I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, and invite him to address the House. Each Member will have six minutes after that and we have a total of 45 minutes.
Health (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I thank the Acting Chairman. It is great to be back in the House and to address the Seanad in this august Chamber. I address the House in respect of the Health (Amendment) Bill 2020, which concluded its passage through the Dáil earlier today. I welcome the support received in that House for the core principle of the Bill, which is to protect and safeguard the people of Ireland from the spread of Covid-19. There was support expressed in the Dáil today for the main purpose of the Bill, but there were wide-ranging views on the way the Government has had to introduce it. It is not ideal that we are in a position where we must debate a Bill that has some potential serious impacts in the space of an afternoon. However, my Government colleagues have consistently advised Deputies and, indeed, all the people of Ireland that we are living in unprecedented times when unprecedented decisions must be made within very short periods of time. I extend my gratitude to those who attended the debate in convention centre today and to everyone in Leinster House. I thank everyone for engaging with the Government on this legislation even though we are operating in less than desirable circumstances.
As my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, stated in the Dáil this morning, the purpose of this Bill is not to penalise people. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has also made this point. The Bill defines and narrows the existing enforcement powers that are already on the Statute Book. Operationally, the Garda will continue to engage, educate and encourage people when it comes to policing and monitoring compliance in respect of the Covid guidelines. It will only be as a last resort that the Garda will enforce.
Ireland's experience of this virus to date shows that the vast majority of people are following the public health measures, for which I applaud the nation. However, the highly contagious nature of the virus means that when we let our guard down for a short period, it spreads quickly, silently and sometimes with fatal consequences. Unfortunately, a number of people make a conscious decision to not follow the measures. Due to how easily the virus spreads, the actions of this group of people put at risk the sacrifices made by everyone else. When I say "everyone else", I refer to those of us who follow the guidelines when there is no penal sanction for non-compliance. We know that by making these sacrifices and following the recommendations, we are all helping each other to get the nation back to normality.
While solidarity and personal and collective responsibility are at the core of the national response to Covid-19, enforcement must also be available. Up until recently, the only enforcement power available, under the 1947 Health Act, has been what is called "a penal provision". This is a prosecution with a maximum penalty of up to €2,500 or six months in prison, or both, to be decided by the judge. As has been said in the House before, the "penal provision" has not been proportionate for most violations of the regulations but has been harsh which is why we have the legislation before us today. Rather than create new powers or penal provisions, the Government is attempting to revise, define and narrow the existing legal provisions so that the Garda and the people of Ireland have clarity on how they should behave during this pandemic. This legislation introduces tiered penalties or on-the-spot fines of up to €500. The exact amount of each measure is specified under regulations.
For example, a fine regarding face coverings would no longer incur a penalty of up to €2,500 and-or six months in prison, but might, instead, incur a €50 on-the-spot fine. Ultimately, however, failure to pay the fine could be prosecuted, as per other fines in place. The Bill also redraws the existing penal provision, in that it creates lower levels of penalties for the first and second offences, and only allows the existing level of penalties for a third offence. In the case of dwelling events, the Bill only allows for the lowest level of penalty, which is for a first offence, for other measures.
If the Bill is passed, there would be five categories of enforcement. The non-penal category would apply to measures included in the regulations as not allowed, but which carry no penalty. For example, the restriction on who and how many people can attend a sports training session is a non-penal provision. The penal category will have three levels of penalty, in court, for first, second and third offences. This includes, for example, violation of measures by retail outlets. The relevant provision category allows for licensed premises to be shut for the day, or for longer in the case of further offences. The fixed charge notices category allows for on-the-spot fines and includes, for example, domestic travel, face coverings and relevant indoor and outdoor events. The fifth and last category, concerning a dwelling event, is specifically for large social gatherings in houses, and allows only for the first offence penalties of penal provisions.
In summary then, the Bill provides for penal provisions under the Act to be prescribed as fixed penalty provisions, meaning that persons alleged to have committed an offence under a fixed-penalty provision may pay a fixed penalty in lieu of prosecution. It provides that on prosecution, different levels of penalties may apply to first, second and third, and subsequent, offences under the Act. Finally, the Bill provides for provisions to be prescribed as dwelling event provisions, meaning that if a garda reasonably suspects a breach of such a provision, he or she may attend at the entrance to the private dwelling and direct persons to leave that private dwelling or the vicinity of that private dwelling.
I will go through the Bill section by section. Section 1 provides that the "Act of 1947" means the Health Act 1947. Section 2 provides for the insertion of a definition of "fixed penalty provision", "dwelling event provision" and "penal provision". Section 3 provides for the insertion of subsection 31A(6C) on fixed penalty provisions. Fixed penalty provisions allow for a fixed payment notice to be served on persons in respect of an alleged offence. The person may opt to pay a fixed fine within 28 days rather than face prosecution in court.
Subsection 31A(6C)(b) sets out the matters that should be taken into account when deciding to prescribe a penal provision to be a fixed penalty provision. These matters include the nature of the offence, how prescribing it would prevent the spread of Covid-19 and the impact prescribing it might have on the normal functioning of society. Subsection 6C(c) provides that the Minister may make regulations for the form of notice and the process to be followed, while subsection 6C(d) sets out that the Minister must consult with the Minister for Justice and Equality before prescribing a penal provision as a fixed penalty provision.
Subsection 6D amends section 31A to enable the Minister to prescribe penal provisions to be dwelling event provisions. Subsection 6D(b) sets out the matters that the Minister should take into account when prescribing a penal provision to be a dwelling event provision. These matters are similar to the matters relating to the fixed penalty provision but also include the risk of Covid-19 in indoor or confined areas. This makes sense because the alleged offence is occurring in a private dwelling, indoors. Again, as with the fixed penalty provision, subsection 6D(c) sets out that the Minister must consult with the Minister for Justice and Equality before making a decision.
Subsection 6E provides that regarding proceedings for an offence in respect of a dwelling event provision, the event organiser shall be assumed to be the occupier unless proved otherwise. This means that if an event happens in a private dwelling that is not allowed under the regulations, the occupier of the dwelling is assumed to be the organiser. The offence here is by the organiser.
The Bill also provides for a new subsection setting out tiered penalties. The current sanction is a fine of up to €2,500 and-or six months in prison. It is proposed to replace this one-level provision with a three-tiered provision based on the number of offences committed. This provision applies when someone charged with an offence ends up in court, and it is separate to the fixed penalty provision. If the matter ends up in court, there is then a reduced tariff for a first offence of a fine of no more than €1,000 and-or one month in prison, a tariff of €1,500 and-or three months in prison for a second offence and a tariff of €2,500 and-or six months in prison in respect of third and subsequent offences. I note here that in a situation where someone is given a fixed penalty notice and does not pay in 28 days, then it automatically becomes a court matter and these penalties would then come into play. The new subsection also provides for a judge to impose a sentence of up to €2,500 and-or six months in prison where there are aggravating circumstances. This means that if the judge feels that the offence is particularly serious, especially on public health grounds, then the judge can impose the highest tariff.
