Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act) 2020 - Part 3: Motion (Resumed)

The following motion was moved by the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly on 22 October 2020:
That Dáil Éireann resolves that the amendments effected by Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 (No. 1 of 2020) shall continue in operation for the period beginning on the 9th day of November, 2020 and ending on the 9th day of June, 2021.
Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:
To delete the words ‘9th day of June, 2021’ and to substitute the words ‘9th day of February, 2021’ therefor.
- Deputy David Cullinane

I trust the Minister will come in for the remainder of this debate. Before the break, I was saying we would be much better off concentrating on building solidarity through clear messaging because the messaging has been very weak so far. It is really important to bring the public along with any new restrictions to ensure they see that there is a logic to those, that they are reasonable and that there is a basis for introducing them rather than just guesswork.

The main way to build solidarity is by providing political leadership in this and the Government being seen to play its part fully. Regrettably, that has not been the case in recent times, most notably in respect of all the promises on testing and tracing. This was the mainstay of the Government plan and at no point has that system was worked properly or to the extent that was required. What happened last week on tracing is very regrettable. It is very hard to understand why people in government seem to have been taken by surprise about that. This was flagged very clearly two weeks ago by Dr. Anne Dee when she talked about the pressures on public health staff who were doing the tracing. It has been flagged for a long time that public health has been a very neglected area. Many people did not even know it existed until the pandemic broke out. That is some time ago now. We know that the sector has been under-resourced. It is critical at all times, but especially during a pandemic.

Then one must ask why staffing levels in public health are so poor. We have about a third of the number of public health doctors that are required and which other countries of comparable size have. Why have we not increased the staffing numbers since then? Why is there no such thing as a public health consultant? Some of these things were referred to in the budget but the Irish Medical Organisation told the Joint Committee on Health yesterday that no progress has been made on those at all and there has been no engagement. Is it any surprise that the tracing system runs into difficulties when the service is so under-resourced? A report published last year showed that we were 700 public health nurses short of the recommended level. They play such a critical role at community level in public health generally as well as the response to Covid. Not only have we not made any movement in increasing the numbers by the recommended 700 posts, but there are about 40 fewer public health nurses than there were at the start of the year. At the start of the year, our under-supply of critical care beds was identified. Even after the big-spending budget, where there was a complete lack of ambition in increasing the critical care beds to a recommended level, at the end of next year there will still be about 200 critical care beds short of what had been recommended prior to Covid, indeed that which was recommended ten years ago. Is it any wonder that people get cynical and ask why the Government is not playing its part in those critical areas? Last March, the Minister was given the power to introduce regulations concerning foreign travel, for example, but the situation has got progressively worse since then, with no effective monitoring. We started with some level of monitoring but there has been none in the past couple of months. There are no safeguards at all in travel. I was interested when I heard the Minister on the radio this morning when he spoke on this and spoke of introducing a system to self-isolate for five days and then introduce a PCR test for people travelling from red list countries. What has the Minister been doing in recent months? When are we likely to have any kind of safeguards at airports? That is why people ask "Why should I do this if the Government does not play its part?" That is the fundamental message from this. The Government was given an opportunity to play its part across a range of areas but, regrettably, it has been found short in what it has managed to do.

This is a very important debate. I will address the Deputy's last point first: the Government is playing its part in that it is the duty of the Government to pass adequate funding to develop the health services. In this huge crisis, we have a budget like never before. There are significant supports in place. There are issues with the HSE and how it is operating. I am very concerned about testing and tracing in my constituency. Two primary schools have contacted me this week. One had a positive test from a child over the weekend. The school was contacted on Monday, they contacted the public health section of the north-east HSE and still had not received a reply by close of business last night. In a second school, a second child in the same class has tested positive for Covid. The two children are in different pods within that classroom. While the class is at home, the teacher is concerned that she may have passed it on to children in another part of school where she also worked. There is a huge responsibility on the HSE to ensure that primary school principals receive a response to their very serious request when a school has a positive case with a child. It is not acceptable to me that I should have received two calls from teachers yesterday who at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. last night, were very distressed and concerned about the children in the school. That is a test that we are not passing right now in Louth. The public health section is not doing its work which is entirely unacceptable.

A hotline for school principals has been suggested so that they could contact the public health manager. The schools have made the contacts but they have not received any response at all. It was also proposed that there could be an online meeting at which schools could get a direct reply and where public health officials could reassure the teachers so that they could reassure the students and parents.

The legislation to extend the sunset clause is very important but ultimately the answer to this is literally in our own hands. It is up to each individual to play their part. Regardless of any rules which the Government brings in, it is up to people to make up their own minds on them. It is particularly unfair on the Garda who are doing a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances. The last thing a garda needs is to go to a house where there is a party and people congregating inside and outside. That is fine in normal circumstances but not when Covid-19 is rampant. I support what the gardaí are doing, that they will engage with people first and encourage them to cease the activity, advise them of their error in public order and health, persuade them and last, and finally, use the penalties, which are graduated. It is important to stress that. The gardaí are very helpful. It is a very difficult time for them, too. It is the exceptional cases where penalties must be imposed. That is at the heart of the legislation and the intention of the gardaí.

