“That Dáil Éireann:
— that the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession have negatively affected many peoples' mental health and created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders;
— that many mental health organisations have reported significant increases in the use of their online and telephone services due to a broad range of issues impacting young people, which include anxiety and depression;
— the share of health funding allocated to mental health in recent years ranged from 5.7 per cent to 6.3 per cent, while in 2019 it was at 6.3 per cent, but will fall dramatically to 5.2 per cent in 2021, despite an expected significant rise in demand for supports and services in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic;
— that current Government policy is completely failing to achieve the Sláintecare objective of 10 per cent of health monies being allocated to mental health, even though that recommendation is below international recommendations;
— that it is incomprehensible for the mental health share of the overall health budget to decline, at a time when demand for the services has never been greater, and as Ireland faces the implementation of the mental health strategy ‘Sharing the Vision – A Mental Health Policy for Everyone’ that was launched just a few months ago;
— the immeasurable and long-lasting impact of the restrictive lockdowns, and lack of an exit strategy, especially on older and vulnerable people, who are experiencing severe social isolation and loneliness;
— that the Irish mental health services are grossly underfunded, and this has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic;
— the very significant impact on health and well-being from the Covid-19 virus and the associated lockdowns;
— the drastic impact of the Covid-19 virus, Government policies and associated lockdowns on other patients due to postponed medical treatment or check-ups;
— the drastic impact of the Covid-19 virus, Government policies and associated lockdowns on cancer screening services, with many cancers going undetected due to the suspension of cancer screening services;
— that the hospital and long-term care system in Ireland has suffered from significant under-investment for many years;
— that the entire public health system itself is another area that has suffered from many years of chronic under-investment;
— the tremendous and Trojan efforts made by all front-line workers, particularly healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic;
— the Government’s failure to provide an adequate remuneration to student nurses, who have been doing incredible work during the pandemic, while facing the same Covid-19 risks as any other healthcare worker, with the same bills, but receiving nothing in return;
— the powerful solidarity with family, neighbours and fellow citizens which emerged in every community, despite the often mixed and confused messaging of the Government;
— the complete failure of the Government to put in place a seamless replacement service to the European Union (EU) Cross Border Directive (CBD) for patients who wish to avail of treatments in Northern Ireland, and the grave impact this will have on the State’s already crumbling healthcare system;
— that Irish households and businesses have experienced very considerable economic disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic;
— that Government’s policy on restrictions has exacerbated or created a deeper urban-rural divide, by insisting on the ongoing closure of small rural pubs and confining people to a two kilometre or five kilometre area, with little access to any services in many rural areas;
— the continual closure of small rural pubs has left hundreds of rural villages decimated and exacerbated rural isolation and loneliness;
— that the restrictive lockdowns, without a proper social and economic exit plan on reopening the country, will cost tens of thousands of jobs to be lost;
— that the economy has been hit here much harder than necessary, due to the lack of any cohesive system of testing and contact tracing;
— that the Covid-19 pandemic has again highlighted the complete lack of adequate services, such as public transport, broadband and school transport in many rural areas;
— the lack of Government support to Irish Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) who are unable to obtain cash flow from the pillar banks, despite the European Central Bank making approximately €9 billion available to Ireland’s banking sector, to support enterprises during the Covid-19 pandemic; and
— the complete failure of the €2 billion Governments Covid-19 Credit Guarantee Scheme (Covid-19 CGS) due to SMEs being unable to access it, due mainly to:
— stringent restrictions;
— high interest rates being charged; and
— exclusion of many small businesses from accessing the scheme; and
calls on the Government to:
— provide additional funding of at least €250 million or a 25 per cent increase, to begin to fund the mental health fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021;
— immediately allow rural pubs to re-open, while adhering to all public health guidelines, in order to save businesses, protect rural employment, support rural towns and villages and provide a safe place for rural dwellers to meet and socialise responsibly, in order to combat the impacts of rural isolation and loneliness;
— publish a clear, transparent and concise exit strategy from this virus, so that everyone can begin to plan for the future and know that there is light at the end of the tunnel;
— provide all healthcare front line workers with a Christmas bonus payment;
— end the exploitation of student nurses and pay all final-year interns the same rate as healthcare assistants, increase and expand the clinical placement allowance for all other students, and provide full health and safety protection to all students, including payment if they have to go on Covid-19 related leave;
— implement an emergency programme to clear the backlogs in screening and treatments due to postponed medical treatments or check-ups;
— again, put an alternative scheme in place to ensure a seamless transition to the EU CBD from 1st January, 2021;
— implement measures to fast track cancer screening services and procedures;
— implement an internationally acceptable, cohesive system of Covid-19 testing and contact tracing;
— agree to a debate and vote in Dáil Éireann in January 2021, on the implementation of the regional and rural development, which is underpinned in the Project Ireland 2040 plan;
— offer tangible supports to Irish small and medium sized businesses by forcing Irish banks to lend to businesses at interest rates comparable to other EU countries (as opposed to the current rip-off rates being charged – despite, the banks obtaining the funds at rates as low as minus one per cent), in order to support cash-flow until the Covid-19 pandemic passes; and
— immediately examine, simplify and reduce the interest rate on the failed €2 billion Government Covid-19 CGS aimed at SMEs, and consider removing the pillar banks from the administration of the funds, while extending the scheme until the end of 2021.”
