I remind Members that the Second Stage is to conclude after three hours and 30 minutes, if not previously concluded.
Health (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Moving the country to level 5 is necessary due to the rapid and exponential rise in new cases of Covid-19. However, it comes as we all know at a huge cost to individuals, families, communities and businesses. It must work. For that to happen we need a very wide buy-in to the measures. Ireland’s experience of the virus to date shows that the vast majority of people are following the public health measures the vast majority of the time. Unfortunately, the highly contagious nature of this virus means that it exploits the times when we let our guard down. When even for a little while we choose not follow the measures the virus can spread fast. If we are going to suppress the virus in the next six weeks to the fullest extent possible we are going to have to be on our guard. Unfortunately, there is also small number of people who make conscious decisions not to follow the measures everyone else is following. Again, due to how easily this virus spreads the actions of these people put at risk the enormous sacrifices made by everybody else. So while solidarity, personal and collective responsibility are at the core of our national response to Covid-19, enforcement must also be available as a last resort.
Up until recently the only enforcement power available was the Health Act 1947 under what is called the penal provision. This is a prosecution in court with a maximum penalty of up to €2,500 and-or six months in prison, to be decided by the judge on a case-by-case basis. More recently the Minister, Deputy McEntee, introduced legislation allowing for what in the regulations are called “relevant provisions”. These are applicable for pubs, cafés, restaurants and essentially licensed premises and allows for them to be shut down in the first instance for that day or that night and for repeat offences to be shut for longer periods of time.
As I have said to colleagues in the House before, I do not believe that the current penal provision of up to €2,500 and six months in prison is proportionate for most of the violations of the regulations and that it is too harsh. This is why we have this legislation. It introduces tiered penalties, which are essentially on-the-spot fines of up to €500. The exact amount for each measure is specified under the regulations. For example, a fine relating to face coverings, which currently is a penal provision carrying a penalty of up to €2,500 or six months in prison, - which we all agree is disproportionate, can be replaced by using this legislation with an on-the-spot fine of, say, €50.
Ultimately, failure to pay the fine would leave recourse to prosecution but that is the case for many other fines as well.
Another power the Bill introduces is the ability to intervene in house parties where there is a public health risk and where it is proportionate to do so. I would prefer that we were not introducing this measure and I was not standing here as Minister for Health asking colleagues to support it. It jars with me on the basis of civil liberties. Unfortunately, the evidence is that social congregation, in particular when alcohol or more than alcohol is involved, is a particularly serious vector for the disease and, as such, Government has decided that powers are needed for An Garda Síochána to intervene where it is necessary and appropriate to do so. The Bill refers to these events as "dwelling events". The Bill also softens the existing penal provision in that it creates more level of penalties for the first and second offences and it only allows the existing level of penalties for a third offence or in certain cases, which I will lay out later, where the judge deems there to be aggravating circumstances. Importantly, in the case of dwelling events, the Bill only allows for the lowest level of the penalties, which is for the first offence.
If the Bill is passed, there will be five levels or categories of enforcement which can be stipulated in the regulations. The first is called non-penal. This is for measures which are included in the regulations so they need to be complied with by law but do not carry a penalty. This includes, for example, the maximum number of people who could attend non-contact training. The second category is penal. This is what we will now have three levels of penalty for, for first, second and third offences. This includes, for example, violation of the measures by retail outlets. The third category is what is called a relevant provision and this allows for licensed premises to be shut for the day, or for longer in the cases of further offences. The fourth category is fixed charge notices, which allow for on-the-spot fines. This would include, for example, domestic travel, face coverings and relevant indoor and outdoor events. The fifth category is the so-called "dwelling event" and this is specifically for large social gatherings in houses. This allows for only the first tier offence under the penal provision to be applied.
In summary, the Bill provides for penal provisions under the Act to be prescribed as fixed penalty provisions, meaning that persons alleged to have committed an offence under a fixed penalty provision may pay a fixed penalty in lieu of prosecution. It provides that, on prosecution, different levels of penalties may apply to first, second and third and subsequent offences under the Act and, finally, it provides for provisions to be prescribed as dwelling event provisions, meaning that if the Garda reasonably suspects a breach of such a provision, it may attend at the entrance to the private dwelling and direct persons to leave that private dwelling or the vicinity of that private dwelling.
I will go through the Bill section by section. Section 1 provides that "Act of 1947" means the Health Act 1947. Section 2 provides for the insertion of a definition of "fixed penalty provision", "dwelling event provision" and "penal provision". Section 3 provides for the insertion of subsection (6C) on fixed penalty provisions. Such provisions allow for a fixed payment notice to be served on persons in respect of an alleged offence. The person may opt to pay a fixed fine within 28 days rather than face prosecution in court. Paragraph (b) sets out the matters that should be taken into account when deciding to prescribe a penal provision to be a fixed penalty provision. These matters include the nature of the offence, how prescribing it would prevent the spread of Covid and the impact prescribing it might have on the normal functioning of society. Paragraph (c) provides that the Minister may make regulations for the form of notice and the process to be followed. Paragraph (d) sets out that the Minister must consult with the Minister for Justice and Equality before prescribing a penal provision as a fixed penalty provision.
Subsection (6D) amends section 31A to enable the Minister to prescribe penal provisions to be dwelling event provisions. Paragraph (b) of this subsection sets out the matters that the Minister should take into account when prescribing a penal provision to be a dwelling event provision. These matters are similar to the matters relating to the fixed penalty provision but also include the risk of Covid in indoor or confined areas. This makes sense because the alleged offence is occurring in a private dwelling indoors. As with the fixed penalty provision, paragraph (c) sets out that the Minister must consult with the Minister for Justice and Equality before making a decision.
Subsection (6E) provides that, in relation to proceedings for an offence in respect of a dwelling event provision, the event organiser shall be assumed to be the occupier unless proved otherwise. This means that if there is an event happening in a private dwelling that is not allowed under the regulation, the occupier of the dwelling is assumed to be the organiser. The offence here is by the organiser.
The Bill also provides for a new subsection setting out tiered penalties. As I have said already, the current legislation allows for a fine of up to €2,500 and-or six months in prison. It is proposed to replace this one-level provision with a three-tiered provision based on the number of offences committed. This provision applies when someone who is charged with an offence ends up in court. It is separate to a fixed penalty provision. If it ends up in court, then there is a reduced tariff for the first offence of a fine of no more than €1,000 and-or one month in prison, a tariff of €1,500 and-or three months in prison for a second offence and a tariff, which is currently the only tariff available, of €2,500 and-or six months in prison in respect of a third and subsequent offence. In a situation where someone is given a fixed penalty notice and does not pay in 28 days, it automatically becomes a court matter and these penalties come into play.
Finally, the new subsection also provides for a judge to impose a sentence of up to €2,500 and-or up to six months in prison where there are aggravating circumstances. This means that if the judge feels the offence is particularly serious, especially on public health grounds, then the judge can impose the highest tariff. The Bill also provides in section 3(c) for the substitution of a new definition in subsection (16) in section 31A of "event organiser". For a private dwelling, an event organiser is a person who arranges, organises or manages the event or otherwise causes or permits the event to take place. In a place other than a private dwelling, the event organiser is a person who publicises, arranges, organises, manages or receives some or all of the proceeds from the event. It also defines the terms "licence", "occupier" and "owner". Section 4 of the Bill provides for fixed payment notices by the insertion of a new section 31C. Subsections (1) and (2) provide for a fixed payment notice to be served on persons in respect of an alleged offence. The person may opt to pay a fixed fine within 28 days rather than face prosecution in court. If there is a decision made not to give a fixed payment notice, that does not prevent the initiation of prosecution.
Section 5 of the Bill relates to the private dwelling provision I discussed earlier. As I said, the Minister for Health can designate a provision in a regulation to be a penal provision and a dwelling event provision. If that happens, this section of the Bill comes into play. It provides for additional powers for the Garda. Under subsection (1), where a garda suspects that a person is loitering with intent to attend an event in a private dwelling in contravention of a private dwelling provision, the garda may direct that person to leave the vicinity. Under subsection (2), where a garda suspects that an event in contravention of a private dwelling provision is under way, the garda may direct the occupier of the private dwelling to require and cause the other persons to leave. Subsections (3)(a) and (3)(b) permit the garda to attend at the entrance to the dwelling and request contact details for the occupier.
Section 5(4) provides that it is an offence without reasonable excuse to fail to comply with a direction given by a garda under the section. Section 5(5) sets out the penalties to apply.
Those are the details of the Bill. This Bill is all about enforcement but as my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has emphasised, the Garda Síochána will continue to engage, educate and encourage. Only as a last resort will they enforce.
I am conscious that there is an element of public trust at issue here. People in Ireland are looking to the Government to lead and act appropriately, proportionately and fairly. Should the Bill be passed, it will not simply be a question of making a regulation and then handing out fixed penalty notices. The regulations will be considered carefully and drafted appropriately. I ask Deputies to remember that the overwhelming objective is to enhance compliance with public health guidance and regulations. Penalties are only one part of that and, as I said, will only be applied as a last resort. Any system of enforcement only works if people can see that it is being used appropriately, that the sanctions are proportionate and that it is aimed at the greater good. I commend the Bill to the House.
It is unacceptable that this legislation is being rushed through the Dáil and the Seanad in one day without proper scrutiny. The Minister will say, of course, that this is necessary because these measures have to be brought in as quickly as possible but we know that rushed legislation is never the answer. Elements of this Bill are obviously necessary but others concern me. Our job, in opposition, and the job of Government backbenchers, is to scrutinise legislation, make sure it is fit for purpose and ensure that we have enough time to discuss proposed amendments. The reality is that we will not have that time. If we get past one or two amendments to this Bill, that will be a lot and then that will be the end of it. An hour and a half has been allotted for discussion of the Bill. We should have six hours or more to discuss it and the proposed amendments. Good, sensible amendments have been tabled by a number of parties and Independents in opposition and we will not get the opportunity to properly debate or scrutinise them. I will hazard a guess, although the Minister might surprise me, that not one amendment will be accepted by the Government, as has been the case for all of the emergency legislative provisions that have been brought forward and rushed through the Dáil.
I agree that the vast majority of people have complied, and continue to comply, with public health guidelines. I commend everybody who has done so because we all accept this is a difficult and challenging time. None of us in this Chamber wants to be where we are. None of us wants or likes restrictions. We all want everything to get back to normal but we are dealing with a virus that is deadly, contagious and requires public health interventions.
The Minister has had support from the Opposition in this State that would make many governments across the EU jealous. We have given support to emergency legislation and restrictions that have been imposed and caused a great deal of distress for people, social and economic harm. We support public health measures and interventions because we must, at the core of what we do, protect lives. That has to be what we do and should be acknowledged more by the Government.
There are, of course, a minority of people who are not complying with the guidelines. In my view, a majority of that minority can be encouraged to comply with the regulations and guidelines. If such people were approached by a member of An Garda Síochána and asked to desist from what they were doing and to comply, they would do so. They should not be subject to these fines and that is why we have submitted an amendment that provides for members of An Garda Síochána to first ask somebody to desist from what they are doing, as opposed to instantly going for the fine.
A minority of the minority who are not complying with guidelines are reckless. That is unacceptable and those people have to be subject to enforcement because they are putting their own lives and health in danger but, more importantly, the lives and health of other people. That is unacceptable. There must, of course, be enforcement for those people. Their actions are causing anger and frustration for the majority of people who are complying in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus and protect their communities.
At the heart of our efforts to achieve high compliance must be ensuring a common sense of solidarity. We must abide by the rules and protect each other, particularly the most vulnerable. The recent approach and actions of this Government, whereby it has cut incomes and business supports for some of the most exposed sectors, has undermined the idea that we are all in this together. The Government and the Tánaiste have attempted to under the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, in recent times and that has damaged the emergency team's credibility and undermined public efforts to contain the virus. The approach must be, in the first instance, to encourage those who are not complying to understand the guidelines and comply for the greater public good. An Garda has taken that approach. If people continue to refuse to stick to the rules, there will be situations where enforcement is required, as I have said.
The fact that nothing in this Bill has anything at all to do with large companies such as those running meat plants will be surprising to many people and not surprising to some. I am open to a sensible discussion about enforcement for those who breach guidelines and the role of big businesses, corporations, meat plants and all of those who also have responsibilities. That has to be a sensible discussion where we have an opportunity to properly scrutinise this legislation, put forward amendments that will be properly debated and allow for the Minister to respond to them. He will not be able to respond to the vast majority of the amendments that have been tabled. We will not even hear the his view on the amendments or the Government's rationale as to why certain amendments are unnecessary.
In essence, the Bill provides for certain categories of fines, fixed penal provisions, dwelling event provisions and penal provisions. It sets only upper limits of fines between €500 and €2,500. The problem is what those fines will apply to and the precise nature of the fixed penalty provisions. The on-the-spot fines, if we want to call them that, will not be for Members of this House to decide. It will be for the Minister to set by way of regulation. He is asking us to give him a blank cheque to go and draft the regulations, decide what will be subject to a fixed charge notice or on-the-spot fine. That will be solely his prerogative and we will have no say whatsoever in that. We have some sense that it will apply to house parties and those who travel beyond 5 km from their homes, and I have a view on that, but we do not know precisely what it will mean. We have no opportunity to ensure there are proper checks and balances in respect of how people can appeal, how long they have to pay and what happens if they do not pay. All of that will be set out by way of regulation and the regulations will not come back to this House or the Seanad. All the Minister has to do is consult the Minister for Justice and Equality and bring them in. We are being asked to give the Government a blank cheque here and if the Minister was in opposition, there is no way he would give any party in government a blank cheque of that size. That is not the way to bring in legislation. The regulation that the Minister will bring in will resemble primary legislation more than it will regulations. That is a big mistake on the parts of the Minister and the Government. For that reason, I will not be able to support the Bill unless the Minister accepts the sensible amendments that have been tabled by my party and others.
It is fair to say that there has been a failure in some sectors, whether meat plants or other factory settings, to properly put in place infection control measures. That has, in its own way, led to the spread of the virus. That is why we have proposed an amendment to the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. Our amendment would make Covid-19 a notifiable, occupational illness that would require workplace occurrences of Covid-19 reportable and require their reporting to the Health and Safety Authority, HSA. This would ensure that the HSA can immediately inspect a workplace and ensure that workplace practices do not contribute to the spread of the virus. It is vital that is done and it is what workers are calling for.
We also need proper sick pay and I acknowledge that the Labour Party tabled a motion on this, which we supported. Those are the types of solutions and measures that we should put in place, as well as powers of enforcement. We are not seeing those types of solutions but we are seeing a Government bringing forward and rushing through emergency legislation containing measures that will impact on ordinary working people.
I want to make an important point and I will do so as carefully as I can. There are parts of this city and country where people live in apartments and in areas where the accommodation is very cramped. There are apartment blocks of seven to nine storeys. It is exceptionally difficult for people in those circumstances to socially distance and for children to adhere to the guidelines. These are socially deprived and working class areas. I have no doubt that when people in those areas look at these types of fines, they wonder if they will apply to them. Is that where the Garda is going to enforce them, as opposed to in more affluent parts of this city and elsewhere? That is a legitimate concern because people living in those flats or apartment complexes - with 50 or 60 families per complex - are trying to keep their children indoors and socially distanced. Can the Minister imagine how difficult that is? They will be looking at this legislation and asking how it is going to apply. That is why we have to be proportionate and apply common sense to what we do.
I also share the concerns articulated by the Garda representative bodies and others that the overly punitive approach proposed by the Government risks alienating people. Over-enforcement can be as bad as under-enforcement. Excessive powers and measures can undermine the solidarity we need for high levels of compliance and we could end up making the situation worse. To avoid disproportionate fines, we have proposed amendments which would require new regulations issued under this legislation and amendments to regulations issued under the Act to be first approved by the Dáil and the Seanad. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that, when the Minister crafts his regulations, he cannot bring them back to the Dáil for scrutiny and approval. I said this to him yesterday. We are giving him these powers to make regulations but we do not even get a heads-up or an email from his Department to say he has signed the regulations and will post them on the website. We have to check every hour to see when the regulations will be up. That is absolutely unacceptable. We are saying this time and again. Yesterday he committed to more improvement.
