Greater engagement is required in that regard.

There is a growing divide between a message which says things are going well and another which tells us that Ireland is not yet ready to follow other countries. It is important that in tomorrow's announcement the Government explains - and I would like the Taoiseach to explain - the exact position on the five tests for reopening which NPHET recommended to it in April. The first test is the general progress of the disease. According to the briefings, the disease is under control and the reproduction number is significantly lower than in many countries that have largely reopened. The community spread of the disease in recent weeks has been very small and dramatically lower than it was in March or April. If community transmission is that low, many of the travel restrictions in place do not make as much sense as they did when they were originally introduced.

There are 1,300 active cases of Covid-19 at the moment, meaning that 95% of the total number of positive tests are no longer active cases. What exactly is the specific benchmark for the progress of the disease that has to be reached before most restrictions can be raised?

The second test is a healthcare capacity and resilience test. Today, the system is dealing with less than one quarter of the cases it was handling at the height of the pandemic. The Government and public health officials have repeatedly stated that the capacity and resilience exist.

The third test has also been achieved. According to the Government the capacity to test and trace is - we have repeatedly been told - in place. In fact, there has been significant excess testing capacity.

The fourth test is the ability to shield at-risk groups. This has not been fully outlined. However, it appears that the policy here and internationally relates to advice from people in high-risk groups concerning their behaviour. This is not relevant to the bulk of restrictions in place today.

The final question - increasingly one of great concern - is the risk of secondary morbidity or people who may die because of other illnesses caused by, or not diagnosed or treated because of, pandemic-related restrictions. No data on this have been published, but we know that the numbers attending for diagnostic procedures have fallen dramatically, as have those attending medical appointments. Today, roughly 1,000 beds in our public acute hospital system are empty and close to 50% of the capacity of private hospitals was unused as of Monday. Unless we are to believe that something radical has changed in the progress of other diseases and the importance of early detection and treatment, there is now no doubt that we are facing into more people's lives being in danger because of the lower levels of medical services being accessed.

Is léir go bhfuil an dealramh ar an scéal go bhfuil daoine ag fulaingt anois le galair eile agus nach bhfuil na seirbhísí sláinte ar fáil dóibh, mar shampla, daoine le hailse, le galair chroí agus a lán galar eile. Tá dainséar ann go mbeidh saol na ndaoine i mbaol gan na seirbhísí seo, agus is léir go bhfuil plean tábhachtach uainn agus go bhfuil géarghá ann anois plean cuimsitheach a chur i bhfeidhm chun déileáil leis an bhfadhb seo.

In addition, we need to understand the growing evidence of serious mental health and psycho-social problems emerging in many countries. The World Bank and the OECD have outlined evidence of a profound gender basis for this issue, with women carrying a far heavier economic burden.

We need clarity about how exactly the five tests are being implemented. The public deserves the full details. If it is the case that the National Public Health Emergency Team and the Government believe that Ireland is behind other countries for a reason, that reason needs to be outlined in detail, not in generalities.

As I have said here every week, the failure to provide any assurances to State companies and institutions about their finances is unacceptable. Those in public transport and higher education, for example, are facing new deficits of an unprecedented scale, but they have received no support. In many cases they are now reading anonymous briefings about how they need to look after themselves. This has to stop. I have consistently made the point that third level education is in a real crisis because of the depletion of revenues from sources they have increasingly relied on in recent years. To me, third level education and research are key to economic recovery and sustained economic development in this country. They always have been. The responses so far from the Department have been unacceptable in terms of the lack of engagement of any kind.

We still have roughly 1 million people on some form of state support for their income. We have thousands of businesses and entire industries which do not know what they are facing into. We have a growing divide in the population between the majority who are silently abiding by all the restrictions and others who are not. We also have an unexplained divide between measures taken here and those taken in comparable countries. We need full transparency. We need our Government to give all the details behind its decisions. We need it to understand that the only way of retaining public support for restrictions is to be far more open about the exact basis for the choices that are being made.

I want to start by extending my heartfelt condolences and sympathies to those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 in recent days. These are very difficult times for so many who are coping with profound grief. I also want to send good wishes to those who are sick with the virus and I wish them a full and speedy recovery.

We are walking a long road and our battle with this virus and the disruption it has brought to our lives continues. All the signs suggest that we are heading in the right direction. The numbers of deaths, hospitalisations and cases have fallen significantly. Much progress has been won thanks to the strength and dedication of the people.

Now, we must stay the course and see this through.

Black lives matter. The life of George Floyd mattered. His death and the manner of his death matter, too. Racism is, as the Taoiseach said, a virus, and it is a global one. While we stand in solidarity with all in the United States of America as they face the ugly reality of systemic racism and the challenge of solving and overcoming it, we must also do our bit. Whatever its source, rhetoric from the Irish system that decries racism but fails to dismantle the disgraceful and discredited system of direct provision is no good at all. Rhetoric that decries racism but still allows blatant discrimination and injustice against our Traveller citizens is no good either and would beg the response from all onlookers: "Physician, heal thyself." Racism is a virus. We have the diagnosis. Now we need the treatment. Now we need to ensure that we take direct and definitive action. The ball is in our court. What do we do? That is what the death of George Floyd asks of all of us.

Reports this morning that the Government is preparing to cut the pandemic unemployment payment for thousands of workers have come as a significant blow to people who are struggling to cope with the economic impact of this public health emergency. Last night, many workers breathed a sigh of relief when the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, announced that the payment would be extended beyond 8 June. Today, however, that relief has been replaced by stress and anxiety about the future at a time when people need security and certainty.

Beidh sé mícheart an íocaíocht seo a ghearradh. Cuirfidh sé strus airgeadais ar go leor teaghlach. Nuair a chailleann daoine a gcuid post, ní athraíonn a gcuid chostais mhaireachtála. Tá bíllí fós le híoc agus airgead fós le fáil. Tá dualgas ar dhaoine bia a chur ar an mbord agus caithfear soláthar a dhéanamh do pháistí. Cutting the Covid payment would be deeply unfair and leave many families in difficult financial straits. When people lose their jobs, they lose their incomes, but the cost of living does not go away. The electricity and gas bills still have to be paid. Money still has to be found for the rent or mortgage. Food has to be put on the table. Children have to be provided for. The ESRI has stated that cuts to these payments would lead to an increase in mortgage arrears. The Covid payment has helped workers and families to keep the wolf from the door during this pandemic.

The mantra from the Government throughout the crisis has been that we are all in this together. However, the Government's plan to cut the Covid payment contradicts that message. It demonstrates that, while we might all be living through the same storm, we are certainly not all in the same boat. Thousands of workers who have lost their incomes through no fault of their own will now have their protections slashed. That will have serious consequences.

I acknowledge that there are anomalies in the emergency schemes. I also acknowledge the correction of the anomaly around women returning from maternity leave. The anomalies with the Covid payment should have been sorted out weeks ago - the exclusion of 66 year old workers or, at the other end of the scale, students who would have worked one shift per week. It is grossly unfair and unacceptable to introduce a blanket cut to the payment for all workers who work less than full-time hours. That is a blunt instrument, poorly thought out and a bad approach by the Government. It is also another example of where the Government's plan to reopen the economy is disjointed. It is similar to the Government's shambolic approach to childcare where the sum total of the plan was to send people back to work with no solution for their childminding needs. It is incredible that, as large sections of the economy remain shut, the Government is planning to withdraw an income on which people depend.

