I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I do not agree with this. This Bill emanated from the Seanad on Monday, as we know, with a vote taken at the time. I understand there is no pre-legislative scrutiny when a Bill is initiated by the Government or anybody in the Seanad. It is shocking. There are to be three different legislative measures on top of what we had in the Health (Amendment) Acts. The lockdown has been the longest in Europe and instead of coming in with a vote on a sunset clause for the restrictions as promised for June, we will pile three legislative measures on top of this. It is a dolly mixture with liquorice allsorts. There is no pre-legislative scrutiny, which is outrageous for such serious legislation. It is shocking that this could not be brought through a normal process involving the health or justice committees. It is a three-card trick to cod us as well as codding the people. I have seen enough of this and am opposed to this process. It is shocking that the Bill will be taken with no pre-legislative scrutiny or proper debate, having come through the sneaky avenue of the Seanad. It is rotten to the core.
I will take the Deputy's comments as being a point of order. There is another point of order from Deputy Cullinane.
I want to move on with the debate and allow the Minister to make a contribution but I have a quick point. There was a briefing for Opposition health spokespersons on this Bill because the health committee was asked to waive pre-legislative scrutiny. In that briefing, the officials made us aware that the Department and the HSE became aware of the need for new legislation as opposed to a resolution of the Dáil some time back in March or April but it was only last week when we first became aware that the Bill was required. We should have been made aware of this much earlier.
On a point of clarification, that is the first I have heard of a briefing. Representatives in the Rural Independent Group were not invited to any briefing. The first I heard of that was just this minute, which is scandalous. The people in rural Ireland elected us and we are meant to be acknowledged as a group. The Ceann Comhairle has always done that but this is not good enough. Not only will the Minister not answer questions but he is now ignoring our group when calling people to a health briefing. It is the first I heard of it.
Both Deputies have made their points. We are still in the midst of a pandemic, where time is of the essence. We might hear what the Minister has to say before getting on to make whatever decisions need to be made at the end.
I welcome the opportunity to present the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021 to the House. The purpose of this Bill is to extend the period of application of certain emergency provisions that have been key to providing for the Government's public health response to the pandemic. The emergency provisions that are to be extended are in the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020, the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020, and the Health (Amendment) Act 2020. On 9 June 2021, certain emergency provisions in all of these Acts are due to expire. The Bill I am presenting to the House today provides that the operation of the emergency provisions concerned in these Acts be extended for an initial period of five months to 9 November 2021.
The current draft before the House provides that any further extensions are limited to a maximum of three months at a time thereafter and each extension must be approved by a resolution passed by each House of the Oireachtas. I am proposing some changes that I hope will alleviate concerns that have been raised. We had a very good debate on this issue in the Seanad and I also received a letter from the Chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health. I have reflected on the debate and the view of the health committee within the wider context and whereas the initial five-month extension is warranted, necessary and proportionate, I understand the concerns that have been raised about possible additional extensions after that five-month period. I have decided to seek Government approval to amend the Bill on Committee Stage to provide for just one further extension of no more than three months, subject to a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
I am of the view that given the current uncertain trajectory of the disease globally and the priority need to protect public health, progress on the vaccination programme notwithstanding, the emergency provisions are required until 9 November. At the same time, however, I am deeply conscious of the extraordinary nature of the provisions in question and, in particular, their impact on fundamental and civil rights. That is why I am now proposing that only one further extension of up to three months by resolutions of both Houses of the Oireachtas should be provided for in the Bill.
We need these emergency powers to unwind the measures that are currently in place in an ordered and sustainable way and allowing one further extension of no more than three months is justified and proportional. If we find ourselves in the position, which we all dearly hope we do not, whereby we need some targeted public health measures beyond February 2022, we would introduce another Bill and put it through the safeguards that the legislative process provides.
The change I am proposing is substantive and based on the views expressed across the political spectrum in this House, the Seanad and the health committee. I share these views. These legislative provisions are the platform from which we can implement measures to provide for protecting our health service and for breaking the chain of transmission of this disease. I know this House is fully aware of the continuing precarious trajectory of the disease around the world. The epidemiological position in Ireland is stable but, as we are all aware, it is under constant pressure. The incidence of Covid-19 is still high, albeit stable. There are still considerable uncertainties around what measures may be needed over the course of the rest of the year but we are united in our clear and ongoing objective to slow down and minimise the impact of this disease, and in so doing to protect the health of the public and dilute its impact on both our society and economy.
Some Members of the Seanad on Monday referred to these powers as draconian, which is not an unfair description. I used the same description both as Minister for Health and when I was Opposition spokesperson when the initial legislation was introduced early last year. They are draconian but the measures concerned have provided us with the necessary tools to stop the disease from spreading uncontrollably, especially any exponential spread, and help keep people safe, first and foremost. Ultimately, the measures have provided the means to protect public health and keep people safe.
Members of both Houses, both in plenary sessions and in the health committee, have also sought for the legislation to be reviewed. This is entirely understandable. In terms of the measures taken under the legislation, Government decision-making has been and is informed by public health, economic and social impact assessments undertaken on an ongoing basis throughout the pandemic. As colleagues are aware, there is a very rich source of information available online through the minutes of National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, meetings, the papers discussed by the team, the analysis provided to me and the Government by NPHET and the letters of recommendation from the Chief Medical Officer to me. They are all available online, as they should be.
The Government has consistently sought to introduce measures where necessary to protect public health and they are kept under constant review. The measures have been tough and very challenging but they have worked and have saved lives. They have stopped many things happening in this country that happened in other countries, which were deeply worrying to see. We have had one of the lowest excess mortality rates from Covid-19 in Europe and the measures we introduced - and, more important, the public support for them - ensured our health service was not overrun. Unlike in many other countries, although the health system was under very serious pressure, hospitals, emergency departments and intensive care units were not overrun. That was thanks to the public backing the measures and the extraordinary ongoing work of our healthcare professionals.
Vaccinations offer very significant protection at an individual and population level but it will be some time before there is a sufficient level of the population fully vaccinated. Moreover, whereas there is emerging evidence on the efficacy of available vaccines, we still do not have full information on the impact that vaccines will have on transmission, the length of vaccine-induced immunity and the potential impact that variants may have on vaccine effectiveness. In general, international agencies are continuing to advise the use of a range of non-pharmaceutical measures until there is a greater understanding of the role of vaccination on the course of the pandemic and there is greater impact from the vaccinations on the disease.
Specifically with regard to the date of 9 November, as proposed in the Bill, this is a date that was informed by public health authorities, with the view being that the measures might well be required into late autumn or early winter, given that we expect to see a large amount of mixing indoors at that time. As I have said, these measures are tough and have been very difficult. We are all acutely aware of the impact of these measures on individuals, families, communities, businesses and so much more. They have come at a serious cost but they work and have worked. It is all our hope that the measures will only be needed for a short time. I have just come from a meeting with the Chief Medical Officer, following today's NPHET meeting relating to advice that will be brought to the Cabinet on Friday. I am very happy to report, as I am sure Members are aware, that NPHET's view is the trajectory is positive, again thanks to the Irish people getting behind the measures day after day and keeping case numbers and hospitalisation figures low.
The Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 inserted new sections 31A, 31B and 38A into the Health Act 1947. Section 31B allows the Minister for Health to make an affected area order. The State has been deemed to be an affected area since 7 April last year. Section 31A provides for the making of regulations for preventing, limiting, minimising or slowing the spread of Covid-19 to a region where an affected area order applies.
Section 2 amends section 1 of the of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 to allow for an extension of operation of Part 5 of the Act along the same lines, namely: that Part 5 of the Act is extended from 10 June 2021 to 9 November 2021 or the date specified in a resolution passed by each House of the Oireachtas. As already stated, I am proposing, subject to a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas, to provide for only one further extension of no more than three months.
The Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 amends the Mental Health Act 2001 to adopt a cascading approach to the role of the independent consultant psychiatrist and the role of mental health tribunals, which review orders involuntarily detaining patients, whereby pre-Covid measures are retained in the Act. Where it is not possible to operate these measures safely, provisions are in place to ensure the review of detention can continue remotely in the current public health emergency.
Sections 3 and 4 provide for the same amendments and terms for extension for the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 and the Health (Amendment) Act 2020, respectively. As indicated, I am proposing to provide, subject to a resolution of both Houses Of the Oireachtas, for only one further extension of no more than three months.
The Health (Amendment) Act 2020 provides for the making of regulations to prescribe penal provisions in regulations made under section 31A of the Health Act 1947, to be fixed penalty provisions and dwelling event provisions. The Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 provides An Garda Síochána with statutory enforcement powers in relation to licensed premises and registered clubs, to ensure strict adherence to public health measures on premises where alcohol is sold for consumption on these premises. In considering whether this Act should continue in operation, the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, consulted the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris. The Commissioner advised that if the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020 was not extended beyond 9 June 2021, then members of An Garda Síochána would not have a clear lawful basis for entering a licensed premises to address breaches of the Covid-19 regulations. Liquor licensing legislation would not provide a power of entry for the specific reasons of addressing breaches of Covid-19 public health regulations. I take this opportunity to compliment An Garda Síochána on its work during this national effort. Gardaí have continued to take a measured approach at all times. They continue to engage, educate, encourage and, only as a last resort, enforce. I add my voice to many others in the House regarding what happened yesterday in the context of the shooting of two gardaí. I wish them a very speedy recovery and I wish their families the very best. It was an absolutely despicable act of violence against An Garda Síochána.
Section 5 states that the Title of the legislation shall be the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Act 2021 and that it shall come into operation on 10 June 2021.
As I have here previously and elsewhere, these powers do not sit easy with me. I doubt they sit easy with any Member of the Oireachtas. They should not sit easy with any democracy. I believe, however, that they have been required up to now to support public health measures, advice and guidance. This Government wants to lead our return to normality as quickly as possible. Importantly, we want to do so safely. We want to make sure that we do not go backwards or need to reintroduce measures.
I welcome this opportunity to provide an overview of some of the key provisions in the Bill. I look forward to discussing the Bill in more detail on Committee Stage and to listening to colleagues' contributions during today's debate. The Government believes that ensuring the continuation of these measures is the responsible thing to do. I commend the Bill to the House.
At this point, I am not in a position to indicate whether Sinn Féin can support the Bill because it very much depends on whether the Minister will engage with the Opposition on amendments. The last time that similar legislation brought before both Houses of the Oireachtas, no Opposition amendments were accepted. Not only were they not accepted, most were not reached because very limited time was given on Committee Stage. I have already had conversations with our whip, and I am aware that the issue was raised at the Business Committee. Sufficient time really needs to be allocated in respect of Committee Stage this time around so that reasonable amendments being tabled by the Opposition can be debated and that some level of democratic oversight is brought to bear in the context of this very important issue.
As the Minister pointed out, the Bill is draconian. It gives him extraordinary powers. We are being asked to give powers to the Minister to make regulations we will not be able to scrutinise or evaluate and on which we will have no say. For those reasons, we need to be assured that the Minister has listened and engaged and that the voices of members of the Opposition are not only heard but are taken into account in the context of the Bill. The days of giving the Minister or anybody else a blank cheque to make responses of the nature envisaged are long gone. If the Minister was in my position, I imagine that he would argue the same.
When one looks across the political spectrum in different parts of Europe, by and large, the support the Minister and the Government have had from the Opposition in the response to the Covid-19 has been quite remarkable, especially in light of the huge difficulties to which the public health restrictions have given rise for workers, families and businesses.
I am one of those who gets a massive amount of lobbying from members of the public. The latter have many different views on the public health restrictions. Sometimes, and for different reasons, people argue for more restrictions, while others argue for fewer restrictions or do not want any restrictions at all. We all must show leadership. We all must follow very clearly the public health advice and ensure at all times that it is about keeping people safe. Nobody wants public health restrictions of the nature of those that had to be introduced over the past 12 months. Those restrictions were put in place because of the need to deal with a highly infectious virus that caused a pandemic. People were dying and action had to be taken. I accept that. I also accept that as we go forward there will still be a need for public health measures to remain in place. Like the Minister, I hope that we would not see them in place for a second or a minute longer than is necessary. The sooner the opportunity comes to ease those restrictions we should take them.
I celebrate the fact that major efforts have been made. I recognise the huge contribution of workers, families and businesses in recent past months, especially since January and the third wave, which took many, if not all, of us by surprise. It has been a really difficult couple of months for people given the restrictions that were put in place in early January and right through to now. The curtailment of people's ability to work, meet their families, socialise and live any kind of normal life has been absolutely horrendous.
The impact of the restrictions on healthcare has also been horrendous. We will discuss all of that in due course I am sure, as all of the consequences of missed care come at us. All of that will have to be dealt with. The restrictions we have put in place have not been without consequences. I would be the first to say they were necessary and I will not abdicate my responsibility in making sure that people's health is put first, in keeping people alive and in keeping people safe. Equally, when we approved the resolution to extend the sunset clause the last time around, I said to the Minister directly that I felt the length of time by which he was seeking to extend it was way too long. I say the same again now. An extension until November is far too long. Sinn Féin will table amendments to extend the sunset clause until 9 July. That will allow for democratic oversight and it will give the Minister the opportunity to return to the House to extend the restrictions again, if necessary.
Thankfully, because of the collective efforts of the vast majority of people in the State, we are now beginning to see an easing of restrictions. For the first time in a long while, last week and the week before people returned to work and non-essential retail opened.
There are now more opportunities for people to engage in outdoor and indoor activities. We celebrate, as anybody else does, all of that. It is a huge relief for people and it is a return to a level of normality. More restrictions will be eased in June and tomorrow we will see what is in the roadmap, which has been well publicised in advance. Potentially, there will be more easing of restrictions in July, with even travel being a possibility at the end of July and in early August. Again, I will support all of this. When the public health advice is clear and if it underpins what the Government brings forward, I will support it, including when restrictions need to be put in place and, equally, when they can be eased. We all want to see this relief given to workers, families and businesses.
It does not make sense to people looking in from the outside that when all of these restrictions are being eased at a certain pace, the House is being asked to extend the emergency powers until November. Essentially, what we are doing - and I have said this previously - is outsourcing the implementation of these emergency powers specifically to the Minister and to the Cabinet.
I know the Department, the HSE and the Minister were working under extreme pressure,. When the third wave came at us in January, speed was important and decisions had to be taken very quickly. It is a cause of irritation for those of us in opposition, who support provisions such as this and support public health advice, that when regulations are published, we do not get a heads-up or notification by email and there is no briefing. Sometimes, the first we learn of it is through the media or sometimes if we just happen to have staff who are refreshing their browsers when regulations go up on the HSE website or that of the Department. That is not acceptable and I have said it several times. This is why it is frustrating.
The emergency powers we give the Minister, after which he can make regulations, are not subject to any approval by the Oireachtas. We are not asked to give consent. We are not asked to give an opinion. We do not have an opportunity to review their effectiveness. Nor, by the way, at any time over the past 12 months have we had the ability to review the effectiveness of the provisions of the previous legislation, which are essentially the same as those in the Bill.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has, as the Minister knows, raised concerns. Earlier today, I mentioned a briefing for health spokespersons. It was actually a briefing for the Oireachtas health committee so it was only for members of that committee. We were asked to waive pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. We had a hearing at which we listened to representatives from Mental Health Reform and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. At the briefing with the Minister's officials, they told us, as I stated earlier before this debate started, that it was probably sometime in March or April that the Department became aware of the need for legislation. That was because the existing legislation includes provision in respect of "resolution" as opposed to "resolutions from time to time". It would seem that, out of an abundance of caution, we were told there had to be new legislation. When we go back over the transcript of the proceedings in the Seanad, however, there were contributions which show that it was known that there would have to be a new Bill once one resolution was passed. Notwithstanding this, the Department told us it knew in March or April, yet only last week members of the health committee were contacted to say that there would be need for a new Bill and we were asked to waive pre-legislative scrutiny. Why were we not told weeks in advance? Why was an opportunity not given to the health committee to probe this in greater detail?
I certainly will be reserving judgment on whether I can support the Bill. It will very much depend on the time allocated for Committee Stage and the Minister's willingness to engage and accept amendments. I will conclude by reiterating what I said earlier. Neither I nor my party can continue to give the Minister or the Government a blank check in respect of public health restrictions. There has to be democratic oversight and proper accountability. There has to be proper transparency. I cannot support many of the provisions in the Bill. I will seek to amend them and if the amendments are accepted I will be more than happy to support the Bill. Other than that, we will have to wait to see what transpires on Committee Stage.
As Deputy Cullinane said, the Bill is basically an extension of what we have had up to now. Deputies on all sides understand that measures have to be in place to ensure people comply with the regulations, which are about keeping communities and people safe. We all endeavour to do everything we can to encourage and work with people and make sure there is compliance with these measures to ensure we try to keep the Covid-19 pandemic at bay. At the same time, it is very unusual that we are in circumstances whereby we have had measures such as these in place for eight months and many people have fallen foul of them for doing things they would do in the normal course of their lives. By mid-April, 20,242 people had been issued fines for leaving their homes and travelling 5 km outside of their areas or for organising parties or attending events. This is stuff we do normally and that we encourage people to do as part of commerce, business or life but we find we have this very restrictive set of penal measures in place to constrain people.
We have to acknowledge that this is very difficult for people. It is difficult for the Oireachtas to be dealing with it and to be allowing this sort of thing to happen because it completely goes against the grain for the vast majority who believe in civil liberty and ensuring that people have basic freedoms. We are curtailing their freedoms. We are doing it for good reason - I understand this and respect it - and we have all worked together to ensure that we can provide adequate supports for people in the circumstances.
Another issue that arises is the mental health aspect and how it has curtailed lives to such an extent that many people are very stressed, anxious and worried about all of what is going on. Sometimes the mental health element is portrayed as a reason for having fewer restrictions. The latter does not reflect the point I am going to make. It is the reason we need to ensure that we have adequate supports in place for people and to ensure that as we move out of this people are protected and maintained in their communities and feel that they can move back out into society safely. Many people do not feel this and the mental health services will have a huge amount of work to do. They were totally under-resourced prior to this and, as we move forward, they will need additional resources.
I understand the need for the measures in place in the context of what gardaí do and how they behave and act in the context of all of this, particularly with regard to licensed premises. The timescale involved is what bothers me and the vast majority of people. The Minister has proclaimed that the vaccine roll-out is going well and that we are moving ahead with it. We all welcome this. I received the vaccine last week. We are getting there. As we endeavour to move forward, we need to get to a situation whereby more people have the vaccine than do not. We are getting close to that point. We need to give people hope that we are moving away from the current level of restrictions and the curtailment of freedoms. Renewing the restrictions for almost six months flies in the face of people's hope.
