Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements

Rachaimid ar aghaidh leis an gcéad phíosa gnó, Uimh. 6: ráiteas agus ceisteanna agus freagraí chun an Taoiseach. Is é an chéad chainteoir ná an Taoiseach, an Teachta Varadkar. Tá deich nóiméad aige.

It is now more than 100 days since the first recorded case of Covid-19 in our State, 92 days since the first person died from the virus, and 91 days since we instituted the first set of measures to suppress its spread and protect as many people as possible from its deadly power. Today, as always, we think of the 1,695 people who, as of last night, have died from or with Covid-19, and a further 537 who have died in Northern Ireland. Their lives shone brightly, and were brought to an end before their time. As an Oireachtas, we seek to honour their lives as we mourn their deaths.

In total, 25,231 people in the Republic of Ireland have been diagnosed with Covid-19, of whom 92% have recovered fully, with more on the mend. Some 367,780 tests have been carried out, including 19,364 in the past week, of which 185 were positive, resulting in a positivity rate of less than 1% for the first time. That is down from a peak of 20% back in April. This rate continues to decline and is very encouraging. It indicates that the easing of restrictions on our economy and people has not enabled the virus to make a comeback, at least not so far.

Last Thursday when I spoke in the Dáil, we had 47 new cases recorded the evening before. Yesterday evening, the figure was 19. This time last week, we had 36 people in intensive care units. That number is now down to 29. There were 165 in hospital with Covid-19 last week and that number is now down to 92.

It is 42 days since we published the roadmap to reopen our country and four days since we moved into phase 2-plus, enabling us to take small but meaningful steps to where we want to be when this is over. The Government is now conducting extensive work, with the help of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, on the revised phase 3 and phase 4 of the roadmap so we can have the country almost fully opened by the middle of July instead of the middle of August as originally planned. However, some measures, such as public health advice and bans on mass gatherings, may need to continue for some time.

As these are still the early stages, it is too soon to evaluate how phase 2-plus is going but the early indications are favourable. As a country, we are optimistic but cautious We are hopeful while avoiding unnecessary risk. In the fine balancing act that our lives have become, we are getting things right more often than not. Our plan is working and we shall stick to it. It all depends, of course, on us continuing to keep the virus under control and there is always a risk that it might make a comeback but the past couple of days have been quite encouraging, notwithstanding the daily tragedy of new notified deaths to the Department of Health.

We are continuing to secure and stockpile supplies of personal protective equipment, PPE, in case there is a second wave in the future and to improve testing and tracing turnaround times. In this way, we can deal with resurgences locally without having to bring in major restrictions across the country again.

As part of phase 2, the Cabinet made a decision to get childcare services reopened because so much of our recovery depends on it. From 29 June, childcare services can reopen to ensure that one more obstacle is removed from stressed and anxious parents. We are, of course, all aware that very many childcare services close in July and August but we anticipate that the vast majority of those that usually open for the summer months will reopen at the end of June. Whether it is health or social care workers, or parents unable to return to work otherwise, the reopening of childcare centres provides reassurance and makes what they do possible. It is also necessary to ensure that vulnerable children, as well as those who are homeless, experiencing poverty or disadvantage or child welfare issues, are looked out for. I extend my thanks to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, and her officials, for the work that they have done to make all this possible.

Thanks to everyone's hard work in pushing back the spread of the virus, it is now safe to implement a summer programme for children with special educational needs and disadvantaged children. There will be a particular emphasis on social inclusion programmes such as the school completion programme, as well as numeracy and literacy programmes for schools in the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, scheme. I believe it is right and appropriate that we are prioritising those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage. It is also right that students with special educational needs benefit from the opportunities provided by the programme and do not miss out on this year.

In line with public health guidance, the summer programme will be a home-based and school-based one and will be supported by the HSE, as well as the Department of Education and Skills. Much will depend on schools, teachers and special needs assistants choosing to participate. I know that everyone will do what they can to make sure this works but I appeal to school teachers and special needs assistants to participate because we cannot do this without them.

The focus of the programme will be on students and young people with complex needs, including those who have significant behavioural, social, emotional and sensory difficulties. Children with Down's syndrome will be included and will be able to participate and benefit from what is on offer. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, will bring specific proposals to Cabinet tomorrow for approval.

Gabhaim buíochas as ucht na híobairtí móra a rinne an pobal chun scaipeadh an víris a chúngú agus daoine eile a chosaint. Bhí sé slán dúinn leanúint ar aghaidh leis an dara céim den phlean chun ár dtír a athoscailt ar an Luain. Tugann an tseachtain seo gach uile chúis dúinn a bheith dóchasach agus dearfach i leith na todhchaí. Tá na srianta á laghdú agus tá daoine ag dul ar ais ag obair. Tá na siopaí ag athoscailt agus tá ár dtír ag athoscailt.

Táimid fós ag iarraidh go leanfaidh daoine ar aghaidh leis na cleachtaí maithe a bhí acu, ar nós fanacht amach go fisiceach ó dhaoine eile, deánósanna casachta a chleachtadh agus taisteal nach bhfuil gá leis a sheachaint. Le linn na dtrí seachtaine seo chugainn, ba chóir dóibh fanacht go háitiúil. Anois, táimid ag cur pleananna le chéile chun gluais a chur ar na bearta sna céimeanna eile, le péire fós le dul. Mar chuid de sin, táimid ag pleanáil turasóireacht agus cúrsaí fáilteachais a atosú ar an 29 Meitheamh. Níl an samhradh caillte againn agus má choinníonn muid orainn ag déanamh na rudaí cearta, is féidir linn a bheith dóchasach faoi cad atá in ann dúinn.

A Cheann Comhairle, when we began phase 1 of the roadmap, the Health and Safety Authority initiated a new national programme of inspections to ensure the safety of employees and customers when shops and businesses reopened. Between 18 May and 5 June, over 1,200 inspections were carried out by the authority with more than 1,000 relating specifically to the return to work protocol. These inspections were completed across a range of industry sectors including construction, which counted for close to half of all inspections. An initial analysis of specific Covid-19 inspections shows that employers are generally taking a responsible and proactive approach. Approximately three quarters of employers had a response plan in place. Eight in ten had completed employee induction training and nine in ten had Covid control measures in place. The HSA checklists and templates to drive implementation of the protocol have now been downloaded over 30,000 times. I want to thank employers, employees, business organisations and trade unions for their contribution and for helping us to get back to work and to get businesses open. The HSA is now working on further material for lead worker representatives and supporting a range of stakeholder groups as they seek to develop their own plans for a safe return.

I know that this pandemic has hit some sections of society harder than others. Some of those who could least withstand it have suffered the most. Last Friday, the Government considered the impact of the pandemic on people with disabilities, Travellers, members of the Roma community and vulnerable migrants, among others. We know the Garda has charged over 100 men with domestic abuse offences in recent weeks and that unfortunately, for some, the message of "stay at home" meant they could not stay safe because their homes are not safe places. To all those living in fear because of domestic abuse or having experienced violence, I am deeply sorry that the restrictions have made things more difficult for you, but there are people available to help. The Garda is just a phone call away or, if you want to talk to someone first, please reach out to family and friends or call one of the Government-supported helplines. The Department of Justice and Equality is carrying out an analysis of the gender implications of the pandemic and this work will inform the next iteration of the social implications report and shape the actions we will take to help those most at risk.

A Cheann Comhairle, as Professor Philip Nolan explained to the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response on Tuesday, the Government's strategy is not one of mitigation; it is one of suppression, suppressing the virus to very low levels, to zero if possible, by keeping the R number well below one. Unfortunately, as he noted, no strategy utterly insulates us from the risk of the virus re-emerging in our society. We share an open land border with Northern Ireland, which has unrestricted travel with Great Britain, and that is a Westminster competence, not a Stormont one. Our society, economy and personal liberties are European and we are deeply integrated with the European Union. Indeed, we are European citizens. Closing ourselves off from the rest of the world is not an option for Ireland in the medium to long term. We need to be prepared for the risk of imported cases as we reopen slowly to other countries. We need a testing and tracing system capable of identifying new cases, new clusters and a resurgence of the virus quickly so we can contain it and do not need to return to a national lockdown. I am confident we can do that. When we make our decisions, whether to restrict the way we live at the start of this emergency or to reopen our country now, we have at all times followed the fundamental principle of protecting lives and not doing harm. We know there are many types of harm. It is lost lives but it can also be lost livelihoods. It is the damage to our children's education, the impact of a prolonged period of isolation on our mental health or the harm caused by delaying treatment for non-Covid-related illnesses or diseases, also known as secondary deaths.

In the weeks ahead, we will continue to follow this approach of minimising harm and protecting lives as we work to rebuild our economy, reopen our country and realise our vision for a safe, secure and sustainable new way of living. As always, I welcome Members' comments, questions and suggestions.