The Taoiseach says that this was an emergency payment, but the emergency is still here. This suggests to me that his Government really does not have a clue, or maybe does not want to have a clue, about the pressures on ordinary people at this time. It is a grossly unfair move and a bad decision for the economy because we need to boost domestic demand, and that means protecting, not slashing, household incomes. At a time when consumer spending and confidence are down, the best thing the Government can do is support demand. That is the smart thing to do. It would be the height of recklessness to withdraw income from people and to deny income that is currently being spent in the local economy. The Sinn Féin position is clear. Nobody who has lost income as a result of this crisis should be worse off again as a result of cuts to income supports. To ensure that this happens, we believe that the emergency Covid payment should continue until the end of the year.

Is the Taoiseach really suggesting cutting payments to hundreds of thousands of workers by 40% overnight? What will these proposals mean for people working less than 40 hours per week, perhaps for 35 hours? What is going to happen to seasonal workers who work one or two jobs for most of the year but who were on less hours in January and February? What about them? Does the Taoiseach understand that the move he is proposing to make will drive households into debt? Has he factored that in? Does he understand that such a move will undermine the repair and growth of our economy? What of the ESRI's contention that a move to cut these payments would cause mortgage arrears? Have these issues been factored in?

These workers and families should not have learned of the Government's plan to cut their income from a newspaper. The way this Government handles matters is the height of disrespect. The Minister for Finance reassures people that everything is okay one evening and then the following morning, all across a national newspaper, is news that in fact incomes are going to be cut. These are real families in real time who have to provide for themselves, and as we speak today, the Taoiseach has caused incredible stress and grief for them. In the short time available, I ask the Taoiseach to answer my questions around seasonal workers and those working less than 40 hours per week. What of household debt that will inevitably follow from the cut that the Government is planning?

The Deputy has got it wrong. I am happy to set the record straight for her, but by getting it wrong, once again she is the one who has caused stress for a lot of people who are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment today. It was a payment introduced by a Government that I lead. It amounts to €350 per week, a flat rate and one of the most generous in Europe. I stand over it. Contrast that with Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin is in office, where the payment is only £100 per week. Contrast it with Spain, where a centre-left party is in coalition with the far left, where the payment is something like €125 per week. I stand over that.

As things stand, the pandemic unemployment payment is due to expire next week. Cabinet will make a decision tomorrow on its future and I can give an assurance to anyone who is in receipt of the payment today that it will be extended for months, not weeks. Those who were working full time prior to the pandemic happening will not see their unemployment payment cut. They will continue to get €350 per week. Some people who were working part time before the pandemic will see their payment reduce, but they will still get more than they were getting on a weekly basis before the pandemic hit in February. Nobody's income will be lower than it was before the pandemic as a consequence of the decision we make tomorrow. The position for seasonal workers remains unchanged.

Our thoughts are with those who are ill in hospital or who have lost loved ones to this pandemic. We must continue to listen carefully and with respect to medical and health advice at all times. I have been reflecting back on this crisis and as I recall it at one of our first meetings with our best experts on the health issue they said that it was not going to be possible for us to suppress the virus completely.

If I recall correctly, they then said it was not something that we could do alone and that we needed to suppress it in order that our health service would not be overrun. However, the complete eradication of the virus or guaranteeing that there would be no further waves was not something that seemed to be on the agenda at the outset. While, several months later, our health service has thankfully not been overrun, it still seems clear that it will be difficult for us to completely suppress or remove the virus, particularly in light of what is happening in the neighbouring jurisdiction and our border arrangements with that jurisdiction. It seems that this would be very difficult unless some vaccine or other development comes into play. Our situation is different from that of countries like New Zealand and one wonders how even that country would manage to isolate itself completely in order to be able to stop any recurrence of the virus. However, we must do everything we can to minimise, manage and suppress the illness and the loss of life until, hopefully, a vaccine arrives. This is accepted absolutely.

It is also clear that the health advice must surely be and is that there is a wider understanding of the health issues at play, including the fact that there may be increases in other illnesses if people are not accessing health services in the way they traditionally would do so. There are also real issues in the context of people's mental health and well-being in the widest sense. The effects of unemployment on people's mental health are clear and certain and I am sure they can be modelled in the same way as the modelling the virus. From experience, I am in a position to state that one can manage during the first month of two of unemployment. If somebody asks one what one is doing, one does not have an answer but after a period of four, five or six months, it becomes a very serious mental health issue.

This is why I say, with respect, that we must have that wider health consideration regarding some of the timelines relating to the lifting of restrictions. To take one example - I am not prejudging this and I accept that it must be based on good health advice and a mix of such advice - the lifting of the fourth phase, when we will allow our people to move around the country and go on holiday here becomes a viable option. If that took place at the start rather than at the end of the month, it would have a significant bearing on the viability of the tourism industry into next year. It would also have a significant impact on the return of jobs across the country in order to cater for those domestic holidaymakers. Getting the tourism industry up and running would provide a massive boost to people's mental health in terms of the employment generation that would be the natural result of such a development. The viability of that employment into next year would also be secured. Even though it would involve taking this step three or four weeks early, it would make a huge difference.

I do not wish to contradict or be seen to undermine NPHET but if we are to look at possible restrictions on that date - let us say that we might move to phase 3 rather than phase 4 - when might that be decided? When would the Taoiseach sit down with NPHET to work out those sort of arrangements? If it is only done towards the end of June, it will not give people time to plan or businesses time to set up and organise. While one does not wish to contradict, prejudge, presume or risk any health factors, an issue that we must consider is when we might signal if such a slight change in the timelines were to be put in place in order that we could know in advance what we might be able to do regarding the tens of thousands of jobs that might be reactivated. What type of approach and what type of timeline might apply in respect of such a decision if it is possible, on health grounds, for us to make it?

From the outset, I have always said that this is a living plan that can be accelerated if we are getting on top of and ahead of the virus. One thing we will stick with is the three-week intervals. They are in place for good epidemiological reasons.

If one relaxes restrictions and the virus spreads, incubates and is tested for and so on, it will be at least two weeks before that shows up in the data. We believe we should stick with the three-week intervals. Some people have said that the World Health Organization, WHO, recommends two-week intervals and the European Centre for Disease Control, ECDC, recommends four-week intervals but we have chosen to go with three-week intervals. Three weeks makes sense because we need to know that if we ease restrictions they have not caused the virus to take off again. It is only after two weeks and into the third week before we can know that so we will stick with the three-week window but we can bring measures forward, as the Deputy suggests, from phase 5 to phase 4 or phase 4 to phase 3 as the case may be. We have made proposals to the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and to the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, about bringing forward measures from phase 4 to phase 3 and from phase 3 to phase 2. NPHET is considering the proposals that the Government has made and the Government will make a decision on Friday morning and inform the public of the decision on Friday afternoon.

