Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

This morning, people woke up with a great sense of anxiety and uncertainty about the future. Last night's news that the State was to be moved to level 5 from midnight tomorrow until the end of November was the source of this uncertainty and anxiety. I understand fully that this was a hard decision for the Government. I also know that it is an even harder decision for all those who will bear the inevitable brunt of the hardship it will bring. It would be impossible today to overstate the level of concern and, in some cases, distress among our people.

I fully accept that action had to be taken. There is no doubt that the virus is being transmitted exponentially. We now have six weeks to do the things I believe the Government should have done during the summer months, when we achieved a very low rate of transmission of Covid-19. At that time, through collective action and personal sacrifice, we suppressed the virus and, with the right plan, I am absolutely confident we can do it again. We must not, however, lose this second window of opportunity to build capacity and our defences for the time ahead. We need to see a plan, therefore, to increase hospital bed capacity and for the rapid recruitment of staff. We have to get testing and tracing right. We need a plan to ensure a secure and affordable roof over our people's heads, and we need to get things right as regards people coming onto the island through our airports and ports. It would be unthinkable if in six weeks we were to meet again not having responded to these challenges. We need a strategy that brings us beyond 2020. This must be an all-island strategy.

I was taken aback by the Taoiseach's comments last night that seemed to suggest we will move in and out of lockdown for the duration of 2021. I would like him to clarify that point for us. A lot is being asked of people over the next six weeks. The Government absolutely cannot sleepwalk its way through this lockdown. Everything that needs to be done must be done to ensure we emerge stronger at every level.

I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach has addressed his devastating cuts to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and wage subsidy scheme. As he knows, we were very concerned that he did not do so in last week's budget. He now needs to make sure these payments do not leave anybody behind. One group that is struggling and has been left behind is mortgage holders. We argued very strongly that the mortgage payment breaks should have been extended for homeowners and businesses. That was at the end of September, just three short weeks ago, yet the Government failed to secure these protections. Now, three short weeks later, we are on the eve of a day when 200,000 will lose their jobs. Does the Taoiseach now accept that this was a very grave error in judgment on the part of his Government and, in particular, the Minister for Finance? Does he accept that this failure will have very serious implications for the credit ratings of tens of thousands of families and businesses? He could have done something about this but he failed to do so and that is shocking. He cannot blame people for believing the cosy relationship between his partner in government, Fine Gael, and the world of high finance was a key reason the Government sat on its hands and allowed this to occur.

Who will be calling in the banks? Will the Taoiseach be in contact with them directly and will he make it clear to them that they must play ball in giving easement and breathing space to mortgage holders?

I accept that moving to level 5 creates a lot of anxiety, difficulties and challenges for people, particularly people in employment who will now lose their jobs and enterprises that have struggled through the pandemic and since reopening have been endeavouring through hard work and putting in place safe protocols to save their enterprises and keep them going which, to a large extent, many did. To be hit with a move to level 5 is a huge blow to them. That is accepted. That is why it is a difficult decision to move to level 5. I know from talking to all of the leaders over the past two weeks that all of them were of the view that moving to level 5 would be very difficult and that is the case. However, protection of public health is paramount. The virus thrives on congregation. Where large crowds gather, the virus spreads. That is the fundamental truth. Therefore, we have to avoid large crowds gathering in any context and mixing and engaging.

We are not proceeding with an elimination or zero-Covid strategy as a country. We are also not proceeding with a herd immunity strategy. This virus kills and it also damages people for the long term in that it can have long-term health implications. The strategy to be followed is one of suppression. Deputy McDonald mentioned that I held out the prospect last evening that we were in a cycle. We are, but it is very much subject to human behaviour and all of us reducing congregation and gatherings of people in large numbers. I am not saying that. NPHET has said this to us. I am being very candid with the Oireachtas. I foresee periods of high level restrictions followed by low level restrictions and, if necessary, followed by high level restrictions again if the virus spreads during the reopening phase.

On testing capacity, we are testing far more people than we did in the first phase. The Chief Medical Officer said on "News at One" that we are testing at an unprecedented rate right now. The serial testing programmes are picking up a lot of cases, particularly in nursing homes and other locations, including in schools where up to 13,000 students and teachers have been tested and the positivity rate is around 3%. It is important that we set as a societal objective and priority that we keep our schools going.

