Level 5 Response to Covid-19: Statements (Resumed)

We all got a shock when we realised that we had to go to level 5 this week. Many people are doing the right thing by washing their hands, wearing masks and reducing contacts while businesses have spent thousands of euro modifying their premises to protect their staff and customers. They were all stunned when they realised that no matter how hard they tried, the virus had taken control and seems out of control. We owe it to those good people and businesses to work very hard for the next six weeks to eliminate transmission of the virus before it is too late. We have come to learn that we must find a way to live alongside this virus but we need to trust people if we are to protect jobs and the economy. I want the Minister's assurance that communications will be clear over the next six weeks. We cannot have the confusion we had in March when our offices were inundated with queries about how everything would operate. I have received many queries from businesses already as to how they might operate in a completely different way this time. There was confusion about who and what should open. Hopefully, we are all working together at this stage and we are on the right road.

I welcome that 2,500 gardaí will be on duty at any one time to ensure compliance with the public health guidance. People need reassurance that those who have always abided by the rules will be protected. I have sought clarification on the ability of gardaí to enter homes without a warrant, but that is not provided for in the by-laws.

None of us wants fines. They are a last resort, but they are necessary. I have spoken to families in recent weeks, and my mother is 85 years. People in my family have bad underlying conditions, as do children some of my friends. These measures were needed today. None of us wanted it but we need to make sure that in six weeks, we can say to our constituents that they can have a nice Christmas that we could go to something like a normal life. I voted for this today because I know that gardaí will explain, engage and encourage before they issue fines.

I am concerned that I have not seen evidence of hard plans outlining what this lockdown will serve. Massive backlogs are becoming apparent in healthcare as a direct result of the same level of restrictions in spring. We do not seem to have learned anything. I am not sure that we have gotten on top of it. I have heard fixing the health service in Ireland likened to fixing an airplane while it is flying. From the outside, it looks like the plane is crashing and we are trying to fix it mid-air. We have to tell the people why we are spending and what we are spending it on. Although ours is one of the youngest populations in the OECD, we spend much more than average per person on health. We should get more for our money, and we should come out of this lockdown only spending money where it is needed. Despite spending millions of euro, we still do not seem to be getting it right. Many people have contacted me who are waiting on hip replacements, cataracts and other smaller hospital procedures and who tell me that they cannot wait. Even in level 5, we must ensure that these procedures, especially the urgent ones, should go ahead.

I am glad that disability and mental health services will continue under level 5 and that jobs have been protected in this sector but we must see an end to this soon. We need to know that everything is okay especially in the vital weeks leading to Christmas. We must ensure that we do all we can to protect the potential earnings for business at that time and people's lives.

At a meeting of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response a month ago, I asked if the HSE was hiring contact tracers, as announced, and was told they were. Constituents told me they had tried to apply but they were told the jobs were being staffed internally. I have asked about this and since been told that the posts were being filled externally. We must ensure that people who have come home to answer Ireland's call, including the great front-line workers such as doctors and nurses, are hired. There is also a language barrier. It is important we give them the jobs when they apply.

This week we learned that the contract tracing staff in place were overwhelmed and exhausted. They are doing their best but the system is under-resourced and understaffed. If people do not go back to work, there will not be a functioning economy, health service or Civil Service. We need to get back to work while this virus lives with us. To do so, we need tracing teams in place. Earlier this week, I raised an issue regarding a local school, which was told not to alert families of pupils about a case as it would cause panic. Had they not gone against this advice, there could have been a major outbreak in a small county such as Carlow. Panic is exactly what we need to do.

There were reports of lockdown eve parties online and queues outside shops. Towns around the country were packed. People might be more inclined not to do this if they knew that this type of interaction might expose them. If cases in our communities are being withheld because of lack of resources in our contact tracing, it seems we have not being able to keep up with the virus.

My fear is that the six-week lockdown will extend far into December and the new year. The business owners making plans for the next six weeks will struggle to cope if the lockdown is extended. We would be facing into the prospect of a very serious recession and having to deal with a lot of health problems in the population. We need to tell the public that we are ramping up tracing, increasing hospital staffing levels and working with nurses and other medical professionals to provide the service that is required. People need to hear some good news. We have all gone through so much and we are all worried about our families and the people with whom we work. We are all worried that the lockdown will not work but it is our job to deliver for the people of this country. One way to do so would be to ensure there are more voices from different sectors in NPHET, which would help to give a more rounded approach.

I met the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, earlier this week. Her departmental team is dedicated to keeping our schools open. To that end, she is setting up a direct schools team, with the assistance of HSE and public health personnel, to assist schools to stay open and to tackle the virus should it enter a school. This initiative will protect teachers, students, other school staff and parents. My understanding is that the plan will be rolled out after the Hallowe'en break. This is the type of aggressive action we need. I spoke to a parent yesterday who told me that her child takes food into school for a classmate who is very vulnerable. What happens to a child like that when the schools are closed? We need to protect and nurture such children and provide a safe place for them. Our schools are currently the safest place for children as we continue to fight the virus in our communities. I appeal to colleagues to do all they can to stamp out the virus and stop it spreading in the community.

Will the lockdown be reviewed after four weeks? Will there be a reassessment of the restrictions for counties that have reduced their rates of infection? Will we allow certain sectors to reopen? In other words, is there a short pass out of level 5 if the rates decrease in some areas and sectors? People need that type of guidance. What considerations will be factored in if there is a review after four weeks? What is being done to ensure that businesses can reopen and everybody can get back to normality as soon as possible? Now more than ever, we need clear communication on these issues. Indeed, the greatest part of my conversation with the Minister today was taken up with the communication aspect.

The other issue I wish to raise is one that is relevant to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Last night, the Dáil passed the Commission of Investigation (Mother and Baby Homes and certain related Matters) Records, and another Matter, Bill 2020, which seeks to preserve information and records in order that they may be used to support future information and tracing services. This morning, my office has been bombarded with telephone calls about my support for the Bill. I have never experienced anything like the abuse I am getting on Facebook. Councillors in my area did not bother to come to me to ask what exactly I voted for last night. To be clear, I voted to preserve information. I did not vote to lock away information for 30 years. There has been talk from different parties that the effect of the Bill will be to lock away information in such a way that people will not be able to access it. That is not what I voted for. I voted to ensure the information will be there and will eventually be accessible to people for tracing. I voted to make sure people can access records that could have been destroyed.

I read today in the Irish Examiner that the Data Protection Commissioner believes there are problems with the Bill. Another reason we voted for the Bill was to protect the privacy, under the general data protection regulation, GDPR, of people who gave information to the commission in the past, before I became a Deputy. We need clarity in this matter and an end to the confusion. If there is a problem with the Bill, I am asking the Minister of State to stop its progress through the Seanad today, where the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy O'Gorman, is dealing with it. I have been contacted by a large number of people who are very upset. I am upset for them. We must look after the families who have had a horrific time over the years. The Government must be there to protect them, not to lock away information that should never have been locked away.

Can the progress of the Bill in the Seanad be halted in order to get clarification on this issue? I know from speaking to my colleagues that none of us voted to lock information away for 30 years and make it inaccessible. We voted to preserve information and ensure the records would not be destroyed. I am pleading with the Minister of State to talk to the Minister. If there are problems with the legality of the legislation, as reported today in the Irish Examiner, we need to stop the whole process and ensure no information is locked away. I did not vote for that and I will stand over my intention to preserve information and ensure it is not destroyed. I cannot stress strongly enough how upset people are today. The families in Carlow and Kilkenny to whom I have spoken, along with families throughout the country, cannot believe what is happening.

I realise that this issue is very important to the Deputy but it was debated yesterday.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me this time. I am raising the issue because of the seriousness of it and in light of the report in the Irish Examiner of the concerns expressed by the Data Protection Commissioner. I voted for what I thought, and what I was told, was a Bill to preserve information. I did not vote to lock away that information for 30 years and make it inaccessible to people. We need to stop the Bill's progress in the Seanad. It must be brought back to the Dáil and we must look at it again when we are sure we have the proper facts.

The issues relating to the Covid crisis are complicated enough without having to deal with the issues the Deputy raised.

I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Donnelly. County Meath is in the eye of the Covid-19 storm, with a 14-day incidence number of 1,287, which is 660 cases per 100,000. The people of my county have endured and suffered a great deal, none more so than Mary Bartley Meehan, whose husband, Ultan Meehan, and son, Adrian Bartley, both died during the pandemic. I call on the Government to engage with and support Mary in her quest for information and truth. The people of Meath are anxious but ready to play their part to get the numbers down. The vast majority of people in the country are doing their best but the Government and its agencies have been failing in their responsibility to protect them.

I have been getting a lot of telephone calls about delays in testing and - an issue that is just as significant - delays in notifications of positive test results. We all heard what Dr. Cillian de Gascun of the National Virus Reference Laboratory had to say in this regard earlier today. I have also been inundated by calls regarding delays in tracing. The tracing process was already hugely delayed and then it stopped altogether. There have been Covid outbreaks in schools in Meath and the experience of school management has been that they cannot access advice, support and information. That is not good enough. Instead of creating capacity and increasing resources to deal with the crisis, the Government's answer has been to divert resources. This week, the school immunisation programme was suspended in County Meath. It is simply not good enough. The Government is robbing Peter to pay Paul instead of investing urgently to provide the resources that are needed.