I look forward to that announcement. A second example of looking forward in terms of mental health issues and wellbeing is our children. Their education is critical to their health and future wellbeing and development. I recently read an interesting article by Mr. John Boyle, Secretary General of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, who I know well. I knew him as a teacher in a school I previously represented. He is a brilliant teacher and leader of our teaching profession. He referred in that article to our schools reopening in August and to the need for guidance to support those plans. Many parents are confused or uncertain. They are hearing that the schools will be reopening in late August but not for all students, leaving them scratching their heads and wondering how could this be possible. For example, will Tommy attend school on Monday, with Seán attending on Tuesday? That guidance is needed for the health of all of our people, particularly families. People need to get a sense that children will be back on track in August-September. Perhaps the Minister for Education, Deputy McHugh, who will be in the House later for a questions and answers session, will have further details on the matter. In terms of instilling confidence in how this area is being managed, that guidance is needed very quickly such that parents will have a sense of understanding in regard to the return of their children to school. The same could be applied to our third level colleges. The guidance for third level colleges might be towards distance learning but I do not know how that could work in a primary school classroom. As stated by Mr. John Boyle, how do we do that where there are 30 pupils in a class? I do not know the answer. People want and deserve an answer. They need that guidance very quickly. It is important the Government does not wait until the latter part of the summer to provide it. There is uncertainty around how many pupils can attend and how the school system will work. Is there any time limit for the issuing of that guidance, which might help provide certainty in this area?

As the Deputy suggested, the Minister, Deputy McHugh, might be more up to date on this matter than I am. Assuming the virus continues to move in the right direction, primary and secondary schools will open for all children at the beginning of the school year, which is the end of August. What we have not yet worked out fully is the exact arrangements around how that will happen because change will be required. For example, there will have to be hand-washing on the way in and arrangements to ensure children do not congregate at entrances and, obviously, classrooms will have to be reconfigured. We do have the advantage of being able to learn from other countries in Europe that have opened their schools. They do appear to have managed to do it. It probably would not be helpful for me to speculate about those arrangements but they are being worked on and they will be in place well before schools are due to open in August.

I want to acknowledge the families who have lost loved ones in the last week and also workers. I have five questions for the Taoiseach, the first of which relates to workers. As of 26 May, more than 32% of Covid cases here have been healthcare workers, which is worrying. We are an outlier. ECDC analysis shows the infection rate among healthcare workers in the US is 3%; in China, it is 4%; in Italy it is 10% and in Spain it is 20%. I accept these rates could have changed since that date but they are the rough figures. As I said, we are an outlier.

SIPTU and the nurses' unions have raised their deep concerns about this. Why are we an outlier? When will the HSE and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, do an analysis of what has gone wrong here? Something must have seriously gone wrong for that figure of 32% to exist. Will the Taoiseach commit to that analysis being carried out and published as soon as possible?

The second issue I wish to discuss is secondary healthcare. Where is the reopening plan from the HSE? It has been announced a number of times. One of the five key criteria is secondary morbidity and secondary mortality. Where is the modelling on this? I have been raising this matter for a month now. Where is the plan and why has it not been announced? It is deeply worrying. Dr. Anthony O'Connor of the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, said in this Chamber that we could have 1 million people waiting for appointments, and that is a conservative estimate because 3.2 million people get appointments every year. The Government made a political decision in the last week not to renew the contract with the private hospitals, and it made a political decision not to look at purchasing them. The political consequence of that is that we are going to have huge backlogs, increased morbidity and increased mortality. That is a political consequence of a political decision. Where is the plan? I want to see it. We have no screening, mental health services, disability and community services, elective procedures or services in a whole range of other areas. We need to see the modelling and the plan for how we are going to deal with this because people are really regressing.

That brings me to the roadmap. People are getting ahead of the politicians, as is often the case. Professor Jack Lambert was right when he said that we, as a nation, need to think rationally again. We need to look at what is high and low risk. While I accept what the Taoiseach said about the three-week intervals for data analysis, surely we should also analyse whether we need five phases instead of four. What we were looking at when the Government set out the five phases was different from what we are looking at now. Things have moved. We now know that we have to live with this virus for a considerable period. We cannot put everything into hibernation, including society, the economy, and particularly secondary healthcare, which I have always raised. Will the Taoiseach look at the rigidity of the roadmap and consider changing it to four phases?

Will the Taoiseach also examine the communication process? The daily briefings are causing more confusion now. At the very beginning, people would ask me whether they should be listening to the Taoiseach or the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, because at times, there can be different messaging. I always said they should listen to the Taoiseach, but in the last few weeks I have been telling them to listen to the CMO. That is not the way our country should work. If there are going to be daily briefings, I ask that they be about all public health issues, including secondary morbidity and mortality and all the issues in the plan which has not yet been launched. We need that. The Government needs to get in control of the message because when there are contradictions between what NPHET is saying through the CMO, what the Government is saying and the various different pronouncements of a range of eminent public health experts, that breeds confusion.

I refer to the pandemic unemployment payment for young people. Some 135,000 people between the ages of 18 and 24 are on the Covid payment, many of them working in very low-paying sectors such as hospitality, tourism and retail. The Government's decision is going to strike at a whole cohort of young people in this country, and that is not right. It goes against what people are doing across other jurisdictions in trying to ensure there is finance out there, but it is a particular slight on young people. They do not have the same opportunities for jobs because of where they are in life. Many of them would have only moved into full-time work at the time Covid hit. They are being discriminated against. I ask the Taoiseach to please not do this. As far as I and the Labour Party are concerned, this is discrimination.

It is ageist. It is against a whole sector of our community.

Finally, black lives do matter and we do not have to look far in this country to find examples of discrimination and racism. Will the Taoiseach and the current Government or his party commit to ending direct provision? That is the real discrimination and racism that is going on in this country, as I am sure he will acknowledge. It has to end. We all have to make sure that collectively and politically we end it. What is going on in Miltown Malbay in terms of the standard of food people are eating, leaks coming through the roof and the fact that people cannot leave where they are because they have no form of exercise in the area is not humane. Will the Taoiseach commit to addressing that?

I thank Deputy Kelly. On young people who were working part-time before the pandemic and lost their jobs as a consequence of the pandemic, the changes we are making tomorrow will ensure that those young people are no worse off than they were before the pandemic. The most important thing for those young people is not the pandemic unemployment payment, rather, it is enabling them to get back to work. The fact that the shops will reopen next week will allow many of them to go back to work. Let us try to get the hospitality and tourism sector, including hotels, open as quickly as possible so they can get back to work. The solution to this is not extending welfare payments forever. It is enabling people to go back to their jobs and get back to work and earn more than they did before.

