Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 March 2020

An Bille Sláinte (Caomhnú agus Cosaint agus Bearta Éigeandála Eile Ar Mhaithe Le Leas an Phobail), 2020: An Dara Céim - Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020: Second Stage


2:15 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

We are truly, as the Ceann Comhairle has outlined, living in extraordinary times. The pandemic we are now endeavouring to deal with was unknown to our world just a number of weeks ago. Now it is often all we think and talk about. Today's sitting is in and of itself reflective of the extraordinary impact of Covid-19. Despite this perhaps being the biggest single issue this Oireachtas may face with our people, the public health advice is that we cannot all gather here at the one time. This Oireachtas, its Members and indeed you, a Cheann Comhairle, have risen to the logistical challenge that confronts us, and I take this opportunity to thank all Members of the Oireachtas for the constructive way in which we have all worked together. There is no time for petty party politics during a pandemic. I also wish to praise the staff here, especially the canteen staff, the ushers, the officials and our personal staff, who work so hard and look after us on these long days. They continue to provide us with a safe place to work and quite often are the people who keep us going on these very tough days, and we thank them.

I also take this opportunity to thank our front-line staff in the health service - our GPs, hospital doctors, nurses and midwives, paramedics, support staff, cleaners, porters and patient support staff; my Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan and his team in the Department of Health; the HSE leadership team; our social protection staff; all the people working across the public services; and particularly our emergency services, the Garda and the Defence Forces. Everybody is coming together in a true national effort. Our health service staff and their families have made and continue to make massive personal sacrifices in the face of this global pandemic.

Their bravery and courage have been matched by the generosity of the Irish people. More than 30,000 people have answered the call of Government to offer the HSE their assistance during this time of crisis. Thousands of people are putting their hands up and saying, "I want to be on call for Ireland." Today, we say "Thank you" to each and every one of them. We say "Thank you" also to the men, women and children across this country helping their neighbours, friends and families as we all struggle to adjust to what is a temporary but very significant new reality.

We, as political leaders, of course have a responsibility to lead and to respond to the pandemic, but we also have an equally important role in responding to the mental health challenges and the well-being challenges this will pose for many of our people - the individual and the national anxiety that now exists in our country. Every day, I wake to messages, phone calls and emails offering help. Every day, I see videos of people using their creativity and innovation to help themselves and to help each other. Through these tough times, the Irish people continue to show strength and resilience. They continue to care for each other. In the dark days ahead, the Irish people will be the light that guides us through.

Before I move on to the detail of the legislation, it is very important we take this opportunity to remind the Irish people what we need them to do. We cannot stop this virus. We cannot wish it away. As our published figures showed last night, it is a virus that does not discriminate based on age, gender or geographic location. What we can all do is help to slow its spread. We can help our health service, help front-line staff, help older and vulnerable people in the community by following the guidance and advice of public health experts. It is simple: wash your hands regularly and properly; cough into your elbow; dispose of your tissues; reduce significantly your social activity. Help us to help you. We will only flatten the curve if we work together but if we do work together, we will save lives.

At a time like this, we often rely on our country's greats to motivate and inspire us. One such great, Seamus Heaney, said: "Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for." Let us all in the Oireachtas and all of us right across this country work day and night to achieve that common good.

I now move to deal with the Bill. I see sense in the amendments Deputies have proposed with regard to a sunset clause and I will work with them on this when we get to the later Stages of the Bill. A number of Deputies have expressed concerns in regard to protecting and supporting renters at this difficult time, and I know my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Murphy, intends to bring forward legislation in that regard next week.

Our highest priority today must be the protection of both public health and human life, preventing the spread of the virus and working to mitigate its impact on our people. With this in mind, we are introducing a series of measures to support those who are ill, quarantined, in isolation or unemployed as a result of Covid-19. We are also temporarily changing the rules for illness benefit payments and jobseekers' payments for workers affected by Covid-19. We are introducing measures that will serve to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of Covid-19 by ensuring, in so far as is possible, that potential avenues where there is a high risk of contact with the virus are closed off and that those who are potentially infected are provided with the necessary medical assistance, as and when they require it.