Over the past three and a half months, more than 2,232 people have died on this island due to Covid-19. Our first thoughts must be with their families and loved ones, especially those of the 39 people who have passed away since this day last week. The sheer scale and pace of the impact of a pandemic such as this have not been experienced for 100 years and it continues to impact on nearly every corner of the world. When we look back at the accumulated figures for cases since early March there is no question that a severe response was required both here and internationally. For the purposes of deciding what we do now and in the coming weeks, the obvious focus has to be on the number of cases that are still active and those who are struggling to overcome the disease. According to yesterday’s statistics, in 92% of all positive cases it has been confirmed that a full recovery has been achieved. Our hospitals are operating well within capacity and there is no urgent or likely risk that they will be overwhelmed.

By every reasonable measure, it has been correct that major elements of the severe lockdown required in March are now being unwound, just as they have been in most of Europe. However there are serious issues which we have to address concerning how we move forward and how we tackle the social and economic impact of the pandemic. We should acknowledge the concerns raised in the letter published earlier this week from a significant number of scientists about the pace of reopening, as well as the clarifications which have come since then and the opposing views which also been aired. I have often said that it is important to have challenging voices in this debate. These scientists urged a level of caution which is unusual in terms of the advice being followed in countries comparable to Ireland. Clearly, this links directly to a concern that people might believe that the threat is over and would allow a significant increase in transmission. The evidence from countries which are far more advanced than Ireland in reopening is that there are two keys to preventing a significant increase in transmission. The first is to do everything possible to reinforce appropriate behaviour and the second is to be able to rapidly test, trace and isolate when symptoms emerge. Fianna Fáil believes that there is significant work to be done in both areas.

As we have said for some time, the emphasis in public policy and communication needs to be on more than explaining restrictions. It must encourage people to act appropriately irrespective of the level of restrictions. Once people are able to leave their homes, it does not matter much how far from their home they are allowed to travel, what matters is how they behave when they travel. We should all be concerned that public perception of how people are complying with restrictions has fallen in recent weeks.

It is long past time to require masks to be worn in various settings. Both the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control have said that masks should be used in public transport, shops and similar settings. There is no evidence of masks causing harm and mounting evidence of them preventing the spread of the virus. This is because masks both physically limit the virus and, crucially, encourage greater awareness of proper behaviour. The messaging has not been clear enough up to now. The idea that one can only require masks if the state provides them is absurd. They are cheap to make and every country which introduced rules on face covering has been able to implement them without discrimination and without state schemes. In the weekly research published yesterday, 84% of people said they would wear a face covering if required, but only 28% said they were using a mask.

We must also be unambiguous in saying that we have the capacity to rapidly test, trace and isolate new cases. While the number of close contacts per case has risen slightly, it is only a small fraction of the figure from March. If we have the proper capacities in place, we can move forward.

We still have not received a proper report on estimates of untreated illness and other factors which relate to assessing the impact of restrictions.

After three and a half months, the secondary impacts of the response to the pandemic have started to become clearer and require our attention. Mental health research has shown that up to one in five people can suffer a significant level of psychological trauma during major emergencies, including pandemics. The Department of Health's weekly research has shown high levels of stress, which is consistent with this. We need an urgent plan for how to increase mental health supports immediately and in the coming months.

We also need to move more rapidly to achieve greater clarity on what will happen with schools. In many countries, special needs services have been maintained or have been reopened. I believe every Deputy will understand how the families of children with special needs urgently want a commitment concerning July. I know the Government and the Minister are working on this. For these children and their families, the lack of the expert and structured supports, which are only available in the school setting, is having a deep impact on them. They are rightly calling for everything possible to be done to avoid their children losing more than six months of essential support. Distance learning is not an option for them. To be fair, many teachers have continued with such an approach since the schools closed but only the teachers and assistants working in schools have the expertise the children require. A bit more clarity is required in that regard. In his speech, the Taoiseach mentioned that we are dependent on teachers and those involved in childcare coming forward. We would like to know if there is ongoing engagement with the profession and what is the likelihood of the services coming together.

While this week's loosening of restrictions on some businesses has been very welcome, we need to realise that our businesses, and in particular our small businesses, are caught in their biggest ever crisis. We still have roughly a million people receiving some sort of pandemic-related support and the numbers are coming down exceptionally slowly. In many cases, industries are coming forward with plans for how they can safely reopen and they are desperate for more urgent engagement with their concerns. Hairdressers are looking at measures throughout Europe which have enabled reopening and want to implement them here. They deserve a comprehensive reply. I know the Government is engaging with them. The nation awaits developments in that regard with bated breath. Some are more challenged than others, while some can manage it a bit more than others.

Our SME sector as a whole needs a systematic plan for how to get back on its feet. Measures announced to date are welcome, but they have barely scratched the surface of the challenge of preventing pandemic costs being a millstone around the neck of Irish business for years to come. Ultimately, a major series of financial, legislative and policy measures is required to help us recover from this pandemic. As we saw last week in Germany, the pandemic has changed the basic rules of what level of intervention should be considered and the role of government in leading recovery. Yesterday's childcare measures are welcome but they may not go far enough. The continuation of the wage subsidy scheme in this sector is an imperative and protecting the viability of existing childcare providers is paramount, in particular so as to enable a full retention of qualified childcare workers in the sector.

Is léir fós go bhfuil géarchéim faoi leith ann maidir leis na gnóthaí beaga ar fud na tíre. Tá géarghá ann plean cuimsitheach a chur ar fáil agus gach tacaíocht is féidir a thabhairt dóibh. Caithfimid beartais airgeadais, tacaíochtaí, agus polasaithe a chur i bhfeidhm chun dul i ngleic leis na fadhbanna atá ag na gnóthaí seo fadhbanna. Tóg, mar shampla, na gruagairí. Tá a fhios againn go bhfuil siad i dteagmháil leis an Rialtas i láthair na huaire agus tá pleananna acu chun dul i mbun oibre arís agus tá an tír ag feitheamh ar cad a tharlóidh.

Ireland needs a comprehensive and urgent strategy for recovery and this is something that will not come while we have a caretaker Government and a barely half-functioning Parliament. There have been comments in recent days suggesting that even if a majority of Members of this House elect a Government it will somehow be a conspiracy against the people. The aggressive populist tropes involved in this are not something which can distract us.

Is léir dúinn go bhfuil géarghá chun Rialtas a chur le chéile sa tír um an dtaca seo. Tá fadhbanna ollmhóra amach romhainn. Ní féidir le héinne é sin a shéanadh. Tá gá le Rialtas le tromlach sa Pharlaimint seo agus beidh an Rialtas sin daonlathach. Tá polasaí faoi leith ag gach aon ghrúpa sa Pharlaimint seo agus is rud nádúrtha go dtagann páirtithe éagsúla le chéile ar mhaithe le pobal na tíre.

My party continues to work with others in urgency and good faith to try to form a government that our country clearly needs. Should a government be agreed, it will have both democratic legitimacy and a democratic imperative to act. We have not even begun the work of recovery. To genuinely move to the next stage of the response to the pandemic and to plan and implement recovery, we need a fully-functioning government working collectively and implementing an ambitious plan of recovery. For our part, we will do everything possible to make sure that this happens with genuine urgency and that we begin to show people that our country will recover.

I begin by remembering every soul lost to this virus, sending sympathies to their families, friends and communities, extending our solidarity to those who are sick at this time and wishing them a full recovery, and acknowledging the heroic efforts of workers on the front line, particularly within our health services. Today, as we are towards the tail end of Carer's Week, I particularly acknowledge the work of carers and home carers - people whose effort, very quietly carried out, has meant that people and families have some comfort and support in incredibly difficult circumstances. These are people to whom we all owe a huge debt of gratitude and I sincerely hope, as the crisis abates and as we move back into normality of some sort, that their efforts will be continuously acknowledged because often they believe that they are left behind and forgotten.

I have raised with the Taoiseach on a number of occasions the need for a plan for the provision of childcare. By a plan, I mean one that is workable, realistic and sustainable, a plan that meets the real world needs of children and parents, and a plan formulated through proper consultation with childcare professionals and experts. As we meet today, there is still considerable alarm and stress for parents. There is undoubted confusion, and some anger, within the childcare sector and I have to tell the Taoiseach that these will not have been changed or abated by the Government's disappointing announcement yesterday. The measures announced do not constitute a plan. They do not comprise a solution. At best, they might be described as a stopgap, a makeshift collection of short-term measures that inevitably lead parents and childcare providers back to the very same problems that we face today - those being a lack of investment, capacity problems, fees so high that they equate to a second mortgage and, of course, the precarious work and low pay of childcare workers. Despite all of yesterday's fanfare, the truth is that under the Government's childcare package many childcare providers will be forced to either close their doors come September or see a situation where parents face another hike in childcare fees. Families already struggle with the cost of childcare and I think we can all agree that another increase would be simply unbearable. Under the Government's plan, many childcare workers may be forced on to the dole. That is the reality and it is not fair. In fact, it is mind-boggling that the Government cannot seem to grasp that childcare is absolutely vital to our society and to the building of a modern economy. One cannot send thousands of people back to work without an answer to their childcare needs.