The regulations were put up on the website yesterday morning after we had raised concerns the day before and after we had a briefing. Many of us were at that briefing with officials from the Department who were not able to answer questions. That was not because they were not equipped to do so, but because we were asking about matters that were not in the legislation but would be in the regulations, including the precise application of the fines, to what and whom they will apply, under what circumstances and the precise penalties involved. The Minister says that the fixed notices can be up to €500, although we know they will probably be less than that. We can all speculate. For example, will the charge for a house party be €50, €100 or €200? What can I say to people? It is a maximum of €500 but I have no idea because the Minister will set that by way of regulation. I am expected to support the Bill blindly and not know what that charge will be, not be able to tell people what it will mean or what the safeguards, checks and balances will be, because these will again be done by way of regulations that will not come back to this House. How is that fair? How is that the way to deal with this matter? How is that the way to get support from the Opposition? I just do not see how it is.
Regular briefings were due to begin this week. I raised this with the Minister yesterday. The first briefing with the HSE yesterday was arranged at the same time that we were in this Chamber with the Minister. As a result, none of the Opposition spokespeople on health could be at the briefing. I contacted the Department and the HSE and they said they were going ahead anyway. They did not even reschedule the briefing; they just went ahead. This is the type of nonsense with which we are dealing all the time. We want to be constructive and to work with the Government. We want information, to be able to feed into decisions and to give people answers to questions. We cannot do that if we are being kept in the dark.
References to custodial sentences in this Bill are unacceptable. I do not think custodial sentences are the way forward and those provisions will also be of concern to people. We want these provisions to be removed and have tabled amendments to that effect. The practicalities of this Bill are also questionable and we must ensure that whatever measures are put in place are actually enforceable and do not cause non-compliance. High fines and sentences of imprisonment for breaches of the guidelines are not proportionate. It is particularly inappropriate where the Minister is making regulations that would lead to such things without proper Dáil or Seanad scrutiny of any future regulations. That is going to be a very important part of how people see this.
A number of Deputies have made the point that people want to hear from the Government what the plan is. What is the plan on how we deal with this virus? Where is the exit strategy? How do we get out of this? We will have restrictions for six weeks and these may or may not work and may or may not bring down the numbers. What happens then? This has been categorised as a yo-yo approach. We ease the restrictions for Christmas, then in January and February we will be back in the same cycle again. I acknowledge that we will be discussing some of this during the statements later but people do not have any confidence that there is a plan.
The Government published the roadmap for living with the virus and, let us be honest, it is dead in the water. It never took off the ground because we had level 3+, level 4+ and level 5-. It never took off. It was never a living document that was properly actioned. The county-by-county approach is completely gone and has been for some time. What is the plan now? I can tell the Minister what I think should be in the plan. First, we have to make sure we get testing and tracing right. We have to do what we should have done during the summer and look at the core components of ensuring people are given hope and that there is a vision from the Government which can allow us not just to wrestle back control of the virus but stay ahead of it for as long as we possibly can. I accept that that means people doing what they need to do and that there must be individual responsibility. Of course it does. However, it also means that the Government must play its part.
As regards testing and tracing, we still have not been given any sense of how many staff there are or how many additional staff have been employed in tracing over the past number of weeks. We all know that when the cases get to a certain level they are going to overwhelm the system. We all accept that but, equally, we accept that there is not enough capacity in the system and there has not been from the get-go. The Minister has to accept that as well. People who are working in the system are contacting us, some of them in tears, telling us that they simply cannot keep up and that the system is creaking under the pressure. Test and trace is important.
I do not know how many times we, and Deputies from all parties, have come into this Chamber and asked the Minister what is happening at the airports. There is no testing at the airports, even today. The European traffic light system provides us with some opportunity and a framework to try to get this right. Today, despite all the promises from the Government, we have no idea whatsoever what is happening at the airports. We have very limited protections and the electronic passenger locator form is still not the answer. There is no testing and tracing, quarantine or isolation, despite the fact that the WHO has told us time and again that the way to keep control of the virus is to test, trace and isolate. We are not doing that at the airports.
I said yesterday that we need an all-island response. The memorandum of understanding that was signed by the Minister and the Minister for Health in the North was a good initiative and a step forward but it is not working. That means the Executive. The Minister is right that my party is in that Executive. We are up for all-island solutions and we are trying to move others onto that ground as best we can within that Executive. This is ultimately about the two Ministers for Health, the two Chief Medical Officers, CMOs, the Executive and the Government joining up their responses as best they can in respect of test and trace, sharing data and resources and aligning restrictions and public health responses. I can tell the Minister, hand on heart, that my party is up for all of that and more. If we do not act as a single unit for the purposes of controlling and preventing the spread of this disease across the island, we are not going to do it. Those are the types of interventions that need to be made by the Government, as well as all the income supports and protections.
The Government does not want to hear this, but it wasted the summer by not doing all that I have outlined. The WHO has said that lockdowns are used for a number of different purposes, one of which is to try to contain the spread of the virus. Let us hope that works and that the numbers come down.
The other intent of a lockdown is to give us breathing space to build our defences. I want to hear from Government what exactly that means in practical terms. What actions and interventions will be taken? Where will the additional capacity come from in all of these areas? If we come out of this lockdown and testing and tracing is still not fixed, we still do not have testing in our airports, or we still do not have capacity in our hospitals, intensive care units or acute beds, that is squarely on the shoulders of the Minister and the Government. We are asking people to make significant sacrifices. I believe the vast majority will. Those who do not and those who are reckless should be subject to enforcement, but the Government has to step up to the plate and play its part. In my experience, the vast majority of people do not believe the Government or Minister. We need to see a new plan that gives people hope, a sense that we are in control and a sense that we can come out of this. That is what people want and expect from the Government, and they are simply not getting it.
I would like to share time with Deputy Brendan Howlin. Over the past seven months, the Government and State have made some big asks of the Irish people and here we are again. Businesses have closed, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, especially in the past week, lives have been completely disrupted and turned upside down, and society in many ways has ground to a halt, all in the name of defeating this deadly virus that has taken so many lives and remains such a threat. We are making all these sacrifices because the alternative does not bear thinking about. There is no doubt that we will count the cost of this pandemic for many years to come. It needs to be said at the outset of this debate that the people have, by and large, played a blinder in their attempts to defeat the virus. The majority of people have and we must acknowledge that. The example shown by tens of thousands of people in the HSE, by public servants, those working in front-line services, both private and public, by many businesses, by workers and by volunteers has been incredible. It is something we have never seen in our lifetime.
I am saying this at the start of the debate because this Bill is a step change in the Government's approach to dealing with the virus. While the Labour Party will support this Bill, we do so with great and sincere reservations. If the threat of the virus to human life and our society was not as great as it is, there is simply no way that we would contemplate supporting a Bill such as this. Even with it being as great a threat as it is, we believe that this issue needs to be considered very carefully. In general, we regrettably see the need to have a deterrent in place for irresponsible individuals, people who think that this virus is a hoax, or who oppose the public health guidelines based on conspiracy theories, people who deliberately and explicitly ignore public health guidelines, putting everyone else in danger, or those who simply use this situation for their own ideologically warped purposes.
Before going through the contents of the Bill and setting out my party's position, I want to make a point to the Minister and to everyone here. This is not the way that we should be doing business. A Bill such as this, which provides for on-the-spot fines for contravening public health guidelines, should not be rushed through the Dáil in a single day. The Minister probably agrees with this. He would be dancing around if he was in opposition. It certainly should be rushed through the Dáil in a single day having been published less than 48 hours previously. It is completely wrong, disproportionate and downright dangerous. Amendments to this Bill will not be discussed. We will get to the first one and that will be it. The Minister said this has only been drafted this week. I find that hard to take. The pandemic has been going on for seven months, so surely preparation was in place?
The substance of this Bill is in section 3, which states: "The Minister may make regulations prescribing such one or more penal provisions as are specified in the regulations to be fixed penalty provisions." In plain English, those are on-the-spot fines. This is a key point. The Bill does not lay out what the offences will be that will be subject to the on-the-spot fines but has given the Minister the power for such regulations to specify the fines. The Labour Party believes that those regulations need to be examined in the Dáil before they come into force. We will support amendments that have been tabled to give that effect. We are a responsible Opposition party. We do not oppose things for the sake of opposing them. We are saying directly to the Government and the Minister that they need to listen carefully to us and other Opposition parties on this issue.
Public buy-in is essential. While I believe there is widespread but considered public support for these measures, I also believe that this public support could collapse if the Government gets it wrong. What offences will be subject to such on-the-spot fines? With all due respect to this Government, given the volume of continual blunders, with another this week, that it has made on all of these issues, it does not exactly inspire confidence in me, my party or many others. The Labour Party believes that the correct approach is for regulations to be brought before the Dáil before they come into force and I want the Minister to consider that. There will be grey areas and difficult calls and we owe it to the public and to the individual men and women of An Garda Síochána, who will enforce these rules, to ensure that the Government gets it right.
Section 4 deals with the process by which a member of An Garda can issue an on-the-spot fine and the methods by which it can be paid. It is important to say that on-the-spot fines for traffic offences are cut and dried issues. Someone either was over the speed limit or parked on a double yellow line. Public health guidelines are far more complex and gardaí will be dealing with a far more difficult situation. Common-sense policing will be vital if it is to be a success and continue to have public support. We also need to ensure that there is equality of treatment, and I would appreciate if the Minister for Justice and Equality could listen rather than use her phone. We need equality of treatment because the virus does not respect different social settings. It does not care what setting it is in, whether somebody is from an affluent setting, a working-class housing estate, a rural area or an urban area. Everybody has to be treated the same. I ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to clarify to the Dáil that gardaí will take a common-sense approach when dealing with these situations and that enforcement will be a last resort. It would be helpful if the Minister would assure the public that people will not be penalised for inadvertently breaching the guidelines. This is an important issue of civil liberties and we believe that the Government needs to set matters out clearly through the Minister for Justice and Equality.
Section 5 deals with house parties and other indoor events. I am pleased that An Garda Síochána will not be given the power to enter houses. Even though we support the public health efforts, we would not support this Bill if that was the case. Gardaí will have the power to knock on the door, ask to speak to the organiser and take his or her details as necessary. Given the difficult circumstances we are in, this is the right approach. It is balanced between civil liberties and the need to enforce the regulation, which gives the gardaí the ability to make their presence known without intruding into a person's home. I stress that the Minister must come back to the Dáil with the regulations that set out what will be subject to the on-the-spot fines. As we all know well, public buy-in is vital in everything that we are doing to defeat this virus. If we get this wrong, the Government will lose the dressing room. It will lose the public.
If the regulations are nonsensical and contradictory or if the public can see they are not fair or are not being fairly implemented, they could easily become counterproductive. How the Minister for Health and the Minister for Justice provide these, implement them and ensure they are enforced must be done with great balance and very delicately. I hope the Ministers listen to us and consult the Dáil and Seanad on these rules before they come into force. While that might require some humility from the Minister for Health, it is a small sacrifice to make when we are dealing with such legislation.
Finally, I wish to comment on An Garda Síochána. Ms Antoinette Cunningham, general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, and the AGSI have made some valid points about this legislation. The AGSI has concerns about practical enforcement and the possible undermining of policing by consent. We are putting An Garda Síochána in an invidious position. It will have to make some fairly close calls. We must support the Garda and ensure gardaí are not left in a difficult situation. We must see how these regulations work out and how they will be managed. We must learn quickly, and the Garda must be supported in doing that. I am not comfortable with An Garda Síochána being left in circumstances in which it is not clear how it should implement something. We must work with the Garda very closely, particularly in the coming weeks when this legislation is passed.
I am happy to have an opportunity to speak, even briefly, on this Bill. Every member of the Labour Party and, I suspect, the vast majority of Members of the House have the gravest concerns about this type of legislation. If he was not in ministerial office, I believe the current Minister for Health would be among those voicing the concerns. In any normal circumstances we would not countenance laws such as this being brought before the House. However, we are not in normal circumstances. The priority of all Members is to ensure that we uphold the health and safety of the people who elected us to the House. That simple and overarching objective trumps many of our concerns.
Last night, we extended the restrictions we enacted, I believe unanimously, at the beginning of the pandemic because the threat to the lives as well as the health of citizens is at least as real now as it was six months ago. These are extraordinary powers. We are modifying some of them and supplementing others. The general principle with which I approach these matters is that rules without sanctions are simply advice. While advice is important, and the vast majority of people adhere to advice, there will be some who will not and put their fellow citizens at risk. Therefore, we must have the possibility of being able to ensure that the advice is implemented, and that must be by way of penal sanction. In the current circumstances, that is warranted.
However, we are on the threshold of going too far. I am happy with the approach to private dwellings, as Deputy Kelly mentioned. It would be a bridge too far to give An Garda Síochána the authority to enter private dwellings, which can only be done by way of warrant now. That would be unacceptable. Where there is an obvious disturbance taking place and a crowd potentially transmitting infection, the power to knock on the door and stop that is good. We will walk the road that far with the Minister.
I wish to make a general point to Members, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Ceann Comhairle. I was struck by the news yesterday regarding the statement made by the President of the German Bundestag. Mr. Wolfgang Schäuble is somebody I worked with, and I would not often regard him as a defender of liberal values. However, he made a strong and urgent appeal to German members of parliament. He used the phrase, with which we are getting familiar in a different context, that German members of parliament must take control of Covid-19 legislation rather than rubber-stamp extensions of provisions put forward by the government. He said that any extension of powers and any trampling or diminution of the rights of citizens must be accompanied by clear explanations, justifications and timelines, because democracy requires that. Democracy is always tested most in a time of crisis. As we have seen in some jurisdictions, authoritarian governments use the backdrop of a pandemic as a crisis to restrict people's rights. We cannot fall into that trap, but I am fearful that the approach to this legislation has brought us on that path.
There should be the fullest debate possible about this law. Let us examine what happened this week. The schedule for yesterday and today was published on Wednesday. The Bill was published late Wednesday and early Thursday. There was limited or no time for consideration of amendments. There was no time at all for external consultation with concerned individuals, organisations or bodies, which we would usually consult. That is not right or acceptable. The 160 Deputies have been trusted by the people to be their watchdogs, the protectors of their rights and interests. We must not only do that, but be seen to do it. People must trust what we decide and the processes we use to decide. That is not happening with this legislation. It is not good enough. The notion that we have legislation that, in essence, simply transfers power to the Minister to make regulations is not good. There are volumes of judicial decisions relating to the limit of ministerial power to make legislation by statutory instrument. That is being tested in this legislation. It is not even good for the certainty the Minister requires for his actions because these are all ultimately subject to judicial oversight.
As Deputy Kelly said, we believe that, on balance, the real and present threat not only to the health and well-being but also to the lives of citizens is such that we must set aside those concerns to support the Bill today. Even if the combined Opposition voted against it, we still would not be able to overcome it. I wish to put a clear marker down for the Government. This is the last time this should happen. If we have to sit on Saturdays and Mondays, let us do that and have proper briefings so we have time to consult external affected bodies which normally give good advice on these matters. At the end of the day, we will be seen to do the job the people have set for us.
I will be raising this in the Dáil reform committee when it next meets, as I have indicated to the Ceann Comhairle. I hope the Ceann Comhairle and Leas-Cheann Comhairle will take a clear and strong stand on the fundamental right of Members of the House to have the time and capacity to do their job properly and effectively in the public interest. If we do not do that, we will ultimately erode people's confidence not only in the laws we enact, but also in these institutions.
I am privileged to have been a Member for quite some time. Crises have arisen. We needed to sit all night in the past on particular issues and sometimes they were not given sufficient time or the external scrutiny they required, but we cannot fall into that trap again. On the conclusion of the Second Stage debate, I wish to hear from the Minister for Health or the Minister for Justice and Equality that the process by which this Bill was brought to us was a mistake, that it will not happen again and that they will accept the requirement to bring the statutory instruments, once they are perfected, back here for debate so that we can be fully clear on what we are doing in order that legislation is properly enacted by the Oireachtas and that we are not simply here as some sort of rubber stamp that has transferred the power to make law to the Executive. That is not the way it is and that is not how the Constitution says it should be. I hope to hear those reassurances at the end of this debate.