What alternatives can be provided, particularly to young people? How do they live in our society with Covid-19? We should look again at the restrictions on people who want to participate in sport on their own. I have had representations, as I am sure have all Members, from people asking why rugby and GAA can go ahead but golf cannot. If I go to my golf course already kitted out and do not enter the club house at all, can I go around on my own? Is that not possible? Does it make sense, provided no one congregates in the car park afterwards? That point has been made strongly to me. If it is possible to play tennis, why not golf? That is in the context of people acting with diligence. There is also the closure of gyms, when exercise plays such an important part in the mental health and well-being of tens of thousands of our citizens. I do not have the detail to hand but I understand that the British Parliament has proposed legislation which allow gyms to operate for people to get their exercise as a solitary, independent activity and improve their mental health and well-being in a way that involves the appropriate and required proper distancing. It is important that we address that as it would be very helpful. Part of the issue is that in most cases, it is the very small minority who are perpetuating Covid by not obeying the regulations. If we can provide alternative sports for people it would be important.

Mol an óige, agus tiocfaidh sí. We must praise young people and use those who influence them in how they go about things.

While young people will not listen to the Minister or me, or even to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, they will listen to their sports idols, for example, and the people whose music they play - and who they follow and love - sometimes very loudly indeed. We need to look again at how we get the message across to and interact more with the individuals whom young people admire. We should seek the help of the very constructive and positive individuals who can engage with young people and whose interventions would be very welcome to them, as opposed to having a them versus us situation. The most important thing is that we are all in it together and working together to improve the situation.

Earlier, questions were raised in the House about the situation in nursing homes, with people finding themselves in very serious circumstances and, in some cases, without support. From what I hear, no nursing support is being provided in some instances. If there is evidence of a decision by unions and the HSE that militates against the well-being of people who are sick in private nursing homes - I believe there is such evidence - that is entirely unacceptable. There are documents which show that, in April, an agreement was reached between a group of unions and the HSE that if a nurse is asked to go into a private nursing home, he or she cannot be mandated to do so. If it is a public nursing home or public hospital, that is fine, but the agreement expressly states that it is optional for a nurse or other medical person to go into a private nursing home and there is a right of refusal in that regard. I do not know what has happened in the facilities in the counties that were mentioned earlier but I am deeply concerned about it.

There is clear evidence of what happened in a nursing home in County Louth. Freedom of information requests have shown, clearly and absolutely, that, first, agency nursing staff did not turn up at the last minute and, second, that a doctor who had patients in that nursing home, while he would issue prescriptions, he had to be contacted and persuaded by medical experts in the local hospital to gown up and go in to see those patients. These are very serious issues which are fundamental to our ability to look after and care for people, particularly in nursing homes. There cannot be a division between public and private patients in terms of the professional assistance they are entitled to receive from medical professionals or other qualified persons. Anything to the contrary is, in my belief, against the oath and the principle of care. The agreement that was made between the HSE and the unions is unacceptable in that context. People were challenging as to why HSE staff did not turn up in a particular nursing home. I do not know happened there, but the fact is that the HSE cannot direct personnel to turn up at private facilities. It has signed an agreement to that effect and it deeply concerns me. We must make sure that the most vulnerable in our society are helped and that there is no barrier, including a union agreement or HSE agreement, which prevents that from happening.

There are other questions that arise out of the freedom of information requests to which I referred. Deputies from other parties know what I am talking about. We are in a real crisis here and, in dealing with that crisis, we must have absolute clarity about how we care for people. There cannot be a barrier or impediment to answering a cry for help from anybody, particularly those who are the weakest and most vulnerable in our society. At this moment, the most vulnerable, because they are the ones most likely to die from Covid-19, are people aged over 65, the vast majority of whom have passed away in our nursing homes. We cannot allow the issues I have brought to the Minister's attention to continue. I will give him the information to which I referred and I ask him to act urgently and immediately to ensure the current situation does not continue. I welcome the provisions set out in the motion.

This motion and the preceding one deal with far-reaching laws that restrict people's liberty and freedoms in many ways. They would be totally inappropriate in normal times but are being introduced for very good reason because we are not living in normal times. These are very different times that nobody expected. Where we have legislation of this nature, it is important that it be reviewed as regularly as possible to ensure we learn from what is happening in communities and from people's lived experiences. Other Deputies have made the same point.

One of the things that has come clearly into focus in all this is the difficulties that exist within our health service under normal circumstances. The reality is that we have a health service that is not fit for purpose in a time of crisis. When Covid-19 infection numbers begin to rise, people live in huge fear that our whole hospital system will be overwhelmed. That is understandable when one considers the very tight capacity in the service. In normal circumstances, people who need a hip replacement or cataract removal, for instance, are waiting years to see a consultant. I spoke to somebody recently whose orthopaedic consultancy referral letter for Sligo University Hospital was met with the response that there is a 40-month waiting list to see the consultant. That delay is not because of the Covid crisis but is in the normal course of things. We have a huge crisis in our health service and the pandemic has magnified it and brought it much more into focus and to our attention. We have a lot of work to do to ensure we build capacity as quickly as possible and learn from the lessons thus far. To that end, we need to review this legislation much sooner than June next year. We should be reviewing it at least every three months so that we have a clear sense of where we are going and what we are doing.

Many of the problems in the health system in recent times have been down to issues around the capacity of the service. It was necessary to act quickly to put in tracking, tracing and testing processes. Many Deputies have referred to a particular issue in this regard and I ask the Minister to take note of it. I, too, have been contacted by people who have encountered serious problems in regard to testing and how the system is working. Earlier this week, I was contacted by a person in south Leitrim who had a test performed at home by ambulance service staff but, ten days later, has still not received the result. Many others are in the same situation. I have spoken to a number of people who tested positive for Covid and self-isolated but their family members, living in the same house, had to wait several days for a test and were still awaiting the result four or five days later. That is happening all over the place and it undermines people's confidence in the system and in the response to the increasing infection rates.

