Impact of Covid-19 Restrictions: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

“That Dáil Éireann:

recognises:

— 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.

I thank Mairead McGrath and Brian Ó Domhnaill for putting together this Private Members’ motion. It is an important motion referring to the many difficulties people have experienced during this Covid crisis. In many cases, people have been overlooked during this pandemic. We need to be cautious about and respect the dangers of Covid-19 which is what rural communities have tried to do, in particular my constituency.

I want to look at issues and areas where there have been serious failings during the period of Covid-19, especially for people with mental health issues. I mention the stress Covid-19 has caused and I want to look at the services. In a report I looked at recently I saw that mental health services are receiving less funding than they were last year, at a time when they need increased funding because, unfortunately, we have situations of suicide in every constituency, which far outnumber the deaths from Covid-19 on some days. It is a sad and difficult time for people. More finances should be pumped into those services.

I will also look at the cancer screening services, which have been mentioned, and the difficulties people have encountered. In general, it has been very difficult for people to get appointments in clinics. Covid-19 has been used as an excuse. I was on the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response in the first months of the Covid-19 crisis and there was much discussion there about nursing homes, the lack of funding for nursing homes and the lack of funding for community hospitals. I could name quite a number of hospitals. The State is administering the funding for community hospitals.

People in Clonakilty Community Hospital passed away due to Covid-19. I looked at reports which had for the past numbers of years condemned certain parts of the hospital, not the hard-working staff. Unfortunately, there was a failure by the State to provide funding to bring it up to HIQA standards. It was written in black and white prior to the pandemic and HIQA stated there was an issue with overcrowding in some of the rooms. Unfortunately, those reports are there and they have a legacy. No action has been taken by the State or the Department of Health and people have been left in these rooms, which left us in unfortunate situations. The State has to stand up and look at its historical actions on community hospitals and on Clonakilty Community Hospital. The State has to put it right now and not wait. The unfortunate thing I see in community hospitals is that now people are not being allowed in. Fewer people are being allowed into the community hospitals so more beds are being closed instead of bringing them up to a modern standard.

I also spoke at great length about tourism at the beginning of the pandemic because I could see that in communities where there was a great amount of tourism, people were very worried. I called for rapid Covid-19 testing in our airports from the word "go" but unfortunately that fell on deaf ears. The airport officials, the Government and the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, said it was far too dear. They are all trying to run with these tests now but they should have been in place from the word "go" so that when people flew into our country, at least they would have had a Covid-19 test and people would feel far more relaxed. They should have certified and implemented that.

I thank the Minister for being here; I appreciate that. People wanted to worship in the churches. We are one of only three countries in the world that closed our churches. The Minister has amazing power because it had not happened for a couple of hundred years in Ireland that the churches were closed to the public. That caused great hurt. Churches that could hold 500 people were not allowed to hold four or five people. Some churches are bigger than this place and we have no problem in meeting here but we have an issue with people going to worship in their churches, regardless of what religion they are.

I refer to the marts. When we raised the levels recently, people could not go to marts. A mart is like an open shed. Some marts were putting in all sorts of spacing measures in place so that the buyers alone could go in and they were not allowed in.

The mortgage moratorium was very welcome but unfortunately that is gone. I am meeting publicans, in particular, and many other business people and they are trying to do a deal with the banks but the banks have no interest in doing a deal now. Their businesses are closed, which is incredible. I will take the Minister for a spin around Dublin this evening and he will see where the hundreds and thousands of people are in this or that place. I do not want to be pointing the finger but pubs that would have two, three or four people in them most days are not allowed to open. It is scandalous. They have not been able to earn a brown cent and now the banks are looking for their money. These people are stressed to the living last as to where they will get the money.

I have talked about student nurses and the unfair way they have been treated during the Covid-19 crisis. They were at the front line working hard and they were treated horribly. We were standing up in the Dáil clapping them. Clapping is not good enough. We need to deliver. The registration fee for nurses of €100 was not even withdrawn to give them some break. We have been down on people and there are many issues that need to be discussed but my time is up.

I thank our front-line workers in Kerry who did massive work in our hospitals and nursing homes. Anywhere they were required, they did their level best and did Trojan work.

I have to say to the Minister that people have been dying from things other than the coronavirus. People with cancer and people with hip and knee difficulties and so on have been left behind to suffer in pain. In time the tale will be told of the damage and neglect that has been meted out to these people. Elderly and sick people in their homes have by and large been left to their own devices because GPs could not go to their homes. In severe cases, all people could do was to go to the accident and emergency department. Even people who had paid for private healthcare have been neglected. They could not access the services they had paid for and rightly deserved to get because the public hospitals took over the private hospitals. They were left behind.

The cross-border directive is in serious jeopardy. Deputy Michael Collins and I are at our wits' end because we do not know what will happen after 31 January. It was so important to keep that system going to ensure that people did not lose their sight or that they would not continue to suffer in pain. It seems that the Taoiseach is not interested in keeping that service going.

I mention mental health and suicide among middle-aged people and loneliness. A recent damning report by the Mental Health Commission cited major deficiencies in the level of mental healthcare for patients in Kerry and it is getting worse rather than better. The Minister and the Taoiseach said the Government would provide more district beds and beds for people who needed to go into hospital. What it has done is close down beds in our district hospitals. In one public nursing home in Killarney, the Government has closed 27 beds and they are still closed.

School transport and the 50% rule really came to light in Kerry. The Government did not give people the service and the way it was done was that people who always had tickets to go to the secondary school did not get tickets until recently and not all of them have their tickets yet. Even college students in Killarney were disenfranchised. They could not go to Tralee because Bus Éireann put on another run from Dingle to Killarney and Tralee. However, Bus Éireann did not have drivers to continue the school bus going to the Institute of Technology Tralee from Killarney and it left 18 to 20 students standing on the side of the road for several days.

Rural pubs have been closed all year. The owners of those pubs are suffering mentally and financially because of that. I mention the people who used to frequent those pubs, including the people from the hills and glens of Kerry. Many of them have not seen a pint since last March and it could be next March or farther on before they get one.

How is it that farm inspections are still taking place? They are taking place on behalf of all the agencies, even though when farmers or business people want something, the reason given for not helping them is that no one can come out to help due to the coronavirus.

However, the enforcement officers and inspectors can go out. The banks are using the coronavirus to safeguard themselves. Many young people who are rightfully entitled to and who want to put a roof over their heads, and who should be lauded for that given what is happening with the social housing list, are being ignored by the banks. Even though we as a nation bailed out the banks, they are ignoring the young people who want to access a mortgage for the purpose of putting a roof over their heads. That is a disaster. The Government will have to call them aside and ensure people get what they rightfully deserve.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Eireann” and substitute the following:

“acknowledges:

— the extraordinary solidarity, determination and resilience shown this year by communities and citizens in Ireland’s fight against Covid-19;

— the widespread support and adherence to public health measures by the public, communities, voluntary organisations and workplaces; and

— the critical contributions of workers and volunteers across Irish society, including healthcare, education, childcare, justice, the voluntary sector, retail, distribution, utilities, hospitality and many more;

notes the enormous human, societal and economic costs of the Covid-19 pandemic, including:

— a total of 2,126 Covid-19 related deaths and more than a total of 76,449 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland;

— the adverse impact of Covid-19 on existing hospital waiting lists;

— a significant impact on mental health and well-being and the need for a corresponding increase in mental health services and supports across the country;

— an increase in isolation and loneliness for many people due to the impact of Covid-19 measures;

— the closure of many viable businesses across the country and the devastating impact on particular sectors including the arts, hospitality, tourism and sport; and

— an increase in the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate to 7.5 per cent with 71,800 more people unemployed compared to last year;

further notes that, thanks to the collective efforts of the Irish people:

— Ireland currently has the lowest 14-day and 7-day incidence rates of Covid-19 in the European Union;

— Ireland’s hospitals, including critical care facilities, have not been overrun due to Covid-19; and

— Ireland has had the biggest fall in Covid-related deaths of any European country in Wave Two compared to Wave One;

further again notes the all-of-Government response to Covid-19, including:

— fiscal support of over €25 billion, mostly in the form of ‘direct’ taxation and expenditure measures;

— the recent public service pay deal, which is heavily weighted towards those at lower incomes with a headline increase of approximately 5 per cent for the lowest paid public servants;

— weekly payments valued to hundreds of thousands for people in receipt of the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment to help cushion the population from sudden income shocks at a cost of €4.8 billion;

— essential financial supports provided to community and voluntary organisations and social enterprises to enable them to continue to provide essential goods and services on a local level for communities across the country in the form of the €4.2 million Covid-19 Emergency Fund and the €45 million Covid Stability Fund, as well as a €5 million Innovate Together Fund focused on supporting innovative responses to the Covid-19 crisis, and a range of other rural investment schemes being provided by Government;

— protective measures to ensure ongoing provision of healthcare including €4 billion to protect, reform and expand health and social care services and implement universal healthcare in Budget 2021; and

— measures to protect the elderly, vulnerable groups and those experiencing loneliness and social isolation, including significant funding for mental health services, with that budget increasing to €1.076 billion in 2021;

affirms its support for vaccines;

welcomes the plans to approve and rollout vaccines for Covid-19 in Ireland in early 2021, or potentially to commence in late 2020; and

notes and applauds the success of the Health Service Executive and patient advocates in reversing the fall in uptake of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.”