I am pleased to speak in support of my colleague, the Minister for Health, on this important legislation. He has outlined the detail of the legislation and the intention of the Bill, which is the intention of all of us here, that is, to reduce the spread of the virus. Covid-19 remains a real threat to all of us and, in particular, to our most vulnerable citizens. This is a critical time for our country and we have a responsibility to comply with the public health guidelines and regulations for the good of everybody.
While the vast majority of people continue to comply with the restrictions, it is clear that too many people are acting in a manner which enables the transmission of the virus and therefore additional measures are needed. We hope the fixed-charge system being proposed will help to change behaviour. It is important to note, however, that the Government's objective here is not to catch people out or to try to punish people who are adhering to guidelines, or even those who make mistakes, because we all make mistakes; the objective is to prevent the kind of behaviour that endangers others.
We do not want to see a large number of fines issued for non-compliance. Even with these new enforcement powers, An Garda Síochána will continue with the policing policy that has earned the support of the vast majority of the public during the pandemic. Deputy Cullinane said that these fines will be the first instance. They will not be. I reassure Deputy Kelly that the Garda will continue to use the "four Es": first and foremost the Garda will engage with people, they will educate people as to what the guidelines are on what they are trying to do, they will encourage people to comply where they are not in compliance and it is only as a final resort that they will enforce.
People who are in breach of the regulations will always be given the opportunity by gardaí to come into compliance before any further action is taken. I reassure Deputies that this will continue. I also reassure them that the legislation is not being introduced without consultation with the Garda Commissioner. We engaged with him to understand the concerns and needs of the Garda. The penalties applying to some of the current health regulations remain a potential fine of up to €2,500 and-or six months in prison. It is not new to have a penal provision or custodial sentences. What we are trying to do is reduce them and bring them more in line with the potential breaches. The new system of fixed-penalty notices will allow for a more proportionate system of fines.
The legislation before the House will also make it an offence to organise an event in a private home such as a house party that is in breach of the public health regulations. However, as we outlined, An Garda Síochána will not be given any additional powers of entry into a private dwelling. It will be presumed that the occupier of the home in which the event is taking place is the organiser, unless it is proven otherwise. An Garda Síochána will also have additional powers to give direction on events in private homes. These are, first, the power to direct someone intending to enter a dwelling for the purpose of attending an event organised in contravention of the public health regulations, or someone who is about to enter a dwelling for that purpose or who is attempting to enter a dwelling for that purpose. They will be asked to leave the vicinity in a peaceable and orderly manner. Where a member of An Garda Síochána suspects that an event in breach of the public health regulations is taking place in a private dwelling, he or she may direct the occupier to require and cause all those attending the event to leave the home or venue, unless they are resident in the home. For the purposes of issuing such a direction, a member of An Garda Síochána may attend at the main entrance to the home and require the occupier to provide their name. A person who fails to comply with a direction of a member of An Garda Síochána commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €1,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month, or both. The person may appeal against the conviction or sentence to the Circuit Court.
I will outline some other operations the Garda is undertaking. As Deputies will be aware, Operation Fanacht is focused on supporting public compliance with the public health measures. The Garda Commissioner has announced that there will continue to be high-visibility patrolling by Garda members across the country. Again, the focus here is not to try to catch people out to penalise them; rather it is to encourage people to adhere to the public health measures. The Garda will continue to conduct checkpoints on main routes. In recent weeks, that has involved 132 large-scale checkpoints a day on main arterial routes around the country, in addition to thousands of mobile checkpoints a week on secondary routes in towns and villages. There will continue to be high visibility. I understand the frustration caused to people caught at the checkpoints who are trying to get to work, school or to attend an appointment. I plead with those who do not need to be on the roads to stay at home. Yesterday, on my way to the Dáil I saw there was as much traffic on the road as any other day. That should not be the case. I urge those who should not be on the roads to please stay at home and to continue to work at home.
As has been done since the start of the pandemic, gardaí will continue to engage with the most vulnerable in society to provide them with the necessary supports. While the vast majority of gardaí will be focused on engaging with the public, national units in areas such as crime detection, armed support, national security and organised crime, as well as divisional drug units, will continue to prevent and detect crime. In particular, the Garda National Protective Services Bureau and the divisional protective service units will continue to support victims of domestic abuse under Operation Faoiseamh. We were asked earlier this year to stay at home. For many of us, home is our safe place and where we can be kept safe. However, for others it is not a safe place and, unfortunately, domestic violence has increased during the pandemic. Introduced at the start of the pandemic, Operation Faoiseamh has seen an enhanced level of support, protection and, I hope, reassurance to victims of domestic abuse. Thousands of contacts have been made with victims of domestic abuse, as well as arrests and more than 100 prosecutions have commenced. Yesterday, for the first time ever, a barring order was granted, essentially over video link, by Ennis District Court. This is a new and very welcome development following the amendments to legislation over the summer. I want victims of domestic and sexual abuse to know that An Garda Síochána, the Courts Service and other services, including the vital services and supports provided by the community and voluntary sector, are still here for them. Perpetrators should also note that there will be no let up in our efforts to tackle domestic and sexual violence.
There will be a release of personnel to front-line policing, including 125 attested Garda trainees currently undertaking phase one training in the Garda College, 75 Garda trainees not attested, undertaking phase one training, and 60 gardaí working as tutors or instructors in the Garda College, out of a cohort of 80 gardaí. This is in addition to the 45 gardaí who temporarily transferred from the Garda College to the front line at the start of the pandemic and who have remained on front-line duty. The deployments will take effect from 2 November 2020. In addition, across the organisation, gardaí in administrative roles will, where possible, be redeployed to operational duties. The 12-hour contingency roster will also be extended until 31 March 2021.
These are just some of the initiatives that have been undertaken and are being supported by An Garda Síochána. I know that these are strange and difficult times and I reassure Deputies that the Garda will always continue to support people, work with them and engage, educate and encourage. It is only as a last resort that they will enforce.
We are considering legislation to enforce, essentially what is a level 5 lockdown, as some are calling it. We know that we have to do this, in part because of the lack of capacity within the health service. We have to protect the health service from becoming overwhelmed. We have been told repeatedly by the Minister and her predecessor that testing is essential and that it is a vital tool in our battle with this virus. I was very disturbed yesterday to receive a notification that was circulated in the National Virus Reference Laboratory, NVRL. The heading was "Urgent Notification Relating to SARS-CoV-2 testing at the NVRL". The notice stated:
Due to unavoidable staff shortages, the NVRL will not be able to provide any SARS-CoV-2 testing on the weekends of 24, 25 and 26 October and 31 October to 1 November. Apologies for the late notice and any inconvenience this may cause.
Is the Minister aware of this? What will the implications be? Will he outline what additional capacity has been sourced in order to ensure that this does not have the potential knock-on effect that we know it could have? What efforts have been made to address the short-staffing in the National Virus Reference Laboratory, which is concerning? What will be done to ensure that when the swabbing takes place the testing will also take place? We have already seen a shambles with regard to the tracing with people now being asked to trace their own contacts. Testing is absolutely essential. It was outsourced previously. Is it the Minister's intention to shore up capacity?
I tabled an amendment to the legislation that would see Covid-19 designated as a workplace injury and make it notifiable to the Health and Safety Authority. I understand there is support within the Minister's party for doing this. Will he consider my amendment and ensure that the maximum protections are given to people at work? This legislation is a lot about personal responsibility. There is nothing in this, however, that will make an employer or someone running a factory take notice. If Covid-19 was to be designated a workplace injury and notifiable, as per my amendment, that would send a message that it is not only about personal responsibility but employers have a responsibility and a duty to their staff.
I have one amendment, amendment No. 21, calling for regulations to be brought before the Dáil for approval prior to taking effect and prior to this legislation coming into force. I believe that should be included in the first group of amendments because the objective is exactly the same. Will that be reviewed prior to the end of Second Stage?
It is hard to know how many speaking slots will be filled on Second Stage. Three and a half hours are allowed. If they are not fully used up, can we carry over that time to Committee and Report Stages? We are all asking for additional time on this and there is no doubt that this is no way to do business. The Minister has really put people in a difficult situation. This legislation will undoubtedly severely curtail people's freedoms. It should not be rushed by any means. There should be full consultation on it and proper briefing. Does the Minister mind listening to my point?
I am actually taking notes.
A briefing was called at short notice on Wednesday evening, which was highly unsatisfactory. We were told that this has nothing to do with house parties, yet the Government's portrayal is that it is all to do with house parties. I will come back to that later when we consider the regulations in more detail. That is no way to do business, however. We should not have to take key decisions here today in a rush. I am putting down a marker at the very beginning that this is highly unsatisfactory and a very unprofessional way of dealing with legislation. It is not acceptable.
We are at level 5 now. There are questions to be asked about why we find ourselves at a point where level 5 had to be invoked. We are facing a national emergency. We all want to be part of the national effort in responding to that emergency. However, the Minister is making it difficult for us. This Government, and to a certain extent the previous Government, has excluded the Opposition from any kind of national response. That has been a poor decision. Clearly we need to be speaking with one voice. We need to come together sharing expertise and identifying those actions which are most likely to be effective in controlling the virus. The issue of what is the best approach to take to tackling this huge threat to our lives and livelihoods should not be a matter for political division. Instead, it should be a case of working together on a cross-party basis to devise a national strategy for responding to this. Several times I have asked the Taoiseach to reach out to other parties to work together on this on the basis of the best advice and expertise. Not only should that be the case at a political level, it should also be the case in terms of expertise being brought in to agree the national response to this issue.
We have highly qualified people in NPHET and good people with expertise in public health and mathematical modelling. While all of that is really important, it is only one aspect of it. Back in early summer, I put it to the Tánaiste that he would consider broadening the range of expertise that would be brought in to decide the best national response. He told me at that point there was a Cabinet sub-committee. That is all very well but the Cabinet sub-committee does not possess the kind of expertise required to respond in that broad way.
I drew attention then to the fact that the decisions on level 5 were taken by ten respected people but that all of them were male. There is an urgent need to bring diversity to decision-making because we should have the kind of balance that would be achieved with a gender balance. We also need to bring in other expertise on, say, human behaviour and what is the best way to encourage people to come along with some of the severe actions proposed. The mathematical and public health elements are a particular perspective. There are other perspectives as well, however. If the Government had involved broader approaches dealing with human nature, psychology and behavioural science, we would not necessarily find ourselves here today with the Government asking us to agree to the introduction of severe penal measures to get people to comply. This should be about winning hearts and minds. The Government should have set out to understand human nature better, come up with reasonable proposals. which would be seen as such, and bring people along. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Too often people hear measures being introduced that they cannot understand the logic for and feel that they are unreasonable. Certainly some of them are unreasonable. They do not necessarily add up to a situation where people can buy into the Government's response. That is a real weakness in the approach that has been taken.
I also have to express concern about attempts to demonise NPHET. It is a highly qualified body but it is not the possessor of all wisdom by any means. In the areas in which it has expertise, however, it is very good. It is regrettable that when the Government's efforts fail, some if its members point the finger at NPHET and demonise it. That has been entirely unhelpful. I am speaking obviously about the Tánaiste in particular. Other actions of the Tánaiste over recent weeks and months have also been unhelpful. I am referring to deliberate efforts and comments on his part that were clearly designed to undermine the Government and Government agencies, while not playing his part in achieving a national response.
It is clear that the Garda is not looking for the powers that the Government is setting out in this legislation, nor indeed has NPHET asked for them.
The Minister spoke about the need to build trust. Many people do not really trust the Government at the moment. There are several reasons for that. The political response to this should be aimed at gaining the public's trust. It is very hard to do that if the response is not unified and steps are not taken to bring people together. Moreover, unless the it keeps its side of the bargain, the Government will not retain the public's trust. What is the deal here? The Government must lead. It must take the actions that only it can take so that it can bring people with it and expect them to play their part. The vast majority of people have been playing their part, but people are increasingly asking why they should comply if the Government is not doing its bit.
There are major questions about why the Government is not doing its bit in a range of areas to which other Deputies have referred. Testing is an obvious example. The fact that this was not sorted out during the summer months is simply unbelievable. It is incredible that weekend clinics are still being cancelled and results are being delayed. It is unbelievable that the Government and the HSE have not sorted out the tracing issue. This is fundamental. Testing, tracing and isolation are central to the Government's approach to tackling the virus, but various aspects of that approach are now in complete disarray. The linchpin of the Government's approach is not functioning. The Minister must get that sorted out, and fast.
It was a revelation when we discovered a few weeks ago that tracing only covered the period of the previous 48 hours. No detailed work was being done to identify where the virus was being transmitted. We still do not know that. It is guesswork. We have not used the science or deployed the people who are capable of carrying out meaningful tracing that goes back seven or ten days. At the heart of all of this is the traditional and continuing complete neglect of public health. Most people had not heard of public health until the pandemic arrived earlier this year. Public health has traditionally been hugely under-resourced. It still is. We only have a third of the public health doctors a country of our size requires. The fact that a practitioner cannot become a consultant as a public health doctor is a real slap in the face. The Minister recently promised to do something about that, but there has been no engagement with public health doctors or their representatives. Public health nursing is another aspect of public health's position as the poor relation of our health service. We are 700 public health nurses short of the complement a country of our size should have. These are glaring areas where the Government needs to do its bit. People are saying the Government is not doing its bit, and the Minister knows where that thinking leads.
The other area that has been completely neglected is travel. I cannot understand that. I have been raising this issue for months. For the last few months there have been no safeguards or controls whatsoever at airports or ports. The Minister mentioned the other day that as part of the European traffic light system he will look at or explore - phrases he uses frequently - the prospect of five-day quarantines and polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing at airports. Why is the Minister only considering this now? Is there any prospect of a system being put in place to address that issue any time soon?
The question of Northern Ireland relates that. I am not saying it is straightforward by any means, but an all-island strategy must be actively pursued. During the summer the North's all-party Committee for Health called for that. That was the time for an immediate and positive response. It did not happen. It is essential that the Minister provides political leadership in all of these areas, and unfortunately that is lacking.
The Minister has brought legislation before the House which introduces further restrictions on people's lives and on what can happen in the country and enables him to impose penalties. He has outlined some of what he has in mind, but the legislation allows him a very free hand to expand those restrictions and penalties. It would be very dangerous to give a Minister that kind of carte blanche without any kind of democratic controls. That is why my amendment requires any regulations to have the approval of the Dáil.
I have said that the briefing the other evening was very inadequate. It told us something very different to what the Minister and the Government are saying now. We need clarity on this. Yesterday, like others, I heard by chance that the Minister had signed regulations. The first of these imposes restrictions on the movement of relevant persons outside their places of residence. Rather than outlining the things people should not be doing, the regulations set out 25 reasons for which people will be allowed to leave their homes. That is incredible. Without too much effort one can immediately think of another 25 or even 50 reasons that would be perfectly legitimate but are not listed. For example, someone might travel 2 km by car to post a letter. That is a legitimate reason, but it is not listed. The Minister has been incredibly prescriptive in these regulations. After outlining the 25 reasons, the regulations state that the paragraph in question will be a penal provision for the purposes of section 31A of the Health Act 1947. The Minister is penalising people who leave their homes for reasons other than the 25 purposes he has prescribed. The regulations then address events and dwellings. That this is not a penal provision, despite what the officials told us. While this is portrayed as a measure dealing with house parties, it actually does not do that in penal terms. It sets out what people can and cannot do in their houses, but there does not seem to be any penalty attached. Funerals and the operations of businesses, hotels, etc., are all covered by penal offences.
If this is the first set of regulations the Minister has come up with, I fear what he might do next week or next month. It is completely unacceptable to expect the Dáil to pass legislation allowing a Minister to introduce whatever regulations and fines he wishes without any democratic control whatsoever. As I said at the outset, the Government's approach should aim to bring people with it. It should win over their hearts and minds by speaking to them directly about how they feel about the huge price they are paying for the restrictions on their lives. The Government should work with people and meet them where they are.
It has not taken that approach to date. The regulations the Minister signed yesterday do not take that kind of approach. Given the first set of regulations the Government is proposing under the legislation, it is very difficult to have confidence in the judgment of the Minister or the Government regarding what we need to be doing.
