Before we begin, I ask Deputies who wish to speak to come forward and give their name to the Clerk. We have only 75 minutes in which to transact this business and it is very much a case of first come, first served for Deputies wishing to contribute.
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing time with na Teachtaí Patricia Ryan and Martin Browne. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to introduce the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Amendment) Bill 2020. Its purpose is to protect workers in their workplaces. That is its one and only aim. The Bill proposes a straightforward amendment to the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to make workplace outbreaks of Covid-19 notifiable to the Heath and Safety Authority, HSA. Such proactive notification and surveillance of Covid-19 is key to ensuring the responsible agencies react quickly to prevent the development of clusters of the virus in workplaces, especially meat plants and care homes.
Some people might be shocked to learn that workplace outbreaks of Covid-19 are not currently notifiable to the HSA as an occupational illness due to a lacuna in the 2005 Act. We are outliers in Europe in this regard, with a number of countries, such as Spain, having classified infection with the virus as a workplace injury. I was compelled to publish this legislation in June due to the failure of the Minister then responsible, Deputy Humphreys, to use her powers under the Act to amend the regulations to provide that occurrences of Covid-19 in the workplace would be notifiable to the HSA. That failure has been compounded by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, who is now responsible for workers' health and safety, and, God help us, workers' rights. He, too, has refused to sign regulations to make Covid-19 a notifiable workplace illness. Despite being the Minister responsible for workers' rights, he is doing the very opposite of what his job title would suggest. The vote last night against paying student nurses and midwives properly is an example of where this Government stands on issues relating to workers' rights.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, has been to the fore in campaigning for this simple change and has written to the relevant Ministers on a number of occasions requesting that it be done. On 24 July, ICTU representatives met with the Tánaiste to discuss the issue of notifiable illnesses and diseases being reportable to the HSA. However, this resulted in no change to the law and no additional protections for workers. At the stroke of a pen, the Tánaiste could make workplace outbreaks of Covid-19 notifiable to the HSA. Unfortunately, he has refused to do so.
This is the latest of many failures by the Government in a short period of time when it comes to workers' rights. The Debenhams situation is another example. The situation of those workers needs a high-level intervention and it needs to be resolved. I welcome the ongoing talks but, in truth, the situation should not have gone on for as long as it did. The workers were out picketing in the freezing cold, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Some of them were women of a certain age who should not have had to be out all night fighting for the basics.
As so many people have said, Debenhams could be just the tip of the iceberg. During Questions on Promised Legislation earlier today, the situation facing Topman and Topshop workers was raised by my colleague, an Teachta Paul Donnelly. In response to the possibility of up to 900 workers losing their jobs with the closure of stores owned by the parent company, the Tánaiste shrugged his shoulders and just said that retail is changing. The State must offer its full support to those workers to lay down the law to the liquidators and the company. It has been announced that the shops intend to continue trading through Christmas under the provisional liquidators in an effort to maximise the value of the stock. However, if the jobs cannot be saved, it is imperative that the money secured from the sale of the stock is ring-fenced for a decent redundancy package for workers in Topman, Topshop, Shaws, Wallis and all the other stores under threat. We have already had the La Senza, Paris Bakery and Clerys cases, which, although not exactly the same, were similar to what is happening with Topshop. In each case, it was said that we had better not let it happen again. We have an opportunity now to ensure we do not have another Debenhams.
I will return now to the Bill. We have only to look at the rise in the rates of infection among healthcare workers and meat and food-processing workers the last time we eased restrictions to know that the failure to put the required protections in place will place workers at risk. There is a lot of talk at this time about remote working. That is an extremely important issue and very valuable conversations are being had about it. This Bill is intended to protect workers who simply cannot work from home and must go into their workplace. The workers who need protection are those in meat factories, food-processing plants, food supply chain operations, nursing homes, hospitals, day centres, shops and building sites. They include gardaí, prison officers, Army personnel and many more. They are ordinary working people and they have been put in danger because of the failure to legislate for what is set out in this Bill. At the time of publishing it in June, I stated that given the evidence of the incidence of Covid-19 in workplaces such as meat plants and health facilities during the lockdown period, this change absolutely must be made and, if it was not, workers would be put in danger. It was with great regret that we saw that warning become a reality in countless workplaces when the economy reopened a few months later.
As I said at the outset, this Bill has only one aim, namely, to protect workers in all workplaces, including meat plants, care homes, building sites and office blocks in the IFSC. It could have been done by statutory instrument but the Government refused to do so. That is why I have had to pursue the legislation. I hope Deputies from all parties and none will stand up for workers' rights and ensure their health and well-being is protected at work by supporting this Bill.
