I thank the Senators for their contributions on this resolution. We had a very good and wide-ranging debate and everybody who wanted to contribute was able to do so.
I will start by addressing the amendment put forward, which effectively seeks to change the extension in the sunset clause from the one proposed by the Government to a date in February. A similar amendment was put forward in the other House and rejected. I cannot accept the amendment in this House. All of us need to be realistic. Covid-19 will not be a thing of the past within the next three months. Even if we have suppressed the virus in the new year and a vaccine becomes available, and I certainly hope it does, it will still be months before it is rolled out to everybody across the country. That is the reason the Government introduced a recovery and resilience plan for living with Covid-19. That lasts until the summer of 2021. The Government is proposing 9 June 2021 because we do not want to be having the same debates in both Houses every few months when nothing materially has changed and we are effectively in the same situation. There is more important work to be done in this House than repeating debates every few weeks that may not be regarded as the best use of time when nothing materially has changed.
I wish the situation was different. I wish that such measures were not necessary. While it is hoped the situation will improve soon, we have to base our proposals in reality. We are trying to give people certainty and a realistic view of where we might be next year. We are also trying to give people clarity by aligning the dates of the various instruments to each other to ensure people will have that clarity in terms of where they are under the various regulations when they apply.
Therefore, I do not accept the amendment to the resolution.
I welcome the comments from Senator Ward. He acknowledges that there is no realism to the idea of Covid-19 effectively being removed or successfully dealt with by February. I certainly hope that it will be dealt with by June but there is no certainty to that. We can have this debate again in June if the measures need to be extended further. I hope they will not be but there is a real possibility that they will be needed.
As Senator Ward pointed out, not a single closure order has been made. This has not proven to be draconian. It has been in place to change people's behaviour, and that has been done successfully. Before these rules came in, gardaí noted and commented that when they attended to the small minority of publicans who were not adhering to the spirit of the law, they took the view that they could have taken action there and then but some of those publicans would simply have repeated the same challenges to the regulations as before. This has not really been happening since the regulations have been in place. The Garda Commissioner is satisfied that they have a purpose and that they are successful in changing people's behaviour.
I listened to the comments of Senator McDowell. I accept absolutely that the Government must be kept to account for all these emergency measures. These are extraordinary powers - I accept that. The rationale requiring these powers will still be with us in February. That is the aspect of realism to this. June is a rational date because it aligns with the other regulations in place. I expect that if there is a situation whereby these regulations are not needed at any point between now and June, whether by a natural result or through vaccines, they could be removed and I expect that they would be removed. Until such a time, I believe June is an appropriate date.
Hope is always necessary. Hope is very important, but as with Trump, hope sometimes veers into something purely based on faith. At times, at the start of the pandemic, there was hope based on delusion. There is a fine balance to be found. I absolutely accept that people need hope. We must be optimistic as a country, a Government and a Parliament. However, in terms of governance, that optimism and hope must be based on evidence and realism. There is always a balance to be found in that sense.
Reference was made to discussing the issues in the debate. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, stated in the Dáil that she is happy to go before the Joint Committee on Justice or any committee to further debate this at any time. If a request is put in, she will do so.
Senator Gallagher raised the issue of publicans and the serious situation they are in. Before going into the law I studied at DIT Cathal Brugha Street and worked in the hotel and catering industry. I worked in bars and in other parts of the hotel industry for 13 years. I am keenly aware of and understand the suffering publicans are going through at the moment. They are all shut at the moment so to a certain degree these rules are not going to be imposed. They apply to all the pubs that have stayed shut. I heard Senator Gallagher's comments on the greater need for flexibility. Certainly, the Garda has shown flexibility and understanding with a rationale.