I thank the Deputies for tabling the motion and giving us all the opportunity to discuss Ireland's response to Covid-19. I acknowledge the very positive responses from many colleagues to the vaccination strategy that was launched yesterday. I also thank colleagues for their ongoing advocacy regarding the importance, safety and efficacy of vaccinations.

It is safe to say we have had a challenging year as we battled with this global pandemic. It has been a year marked by awful tragedy for many who have lost loved ones and have not been able to mourn for them in the way that we need to in our culture. It has been a year marked by sickness for many more people who have been seriously debilitated by Covid-19 and a year in which many of us have experienced feelings of despair, frustration and awful loneliness.

Against this difficult backdrop in the midst of a global pandemic, the people of Ireland have shown great fortitude, great resilience and great solidarity. As we come to the end of the Dáil term and prepare for Christmas, I would like to pay tribute to the efforts of everyone right across the country this year for everything they have done.

Regarding this debate, I have tabled an amendment to the motion, which I hope colleagues from all parties and none can support in a show of political solidarity. It notes that we the Members of Dáil Éireann acknowledge the extraordinary solidarity, determination and resilience shown this year by communities and citizens in Ireland's fight against Covid-19; the widespread support and adherence to public health measures by the public, communities, voluntary organisations and people in workplaces; and the critical contributions of workers and volunteers right across society, including in healthcare, education, childcare, justice, the voluntary sector, retail, distribution, utilities, hospitality and many more.

The amendment also asks that Dáil Éireann notes the enormous human, societal and economic costs of the pandemic, including, most tragically, 2,134 lives lost to Covid-19 this year and nearly 77,000 confirmed cases; the adverse impact of Covid-19 on existing hospital waiting lists, as Deputies quite rightly spoke about; a significant impact on mental health and well-being and the need for a corresponding increase in mental health services and supports across Ireland; an increase in isolation and loneliness for many people due to the impact of Covid-19 measures; the closure of many viable businesses right across Ireland and the devastating impact on particular sectors including the arts, hospitality, tourism sport and many more; and an increase in the unemployment rate to 7.5% with nearly 72,000 more people unemployed compared to last year.

The amendment further notes that thanks to the collective efforts of people, Ireland has currently has the lowest 14-day and seven-day incidence rates of Covid-19 in the EU; our hospitals, including critical care facilities, have not been overrun because to Covid-19; and Ireland has had the biggest fall in Covid-related deaths of any European country between wave one and wave two.

The amendment also notes the supports put in place, including fiscal support of more than €25 billion, including in the form of direct taxation and expenditure measures; the recent public service pay deal, which is heavily weighted towards those on lower incomes with a headline increase of approximately 5% for the lowest paid public servants; weekly payments valued to hundreds of thousands of euro for people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, to help cushion the population from sudden income shocks at a cost of nearly €5 billion; essential financial supports provided to community and voluntary organisations and social enterprises to enable them to continue to provide essential goods and services on a local level for communities across the country - this is in the form of the €4.2 million Covid-19 emergency fund and the €45 million Covid stability fund, as well as a €5 million innovate together fund and a range of other rural investment schemes being provided by Government; protective measures to ensure ongoing provision of healthcare, including €4 billion to protect, reform and expand health and social care services and implement universal healthcare in budget 2021; and measures to protect the elderly, vulnerable groups and those experiencing loneliness and social isolation, including significant funding for mental health services, with that budget increasing to nearly €1.1 billion next year.

Finally and importantly, the amendment affirms Dáil Éireann's support for vaccines. It welcomes the plan to approve and roll-out vaccines for Covid-19 in Ireland in early 2021, or based on news we got yesterday, perhaps in the last few days of 2020. It notes and applauds the success of the HSE and patient advocates in reversing the fall in uptake of the HPV vaccine, which helps prevent cervical and other cancers and is saving many lives. It notes the achievements by patients such as Laura Brennan, a powerful advocate who died in early 2019 and whose advocacy will have saved many lives. Laura used her voice, selflessness and courage to advocate for the life-saving HPV vaccine and to help people make informed choices. Her advice to get the full information about vaccines from reputable sources is as important today as it was when she gave it in 2018.

I know Deputies will play their part when it comes to public health and information about vaccines. I reiterate my thanks to them for their support and advocacy on their own behalf and on behalf of the their parties to date on this issue.

It has been a dark and difficult year in more ways than we can count for people right across our country. I am hopeful for what the coming year, 2021, will bring. I am immensely proud of what Ireland has achieved during the year in what has been a very tough period. Right now, we have the lowest 14-day and seven-day incidence rates of Covid of any country in Europe. Many of our nearest neighbours and friends are having to tighten restrictions over Christmas due to a surge in infections. Our thoughts are very much with the people of Northern Ireland. We have all seen the news of some of the issues they are having to deal with.

As a nation, we took decisive and proactive action and put in place level 5 restrictions for a period of six weeks in late October but the thanks for that does not go to the Government or to us in Dáil Éireann but to the people who backed that advice, got behind those measures and implemented them. What we have seen are the results of everybody's efforts. The daily case rate fell from 1,200 to 250 and the 14-day incidence rate fell from nearly 310 to just below 80. According to modelling from NPHET, this action by the Irish people has led to the prevention of tens of thousands of cases, the prevention of between 800 and more than 2,000 hospitalisations and the prevention of many deaths. Thanks to what people have done through the year, through the level 5 restrictions and through the past few weeks in sticking with the level 3 restrictions, hundreds and men and women will have dinner with their families on Christmas day who otherwise would not have. I immensely proud of our nation and how we have responded to make that happen.

We learned valuable lessons during the first wave. We ensured that nursing homes got the supports they needed. We carried out serial testing in high-risk areas and we have expanded our testing and tracing scheme. These are just some of the actions we have taken.

We all know that the challenge is far from over, but the promise of vaccines brings hope and light at the end of a dark year. The gains made in reducing transmission were hard won and will be hard to maintain, but as we have shown right from the start, Ireland is more than up to the challenge. We will continue to mind one another and keep one another safe, and we will emerge from this time in our history as we entered it - together.

I cannot let this day go without complimenting the Limerick team on winning the All-Ireland. I compliment Mr. John Kiely, the 36 members of his panel and the background team on such an historic achievement for Limerick during a pandemic. I thank them for that. I also thank Mr. J.P. McManus and his family for believing and investing in Limerick. I am a very proud Limerick person.

Congratulations.

I thank the Deputy. We are discussing the roll-out of a vaccine. I am not anti-vaccine, but I want the public to be given information so that if people have concerns and questions, they can be addressed. People should not be dictated to or threatened into taking the vaccine. I have publicly stated that, when the vaccine is available to me, I will seek medical advice from my own GP on when the right time to take it is.

Our main problem is the information that is being provided to the public. In recent weeks, Christmas lights were turned on in the Minister's constituency in Greystones. During a lockdown, he tweeted that they were being turned on to make people come to the event he was promoting.

I did not do that - the Minister did. However, when people have questions about the vaccine or they have concerns because they have suffered from depression, anxiety or so on, the Government tries to push something on them and is using the media to shove it down people's throats like a police state. Ireland is a free country and people are entitled to ask questions about what is going into their bodies. I am not anti-vaccine, but I am a curious person and I would like to know and understand what I am taking and to welcome it. That is what the message needs to focus on. There is an old saying, "You will get more with honey than with vinegar." The Government should wake up, see that and treat people as people who are educated. All they have are simple questions to feel good about taking the vaccine. It is okay to be scared and to ask questions. Stop penalising people for doing that.

I have been saying since the start that the pandemic has shown the lack of broadband in rural Ireland. "Rural Ireland" means what is past the Red Cow roundabout. There are 544,000 homes in the national broadband plan's intervention areas. In Limerick, 21,231 houses have no broadband.

The pandemic has shown us that we do not have transport systems. If I want to go to my local shop, which is 1.7 km from my house, I have to cycle, walk or drive. If the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, had his way, we would all be walking or cycling. If I want to go to a supermarket, the nearest one to me is 7.3 km away. The next supermarket is 19 km away. The next one is 15 km away from my house. If I want to get a bus to Dublin, someone must drive me to it because there are no parking facilities at bus stops in rural Ireland. There are students in my area who attend college in Limerick. One student's parent must drive her 7 miles to get the bus to Colbert station in Limerick city. She must then get another bus to reach college. If she has to be in college for 8 a.m., she must get up at 6 a.m. Is it the same for anyone in the cities where there is transport? It is not. The Government is shoving every cent that is collected in rural Ireland into cities' infrastructure. It is not investing in rural Ireland. Mine is a household of six people and four cars, plus the cars I have through my business as a self-employed person to go to work. I have no alternative but to use my vehicle. I pay 52 cent or 53 cent in taxes to the Government on every €1 of fuel. The Government then puts that money into the cities.