I thank an Teachta O'Reilly for bringing forward this Bill. Its purpose is to amend the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to make incidents of Covid-19 infection notifiable to the Health and Safety Authority. This is an important change which, if it had been in place before the pandemic, could have prevented many instances of infection from spreading. I am thinking, in particular, of the meat plants. Back in August, I received an email from an employee of a meat plant in Kildare who told me that 60 other employees had tested positive for Covid-19 over the bank holiday weekend but the company was refusing to close. As the story developed, it exposed some of the meat plants as unlimited companies that do not report their profits. Those profits are made on the backs of mainly foreign workers, who are exploited in that they have little access to benefits like sick pay. That served to make the pandemic worse than it should have been.
We also saw how the lack of support given to nursing homes and care facilities meant that they were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. I have spoken to the managers of some of these services and heard horror stories of staff meeting in car parks and swapping masks and gloves for gowns and sanitisers from the boots of cars. They have been badly let down by the Government. One nursing home in my constituency was at crisis point when 29 staff were infected with Covid-19. It received little support. It was a private nursing home and, as we know, we are overly reliant on private nursing homes. Our older people deserve better. We need to develop public nursing home provision. As with housing and hospitals, commodification of nursing homes does not serve the public good.
It is the responsibility of the State to care for our older people, not to create profits for private companies.
Under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, employers used to be required to inform the HSA of infectious diseases in the workplace, as well as other illnesses or personal injury. A section of the law was changed by ministerial regulation in 2016 to remove the requirement for infectious diseases to be notified. This change was described by Patricia King of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions as a major flaw. This change was also questioned by a Fianna Fáil Deputy, who is also a barrister, when he asked if it was legal to remove it via ministerial order given that it was put in place by means of primary legislation and a vote in the Dáil.
Recommendation No. 5 in the final report of the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response states:
That the Government
1. Make provision for a statutory sick pay scheme to cater for low paid workers such as those in nursing homes and meat plants, and
2. Make Covid-19 a notifiable disease under health and safety regulations
The committee further recommends that regulations around general employment permits in the meat processing sector make provision for a sick scheme for workers by the employers concerned and that these regulations be made within six months of the date of this report.
This was an all-party committee report. I hope Members of all parties and none will support this Bill.
I congratulate Deputy O'Reilly on bringing this Bill forward. It is hard to understand, however, why we find ourselves asking the Government to make Covid-19 a workplace illness notifiable to the HSA. Over the months we have been battling Covid-19, there have been outbreaks of the virus in various workplaces. Instances in meat processing factories spring to mind. For some reason, the Government resisted pressure from Sinn Féin to include Covid-19 on list of illnesses that must be brought to the attention of the HSA immediately.
In my constituency, Tipperary, there were clusters of the virus in a number of food preparation facilities. There were significant concerns about whether the authorities were handling them right. Quite often it would begin with calls to me from people who had heard rumours that a case or cases had been identified in a local facility. People were concerned because they did not know if it was true or if positive cases were being dealt with and contained properly. If we knew that there was a proactive notification and surveillance system for Covid-19, then we would have had some assurances that an outbreak would be tackled quickly. This shortcoming has also resulted in significant clusters emerging in these settings nationally, putting the health and safety of workers and their families at risk. The most recent figures show that 52 outbreaks of Covid-19 have been associated with such plants. Social distancing and a lack of sick leave, as well as poor treatment of staff, have been identified as particular problems. If Covid-19 were designated as an illness that must be immediately reported to the HSA, would the extent of clusters in these settings and elsewhere have been what they were?
Covid does not discriminate what workplace it goes to. It goes where it pleases. This Bill aims to tackle that to as great an extent as possible. Whether people work in meat plants, care homes, where the dangers are particularly acute, office blocks or elsewhere, the aim of this Bill is to protect them all.
Workers have the right to know that the HSA and other public health bodies are fully briefed of any occurrence of Covid-19 in their places of work. They need to believe that the Government is there for them. This week alone, the Government has practically destroyed any sense of solidarity with workers in certain sectors. Our nurses, midwives and student nurses are an example. Yesterday, I asked the Taoiseach to ensure that nurses who have worked incredibly hard in the fight against Covid-19 would not have to pay their annual retention fees. The Taoiseach refused to give a commitment on that. Last night, all the Government parties voted against paying our student nurses for the long hours they have worked in our underfunded health service.
Today, we hope the Government will come back to reality and recognise the challenges faced in workplaces across this country, tell our workers that they matter and that their health and well-being are our primary concerns. If, however, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens refuse to support this Bill, they will have alienated even more workers than they have managed to set adrift so far this week. That is why Sinn Féin introduced the Bill. I call on those on all sides of the House to support it.
I call on the Minister of State, Deputy English, who is sharing time with Deputy Lawless.