The Bill also provides in section 3(c) for the substitution of a new definition in section 31A(16) of "event organiser". For a private dwelling, an "event organiser" is "a person who arranges, organises or manages the event, or otherwise causes or permits the event to take place". In a place other than a private dwelling, the "event organiser" is a person who publicises, arranges, organises or manages, or receives some or all of any proceeds from the event. It also defines the terms "licence", "occupier" and "owner".
Section 4 of the Bill provides for fixed payment notices by the insertion of a new section 31C. Subsections 31C(1) and 31C(2) provide for a fixed payment notice to be served on persons in respect of an alleged offence. The person may opt to pay a fixed fine within 28 days rather than face prosecution in court. If a decision is made not to give a fixed payment notice, that does not prevent the initiation of a prosecution.
Section 5 of the Bill relates to the private dwelling provisions I discussed earlier. To reiterate, the Minister for Health can designate a provision in a regulation to be a penal provision and a dwelling event provision. If that happens, then this section of the Bill comes into play. It provides for additional powers for the Garda under the proposed subsection 31D(1), where if a garda suspects a person is loitering with intent to attend an event in a private dwelling "in contravention of a private dwelling provision", the garda may direct that person to leave the vicinity. Under the proposed subsection 31D(2), where a garda suspects "that an event in contravention of the private dwelling" provisions is under way in a private dwelling, the garda may direct the occupier of the private dwelling to require and cause the other persons to leave. The proposed subsections 31D(3)(a) and 31D(b) permit a garda to attend at the entrance to a dwelling and to request contact details for the occupier. Subsection 31D(4) provides that it is an offence, "without reasonable excuse, to fail to comply with a direction given by" a garda under this section and subsection 31D(5) sets out the penalties to apply. Those are the details of the Bill.
This Bill is all about enforcement. As the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy McEntee, have stated on an ongoing basis, however, the members of An Garda Síochána will continue to engage, educate and encourage; they will only enforce as a last resort. People in Ireland are looking to the Government as leaders and to act appropriately, proportionately and fairly.
Should the Bill be passed, it will not simply be a question of making a regulation and then handing out fixed penalty notices. The regulations will be considered carefully and drafted appropriately.
I would ask Senators to remember that the overwhelming objective here is to enhance compliance with public health guidance, and regulations, with these penalties as only one side of it. Any system of enforcement only works if people can see it being used appropriately, that the sanctions are proportionate and that it is aimed for the greater good. I can say that these are our aims. I commend the Bill to the House.
I call Senator Malcolm Byrne who has six minutes to be followed by Senator McDowell.
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House. It is a pity, in many ways, this Bill must be introduced because the overwhelming majority of citizens in the State are trying to do the right thing. We need to acknowledge that fact in this debate. It is a pity we cannot legislate to address stupidity but some people are blatantly seeking to disregard the public health guidelines which are in all our interests.
In the approach the Government is taking where a measure needs to be taken to sanction those flagrantly breaching public health guidelines, we must reinforce the positives. We must send out a message to people about what they can do to give them hope and encourage them to follow public health guidelines.
In north Wexford where I live, as the Minister of State will be aware, we have seen a significant spike in cases. That is causing serious concern in the community. The message we have put out in own local community is to reinforce the positive messages of communities working together, washing our hands, keeping the distance and wearing a mask properly. We have been seeking to reinforce those under the slogan: "use your head, stop the spread." It is also about ensuring we support local businesses. I ask the Minister of State during this difficult time to ensure those positive messages are sent out as well as setting out a penal sanction.
It is important any anomalies that may exist or are perceived to exist are addressed. One concern I have, which I have raised with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, relates to the retail sector. Those businesses engaged in the sale of clothes in particular are concerned some supermarkets and large outlets continue to sell clothes while menswear stores and boutiques are not allowed to do it. It is ridiculous that I cannot go into a local menswear shop to buy a pair of socks, yet I can find them on sale in one of the large supermarkets. Other retail outlets are trying to get around the regulations and because they are selling PPE equipment in one corner of the store they think they can open. This is very unfair to the independent main street retailers. I ask the Minister of State to address that.
All of us as Oireachtas members have faced a variety of queries from people who are trying to do the right thing but they are not certain about it. I have asked that we consider setting up a Covid helpline within the Minister of State’s Department, if not for the general public then certainly for Members of the Oireachtas, to ensure that when we have specific queries, concerns or issues that may arise we are able to get a very direct answer. We have all, as I am sure has the Minister of State, received questions from people to which we do not know the exact answer. If would help if the Department could set up such a helpline.
It is a pity we must introduce these penal sanctions but it is necessary because a small number of people in this State are not merely making mistakes but are deliberately setting out to breach and flaunt the law. Sinn Féin is seeking to remove the requirements around imprisonment but I think they are necessary. Where there are repeated breaches of public health guidelines we need to have the possibility of the sanction of imprisonment by the courts because some people do not care about fines. The thugs we would have seen in the city centre in recent days abusing members of the Garda Síochána will not care about fines and the option of having to imprison them is essential. It is also essential to continue to have the confidence of the overwhelming majority of people in this State who want to do the right thing. They are worried about their loved ones and their businesses and they see these thugs out on the street abusing members of the Garda who are doing their best in very difficult circumstances; we need to take action against thugs.
It is unfortunate a very vocal but unrepresentative group has sprung up at the height of a pandemic that is threatening people’s lives and businesses and that some people do not believe any rules apply to them. It is unfortunate we must introduce these measures but it is necessary. All of us in this House must ensure we stand up to those thugs who are out on the street abusing the members of the Garda. There have been some in these Houses who have given platforms to these people in the past but it is not acceptable to give platforms to the likes of Gemma O’Doherty and some of her cohort. It is not acceptable that they continue to go out and abuse members of the Garda who are workers on behalf of the State. We have always had a police force that works on the basis of public acceptance.
While I wish, as I am sure everyone would wish, this legislation was never necessary, we know that because of a small minority we now need to bring it in. I will strongly support the legislation. I believe, as I am sure do the majority of people, that for the people who are flouting it, fines are not good enough; we need to consider imprisoning them.
I remind Senators not to make reference to people outside the House. I call Deputy McDowell who has six minutes.