The Rural Independent Group has brought forward this motion because we believe a major deficit exists in terms of the negative impact of the Covid-19 restrictions. We are all acutely aware of the national financial costs but those costs at the macro level have been repeated endlessly. However, at the micro level, at the level of communities, local enterprises and access to health services, a serious gap has emerged. I accept entirely the Government has to respond to an unprecedented social and economic event. I accept that some helpful supports have been put in place. However, in that response and in that focus on the larger picture, we have lost sight of how these restrictions have cruelly impacted on the lives of ordinary people.
One of the starkest examples of this is in the area of health. We know that more than 300,000 cancer screenings have been delayed by the Covid crisis which forced the suspension of services and reduced screening capacity. I am aware of a man who was diagnosed with a serious form of cancer during the pandemic in March and who could not get a hospital transfer for months. There are many more like this constituent. We need to examine the measures being put in place and, more importantly, the serious impact they are having on people, in particular in terms of people’s health and well-being.
Across screening programmes for breast, cervical and bowel cancer, the national screening service planned to screen 433,100 people this year. However, the suspension of services when Covid-19 struck in March has meant that just one third of this annual target was met by the end of September. BreastCheck and Bowel Screen were more than 70% behind 2020 targets while CervicalCheck was 33% behind the target. This is why our motion identifies the devastating impact that Covid-19 restrictions are having on the service users of the healthcare system and on small businesses, including rural pubs which have been abandoned.
As we know, my constituency of Laois-Offaly was hit badly because we had to endure an additional lockdown that caused significant economic and social damage. The reimposition of stringent lockdown measures happened despite the NPHET epidemiological modelling advisory group having clearly stated there was little evidence of widespread community transition in the midlands counties. There was, however, some evidence of clusters at certain locations, including in food processing plants. On this basis, it was difficult to see why the Government even considered locking down the counties of Laois and Offaly.
I completely accept we need to monitor and react quickly and effectively. We should also, however, have acted proportionately and with a targeted response, not a widespread blanket imposition of lockdown measures for entire counties. After this lockdown was lifted, I said the people of Laois-Offaly had been through an extremely challenging few weeks. The general air of uncertainty, as well as the sense the measures were entirely unwarranted in the first place, left many people feeling frustrated upset and deeply annoyed. Thanks to the amazing community spirit in both counties, however, along with a single-minded determination to continue demonstrating responsible behaviour, our counties came through with pride. I repeat my praise today for the people of Laois-Offaly for their patience and their civic commitment.
However, it is not feasible to go on sending entire counties in and out of lockdown with the kind of Lanigan's Ball approach we have seen to date. I reiterate that pubs in rural communities, which have taken every measure possible and which have invested in additional measures to ensure their premises were safe, have been treated shamefully.
Our motion also refers to the need to simplify and overhaul the €2 billion credit loan guarantee scheme in order that small businesses can access this scheme more effectively. I have raised this issue on several occasions with the Minister for Finance. Following the publication of the Government's July stimulus plan, it was clear the reaction to the plan from some of the economy’s major sectors was an indication that a substantial revision would necessary sooner rather than later. This turned out to be true, as we have seen with the difficulties associated with the operation of the credit guarantee scheme.
In July, I accepted the plan represented a major delivery of support to SMEs and that, in itself, is progress that we could all welcome. However, I was also deeply concerned that sectors like tourism and hospitality did not receive the kind of targeted supports in VAT reductions they had sought. That pointed to a concerning lack of insight around deeply this sector has been impacted by the crisis. I would encourage Government to look at this closely to protect jobs, in particular in midlands counties which are undergoing, as I call it, an unjust transition because we are facing 1,000 job losses in Bord na Móna by the end of this year.
There were other aspects of the July stimulus plan like the expansion of the restart grant and the extension of the commercial rates waiver which were welcome. Again, however, there have been problems with these too. With respect to the restart grant, I was repeatedly contacted by small businesses which had been waiting to receive the grants in September, despite initial claims that all applicants would receive payment within two weeks. I was contacted by several local bed and breakfasts which were left waiting for this payment and only received it recently. I directly engaged with the office of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and, thankfully, this issue now appears to have been resolved and people have received the payment.
However, my point is that this issue clearly signals the kind of gap that exists between the supports that exist on paper and the supports people are actually receiving. This, in turn, has made enduring the Covid restrictions even more challenging and difficult to bear for many in the small business sector.
In terms of the wider suite of measures associated with the credit guarantee scheme, I made the point some time ago to the Minister of State, Deputy English, that one of the conditionalities associated with SMEs and farmers accessing the funding was that they would have to contact a participating Irish bank. This meant that it was then up to bank to make the necessary assessments and decide whether it was prepared to offer a loan to the SME or the small farmer. From what I could see, the banks required SMEs availing of the credit guarantees to be of “good financial standing and commercially viable”. This was extremely alarming and an instance yet again of where a serious gap emerged between the impact of Covid-19 and the State’s response as mediated through the banks. Again, the banks in this country have far too much control. They are let do as they please and come up with any conditions they like.
It is abundantly clear from recent and historical experience that when we leave it to the banks to determine what commercially viable means, trouble inevitably follows for the small farmer and small business man or woman.