I thank Deputy O’Reilly for bringing forward this Bill. It provides me with an opportunity to update the Dáil on recent regulatory changes and to facilitate a valuable exchange of views on the matter of Covid-19 in the workplace. I am sure that I am not alone in expressing my thanks and gratitude to all those who have worked tirelessly on the front line, in our hospitals, care homes and other essential services, throughout this pandemic to keep people as safe as possible. I have referred here on many occasions to all those involved in the retail sector. They are also on the front line. That is well recognised here. It is in everyone's interest that they are fully protected as best as possible. The State has gone to great lengths to achieve that.
The intention behind the Bill is well-motivated insofar as it those who drafted it are seeking to ensure that all instances of Covid-19 infection identified at places of work be reported to the HSA. However, it is important to clarify there are already established reporting mechanisms in place for all Covid-19 infections. Accordingly, there is no reporting gap to be filled in that regard.
A different impression was given here earlier that was wrong. The allusion made tonight is not uncommon in debates in the House. However, I wish that it would not happen. On serious matters such as public health, we should deal with the facts. While I am all for improving situations, I would like if people used the facts in their speeches.
While recognising concerns regarding the specific acquiring of Covid-19 infections in the workplace, the fact is that the workplace is not isolated from wider society. Covid-19 is primarily a public health matter and the management of it, including the reporting of it and the response to it across all sectors of society, must be led by public health authorities. Accordingly, Covid-19 infections are, in the first instance, reported to the Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre and to the HSE, as is the case with other public health infectious diseases. That has been the way since the start of the pandemic.
Of course, there are Covid-19-related concerns that arise in certain workplaces. In this regard, on foot of an EU directive, Covid-19 has now been designated as a biological agent under the new Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Biological Agents) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, introduced on 22 November 2020. Under these regulations, there are now greater reporting requirements for employers regarding the categories of employees exposed to biological agents in the course of their work, including exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the agent responsible for Covid-19. The regulations have made SARS-CoV-2 a newly reportable biological agent in certain workplaces with a confirmed occupational exposure. Occupational exposure can occur from deliberate work with the virus, for example, in a research laboratory. It can occur incidentally from work activities which, by their nature, involve potential specific exposure to the virus, for example, working with a Covid-19 patient, handling infected waste or carrying out diagnostic testing in respect of Covid-19 in a laboratory.
As a result of these new regulations, where a person’s work activities involve occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2, their employer is required to carry out a specific biological agent risk assessment. The Dáil was informed in early summer that these changes were afoot. Other requirements, including implementing protective measures, keeping exposure lists and making appropriate health surveillance available, can also be required, depending on the outcome of the biological agent risk assessment. A clear distinction must be made, however, between employment sectors, where workers encounter Covid-19 as an occupational exposure, in contrast with other workplaces where virus infections cannot be reliably attributed to work activities and is just as likely to have been acquired in a wider community setting over which an employer does not have control. As we have seen over the past nine months, the reality is that Covid-19 can be acquired in any setting.
The biological agents regulations provide for a targeted and realistic approach to the reporting of Covid-19 in the workplace rather than a blanket imposition of a general reporting requirement on all employers which would be largely unworkable. There are several reasons for this, not least that Covid-19, like many infectious diseases, cannot be reliably linked to a specific workplace or work activity apart from the circumstances covered by the new biological agents regulations. There are also genuine privacy issues to be considered around the reporting of Covid-19 in the context of making it a statutory requirement on employers.
If there were to be a statutory requirement on an employer to report cases of Covid-19, an employer would have to be made aware of such cases.
There is no obligation on a medical practitioner or the HSE to inform an employer that an individual employee has acquired COVID-19, nor is there an obligation on employees to inform their employer of the exact nature of any illness or disease they may be suffering from.
The purpose of the Bill is to make workplace outbreaks of Covid-19 notifiable to the HSA. In reality, the proposed amendment will not provide significant additional value for the authority in terms of it being able to provide advice and support to employers and employees in managing Covid-19 in the workplace and to respond to workplace clusters, which is what they do. In recent months, mechanisms have been put in place to ensure that the HSA is made aware of workplace clusters, especially in high-risk sectors through an agreement with the HSE to share information on Covid-19 outbreaks in workplaces, especially in high-risk sectors. The HSA also participates on national and local outbreak teams, which enables it to respond to particular workplace clusters. However, notwithstanding this, as Deputy O'Reilly is aware, the HSA has initiated a regulatory impact assessment on the reporting of Covid-19 as an occupational illness on foot of discussions at a HSA board meeting as well as in response to representations from ICTU and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation. The outcome of this review, which will include public consultation, is expected early in 2021, after which the HSA will submit a recommendation to me for consideration. On that basis, the Government is not opposing the Bill. The HSA board meeting at which the decision was made happened in September and this is under way. I briefed the House on plans to do this during the summer.