First, I must protest that this legislation has been rushed through without adequate debate. There is no excuse for a situation where Dáil Éireann is considering a Bill in the morning and it comes to us in the afternoon especially when this Bill is badly drafted. I draw the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan’s attention to one or two aspects of this Bill which he may regret not having spent slightly more time with his colleagues putting in place.
I draw his attention to the definition of "occupier" at the bottom of page 6 of the Bill. It states:
‘occupier’ means, in relation to a dwelling—
(a) a person who—
(i) resides in the dwelling, and
(ii) is the owner of the dwelling,
(b) a person who resides in the dwelling pursuant to a licence ( except where the owner of the dwelling also resides therein);
In other words, there are two categories of people. The occupier is a person who resides in the dwelling and is the owner of it and that includes a tenant by the way. Second, a person who resides in the dwelling pursuant to a licence, therefore, somebody who is there, permitted to be there by the owner, except where the owner of the dwelling also resides there. A person who is a wife, a husband, a partner, a son, a daughter or a guest living in a house is not an occupier if the owner of the house also resides in that dwelling. That is the first mistake that has been made here.
I also draw the Minister of State's attention to page 8 of the Bill which states: "where a member of the Garda Síochána suspects, with reasonable cause, that an event in contravention of a dwelling event provision is taking place, he or she may direct the occupier to require and cause all persons attending the event ... to leave immediately." Therefore, a garda cannot direct the son or the daughter of the person who owns the house because they are not a licensee under the badly drafted definition of "occupier" because the owner of the house actually lives there. If the owner is not there, a garda cannot direct those people to get people to leave the House. That is a big mistake.
Also subsection (3) near the bottom of page 8 states "require the occupier to provide the member with his or her name". Therefore, the son, wife or husband of the owner where the owner resides in the house, even if the owner is not there, cannot be asked to deliver his name, to clear the House or whatever. This is the kind of mistake that is made when legislation is rushed.
The term "occupier" is defined in the Bill as someone who resides in the dwelling, and is the owner of the dwelling, or, alternatively, "a person who resides in the dwelling pursuant to a licence [that would be a family member] (except where the owner of the dwelling also resides therein)...". A garda cannot ask the wife, the son, the daughter or whoever else, or the guest or the cousin, who is there for her or his name and address and cannot ask her or him to get people to leave the house. This would not have happened if this Bill had been carefully thought through. It is a huge hole in the Bill. It means that a garda coming to a house, knocking on the door and demanding to see the occupier and asking who is the owner of the house, would be told that the owner of the house is away. On asking, "Who are you?" the garda would be told that he is speaking to the owner's son. If the garda said that he wanted the son's name and address and wanted him to clear the place out, he would be told that he had no power to do so under the section because the son is not deemed to be the occupier because the Bill was badly drafted in the first place.
I do not understand for the life of me why we could not have had another 48 hours to look at this legislation to see whether there were mistakes in it. There is a huge hole under the waterline of this legislation. If a member of An Garda Síochána arrives at the door of a house, the person who opens the door and says he is the son of the owner is not the occupier if the owner resides in the house even though the owner is not there. What a crass error to make, and it has been made here. The powers we are rushing through will be useless in the hands of the Garda because of the rush with which this legislation has been put through.
I need hardly point out to the Minister of State that the Bill, on page 5, states, "In proceedings for an offence under this section consisting of a contravention of a dwelling event provision, it shall be presumed, unless the contrary is proved, that the occupier of the dwelling in respect of which the offence is alleged to have been committed was the event organiser." The poor husband who was not there at all shall have a presumption against him. By the way, that presumption cuts the other way because the person who actually ran the drink party and invited in all his pals will be presumed not to be the event organiser until the contrary is proven.
This Bill is a joke. It is seriously defective. It is coming here in circumstances where it cannot even be amended now. It was rushed up here from the convention centre for us to look at. We were not given any opportunity to put amendments to it. It is thrown at us in a hurry. It is not workable. A garda will neither be able to ask somebody at a door who is a son, daughter or wife, for his or her name nor will the garda be entitled to ask him or her, because such persons are not occupiers, to get everybody in the house to leave. What a joke.
Senators Conway and Ward are sharing time. They have three minutes each.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, to the House.
I also welcome this Bill because a more graded approach was necessary. We will have a step-up, step-down system of fines, more realistic fines and more workable fines. Of course, we do not want to see people being fined at all. We just want that as a deterrent. We want to see the majority of people continue, as many are, abiding by the necessaries to eliminate this awful virus.
As unpalatable, as difficult and as challenging as it is, I support the decision to move the country to level 5 in an attempt over the next six weeks to suppress the virus. It has put hundreds of thousands of people onto the pandemic unemployment payment. It has resulted in thousands of businesses having to close their doors and people having to change their routines and their lives. People have to work at home and work remotely. People cannot travel beyond 5 km unless it is for essential work or medical, shopping or care requirements. These are difficult. They are challenging. They are unpalatable. We do not want to do them. We should not have to do them. Unfortunately, we have no choice but to do them.
I am appealing to the people, each and every one us, to play our part to do our bit to be leaders in our society, in our communities and in our households in order to help suppress Covid-19 because if we do not get a handle on it and if we do not see the number of cases reduce, people whom we love and whom we care for, people who are elderly, people who are vulnerable and people who are in care homes, will unfortunately get seriously ill and will die. Today, we have 37 people in ICU. Let us get that number down. Let us all work together to beat this virus. As an Irish society, we can do it.
In terms of the Bill, it may not be perfect but it is necessary.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.
I agree with what has been said about this Bill. It is unfortunate but it is necessary. The comments of other Senators in this regard are well made. We need to equip the Garda with the powers it requires to enforce the regulations. That is for the benefit of everyone - all members of society but, most particularly, those who are vulnerable to Covid-19 and those who are at risk.
The hope, in passing this legislation, is that those powers will never be necessary. I welcome what the Minister of State said in his speech about the continued operation by the Garda of the police-by-consent model whereby they will continue to engage with the public and they will take all steps they possibly can before they need to enforce the law. We hope, first of all, that these powers will not be required.
In relation to the provisions that are there for prosecution in court and possibly incarceration, we certainly hope that none of that will be necessary. The idea is here that there is already the carrot from the point of view that the Government has taken but this also brings the stick. The most unfortunate aspect of this legislation is that it turns the conversation onto exactly this kind of thing and distracts from the message that the Government has been trying to put out, which is that we should be doing this by consent, that we should be working with people, that we should be putting in place supports which we are, and that we are working with people to facilitate their continued survival, be it in a business context, in a social context or in a mental health context, in any way we can. Unfortunately, this legislation turns the conversation a little more towards punitive measures, which are secondary to those other measures.