There are also huge problems with the tracing element. The fact that it all fell down last weekend in terms of the numbers of infections is a reflection of that. We know there are staff in some sectors of the HSE who have been deployed to tracing work. The Minister and his colleagues in government should look at whether personnel in other sectors of the public service who, because of Covid, may not be working to the same levels they would be in normal times can be redeployed to ensure there are enough staff for tracing. The lack of personnel in this area is one of the really serious problems we are facing.

I want to refer to the situation in nursing homes, which has been brought into focus today because of the situation in a facility in County Galway. Back in April, I conducted a small survey in my own constituency by way of telephone calls to a number of nursing homes to see how they were getting on. At that time, personal protective equipment, PPE, was one of the main concerns people were raising. My constituency includes a small part of north Roscommon, which is in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 2, with the remainder of the constituency in CHO 1. Of the nursing homes I contacted, most in CHO 1 reported a positive experience. The HSE had contacted them, they were getting PPE supplies and they were, overall, fairly satisfied with the response. A few had problems, including a couple of nursing homes which had Covid cases, but they were being dealt with adequately. The nursing homes in CHO 2, which covers the Galway region, were much more problematic, with management reporting that they had not been contacted by the HSE at all, they were very disappointed with the level of support they were being given and they had real and serious issues. Perhaps that is being reflected now in the case that was reported today. I hope that is not the case and that the level of support was uniform across the State but it certainly was not my experience. I spoke to 12 or 14 nursing homes across my constituency in April. While the majority were satisfied with the response, all had issues around staffing, including where they were going to get staff and having to depend on agency staffing.

There are lessons we need to learn today from what has gone before. In two or three months, when we are on the other side of Christmas, there will be other lessons to learn. That is why it is important that this legislation is reviewed regularly in order to ensure we learn those lessons and apply them as we need to.

The prospect of level 5 restrictions for the next six weeks is a pretty grim one. The normal social and human interaction that is the lifeblood of people will be curtailed to a very significant extent. It is, however, necessary for a very simple reason. For any who doubt that, and there are a few, it is necessary for the very simple reason that we cannot put our doctors and front-line health workers in a position where sick people, with Covid-19 or non-Covid related sicknesses, arrive at hospitals where there is no intensive care bed, staff or healthcare provision to look after them and they have to be turned away. That prospect is unthinkable. Whatever one thinks of the handling of the Covid pandemic, we simply cannot put our doctors and healthcare workers or sick people in that position. For this reason, we have no choice but to impose restrictions to try to drive down the infection rate of the virus.

Having said that, I do not agree with the coercive approach the Government is trying to apply, with fines and powers to act against people who the Government deems to be the problem, in sustaining the public health effort. When the first lockdown happened there was overwhelming support for it. There was no need for compulsion. People did it because they knew it was necessary. As difficult as it is, economically, psychologically, socially and in every other way, an overwhelming majority of people will endure the hardship. The subtext or underlying logic of the extension of the coercive measures and fines proposed by the Government was summed up by Deputy O'Dowd when he said the reason we are in this situation was some people's irresponsible behaviour. That is not the reason we are in this situation now. I will give examples of the reasons we are in this situation. The Government is exploiting student nurses because it has not staffed our hospitals properly. We have critically low levels of ICU provision, some of the worst in the western world. We will not properly pay the contact tracers we need to chase down the virus, and we have failed to recruit them. We did not act against the meat processing plants and no fines were issued in that sector. There is whole range of other failings by the Government and, critically, a failure to support people who are seeing their livelihoods hammered by the pandemic. We say we should reward and support people, rather than punishing them.

We are debating a proposal to extend the State's emergency powers because of the Covid crisis. There are powerful arguments against extending these powers. I will deal with three. First, there is not adequate discussion and debate on the issue. We are discussing huge curtailment of people's freedoms, including the right to move freely, the right to meet up and the right to have a livelihood. This discussion is being compressed into the space of a few hours. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has said this makes a mockery of our democracy and it is hard to disagree with that.

Second, when we debated this earlier in the year I gave examples from other countries of how emergency Covid powers were used against the interests of ordinary people. I warned that this could and would happen here and that has proved to be case. It was only a couple of weeks after that debate that gardaí from Store Street Garda station used these powers to order the dispersal of an official picket at the Debenhams store on Henry Street. They followed the pickets to the Luas line to make sure they left town and they even tried to break up a conversation between the shop steward and a journalist. In other countries provisions have been put in place to ensure the right to protest is defended, even in the context of a Covid emergency. That has not happened in this State.

Last but not least, this is in part a discussion on the Government's strategy. People should wear masks, curtail their contact with other people and take all the other necessary measures to push back against the virus. I fully support all those measures. Level 5 has been allowed to occur because the Government backed off from tackling powerful business interests. It did this by refusing to go after the meat plant bosses, bottling on the issue of level 5 two weeks ago and failing to bring in a sick pay scheme for workers in private nursing homes, for example. In addition, while there have been improvements in testing, tracing remains a problem. Having failed to convince people with such a strategy, the Government has turned to coercive powers such as fines for not wearing a mask and for travelling further than 5 km and so on. People need a strategy they can believe in, which does not bow down to vested interests. They need to be persuaded, as they can be, rather than the Government taking the big stick. These are all very powerful reasons to vote against this extension.