As the Deputy correctly pointed out, 32% of the cases have been among healthcare workers. That is a very high rate, but it is important not to misunderstand it. It is not the case that 32% of healthcare workers had Covid-19. About 7% of healthcare workers contracted it and tested positive for it, and 93% did not. Sometimes that fact is misunderstood in the way it is reported and spoken about. We do not know why that is the figure. Part of it might be down to a lot of testing. We are one of very few countries, if not the only country, in the world that tested all of the staff in our nursing homes. Healthcare workers can pick up Covid-19 anywhere, just like anyone else does, such as at home, particularly if they are living with other people, in shops and in the workplace. I agree that an analysis of the situation needs to be done and I can commit to that, but it will not be an analysis that will be easily done and may not come to any conclusions. It should be done nonetheless.

The plan to resume normal healthcare is being developed by the HSE. I understand it is due to or has just gone to the HSE board and until it is approved by the board it will not come to Government.

The daily briefings from the CMO and his team are very good. Many people find them very informative. Different countries have adopted different approaches. Across the water, for example, the daily briefings are always led by a Minister or the Prime Minister. I prefer our approach, where they are led by the CMO and medical experts. It is a better approach. Across the water, when the CMO or an expert was asked for an opinion the politicians stopped him or her from answering the question. That is not my approach and this Government has never taken the approach of saying that we do not want to hear the experts. They have their own press conference every day and I think it is a good thing that is the case. It will not continue forever, but it will continue.

On direct provision, I absolutely accept what Deputy Kelly said. Much direct provision accommodation is substandard and that needs to change. Some of it is of a good standard, such as own door self-catering. Some of it is of a bad standard and that absolutely needs to change. The last Government tried to do that and the next Government, if I am part of it, will want to do that. We need to understand the difference between direct provision and a man who was killed by the police by having somebody step on his neck. Direct provision is, ultimately, a service offered by the State. It is not compulsory or a form of detention. It involves people being provided with free accommodation, food, heat, lighting, healthcare, education and some spending money. It is not the same thing as a man being killed by the police. There is substandard accommodation in some cases and that needs to change.

As we start the slow move back to some kind of normality, and it is hoped we will be able to move on to phase 2 from Monday, it is important again to recognise the great efforts by the public in complying with the advice and in succeeding in not only flattening the curve but driving the virus out to a large extent. It is also important to acknowledge the heroic efforts by front-line workers, particularly in the health service but also those many front-line workers who have kept the country open, including retail workers, delivery people and all kinds of different people who have supported the rest of us in keeping the show on the road to the greatest extent possible. It is important that we always remember those people who have done so much for the country.

I absolutely agree with the points that have been made about the primacy of public health advice in all decision making on the virus. I agree the daily briefings from the CMO are very good. My concern is that at this point, while we hope we are on that road back, other considerations need to be taken into account. I have raised the issue of risk assessment and risk management with the Taoiseach before. I am not satisfied that there is adequate risk assessment of the different steps in the roadmap. I urge him to consider different sectors on the basis of the level of risk involved in opening up those sectors, or indeed different sectors of the community or the population. It is important to be open and honest with people about the level of risk involved because we have not heard how risk is being assessed and managed. We take on board the advice from the CMO and from NPHET, which is very important, but there are other considerations. The data supporting risk assessment need to be published.

I have spoken to the Taoiseach before about the decisions on schools reopening and the leaving certificate. At no point were we told the level of risk in pursuing either of those courses. The same could be said about many other areas. While there has been this enormous public effort, certain sectors of our community are paying a very high price, such as the under 40s. We previously referred to people in their 20s and 30s as the locked-out generation. They took the brunt of the last recession and had their hopes and dreams very much dashed. They have again been called upon and have willingly made enormous sacrifices for the rest of the community. I am really concerned that it has not been spelled out to that generation in their 20s and 30s about how they can resume some kind of normal life. We need to prevent that generation of people experiencing a double whammy. We need to ensure they are not set back again in their lives, hopes and ambitions.

Particular consideration must be given to low-paid workers, that cohort of people who are in very precarious employment, unsure about contracts, wanting to work much more and not having the potential to do that. We know that nearly a quarter of the workforce prior to this were in that category. It is a very substantial number of people. They are now taking the brunt of the shutdown of the economy.

Yesterday's Department of Finance figures revealed that tax receipts were not as low as had been expected, indicating that in the main people who are better off and paying higher levels of tax have retained their employment.

It is predominantly people at low levels of income who have been worst hit by the closing down of the economy. It is absolutely critical that we are mindful of the potential for a huge increase in poverty in future. That is why I have to express concern regarding what the Taoiseach said about the withdrawal of the pandemic payment. He spoke about a very blunt instrument. Perhaps it is more refined than he indicated. If he is only guaranteeing the €350 payment for people working full time, then many people at levels between €203 and €350 are likely to lose substantially and that will increase levels of poverty. It is not just a question of who is working full time and who is working part time. There are many different grades of workers in between, and I would be much more reassured if the Taoiseach had said his approach will be to ensure that people working part time will not suffer a loss of income either. There needs to be much more refinement than the kind of blunt instrument set out by the Taoiseach today. I am concerned that there will be a substantial increase in the poverty rate as a result of what is being done. What was done initially was absolutely right regarding providing income support and support to businesses, although it is clear that has not been sufficient and we need to continue and increase those supports.

What the pandemic has exposed in this country are great weaknesses in how we provide public services. I am interested in the Taoiseach's view on that matter. When we look at critical public services, such as healthcare, the weakness in our public health service has been exposed very graphically in respect of inadequate numbers of beds and inadequate access to essential healthcare. All those weaknesses have now been exposed, and I wonder what lessons have been learned. It is not just an issue regarding hospital care. We can also look at elder care. I refer to the over-reliance on nursing homes, the model of care and the approach taken to a private sector and a privatised, for-profit model of care. There are major weaknesses associated with that model and those have been exposed by the appalling occurrences within our nursing home sector.

I also refer to weaknesses in the area of mental healthcare and what has been exposed by this pandemic. We can look as well at childcare, where again the privatised model has made it so difficult to reboot our services and to have a coherent response to the demand for childcare. In addition, we could look at lack of access to affordable housing, as well as the inhumane situation in direct provision. Those issues have again been exposed by this virus. While the Taoiseach has said he recognises that the service we see is highly unsatisfactory and inhumane, this is the privatised model of care that his Government has promoted and stood over. It has been shown to be hugely fragile and weak and has not been unable to respond to the crisis.

I ask the Taoiseach again if he accepts there are major weaknesses in our public services and that we need to move to a much different model in respect of universal healthcare and universal public services generally. I state that because that is what is being called for by all the important bodies in the country. The ESRI referred to the need to reinforce our public services and have a stimulus. The document produced by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, No Going Back: A New Deal towards a safe and secure future for all, referred to the need to bolster our public services substantially. We could also look at what IBEC has stated concerning the need to ensure we have universal public services similar to those in northern European countries, in particular, but also to such services provided right across Europe. The question is whether the Taoiseach accepts that our public services, in the manner in which his Government and the previous Government provided those services, are wholly inadequate in respect of meeting the needs of the public.

I am sharing time with Deputy Barry.