People working in a range of sectors are looking to the Government for help. Business owners and workers throughout the country are crying out for support. I understand that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine will be in the House later. He must, in the first instance, address the situation of mart owners and the issues they have raised. Deputy Cowen outlined those concerns earlier. Travel agents need access to the Covid restrictions support scheme and not just at level 5, as do private bus operators. I have been contacted by a number of essential workers whose work has dried up but who say they are being denied access to the pandemic unemployment payment because they are essential workers. I have heard that from driving instructors, taxi drivers and others. There must be progress to allow self-employed workers to stay on the PUP and earn up to €480 per week. The Government must deliver on its clear commitments in all these areas.

It is very sad that we are back in a situation where level 5 restrictions apply. I take the opportunity to express my condolences to the families whose loved ones have passed away and to offer my support to the people in hospital who are struggling to get back to full health. There has been much criticism of the Opposition from speakers on the Government benches. There is not one person in this Chamber who does not want the measures to succeed and to ensure this is over as quickly as possible. Everybody supports the public health guidance on hand-washing, physically distancing and wearing a mask. That is what the vast majority of the people of this State want to do and are doing. However, our job is to hold the Government to account.

That is what I will do. I have listened to hundreds of people in my constituency talking about the current guidelines over recent days. They are confused. We have had seven long months of this. There was an opportunity over the summer, when the number of new cases daily was down to fewer than ten. We knew there was going to be a flu season and that people would go back indoors because of winter. There are now more than 1,000 people per day testing positive for Covid. What did the Government not do? It did not recruit the number of doctors and nurses required to deal with what was to come. CPL, however, got millions to employ people on temporary zero-hour contracts. I listened to nurses on the radio who had come home from Australia, New Zealand and Britain to work in our health service but who are still awaiting a permanent contract. Contact tracing has also been mentioned time and again. We still have not got a hold of this issue. It is now out of control and the system is not working.

Only today, I was contacted by a person who was talking about the bus system. Capacity was reduced from 50% to 25% and the system is now in chaos. Hundreds of people are unable to get to work or to school. There was no plan in place for this reduction. Several months ago, at the beginning of this crisis, 25% capacity was fine because the schools were not open and most businesses were closed. That is no longer the case. Children are in school and construction sites and other businesses which were not open in the initial stages are now open. This needs to be dealt with now because we are losing the people. We cannot afford to do so because more and more people will die.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak. I will speak to one particular issue. My party colleagues have spoken about the measures introduced today. We have supported the measures, although we do have reservations.

I will speak in the main on the issue of hand sanitisers. I know the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is due to make a statement to the House shortly, during this time slot. I appreciate that the schedule could not be changed and that we cannot have a discussion back and forth on the issue. I know the Dáil schedule does not allow for that. Perhaps the Minister of State might suggest to the Minister that a meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine may be necessary next week, if one is not already scheduled.

At 11 o'clock last night, schools were informed of an issue with a hand sanitising product that may have been in use in those schools. Let us take a moment to consider how hard our school communities have been working for the last two months. In fairness to the Government, schools would not have opened if it was not for the package presented at the end of July in order to facilitate the opening of schools but it also would not have happened if it was not for the work of everybody in every school community, from the boards of management down to principals, teachers, special needs assistants, secretaries, caretakers and school wardens. All did their best.

Students, the young people who have been getting such unfair criticism over recent months, have been the ones maintaining goodwill and doing their best to keep schools open. They have been hit with issue after issue with regard to the leaving certificate and there are now issues with contact tracing. There is contradictory advice from the HSE to various schools as to how to handle this situation. They have had to reconfigure school buildings and have had to show goodwill in a system in which goodwill has been in short supply because of the issue of two-tier pay, the lack of basic employee rights for school secretaries and caretakers, the poor management of the redeployment of the special needs assistants, SNAs, and the other issues through which schools have been working over recent months.

It now transpires that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine had information about a defective hand sanitiser being used in schools on Tuesday. Children went to school on Wednesday and Thursday while this knowledge was within the Department. It was not until 11 o'clock last night that school principals were told that they needed to assess whether they could open in the morning. From a Department that has been bouncing from crisis to crisis comes another source of unnecessary anxiety for a system in which anxiety is already heightened. The Department knew on Tuesday that defective hand sanitiser was being used in schools throughout the State and did not pass this information on.

The hand sanitiser that was made available is harmful to children and young people. Some of the repercussions of using it on a prolonged basis are quite serious and include respiratory problems. If the Department knew this on Tuesday and let children go to school on Wednesday and Thursday before deciding to tell people on Thursday evening, does this not again give the sense to the greater public and every school community that the Department of Education and Skills does not know what it is doing? It is firefighting all of the time and is not in a position of control. It is not demonstrating partnership and will just stumble from problem to problem. I appreciate that the Minister will speak to the House but if it transpires that the Department - I am sorry, I am having difficulty concentrating because a conversation is going on to my left.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin was late and has messed up my speaking slot.

I ask Deputy Boyd Barrett not to use his phone in the Chamber. Let us have a little respect.

If the Department knew on Tuesday that this hand sanitiser was not safe and yet children were allowed to go to school on Wednesday and Thursday, that is very serious. There needs to be some accountability for that. We are all learning as we go and doing our best. Schools are doing their absolute best to keep children safe and to remain open under very challenging circumstances. I urge Government to be as open as it can and to find the facility for questions to be asked and answered on this matter. If this is how the school system is to be managed, there will be heightened anxiety within the system and people will worry that children are not safe and that there is not a level of partnership between the Department and schools. People will worry that we are again going to move from crisis to crisis.

While I have time, I will address the Government on the wider issue of the measures that were passed today. We cannot bring people with us without a level of leadership from the political system. We cannot bring people with us if the message from Government is one of fines and Garda intervention.

There is a small but, I fear, growing resentment organisation weaving different strands of extremist ideology, from anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant sentiment to anti-public service broadcasting sentiment, into these measures. We need to watch that and to be very careful it does not use what will be passed in the Dáil today and the Oireachtas as whole in the coming days as another weapon to try to get more soldiers to its flag. There have been political elements within these Houses who have been far too willing to give sympathy to conspiracy theorists over recent years. Examples are the anti-5G element and the promoters of the anti-vaccine view. Certain Members in this House, who shall remain unnamed, were quite happy to align themselves with the conspiracy theorists until it became unpalatable for everybody to align with certain ex-journalists and their extremism.

As a country, we are facing a difficult winter. As a society, we need to ensure the measures voted in today will not be used against any particular part of society, demographic or age group and that they will be a last resort. Fundamentally, what we are trying to say to the people is that this is all about keeping all of us safe, and the best thing we can do is stay at home and stay safe. We can suppress this virus and ensure that, when Christmas comes, we will not have an empty chair at the table. On that, the Government has the Labour Party's full support as we continue to try to do what we can in the national interest.

I used my discretion to let in the Labour Party because Deputy Ó Ríordáin missed his slot. On reflection, I should have put it to the House to agree it because other Deputies were waiting and had made decisions based on the debate moving quicker. I apologise for this. I have upset a Deputy but it was inadvertent. The next time a Deputy misses a slot and wants to be fitted in, I will put it to the House for its agreement, or else the Deputy can go to the end of the list. I will move on to Solidarity–People Before Profit. Is Deputy Paul Murphy now taking the ten minutes?

Yes, unless Deputy Boyd Barrett comes back in, which I believe is unlikely. He sends his apologises. He had to go because of the change of the slots.

The Government's plan is called Living with Covid. It would be better off renaming it the yo-yo strategy because that is the truth about what it offers to people with its plan. It offers a future of yo-yoing in and out of lockdown until a vaccine is found. It offers a year, two years or longer of going in and out of lockdown repeatedly. That is what its strategy is, and it is an absolute nightmare for people. The Government is going to come under sustained political pressure to give up that strategy and adopt an alternative, a zero-Covid strategy. I argue for a zero-Covid strategy with socialist policies to ensure ordinary people do not pay the price for it. I will outline later some aspects of such a strategy.

Blunder after blunder by the Government has put us into the current circumstances, whereby people are facing six weeks of lockdown and its impact. The most recent blunder, for which the Government has gotten off lightly in this House, is the one made two and half weeks ago. The decision made to ignore the public health advice was scandalous. It is a decision whose consequence will be people dying; that is the unfortunate truth. It is a decision with the consequence of more damage to the economy and further outbreaks in nursing homes. In this regard, consider the difference between the figures when NPHET was first saying we needed to go to level 5 and that a graduated response would not work and the figures when the Government moved. With regard to almost every single metric, the figures more than doubled, including the incidence rate per 100,000 members of the population and the number of outbreaks in nursing homes. The number of cases in nursing homes now is far more than double that from the preceding two weeks.