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?

There are reports today that 26 out of 28 patients at a nursing home in Galway have tested positive for Covid-19. One of these residents has died, and our hearts and prayers are with that resident's family. The nursing home said that it received no help from the HSE and that, for the past 72 hours, one nurse and one care assistant attended all those patients. That is an absolute scandal.

Regarding the oceans of rhetoric that existed around the issue of Covid-19 for the past seven months, the most important element always should have been the protection of those nursing homes. Men and women in nursing homes are by far the most vulnerable and the most exposed to this illness. The majority of deaths from Covid so far have happened in nursing homes. That is incredible because I asked the Minister a number of times to investigate what happened in the nursing homes after the first wave at the start of the year. I asked the then Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, to do the same. Both Ministers refused point blank to do an investigation into the nursing homes. We heard rhetoric about learning new things, etc., yet we have a situation today where a nursing home in Galway is ravaged by Covid-19. It is so frustrating to get one's head around the fact that no investigation was held into what happened at the start of the year, and now we are seeing it happen again.

I refer to the case of Mary Bartley Meehan, in my constituency. Her husband was in a nursing home. He had a cancerous tumour on his face. When Mary visited him, she noticed that his fingernails were too long and that he had scratched the facial tumour to such an extent it had become infested with maggots. I asked the then Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, and the current Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to carry out an investigation into that family's situation. Both Ministers said, "No"; the HSE said, "No"; HIQA, said "No"; and the Department of Health says, "No".

We had to listen to Deputy Fergus O'Dowd earlier looking to get the Government's defence in early with regard to what has happened in Galway. He sought to build a paper wall between the State and private nursing homes and to wash the Government's hands with regard to responsibility for nursing homes. That is incredible. The Minister and the Government are responsible for what happens in all nursing homes. All nursing homes should be available to be investigated. There should be no paper wall stopping that.

The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is in the Chamber. He might recall that I asked him to look into how we can investigate what happened in Mary Bartley Meehan's case. I mentioned at the time that the Ombudsman stated that there is great frustration in his office that they do not have the power to investigate what is happening in private nursing homes. According to the programme for Government, the Government will investigate what is happening in private nursing homes yet we are not near that point. It is very frustrating to see it happen again.

The previous speaker, Deputy O'Donnell, asked what Government policy is with regard to living with Covid-19. Let us be very clear. There is no Government policy beyond six weeks. There is no exit plan out of this other than a vaccine. That is incredible. I spoke to the HSE earlier and asked if there is a chance to get a vaccine to the population of this country by the end of 2021. A definitive answer was not given but I could tell by the tone of voice that it is very unlikely that 60% of the population of this State will have a vaccine by the end of 2021. That means we will be continuing in this situation indefinitely with a Covid yo-yo policy, which is having major detrimental, negative effects on the whole of society.

Do not get me wrong. This is a serious illness. We need to do our best to keep those numbers down and, like all previous speakers, I believe we need to do the simple stuff right but we also need to learn to live with this illness. There is a cost to Covid but there is a significant and real cost to the restrictions. It is a cost that the Government cannot quantify because in seven months it has not researched the cost of restrictions with regard to mortality, morbidity, mental health or any of those issues. We are pushing hundreds of thousands of people into poverty, and that will cause morbidity and mortality in the future.

The idea of imposing fines on a population that is radically losing their income and being pushed out of work is incredible. Levying fines on the population is equal to the Government raising a white flag and saying, "We have lost". They lost the support of the population in the first wave. The energy, commitment and focus of the population was singular in reducing the numbers. The Government has changed the policy on fines because it knows it has lost the support of a significant section of the population on that issue.

The Government is taking draconian measures. Ireland is an outlier in European terms with regard to the severity of restrictions. Even in Paris, with its restrictions, people can attend church services, shop and go to restaurants. Why is Ireland an outlier in respect of restrictions when in reality we are mid-table in the incidence of the illness? There are two reasons for that. First, our tracking and tracing system has crashed; it is as simple as that. We can no longer extinguish the virus where it exists through tracking and tracing. The second reason is we do not have the ICU capacity of other countries. A budget totalling €18 billion was announced last week yet the Government hardly moved the dial with regard to the increase in the number of ICU beds. The front line of the Covid-19 battle rests on the shoulders of the people because the Government has not put in the necessary defences in tracking and tracing. At the start of this year there were 2,000 tracers in the country; there are only 500 now. How does it happen that we go backwards in the number of people employed by the State to trace this illness?

There was a sense of frustration across the country today when the news unfolded that 26 out of 27 residents of a nursing home in Galway had caught Covid-19 and that the nursing home called out for help and received none. It had two staff members-----

That is a flat-out lie.

This was reported by a very eminent GP in the area today.

I will take the advice of the Minister. If he says that is not true, I will take back that comment but the information that I have, which is from a reliable source, a GP in the area who was in contact with the "Today with Claire Byrne" show on RTÉ, is that two people spent 72 hours in the care of those individuals. Will the Minister tell me if that is not true?

I know the Deputy would prefer an interchange but this is not an interchange. That is directed to both the Minister and the Deputy.

We move back now to the Government side. I am not sure if I am missing somebody. Is Deputy Aindrias Moynihan here? No. As there is nobody here from the Government slot we will move on.