An hour ago, some of us stood with a large group of women outside the Dáil. These women came seeking the extension of maternity leave for three months. It is a common sense proposal. The mothers are concerned about the availability of childcare for their young babies. Many of them have not yet had the opportunity to introduce their new arrivals to their wider family circle and, indeed, to their grandparents. Maternity leave benefit must be extended for mothers whose claim expires in the course of this pandemic. That needs to be part of a plan and the Taoiseach needs to go back to the drawing board. He needs to bring forward a workable real plan that goes beyond September and one that will command the confidence of parents and childcare professionals alike.

Another area causing deep distress for many parents, as the Taoiseach has acknowledged, is the matter of educational provision for children with special needs. It is now two weeks until July, and still we have an ongoing lack of clarity regarding summer provision, which is quite astonishing. I am sure that, like me, many Deputies saw the report on RTÉ last week that featured parents at their wits' end trying to provide round-the-clock care to their children. They heartbreakingly described their children as forgotten and left behind. Too many families throughout the State are in this distressing situation. The development and progress of these children have been badly affected since school closures.

Cuireann siad síos ar a gcuid páistí amhail is go bhfuil dearmad déanta orthu agus go bhfuil siad fágtha ar gcúl. Fágadh an iomarca teaghlach tríd an Stát sa chás seo. Bhí drochthionchar ar fhorbairt agus ar dhul chun cinn na bpáistí seo ó dúnadh a gcuid scoileanna.

One parent in the report - Angelina Hynes - described the impact on her daughter, Zoe. She said Zoe bites her arm in frustration and eats her clothes. Her daughter no longer engages and is not the child she was nine weeks ago. She used to be able to spoon-feed herself, thanks to the hard work and dedication of her teachers, and that has now stopped entirely. These children, we all agree, need support, their specialised routines and expert care. The parents and children need the Government to act. There are concerns already, even before the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, has announced his scheme, as to whether it will answer problems in respect of protocols and organised transport and there is a deep worry surrounding the issue of insurance.

I am at this stage genuinely concerned that the Government fails to grasp the enormous strain that parents and families are under. It seems that it is content to roll along, providing sticking plaster and half-baked fixes, while parents and families are left in limbo. Will the Taoiseach go back and bring forward a real plan, that is, one that in real terms allows childcare providers to reopen their doors, ensures the jobs of childcare workers and their incomes, and ensures that parents can access childcare at affordable rates? Will he provide within that plan for a three-month extension to maternity leave? Will he tell us that the scheme to be announced tomorrow for summer provision will answer the concerns about protocols, transport and the issue of insurance?

I appreciate what the Deputy said and that there are concerns about how the summer programme will work. As she said, these concerns exist before the announcement has been made. I anticipate and hope that should the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, get approval for the summer programme tomorrow, they will be able to answer questions and allay any concerns that people have tomorrow. In fairness to them, they cannot do that until they have Government or Cabinet approval for the summer programme.

On childcare, we have a good plan in place. It has been largely, although not universally, well received and it will facilitate the reopening of childcare centres for the months of July and August. There is a reopening grant, there are capital grants to carry out works to childcare centres, and there is also a wage subsidy, with the Government paying roughly 70% of the wages in the sector during that period. I agree that a longer-term plan will be needed to apply from September onwards, but it is our view that, at least as of now, that should be a matter for the new Government, and there have been discussions about childcare among the parties willing to form a Government. The Deputy's party has given up on any attempt to form a Government and it will not have a say or a role in that. The parties forming a Government will have a say and will, of course, consult the sector, as they should.

In respect of maternity leave and maternity benefit, we are happy to consider any proposals being made. In the Deputy's initial contribution, she mentioned maternity benefit and later she mentioned maternity leave, but they are not the same. Paternity benefit and paternity leave, as well as parental benefit and parental leave, will also have to come into the mix because sometimes, although not commonly, the man is the main carer in a one-parent family.

If the Deputy has proposals that are comprehensive, however, we would be very happy to examine them.

A petition has been signed by some 25,000 people, both men and women, who are seeking an extension to the maternity benefit and the leave associated with it. I urge the Taoiseach to consider this and deliver on it very quickly. It is just plain common sense. One should think about what it is like to bring home a newborn in these circumstances, isolated from family and with all the concerns that emerge in that scenario. There is concern over whether very young children, babies, will be able to get childcare places. I wish to press the Taoiseach on this. I ask him to make progress on it. I have made the point to him that his childcare plan is not a proper one, and I am disappointed that, on reflection, he cannot see that as an obvious fact.

On special provision, the Taoiseach should bear in mind that weeks ago there was to be a scheme involving special needs assistants and supports for the children involved and their families, but it came to nothing. I appeal to the Taoiseach not to disappoint the families and children again. They are in dire straits. They need a scheme that they can really access and one that delivers the real supports they desperately need. I hope the scheme announced tomorrow will answer the concerns I have raised and many others.

Two days ago, George Floyd was buried. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and the African-American people who have been under the knee of suppression for so long. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis. The Black Lives Matter movement is strengthening and correctly building a community response to what needs to be done in the United States but we would all agree that our support for it is best reflected in what we do to counter racism in our own country. I was glad to see yesterday that the Taoiseach had an online meeting with Irish people of colour to talk about how we should use this special moment to eliminate racism in this country. I want to know the Taoiseach's thoughts on what we can do specifically in this regard.

It was interesting to read relevant articles on this subject in the newspapers today. There was a story about Le Chéile secondary school, Tyrellstown. In a sense, it was a good story in that it was about integration. It was about a black Irish teacher showing how it can be done and how we can integrate and rid ourselves of the scourge of racism. The statistics were interesting, however. One in ten of our children is from a non-Irish or new Irish background but only one in 20 of our teachers is. We know from our constituencies that, increasingly, there is segregation in our school system, whereby certain schools take all the pupils from the new communities while others pretty much take none. Therefore, if we are serious about this issue, should we not commit to ensuring our education system is fully integrated so there will be no segregation and separation as pupils start out in the school system? Is that not one thing we could commit to trying to do?

In a newspaper today there was a story by a young Irishman, Sean Gallen, who gave his experience of being othered and, from the age of six, being given that name, "You nigger". He explained how this completely undermines people. Friends and relations of colour in this country, Travellers and members of other minorities, speak of the same experience. It is real.

It is interesting to consider policing in this regard. We must make sure that policing, as it evolves, will be blind to colour, ethnicity, postcode, or where someone comes from. Again, we should look at the statistics. One in ten people is new Irish but only one in 200 gardaí is from a new Irish ethnic background. A second commitment to change could be to ensure our society does not continue to fall foul of the lack of security for all people in the country.

I hope we are coming to really address the third matter, which is how we treat those who are most vulnerable. If people are seeking asylum or refuge here, we must immediately end the processes where we put them in conditions in direct provision that fundamentally undermine their mental health and ability to make this country their home if they are approved to stay here. The way we are doing things fundamentally undermines their health, so it must stop and change. I welcome the sense I have from parties across this House that this is something we can all commit to doing. We must look to be the very best we can in accepting and welcoming asylum seekers to our country, acting quickly in deciding their status and treating them with real care and respect while they are here when and if they stay.

The fourth matter is probably the most complex. This relates to how we manage online communications where some overt racism and extremism can be seen. As politicians, we are aware of it and can see certain strands but, to be honest, these are not the worst. We have a special responsibility because we are the European, Middle Eastern and African headquarters for most of the social platforms where much of this hate speech, often racist in tone and terrifying, is becoming evident. We must work with the companies to ensure they have duty of care stitched into their business models. It is not possible to police every online communication on every social media network but the business models, regulatory systems, ethos and ethics, along with rules and punitive measures, should be in place to ensure we do not see what has been a characteristic of these online platforms, which is division and derision, becoming acceptable in our daily lives.

I hope to give the Taoiseach as much time as possible to reply as I am keen to hear his views. Do we not need to ensure that we as a country have the maxim that my security is maximised when my neighbour's security is protected too, and that our security is best guaranteed when prosperity is shared across this country? We should set ourselves the target of being the country with the least divergence in wealth and income as best we can. Such matters are often the root of these fearful racist tendencies and instincts; communities can sometimes feel they are being left behind, which breeds resentment and fear of "other" or "new".

We must ensure the new communities can get a leg up and are not relying on a separate "black" economy - literal in this case - where people may not be paid properly and working conditions are not as good. We will manage this matter best by tackling racism and creating a social justice economy that guarantees everybody's security and prosperity. In doing so, we will remove the scourge of "othering" and creating a basic divergence that facilitates the racism that exists in our country. Let us not pretend racism does not exist here. It is our job to try to help remove it. I am interested to hear how the Taoiseach's conversation went yesterday and if he agrees with those kinds of measures.

I thank the Deputy for his contribution. We all agree, accept and understand that racism exists in every society. It may take different forms but that makes it no less real. Sadly, Ireland is by no means immune to the scourge of racism.