Senator Bacik referred to the high level of compliance. These regulations were only ever needed for a small minority of publicans who were simply not adhering to the rules. When the Garda Síochána approached a minority of them, they simply would not comply. I believe the regulations are needed, but no closure orders have been given. Aligning the regulations to June with the other regulations gives us clarity. Often with a problem where we try to give more nuance it can lead to more confusion. There is a balance between finding flexibility to support as many parts of society as possible and not creating further confusion. I agree we need a clear exit strategy. We need to learn from every jurisdiction that has brought in rules and where they have been successful. Senators have mentioned the measures in Australia and Taiwan used to suppress the spread as much as possible. We have an open Border with the Six Counties. That will always represent a challenge - I will not use the word "difficulty" because I want to see a date when we have a 32-county republic in the country. That is the reality of it. I note the comments from the Senator about gardaí and the great work they are doing.
Senator Dooley raised several important points. The powers are in place. They were extensively debated on the previous occasion. The primary purpose is to change behaviour and I believe they have done that. That has been acknowledged. No premises have been closed down. The key issue is the time for review rather than the actual emergency regulations that are needed. They are needed for the moment. They will be removed as soon as they are no longer necessary. Again, for the same reasons, I believe June is the appropriate date, but I appreciate all the contributions on providing an alternative date. They are well made and genuine and have a good rationale behind them. It is a question of judgment whether it is February, March, April, May or June. I have articulated the rationale we have put forward.
Senator Martin referred to how vigilance is important. I agree that a cautionary approach is always best. Senator Martin raised some concerns about consultations. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, has invited the leaders of the various parties for a discussion on this issue. The Minister has stated that during this period of the extension she is happy to go to the Joint Committee on Justice or any committee for that matter for further consultation. In fairness to the Minister, she has always been amenable to discussing any issue under her remit.
Senator Higgins raised several important points. With Covid-19, policy is critical but ultimately we will not defeat Covid with policy. We either need nature to remove it, which is highly unlikely, but it is always something we can hope for. Otherwise, we need a vaccine to get it under control. We all have to hope for that.
Senator Murphy rightly praised the people and all the sacrifices they have made. No matter what sector they are in they have made fantastic sacrifices. It has only been a small minority who have not co-operated.
A number of people raised the issue of mental health. As a former spokesperson for mental health I know they have made a serious and important point. I wish to make one statement on this for people. Social distancing does not mean social isolation. We already had an epidemic of loneliness in this country before Covid-19 and now it has been exacerbated. I have talked to various people who deal with day care centres for people with disabilities or older people. They said when they started to open up these centres in September or October they were ringing people. People rang back and the nurses and support staff said they could not get them off the telephone. In some cases it was the first telephone call or conversation the people had made in weeks. Much has been done in the area of mental health but more needs to be done.
Senator Keogan should note I am absolutely not targeting any sector or industry in this country. The decisions are being made based on policy, which is in turn based on evidence. It is based on people's activities. That is where the levels come in. The assertion that no supports are being given was made. A total of €20 billion extra has been put into the State this year and €20 billion will be put in next year. This is an unbelievable and unprecedented level of funding and supports being put into the State. To say the supports have not been put in place is without foundation.
Reference was made to free will. Unfortunately, Covid-19 does not recognise free will. Again, I hope it is removed as soon as possible. Reference was made to a complete lack of debate. These measures were debated extensively when they were first brought in. This was debated in the Dáil this week. It is being debated in the Seanad today. The leaders were invited to meet the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee. She is available to attend a committee if anyone requests it. Any allegation of a lack of debate is completely without foundation.
I listened to the comments of Senator Boyhan. The point is that a small minority of people are consistently breaking the rules. That is the reality of life. It is always a small minority who cause the most damage in our society. We need always to find a balance to address that inasmuch as possible.
I have tried to address as many points as possible. I recognise all the contributions from the Senators are well made and genuine. I understand the rationale. These are serious powers. They should only be left in position for as long as necessary. While we may not agree on all points, I know every Senator in the House agrees that we must do what we can to protect the public from the virus. This includes protecting the health of licensees as well as their staff and customers. I know the Members of the House believe in fairness.
These enforcement powers are about fairness and ensuring that all licensees play their part in the national effort. The Garda has acted sensibly and avoided using its powers to date, and I believe absolutely that approach will continue. I thank the Senators for the debate.