This legislation before us will dampen down the hope to which I refer. I do not think we should do as is envisaged. This is why adequate amendments will have to be tabled. We should be reviewing the legislation more regularly because it is so extreme. I appreciate that the extreme nature of it means there is a responsibility on us. We cannot shirk that responsibility. The Government is taking the lead here. It takes the advice of NPHET and receives adequate health advice on all of this. The latter is necessary and has to happen. However, the Government must also heed all of the rest of us in these Houses who deal with the public every day and who work with people who are stressed, who are under pressure and who want some relief. There needs to be adequate respect for the elected Members here. The way this respect can be shown is by the Government sitting down, working out amendments and conceding that there needs to be a more timely review of the powers involved rather than extending those powers for the better part of six months. I hope this will happen and I hope the Minister will take all of the views expressed today on board as we move forward.
While this Bill is important, just as important is the debate that surrounds it. We have been consistent in backing the public health guidelines while calling for proper measures on quarantine, track and trace and vaccine roll-out but we also believe the restrictions must be proportionate. It is these fundamentals that the Government needs to get right and I believe there have been many failings in doing so.
On looking at the Preamble, everyone accepts that "a public emergency has arisen" and as for "extraordinary measures", Deputy Martin Kenny has noted that 14,000 people have been fined for leaving their homes. The debate, however, turns to liberty being fundamental in any republic. At times, citizens have had to resort to the High Court to test the proportionality as to whether some of the restrictions have been fair. The Preamble goes on to state "the trajectory of that disease continues to be precarious", and while the number of cases was 1,200 in October, down to 162 in December and back up to 8,000 in January, they have reduced a great deal since then. There is a balancing act between the rights of citizens to life and bodily integrity and those of liberty.
It is true what the previous speakers have said about the sacrifices that have been made by all citizens in this country. I refer to sacrifices in education and in employment but also sacrifices that have resulted in an increase in domestic violence and an increase in drug taking.
We have come to a point where in my constituency of Kerry, there have been only two or three cases in hospitals over the past five weeks. People cannot attend matches. People cannot go for a 5 km run for a charity event. The work on the greenways in Kerry more or less stopped because of the restrictions. The county clean-up day was ceased because, according to the local authority, if there were half a dozen people on a country road on a Sunday morning, that was an organised event and it could not take place. It was ridiculous.
There is another aspect in which the Government has failed, namely, in the establishment of clear guidelines grounded in law and in medical evidence in which the public can have faith. The Government asked the Dáil to debate changes to the Health Act which enabled a statutory instrument which would have compelled the businesses to keep receipts but then backed away from that. They allowed for ambiguities to be built up between public health guidelines and what was a matter of criminal law. Legal sanctions were used inappropriately, even against the advice of Dr. Holohan, who warned of certain activities being driven underground.
Most importantly, the Government has consistently not communicated the risks of indoor versus outdoor activity. I refer to the recent fiasco over the Clare-Wexford game. Fifteen months on, has anybody looked at the evidence of transmission in outdoor sports? Has anyone analysed the data or are there any data to say that two players who marked two other players on a pitch which is 150 yd long could possibly be a close contact? It cannot be the case. I am worried that this completely risk-averse type of call could make prisoners of us all. The Government will have to make a call and not hide behind advice without testing it to the hilt given the sacrifices that I have already mentioned that have taken place. Otherwise it is bad news for the workers in aviation who are standing outside the conference centre today, who have argued for the antigen testing that is acceptable in 15 other countries. Football matches still cannot continue and as we look across to the Six Counties and across the water, we see the opening of outdoor activities there.
I have been involved in park runs for the past few years. It is a brilliant voluntary community-led activity that 12,000 participate in weekly. It is still off the table. Eighty thousand people undertake 650,000 runs or walks. As for the participants, 7% have a disability, 17% are from the lowest socioeconomic percentile and 50% are women, all groups that have been heavily impacted by Covid-19 restrictions. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, for having met organisers this morning to consider a trial run. While elite sports have their advocates, unfortunately, runs and social events such as Park Run do not have that kind of slick PR machine behind them. There is no reason that I can see why those events cannot take place as soon as possible. Otherwise there is no benefit to the vaccine roll-out.
This is why I do not envy the Minister his task. A recurring theme of this pandemic has been what we just heard. I get what Deputy Daly says. When one takes issues in isolation, for instance, if such and such happened, one asks what is the risk of that, but when we were in the teeth of the worst waves, it was not necessarily the act of going for a run with a few people in the park that was dangerous but rather the cumulative impact of risk of people moving, congregating for a cup of tea or coffee afterwards and deciding that as they would usually go for a spot of breakfast afterwards, they might just do that. It is easy at this point when we rightly are feeling a bit more hopeful about things that we can look back at measures, take them out of context, and ask why do we need we to do this or that. We continue to make huge sacrifices.
This disease has had an unbelievable success rate in making fools out of many of us by constantly wrong-footing us. When we feel we are getting ahead of it then it comes back and bites. When it bites, it bites hard and puts pressure on our health system. People get sick, people get very sick and people have died and will continue to be so.
The success of the vaccination roll-out is what is different about this time. That is the factor in this debate at this point of extension, which requires some further discussion and teasing out on Committee Stage. We hit a wonderful milestone yesterday; that of 2.5 million vaccinations. That is incredible. Particularly over of the past couple of weeks where we have had a ransomware attack on our health service systems, that we managed to keep some critical health services going and managed to keep the vaccination programme on track is unbelievably commendable. In fairness, it goes from root to branch. It is the front-line workers but, in fairness, it is also the civil servants, the people in the Minister's office and the Minister who have kept that going. One has to acknowledge that.
It is that success that has given people hope. It is what we are expecting this week from the announcements regarding indoor and outdoor dining and a return to safe travel that is giving people hope. The Minister will understand that the date of 9 November jars with us, because it seems so very far away at a time when we are so hopeful about unwinding these restrictions and about returning to something of a normal life.
I came to the Chamber to listen to the Minister's opening statement. I requested a copy of it, which I received, because I was looking to see a deeper explanation of the rationale behind the date of 9 November. It was not there. Maybe the Minister will come back to that in his closing remarks or refer to it between now and Committee Stage because we will require some more convincing on that. With all the optimism out there, that is what we require and expect.
The Minister admitted that 80% of the adult population will be vaccinated by the end of June. We will have a safe return of some international travel. I have just come here from the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, where we were meeting and speaking to workers from Aer Lingus. There is a heap of concerns. They have lost jobs. They are worried about losing more jobs but part of it was how do we return to safe travel, how do we test people who are working in aviation and what about vaccinating people who are working in aviation such as cabin crew. All of these questions are still out there. The vaccination is giving all these industries hope that we can return and that these extraordinary measures can be unwound. It is trying to find that spot that acknowledges that there is still an uncertainty with this disease and that we have variants of concern out there on our planet that are circulating.
We need to manage and be prepared for that and have resilience. We can do that without pitching the date of 9 November. We have had discussions on that in the Labour Party over the past few days. We know the Minister takes no joy in these regulations. No one wants to deliver these in any circumstances. I imagine the vast majority of Members of the House feel this way.
If reports are to be believed, the events industry as well as safe travel and indoor and outdoor dining will return in August or September. There are reports that people will be allowed back to view sports and it is to be hoped people will be at League of Ireland matches later this summer and into the autumn. All of this stands in stark contrast to the date of 9 November. We hope that, as we unwind, circulate and have an outdoor summer, numbers continue to be controlled. Let us be honest; they are not reducing as much as we would like. As the numbers continue to be controlled, it is to be hoped they will reduce and those who have been vaccinated will not get as sick.
I hope we will not see a spike in numbers in August and September because if we do, the 9 November date may seem more logical. At this remove, it does not. By 9 September, we will have seen what has happened over the course of the summer and the gradual unwinding. That would be the appropriate point for the restrictions to be extended to and, thereafter, the situation reviewed on a month by month basis. That would be our proposal. We feel it is a belt and braces approach that acknowledges what is happening at the moment regarding vaccinations and the unwinding of restrictions.
Regarding pre-legislative scrutiny, we understood the position when the world was in a mega panic in March last year. However, we need more scrutiny of the Bill now. We now have the time and space to do that. I am on the Business Committee and we are having major discussions every week to make sure we have enough committee time and venues. These discussions cause consternation, but it is vital that the Legislature continues its work. We have the time and space to discuss this in more detail and I ask the Minister to do that.
At this time, we have a chance to review the impact all of the restrictions have had on people. This is probably the first time we have had a chance to do that. My colleague, Senator Annie Hoey, in the Seanad debate on the Bill earlier this week, called for a human rights analysis of these measures to be carried out. That is a fair ask and would be the compassionate and understanding thing for the Government to do. I ask the Minister to respond to that.
We should not extend the measures beyond September until such a review has taken place. We need to ensure that the rights of the people we represent are respected at all times and the most basic tenets of democracy we are expected to uphold in the House are implemented. Will the Minister commit to a review in the House of how the laws are being implemented and how often they have had to be used before the end of June? I will raise this matter at the Business Committee.
Members of the public seem concerned about these measures continuing. I have had discussions with a number of constituents over the past number of weeks. Some people are coming from a very far right libertarian point of view, and that is not a view I share. Other people are coming at this from a human rights perspective and have seen people in their lives suffer under the restrictions over the past year because they have been harsh and tough. That is what is driving an awful lot of people, very understandably and compassionately from their point of view, to ensure that the restrictions do not have to continue for any longer than is necessary.
This is another opportunity for the Minister to be open, transparent and honest with the people we represent who have had to abide by these restrictions over the past 15 months. If they continue beyond the 9 November proposal, they will have been in place for over 18 months. We will see what happens during the debate, but at this stage we plan to bring forward amendments on Committee Stage next week to change the date, end the restrictions in September rather than November and implement the monthly legislative review on the effectiveness of the measures from the end of July onwards.
We want, and feel there is space for, more discussion. When it comes to Bills like this, we should be presented with as much information as possible, and more information than we have received thus far, on the effectiveness of the proposals and how necessary they actually are. We cannot just be a rubber-stamping tool. No one wants that. We want to pore over all of the details and have as much information as possible. We are coming off the back of the success of the vaccination roll-out. A few weeks ago, grandparents were vaccinated, followed by parents and friends. I look forward to when the vaccine is rolled out to people in their 30s so that I can get it. Every time another cohort is included, it brings more energy and greater hope that we will have a safe outdoor summer and be able to intermingle again.
It has gone unreported that very early on in the vaccine roll-out process people with mental health issues were included as one of the first cohorts. That was an important inclusion and was carried through by the HSE. We have so much more work to do for people with mental illness in terms of fully including them in our health service, breaking down stigmas and providing access to therapies and health services. It was very important that people with mental illness were included at the very early stages and that their physically vulnerability as immunosuppressed people was recognised. I commend the HSE and everyone involved in that decision because it has not been reported widely enough. It should not go unnoticed. That is the current situation and we look forward to further engagement on it.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. When these measures were last before the House in October 2020, Sinn Féin tabled an amendment to limit the scope of the emergency legislation. We sought for the Government to bring forward less discretionary legislation which did not avoid Dáil scrutiny. The existing legislation is giving far too much discretion and emergency powers to the Minister for Health. I am not saying he gets pleasure out of implementing these measures and I understand difficult choices have to be made, but the key point we are trying to get across is that democratically elected representatives in the Chamber have to have a voice in these matters because these powers are extensive.
We are opposed to the continuing operation of the emergency legislation, with such broad discretionary powers, delegating what we believe should be Oireachtas, Seanad and Dáil responsibilities to the Minister for longer than necessary. Our approach would not undo the restrictions, but would ensure that new regulations are adequately scrutinised, debated and, ultimately, agreed by the Dáil. They would not be delegated to a Minister with no requirement to seek the approval of the House. The Government has proposed to extend the emergency measures to 9 November. We do not believe this long extension, without scrutiny, is warranted at this stage. The measures may need to be extended, but they have to be debated in the House.
As hospitalisations come down, vaccines ramp up and society reopens, there is no need for such broad discretionary powers for the Minister. Whether the health regulations need to remain in place is a matter for the House. The vaccination campaign is going well. The only difference we on this side of the House have is that we would advise the Government to keep its foot on the pedal. I had my first vaccination recently and can report that the centre in County Laois is excellent. The work the staff there are doing is tremendous and it is a great credit to everyone involved. We complained when things were not going well, so I want to give credit when they are.
We have tabled amendments to the Bill to limit the operation of the Bill to 9 July and require that the restrictions secure the approval of the Dáil going forward. We will continue to be informed by the evolving public health situation. We have supported all health measures and interventions deemed necessary by the public health advice which allowed us to keep the virus under control. However, we cannot support the Bill in its current form. We submitted an amendment to change the date from November to July so that we could have a full debate in the House. The Minister was given extraordinary powers in good faith by Deputies last year. We put that faith in him. To push the sunset clause out to 9 November is a step too far.
We need to see a clear plan coming from Government in terms of exiting the restrictions. In the absence of such a plan, unfortunately, Government is seeking a carte blanche authority for a further six months.
It is a push and a step too far for many members of the public. A constituent was on to me about it this morning before I came here to make sure I raised my voice about it. It is not that they do not support the public health guidelines or want to open up everything in a laissez-faire kind of way, but they do want to see it properly debated.
Many members of the public continue to support the public health measures. We have done our part, and the Minister will admit this, in trying to bring the public with us and keep it on side in terms of following the public health measures and the advice given by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and the HSE. However, this does not sit right with them. I ask the Minister to accept the amendment.
A national emergency existed last year and this House passed a number of pieces of emergency legislation, which the Minister is now seeking to extend beyond their express expiry date on 9 June.
The legislation before us provides for one extension and further three-monthly extensions of the four pieces of emergency legislation we passed last year. This legislation conferred wide-ranging and draconian powers on the Minister for Health, which he admits, and on members of An Garda Síochána. The legislation also gave a carte blanche to the Minister to introduce a raft of regulations, which impacted many areas of our daily lives and democratic freedoms.
This legislation was supported by the Social Democrats and other parties and groups in this House when it was introduced, because of the unprecedented nature of the emergency the country was facing. At the time, the country was battling a killer virus which has cost thousands of lives, brought our health service to its knees and forced the shutdown of vast sections of our economy. The only weapon we initially had in our arsenal in this battle was social distancing. People had to remain separate, stay apart from their friends and families and stay safe.
The draconian nature of the powers was directly related to the level of danger which existed in our communities when the virus was exponentially spreading in the community and leaving a trail of death, debility and grief in its wake. The Government needed extraordinary powers to deal with this extraordinary danger. However, there was an acknowledgement that once the danger receded, the requirement for these powers would too. A sunset clause was built into the legislation which allowed for one extension, after an initial period of six months, while a review of the impact of the legislation was also promised.
Today, we are still battling that virus, but now we have a powerful weapon, our vaccination programme. Consequently, our odds of success in this war have been markedly improved. Some 15% of the population has now been fully vaccinated and nearly 50% has received its first dose. All credit to everybody involved in that, especially the HSE. Businesses, closed since last year, have finally begun to reopen and that is to be warmly welcomed. There is hope, once again, that life can return to normal.
Yet, the Government is asking the Opposition to support its attempt to extend the same level of draconian powers which were required at the height of this crisis, despite the situation now being, thankfully, vastly improved. Some on the Government benches do not seem to accept the situation has improved and that we need to take a new approach.
The purpose of severe lockdowns and the curtailment of rights necessitated by the introduction of this legislation was to flatten the curve and stop the spread of the virus. When the epidemiological situation changes, so too does the need for the restrictions to the same extent. It is important that as a matter of course and practice, before we pass any legislation, we read it thoroughly and look at the analysis underlying the rationale for it.
There have been many problems with the manner in which the Government has exercised its powers since this legislation was passed. Some 67 separate sets of regulations have been introduced and more often than not there has been no advance notice, approvals, reporting, impact assessment, oversight, scrutiny or briefings. This is a weak spot on behalf of the Government.
In the early days of the virus, we were getting twice-weekly briefings which was helpful. It meant everybody was in possession of the same information and it was easier for us to work together in the national effort. The fact the Government has stopped doing that for some time is a problem. There has not been a briefing since last December. That is regrettable and I ask the Minister to try to address that issue because the Opposition, similar to much of the public, has been left completely in the dark on proposals in respect of regulations under this emergency legislation.
This lack of transparency has caused huge levels of confusion and anxiety. On occasion, there has been no clear distinction between activity which is illegal and that which is advisory. For example, some understood the advice last year that older people should cocoon to be an effective house arrest, when it was advice. There were other problems too. Travel restrictions prohibited people from leaving their county, even if that meant needing to travel 3 km to get to their nearest town. Many unintended consequences could have been foreseen with proper discussion and Oireachtas scrutiny in advance and avoided, for example, the problems we saw quickly emerge in terms of domestic violence and its increase. It was only after the event there was a response to that growing issue.
Regulations which precluded single people having any social contact made no sense and the Dáil had to insist they would be changed. It would have been better to discuss that in advance. The situation in which gardaí were required to record what food people were eating in pubs was a terrible one in which to put them. It should never have happened and should have been discussed. That and other actions were required of the gardaí, which they were quite reluctant about and, as we heard on several occasions, there was little guidance issued to them on what they were being expected to do with these special powers.
Emergency measures in respect of mental health tribunals were unnecessary and unused and yesterday, Mental Health Reform made it clear it is requesting those measures be scrapped. There is a need to recognise and accept some of these measures were excessive, unfair, unreasonable, confusing and made no sense.
The health committee had to deal with this last week. We appreciate the briefing we got from officials, but we were asked to waive pre-legislative scrutiny. For legislation which is so important, it was unreasonable and showed little or no regard for the parliamentary procedures and the requirement for parliamentary oversight. As the Minister knows, the committee had to write to him expressing its concern about that and requesting he would consider amendments to this legislation. That was not done easily and was done with the support of the entire health committee.
I ask the Minister to listen to other Members of the House who would like to see him taking a more reasonable and cooperative approach to this. We should not further extend wide-ranging blanket restrictions on people’s fundamental civil rights and liberties unless that extension is necessary. Therefore, the reasonable and sensible thing to do is to review the legislation, remove the draconian measures which can no longer be deemed necessary or defended and extend those measures which are required.
This review could be carried out in a reasonably short period of six weeks and would provide valuable information, for example, on whether enforcement powers have been disproportionately used in certain geographical areas or among certain demographics. We need to get that information as we have no disaggregated information on the imposition of fines and prosecutions.
The Social Democrats do not want to jettison all these measures. Instead, the proposition is simple. We want the Minister to consider amending this legislation to allow a rollover of the measures that are absolutely necessary, subject to a review being carried out. The Minister can then return to the Oireachtas prior to the summer recess to consider the outcome of the review and amend the legislation accordingly. Restrictions that are necessary to protect public health and protect the reopening and the hard work of the Irish people over many months should be retained but those that can no longer be defended should be dropped. In addition, I reiterate my request that the Minister give people notice prior to introducing any regulations, in order that they can be considered. Around 48 hours' notice would be appropriate. Ideally, the approval of this House or both Houses should be required for the passage of those regulations.
