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.