I had a very good engagement yesterday, as the Deputy mentioned, with Irish people who are black and of colour. That Zoom call went on for over an hour as a forum to hear from them and share our collective experience of racism in Ireland. There were ideas aired that could be pursued and one certainly concerns education and ensuring we educate children better in schools and throughout the educational cycle about what is racism, how to identify it and how to deal with it. An interesting point from the conversation was that much of the education now around racism tells people what not to say and how a word or name should not be used, but many people feel this to be disabling. They do not know what they should say. How do we talk about the elephant in the room, which may be race? That is part of what we must do.

We need a reform of our incitement to hatred laws. That work was started by the outgoing Government. I hope it will be completed by the next one to modernise our hate speech and hate crime laws.

Work under way that needs to be completed by the next Government is the creation of an online safety commissioner and a proper infrastructure, legally underpinned, to require social media platforms to take down material that is racist, offensive or incites violence or hatred in any way.

One point I strongly agree with the Deputy on is the need to set a target to have a number of people from ethnic minorities in areas of the public service. We have a health service that is very diverse, although less so as one goes up towards the senior positions, not so much in the Garda, the Defence Forces, the education sector, as the Deputy mentioned, and not at all in the Civil Service, which is very white, including the Department of Justice and Equality, for example. That needs to change. We need to have a target for people who come from ethnic minority backgrounds but also dedicated recruitment campaigns to encourage people because we need to ensure that a generation of young people of colour growing up in Ireland see black and brown school principals, judges and perhaps Cinn Comhairle in the future. Who knows? Visibility and opportunity is very important.

On direct provision, as I said in the House previously, I agree that much of the accommodation is substandard and that needs to change. It would not be honest to say that we can immediately end it. We need to be honest about that. It has been in place for 20 years, nine years under my party and, let us not forget, four years under the Green Party. If we could provide own-door, self-catering accommodation to 7,000 people tomorrow we probably would but we cannot do that. Also, we do not know how many will come into the country this year, next year and other years but I do believe we should try to phase it out.

On income inequality, I agree it can drive racism. We are one of the few countries in recent years that has actually reduced income inequality. We should be proud of having achieved that as a country. Poverty has fallen every year for the past five years, as has deprivation. That needs to continue and as we have demonstrated in the past five years, the best way to reduce poverty and income inequality is job creation and opportunity. That is what needs to be reinforced. We must ensure that we do not go backwards in terms of our commitment to job creation and providing people with opportunities to advance themselves.

I again want to state my solidarity with all the workers who are doing such amazing jobs. I witnessed it again directly this week. Our condolences to all of those who have lost loved ones.

I have six questions for the Taoiseach, some of which I would say will require only brief answers. I will put them to him and give him time to answer. I want to start by complimenting the Taoiseach, which is rare in this House. It is not always the case that Governments listen to Opposition parties and take on board what they are saying but I have seen evidence, whether directly in this House, through committees or through direct conversations with some Ministers - I say "some" in inverted commas - that suggestions put forward have been taken on board. I welcome that. Some time ago, I suggested that the phasing out of the restrictions should be brought down from five phases to four. The Taoiseach announced that last week. I welcome that also.

On the roadmap my former employers in Fáilte Ireland brought out during the week, to be fair, they made a good stab at it, so to speak. It is not their fault but it is unimplementable and not viable for most businesses. Tens of thousands of people are depending on that changing by 29 June. It all hangs around the 2 m versus 1 m distance question. If we are going where we are going with the virus, thanks to all the work that has been done, I would encourage the Taoiseach to announce that in advance to give businesses time to prepare. The same applies to personal services as regards hairdressing and so on. I believe that we are very much dependent on reducing the 2 m to 1 m in respect of the entire tourism and hospitality sector so I would encourage the Taoiseach to do that and give businesses time to prepare. That is my first question, which I ask the Taoiseach to consider.

While the Taoiseach is in listening mode I have two more questions, one of which is on the flu vaccine, which I have asked about previously. I ask the Taoiseach to consider that in the coming calendar year - this may be for two years but particularly as a one-off for this year coming - we would give the flu vaccine to everybody free of charge. It works out at approximately €10 million per each additional half a million people. It would depend on the number of people that take it up. Obviously, we need to ensure that those working professionally in the health service need to take the flu vaccine but we cannot face into flu season while dealing with Covid at the same time.

I would be happy enough if the Taoiseach would just consider it. I think everybody in the House would support it. It is just common sense. I encourage the Taoiseach to take this action.

The handling of the commentary with regard to face masks has been an absolute and chronic disaster. There has been commentary from NPHET and many very eminent experts in disease control, etc., but it has been a disaster. My colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, proposed giving a communication to everyone in the country. The Taoiseach should do this. Workers need to be respected. Nobody should get on public transport without a mask, full stop. People should wear masks in retail outlets to protect workers. They deserve respect and to be protected. I suggest a once-off communication to everybody in the country that would provide examples of masks. In Catalonia, everyone can get a mask in the pharmacy for free and, in addition, can buy one for less than a euro. I ask the Taoiseach to please consider that.

With regard to the health service generally, he said last week that the board of the HSE would release a new plan for non-Covid healthcare. I have been raising this issue here for five or six weeks but we still do not have that plan. That is not acceptable. This is the biggest issue in our country. Ireland Thinks has pointed out that one in three people is not going to appointments with doctors until he or she feels the Covid situation has passed. Where is the plan? Is the issue that the parameters set by NPHET with regard to whether a social distance of 1 m or 2 m must be maintained are so strict that they would cause a crisis in healthcare? Is that why the board does not want to publish the plan? Is it that such a plan would demonstrate the number of appointments that would have to be dropped and that the percentage of people who would be given appointments would be very low as a result of not decreasing the distance to 1 m? Is that the reason?

With regard to cancer screening, Dr. Doireann O'Leary was in contact with me. She is aghast that screening services are not operating. GP services are operating. Such services could easily send on smears. Where is the plan in this regard? We have spent years fighting and saying that screening saves lives. It is not saving lives at the moment and there is no urgency about the issue. I ask the Taoiseach to answer that point.

I have two final quick questions. What is the Taoiseach's personal view on maintaining the Department of Children and Youth Affairs? Does he believe we should have such a Department?

I know he will not be able to fully answer my final question but I would like his opinion. There is an individual from our country who, according to the High Court, is a very senior figure in organised crime on a global scale. According to the Criminal Assets Bureau, he has controlled and managed the operations of the Kinahan organised crime group for some time. He is now rebranding himself as a boxing promoter in the Middle East. One of the most famous individuals involved in that sport has described him as a smart, able and honest man. Our country has to intervene with the United Arab Emirates through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in respect of this individual. We owe it to the victims of that cartel. Our country needs to do this and to do it today. We also need to communicate very strongly with certain sports broadcasters, sports companies and other companies involved in this matter. This is an important juncture. I ask the Taoiseach to highlight, through the Tánaiste and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, how important this issue is to us because of the parasitical, criminal activities of this individual and all associated with him.

I thank the Deputy for raising that matter. I do not want to say too much about it but I was rather taken aback to see Tyson Fury dropping the name of the person the Deputy mentioned in a video the other day as if he was not a person with quite a chequered history in this State and elsewhere.

While I cannot comment on a particular Garda operation, I can certainly assure the Deputy that there has been contact between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the authorities in the United Arab Emirates about that matter.

On the 2 m and 1 m issue, as I mentioned previously, everybody acknowledges that 2 m is better than 1 m. A distance of 1 m or more gives the person approximately 70% protection and it is closer to 95% at 2 m. We also appreciate that there are certain circumstances where that may not be viable. The virus being so successfully suppressed in our community now allows us to re-examine that, and NPHET is doing some work on that in consultation with us.

Regarding the flu vaccine, the Minister for Health has announced the biggest expansion ever of the flu vaccination programme. Children will get the vaccine this autumn, for example, as will many more vulnerable groups. We will consider the Deputy's proposal of making it universal. I have not seen the merits and demerits of that, but it is something worth considering.

The advice on face masks and face coverings is very simple. It is that one should wear a face mask or face covering when using public transport or when in a crowded indoor place such as a supermarket. People should be aware that it is not a magic shield or an alternative to physical distancing, hand washing or other things, but it can help in terms of additionality. It should be worn properly. People should wash their hands before putting it on, cover their nose and mouth and should not wear it around the neck like a scarf because it is a mask. We will have to launch a new public information campaign to reinforce that. However, there were revised guidelines from the WHO just in the last few days so we want to ensure that we launch a public information campaign that does not change in a week or two when new advice arrives. We want to get it right.

My understanding from the Minister for Health is that screening will resume over the summer, starting with smear taking and cervical screening. It is not yet confirmed, but that is certainly the intention.

As regards the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, that Department was established by my party and the Deputy's party when they formed a Government in 2011. It has been a positive and progressive development, ensuring that the rights of children are now enshrined in the Constitution, mandatory reporting became a reality, Tusla was established and the national childcare scheme was implemented. It is a good thing that we have had a Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Bear in mind, however, that when a new Department is created it comes at a cost. The Department of Defence ceased to be a stand-alone Department as a consequence and the community, rural and Gaeltacht Department disappeared. There were negative consequences of that. Under the Constitution, one of the constraints one works under is that there can be any number of Departments but there can only be 15 senior Ministers. It is pretty meaningless to call for a new Department to be created or for a Department to be retained if one does not say which 15 one wants, because then one is not being entirely honest with people. I always ask anyone calling for a new Department to be established to say which one he or she wishes to be merged or abolished. The same applies the other way around too.