I refer to the areas that are causing difficulty. House parties are undoubtedly causing difficulty. What is the Government doing about them? The regulations are very unclear about what steps will be taken in that regard. Under the regulations, which are not penal regulations, gardaí can knock on the door. What happens if the door is not answered? Is there anything the Garda can do in those circumstances?
I do not think the Bill is what is required at the moment. The Government needs to make a far greater effort to do what it undertook to do and get the basics right. There needs to be an appeal to people to work together. I have put it to the Taoiseach that unified political messages should be coming from the political system. That will only happen if we can work together in a genuine attempt to reach agreement on what we should be doing in the national interest, and then encourage people to do that. It is regrettable that that approach has not been taken.
I urge the Minister to withdraw these regulations and to consider supporting the amendments that I and other Deputies have tabled, which I believe are quite reasonable. The amendments propose that before introducing any regulations with relatively severe penalties, the Minister would get the approval of the House. That is the only way we can build trust with the public. I do not think it will happen otherwise.
I welcome the Minister and the fact that we are debating this issue in a democratic Parliament. Deputies have the right to criticise, but they also have the right to praise. A significant amount of good work has been done, notwithstanding the criticisms all Members have of failings that are apparent in the system, particularly in respect of primary schools. Two primary schools in my area had positive tests last weekend. Up to yesterday evening, one of the schools, in which three young children tested positive, had not been contacted.
That said, in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 8, which encompasses counties Louth and Meath, more than 100,000 tests have been carried out since March. In County Louth, where I am from, 17,000 tests have been carried out. In the adjoining county of Meath, part of which is in my constituency, 23,000 tests have been carried out. Significant resources have been put in and there has been significant redeployment of nurses, doctors, dentists, physiotherapists, dieticians, social workers, administrative staff and other staff to help out. I praise them for the work they have done and the organisational effort they have put in. The Government has increased the number of tests to more than 100,000 per week, which is very important. Unfortunately, the number gets bigger every day. In the near future, 120,000 tests per week will be carried out. Much has been done, but much remains to be done.
I listened to the criticism of the Bill by Deputy Shortall. I do not know what advice she has or what amendments she would make to the regulations to allow the Garda to deal with penalties under the Act, as it had to do yesterday on Grafton Street. A group of people were resolutely determined to ignore the advice and encouragement of the Garda to desist from their illegal activity. Unfortunately and sadly, several of them were arrested and will shortly be brought before the courts. What do Deputy Shortall and her colleagues say about that? Do they support it? Where do they stand on that issue? I know that I and my colleagues must stand on the side of the Government and with the approach of the Garda which, depending on the situation, involves an incrementally increasing strategy of encouragement, discussion and, ultimately, action as a last resort. The Garda may not have the support of Deputy Shortall, but it certainly has mine. There is a role for penalties, but only as a last resort when there is no reasonable alternative. To imply that the Government-----
On a point of order-----
My apologies for interrupting Deputy O'Dowd. What is the point of order?
I ask the Deputy to withdraw his remarks because they are not based on fact.
I do not think that is a point of order. The fact is that the Deputy stated she is against the penalties in the Bill. I referred to one of those penalties. Is she for it or against it? She has not answered that question. Does she support the Garda in its action on Grafton Street? I support it.
If the Deputy wishes to shout, that is fine, but we are in the Parliament. She had her opportunity to speak and I am taking my opportunity to so do. I thank her for addressing me in such a kind manner.
The wearing of masks is an important issue. Many people, including me, get out of their car to go into a shop or to get petrol, suddenly realise they have forgotten their mask, and then go back to get it. Most people who do not wear masks do so inadvertently. It is not a determined action or an affront to other people. However, some people refuse to wear masks. That refusal puts the health of others at risk, particularly in enclosed spaces. It is very important that there are incremental measures which the Garda can take if that is necessary to keep everybody safe.
The main point about what is happening with this country is that we are at level 5, whether we like it or not. I do not like it and I do not think any other Deputy does either. We are at level 5 because the virus is getting out of control in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, including in Spain, France and Germany, as well as further afield, such as in America, India and many other countries. We must all heed clear and stark advice to stay at home if at all possible. Notwithstanding that, I support the view that some physical activities are capable of being carried out individually and safely outside one's home and within a 5 km radius of it. However, the fact is that we must accept the advice and act on it.
The Government is acting cogently and properly in the way these regulations have been brought in and will be enforced. I do not agree with all of the regulations. Some of them need to be reviewed urgently. Yesterday, I raised the issue of people who wish to go individually onto a golf course by prior arrangement, not meet anybody and play a round of golf alone. There are also issues around gymnasiums and mental health. The Government may need to do more thinking on that. Along with NPHET, it should re-examine some of those issues because one of the big things is that if we are encouraging young people to adhere to the advice, we must accept that they have other social issues. They should not be put down or given out to. We must encourage and praise them and constructively engage with them to get their support.
Members of the Opposition can be very negative. Listening to some of the Deputies who contributed on this issue this morning, I heard only negativity, but maybe in their heart of hearts they have room for praise, particularly for the Garda and the workers who have given so much to help the public in fighting this dreadful virus.
The Bill essentially asks the Dáil to give the Government licence to introduce a broad variety of fines for individuals. It asks for powers that could only and should only be granted to a Government that has substantial levels of trust and confidence among the population. I regret to say that this Government does not have that trust or confidence. It absolutely should have. Arguably it had it, but it squandered it. The Government has abused much of the goodwill the Irish people invested in the collective efforts to get on top of Covid-19.
I could list any number of failures and debacles, but I will just concentrate on this week. On Tuesday, we learned that the testing-and-tracing operation had collapsed to such an extent that the people who had tested positive for Covid-19 were asked to do their own contact tracing. On Wednesday, we learned that far from learning previous lessons and protecting our nursing homes, almost the entire staff in one nursing home had been hit by Covid and that grave concerns were being raised about several others. People rightly asked: how the hell have we got back to this point?
Very late last night it emerged that the Virapro sanitiser widely used in schools but also in many other public settings, had been recalled by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, causing further chaos in many schools that are already struggling to keep their doors open. This morning as parents and teachers listened into "Morning Ireland", they heard Fran McNulty tell them that the recall actually happened on Tuesday. In the absence of a debate on the issue that Sinn Féin sought for today, I want to put questions on the record and invite the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine to come into the Chamber today and provide answers. Did his Department provide approval for this product in the first place? If so how? When did he and his Department first become aware of the concerns regarding this product? When was it decided to consider recalling? Why, when the decision to recall was formalised on Tuesday, was this decision not publicised until very late on Thursday night? At what point were the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health informed that yet another debacle was coming down the tracks?
In the absence of answers to these outstanding questions and with all these debacles, how could the Dáil be seriously asked to hand over the wide-ranging and unspecified powers the Government is requesting today? We absolutely need enforcement of the regulations. Above all, we need the goodwill, trust and confidence of the people. That needs to be earned. The Government needs to earn it. It is time for a sea change. It is time to engage with communities that have done their level best from the outbreak of the pandemic.
I am sharing time with Deputies Bríd Smith, Boyd Barrett and Barry.
We are at the beginning of another lockdown, the second. The vast majority of people have adhered to the guidelines. They have made enormous sacrifices of their liberty with financial, family and health implications and they will continue to make them. In some ways a second lockdown was almost flagged. If we are facing a third lockdown in February, the spirit of the people who had made such sacrifices will be broken. There is a limit to what people can do.
This Bill is largely cosmetic. It tries to penalise people for holding house parties and so forth. The powers given to the Garda to fine people and direct people away from particular areas and house parties are largely cosmetic. On the issue of fines as a deterrent, people will be asking where the fines for meat processing plants were. Where were the fines for nursing homes given that 56% of people who have died in this pandemic were residents in nursing homes? Where are the fines for places like those? None of that has been included in this Bill.
In meat processing plants with no social distancing, workers' rights were under threat in respect of getting sick pay and so forth. All that has been thrown in the air with this legislation. As I have said, it is largely cosmetic. There needs to be collective responsibility. The vast majority of people have adhered to the guidelines. The Bill is dangerous and will drive a wedge in the solidarity and the sense that we are in this together. People will now say that we are not all in this together. This is Government policy. We cannot go for a third or fourth lockdown because the Government will lose people; it will lose the dressing room at that stage. This will be completely academic and cosmetic in getting this under control.
Policy is the most important thing. The country has six weeks to change its policy regarding what it is doing at the moment. We cannot go to another stage where we go back to a sense of normality at the start of December and then go back into another lockdown at the end of February. We cannot do that; it will break people. It is imperative now to have a policy change. Testing and tracing are extremely important. Opening the economy was a major mistake in the early summer. We should have crushed the virus with a zero-Covid policy to really get on top of the pandemic. If we do not, we will be in serious trouble. As I said, this is largely cosmetic.
I sense not just a pandemic, but a panic on the part of the Government. This is all about deflecting from the really deep systemic problems this society is facing. We have seen the collapse of the tracing system with the domino effect on the testing system that we heard about this morning. Deputy Carthy just talked about a complete disaster facing the schools. Evidence was already coming through that they were in trouble. Fórsa is calling for a strike by its school staff members and the ASTI has balloted. They are not doing this because they do not care about the kids; the opposite is the case.
Deputy O'Dowd wants us to praise people. I utterly and totally praise the teachers and the other school staff who have done their best to get those schools open and keep them open. I happen to live with a schoolteacher and the stress, worry and angst they carry with them every day through this pandemic is incredible. I absolutely praise them, those working in the health services and all essential workers. We have done so and we have clapped them to death, but we are failing them. We are failing them because the number of infections is rising among our health workers. The testing-and-tracing system has collapsed and our hospitals do not have the capacity. Despite what the Minister says, his winter plan is not enough. As we face into winter, we will face the same old problems with the beds and trolleys filling up, and the Covid cases will continue to increase.
I have just read the speech the Minister, Deputy McEntee, gave in support of this legislation. She mentions the four Es the Garda has been using: engage, educate, encourage and enforce as a final resort. That is fine, but I am afraid what we are doing today is panicking and trying to turn four Es into four Fs. I have no doubt that there will be a surge of fines against people who generally come from the lower economic classes. We will not find gardaí walking up the leafy suburbs of Castleknock and stopping somebody in their SUV with a crate of fine Pinotage wine going to a dinner party. We will find that they stop young lads and young ones going through parks with a six-pack under their arm. I believe the gardaí do not want this at all. In its panic, the Government is turning this into an argument about people's personal behaviour rather than the systemic failure of the Government to deliver.
We are totally opposed to imposing fines on people. In fact, they do not work. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has done some good research on this. When we used to jail people for not paying their television licence fees, the jails were full of mainly single mothers who could not afford to pay their television licence fine and would go to jail for a day or two instead.
The Minister may find that this will happen. This approach does not work and is ineffective but, most important, it sends out the signal that we are not all in this together. This is part of the domino effect where we have the tracing and testing systems collapsing, a lack of capacity in our hospitals, and our public health doctors in a panic because the amount of work they have to do means they cannot keep up with cases, never mind the ordinary day-to-day health issues they must deal with.
This legislation is an admission of failure not only in the past but also for the future because the Government intends to extend it to June. It proves that the Government proposes a plan of ebb and flow, with lockdowns followed by reopening. That will be a disaster for the population, psychologically, socially and economically. It will not work for the levels of health service we need to achieve. We advocate a zero-Covid policy which is not about a permanent lockdown but about focusing on the things this society needs. We wasted the previous lockdown when we did not increase capacity to the levels required and reopened the economy too wide and too early. As Deputy Kenny said, we never imposed restrictions and checks on workplaces such as meat factories and direct provision centres where the clusters broke out. I am afraid history will repeat itself time and again unless the Government wakes up. It is dividing the community, not uniting it. People do not trust the Government and they are losing faith in it. Nevertheless, the vast majority want this to work. They want to see the pandemic end, a decent health service and normal life restored. The Government's approach is a recipe for disaster and indicates panic. There is also a strong class bias in how the legislation is framed and is to be imposed.
We saw the Garda quell events yesterday. It already has the powers to do that, so why do we need to give it more powers? If people refuse to mask up in a shop or on a bus, the Garda already has powers to do something about it. This is a waste of our time yet again. Unless we resource tracking and tracing, stop 7,000 people daily travelling into the country, have proper discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly to have genuine and united cross-Border policies imposed to deal with the pandemic, we are wasting our time. We need to return to a message that we are in this together and respect people, rather than treating them like children and telling them what they can and cannot do.
News has just broken that the National Virus Reference Laboratory, NVRL, in University College Dublin has released the following urgent notification in relation to SARS-CoV-2 testing at NVRL:
Due to unavoidable staff shortages the VRL will not be able to provide any SARS-CoV-2 testing on the weekends of the 24th/25th and 26th October and the weekend of the 31st October/1st November 2020. Apologies for the late notice ...
That is serious. It is shocking. It seriously contributes to undermining the fight against Covid-19. Is that the responsibility of the people this Bill proposes to fine? No, it is the responsibility of the Government and its failure to recruit enough people to build up the testing capacity to the degree necessary to fight Covid-19. Similarly, if the infection rate is running riot, it has a great deal to do with the Government's failure during the summer to build up the tracing capacity for close contacts. The people who failed to do that are the people who are responsible for the situation we are in now, namely, the Government.
I will give another shocking example, which is also breaking news. Eight third-year student nurses on placements in Sligo were due to start in a nursing home on Monday. They had travelled from different counties and are sharing accommodation, with four in one place and three in another. They asked their care placement supervisor if they could be tested prior to starting work but were told there was no need. On the Saturday prior to starting work, one student nurse discovered she was a close contact of someone who is a positive case. She went to a GP and asked if she should be tested but was told there was no need. She told the GP she was going in to work in a nursing home on Monday and she was sure she should be tested. She was told she was only a close contact of a close contact of a positive case, so there was no need. She went to the length of pretending to have symptoms to beg for a test and having finally been tested, she tested positive. That is truly shocking.
I was sent a circular by a school principal which the Department of Education and Skills issued about two days ago. In it, the Department suggests that if a teacher is positive, rather than follow the normal contact tracing protocols of the public health system, that teacher should ring a mobile phone number at the Department of Education and Skills, which will in turn contact public health authorities to make decisions about who are the close contacts of that case and who should be excluded. The Department is interfering with the normal contact tracing and response to positive cases because the Government insists the schools must stay open. If that results in more clusters and outbreaks because contact tracing is not being done, who is to blame? Is that contributing more to the spread of this disease than the individuals this Bill proposes to target?
One can go through the list of failures. The Government's own strategy essentially says that there is a tolerable level of community circulation of the virus. Two weeks ago, it refused the advice of its own public health advisers with the result that the number of cases has almost doubled. It is the Government's failure to have a strategy and put in place the resources to fight Covid-19 that is the reason we are in this situation we find ourselves in now. Fines will not solve that.
We are debating legislation to give emergency powers to the State regarding gatherings in people's homes. The powers would allow a garda to call to a house, ask the people in the house to leave, and if they refuse to leave, the primary resident can be fined €1,000. A person on the way to the house can be stopped by the Garda and instructed to leave the area and return home. If that person refuses to comply with the instruction, he or she can be deemed to have committed a criminal offence. These are drastic powers. I do not have time to go in to all the implications but we are being asked to accept the idea that people in their own home can be forced to give a garda their name and details, that someone who has never committed an offence in his or her life and who is in the territory of a first offence can be fined €1,000 and that person would not necessarily go to court but be given a summary fine on the spot.
Deputy Bríd Smith was absolutely correct in comparing this with the situation around television licences back in the day.
People on low incomes and poor, working-class people could potentially end up in jail because they will not be in a position to pay a €1,000 fine, whether on the spot or in court at a later date.
We have been told that gardaí will act with discretion in policing the regulations, but will that always be the case? An incident took place on the Bandon Road in Cork city at the end of September when gardaí called to a house where there was a gathering, entered the premises without a warrant, conducted body searches of the young people present and seized their college identification cards and handed them over to the authorities at University College Cork. To be clear, I am totally opposed to house gatherings that are in violation of the guidelines. I appeal to members of the public, in the strongest possible terms, not to have gangs of people around to their houses while the country remains in the current public health situation. However, these measures are drastic and they are not acceptable. They are part of a range of measures concerning masks, travel and protests.