Since last March, our response to Covid has been one of emergency thinking, with a heavy reliance on secondary legislation. We rushed legislation through last March in a very different environment. The Minister described that legislation as draconian and I agree with that description. In a million years I would not have expected to have to vote for that kind of legislation but the Covid pandemic has been extraordinary. It was a crisis and a time of great uncertainty. We did not understand the virus and there was no sign of a vaccine. Thankfully, things have changed quite a bit and the roll-out of vaccinations is very successful. I got my vaccine in Citywest some weeks ago and I can attest that, as others have said, it was very efficiently dealt with. We understand the virus much more now, although I am not sure we are getting the message about airborne transmission out very clearly. The situation is not static. It changes from time to time and so should our response.
Covid is still present and is still a significant risk but the issue is how we manage that risk. The more vulnerable people in our population have now been vaccinated so we need a much more nuanced approach to how we manage the risk going forward. It is disappointing to be presented with this legislation today because it seems this debate is an afterthought. Last week I woke up and turned on the radio to be told that the Government had decided to extend these measures to November, as if it did not matter that the Oireachtas has a view. The Government thinks that because it has the numbers it can just do this. That is the message that came across. There has been a feeling all this year that the Opposition only comes in to criticise and moan and groan but we do not feel we are being heard. We are here to represent the public just as the Minister is. The lack of briefings on these matters and being presented with legislation like this, where we will fall off a cliff edge if it is not passed before a certain date, show the weakness of the Government in its lack of forward thinking.
This legislation was extended to 9 June with the understanding that this date was the sunset clause and the safeguard. High levels of the virus are still circulating in the community and there are risks from variants. We have to collectively manage those risks but we also have to balance them against people's fundamental rights. The Opposition is being taken for granted. Emergency measures are meant to be temporary, according to international law. The extension of emergency powers is a substantial step and is not a decision for Cabinet to make but one for the Oireachtas to make in its totality.
There has been a change in the public mood over time as Covid has had a serious impact across society. Significant damage has been done to children as they have been out of school and there has been a double disadvantage for children with disabilities. There has been a loss of confidence for older people. One of the saddest things we heard last year was when older people said they felt they had to cocoon and had no contact with others. They said that life was not worth living. There has been a loss of confidence, a paralysis and an institutionalising and it will be very difficult for people to get their confidence back. On the one hand, we are being told that many things are being opened up. Much of that is very welcome and we accept it has to be done safely but, at the same time, the more that draconian measures are imposed, the less people will feel able to reconnect and pick up their lives where they left off.
With the successful vaccine campaign, we are at a point where we should be considering what we can do rather than what we cannot do, and the extension of these powers wholesale to November is the opposite of that message. During the pandemic, there was a huge amount of confusion about which measures were mandatory and which were advisory. The Government did not clarify those matters and it made people feel even more imposed on in the loss of their civil liberties. As it stands, NPHET does not have any members with human rights and equality expertise and it dissolved the sub-committee that did have human rights experts on it. The Government oversight committee that filters NPHET recommendations has no representation from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Whole sections of society are not being taken into consideration, with a very narrow focus to the advice being given.
It is essential that a human rights view of Covid enforcement powers be instigated as a matter of urgency. This has been called for since last year and the Government has yet to engage with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission on the matter. We understand the public health risks. Some of the restrictions may well be necessary but they must be subject to scrutiny. The absence of a review of emergency powers at regular intervals is a source of concern.
Regarding disaggregated data, the Garda Commissioner accepts it is required. It is important that we see those data because the impacts involved are very different, especially concerning fines. We do not know who has been fined and we do not know if it has been disproportionate. A fine is only punitive if it really hits people's pockets. For example, if it is a question of someone paying an extra €100 fine incurred because of a foreign holiday, that is not a draconian measure. On the other hand, if a pensioner goes three, four or five miles outside his or her zone during level 5 restrictions and consequently incurs a €100 fine, that will be pretty significant for that person. Therefore, we need to get that information regarding the fines and we must know how these powers are being applied. In the absence of doing that, it is unfair to ask the Oireachtas to just pass this legislation and present a carte blanche to the Government to put together statutory instruments or regulations and not have those reviews. We must have those reviews, therefore, and the Social Democrats will be introducing amendments to this Bill. I hope they will be received in such a way that the Minister will at least be open to giving them consideration.
I will make two brief points. I thank the Minister for being here today. Many of us have met representatives of the Irish Air Line Pilots Association, IALPA, today. The pilots are just outside the national convention centre today and they have met many Deputies on their way into the Dáil. The point the pilots want to make is that we are all waiting with bated breath for these announcements to be made on Friday regarding easing restrictions on international travel, and international air travel in particular.
The point I wish to make on their behalf is that the digital green certificate makes provision for testing. It allows for rapid antigen testing and for antigen testing in its basic form as well. This must be an option for the Irish State. It has been embraced by 15 EU countries out of 27, and it must also be a method used in Ireland too in future, in tandem with PCR testing. The reality is that taking a PCR test three days before travelling is a bit like breathalysing people before they go into a pub, because not all the information will be captured. A rapid antigen test done on the day, however, some six or seven hours before departure, will detect a hell of a lot more. This must be the way forward, and it is a method which must be in the mix.
Turning to mandatory hotel quarantine, MHQ, we must retain that system, but only for people coming from countries which have a wild variant of Covid-19. We must enable air traffic from our neighbours in Europe, Britain and North America and we must welcome with open arms people who have been vaccinated in those countries. We should retain such quarantine, just in the basic form, for those countries where there is a wild variant. I finish by reiterating two numbers that I gave here yesterday. On 12 January, 8,200 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the country, but the number yesterday was around 400 cases. The two situations are not comparable and our State's response should also not be the same. I thank the Minister.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss and debate the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021. It is important that this legislation be discussed and debated in this House and that we examine it in detail. The background to this debate is also important. Since the pandemic struck last March, more than 4,941 deaths have been reported and I express my condolences to all those families and individuals impacted. In addition, more than a quarter of a million cases of Covid-19 have been recorded here in Ireland. I also express my thanks to all the front-line workers who have looked after us all throughout the pandemic, namely, the doctors, nurses, hospital staff, supermarket workers, the wonderful Dublin Bus drivers and other transport workers and of course the gardaí and fire fighters. They, and many others, have been key to us tackling the pandemic up and down the country. They all answered the call and kept the country going throughout the worst of the pandemic, especially in the early days when the full potential impact of Covid-19 was unknown.
The past 15 months have been a long road with ups and downs. We are now, thankfully, approaching the final leg of the journey. We have come a long way, but we are not there yet. The Chief Medical Officer has signalled concern about the growth in cases of the new Indian variant. I agree with my colleague, Deputy Cathal Crowe, regarding the measures we must take concerning travel. While there is strong confidence that our vaccinations are effective against the variant, we still have a way to go to ensure the vast majority of our population has received its first inoculation. It will likely be late July or early August before we achieve the figure of 80% of adults having been fully vaccinated. The vaccination programme is going well, better than many forecast, including Deputies in this House, and it will be possible to reopen society and the economy further as that endeavour gathers pace.
However, we must be cautious. If the Indian variant, or another unknown variant, were to become established here now, it could cause a fourth wave, despite all the vaccinations. Schools and colleges must be a focus of our reopening in September. That must be a priority, as I am sure it is for the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues. I support the continuation of this legislation on the basis that we have the tools ready to protect our economy and society if necessary. That said, however, there are certain elements of which the Minister will be aware, such as statutory instruments, that we need to revise. One of those concerns religious services. The Garda has powers but if retained, they might be utilised and we do not want to see that happening.
If we are going to reopen the economy and society, we must ensure that it is a process, which is free of any unintended consequences. Equally, consideration must be given to day care services in this regard. I have spoken about this issue many times. We must also put a timeline in place for that area, because the elderly need it. I also spoke to the Minister previously about drive-in movies, and the little lacuna there which needs to be resolved in the new announcements on Friday, hopefully. While I hope that the legislation will not be used to any great degree in the months to come, obviously, we want to avoid any further waves or mass infection.
We have, however, seen some parties in this House today take wildly different views on the Covid-19 strategy. In one week they call for us to follow the NPHET advice and then in the next, they call for a zero Covid strategy, while recently also demanding universal mandatory hotel quarantine for all travellers to Ireland. Today, they are questioning the very framework that underpins the public health strategy. It is quite a journey for some of those parties. I do not know where they stand or whether a different decision will be reached by them next week. They go from one extreme to the other, like an autumn leaf in the wind. They are constantly blowing around and coming up with different strategies. I note that some of them are not here this afternoon.
In contrast, however, the Government has generally taken a sensible, stable and cautious approach to the management of the pandemic and to the roll-out of the vaccination programme. It has been difficult at times for all of us, as it has for the Minister and his colleagues. I am sure there will be other bumps along the road during the reopening of the economy and society. It is challenging, and we knew it would be going into this process, because we are in unprecedented times. This strategy is working, though, and, thankfully, we are making good progress on the road leading us out of this pandemic. I call on all Deputies to support the extension of this legislation for a limited time. Let us finish the journey and lead Ireland out of this pandemic. I ask the Minister, in whatever time he may have left, to respond to me regarding the statutory instruments.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I want to refer briefly to a point made by one of the previous speakers. It is utterly ludicrous to suggest that the same measures and approaches should apply on days when there are six cases and on days when there are 6,000 cases. I find it more than ludicrous that the Government and Government representatives should be suggesting that approach. It is important that the strategy adapts and I would have thought that was a view shared by others.
Notwithstanding that aspect, it is important that we recognise that we are now beginning to see the economy and society reopen. Thanks are due in no small part in that regard to the commitment shown by the public to adhering to the public health messages and restrictions, to the dedicated work of medical professionals and healthcare workers and to those who are working on the vaccination programme. As we move through this phase of the pandemic, it is important that the Government is in tune with the needs of workers and businesses. This means that there can be no cliff edge for workers when it comes to supports such as the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. These supports are essential for workers, who need certainty in this regard. Workers need there to be a plan. They need to know how they are going to be able to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. As the International Monetary Fund, IMF, has stated that there should be no rush to unwind these payments, I call on the Government to give a firm commitment to workers concerning the continuation of these schemes.
An essential part of reopening is giving people the confidence to do it, in line with public health restrictions, slowly if they need to, but not propelled by an economic need. That has to be essential. Health, safety and the protection of customers, workers and business owners needs to be at the forefront of what we are doing.
Many businesses that have received supports such as tax warehousing, the CRSS and others need to be given certainty as regards their situation so that they can plan ahead.
In relation to the reopening of the economy, I wish to highlight the situation of pubs and restaurants and indoor dining. Throughout the pandemic, I have met with business groups, their representatives and workers' representatives regarding the difficulties that the hospitality industry faces. A date for the reopening of indoor dining has yet to be announced. Pubs and restaurants cannot be expected to purchase stock, schedule workers, roster staff and make all the necessary preparations for reopening unless a clear timeframe is set out.
A few weeks ago I met with representatives of the Vintners Federation of Ireland, the Licensed Vintners Association and the Restaurants Association of Ireland to discuss their views on a reopening plan. They have stated that they absolutely support the public health measures, but they also want to see fairness in respect of reopening. They want to have input into the reopening plan, they want certainty and they would like to see all indoor dining reopen together. The Government must now sit down individually with these stakeholders and engage with them directly regarding the reopening plan. Restaurants, pubs and indeed the ordinary punters who will be going to them, are confused to see the return of a 105-minute time limit on sittings for indoor dining. It must be addressed.
I have asserted on a number of occasions that if the rules are simple and easily understood, people will follow them. We must understand that people want to follow the rules. They want to follow the regulations and do the right thing. However, they do need an element of clarity and they need to see that the rules make sense.
People Before Profit will be opposing this Bill. Unlike most of the Opposition, we also opposed the pervious extension of the emergency powers in October 2020. We again oppose their extension for the same reasons, which have only become clearer over the course of the last six months.
Once again, we are being asked to approve the extension of draconian emergency powers without any review of how they have operated and with no opportunity for meaningful oversight by the Dáil. We have already endured six months of rule by decree by the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly. The Dáil should not simply nod along to this again. Instead, we need a proper review into how these so-called Covid powers were actually used against Debenhams workers, taxi drivers and Palestine protesters. What is more, we need to restore the right to safe, outdoor socially-distanced protest. It is time to lift the ban.
The Garda has repeatedly refused to provide a breakdown of fines and arrests by ethnicity, despite repeated requests from the Policing Authority and despite promising to provide that information. However, the evidence already exists. It is already in the public domain that the Garda has applied its powers in a discriminatory way. Young people, for example, have been disproportionately targeted. Some 77% of fines have been imposed on people under the age of 35, compared to 1% on those aged over 65. Incredibly, close to half of all Covid-related fines in Dublin have been handed out in just two of its 18 Garda districts, namely, Ballymun and Blanchardstown.
What concerns us even more is the effective suspension of the right to protest. Even though many of the most onerous restrictions have been lifted since 10 May 2021, such as the 5 km limit, and non-essential retail has reopened, the effective ban on political protest through the prohibition of outdoor gatherings larger than 15 people remains in place. Despite this, several important protests have taken place over the last few weeks, including large protests against the bombing of Gaza and the occupation of Palestine and smaller protests against the housing crisis and the pollution in Dublin Bay.
Last Saturday, thousands marched on the Israeli embassy in Dublin to demand the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and sanctions on Israel. Some 22 other pro-Palestine protests took place across the country. It is clear that regardless of the law, working class people will continue to exercise their inalienable right to protest. With this Government in office, they have no other choice. The very least the Government can do is to stop criminalising them. An exemption from the ban on outdoor gatherings of more than 15 people must be provided immediately for outdoor protests, which can be organised in a safe and socially-distanced manner.
There is no evidence that outdoor protests lead to significant Covid transmission. A study of 300 US cities by the National Bureau of Economic Research of the huge Black Lives Matter protests last summer found "no evidence that urban protests reignited Covid-19 case growth." Not only that, the study pointed out that retail shopping, which is currently legal here when protests are not, was "potentially riskier for disease spread." This is in line with what NPHET and the Government are telling us about the relative safety of outdoor activities. Dr. Colm Henry of NPHET has asserted that the transmission of Covid-19 outdoors is 19 to 20 times less likely to occur than indoors. Less than 0.1% of cases here have been traced to outdoor transmission since the start of the pandemic. Unfortunately, our tracing system has not been given the resources it needs to trace every single case properly. Of those that have been traced, only a tiny percentage have been linked to outdoor transmission.
We are constantly and correctly being told that it is much safer to gather outdoors than it is to gather indoors for any reason. Yet, the Government is maintaining a ban on outdoor protest despite reopening indoor activities like shopping and promising to reopen indoor dining in bars and restaurants over the summer, even though all the international evidence shows that they are among the most dangerous activities from a public health perspective and a frequent source of superspreader events. Besides one being much safer than the other, what is the difference between outdoor protests on the one hand and shopping and dining indoors on the other? Clearly, it is that shopping and eating out are profit-making activities including for the big businesses that lobby Government and influence the decisions of the right-wing politicians who run our Government. By contrast, outdoor protests or sitting outside at Portobello make profits for nobody. Worse than that, from the Government's perspective, protests are about holding the powerful to account.
It is very convenient for a Government presiding over the worst housing crisis in the history of the State to ban us from protesting about it, especially when it has already lifted the ban on evictions and rent increases brought in to protect public health during the pandemic.
The Government would have us believe that Covid is sufficiently under control for landlords to be able to throw families out into the street and into crowded homeless accommodation, but not under control enough for us to be able to protest about it. The Government would have us believe that Covid is sufficiently under control for KPMG to send in scabs to pack up Debenhams stock and for the gardaí to break up pickets, but not under control enough for workers to be allowed to defend their livelihoods peacefully in a socially-distanced manner. We reject that logic completely. We will be voting against this legislation.
I should start by noting that since the emergency of the pandemic began, the vast majority of people have followed public health guidelines and have got us to where we are today, or at least have helped in large measure towards that.
When emergency legislation was passed in March 2020 in an urgent situation, there were huge unknowns about the virus. There were unknowns about the right approach to take, in respect of how the virus might spread and what was immediately required in terms of action to protect life and health. We have learnt a huge amount since then. At that time we supported the legislation. However, at that time, it contained a sunset clause and was bundled up with all of the supportive measures, such as the PUP, the wage subsidy scheme and the ban on evictions and rent increases. Now, most of those measures are either gone or going. Every attempt is being made to wind up the payments. We can see evictions and rent increases being pursued enthusiastically across the State.
As we exit the emergency and as the vaccine roll-out improves, it should be noted that there continue to be public health problems. We must be mindful of the public health advice and how we follow it. We also need to be hugely mindful about how we reopen the economy and, in particular, reintroduce foreign travel etc.
We also must be very mindful of how we reopen the economy, particularly foreign travel.
Obviously we do not disagree with public health emergency measures, but we cannot agree to an unbridled and far-reaching extension of Garda powers. The record speaks for itself, and Deputy Paul Murphy has outlined much of it. However, I will speak briefly about the indiscriminate way the Debenhams pickets were approached not just by the Garda but also by the State, because the Garda did not operate in a vacuum. It operated in close collaboration with KPMG Ireland, one of the highest paid consultancy firms in the State and paid by the State to carry out much of its dirty work. In that situation they were allowed to bring in what we describe as scab labour, labour that was blacklegging the strike and attempting to move the stock when it was non-essential work. We were still at level 5 and non-essential work was not just being allowed but also being protected by no less than 12 Garda paddy wagons on Parnell Street, the armed response unit and the public order unit. At least 60, if not 100, gardaí were on Henry Street from about 8 p.m. until about 8 a.m. I was there for some of it, so I witnessed it. I witnessed workers being dragged out onto the street, bundled into paddy wagons and taken to police stations. I also witnessed names being taken, people being arrested and hefty fines being issued to them.
If the Minister wants us to extend those powers, he probably thinks we are mad. The last Fine Gael Deputy who spoke, Deputy Devlin, said Members of the Opposition are like autumn leaves blowing in the wind. I do not know if he thinks he is Frank Sinatra, but if he passes this legislation he will be like somebody who has forgotten that there are several seasons. He wants to go from late spring and early summer straight into the winter and to allow these draconian measures up to the end of November 2021. We are not having it, and I do not believe the majority of ordinary people would respect or thank us for it. It is way beyond what is required. The Minister should go away and come back with legislation that improves the supports for ordinary people, to allow them to stay at home if their workplaces are dangerous or if there are overcrowded situations which they cannot attend, and maintains the financial and other regular supports. He should also state that this is for a short period until we get through the vaccination process and see where it takes us.
