Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act) 2020 - Part 3: Motion

To prevent any confusion, the debate on the motion will adjourn at noon for Leaders' Questions and will resume in the afternoon. I call the Minister to move the motion. He has 20 minutes.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann resolves that the amendments effected by Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 (No. 1 of 2020) shall continue in operation for the period beginning on the 9th day of November, 2020 and ending on the 9th day of June, 2021.

Before the Minister continues, I want to say that I fundamentally disagree with a question of this importance being determined after a debate lasting 145 minutes, which gives less than one minute per Deputy in the Chamber. I propose that Standing Orders be suspended to allow for more time. I appreciate that the Government has a difficult decision to make but that decision must be made after adequate debate in this Parliament. If that debate is not to take place in the Dáil, I ask the Government where it is to take place. Is it to take place violently outside the gates of Leinster House? There is no place for violence and I condemn it, but there is a place for debate and it is here in this Chamber.

I appreciate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle allowing me to speak. Deputy McNamara and I have come from a meeting of the Business Committee, which is why we were late getting to the Chamber for the debate on the preceding motion. The Business Committee is redundant now. By the time I got out of the Chamber the other evening, the meeting of the committee was well under way. It concluded with a vote at approximately 10.40 p.m. to change the Order of Business for today. Like Deputy McNamara, I think it is shocking that we have 145 minutes for the debate on a motion such as this. When I see the number of Deputies in the Chamber and the slots not being taken up, I wonder what the public thinks of it. It is a tyrannical regime that we are going to put people under and I object strongly to it.

Regardless of our opinions on it, this reflects the Order of Business as decided by the Business Committee. I hear and appreciate what the Deputies are saying but I must invite the Minister to introduce the motion.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I am here to introduce a resolution to extend the sunset clause in the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, which is due to expire on 9 November. It is fair to say that we are living in truly unprecedented times and I do not believe it is possible to overstate how serious a threat Covid-19 continues to pose to our lives, our health and well-being, our economy and our society. To date, Ireland has recorded 53,422 cases and, sadly, 1,868 deaths. I know this House will wish to extend its sympathies to the bereaved families and friends who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 this year.

When the Government brought this legislation before the Oireachtas six months ago, we were really at the start of what has turned out to be a continuously evolving and uncertain journey. Earlier this year, we managed to flatten the curve and return to a period of relative normality but recent trends and the current disease profile are very concerning. All indicators of disease incidence and severity have continued to worsen in recent weeks. In the past week alone, there have been almost 9,000 cases and the national 14-day incidence rate now stands at 291 per 100,000. We have also seen outbreaks of Covid-19 continue to occur in the community, in hospitals, and, most worryingly, in long-term residential care settings. In response to the rapidly deteriorating epidemiological situation across the country, the Government had to make some very difficult decisions this week to protect public health by moving the entire county to level 5 for the next six weeks under the plan for living with Covid-19.

It is worth highlighting that Ireland is not alone in this crisis. Indeed, all across Europe and much of the rest of the world, Covid-19 infections are on the rise and, increasingly, countries are having to introduce more restrictive measures in response. These measures place extraordinary limitations on our lives and livelihoods, limiting who we can meet, how far we can travel and requiring some businesses and services to close their doors. The Government does not take these decisions lightly and always seeks to balance all considerations, including public health, economic and societal considerations, to ensure measures taken are proportionate to the level of threat. Regrettably, we need to retain these measures as part of our national response. They proved essential in allowing us to suppress the virus in the first half of this year and they are essential as we do so again. Critically, they will support us in protecting our key priorities of maintaining health and social care services, keeping education and childcare services open and, above all, protecting the most vulnerable members of our communities.

Ensuring a balanced response to Covid-19 is a complex task. Since the beginning of this crisis, the dilemma facing Government has revolved around how to implement public health measures in response to the pandemic in a way that is fair, reasonable and proportionate. This is neither easy nor straightforward but I assure the House that we will continue to use these powers in a responsible way. I also assure the House that work is continuing to further develop and enhance a broader public health response, including public health capacity, our testing strategy - including the potential use of alternative diagnostic approaches - and our testing and contact tracing services. While these services are understandably under pressure progress has been made in developing capacity in recent months and more sustainable capacity continues to be added to the system, including significant recruitment in recent weeks.