The Financial Times has published a series of graphs in the past week. All the evidence shows that if damage to the economy is to be limited, the virus needs to be dealt with and the number of cases needs to be reduced to zero, if possible. Moreover, if there are cases, they need to be tracked and traced so the system will not be overwhelmed. The impact of the Government's approach is to cause more damage to people's livelihoods, mental health and the economy generally. That is the most recent blunder but there are others, such as in the summer, when the Government sped up the reopening of the economy under pressure from private-sector lobbyists and Fine Gael, including Deputy Varadkar, who was trying to look good before handing over to the current Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin. It was a huge mistake, a blunder of incredible proportions involving the turning of a blind eye to what was happening in the meat plants and not introducing sick pay.

It is so clear this week that the time was wasted. Unfortunately, this is not the first wave of a pandemic this Government has faced. This is the second wave but the time was wasted. Plans were not made and resources were not put in place to ensure we could avoid a repetition. This is so obvious where contact tracing is concerned. When the virus gets out of control, with a very high incidence rate as a result of government decisions, the tracing infrastructure collapses. What happened over the summer was that the number of people employed to do tracing was reduced. We did not put the resources in place; instead, there was an attempt to employ people on zero-hour contracts, with no sick pay, as contact tracers. When this was revealed by Deputy Boyd Barrett, whom I am sure would have spoken about it, it was regarded as a mistake all of a sudden and it was said that there was never meant to be a zero-hour contract. This is incredible.

At the heart of a proper plan to deal with the coronavirus is a first-class mechanism for finding, testing, tracing, isolating and offering support. When a second wave hits, it should not be the case that our tracing infrastructure is completely overwhelmed and people with coronavirus are left in a situation where they are meant to contact their own contacts. It is completely unacceptable and demonstrates that the Government did not put the plans in place. The Government responds by saying there were so many cases that it was inevitable that we would be overrun. It is the same Government that chose to ignore the public health advice of NPHET over two weeks earlier, thus leading to the circumstances I have described, and did not put resources in place in terms of contact tracing.

The problem is that even when the tracing infrastructure is working at its best, it is still completely inadequate. Based on the best examples around the world, there is a need to be able to trace backwards to find out where people got the disease and identify the super-spreader events, which are a big part of the spread of coronavirus. When it is working at its best, the tracing mechanism in Ireland looks back only 48 hours from the point when a person's symptoms arise. Therefore, we need far more investment in finding, tracing, testing, isolation and support mechanisms to ensure we do not have more disasters of the kind we saw this week.

Many people around the country are hearing the unfortunate news about the events in the nursing home in Galway yesterday and the one in Westmeath today, and they are wondering what nursing home they will hear about in the news tomorrow. They fear a repetition of the horrific stories we heard a number of months ago, involving the majority of nursing home residents and staff contracting coronavirus and not getting adequate support.

Why is it the case that the lessons were not learned? Why were contingency plans not put in place to avoid this? Why has the HSE been recruiting nurses from nursing homes to other areas of the health service? Why is it that most agency workers still do not have access to sick pay, meaning that, understandably, in addition to the obvious reason that people will not go into a nursing home because of the coronavirus, they cannot afford to get sick either? Why do we still have this patchwork of private for-profit nursing homes throughout the country?

I want to make a point on the argument for a zero-Covid strategy and an argument to avoid the recurring lockdowns that the Government offers us. The Government has chosen, and the Taoiseach on Monday night chose, to misrepresent what zero Covid is. He said it is about getting rid of Covid altogether and that it is completely utopian. It is about eliminating community transmission, which is the transmission we cannot trace because we do not know where it came from. There is a very good quote from Professor Susan Michie of University College London:

I could use the analogy of fires. In Ireland ... there is a zero fire policy, which means we want no fires and we take every measure we can to ensure, as much as we can, that there are no fires. However, we know fires will occasionally break out and we have systems in place to jump on those fires quickly so they do not spread into the awful examples we saw in Australia last year arising from large forest fires. That is what elimination and zero-Covid means.

To do this, we need to be able to quarantine and isolate people when they come into this island and we need to massively invest in our track, trace, isolate, support and find mechanism. We also need to invest in our ICU and health capacity generally, in particular, public health. We need to invest in building a national health service. We need to incorporate, and not rent, the private hospitals, take them into public ownership and bring them into a national health service. We also need to provide supports for people. I thought it was striking during the week that the repressive powers are being extended until next year but the ban on evictions is being stopped on 13 December. The Government needs to provide supports for people in terms of the pandemic unemployment payment, small businesses, evictions and a moratorium on mortgage payments to enable people to do what they want to do.

It is very useful that we have this opportunity to speak about Covid and the impact it and the restrictions have been having since the country moved to level 5 on Wednesday evening. I also think it is important that we keep a broad understanding of where we are as a country in trying to resolve these issues and measure our approach to the Covid pandemic.

It has to be pointed out that there is a second wave of Covid happening throughout Europe. We are not unique in respect of this matter. If we look throughout Europe, whether it is Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France or Spain, we can see that the number of positive tests of Covid-19 has been rising significantly in the eight weeks since the beginning of September. It is also important to point out that if we were here a number of weeks ago, people would have been praising countries such as New Zealand and Australia but they would also have been mentioning Germany as a European example of a country that was doing particularly well. However, we can see this is a virus that moves very quickly, and no matter what great measures a state has in place to ensure it is kept suppressed, it cannot be fully controlled. This is what we see from what has happened in Germany in recent weeks.

We also need to recognise that Ireland has to be realistic about what we can achieve in our response to the pandemic. I listened to Deputy Paul Murphy speak about the elimination strategy, not necessarily getting the rate to zero but trying to eliminate the transmission of the disease. My assessment is this is not feasible. If we look at what we did in western Europe during this year, we can see it is most unlikely to occur. Throughout Europe we had the first phase, which took place in March, April and May, and then in most of Europe we got the figures down very low in the summer months of June, July and August. They rose again throughout Europe in the autumn months. What it reveals to us is that this is an extremely contagious and infectious disease and no matter what efforts are put in place by the Government, it is extremely hard to control it.

People now refer to what is happening in Australia and New Zealand as being examples of countries we need to follow. It is instructive to note, however, that although New Zealand had significant successes, in recent days there have been cases of Covid there. We need to have a broad perspective that this is a disease that will be with us and we will not be able to eliminate it, in the same way as we have not been able to eliminate other diseases such as the flu, even though we have a vaccine for it.

It is always important when discussing how the country is coping with the virus that we do not concentrate exclusively on the cases. As we know, significant numbers and percentages of people who test positive for Covid-19 are asymptomatic and are not in any way what could be described as sick. Nonetheless, there is obviously an importance to knowing about these figures because these cases can transmit the virus. It is much more important to look at how many sick people there are in the country at present arising from the Covid pandemic. To do this, we have to look at the number of people who have been hospitalised. Today, the number of people in Ireland who are in hospital with Covid is 311. Of these, 37 are in intensive care. Let us look at where we were a week ago. There were 244 people in hospital with Covid issues and 31 in intensive care last week. Let us look at where we were two weeks ago. There were 179 people in hospital with Covid-19 two weeks ago, of whom 31 were in intensive care.

The reason I refer to this is that while it is very unfortunate that these people are in hospital, and I wish them a speedy recovery, we need to recognise that the rates of increase in hospitalisations and ICU admissions are different from what they were in the first wave. Two weeks ago, there were 31 people in ICU with Covid, whereas today there are 37. Let us go back to March and April when the disease was at its most dangerous until now. The day we were told to stay at home was 27 March. On that day, there were 380 people in hospital with Covid, of whom 68 were in intensive care. The week after that, there were 704 people in hospital of whom 137 were in intensive care. A week after that, on 11 April, there were 856 people in hospital, 155 of whom were in intensive care.

What is apparent in this country and throughout Europe at present is that although the cases are significantly larger in number than they were in the first phase, the number being hospitalised and, more importantly and fortunately, the number of deaths is not at the same level as it was in the first phase. Every death from Covid is a very traumatic event for any family member, and I pass on my condolences to anyone who has suffered a bereavement as a result of Covid, but when we look at where we were in April, 1,176 people died of or with Covid in that month. To date in October, approximately 67 people have died of or with Covid. We are dealing with a different strain and impact of the virus in this second wave than we were in the first wave. There are more cases but the number of people being hospitalised, the number in ICU and the number of deaths are considerably lower. This is a factor that has to be taken into account when we come to assessing what public policy measures we should put in place to respond to the virus.

New restrictions came in at midnight on Wednesday when the country went to level 5. That was a very difficult decision for the Government but it was a decision that was made by the Government. I am a Government TD and I recognise it is a decision the Government deserves support on from its TDs. It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that level 5 works but it is also important to point out that people in Fianna Fáil and other parties are entitled to express their own views. As the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will appreciate, there is a danger in the fact that every party in the Dáil seems to express the same policy in respect of the restrictions. I support what the Government is doing but we must be very careful, as a political body, that we do not allow groupthink to enter into our deliberation. We need to keep our horizons broad. We need to consider whether this is the correct strategy and we need to probe strategies in this legislative assembly so that we can achieve what all of us want to achieve, which is the best outcome for the Irish public.