The protest that took place yesterday was organised by a group, Yellow Vest Ireland, to which I am very strongly opposed because it is anti-mask. If one is anti-mask, one is anti-worker. Refusing to wear a mask is showing no respect for the bus driver or the low-paid shop worker. Some of the organisers of that march are far-right people whose politics are diametrically opposed to my politics and what I stand for. However, I want to put it on the record that I am opposed to the idea of gardaí drawing batons against participants in a demonstration, even a demonstration such as the one that took place yesterday, pushing them to the ground, handcuffing them and arresting them in significant numbers. One of the reasons I am opposed to such action is that if it is used against people who are anti-worker today, it can be used against people who are pro-worker and pro-progress tomorrow.
I wish to conclude by clearly stating my position on these matters. I am a strong supporter of masking up. I am a strong supporter of people not traipsing all over the country during the current travel restrictions and in light of the current public health situation. The great majority of ordinary people understand and respect their responsibility in this regard and will embrace it. However, we will not defeat the coronavirus with repression. It simply will not work. It will not be done on the basis of diktat but on the basis of persuading, understanding and encouraging a high level of consciousness. That consciousness is already there but it needs to be linked to a strategy people can believe in, that they are confident will work and which they do not feel is being compromised from all angles by the vested interests in this country.
I have listened with interest to the debate on this Bill, which follows on from many similar debates in recent months. Lest Opposition Members feel that the Government is repressive and not conscious of the need to observe civil liberties, I assure them that the reverse is the case. Members of the Government are as alert as anybody else in this House to the fact that it is unfortunate that we must move to a situation of restricting people's rights and movements because of the challenge of the pandemic. There is no central ground in this. We either take the virus on or we do not. In the first instance, the Government was hoping that an appeal to the patriotism of the general public would work. It did work, up to a point. However, the Government is now being blamed for not succeeding in defeating the virus. There is a complete and absolute failure to recognise that other governments all over the globe have been in the same situation and faced the same problems with no better results than we have had here or, in some cases, very much worse results.
There are a number of facts that everybody needs to acknowledge. One of those facts is that some 50% of people in this country strongly support every step that has been taken to restrict the forward march of the virus, notwithstanding the huge sacrifices they have required. However, there are other people who do not feel the same way. The graph we saw detailing how one person infected 54 other people as a result of that individual's irresponsible behaviour was sufficient illustration of what we need to do. I am sure everybody in this House has made sacrifices. I am sure every colleague has restricted his or her movements to the best of his or her ability by avoiding crowds and other interactions, following best hand hygiene practice and so on. We all hope that such behaviours will enable us to succeed in controlling the spread of the virus.
Some of those who say the testing and tracing system is broken down hold out the example of South Korea as a utopia in this regard. That country has approximately one quarter of the resources we have in dealing with the virus. The difference is that people there have a different attitude to the law and have embraced public health recommendations. I understand why we are a bit more suspicious in this country but, if we are going to defeat the virus, we will have to make more sacrifices. If we do not do what is necessary in the next month or six weeks, we will have another problem which nobody has mentioned yet in this debate. That problem is the possibility that, at some stage, the front-line workers, who have been in the battlefield day and night, 24-7, week after week for the past seven or eight months, will get very seriously brassed off that they are having to make those sacrifices and take those risks on a daily basis while other people feel that there should be no restrictions at all and are breaching the rules in ways that could take us back to where we were at the start of the pandemic. The actions of those individuals could lead to a situation where a duty is once again thrust upon emergency services staff to continue working in the face of insurmountable odds. I try my best, as I am sure does everybody in this House, to observe the rules and regulations. I am not going to identify any particular group that is encouraging the type of behaviour I referred to, because that is not my job. However, I cannot understand how certain groups of people could converge together over the past two months, in whatever mode or mood, without knowing what the consequences of such activity could be. Those consequences are now showing up and accelerating, which was always going to be the case.
Much has been said, in another effort to blame the Government for what has happened, about the lack of investment in health services in this country. Whether or not it suits one's position, the reality is that Ireland has the second or third highest spend on health services in the OECD. That is a well-documented fact. There is no point in saying it is not true or one does not agree it is the case. It is a fact. It may be the case that we are not spending the money in the right way or responding in the right way to the crisis but the fact remains that the money is being made available. This country has invested something like €18 billion in attempting to combat this particular threat. The pandemic is the single biggest threat that this country, any other European country or any country globally has had to face in the past 150 years. Sadly, the virus keeps coming back and people keep pointing the finger in one direction or another and heaping blame on somebody else.
The simple fact we must all recognise is that everybody has a role to play and a responsibility to combat the spread of the virus. I have repeatedly said, both within my own party and outside it, that we must appeal to people's patriotism. People must ask themselves, whatever they are proposing to do, whether a particular action of theirs will create a possibility of the virus being transferred, either to them by somebody else or from them to another person. That is a serious question. If we continue to involve ourselves in congregations - many people are doing so, notwithstanding the circumstances in which we are operating - we must ask ourselves whether that is contributing to the defeat of the virus or otherwise. We all have a choice in how we respond to the threat. My belief is that we could voluntarily achieve the same results as the restrictions and financial supports are designed to achieve simply by voluntarily adopting the measures we have been advised to follow by all the health experts who have given of their time, energy and experience.
At this stage it falls to us, the population in general, rather than any social group or class group, to observe the guidelines. By doing so, we will be able to bring the virus to a halt and give ourselves space and time. If we do not, we will see the spectacle of bodies building up in hospitals and morgues and being carted across the country as happened in central Europe at the beginning of the pandemic.
The tracing system is a shambles. We see the same factories that continued their non-essential work throughout lockdown now forcing workers to take holidays over the coming weeks. We are asked to vote for regulations without scrutiny. That is not acceptable.
Are our hospitals now ready? A number of people within the health service have shared concerns with me. They could be described as whistleblowers. They have told me about deteriorating conditions within University Hospital Kerry, UHK. Management has been telling consultants to cancel surgeries so that beds can be kept in reserve. These patients have been tested for Covid and isolated for two weeks but then, the night before their surgery, they are told that it is cancelled. We discussed the chronic underinvestment. Theatres in UHK are outdated. Built in the 1980s, the orthopaedic unit urgently needs another theatre. No hip replacement procedures have been carried out since March and 150 patients have been sent to Bon Secours Hospital at a great cost to the State.
These people have told me about the treatment of nurses. Quality staff are not being offered permanent contracts. Morale is low and communication between management and staff is poor. The acute medical assessment unit, the brainchild of one consultant that has worked very well, now accepts overflow from the emergency department and, consequently, has even fewer beds. The pathology laboratory has no pathologist, despite funding being allocated for two.
The people to whom I have spoken warn of potential disaster in the area of cancer screening. The state-of-the-art endoscopy unit at the hospital is threatened with closure. The programme is being plundered and nurses are being dispersed to the wards and, as a result, the detection rate will drop and cancers will probably go undetected. The money paid to UHK from bowel screening programmes is now being used to pay the salaries of surgeons in Cork. The funds are being diverted away from Kerry.
With regard to surgery, the hospital had 70 inpatient beds, which is two full wards, and a day ward catering for 14 patients two years ago. It now has 29 inpatient beds and no day ward. The ear, nose and throat surgeon is due to retire and there are no plans to replace him. Patients in Kerry will be at risk during basic procedures such as tonsillectomies because, if complications occur, no one will be available locally to follow up. This is similar to the situation in respect of the National Treatment Purchase Fund which, apart from not representing good value of money, lacks continuity of care. Arthritis Ireland has also contacted me, as well as other Deputies, to say that the number of people waiting for rheumatology appointments increased by 26% between January and September of this year.
Staff are committed to the healthcare system and have suggested solutions. In towns of a similar size such as Clonmel, modular wards have been built. In Letterkenny, another ward was installed in the car park to deal with the trolley crisis. Nurses need to be recruited on permanent contracts. Endoscopy should be considered an essential service. The unit has the capacity to perform all types of scoping procedure but it must be staffed.
If the hospital in Kerry is to be officially downgraded, let the Minister state as much in the House and defend that decision. Kerry would ideally have its own stand-alone health board to prevent the hospital being downgraded. The situation is bad enough at the best of times as the county has the second oldest population in the State but, during a pandemic, this would be unconscionable. I ask the Government to reverse the cuts and to do right by the people of Kerry and the south west.
I am amazed at the announcements this morning from the NVRL at University College Dublin, of which Dr. Cillian De Gascun is the laboratory director. The Ministers have to decide who is going to take care of the shortfall mentioned in this announcement. We have lost the capacity for 30,000 tests at the laboratory. We do not know who will do them instead or what preparations have been made while we lock down the country and tell people that it is their fault. We have heard Deputies say that we, as citizens, have to take responsibility. This is the responsibility of the Government alone.
I have seen the Virapro plan and the pesticides control service, PCS, certification for that sanitiser. This certification is very difficult to attain and most products already on the shelves in Ireland do not have it because it costs €300 and is not required. However, it is required where a product is used in Covid prevention. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is now telling us that "Tests by the Department show that some of the sanitiser on sale does not comply with regulations." How then did this product receive certification? How many other products have a certification they should not have? I ask the Ministers to speed up certification for compliant products so that replacement supplies will become available, allowing us to keep our schools open. I also ask that they investigate how the product Virapro receive PCS certification. Was it tested before it received this certification or after it had received it and had to be withdrawn?
These issues have arisen this morning but, more generally, I do not agree with Deputy Durkan and those who defend what can only be described as a failure of the State to put sufficient contact tracing in place and to build additional capacity within the HSE and in ICUs. The Government knows that the patience of the public is quickly wearing thin. These fines are proposed because the Government feels that stronger tactics are required to bring people into line. I can see the argument for breaking up reckless events and I see that deterrents are proposed in that regard but many people see these restrictions as unjust, unfair and a significant attack on their fundamental freedoms.
These Covid regulations are the most draconian laws to be imposed on the people in the history of the State. Some of our most fundamental rights under the Constitution are being cast aside. In proposing these fines, the Government will strike fear into the hearts of ordinary law-abiding citizens. Evidence from the previous lockdown shows that people will be afraid even to undertake essential journeys for fear of being punished. How will the regulations work in practice?
I was elected by the people of Wexford to represent their views as best I can. I will give the Minister a flavour of the types of issues that have been raised with me. Farmers in rural areas who do not have Internet skills or whose broadband service is poor can no longer buy cattle in the mart. They have been banned from attending and from standing at the ringside to place their bids. Retired couples who have not had as much as a penalty point between them are threatened with fines if they dare to drive to the local park to walk their dog. In rural communities, the local park could be 8 km to 10 km away and many people, old and young, do not feel safe walking on winding roads as cars fly past. Will they be fined or threatened with fines?
What of widows or widowers who enjoy a round of golf with their best friend for company? This sport, played out in the fresh air on hundreds of acres allowing for as much social distancing as one could want, is now banned. There are other incredible anomalies in the area of sport. Children can train for most sports except tennis and golf, two of the most socially distanced sports imaginable. All is good for a child who plays Gaelic games but a child in the same house who plays tennis or golf is banned from doing so.
The hard-working entrepreneurs who run SMEs may have spent thousands of euro in preparing to reopen but now have to close yet again as they are threatened with being financially punished by the State if they do not. These people have been financially punished enough by the State this year.
I have had anxious calls from college students from Wexford and their parents. They wonder if students will be fined for returning home on Friday after a week in college. It is easy for the Government to flippantly tell them that they must stay in their college accommodation but it is not always as simple as that. We in this House do not have to remain in Dublin all week. We can return home when our week's work is done. I want clarity as to whether students can do the same.
I also have concerns about the provisions to fine the owner of a property if any illegal gatherings take place on that property. Will the Minister clarify how this will work? Will it mean that landlords will face fines for the behaviour of their tenants? If so, that is an outrageous situation.
These regulations contain so many grey areas and are so open to interpretation. In fact, quite often the Government does not seem to understand what the regulations mean, or its understanding seems to be significantly different from Minister to Minister given that there was such confusion during the press conference the other night about when midnight on Wednesday was. For many, understanding the inconsistencies in these regulations will be like trying to understand the terms and conditions of a mobile phone contract. A PhD would be needed.
The Irish people take great pride in the fact that our police force operates on the principle of policing by consent. The proposed laws will be the most draconian that the Garda will ever be asked to enforce. I ask the Government to clarify the position relating to them.
I support the comments of Deputy Daly regarding University Hospital Kerry, a facility I know well. It suffers from significant deficits. These are largely attributable to the inadequacies of the South/Southwest Hospital Group administration, to which University Hospital Waterford is also connected, unfortunately.
The proposed legislation signals our arrival at a difficult juncture. The questions now are whether we can live life as somewhat normal and whether society can function while we attempt to keep coronavirus at bay. Since the virus arrived in Ireland in February, we have learned of the harsh dangers it presents, especially to our most vulnerable, including the elderly, those with underlying conditions and those who must undertake other medical treatments. Beyond these patient streams, the virus has the potential to cause significant disease, although, thankfully, the severity and duration of illness seem to be considerably lower. We have learned about the ease with which this disease is transmitted. We can defend against this in hospitals with strict infection control protocols and in general in society through countermeasures involving hygiene standards and social distancing. Social distancing has proved most effective but, unfortunately, has become the more difficult discipline to adhere to and enforce publicly. That is because, for many, it is enforcing isolation and loneliness, causing businesses to fail and creating social anxiety. For many, it is becoming overwhelming because they see the trajectory of the disease is going in the wrong direction.
In attempting to drive home a Covid prevention message, our national media speak of the horrors of emergency rooms overflowing, first responders unable to deal with acute Covid distress and the potential for hospital morgues to require additional refrigeration capacity in the form of 40-foot containers parked on hospital grounds. For many, this narrative no longer holds substance given the experience in recent months of a lower median age of those infected and lower numbers of deaths. Many outside the vulnerable groupings whose members have contracted the illness have sufficiently overcome the disease, recuperating at home and with minimal discomfort. The recent rise in the Covid-19 transmission trend is directly related to people's not unfounded assumption that the disease is not a killer for their age group. The counter-narrative is that Covid is a significant disease for certain population groups only and, therefore, it is asked why all people in the country have to take the medicine that only some require and why their lives should be so disrupted with further national lockdown initiatives.
The job of new emergency legislation should first be to set out clearly the medical and clinical case for Covid restrictions, that is, that rampant disease will affect every member of the population through either social, medical or economic deprivation. The message that we are all in this together should be changed because is not correct in the minds of many. We need to bring people with us in national health protection, and we should be communicating that we are clearly not all in the medical emergency together but that, economically and socially, we can exit this pandemic together successfully only by sticking together, working together and working in sacrifice and for one another and for the good of all.
Regarding the increasing rate of Covid transmission, significant actions as part of the State's response are somewhat responsible for the ascending rate of disease spread. Members of the Regional Group raised the issue of masks in this House many months ago. NPHET did not endorse their use for months afterwards. I raised the issue of antigen testing with NPHET over four months ago but, blindly, it would not consider it until last week when it saw the trend regarding the disease vector. These circumstances must not continue. We need NPHET to engage with industry and medical leads. Most of all, we need transparency in the way we are fighting the disease and resourcing our efforts. We need sufficient tracking and tracing and, most of all, we need political oversight and political responsibility to be borne by all in this House. When we talk about house parties, all Deputies need to get their own House in order, get on top of things and ensure this lockdown is the last that they impose on the population.
If we had seen enforcement at level 3, rather than engagement, we might not have found ourselves at level 5 at all. It is obvious that, for some, education and encouragement just will not work and their behaviour will not change until we get real about enforcement. We have heard the stories about house parties and other scenarios whereby people awaiting test results failed to isolate and caused further outbreaks. The failure to deal with some of those circumstances under level 3 by way of meaningful fines - fines that would make people stop and think twice before engaging in what is clearly reckless behaviour - has, in part, led us to where we are today.