Like other Deputies I have taken part in Palestinian demonstrations and Black Lives Matter protests in reaction to very serious crises across the world. In that reaction people did their best to socially distance and wear masks, unlike those in other gatherings who did not. The distinction being made between them is important, and I am making it. I am not asking others to make it. At the start of this debate we talked about how we would restrict the use of alcohol in public spaces. There was a big debate about the young fellows with the six-packs in the parks being stopped more regularly than the very wealthy with a crate of wine in the back of the Mercedes-Benz. The statistics before us have proven that correct. The vast majority of fines are imposed on young people in working class areas, and the vast majority of stop-and-search incidents happen to young people in those areas. These laws are being used disproportionately. Along with the banning of taxi drivers' protests and the treatment of the Debenhams workers in Limerick, Tralee and Henry Street there is enough evidence for us to say that we will not support the extension of these draconian police powers.
I find myself with a little extra time, which is always enjoyable. I will focus on the issue of emergency powers and the right to protest. If I have time, and I probably do, I will make some points about mandatory hotel quarantine.
When these powers were introduced last year I spoke out against them. I made the point that in a capitalist society the State would use these powers to curb the right to protest, and that has proven correct. Taxi drivers who planned to protest in Dublin were threatened with fines of €2,000, with potentially heavier sanctions for the organisers. This was despite the fact that the drivers did not plan to congregate in person, but to stay in their vehicles. When Black Lives Matter protested in the capital last June, stewards were questioned by gardaí and had their names taken. The threat of potential prosecution was widely advertised by the Garda in the media. In the middle of last March, gardaí intervened at the socially distanced Sarah Everard solidarity protest in O'Connell Street organised by the socialist feminist group ROSA, took the names of organisers and attendees and subsequently issued fines. Workers at Debenhams in Henry Street, Dublin, and in Patrick Street, Cork, conducting an official strike against their employer and organising disciplined, socially distant protests had their names taken by gardaí under the regulations. Workers in Henry Street were told by the officer in charge that their protest was not essential.
The culture of repression facilitated by the Covid-19 emergency laws segued into the drastic actions taken by gardaí in enforcing a court injunction against Debenhams workers. Over the course of 50 days in the months of April and May, more than 300 gardaí, by my estimate, were mobilised in Limerick, Waterford, Tralee and Dublin to physically remove pickets and their supporters from blocking the entrances to stores when strike-breakers wanted to gain access to the buildings. These actions represented an unprecedented level of Garda intervention into an industrial dispute in recent years in this country. All this has served to have a general chilling effect on protest, as was clearly intended in the first place.
Young people are reporting increased levels of Garda harassment. More than half of all fines issued under the emergency laws have been issued to young people between the ages of 18 years and 25 years. The Policing Authority recently reported that student groups are now saying that policing in this State is "intimidating" and "negative". That is little wonder given that the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Drew Harris, said he made no apologies for what he described as "aggressive" policing measures in respect of student gatherings - so much for gradual escalation and consent based policing.
I opposed the mandatory hotel quarantine regime when it was debated in the Dáil in February. Of course, there is a need for comprehensive and far-reaching measures to prevent the virus, including virus variants, coming into this State, but mandatory hotel quarantine is a disproportionate response. I will address that issue in greater detail in the debate on it tomorrow.
In conclusion, we are not out of the woods yet with this virus. There is still a need for great vigilance. The discipline of the general population has been key to combating the virus. That discipline must be maintained through hand washing, wearing masks, social distancing and the other measures we know so well at this stage. Indoor environments clearly pose a significantly greater risk, and pressure to prematurely reopen indoor dining and drinking in restaurants and pubs should be resisted. However, there is enough legislation to deal with that issue. The general emergency laws should not be renewed at this point and they certainly should not be renewed in such a way that they carry over into next year. To be clear, I am not just saying in that instance they should not be renewed, full stop. Repression must not be part of the new normal.
The civil liberties of the people need to be guarded and protected. This legislation should not be renewed.
I welcome this important debate. I know Deputies on all sides of the House are concerned about some of the implications of the sorts of powers that have been taken. It is important that we scrutinise these issues and look at ways in which we can gradually return to greater normality through the legislation we enact.
There is no doubt that some of these powers are truly exceptional. They ban travel, which is a normal right of a citizen, on a widespread basis. They ban events and permit entry to a person's dwelling in certain circumstances. They provide enforcement powers that are made by regulation and not subject to the sort of scrutiny to which we are used. They change the terms on which mental health tribunals occur. Fundamental rights are at stake in such tribunals. The powers also allow for the detention and isolation of citizens. There is no doubt they are extraordinary and exceptional powers that should only occur in the most exceptional of circumstances.
Everyone realises we have been living through the most exceptional of circumstances and that powers of this nature have been needed. However, we need to start thinking about how to gradually unwind them. Every one of the powers seems to be reinstated by this legislation even though the conditions may have changed. That is why I have some misgivings. I do not know the nature of mental health tribunals being held in the environment in which we are living but I would have thought some of the powers, for example, those to proceed on the basis of remote assessment and one-person tribunals, go to the heart of how fair a process can be for an individual. While those powers may have been justified, and may continue to be justified, there is no doubt that we are moving into a period when they will be far less justified. Some of them may no longer be necessary.
It is worth bearing in mind that we have made extraordinary progress and the risks associated with the virus are changing dramatically. The 14-day incidence rate of the virus is 0.1%. In other words, 99.9% of Irish people have not tested positive for Covid over the past 14 days. Less than 1% of our hospital beds are now occupied by people with Covid-19. Half of our people have either been vaccinated or inoculated by contracting the virus over the past year. We need to start looking more forensically at these powers to distinguish which of them continue to be necessary. We must consider whether we should be starting to look at more demanding standards and thresholds to justify the continuation of those powers. Perhaps we need to consider having the exercise of some of the more intrusive powers recorded and the record kept so we can see the justification for their use. We need to include a timely review of the exercise of these powers to ensure people are not casually applying them because they are available. An insufficient level of scrutiny might allow people to slip into a lazy use of these exceptional powers.
I wonder whether we could start to look at the schedule of these powers which, as I outlined, apply across a whole range of normal activities. We could start to examine whether some of the relevant sections are no longer necessary. They have had commencement orders and in some cases, we must ask whether they should be discontinued. That is not to say they would be removed from the Statute Book but if the powers were to be recommenced, they would come back to the House and we would have the opportunity to hear from the Minister the reasons it was deemed necessary to recommence them.
I admit I do not know the ins and outs of the various areas and the challenges that exist in the holding of events, the running of mental health tribunals and the enforcement of travel restrictions. However, the situation is undoubtedly changing and we cannot continue to expect people to suspend their disbelief, if you like, and allow powers to remain without a greater level of scrutiny, evaluation and review of the continuing necessity for them.
I do not mean to suggest that I am opposed to the continuation of these powers at the moment. It is undoubtedly the case that over the course of the summer, we will need to ask people to observe restrictions and if they refuse to do so, we will need the power to require them to, on pain of some sort of penalty. However, we are a democratic House and I am conscious of the extraordinarily intrusive nature of these powers. I ask, therefore, that we put in some protections and that the Minister and his colleagues design some protections, some process of dismantling, so that we can have confidence there will be no lazy or casual application of exceptional powers just because they remain in existence.
I am acutely conscious of the difficulty of the task facing the Ministers for Health and Justice, and Ministers in other spheres who are party to some of these powers. However, I urge them to recognise that a balance must be struck in everything. There are personal, economic and social costs and impacts to the decisions that we make, even at a time when public health is under some stress.
My political party, Aontú, is vehemently opposed to this Bill and I will be voting against it, as I did in its previous incarnation. I have been amazed by the lack of analysis of what has happened in this society in recent months. The political and media classes have done little analysis of what is going on. I understand we have gone through a crisis and I understand that, at times, there was a danger of the health service being overwhelmed and protections needed to be put in place to make sure that did not happen. I also understand that Ireland was far more exposed than practically any other country owing to the fact that we have such a weak health service because there has been so little investment in it over recent decades. However, it must also be said that Ireland is a radical outlier in terms of the length and severity of the restrictions. No other European country comes near. The length of time and the severity of the restrictions here have been a multiple of those imposed in most other European countries. That fact has been under-analysed by the political and media establishment in this country, which is shocking. There has been no benefit to the restrictions. There is very little difference in mortality and morbidity as a result of Covid between Ireland and Germany.
Lockdown and restrictions are not cost-free exercises. They are extremely damaging tools in their own right. They push hundreds of thousands of people into poverty. They deny homes to people. They deny crucial treatment to people with cancer, heart disease and mental health illnesses. They are invasive, intrusive and draconian. Any argument for their use should only be at a time of serious catastrophe and emergency, and it is clear that Ireland is not in such a situation, or anything near it, today.
For much of the past year, the Government has bypassed the Dáil on oversight and accountability. It is amazing. I have watched taoisigh leave Government Buildings, drive past the Dáil, go to RTÉ studios and announce some of the most draconian laws and regulations that have ever been introduced.
Deputies have not had the opportunity to push, challenge or ask serious questions of the Government about what it is doing. The fact that this has been done with the collaboration of most of the Opposition parties is absolutely incredible. People Before Profit, the Social Democrats and the Labour Party all jumped on the zero-Covid bandwagon. It is an incredible situation. If we were to take these parties' logic to its conclusion - the idea that we must get to below ten cases per day before we could leave the most restrictive elements of lockdown - most of this country would not open for another six months.
Sinn Féin has been a major disappointment. The largest Opposition party has sat on the fence for most of the last number of months. There has not been a cigarette paper between Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for most of that time. As with the banking bailout vote, proper opposition was missing when it was needed.
The leader of the Social Democrats complained today that the Opposition was ignored. The Opposition voted in the legislation which facilitated it being ignored just a number of months ago. Aontú is the only political party that has actually provided real opposition to this whole process, along with a number of notable Independents.
Ireland is a Petri dish for groupthink. It has all the ingredients of herd mentality, with a small and excessively concentrated media and a careerist political class. The lack of critique, questioning and challenging is absolutely amazing. Some of those who asked questions lost their jobs and some were vilified and shut up.
There is a chilling effect in this country with regard to dissent, one of the most important elements of a healthy, functioning democracy. Deleting the ability for citizens to safely dissent creates a dangerous situation in any democracy. That groupthink has been obvious on many occasions in Irish society, including during the banking crisis and the housing crisis, but I have never seen it as pervasive as it has been during this crisis.
The majority of the vulnerable cohorts are, thankfully, vaccinated. This is not January. The numbers of people with Covid-19 in hospital and intensive care are, thankfully, extremely low. I am not saying we are out of the woods. I am saying the conditions do not warrant this legislation and it must be opposed.
Government policy has been a string of contradictions. Indoor dining will start on 2 June but we still do not have a proper date with regard to indoor dining in pubs and restaurants. There is no scientific logic to this. Is a hotel pint a kind, unassuming drink and a pint in a pub homicidal? Are chicken goujons in a hotel peaceful but chicken goujons in a pub malevolent? It is absolutely ludicrous. Open up all parts of the hospitality sector under the same regulations and use a bit of cop-on instead.
I tabled a parliamentary question last week, which revealed that 40,000 people have been fined so far under the legislation. That is an incredible number of people. In County Donegal, a helpline was introduced in order that locals could report on other locals with regard to breaching the restrictions. Partners of pregnant women were forced to wait in hospital car parks while women were giving birth. A priest in County Cavan was fined for saying mass. A Protestant pastor in Dublin was arrested. Children were gathering in Galway and a Fianna Fáil Senator said the Army should be brought out to tackle them. Some protests were banned while others were allowed to go ahead. That is an extremely strange situation in a democracy. All protests should have been allowed to proceed peacefully and safely.
It is also incredible that when one looks at those restrictions and at the political class pointing the finger at young people, protestors, families or husbands wanting to be in hospital to support their partners, the majority of people who died from Covid-19 caught it in one of two locations - a hospital or a nursing home. When the whole country ground to a halt, the epicentre and most significant and dangerous place for a person to catch and end up dying from Covid-19 was a hospital or nursing home, all of which are owned, run or regulated by the Government.
At the start of the pandemic, some nursing homes started to close their doors to visitors. The Government turned around, slapped them on the wrist and said "No" and that it was unnecessary. It is interesting that one of the reports that followed stated that the HSE intercepted supplies of personal protective equipment, PPE, oxygen and staff that were designated for nursing homes. The word "intercepted" was used by the current Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, who was the then Opposition health spokesperson. Responses to freedom of information requests we submitted showed that the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, would not meet Mr. Tadhg Daly of Nursing Homes Ireland during that particular emergency.
I want to quote a statement the Minister for Health made in this House in March last year when the original Bill was going through Second Stage. At that time, he was the Opposition spokesperson on health. He said:
I have concerns about the fact that there are no real sunset clauses and that the provisions can be extended ... [on and on and on]. I also have concerns ... [about] the breadth of the designated people who can essentially tell a citizen that ... [they have] to stay ... [at] home.
That same Minister is running this legislation through the Dáil today. Where are the debates on the extension of the temporary assistance support scheme? The scheme is due to run out on 30 June and there is considerable alarm in Nursing Homes Ireland about the fact it has not received any commitment that the scheme will continue. It looks like the nursing homes, where people suffered the most, are in trouble again.
I will close with the words used by the Minister for Health in the Seanad yesterday when he said "... the powers we are discussing are draconian. They do not sit ... comfortably in any healthy democracy." That is an incredible statement to make, yet the Minister who used those words is about to introduce that legislation again.
As the Covid-19 situation was developing, I voted give to give the Government these special emergency powers. I did so in good faith in the belief the powers would be used in good faith. Unfortunately, there have been too many examples of these restrictions being unnecessarily draconian and going beyond what I consider reasonable.
This has been shown on many occasions, not least when the Minister for Health said that priests would not be punished for saying mass only for that very thing to happen just a few weeks later. He still has not apologised for misleading the Dáil on the issue.
Another example was the use of these powers to close parks and other public places. I am fortunate enough to have a home in the country with a garden. Many people living in city centres do not have the same space and, therefore, the local park was very important to them. The Government banned people from using parks. Many public amenities were closed and certain areas of Dublin city are still closed off. It is madness.
A third example of these powers being used in bad faith was when services such as cancer screening and various treatments were stopped. How many missed or delayed cancer diagnoses have resulted from these restrictions? How many mental health issues have been caused by the restrictions? How many suicides did they cause? It seems the powers that be did not mind what a person died from as long as it was not Covid-19.
Was this a proportionate response? Was it really necessary to use these powers to stop people visiting family or meeting each other for a chat? We endured the longest lockdown in Europe, with contradictory and nonsensical rules being implemented. Adults have been treated like children. The nanny state has wrapped us in cotton wool. People who were sceptical about the lockdown approach were cast aside with ridicule while the professional curtain-twitchers and scaremongers were given a soapbox at almost every possible opportunity.
We have a virus that attacks the unhealthiest, yet the Government used the emergency powers to close down opportunities for people to exercise and stay healthy. The Government has used these powers to dictate to people when they can and cannot hug their relatives and made people afraid to visit a friend or relative living alone.
We cannot turn on our State broadcaster without hearing almost constant doom and gloom. The situation with the pandemic has changed dramatically. We have a vaccination programme. Most vulnerable people have been vaccinated. We must allow people to get back to normal. Why are we not doing that? Does the Government not trust the vaccines and the vaccine roll-out programme?
Now is an appropriate time for the Government to change its approach. To date, the approach has been to dictate and talk down to people. It is still imposing stupid guidelines such as the proposed 105-minute limit on visits to pubs and restaurants. I ask people to bear in mind that these are only guidelines. That particular guideline will encourage people to move around to multiple pubs. If a pub or restaurant wants to impose a time limit, that is fair enough, but it should be left to each business to decide for itself, depending on its circumstances. The attitude of the Government is that it knows best how people should live their lives. We must move away from dictating. The Government should provide the information and even advise people, but it must let them decide for themselves.
We saw fabulous performances in golf at the weekend by Shane Lowry and Pádraig Harrington in front of 10,000 spectators in the USA. In Europe, there were 7,500 people in the grandstand at the Monaco Grand Prix, 10,000 at a Premier League soccer match and 3,500 indoors at the Eurovision Song Contest. This coming weekend, 500 spectators will be allowed to attend National Football League games in Northern Ireland. Only a few days ago, the Down junior camogie team travelled to Taghmon, County Wexford, to play a National Football League game. The Down team was allowed to travel to Wexford on a bus but this weekend, when the Wexford team goes north to play Armagh, the members will not be allowed to travel together on a bus. Is Covid different here from anywhere else? Are we allowing fear and scaremongering to dominate?
Months ago, the Government was happy enough to keep level 5 restrictions in place for as long as it could get away with it. I called for a plan for how to get us out of level 5, which included the use of antigen testing. The latter is forming a key part in other countries' reopening plans, but a member of NPHET recently compared this type of testing with snake oil treatment. With attitudes like that, it is no wonder the Government has not seen a place for antigen testing. That needs to change. Michael Mina, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, explained last week that antigen testing can be more useful than PCR testing, particularly for identifying whether somebody is infectious. In this country, the Government is dragging its heels on its introduction.
Covid-19 has introduced many new phrases into everyday conversation. One of those phrases, used regularly by the Government, is that we will "follow the science". It seems the Government is following the science when it suits and ignoring it when it might leave Ministers with egg on their face. For example, of the approximately 258,000 cases of Covid identified since the beginning of the pandemic, only 300 were associated with outdoor activity. Similar findings have been shown in studies across the world. Has the Government's approach changed based on this science? It is still keeping people from outdoor activities and it still has not allowed outdoor dining to resume. These things are happening throughout the world but we are still behind the curve.
We continue to hear scaremongering about new variants, even though the vaccines have been shown to work against them. We need to trust people to make decisions for themselves and get back to normality. We are being asked to extend emergency powers until November and possibly beyond. Those powers have been used to place draconian restrictions on people's freedom. They should only be in place when absolutely necessary. The test of the restrictions is whether they are necessary and appropriate and what are their consequences. I have weighed up the consequences we have seen over the past year and the fact that the vast majority of our vulnerable people have been vaccinated. I have come to the conclusion that allowing the Government to continue with these restrictions indefinitely is no longer necessary or proportionate. As a result, I will be voting against this Bill.
We are at the stage where our society and economy are beginning to reopen. Enormous credit is due to the people of Ireland for their efforts in that regard. It is important to acknowledge the enormous work the staff of our health services and the HSE have done over the past 14 or 15 months. I also acknowledge the huge work that is going on in the health service at this time. Family members and I have had to engage with the HSE in the days since the cyberattack. It is remarkable how many services are continuing even as so many are hugely affected. It is a major cause for worry but there is great work being done and enormous dedication shown to ensure as many services as possible can continue. That effort has been quite impressive in my experience. Credit is due to our healthcare workers for that as well as for their part in getting us to a situation where restrictions are unwinding.