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, groups such as ours and other Independent groups want speaking time. This is continually happening. It has been happening all day today. It happens all the time that Government Members are not turning up for their speaking slots. If we were not here now, our speaking slot would be lost.

On a point of order, the Government parties are continually missing their speaking slots. If they have such disregard for Dáil Éireann that they will not have people here to speak in their time, I ask them to go before the Business Committee, where Deputy McGrath is the leader of our group, and address that. Shame on Fianna Fáil and shame on Fine Gael for not having their speakers in here at the time they are supposed to be here. They put us at the back of the queue because they wanted to silence us and marginalise us, which they have done to the best of their ability, but they are not able to do it. I am sending a very clear message out to them-----

I thank the Deputy.

They are a thundering disgrace for not-----

On a point of order-----

Deputy, please resume your seat for a moment. Thank you. You are stretching the point of order. I will allow in two speakers who indicated and I am going back to the debate. It is not a point of order but given the seriousness of the topic I will allow in Deputies Collins and O'Donnell.

I support my colleagues. The Government wanted to change the format and the layout in which we speak in the Dáil. I saw with the railway Bill that went through the Dáil yesterday that Government Deputies never turned up. We are then left in the desperate situation because we are awaiting our slots which are pushed and the Bill is passed. It is the same thing that is happening here today. It is a disgrace. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael pushed for this and they are breaking the rules and regulations.

I call Deputy O’Donnell, briefly.

I would hate-----

-----the perception to go out here that the Government Deputies are not interested in representing their constituents. I have just as much a mandate from the people of Limerick City.

They are not here.

With due respect, the other Deputies were given the impression that Government Deputies were not here to speak.

It was between myself-----

Can I be allowed to finish?

I ask Deputy O’Donnell-----

That is my name. Deputy Tóibín, my name is Deputy O’Donnell not the Deputy from Limerick.

I ask the Deputy to address the Chair on a point of order.

I will address the Chair. Deputy Mattie McGrath made reference this morning to Government Deputies. I was here to speak. Deputy McGrath might not have been here to listen.

We return now to the Rural Independents Group. I call Deputy Mattie McGrath.

We have our system, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

I wish to point out that there was a very good decision made by past Governments and by An Garda Síochána and their representative associations, which was that the rank and file Garda members would not be armed. That decision and our gardaí have served our country well, having followed up on that decision. The reason I bring that to the attention of the Dáil is that when it comes to giving draconian powers to the Garda that it is not actually looking for, I trust and rely on An Garda Síochána to do what it did earlier in this pandemic and to do its job in a proper way. It will have roadblocks, they question people and do their job properly. That served us well in the past and I would like to think that it will serve us well in the future.

I am totally against bringing in fines and penalties. Can one imagine bringing a person before a court today and telling that person to pay €500, €1,000 or €2,000 of a fine. People cannot pay their ESB bill or fill their oil tank. There is no employment. People are struggling. I ask the Government to desist from trying to impose tyranny on the people.

I am glad to take up my slot to speak as others do not. I will not be agreeing with this vote this evening, tomorrow or whenever it is. It means that the Government is now moving from a co-operation phase to a surveillance and oversight phase to enforce Covid-19 compliance. People are scared. The elderly people are on their own and are scared alive of the media reports on top of them every minute and hour about the numbers and those who are dying every day. Does the Minister realise that the number of deaths is down 12% compared to last year? There is a shift in demographics.

I have full respect for Covid-19 and its dangers but we have certainly gone too far because the Government is not sticking to the basics. The tracking and tracing has not been done right nor has testing. The Government is saying that it is doing so many tests per day. It is using the old system where one pulls up at the roadside and gets tested. Why does it not do what we did in Bandon last week where people came down from Belfast to bring 30 people to Northern Ireland for operations? They had their results within an hour of having had their tests done in my own clinic. The Government system is outdated. It is wasting time and money. People are suffering with their mental health and the elderly and ordinary people are suffering.

A woman rang me today to say that her husband went out to work, her child went to secondary school, her other two children are told to stay at home from college and educate themselves at home, and she cannot go outside beyond a 5 km radius. She said that things are more in than out; more people cannot move. What is wrong with the country? Where are we going? We do not have any common sense and the real reason is that we have not stuck to the basics and tried to keep people on side, to educate them and work with them on these basics. One has to work with people. People are frustrated and business people have lost their businesses. This has gone one step too far.

The Government sat back and is now turning it over to the gardaí to carry out the rules and regulations that are there. It should stick to the basics and gets its testing done properly. It is like what Deputy Tóibín has described as a yo-yo system. People will be tested and will be off sitting at home for the next number of weeks, will be back out again and will be sent home again about a month later. It is a game and the whole thing is upside down. People can see through it and are becoming very frustrated. If we do not toe the line we will be criticised but I will certainly not be toeing this line.

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I say first to Deputy O’Donnell that I have the height of respect for him. He was here and he did speak for his 11 minutes but there are many other Deputies who are not turning up. We cannot possibly follow through like this when one is part of a smaller group.

This is not going to work. There are too many glitches and bad marks in this. The testing is a fiasco. I have emails every other day of people who want a test, cannot get a test and who had a test and are waiting two weeks. One woman I spoke to waited 41 days for a test. It is just not working. The tracing collapsed, as we know, at the weekend. It was not working in any event. A hotel owner contacted me where someone had tested positive. She was told that if she was to act properly she should close. She could get not get an answer from the HSE and was then told to forget about it as it was only a 48-hour test. The whole thing is a shambles.

