I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I note the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is also present.
As a Deputy who represents Limerick city, I will speak about the latest lockdown and its impact and make a number of observations which I hope will feed into Government policy. What exactly is the Government's policy on fighting Covid-19? Is it a lockdown and release approach, that is, one of containment, as we are currently pursuing, or will we have measures for living with the virus? The Government has said the policy will be based on waiting until a vaccine arrives. By definition, this means it will adopt a policy of living with the virus, which is one I would support.
We need to see the exit mechanism for the current lockdown. What metrics will the Government use? If we want people to support this current lockdown, the public is entitled to know what these metrics are. The circumstances of the first lockdown were entirely different. A major pandemic had broken out in Italy and the attitude of the public at the time was that we had to deal with it head on.
We were coming into spring at that time. We are now coming into the depths of winter and we need to look at things differently. What is the process by which the Minister is going to indicate to the public that we are to exit lockdown? I understand we have to look at two incubation cycles. These cycles are two weeks, leading to a total of four weeks. We must then see whether the R-nought rate is below 1 and whether there has been a reduction in the number of new cases. NPHET has spoken about a rate of less than 0.5. What is the Government's position? The public needs to know. The position must be realistic. I welcome that the virus incidence is now broken down by district electoral division and that we can get this information every week. People need to know what is working. We all want to fight the virus. The problem is that many members of the public believe that some of the measures being brought in will not assist in reducing the risk or the spread of the virus. Measures such as the closure of golf courses and gyms and stopping tennis being played need to be explained.
What is the exit strategy? People need to see a realistic light at the end of the tunnel. What are the metrics to be considered before it can be indicated to the public that we can exit lockdown? When we do, are we to go level 3?
The previous lockdown had an enormous impact on various groups of people in the community, and on the elderly in particular. I fear that many of them will find it impossible to come through this lockdown. Support must be put in place. Lockdown causes isolation and prevents these people from exercising in their normal way or going up the town to meet their neighbours. These are everyday things we take for granted. We need to look at that cohort. We also need to consider mental illness and the impact on students during a period of their lives that should be very exciting. They are now undertaking distance learning. The Minister referenced this issue on "Morning Ireland". It is something about which I feel very strongly.
I work in metrics. As an accountant, I want to see discernible results and risk-based analysis. The World Health Organization has said that, over the next six weeks, we need to straighten our position so that we can come out of lockdown and live with the virus. We do not know when a vaccine will come so, by definition, we will have to live with the virus. What measures are to be implemented over the next six weeks apart from the lockdown, which will, it is to be hoped, stop the virus from spreading? It is a very crude way of doing so, however. I would prefer a more sophisticated and risk-based way of doing so which would allow us to live with the virus.
Businesses are closing. Many family businesses may never open again. Businesses that have been set up are struggling. I speak to those in the business community regularly. I come from that background myself. They are realistic. They realise that the introduction of measures is now required but they want to see the metrics. As the days and weeks go by, there may be indications that the rate is decreasing. This should be considered on a county and electoral area basis. Analysis should be conducted as to whether specific sectors increase risk as some do not. This should be handled in an evolving manner. It is to be hoped that in four weeks the R-nought rate will be well below 1 and the rate of new infections will be decreasing, but what are we going to do over the next four weeks to ensure we can come out of lockdown and live with the virus until a vaccine is found, whenever that might be?
That will require us to know what the capacity in our hospitals is and whether our ICU capacity is sufficient. We will have to know whether the number of staff in the health sector is sufficient. We may need to examine our contact tracing arrangements. The Minister will appreciate that what has happened over the past few days has brought the public's belief in the system into question. There are fantastic people working in the HSE, both in contact tracing and other areas. I deal with them on the ground. They work seven days a week. For us to get on top of this virus, we must be aggressive and must work collectively at every level, including the levels of Departments and of the public itself.
The basics still apply. I agree with Deputy Barry on very little but he referred to the basics such as wearing a mask, staying 2 m apart and protecting the vulnerable, including the elderly. I am very conscious of the elderly. I worry that many of them will be very isolated over the next four weeks. It is very important that additional resources are allocated to ensure that they are all visited, if not by family then by services. We must also look at the mental health side. Over the next six weeks, I want to see what we have learnt that we can now implement so that, come the start of December, we will be able to tell the public what level we are moving to as we come out of level 5 and what metrics must be met to go to different levels. It is important that there be a meeting of minds between Government and NPHET on these issues because everyone should be working in the common interest of the public.
First and foremost, I am a Deputy for the people of the constituency of Limerick city. I wanted to contribute to this debate to feed into Government policy. What metrics will the Minister use to determine when to indicate to the public that we are exiting lockdown? What is the Government's policy on Covid? Is it a policy of lockdown and release, which is to say containment, or a policy of living with the virus? Is it an evolving policy? What will the Minister look for so that specific areas will not have to go into lockdown? What metrics such as R-nought rate or number of cases will he look for? If the number of cases is coming down, the public will need to see that they will ultimately benefit from that decrease.
Many people were exceptionally law-abiding and accepted very great restrictions on their daily lives. These people see us going into level 5 and are saying that they did everything by the book and did nothing wrong while the system was being abused in other areas. From speaking with the public, I believe they want to fight this virus, but they want a strategy to be put in place over the next four to six weeks that they will understand and can buy into. They want to see the metrics that must be met to go to different levels. They want to see that we will be able to live with the virus in our daily lives and will keep the schools open, which is very important, get the colleges back to some level of normality, and allow businesses to reopen. Many businesses were able to operate under level 3, albeit with great difficulty. What is the Minister's plan for the next six weeks so that, by the end of that period, we can exit level 5? What is the strategy for living with, and the fully enhanced risk-based model for fighting, this dreadful virus, which has had an enormous impact on our lives, based on definable metrics and understandable empirical evidence, so that the public will understand?