Last week, the Taoiseach told the Dáil that the Government was trying to get people into towns and villages where there was infrastructure. I have been roaring from the rooftops since joining the Dáil that Askeaton has been looking for a sewerage system for 30 years. People cannot build in Oola because its sewerage system is at capacity. The council has 25 houses to build in Kilfinane, but six of them in a housing estate have to be connected to private systems inside the houses themselves to make up the numbers because only 15 of the houses can be connected to the sewerage system. The Government is stopping many voids from being rebuilt in our areas because of conservation issues. We cannot get our young people into villages and towns. Social housing cannot be built in our areas because there is not enough infrastructure. The Government is saying that it will encourage people to go to towns and villages and that this will be great, but there is no infrastructure. I know this because I have been in construction all my life and the people phoning me day in, day out are saying that they have no services. To get a taxi from my house to the city costs €50. Where would someone go in Dublin for €50?

Look at the big picture. Who will put the food on the Minister's table when he goes home this evening? The milk, the bread, the beef or, if he is a vegan, the lettuce or whatever he is on. Rural Ireland puts it there. It is about time the Government woke up and invested in rural Ireland. Why does the Minister think there are 23 Independents from outside Dublin? It is because the Government has forgotten rural Ireland and to invest in it. It does not know how to invest in rural Ireland. Why does the Minister not ask someone who knows? I have lived and worked in rural Ireland all my life. I know rural Ireland.

I will turn to the issue of mental health.

We mentioned the pubs. They are not wet pubs; they are traditional pubs. We have no post office in my area. They closed down our creamery. We have one shop, O'Gorman's, in Granagh, and one public house, The Rock Bar, also in Granagh. That is where I live in rural Ireland. We have a hall, a national school and a church, but each one of those is 2 km to 3 km away from me. Beyond that I have to go to Adare, Newcastle West or Killmallock, which involves making a journey of 20 km. They closed every pub in Ballingarry. Those were the only outlets people in rural Ireland could go to have a social life. We are not talking about sessions but somewhere to meet their neighbours because the Government has closed everything else and it has not invested in anything else. That is what rural Ireland is about.

I am proud to have been born in rural Ireland, in Limerick, and I am proud to have worked in Limerick all my life. The Minister might start investing in Limerick.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak in this debate. There is no disputing that Covid-19 has turned our society and our economy completely upside down. It has brought great difficulties and has asked many hard questions of the people. In particular, it has put pressure on healthcare and medical workers.

I want to talk briefly about student nurses and midwives because they are one group who have experienced the sharpest edges of this pandemic. This is a timely opportunity, therefore, to remind people of what this Government has done over the past two weeks. Only two weeks ago, Government Deputies from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party voted against giving nurses a fair wage despite the essential role they have played during the Covid-19 pandemic. Deputies in my constituency, Deputies Darragh O'Brien, Alan Farrell and Joe O'Brien, voted against paying student nurses and midwives. However, just five days later, the same Government managed to find €12 million to restore pension payments for retired taoisigh and the same Ministers who were in office during the financial crash a decade ago. On top of that it has decided to increase the pay of political party Whips in the Dáil, an increase the Sinn Féin Whips have declined. This is a shocking insult to student nurses and midwives who do highly skilled work in challenging conditions. They are the glue that holds our healthcare system together. Without them, the healthcare system simply could not function in the way that it does. Many student nurses and midwives across north County Dublin have been working around the clock to provide essential healthcare to our community. Rounds of applause and kind words do not pay the rent. The Government has badly let down our student nurses and midwives. That is unacceptable. The comparison between having money for retired taoisigh and Ministers but refusing to pay student nurses and midwives shows where this Government's priorities truly lie.

I call on the Minister and his Government to put in place a safe and secure system to allow the immediate family members of the players and coaches partaking in the ladies' and men's all-Ireland football finals to attend the games this weekend. Sinn Féin has previously called for this to be done for the hurling and camogie finals as well as the men's and women's FAI Cup matches. I cannot imagine how disappointing it must be as a parent to be told that while restrictions in many other sectors are being eased, one cannot stand in a massive and almost empty 80,000-seater stadium and see one's child play on what is one of the most important occasions of his or her life.

The issue of wet pubs or traditional pubs has been raised. The continued closure of these traditional pubs and small rural pubs, and pubs in working-class areas in particular, without proper compensation for those businesses has devastated the pub trade. On top of that, insurance companies have refused to pay up on business interruption claims from some businesses, in particular pubs that have seen their business drastically affected by the public health restrictions. I call on the Government to deliver additional support for those pubs that have been closed for almost a year and will be under enforced closure over Christmas which, under normal circumstances, would be their busiest time of the year. Fair is fair. These businesses have been under lock and key and they deserve to be helped through this time.

I take the opportunity to raise briefly with the Minister the case of Aer Lingus workers and their social welfare entitlements, that is, their short-time work support payment to which they are entitled. Those workers have been providing the necessary and relevant forms to their employer to sign with the details of the reduced hours they are on. However, Aer Lingus has not been accurately or properly sending that information to the Department of Social Protection or to the Intreo offices. Instead, for reasons that I believe now need to be investigated by the appropriate agencies, it has been putting the wrong information on the forms telling the Department that the workers have been working full hours when their hours have been reduced to 30% in some cases. Some of the workers whose claims have been assessed have been denied their payment in the wrong. The incorrect information relayed by the company has resulted in them not getting their payments to which they are clearly entitled. Those workers are genuinely concerned about what is happening. I ask the Minister to join the Tánaiste and, please, have this matter investigated.

I call on the Minister and his Government to review the ban on music and dancing at weddings. The reaction from couples getting married to this most recent decision has been one of extreme disappointment, bearing in mind that these are people who have postponed their wedding day again and again. They have scaled them back again and again but feel the ban on music and dancing is very mean-spirited. I urge the Minister to review that, please. All these couples want is to have some sort of celebration on what we hope - and I often say to my husband that I hope - is a once in a lifetime event for them.

I thank the Rural Independent Group for bringing forward this important motion. We have listened to all the praise here for student nurses, healthcare staff, services workers, childcare workers, people who work in the area of mental health, small and medium businesses and those who run the traditional pubs, yet there is very little support for them. People have contacted my office in the past couple of months, but particularly in recent weeks, who say they are getting zero services.

The housing crisis is escalating but I want to speak about the local businesses and the local pubs. I met about 48 publicans a number of weeks ago and, for the record, we adhered to the social distancing rules. I listened to all sides of the story. Some owners can afford to open but are not allowed open. Some cannot open because of the restrictions. I acknowledge that there are certain payments in place but many of the pub owners I met are over the age of 66, and because they already get a payment, they have been cast out on the side.

It may not be fair to single out one local business, but when the lockdown restrictions came in, the La Trattoria restaurant in Midleton cooked more than 3,500 dinners which volunteers and staff delivered to people who were under house self-isolation. They should be acknowledged for doing that.

I appeal to the Minister to start thinking outside the box and show some empathy and a bit of balance, as previous speakers said. In particular, he might give people in the pub trade a choice in terms of what they can do. Musicians are suffering badly as a result of the restrictions, and weddings were mentioned earlier.

I had many inquiries from expectant mothers whose partners were not allowed go into hospital with them. What should have been the happiest time of their lives was very stressful. I welcome the recent announcement on that.

While we seem to be moving in the right direction, and we can put up the red flag, we have to take a case-by-case approach to the restrictions and be empathetic. There is a perception that if we open the pub doors, everyone will run into them. I do not believe that will be the case. What is hurting people more than anything else, regardless of their age or the demographic they come from, is the lack of choice. People are not being given the choice, which is the most important aspect. In a few months we will be a year under these restrictions. We have to take into account all the decisions being made, whether by the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, the Government or NPHET, but we have to be conscious also of the mentality, the stress levels and the pressure on people who cannot get access to health services or whatever. As I said, we should take everything case by case, be empathetic, think about the choices we make and how they affect people but also about how we can give people the opportunity to choose to do what they know is right for them.

The pandemic has had a detrimental effect on our economy and, more importantly, on our society. I spoke to a lady who brought her elderly father to an accident and emergency department last weekend. After waiting in a chair for eight hours wearing a mask, he was seen after midnight, was kept in and is still in hospital. He has not had any visitors, he has received bad news and his family has not been allowed in to see him. I ask Deputies to imagine getting a cancer diagnosis and having no family member to provide comfort. Everyone is distraught and it is inhumane.