Finally, I agree with what Senator McDowell has said. As I have stated on many occasions in this House, the notion of rushing through legislation in all Stages is lamentable in every circumstance. I do not disagree that it is occasionally necessary. However, we have a poorly drafted Bill here. My amendment No. 20 deals with exactly the issue that Senator McDowell raised about the definition of "occupier". There is a perfectly valid, tested and tried definition in section 151 of the Broadcasting Act 2009 that would, in my view, cover the bases. We recognise that, as the Minister of State comes to this House today, it is difficult, if not impossible, for this House to amend this Bill. That reality is a bit of a slap in the face and a gesture of significant disrespect for the role the Seanad plays constitutionally in the passing of legislation. I do not blame the Minister of State for that. As a House, we should be making clear that we do not accept the model whereby, as has happened on a number of occasions in the context of Covid emergency legislation, legislation should pass all Stages in a single leap, as it will today.
However, I support the Bill. However unfortunate, it is a necessary provision.
I begin by repeating what I said in the Seanad yesterday and, indeed, many of my colleagues have been saying over the past number of days, that is, that Sinn Féin in opposition wants to achieve the same thing as the Government in relation to this pandemic. We want to see the virus brought under control in the interest of saving lives and we want to be constructive in opposition. However, as we have been saying over the past number of days, the level of co-operation between the Government and the Opposition over the past three or four months has been in decline in regards to co-operation to deal with this pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, there was very good co-operation. We are not seeing enough of that at present. We are certainly not being briefed enough and communication is lacking.
We are all tired of Covid. People are tired of Covid. People are tired of the media speculation, tired of renewed restrictions and certainly tired of the Government and the chaos seen in government in many circumstances.
Our country is trying to cope with a virus and, unfortunately, we are doing so by imposing some of the tightest restrictions. In the here and now, we must protect public health against the virus and those restrictions are necessary. However, I cannot help but feel we could have done a lot more in the past few months. We are where we are because we need to protect the health system from being overwhelmed but this is a broken health system, which can barely cope with a normal winter flu surge, never mind a global pandemic. The Government has missed opportunities to make sustainable improvements in the health system through its winter plan and in its budget. We are in level 5 restrictions because of a number of failures from the start. The Government has had ample opportunity to get contact tracing right and build it up to capacity. This Government, the Minister for Health, the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach have ignored calls and warnings from Senators, Deputies and the general public to pay attention to the evident problems. The Government consistently denies there are issues with testing and testing.
The Bill gives extreme powers to the Minister for Health to make regulations in future. These include the power to set fines and determine the types of regulations that are subject to fines and the types of breaches that have to go to court. This type of legislation needs proper scrutiny and there is no excuse for not having it. The amendments put forward by Sinn Féin seek to address this issue, although it is unlikely, as a number of Senators have said, that we will be able to debate any of the almost 50 amendments.
Sinn Féin has also tabled amendments to remove the threat of imprisonment. I listened to Senator Byrne's point on repeat offenders but that is not what the Bill addresses. This legislation provides that prison sentence may be imposed on first-time, second-time and other offenders. We have put forward amendments to address this issue because custodial sentences are not appropriate in this instance. I do not accept the decision to rule the amendment out of order. I appreciate it was not the Acting Chairman who made the ruling. Amendment No. 37 proposed to introduce measures to bring about regulations for businesses such as meat factories, many of which disregard regulations and sometimes put workers' health and public health in danger. It is regrettable that it was ruled out of order.
In March when this nightmare began, we saw widespread solidarity throughout the country. We must try to regain that solidarity and find ways to rebuild confidence among the community. Unfortunately, this Bill in its current form does not do that. Most people follow guidelines as best they can and abide by the rules to protect each other and the most vulnerable. The sensible approach for us all must be, in the first instance, to encourage, as the Garda has done, those people who are not compliant to understand the guidelines and comply for the greater good. If people continue to refuse to obey the rules, there may be circumstances in which some level of enforcement is required. Sinn Féin shares the concerns articulated by Garda representatives and various bodies that the overly punitive approach proposed by the Government in this Bill risks alienating people even further. It could undermine efforts to regain the solidarity needed to achieve high levels of compliance. The Government's approach to this legislation could make the situation worse. High numbers of fixed penalty notices and threats of imprisonment for breaches of the guidance are not proportionate. We have proposed amendments seeking to address many of these issues. It is extremely regrettable that we will not be able to vote, I assume, on any of them.
I reiterate that we all support the public health messages and interventions which will allow us to try to get the virus back under control. However, these restrictions are hard and people need reassurance. People need to know there will be solid plan when we emerge from the next few weeks of restrictions. Without the amendments Sinn Féin and others have put forward, it will be impossible for us to support this Bill. I hope the Minister will give consideration to the many amendments before him to make this Bill in some way appropriate.
I was struck while reading this Bill by how, in such a short space of time and with the Government willing to tackle a crisis, compressive - albeit flawed, as Senator McDowell pointed out - and far-reaching legislation can be written, printed, amended, debated and passed through both Houses of the Oireachtas. While I agree the health crisis is of major national importance and is arguably one of the most importance issues facing both Houses today, I find myself wondering how effective this Government could be in tackling other crises facing society if it showed as much willingness to find solutions to issues such as evictions, homelessness, the lack of prosecution of domestic abusers and the seemingly eternal inability to curb Ireland's CO2 emissions.
There is an innate hypocrisy in the Government's response to this crisis. One example is housing and homelessness. When the Government wants to ban large gatherings in a short period of time on the grounds of health and safety, it can implement a fines system and give the Garda new authority to enforce it. However, parties - not house parties but political parties, which are much less craic - especially Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, seem to have struggled for the last five years with the largest public health problem pre-Covid, namely, housing and homelessness. I need not go through the negative impacts of homelessness. Being homeless is bad for physical, mental and material health. Rough sleepers see their health deteriorate at a rapid rate while living on the streets. Children living in hotel rooms experience more childhood injuries than those with access to outdoor space. We all know the impact of homelessness. It is, therefore, incredible to think that only today we passed the much-needed Residential Tenancies Bill but the Bill only allows for a ban on evictions during level 5, with a further grace period of ten days. How can we amend the Health Act to provide for far-reaching regulations and restrictions to our civil liberties extending to next June, that is, seven months, yet we will only extend the eviction ban for the duration of level 5? That does not make sense. Surely when we say we must bring in these drastic restrictions to try to stem the spread of Covid-19, we should also ensure that not one more person will become homeless during the same period. I do not understand the reasoning. If only the Government would respond with such speed, support and strong action to any other life-threatening societal woe that it does to Covid-19.