While testing and contact tracing are by no means a panacea for managing this disease into the future, a robust and timely public health response to cases and clusters will continue to provide an important element of our overall response. Testing and tracing on its own is not sufficient for managing this disease and we must retain the ability to put in place a range of measures as facilitated by this legislation and targeted at limiting opportunities for virus transmission.

The measures provided for under the Act are exceptional and the Government is mindful of the concerns regarding their impact on individual rights and freedoms. As the position is ever evolving and changing, we must use the option to renew them for another period. I am conscious, as I seek to extend this emergency legislation at a time of great national anxiety, that it is important to reiterate that these measures will be imposed only in exceptional circumstances. We intend to continue to deal with this public health emergency through the co-operation of our people and collaboration between all our State agencies. Nonetheless, we must continue to legislate to ensure that we have all the required powers to fight this virus. Let me reassure the House that the Government is clear that public health measures restricting individual rights must be introduced and retained only in the pursuit of legitimate public health goals, must be the least intrusive to achieve those goals, and must be of limited duration.

Our priority today must be the protection of both public health and human life, preventing the spread of the virus and working to mitigate its impact on our people. That is why I seek the extension of the sunset clause contained in the Act. I propose an extension of seven months up to the 9 June 2021 as this is in line with the timeline of the Government's medium-term strategy Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with COVID-19. I ask Deputies to support the continuation of these measures.

I also wish to highlight that the Government is seeking to mitigate the impact of restrictions insofar as possible by ensuring that there are sufficient mechanisms in place for businesses and individuals to support them through this pandemic. We are improving the pandemic unemployment payment and the employment wage subsidy scheme to take account of the new restrictions. We will prioritise the roll out of new supports in mental health services and adopt the inclusion of support bubbles as part of the own household provisions. We are also taking action to enhance the effectiveness of public health measures by developing more robust and appropriate enforcement mechanisms. On Tuesday, the Government agreed to the introduction of a system of tiered penalties and I look forward to introducing the legislation in that regard in the Dáil tomorrow.

As the published figures showed last night, this virus does not discriminate based on age, gender or geographic location. We must all work together again to help slow its spread. We can do this by following the level five measures and the ongoing public health advice to all of us, including social distancing and handwashing.

I want to comment now on the level 5 measures that have been in place since midnight. We are making a pre-emptive strike against this virus. The next six weeks represent our opportunity to suppress the virus in order that we can open up for December. Our priorities of human health and human life, our health services, education, childcare and jobs are all stable. Fatalities have, however, doubled in the past two weeks on a daily basis and it is projected that they will continue to do so. Regrettably, new cases are growing exponentially and ahead of even the exponential projections we were given just two weeks ago.

In one very important way, the level 5 measures are like the measures brought in during the first wave. The very simple and important message is to stay at home. It is just like in the first wave. The message when we needed to flatten the curve was to stay at home and this is the message today also. If we are to drive the virus back down quickly and effectively, which we must do, then a core message for level 5 is for people to stay at home. Where this set of measures is different to those we lived through earlier in the year is in the provisions that accompany this. This time the healthcare services will remain open. I encourage anybody who has a healthcare appointment to please keep it and to engage with his or her GP, therapist, consultant and other healthcare professionals. It is crucial that people continue to do this.

Childcare, primary schools, second level schools and third level colleges remain open. Manufacturing and construction remain open. Critically, disability day services remain open. Sports training for school-age children remains open in its current form, namely, on a non-contact basis and in pods of up to 15.

I was very keen to see the concept of the support bubble included in these level 5 measures. This is a new measure that we did not have last time. It covers single adult households, an adult living alone or sharing custody of children, or in exceptional circumstances such as an adult living with a person who has advanced dementia, for example. The levels of isolation for those people is not something that should be seen. Those households can link up with one other household to create an extended household.