I have consistently said in this House that we need to find a balance between mental and physical health. I have met with many groups that advocate for older people over the last few weeks and they are saying the same thing: we need to consider the mental health of our older people. Sadly, I am aware of an elderly person who committed suicide recently. We are at the end of it when it comes to that. I also know several older people who have been saved because of the intervention of groups like Older Voices Kildare and HOPE(D) in Newbridge. On many occasions, I have raised HOPE(D) on this floor. This organisation does the very best it can. The HSE sends clients to HOPE(D) and yet it gets no funding. I feel this needs to be looked at and I ask the Minister to do something about it.

Everyone knows this virus has affected our older people disproportionately but the effect on their mental health is less widely known. Loneliness is a killer. People who feel lonely are 64% more likely to develop dementia than those with an active social life. I thank those who care for our older people. We need to ensure our carers get what they deserve and they need to get it without having to jump through hoops. The form for the carer's allowance is 40 pages long and it is an onerous task to complete it. We need to ensure those in the caring profession, as a minimum, receive a living wage. Finally, I implore the Government to do the right thing and pay student nurses and midwives and offer no more excuses.

I welcome this motion. It is important to have this discussion. Like everyone interested in sport, I am enjoying the GAA championship. Credit needs to go to the GAA for having managed to organise a championship in a year when there are so many challenges. There are over 60 recognised sports national governing bodies, NGBs, under the umbrella of Sport Ireland, all of which have elite sportspeople. Many such sportspeople have contacted me to express their concern that they cannot compete while the GAA has been able to. There is a sense that there is one door into the Minister with responsibility for sports for the GAA and another door that all the other sports have to squeeze through. The Olympics are coming next year and many of those who will be competing are not able to compete, train and practice. Undoubtedly, this will impact their preparations. Basketball, tennis, athletics, hockey and many other sports feel they are getting shafted by this Government. It should not come down to who is the best at lobbying. It should be decided on the basis of science and decisions should be determined by evidence-based information. If that information is available, it must be communicated to the various sports clubs and NGBs.

The GAA is a fantastic organisation and does wonderful work around the country at many levels, including community level. It does so much good work around mental health issues and, of course, sport itself. However, there is a sense among many other sports that the GAA is getting preferential treatment. I understand that some Olympic athletes may be considering travelling abroad in order to get the competition they need. Olympian Rob Heffernan highlighted recently that athletes going to the next Olympics cannot train and the Government does not consider these Olympians elite athletes. Therefore, they cannot compete in various competitions that they need to. They have world-class facilities in Ireland and that needs to be addressed. All sports should be treated equally, including hockey, tennis, basketball and athletics. The Government needs to widen the definition of what is elite.

This Christmas will be like no other. People are finally looking forward to going out socialising with family and friends. The long-awaited controlled environments that the Government has announced for people to go out and meet in are welcome. Realistically, this will not be possible for many ordinary people because having to pay for a substantial meal will limit or completely stop them from going out to socialise with family and friends. Wet pubs or traditional pubs being closed means most ordinary people, many of whom have been badly affected financially by the Covid-19 crisis, do not have the resources to go out for a number of nights with family and friends. They will have to pick and choose. With the time restrictions in restaurants, this is completely unfair. It means people who are well-off with money in the bank can go out for their wine and cheese and fancy meals seven nights a week if they want but ordinary families and people who want to socialise with family and friends will be limited or restricted because they do not have the money. Does the Minister think it is fair that the Government brought this in? We have to look at everyone’s right to socialise with their family and friends in a safe environment and in an affordable way. People are struggling this year and it feels like this Government is penalising ordinary people. Many people just want to go out with their friends to have a chat, maybe to have a drink and to relax but they are not able to do that.

We have to think of the publicans who have been closed for almost a year. I know many publicans in my community who are devastated, as are their families, by what has happened to them. The unfairness they feel is palpable. It is frustrating for them to have their doors locked and to know that their regulars who came in for a chat and to socialise are locked out. While those with money in the bank can go out as often as they want, ordinary people cannot. I do not think that is fair on ordinary people or publicans. Sinn Féin has supported this Government in the public health measures but we think it needs to be balanced because people need to be respected. I ask the Minister to look at that.

This motion from the Rural Independent Group runs to just over two pages on the Order Paper. I searched closely with my own eyes and did a word search online because I could not find the word "vaccine" in it, which I found shocking. It calls on the Government to "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". The rest of us in Irish politics for the last number of weeks, particularly the last two weeks, have been talking about the vaccine, how it will be rolled out and how the list will work. These are real practical questions.

(Interruptions).

No interruptions please. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae had his chance. I have only a few minutes and this is an important point to make because this is the light at the end of the tunnel. That there is no mention of the vaccine in this motion is very telling. While they may protest that they are not anti-vaccine, they are. That they do not mention the vaccine in a two and a half page motion on all things Covid is an indictment of where they stand on this fundamentally important issue.

Deputy McGrath is chuckling at what I said. He is the same man who went on a local radio station-----

Stick to the motion.

I am speaking to the issue-----

The motion was to cover all things Covid.

I never said-----

We have a vested interest in public health and getting out of this emergency.

Deputy, speak to the motion.

I have been tackled by a Deputy who went on a local radio station and questioned the efficacy of the Covid and HPV vaccines. I commend the Minister on mentioning the memory and work of the late Laura Brennan, who was a true hero in this country and deserves to be commended and remembered in the House as often as is appropriate. It is appropriate to remember her at this time.

Is the Rural Independent Group serious about wanting to get out of the tragedy that has been the Covid pandemic? The rest of us are. We may have different ways of doing that and query or question what the Government is doing, but we all agree that, throughout the world, the provision of a safe vaccine to all people in an efficient way is the only true way of getting out of this.

We have all experienced pain and been hurt by this pandemic. This motion tries to exacerbate the urban-rural divide. I am delighted that Deputy O'Donoghue mentioned that rural Ireland begins outside the Red Cow roundabout. I happen to live outside of the Red Cow roundabout. I have not been able to go to my local pub which does not serve food, and I miss it. No pub should be unable to reopen when all of this ends. I hope there will be support from Government so that my local pub will be able to reopen and, when it is appropriate and public health allows, I will be able to go for a pint with my brother-in-law or a friend. I miss the pub.

It might come as a surprise to some rural Deputies that I miss going to mass. I have not been able to go to mass. This is not just an urban-rural issue. The Deputies to whom I refer will not hold that ground. It is absolute nonsense.

Broadband is an issue in my constituency, as well as within the canals of Dublin and the centres of all major cities and towns in Ireland. These issues cut across the breadth of Ireland. To have a false dichotomy and an urban-rural divide being stoked by this group every time its Members take to their feet on an issue does a disservice to the major issues in this country such as trying to get out of the Covid crisis.

I speak to a plethora of issues. I again have to raise the issue of Aer Lingus workers. Their management are signing forms for short-time work which are totally inaccurate in terms of their experience during the crisis. It has to be asked whether this is a concerted effort to try to time out the entitlement to short-time work. I hope it is not and that this issue will be brought to the Minister for Social Protection and the Taoiseach. There has generally been goodwill from this and the previous Government and most people on this side of the House to try to ensure that any workers who have been adversely affected, and there are hundreds of thousands of them, get the supports they need and are entitled to the benefits that are available.

There are issues in respect of people who are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and who were working for companies which availed of the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, over the summer and then transferred to the PUP. They do not have enough entitlements to receive the Christmas bonus. These people have, in essence, been on State support since March. The TWSS is administered through Revenue and the PUP is the responsibility of the Department for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which means people have fallen outside of the criteria for the Christmas bonus. Can that be examined, even if the bonus is paid after Christmas, allowing for administrative delays?

We reiterate our call for a vaccine and the efficient roll-out of same. Health professionals are backing this vaccine. They have said so publicly. If Deputies open their ears, they will listen to and hear them. In early June I met Professor Luke O'Neill of Trinity College when we were at a stage that we were discussing the efficacy of face masks. It is incredible to think that that conversation was being had. Now their efficacy is accepted by almost everyone. Not everyone who signed the motion believes in wearing face masks.

In my meeting with Professor Luke O'Neill he showed me some data on the different scientists, companies and universities that were working on a vaccine. He said nothing like this has happened in human history. Almost the entire resources of science have been dedicated to this. It is no surprise that the vaccine has been brought forward relatively quickly. Unfortunately, it has not been quick enough for the thousands of people who have died, have contracted the virus and have suffered deeply or are suffering from the effects of long Covid.

There was footage on yesterday's news from hospital wards of the people who are still on ventilators and receiving emergency treatment. That footage is still powerful because people are still dying and are still in intensive care. A way out of this is to support the vaccine and answer any hesitancy with facts from medical professionals and scientists. Unfortunately, the motion, for all its words, does not include those words and that is a shameful omission from a motion that is supposed to cover everything that is important in respect of Covid.

It is very hard to understand what this motion is about. There are lots of words in it and it comprises two and a half pages. It makes 24 different statements about different aspects of the impact of Covid on the country. Many of those statements are valid enough. The motion calls on the Government to do 12 different things. To use the word "omnibus" understates the motion. Everything seems to have been thrown into it, including the kitchen sink.