I will raise for what feels like the hundredth time since being elected to the 26th Seanad my annoyance and anger at how this Government treats the Opposition. We may as well have empty seats on this side of the House for all that the Green Party, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael care for parliamentary process. The disrespect shown to elected representatives of the Dáil and Seanad by ramming Bill after Bill through the Houses and allowing no meaningful debate is disgraceful. To print Bills 48 hours before we are expected to read and propose amendments to them is disgraceful. It is an authoritarian attitude which looks down on process, debate and opposition and deprives the public of proper scrutiny of legislation being brought forward by the Government.
I remind other Members that the purpose of the Seanad is to scrutinise legislation as it passes through the House. There are people here representing a variety of areas, constituencies and civil society groups but the one thing we are all supposed to do when we trot through the door and leave our representative group behind us is scrutinise legislation. To hurtle through legislation at breakneck speed is bonkers. It cannot be good for democracy or for ensuring robust legislation and fair and equitable laws. It is not good for maintaining the goodwill of this side of the House and our willingness to co-operate. We want to work with the Government to serve the people of Ireland. We want to scrutinise legislation. We want to offer constructive opposition but the Government is making than an extraordinarily difficult job.
My sense is that, as has been the way since we were elected to the Seanad, but especially in the past few days, the Minister will refuse outright to accept any amendments put down by the Opposition and we, on this side of the House, will valiantly try to engage and legislate effectively as we were elected to do. We recognise we are in extraordinary times and these call for extraordinary measures but they do not call for an extraordinary abandonment of the legislative process. Without debate, there can be no democracy and the behaviour of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party in both Houses in the past while tells me that the Government parties are happy to do without any debate in order to see through their legislation. What does this say about democracy in Ireland today?
We will support some of the amendments and we recognise the extraordinary need for this legislation at this extraordinary time.
We are extraordinarily fed up, disappointed, annoyed and teed off at the fact that everything is being rammed through, one day after another, and we have no time to engage in the legislative process for which we were elected. It is unacceptable to the people who elected us, to democracy and to the people we are supposed to ensure we have robust and fair legislation.
I will try to be brief, given that every Bill today is being rushed through all Stages. They will all have been guillotined before a full debate could happen, even in the compressed form of debate that has been allowed when Bills are pushed through all Stages. There will have been five guillotines in two days. These practices, as Senator Hoey noted, are not just disrespectful but damaging to democracy. The Minister of State, along with Ministers or other Ministers of State who appear before the House later, may plead the defence of "certain emergency circumstances". The problem, however, is that a similar approach, of railroading past Stages, of assuming there is nothing to be learned from the Opposition benches about the quality of legislation, and of non-meaningful engagement, has been applied throughout the past few months, not simply this week. Numerous Bills have been either pushed through all Stages or pushed through a combination of Committee and Report Stages. That is a real concern. This week, the guillotine has returned and is being used on five Bills.
It is bad for democracy when legislation is rushed in this way and the Stages of legislative scrutiny are skipped, but it is also really bad for the legislation in question. Senator McDowell pointed out just some of the problems with the Bill. Definitions that do not match up to how the powers are meant to work, for example, are exactly the kind of problem that can be fixed if there is a gap between Committee and Report Stages. That is exactly what the gap is for. It is not about scoring points but creating better legislation. Doing otherwise is a serious concern.
On the question of additional powers, they are not something the Garda has called for. The Policing Authority has been clear that this is not what it sought. The Garda Commissioner stated that if there were to be fines for breaches, the directions to the public and Garda members would need to be crystal clear. They are not crystal clear; they are muddy, ambiguous and there are areas for interpretation or where it is not clear who is liable. They are concerns. As I stated to the Minister of State's colleague in the Department of Health when she appeared before the House, we need to be clear about the failures in engaging and dealing with the Covid crisis thus far. There have been some areas of success but others of failure and shortfall. The latter have not been through a lack of powers but through failures in policy. They have been in cases where there has been either the wrong policy or where the right policy has been wrongly implemented. We were told we needed to rush through the powers to ensure that pubs would close. I do not know to what extent that legislation was used. Have there been numerous cases where the Garda has been able to use those powers and where, otherwise, pubs could have said "Go away." and kept going? I do not know, but the number of Covid cases has continued to increase and the measures granted at that time have not significantly contributed in a way that we can quantify, although if there is evidence of that, it might be useful.
Now the Government is seeking new powers and I have tabled a number of amendments in respect of them. One of the fundamental points, which I have made in a few amendments, is that there is a public duty to equality in human rights. Within that, there is a duty in respect of non-discrimination. It does not give me confidence that the Government is moving through the legislative Stages in this House with such speed. There is a further duty of the Department to ensure that any regulations or fines made under the legislation will be proofed to ensure they are considerate and mindful of the public duty to equality and the public obligations to human rights. Has that been addressed?
Senator McDowell pointed out some flaws and gaps in the Bill in regard to definitions. I am also concerned about the section that specifies how fines might be given to those who a garda believes may be about to go to a party. The language is in a future tense - that such persons be about to go to a party or about to enter a premises. The garda may give a direction and the fine is for not complying with that garda's direction, but there is a concern because that is very ambiguous. It again shows a certain mindset in creating these solutions where the legislators imagine that everyone lives in houses. In an apartment building, someone may just be going to his or her apartment. If a garda then directs the person to leave the area and the person says he or she just wants to go home, and if the garda's direction is wrong, the person's non-compliance with it may leave him or her open to a €1,000 fine. It will not be crystal clear if that is the standard.
I recognise that measures need to be taken, although I do not believe that these are the key ones. There may be some merit to the regulations but the fundamental problem is that the period lasting until June is excessive. If we are able to give only six weeks' protection in respect of evictions, surely we need a similarly cautious approach when giving the authorities the kinds of sweeping powers in the Bill.
It is regrettable, in the first instance, that we in the House have to bring forward legislation such as this. It is symptomatic of a desire on the part of certain people to ignore the basic guidelines. Looking through the window of where society currently is, there is the zero-Covid side on one extreme and, on the other, the herd immunity analysis. The reality is that most people are somewhere in the middle. They want to do what is right but they want to live with Covid. The Government will have to move more quickly to set out a strategy for how we will live with Covid over the coming months.