My concern about the restrictions and going into a level 5 lockdown, which probably will reduce the numbers by 1 December, is that inevitably they will rise again and we could find ourselves going back into another lockdown in February. That is not a sustainable solution. It is not acceptable for the people of this country to be exposed to lockdowns every three or four months. It is not consistent with what we are trying to do in this House. What the Government and all of us are trying to achieve is that we can live with this virus which, unfortunately, will be with us for quite a period of time.

The reason I am concerned about the impact of level 5 restrictions is that they have negative consequences. The point about the virus is that we can see immediately the negative consequences that arise from it. We see it in the approximately 1,800 deaths. We see it in the hospitalisations. We can see immediately the consequences of Covid-19 on the community and on people in nursing homes and care homes. What we do not see at present, however, are the consequences of the restrictions. They are something we need to consider because one of the functions of a politician is to try to see ahead so that the consequences of any decision we make can be assessed.

As I mentioned previously, I am extremely concerned about the consequences the restrictions will have on the mental health of people in our society. I am also extremely concerned about the consequences the restrictions are having upon the lives of young people. I have mentioned that repeatedly in the Dáil. I mentioned it as far back as the beginning of May. In effect, we cannot ignore that the education, employment, entertainment, travel and relationships of young people have all been affected. That is not to say restrictions should not be in place but they are certainly factors that should be taken into account. There are people who have started their university experience. Their university experience is that they are sitting at home looking at lectures online on their laptops.

With regard to employment, youth unemployment in this country is now at 37%. We need to recognise that a significant number of the people who lost their jobs from Thursday morning were young, low-paid workers. I do not believe we can sustainably continue in the long term with repeated policies that are damaging to the lives of young people. That is something we have to factor into our deliberations.

There is also the economy. When people talk about the economy they sometimes think we are balancing the economy against individuals' health. I am not, and anyone who talks about the need to protect the economy is not either. The important reason we need a functioning economy is that we can pay for a health service and ensure all the other vital services are provided.

We need to consider the repercussions the restrictions are having that may not be evident today but will become evident into the future. What we must do, however, is ensure that we protect the vulnerable and the elderly who are the people who have suffered the most as a result of this pandemic. In particular, we have to ensure our nursing homes, care homes and the elderly in our community are protected. Irrespective of whether we are at level 2, 5 or 25, we have to try to do that because there is no point in saying we have gone to level 5 so that means the elderly are protected. They will not be protected. We need to ensure that care homes and nursing homes across the country are fully protected and we need to put in place a protocol to ensure the elderly people in them are so protected. The reality, however, is that we will never be able to fully protect people from this dangerous virus. No country in the world has been able to do it and I do not believe we should place unrealistic goals before us when we know they cannot be achieved.

Political controversy has arisen because of the dichotomy and divergence between NPHET and the Government. In fairness to the people in NPHET, it is important that we emphasise that it is a body of advisers. They are civil servants within the Department of Health and the HSE who provide advice to the Government, and in particular to the Minister for Health, on the issues pertaining to Covid-19. They are also responsible for co-ordinating our response to Covid. It is wrong, however, to allow NPHET to be presented in the political realm as the decision making body. It is not. The Government is the decision making body. It is a group of advisers. We need to recognise that and the public needs to be informed of that because if we do not do that resentment will grow among the public against NPHET, which is an unaccountable body. We need to see more of the Minister for Health, and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who is in the Chamber. They need to be leading it. The politicians need to lead the public face of this because it is politicians who are accountable and they can be removed by the public if we fail.

I want to put on the record that the decision last night by the Government to seal the records of the survivors of the mother and baby homes was both sad and shameful. It will go down as one of the most uncaring acts by this Government in the lifetime of this Dáil. History will not look kindly on this Government.

With regard to Covid-19, reducing teaching staff while increasing class sizes to more than 30 students is not only a disgraceful move by the Department of Education it is also reckless. The reduction of the four first class groups to three in St. Louis Infant School, in Rathmines, will see the pupil-teacher ratio hit 32:1. A pupil-teacher ratio of that size is unacceptable in the middle of a pandemic. The Government gave a commitment in its programme for Government to reduce class sizes, not drive them up higher. Aside from the negative effects of such a ratio during normal times, to increase those classes to more than 30 students during the pandemic and a level 5 lockdown is a reckless move by the Department of Education. Rathmines has one of the highest 14-day Covid-19 incidence rates in Dublin. St. Louis Infant School appealed this decision but the board of appeal ruled against it. In the ruling it cited that the board could consider only criteria which were drawn up pre-Covid, therefore, none of the real concerns relating to the increase in class sizes during the pandemic could be considered. We are not living in normal times. The board of appeal must be able to take into account this pandemic and the impact its decisions may have on the health and well-being of those children, their teachers and their families. The Minister must reverse this decision and bring common-sense to the situation. She must prevent the pupil-teacher ration rising during the pandemic.

When the level changes from 3 to 4 or down to 2, there will be confusion about who can play sport and the facilities and shops that can remain open. However, we have a situation where off-licences can remain open but gyms must close. Why are off-licences deemed to be more essential than gyms or playing golf? The closure of gyms is confusing. For the past 40 years, the first thing one sees when one walks into a gym is a bottle of disinfectant and the blue paper for customers to wipe down the machines they have used.

Sweating is not a new concept in gyms. They are designed to operate safely in these conditions. Under health and safety guidelines, a treadmill must have a minimum of 1.5 m of space behind it in case someone falls off, so social distancing is built in. Gyms are designed for social distancing and gym etiquette revolves around good hygiene. Gyms have done everything that has been asked of them. Every gym I have encountered has introduced extra cleaning, more distance between machines and has done anything else that has been asked of it. Gyms are so important to our physical and mental health, yet they have to close. Mental health services are stretched to the limit so gyms and sport are more important than ever in the personal battle against anxiety and depression.

The make-up of the return to sport expert group is much too narrow. This group has representatives from the GAA, soccer and rugby, which is right and proper, and beyond that there are three members from the Department responsible for sport and five from Sport Ireland. Where is the diversity? Where is the voice on that group for tennis, hockey, golf, athletics and swimming? The basis for decisions should not be a secret. We need transparency and clarity on gyms and that is not forthcoming. Why can the Government not sit down, produce a clear and concise rationale for the closure of gyms and sports like golf and tennis and explain it to the public? We deserve to know.

I spoke on 14 May last about contact tracing and said at that time that the HSE was playing with figures. I said the system was not working and that members of Dáil Éireann were being fed "organic fertiliser", that is, manure, about what was going on with contact tracing. I went on to say:

The Government cannot ask people to continue to make such efforts if the truth about the consistent delays in contact tracing and informing people of their results are being hidden from them.

I also said, "we cannot allow, under any circumstance, a second wave of infection". I had no great premonition about what was going to happen but I was looking at the facts as they were being presented to me. I was absolutely speechless when I heard that the HSE has now abandoned its contact tracing system and told people via text message to do their own contact tracing. We are asking older people to click on links they receive in a text message, to download information from a website and to make contact with their close contacts. We are asking people whose mother tongue is not English to do the same. We are asking it of young people, who by their nature are going to have to restrict what they can do significantly if they must take the time to tell their contacts they have been confirmed positive for Covid-19. It is absolutely ludicrous for those three categories and yet the Minister came into the House earlier and defended that decision. This should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Over the last month, I have raised the same issue with the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health, the chief executive of the HSE, the Minister for Education and Skills, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Defence. That is a third of the Cabinet. I refer to the scandal whereby existing front-line therapy staff, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists were involved in contact tracing for the last seven months instead of interfacing with young people who desperately need those services. I ask the Aire Stáit to address that specific issue when she is responding because it affects her constituents and mine, including 1,000 children across Roscommon and Galway. Surely having these therapists doing contact tracing should have set off warning bells across the Cabinet because there was obviously something fundamentally wrong there.

I put a very simple proposal to the Government, which was that current or retired Defence Forces personnel would take over the role of contact tracing. Some 623 former members of the Defence Forces sought to re-enlist to help out during the pandemic and were not taken on board by the Defence Forces for various reasons. They are ideally suited to carry out contact tracing but not one of them was contacted about it. Deputy Berry and I brought an amendment forward on 26 March to ensure the reserve members of the Defence Forces could be used to support the contact tracing efforts. They have not been used.

Yesterday, I got a phone call from a very senior health professional who had been stopped at a Garda checkpoint and asked where he was going. He was travelling to work. There were 14 members of An Garda Síochána on that particular checkpoint. He made the point that that will have absolutely no impact on the spread of this virus, but the skills members of An Garda Síochána have would be very useful in dealing with the contact tracing backlog. It would have been far more useful if they had spent their shift doing the contact tracing for those older people, young people and those whose mother tongue is not English, rather than standing on the side of the road asking people where they were going.

I ask the Aire Stáit to come back to me on this next matter as well. Last June, I wrote to the Minister for Health, the chief executive of the HSE and the Secretary General of the Department of Health pointing out the desperate situation in Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe, where 10% of the beds were lost because of Covid-19. The hospital was very proactive. It put forward two very specific proposals seeking two modular buildings. One would be for an accident and emergency department so it could segregate Covid and non-Covid patients, and the second modular unit would separate the outpatient department from the main hospital, which makes logical sense. It could then convert the old outpatient department into single isolated beds to replace the capacity lost to Covid-19. We still have no indication as to when those facilities will be put in place as we head into the second wave. We are trying to manage a situation in the busiest hospital across the midlands that has 10% less capacity than this time last year and which had many hundreds of patients on hospital trolleys throughout last winter. I hope the Minister of State can respond to that issue.