I oppose this renewed legislation as it gives the Minister the power to do literally anything he likes. It is like signing a blank cheque up to June 2021. Everyone bought into this initially. The public, young and old from the cradle to the grave bought into this the first time, but we see the Government misbehaving, however, we see the shambles in the testing, we see the fake numbers and the fake news, we see the Minister and what is after happening in one unfortunate nursing home - I do not want to add any more misery - and we are told that it is costing €12.5 million to keep the nursing homes tested, which we must do. Why is the Government sticking to the polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test when it has been proven all over the world not be accurate? Deputy Kelly and many others have brought forward other tests and the results of these can be available within an hour. Deputy Collins brought people to Belfast for eye treatment last week and brought a doctor down from Belfast to his constituency office and had 20 people tested. They all had their results within an hour. What kind of incompetence is within the HSE and in the Minister’s Department that they cannot get the testing or tracing right?

People have lost faith and the Government has lost the battle. We were told that everybody was in this together. Ní neart go cur le chéile. The rich are getting richer. The banks and the vulture funds are still doing what they like. Evictions and court cases have being ongoing and are terrorising families all through the first time as well as now. A double act is going on here. Big companies and conglomerates are getting richer and richer. The World Health Organization and Dr. David Nabarro, envoy to the United Nations, has stated that lockdowns have not worked and that they are regressive on the poorer and less well-off people and do damage to mental health and so on. The World Health Organization also said that the 2 m distancing was not necessary but the Government insisted upon it here in Ireland. This Government wants to persecute and destroy the energy, enthusiasm, the passion, the very vigour and vim of the Irish people. It will not succeed. The people here 100 years ago fought for their freedom and they now have to go out to fight a tyranny that this Government wants to introduce.

I want to salute An Garda Síochána in Tipperary, Dublin and all over the country. It is doing its best. It does not know what regulations it is operating because these are changing so any times. If we pass this legislation, which I and my Independent group will vote against, the Government will have the power to bring in whatever instrument it likes. This would not happen under Hitler. It is scandalous what is going on. We are supposed to be a democracy. Where are the Members in this big place that we are paying €25,000 a day for in order to come in to speak? Where are they? Have they gone under a stone? Are they hiding? The elected representatives of the people should be representing the people who are terrorised and very cross and angry and getting crosser. The churches are closed. Only two other countries in the world, North Korea and Saudi Arabia, have closed their churches for worship. This is a shocking tyranny and is a terrible treatment of the people. Come back Seán Tracey and Dan Breen and the magnificent men of Tipperary who fired the first shots in the War of Independence. We need leaders like that now again.

I ask the Deputy to withdraw the reference to Hitler as I do not think the Deputy meant it.

No, but it is a tyranny.

I ask the Deputy to withdraw the comment.

I withdraw the name Adolf Hitler but we are being led into a cul-de-sac here-----

I just asked the Deputy to withdraw it and not to go on. I thank the Deputy. There are two further speakers, Deputies McNamara and Harkin.

I say first that I support the extension of the sunset clause but the Sinn Féin amendment has real merit. This is draconian legislation and should only be enforced for the minimum timeframe necessary.

We often speak in this House about learning lessons. Allowing the Dáil to review the impact of this legislation in early February will give us a chance to learn lessons and to improve the legislation.

Why, despite the enormous challenge that level 5 presents for so many of our citizens, do I, on balance, support the motion and the level 5 restrictions? First, it is clear that level 3 simply did not work. Even in counties at level 4 - Cavan, Dublin and Donegal - the numbers remained too high. If we want to reduce the number of cases to a level where our hospitals can cope with Covid and, crucially, non-Covid care, schools can remain open and our care homes can be just that then level 5 is needed.

A number of my colleagues referred to a nursing home in Galway. I heard Dr. Martin Daly speak about what happened there. What was very interesting was that at the end of his interview, Dr. Daly stated that this situation showed the need to move to level 5. Of course level 5 has to be part of a suite of measures. This motion has to be part of a suite of measures. My time is very limited. I do not have time to go into the detail of all of the other measures that are needed and where we are failing. The testing and tracing regime is very much part of that. I will have to leave it at that.

I want to begin by thanking my colleagues in the Independent Group for giving me the time to speak on this motion, especially those who do not agree with my views but who think that debate is important. Most of us should, as democrats, believe that debate is important. This needs to be debated.

Giving Deputies 50 seconds each to debate what is the most fundamental set of restrictions to rights in this State in its history is not democracy. I agree with the points made by Deputy O'Donnell. I disagree with him to the extent that until the questions he asked are answered – I do not expect that the Minister will answer them – we should not roll over further powers. I agree very much with the points he raised and the questions he posed.

We need to debate this motion. If we do not debate it in the Chamber, where is it to be debated? Is it to be debated on social media, where people are attacking each other? Is it to be debated outside the gates of Leinster House by violent groups attacking each other? I want to be abundantly clear. I abhor violence, in particular political violence, because it brings people down a cul-de-sac of destruction. However, if the Government does not allow us time to debate this motion in the House, it will be debated elsewhere. I do not condone or sympathise with that point, I am simply making it.

I grew up in a house with elderly parents. They were of a generation which believed that it was fantastic that we had the right to determine our own affairs and had a Dáil that could determine its affairs. Today represents for me the most fundamental failing of that State in its history. The State has a duty to protect the health and lives of its citizens, but it equally has a duty to allow people to go about their lives and develop systems to keep them safe while they do so.