Deputy McDonald spoke about people having a roof over their head. We are allowing construction to continue because we have a homeless crisis, a housing crisis and we need to build homes. We lost ground during the first lockdown. The construction sector here took a bigger hit than was the case in any other country across Europe. As a result of the lockdown, we are behind in terms of output and houses built. Prior to the formation of the new Government, we were behind in meeting targets for 2020 because of the lockdown. We must allow house construction to continue because of the crisis in homelessness, the lengthy social housing lists and housing need generally.

On the all-island approach, Deputy McDonald is well aware of the situation. Her party is in government in the North and she realises more than anyone in this House the difficulties and sensitivities of endeavouring to reach an agreement within the North, never mind on an all-island basis. I have been in touch with party leaders in the North. Whether it will move to a higher level is a matter for the Northern Executive. It has had challenges and difficulties in arriving at the decision it reached last week.

On the banks, the Deputy knows well that the European Banking Authority co-ordinated a Europe-wide approach to mortgage breaks and loan repayment breaks in the context of the first lockdown, which was Europe-wide. That was the context in which Government could do what it did on that occasion. The Minister for Finance will be engaging with the banks on this issue. Our entire approach has been to alleviate as much distress as possible, increasing and bringing in new tiers for the pandemic unemployment payment and the employment wage subsidy scheme and the introduction in the budget of the new Covid restrictions subsidy scheme for companies that will be closed for longer periods as a result of this pandemic.

All of our approach has been to try to help where we can to alleviate the stress and pressures on people.

The Taoiseach is right that the European Banking Authority did indeed oversee and supervise the regime for mortgage breaks. Under those rules, mortgage holders in Germany, Spain and Italy got payment breaks for 12 months. In this State, they got three months followed by another three months, which is six months in total and half the time allowed to mortgage holders in other jurisdictions. The Taoiseach knows as well as I do that an extension to the mortgage breaks had to be agreed and secured by 30 September. The Taoiseach knows and I know that the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform and the Tánaiste waltzed into a meeting with bankers on 28 September, had a conversation with them and there was no extension to mortgage breaks. That was three weeks ago. Now we are facing level 5 restrictions and 200,000 people will find themselves out of work. Those already out of work are reporting to us, to the Money Advice & Budgeting Service and to other authorities that the banks are not facilitating them and are not offering them alternative payment methods.

The Deputy is over time.

In fact, they are saying to them, "That is too bad. Your mortgage is not sustainable and we are offering you no alternative." That is a recipe for repossession of people's homes.

The Deputy's time is up.

Having messed up disgracefully at the end of September by allowing the banks to return to business as usual, I am asking the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, to intervene now to make sure that the banks play ball and offer customers all the relevant options.

The Deputy continues to play the populist card. The first thing she could do is talk to her party colleagues in the North and get them to do much better in terms of mortgage breaks. They are offering only three-month payment breaks that can be extended after assessment, unlike the Irish payment break, which was for six months in total without assessment.

That is gone now.

Deputy McDonald needs to get her own house in order. She continues to lecture people in here all the time about what we should be doing, but her party does not deliver where it has power and is in government. It is always somebody else's responsibility but never the Deputy's. That is always her story in terms of any issue.

The Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform do not waltz in to meet the banks. Let us have less of that nonsense. They go in there to seek the best they can, which is the right deal with the best outcome. A payment break is only a payment break and is not in itself sufficient in the medium term to deal with people in loan distress or in difficulties with their mortgage arrears. The Minister for Finance will engage with the banks on this. Within the ECB framework and the European statutory framework, we did everything we could and, in fact, we were more generous than some of the countries the Deputy referenced.

The Taoiseach's time is up.

The Deputy is again being deliberately distortive in her assessments and assertions.

The other jurisdictions offered breaks that were interest-free.

It is somebody else's turn to talk now, Deputy.

I welcome the fact that a strategy has been announced and that the Taoiseach took on board a number of the proposals the Labour Party put forward last week. We were very clear on where we thought the country needed to go, unlike some others. In regard to what was announced, we are not going to magically wake up on 1 December and see what has been delivered. We need metrics and measurements. We need the Taoiseach to say to the public what we need to achieve, what will happen if we achieve the specified measurements in regard to the R-nought rate, hospitalisations and everything else and what will take us to level 3 and level 2. It is about giving people hope, as the Taoiseach knows, in terms of Christmas and there on in. We cannot always be going between levels 2 and 5. I believe we are going to have to live with this virus and to move between one level up or one level down, but these massive changes cannot be sustained. What do we need to do to ensure we get to levels 2 and 3? Can the Government show metrics and measurements in this regard to the public?