There is an eviction ban in place and there are the additional economic measures to which I referred earlier. Critically, numerous supports are in place for nursing homes, including: funding; the provision of personal protective equipment; a wide range of expert medical supports, including for geriatrics, infection prevention and control and occupational health.

The next six weeks will be difficult for everybody, for every person, every family, every community and every business. These measures and exemptions I have listed will help but, as before, for us to succeed and to flatten the curve now each of us will need to play our part and each of us will need to look out for each other over the coming weeks.

There are no copies of the Minister's speech. It would be helpful if there were. I believe that a very limited number were prepared. Will the Minister confirm that we will be getting copies? Some Members received copies.

On a point of order, it is awful. Only a handful of us are here. It is totally disgraceful.

That is not a point of order.

I do not blame the ushers. They do not have it. There were two or three copies. I cannot get a copy and I have been here since the Minister started speaking.

I thank the Deputy.

I appreciate that, but it is shocking. Only a handful of us are present. If there were a hundred here, then it might be something.

I thank the Deputy. The point has been made. A small number of copies were available, and some Deputies got them. It is unacceptable. Everyone should have a copy. This is very serious. It is not about Deputies sharing copies of a speech, it is about an adequate number of copies being made available for everyone. The point is made.

I move amendment No. 1:

“To delete the words ‘9th day of June, 2021’ and to substitute the words ‘9th day of February, 2021’ therefor.”

To the Minister for Health, I say that we all want to play our part in making sure that a date is ready and that we are equipped to deal with the real challenge Covid presents. We all support public health measures and interventions which will allow us to wrestle the virus back under control, which we need to do. We also need to use the coming weeks, to which I will refer later, to prepare so that we can stay ahead of the virus if and when we manage to bring the numbers down.

This works both ways, however. When the Minister looks for support from us, and we give it as we want to support the public health measures, the Government and the Minister for Health must respond appropriately. The level of co-operation with the Opposition seen during the very early stages of the pandemic does not exist today. There are not enough briefings. Even before today's debate, all of the Opposition representatives on the Business Committee had to fight for even the limited time we have been given today to debate this issue. The Government's original proposal was that both motions, that on mental health and this motion on the Minister's wider powers over all restrictions, would be taken without debate and that there were to be no briefings for the Opposition.

I believe some in Government briefed the media about some of those who attended briefings, including my own party leader who left a briefing with the Chief Medical Officer at the same time he did, leading to irresponsible and inaccurate coverage in some newspapers.

We are not getting as many briefings as we should and we are not getting information as we should be getting it. Even yesterday, with regard to the Health (Amendment) Bill 2020, which relates to fines, the Joint Committee on Health was told that the Minister would be available to give us a briefing. We then got a call to say that he would not be. I am sure there was a good reason for that and I am not saying that the Minister was responsible. I am only telling him what was communicated to us. We were told the Minister for Health would be available. I then got a call from the clerk of that committee to say that the Minister would now not be available because of a meeting. We then got a briefing from a number of officials who, by the way, did not answer all of our questions to our satisfaction. This was not because they did not have the answers but because the answers were not actually in the Bill. We were being asked to sign a blank cheque, with which we will deal tomorrow when that legislation comes before us.

The Minister was given extraordinary powers in good faith by Members of this House. To push the sunset clause out until 9 June is to push it too far. That is why we have proposed an amendment under which the horizon date would be 9 February. It would be appropriate for the Minister to return to the House in February rather than June to extend the emergency powers again, if necessary, and to explain the context in which they are needed. This has to be part of an overall strategy which people can see and which shows how we are to exit from these types of restrictions and the sort of yo-yo situation about which people talk. We do not see such a clear plan coming from Government. In the absence of this plan, we have a Government which seeks these powers for a further six months, up until the middle of June. That is a step too far for us not because we do not want restrictions or do not believe public health measures should be implemented, but because we believe in scrutiny and accountability.