As we proceed through the accelerated roadmap and people begin to look forward to normal life, or as normal as it can be, summer holidays and travel become a big focus. In the sea of what has been confusing messaging on a host of measures, not least face coverings although the Taoiseach has addressed that to some degree today, it is fair to say that people are also confused about the realistic prospect, or not, of air travel in the near future. Michael O'Leary has been omnipresent, telling everyone who will listen that Ryanair has everything sorted and is restoring 40% of its flights from 1 July. Ryanair is proudly announcing on its website that travel restrictions are lifted and that it is open for holidays from €39.99.

I had a good look at the website and nowhere does it refer to the Government restrictions that have been imposed regarding the need to self-isolate for two weeks upon landing, or the fact that a mandatory form must be completed on which one gives an address at which one may be contacted. We have to be realistic. Where somebody goes away for a week's holiday, is he or she really going to take three weeks off, isolate for two weeks and not return to work? It is similar for somebody who goes on a business trip for a few days. We must be realistic about this. From 1 July, the scale of this issue becomes much bigger.

We all agree that had travel restrictions been in place in March when we had a large influx of visitors from northern Italy, we may have had a considerably reduced number of infections. Indeed, we may well have had avoidable deaths.

The aim of the roadmap is to reopen as much as possible, as soon as possible and as safely as possible. While that is fine, a quick and reliable method of testing and tracing becomes critically important in ensuring we do not regress. Accordingly, we need to carefully manage risk and travel is one of the main risks.

Last week, the House was told by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport that social distancing will occur on airlines where possible. The phrase, "where possible" could mean limiting the number of passengers or separating people where the flights are not fully booked. What happens in cases where they are fully booked? Ultimately, who decides that and how is it policed? Are we happy that those decisions are being made by a particular airline or has the Government plans to manage this?

Michael O'Leary's business is flying people and making a profit. Our business is about keeping people safe. The two are not necessarily in keeping with one another. We cannot be complacent about the potential growth of the virus becoming resurgent. In the US, for example, just six weeks ago, there were seven states where the R number was greater than one. Today, there are 15 states where the R number is greater than one. That signals that the virus is expanding. The UK's top government scientist appeared to acknowledge, at least in private, that the R number appears to be above one there. Daily flights from 1 July to London, Birmingham, Manchester and many other UK destinations, however, are now being advertised.

With a small number of flights, it is possible to test and trace. If that is scaled up dramatically, then it requires a significantly scaled up testing and tracing operation. Who will do that? Is that being planned for? When it comes to testing at airports, bearing in mind that hospitals do tests and give results within ten minutes from start to finish, is that an option? If so, could that not be used in other settings? Is it about cost? Is it about reliability when hospitals see them as reliable tests? There is talk of air corridors, as well as places and locations where testing is done at airports. What is the approach?

In addition to the confusion about face coverings, although that seems to be fairly clear with regard to air travel, we are being told that they will be mandatory on flights. How is that going to be policed? There are nervous flyers and children on flights, for example. These are very mixed messages.

The ideal would be to eliminate the virus. Failing that, the best we can do is to manage it and keep it to an absolute minimum. Travel is such an important part of that. Our airlines are a really important industry, which I acknowledge. However, they have to operate safely. Who is making the decision on this? Is it being made by the airlines or is the Government policing this? With increased flights, will the Taoiseach tell the House how it is intended to manage the risks? Will it be scaled up? If so, who will do it? Is it not self-evident that testing at airports and ports must happen?

Decisions will be made by the Government, not by individual airlines. The decisions we make will be co-ordinated with the European Commission and with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA. We need to bear in mind that we are all EU citizens. EU citizens have the freedom to travel, work and study anywhere in the European Union. We can bring in limitations based on public health but they have to be justified.

In terms of foreign travel - by foreign travel I mean travel off the island of Ireland - our advice is that people should not engage in any unnecessary travel. The message is clear. It is there any time one turns on the TV. One should stay local, not leave one's county and not go more than 20 km from one's home unless one has to. That certainly says one should not travel abroad.

Anyone entering the country through our ports and airports has to sign a passenger locator form. It is an offence to fill it in falsely.

People are strongly advised to self-isolate for 14 days. The plan is to establish air bridges with other countries that have a similar level of viral suppression. We have not agreed any of them yet but that is the plan. Consideration is being given to testing at airports and ports but there are limitations. The cost of the test is not low. There is the inevitability of false negatives, since people in the early stages of the disease may not test positive but may spread it within days. A 14 day self-isolation period is still the safe route.

The advice that we heard last week from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport was that social distancing on flights would occur where possible. Are there limits on the number of people allowed to board a flight? If not, is it really possible to socially distance if the flight is full? A number of weeks ago, we saw photographs of an Aer Lingus flight from Belfast at the height of the pandemic here. That is the kind of thing that we are likely to see. We all want the least amount of restriction but where people have put in so much effort, not least front-line workers and people who have cocooned for months, we cannot ignore the risks from particular locations where the R-nought is high. That has to be managed. When one turns on the radio, one hears, almost in the same group of advertisements about Government restrictions, about flights. One has to remember that flights go in two directions and people will be coming to this country from places where there is a higher rate of infection than there is here. How that is managed is critically important. Will the Taoiseach tell us about the scaling up of testing and tracing in the context of an increased number of people coming into this country by airports and ferry ports?

We have considerable testing and tracing capacity now, with capacity to test 100,000 people a week and to trace many thousands of people which is not being used at the moment because of the low level of demand for it. It can be used if we need to do so in the future. The future will involve making sure that we have a very strong testing and tracing capacity, so that any important cases and new clusters are identified quickly and can be stamped on quickly, so that they do not spread and we do not have to engage in any more lockdowns. What the Deputy says is absolutely correct about social distancing on planes and in airports being extremely difficult to achieve, so that is another place where people would be advised to wear masks. We do not have any air bridges yet, so we are advising people not to come here and not to fly out of the country. To give an idea of the countries where there is a similar number of low cases to here, there were 16 in Ireland yesterday, 15 in Finland and ten in Greece. In countries such as those, the number of new cases is very low and therefore the risk of journeys between those countries would be very low. It can change quickly. We thought Portugal was one of them and there were 400 cases in Portugal yesterday. It is still a changing picture.

I start by offering our solidarity to all those who have lost and suffered during this pandemic and indeed all those who have lost their jobs. I give a shout-out to the thousands of Debenhams workers who are protesting outside closed stores today. We should remember the impact on their lives too. I have something to give to the Taoiseach, so he should chalk it up, because it is not often that he will get anything from me. I will leave it at the desk in front of the Ceann Comhairle for the Taoiseach to collect. It is a petition from more than 25,000 of our citizens, who are calling for the extension of maternity leave and benefit for women who are currently on maternity leave. As was mentioned earlier, we met them outside the Dáil this morning and they handed over this petition. I thank those new mothers for the work that they have put into it. I thank Uplift and the National Women's Council for supporting them. I am sure, as a doctor, that the Taoiseach understands the stress and anxiety that new mothers face in having to return to work in normal circumstances.

In these circumstances that stress and anxiety are enormous. They also face the possibility of having absolutely no childcare, with no option of relying on their families.

I raised this issue with the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It seems that this is a parcel that is being passed around. I welcome the opportunity to address the Taoiseach on this. Before he answers, I want to say that I do not accept the excuse that this requires primary legislation. I welcome the extension of the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme to those on maternity leave, introduced in this House a week or two ago. That requires retrospective legislation. The same can be done with this. I do not accept that we cannot do it. The cost of extending this to all those mothers who would be entitled to it for three months which was quoted to me by Deputy Regina Doherty, some €134 million, is a pittance compared to what we are prepared to pay out to industry or what we normally pay out to the greyhound and horse racing industries. The contribution to society of these mothers and their babies is well worth it.

This would be a brave move by the Taoiseach. There is a similar campaign in Britain. The Taoiseach could take the lead. Does he have the political will to make sure that this happens and that legislation is introduced retrospectively? Rather than putting this stress, anxiety and worry upon these families, will he allow them to stay on maternity leave with benefits for an extra three months? He should remember that many of these new mothers are lone parents. They really need the financial assistance that goes with the extended leave. It is not a question of taking unpaid leave or relying on parental leave. They need to be treated as a special case during the Covid-19 crisis. Any excuse concerning legislation is unacceptable. We have extended and changed legislation relating to evictions, planning laws, labour laws and employment laws. This can be done for the mothers and children of this country, who are worth every penny and every move the Taoiseach can make.