It is appreciable that the Government has taken on Senator Moynihan's proposal on bubbles, which she has been working on for some time. However, I want clarity on the idea that we can allow individuals to come together. There are 400,000 people living alone and the over 200,000 single parent families. The details on the Government's website are way too restrictive on visiting for children under 18, mental health, custody arrangements, dementia and carers. We have overcomplicated this. I know the Government has made a couple of changes to what it announced already such as for funerals, with which I agree. How can one measure whether somebody has a mental health challenge and that he or she should go into a bubble? It is not measurable. We need to make this very simple. What is the difference between somebody going into a bubble because he or she needs to do so due to a mental health challenge and somebody going into a bubble because he or she is partaking in chemotherapy? These people are both equally needy. The Government should take a line from the television show "The Cube" and simplify it. The Government is on the right track but it is a little bit too narrow and tight. This needs to be simplified. It is a very good concept, it has worked in New Zealand and Britain has adopted it as well. It deals with the issues we all know the lonely and vulnerable faced in the first lockdown. I ask the Government to look at simplifying this and allowing two people to come together for whatever reasons, rather than those reasons listed by the Government. I also ask the Taoiseach to give us some measurements and metrics on what we can achieve through yesterday's announcements by 1 December.

I thank the Deputy for his comments and support for the Government's decision. On the metrics, NPHET has been clear that we have to get consistently below R=1. Ideally NPHET would want us to get it to 0.5, although it would be very challenging to do so in six weeks. There are other measures that we need to get consistently going on a downward trajectory. Other factors would have to be considered as well, as is the situation within the plan. Those are the broad metrics, particularly getting the R number well below 1 and getting the trajectory going downwards. That depends on all of us working and adhering to the regulations and guidelines. It is extremely important that we do that because the reward for that is to get shops open on 1 December, get people out again and get back to level 3. That would be my objective. Level 3 is a controlling level, if properly enforced and adhered to. I am not holding up prospects beyond that. It depends on the progress we make against this virus over the next six weeks. Nonetheless, that is what is ahead of us.

I appreciate the proposal that Senator Moynihan put forward. The co-leader of the Social Democrats, Deputy Shortall, also raised this issue at our meeting last week, namely the concept of a support bubble and we have taken that on board. We have to be careful about this. Care exemptions are already available outside of the concept of the support bubble and they were always available in the context of the household rules and regulations. Beyond the care regulations, there is the situation of someone who is living alone. The overriding objective is to prevent social isolation and to enable people to have an exclusive bubble or connection with another household. I take the Deputy's point and I also want to keep it simple. I do not want to complicate it any more either. The public health officials are nervous that people may exploit this measure but that will not happen. It is a valuable addition and it is an example of learning from the first phase of the lockdown. It is an example of trying to take lessons and apply them to how we behave.

We will be dealing with the impact of this for the next 12 months, even if we get the vaccine before the end of the year.

Today the Government signed up for two more advance procurement deals with the EU and two other companies. This comes on top of the deal we signed up for with the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, so the European Union has now signed up for three. The vaccine could come by the end of the year, but by the time it is manufactured in sufficient volumes and we have it distributed we will still be dealing with Covid-19.

I appreciate what the Taoiseach is saying. I believe the Government needs to simplify this, particularly if it is to bring in new regulations for An Garda Síochána, so I urge the Taoiseach to consider that.

I also wish to ask the Taoiseach a question about something I revealed yesterday. We have 200 fewer full-time nurses in the HSE than we did in December, which is incredible. How in the name of God did that happen? We have 1,800 temporary contract nurses more than we had. I am following what the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is saying about the number of healthcare workers he will bring in, which is 1,600 by the end of next year. I remind the Taoiseach of the figures of 8,500 by the end of this year and 12,500 by the end of the winter plan in April. Nobody watching these proceedings and no one here believes that is achievable, given the track record I have just outlined, so what will the Taoiseach change to ensure we can get more permanent nurses, who are so badly needed, into the system? Will he once and for all ensure that the exploitation of student nurses ends now? It is utterly wrong. For his information, on the HSE website, as of an hour ago, there were 70 advertisements for nursing, three of them in the community care area and only two for more than one nurse in any setting, so it does not look in any way as if there is any hope of achieving those numbers.