While we are on the subject of the Minister of State's and my patch, on Wednesday the Taoiseach told us that we had learned from the first phase of the pandemic as regards nursing homes. We have learned very little, given what went on in my constituency yesterday. I know this nursing home well, in fact my late grandmother was a resident, and it has provided an exceptional level of care in that community.

Yesterday, I pointed out to the Tánaiste that while I wanted the issue relating to that nursing home to be addressed, I did not want it to be repeated in any other nursing home in the country, regardless of where it was. A panel needed to be put in place that could deal with the situation instantly when a problem arose. Speaking later, I suggested that we should have a crack squad within our Defence Forces, of medical professionals, cooks and cleaners, that could step in immediately in such circumstances. The difficulty with this nursing home was that 90% of the staff were told on Tuesday evening that they had to isolate for the next 14 days and there were three staff left to run that nursing home the following morning. We needed staff immediately. There was always going to be a challenge with getting agency staff at such short notice. People were not going to rush into a situation such as that.

In this instance, within 30 minutes of that nursing home having issues, there are more than 800 Permanent Defence Force personnel who would be quite willing to provide that service on a short-term basis and they should have been put in place until other medical staffing was put in place. I was subsequently informed by a senior health official and a member of the Government that such a plan is in place and there is a cohort of Defence Forces personnel who can do that, but the Defence Forces have not been asked to establish that crack squad that could go into nursing homes. They had not been asked to do contact tracing as I had requested. The Reserve Defence Forces have not been called up. Why is that the case? The only conclusion that I can come to is that we have senior staff in our health sector who are involved in a face-saving exercise.

We need to remember that the Department of Health has a bigger budget than NASA in the United States. NASA can put a man on the moon and we cannot put two nursing staff into a nursing home in the west of Ireland. We cannot put a system in place so that we can contact people who are positive for Covid-19, find out who their contacts are and make contact with them. This state of the art app that we launched, with significant fanfare, is redundant, because unless the phone call is made to the individual and the pin code from the contact tracing team is given, that app is of no use. We spent hundreds of thousands of euro and had a substantial marketing budget. All of us here and a huge proportion of the population downloaded the app which is now worthless because we cannot get the phone call to get the pin code to release those numbers. The frustrating thing about it is that the most basic requirement of a public health official in this country is to be able to conduct contact tracing. It is their bread and butter. Vaccinations and so on are supplemental to that. That is the one thing that they are all trained to do and our public health management and officials cannot do it seven months after the initial surge. It is unacceptable that that is the case.

I have in my possession an email from a nurse who was so frustrated about the reports in the media last night regarding our local nursing home. She is registered with Ireland On Call. She has worked in nursing homes over the last months during the pandemic and has not been called to do this work. The staff are clearly there but we are not connecting the dots.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this issue again. I sometimes get confused. Listening to the debate in this House and in other countries that have been similarly affected, one can come to a different conclusion. For instance, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden have all been held up as examples of how to deal successfully with this virus. We in public life, certainly on the Government side, were advised, by the Opposition more often than not, to copy that and that we would then be okay. The answer was that that was wrong. They all had their problems. The difference in those countries was that the Government was not blamed. Efforts were made to try to correct, identify and meet the virus head-on. Let us not forget that they had more than one attempt and they are still fighting hard to hold their position in order to hold up the virus.

The virus is a bit like a forest fire. It has started and it has spread. Several mini-fires have spread now. I did not hear anybody speak in the House in the last two days to identify any signs that they saw what might have contributed to this recurrence and resurgence of the virus. Maybe my constituency is different. We had a second lockdown ourselves some time ago. It had the effect of slowing, but not preventing, the virus. Let us not forget that it did not prevent the virus from recurring. It was always pointed out that as the economy recovered, there would be more outbreaks of the virus, for obvious reasons. Of course we would all aspire to have air travel restored. It is part of business. I do not know how possible that is, or whether it is possible at all. I do not know how the isolation of people for ten or 14 days after air travel will work.

I want to address the comparison with New Zealand. It is chalk and cheese, or apples and oranges. There is no comparison to be made with a country with vast areas with very little population and little air travel compared to our situation. We live in a country with a capital city with an airport with the second highest level of activity in the world. That is a stark statement.

The telephone calls that I have received are from businesses, mostly small businesses and small shops, which have observed the letter and the spirit of what they were supposed to do in the course of the restrictions. They have pointed out numerous instances in their own localities where observance of the restrictions did not take place to the same extent. That is where the unfairness arises and where people begin to get cynical. In the past month, I have received, as have many Members, telephone calls about widespread disregard for wearing of masks and social distancing. A 1 m distance was not being observed, never mind 2 m. There was a lack of hand hygiene and use of disinfectants and so on. There has been much talk about tracing and testing. I can predict one thing. We can have all the tracing and testing that we want from here on, but if there is not serious observance of the regulations, it will all be to no avail.

What has happened is that the outbreaks throughout the country have started to converge on each other. When that happens, the tracing system will be overwhelmed. For those who think otherwise, let us wait and see. It is not possible to reverse the virus simply with tracing when there are numerous outbreaks around the country and they start to converge on each other.

It is all very fine to blame the Government. In this country, there is a tradition of that and that is maybe the way that we are. One Member tonight spoke at length about employment and the need to shut down various employment-providing ventures throughout the country.

Everything could be shut down unless there is strict observance of social distancing, social interaction and the degree to which ordinary members of the public, ourselves included, converge on each other's space and, as a result, create the conduit that allows the virus to continue. We can talk about it forever. I can blame the Opposition, the Opposition can blame the Government and there can be protest marches and many other things, but we must get one thing straight - the virus requires contact. It needs people not to observe the regulations, the hand hygiene and the social distancing and to converge in congregation with each other. That is what the virus needs, and that is why there has been such a sharp resurgence. There was a modest drop in the numbers reported this evening. Hopefully, that will continue, but it may or may not.

NPHET has been referred to as unnecessary, comprising civil servants and so forth. They are experts in their fields. They can work out, and have worked out, mathematically exactly what will happen, and when and how it will happen. It can do so again. We all know the members. They excel in their respective fields, so we can ignore them as well and blame it on the Government. We can ignore what NPHET has to say, but it repeatedly comes back to the same question: how do we encourage most of the people to observe the regulations? The theme is that we will go back to where we were. We will draw a deep breath, hold it for some time and we will return to a situation where everything is all right. It will not be that way. It could be months, a year or more. We will have to observe the distancing regulations to a far greater extent than we have heretofore. We must try to restore our economy to some extent at the same time. It is going to be a difficult task. It is a difficult call, but it is a matter for ourselves. We can then blame whom we like if it does not work, but it will work if the distancing regulations are observed. There is no doubt about that.

I have listened to various sides of the argument in the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, the Joint Committee on Health and during debates in the House. We have to recognise the cause of the spread of the virus, the conduit. That conduit is the degree to which people have converged and mixed together. That brings me to the telephone calls. People have rung me at all times of the day and night to ask why hordes of people are converging in certain areas, with nobody wearing a mask or observing social distance. We then ask how we get isolated outbreaks at various locations in the country. They were all identified and found. It was possible to find out where they started. However, it came back to the same thing again - people congregating. It may well have been for a good cause, but that does not matter. When people are brought together, all that is required is one person in the group to be the carrier. We know the story about one person who infected 54 other people. It need not have stopped at that. It could be more, even 500 people. We still seem to continue to point the finger at other issues. They are not as relevant as they appear, but they offer the opportunity to blame the Government. That is an easy option.

I am not suggesting that the Government does not have responsibility. It does, and I expect it to take its responsibility seriously. I believe it is doing so. It is responding to the threat as it arises. However, it does not matter how seriously the Government does its job, if the general public does not come with it. It has been suggested that the public has lost faith and does not trust the Government. I heard that argument put forward in the House today. Oscar Wilde famously said, "Duty is what one expects from others, it is not what one does oneself." The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will recognise that, given the part of the country from which she comes. The fact is that everybody has a role to play, at whatever level it is. We must play that role to the best of our ability and with one thing in common. We do not have to shut down the country or turn the nation into an unemployment black spot if we do the simple things such as observance of social distancing. There is no reason we cannot be six or seven feet apart and wear masks. While we do not want to wear masks or to be seven feet apart, we can have a conversation of some type in that environment, albeit different from what it used to be. We must remember that we are not going back to where we were in the short term. At all times over the next year, and it might be longer than that, we must accept that we are under threat, and that we can only get respite when the vaccine is discovered or the virus is defeated. I do not believe it will be defeated readily or quickly.

My final point is that we should not add to confusion. We should identify the issues. They are simple to identify because they have been repeated many times. Drawing up ancillary issues that are not intrinsic to the issue we must deal with is not helpful. We all extend our sympathies to those whose lives were lost during this pandemic. Sadly, there will be more. I hope that during the current partial lockdown there is sufficient support among the people to trust and follow the simple advice for themselves. If they do not interact, do not break the social distancing rules and observe hand hygiene and all the other things the experts advise them to do, they have the ability in their hands to defeat the virus regardless of what the Government or anybody else does.