We need notice from the Minister when he publishes statutory instruments. I find out that statutory instruments have been introduced when they go up on the website. Most of us here are the health spokespersons for our parties but we are given no heads-up whatsoever. We get no email from the Department to say that the Minister is going to publish a statutory instrument, which will be available online, and to offer us a briefing or clarification on it. None of this happens. I say all of this in good faith. I want this to change. The more information we have, the better armed we are to respond to queries from people outside of this Chamber.

I have already made the point that this must be part of an overall strategy. This motion again extends the sunset clause, allowing the Minister to bring in further restrictions and statutory instruments and to do many other things as well. People watching this debate, possibly from home, want a clear strategy and plan from Government. They do not have the sense that such a plan exists.

As part of this, we have to ensure that our defences and capacity in a number of areas are built up. We are now going into a lockdown of six weeks, or at least four, and possibly more if the numbers do not come down. This will mean real challenges for working families and businesses. We all accept that. Many people are not going to work today because their jobs are temporarily gone. They are surviving on incomes far lower than they would have if working. That is a real challenge for them. We are making a real ask of them as individuals. While we make this ask of individuals, it is important that the State step up to the plate. That means using the coming weeks wisely instead of repeating what happened over the summer when we got as close to zero Covid as possible but wasted these months by not putting capacity into our hospitals and our testing and tracing systems. This is now coming home to roost.

We can see what is happening with tracing. I ask the Minister to tell us clearly how many people have been hired of the 1,200 promised new staff for testing and tracing, because I still have not been given the number. I have asked. I have submitted parliamentary questions. Having that number is important if we are to be assured and reassured that there is capacity in the system. Testing and tracing has to be front and centre. While the Minister is looking at imposing restrictions and public health interventions, which are necessary, and everything else this Bill does, other measures need to be put in place to go in tandem with these provisions so that people will know their sacrifices are not in vain. Ratcheting up capacity in testing and tracing is one such measure.

We also need to hire as many front-line staff as we can get for our healthcare system. In the budget, the Minister promised to hire 16,000 new personnel. We have not been given a breakdown of this number. In fact, the Joint Committee on Health this week received a one-paragraph response from the HSE which said that a plan would be available in the coming weeks. We are producing plans to plan again as opposed to having the detail worked out. We are still none the wiser as to how many additional staff are to be brought in. As Deputy Kelly has pointed out, we have fewer nurses in the system now than we had before the pandemic began, even with the additional recruitment which has taken place. We need to see all of that happen.

Almost 1,500 people who responded to the Be on Call for Ireland initiative are in a pool, more than 800 of whom are job-ready, but have not yet been given a contract. That is completely unacceptable. The Minister needs to get a grip on that and ensure that those people who are available and qualified to work on the front line in our hospitals and in testing and tracing are given the opportunity to do so.

We also need a joined-up approach. While the Minister seeks emergency powers in these areas, he needs to co-operate more with his counterpart in the North. The Chief Medical Officers in the North and South need to be more aligned. This is an all-island crisis that merits an all-island response. The memorandum of understanding that was signed is not working, or at least not working to my satisfaction. More needs to be done. I would like to hear the Minister tell us what engagement he has had with his colleague in the North. I would also like to know what more the Government is doing, or intends to do, with regard to an all-island response whether in the area of testing and tracing, the area of ports, airports and transport or the area of sharing data and information, because that must also be at the core of our response. We also need to see all of the income supports put in place for workers, families and businesses.

In concluding my remarks I will again in good faith say to the Minister that Members of this House want to work with Government. We work with public health officials. We want to support all of the public health measures that need to be in place to ensure that people are kept safe, but we have to be kept in the loop. If the Minister is honest with himself, and if the thinks back to when he was an Opposition health spokesperson, the previous Government was in place and the pandemic was at its height in April and May, he will recognise that there was much better cohesion and co-operation and much more respect shown to members of the Opposition than is now being shown. I appeal to him to sort that problem out so that we are better equipped with information and better able to respond to queries.

My final point is that we sought a direct line for Oireachtas Members to contact the Department in respect of the most recent restrictions. There are many exemptions to what is allowed and not allowed but we have no facility to get clarity on issues. That is absolute madness.