I look forward to engagement from those on all sides of the House and I believe that a constructive and co-operative debate will contribute to the learning curve that we have all been on in respect of managing and living with Covid-19 and the changes that it has brought to the workplace and society in general. It is important that we base our contributions on the facts and allay the fears that people might have in certain areas.
Reference was made to sick leave. The Tánaiste has made a very strong commitment on this and the process is well under way - on foot of discussions in both Houses of the Oireachtas - to bring forward legislation to put in place a statutory sick pay scheme. That process is under way but people still give the impression that nothing is happening. There is a commitment to be back here in March with legislation. This is on foot of other debates we have had.
I welcome the discussion on the Bill and the Minister of State's comments. I credit Deputy O'Reilly for bringing forward the legislation.
I was surprised at the tone of a few of the contributions from the Sinn Féin benches on this. It is important that over the next couple of years, or however long the term runs, we in the Dáil avoid the "Government bad, Opposition good" narrative that is such an easy mantra to throw out. For my part, I will certainly engage with all parties and none in the Chamber and evaluate every proposition on its merits. Where a proposal is constructive and positive, I will engage on it and support it where I can. Where it is not, I will seek to find common ground. I suggest that this might be a better way to go if we are to find consensus and move forward. As Members of Parliament, we have responsibilities outside of our individual whipped party roles. I want to put this to all Deputies.
On the same note, I welcome Deputy O'Reilly's initiative in putting this forward. We discussed it at the Covid committee and elsewhere over the summer and there is at lot of common ground on it. It is not confined to any one party. One of the Sinn Féin speakers has already pointed out that I had been raising this legally and politically over the summer in various debates, and those conversations went a lot further in terms of engagement with the Government, Ministers, trade unions and employers' bodies to get to the heart of it, understand the important issues this raises and understand where it might go next and what is the best approach to tackle these issues. I thank Deputy Patricia Ryan for crediting me and I hope she credits me in the same way on Kfm local radio. It is good we are on the same page today.
The 2005 Act was introduced by a former colleague of mine, Tony Killeen, and it is quite right to say the definition of personal injury in section 2(1) of that Act included occupational illness and disease as one of the categories of reportable notifiable illness. I believe that Bill was in place for 11 years before it was updated. I understand, from taking consultation on the matter, there was some confusion on reporting obligations. Reporting was quite low. There were instances of reporting and there were probably some grey areas. Outside the scope of the Bill and the debate, areas of mental health were in the same definition and were later updated and removed. SI No. 370 of 2016 updated the Act and remove certain provisions, including occupational illness and occupational disease and some of the mental health provisions. I do not think I would have initiated it myself but I am told part of it was a grey area which was becoming a difficulty to define and engage on. It was felt it could do with more clarification. I might have clarified it rather than removed it but in any event that is what happened.
It is so important that at some point we impose reporting obligations. Drawing on local knowledge from the Kildare lockdown, we saw that the meat plants in that case were the source of three to five outbreaks, which effectively put three counties into lockdown for three or four weeks of the month of August. While I appreciate the point that the virus does not start in meat plants or in any other workplace and that it comes in from the outside, if it does come in and if the conditions are hospitable to its being rapidly transmitted, be that because of temperature, close quarters or perhaps even shared accommodation, as is the case of many meat plants, and it spreads rapidly to the extent that a workplace becomes highly infectious and contagious and effectively has to shut down, surely that is on the cusp of being a notifiable event, if not the very definition thereof.
The meat plants were the primary centre of outbreaks during the summer. Our schools reopened in September and, thankfully, they have been doing well and the Government has managed the situation very well. Credit where it is due. It was the first step back towards normality when schools returned in September. They are workplaces throughout the country for tens of thousands of teachers, special needs assistants, school secretaries, caretakers and everyone else in the school community.
Retail has also been mentioned. Sometimes it is forgotten that our retail staff are also front-line workers, be they in the local supermarkets, small butchers, grocers and shops. They have been trading throughout the pandemic. They are workplaces and in some cases those who work in them are not particularly well paid. Sometimes they are at the lower end of the labour market. It is important that where conditions could be susceptible to infection, depending on the nature of the workplace, certainly where people are in close quarters, perhaps warehouses or stock rooms, it can arise again. That is not to mention health care settings. To an extent, they are covered through other reporting obligations but certainly, with regard to catching Covid, in many cases it is already in healthcare settings for treatment purposes and people are being brought in with it. Healthcare workers need our support on this. That is very important.