It is a poor use of time. The 24 statements in the motion are divided between issues in respect of mental health, the vast majority of which are absolutely valid. We had a very good debate here last week on this, which was a very good use of Private Member's time by the Regional Group. We discussed the significant impact of Covid on the country's mental health and well-being, the fact that our services have been underfunded and that we need additional funding.

What strikes me about this motion is that it has plucked a figure of €250 million out of the air for mental health services. I have no idea where that figure has come from. Last week we discussed the shortfalls in funding for mental health which have been clearly identified by people working in the area and in funding which was promised by Government. There is no reference to that in the motion, which brings into question the credibility of some of the claims that are being made.

There are also a number of statements being made about the impact of Covid on our health service. There is no doubt that there has been a significant impact on our health service from Covid. Many procedures, operations and elements of the health service have, unfortunately, been put on hold. There are major problems, and we are storing up problems for the future with those delays. Last week we discussed this issue very carefully in the Joint Committee on Health. Witnesses from the cancer programme came before us and explained very clearly what the approach now is. To suggest that there can be an urgent programme to clear all of the waiting lists for screening is not realistic. None of this is based on evidence.

Part and parcel of the health statements in the motion concern the need to fund Sláintecare properly. That is absolutely true and I would like to hear more from the Rural Independent Group about having a proper public health service and funding and implementing the Sláintecare programme fully, but I am not sure that many of its members have been vocal on the need for a proper public health service. They have taken different approaches. Again, there is a lack of consistency in that regard.

The third element in the motion is the whole question of rural Ireland. I completely agree with the point made by Deputy Duncan Smith that this is a false dichotomy. Those of us who represent Dublin constituencies and other urban constituencies are pretty fed up with this carry on and putting on the poor mouth.

We have serious problems with poverty and a lack of investment in infrastructural projects, mental health problems and problems with local businesses in urban Ireland also. It would be much better if we worked together to address the whole issue of disadvantage and exclusion throughout the country, whether those people who are excluded and disadvantaged are living in urban or rural Ireland. I have often thought I would love to have the time or somebody to do a piece of work to identify where the funding is going. I have no doubt the arguments about rural Ireland always losing out would not stand up to any scrutiny if we were to examine closely where various pots of funding go. There have been various Ministers who have seen it as their purpose in life to allocate funding to rural Ireland solely and not take into consideration disadvantage in urban areas. This is a false argument. It really takes us nowhere to keep banging that drum.

I want to devote time to developments overnight on the shocking situation in Northern Ireland. Last night, at one hospital in Northern Ireland 43 patients were waiting in the emergency department for beds and outside that hospital 17 ambulances were lined up with patients in them and doctors had to come out and treat them in ambulances. It is a shocking indictment of the political system in Northern Ireland that this situation has been allowed to develop. In the context of all that evidence on the soaring levels of Covid and the increasing number of people having to be hospitalised and admitted to ICU that a decision was taken at political level that the area be opened up, that businesses be opened up and that pubs and restaurants operate is a shocking indictment. There are big questions about the lack of leadership from the health Minister and members of the Assembly. They have let down their people very badly in their failure to address this and there are many lessons that could have been learned from the Republic in this regard.

It is very clear that what happens in Northern Ireland impacts significantly on the Republic of Ireland and particularly those counties around the Border. One of the elements I want to express concern about again is the failure to introduce any control on travel by people in Northern Ireland through Dublin Airport. Yesterday, in reply to a parliamentary question, I received the figures with regard to people coming through Dublin Airport. They are hugely down, with a 90% reduction on what we would expect at this time of the year, but relatively significant numbers are coming in from Portugal and Spain. The follow-up has been weak enough and, unfortunately, this has been the case from the beginning. There was not a strategy to eliminate Covid and lessons were not learned from countries that have been successful in doing this with regard to travel. The reality is we continue to allow the Dublin dodge to go on where there is no follow-up whatsoever on Northern residents who are going in and out of Dublin Airport. This is a real difficulty. It causes a huge threat to public health safety in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. It has been a huge failure of the Government and something that desperately needs to be addressed. We are facing into the Christmas and new year period, and there will be a lot of travel back and forth from the North to Dublin and elsewhere over the Christmas period. There will also be a huge amount in the new year period when so many people go off to the sun or go off skiing. We need to address this loophole that exists in the Dublin dodge. I strongly appeal to the Government to take action before it is too late.

I do not accept lectures from the Labour Party about the vaccine. We are all responsible Deputies and we will ensure we promote the vaccine. I do not accept lectures from the same party that lectured us about water charges. Neither do I have huge criticism of the motion but I am glad to see that it mentions the student nurses and why they should be paid.

I want to raise more generally the idea that, as Winston Churchill famously said after the Second World War, never let a good crisis go to waste. When we google this expression, we find one business magazine gives the following explanation. "In challenging times one must question the accepted reality because things are going wrong, rapid answers are needed and the solution may well be found outside the usual compass." This has been what we have been doing since February or March, finding solutions outside the usual compass and passing legislation at rapid pace. This has included very extraordinary legislation that we would never have accepted in normal times.

We do not seem to be able to accept in normal times that a group of workers, all 1,200 of them, who were cast out of their jobs in an unusual way and unusual times by Debenhams, are now being told to go back to school. The settlement given to them last night to allow a fund of €3 million to re-educate them, give them career guidance and start their own businesses was the most insulting answer to the most proud group of working-class women I have ever met in my life. They are reeling at the idea that the Government could answer their 250 day struggle in this way. It would have escalated were we not in extraordinary times. There would have been marches of thousands of workers up to the Dáil every other day of the week were it not for the lockdown. This prevented the Debenhams workers being able to generalise their dispute to other groups of workers, such as the Arcadia workers who will be similarly impacted. This does matter and we have to raise it. In these extraordinary times, the Government could have gone outside the normal compass and allow the preferential creditors of Revenue and the Department of Social Protection to give the Debenhams workers their two plus two but, no, it is giving them €3 million to go back to school.

Tonight, we will be voting for some extraordinary legislation that is also being pushed through by never letting a good crisis go to waste. A total of €50 million will be transferred to Estonia and Denmark to buy fantasy energy that does not exist to acknowledge our failure to invest in renewable energies. The investment limited partnerships Bill on which we will be voting is allowing us to collude with the structures that will see massive tax evasion globally. We are speaking about trillions of dollars. However, we cannot find a measly €13 million to see the Debenhams workers have their full redundancy payment.

What we need to do take the €3 million the Government is offering to SOLAS which, by the way, outsources all of the education to private firms and is pushing up the cost of even getting a Safe Pass for a construction site and hand it over to the Debenhams workers to give them a Christmas after 250 days picketing and being treated in the most abysmal way. This is not because they were made redundant like many others but because their redundancy should have fallen within protective legislation that should have been implemented under the Duffy Cahill report but is still sitting on the desk of the Tánaiste and is not being given priority. This tells us difference between how the Government sees the very wealthy, elite and tiny 1% who control all of the finances-----

The motion is very broad but it is not that broad.

-----and how they see workers. In Covid times, we need to look after workers just like we look after everybody else.

I want to remind Members of the motion, notwithstanding the breadth of the motion.

We are debating Covid restrictions and the Debenhams workers have been victims of Covid restrictions. They have been limited in the action they can take because of the Covid restrictions despite the fact their company used Covid as a cover to sack them by email, despite the fact they were forced to picket in a level 5 lockdown and despite the fact their campaign has been a litmus test for how workers are treated in a period of Covid. I want to make some brief points. The workers demand was for two plus two. They did not receive one penny extra above the statutory in the offer they received last night. Instead, a fund of €3 million for education and training, of extremely limited value, was offered to a group of workers, many of whom are coming to the end of their working careers and working lives and many of whom are already in training.

I echo the call from the shop stewards for that €3 million to be put into a cash offer and put towards topping up the workers' redundancies. In Cork this morning, the workers have unfurled a banner in Patrick Street that states, "The Taoiseach has let us down badly". Never was a truer word spoken. In September, they were offered €1 million above the statutory redundancy.

I hear the Deputy's point but it is nowhere in the motion. He has made his point and I ask him to address some aspect of the motion.

I will conclude on this point, out of respect for the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's appeal. The workers have been hemmed in by the Covid restrictions. There would have been many more people on mass pickets if it were not for the Covid restrictions. It is shameful for Revenue to state, as it has in the past week, that it will not surrender one penny from the redundancy pot and for the Department of Social Protection to state it will not surrender one penny for the redundancy pot, with the result that the workers do not get a penny on top of the statutory redundancy. The Taoiseach and the Government will not just walk away without what has gone on being exposed.

I am sharing time with Deputy Tóibín.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion and thank the Rural Independent Group for bringing it forward. I pay my respects to the 2,134 people who have lost their lives through Covid and acknowledge the suffering that all their families have endured this year. The 76,766 people who have contracted Covid have also suffered a great deal.