We are all inundated with calls from constituents, with queries such as what the restrictions mean for gyms and other places of work. Some businesses are trying to circumvent the rules by selling products just so they can remain open. Workers are calling us to ask what they should do, and we are left hanging, with absolutely no facility to get responses to questions. That is not acceptable. People are being asked to make sacrifices and restrictions are being put in place, but they are simply being guided to a website that gives generalities. When specific questions are asked, however, we do not get answers because there is no facility to do that, other than parliamentary questions. If the Minister wants us to flood the system of parliamentary questions, that is fair enough.

I do not believe that is that way to do this, so I again appeal to him to set up a system that will allow Oireachtas Members to get information as quickly as possible so we can respond to our constituents and provide clarity. If something is not allowed, then it is not allowed, but we could then give that information very clearly, as opposed to trying to interpret what is there. I appeal to the Minister to do all that, to work with the Opposition and to ensure there are more briefings, more information and, dare I say it, more respect shown to Opposition Members.

Did the Deputy formally move his amendment?

I agree with the comments of the previous speaker. We need an access point. There are many queries. I cannot answer some of them, because I do not know. I think we are all in that situation. There is confusion and so many provisos. It would be good, therefore, to have an access point or a telephone line through which we could get clarity. The Minister must also ensure the regulations are brought in fairly. I refer to large multiple stores being open and taking food out of the mouths of small shop operators who must close. That is unacceptable, and I ask that something be done.

This resolution amends the Health Act 1947, and public representatives are now familiar with these regulations, although they change frequently. They deal with a range of issues. Government announcements have been purely advisory and have not been made the subject of regulation. What restrictions have been spelled out in regulations but without powers of enforcement or penalties if they are breached? What restrictions are classed as penal and may be prosecuted?

Since the start of the pandemic, and the official responses to it, there has been a gap between public health restrictions and what has been set out in legally-binding regulations. I will give some examples. The first lockdown was announced and put in place several days before any regulations were made. There have never been any regulations relating to social distancing in public. There was no legislative basis to the green list for travel and the law has never required inbound travellers to isolate or restrict their movements, regardless of their country of origin. These are all issues and anomalies that people point out.

This situation has placed An Garda Síochána in an invidious, if not impossible, position. An Garda Síochána is a law enforcement body, not a public health advisory agency. It has no business enforcing rules not grounded in law. When the public complains about breaches of the rules and ask where are the guards and why are the rules not being enforced, the answer is that the rules in question were never put into regulations.

I will stop, because there is no point in my speaking if the Minister is not going to listen. He spent the past 30 seconds talking to another Deputy who approached his seat. Will I repeat what I was saying for the Minister?

Deputies should address their comments through the Chair. I appreciate the point being made by Deputy Kelly. It is difficult when Teachtaí approach the Minister in the Chamber. It has happened several times. I ask that the Members desist from doing that while Deputies are speaking.

I do not think the Minister for Health has a clue what I was just saying.

The Deputy has made his point. I ask him to continue with his contribution.

By God, the Minister needs to listen. It is ridiculous.

As I was saying, the rules in question were never put into regulations, and that was not because the Government does not have the power to do so. The Oireachtas gave that power to the Government in March. For some reason, however, that has not been spelled out, the Government has preferred a confusing approach whereby some public health rules have no legal status, while others are put into regulations but made non-penal. That means there is no power to enforce them or to penalise any contraventions. In addition, a third category of rules has been made fully penal.

It is not helpful when some people, here and outside, refer in a blanket way to all the restrictions as prohibitions and bans. They are not. Such references reinforce the public perception that rules are being enforced and flouted. The reality, in law, is that the Government in many cases did not make enforceable rules in the first place. We cannot go into level 5 with such a mismatch between Government public health pronouncements and Government regulations. An Garda Síochána can only lawfully enforce level 5 restrictions when they are reflected in the law. Fudges do not work.