A Cheann Comhairle, you will recall that earlier today I asked for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to come to the House and make a statement on the emerging news regarding ViroPro. We have been told the Minister will come to the House during this debate. However, I am disappointed that he has left it to almost the last Government speaking slot, when there is no opportunity for Sinn Féin or other Opposition parties to respond.

The questions that were put on the record still stand. I hope the Minister will provide answers to those questions, particularly regarding what the Department knew, and when, about the product in question, when other members of the Government were informed and, crucially, why there was a gap of two days in the information being disseminated, considering the chaos it caused. The final question I hope the Minister will answer in this regard is who will be held accountable for this. There have been too many debacles and messes throughout this crisis to have another in which it appears that nobody is held responsible. We only became aware of this issue due to EU counterparts informing the Department. Questions must be asked as to why we do not have the procedures in place to ensure that the products our children are using are safe.

The Minister must also address the many concerns that have been raised about the situation in marts. The Government decided at the onset of this pandemic, and rightly so, that food production would remain an essential service and area of work that would continue. We have seen that in some areas. The meat factories have continued operating. Despite outbreaks in the factories, they have continued operating notwithstanding the issues that have arisen in respect of their treatment of workers or otherwise.

The only aspect of food production that has been shut down is the one where farmers themselves have control, namely, the marts. We heard Fianna Fáil representatives say this evening that the marts need to be open. They are in government, so they should make sure that whatever safety measures and regulations that need to be put in place are put in place so that we can allow farmers to try to make a living during these times.

We have all heard commendations for those who work in the health service. A set of very important workers continues to give their all during the pandemic and they do not even get a pat on the back. If anything, they get a kick in the backside. They are our student nurses, who are expected to work as hard as anybody else in the health service and not receive remuneration for it. From the very outset of this pandemic, Sinn Féin and in particular Deputy Louise O'Reilly, have been consistently raising this issue with the Government. An answer needs to be found. Many student nurses in normal times manage to keep themselves going through other part-time work but they cannot do that on this occasion because we are in the midst of a pandemic. My appeal to the Government is to ensure that student nurses are remunerated adequately for the work they do.

I am pleased to see the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, will respond to the debate on behalf of the Government. I commend the Government on the financial package provided for disability services. While it does not go as far as is required, I hope it is a statement of intent on the part of the Government to address the inadequacies in disability services. It is in that vein that I want to ask again in this House about the group home for people with disabilities in Carrickmacross that has long been sought. The families of those who will benefit from it have been campaigning for it since before 2006, if I recall correctly. In late 2006 the HSE agreed that there was a need for this home. It took another ten years for the home to be built and it was completed in 2016, but it has been lying idle ever since because the HSE has not released the funds. Will the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, give an indication to the House this evening as to when the heartache of these families will come to an end and when the group home will be open?

I agree with what Deputy Carthy said about the need for the Government to consider proposals that will enable the marts to function. Deputy Fitzmaurice and I are bringing proposals to the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, who said he will consider them. When we raised the matter with the Taoiseach, he said that there could be no special provisions for any interest group and that is what I really want to focus on in this contribution.

Some of those who are involved in the training of various elite sporting activities are able to go about their work. Those who are involved with Greyhound Racing Ireland in the training of greyhounds are able to go about their work. I can understand the epidemiological advice. Training greyhounds does not necessarily involve a huge amount of interaction with other people, and greyhounds are elite animals. Likewise, Horse Racing Ireland personnel are able to go about their work and we have elite athletes on elite beasts when it comes to Horse Racing Ireland. I respect that. The two things that they have in common is that there is a huge interest in the gambling industry in both. They are sports in which a lot of money is washing around. There is another group I wish to mention, namely, Horse Sport Ireland. It is not able to train at the moment. They are also elite athletes on an elite beast. I would like to see the epidemiological advice. We are told that this is all about epidemiological advice that differentiates between Horse Racing Ireland where lots of money is washing around and Horse Sport Ireland, where a lot less money is washing around, but from an epidemiological perspective. Surely this is all about epidemiology. That is what the Government is constantly telling us. Give me the advice that differentiates between the two, or else let Horse Sport Ireland go about its work. While I have the greatest respect for people who train horses or greyhounds for racing, Ireland has never been represented in the Olympics by a greyhound. There is a team that is trying to prepare for the Olympics. The fact that we get to the Olympics with the meagre funding Ireland is able to provide for Horse Sport Ireland is a huge achievement. The fact that it does it on a lot less money and that it does not attract the same interest of the gambling industry should not be something that hinders it. We should give them their chance. The Olympics have been put back for a year. We should allow them to prepare for it.

I will use the last ten seconds to hammer home one point I have consistently made, and which I and many Deputies from the west have constantly stressed, which is that the western seaboard has been disproportionately affected by the measures that were introduced by closing the aviation and tourism sectors. Let us guess what the Central Bank talked about tonight. It was the detrimental effect this is having especially on the western seaboard. I ask the Government to address it please.

I am delighted the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, has arrived and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is also present. I ask him to respond to the questions about the marts. Damage is being done to farmers and to those who want to sell from an economic point of view, but another angle is that it provides a physical outlet for people to go to. Not everyone can attend the mart online because they are not adapted to that or because there is no broadband in many areas. Several mart sites crashed yesterday and the price of cattle fell through the floor.

The Minister might also tell me what is going on with coursing. Licences were pulled on Tuesday evening for coursing. Men and women had been training their animals and had netted the hares. They nurtured the hares, inoculated them and looked after their welfare and they were looking forward to coursing in the big fields, on the plains of Kildare and in the Golden Vale. Coursing clubs in south Tipperary include Newcastle, Knockgraffon, Kilsheelan and Clonmel. I think also of the coursing clubs in east Cork and east Limerick. It is a huge part of their culture, heritage and dúchas. It is good for man and beast. It is good for the children and the adults to see the flora and fauna on the open land. The hares are protected by the National Parks & Wildlife Service. It is a devastating blow to the coursing clubs. Some of them had grounds taken. Some of them did not get their licences this year because of the situation with the rabbits.

There is murky business going on in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Certain officials have a vested interest and they are destroying this industry. We should remember that it is a business for many people. Thousands of jobs are involved and millions of euro. This must be sorted out. I plead with the Minister to allow coursing events to go ahead. It is amuigh faoin spéir, where we should all be, out in the fields. That is as far as we can go. We cannot go further than 5 km on the roads. I urge the Minister to listen to what I have said.

Regarding the handling of the Covid crisis by the Minister for Health and the Department of Health, the testing and tracing system has been proven to be a shambles. We see again today that UCD cannot cope with the number of tests. This week I was contacted by a young man in Tipperary, a grandson of the late Deputy Michael Ferris, whom I am sure you knew, a Cheann Comhairle. Shane Ferris works for a company in Cork, Cobots. I have gone to see the robots they have, which can carry out testing. They are doing it in universities in Northern Ireland and in England but the company cannot even get an interview with the HSE. The people in the HSE have their arms around it and they will not let any new people in. The robots can do the tests safely and there is no danger of infection to any personnel. It is amazing. I could not believe it when he mentioned it to me until I saw how it could be done in the yard in front of his house. The company cannot get a meeting. We are working on this now for seven or eight months but there is a blockage. One can talk about procurement, but they do not want it. It is like a reserve for the wild animals of the HSE. It is their ground and nobody can come in as they do not want them. They say they can manage the situation themselves, but they cannot manage it. They have not managed it. It has been an abject failure.

Some 17,000 people offered to Be On Call for Ireland but a minuscule amount of them were taken on. We are told that there are 3,500 new personnel yet there are 200 fewer nurses in the HSE than it had in February. What is going on? Some 640 retired soldiers offered to Be On Call for Ireland but not one of them was taken on, yet we have failures and we have a lack of response. An elite Army team could have been put into the nursing home in Roscommon yesterday or anywhere else there was an outbreak but that did not happen because the HSE is out of control.

I am like a broken record in saying that the former taoisigh, Ahern and Cowen, told me they were disbanding the HSE because it could not be managed. Instead of that we are giving it €1 billion every year, on top of €1 billion for the past seven or eight years and now we are giving it €3.6 billion more. We could give it €20 billion more, but it cannot manage. It is not able to manage, full stop. There is something seriously wrong there.

The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has left the Chamber but I hope she is listening. We do not have a single mental health bed in Tipperary and money is being put into the old St. Michael's unit now to convert it. The sum of €2 million is being spent but we cannot have any mental health patients there. A neighbour of mine ended his own life at the weekend and he is being buried tomorrow. It is so sad.

He was a young man with three young children. It is happening day in, day out. St. Brigid's Hospital in Carrick-on-Suir, a wonderful institution, has three hospice beds which were bought through fundraising by the community. They were taken over for Covid but they are empty with the lights off. The Government will not give them back even on a limited basis.