We have to acknowledge what people have done to try to contain this virus and pandemic. It has been an enormous sacrifice, with many aspects of life, rural and urban, greatly affected by it. Our mental health services have been disrupted no end. I ask the Minister to take on board that mental health services urgently need to be brought back to normal, as do disability services, which, through nobody's fault, have not been given proper consideration throughout this pandemic. I acknowledge, however, that efforts are being made to reinstate these services.

As for the health service, I get many calls from people on waiting lists. I received a reply from the HSE the other day stating that the audiology service in Galway has a waiting time of 80 weeks for appointments. That is totally unacceptable and we need to do something about it as a matter of urgency.

Our schools - national and secondary - have been a beacon of light. School secretaries have made enormous efforts and their call for equal pay needs to be properly addressed as a matter of urgency.

In Claremorris, the principal of a school has been left out to dry. The Minister for Health and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, might talk to the Minister for Education to see whether they can help the man in question, rather than leaving him out to dry.

Another issue that arises in my office relates to the cohesion of the message on restrictions and how it is delivered. I ask that the HSE, along with all Departments, have a common message that is more readily available for people when they seek answers to questions. While I commend all the work carried out by the staff of the Department of Social Protection, one issue needs examination, namely, that of people over the age of 66 who have been left with the PUP.

One thousand people in nursing homes have died from Covid-19. That is roughly half the number of people who have died from Covid-19 in this State. That figure far exceeds the proportion of people who have died in nursing homes internationally. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 25% of Covid deaths internationally have occurred in nursing homes. In this country, the people most vulnerable to the illness were left most exposed. After the first wave of the virus passed through the nursing homes, we in Aontú called for the Government to investigate what happened in these homes. In large part, we wanted to ensure this would not happen again. Unfortunately, however, the Government refused to do this.

On 19 October last, as the second wave started to pass through nursing homes, a case was detected in the Nightingale Nursing Home in Galway. These were the first cases detected. Over the next days, two staff members were left to care for all the residents of the nursing home, which begged the HSE for help. On 22 October, "Today with Claire Byrne" broke the story of a nursing home in Galway where the majority of staff and residents had tested positive for Covid-19 being left without the necessary assistance by the HSE. I raised this matter in the House on the same day to see whether the Government would do anything to ensure the nursing home received the assistance it needed. In the middle of my contribution, the Minister for Health accused me of lying. He stated: "That is a flat-out lie." His statement did not just call into question my credibility, which is neither here nor there, but also that of the doctor who had raised the concerns and the researchers and producers of the "Today with Claire Byrne" programme.

My office submitted a freedom of information, FOI, request to the Minister's office. I now have my hands on a copy of an email sent to the Minister shortly before the matter was raised. The documents paint a shocking and bleak picture with regard to the communication standards within the HSE. The email, from the office of the CEO of the HSE, Mr. Paul Reid, stated that the HSE had been trying to source staff to support the nursing home since the Monday of the week in question but that, despite contacting all the agencies the previous day, it had been unable to source any agency nursing staff.

Six months after the first wave of coronavirus swept through the nursing homes, and after hundreds of deaths had occurred in those homes calls from parties such as Aontú for an investigation into what had happened during the first wave, we know from the lack of communication within the HSE that it was no further along in October in dealing with the emergency in nursing homes. That is a shocking indictment of what is happening in the HSE. My worry is that it is very likely there will be another wave of Covid-19 before the vaccines are rolled out and also very likely that it will affect nursing homes. I have no confidence, eight months after coronavirus first emerged in this State and after two waves of the virus, that the HSE is better prepared to ensure the necessary staff can be provided in the case of an emergency in a nursing home to ensure an outbreak of Covid can be tackled as quickly as possible.

Given that the Minister received this email from the HSE in the early afternoon of 22 October, I ask him to apologise to the House and to correct the record to ensure the integrity of the doctor in question and the integrity of the researchers for the radio show in question is upheld. I ask him to ensure the truth of what happened in the Nightingale Nursing Home is recorded in the Official Report. Everything I said in that debate was true and the Department of Health knew that at the time. It is shocking that these details about nursing homes have emerged and that information travels faster from a nursing home to a doctor, a radio show, a Deputy and the Minister responsible than it does within the HSE. Some of the details in the response I received to the FOI request show that the Minister complained about this and that it took a month for the HSE to respond to him.

It took one month for the HSE to respond to him. In another report, a staff member of the HSE sent an email two days after the outbreak saying that he thought that the outbreak happened in a nursing home in Galway.

The Deputy is out of time.

This is not good enough and it has to change.

Táim ag roinnt mo chuid ama le Deputy McNamara. I thank the Rural Independent Group for tabling this motion. I am conscious that I am making my contribution in the context of 2,134 deaths, 77,000 confirmed cases and we are still in the pandemic. I pay tribute to the people of Ireland who have led us, as they usually do and politicians follow. I hope that we have learned to take transformative action from Covid, although I have no belief that we have because I think we are heading back to where we were.

I am not sure of the venom expressed by the Labour Party, in particular some of the comments of Deputy Shortall, in regard to this motion. I think the motion draws our attention to many things that we need to talk about. We should have had this debate for an extended period of time. As the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, will know, Covid has affected many segments of society in a most uneven and unequal way.

I refer again to respite services, which have not been resumed, as one example which has not been mentioned at any higher level. Surely, at this stage in the 21st century, given that the Minister is taking pride in the reduced figures over the 14 and 17-day period, and rightly so, we should be able to take steps that will give respite, and for carers equally and so on. My time is limited and I intend to stick to it.

I am taken by surprise at some of the comments on the motion. I welcome that it seeks a full debate on the implementation of the regional and rural development plan, which is underpinned in Project Ireland 2040. I have the privilege of representing Galway West, which includes a very big rural area as well as a city, and I see the divide. I say that not to intensify the division but to highlight it so that we can work together. We cannot continue to build cities out of all proportion in an unsustainable manner and not look at what is happening in the rural areas. I fully support that.

Covid put a spotlight on our health service. Decisions were taken that had to be taken, but they were based not on what was in the best interest but on the fact that our health service was so bad. We failed to prioritise nursing homes and many other vulnerable segments. Unfortunately, we are still doing that.

Many things are said in the motion but I do not propose to go into them. In the one minute I have remaining, I want to focus on mental health. It is clear that it has never been given the status it deserves. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, will make a difference in that regard. Last week or earlier this week, I quoted figures from the Mental Health Commission and from the inspector, who apparently did a themed report on this some time ago and referred to it again. Life expectancy is reduced by 15 to 20 years because of the medication being taken. That is just one aspect where the physical health is completely ignored.

I want to finish on the vaccines because comments have been made here about them. This motion calls for an exit strategy and a comprehensive plan. Clearly, that includes vaccines. To ensure there is maximum uptake of the vaccines, we need maximum transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, that is completely lacking in relation to the vaccine strategy we have signed up to with the companies and so on. If the Minister of State has any influence, I ask her to please ensure we are given full and factual information and, more important, to assure us that the regulatory authority on whom we will be dependent is fully resourced.

I endorse all of what was just said by Deputy Connolly, in particular her final comment. We are always being told to listen to the medical experts. The medical experts have been very clear that vaccines do offer great hope in the future, but they do not offer a silver bullet now. We need to have a lot of other measures in place and to continue to look at what we need to do now. I am slightly perplexed by the criticisms of this motion. I thank Deputy Nolan and her colleagues in the Rural Independent Group for bringing forward this motion, which I am happy to support. I do not think it is an either-or situation and I do not think anybody is suggesting that it is. Measures need to be taken now. We need to look at what we can do now to mitigate further deterioration of the situation.

I am perplexed by the reluctance to look at antigen testing. I am not suggesting, and never have, that antigen testing is a silver bullet or a panacea, but it could, and should in my view, be looked at as a great assistance. People are going to socialise more at Christmas, more than we would like and, perhaps, more than they should. I do not understand the logic of not providing people with antigen tests so that they can test themselves to see if they pose a risk. The only positive reason that I have heard against this is that people will behave recklessly if they test negative. The logic for the refusal to distribute or legalise condoms in Ireland in response to sexually transmitted diseases was that people would behave promiscuously. That argument failed a long time ago, yet that same logic is being deployed now against antigen testing.