The State has singularly failed to do that, and to take any measures, learn anything from the nursing homes and look at the recommendations of the Covid committee. Nineteen Deputies from every single group in the House sat and arrived at a consensus document with recommendations, none of which have been debated or implemented. What is the point in parliamentary democracy? I know there are groups in this State that seek to undermine democracy and parliamentary debate. This failure to debate things adequately feeds into their agenda. I ask the Minister to consider the approach he has taken in this motion and to allow for debate before he rams votes through and gives Ministers another seven months to bring in incredibly restrictive measures that are entirely disproportionate and that absolve the State of its failures rather than provide it with any incentive to do something.

I wish to return to one of Deputy Mattie McGrath's points. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of one measure in the motion but he must be because he signed it. Priests will be committing a criminal offence if they open the doors of their churches for mass. I know that lots of priests do not want to say mass and do not believe it is appropriate. That is their prerogative. I am not a mass goer, but I know how important it is in the community I represent for people to go to mass or to a church or mosque. The Government is denying them that. Is the Government is going to send gardaí after priests who decide to say mass? If the Government is thinking of that, I have one word to say, "Don't".

My time is up. I thank the Minister. I have not had time to look at the substance of any of what is proposed, the failings of our testing and tracing system and the inevitable failing of the PCR testing system. It may be the best test available, but it is inadequate. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the latitude she has afforded me.

I had a speech prepared for the last ten minutes of the debate, but I might try to address the various questions that Deputies have taken the time to raise. I apologise to Deputies if I do not get through all the questions. I will sit down with any Deputy who wants to after the debate and go through the questions in more detail. I thought I would try to take the time-----

Perhaps the Minister could circulate the speech.

I am not giving the speech. It is probably not right to circulate it. I will try to cover the points made by each Deputy. I want to extend an offer to all colleagues to sit down with me after the debate if they want to discuss further issues if I do not get through their points.

Various Deputies raised the issue of Opposition briefings. I agree with the sentiment. As I have said in the Chamber, I do not believe there were sufficient Opposition briefings at the start of the pandemic. I have been working hard in the background to make that happen. There have been several briefings in the past number of weeks. There were Opposition briefings on level 5 and, I believe, level 3. Various Deputies contact me privately on a regular basis and I do my best to keep them up to date in that way.

There was a briefing with the HSE earlier today, that, as Deputy Cullinane said, unfortunately coincided with this debate which health spokespersons would want to attend. There were operational issues and even last night the Dáil scheduled was moving around. There was no intent there. There was a briefing on tiered penalties. Deputy Cullinane said I had not been made available. The Deputy and I spoke afterwards. I offered to brief the committee, and we offered a briefing from officials before the meeting if the committee so wished. That is what the health committee decided on.

I hear Deputies loud and clear. My preference is for as much interaction and briefing as possible. I do not think there was enough at the start and I am very happy to put my hands up on that. We have pushed for many more briefings. We now have standing fortnightly briefings in place. The CMO's office and HSE are involved. I am available to Deputies at any time. There have been briefings with the Taoiseach. We will endeavour to keep going and I hope Deputies have seen a difference in the past number of weeks. The change is one I intend to keep.

Deputy Cullinane referenced North-South co-operation. I want to agree with him but I also want to push back, if I may. There has been extensive interaction north and south of the Border between the authorities in the Six Counties and those in the Twenty-six Counties.

There has been extensive interaction between the Northern Ireland minister, Mr. Swann, and me, between the Taoiseach and the Northern Ireland First Minister and deputy First Minister, and between our Chief Medical Officer and the Northern Ireland Chief Medical Officer. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and I had one of the so-called quads recently with the Northern Ireland First Minister and Deputy First Minister as well as the Secretary of State and the CMO. There is a good deal of interaction. There is also interaction at a medical level, for example, between our intensivists north and south of the Border. There is a good deal of interaction. I would like to see an all-island approach. Considerable effort has been made.

I want to challenge Deputy Cullinane in turn because his party is uniquely positioned to help with this. While I accept his challenge that we continue to do everything we can, I maintain that Sinn Féin needs to do everything it can as well given that it is in government in Northern Ireland. Obviously, it is the largest party in opposition here. I would like to see Sinn Féin do everything it can as well.

Several Members have, quite fairly, asked for a helpline or even an email address that is responsive. I know one was set up when I was in opposition, although I am unsure whether I ever got a response from that email address. An email address on its own is not enough. It needs to be one from which Deputies get an answer. This came up previously and I have committed to it. I will get back to Deputies on that. I fully understand. Deputies, councillors and Senators are getting questions every day from the people they represent throughout the country. Every representative wants correctly to be able to get back and give the right information. Deputy Kelly referenced the same matter.

Various statements were made indicating it was not fair for big stores to sell food as well as non-essential items. This happened in the first wave. I agree, and I want to clarify for the House that it is not so much the stores that are deemed essential but the relevant goods that are deemed essential. A store cannot sell food in one part of the store and clothes in another part of the store. An example was given to me last night of a sports outlet that was going to start selling personal protective equipment so that it could also sell its normal sports apparel. That is not allowed. Such an outlet would be allowed to sell PPE but not the sports apparel. I agree with Deputies that this would be completely unfair.