I thank the Deputy for bringing this petition. I will give it full and meaningful consideration over the next couple of days. I mean that. A lot of the legislation the Deputy mentioned was passed when we had a properly constituted Seanad. We do not have one now, so we are not in a position to enact primary legislation. This may require that. We cannot always bring in retrospective legislation. The leave aspect would be justice legislation and the benefit aspect would be social protection legislation. We will give it due consideration. I am aware of the strength of feeling behind the campaign and I can certainly see the benefits of extending maternity leave and maternity benefit for families who had a newborn in the last couple of months.

I am always nervous when reading stories in the newspapers that relate to scientific papers because they are often not reported correctly. However, I read an interesting story in the papers today showing that there had been a significant decrease in the number of babies of low birth weight born in University Maternity Hospital Limerick. That is really interesting because a few weeks ago we worried that the increase in stress and anxiety during this period would have negative health impacts. I think it has, but this positive health impact is a silver lining. It seems that the lockdown has led to a different lifestyle, resulting in fewer babies being born with a low birth weight. That is really significant but it is only one study. We would not want to read too much into it but it is interesting.

Last week the Taoiseach told the Dáil that nobody would be worse off than they were before the pandemic as a result of his proposed cuts to the €350 Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. That is not true. The Taoiseach has played with words in order to hide the reality of the cuts he is planning but the press statement issued by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection last Friday and updated today is clear. It says "For those whose prior employment earnings were up to €199.99 per week... the PUP rate will be €203 per week". That means huge cuts in income for many lone parents and others who had part-time jobs bringing in less than €200 per week but also had income from social welfare.

Those hard-pressed families will end up substantially worse off, with some losing almost half their income. That will also add to the horrific increases in food poverty reported today.

I will give some examples. Emma was working two days a week for eight hours on €12 an hour and she has one child. She was previously earning €192 a week from her job and got €225.50 a week in jobseeker's transitional payment. Her total weekly income was €417.50. When she lost her job because of the pandemic, that was reduced to €350 a week on the PUP. From the end of June, however, her PUP will be cut to €203. She will have to move back to the jobseeker's transitional payment and her income will, therefore, be reduced to €239 a week. That is a drop from €401 a week to €239 a week. It is a cruel cut that will mean she will be unable to afford to pay her rent, through no fault of her own. Let us also take John, who was previously working two days a week on minimum wage and earning €161.60 a week. He was also getting €130 in jobseeker's allowance for the three days he was not working. His total income was just over €290, but now the Government is cutting him to €203 a week - a drop of approximately one third in his income.

I could give many more examples, including students who work part time in January and February, but full time at this time of the year and who rely on that income to pay their way through college, and seasonal workers who work part time in the off season, through no choice of their own, and rely on the income they make working full time during the summer. Will the Taoiseach correct the record and accept that many people will be worse off if the cut to the PUP is proceeded with and will he agree, therefore, to withdraw the cut?

I will have to examine the examples the Deputy gave. What I said, however, was that nobody would be worse off than they were before the pandemic as a consequence of the decision being made. I did not say that no one would be worse off than they were before the pandemic. Many people are worse off than they were before the pandemic. Most people who have lost their jobs, for example, are, sadly, worse off than they were before the pandemic. The average weekly wage in Ireland in the first quarter of this year was €800. We were seeing some significant and welcome wage growth in Ireland before the pandemic, up to €800 a week. An average person, therefore, who was earning €800 a week and who has lost his or her job is now on €350 a week.

Many people, therefore, are much worse off than they were before the pandemic hit. That would be true of people on the wage subsidy as well. The solution is not welfare; the solution is jobs and getting people back to work and into work, so they can earn much more than can ever be offered under the welfare system. There are people who were on the PUP who would be better off on regular welfare payments, including for example, the one-parent family payment, jobseeker's payments, particularly if they have dependants, and the option is there for them to apply for those payments.

I will quote the Taoiseach's words from last week in the Dáil: "The changes we are making tomorrow will ensure that those young people", referring to young people working part-time before the crisis, "are no worse off than they were before the pandemic". That is the impression that the Taoiseach gave to people. He suggested that those people would not lose out as a result of the cuts and that is not the truth. The truth is that many people are going to be worse off as a consequence of the Government's decision. Some people will lose up to 50% of their income. It is an incredibly cruel cut to make, particularly in the context of food poverty, etc.. This is in line with the Taoiseach's kicking down with the "Welfare cheats cheat us all" campaign based on bogus figures and spin. It is right wing populism going after bogeymen, including people who supposedly won the Lotto, who obviously have not, and preparing the way to cut PUP for everybody. The Taoiseach should withdraw the cut.

I do not have the full transcript in front of me, but I think, if I remember correctly, the Deputy was referring specifically to students and young people working part time, and not the kind of examples he gave. We have the same welfare system as we had before the pandemic. It is internationally and independently adjudicated to be one of the more generous welfare systems in the world and one of the most successful in redistributing income. That welfare system is not being cut. We layered something new on top of it, and that was the PUP.

The tremendous sacrifice of the people in recent months has meant that we as a nation have made great progress in flattening the curve.

I pay tribute to the front-line staff who have done Trojan work over the past few months in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. They have put their lives at risk to care for the sick and get us where we are today. Unfortunately, some of them lost their lives and I offer my condolences to their families and the families of all those who have lost a loved one due to the coronavirus. I congratulate the Taoiseach, the Government and all who have played a part in flattening the curve in recent months.

Parents of children with severe or profound disabilities still have no certainty regarding a return to education for their children. These children, who thrive and progress in the school environment, have now been at home for 13 weeks. Distance learning is not an option and, unfortunately, many of them have regressed in terms of their education and behaviour since the lockdown began. Life has been extremely difficult for their parents during this time and they have advocated for the July provision to take place in a school-based setting. I am aware that the July education programme was debated with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, in the Chamber yesterday. He stated that the issue would be discussed at the Cabinet meeting on Friday, following which he would give an update.

I am aware of schools in Galway that are ready to open for the scheme but have not received any communication from the Department of Education and Skills. Special needs schools are very different from mainstream schools. They operate with small numbers and staff with responsibility for the care and hygiene of the children already practise infection control protocols. In many ways, they are among the schools best placed and ready to reopen. Parents of these children need a firm commitment on a date on which schools will reopen. I ask that such a commitment be given after Friday's Cabinet meeting.

Businesses have just started to reopen and will need support for the weeks and months ahead. They need short-term and direct financial support, as well as long-term access to low-cost capital. When businesses closed their doors many of them, especially those in the tourism and hospitality sectors, lost their cash flow immediately. They were viable businesses that were trading successfully and it is critical that we get them up and running again. The small and medium enterprise sector employs almost 1 million people. The hospitality sector employs more than 260,000 people, including 27,000 in Galway alone. Tourism will be the last industry to recover, which puts thousands of jobs at risk. The Irish Independent reported today that foreign visitors to Ireland will fall by 10 million this year. If we assume that each of these tourists would have spent an average of €1,000, the loss to the economy, particularly the hospitality sector, amounts to €1 billion. Galway alone is down €200 million in lost revenue as a result of the cancellation of the Galway races, the Galway Arts Festival and all events associated with the European Capital of Culture 2020. I compliment the chief executive of Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture, Ms Patricia Philbin, and all her staff on the excellent work they have done in preparing for Galway 2020. It is unfortunate the event had to be cancelled.

The following measures should be considered to kick-start the SME and hospitality sectors. I ask for the suspension, as opposed to deferral, of all rates for a 12-month period, a zero VAT rate to overcome challenges in the short-term and help businesses get up and running more quickly, and a return to the 9% VAT rate for the hospitality sector up to the end of the 2022 season.

The National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, was established in 2009 to bail out the banks and ultimately save the Irish economy. Something similar needs to be done to keep businesses viable until a vaccine becomes widely available, businesses can operate at normal capacity and tourists can travel freely. Irish businesses and taxpayers bailed out the banks at a cost of more than €100 billion. It is now time for the SME and hospitality sectors to be supported to get our economy back on track. If these businesses cannot reopen due to cash flow problems, many thousands of people will be out of work in the long term. The timing of the lockdown in the middle of March coincided with the start of the tourism season for the hotel and tourism industry. As such, many of the regular summer staff were not on the payroll on 29 February and could not avail of the wage subsidy scheme. I ask that this matter be examined to see what support or grant scheme can be put in place to help seasonal businesses to rehire their staff.

Another major issue for the hospitality sector, one which was raised earlier, is the 2 m social distancing rule.

According to media reports, if this rule is left in place, 84,000 fewer jobs will be filled in the hospitality sector. It will have a devastating impact on many businesses which will be unable to open.

Earlier this week, I met with a number of local hoteliers from across Galway city and county who employ thousands of people. The 2 m social distancing rule was one of the biggest issues of concern. These businesses are now actively preparing for reopening and if the 2 m rule is going to change, a decision needs to be made quickly before money is spent renovating and preparing for 2 m social distancing. These businesses do not have the cash flow to change their premises around again if social distancing is reduced from 2 m to 1 m in a couple of weeks' time. I note that the Taoiseach takes advice from medical experts but I ask that he would consider reducing the social distancing rule from 2 m to 1 m, which is in line with the World Health Organization guidelines and is similar to what is being implemented in other European countries.