I was appalled to read in the newspapers that the owner of a bar who was carrying out antigen testing was arrested by An Garda Síochána. I wish it to be very clear that I am not criticising An Garda Síochána for enforcing the laws that this House facilitated the Government in making, which are idiotic laws. I am criticising the laws and not the enforcement of them by An Garda Síochána. It is the duty of An Garda Síochána to enforce the laws of this State. Furthermore, bars in Dublin which provide so-called substantial meals have offered not to serve the meals where people make a charitable donation instead, but they are being told they have to serve the meals. I ask the Minister of State to explain, please, how it is safe to allow only a small proportion of bars in this country to open when this means those bars will be more crowded. Will she please explain to me the logic that because there are kitchens in those bars and properly accredited chefs - it is important that chefs are properly accredited and that there are standards - that somehow provides safety from the transmission of Covid? I accept it may provide safety from food poisoning. These bars have kitchens from which food is served that people do not eat and so it is thrown in the bin yet the people cannot make a donation in lieu of it and bar owners who want to carry out testing to make sure that everybody within them is safe to the greatest extent possible are being arrested. It is idiotic. It is asinine. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. The substantial meal as a response came from the former Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, last July. It is straight out of "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" to believe that tourists would come to Ireland and be safe from Covid if they ate a substantial meal. It is idiotic and it will not work. We need to look at more scientific measures, such as antigen testing.

On nursing homes, we are told that some studies are being carried out on antigen testing. I do not understand the antipathy to antigen testing in the Irish health system. I do know there are vested interests in NPHET, who should not be there because it undermines the role of NPHET. If I had a relative in a nursing home, I would undergo daily testing in order that I could visit him or her. The Government response is that it is going to look at it and we should not worry ourselves about it. Meanwhile, the people in the nursing home are getting only visitor per week, which is inadequate and inhumane.

I thank all of the Deputies for some useful inputs today. The Minister outlined the comprehensive supports the Government has put in place to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on the economy and society. He also outlined the Government's national Covid-19 vaccination strategy. I can assure the House that the Government is fully committed to supporting people during this challenging time and I would like to set out in particular some of the important measures that have been put in place to protect the elderly, vulnerable groups and those experiencing loneliness, mental health difficulties and social isolation.

Covid-19 has presented significant challenges for people's mental health, as many individuals have experienced increased stress, anxiety fear or panic. Supporting positive mental health and well-being is a priority for Government and me, particularly during the current pandemic.

We have responded rapidly by reconfiguring existing services and putting additional services and supports in place. HSE community services moved rapidly to provide in-person specialist services, where it was safe to do so, and to augment this with expanded telehealth services, so as to continue to provide mental health supports to the greatest extent possible.

To ensure oversight of the performance of mental health services in responding to Covid-19, the Department of Health worked with the Mental Health Commission and the HSE to develop a risk management framework for residential facilities to identify structural and operational issues and address them, and to track and contain infections within residential and acute units. The framework reports regularly and infection rates in our facilities have remained low overall. In addition, the Department of the Taoiseach has established a cross-Government group to support vulnerable persons. Departments with lead policy responsibility are represented on this oversight group, including the Department of Health. Vulnerable groups, such as mental health service users, have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and there is a continued need to co-ordinate cross-Government support to these groups of people.

The Government has invested significantly in the enhancement of mental health services and the budget now stands at €1.076 billion. The increase of €50 million secured in the budget will fund an additional 153 staff in enhancing community mental health teams, including CAMHS with 29 new staff. It will also fund clinical care programmes, including in the areas of dual diagnosis, bereavement counselling, employment supports and crisis resolution. Some €15 million will be allocated to Covid measures, including the provision of extra mental health beds as required. At regional and local levels, many mental health services have responded throughout the pandemic by implementing innovative practices such as the introduction of a community assessment hub in Cork. This hub provides direct access to mental health assessment and support seven days a week, reducing the need for people to present to emergency departments.

We do not yet fully understand the impact of Covid-19 on mental health and the subsequent demand on services. The HSE already has a range of proactive responses for any rise in mental health service need, including online and other telehealth psychosocial supports. The Department and the HSE continue to plan for any surge in demand as it arises. This is the case, for example, with MyMind, which is a HSE partner NGO providing increased levels of online counselling sessions throughout the pandemic. It provides counselling in 15 different languages. Additional funding of €2.2 million has been provided for 2020 to ensure we can meet increased demand through MyMind and a number of other providers.

Awareness-raising campaigns that promote existing mental health services have been launched, including through national and local radio campaigns and through the dissemination of leaflets to schools across the country to assist children, young people and adults in finding appropriate supports where needed. In addition, as part of the HSE’s psychosocial response to Covid-19, counselling supports are available to staff impacted by the pandemic. Local support structures are in place in each CHO and these supports are also available to section 38 and 39 workers. The programme for Government gives a clear commitment to continue investment in mental health services, as resources allow. Mental health remains a core aspect of the Government’s response to Covid-19. It is important to note that specialist mental health services have continued to operate at between 85% and 90% of pre-Covid levels.

Many comments were made today about older people, and rightly so. Older people living in nursing homes are among those who have been most adversely affected by Covid-19. Residents are vulnerable because of their age, underlying medical conditions, the extent of their requirement for direct care involving close physical contact and the nature of living in congregated settings. The many challenges arising from the management of Covid-19 in nursing homes are identified in the Covid-19 Nursing Home Expert Panel: Examination of Measures to 2021 report, which was published in August 2020. The expert panel’s report includes 86 recommendations in total and there is a robust oversight structure in place to ensure their implementation. The oversight team reports regularly to me as the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health and older people. Some highlights of early key progress include the extension of the temporary assistance payment scheme, TAPS, until June 2021, with up to €92 million available in 2020 and up to €42 million available in 2021. We also have enhanced public health measures, including the provision of staff accommodation when required; support to nursing homes through 23 HSE Covid-19 response teams; provision of PPE free of charge to nursing homes; and serial testing of all nursing home staff on a fortnightly basis.

Earlier this month, updated visiting guidance for long-term residential care settings came into effect. This new guidance outlines an updated definition of "critical and compassionate circumstances", which provides that, subject to risk assessment in each case, people living in nursing homes may receive up to one visit by one person per week under levels 3 and 4 of the framework and up to one visit by one person per two weeks under level 5. It also notes that every practical effort should be made to accommodate an additional visit on compassionate grounds during the period of a major cultural or religious festival or celebration of particular significance to the resident, such as the Christmas and new year period. People have been very upset about the fact that they have not been able to see their loved ones, but 32 nursing homes have open clusters of Covid and in the past seven days a further five nursing homes have developed Covid clusters. Unfortunately, while we are doing very well as a country we cannot take our eye off the ball as regards nursing homes. We have to be very vigilant to support our older and more vulnerable people. However, it is important to note that around half of our nursing homes remained Covid-19 free this year and many nursing homes that experienced a Covid-19 outbreak managed very well.

As Minister of State with responsibility for mental health and older people, I welcome the prioritisation of older people under the vaccination strategy as they have been the most affected by the pandemic. I encourage everyone who is in a position to do so to avail of the vaccine as early as he or she can. This is such an important step on our way back to normal life. I will be working, through my officials and the HSE, towards the reopening of day services in the new year. However, we must remember that this is just the first step and until enough people are vaccinated we must still remember to follow all the infection prevention and control advice to ensure that services that are operating can continue to do so in a safe way.

Covid-19 has also highlighted the vulnerability of people who are in homelessness and in addiction. They are a group of people with complex health needs. The HSE has established the Covid-19 Dublin homeless response team and has appointed a HSE clinical lead. The team co-ordinates the response to the virus for the homeless population across the whole of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive area. Socially excluded groups in congregated settings received priority action in terms of detection, case management and contact tracing. A fast-track flexible approach was used for complex cases in these communities. The HSE produced Covid-19 guidelines for homeless and vulnerable groups and this provides general advice about preventing the spread of Covid-19 in homeless settings and other vulnerable group settings, including direct provision. In Dublin, more than 1,000 additional beds were provided and 400 additional beds were put in place in other local authorities nationally.

Looking to the future, the Government has taken significant steps in response to Covid and, as I have outlined, this includes vulnerable people, older persons, and people with mental health difficulties. The Government's response is reflected in the countermotion the Minister has put forward and I commend it to the House.

I am delighted that the Minister of State is here. The Ceann Comhairle might allow me to digress slightly on another issue. Gabhaim buíochas don iar-Sheanadóir, Brian Ó Domhnaill, agus Mairead McGrath agus Valerie Ward in our office and our support team for bringing this comprehensive motion forward. I make no apologies for it. They did that with our input and oversight but we take responsibility for what is in the motion. I will take no lecture from the Labour Party or the Social Democrats about our motion. I thank Deputy Connolly for her wise words and for being so mild, accurate and praiseworthy. We are entitled to bring this motion forward and to deal with it in our own time. Others have plenty of time to bring motions forward too. The Labour Party has an obsession. The former Minister, Deputy Kelly, AK-47, thinks he is still Minister or Taoiseach or Robocop.

He was lecturing us all about masks and then he goes out on those loose without one. He is some man to lecture; Deputy Duncan Smith too. The Labour Party cut the widow's pension and the women's pensions and they were never forgiven for it. I think their anger and anxiety is about the 3% the Labour Party is languishing on in the polls under Deputy Kelly. I will say no more. We have our rights. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for protecting our rights here, always.