I will engage with Deputy Kelly, the Minister for Health and others on Deputy Kelly's ideas about the bubble and with other Members of the House on how it can be, in the Deputy's words, simplified, particularly in respect of subsequent adherence and enforcement. However, it is not really a measure that one would enforce; rather, it is a measure one would want to make sure is useful for the correct purposes.

I will have to check those recruitment figures with the Deputy and I will talk to the HSE. There can be statistics, statistics and damned statistics, suffice to say-----

The figures came in an answer to a parliamentary question. They are HSE figures.

-----there is no shortage of resources being given to the health service and the HSE right now to expand numbers and deliver over 1,200 acute hospital beds for next year in community, rehabilitation, acute - right across the board. The recruitment will continue. Another challenge, as we recruit into the HSE system, is to make sure that nursing homes and so on do not come under pressure as a result of that recruitment effort. That is an important issue that we have to keep an eye on.

I have been asking the Taoiseach for some time now to consider taking an all-party approach to the response to Covid. It is really regrettable that he did not take up that proposal because we found ourselves yesterday in a situation in which a momentous decision was taken yet there was no consultation whatsoever with Opposition parties or party leaders, no sharing of data and no sharing of the modelling. That is really regrettable, and I think the response has been all the weaker for it. I repeat that request, that the Taoiseach consider such an approach, because over the next six weeks not only do we all have to work together to drive down the virus but we must also use that time to devise a coherent strategy in order that we do not have a third lockdown in January. That coherent strategy has to include proper testing and tracing, an all-island approach, testing at airports and, fundamentally, it has to entail all of us working together. I ask the Taoiseach to consider now some actions he might take, that is, to broaden the decision-making around all these issues to include a wider perspective and to consider doing so now in order to improve the balance of all the issues being taken into consideration and improve the prospect of success.

When one considers, for example, the all-day deliberations last Saturday, they were quite narrowly focused both in terms of the nine or ten principals involved in that decision-making, all being male and lacking a more balanced perspective, and also that the grouping was very much focused on the health perspective but also the mathematical modelling involved. While the figures are critical to this, there is also the issue of human nature. I am not aware of anybody with any kind of expertise in behavioural psychology being involved in any of the decision-making around this.

Two areas have shown the lack of balanced decision-making. The first is with regard to the proposal on having no visitors in homes. A large number of people of all age groups live alone. It is unreasonable to say to those people that they cannot have a single visitor to their homes. There are exempted categories but let us take as an example a 25-year-old or 30-year-old living on his or her own and possibly working from home. The Taoiseach is saying to such people that they cannot have a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend in to visit. That is completely unreasonable. The Government needs to revisit that and consider the wisdom of it because it does not take account of human behaviour.

The second area is related to vulnerable workers in nursing homes and meat factories, which is highly precarious employment. It is human nature that if someone is not covered by sick leave entitlement, he or she will go to work. We will, therefore, have a repeat of what happened earlier in the year when we had disasters in both those settings. Will the Taoiseach reconsider those two issues? They are not reasonable and do not take account of human behaviour. They need amendment in all reasonableness.

I thank the Deputy for her comments. We had an all-party leaders' meeting last Monday week.

No, that was a briefing.

I met Deputy Shortall afterwards with Deputy Kelly. The Deputy was on the call and then left which is fair enough as it was a long meeting. People asked for a briefing the previous week. I believe the briefing was useful in dealing with the issues the Deputy has just raised, such as modelling and the Chief Medical Officer's and deputy Chief Medical Officer's perspectives on the issues. Mr. Paul Reid was there as CEO of the HSE. That briefing happened only last Monday week. I then spoke to party leaders later in the week, including Deputy Shortall's co-leader, Deputy Catherine Murphy. I spoke to Deputy McDonald about the situation in Northern Ireland and the move in Northern Ireland to the equivalent of our level 3. I spoke to the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the leader of the SDLP - I did not get to speak to other leaders in the North - to see if we can get as close to a harmonisation of positions as we could, notwithstanding the different political sensitivities and realities and the two different jurisdictions. We must be a bit real about this. The word "glibly" is thrown around the House about an all-island response but we must recognise realities. I am not on the Northern Executive. The Northern Executive had its own challenges last week trying to get agreement. It got agreement but it was difficult, so the attempt to always apportion blame to the Government for lack of an all-island response is just not credible or tenable. That needs to be said. It is easy to talk but it is-----

I did not say anything about blame.