Black lives matter. Racism is not so much a virus as a poison deliberately administered. George Floyd was a victim of murderous, brutal and systemic racism that was deliberately stoked, encouraged and escalated by the billionaire Donald Trump, who uses racism deliberately, as even General James "Mad Dog" Mattis has admitted, to divide and rule, to deflect away from economic and social injustice and to set people against one another. Will the Taoiseach condemn Donald Trump for his use of racism and police brutality as a result of which George Floyd lost his life and of which millions of Americans and millions more across the world are victims?

Will he match his words against racism by eliminating the racist injustice that is the direct provision system? It is an inhumane and degrading system that marks people of colour out as different, other and separate and, consequently, leads to encouraging that poison and racism. Will he accept that the failure to address systemic and ongoing inequality, poverty and injustice perpetuates the soil in which racism and the divide and rule tactics we have seen from Donald Trump continue to flourish? If he does not, his condemnation means nothing. In order to eliminate racism we need to eschew divide and rule tactics and address the horrors of poverty, unemployment and homelessness. If the Taoiseach condemns racism, does he also recognise his Government's failure to deal with those ingredients that continue to perpetuate the opportunity for that divide and rule poison to be used by cynical and dishonest leaders?

I answered a similar question on direct provision earlier. On the events we have seen take place in the United States, as I stated, we have witnessed a real absence of moral leadership from the top in the United States. We should have had words of unity, comfort and reconciliation, but we did not get them and that is absolutely wrong. I am sure that if those events had happened in this country or another country, we would have seen a much better response from the political leadership of this country or the other country.

Racism has many facets. The history of racism in the United States is a very different one from ours. It is rooted in a history of slavery which has not yet been overcome. In Ireland, our experience of building a multi-racial society is quite different and has different characteristics. I touched on them in my opening statement.

The Deputy has spoken and preached about divide and rule and divisiveness, but almost all of his politics is divisive and populist. It is all about setting up ideas about elites versus the masses, bosses against the others, conspiracies, tearing people down and setting people apart. It is anger and rage. What he does is the flip side. To me, the far right and the far left are not very different. They are the same kind of thing. It is about a conspiracy of elites against the people and simple answers to complex problems. The Deputy is not too different, really.

Perhaps a more accurate description of divide and rule tactics is the false claim the Taoiseach tried to make in order to boost his political ambitions by decrying the welfare cheats who cheat us all, rather than the bankers and property speculators who truly did cheat us all.

Maybe the Taoiseach will address another group who are about to face an injustice at his hands and, indeed, have faced police harassment in recent days. I refer to the Debenhams workers who are currently standing outside Leinster House and have done so every week for several weeks. They were unceremoniously dumped on the scrap heap by a cynical company that is using the Covid-19 crisis as a cover for its sheer greed.

These are workers who are fighting for decent redundancy terms and who want to be at work but, and this is critical, many of them are women part-time workers who are now on the Covid-19 payment. Of course, when we ask who are the working poor in this country, they are women part-time workers in the main. Are they now going to be the victims of the Taoiseach's plan to taper, cut and reduce the €350 pandemic payment? Rather than cut and attack the working poor again, why does he not address the employer - Debenhams - that treated these workers in such a cynical way?

The former Debenhams workers should get the redundancy payments they were promised, in my view, but, as I understand it, most of these issues are now matters for the courts and none of us can interfere in that. It is dishonest to tell people that politicians can interfere in a court process when they cannot.

Let me restate what I said earlier about the pandemic unemployment payment. The Cabinet will meet tomorrow and make a decision on this. The assurance that I can give to the 500,000 or so people who are on the pandemic unemployment payment is that it will be extended for months, not for weeks, because this pandemic is not over yet. People who were working full-time before the pandemic happened will continue to get the €350 payment. Some people who are working part-time will have their payment reduced but it will still be more than they were getting before the pandemic, and that would include those Debenhams workers, so they will still be getting more than they got on a weekly basis in January or February.

What the Deputy is doing again is engaging in exactly that form of cynical, nasty populism - spreading untruths in order to make people angry, dividing the people from a perceived, invented elite, putting emotion over reason and peddling easy solutions to problems that are complex. It is fundamentally dishonest. It is not very different from what those on the far right do elsewhere.

I want to raise some points about the intervention of the Garda in an industrial dispute. The dispute I refer to is the Debenhams dispute. Debenhams workers, who are members of the Mandate trade union, have balloted 97% in support of industrial action. That makes this the first official strike of the lockdown and, therefore, something of a test case.

In Cork city last week, staff from a security company removed a safe from the Debenhams store in St. Patrick's Street containing approximately €40,000. Nothing moves in that place without the workers knowing it and by the time the security staff were ready to drive away, they found themselves blocked in the loading bay by 25 strikers. The workers correctly took this action because they believed that stored money and stock should be used exclusively to save jobs or, at the very least, provide decent redundancy payments. The staff from the security company stubbornly refused to restore the safe to the store and a four-hour stand-off ensued. Gardaí were called and, eventually, a senior officer arrived and threatened the workers' leaders - three women - with arrest under charges of false imprisonment if they did not desist. Here we had a group of workers who had been shamelessly abused by their employer, who were fighting for justice, who would normally be on their way home to make the tea for their families, and who were being accused of de facto kidnapping and threatened with arrest by senior Garda officers. Under protest, the workers stood aside and let the van pass.

In Dublin last Saturday, gardaí took the names of all of the workers picketing the Henry Street Debenhams store, citing Covid-19 regulations, despite the fact the workers practised social distancing and many wore masks. I would go so far as to say the workers have set an example for any group that wishes to protest during lockdown. Their discipline has been consistent and their social distancing has been organised conscientiously and comprehensively throughout. Yet, this was not the first time gardaí took the names of Debenhams workers. It had been done previously at both Henry Street in Dublin and St. Patrick's Street in Cork. After one such incident, we were treated to a display of hand-wringing here in the Dáil by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, but, as my story illustrates, the Debenhams workers continue to face harassment from gardaí, especially officers from the Anglesea Street station in Cork and the Store Street station in Dublin.

I have two questions for the Taoiseach and I hope there will be an extra minute of time in order that they can be answered.

Is the Taoiseach prepared to apologise to these workers for the treatment they have received at the hands of officers of the State? Given that Covid-19 restrictions may not prove to be a short-term phenomenon, does the Taoiseach accept the need for arrangements that will allow workers to pursue and defend their interests through industrial action without having to suffer constant harassment at the hands of An Garda Síochána?

I have no knowledge or information on that incident. It is one on which I would have to seek a report from the Garda and I shall. There are a lot of restrictions in place as a consequence of this pandemic but there are not restrictions on protests or industrial action. Pickets and protests can happen provided people behave in a way consistent with the regulations, which are maintaining a distance from other people and not travelling more than 5 km from their home. This will change to 20 km on Monday. There is no prohibition on pickets or protests but people need to do it with regard to the regulations and I ask them to do it in a responsible way to protect the lives of others, especially our healthcare workers and our elderly. I have seen pictures of Deputy Barry involved in protests and he has been doing exactly that; keeping a distance of 2 m from other people and not being more than 5 km from his home.

As the country now enters phase two of the lockdown I once more pay tribute to the many heroes working on the front line, helping to keep us all safe during this period. I also offer my condolences to the family and friends of those who passed away in the last week as a result of this horrible disease. The people of Ireland are putting in a truly great effort in keeping this virus at bay.