When I read the Bill in advance of the debate, I was a little surprised to discover that it is Covid-19 specific. Perhaps what we need to do with the wider debate is examine what the reporting obligations should be for infectious disease in the workplace, and see where it comes in from and out of, how it spreads and what the HSA can do about it when it comes in, and perhaps move beyond the specific single paragraph Bill proposed here and look at the wider context. This is the benefit of the parliamentary process, which goes back to my points at the beginning about us working together and engaging constructively. We can do so during pre-legislative scrutiny and on Committee Stage. Perhaps the matter can be teased out and I advocate to Deputy O'Reilly and the members of the committee that it is an exploration worth engaging in.
I spoke to the Minister of State and to the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, earlier and I am aware that statutory instruments have been introduced to deal with the specifics of this. A statutory instrument is appropriate for a specific measure and primary legislation is appropriate for a general principle. This is always the way we have legislated and it makes sense to do it that way. Biological agents have been recognised in a new statutory instrument brought into force in recent weeks, and protocols are being put in place for the HSE, which has always been a notifiable body in this instance, to share that information with the HSA. This is very welcome. I look forward to the Bill's progression and I look forward to the wider debate and seeing where it goes on Committee Stage and what changes are proposed. It is an important move.
During debates of this kind, we often find ourselves strongly advocating for a Bill and strongly opposing the position of the Government. As the previous speaker indicated, however, thankfully we are in a position whereby the Bill tabled by Deputy O'Reilly is not being opposed by the Government and, therefore, can advance to the next stage when, hopefully, it can be improved, amended or whatever on Committee Stage.
I am slightly confused, notwithstanding the goodwill of the Minister of State and the Government, as to the issues he has with the Bill. In his contribution, he stated that, effectively, he does not want the message to get out to the wider public that such reporting mechanisms do not exist and that, on one level, there is not really a need for the Bill. Then, however, he details reasons there are problems with the Bill because what it tries to achieve is not workable, which undermines his statement that it is already being done. There is also the question of privacy issues.
I am interested in the issue and I am interested in the reasons given by the Minister of State. I often believe there can be validity to Government statements on these issues, even though at first glance they may not appear to have validity. This is the kind of thing that would be debated over and back on Committee Stage. To be fair to the proposer of the Bill, this has been kicking around since June. I know a reference has been made to the specific nature of Covid-19 and perhaps it should be broader to have longer lasting standing on the Statute Book. At the same time, I often think Bills which come before this House which are short, sharp, to the point, and want to achieve a specific outcome have a better chance of success. On that basis, I am glad the Government is not opposing the Bill.
Effectively, what the Bill is trying to do, as Deputy O'Reilly has outlined on a number of occasions, is to protect workers. As Deputy Lawless said, we do not always need to have an argument over these issues or to try to put people in different trenches. However, on the entire issue of the pandemic and the post-Covid economy that we will rebuild, we come at this from the position of the worker who is vulnerable. In that regard, as the Minister of State knows, we have been proposing legislation on sick pay, and he has previously made the point that it is hoped legislation will come forward in March. At the same time, when the Labour Party proposed the sick pay Bill, the suggestion was that within 12 months, we would get some movement on that and, therefore, in the teeth of a pandemic, when so many other elements have been seen to move quickly, and when we are pretty much an outlier among EU and OECD countries by not having statutory sick pay for workers, that there would be that lag and lack of immediacy around the provision of sick pay is disappointing. The Minister of State will be aware of the Labour Party legislation that we proposed just last month on the right to switch off for people working from home. While working from home has benefits for home life and for the environment, when we move from having 200,000 people working from home to 800,000 in less than a year, we need to have regulation and protections for those workers, so they do not feel as if they are not just working from home but living in an office.
I come from a professional background of teaching in a disadvantaged school, where it was often my responsibility to inform the wider society of the reality of what it is like to live and try to learn in an overcrowded space, and to do homework on the stairs, on the floor or on the edge of a bed. Now, workers are being expected by employers to do the very same thing without any oversight, without added protections and without any investment into that workspace by employers.
As Deputy O'Reilly said, an outbreak of Covid- 19 in the workplace environment, outside of the working from home space, is the point of the Bill and, therefore, there is validity in what she is trying to say. Between what the Minister of State has contributed, what the Bill is trying to achieve and what we are all trying to achieve in protecting workers, we can probably find some common ground on Committee Stage.
We certainly cannot return to where we were. I want to make a point, as I promised I would do every time I get the opportunity to engage on issues of employment rights, workers’ rights, the enterprise agenda, the business agenda or any economic debate in this House, on the number of workers in the economy prior to the pandemic who were very vulnerable, in insecure work and on poor pay. The rights of those workers to have their union representation recognised and to have employers engage with that union representation is weak in this country, which is the reason we have a disproportionate number of workers in insecure work and on poor pay.