We are told we need to socially distance but the provisions in this legislation are about social isolation, not social distancing. While the legislation before us will give us statutory instruments with the harp on the front of them, the difficulty is that we are giving the Government a blank sheet of paper on which to write whatever it wants. I will give a practical example. Today, the website of the Department of Health states that one has to stay within 5 km of one's home but that one can travel beyond 5 km from home if going to visit a grave. However, in the statutory instrument that has been drafted in respect of this legislation, there is no mention of travelling 5 km beyond one's home. If exercising, one must remain within 5 km of home. If someone living in County Roscommon wants to go to the chemist, he or she can go to the chemist in Belmullet and comply with the regulations as currently drafted but there is no mention of graves in the regulation. If I want to walk 50 yards down the road to visit a grave, I could, under the regulations as currently drafted, be fined €500. This is the contradiction in the regulations before us. This is what has frustrated the public.
We have heard a lot of discussion about house parties. On 19 March, I tabled an amendment to the emergency legislation specifically to address the issue of house parties. The then Minister for Health stood in this House on that day and told me he was satisfied there were sufficient powers in the legislation being enacted at the time to cover house parties, public houses and restaurants. Here we are, seven months later, introducing legislation to deal with this. There is contradiction after contradiction and confusion after confusion. That is what is causing absolute frustration and anger among the public. We are being asked to buy a pig in a poke and bring in the most draconian laws ever introduced in this country, laws that contradict what is in black and white on the Government's website as we speak. What are we doing? Can the Government not get its act together and be unambiguous about what it is trying to do?
The great civil libertarian Stephen Donnelly is introducing a law in the Dáil to fine people for playing golf, attending a sneaky mass, swimming or going to a gym. Basically, the Government is raising the white flag. It has lost the good will of the people and now it is seeking to coerce them.
Covid-19 is a serious illness for sure, and we need to do all we can to reduce the numbers. The truth is, however, that it is not the people who have failed with regard to containing this illness, it is the Government.
Ireland is an outlier in Europe with regard to the severity of the illness at present. The reason this is the case, and the reason the front-line battle against Covid is being placed on the shoulders of the Irish people through these restrictions, is that the Government could not get it together with regard to ICU capacity. Last week, we had a budget with €18 billion in extra spending. We have been speaking about this issue for seven months but we are still at the bottom of the pile in Europe with regard to ICU.
The other major battleground in this illness is contact tracing. At the end of the second quarter, there were 1,700 contact tracers but there are fewer than 500 contact tracers now. The Government is employing 60 contact tracers a week. At this rate of recruitment, it will take 20 full weeks just to get back to where we were in the second quarter. It is a case of "Crisis? What crisis?"
We have heard from Deputy O'Dowd about coercion. Coercion will be manna from heaven to those who purposely seek to break the guidelines. I can see the Facebook and Twitter videos already where the newly minted martyrs who just got their fines will be rallying the troops to build their own political movements. Deputy O'Dowd spoke about the gardaí on Grafton Street yesterday. They were able to do what they did under existing law. Those events did not make any argument for this Bill.
I want to speak about the fact that several amendments have been tabled. I have looked at the Sinn Féin amendment and I cannot support it. Sinn Féin spent weeks sitting on the fence over this issue. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald has been like Humpty Dumpty teetering on the fence with regard to whether she will or will not support the restrictions. Last week, in an interview with Brian Dobson, Deputy McDonald, like Humpty Dumpty, had a great fall. In fairness, poor old Deputy Cullinane had to come out with a definitive statement over the weekend. The Sinn Féin amendment tries to be all things to all people. It is a serious effort at legal fence sitting. For those against the fines, Sinn Féin can say it voted against the Government's Bill, and for those who support the fines, it simply put the decision off until next week.
I reiterate that we need to protect life and health but it will not be done with overly aggressive and damaging restrictions. These restrictions have not had the debate that is necessary. For us to understand what restrictions are appropriate in this situation, we must understand the cost of the restrictions. Their cost will be lives and ill-health. They will have a radical effect on the mental health of people throughout the country. The Government has refused point-blank over and over again to carry out the necessary research to identify the impact of the restrictions. Britain and other countries have done definitive research to understand that tens of thousands of people whose cancers will be missed, at irregular or precancerous cell stage or as cancers, will have delayed diagnoses and treatment and will experience ill-health and possibly mortality in the future. I raised in the Dáil examples of doctors who have told me their patients have had delayed diagnoses and treatment. I urge the Government to carry out research on the impact of these restrictions. Only then will we know what is balanced and appropriate.
We need to make sure we reduce the illness. I believe this can be done with balanced and fair guidelines, supporting people's incomes, allowing the Garda to engage and taking the pressure off people through having proper ICU facilities and a functioning tracking and tracing system. With regard to the news on the UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory released this morning, it is astounding that the laboratory does not have the necessary staff to be able to test next weekend or the following weekend. What does this tell us about where the locus of fault is in this crisis? It is not the fault of the people of Ireland that we are where we are today with Covid. It is the fault of the Government.
It is important to point out that the vast majority of people want to comply with the guidelines and do the right thing and that they are doing their very best to do so. Sometimes people make mistakes and step over the line without realising it, often in rural areas where the distance of 5 km is an issue for many people. It is important that the Government is very clear with people that they are not breaching the guidelines if their nearest shop or where they need to go to get something is 10 km, 12 km or 15 km away. Patience will be needed with regard to all of this by everybody. We have to be patient with ourselves also.
Something that is putting a strain on people's patience is how the Government sets out these particular issues. Many people are frustrated when they see pictures of the occasional house party somewhere or frustrated with people who clearly go out deliberately to break the guidelines, cause friction in society and put it up to the Government. They want something done about this. At the same time, they are very fearful that the types of fines or measures to be put in place will be used against the ordinary person who would inadvertently stretch over the limit. This is why people are very concerned about giving a blank cheque to the Government to set out these particular fines and put them in place.
I go some of the way towards the Government's position. This is not a black and white issue. We recognise that there is a need at times to have some level of protection to ensure the law is adhered to. What happened on Grafton Street yesterday is an example of this. Clearly, powers are available to the Garda to do what needs to be done in the vast majority of situations. The Garda has stated it has issues with this law and that if very draconian measures are put in place, it will inhibit the ability of gardaí to bring people with them and engage with people in the way they want. We all recognise this is the case.
We also have to recognise the small number of people, as has been said earlier, who clearly want to break the guidelines and are up to no good. They have a different agenda. Their agenda is not about Covid or civil liberties. Their agenda is about something else. It is to try to create a counterculture in this country and throughout the world, one that is against authority and against people. It is a far-right movement that we see coming into place. We have to be very much aware of this. While we need measures to deal with this, introducing these draconian measures is not the way forward. The Minister should consider the sensible amendments that have been tabled. They are about capping and reducing the level of fines and removing the possibility of imprisonment because imprisonment is a totally disproportionate response to what people recognise needs to happen.
I return to the issue of patience. We all have to be patient with each other. Society needs to sit back and relax a little and realise that this will pass and that in one or two years' time we will get back to normal. We can do an assessment then and work out what was done right or wrong. In the meantime, we need to be very careful about what we do so that we do not lose people. I am afraid these particular measures will lose the public. We need to be very conscious that this should not happen.
The coronavirus is a deadly disease and a curse that has hit our country. I have always believed it is a massive danger but that we should also be doing everything in our power to bring people with us and not dictate to people. There will always be people who will break the law. We will never be able to rectify that in our political careers. Certainly, there are elements of danger but we must also take account of the facts. There have been 12% fewer deaths in the country this year than last year. I do not know what the figures were last night because I try to tune out and I advise everybody who is trying to do his or her best in the pandemic to tune out to a degree. We are on media overload and the coronavirus features in every headline and at the end of every political discussion. I am not sure whether I heard yesterday that there were three deaths. How many people died of cancer yesterday who were neglected because of the coronavirus?
I would like to know the number of people who died by suicide yesterday. God knows the number of people who have died as a result of ailments other than Covid-19. Statistics on those deaths are not released every day because if they were we would put fear into people. There has been a complete focus on Covid-19 and a complete lack of focus on other issues.
I do not agree with people being fined or with cracking the whip to keep them in line. People are asking me if it is all right to travel a few miles extra to go to a shop where they can pick up their goods a little cheaper or whatever. As politicians, we have to come up with the answers and that is not always easy. I have been inundated, as I am sure are other politicians, with questions the answer to which are difficult to find. The Minister might be able to comment on the position of college students in this regard. Are they allowed travel home? Some of them have no other choice but to stay in their accommodation near the colleges they attend and then go home at weekends or if they get a week off. Are they allowed travel home? Those college students who decided to educate themselves at home are still paying for accommodation. Unfortunately, it is still very much up in the air as to whether they can have their money refunded. I would appreciate it if the Minister touched on that matter when replying.
I am very critical of the testing and tracing system, which has been lethargic. It seems to be a case of carry on with it day by day and something might happen down the line. It is the same old system of driving up, getting tested and waiting for one's results. I presume that the samples are still being flown to Germany. There seems to be some type of game going on yet, as I told the Minister yesterday, they were able to do approximately 20 in my office in Bandon last week. People had to go to Belfast where they got immediate results. Why can we not do that here? Why is our testing system so slow? We cannot do it at the airport. When the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, was Taoiseach, I asked him if rapid testing would be done at the airports and he said it was too costly. We now realise that the cost of these tests is €40 or €50. Many people who fly into this country for a holiday would love to be tested before they come here, and they would pay for it themselves, but no effort is being made to do that. It is a case of rolling on in the hope that this will rectify itself but it will not do so for quite a long time.
We will be telling people to stay in and adhere to the restrictions for the next six weeks. People are saying that we must do our best but I know what will happen when we open the doors again, so to speak. We need to ensure that people clearly understand the need for social distancing and to do their best in terms of sanitising their hands. There should be more focus on that instead of threatening them and terrifying the living daylights out of them because we will have people dying of fright.
I raise another problem. A newly married man in west Cork is trying to get a D visa for his Indonesian wife. That application has been with the Department since early March. That Irishman will now have to leave Ireland and go to the UK to try to get a family reunification visa to fly out to his wife in Indonesia. Is there any way a D visa can be sorted out after all this time? Surely to God the coronavirus is not the cause of that problem.
There is also an issue with public service cards. A man for Ballydehob applied for a public service card in March and still has not had a response. He needs that to transfer his English driving licence. Without it, he will not be able to drive here. He is the only member of the family who drives. It should not take any length of time for a person to get a public service card. We are telling people to work from home, so why are these processes taking so long?
The final issue I want to raise is to do with marts. I respect the fact that the Minister is a busy person but I would like him to listen. He can play with his phone if he wants to but the farmers of this country have been on their knees for some time. I sent an urgent letter to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, to ensure that he had a clear understanding that people are losing money as a result of the prices paid for their cattle, which is €150 for a bull and €100 for a heifer. Farmers cannot take that hit. I plead with the Minister to talk to his colleague. Marts are open areas and the buyer, at least, should be allowed inside the mart. I have sent an emergency request to Deputy Cahill, the Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and the Marine, to immediate reconvene the committee over the weekend or early next week to make sure that marts can reopen for business as farmers will not be able to take this hit. It is causing them mental stress. They cannot pay their bills. The only chance they have is to sell their cattle but they are losing money because of Covid-19. That should not have to happen. Dan McCarthy, the mart manager in Kenmare, outlined on Facebook what happened at that mart yesterday. That is happening throughout the country. The Minister is the Minister for Health. I ask him to talk to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and at least resolve that issue.
I will start my contribution with some breaking news. The media has a responsibility if they put out a story by way of breaking news but the Government has a responsibility to give the proper information. I see the Ceann Comhairle was at the front of a breaking news story last week that 400 former Deputies were told, by way of a headline, not to attend the bar and, in small print underneath the headline, the restaurant in the Dáil. The facts are that the bar has, along with the wet pubs, been closed since the start of the pandemic. That is the breaking news but it was a headline last week. If we want the real news to get out it should be done properly. I am not a drinker but I am telling the truth.
Before we left the Dáil last night, one Deputy came out and said that there was a problem with the sanitiser used in schools. It was breaking news. I did some research this morning and found that there was an issue with one batch of a sanitiser from this company and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine asked for the product to be recalled. That is a fact, but the direction from the Department forgot to state that this company has 500 products. The name of a company was tarnished, whether it was right or wrong, but the information had to come out, yet it has 500 products. If a company like Johnson & Johnson had an issue with a shampoo, does it recall its hand creams and everything else across the board? The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine should have come out with proper information about the company and told people exactly what was wrong. We all know that bad news sells newspapers but at this time of a pandemic people need reassurance. They need facts.
During the week, I spoke to the Limerick Leader . I said that bringing out the Army was the only way we can help this country but the front headline was that a local Deputy had asked for the Army to be deployed. I did ask for it to be deployed but if people read the article they will see the reason I called for that. The medical staff in the Army could help the medical services. The Army could come out and assist gardaí on the roads. That would release some gardaí from that duty and allow them go back into areas where antisocial behaviour has gone through the roof. I asked for that to help and protect the people of Ireland and because there is a massive difference between city and county. We have no infrastructure in the county. That is where the Government is failing in bringing out laws. That was mentioned by other Deputies. One might have to travel 10 km or 15 km to a shop to get groceries but all the facilities including taxis and so on are available within the cities. I can get nothing like that in the county. If the Government is bringing out laws it should think of the people in the county who have no infrastructure. Previous speakers mentioned rural Ireland. I have mentioned it many times. As I said, since this Government was formed and since the start of the pandemic people now realise what is rural Ireland; it is when one lives outside a major city anywhere in the country. When the Government is making laws it needs to ensure that they are for everyone. If it needs to bring out a law for eight cities, bring it out and if it needs to bring out one for the counties, bring that out and make sure it is implemented.
I wish the Minister well in his role but €3.8 billion will not fix the HSE, which was broken long before the outbreak of the pandemic. My first speech in this Dáil was to say that it should run the hospitals like a hotel system and have a management system in place. Let the healthcare workers, who are doing a fantastic job, do their job. We should have a set-up where beds are released at a certain time and if the patient is not well enough, they hold that bed. The consultants come around before 11 a.m. to meet the patients. We need to make sure that we have a regulated system in place so that when a nurse or a doctor looks at it they can see that there are two beds free in, say, ward 2B or five free in ward 1A.
The problem with our hospital system is the management of some of the hospitals and there has been a failure to address that for years. We need a structure where the beds coming in and out are run like a hotel system. If a hotel said a guest could check out at 7 p.m., it would not have a room the following morning. The same system needs to be put in place in hospitals. If people are not well enough to leave, they should stay where they are but they should see a consultant in the morning at a certain time. When there was a public private partnership in place, consultants were getting more than their allocation of beds. Some people were getting treatments and the public were on waiting lists. That was because management was not strong enough to tackle the consultants and make things work. The €3.8 billion will not fix this health system. The problem is management, structure and accountability.
I approached the previous Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, about a case of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and he told me he would ask the HSE to liaise directly with the family in question and respond to their case. That was on 21 May. It never responded. He said he would ask the multidisciplinary team to look at the case but the family has never been contacted. I brought this matter up again in two parliamentary questions and on 14 October I brought it up with the Ministers of State, Deputies Rabbitte and Butler. The system is broken. Throwing money at it will not fix it. Accountability to the management is what will fix our HSE.
Some Government Deputies wrongly accused Deputy Shortall of not supporting the Garda, so in case they try to do the same again, I want to put on the record that I support the Garda 100%. We have an excellent community division in Tipperary. It was stood down but is back up running now. I support Sergeant Ray Moloney, Superintendent Denis Whelan and all the inspectors in Cahir and thank them for the work they have done. They have re-engaged since yesterday morning to go out to visit elderly and vulnerable people. I support them 100% and will not let anyone construe from my contribution anything different.
The testing and tracing system is a shambles. If we wanted confirmation of that, we had it a while ago.
I agree totally with Deputy O'Donoghue about breaking news. The media should be curtailed because they have people frightened for their lives. There is breaking news morning, noon, night, midnight, an hour after and again at 5 a.m. They have our hearts broken with it. Tá na daoine amuigh sa tír briste. They are frightened, scared, worried and confused.
The Minister told me yesterday that my contribution was not worthy of him speaking to it. Since he came into office, he has been an utter failure. I thought the previous Minister was bad and that the situation could not get any worse but the two of them come from the same village in the leafy suburbs of Wicklow, up in Greystones where one could pay €3 million for a house. They do not have a clue what is going on. The Minister is presiding over this shambolic health system.