As we reopen society, there is a danger that some of the protections and scaffolding that have been created for certain sectors and workers may be cast aside. It is vitally important that there be no cliff edge in terms of the withdrawal of supports. There are many industries that will take time to recover. Hospitality will reopen but the question is whether, after the first couple of weeks, it will consistently get back to the level it was at in 2019. We do not know the answer. The industries that rely on the hospitality sector, including taxis and food supply businesses, may also take time to recover. Other industries, such as aviation, will take even longer. I have raised my concerns in that regard with the Minister for Transport. Along with measures such as the digital green certificate and a continued provision of increased funding for our airports for the next three or four years, it is vital that subsidies such as the EWSS are continued for workers who return to work on limited hours and limited contracts. They need to be supported and I am very disappointed that Aer Lingus has not decided to use the EWSS to keep workers employed over the course of the two months for which they are being temporarily laid off in Cork. That is poor and I prevail on the Department and the Government to put pressure on the company and provide whatever supports are necessary to help keep those workers in employment.
There are tens of thousands of people working in the hospitality sector, in pubs and restaurants, and many of them have suffered and put up with a great deal during this crisis. They did so knowing they were assisting the response to the public health emergency. However, there is a lot of frustration with the guidelines. There seems to be an incoherence in regard to the guidance for hotels and restaurants. As the previous speaker noted, the 105-minute rule arguably encourages people to go to a number of different venues. That is not desirable and the rule should be reconsidered.
When I look at the legislation before us and consider the action we have to take, I am reminded of the idea of the lesser evil being for the greater good. I find it difficult to accept some of what has happened since the beginning of the Covid crisis. I take the opportunity to thank the workers on the front line and others who gave over their usual and way beyond what was expected of them to treat patients and make the regulations work. I am thinking of gardaí, doctors, nurses and all the people who have helped during a very precarious time.
It is hard to plan for something like Covid because we do not know what will happen next. We do not know what variant is around the corner or where the next outbreak might be. All we can do is put our best foot forward and do so with a certain degree of humanity and compassion. An understanding of the general public, what people want and what they have put up with since the start of the Covid crisis, must form part of our consideration. During the period of lockdown, a huge amount of damage has been done to the economy and society. It will be a long time, how long we do not know, before we see some sort of rebuilding of the economy, society and even of families.
I will reluctantly go along with the legislation before us because we are now midstream and it is very difficult to comprehend what might be needed in three or four months' time. However, members of the public are telling me that they want to see an end to these draconian measures. They want to see us coming out and do not want to see a rolling lockdown or a rolling implementation of the measures. I ask the Minister to consider responding to that and to give a clear message to the public, who are deeply concerned. In our response to Covid on the economic front, while we gave great supports to the main part of the economy, sectors were left out and I have mentioned those who were over 66 years of age to the Minister previously, as well as other sectors. The Government made very little effort to reach out to them and to bring them with it and I am shocked by that. It is not good enough that the majority would be helped. It is an effort on the side of the Government to ensure everyone who is being affected is helped.
I have continually referred to the mental health issues that are now falling out of families who were never affected previously, as well as in respect of those who had been affected previously but whose situation has now worsened and who cannot get appointments. I also tabled parliamentary questions on this issue during the week. I have asked the Minister to consider the private sector, those who are giving counselling services and so on but that was met with a resounding "No" from the HSE. It is the same for a family that is planning for someone to go to America for college or Erasmus purposes. This is, again, a question I put to the Minister recently and the answer I got was so disrespectful to the Parliament it was hard to credit. It more or less gave me the two fingers and told me where to go. However, that family or families that I was representing had a right to know and the Minister should have responded differently. He should have responded with the information that family was seeking. Even if the answer was "No", it would have been far better to consider their position and to give that answer straight and fair. What about those people who must travel to America for college or courses and who are trying to book their flights and accommodation? The Minister and the Government show no understanding of it. Therefore, my appeal to the Minister is to deal with the simple things as well. He should deal with the issues that are emerging and the simple questions that are being asked and should stop the mixed messaging that has gone on over the past while.
People are simply asking for information. The aviation sector is just asking for information and there seems to be no definite plan we can explain to it. I asked again about people in the retail sector and there is no understanding about what they must do to accommodate the holding of stock and the reopening of such enterprises. There is only a general response to the sector. Therefore, in the course of the next few months, when we are encouraging people to open, I want the Minister to be really specific and have really clear language in terms of the information he gives out. I agree with previous speakers that this thing of an hour and five minutes and some of the other regulations currently being spoken about are absolutely farcical. They will do nothing for the businesses the Minister is engaging with, nothing to do with the sector he is engaging with. It gives them hope and then the Minister takes away 90% of that hope. Please understand that a business cannot just reopen and a society cannot just reopen. It must be done sensibly, with sympathy and with financial supports. I ask that whenever a Member of this House asks for information, he or she should get it, regardless of party membership. This is because when Members are asking for information, they do so for someone in their community who is in trouble.
I place on record my thanks to Taiwan for making available a huge amount of personal protective equipment, PPE, for the various community and nursing homes throughout the country.
There is no doubt these laws are absolutely draconian, that is recognised by everyone. In any normal society the laws we have been living under would never be contemplated nor would society ever have approved of their being brought in. However, the majority of people have believed and indeed agree that in a pandemic, they were needed to control the virus. Many people still believe some of these laws are necessary. However, there is a growing number of our citizens, as well as ourselves, who are becoming increasingly concerned that the leeway given during the pandemic is now being taken advantage of. We are coming out of this pandemic and the numbers are still of concern but there is a recognition we are going in the right direction. That is good news and I know from interactions with my constituents that they also feel it is going in the right direction. I see no need to roll over these draconian laws for another three-month period without reflecting on them, taking our time, seeing which ones we can get rid of and which ones must be dropped. It is reasonable that we come back here in July, and if necessary, the month after and the month after that, until they have all been removed from our legislative system when no longer required. I ask the Minister to let us work together to build confidence that these laws will only be there for as long as necessary and not a minute longer. To continue to roll this legislation over for another three months without further scrutiny is to shake citizens' confidence in the idea these laws were only temporary and a response to the pandemic.
There is something that could really help to build confidence. I know there are reports coming through that we will be ramping up to 400,000 vaccines over the next month, which is really welcome. I got the vaccine last Friday over in Citywest and cannot compliment the staff enough. However, there were huge queues and the wait for the vaccine was well over an hour. I have heard of people waiting well over two hours for the vaccine. Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown in Dublin West has a catchment area with a population of 330,000 people. I ask that, in order to build confidence, we look at using it or a similar site within Dublin 15 as a vaccination centre when those extra vaccines come through. It would be really useful and help to build confidence.
I begin by wishing my sincere sympathy, and that of my group, to any family which has lost a loved one to Covid and to anyone who has been seriously debilitated as a result of it. I also wish to praise An Garda Síochána and condemn last nights' incident. I thank the Garda, front-line staff, hospital staff, nursing home staff and all the people. The meitheal spirit came back in when this plague hit us. However, the reaction of the Government has tried to destroy that meitheal spirit. Much has been said here. I object to this Bill being taken today because we were meant to have a sunset clause of 9 June. That was passed by people although I voted against it. I did vote for it in early times back at the very beginning because I, like everyone else, was frightened but thanks be to God the impact was nothing like what was feared. I saw very soon that we needed to let the people live as well, and live with Covid. However, we did not do so. I must raise the way the Government has treated us as Opposition leaders. Neither the Minister for Health nor the Taoiseach have met Opposition leaders since last October. The Minister for Health has never once replied to any question I have asked him in the Chamber. I put parliamentary questions in as does Deputy McGuinness. He gets replies, thank God; I do not.
At least he gets those replies, although they might be a disgrace and not fit for purpose, as he said. The Minister is demonstrating arrogance in treating the House like this, depriving it of its powers to represent the people. This is not insulting me but rather the people in Tipperary who elected me to come here and get answers to questions and provide some leadership.
The Minister has known since March that an ordinary discussion of the sunset clause and vote would not do. Why did he not tell us earlier? I found out today from Deputy Cullinane that there was a briefing for the health spokespersons of groups last week but we were not invited. Sections of our democracy have been put in the bold boy corner. Apparently they did not need to come. That is shameful.
This year, four Bills on this matter have been put in front of us. I want to be fair but critical of the media, particularly RTÉ. On Tuesday last week, it was leaked from the Cabinet that the emergency provisions would be extended and Mr. Paul Cunningham tweeted this as a fact, despite the fact that there was yet to be debate, amendments and votes in the Seanad and here. He was asked by a very eminent barrister to withdraw the claim made in the tweet but he did not even acknowledge it. It is the same with The Irish Times and the Irish Independent, which gave the impression this was a done deal. Is this House so irrelevant now and our democratic system so undermined the media can tell people such things via tweets? It frightened people and my phone and those of many others started ringing, with people calling from all over the country.
People were calling us because they were worried. Why was that kind of blackguarding going on? The news was leaked but the Bill still had to come through this House. I know the Minister does not have much respect for us but the legislation must come through here. We have the right to speak to the Bill and oppose it. We will oppose it 100%.
I have said that extensions to four pieces of legislation constitute the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) Bill 2021 that we are now debating. Why was it necessary to introduce a new Bill as each Bill could have been dealt with individually? Does the Minister consider the extension of Part 3 in the Act to be so important as to justify an individual vote by all Teachtaí Dála so that all of those who continue to vote in favour of this "draconian" legislation - to quote the Minister's words from the Seanad on Monday - can be held to account by the public?
The Minister said in the Seanad that these measures were draconian and he called them worse while he was in opposition, saying he would never support them. He tripped over them when he became a Minister and got into power. To hell with the people or the accountability to this House at that stage.
Is it the case that Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 has been lumped in with other legislation in order to create confusion, conflate matters and give Deputies an out if they want to vote in favour of an extension, citing that they are not just voting on Part 3 of that Act? This is a three card trick, as I said. The Minister is trying to kid us but he will not kid us or the people.
Why did the Cabinet make selective leaks about this emergency legislation, including extending Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, in full knowledge that a vote would have to take place in this House? Where is the accountability and respect for Teachtaí Dála in this House?
There have been unfortunate deaths. I hope those responsible in the State will be brought to The Hague or somewhere for crimes against humanity. Some 2,000 people died in nursing homes and they all had families and loved ones. Some 750 people contracted Covid in a hospital ward, including a good friend of mine. That is 2,750 deaths, if we can believe any of the figures. They have been up and down and changed around, all so as to create fear, intimidate and destroy democracy.
One death is one too many and I sympathise with families and staff in nursing homes and hospitals. They could not even have a funeral, time with their loved ones or a family wake, which we hold so dear in Ireland. I hope the Minister will be held accountable. He was not there at the start but another Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, was, along with the rest of them. Somebody must be held accountable.
We now know 99.1% of people tested are negative but apparently we still want to proceed with this draconian legislation for a further six months. We fought for a sunset clause that would take effect on 9 June, which we got, but now the Minister is piling on another four Bills on top of the original legislation.
Why is antigen testing not being used? The whole of Europe and the rest of the world is using antigen testing. A couple contacted my office last night with a sad story. It was a young man and his wife, whose dad is a distant cousin of mine. Her father is terminally ill and receiving palliative care. The husband and wife, along with their four kids, arrived in a port in Ireland by car to come see her dying father. They had used antigen tests so they were sent back and mercilessly refused entry to this country. They had to travel back to where they came from on a later ferry without seeing the woman's dad, the grandfather of the children. What kind of trauma does this inflict on people? It is inhumane. We see what happens at borders in Third World countries and say it is inhumane but this is an equivalent level. We are meant to be a civilised country. The antigen tests are accepted all over the world but not here.
Many people have said PCR tests are inaccurate. I am not a scientist but the system is flawed. It is being kept so vested interests can make money. There are conglomerates in major industries that have doubled their income in this pandemic while small family businesses and those who are self-employed, including the man with a van, performers, actors, dancers and staging personnel, have seen havoc wreaked on their livelihoods. The conglomerates, meanwhile, are doubling or tripling their income. There is much money being made, and as Churchill said, never waste a good crisis.
These events are being hijacked and the Minister is a willing accomplice. He had no experience. I would give anybody a chance and I wished the Minister well on his appointment. He was an Independent, like me, when he was first elected to the Dáil before jumping ship to the Social Democrats and then jumping again, this time into bed with Fianna Fáil. That was the party he castigated and I would not even repeat the names he called that party as I have many friends in Fianna Fáil. To make it worse, he has treated us arrogantly in this House. He has not once responded to a question from me. The Ceann Comhairle and the Government Chief Whip have asked him to do so. The Minister of State, Deputy Mary Butler, is the same.
In the middle of a crisis he closed a wonderful hospital in Carrick-on-Suir, St. Brigid's. He met Councillor Kieran Bourke and Deputy Jackie Cahill in July last year and I met Councillor Bourke on the same night. The Minister gave an assurance that the facility would return to normal use when Covid-19 passed but he upturned those words to a colleague in the Fianna Fáil Party. The place was closed in November after all kinds of subterfuge and downright lies. The Minister threw Councillor Burke under the bus. He had a commitment from the Minister, which he broadcast and told people about in good faith. If a man does not have his word, he has absolutely nothing. The wonderful hospital, for which many people fundraised, is gone now and closed. The rooms are dark. We are told there would be a diabetes centre when there is a primary care facility the size of this room folamh. It is a waste. Doctors and nurses worked in that hospital and there were people from my constituency and that of the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Butler, and Deputy McGuinness who used it for the likes of palliative care. People fundraised for beds and kitchen equipment to make it a bit easier to provide the excellent palliative care. It was about making people's last days comfortable. Boxes were left at funerals as goodwill donations and all that was thrown back in the face of the people.
This entire episode has been a massive slap in the face for democracy. I have used words several times and I will not mention them today. I mentioned the 1930s in Germany. We approved the powers initially but when we saw they were not necessary, we opened our eyes and asked questions. Anybody who spoke out, whether doctors, consultants or whoever else, was banished, sacked or unceremoniously dismissed. These were the best of people. Dr. Tony Holohan has been challenged by groups of doctors to have a debate but has refused point-blank to meet them.
In the last meeting I had with Dr. Holohan in the Taoiseach's office in Government Buildings, I asked him about the science behind churches being closed. I was very concerned about what had happened to Fr. PJ Hughes, Protestant clergymen and many others but he would not answer me. The third time I asked, the Taoiseach asked him to respond to me. The Minister was there as well. He said "Deputy McGrath, we are dealing with a pandemic, we will do the lockdown and do the science later." What arrogance shown to a public representative or anybody else. He spoke about doing the science later but there has been no science. It has been a con job from the start. There was no science and he would not listen to any debate. RTÉ and the mainstream media were bought out.
They are €5 million better off now than they were when this started. All of the local radio stations, including in my area, got massive money. Not having a contrarian view is very dangerous for democracy. Without proper discourse and debate, we have nothing. I am glad, therefore, that more Opposition Deputies have joined us and will vote against these measures.
As I said, the Minister has known since March that extending the sunset clause would not do, and he kept that information from us. There has been no pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill, as I said earlier. The Minister introduced it in the Seanad, which is sneaky, because legislation introduced in the Seanad cannot have pre-legislative scrutiny. It is a three-card trick all the time but people are wise to what is going on. None of the four Bills Deputies will vote on this week will have had pre-legislative scrutiny. The Joint Committee on Health could have dealt with the Bill if it had come before it, as it should have given that the Minister has known since March. The crack all the time is that we do not have time, it is an emergency and the legislation is urgent.
The guidelines have been illogical and confusing. Here we go again, waiting until Friday night for more announcements. I have publicans, shopkeepers and those who work in hospitality waiting to find out what is going on. Now the Minister has had a brainwave and people will not be allowed to stay more than one hour and 45 minutes in a public house or restaurant. I believe this is to suit the restaurants in Dublin which want a turnover of business, for which I cannot blame them. The Government is kowtowing to them. The guidelines say that tables indoors must be 1 m apart, and now the back of the chair must be 2 m from the back of the next chair. The Minister is out to finish small pubs completely. The Government is blackguarding small restaurants and hostelries of different hues. It is shocking confusion. Businesses want clarity about starting up again.
I spoke to a good friend of mine, Val O'Gorman, a young businessman who runs Mr Mister in Cahir. I asked him on Thursday how his business was going this week. Business did not start, he said, because people are still not going out. They cannot go anywhere and they have no need to dress up. There is no certainty and there is no real hope.
I salute An Garda Síochána in Tipperary and all over the country. I condemn the horrific event last night. I salute Sergeant Ray Moloney in Cahir Garda station and his excellent team of community gardaí, Jenny Gough, Noel Glavin and the another great garda whose name I cannot recall. I salute Sergeant Kieran O'Regan and Garda Claire Murphy in Clonmel and all the other community gardaí. They do great and sterling work. We are damaging the Garda, however. The Garda stopped a drive-by taxi protest in Dublin. That was draconian and definitely 1930s style. The drivers were not going to get out of their cars.
We also see the damage being done to Aer Lingus pilots, with whom we met over the past days. Our airlines are being destroyed. Will the Minister please do something to save our airlines? We need them. Aer Lingus is a wonderful flagship and there is great respect for our airlines, including Ryanair. We will need connectivity when this pandemic is finished. We met the pilots today and yesterday and they are begging and pleading. They told me the Taoiseach had driven by in his car. When he is out of office the Taoiseach might want to fly Aer Lingus. We will need an airline to fly.
When we consider what is happening at Shannon Airport, we are being destroyed in rural Ireland. The closure of the crew base there is just the latest development. When these operations leave that kind of a set-up, we never get them back. There are opportunities now, if we are looking for them, to have connectivity with other parts of the world and bring in tourists. Ireland has the eighth highest number of American visitors in the world but they are heading to the Caribbean now. We must get those people back here. They are our brethren and diaspora, and they want to come back.
Mar fhocal scoir. I am disappointed and have been let down by the democratic system. It has failed us here. The Minister is continuing to be complicit in this failing. He is actually designing it to fail and to be unfair. We need to get Fáilte Ireland back to getting tourists into Ireland. It has to stop issuing regulations on when people can do what, where and for how long. It knows nothing about that and it has completely denied it had anything to do with the regulations. The Minister uses it as a stool pigeon to blame afterwards. The unfairness and inequity are appalling.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. When these powers were first brought in there was a need for exceptional emergency powers, but we do not need them now. We have vaccines and the vaccine roll-out is going well. It was going so well in Killarney that it has been paused for three days until Friday. It is going well on our side of the country, except that we are bringing people from Cork and Waterford to Killarney and people from Rathmore, Gneeveguilla and east Kerry are going up to Limerick, which does not make sense. I am asking for that matter to be rectified because people from Waterford came to Killarney again on Monday, even though I raised the issue with the Taoiseach last week.
Instead of extending these powers, I ask the Minister to focus his attention on the mental and physical health of people all over the country. With regard to mental health, the curtailing of civil liberties, for which our people gave their lives and their blood more than 100 years ago, has gone on for long enough now. The vaccine is dealing with the virus and hopefully will get the better of it. On physical health, patients have had cancer treatment impeded, held up and held off. People are very worried because if cancer treatment is not carried out when it should be carried out, hours can perhaps be the difference between a person staying alive and not staying alive. I ask the Minister for Health to focus his attention on that.