The Minister of State will be sick of me saying that the beauty of coming from a teaching background is that I have learned to say things over and over again and, hopefully, at some stage, it might work its way in between the ears of the students. In this regard, she is my student while I have the floor. If we had 23% of workers in the pre-Covid economy on low pay, that is not something we can stand over, and he will agree with that. It is something we have to work to amend and to ensure we do not return to. If 40% of workers under 30 are in insecure work, that is something we cannot stand over either. We cannot just assume that what we want to achieve is to get back to where we were. With the talk of the vaccine, the talk of Christmas and the talk of normality, there is a sense that if we just go back to where we were, everything will be fine. We had this in the previous crisis ten years ago, when we said we would never go through a housing crash or a boom and bust cycle again, and we would never let housing crack our people. Sure enough, ten years later, it is housing which is hurting our people, families and communities.
In this sense, from the Labour Party perspective, I want to work with the Minister of State and the Government to ensure we do not return to where we were, with such a low pay economy and with young workers in such insecure work, and then having to introduce legislation, which we would have assumed was already on the Statute Book, to deal with the issues of remote working, working from home and sick pay.
With that, I appreciate what Deputy Lawless said about it being worthy for us to ensure people watching debates like this do not have to pick a side, pick a team or fly a flag, and that they are able to believe that politicians can be of equal mind in trying to protect workers and to achieve something out of this. On that basis, the fact the Minister of State is not opposing the Bill and is willing to work with Deputy O'Reilly on Committee Stage speaks well of tonight's debate. We will see what happens on Committee Stage and we will also see what happens when it comes to the Government's consideration of sick pay and the right to switch off with regard to remote working.
I call Deputy Cronin, who is sharing with Deputy Gould.
It is mystifying that Covid-19 has not been a notifiable disease from the outset. I commend my comrade, Deputy Louise O'Reilly, for bringing forward the Bill. Deputy O'Reilly has been on the case since early summer, when we first realised this had been overlooked by the Government. We are nine months into this pandemic, long enough to have conceived and given birth to a baby, yet testing and tracing is still not optimal and public health doctors are so badly treated that they have had to threaten to go on strike. Last night, the Government voted against the payment of student nurses who have been to the forefront during this pandemic, we have the lowest hospital consultant rate in the OECD and we are still only starting to trial testing at airports. We have highly regarded experts in infectious diseases on the island but a private auditing company, Ernst and Young, is doing the epidemiology. I do not know how much it will charge us for that yet, but it will be interesting to see.
We have a novel virus involved in a pandemic and it is not notifiable, which is extraordinary. As a consequence, to take an example that is bizarre but legal, the meat plant owners, who are very wealthy in most cases, are not required by law to notify the State if their employees, who are very poorly paid for the most part, have Covid-19. The rest is the story of two lockdowns, or three and a half lockdowns in north Kildare. We have had 2,075 deaths and more than 73,000 cases of Covid and counting.
If Fine Gael in particular had given the same attention to the notifiability of Covid-19 as it gives to Sinn Féin, we might not be having this debate. This disease would be long ago notifiable. That it is not exposes the Government's priorities, which are public relations over public health. Perhaps making the disease notifiable would have required real action to protect workers at the expense of the public optics that protect nothing but private profit in the end. It would have signified and demanded real concern for the low paid and the poor conditions in which they are forced to work.
During the lockdown, I dealt with people who are working in the meat factories in Kildare and the stories were horrendous. I did my best to help them and to improve their working conditions. I have been dealing with the union since then but it highlights the need for adequate protections and guaranteed sick pay for those workers. With regard to all these things, too many workers see and experience them only by their absence. That is when they realise what is happening. When it comes to Covid-19, the notifiability is noted by its absence. Increasingly, those who suffer as a result of that absence of notifiability are notifying the Government of their dissatisfaction and are refusing to take any more guff and neglect.
I am pleased the Minister of State will not be opposing this legislation. I hope it will quickly pass Committee Stage because we are nine months into this pandemic. It is unbelievable that in the middle of a pandemic this is not a notifiable disease.
I thank Deputy O'Reilly for bringing forward this Bill. Not every worker can work from home. Those in meat factories, retail, healthcare and childcare services need to go into work but, unfortunately, some of those places have seen significant clusters. We have been asking the Minister of State for far too long to take the simple step to protect workers' rights and workers. We should not be wasting time. All we need is the Tánaiste to come into the House and give his signature but, once again, we will be waiting on Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, which is falling down with regard to workers' rights.
There is no provision for the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, to be made available for childcare workers or workers who are high risk and cannot work. I was contacted by a lady who is 28 weeks' pregnant. She is concerned about the Covid protections in the childcare centre where she works. As she said, she cannot social distance from a toddler. She has checked the HSE guidelines in regard to pods but there are no rules against pods or staff mixing. They are not wearing masks because masks are seen as a barrier to care. Recently, her doctor informed her that she is at high risk of contracting Covid-19 due to complications in her pregnancy. I contacted the Minister for Social Protection but was told this lady would not qualify for the PUP and the best she could hope for was a supplementary welfare allowance of €201 a week.