The public may be concerned about the lack of Garda enforcement, but the first step is to use the already available power to make regulations that explicitly prohibit contraventions of public health restrictions. The second step is to make those restrictions penal and the third step is to bring in prosecutions. This is not impossible, and has happened in a limited number of District Court cases. We believe it is necessary to stress that these powers are already available to the Government. It, however, has chosen, for its own reasons, which the Minister might wish to explain, to not avail of them to any major extent. This Bill is about conferring an additional power as an alternative to a summons and prosecution in front of the District Court. In lieu of issuing a summons, a Garda may decide in certain classes of offence to serve a fixed penalty notice. If the penalty is paid, there is no prosecution.

It is worth noting that although there is a provision for fines of €2,500, that penalty can only be imposed by a court under the provisions of this Bill, while a fixed charge will be €500, or less. It must be stressed again that this legislation will kick in only if the Government first makes regulations and then specified in those regulations that some of the provisions are to be penal. That is more than the Government has been prepared to do to date. This Bill would also require the Government to undertake a third step by specifying that certain penal regulations were also to be fixed penalty provisions, to which the new Bill would then apply. The Government must make penal regulations under the law we are renewing now, and that adequately reflect the level of restriction announced by the Minister as public health policy. In no way, should we continue with the mismatch of communications to the public not grounded in law and we also cannot continue to put An Garda Síochána in an invidious situation where its members do not have the powers to do what the public, in some cases, think they can.

I apologise for my late arrival this morning. It was due to a pile-up on the motorway. I am glad I was not involved, but it delayed my journey by some time.

I have listened carefully to the debate and I appreciate fully the importance of the issues and the need for a sound basis for the decision taken by the Government. The Minister and I have had past incarnations where we did not always sing from the same hymn sheet. That said, the situation facing the Government now is much more serious than people generally understand. The information and advice being made available must be borne in mind in the first instance.

Incidentally, I listened to reference being made to South Korea in recent days and comparisons being made to the situation here. South Korea has approximately one quarter of the testing and tracing facilities available here. That information was presented to the health committee only in recent days. People in South Korea have a different attitude, however, from what is seen to be the law and its observance. That comes, of course, from their background. We preserve our freedom and that is part of our constitutional entitlement. We are right to do that. We are now, however, imposing a second lockdown of six weeks, which might be more or less depending on what happens.

Everyone knows there have been widespread breaches of the rules, regulations and good conduct guidelines that have been set out. They are only guidelines. It would not have been necessary to have this particular shutdown were it not for the fact that large numbers of people all over the country have been disregarding the guidelines, rules, regulations and calls by the Minister and NPHET to observe social distancing and curtail social interaction by not visiting among friends and so on. I cannot for the life of me understand why people are continuously asking if it would be alright if they had a visit from so-and-so. We all have an overall responsibility and it is necessary to curtail the onward march of the virus in early days and to recognise that a shutdown damages the economy and livelihoods of people all over the country to a huge extent. Surely it must be possible to instil in the minds of everybody in the country the absolute necessity of observing social distancing and hygiene regulations both in spirit and to the letter. If we do not do that, we are likely to have a further and more expensive shutdown.

On the issue of advice, I am not sure that we as Deputies should take it upon ourselves to advise people, other than to advise strict observance of the rules and regulations to curtail the virus in the first instance. If we move over into the next phase and talk about infringement of our freedoms and democracy and so on, we get into a different situation which is not the subject of the rules and regulations necessary to curtail the virus. We have heard it said, including in this House, that this situation is not serious at all and if there were no regulations, it would be possible to manage it. We hear comparisons made with other countries. Every single other country has had either a subsequent lockdown or failures and breakdowns and they are having them as we speak. At this particular time, given the onslaught of winter and the degree to which people have failed to observe the spirit and letter of the regulations in the past few weeks, we must recognise the urgency to do everything we can individually and collectively. We must make our individual contributions to curtailing the virus in every way possible in order to protect the health of our citizens in the first instance and the economy in the second instance. It is in our own hands and those of the general public. Every single one of us, whether a public representative or an ordinary member of the public, has an urgent responsibility to further the aims, suggestions and advice of those who have the scientific evidence at their disposal and who have done well so far in predicting the levels of infections long before they arose and long before it became necessary to take emergency measures.