I praise An Garda Síochána and the front line services - not slapping them on the back - and the community groups which have risen up and done so much. The community gardaí in my area of Cahir and Clonmel, Sergeant Ray Moloney and Sergeant Kieran O'Regan and all the community responded the first and second times and are doing now it again, and they will do it next year when they have to, and they always do.

The HSE and the Department of Health are dysfunctional at best, are ignorant of the views of politicians and do not want to know. Micheál Martin can lap it up because he set them up and has failed to disband them since. They are totally out of control, and they have no respect whatever for politicians as we saw during the week in Carrick on Suir. He can wax in it.

The whole situation has been handled idiotically and illogically from start to finish in my county from Sceichín an Rince down to Carrick-on-Suir and up to Roscrea. The HSE and the Department of Health are doing things in the middle of the pandemic that they wanted to do for a long time, namely, disband and close all the rural small hospitals. All our Deputies, and I thank them for their contribution and support, mentioned what has been happening in their constituencies. We are under sustained attack.

I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and her husband well on a personal level. I did not realise until yesterday that he has not been well. I would not want to say anything that would hurt or offend them. However, our service in St. Brigid's District Hospital in Carrick-on-Suir has been taken away. The Minister of State went on the radio, talking like Maggie Thatcher - it is out, out, out; finished; gone. We had that before from people and where are they now? The Dean Maxwell home in Roscrea at the other end of the county has been attacked. I attended a meeting yesterday with senior HSE officials who were rude and disrespectful to public representatives. They just said this was happening and would be closed as a long-stay facility.

I support Councillor Michael Smith from Tipperary County Council and ask the Minister of State and the Minister for Health to meet with him and Councillors Kieran Bourke, Dinny Dunne and Eddie Reid, Catherine and all the nursing staff and doctors associated with that wonderful institution of St. Brigid's in Carrick on Suir. It has to remain open. The Government cannot blame Covid, Chernobyl or any issue like that that suits to put a cloud over things and remove a service that has served so many people in the Minster of State's county as well as mine. I ask for a commitment that she will meet those people and listen to them.

Illogical things are going on. There are farm inspections being carried out. Hill sheep farmers are expected to round up sheep whether they have 500, 5,000 or 15,000. When we want to get information from the Departments, it is so slow. I support the staff in social welfare and all the Departments trying to help, but if a person wants anything on the schemes, it is very slow, especially when staff in Departments are working from home, yet people are going on farms for inspections. I have said that they should use technology like drones. What we need is support for the farmers and the communities.

Teachers are in schools with classes of 30. I have an email from a teacher whose son is a type 2 diabetic. She says he has had flu three times in the past month, with open windows in schools. We are forcing the schools to stay open. What happened to the teacher in Claremorris is nothing short of intimidation. What happened to the police in Cavan was nothing short of intimidation. The Gardaí have to do their job, yes, but there are ways and means of doing it. Honey is better than vinegar. They need to talk to people - ní neart go cur le chéile - and bring them with them. That is why the Government has failed spectacularly. That is why we are calling for the things in this motion. Money is being thrown at problems but is not reaching the right people.

My figures on mental health were questioned. I thank Brian Ó Domhnaill who did the research. The Department of Health allocation for mental health in recent years ranged from 5.7% to 6.3% while in 2019 it was 6.3%. It will fall dramatically to 5.2% in 2021. Those are the Department's figures, if Deputy Duncan Smith wants to know or if anyone else questions it. The Minister of State has responsibility for mental health. We know the crisis that already exists there. To go back to Tipperary, St. Michael's need beds. On three fronts, the Department is attacking us in Tipperary. Tipperary people are a proud people, as I have said before. They will rise up in the spirit of Kickham, Dan Breen, Sean Treacy and, indeed, our footballer that died in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, Michael Hogan. We will do that. We will not take this kicking around from the HSE and unelected, unaccountable mandarins.

I have long said there is evidence that the PCR tests are not accurate. Why has the Government such spite against the antigen tests? A publican who is doing his best to keep his pub going and keeping it Covid free with antigen tests had to be arrested. I do not know what is going on. We are creating a climate of fear. It is back to the days of Russia and Communist countries: do not talk to people, do not engage and do not crowd. I do not want anyone to crowd. I want people to respect hygiene and for people to be careful and mind their elderly, but people with Covid were put into the nursing homes and caused its spread. There is still a problem with nursing homes. I salute every nursing home and the gallant efforts they made to keep it out, but the HSE and Department of Health put Covid into the homes. It is The Hague the Government should be brought to for crimes against humanity. That is what should be done with the former Minister, Deputy Harris, and, indeed, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and their officials. They put people with Covid in the homes and abandoned them. There are many cases of it.

I have raised many issues here. Thankfully we have worked through some of them, including dancing. Tá na daoine ag rince arís i Tiobraid Árann. We can dance again and we will soon be able to do a reel for the Ceann Comhairle. We have not lost all the talents. The musicians have been vilified and petrified and the funding has not got down to them. The is lots of funding for some who are suave at grant application forms, but the money has not gone down to the ordinary man in the van. They are in Tipperary by the spadeful and I am sure they are in the Minister of State's constituency too. There is Mad Patsy in Carrick-on-Suir - the Minister of State will know him well - Fran and Muriel, Trudy Lawlor, who entertained us on "The Late Late Show" the other night, and Paul Lafford. These are brilliant people who have all been denied the right to work. This motion was our attempt to have a proper debate. We have had no debate on the vaccines. There will be a small bit of a debate this evening. We looked for extra time. Our group will have six minutes.

Our group gave our two hours today to this serious motion on something that has had such a wide impact across a wide range in society. We are looking for a multidisciplinary strategy for an exit. We must keep the businesses going. The publicans have been vilified and destroyed. Small pubs were given the horrible name of wet pubs. I asked Fáilte Ireland about it at the arts committee but it said it did not give them the name. I asked it who came up with the €9 meal and it said it did not. Who is codding who? It is a case of round the kitchen and mind the dresser but we do not get the truth. We have to get the truth.

None of our people in the Rural Independent Group are anti-vaccine. We have huge concerns about the lack of debate and transparency, as we saw yesterday. There is no sign of a scheme to support people who experience side-effects and get ill, as happens with all vaccines. That has not been discussed. Yesterday, the Taoiseach said it had been discussed at Cabinet and there was some report. Why is that not out? Why is it all push, push, push, push? How dare Deputy Kelly take it up himself and do the Ceann Comhairle's job to write to all of us, putting a letter in our pigeonholes, demanding that we sign up to his vaccine policy. I wonder if he has a vested interest in the vaccine policies. He must have something because he gets up here and he talks about nothing only a vaccine. He needs some kind of injection to get off that topic and look after the people of Tipperary. That is what he needs. How dare he? The cheek of him; the arrogance of him. I did not reply to him. I will not be intimidated or bullied by any other Member in the House. It is a democratic country that we live in and we will make up our minds with the advice of our doctors, consultants and specialists. I have underlying issues myself.

We must bring the people with us and we have not done so. We have left them behind. I mentioned the publicans. There are also the people who were denied going to mass and the people denied their rights. I mentioned the schoolchildren who are blown out the window while the Department bullied a teacher to open up again. That teacher and the board of management did a service to the people and decided to close the school because of fear. I am telling the Minister of State that the marches will continue in Carrick-on-Suir, and she should meet the group of Councillors Dunne and Bourke, their teams, the staff, including Dr. John Flanagan, and the people there. She should meet Councillor Michael Smith and the team from the wonderful Dean Maxwell in Tipperary town.

The Government needs to stop this bullying and intimidation through the wiping away of our services by the HSE. It has been caught napping here, being unable to deliver and respond to this pandemic. It cannot respond to the winter flu. The HSE and the Department have lost 500,000 flu vaccines and now they want to administer 8.5 million vaccines. I have no faith in them whatsoever. We have a lot to sort out. We have a lot to get fixed up.

I wish the Minister of State well in her stint in the Department but, by God, this will take movement. They need to listen to the people, and the fact that they are unelected and unaccountable is shocking. We are elected by the people for the time being and I value that and respect the mandate, but these people can come in, and we had to sit and listen to them yesterday evening. Eight senior officials came into that Zoom meeting - I struggled to get on with technology - to tell us it is over and we are not having any more long-stay beds in the Dean Maxwell nursing unit. The Minister of State told us this last week and then went on the radio, to add insult to injury, to say that it is closed, gone, finito, forget it, they are going putting diabetic services into it. There is a monstrosity of a primary health centre in front of it, half-empty, but-----

Thank you, Deputy.

I ask the Government to give us back our wonderful St. Brigid's hospital and to give us access to our hospice beds where families got excellent palliative care. We have a lift in the building and we have showers in the building. It is not Dickensian. It is no older than Clonmel hospital and many other district hospitals in the country. The Government should give it back to us. I thank Deputies for speaking to the motion and supporting it. I am disappointed that the Government's amendment is only waffle, as usual. We are pressing the motion to a vote.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time later this evening. I thank Members for their contributions to the debate.