The University of Limerick recently found that one in three childcare workers wants to leave the sector within the next year. Who can blame them when this is how they are being treated? We need protections against Covid-19 in the workplace and the employer needs to be responsible and act responsibly. When they make their employees attend offices unnecessarily and do not put in the proper protections in the workplace, when employees get sick or when clusters of Covid rip through workplace, that is not the workers' fault. It is the fault of employers who do not put the proper protections in place to protect workers and their staff. We need to see real protection for workers, especially during this pandemic. I thank Deputy O'Reilly again for bringing forward this Bill.
Would the Minister of State like to make some brief remarks by way of a response?
If I could have a couple of minutes, yes. Deputy Ó Ríordáin asked me what I was referring to earlier when I spoke about misinformation or the perception being given. It was repeatedly stated that Covid-19 is not notifiable, which gives the impression that nobody is told of incidences of Covid. That is not the case. The appropriate authority is our public health authorities and they are told.
The question we have to focus on is the impact of the Bill and what it desires to achieve. All of us here would agree to increased protections for employees, which is what we will do. That is what we have to assess and work out but, as it stands, this change would not give significant new or additional information to the Health and Safety Authority as the authority already receives Covid-19 outbreak information from the public health authorities. It is reported to them, yet the impression has been given that it is not being reported, and that might scare some people. That is the wrong impression to be giving, and that is what I was referring to. However, the Bill might create an administrative burden for employers in meeting the new reporting obligations, so it is not as simple as putting a signature on it. That is not the way it works. Something as serious as this has to be analysed properly and then those decisions are made.
Separately, since employers are not informed by the Health Service Executive or by a doctor of individual cases due to privacy reasons, an employer will only be able to report a case of Covid-19 in a workplace to the Health and Safety Authority if he or she is informed of such by the employee. Employers might also feel that they are not able to pass on information about a Covid-19 infection due to the general data protection regulation, GDPR, and wishing to maintain confidentiality with the employee, again to protect the employee's own privacy and rights.
To be clear, on balance, as a Government, it is our view that it is appropriate not to oppose the Bill at this point since the Health and Safety Authority is currently carrying out a regulatory impact assessment on making workplace incidents of Covid-19 reportable to the authority. It is looking into this to determine the difficulties it will cause in the workplace for employers. If it is worthwhile to do that, that is a decision we can make.
To set out the process, what is under way and has been even before this debate, which is a useful opportunity to discuss it, is that the Health and Safety Authority is preparing a regulatory impact assessment, RIA, to support consideration of a proposal already made by the board of the Health and Safety Authority to amend regulation 224 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment)(No. 3) Regulations 2016. The proposal aims to introduce a requirement for employers to report cases of Covid-19 that are attributable to work activity to the Health and Safety Authority. The RIA will identify a range of possible options for implementing this proposal. It will give us the evidence to inform the discussion when Deputy O'Reilly's Bill goes forward to Committee Stage, as we are not opposing it and are happy to do that. We can tease this out with the evidence the authority is already gathering, which will prove very useful. The information it is gathering will give us detailed information on the cost, the benefits and the impacts of each option, making it clear to us whether what we are doing here is worthwhile and if it will give us any added value because there are reporting mechanisms already in place. If we can strengthen that, why would the House not agree? That is the information we are trying to gather. This information will provide the board, and our Committee Stage debate, with a basis for a recommendation to be made to the Minister, which is me, on the most appropriate way forward with the proposal. If it recommends it and backs it up with evidence, why would we not implement it? That discussion can happen on Committee Stage as the Bill goes forward because the Government is not opposing it.
I thank Deputy O'Reilly for bringing the Bill forward and all the Deputies for their contributions, but it is important that the tone reflects the reality and the facts. I appreciate that the Bill is intended to improve the overall management of Covid-19 in the workplace and the capacity to deal with the impact on places of work. We will support that work once the RIA evidence is brought forward and recommends that. Across all sections of society our knowledge of and ability to deal with the outbreaks of Covid-19 have improved greatly over the past nine months.
In respect of businesses and workplaces, the Government responded quickly with a range of targeted practical and financial supports as well as protocols to deal with them. Among the practical support offered was the development of the Return to Work Safely Protocol and the recently launched Work Safely Protocol, which was developed in co-operation with the social partners through the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, process. It was very much involved in that conversation and in implementing that. Everybody is playing their part in implementing that and following that protocol. I believe that is keeping many of us safe as we interact with the workplace.