I listened to some of the debate in the other House. Sadly, a couple of Deputies, probably for political gain, took an extreme stance on the issue, rejecting the notion of working with the authorities on it. That kind of dog whistle from the Parliament gives rise to what we saw in Grafton Street on Wednesday night last, which is regrettable. I would very much prefer if we were not moving to level 5 and I have publicly stated we should not have done so. I think we should have given level 3 more time, but I will not harp on about it in the Chamber because the decision has been taken by the Government and it is now up to all of us who believe in democracy. There have been some fiery contributions, with people raising questions about this democratic institution, but this House and the other were democratically elected and decisions have been taken.
Turning to the legislation, I will defer to the former Attorney General when he raises the serious points he did. He did not do that for political gain or to grandstand, but as a practitioner of the law who fully understands the problem. It speaks to the issue of rushing through legislation. This is an emergency; why could we not have sat over the next couple of days? There are rare occasions where the House has to sit on a Saturday and a Sunday, and I do not think any of us would object to that. There were debates on other, previous items of legislation where I worried we were rushing through matters, including earlier today. We need to get serious about thrashing out legislation. There are people in the House with experience, such as Senator McDowell as a former Attorney General and a senior counsel, who can pick up legislation and immediately see holes in it. We will have to do our work a little better over the coming months.
There is one Senator's opinion that I always take into account and that I always enjoy listening to.
I would prefer not to be rushing through legislation. When I listen to Senator McDowell, whom Senator Dooley and others referred to as a very eminent legal person, on aspects of this Bill, I take his comments seriously and I do not rubbish them. His point is very well made. I would much prefer if we were in more normal times and could give plenty of time to debates. I am not a fan of rushing through or guillotining debates. While I accept we are in a difficult situation and uncharted waters, we could have done some of this next week. I was willing to come to the House next week, as I am sure were many others.
I agree with some aspects of the Bill. One of the biggest complaints I heard in my part of the country was that the Government was making announcements but the Garda could not do anything. People want some of these regulations, although perhaps not all of them. We hope they will bring people to realise that we are in a very serious situation. The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, who is from the same county as me, will try to take into account what I am saying, although I acknowledge Senator Ward's observation that we probably cannot change anything in the Bill now.
Incidents such as the event the Garda had to deal with last night are regrettable. I will not make discuss the matter in detail because 12 people were arrested. A soft approach was taken. I am told there was no hard action taken by the gardaí who were present but this is dangerous for society. In introducing legislation, we must take into account that some of the moves we make may benefit people such as those who gathered last night, rather than benefiting society. I hope this legislation will not have to be used. I acknowledge, as might the Minister of State, that some points, particularly relating to house gatherings, that probably require clarification.
The point I will make has nothing to do with the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, who is the Government representative in the House today. I have spent the past two days listening to Senators from all sides talk about rushing through legislation. Senator Ward spoke eloquently on this just now. It becomes a little like the boy who cried wolf when we continuously argue that Bills are emergency legislation which we need to get through. As a Government Senator, I find it increasingly difficult to continually defend emergency legislation.
On a more positive note, for any Members of this House who wish to be elected to the Dáil at the next election, the Minister of State provides a blueprint, having been elected and made a Minister of State on his first day. I congratulate him on having never lost an election in 21 years. Many of us have lost elections.
I did not plan to speak in this debate but I was watching from my office and when I heard Senator Byrne speak so eloquently about some of the anti-mask protests I wanted to comment. We always need to encourage people to go along with wearing masks and do it by consent but some people will continuously flout that. Their opposition to the democratic institutions of the State is motivated by such hatred that they will flout the regulations at every opportunity. I listened to the points made by Senators Higgins and McCallion that perhaps these are too prohibitive or that we might be going too far by fining people.
I made a different point.
My apologies. The Senator argued that the regulations may affect the solidarity of people. I do not believe it will. I believe it will actually enhance people's solidarity as I will explain. People have often said to me that they and their family are abiding by the rules and breaking their backs to do the right thing, yet they constantly see people on Facebook and other social media going out of their way to flout the regulations. They ask why there is no deterrent for those people, and why are they not being fined for continuously breaking the law? It is a last resort. Gardaí will not walk around with a notebook and pen doling out fines left, right and centre.
One Saturday six weeks ago, I was in Dublin and got caught up in the middle of one of these bloody anti-mask protests while waiting for a bus. The abuse that these head-the-balls, for want of a better term, gave to an elderly couple wearing masks who were waiting beside me. Protesters were sticking mobile phones in the couple's faces and telling them to take off their masks. It was madness of the highest degree and utterly wrong.
That is why this legislation is needed. Senators McDowell and Ward and others have pointed out various flaws. That is a problem that arises when Bills are rushed through the House in a day but I still fully support the Bill.
One of the things I find most galling about the anti-mask protests, which I saw on the day I was caught up in one, is the use of our national flag, the tricolour. These self-described patriots are the opposite of patriots. The real patriots are the doctors, nurses, teachers and front-line staff who have been fighting the battle against Covid day and night since it arrived on our shores at the start of the year. They are, and should be, applauded every day in this country. Those who go onto the streets to protest, cause upset, rabble-rouse and undermine the democratic institutions of this State are not patriots in any sense of the word. It is important that Members of this House and the public take a strong stand against them and say that behaviour is not acceptable. We will increase solidarity among people of we decide that something must be done when people repeatedly flout the laws of the land, put people in danger and give a two-fingered salute to everyone who goes along with the regulations. There must be some sort of deterrent. Senator Byrne alluded to going so far as imprisonment. I do not know if I would go that far but the Senator is not far wrong. We have seen this online where people walk around with their phones shouting and screaming at people, almost as if it was a badge of honour. I have seen them shouting and screaming at ushers and other members of staff here as they came to work. That is utterly wrong. The Minister of State is doing a great job and it is great to see him in the Seanad. This legislation is important to tackle those people.
There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice. I oppose this Bill, both its spirit and letter. I also oppose the way that it and other measures such as the extension of the sunset clause for Part 3 of the Health Act 2020 and other draconian legislation which underpins this Bill are being railroaded through the Oireachtas with little or no time for pre-legislative scrutiny or debate on amendments.
Speaking as an Independent Senator, without access to the machinery of the State or a party, I believe this hastening and compressing of the legislative process is extremely prejudicial. We should make no mistake, the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people of Ireland are being seriously eroded by the lockdown restrictions and the introduction of harsh enforcement powers and criminal sanctions, including fines and imprisonment to force compliance. The Government tries to blame the virus for damaging the health and wealth of the nation, when it is the Government that is doing so with its repressive lockdown policy. There is no end in sight. It has no real solution to allow us to live with this virus.