I am speaking generally and that is what is said.

Will the Taoiseach answer the two questions I asked?

I will answer the Deputy's questions. I did not interrupt her. I have time to answer her two questions but the Deputy mentioned an all-island approach. It is being tossed about the place that we should have an all-island approach and the Government should sort it. Parties in this House which are on the Northern Executive cannot sort it. We need to get real about it. There are political realities and sensitivities which the Northern Executive must deal with and which I endeavour to be political about in the sense of not politicising. I have always endeavoured not to politicise it.

I have. If the Deputy asks the First Minister and deputy First Minister, they will say that. I understand the pressures they are under.

Will the Taoiseach answer my questions?

I will do everything I can them to support them in having to deal with what is a very serious situation for them and the people of Northern Ireland, as it is for the Republic.

On the issue of no visitors allowed to homes, that is the whole idea of the bubble. I am answering the question. The idea is that we do not have a person on his or her own who cannot have a connection with another household. The raison d'être in this regard is to reduce social isolation and that is why that measure was brought forward. Again, it stems from public health advice. Deputy Shortall should remember that at the beginning of this crisis she was very clear about the need to adhere to public health advice. It is the public health advice that put forward these provisions from the get-go because they want to avoid congregation and large crowds. They also believe that households have been one of the places where the disease has spread to the greatest degree.

On vulnerable workers and precarious employment, we have initiated a serial testing programme and the Tánaiste is working on bringing in greater supports for workers in that regard. He is engaging with the companies on matters such as sick pay, recruitment policies and giving greater security of tenure to these employees.

I would appreciate the Taoiseach answering my questions rather than continuing his row with Sinn Féin. That has nothing to do with me. I asked him two questions. I asked him about the provisions whereby single people cannot have visitors to their homes. They cannot have even one visitor to their homes. That is unreasonable. The Government has made a very small number of exceptions to that rule in the case of high-risk individuals.

No, that is not-----

I am not talking about high-risk individuals.

It is not high-risk------

I am going by what is on the gov.ie website. I am talking about people who live alone, who may work at home and who are not allowed to have even a single visitor to their homes. That is what I want the Taoiseach to address, not the high-risk categories but regular people who live alone. What the Government is doing in this regard is unreasonable.

The second question relates to what people will inevitably do if they do not have cover for sick leave: they will continue to go to work because they cannot afford not to. As such, what is the Government doing now - not looking at something next year - to stop a repeat of what happened in nursing homes and meat factories earlier this year?

Finally, I have raised this many times with the Taoiseach but I must tell him that the messaging is really weak at the moment. That is because there is no attempt to win hearts and minds. The Government is not being seen as reasonable, it is not being seen as understanding human nature; it is taking the approach of imposing fines and penalties and that is a mistake.

The Deputy misunderstands the social bubble. She has got it wrong. I hate saying that but it is just the reality.

Will the Taoiseach send me a note on that because on the website it is different?

I do not have send the Deputy a note. What is proposed will allow persons living alone, parenting alone or similarly at risk of social isolation to pair with one other household as part of an extended household. This must be an exclusive bubble. For both households, this is their extended household and this will allow for social support beyond the provision of care exemptions already available so this is not in the context of-----

The Taoiseach should look at the special categories.

This is not in the context of special categories, it is in the context of ending social isolation.

On workers in vulnerable situations, we have dealt with that. We have communicated with those workers on the ground. There is the pandemic illness payment and we have made it very clear to them that they will not lose out on income if they come forward with symptoms, are tested, etc. That happened way back in the summer. As the Deputy knows, there has been a serial testing programme under way in meat plants for quite a long time. The positivity rate is very low and, as I have said many times in the House, that is the evidence from that.

I was not having a go at Sinn Féin when I mentioned the all-Ireland aspect in answering Deputy Shortall, because she wrote to me about the all-Ireland response. Everybody in the House has mentioned it, everybody outside the House mentions it and I just said that I need to put on the record of the House that it is easier said than done. Many people are responsible in the context of that and there are issues in the North that are different and have to be accepted.

Will the Taoiseach send me a note because I do not think what he is saying is correct? Will he do that?