The Minister said that pubs and restaurants can resume outdoor dining and hotels can resume indoor dining. I am not upset at the hotels being able to have their customers inside, but I am upset for the ordinary punters who are told they must eat and drink outside in this inclement weather. Maybe the Minister will tell us that he will sort out the weather also.
In the Six Counties people can eat and drink inside bars and restaurants. Ordinary people just want to have a pint or a meal in their local bar or restaurant. If the Minister insists that it is only hotels that can accommodate this, people from all around rural County Kerry will go into the towns of Kenmare and Killarney just to get in from the rain and into hotels to have a pint. Spreading the crowd around like this is not on at all. The Minister must trust the people and advise them. Holding on to the restrictions until next November, or maybe even February, is not good enough.
I have a question on NPHET. Dr. Tony Holohan is advising against antigen testing. Is another member of NPHET involved in testing? Does that member have a testing enterprise or is he involved in a company that produces test kits, which are in competition with antigen testing? I have asked this question of the Taoiseach a couple of times before and he told me there was no such member of NPHET. I have been told there is.
It is very unfair that pubs and restaurants will not know the details of the restrictions until the very last minute. The Minister said he will tell us on Friday, but I am afraid he will not even do it then, although he knows the details. It is wrong to assume that publicans can bring in beer and restaurants can bring in food at very short notice. It is not like that. They must get staff, prepare and buy stock. The Minister must give them a proper chance.
I cannot vote for the extension of these exceptional powers. The exceptional need that was there when these measures were first brought in is not there now.
I thank the Minister for setting out in detail the reasons new legislation is required to deal with Covid-19. In March and April 2020, legislation had to be introduced to give powers to the Government and the Minister to bring forward the necessary regulations. This legislation was required to have careful and planned management of how we would deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
At that time, thousands around the world were becoming seriously ill and dying from Covid-19. Some of the provisions of the 2020 legislation will come to an end on 9 June 2021. It is, therefore, necessary to bring forward the Bill in order that powers can be extended for a further period of time. Dealing with Covid-19 posed major difficulties for the entire population of the country. There were major challenges for the entire population of the country. There were major challenges in our nursing homes, hospitals and residential care settings. It was also highly risky for all patients, residents and staff members working in these facilities.
It is important that we do not forget the dedication and commitment of the medical teams and all of the support staff. The medical teams had to deal with a virus where there was very little information available on the best way of managing and treating the patients who had contracted it. These teams responded in the best way possible and provided the care and treatment that was required in the most difficult of circumstances. Many healthcare staff themselves contracted Covid-19 while working and some have been left to deal with long Covid.
We have learned some very clear lessons from the Covid pandemic. Lesson No. 1 is that the Covid virus must never be underestimated. The pandemic has also taught us that acting early and acting decisively is crucial to controlling the spread of the virus. We now know that tough public health measures do work. We know that outside is much safer than indoors, that masks do work and that good ventilation makes a difference. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of scientists and pharmaceutical companies, a range of effective vaccines have been produced and more are in the pipeline. The vaccine dividend is very obvious in nursing homes, in the healthcare sector and in the wider community.
We know that some Covid-19 variants are highly transmissible. The scale of the pandemic around the world makes it inevitable that new variants will emerge. Some of them will be more transmissible while others may be more dangerous. We know the damage the Kent variant caused at the beginning of the year. We know there are real concerns regarding Indian variants now circulating in the UK. There are also cases of the Indian variant in this country. As we relax restrictions, a high level of public vigilance will be required. It is necessary to have legislation in place that will allow the Government to respond effectively to any dangerous new developments that may occur during the summer. Public safety must remain the Government’s first priority.
The pandemic is first all a health crisis but it also is an economic crisis. The Government has responded to the economic crisis at all stages and for all sectors of the economy with speed and generosity. This partnership and collaboration among social partners has helped support a high level of social solidarity during the pandemic. On the situation worldwide, it has been repeatedly said that nobody is safe until everyone is safe. The stark situation in India and the spread of dangerous Indian variants make the point that the fight against the Covid pandemic is a global fight.
The World Health Organization is providing strong leadership on Covid and, more recently, the IMF has produced an economic analysis which illustrates very clearly the enormous economic benefits to economies and peoples everywhere if vaccines are rolled out with speed across the entire world. Writing in the Financial Times today, Martin Wolf makes the point that the economic benefits of vaccinating the whole world by the middle of 2022 would be of the order of 180 times the cost of doing so.
During the Covid lockdowns, personal savings have increased significantly. As the economy reopens and people begin to spend more, we should all be aware of the benefit of spending local and supporting Irish producers, Irish suppliers and Irish services. The hospitality and tourism sectors have been particularly badly hit during the pandemic. Now is the time to support them and help them recover some of their losses. Simply put, the further away from home we spend our money the less chance it has of returning to our local communities.
While we have learned a lot during the past 18 months, there is still one big unknown. We do not know the trajectory of Covid-19. It is contained and under some control at the moment but we do not know what its trajectory will be in the months and years ahead. We must hope for a good outcome but we must also be prepared to face whatever unwelcome turns this virus may yet take.
On the legislation itself, when the Government brings forward emergency measures it is important that there are checks and balances, in particular in respect of ministerial regulation. Last week in the House, I mentioned a regulation put in place that did not have the required legislative support. It was left in place for more than 28 years and when it was eventually identified more than €400 million had to be refunded to people from whom moneys had been illegally deducted. Likewise, the legislation and every ministerial regulation must be carefully monitored and must go through the appropriate scrutiny. The Oireachtas must not vest in the Government powers that at some later stage can be used in an inappropriate way. Therefore, I welcome the decision by the Minister and the Government to provide for three-month reviews. This is important. I thank the Minister and his Department for all of the work they have done over the past 12 months in dealing with this very difficult issue.
In the context of the forthcoming announcement on Friday, I ask the Minister to put in place a plan to increase attendance numbers at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and other such bodies because it is time to be proactive. The Minister recognises these are essential services and we have worked together in the past to get these services back up and running. The Covid-19 crisis has been especially difficult for people in recovery. We are being contacted by many individuals and groups to state they are seeing an increase in relapses into addiction. They are also seeing more people develop harmful addiction patterns. The Minister has told me he will look at this after Friday. He should be looking at it now and advocating for these groups in order they can be included in the announcement and are not an afterthought. They are considered essential services and we know people in recovery have struggled through the pandemic. These meetings are a vital lifeline for people and they need this support. We hear that attendances are increasing and people are being turned away from meetings because they have to stick to the guidelines. All I ask is that we, and the Minister, are proactive and take a proactive approach to planning for the increase in numbers in order that no one is turned away. These are essential services and they need to be opened.
On a separate issue, there is very little in terms of entertainment at present because of the restrictions. We have to reimagine how socialising can be relaxed because of the risks posed by Covid-19. One of the innovative ideas that came out in Cork and throughout the State was the introduction of drive-in cinemas. Following last week's comments by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, that they are safe because people do not leave their cars, the Government needs to update the information on whether these cinemas can reopen.
I cannot understand why we are sitting here at present and not in Leinster House. It costs tens of thousands of euro every week for the Dáil to sit here. I have to speak to shop workers, factory workers, taxi drivers, front-line healthcare workers and gardaí who do not have this luxury. We have one rule for politicians and another for ordinary people.
We should be meeting in Leinster House and doing our business in the same way as every other worker in this country must do every day. I ask the Minister and the Acting Chairman, Deputy Mattie McGrath, to seek a way to get us back to Leinster House.
Anois, an chéad slot eile is the Independent Group. Tá fiche nóiméad ag na Teachtaí Connolly agus McNamara.
And possibly Deputy Pringle.
Yes, I have that covered.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute. I will not be supporting the legislation, although I would class myself as a law-abiding citizen and believe in the necessity of laws. What is happening here is that Draconian legislation is being rolled out without any real discussion, except for this limited debate we are now having.
We are back debating the extension of four significant items of legislation without any review of their operation. No evidence has been put before us, with the exception of the Minister's speech in which he told us that what is proposed does "not sit easy with" him. Is it not a profound statement that the legislation does not sit easy with him? There is no analysis of its operation, no human rights assessment and no concrete analysis of the affects of the legislation to date or how it has been operated. There was no pre-legislative scrutiny. If something does not sit well with the Minister, one would imagine that he would look at the appropriate procedures and mechanisms and obtain an analysis of the legislation in order that it would sit better with him. One of the most obvious ways to do that is by means of pre-legislative scrutiny with the relevant committee and having the various relevant organisations come before that committee, including the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which we set up for a particular purpose, and other organisations as well. In addition, ordinary people might come fore the committee to indicate how the legislation has affected them on a daily basis. We have done none of that, however. We do not have a Bills digest because the Library and Research Service has not had an opportunity to prepare a comprehensive note so that we can be educated on what is proposed.
The Bill was listed as a priority in the Government's summer legislation list. There is no surprise about that, and we already knew about the sunset clause.
I supported the legislation which, significantly, was introduced the day after St. Patrick's Day last year. I remember having the most serious doubts and I did as much as I could in the limited time available to analyse what we were doing. To a man and a woman in this Dáil, we gave the then caretaker Government our full support. Nobody disagreed, even though many of us had serious concerns. Of course, it is a regular activity that the Government includes good and bad in legislation so that we in opposition are caught saying that if one votes against something, one is voting against the payments which are absolutely necessary. It is seriously disingenuous of the Government - as was the case with that which preceded it - to approach legislation in that way. I gave my consent in March 2020 on the basis of full and frank disclosure. If people go back over any of the contributions I have made since, they will discover that I pointed this out. I wanted to trust even though my experience in life told me not to do so. It was a pandemic and for the sake of vulnerable people who needed to be protected, I went with that legislation on the basis that the Government would come back and give us full and frank disclosure of how it was operating.
As already stated, our purpose today is to amendment four items of legislation. I will not go into them. They are all outlined in the Bill before us, which gives Draconian powers to the Garda Síochána and, indeed, to other agents of the law such as a medical officer. I would have thought that the Minister would explain to us at least why that is necessary approximately a year and two months since the pandemic was declared and when the numbers have gone the right way.
I do not like listing off numbers but as of 14 May, which was the last update we received, there had been 254,870 cases of Covid and 4,941 deaths. Some of those deaths should not have happened but that is a debate for another day. We did not protect our vulnerable from day one. Quite a substantial segment of the media had absolutely no interest in questioning what was happening when some of us questioned, way back in March and April, the position in respect of nursing homes, meat plants and direct provision centres, which were not put to the top of the list.
I can forgive mistakes being made because it was an emergency situation, although we were fully aware, in January, February and March of last year, what was going on in other countries. We should have been fully aware, from the HIQA reports, of the state of our nursing homes. We had to adopt a strategy to cope with Covid in a particular way because we had utterly failed to put in place a public health system - in the context of acute hospitals, primary care and, more importantly, the public health segment - that could assist us in trying to deal with a pandemic. Even with that strategy, we failed by discharging patients with Covid from hospitals and admitted them into other facilities without testing them. That, too, is a matter for another day.
We set up a committee, chaired by Deputy McNamara, which did a very good job and produced a report that was ignored. Then, the committee was disbanded.
In a pandemic, what is needed is trust. When all Deputies give the Government their full support in respect of Draconian legislation, if that trust is betrayed, it has the most serious consequences for democracy. It has serious consequences for me, as a Deputy and as a woman, having no trust in a system because I, in turn, cannot inspire trust. I still went along with the Government up to a point but as more and more legislation came before us without any analysis or data, I said - I say it again now - "No, I cannot do that."
It is not good enough for the Minister to state that what is proposed does not sit well with him. It is not good enough for him to come before the House with legislation that allows for rolling sunset clauses. It was the Opposition, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and various other organisations that insisted on a sunset clause in the first items of legislation and now even that is being undone with a series of rolling sunset clauses. The Minister tells us that he will change this with an amendment. If one were cynical - I am deeply cynical but I try not to be - one would think that we will now talk about a sunset clause in terms of how great the Minister is to realise that we should not have rolling sunset clauses and how great it is that he is willing to change his view on that as opposed to getting a full and frank analysis of the Draconian legislation before us from the relevant committee and that said analysis could eventually be debated in the Dáil. Deputy Bruton referred to the mental health tribunals. What the Deputy said was extraordinary. I am in complete agreement with his assertion that it is time for a forensic analysis of the legislation. One wonders how this legislation will be passed because there has been no forensic analysis. If Deputy Bruton is saying it is important, one would think the Government might also think it is important. However, we are going to pass this Bill in the absence of any forensic analysis.
Looking at the mental health tribunals that were introduced under the Mental Health Act 2001 following huge effort and analysis but, like that, it was decided that such tribunals could be reduced to one-person operations and could be done on paper. One would imagine that the Minister would have some statistics for us in respect of the operation of these tribunals. One would imagine he would have some information on how many people a medical officer has decided, in his or her opinion. represent a threat in the context of the spread of Covid, etc.. There is absolutely nothing before us, however.
The one good thing that was done was by the former Minister for Justice who gave a role to the Policing Authority to monitor this legislation. That, in itself, has given rise to fascinating reports. I understand that 14 or 15 such reports have been produced. I have monitored them closely. In April, we were informed that were 20,242 fixed charge notices had been issued for breaches of Covid regulations, 72.4% of which related to people for leaving their homes. Those in the 18-to-25 age group were the subject of 53% of the fines and 75% were levied on males. The point I am making is that there is a trend with regard to how the provisions in the legislation are being applied.
There are regulations that have never been looked at in the Dáil.
There are 92 Covid-related statutory instruments. The Policing Authority has stated that they are absolutely impossible to follow. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has said they are very difficult to follow. At the very least, regulations should be brought before us and published before they can become law. None of this has happened. I could go on but I will not. Maybe I will get another chance on Committee Stage.
I will start by saying that I am sorry if I am interrupting the Minister's work. I watched him throughout the debate as I listened to Deputy Connolly. I do not always agree with Deputy Connolly but I always listen to her for a couple of reasons. One reason is because she usually has something interesting to say. The second is that, like everyone else here, she is elected to the House. I have to take issue with the fact that the Minister is going through his departmental files as the debate is going on.
In an effort to be helpful, the Acting Chairman can tell the Deputy that what I have been doing for the past few hours is taking pages and pages of notes from all contributions. While Deputy Connolly was speaking I was trying to-----
Deputy McNamara has the floor.
I will give the Minister the floor.
-----take notes of what she said. That is what I have been doing for the past several hours.
Okay. If that is the case, I welcome that. I do not think that is entirely the case. I have watched the Minister very carefully.
The Deputy is welcome to take a look at them. With respect-----
Please Minister. You have made your point.
I will return to this and will stick to these points. I will ask the Minister to address these, as he has agreed to take a note of them.
We rolled over much legislation in October before the deadline of November. I implored the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, who sat approximately where the Minister is sitting now - the Minister was also present - to come back to us with a report on mental health tribunals. Can we see that report before we vote on giving powers to roll this over indefinitely? We are talking about introducing all of these amendments indefinitely. Why do we not just amend the Mental Health Acts to say that people will not have a proper mental health tribunal, because that is what we have done?
As Deputy Bruton said, there may have been a very good reason for this at the time, and I agree with him that there may well have been an excellent reason for it at the time, but that reason has passed. If a person is being held involuntarily, that is happening because a doctor believes he or she poses a danger to himself or herself or others. A mental health tribunal is held because a person wishes to challenge that and argue he or she has the capacity to engage with the world and does not need to be detained. I cannot think of anything worse than a person being told he or she has had a hearing and others who looked into the case, disagreed with him or her and agreed with the person who is his or her captor. How would a person have confidence, as a detained person, that an independent process looked into his or her case if he or she is not even brought before a tribunal and the decision of the tribunal is not properly imported to him or her?
When we rolled this over we did not have proper statistics on presentations for self-harm. I ask the Minister to tell me I am wrong and that we now have full statistics from March 2020 until April 2021 in respect of each and every emergency department in the State on presentations for self-harm. How many suicides have there been? Has there been an uptick in suicides in respect of 2020 or the first 12 months of the pandemic to March this year? Do we have that information? If not, how on earth can we make these decisions to roll the legislation over?
I am not saying anything that I have not said before, but it strikes me as absurd that we are giving power to the Government to roll these regulations over. In a couple of weeks' time I am sure as a Parliament we will roll over the Offences Against the State Act and the existence of the Special Criminal Court. I do not have a problem with special criminal courts. However, I refer to an independent commission chaired by a former Attorney General and member of the Supreme Court, the late Mr. Justice Anthony J. Hederman. I have a problem with the fact that a person can be tried in the Special Criminal Court solely on the direction of the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, and that cannot be challenged. We have rolled that over year after year, and then after an independent report, we rolled it over again. Despite UN criticism, it was rolled over anyway. That is where we are heading with this Bill.
For the Minister to say that it does not sit well with him is a nonsense if he is introducing legislation to empower this to be rolled over year in and year out and month in and month out. I fear that is what will happen. Why are we rolling it over? I am minded of a quote from when I studied law a very long time ago about the exclusionary rule of evidence, namely, that it is easier to sit in the shade and put chili peppers under some poor devil's nails than to gather evidence in the heat of the hot sun. It is not an exact quote.
Why are we assuming these powers? What have we done to increase healthcare capacity in order that some of these measures might not be necessary? I am afraid to say I do not see a huge amount of information on that. I appreciate that ICUs and hospitals cannot be built overnight. They are in China. In Wuhan a hospital was built in a fortnight. We are modelling all of these lockdowns and extraordinary measures which are a complete anathema to western civilisation and our way of life from China. Where are the new hospitals?
We could build fever hospitals in the 1950s when the country had a lot less money and tuberculosis, in particular, was rampant in our community. We did not lock down our society in response to that because we acknowledged it would be around and we would not be able to get rid of it for a while, and that was not an appropriate response. We are saying that we are nearly there and Covid will not be around for very much longer, but if we are wrong and it is around we need these powers to deal with it. Which is it? The Government could introduce legislation to extend the measures, which I would still oppose. I, like Deputy Connolly, did not call a vote and oppose this draconian legislation a year ago although I feared it would be abused. It was rolled over.
Enough is enough at some point. The powers have been in place. The people have been locked down. The same trolley count is evident in the midwest today as it was six months, a year, 18 months or two years ago. Nothing has been done to increase hospital capacity or improve our stock of schools and the type of schools we have. Yet, billions of taxpayers' money has been spent or, rather, borrowed and spent. To quote the "Scrap Saturday" line of the late Brian Lenihan, "Maybe they'll forget". I sat in Government backbenches and had to vote for budgets that were a choice between bad and worse. I fear that is where we are heading again quickly if, instead of increasing our health capacity, we resort to locking down society and the economy.