People are not stupid. The Government should not be treating them as such. If the Government had a sensible and sustainable plan to deal with the pandemic and allow people to get on with their lives, the people would adhere to reasonable and proportionate measures such as hygiene and social distancing. Criminalising people is a sign of failure on the part of this Government and that which preceded it. With this Bill, the Government is kicking people when they are down. It is losing the support and confidence of the people day by day with its ill-conceived, counterproductive and repressive measures. I oppose the introduction of further powers permitting the Minister to make regulations regarding fixed-penalty fines under section 31A of the Health Act 1947, as amended. The policing and enforcement powers and the creation of new criminal offences, fines and sanctions are quite extraordinary.
At a time when the people's morale is low, when they are under financial pressure, socially isolated, vulnerable and often unemployed and when the dole queues are expanding, we are kicking them. The Government has proposed a measure whereby members of the public can be fined €500 on the spot by members of An Garda Síochána for doing things that might not pose the slightest risk to anyone. In the context of prosecution, people can be fined up to €2,500 or be imprisoned for up to six months. I question just how fair, necessary or proportionate this is. I question whether these measures are necessary. I oppose the intrusion of An Garda Síochána into the lives and homes of innocent people.
I know very little about legislation. I know, however, that when someone like Senator McDowell points out a flaw and Senators from the Government party do the same, the Minister of State has a choice. He could decide to step out of the House tonight and come back tomorrow to amend the Bill and get it right. What is to stop him doing that? The fact that this legislation is being put in place from now until June 2021 is absolutely wrong. We are not going to bring the people with us. There have been seven deaths from Covid-19 tonight. That is very sad and all of those families have my sympathy. There have been 777 cases today, which represents a considerable drop in the numbers. Some 34% of those people are over 45 years of age. Yesterday, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, came before the House to tell us once again about the mistakes that are being made in nursing homes. We have not learned the lessons of the previous wave. However, we are punishing the people of this nation because of the failures of the Government and the health service it runs. I find that incredible.
I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. It was good to have him as a colleague in the Seanad previously.
A great colleague at that.
Indeed. I speak for the Labour Party, but our health spokesperson, Senator Hoey, has already very eloquently expressed our serious concerns with the rushed process by which this Bill is being railroaded through this House. There will be much less than one hour for Committee and Remaining Stages, which is really inadequate time to give these serious and draconian provisions adequate and due scrutiny. There are some 45 amendments. Second Stage has not yet been concluded and the guillotine is to be imposed in one hour. I wish to reiterate what Senator Hoey said, outline our serious reservations about the Bill and express our reasons for supporting the sensible amendments put forward by colleagues seeking greater oversight of the provisions of this legislation. Unfortunately, due to the guillotine, we may not get to speak on the amendments. Very few of them are likely to get any sort of adequate scrutiny. That is really unfortunate and to be regretted.
Yesterday, in a debate in this House on extending the sunset clauses in the Covid-19 legislation for a period of seven months, I began by expressing my sympathy in respect of all of those who have been bereaved due to Covid-19, the more than 1,800 people who have died, their families and those who have suffered the ill effects of the virus. We are hearing more and more about the awful long-term effects of Covid-19. In the past 24 hours we have heard the very tragic news of outbreaks in various nursing homes. I wish to express my solidarity and that of the Labour Party with all of those working on the front line, particularly in the health service. We will support and have supported the efforts of the Government and of everyone else to flatten the curve, curb community transmission rates and work together for the next six weeks to get to a point where we can exit these very severe restrictions.
While we are being constructive, however, we need to hear a much more coherent medium-term strategy from the Government, particularly in the context of exiting lockdown. We must know the criteria for exiting level 5 in six weeks. What strategies will the Government deploy to ensure that we will not be back under level 5 restrictions in the new year? How will we avoid successive rolling lockdowns, with their hideous effects on so many families, communities, businesses and workers throughout Ireland? It is simply not sustainable to go straight from level 2 or level 3 to level 5. It is not what was envisaged in the framework for living with Covid-19, a plan that we supported because we saw it as a pragmatic approach. In order to live with Covid-19, as it seems we must, we must have a strategy beyond the six-week level 5 lockdown. We need huge investment in contact tracing staff. I have heard the Minister of State's colleagues talk of going from the current complement of 400 up to 750 or 800. Will that be enough to have the capacity to monitor outbreaks and identify and isolate close contacts to prevent the spread we very sadly saw in September and throughout the last month? That spread was seen after our gargantuan efforts succeeded in flattening the curve during the summer. We need reassurance on that point.
We also need investment in rapid testing. There is no sense of investment in that. That is the only way to ensure buy-in from the public and from all of us regarding the necessary public health measures. I have serious difficulties with the proposal to use the blunt instrument of the criminal law to enforce compliance. I have said before in this House and elsewhere that our best weapons in the fight against Covid-19 are goodwill, social solidarity and support across our communities. Introducing draconian legislation for a seven-month period, including provision for on-the-spot fines, is not an appropriate means of response. Why are we introducing on-the-spot fines when the District Court has not been overwhelmed by prosecutions for minor breaches of the penal provisions for which the law already provides? I have real concerns about that. Reading SI 448 of 2020, the new statutory instrument signed by the Minister for Health at 11.50 p.m. last night, I have real concerns about the breadth and scope of the penal provisions already in place, provisions which will be furthered by this legislation.
We welcomed section 5 of that statutory instrument, which provides for paired households, the social bubbles that our Labour colleague, Senator Moynihan, has taken a lead in advocating. That is very welcome. We do not see any Government commitment to extend protections for workers, tenants and families for anything like the extended lifetime of the emergency legislation. There has been no seven-month extension of the eviction ban and there has been no commitment to introducing the statutory sick pay that we in the Labour Party have been pushing for some time.
I have outlined our reservations about the legislation. I also have a question. As this Bill amends the Health Act 1947, I would like the Minister of State to confirm that section 5(5) of that Act will apply to any new regulations made subsequently to the passage of this Bill so that such regulations can be annulled by resolution of either House within 21 sitting days. Deputy Feighan's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, stated that the measures could be repealed or shortened by ministerial order.
It would be good to hear a suggestion or confirmation of an exit strategy from the Government.
When will we see an end to these draconian measures and penal provisions regarding travelling more than 5 km from one's home, visiting people and house parties? There are better ways to achieve public compliance and to ensure that we all continue to work together to flatten the curve. We would have infinitely preferred a far less rushed process for debating this very important and substantial legislation.
My contribution will be very short. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, to the House. I wish him well and congratulate him on his new position. I fully support this Bill, which is needed to underpin the level 5 restrictions which have been put in place. The reality is that there was very limited adherence to the guidelines that were previously proposed. That is why are we back at level 5. We need stronger measures to support our doctors, nurses, teachers and all those who work, and have worked over recent months, on the front line to deal with Covid.