Deputy O'Donoghue referred to the €3.8 billion for the HSE. Since I came into the Dáil in 2007, every year we have incrementally given €1 billion extra to the HSE and we have got less and less for it and worse and worse outcomes. It is a disastrous and incapable system. People need hope. I could go into lists of people who are waiting and talk about PCR tests and so on. The Minister will not engage with any of the scientists and specialists who know much more than I do or will ever learn. He says they are all conspiracy theorists and are all wrong. He is just steaming ahead with the PCR tests which cost €195 each. Some people are making an outrageous amount of money off that but money does not matter in the HSE. It pumped €2.1 million into a closed psychiatric hospital in Clonmel where we badly need mental health beds but do not have any. There has not been a word about accountability for it. For the Covid crisis, money is like confetti. It is like the fertiliser spreaders helicopters use in forests, which just throw it down.
The Government thinks money is like manna from heaven but most members of the Government do not believe in heaven and will not allow people to go to mass. I thank Deputy McNamara for bringing this issue up. When he did so, the Minister retorted that people could go to mass and that priests were not being punished, but priests will be punished under the legislation unless they say the mass online. The churches are dúnta. It is a sad country where Mary, Johnny, Tom or Biddy cannot go in and say a prayer. I cannot go to mass and people on their death beds in hospitals cannot get the last rites. It is shocking. The Minister had the audacity to challenge Deputy McNamara but the Deputy was quick enough to get the regulations and quote the exact sections to the Minister because he has a legal brain. Fair dues to him. I compliment him on his work.
The marts are closed. People have it so bad at this time of year. The Ceann Comhairle will understand as he is a farmer and brings a few cattle to the mart occasionally. People have to sell their cattle at this time of year to pay their bills. Some people do not have the technology to do it online in the first place and that technology is a disaster in most places in rural Ireland anyway. Many sites collapse when the marts cannot work. The Minister must deal with that as well.
This morning, Deputy Kelly said this Bill was simply crazy, appalling and downright disgraceful. Why, then, is he voting for this legislation? I cannot understand that. We are expected to come in to the Dáil to scrutinise legislation but we have had no scrutiny. We got 48 hours' notice of this Bill and Deputies are condemning it but also voting for it. What is wrong with these people? We are voting again today to give the Minister the power to dream up whatever statutory instruments he wants in his leafy suburb and comfortable bed out in Greystones, with the sea water going around in the air like a vapour giving him clean thinking. Yesterday, he brought up 25 reasons in these regulations that allow people to leave their houses. He says we should lock people up and that they are breaking the law if they leave their houses. He is also saying he can bring in any statutory instrument he likes without any recourse to this House and without any scrutiny, debate or vote. We are wasting our time here. We should stay at home and save the taxpayers the cost of being here because we have no say in this Government. It is imposing a tyranny on the people. I cannot believe the Opposition parties, which I respect individually, are buying this pig in a poke blindfolded. They are giving out about it with their cronies and so on but they are going to vote for it. I am certainly not going to put my name to any vote to terrorise and put a tyrannical rule on our people, young and old, from the cradle to the grave.
I condemn the people who were misbehaving on Grafton Street yesterday. I support the Garda but we saw that it has the necessary powers already so we do not need to be here debating this. The Minister must respect the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, and Sergeant Antoinette Cunningham, who has said she is concerned about these powers. There are more rules and regulations now and gardaí are on 12-hour rosters. I thank them for working so hard. They have to give the whole day to reading the regulations and are trying to clock out when they are finished. It is a cop, a con and a codology job.
The Departments are so secure in their ways and claim they know it all. They say not to mind Deputies Mattie McGrath, Fitzmaurice, McNamara, Pringle or any of us. Deputy Connolly said yesterday that the Government thinks it knows best and knows it all. It cannot bring the people with it that way. As I said yesterday, Dan Breen, Seán Treacy, Seán Hogan and many more ended the tyranny in the Twenty-six Counties in Ireland. My late father spent 14 months in prison as well as being out in that war with that great patriot Liam Ó Loingsigh. Those people gave their lives and now the Government wants to take life from people.
There has not been a word about the suicide deaths, cancer deaths, the scandal of the cervical cancer smear tests or the many other scandals that are brewing in the hospital system because of the inept, inadequate, ham-fisted and draconian HSE that is not fit for purpose. Two former taoisigh, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, told me they were going to disband the HSE. I doubt if Mickey Martin - the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin - will disband it because he is good at setting up quangos and it is the biggest, most dangerous, most irresponsible and tyrannical quango in this country or any part of the world.
The only three countries in which people cannot go to mass or church are North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and mother Ireland. Mother Ireland is dead and gone, it is with O'Leary in the grave. God help us.
I will do my best to be focused in my ten minutes. Two of the Minister's statements do not fill me with trust. I will come back to the factual situation, particularly regarding the Policing Authority and its eight reports to date. As the Minister knows, a situation has arisen in a nursing home in Ahascragh in east Galway, just outside my constituency, though the word "situation" does not quite capture it.
I will not dwell on it. The Minister's comments on that yesterday were worrying. He accused a Deputy of scaremongering, spreading fear and being inaccurate. I have a number of reports from the press and local radio before me. There might not be exact figures, with 22 or 24 testing positive, but what is not in doubt is the nurse on the radio, crying. She said that she was not given to emotion, pointing out that they felt abandoned by the HSE. The Minister responded to what was raised yesterday by saying that it was spreading fear and anxiety. That does not fill me with confidence.
In his opening speech about the extension of the sunset clause, he said these laws are necessary for now and their main aim is to protect people and their lives. Proportionality is not a spirit; it is an obligation. Laws must be proportionate, fair and focused. The Minister said, "In the spirit of proportionality, I recognise that the extension of these extraordinary measures must be temporary and I will repeal them as soon as it is safe to do so." Perhaps that is inadvertent on his part but for me, that captures what has happened with this Dáil. He will make the decision when he sees fit, not this Dáil, the seat of democracy. I ask him to reflect on that type of language.
We are rushing legislation through the Dáil. I was one of the Deputies who unanimously agreed to the draconian powers. I used that word at the time and I will reuse it. We passed draconian powers because, at the time, the virus was new and life-threatening. It remains life-threatening. I will not diminish the virus. We passed draconian powers and I had serious reluctance to do that, but did so after careful consideration, on the basis that the Government would be frank, honest and open with us, and keep us informed, and that we would have full discussion in the Dáil. I have reflected on that decision many times since and part of me seriously regrets it. I did it as well as I could according to my conscience at the time. I kept up my side of the bargain as a parliamentarian, while the Government has utterly failed.
The Government has a narrative of us all being in it together. The difference between this Government and its predecessor is the previous Government spun this much better. People wanted to believe that spin and I could see why. We were never all in this together. Nursing homes were never in it together and they are still not in it together as we see from Ahascragh. People aged over 66 were never in it together. In the final quarter of last year, 65,000 people over 66 earned their livelihood and they have been excluded from every single Government scheme, with no justification, proportionality or underlying rationale other than that the Government does not care. Meat plants were never in this with us because they were ignored. Direct provision was certainly not in it. The message contained the appalling word "cocooning" for 70 year olds. I am glad that it has been dropped. The language was undermining, ordering them to stay in, with no basis for it. We were never in it together. However, the vast majority of people, including the vast majority of Members, all worked together for the common good. We worked together in an imperfect world to try to protect the most vulnerable. We did not do it very well.
We fought to put in a sunset clause. Imagine that legislation was brought before us with no sunset clause. It was to go on forever, which is worrying, given the Minister's comments that when he sees fit, he will amend it. The sunset clause has been renewed by majority vote with regard to the mental health provisions. We are here today with legislation to give more power to the police force.
Let me look at the confused message before I go to the substance of the Policing Authority's report. We allow horticulture but we close allotments. We talk endlessly about mental health but we close public swimming pools, which are easily able to comply with regulations. We close allotments out in the air, where all the allotments are separated. We give confused messages to therapists who are carrying out acupuncture or reflexology. They have no idea whether they are allowed to work. I do not wish to describe myself as an atheist or agnostic because it is not relevant, but I am not the loudest supporter of the church. It is wrong to close churches. They function as a protected asylum, in the best sense of the word "asylum" for people to go into. I have used them myself on occasion to go into to reflect, calm down and use the space, which is sacred in the nicest sense of the word, yet we give out totally confused messages. Nursing homes have been deprived of visitors. I know somebody who was visiting his wife who had dementia prematurely and after a two-week break, because there was an outbreak of Covid, that person did not recognise her husband. That is copper-fastened, with no more visits. It is not clear whether somebody can stand outside a window and talk through the window. That seems to be disallowed. I had a personal contact about that. There is utter confusion. Our attention was deflected to a Bill that was not necessary, in the urgent manner that it was put through yesterday by a majority vote and the power of the tyranny relating to mother and baby homes, when our attention should have been in here, holding the system to account and asking the Minister not to talk about "I" but how he will have accountability in the Dáil.
With regard to the Policing Authority reports, at the risk of being called a misreport after all the reports about the commission of inquiry, it has done us all a great favour. Let me pay tribute to the gardaí, as the Policing Authority has. Like my colleagues, I have called for more gardaí. They have stood up to the challenge of Covid, notwithstanding the Morris tribunal, the Charleton tribunal, the McCabe matter and the O'Higgins report. They have learned and they are still learning, which is welcome. We set up the Policing Authority to have oversight of what gardaí are doing in Covid. It published eight reports. In those eight reports, it praises the gardaí but highlights its concerns. In the latest report, it points out, "Throughout this period, the Authority has held the view that emergency powers for the Garda Síochána should be at the minimum level possible." The Garda Commissioner has reaffirmed his view that added powers are not required. This report is dated 9 October. It is not inappropriate to sound a note of caution. There is a genuine and well-founded concern that extensive new powers for the gardaí and their widespread use might not act as a panacea.
I have repeatedly pointed out that there is no need for more powers. What is needed is more gardaí, better training and for the management of the Garda to outline in detail how it has used existing powers. The Policing Authority has repeatedly expressed its concern that there is no disaggregation of how many times the Garda has used its powers to give direction or to ask a person for his or her name. It is not the gardaí that have failed; their management has failed to give that breakdown of information that should be before us so that we can make a rational decision about whether they need more power. We have regulations to come with regulations to come, and regulations from yesterday. Like two peas in a pod, two households can suddenly come together. It is insulting that we are now using a punitive approach and punitive language, not based on what the gardaí are asking for or what the Policing Authority is asking for, but a threadbare figleaf to hide the failure of this Government and the previous Government to protect our people, maintain solidarity and show leadership. Leadership is not shown by undermining NPHET in the way that the Tánaiste did. Of course, NPHET needs to hear constructive criticism and it needs proper representation.
A matter was raised after I left the Dáil yesterday which I want to clarify, and a few more Deputies talked about it. I did not mention any name of a place and I will stand over every bit of information that I stated on Leaders' Questions yesterday. I ask the Minister to clarify that I was not the Deputy he was referring to about scaremongering. I would like that to be clarified because I will stand over everything that I said.
I go to the marts, and yesterday cattle came back €150.
While farmers were safely socially distancing, and everybody agrees with that, they were stopped because of this new online system. On the evening before, the broadband blew up in 12 marts, so they had no broadband. We are now left in a situation that at the time of year most weanlings are sold, there are no markets for them. There was an exporter in Kilkenny mart yesterday. He left the mart because he was not allowed to look at the cattle. These are the problems around the country.
I have been very blunt in outlining how we solve things. The off-licences should be closed and the pubs should be opened from 10 p.m. A garda can walk into a pub because there is legislation for that.
The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, just left the Chamber.
We are probably wasting our time. We are just being trampled on with the decisions that are being made. I watched the Minister while the previous speaker was talking. He never got off his telephone. In fairness, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is watching the debate.
The other issue is the churches. Some 25 people can go to a wedding and 25 can go to a funeral. Some people really wish to go to mass and if 25 people are safe at a funeral, they are equally safe at mass. I will finish with a matter that parents have brought to my attention, as I wish to give my colleagues time. Young children are in school classes at present in which a third of the class has received first communion. The children have been psyched up about it, but they are growing out of their clothes. This is the third time first communion has been cancelled for them. If we could take them in tens over the next three weeks or a month in a safe way, not an unsafe way, we must ensure that is facilitated.
I do not believe the Garda want the powers, as Deputy Connolly said. Private property is private property and if somebody tells a garda that he or she does not want the garda on the property, what can the garda do about it? In fairness, the representative, Ms Cunningham, was very clear about it. It is to support the Garda needs, not mad laws being introduced on the rebound.
It is now the end of October. We are more than seven months into this pandemic and experiencing the expected second wave. In March, we felt we were all in this together and communities pulled together. Then the great coalition was formed and things started to fall apart. The scandals, the Fianna Fáil-ness of one's behaviour, golf-gate, Mr. Phil Hogan’s whistle-stop tour around Ireland instead of quarantining, the rotating agriculture Ministers, not to mind rotating taoisigh, grated on the public’s patience and nerves, and rightly so. In fairness, it is easy to close everything, but it is hard to reopen everything. The Minister took office at the point when everything was starting to reopen. Recently, however, he has been blaming the public for the resurgence of Covid and, while people definitely must take personal responsibility, he must take responsibility too. With the mixed messages, the bad communications and the consistent undermining of each other by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the Government's behaviour has shown the public that we are certainly not all in this together.
This Bill provides for the enforcement of regulations under section 31A of the Health Act 1947. It relates to ministerial power and the option to make regulations under section 31A. It will also extend the previous sunset clause from 9 November 2020 to June 2021. It will mean fines for those contravening public health measures and will provide additional Garda powers that are supposedly needed. As my colleagues have outlined, there is some doubt about that. I have submitted an amendment for Committee and Report Stages and will speak to my reasons for that amendment at that time. However, I still do not believe this Bill is necessary.
What data are being collected on the locations being policed? What is the socio-economic status of those being stopped and questioned by gardaí? The public has been rightly sceptical about the Government’s focus on house parties and personal responsibility, while ignoring the grave problems in meat processing plants and direct provision centres. It is a Trump-like tactic to deflect stories when they arise. It is also noted that certain legislation can be rushed through the Houses, but not when it relates to workers’ rights such as a statutory entitlement to sick pay. I believe that would do a great deal more to stop the spread of Covid than any of the regulations being introduced now. People are being told to work from home, but what if they cannot? Many people in our cities and urban centres are living in substandard, overcrowded accommodation. How will the Garda differentiate between house parties and a large number of tenants merely sharing a house because of unaffordable rents and discrimination in the rental market?
Mr. Liam Herrick, the executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, said that it "highlighted many areas where this legislation needed to be improved from a human rights perspective” back in March. He stated:
... those improvements weren’t made, that debate hasn’t happened, and there has been no review of the law to ensure it is fit for purpose. All of these things must happen before the legislation is renewed.
For that reason, I will vote against the Bill. The Garda has sufficient powers and can already achieve what we want it to do.
Like colleagues in my group, I will vote against this Bill. The Bill is a fig leaf. It tries to give responsibility to An Garda Síochána to do the work the health service failed to do. Whether it failed to do that because it was mismanaged or was inadequately resourced is not pertinent. Either way, the responsibility for that rests firmly with the Government. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, was a member of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, as was the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. We were repeatedly told that testing and tracing was the key element in the armoury of the State for dealing with this.
We have tested repeatedly. We have used a PCR testing system which we know, and this is not a conspiracy theory from the Internet but was confirmed at the Covid committee and by Dr. Cillian De Gascun on Twitter, will include in those who test positive those who are no longer infectious. We then have to contact trace all the people who are not infectious and test them and a proportion, at least, of their close contacts, who will no longer be infectious. We are creating this significant requirement to trace. It may well be that PCR testing is, unfortunately, the best type of testing available, but it has its limitations. Whether it is because of PCR testing or otherwise, our tracing system has fallen apart. I have been flagging this for some time at the Covid committee. I have received telephone calls from concerned parents in Lissycasey stating that nobody was being contact traced, notwithstanding an outbreak there. Now, we are told that the whole system fell apart last weekend.