Deputy Durkan raised the issue of compliance. Deputy Boyd Barrett and Deputy Barry had a different view on compliance. We will be discussing at some length the tiered penalty legislation tomorrow. I fully agree with Deputies, however, that it is relevant to the motion before us because it would essentially allow that legislation to operate.

I put it to Deputies that in the vast majority of cases what we are doing with tiered penalties is reducing the severity of the existing penalties. The only penalty available at the moment is a so-called penal provision. That involves a court case and a penalty of a fine of up to €2,500 and up to six months in prison. I do not believe that is appropriate in the majority of cases. What we are seeking to do is replace that with something more appropriate, for example, a €50 on-the-spot fine. This legislation is not about expanding enforcement but making it more appropriate. The single tool available now is not appropriate.

Deputy McNamara made an impassioned contribution on places of worship. I have considerable sympathy with him in that regard. As with the rest of level 5, we are following the public health advice on places of worship. I am happy to go back and challenge NPHET to provide the evidence again because I agree that this is a major imposition. I assure the Deputy and other colleagues that with regard to penalties, religious services are non-penal in that there is no penalty attached to them.

That is not true.

It should not be there.

I signed the regulations last night and I assure Deputies that it is a non-penal provision and it will remain thus.

Golf has been mentioned many times. Some people have been suggesting that tennis was allowed. It is not. Tennis Ireland has withdrawn the comment it made. Essentially, no sports are getting an exemption. The exemption is for elite and professional sports, for reasons we all understand. They are professional or semi-professional and operate in controlled, safe environments. Some people want golf to be an exemption, while others argue that tennis, athletics, gyms or personal training in gyms and so forth should be exempt. We cannot be in the business of saying that a wide variety of sports are all banned except this or that one. That is simply not credible and does not correspond to the public health advice we have. Most sports could make a reasonable argument - many are doing so - that their sport is different and that while it is okay to ban all other sports, their particular sport is okay because it is safe, unique and different. I hope Deputies appreciate that we simply cannot go down that route. If we do, where do we stop? That is the public health advice we have on sports. I pushed hard for training for school-age children to be included on a non-contact basis in pods of 15 for mental and physical health reasons and because it lines up with keeping the schools open. That is the exemption.

There has been much talk about a particular nursing home. I have considerable detail on the nursing home in question. Deputies will appreciate that I cannot go into great detail on any specific nursing home because it would not be right or proper. Deputy Tóibín made a variety of statements that were absolutely and fundamentally untrue and very unfair on the work of the HSE. He said no supports had been provided. Let me be clear. These cases were detected through testing done by the HSE. Infection prevention control teams were deployed. Staff have been deployed. Serial testing is ongoing. All staff and residents were tested. There are senior management staff on-site right now as we speak. Significant financial supports are given to all nursing homes. Significant amounts of personal protective equipment are being supplied. The HSE is doing everything it can to protect nursing homes. The comments made here this morning are factually incorrect. They spread fear and anxiety in the community, which is wrong.

I have great time for Deputy McGrath personally but I have rarely in my life heard such a shambolic contribution. He talked about Hitler, fake numbers, fake news and even fake tests. He said the polymerase chain reaction tests do not work. I will leave it at that. It was very disappointing to hear his contribution.

Reference was made to insufficient time. I have been here the whole time. I am offering all colleagues time to debate this afterwards. The timeframe was a decision of the Business Committee.

That is not true.

I participated in the first debate when I was in opposition. I fully agree-----

It was a decision of the Government.

With the greatest of respect, Deputy McNamara used all his time for debating to say how unfair it was that he did not have any time.

No. I explained how important debate is to a democracy, because if it does not happen here, it happens somewhere else.

I offered to meet you afterwards if you want.

The Minister should address comments through the Chair, not across the Chamber.

I beg your pardon, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Deputy McNamara spent all of his time for debate talking about why he had no time for debate. I have offered to give more time.

I will finish on this point. The powers that we are seeking to extend are extraordinary. They do not sit easily with me and they did not sit easily with me when I was an Opposition Deputy and the Bill was brought in the first time. I was one of the people who insisted on a sunset clause. I do not like these powers. I do not want to have them and it does not sit easily with me to ask colleagues to support them. Unfortunately, the situation we are in requires that we move in this way. I commit to colleagues that these powers will be used as laid out in my opening speech, that is to say, in a proportionate and time-bound manner.

I call for the record of the House to be corrected. Regulation 5(1) sets out that a person shall not leave his or her home without reasonable excuse. Regulation 5(2) sets out what a reasonable excuse is. It states that a priest or a minister saying mass online only is a reasonable excuse. By extension, saying mass in public is not a reasonable excuse. Regulation 5(3) states that regulation 5(1) is a penal provision. I call on the Minister to correct the record of this House.

I also want the record to be corrected on the assertion that the Business Committee agreed to this. It did not.

You have made that correction, Deputy. .

(Interruptions).

The clarifications have been given and I will move on.

(Interruptions).

Deputies have had their chance to come in. The Minister may want to make a quick contribution in response to that. It is his choice.

Amendment put.

A division has been demanded and will be postponed until the weekly division time this evening.

(Interruptions).

I will explain again. Sinn Féin tabled an amendment. That amendment has now been put to the floor. The amendment was lost but a vote was called so it will go to a vote this evening.

The Sinn Féin amendment has been dealt with but I am opposed to the substance of the motion and I wanted to call a vote on it.

That will come in due course this evening. We will deal with the amendment first. If the amendment is lost, the Government's motion will be put, as is the normal course in all voting on motions.