More than two weeks ago, on 4 October, NPHET wrote to the Government outlining the deteriorating situation with the coronavirus. It called for level 5 measures across the country for four weeks. The Government rejected that advice.

What is more, the Tánaiste went on RTÉ, channelled his inner Donald Trump and publicly trashed and undermined the public health advice. Two weeks ago, in the Chamber, I warned this approach would not avoid going to level 5 and that it would simply mean going to level 5 later and for longer, after lives had been lost in nursing homes and in the community. That is precisely where we are now. When NPHET wrote to the Taoiseach two weeks ago, there had been 3,000 cases in the previous week. Now, the figure is more than 7,500. Then, there was a 14-day incidence rate of 108 per 100,000; now it is 262. Then there were 31 outbreaks in nursing homes; now there are almost 200. Now, because the Taoiseach did not follow the public health advice, we have a six-week lockdown instead of a lockdown for four weeks. The economy will suffer more damage as a result of this decision. Mental health will be more affected. Women and children facing abusive situations are more at risk. More people will die. Will the Taoiseach admit he made a grave mistake two weeks ago? Will he apologise for that mistake?

The future the Taoiseach has outlined today, what he has to offer people, is a lockdown for six weeks followed by partial reopening followed by a lockdown, again and again, disrupting our lives until a vaccine is found in a year or two. What if a vaccine is never found? That is an appalling vista for people. The Government squandered the sacrifices people made in the summer and failed to take the opportunity then to crush Covid. That mistake must not be repeated. This is why we need a zero-Covid strategy. Despite the Taoiseach's scaremongering in his speech last night, this does not mean locking down until there are no cases. It is about achieving zero community transmission. It means being able to trace immediately any outbreaks that happen.

The WHO has made clear that lockdowns are simply a way to buy time to put in place measures to prevent further outbreaks. These measures now need to be put into place. They include world-class find, test, trace and isolate support infrastructure to hunt down the virus and building a national health service, not by renting private hospitals at extortionate cost but by bringing them into public ownership and incorporating them into our public health service. It means providing people with the support they need to protect others from becoming infected, proper sick pay, a fully restored pandemic unemployment payment and an evictions ban that does not lapse in December promising a wave of Christmas evictions. It means directing the banks to reinstate mortgage moratoriums for people.

Will the Taoiseach apologise for the mistake he made two weeks ago? Does he agree that we cannot repeat the mistakes of the summer and we have to embrace a zero-Covid strategy so this lockdown is the last one that people have to endure?

The Deputy spoke about what happened two weeks ago, which was on a Sunday. The previous Thursday evening, the Government received a letter from the same body, NPHET, that did not even recommend moving from level 2 to level 3. These are the facts. This is the prelude to what happened on the Sunday. Suffice it to say, the letter on Sunday took the Government by surprise, and everybody in the House bar the Deputy and Deputy Boyd Barrett. They were the two Deputies who wanted to move to level 5 at that stage, whereas nobody else did because of the enormous impact it would have on people.

This is not an exact science and let us not pretend that it is. What we have not quantified yet is the human cost of lockdowns, if we are honest. We are getting evidence on the damage to children who are out of school for too long, in terms of regression and life chances, particularly for disadvantaged children who may leave school early. This is hard to calculate. We have yet to quantify and do proper research on delayed diagnoses resulting from a large number of people not using our hospitals during the first lockdown for non-Covid illnesses. Deputy Kelly has been raising this for quite some time. In other words, these are cancer patients, heart patients and people with a range of diagnoses who just said they would not go to hospital and delayed. Many consultants and clinicians are worried about delayed diagnoses. This is not an exact science.

What the Government did in response to NPHET's letter was to move immediately to level 3. Level 3 is a very severe form of restrictions. It essentially closes down our entire hospitality sector, including pubs, restaurants and hotels, bar a few exceptional provisions.

In the context of the European stringency index, before we made our announcement last evening, Ireland was number one in terms of the level of restrictions. That was because we moved to level 3 two weeks ago. We added to that with the single-household provision and further restrictions in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan.