In summary, my questions to the Taoiseach are as follows. After Friday's Cabinet meeting, will a firm commitment be given on a reopening date for special schools so that they can operate the July provision programme in a school-based setting for children with severe and profound disabilities? Will commercial and VAT rates be suspended with a view to kick-starting our economy and getting businesses up and running again? Can a scheme similar to the wage subsidy scheme be introduced for seasonal workers in the hospitality sector to help retain their employment? Can the 2 m social distancing rule be reduced to 1 m, in line with the World Health Organization guidelines?

I earlier answered questions on the 2 m rule so I might answer the Deputy's other questions now. The plan as of now for the summer programme is that the Minister for Heath, Deputy Harris, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, will bring their proposals to Cabinet tomorrow. All things going to plan, we will sign off on that tomorrow, they will make the announcement and hopefully that will answer any questions or allay any concerns that people have. I absolutely understand the stress that parents with children who have special needs are under at the moment. I spoke to some of them who are very much at the end of their tethers and we have been working hard for the past couple of weeks to put something in place so that those children get the education and stimulation they need over the summer period, both home-based and school-based. That is what we are working towards.

On Galway 2020, I share in the sentiment of Deputy Grealish's words. I do not think anybody could have endured the amount of bad luck that Galway 2020 has. It was going to be great. I was excited about it and the Government was happy to support it financially. We could not do the launch because of a storm and then along came a pandemic which meant we could not do it at all. I do not know if it can be done but perhaps there is some way that we can do it next year or the year after, or something like that, and make it even better than it would have been in 2020. It is a shame that the city and country lost out on that.

On the question about business, there is a three-month rates waiver in place. That is not a deferral, it is a waiver. There is a reopening grant of up to €10,000 available to businesses. There is also the wage subsidy scheme which has now been extended to August which will pay a big part of the wage bill for businesses reopening. There is also access to low-cost loans.

On seasonal workers, we did consider what the Deputy suggested but it is not something we believe we can do. It is one thing to put in place a wage subsidy for somebody who was on the payroll but it is quite a different thing to put in place a wage subsidy for somebody who thinks that they might have been on the payroll. It is hard to assess that.

Supports have been put in place for business and by no means is everything that has been announced the end of the matter. We appreciate that more will need to be done to help businesses reopen and survive in the coming months. We are examining other measures and are happy to hear people's suggestions in that regard. One thing we cannot do is a 0% VAT rate. There is an EU VAT directive and, unless that changes, one cannot introduce any new zero-rated VAT goods or services. Rates can be reduced but not to zero in those cases. One can only have a certain number of rates. Businesses really need demand more than a low VAT rate. They need footfall and people spending money. We will need a domestic tourism campaign to encourage people to take a break or holiday at home over the summer period if they can afford to do so. We also need to encourage people to spend in local shops again because, while many people have seen their incomes badly hit by the pandemic, there is a whole other group of people who did not lose their jobs and have been accumulating savings over the past couple of weeks and months. The best thing that those people can do when the economy reopens is to spend money in the economy and they should be encouraged to do so because, by their doing so, other people will be able to get back to work.

I would hate to see what happened during the last recession happen again, where people who did have a bit of money were almost afraid to spend it. We need the reverse of that and to encourage those who can to spend money in the economy in order that others who do not have money can get back to work and do the same.

Local authorities around the country are organising the reopening of their counties. In Kerry we are no different. Kerry County Council, along with its elected members, is putting in place town centre mobility plans ensuring social distancing is in place on our footpaths and so on. The council also is looking at allowing street furniture for cafés, restaurants and pubs to use to ensure they can increase capacity while maintaining social distancing rules. What can the Taoiseach do, together with the Minister for Justice and Equality, to help? At present people are not to consume alcohol outside or near a premises from which it is purchased. Can these laws be relaxed, temporarily even, to allow for the next weeks and months?

On Tuesday at our meeting, together with the other leaders, I raised the issue of hairdressers, barbers and beauticians. I am glad at what is being spoken about since yesterday. I acknowledge the gratitude expressed by the Taoiseach at that meeting for the good presentation given by the Irish Hairdressers Federation, which I know influenced the Government's decision strongly. I would like the Taoiseach to make a statement to the House outlining exactly what the Government is now proposing in this regard.

Also at that meeting on Tuesday, I raised the issue of the 2 m rule. I appreciate Deputy Grealish raising this as well. In the county I represent which, of course, as I continuously say, is the tourism capital of the world, the retention of the 2 m rule will have a very serious negative impact on our opportunities to get people back to work. Obviously, I respect that any decision the Taoiseach makes will be done in close conjunction with those giving him health advice. However, I ask him and the Government to look very closely at the 2 m rule and the potential for going down to 1 m. It would mean thousands of jobs, not just in the county of Kerry but throughout the country.

It has been raised by others, but I have been asked by many parents of children with special educational requirements to raise the July provision and the issue of special schools and allowing for the teaching of our children who are challenged with regard to getting their education, and that the Government would do and be seen to do everything it can for that special category of young students who need help. in conjunction with their parents.

I thank the Deputy. I may not have picked up exactly right on people consuming alcohol outdoors or on the street. My understanding is that it is not against the law. There may be by-laws in certain counties or city areas but in terms of national law, drinking alcohol in a public place in Ireland is not illegal. Being drunk and disorderly is; that is an entirely different thing. Just having the one pint, perhaps, or maybe two or three glasses is not against the law.

In Kilgarvan they are fairly concerned about it.

Or in the Phoenix Park for that matter. On the 2 m rule, as I mentioned earlier, while there are different advices from different bodies, everyone agrees that a distance of 2 m is safer than one of 1 m and a distance of 3 m would be safer again. A distance of 1 m provides about 70% or 80% protection from somebody who is carrying the virus. A distance of 2 m provides closer to 95% protection. We should be honest with people that if we are going to go from 2 m to 1 m, that is an additional risk. It is much less of a risk than it was a few weeks ago when the virus was circulating in the community to a much greater extent than it is now. It would be a calculated risk to go from 2 m to 1 m. The risk of not doing it also exists, as the Deputy has mentioned. Being unable to open schools fully has consequences too. Not being able to open the hospitality sector properly and a potential 80,000 people not being able to get back to work has consequences, not just economic but also health consequences.

Work is being done involving the HPSC and Departments to calculate and quantify that risk so that if we make a decision to change the advice or make exceptions to it that we know the risk. It is a risk analysis and we expect to have it concluded next week.

The Taoiseach left out the hairdressers.

What about the hairdressers, Taoiseach? It strikes me that of all the heads I have been able to see this morning, despite the concern for the barbers and the hairdressers, are fairly well coiffed.

I acknowledge the concessions that have been made in bringing forward some of the stages. However, those over 66 years are still neglected. They are not looking for much, all they wanted was the difference between their pension and the Covid payment. They have played and continue to play a big part in our society.

Mobile businesses have been badly affected. There are many from bread vans and the milkmen to readymix and block drivers and the many services, such as those who come to our houses with fresh fish. However, because they are mobile and do not pay rates they get nothing. It is very unfair. I was astounded to hear the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, say that they were in a better position to deal with it than others. How could they be? They have been stopped dead in their tracks and have had no income. It is very bad.

On childcare, I do not know why the fabulous array of community centres up and down the country cannot be used. They are in almost every community, thanks to Government grants and also teams of volunteers which enabled them. Community halls should be used for childcare. They are used in some places, such as in my own village where the naíonra uses the community hall.

The matter of barbers was raised by Deputy Michael Healy-Rae recently. The Taoiseach has also received a letter from Willie Walsh, a wonderful barber in Clonmel. They need to get going. There was a bit of a story in the newspaper this morning but there is no clarity. Will the Taoiseach direct NPHET in relation to barbers, especially, and hairdressers? I know it takes a bit longer to do the ladies' hair than it does men's. The black market is thriving and it is killing our economy and those businesses such as the one I mentioned and many more, including Liam Wall in Cahir, which are open 40 years. They are providing good employment and have invested in their premises so that they can work safely and well.

Some 50% of the private bus companies who bring our children to school are Bus Éireann contractors. They are getting 50% of their income which is necessary and a help but there are a large group of people - I know many of them such as Denny Whelan in Cahir - who provide bus services to families who cannot get the service from Bus Éireann. They have the very same insurance and standards, the bus has to be DOE tested and everything, and rightly so, but they are not getting a penny. They cannot afford this. We need them to come back in September when the schools reopen.

July provision was mentioned. It is awful. I welcome that some GAA pitches are open for a limited time for people to use them. These people have been stuck in their houses.

Some 74,000 people responded to the call to help Ireland through the HSE and our hospitals, but only 140 were employed. What is wrong? There was such a spirit of the people. The 74,000 was whittled down because some were not qualified. Yet, we are still spending huge money on private hospitals. I know we had to take them over, I supported that, but they should have been given back June because of the numbers waiting for all sorts of tests, such as CervicalCheck or BreastCheck and prostate cancer. There are ads on the radio supporting the hospice with the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. The Taoiseach might get a job if he is out of a job next week, if Micheál takes over from him. So many people are waiting for so many operations, with capacity going to waste. The queues will be massive during winter.