We have heard many media reports that the emergency weekly pandemic unemployment payment will be changed shortly. I believe this payment should not be stopped until the economy is allowed to reopen fully. Many people are very worried about the changes that may be introduced. Will the Taoiseach confirm that no changes will happen to the pandemic unemployment payment until the economy is open fully again?

In addition to the social distancing rules I understand we are following the World Health Organization, WHO, guidelines. These are that a safe social distance of 1 m is recommended, but we are maintaining a distance of 2 m. Will the Taoiseach confirm which guidelines are we following in this regard? If we are to take the WHO advice of 1 m it could have a major impact on getting our economy up and running again. Many small and medium size businesses will go to the wall if they are not allowed to reopen soon. I put it to the Taoiseach that we must not allow these businesses to fail. While several measures have been put in place to support these businesses, nothing will replace them being allowed to reopen and trade again.

On Tuesday a demonstration took place in the centre of Dundalk, with similar demonstrations in other parts of the State. I fully understand the anger felt by these people and that the cause they are highlighting needs to be highlighted. The Black Lives Matter cause is very worthy and needs to be highlighted. What has happened in the United States of America is a disgrace. No human deserves to be treated that way. Those responsible should be treated as murderers because, in my view, that is what happened. I have an issue, however, with the large congregation of people that took place in Dundalk town centre. No social distancing took place at all, which is not acceptable. As we have suffered the lockdown restrictions we placed people who are over 70 years of age under a virtual house arrest, we stopped friends and even family members from attending funerals of their loved ones, and families have been unable to visit loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes. People have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep this horrible virus at bay. This week a constituent told me she was unable to attend the wake or the funeral of a close relative because of the restrictions in place, yet these other large gatherings of people are apparently allowed to take place. I fully support the cause that brought people to demonstrate but during this lockdown surely a different form of protest should be organised. I am interested to hear the Taoiseach's views on these protests and whether they should be allowed to take place.

During questions to the Tánaiste some weeks ago, the Tánaiste dismissed my suggestion that a hard Brexit was coming. Indeed, the Tánaiste made light of the point I was trying to raise. It now emerges, and looks likely, that we will have a hard Brexit. The UK Government is also preparing for a hard Brexit. I fear we will sleepwalk into this. Coming as I do from a Border county I know more than most about, and understand the effects of, a hard border.

Will the Taoiseach confirm to me today that the Government has plans in place for a hard border? Will he enlighten us on some of the plans in place for a hard Brexit? We cannot rely on the UK Government to help us. It is quite clear from its actions and its complete lack of keeping promises that it is planning for a hard Brexit. We must protect ourselves should this happen. Will the Taoiseach confirm to the House that we will be fully prepared for a hard Brexit should it happen?

I listened closely to an interview the Taoiseach gave this week in which he stated Fianna Fáil and the Green Party must agree we need to start paying back some of the money received through the Covid fund within the next two to three years. Such comments worry me greatly. It sounds as though the Taoiseach is preparing for the introduction of austerity. I want to be very clear that the people do not deserve another period of austerity. They will simply not accept it and I will support them in it. People cannot be made to pay for this crisis. Will the Taoiseach support me and confirm that he, as leader of the Government, will not introduce austerity measures or support the introduction of austerity measures as a member of the Government?

During the course of the past week, fires have raged in the Cooley mountains, which have put residents, wildlife and property in great danger. In recent days, a second major blaze was started on the mountains. Last week, a code red forest fire alert was issued to the public. The alert warning requested that many activities would not take place, including the outdoor use of barbecues and fires on forest land and other high-risk areas. Agricultural activities that may present a risk of fire were suspended. Members of the public were reminded to adhere to the regulations in respect of the Covid-19 restrictions. The alert also included that vehicles were not to be parked near site entrances so they would not impede the emergency services. Forest owners and managers and other relevant authorities were to implement fire patrols to exclude all fire activities. It is quite obvious the above advice was ignored by certain members of the public. It is understood the fires in the Cooley mountains were caused by a camp fire. To make matters worse, vehicles were parked at the entrance, which prohibited the fire services from attending the scenes. The damage to property and the distress to residents and wildlife that the fires have caused is disgraceful.

What powers do the authorities have under a code red fire alert to bring action against these people who have caused so much damage to the Cooley mountains? Can any action be brought against those responsible for this reckless act? If no action can be brought, surely we must look at introducing legislation to deal with this type of reckless behaviour. It is simply not good enough for a red alert to be issued and hope everything is okay. We need to back up alerts with real powers.

Will the Taoiseach answer the following questions? What powers do the authorities have under a code red forest alert to bring action against those who ignore the alert? Will the Taoiseach confirm that no changes to the emergency Covid payment will take place until such time as the economy fully reopens? Will the Taoiseach confirm the Government has proper planning in place for a hard Brexit? Will the Taoiseach confirm whose guidelines we are following on social distancing? If we are not following the guidelines of the World Health Organization, on what basis are we not doing so? What are the views of the Taoiseach on the large public gatherings that took place in Dundalk and other areas this week as part of the Black Lives Matter protest? Will the Taoiseach confirm he is not planning to introduce austerity measures to repay the emergency Covid fund? I appreciate the Taoiseach answering as many questions as he can, and if he cannot do so, I would appreciate the answers in writing.

I have answered questions on the pandemic unemployment payment already so perhaps I will answer some of the Deputy's other questions. I am totally opposed to reintroducing austerity or austerity measures in Ireland. There is nothing I would hate more to see happen to our country than having to experience more austerity budgets. Let us not forget why we had austerity in Ireland ten or 12 years ago. It was not because the economy collapsed. It was not because the banks collapsed. It was because we lost the confidence of the financial markets and could not borrow any more. That is why austerity happened. We could not borrow money and had to go to the IMF. The IMF said it was the lender of last resort and would only give us money if we fulfilled certain conditions, and those conditions were austerity.

How would we end up in austerity again? We would do so by putting ourselves in a position that we lose the confidence of those financial markets, and that would be by borrowing more than we could afford to pay back. That is the basic point.

Austerity happens not because the economy collapses or the banks collapse but because we lose the confidence of the financial markets and we lose the confidence of the financial markets by borrowing more than we can afford to pay back because people then will not lend us more money. It is as simple as that and that is why the kind of policies that are pursued by left-wing governments, socialist governments and reckless populist governments around the world are the ones that lead to austerity in the end.

On WHO advice, I think I am correct in saying the advice is to stay at least 1 metre apart or more than 1 metre apart but that 2 metres is best. There are different opinions on this, and different agencies and experts will give different opinions. What is useful to read is a study published by The Lancet only a couple of days ago. That is a meta-analysis of 170 different studies on masks and social distancing and what works and does not work. To cut a long story short, what that Lancet analysis concludes is that if people are more than a metre apart, they are between 70% and 80% protected, and if they are 2 metres or more apart, they are between 95% and 100% protected. That is the difference. Nobody disputes that. One metre is good; 2 metres is better. The question is at what point we are willing to take the risk of moving from 2 metres to 1 metre. I think we do not take that risk until the virus is more suppressed in our community than it is now.