Home help is not available. The Government can throw money at the problem but we cannot get the carers. Thousands of people have offered to help but they are frustrated. The Government has lost the propaganda war and the faith of the people. We are supposed to lead the people but one cannot do so with inept institutions. NPHET has professional people but it needs to be revamped. If the model is not working right, one revamps it, puts some business people into it, along with mental health specialists and a wide range of different expertise.

It is not NPHET leading the country but the Government. We have feeble and meagre leadership. There needs to be a changing of the guard. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Health have dropped the ball spectacularly, which is sad. The people answered the call.

Community gardaí, like Sergeant Ray Moloney and Garda Noel Glavin in Cahir, the GAA clubs, the women's clubs and other different organisations got together to set up help lines. They will do it again if they have to. That is the nature of the Irish people, the meitheal spirit. However, the Government is all confused and draconian legislation has been introduced. The Government is depressing the people and leading them into the dark of winter. We will get old time this weekend. It is old time that the Government got things sorted out and showed the leadership people expect. There was an old adage in the Penal days, "where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows". The Government needs to start leading now and showing people hope, vision and a roadmap for the future.

The Government needs to cool it on the media. It needs to turn off RTÉ. We do not want to be bombarded all the time with bad and negative news. It needs to put on a few light-hearted shows and a few comedians. The Government needs to give us a bit of hope.

The Government should allow the people to go back to church to pray, for God's sake. Prayer is a solace for all of us. Many of us believe in God. It is important to allow people to have that. The Government should not be threatening to lock up priests if they go out to do a public mass. That happened in the Penal days. We have a mass rock in Newcastle at which we have mass every year to remember what happened in the Penal days. We are back to those days with €2,500 fine or six months in jail for a priest if he says a public mass. What good is it to say it online if the people cannot receive it in their homes because they do not have broadband or do not have the tools to watch it?

We need a HSE team fit for purpose. Sadly, ours is not.

I welcome the opportunity to update the House on a notice issued by my Department for the hand sanitiser product, Virapro.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is the national competent authority for the approval and registration of biocide products, including sanitisers. Biocidal products, including hand sanitisers, may only be marketed and used in Ireland once they are registered with the Department and are entered on the biocidal product register in accordance with Regulation No. 20 of SI 427/2013. The process for registering biocidal products aims to ensure that their use does not result in harmful effects on human animal health or the environment. The approval process also checks that applications comply with all legislation on contents and efficacy.

The hand sanitiser, Virapro, was approved by our biocide unit and placed in the approved register of biocide products on 21 April 2020. The product had been registered on the basis of a documentary application, including a technical specification that it contained 70% ethanol, a common standard for hand sanitiser products, and fully complied with regulations.

OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, notified the Revenue Commissioners regarding the import of a hand sanitiser product from Turkey to Ireland from the same supplier of a product that had been tested in Denmark. It was found to contain excessive levels of methanol. The Revenue Commissioners notified the Department of this information on 25 September and arrangements were made to test the consignment, along with several other consignments imported into Ireland from the same supplier. All consignments tested were detained pending the results of the laboratory analysis.

Concerns regarding the sanitiser related to varying and inadequate levels of ethanol in the product, as well as the detection of methanol at varying levels in some samples. Inadequate levels of ethanol would render the product ineffective. More importantly, frequent use of a hand sanitiser containing methanol can cause nausea, dermatitis, eye irritation, upper respiratory tract irritation and headaches. Departmental officials took samples of batches of product at different storage locations between 30 September and 2 October. These samples were submitted to the Department's own laboratory in Backweston on 2 October.

Preliminary results were received on 8 October. While these results had to be viewed as indicative only, since the test method was still in the process of validation, they gave sufficient reason to believe that this product should not be released on the market pending further investigation. On 8 October, compliance notices were issued to all four of the warehouses that had product from the identified consignments requiring them to retain all products on site. Six additional samples of product were taken for testing, covering all product, irrespective of source, from the company bearing the name Virapro. All six of these additional samples were submitted for testing to the Department's laboratory on 9 October.

It became clear that some of this product was not alcohol-based and, therefore, had not been approved for use by my Department. Following a necessary period of validation of the test method of the laboratory, results were received on 16 October and showed the products did not meet the standards for approval, particularly with regard to the presence of methanol. The company was immediately instructed to retain all product in its possession and recall all remaining product under the Virapro name from the market or in use by the public.

On 20 October, Virapro hand sanitiser was removed from the Department's biocide register. On the same day, officials had informal contact with the Department of Education and Skills procurement service on the matter. On 21 October, my Department contacted the HSE with results relating to Virapro product samples from the earlier consignments which were owned by HSE. The primary responsibility for the withdrawal of products rests with the company concerned.

On Thursday, 22 October, yesterday, it became evident on the basis of communication from the company that the recall of products had not yet commenced. At that point, my Department took the additional step of issuing a statement outlining the possible risks posed by Virapro and advising members of the public not to use it. It also issued formal notification to the Departments of Education and Skills, Health and Children and Youth Affairs.

The Department is taking this matter seriously and will continue to follow up investigating the matter. I was informed of the situation yesterday for the first time. Having reviewed the matter today, I am clear that it would be much more appropriate for my Department to have followed up with a public notice and communications with other Departments immediately upon issuing the withdrawal notice to the company on 16 October.

Some of the products Virapro were supplying were working off a PCS registration number although it had not received approval from my Department. Accordingly, I directed my Department this evening to follow up further with all Departments and also to make it clear to the public that anyone with any Virapro product should not use it and withdraw it immediately.

I am conducting a full review of the handling of this particular issue to ensure our system of regulation is robust and lessons are learned in terms of the communication of it over the past several days.

I have a few points prepared on the implications of level 5 and the role the State has to play if we expect our citizens and businesses to take the hit and observe the restrictions. Our approach is unbalanced. Today we introduced draconian legislation under which we will impose fines and jail sentences if ordinary citizens do not comply. I did vote for it but begrudgingly.

However, the State does not always keep its side of the bargain. We expect ordinary citizens to do it, but the obligations of the State and its various agencies are often not properly or fully discharged. Sometimes they are not discharged at all.

We have seen the debacle of the tracing system. I will not go into the matter because we have heard many Deputies speak of it today. Instead of putting a robust and accountable tracing system in place, we outsourced it to an agency offering zero-hour contracts. We received a report from the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response on our nursing homes and we believed that this time we would support them. We have enough personal protective equipment, PPE, and we have a testing regime, but we have no system to support individual nursing homes.

I am sorry that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, had to leave. He is obviously very busy. I wanted to bring to his attention an issue that I know Deputy Fitzmaurice will also raise. I refer to a Central Bank report stating that the western counties have been hit harder by Covid-19. It finds that counties in the west and along the Atlantic economic corridor suffered a greater initial employment shock when Covid-19 restrictions were introduced this year. The report states that Clare, Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Leitrim, Limerick, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo took a greater hit because they rely more on small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs. The adverse impact on jobs was not surprising, with greater numbers availing of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. The report also found that the same regional variations have emerged on the reintroduction of fresh restrictions. As a result, the Central Bank has concluded that policies to support firms and household incomes will be essential for western counties as long as theses restrictions remain. It is a pity the Minster is gone, but I know this will be relayed to him. We have evidence that Covid-19 is impacting different regions differently. According to the Central Bank, that region will take a greater hit than the rest of the country unless a package of measures is put in place to support households and businesses. This is evident already.

It is a pity that the Minister left because many Deputies ran to the Chamber to get answers. I compliment Deputy Carthy on raising the issue of Virapro. My understanding is that it has been known about for a while. I will let Deputy Carthy talk about that. I would also like to refer to the issue of PCS numbers. We raised this at the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine. Companies have been waiting a hell of a long time to get their PCS numbers. Today, the company that supplies this product said it has an alternative product which it can supply straight away. I do not know how another product can be supplied straight away, since the PCS number does not automatically jump from one product to another. It would be interesting to see how many products the PCS number was attributed to.

The Minister is not here, so I do not know who I am talking to - perhaps the lights or the walls. I wanted to ask if he could confirm that the people who review applications for PCS numbers, which are the be-all and end-all where this issue is concerned, are all working separately. I have spoken to a person who liaised on Ireland's behalf in this area seven or eight years ago. Those reviewing the applications must be brought together to evaluate the product in order to ensure a scientific detail is not missed. We are not doing that at the moment and that is a problem. People are working from different angles. New applicants are trying to bring in new products that have been tested and evaluated, but they face a six-month backlog of evaluations.

I have another question for the Minister. Since the beginning of Covid-19, have we been awarding PCS numbers to everything that comes along and rushing it out the door without looking at it? Is this the consequence of that practice? The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has to do this for everything, including sprays, Domestos and other products. I need those questions answered. I would like them to be put on the record of the Dáil in order that we get answers.

This is very disturbing. I thank Deputy Carthy for highlighting it. We certainly need answers. This news will be quite disturbing for many people. It is amazing. A neighbour of mine in west Cork, Mr. Pat McCarthy, has been telling me for a while that products we have been rubbing on our hands are highly dangerous. I did not listen to him, but I will certainly listen to him from now on. When I go back to west Cork, he will put me in my place. I am very disappointed that the Minister had to leave. This is a very important issue and it is very important that he addresses it, particularly as it affects the children in our schools.