We are going to do it at the behest of an unelected group of people, namely, NPHET, which is answerable to nobody. A committee used to interrogate it. Maybe the style of the interrogation was unpleasant for it. If it was, I apologised at the time and I apologise again. That is democracy, however. If people want to wield that kind of power they have to answer questions to somebody. It seems that it does not want to, even the very few difficult questions it is asked in press conferences. One member came out against antigen testing, notwithstanding the fact that the European Union agreed to antigen testing across the bloc in the past. Moreover, the chief scientific adviser to the Government has come out in favour of it.
Yet it is this same adviser and the modelling group he is a member of that largely determine Government policy, which is wildly inaccurate, unfortunately. It was wildly inaccurate in October-November when we locked down. The idea to lock down to save Christmas was dreamt up by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. Of course it was going to have disastrous consequences, because we had an over-restrictive regime in place during the summer when people should be outside socialising, meeting and doing what human beings do. We locked down in winter to save Christmas celebrations which were, perforce, going to be indoors, based on flawed, or apparently flawed, modelling. Notwithstanding the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response report, none of the recommendations of which have been implemented, nobody has ever asked that all the information available to NPHET, including the modelling and coding, be published and peer reviewed. That has not happened.
We roll over the Special Criminal Courts, to which I object, and we roll over people who are suspected of being involved in a proscribed organisation. In this instance, we are rolling over restrictions on people for doing what every human being does. It is not acceptable.
I support the Bill. The last year and a half has been incredibly difficult. Mistakes were made and there is no question about that. I still cannot understand why we did not control people who returned from Italy in the spring of last year. We knew that was the main source. I still cannot understand why we did not say to people who went to Cheltenham that they would have to quarantine for two weeks. I still have serious misgivings on how the nursing home issue was handled, when people were discharged from nursing homes who potentially had Covid. In 20 or 30 years' time, just as we look back at things in previous generations, that particular episode will be examined fully and I am not sure we will come out of it in a good light.
It is well known that I oppose guillotines in the Dáil unless there is an extreme emergency. I believe in talking things out and giving everybody their say until, at least, I have done my best to persuade people to my point of view and they have done their best to persuade me to their point of view. However, when I look at the bigger scene from a human, community and ordinary people's point of view, I have to look at what would have happened if we had not had restrictions and pit that against what did happen because we had restrictions. At every step of the way, as any human being would, I will look at details of what was done and ask why this was or was not done. Sometimes the Government was too strict and at other times too lax. These are matters of detail, but the general position is that we needed controls.
We have to admit that Covid has taken a huge toll. There are a significant number of deaths and people who are suffering from long Covid and mental health issues. Young people have lost well over a year of their lives in very constrained circumstances, when they should either have been in college mixing with many new people for the first time or in school doing all the things young people do. I have to hand it to the young people of Ireland for their solidarity. They have shown solidarity against a disease that would be much easier on them in the generality of these things, statistically, than it is on those who are in the older population.
I am absolutely glad that we seem to be getting to a better place. I received many letters and emails from people about the restrictions and this Bill. I did not manage to answer them all, but my reply was that the practical effect of the Bill is quite simple, which is that we and the Government are rolling back the lockdown but it is a tricky balance as we found out at Christmas. It is a balance between opening up and not allowing the genie out of the bottle again. It is a race between opening up and the roll out of the vaccine. We seem to be stuck at about 400 cases a day. There are 40 people in intensive care units, ICU, at the moment. I have been watching the British figures for a long time, day by day, and when I translate them, taking their population into account against ours and allowing they are six weeks ahead of us in the vaccine roll-out, they have for a long period been at about 100 to 200 cases a day. In relative terms we are worse. At this moment in time they, again, have much lower numbers in ICU than us, equivalent to the population.
We are in a delicate position. If we do not open up people will move on, but open up too fast and we might go backwards with the spread of the disease. It was very difficult. Families were separated from their loved ones. I have grandchildren I have only seen a handful of times and a new grandchild in England I have not seen at all. I have family in Australia. These are all difficult realities so none of us is immune to what all this meant. We can be over-legalistic about everything, but the reality on the human level and the real choice was that it was better to make all those sacrifices, take all those inconveniences, not visit the neighbours, not go to all the things one would normally go to, not meet constituents who had problems and try to do it other ways. It was better to do that and try to come out the other side of this in the whole of one's health.
As one of the older members of the House, I probably take as much physical exercise as most. I do about 10 km every day, I am active, in the whole of my health and have not had a sick day in I cannot remember how many years. However, I am told that, statistically, somebody of my age would be at very high risk if they caught Covid. Speaking for my generation, I really thank the younger generations who were willing to take restrictions because they knew the older generation would be hugely vulnerable to this, even if the risk for them was much less. Up until Christmas, many people said to me the restrictions were way too strict. Then January and February happened and the hospitals were full.
There was one lady I knew very well, though thankfully I do not know many people in the whole of their health who died from this disease. I was talking to her at the beginning of January. I knew her well and used to be on the phone to her. She was a widow living on her own. What happened in her case was that a friend came to visit, they had a cup of tea and went for a drive. The friend did not realise she had Covid and this lady got it and was dead by the end of the month. If she had not caught Covid, there is no reason to believe she would not be in the whole of her health today.
I heard people in the debate this evening talking about capacity in the health service. Of course we need capacity in the health service, and that issue must be addressed, but that does not solve the Covid dilemma. We did not try to control Covid because we did not have capacity in the health service. It was a factor, particularly in the beginning, but the other factor was that preventative medicine is always a much better option for a bigger number of the population than trying to cure them when they get sick. That is why we have campaigns against smoking, that is why we encourage people to take exercise, and that is why we have so many checks on people's health. No matter what the capacity of the health service is, the effort should be to avoid people winding up in hospital and minimise the number of people who do. Everybody who reflects on it would say that hospitals and care are hugely important when people need them but that they are the last option. It is much better never to wind up there if it can be avoided at all.
We have some magnificent scenery around where I live and we are willing to share it with anybody who wants to come. One of the great positives that has come out of this is the huge appreciation people have developed for exercise, the great outdoors, nature, and a different type of life than they may have been living beforehand. In some cases people had more time at home because they were working from home. I hope that good things will come out of this whole episode, as always happens with things like this. One of them could be a much better work-life balance for people with young families. They would not have to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning, leave the kids at the crèche at 7 a.m. and come home at 7 or 8 o'clock at night, try to look after the kids and tumble out of bed again the next day. Many more of them will be able to live a much more civilised life and work from home two or three days a week. Even on the days they go in, they could do so outside rush hour and not be sitting in traffic for an hour and a half on a journey that might take half an hour or three quarters of an hour at off-peak times.
There seems to be some worry in the ether that lockdowns will last forever. I do not really buy into that because if there was no good reason as the people saw it - not as the barristers, lawyers and solicitors here see it but as the people do - and if they did not think lockdown was needed, there would not be any compliance. In practice, enforcement of all this has, in the main, been benign, reasonable and proportionate. None of these regulations would have worked if the vast majority of people did not know in their hearts and souls that there was a need for what was being done on health grounds and that it was in their interest. The vast majority of people adhered to the rules because they knew in their heart and soul that it was being done for their good. In the very unlikely event that any Government thought it could continue with lockdowns when there was no significant risk to the people, it would be absolutely foolish to do so because the people would do what they would and they would not do what they have done, which is to comply.
In reality, all the other lockdowns, partial lockdowns and partial reopenings were in a different scenario from the one we are in now. So far, it would appear that the vaccines are very effective in stopping transmission and preventing people from getting the virus asymptomatically or symptomatically and winding up in hospital or an ICU. The HPSC epidemiological reports show that as we move down the age cohorts of people getting the vaccine, the incidence of the disease is collapsing. The incidence of hospitalisation is collapsing in the groups among whom there were once the greatest numbers of deaths and hospitalisations. I do not take this issue lightly. I hope we will not have to continue with lockdowns. I am very confident that we will not and that Covid is something with which science is beginning to catch up. Even if new variants appear, scientists will be able to vary the vaccine to deal with any possible mutations in the future, as they do with the flu vaccine.
The situation as I see it is that the Government has a tricky decision to make, on the advice of NPHET. At the end of the day, it is not NPHET that is making the decision; it is the Government. The decision to be made is how quickly to open up and how confident it is that when we do, the disease will stay under control. We are lucky that Britain has got ahead of us. We are very lucky that there is a country across the water with a massive population that is six weeks ahead of us and has opened up way more than we have. Even on this island there are six counties where there has been a much greater opening up and it appears that, because they have reached a certain level of vaccination, they can control the disease in a stable way. The portents are good.
Civil liberties are hugely important. There are major protections within the Constitution of this State for people's civil liberties, including the inviolability of the home, the right to public assembly, the right to free association and so on. If any Government were mad enough to go beyond the point of reason, balance and overwhelming scientific evidence by continuing with lockdowns into the future, I do not think this Dáil would pass such a proposal. Even if we all got a rush of blood to our heads, I imagine that someone would take a case to the courts on constitutional freedoms and I have no doubt that the Supreme Court would rule in that person's favour, if it did not believe there was an overwhelming argument in favour of the restrictions. There are a lot of protections in that regard. Sometimes people who look at things through a microscope all the time do not get the big picture that the ordinary people who do not spend their days delving into the minutiae of laws see. We were faced with an unprecedented situation and, as I have pointed out, I would argue with some of the details of how it was handled.
I thought it was sometimes way too strict and other times not so strict. Intrinsically, however, there was a high rate of compliance with the advice and directives from the Government because the people, the ordinary people, understood the risk. They understood that even if there were no rules, that it was in their own interest to adhere to the measures.
Some people told me that they thought the measures were too strict. I had them on one hand, pulling out of me that way, while others told me that we were too lax altogether. They gave out yards to me because they thought we were not being strict enough and they asked me why the Government was not doing a much bigger job of enforcement. I remember getting frantic phone calls about people being on beaches in Connemara last year and being too close together. I think the risk in that situation was slight and I always thought that was the case. As I said to those people, if you got a can of air freshener and emptied it on such a beach, the contents would not last long in the wind on a Connemara beach on a winter's day. The people who were ringing me about that aspect, though, were afraid.
Therefore, we must continue to try to get the balance right and we must continue to try to keep the people with us as we do so. The majority of people have, I think, accepted the need for what was done to date. I hope now that at the end of this week, we will go another step in a process and then take more such steps every two to three weeks from now on, as the vaccinations roll out. The key to everything we are doing lies in how fast we can vaccinate people, and specifically regarding how quickly we are able to get not only one but two injections into all those eligible for them, namely, all adults over the age of 18. We will free up the country not by changing the law, but by rolling out the vaccines ever faster.
I oppose the continuation of these emergency measures for the proposed six months. I feel that time is excessive given that a sizeable proportion of the population is now being vaccinated, including the older cohort and those deemed vulnerable to the disease. In fact, the majority of people contracting Covid-19 now are those in the younger age groups and, for the most part, are not experiencing significant health implications. Many have no symptoms whatsoever.
While I am not suggesting that all restrictions be dropped or removed, I do not see the necessity of extending these provisions for six months. These measures need to be reviewed and discussed monthly, perhaps, and restrictions removed as they are no longer needed. In common with most people, I recognise that restrictions were needed to prevent the spread of the disease and death or serious illness befalling the more vulnerable members of our society. That was especially the case when we did not know much about the disease. It was also to control the numbers needing to attend hospitals. Thankfully, those numbers are now low. Society is opening again, albeit slowly, and we must continue this process and see things return to normal as quickly as possible, obviously in a safe way.
While encouraging people to continue with social distancing, washing their hands and avoiding crowds etc., businesses must be allowed to reopen. People must be allowed to mix again, and that is essential for the mental well-being of our people, whether in the workforce or through sport or social activity. I live in a Border area and that has meant that the faster reopening of society in the North has had an impact on many businesses and activities in the Border counties. For example, swimming pools with group lessons are being allowed to resume before the end of this month in the North but to my knowledge, no date has been issued for the resumption of such swimming classes in the South. That means that people in the Border area will book lessons in the North, to the detriment of those offering lessons in the South. The same situation applies to gym membership, with gyms open in the North but not in the South or at least we have no dates for that yet. Therefore, we need definitive dates for reopening all these activities.
I am also concerned about the ever-growing waiting list for hospital appointments and especially for further diagnosis of possible cancer symptoms. A woman I know noticed a lump in her breast and she was referred to the BreastCheck clinic in a hospital in Dublin by her GP. Her file was marked urgent. Four weeks later, that woman has still not been called for an appointment and when she followed up on this situation she was told that she would be waiting for another 14 to 16 weeks, on top of the time she had been waiting already. I am hearing reports that the waiting list for appointments for urgent cancer checks is now extending to about three to four months, whereas it normally would have been within one month. We all know that early diagnosis regarding possible cases of cancer is vital. Are provisions being made to deal with the backlog of people awaiting further checks for cancer symptoms? People in all walks of life need a clear timeline for the reopening of society. People have had enough at this stage and their mental health is suffering. Public waiting lists for hospital appointments are growing, and businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector, are also suffering. Emergency payments must be extended until society has fully reopened. I call on the Government to ensure that the short-time work support payment is extended for workers in industries which are still unable to reopen fully due to ongoing public health restrictions. Many employees have been placed on reduced hours due to the impact of Covid-19 and as a result have been receiving this benefit. However, I think it may be coming to an end, with no indication of it being continued. Therefore, something needs to be done to protect those workers. They cannot be allowed to just work those short-time hours without the benefit of the payment.
In conclusion, a blanket extension of these restrictions is not necessary and especially not for six months. These measures must be reviewed and then extended, with only those absolutely necessary remaining. The Dáil should be allowed to debate these measures and vote on them in future.
Irish life has been turned upside down during this pandemic and the public has been dealing with challenges, demands and limitations that before the beginning of last year could not even have been imagined as materialising. Materialise they did, however. With the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, every person in this country had to deal with the fear of the unknown virus, its effects, how transmissible it would be, how each of us could avoid contracting it, while also ensuring that our loved ones and those most vulnerable did not succumb to the disease. Measures never before considered had to be taken and Sinn Féin was to the forefront in calling for the immediacy of the situation to be addressed through prompt, swift and concerted measures.
These have been extraordinary times, and such extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Those measures included the restriction of our ability to go on with life as had been regarded as normal until then. Our movements were restricted, the way we could socialise was restricted, the way we could interact with each other was restricted and our ability to avail of services was also curtailed. Each and every one of those measures was to have an impact, and while the impacts, primary or secondary, were in some instances unavoidable, the existing legislation has given far too much discretion and emergency powers to the Minister for Health.
The extraordinary measures we have all been subject to for more than a year now can only work if those data which inform them and the reasons they are deemed necessary are fully transparent, properly analysed and openly debated. Sinn Féin has been consistent in pushing this belief. This was evident last October, when we tabled an amendment to limit the scope of the emergency legislation then being proposed. We requested that the Government bring forward less discretionary legislation that could not avoid Dáil scrutiny. We continue to stand by that position, and that is why we are opposed to the continuing operation of emergency legislation with such broad discretionary powers that delegate what we believe should be Oireachtas responsibilities to the Minister for longer than is necessary.
When the Minister for Health and the Government were under great pressure to deal with what the pandemic brought to this country, we were there to give what support we could to measures informed by public health advice. While we still do that, what we have also witnessed since is a Government which has been less than forthcoming in providing real clarity to members of the Opposition regarding changes to regulations. This was unacceptable and to this day, I cannot accept that there was any valid reason for that level of secrecy to shut out representatives elected by the people. This situation led to instances of total confusion concerning some of the measures introduced by the Government.
The manner in which the hospitality sector was treated is one case in point. Hotel, pub and restaurant workers across Tipperary contacted me regarding the inability of the Government to state when, or if, it would be possible for those establishments to reopen last year. I have also had representations from people involved in the arts, dance and entertainment sector in Tipperary. All they are seeking is clarity. Families of children with special and complex needs were left to fend for themselves without the supports they need, childcare professionals were left with incomplete information and this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complaints I have received.
With these issues in mind, the Government must realise why I want continued engagement on emergency measures to take place in this House and not just at the Cabinet table. The Government has proposed to extend these emergency powers until 9 November.
We do not believe that the long extension is warranted at this stage. We are in a particular situation with the virus at the moment. There are a number of variables, both positive and negative, of which account must be taken. The vaccine roll-out is progressing. The number of people who have been vaccinated is increasing all the time and society is reopening on a gradual basis. It is our view, therefore, that it is not necessary to give the Minister full discretion until 9 November. What is necessary is that provisions are made to deal with the emergence of new variants or other associated issues.
That is why Sinn Féin is tabling a number of amendments seeking to limit the operation of the legislation to 9 July and ensure that restrictions will require the approval of the Dáil going forward. This approach would not remove restrictions. Instead, it would ensure that new regulations are adequately scrutinised, debated and ultimately agreed by the Dáil in the open. Of course, provisions should remain for the Minister for Health to bring forward rational and reasonable measures which are appropriate and proportionate to the risk presented by the pandemic and in the event of a vaccine-resistant variant posing a serious threat to public health. However, there is no excuse for avoiding further Dáil scrutiny of measures which are likely to restrict personal freedoms.
We have heard the term "draconian measures" quite often during the debate, both here and in the Seanad. The vast majority of this people in this country have put every effort they can into abiding by those measures and protecting each other from the virus. They deserve full transparency in how decisions are made in the event that further measures that will impact on their freedoms need to be considered.
It has been said by many in the House that the public and front-line care workers have done a huge amount of work to subdue case numbers. It is not very long ago that the situation was different. We all remember the dreadful figures and statistics. We dreaded watching the news, particularly in December and January. However, we have got the situation under control. We also faced difficulties in this State and throughout the EU in the context of vaccine supplies. A great deal of work has been done and a significant number of people have been vaccinated. As a result, we are in a different place now.
I concur with my party colleagues and a number of other Deputies spoke about the fact that we should really be seeking to review this legislation and these restrictions, possibly on a monthly basis. I think that people would believe that to be a sensible course of action to take in this situation.
I want to speak specifically about vaccinations. There has been a huge ramping up in vaccinations throughout the State. A major amount of work has been done. We accept that that work has been done by the healthcare system and the HSE. They have been put under brutal and unforgivable pressure due to the ransomware attack. That is a piece of work that we need to deal with as a State. Indeed, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications today, the members engaged with the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, on the issue. We also spoke to a number of cybersecurity experts. Across the board, the State must ensure that a sufficient audit of all of our critical systems is carried out. I am not saying that this kind of attack can be prevented. However, from a best practice perspective, we must take action to avoid such attacks as much as possible into the future. I wish to commend the public and front-line heatlhcare worker. None of us would have anticipated that they would come through a pandemic and then have to deal with the actions of a criminal syndicate or conglomerate.
On vaccines, we must consider that none of us is safe until all of us are safe. We are aware of the issues in relation to variants. That is why a number of restrictions were imposed and are still in place. We must ensure that we do all that needs to be done with a view to ensuring that we have an exit from the pandemic on a global basis.