As it is all falling apart in the realm of health, we will now make the gardaí do the job. We are told there is not enough capacity in the health system. What is the capacity of An Garda Síochána? Is it infinite? Are we going to recruit gardaí tomorrow morning? Many doctors and nurses have come home from other countries. They have been treated shamefully. They have not been employed, but at least they are trained. I am not aware of a rush home by Irish police officers in the United Kingdom, Australia or New Zealand who might be available to be recruited as gardaí. They do not exist. There is fincapacity in An Garda Síochána, and that capacity must be used to do the job gardaí were trained to do, which is not to police public health. Policing public health does not work. It has not worked anywhere in the world and it is not going to work now.
I wish to return to a technical point, which is my concern about the potential constitutional frailty of this. The Bill states: "‘dwelling event provision’ shall be construed in accordance with subsection (6D) of section 31A;". When one looks at that, one sees that subsection (6D) does not define what dwelling event provision is. If a dwelling event is defined in this Bill, I would like to know where. Subsection (6D) refers to "When prescribing a penal provision to be a dwelling event provision...". We have not had time to examine this in the detail I would have liked. The Government does not like to give us time to examine things because when one does so, one sees that they do not add up. If we are going to penalise dwelling event provision without defining what dwelling event provision is in primary legislation, and we are going to delegate its definition to the Minister, there is a fundamental problem. Under the Constitution, the dwelling is inviolable and can only be entered save in accordance with law.
Laws are made by the Oireachtas. Yes, we can delegate powers.
Could I use some of the time the Government did not use?
Another Deputy is waiting to get in.
I will conclude with the point that laws are made by the Oireachtas in accordance with the Constitution. I accept that we can delegate powers to the Minister, but there is a finite amount that we can delegate. An event is an event. A friend visiting another friend or a family member visiting a family member is not an event.
A party is an event. Throwing a party in one's home at this time would be reckless and irresponsible but a family visit is not, so if the Minister intends to bring in fines for that, it gives rise to issues of concern.
I thank Deputy McNamara. I have given him latitude.
Over the weekend, we heard about how the tracking and tracing system broke down and collapsed. I wish to briefly outline what that meant for me and my family. My wife is a secondary schoolteacher and last Thursday she was notified by the Covid app that she was a close contact of someone who had tested positive. The same day, her school notified her that a positive case in the school had been confirmed but after risk assessing the situation, she was not deemed to be a close contact. She was informed by the app that she would receive a telephone call within 24 hours from the HSE to indicate whether she was affected and if the close contact was correct or if it was the same case as the case in the school. Eight days later, she has still not received a phone call. My wife had to self-isolate due to the restrictions set out in the notification from the app. By Monday, she still had not been notified by the HSE. On the advice of the Covid officer in Leinster House, I took the decision not to travel up to Dublin but to err on the side of caution.
On Monday, I contacted the HSE and I was told that I would get a call back. On Tuesday, when I had still not heard anything I contacted the Minister's office and was told there was nothing he could do. My wife contacted her GP on Tuesday to arrange a test the following day and yesterday afternoon she got back the results indicating that she was negative. Under the close contact guidelines, she still had to quarantine for the full 14 days, but I could travel to Dublin. I immediately came up here yesterday evening. My wife feels that she has let her students and her school down but she has not. It is the Minister and the tracking and tracing system operated by the HSE that have let her students and her school down. They have also let the constituents of Cork North-Central down because I missed major debates, discussions and votes this week as I could not get an answer to a simple question that should have been answered within 24 hours. This was a disaster for me and my constituents, the people I represent. Eight days later, my wife, who had a negative test, is still at home self-isolating. How can that be acceptable? Sinn Féin has been calling for a proper system all summer. Deputies Mary Lou McDonald and David Cullinane have been outlining the problems with tracking and tracing and how we have to get it right because it is vital to tackling the Covid crisis. This is just not good enough.
I thank my colleagues for a very detailed, useful and passionate debate. There are a lot of different views in this House, as there should be and needs to be. I have listened attentively and I have taken many pages of notes. Most of the Deputies who made points are not here but I will address the matters raised by those who are present.
Questions were raised repeatedly about golf. There is obviously a big golfing fraternity in the Dáil. Questions were also asked about third level students. There are 180,000 registered golfers and approximately 250,000 registered third level students in Ireland. If colleagues are suggesting that exemptions should be made for in excess of 400,000 people, assuming not too many third level students are registered golfers, I hope we would all agree that would pose a very serious risk to the great work and sacrifice everybody is making this week and for the next five and a half or six weeks to suppress the virus. The public health advice would strongly recommend against allowing 180,000 people to travel around the country to golf courses. We have, therefore, regulated against upwards of 250,000 students moving around. Obviously, it would only be some portion of those who would be travelling back and forth and they can still do so for essential family reasons.
I do not say this lightly. I do not like this situation, these laws or these powers. I was in opposition when the original emergency Bill was introduced. I was one of the Deputies, including the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, who sought a sunset clause. I think I spoke directly after the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, and I used the same word that she used in referring to the powers as "draconian". I agree with that description. This does not sit easily with me. I would much prefer that we were not here last night seeking extensions.
Deputies Boyd Barrett, Barry and their colleagues argued against the penalties and enforcement. While I accept that is a reasonable and important debate for us to have, what I would say to the Deputies is that the Bill before us reduces those penalties. Let us take face coverings. I think Deputy Barry strongly supported the use of face coverings. Right now, the only option available for a member of An Garda Síochána is a prosecutable offence, that is, to bring a person to court where a judge can impose on that person a fine of up to €2,500 or imprisonment of up to six months. That is not appropriate and I do not believe anyone in this House or country believes that is appropriate. What the Bill before us is doing is reducing that penalty and saying that is simply not appropriate. What is appropriate is an on-the-spot fine to be determined through regulation. Let us say €50 or whatever it may be.
For the offences where a person ends up in court, again, the Bill aims to reduce those penalties and create three tiers for a first, second and third offence. We need to bear in mind that this Bill is not about whether we should have enforcement powers. The Bill is saying that the enforcement powers we have are too strong and we need to create much more proportionate enforcement powers. That is what we are being asked here and that is the issue on which I am asking my colleagues to support the Government. This Bill is not about whether these powers exist; it is about saying the current enforcement powers are inappropriately high, so let us bring them down to an appropriate level. My belief is that they could be used at a more appropriate level, whereas at the moment they are far too cumbersome to use.
I do not know if Deputy Fitzmaurice is present, but he asked for clarification on whether I was alluding to him yesterday. I was not. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle also referred to my comments. My comments specifically related to Deputy Tóibín, who stated on the record, as a matter of fact, that no help was being provided by the HSE. That is factually untrue and grossly unfair on front-line clinicians and managers, many of whom have not had a day off since March and do not get to see their children because they are working such long hours. They are doing everything they can to support nursing homes. As Minister for Health, I simply do not believe I can let false statements like that stand in our national Parliament. I assure the House that throughout yesterday the HSE was engaged at length and in detail with what is a private nursing home. This is a private business.
The first responsibility lies with the nursing homes. The HSE is conducting serial testing and providing specialist care, access to geriatricians and numerous supports in this case that I will not go into because it is an individual example. It has also provided staff. More can be done and always must be, but that is why I do not take anything away from the nurse in Galway who was crying on the radio, to whom the Leas-Cheann Comhairle referred. I cannot begin to imagine how horrific it is for anyone working in a nursing home where almost all the patients and staff contract Covid over a two or three-day period. That must be horrific. We have to support that nurse and everybody else working in nursing homes with mental health and counselling supports. We are wrapping significant funding, and other supports such as personal protective equipment and training in infection prevention and control, around these nursing homes. That is what we are endeavouring to do all the time and it is why those statements were made.
I thank the Labour Party and Deputy Howlin, who is present in the Chamber. I very much acknowledge the role taken by the party and accept the Deputy's challenges on the democratic front. Nevertheless, when he was a member of the Cabinet and I was in opposition, I do not recall any amendment of mine being accepted by the then Minister, although I certainly tabled many of them. While I may stand corrected, I do not recall ever during that period, which was another time of crisis, any statutory instrument being brought to the House for debate. I am very open to being corrected on that but that is my memory. I would, however, have made exactly the same points that Deputy Howlin made, were the tables turned. I accept and acknowledge that and the very responsible role the Labour Party has played.
Deputy Cullinane, too, is present in the Chamber. I accept the very good faith in which he and his party have engaged on this legislation and in which their amendments have been tabled, which we will discuss presently. One point, however, which I direct not at the Deputy but rather at Sinn Féin, is that it needs to stop speaking out of both sides of its mouth on this issue. Its party leader says the party supports the framework and, publicly, that she did not believe that it was appropriate to go to level 5 at the time that it was initially recommended, and nor did the Government. She stated she supports the move to go to level 5, yet several Sinn Féin Deputies have undermined that in the Chamber. I do not believe that is reasonable.
Sinn Féin needs to decide as an organisation whether it supports the recommendations from NPHET. One Sinn Féin Deputy described the framework as "dead in the water". That is a pretty serious statement for a lead Opposition health spokesperson to make. The framework was launched and supported by the Oireachtas. The country was at level 2, various counties then moved to levels 3 and 4, and the country has now moved to level 5. The measures now in place are the level 5 measures not as dictated by the Government but as advised and designed by NPHET. That is what we have implemented.
Sinn Féin is, of course, free to decide that it disagrees with NPHET, with the public health advice or with the country or individual counties moving to any level. That is an ongoing debate we should have. The party should, however, state whether it backs a public health-led approach, which is the approach we are taking, and what it means when it says the framework is dead in the water. Nobody else believes it is dead in the water. I fully acknowledge there is a constructive relationship in other ways, but the party needs to get off the fence and tell the people whether it supports a public health-led approach. Sinn Féin Deputy after Deputy has stated during the debate that the testing and tracing system has collapsed. That is absolutely untrue. Something happened over the weekend that should not have happened. There is no question about that and nobody is defending it, but it was an operational decision made by the HSE, which was dealing with an exponentially increasing number of positive cases. It scaled up the number of contact tracing calls by 400% in six weeks, not an easy thing to do.
I wish, as do all Deputies, that it had twice as many people for contact tracing. Nevertheless, in mid-September, it had 231 staff, while in four weeks' time, it will have 800 staff. It has assured me it can deal with 1,500 positive cases a day and carry out full contact tracing in respect of them. Intensive contact tracing is ongoing in all schools, which is one of the reasons the positivity rate in schools, in both primary and secondary, is approximately 2%, versus more than 7% in the community. If Sinn Féin honestly believes that the testing and tracing system has collapsed, fair enough, that is fair game. I strongly reject that, however. In the past seven days, the HSE has tested 117,000 people. It gives us one of the highest testing regimes anywhere in the world and it is all PCR testing, which is the gold standard.
The HSE is not getting everything right and it did not get everything right in respect of contact tracing. I am not defending that but it is doing everything it can. It built up a system from zero in the middle of a global pandemic. It has given us one of the highest testing rates in the world. I think we are in the top ten when microstates are excluded. Testing and tracing needs to be better and it is getting better. Not everything the HSE is doing is perfect, but its staff are coming into work every day and working very hard, as they have been doing for months. They are doing well, certainly by international standards. Currently, if someone wants to get a test in France or the UK, he or she cannot just phone a GP and get a same-day or next-day test. That does not exist anymore. In my view, we have to stop this pile-on anytime the HSE makes a mistake. It will make mistakes, as will I and the Government. We are dealing with a national pandemic; this is not business as usual. That is my view, although I fully respect colleagues' right to say whatever they want. I wanted to say a few words in defence of the people who are doing their damndest to run a testing and tracing system.
I again thank Deputies. It has been a useful and productive debate. As per my offer yesterday, I am more than happy to sit down with Deputies later to discuss any issues I have not covered. Many Deputies have made reasonable points about the regulations. They are extraordinary powers and they do not sit easily with me at all. They did not sit easily with me when the emergency legislation was passed and they still do not. I invite all Deputies, if they have views on the regulations, the measures, the levels of penalties or the best way in which we can fight the virus, to contact me directly. I would love to hear from anyone who has ideas.
I thank the Minister. That concludes-----
I asked the Minister a question.
Deputy, please. You missed your slot and I let you back in. I cannot answer for-----
You missed your slot. I let you back in and the Minister had time to follow up.
- Berry, Cathal.
- Brophy, Colm.
- Browne, James.
- Bruton, Richard.
- Burke, Colm.
- Burke, Peter.
- Butler, Mary.
- Byrne, Thomas.
- Cahill, Jackie.
- Cairns, Holly.
- Calleary, Dara.
- Canney, Seán.
- Cannon, Ciarán.
- Carey, Joe.
- Carroll MacNeill, Jennifer.
- Chambers, Jack.
- Collins, Niall.
- Costello, Patrick.
- Coveney, Simon.
- Cowen, Barry.
- Crowe, Cathal.
- Devlin, Cormac.
- Dillon, Alan.
- Donnelly, Stephen.
- Donohoe, Paschal.
- Duffy, Francis Noel.
- Durkan, Bernard J.
- English, Damien.
- Farrell, Alan.
- Feighan, Frankie.
- Fitzpatrick, Peter.
- Flaherty, Joe.
- Flanagan, Charles.
- Fleming, Sean.
- Foley, Norma.
- Grealish, Noel.
- Griffin, Brendan.
- Harris, Simon.
- Haughey, Seán.
- Heydon, Martin.
- Higgins, Emer.
- Hourigan, Neasa.
- Howlin, Brendan.
- Humphreys, Heather.
- Kehoe, Paul.
- Kelly, Alan.
- Lahart, John.
- Lawless, James.
- Leddin, Brian.
- Lowry, Michael.
- Madigan, Josepha.
- Martin, Catherine.
- Matthews, Steven.
- McAuliffe, Paul.
- McEntee, Helen.
- McGrath, Michael.
- McHugh, Joe.
- Moynihan, Aindrias.
- Moynihan, Michael.
- Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
- Murphy, Catherine.
- Murphy, Eoghan.
- Murphy, Verona.
- Nash, Ged.
- Naughten, Denis.
- Naughton, Hildegarde.
- Noonan, Malcolm.
- O'Brien, Joe.
- O'Callaghan, Cian.
- O'Callaghan, Jim.
- O'Dea, Willie.
- O'Donnell, Kieran.
- O'Donovan, Patrick.
- O'Dowd, Fergus.
- O'Sullivan, Christopher.
- O'Sullivan, Pádraig.
- Ó Cathasaigh, Marc.
- Ó Cuív, Éamon.
- Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
- Rabbitte, Anne.
- Richmond, Neale.
- Ryan, Eamon.
- Shanahan, Matt.
- Sherlock, Sean.
- Shortall, Róisín.
- Smith, Brendan.
- Smith, Duncan.
- Smyth, Niamh.
- Smyth, Ossian.
- Stanton, David.
- Troy, Robert.
- Varadkar, Leo.
- Whitmore, Jennifer.
- Andrews, Chris.
- Barry, Mick.
- Boyd Barrett, Richard.
- Browne, Martin.
- Buckley, Pat.
- Carthy, Matt.
- Collins, Joan.
- Collins, Michael.
- Conway-Walsh, Rose.
- Cronin, Réada.
- Crowe, Seán.
- Cullinane, David.
- Daly, Pa.
- Donnelly, Paul.
- Ellis, Dessie.
- Farrell, Mairéad.
- Fitzmaurice, Michael.
- Gould, Thomas.
- Guirke, Johnny.
- Kenny, Gino.
- Kenny, Martin.
- Kerrane, Claire.
- Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
- McDonald, Mary Lou.
- McGrath, Mattie.
- McNamara, Michael.
- Mitchell, Denise.
- Munster, Imelda.
- Murphy, Paul.
- Mythen, Johnny.
- O'Donoghue, Richard.
- O'Reilly, Louise.
- O'Rourke, Darren.
- Ó Murchú, Ruairí.
- Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
- Pringle, Thomas.
- Quinlivan, Maurice.
- Ryan, Patricia.
- Smith, Bríd.
- Stanley, Brian.
- Tóibín, Peadar.
- Ward, Mark.
- Wynne, Violet-Anne.
- Harkin, Marian.