We are going through a very difficult time. People are living under level 5 restrictions, with the threat of fines and penalties. I said earlier that I have been inundated with emails from students and their parents asking me if they can go home this evening. The Members of this House can. I will have a five-hour journey but I can certainly get home this evening. Students are being told that they cannot. People's livelihoods are in serious danger. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is definitely needed here for a proper debate on the crisis currently facing marts. People are losing massive amounts of money in marts throughout the country. The Minister seems to be running scared on this issue. I urge him to come back to the Chamber this evening to discuss it. It would only take five minutes of his time.

The Chair of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food, Deputy Cahill, is doing everything in his power to reconvene the committee for an emergency discussion on this in the next few days. It is an emergency situation, with farmers losing masses of money. They can ill afford this with Brexit over our heads and an ongoing agricultural crisis. I ask the Minister to look at the commonsense proposals which would allow people to safely socially distance inside sheds. That is mostly where marts are held. People could very safely implement social distancing, almost as if the mart was being held in a field. If this issue is not resolved, it will drag on. I see that we will be discussing it later.

The very heart of democracy is being hit. Some people cannot even attend their church. I do not know if we have ever seen the like of this since the Penal Laws. It is incredible. No other country in Europe has allowed this to happen. Ireland has become such a dictatorship that people cannot even attend their churches. It would be great if the Minister could return to explain the situation regarding the marts.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine kindly made a statement. Will the speech be circulated? It is not on the Department's website. It has not been circulated to Members. The Minister seemed to indicate that concerns around the product in question were first raised by the European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, with the Department in September. It would be useful if we had the written text to get written confirmation of that.

That is a very valid point. We will ask for the text of the Minister's speech to be circulated.

I thank all the Deputies who contributed. I have taken note of the points they raised and, as is my practice when wrapping up, I will address the concerns raised by Deputies who are still in the Chamber as best I can.

Deputy Michael Collins has spoken twice this evening, which is unusual, but, needless to say, I welcome his contributions. On education, he raised the same issue with me twice, namely, that students and other constituents of his wish to know whether the students may travel home. The answer is "Yes". Of course, they can return to their place of residence. I recommend that the Deputy visit the section of gov.ie that deals with Covid. It lists the various level 5 restrictions, including those relating to domestic travel and retail. I encourage him to download that information and send it to his constituents because the Government does not wish for people to worry unnecessarily.

The most important thing to which Deputies need to have regard is the language they use. We need to be very clear and uniform in our language because we need to ensure there is public confidence. We must tell the public exactly what is in place and guide them in the proper way. It is incumbent on every Member of the House, regardless of whether they agree with the Government, to ensure there is public confidence in terms of level 5. My colleague, Deputy Cowen, and Deputy Durkan rightly commented on that. People sometimes wonder how we have ended up at level 5, but we must understand that everybody needs to work together to protect those who are vulnerable in communities. We need to ensure that, as an Oireachtas, all Members work closely together to ensure that happens.

Deputy Naughten raised the issue of modular units for Portiuncula University Hospital, which is in my county. That forms part of the winter capital plan. I am glad to state that the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, will be meeting me in the coming week to address progress on that matter. It fell under the very welcome €600 million winter plan that has been announced.

An issue that was repeatedly raised is that of HSE contact tracing. The recruitment process for 800 contact tracers has begun. Many Deputies referred to the Defence Forces. Some 50 of its members are already working in contact tracing and 70 new cadets will begin contact tracing next week.

I thank Deputy Carthy for acknowledging the budget allocation for disabilities. It was fought for and delivered. Of the €120 million allocation, €100 million is being added into the base and €20 million is a once-off allocation. The Deputy also raised the issue of a group home for Carrickmacross. This issue has been going on for many years. The people of Carrickmacross and my Oireachtas colleagues can rest assured that I am organising a meeting with the HSE to expedite the long-term arrangement required for the provision of nursing and medical care, as well as addressing the funding required to ensure the house can be opened. My ambition is that that will happen in 2021. Plans are already afoot in that regard.

The issue of meat plants was raised. It is important for Deputies to know that there have been just three new outbreaks in meat plants this week.

The issue of a nursing home in Galway, my constituency, was raised. It is important to understand the sequence of events there. The HSE has been in direct contact with the nursing home in east Galway, near the Roscommon border, since 18 October and tested all its staff and residents on 19 October. The HSE is providing expert advice on the ground and its outbreak control team, to which Deputy Naughten, referred is in place. There is a stable staff in place for the coming days. The HSE is actively involved in that situation.

A Sinn Féin Deputy asked about Alcoholics Anonymous, AA. It has been approved for inclusion on the special list of additional services that may continue to operate.

Those are the outstanding issues. It is important to put on the record that the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, could not be present this evening as he is meeting the 221+ patient support group. It requested that meeting yesterday. If the Minister did not have to attend it, he would be here to answer Deputies' question.

I thank my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, for coming to the House to deal with the issue of hand sanitisers which was raised by several Deputies. He answered their questions, so I do not need to revisit the issue.

I thank Members for the productive and timely debate on the situation currently facing the country. From the outset, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has tried to be as clear and honest as possible about the gravity of the situation we are facing. We are dealing with a medical emergency while lacking the kind of tools, such as medicines and vaccines, on which we would normally rely. We are not without hope. We have got this far. The virus was under control once before. We can and will get it under control again. However, all indicators of disease incidence and severity have continued to worsen in recent weeks. In the past week, there have been almost 9,000 cases. The national 14-day incidence rate now stands at 291 cases per 100,000 population.

In response to the rapidly deteriorating epidemiological situation across the country, this week the Government had to make some very difficult decisions to protect public health. It did so by moving the entire country to level 5 of the plan for living with Covid for the next six weeks. It is important to remember that we are not alone. The World Health Organization, WHO, is currently reporting more than 40 million cases of Covid-19 detected across 235 countries. Tragically, it is also reporting that there have been more than 1.1 million deaths from the disease. This week, it reported that the European region had seen the highest increase in cases and deaths thus far, at 25% and 29%, respectively. I wish to pass on my sympathies to all families that have been impacted with the loss of a loved one.

Europe has reported the greatest proportion of new cases globally. What we are seeing in Ireland is, unfortunately, part of a concerning trend across the Continent. We can expect that the increase in the number of cases within the community will lead to the virus becoming more prevalent among vulnerable populations. The increase will also, in turn, lead to more people being admitted to hospital and intensive care units. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that we can expect more people to die as a result of Covid-19.

That is why the Government decided to move to level 5 restrictions this week. It did so to interrupt the chains of transmission, get the virus back under control and put the country back into a position whereby the public health system has sufficient capacity to manage the reduced case numbers we hope to see. The measures we have put in place are very much in line with what is happening elsewhere in Europe. In fact, there are more severe restrictions in place in certain countries. There are curfews in Belgium and parts of France and a ban on the sale of alcohol after 8 p.m. in Belgium, while restrictions have recently been tightened in Italy. Wales has entered a circuit breaker lockdown, while several areas in the north of England have been placed into the highest level of restrictions available under the regime in place there. The virus is also surging in parts of North America and elsewhere.

It is clear from the way the virus is spreading rapidly that we are a long way off achieving herd immunity against Covid. It is important that people remember the three "Cs", namely, crowds, close contacts and close spaces. That message has not changed since Covid arrived in Ireland in February. The three things that have been asked of people since last February continue to be required. We need to wear a mask, keep our distance and wash our hands. Deputies need to stay on message when speaking to the general public. We need to keep the people with us. Most importantly, as an Oireachtas, we should be unified in how we deliver our message on keeping people safe.

That concludes statements on the level 5 response to Covid-19. Just to let the Minister of State know, Deputy Michael Collins only spoke once on this matter, although he has spoken on many occasions during the day and he is not finished yet.

We had understood the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, was coming in to address the situation that has developed with the sanitisers. Would it be fair to ask you that the Minister would come back and address those, either in written form or otherwise? They need to be addressed because I asked serious questions in my contribution.

There really is no provision. I call Deputy Michael Collins for 30 seconds.

I concur with Deputy Fitzmaurice that the Minister might come back and give us clarity on the important issue of the marts, unless the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, can do so. On the confusion the Minister of State mentioned about students coming back from college, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, was on the radio yesterday evening and caused that confusion.

The Deputy is wandering away from where we are. We are not getting back into the debate. The time allocated is over. Deputy Carthy asked for the script. The script was not immediately available. The Government Whip is arranging for the script to be had. I am sure if there are questions-----

On a point of order, a few times this week senior Ministers came in. We had known for some hours that those Ministers were coming in and there were only a handful of us here. Have they no paper? Have they no printers? This is scandalous. This is not fair. He said so many things and he read out regulations. No one could follow them, in fairness. They should have the script. It is an insult to the House and to us Members who were waiting to hear him. They should have it and it happened two or three times this week.

Ministers have a variety of responsibilities inside and outside the House and it is not normal-----

He was coming in to make that statement.

-----for any of us to be here. Members who have questions should either pose them directly to the Minister or I would be happy to receive the questions in my office and we will process them with the Minister as the case may be.