The reality is that businesses will struggle to reopen and their owners will struggle to save their livelihoods. We have seen people flout the rules because there have been no implications for doing so over recent months. House parties have been held, shebeens have been set up and so on. We need these new regulations to save businesses and, more importantly, to save lives, which is what it is all about.
I thank all of the Senators for their contributions. There was considerable discussion and the House has heard many views. It is a very difficult and dangerous time. I hope that we can come to a resolution.
Senator Byrne talked about issues affecting the retail sector such as it not being possible to buy socks in a shop while socks are on sale in large supermarkets. I have heard many retailers and businesses expressing their concern at the unfairness of this. The situation to which the Senator was referring is evolving. Some businesses are now beginning to stock personal protection equipment or otherwise setting out to deliberately flout the law. The latest regulations specify that only the part of the retail outlet selling the essential goods may open. The same goes for essential services. I hope that will clarify-----
That is not happening in reality.
The regulation needs to be implemented. I accept that is an issue. Senator McDowell has very strong views and an understanding of the law. I appreciate his views. He has said that the Bill was badly drafted and that he has great difficulties with it. I have to take that on board. He talked about questions as to who was the householder and whether a son would not be deemed to be an occupier and so on. He rightly articulated these issues. The provisions do not cover all circumstances but aim to simplify prosecution. They have their limitations. We understand that this is emergency legislation and that it has its limitations. It introduces additional powers for An Garda Síochána under section 31A and is a step forward. I take on board the issues the Senator has raised regarding the occupier. The Senator also feels the Bill is seriously defective and not workable.
Senator Conway talked about the fines and the challenges of level 5. People are seriously ill and people will die. I appreciate the Senator's views. Senator Ward has said this Bill is unfortunate but necessary, if I interpret him correctly. He would prefer a consent model and to see the carrot and stick used. He was talking about rushing through all Stages of legislation but these are very difficult times. It is an issue which the Senator has discussed. He also talked about the difficulty in amending the Bill because the guillotine is to be used at 8 p.m.
Senator McCallion has said that Sinn Féin wants to save lives and spoke about the level of co-operation with the Government. She feels that while there had been good co-operation, the Opposition is no longer being briefed enough. I will bring that message back to my colleagues. All the parties are briefed but we will take on board the issue the Senator has raised. She talked about encouragement by gardaí and about an overly punitive approach, in respect of which she has tabled amendments. She also said that she supports the public health amendments, although she has difficulties with the approach taken.
Senator Hoey also stated that the legislation is flawed. She has been constructive in opposition and I recognise the work the Labour Party has done over the years. She highlighted issues of debate and democracy very articulately.
Senator Higgins also talked about the Bill being rushed through all Stages. She rightly mentioned the gap between Committee and Report Stages. We would sometimes like to see a gap of two or three days between these and not to rush things through but it seems this was not possible in this case. She talked about flaws in the Bill and we will take on board what she said about apartment blocks. I would like to think we will be able to address that.
Senator Dooley talked about people who have a desire to ignore the regulations. They are probably the reason this Bill is being brought in. He talked about people in the Dáil making dog-whistle comments and hoping to bring people out on the streets to defy the implementation of the health regulations. Sometimes it may be more of a foghorn than a dog whistle. This can be very concerning.
Senator Murphy talked about his difficulties with rushing legislation through and how he hoped Stages of this Bill would be taken next week. In light of the situation we face, it was seen to be very important that it be brought through as quickly as possible. He also talked about a carrot-and-stick approach. This works but there are people who want to undermine these measures. They have their own views but the way they express these views leads perfectly on to what Senator McGahon spoke about. He outlined very graphically the situation of the elderly couple at the bus stop. I was talking to ushers at the convention centre today and they said that, at the protest outside the Dáil yesterday, people were spitting on ushers and members of staff, and were taking photographs. All staff members deserve the protection of their employers. We are the Government. It is hard to believe that people feel that they can spit, spread the virus and infect somebody, who may infect somebody else meaning that somebody may die, and that they can get away with it. What is wrong in this country? What is wrong with these people who think they can get away with doing such a thing? That is why this legislation is being brought in. It is a reaction to these senseless, moronic people who think they can control our country. The middle ground must hold. The Senator is absolutely right; these people wear the national flag and call themselves patriots.
It is an insult to the doctors, nurses, teachers and other front-line staff who have put so much, including their lives, at risk to try to save lives. Imperfect as it is, this legislation is trying to protect and save people's lives.
Senator Keogan spoke about the intrusion of An Garda Síochána and the seven deaths from Covid today. I did not see the figures on the 700 cases. I am not sure if the reduction is due to it being a Friday. If there is a reduction it is good to see. Nobody wanted it, but I hope that by bringing the restrictions to level 5 we can reduce the rate for the next two weeks.
Senator Bacik spoke of the Labour Party group and adequate time for the 45 amendments we may not get around to. The Senator referred to flattening the curve and the move straight from level 2 or level 3 to level 5. This is a strange and uncertain time and we had to go to level 5 on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and NPHET. The Senator spoke of her concern about capacity in the system. The Senator also spoke of criminal law, goodwill and social solidarity and a less worse process, which I can understand.
Senator Carrigy referred to people who have limited adherence to these regulations and he spoke of his support for the doctors, nurses and the front-line staff. The Senator said that house parties and shebeens had to be stopped. We have seen it in every town, village and city that there are people out there, perhaps through social media or they are being mobilised and it is deeply frustrating. There is also a silent majority out there who want to comply with the law, who are doing their utmost, who have been cocooning for the past seven months, who are staying within the 5 km radius, and who actually want to save lives. These are the people the Bill tries to support. This is why the Bill will go through the House. I believe that everyone would agree the health and safety of people in Ireland must take precedence. Ultimately, this is why the Bill is before the House. It is to support the people of Ireland in tackling the spread of the virus and to show we are on the right track to getting back to some semblance of normality as a nation. The Government can bring in Bills and legislation, can support the front-line staff of doctors, nurses, teachers, gardaí and ambulance drivers, but the Government cannot do everything. The Government cannot wash people's hands for them. That is up to the people out there. We are in this situation because people may have become complacent. Perhaps we all got complacent. We are in a situation where our country is in peril and we have to dig deeper and we have to make more sacrifices.
I thank each and every citizen of this country and politicians from all parties and all strata of society in working together to suppress this awful virus. As the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has said, there will be bright times ahead. In a year's time we will talk about having beat the virus. We can only beat it together and we can only beat it by working together. There are times, however, when we must bring in legislation when some outliers want to undermine the State. There are times when we must stand firm and united, take on these insidious individuals, and work together to beat the virus.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.