I believe protests and demonstrations are part of democracy and I believe in free speech and hate to see that suppressed in other countries. I would however ask anyone who is taking part in protests of any nature to maintain that physical distance of 2 metres and not to travel more than 5 km from their homes to participate in the protest. Protests can be organised locally as well as in city centre locations. Anyone who is organising a protest should ensure that they take responsibility for that protest, that the public health guidelines are managed, and to do that not because I am asking them to but out of respect for our health care workers and older people who are the ones who will suffer if any of these protests become a cluster for infection.

At his press conference on Friday, 15 May 2020, the Taoiseach announced that horse racing was to return on 8 June. Horse racing worldwide is known as having two codes, thoroughbred and trotting racing. Trotting is the largest form of horse racing within Europe, and where both codes exist, the relevant governments allowed both to recommence at the same time. These countries include France, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Finland, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Holland, Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand. In Ireland the Irish Harness Racing Association, IHRA, is the governing body for trotting racing. On Tuesday, 14 May, the IHRA forwarded its 70-page document of racing protocols, similar to Horse Racing Ireland's, HRI's, submission, and a letter addressed to the Taoiseach and to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The IHRA has been told it is now at the Taoiseach's office but no response has been given allowing the IHRA to recommence its racing season. The IHRA has also been informed by the officials of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, that the Taoiseach's announcement about the resumption of horse racing was only for thoroughbred racing and not for trotting. Will the trotting racing, under the IHRA, be allowed in Ireland under phase 2? Given the decision on 15 May to allow the return to racing involving the HRI on 8 June, does the Taoiseach agree that the IHRA should be granted the permission to commence? Otherwise, the response would be highly discriminatory and violate competition laws. The greyhound industry wants to reopen greyhound racing in a safe manner at the same time as other sports such as horse racing. Greyhound racing is well regulated and is of considerable financial benefit to rural and urban communities. Will greyhound racing reopen in phase 2?

Businesses are haemorrhaging at an enormous rate in west Cork, as must be the case all over the island. Massive efforts are being made by businesses to keep their doors open, but even having a picnic bench outside their businesses 2 metres apart is not being allowed, leading to massive frustration in towns such as Kinsale, Bandon, Clonakilty, all the way back to Schull, Bantry and Skibbereen. There is a feeling that we are being treated like areas in Dublin where there are high corona virus rates. Will the Taoiseach tell me where the public can access a town by town breakdown of how many Covid-19 cases there are in their areas, similar to the breakdown for the hospitals?

Why are we not investing in Covid-19 testing in our airports and ports as in Singapore and Vienna so that we can open up our country in a safe manner to people who want to come here for whatever reason? There could be a simple test at the point of entry, sent to an Irish laboratory which sends results back within hours, and a certificate granted showing the person to be Covid-19 free.

This is a no-brainer and while the State will have to invest very little in it, it will provide a massive boost to our economy and make people safe in their communities, welcoming people from wherever they come. While we invested in private hospitals for genuine reasons at the beginning of the pandemic, now is the time to invest in some of our excellent labs that can provide same day results and in so doing, kick-start our economy again.

I will have to check out the Deputy's question about trotting racing. I am not familiar with the case the IHRA is making so I will check that out later today or tomorrow and come back to the Deputy.

On greyhound racing, we would hope to get it back some time this month. That is not confirmed yet but that is the intention. It will be without spectators but it will all be done outdoors so that should happen some time this month.

I do not know if town-by-town or district-by-district numbers are available for coronavirus cases but we should bear in mind that they can be misleading. A nursing home in a town might give a figure for a town that makes it look like that town has many Covid-19 cases but in fact all of the cases might be in one nursing home or meat factory. Therefore, that information might not be as useful as people might think it is.

However, it is reassuring to see that so many counties have had no new cases in recent days. That is one of the reasons I disagree with people who say the 5 km rule or the 20 km rule do not make sense. If we had not had that rule in place in recent weeks we would have seen people from Dublin and Cork travelling to counties where there are no new cases and there would have been new cases in those counties. I totally disagree with people who are arguing that the 20 km rule has no scientific basis or is not a good idea. It is a good idea and that is the travel limit that will apply in phase 2.

We will examine the issue of Covid-19 testing in airports and ports but it costs €200 a go so the person getting tested will have to pay for it.

It costs €50 in west Cork with same-day results.

Today we hear travel agents and airlines advertising that Spain will be opening up on 1 July. In that same vein, I call on the Taoiseach to open hotels and pubs on the same day as restaurants and cafés on 29 June and to give the tourism industry in Kerry in places such as Killarney, Dingle, Cahersiveen and right around the Ring of Kerry the chance to avail of a few weeks of tourism. We all hope the schools will go back in the last week of August so we are only talking about six to seven weeks of a window. If we do not open the hotels and pubs until 10 August the season will be over and it will be gone for this year. Many places will just not open under those circumstances. We need businesses and pubs to operate in order to create jobs and incomes. To do this, we need to adjust the 2 m limit to 1 m. The WHO, which we gave an awful lot of money to, more than €9 million, suggests that 1 m will do.

The programme for Government should be about getting our economy back up and running. It seems to me that for the last number of months until this week, it has been about the climate and climate change. The fact is that our emissions are only 0.13% in the worldwide context.

Most businesses and SMEs will need grants to get themselves up and running and they will need a cash injection, as they did in Germany. Bus and coach tours need guidance about seating. Yesterday, we heard from a tour operator that it is trying to sell tours for 2021 but it is not clear how many people will be allowed to sit on a 50-seater, a 30-seater or a 16-seater bus. It is not fair on these companies that they are getting no guidance. Someone somewhere should somehow be able to tell them and guide them as to what will be acceptable.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil should not block the proposed liquified natural gas, LNG, import terminal in Shannon and not cave in to the Green Party. This project does not need any money from the Government, it would create many jobs and we need a second gas source.

The Government still has not addressed the need for Covid payments for seasonal workers or people over the age of 66, who really need whatever they were on to be brought up to the value of the Covid payment. They were not looking for the payment on top of what they were getting but rather the €350 just to bring them up to €350.

Farmers are not getting much encouragement or assistance. The Taoiseach advised us to cut down on eating meat. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, says that we cannot stay farming like our fathers did, even though everyone on my side of the country recognises that the Minister's father, Donal Creed, God be good to him, was a fierce farmer and landed up here one morning after milking his cows and the place was still not open. The Greens just want to sow seeds in south-facing window boxes. They say we should not cut turf. Some other geniuses are saying we must block drains and make land useless after all the hard work on it, some of which was grant-aided. The Greens, we now hear, want no more planning in rural areas, only towns. They want to build lay-bys and no more roads. We had plenty of lay-bys in Kerry and they were grand for lorry drivers to pull into in order to have their rest breaks, but they were closed and blocked because it was felt Travellers would camp there.