I would like there to be more focus in this debate on the need to comply with the health regulations as a matter of urgency and, by so doing, to remove the necessity for any further lockdowns. If everybody throughout the country had observed the regulations as much as possible over the past two months, there would be no need for a lockdown or the extension of the sunset clause because we would have achieved our objectives.

This issue has been discussed at great length - to exhaustion, in fact - at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response and the Joint Committee on Health. Again and again the conflict arises. It is a simple and legitimate case. The country has to survive economically or we cannot pay for all the things we want to do. That is recognised. However, it is possible to achieve the same results without a lockdown, on a voluntary basis, subject to compliance with social distancing. It is not true that this has been happening. It has not. There have been widespread outbreaks of the virus at various locations throughout the country and they have been traced back to particular situations, such as house parties, celebrations and so on. There is a short and simple answer to everything. Is it safe to have these celebrations now? The answer is to ask whether the person asking the question feels it is safe. Does he or she feel it is irresponsible to proceed against the advice that is available at the present time, to have gatherings and intermingle, to ignore the regulations and, as a result, make the whole country pay the price again?

We had our own shutdown in north Kildare in the past. I do not believe it would have been necessary if all regulations had been complied with, but that is the nature of things. We have exceptions. I hope and appeal to us all - myself, my family and everybody else included - to observe the regulations voluntarily and thereby remove the necessity to have any kind of lockdown at all. I ask the public to co-operate and provide the social distancing required. They can do that.

There are a number of shops, boutiques, clothing shops and so on in the towns and villages throughout the country that can and will observe social distancing. They can ensure people wear masks and that no infections can take place as a result of one or two people entering the premises. They should be consulted to find out whether they can provide such preventative measures within their premises. I think they can and that they would be willing to do so. Like everybody else in the House, I have had numerous requests for this consideration, because these shops have not contributed to this situation and have observed and done everything they should. They closed down before and there have been no instances in their premises. In those circumstances, I ask that we look at them again with a view to finding out whether any compensation can be made to their particular circumstances, on the basis of their willingness and agreement to observe the regulations strictly and to the letter.

There are two minutes remaining in this slot. Is anyone else from the Government side offering? No. Are we in a position to adjourn the debate?

Rather than adjourning the debate, is it appropriate or allowable for another Member to make a quick contribution, just to keep the clock going?

I do not have a list of speakers.

A speaking order has been agreed.

Deputy Shortall is next.

The floor is Deputy Shortall's but I must ask her to move the adjournment at noon.

I am sure the Ceann Comhairle has noted that a number of parties that insist on having priority over others have not bothered to show up this morning. That needs to be taken account of.

The previous speaker spoke about putting the responsibility onto the public. Obviously, the public has a responsibility but the primary responsibility for providing leadership and taking action as promised lies with the Government. Unfortunately, it has not done so to date. Others have spoken of the need for consultation and briefings and those are undoubtedly needed. Up to the end of April, we had weekly and sometimes twice-weekly briefings. We had none during the summer and since the end of August, we have had three briefings. That is not adequate. They are basic briefings about the data. We have heard nothing about the modelling or the forecasts and there is no consultation whatever. The Taoiseach makes decisions within a limited circle.

He sees fit to consult with other people, certainly the business community, but never consults with Opposition parties. The approach is all the weaker for that. If there was cross-party agreement on the approach, which there should be, and an opportunity to input to that, that would send a clear message to the public. It is regrettable that is not the case. The basic point about these regulations and also the legislation tomorrow is that it would not be necessary to the same extent if a different approach was taken by Government, if Government was prepared to consult and if it was prepared to put the time into producing clear messages for people, developing the sense of solidarity that we had at the start of the year and encouraging people to work together on the basis of what works in people's own minds, of what seems to be fair and reasonable and how we can all help each other.

Debate adjourned.