I refer to the Revenue Commissioners. Applications for grants are stacking up as people are told that if their taxes are not up to date, they cannot get them. Revenue should show some lenience with tax this year. Everything just closed overnight and people were unable to do their books and have no revenue to pay their tax. There should be some understanding by Revenue about this year's taxation. Long-term arrears are a different story, but they should get a break over the current year.

I can assure the Deputy I will still be Taoiseach next week.

Deputy Mattie McGrath does not need to say any sayonaras just yet.

The contract for the private hospitals ends at the end of June, so it is really only a couple of weeks now. The HSE is now trying to negotiate a new arrangement with the private hospitals to allow them to step in if, for some reason, we need the beds at a later stage and also to use the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, to get some necessary work done for public patients.

Regarding the Be On Call For Ireland campaign, a large number of people expressed an interest. Quite a large number were not suitably qualified. Quite a large number already worked in health and social care, for example, in nursing homes. Rather than moving them to hospitals we wanted to keep them in the nursing homes for reasons people will understand. What also happened there as well is that a lot of people were recruited locally anyway, rather than going through the HSE central system, which can be quite cumbersome. At local hospital and community level, managers were empowered to recruit locally and in a lot of cases that is how it was done instead of through the central system.

Tá an Teachta Connolly ag roinnt a cuid ama leis an Teachta Harkin.

Ní mór dom a rá ar dtús go n-aontaím le ceannaire Fhianna Fáil agus leis na Teachtaí eile go bhfuil gá práinneach le cinnteacht ó thaobh ghruagairí na tíre. Ní mór dom a admháil go bhfuil coimhlint leasa agam mar tá sé deacair domsa.

I agree with what was said by the leader of Fianna Fáil and the other Deputies about hairdressing. There is an urgent necessity in that regard. I confess to a conflict of interest regarding this matter. We are talking about a minimum of 25,000 people, not to mention the linked companies, industries and small businesses. We do need certainty. They have shown that they can comply with whatever rules are necessary.

I also welcome the fact that there will be some certainty tomorrow on the July provision. I have raised it many times with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education and Skills.

Today, ba mhaith liom díriú isteach ar chúrsaí meabhairshláinte. Is ábhar é atá an-ghar do mo chroí. Tá sé ardaithe go mion minic agam ó 2016. Faraor géar, tá orm é a ardú arís inniu. I wish to raise mental health. I will allow the Taoiseach a minute or two to answer because it is a very net issue regarding A Vision for Change. The roadmap has been mentioned very often in regard to Covid. We have had a roadmap for mental health services. I prefer to call it a vision, and indeed that is the title, A Vision for Change. The journey started in 1984 with a document called Planning for the Future, because we realised that the model was not suitable. Then it took more than 20 years to get A Vision for Change, which is absolutely visionary. I have an utter sense of frustration in relation to this matter and I have highlighted it repeatedly. At the time A Vision for Change was published, it was recognised that no Government – not just the current Government – could be trusted and, therefore, an independent monitoring body was set up. It sat for two different periods and it did an excellent job. I have asked the Taoiseach repeatedly why he cannot reinstate the independent monitoring body to show his bona fides if nothing else while he waits for the review, the renewal or whatever it is called of A Vision for Change. Since 2016, I have made nearly the same speech and implored the Taoiseach to do something. First, we found out that there was a review of the literature, which took a short period. In fact, the date on it is February 2017, but it was not published until July 2017. Then we got another approach, in that we were told there would be a review or a refresh. In the meantime, the core point has been the absence of an independent monitoring body to review the implementation of A Vision for Change and whatever necessary changes were needed. I will stop to allow the Taoiseach to respond. How much is spent on mental health? I am asking him a very net question about an independent monitoring body.

I thank the Deputy very much. I am going to tell her because I think it is important. Back in 2012 only about €700 million a year was spent on mental health. This year, for the first time it will be more than €1 billion. Since my party came to office, there has been a 44% increase in funding for mental health. Unfortunately, I doubt that future Governments will be able to do quite as well as that but I have no doubt that they will try.

A Vision for Change ran out in 2016. There is a successor document, which was approved by the Cabinet last Thursday. The Minister of State, Jim Daly, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, intend to publish that, I think, next week. That will really inform the actions of the next Government. There is a commitment to establishing an independent monitoring body in the document.

The plan is to publish the new refreshed document, already approved by Cabinet, next week and to allow the new Government to establish an independent monitoring body for that to hold our feet to the fire and to make sure that it gets implemented.

I welcome the clarification that there will be an independent monitoring body. I do not agree with the Taoiseach that A Vision for Change ran out. The date ran out - 2006 to 2016 - but the vision contained therein and the implementation, and what they set out on every sector, and the fact that it was a partnership with the community and with families, and to rebalance the power in the mental health sector, was all clearly set out. None of that is stated. The problem is it was not implemented.

I welcome the good news. Cuirim fáilte roimh an gcinneadh go mbeidh eagraíocht neamhspleách ar ais chun monatóireacht a dhéanamh ar chúrsaí meabhairshláinte.

I will raise the issue of supports to small business. I did so last week as well. In the intervening period, I have spoken to many small business owners who speak about an escalating crisis in the sector. Time and time again, I have spoken to both the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, about the mounting wall of debt that many of these businesses are facing. The Government put loan schemes in place. These are useful, but interest rates are too high and loans mean that these businesses are piling debt upon debt. Many of them cannot afford to do this. The average SME carries between €7,000 and €8,000 extra in debt because of Covid. Many of them, of course, know that when they reopen, it could take six, or maybe even 12, months before they return to their previous trading position and in the meantime, they will be struggling just to stay afloat.

As I said, the Government has its loan scheme in place and its restart grant, but the take-up is low. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has committed €250 million but many SMEs will only be able to access the minimum amount of €2,000 because of rates paid last year. If one contrasts our response to that of Germany, it has €50 billion in federal grants pledged to SMEs. The equivalent for Ireland would be €2.9 billion. We are talking about €250 million in grant aid. That is one tenth what Germany is allocating. I want to know why is there a reluctance to step in to support businesses that account for 65% of all employment and 31% of our exports.

Also, I raised with the Taoiseach on the last occasion the issue of those businesses that do not pay rates - the wedding industry, the tour operators, the man in the van, the man in the bus, the plumber or the electrician. The Taoiseach stated he would look at that and I ask whether he can confirm that he will.

As often happens in this country, we have an economy within an economy. The three regional assemblies have compiled a report on the impact of Covid. It is not good for any region but it is particularly grim for the north west and the Border. I will highlight one particular statistic that reflects overall what is in this report. The report looked at 64 settlements throughout the country and their exposure to significant economic disruption caused by Covid-19. The two top towns are Bundoran in Donegal, at 75%, and Strandhill in Sligo, at 70%. Carrick-on-Shannon comes 17th - mostly in Leitrim and a tiny bit in Roscommon - out of 64. The report makes it clear that the economic impact of Covid is more severely felt in the north west and the Border and we can see the impact in smaller towns and villages. What I am saying to the Taoiseach is we cannot wait any longer because if we wait too long, viable businesses become vulnerable and vulnerable businesses are likely to close.

At EU level, the unthinkable has happened. The fiscal rules have been relaxed. They were written in blood and we had a referendum on them here, yet France, Germany and Denmark all recognise they have to support their businesses with state aid. Will the Taoiseach please commit to a significant upgrading and increasing of the supports already in place for SMEs?

The fiscal rules, as the Deputy will be aware from her time as an MEP, always had provision to be relaxed in circumstances like this. They were never what the opponents made them out to be-----

They were not like they are now.

Indeed, they were relaxed and we will borrow something like €30 billion this year - maybe 10% of GDP - the largest deficit in a very long time. We are certainly not being shy when it comes to spending and borrowing money on behalf of future generations to get us through this crisis. There is in place a rates waiver for three months, tax liabilities are being warehoused, and there is a reopening grant of up to €10,000. The uptake is high, not low, and we will have to put more money into it because it is so high. There are debt deferral mechanisms from the banks, low-cost loans available and a whole plethora of other grants, including online trading grants and grants from the local enterprise offices. We are examining other additional measures and that work is being done by the Departments of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and Public Expenditure and Reform.

I am interested in what the Deputy said about Germany. I did not know that and it is significant information for me. If it is grants and loans, we are in a similar space, but if what Germany is doing is all grants, it is doing a lot more than us. I would be interested in hearing any more information on that the Deputy can share with me.

On businesses and sole traders that are not rateable, which the Deputy raised with me last week, we are examining that. The reopening grant is based on a rebate of a business's rates, and because such businesses do not pay rates, they do not qualify. We are looking at a different mechanism, of maybe giving them back some of their income tax from a previous year as a means to help them get their business going again. That is what we are examining with regard to that.

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