I was very disappointed when Deputy Micheál Martin stated on "The Late Late Show" that farmers would have to diversify and plant forestry. Planting forestry does not provide an acceptable income for many farmers. Around east Cork and north Kerry, we have great land. We are not allowed plant marginal land. It is not grant-aided. We have to plant good land. Planting forestry while the rainforests in South America are cut down and beef is brought into Europe is not an option for Irish farmers, and it is not acceptable to come out with such a statement. I am really disappointed in the leader of Fianna Fáil and the Taoiseach and his entire Government for the non-assistance they have given farmers over the past four and half years.

Black lives matter, and it is good to hear that spoken about in the House today. There is no doubt but that the type of racism we have seen in America does not apply here, and that is very welcome, but racism is here, as the Taoiseach acknowledged earlier. We have heard racist talk from Deputies in this House but also during election periods, when candidates get elected using the race card against Travellers and black citizens and residents of our State in order to curry favour and gain votes for themselves. Does the Taoiseach agree that the system of direct provision, as it operates here, adds to this sentiment across the State? That is a very different question from those that were asked earlier, and I would like him to reflect on it.

There has been a lot of rumour and speculation around the reopening dates. We have also had a lot of discussion on it today. I wish to touch on the issue of the 2 m and 1 m separation distances that the Taoiseach mentioned earlier, particularly in the context of small restaurants and how they might afford to meet the requirements. Many of the owners of small restaurants to whom I have been talking have indicated that they will not be able to open or that it will not be financially viable for them to open with the 2 m requirement in place but that they could do it if the 1 m requirement was introduced. How restrictive is this, and how committed is the Taoiseach to the 2 m requirement? Restaurants and so on need to be able to start planning now for when the 2 m distance requirement might be lifted in order that they can spend money to make sure they are well positioned. The bigger disaster would be for them to go ahead and plan on a 2 m distance requirement only to discover in two or three weeks' time that the Government will reduce it to 1 m instead. That would be worse.

The Government needs to highlight clearly the decision now and whether the measure is going to stay or if it is going to be reduced. We need a clear indication of when the Government will make the final decision on that. I am keen for the Taoiseach to address that issue as well.

My thanks to Deputy Pringle. As I mentioned earlier, direct provision is very often substandard. The kind of accommodation we want is at the McMahon standard level, where it is self-catering and where people have their own door. Much of direct provision is substandard and that needs to change. We have brought in good examples of accommodation in recent years, but obviously the whole programme needs to be accelerated by the next Government.

Does it add to racism? I hope it does not. Many communities have welcomed accommodation centres in their towns and villages and have set up friends-of-the-centre groups, for example. It has been good to see that. I do not think it always fuels racism.

What would the alternative look like? The alternative often put forward is that there should be purpose-built accommodation provided by the State to house asylum seekers or built and provided on a non-profit basis by affordable housing bodies or charities. I think we would run into the same problems in communities. That may well be the right model to employ, but the minute a planning application goes in, I can guarantee Deputy Pringle that we would see objections and public meetings. We would have people coming up with all sorts of reasons they do not want a purpose-built, own-door, State-run accommodation centre in their town or village. Would it be any different in terms of the reaction we get from local communities? I do not know but I fear it would not be.

Deputy Pringle referred to the 1 metre-2 metre issue. As I mentioned, we hear different advice from different bodies. We hear different experts say different things. The best information I have read on this is The Lancet paper published the other day. It is a meta-analysis of approximately 170 different studies that looks at issues like social distancing and masks. What the study says in simple terms is that being a little more than 1 metre away gives a person protection of between 70% to 80%. If we go to 2 metres, the level of protection goes to between 95% and 100%. If we go from 2 meters to 1 metre, it is a risk. We should not pretend that it is not a risk. We have a rough idea of what sort of risk it is, going from about 95% protection to something like 70% or 80%. If we take that risk, I think we should not do it yet. We should suppress the virus more in the community before we are willing to take that risk. We will not be recommending a change as part of phase 2 tomorrow. That is not to say that we might not do so in future.

Interestingly, the paper does a good piece on masks too. There is very strong evidence that they should be worn in healthcare settings but weak evidence that they are valuable in the community setting.

I want to raise two issues with the Taoiseach this morning. Earlier, the Taoiseach spoke about the €1.57 trillion EU budget that is to front-load our response to Covid-19 and the €540 billion to support both the social and economic recovery. We need to do the same in this country. We need to support a social and economic recovery. The Government has put several programmes in place. Some of them are working well. However, significant gaps remain. On many occasions I have asked the Taoiseach and the relevant Ministers for the Government to look at putting in place some small-scale grant aid for small businesses which see a mounting wall of debt as they remain closed, whether because of insurance, utility bills, rent etc. It would give hope to those businesses that maybe in phases 2, 3 or 4, they could reopen. They will know at that point, especially in the hospitality sector, that it will be a matter of survival. If they are already carrying debt, they are less likely to think in terms of reopening. Yet, a small level of grant aid could make a significant difference.

I raised this issue with the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, yesterday around community and voluntary groups trying to keep community centres afloat. They are dotted throughout the country. They are the lifeblood of communities. Often crèches, language schools or dancing classes bring in a little money to keep them afloat. They too are facing rising utility bills and they have no way of making any income to help.

As part of our social and economic recovery, could we consider some small level of grant aid for such businesses and community enterprises? Businesses that do not pay rates are locked out of the restart grant. Could that matter be examined?

This is the fourth time I have raised my next issue in the Chamber with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, namely, healthcare for non-Covid patients. I asked for flexibility on the consultants' contract and changes to the private hospital contract. I am happy with the Government's decision to end the latter contract. However, it will be in place until the end of June. That is 25 full days. If someone is waiting for a biopsy or is in pain, those 25 days will make a considerable difference. Is there any possibility that, in the interim, flexibility can be shown and changes can be made to give people hope that they can get into hospital?

In the beginning, the Government moved quickly. That was the right thing to do. Will it now inject the same sense of urgency into the rapidly building non-Covid healthcare emergency that it injected into the Covid emergency?

I thank the Deputy. There is the reopening grant of up to €10,000 which is available to small businesses to help them reopen. Rates are waived for three months. There is the wage subsidy scheme, which pays a lot of the salaries and wages of people who work in small businesses. In terms of utilities, one only pays for the utilities one pays for, but the companies have agreed a suspension.

We are going to look at doing more. One of the things we are looking at is something the Deputy specifically raised, that being, businesses or places that do not pay rates. I would be aware of a few, for example, local tourist attractions or museums around the country that are charitable and they do not pay rates, but they need money to reopen just as much as anyone else does. That is one of the things we are examining. Perhaps we could do something a little bit better with the reopening grant. What we have done, we have done. It is not the end of it. We are going to have to do more, and we accept that. If the Deputy has any specific proposal she wants to make, we will examine it.

Regarding private patients needing care in June in private hospitals, I think we should be aware that it is not impossible for private patients to be brought into private hospitals by their private consultants. In fact, that is happening. They just cannot be charged. There are consultants who have accepted the State contract - €4,000 per week, not a small amount of money - and are seeing those patients pro bono in private hospitals. That is what they should do.

Sitting suspended at 1.50 p.m. and resumed at 2.10 p.m.