I welcome this opportunity to update the House on Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19. Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the enormous impact this virus has had on our society. Every corner of the country has been affected on some level and it has touched every county, community and family. We have had to stay away from friends and family members for months. Some people have lost their jobs and others have lost businesses that they had dedicated their lives to building. Some sectors have been particularly badly hit. The arts community, the people to whom we turn to keep us going, inspire and comfort us in dark times, has been decimated by the virus. The arts thrive on people gathering together for shared experiences and that is the very thing that Covid-19 forces us to limit.
The same applies to the hospitality sector, sports and many other areas of our country, community and lives. Those groups, like the arts community, have done everything they can to respond to the challenges of Covid-19. They have adapted, innovated and worked tirelessly but the inescapable need for less social interaction in order to suppress this virus has come at a high cost to all of these sectors in every county across the nation.
We have not been able to celebrate weddings, birthdays, communions and many other of life's milestones as we would want. At funerals, we have not been able to say goodbye, pay our respects and mourn the deceased as we need to.
We now have more than 36,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland. We have reported the deaths of 1,804 women and men from Covid-19. I express my deepest sympathies, as well as those of the Government, to the families and friends of every single one of these women and men.
I pay tribute to the front line workers who have worked tirelessly since early this year. Our healthcare workers have played an absolutely vital role in combating this disease and caring for those who needed healthcare when they were affected by it. Other public services, including An Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces, local authority staff and many others are to be commended by us on their commitment to this national effort. Tragically, some healthcare workers lost their lives while caring for others during this pandemic. I pay particular tribute to them, their families and their loved ones.
The virus is having a huge impact internationally. There are more than 33 million confirmed cases and in excess of 1 million confirmed deaths from Covid-19. We are not alone in trying to devise a strategy to limit the growth of this virus and its impact on our people, communities, economy and lives.
It is clear at this point that the virus is going to be with us for some time. While we cannot be certain how long that will be, we nevertheless have to plan our society and live with the virus in the meantime. Chapter one in our fight against Covid-19 involved closing the country down in order to flatten the curve. While that came at an extraordinarily high price for many people, it worked. It is not something we can continue to do. Therefore, we are taking a new approach.
This is chapter two, keeping the country open while suppressing the virus, moving early and targeting the virus where we know it spreads so as to protect lives, resume health care services, keep our schools, colleges and childcare facilities open and protect jobs. The resilience and recovery plan provides us with a way of navigating chapter two, allowing society and businesses to operate as normally as possible while continuing to suppress the virus. It is designed to help individuals, organisations and sectors to better understand, anticipate and prepare for measures that might need to be introduced as the virus moves through the country.
The framework in the plan brings clarity and certainty to how we will move forward with opening our society at this time. Inherent in the framework is a prioritisation of activities. It represents a move away from the short term emergency response that was needed to a medium-term risk management of the virus, including repairing the impact Covid-19 has had on our economy and society.
Given the constantly evolving nature of this pandemic, it is critical that a certain amount of flexibility is built into the plan to allow for a nuanced approach. This allows our public health doctors and the Government to take account of disease profile and trajectory at a given time and to make decisions accordingly. Each numbered level in the plan corresponds to the measures that will be in place as a result of the pattern and progress of Covid-19 in a particular county or region at a particular time. This is a framework to help guide decision-making by each of us individually as well as collectively and a society.
The measures at each level have been carefully developed by our public health doctors and specialists in infectious diseases. The national framework is built on three pillars. The first of these is healthy people. This involves taking personal responsibility and following the public health guidelines as a first line of defence. It also includes accessible and sustainable testing and tracing, the flu vaccine, non-Covid health and social care services and additional capacity for new ways of delivering non-Covid care.
The second pillar is strong businesses . These include the employment wage subsidy available to the end of March next year, the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, which is remaining open to new entrants and has been extended to April of next year, loans, grants, rate waivers, vouchers and other support schemes for small and medium enterprises, enhanced restart grants worth more than €550 million, €200 million in training and support for people who have lost jobs, and €500 million in capital works. A stay and spend tax incentive is in place from October to April of next year. There is a six-month VAT reduction from 23% to 21%. The Covid-19 illness benefit has been extended until the end of March next year and local authorities will develop local recovery initiatives.
The third pillar is resilient communities. There will be a strong focus on the well-being and resilience of our communities and a programme of well-being activities and initiatives will be delivered locally, including supporting healthy living, physical activity, managing chronic disease, positive ageing and the needs of young people. There will be local community and voluntary group funding to enable them to adapt their services. Libraries will expand online and digital book delivery services will take place. There will be a permanent volunteer reserve corps established in every county, and individual mental health supports will be provided.
In tandem with the plan, I am working with the HSE to develop services as part of the winter plan to ensure that resources are devoted to those areas that will see the most benefit as we approach the seasonal impacts on our hospitals and other healthcare services. Central to all of our efforts is a robust testing and contact tracing strategy for the virus. The HSE and Department have worked intensively over recent months to put in place a comprehensive, reliable and responsive testing and tracing regime.
The HSE has increased resources significantly, including optimising and maximising our laboratory testing capacity on the island. The HSE is finalising its future service model for testing and contact tracing at this time. This includes recruiting a permanent workforce as well as other service improvements. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, continues to be a vital resource for the Government, advising on public health measures and strategies to limit the growth of virus in our society. It continues to monitor the emerging international evidence and the advice of the WHO and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC.
In the absence of a vaccine for Covid-19, the advice for the public continues to be to limit the number of people we meet outside our homes and the time we spend with people. It includes wearing a face covering on public transport, in shops and in other indoor settings, avoiding crowded places as much as we can, avoiding public transport where possible and walking or cycling instead – that is obviously not possible for all people at all times - avoiding places where we cannot keep 2 m apart from each other where possible, and working from home if possible. I recognise that many people, including many essential workers, simply cannot work from home, but there are measures that can be taken in some instances, such as social distancing.
We have seen very positive responses to the communication of this roadmap. The high number of people wearing face coverings, for example, demonstrates the solidarity in our society in respect of dealing with this virus. We must continue this solidarity if we are to suppress the virus.
We have come a long way since March. We have learned to live in a world with this virus. We have reopened many aspects of our society and economy. Around a million children have returned to school. Students are returning to college. Our health services are resuming. The majority of society is open, despite the highly infectious and dangerous disease circulating among us.
We succeeded in doing these things thanks to the collective efforts of all of us to adhere to the guidelines, as well as to the expert knowledge and advice from our public health doctors and specialists and the dedication and hard work of our frontline workers. Right now, we need individually and collectively to keep doing the basics right. This is what the vast majority of people are doing everyday. We have the power to adhere to the public health guidelines. The regulations in place are designed to assist each of us to make choices to reduce the risk to ourselves, our family and our vulnerable loved ones. I urge everyone to listen to the public health doctors, to the public health advice and I ask all Members of this House to use their influence to support this message, support our public health doctors and the national guidelines in place. Together we will suppress this virus. We will keep people safe. We will keep our schools and colleges open, protect jobs and continue this fight. I thank the House.