There has been much conversation in respect of the trade related intellectual property rights, TRIPS, waiver. We have also heard the alternative narrative. I will be quite honest. I am not overly concerned from an ideological perspective. Obviously, my heart tells me that the TRIPS waiver is the way to do business. It must be considered. However, I have also heard that significant work has been done by pharmaceutical companies in engaging with one another and sharing skill sets and resources with a view to producing vaccines. We must ensure that that work is done. However, it must not be done at an unseemly cost that is to be borne by the developed world. We must do all that we can. Significant responsibility rests with the European Commission and others across the globe to ensure that it happens. The western world, with most of the resources and the vaccines, has an absolute responsibility to deliver. Indeed, if we do not deliver, we will be dealing with variants consistently and constantly.
I wish to raise an issue in respect of vaccines more locally. A number of people in the Louth area contacted me because they were worried about vaccines. Generally, they were people in their early 60s who thought that they had been bypassed by the system. They contacted me and told me that they were particularly worried that they would be overlooked and would not get the vaccination. It is a good sign that people want to be given the vaccine and want a roadmap out of the situation in which we find ourselves. In fairness, the HSE was forthcoming with information. It stated that towards the end of this week, all of those aged between 60 and 69 within the Louth area will be vaccinated. That is very welcome news. Beyond that, it announced that those aged 50 to 59 would be vaccinated by early next week - hopefully by Tuesday or possibly Wednesday. I know that there has been an extra supply of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That is all very positive.
I must put the following question to the Minister, however. Have we ensured that we have all the capacity and resources that will be required for when we receive an even bigger delivery of vaccines into this State? The numbers are increasing significantly. There is talk of considerable amounts, like 400,000 doses and more, being delivered each week in June. We must ensure, therefore, that, across the State, all the resources required in respect of vaccination staff, centres and supplies are in place. Obviously, we must ensure that we get the right supplies to the right areas. There are varying demographics, depending on the area of the State concerned. As I said, it is vital that this work is done. I would appreciate if the Minister could respond to me on that point.
I am most content with the responses I have received from the HSE. Most of those who were worried at the end of last week and the beginning of this week have received notification of a vaccine appointment. Once again, that is work very well done by our healthcare workers. It is all very positive. I am just worried that we do not have the capacity that will be required when supplies increase. We must ensure that that happens. It is significant. It will provide us with an opportunity in respect of taking the next steps.
Beyond that, I wish to add my voice to what has been said earlier. People need a greater level of clarity from the Government in respect of the roadmap towards reopening. Obviously, like Deputy Tully, I represent a Border constituency. There are issues around people accessing services in the North that still are not available in the South. We are worried about people making potentially long-term choices that may impact upon businesses that have already been put under severe pressure during the pandemic. We accept that we cannot open everything all at once. It must be done safely and securely. Precautions and health measures need to be considered. However, we do need to provide people with timelines, as far as possible. I am hoping that a greater level of detail will be provided on Friday. That is before we get into the issue of anomalies. I know that there are difficulties. People are hearing talk of time limits being imposed when they thought that such issues had been tackled. I refer, for example, to €9 meals and such. In the context of those anomalies that can really annoy people, if there are legitimate public health reasons for taking such measures, they must be explained.
As I have stated, we are taking these steps in a different context. We are doing taking them in the face of a huge vaccine roll-out that has been very successful and we need to ensure that we continue with it as much as possible. None of us is calling for all restrictions to be lifted now. We all know the damage that was done in December and January.
We must do everything in stages and very carefully, but we are doing it in a completely different context. Perhaps the Minister will provide some information on the capacity of the vaccine roll-out and any further information, if there is any, although I doubt that he will give us a sneak preview of what will happen on Friday. However, we need that clarity, be it for individuals, gyms or sporting organisations. In particular, there are issues with regard to hospitality. Everybody accepts that it will not be exactly as people want, but clarity is required, particularly for those who will need to buy materials and goods to ensure they are ready to operate.
There is a wider issue when we talk about signing up to the digital green certificate. We are aware of the current difficulties with our IT systems so we must ensure we are doing all the work at this point to ensure we are ready to run when we need to run, and that we have the systems up and running. I add my voice to the voices of previous speakers with regard to Professor Mark Ferguson's report on antigen testing. Now is the time to introduce any pilot schemes that need to be carried out to see whether this can be operated to allow certain types of openings or in respect of helping aviation. We must do the heavy lifting now. The heavy lifting has been done to some degree already in the sense that we can get information from Britain, Spain, France or other states that have operated pilot schemes. That is another job we need to do. We must ensure that we do not leave it too late and that when we sign up to things such as the digital green certificate, we have the capacity to proceed when we decide to do so, and that there are no technical hitches.
At the outset, I wish to thank the Minister. I have often spoken in the House about Vera Twomey's situation during the Covid-19 crisis. I often asked the Minister to liaise with her. His staff have done so and they had a successful discussion. I wish to put that on the record and to thank the Minister for it. It is very important for Ms Twomey and for other people who are in that situation in respect of medicinal cannabis. That is very much appreciated.
I will oppose the extension of these severe restrictions. I have received many emails and so much post that my postman is scratching the back of his head. He does not know how many more letters I will get on this issue. People are very upset and extremely worried about the restrictions. Some of them were necessary, and I would not oppose commonsense restrictions at very serious times, but we want to see the light. People can see the light in Northern Ireland and they would love to think that they could do the same here, but that is not happening. People's businesses are suffering. In Cork South-West, the constituency I represent, people's businesses have been severely affected. Some people have not opened their business since the pandemic first struck in March and April 2020, such as public houses. There was an announcement today of the new restrictions that will allow some of them to open, but most of them will not be able to open. To hear of the PUP and other payments being dropped is putting severe pressure on their state of mind and mental health. What has been forgotten in all the argument and the Covid-19 crisis is the mental health pressure put on people. I ask the Minister to consider that. The Rural Independent Group will put forward amendments providing for a sunset clause on 9 June, as well as other amendments.
Light at the end of the tunnel is something many organisations, individuals, businesses and the country need - a clear guideline as to when things will reopen safely and properly. There are many mixed messages and that is causing more confusion and fear. That comes back to us, the politicians on the ground. People are asking us what is happening, when their businesses can reopen and whether they will be compensated to try to continue the business after it has been closed. We are unable to answer many of the questions. People have been very careful. Nobody wants to get this virus. I saw that today in Cork. I commend the fishermen of south-west Cork and the rest of the country who converged on the Port of Cork today in their hundreds. They wore masks and tried to socially distance. I commend all the fishermen, their wives and children who were there today on the safety with which they ran that protest. The way it was carried out by the Irish South and West Fishermen's Organisation sent an incredibly strong message. I am very disappointed that neither of our two senior Ministers, Deputies Coveney and Michael McGrath, nor the Taoiseach were able to present themselves to the fishermen. However, that is another story. The people of Castletownbere, Unionhall, Schull, Kinsale and Glandore were there in high numbers today, along with me, to support them. I will continue to do that for as long as I am elected to the Dáil. It is time for a massive debate on fishing.
However, today we are discussing the continuation of the restrictions. I have been strongly opposed to many of the restrictions in the churches. I attended church in Lowertown, Schull, last Saturday night. I counted 49 people there, but that church could hold 300 people. The nearest church in Goleen can hold more than 500, the church in Schull can perhaps hold 350 and the church in Ballydehob can hold over 400. Then I go into a shop and I cannot understand for the life of me - I have no problems with the shops - how big shops in the cities, such as Tesco, can have hundreds of people shopping inside the same size buildings. People are trying to do it safely, but no allowance is made for churches or for people holding funerals or weddings and the stress and upset that is causing, especially in the case of funerals. People are not given time to respect their loved ones. I urge the Minister to re-examine this.
I also support the call made earlier by a previous speaker for us to return to Leinster House. It is scandalous the amount of money that is being paid for us to stay in the Convention Centre Dublin each week, while the Dáil building is sitting idle for many days. The Seanad is only sitting for one day and a bit, and its Members do not want to upset themselves by coming down here. We certainly must be brought back to the Dáil in a safe manner. We all have offices and all of us can adhere to laws, rules and regulations if that is required. It would be a massive saving for the State and it must be considered.
I am a little surprised, and I have heard it often recently, by the new tactic on the part of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party Deputies. They go on television and radio to condemn every legislative measure that comes before the House and then they come in and vote for it the next day. Everybody has to speak for himself or herself, but I heard Deputy McAuliffe of Fianna Fáil completely opposing what is proposed in the Bill on RTÉ Radio 1 when I was coming here today. I am scratching the back of my head because he is with the Government. Ultimately, he will still vote with the Government. I do not understand. Why are they talking out of two sides of the same mouth? It cannot be allowed to continue. The Minister needs to pull in his Deputies. It is not just on this issue, but on many issues. Senators and Deputies in my constituency in west Cork are condemning things. Then they come here and vote for the same thing they are condemning. I am a little surprised that those in the media give them the leverage to think they can spend as much time as they wish condemning Bills and motions they have brought in and fully supported in the House.
I am fully opposed to any further restrictions. The Government has consistently and deliberately stoked fear over the coronavirus while behaving like an authoritarian regime, relying on the tactics of a police state. The Government's handling of the pandemic has resulted in the State exercising coercive powers over its citizens on a scale never previously attempted. The ease with which people could be terrorised into surrendering basic freedoms, which are fundamental to our existence, is shocking. The Government now potentially wants to hold onto those powers for up to another eight months.
Since the onset of the pandemic, we have seen a loss of effective parliamentary scrutiny of emergency Covid powers, as many are made via the stroke of a pen and a statutory instrument. The emergency measures are the most significant interference with personal freedoms since this country declared its independence. We do not doubt the seriousness of the pandemic but we believe that history will look back on the measures taken to contain it as a monument to collective hysteria. Governments in Ireland hold power at the sufferance of the elected Chamber of the Legislature. Without that, we are no democracy. The present Government has a different approach. It seems to derive its legitimacy directly from the people, bypassing their elected representatives. We have seen that time and time again over the past 14 months.
The Rural Independent Group has been arguing for months that citizens should be treated as rational actors who are capable of taking decisions for themselves and managing personal risk. Our calls have been completely ignored. Powers under the original Public Health Act were not intended to authorise measures as drastic as those which have been imposed. Throughout the period, a combination of Government advice and Government-inspired pressure from regulators have been used to limit access to doctors and health services. This has had a serious impact on the diagnosis and early treatment of far more mortal diseases than Covid-19, notably cancer. By using propaganda, the Government has, to some extent, been capable of creating its own public opinion, with fear being deliberately stoked by the Government. The Irish public has not even begun to understand the seriousness of what is happening to our country. Many, perhaps most, of them do not care and will not care until it is too late. They instinctively feel that the end justifies the means, which is the motto of every totalitarian government there has ever been.
The Government has, unfortunately, lost the trust and confidence of the Irish people. Certain people might not like to hear this but the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, has lost the confidence and trust of the Irish people because enough is enough. People have contacted me and the other Deputies in the Rural Independent Group. I heard this evening, for instance, from the musicians in this country, people involved in entertainment, who have not been able to earn a day's or night's pay for a long time. People involved in dancing and music, hoteliers organising weddings and undertakers trying to organise funerals have been affected. No more blank cheques will be given to this Government. Other Deputies might want to come along blindly and loyally, like little puppies, and put up and down their heads and vote in favour of an extension of the powers but, like the story, if they want to jump in the river, I am not going in after them. The people of Ireland have done enough. They have done everything, endured everything that was thrown at them and are now saying that enough is enough.
I will start with the county that I represent. The people of south, mid, north, east and west Kerry are saying that enough is enough. People involved in businesses and retailers who, thankfully, have been able to open their doors in the past few days are highly responsible. They know how to run their businesses in a proper fashion. Absolutely no one can tell me a sensible reason public houses and hotels are not allowed to open. When they were allowed to open, the owners of those businesses ran them in a proper and responsible way. The Government is denying them that right and opportunity now. We have been told that people will go mad if there is music in pubs. Has the Minister taken leave of his senses?
I will turn to people's mental and physical health. Our health system was in a shambles before this crisis. I and other people are sending busloads of people to the North of Ireland for cataract surgery because they cannot have their cataracts removed in the South. People are travelling to the North for treatment to hips, knees and all other types of pains and ailments because of the waiting lists here. That was true before the pandemic. We are now post the pandemic. If, for instance, a GP recognises an abnormality that suggests a danger of breast cancer, it should be dealt with immediately but it is not. That is crazy. Waiting lists have accrued from the pandemic and the fact that everything was shut down for so long. The Minister's answer is that he wants a blank cheque to continue the lockdown. People are in physical and mental pain.
I want to highlight a desperately sad matter that I am awfully sorry to raise here but I feel I must. Parents have asked me what in the name of God politicians are doing to try to help in this situation. We are all acutely aware of the issue of suicide, which has affected every Member of this House. There is not a person who has not been adversely affected by suicide. A new issue has seemed to come to light in the part of the country from which I come. It is happening in Kerry and Cork, where I know an awful lot of what is going on. Young ladies with young families are committing suicide. I cannot tell the Minister it is a direct result of the pandemic and the lockdown but I can tell him that it is happening now in a way it did not previously. It is sad for families that are ripped apart by the loss of a young mother. It is a tragedy of enormous proportions to lose anybody but this seems to be a new development that was not there in the past. It has not happened in my time, in my memory, in the way it is happening now. People are saying they need help, guidance, assistance and normality. They are begging and crying out for normality.
The Government is coming out with silly, nonsensical, stupid things. What genius thought of putting meals on the clock with the time limit of 105 minutes? All that will do is to encourage people, if they are out, to look at the clock and move on somewhere else rather than settling down and staying where they are. Is the Government trying to spread something or contain something? What genius thought it was a good idea? It reminds me of the man with the pint of Guinness in one hand and the cheese sandwich in the other. He was fine, but another person with a pint was some type of criminal if he did not have a cheese sandwich in his hand at the same time.
I thank the people in Kerry who have been dealing with and administering the vaccination programme because they are extremely helpful and kind. They are working diligently in the centres in Kerry. I recognise the work of management all the way down to the people who are actually running the facilities every day. They are doing an excellent job. I must highlight the amount of Kerry people who have been called to Limerick for a vaccine. I have been contacted by people, particularly from the eastern side of the county, who were called to Limerick. When I highlighted their cases, their appointments were changed. The amount of people called to Limerick was frightening. I know of more than 100 such cases. If I know of that many, how many in general were called from Kerry to Limerick? Those sorts of things should not be happening. However, I am grateful for the assistance I got in dealing with those cases.
The Rural Independent Group is going to be seeking to amend this legislation and end its powers on 9 June. The blank cheque will finish on 9 June. I will not be voting to give the Minister a blank cheque for one day later than 9 June.
The Members of the Oireachtas should, of course, get out of this building as if it were on fire. We should go back into Leinster House, where we should have been a long time ago. We could do that in safety. We would be no danger to the staff, ourselves or anyone else.
If we can run our show in an organised and secure way, it shows that the rest of the country can get back to normality as well.
Take one look around. For God's sake, I am looking across and I can barely see the Minister because he is so far away from me. Putting us into this type of auditorium every day does not make sense. We could fit 100 whales in here, never mind a share of Deputies and nobody is here half the time. I do not know where the rest are the rest of the time but they are not in here for debates or anything else. I ask the Minister to get us out of here as soon as possible. Do not mind this talk of us going back to the Dáil in September after the summer because that is ridiculous. We should not have to wait until then.
I ask the Minister to look at the rest of Europe. Look at what other countries and the North of Ireland are doing and then look at us. Think about the hardship that businesses and families are going through. People had deaths in their families and could not have proper funerals because until recently, only ten people could go into the church.
While we all wanted to protect people and do what was right and proper with regard to stopping the spread of the virus, there is such a thing as too far east is west. We are definitely on that ground right now. The Government does not seem to know when to stop. Any Deputy who come in here to vote and says it is all right to continue this for perhaps another six, seven or eight months must be really losing all touch with reality.
Think about what is going on with the public houses and people being told to put up tents, awnings and every type of building outside so that everybody is safe. They might not get the virus but they will definitely get pneumonia. I do not know what country the Minister thinks he is living in but I am living in Ireland. Our temperatures are not suited to outdoor dining.
We have fine public houses with plenty of room. There are lounge bars and different rooms in public houses. People could be inside in heat and comfort instead of putting them into tents, under awnings and into every type of contraption or building the Government is putting them into. They will stay out of the house and go out into the yard only to get sick with some other disease like pleurisy or another misfortune.
For God's sake, will the Government actually get a life and get real about this? I am giving the Minister a strong message from County Kerry. That message is enough is enough. This is finished. People are sick of it and they want to get on with their lives. They are not ignoring that there was a pandemic but we are coming out of it and we are quite safe. Trust the public and the business people. Have a small bit of trust and faith in the people of Ireland who elected us.
The next slot is a Government one but I do not see a Government speaker offering. Likewise, I have a Sinn Féin slot but I do not see a speaker from Sinn Féin offering.
I call Deputy Pringle, although I am putting him on warning that I will ask him to adjourn the debate in approximately 90 seconds. We will let him clear his throat anyway.
I thought we had up until 8.15 p.m.
It is 7.15 p.m.
Okay. I will wind down slowly. I will save the benefit of my speech until the next time we come back here and we can have that debate. It is good because Deputy Joan Collins was going to share this slot with me and she is not here. We will be back in tomorrow for it anyway.
I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to debate Second Stage of the Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021. As the Minister knows, this wee Bill is intended to amend four not-so-wee Acts. This Bill provides for amendments to section 2 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020; to section 1 of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020; to section 17 of the Criminal Justice (Enforcement Powers) (Covid-19) Act 2020; and to section 6 of the Health (Amendment) Act 2020. Some of the provisions set out in these Acts are due to expire on 9 June 2021, which is within two weeks. This Bill sets out to extend the expiration date to 9 November 2021.
No one could dispute that we have been navigating unprecedented times and that significant measures were required to protect public health and life early last year. Most of us thought the worst thing that could have happened in 2020 was the grand coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. While bad, we did not realise just how much upheaval there would be throughout the year.
People were dying and still are. We knew that the virus was highly transmissible and that elderly and vulnerable people were most at risk. We were asked to stay at home to keep each other safe. I believe everyone can agree that the level of compliance, fear and camaraderie during the first lockdown of last March and April was extraordinary. We saw the amazing community spirit in our neighbourhoods as people looked out for isolated members of their communities, did shopping and chores for those who were cocooning and praised our healthcare and other front-line workers.
Now, however, 15 months later, people are disillusioned because of our rudderless Government, the mixed messages, the unclear communications and the continuous internal undermining within Government. I am sure many other Deputies receive large numbers of emails calling on us not to extend Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and Other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act) 2020. These are not the conspiracy theory, anti-vax "Covid is a hoax"-type emails. Some of their arguments include-----
I hate to put a stop to the Deputy mid-gallop but I must ask him to adjourn the debate.
I adjourn the debate.