The Health and Safety Authority has been the lead State agency in co-ordinating the inspectorate response to compliance with the protocol and in offering advice, guidance and support to both employers and employees to assist them in keeping workplaces open and functioning in a safe manner, because of course we want to keep everybody safe as much as we can.
The Health and Safety Authority is aware of the deaths of eight healthcare workers. I understand that the authority is currently assessing the circumstances of those deaths, which is its function and job. Regarding the next steps, the regulatory impact assessment is under way and that will inform our decisions in conjunction with the efforts of this House in the time ahead.
I thank the Minister of State for being here. Deputy O'Reilly must be pleased with the outbreak of agreement on this matter.
Yes, of course. I do not want to start a row with the Minister of State, but with the greatest of respect, when he says that the issue is being looked at, while I am sure this is not how he intends it, it sounds a little like it is being kept in file in a filing cabinet. I am happy that we are having the debate and that the Minister of State has had the opportunity to outline what the Government intends to do. I am pleased that this Bill is not being opposed and I look forward to debating it on Committee Stage and strengthening it if it needs to be strengthened. I thank my colleagues and all Deputies who spoke in support of the Bill. I also want to say a brief word of thanks to the staff in the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers, OPLA, because they have been helpful to us in drafting this legislation.
The debate is necessary and welcome. This issue is now more than six months old. It is more than six months since the Irish Congress of Trade Unions wrote to the then Minister, Deputy Humphreys. The Minister of State is correct when he says that it does not take just a stroke of a pen and I was not trying to trivialise it, but the power to do this rests with the Minister and much time could have been used to assess the impact. Notwithstanding that, I look forward to the debate that we will have on Committee Stage. We have had many discussions about remote working, which is important.
While I have the floor, I ask the Minister of State to ask the Tánaiste and others in government, when they say to workers to stay at home where possible, to also say the same to employers. I have been contacted by many workers. When I say they have been forced into work, nobody is marching around to their house and dragging them in, but they are given the definite impression that that is where their employer wants them to be, and that their employer does not want them to work from home in workplaces where they can. All of us who can work from home should be working from home to the greatest extent possible and all employers who can facilitate that should facilitate it to the greatest extent possible. That is one group of workers.
Another group of workers simply cannot work from home. A bus driver or a cleaner cannot work from home. Large portions of our economy, not just nurses and doctors, but porters, cleaners and people in catering across the healthcare sector and sectors such as meat factories, cannot do their work from home and have to go into work. We are grateful that they go into work because they keep us going. The supply chain workers keep us fed and cleaners keep places clean. We know that there are workers who are essential.
As someone who has a keen and long-standing interest in workers' rights, an interesting thing about this pandemic is that it has caused us to re-evaluate what is and what is not a front-line or essential job. It is not just the people who we would previously have assumed were front-line workers, including gardaí, nurses and doctors, but also people who work in our shops and in food processing, because they are necessary and we could not get through without them. Now that the light is shining on those workplaces and we are re-evaluating those workers and saying that we will broaden our definition of what constitutes essential workers, it is the time to ensure that if those workers catch Covid-19 in their workplace, it is treated as a notifiable disease and a workplace injury.
There are diseases which are already notifiable. It is not the case that it is not necessary or that we would be doing something radical or strange, because we would not be. This is done in other jurisdictions and it is done here for other types of diseases. I take the point made by Deputy Lawless about broadening this. That may or may not be a good idea and is a discussion for another day, but right now we are in the middle of a pandemic and Covid-19 is on our agenda. It is Covid-19 that the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, would have received the correspondence from ICTU about, which is why we focused on Covid-19 specifically. I know the Minister of State mentioned issues regarding GDPR, privacy and proving whether a disease was acquired in the workplace. We know that from the people working in the meat factories when there were outbreaks and clusters there. Nobody was suggesting that they had picked it up in the supermarkets. It is likely that they got it in their workplace. The Health and Safety Authority comes into play when the matter is notified to it.
I respect that it is of course a public health issue, but it is also a workplace issue for doctors, nurses and people in meat factories. It is not just a public health issue, although that is important, but it is also a workers' rights and workplace issue, so it needs to be dealt with as both of those things because people have the right to be safe in work. I have seen nurses put on the personal protective equipment, PPE, the double gloves and FFP2 masks and go into Covid wards, which are dangerous situations. It is a matter of public health but it is also a matter of workplace safety.
With peace having broken out at the end of this week, I conclude by thanking the Minister of State for not opposing this legislation. I look forward to having engagement on Committee Stage at the earliest possible occasion, and I will write to the committee's Chair on foot of this to see if we can table it as soon as possible. I look forward to working with people from across the House to ensure that we pass this legislation and that workers can derive a benefit from it.