The Deputy said I held up an appalling vista. I do not agree with him on zero Covid and NPHET does not either. The Deputy clearly rejects NPHET's advice on zero Covid but it has been very clear to us that it does not believe that the zero-Covid approach is credible, doable or implementable. The Deputy should not underestimate the impact on human lives, as well as the cost to people, that would result from such a measure. This is not an exact science; it is difficult and challenging and one has to balance a whole range of considerations. It needs to be given deep consideration. It cannot be the case anymore that we move from one level to another on one night on receipt of a letter. The day is over where someone gets a letter on day one and we do something by midnight. There has to be some degree of consideration and other inputs. I agreed with Deputy Shortall earlier - I did not get a chance to reply - when she spoke about bringing in a broader range of people. There are 40 individuals on NPHET but we need other Departments to have an input.

Child welfare referral rates decreased sharply during the lockdown, and that is a danger. Domestic violence increased significantly during the lockdown. That is also an issue. These are all issues that cannot be dismissed. As we go through this pandemic, we will learn more and, hopefully, be able to refine how we do things. NPHET informed us on Saturday that if we work with this for six weeks, we can get to a position, hopefully by the beginning of December, where we can reopen but that, in the new year, we might have to consider more restrictions again to keep control of the virus until we get hold of a vaccine . NPHET believes that is a better and more credible pathway than the zero-Covid or herd immunity pathways.

We have heard about the Thursday letter, level 3 and so on before. I will quote from the letter of 4 October. It states: "A graduated approach would, ultimately, result in application of Level 5 measures as mitigation." NPHET predicted precisely where we are. It is important, to learn lessons for the future, that the Government acknowledge that the advice to move to level 5, two and a bit weeks ago, was correct and that it made a serious mistake by refusing to follow it. I do not care what other parties in this House advocated; NPHET was clear. It has been vindicated and the Government damaged the public health advice in general by taking the approach it did.

Judging by the way the Taoiseach talks about the matter, it is as if those who advocate a zero-Covid approach are pro-lockdown. We are not pro-lockdown. Everybody, surely, is anti-lockdown. Nobody wants to be in a lockdown, but we are going into a lockdown on Wednesday night with the Government's strategy of supposed suppression and managing the virus, which offers a continual yo-yo, into lockdown, out of lockdown, into lockdown, out of lockdown. That is a nightmare for people.

The alternative, zero Covid, can be achieved. In New Zealand at the weekend, there were scenes of people living normally, but it is not just in New Zealand. Countries as diverse as Iceland, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Australia have all implemented versions of the zero-Covid strategy. That is what we need to do in order to give people some hope. I encourage the Taoiseach and the Government to implement that strategy.

I am sort of taken aback by the Deputy's enthusiasm for the statist approaches in some Asian countries towards controlling populations but that is another debate. Asian countries are doing well and I think that is because of the experience with severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, and the fact they use their police and a much stronger state apparatus for contact tracing and so on. They learned a great deal from the SARS epidemic and the West, perhaps, was behind in that regard.

Zero Covid does mean lockdown. The Deputy should not try to have it every which way.

Both ways mean lockdown now-----

No, they do not-----

-----but the question is the future.

The Deputy knows that New Zealand is not Ireland. Our geographical location, in my view, makes zero Covid not credible and very difficult to implement. We are not in a position to seal the Border, nor would we want to.

Second, we have historically a very close relationship with Great Britain. Families travel to and fro. Surely they are not going to seal that border. We are part of the EU and an outward economy and society. I do not know if the Deputy picked up on some of the columns written by our own journalists in Europe. Naomi O'Leary wrote a good one for The Irish Times just prior to the weekend on the Irish living in Europe and working for the State or Irish companies. Are they ever to come home again? The Deputy's zero-Covid strategy would have them marooned for a long time to come.

They could quarantine.

Quarantine is not going to happen to the degree people suggest. It is just not. Our geographic location and connectivity makes zero Covid, in my view, not capable of implementation. I believe NPHET share that view. The Chief Medical Officer and deputy CMO have heard this and the people who put this forward are serious people. I am not ridiculing or undermining people but I genuinely do not believe it is a credible proposition for us as a country to seal ourselves off - and it does mean that. The alternative strategy is herd immunity. I do not think anybody is advocating that.

That concludes Leaders' Questions. We are due to sit until 12.45 a.m. We have just run 15 minutes over time. I do not know if we need stopwatches for the leaders but we will have to try to adhere to the times.

We could give back 15 minutes on Taoiseach's Questions. I am not dodging Taoiseach's Questions.

The Taoiseach is certainly not dodging them. He is comprehensively dealing with them all. The questions and answers are all very comprehensive. That may be the problem.