I will now outline the main provisions of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the Short Title, construction, commencement and duration of the Bill. Sections relating to illness benefit come into operation from 9 March, the date of the Government decision on illness benefit. Sections relating to jobseekers' payments come into effect from 13 March. These amendments will continue in effect until 9 May 2020. However, if so required by the interests of public health at that time, the amendments may continue to operate by order. Any regulations introduced under the provisions of the Act will also lapse on that day.

These are exceptional measures, being introduced in the interest of public health and support in a time of crisis. They must be time limited but, as the position is ever-evolving and changing on a daily if not hourly basis, there must be the option to renew them for as often as is necessary. This is proposed to be done by Government order, and any such order will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Part 2 of the Bill relates to amendments to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act. Section 3 sets out the necessary definitions. Section 4, importantly, allows for self-employed PRSI contributions to be taken into account in the qualification criteria for illness benefit.

This is only for the specified circumstances related to Covid-19. The purpose is to provide an income support to self-employed people who are unable to work based on a diagnosis of Covid-19, or who are required to self-isolate as a probable source of infection of Covid-19. Illness benefit will not be extended to the self-employed in this Bill other than for this specific situation.

Section 5 provides for amendments to section 40, which deals with entitlements to illness benefit. Section 40(l)(b) changes the contribution conditions so that employees and self-employed people will qualify for illness benefit based on a minimum number of contributions. The number of contributions will be specified in regulation and will be set at one. This is, in effect, a nominal number. This is necessary in order that claims can be processed and to simplify the legislative change now proposed.

Section 40(7) defines categories of people who are "incapable of work" for the purposes of this special illness benefit payment. These will be people who are certified by a medical practitioner as being diagnosed with Covid-19 or as a probable source of infection of Covid-19; people who have been notified, including by order, by the Chief Medical Officer of the HSE that they are a probable source of infection; people who are deemed under regulations to be a probable source of infection; and people in respect of whom a relevant order under the Health Act 1947 is in operation.

Section 40(8) provides that where people receive paid sick leave from their employer, such as a public servant, they will not be allowed to apply for this payment. Section 40(9) provides that the condition of six waiting days that generally applies for illness benefit claims will not apply in these special circumstances. Section 40(10) enables the Minister to prescribe the minimum PRSI contribution conditions required for this payment. As already indicated, this will be set at a nominal level of one. Section 40(11) enables the Minister to vary the rate of illness benefit by regulation. This is to allow for the special payment rate of €305 for such period as may be prescribed in the relevant circumstances. Section 40(12) specifies that Covid-19 and its variants is the infectious disease in question in these changes.

Section 6 sets out the regulation-making powers to be given to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. These regulations are to give full effect to the measures in relation to illness benefit and set out the details that will enable the principles and policies in the Bill to be implemented. The regulations will provide for: setting out the people to whom these provisions apply; the manner in which a person is deemed to be a person to whom these provisions apply; the notification requirements; any variation in conditions for entitlements, including for example the variation in certification requirements; and any additional, incidental, consequential or supplemental matters necessary or expedient for the purposes of giving effect to the provisions.

Section 7 provides power to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to vary the three-day waiting period for jobseeker's benefit. Normally, a jobseeker must have three days of unemployment before he or she is entitled to jobseeker's benefit. As many businesses are closing temporarily because of Covid-19, it is intended to remove the waiting period for people who have suddenly become unemployed as a result of Covid-19. Section 8 provides for a similar regulation-making power with respect to the waiting day period for jobseeker's allowance.

Part 3 of the Bill relates to amendments to the Health Act 1947 targeted at the prevention and minimisation of the spread of Covid-19. Section 9 is standard provision, providing for the definition of terms used throughout Part 3.

Section 10 inserts new sections, 31 A and 31 B, into the Health Act 1947. The intention is to provide for regulations to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of Covid-19. The regulations will deal with unprecedented circumstances including through prohibiting some events and through imposing travel restrictions. The regulations may be also made specifying requirements to be put in place by organisers of events before an event can proceed. In addition, regulations may place requirements in relation to premises to prevent the risk of infection to people visiting or working in such premises. Requirements may be also imposed in relation to crèches, schools, universities and other educational facilities, including the temporary closure of such facilities, to prevent or minimise the risk of infection. Regulations may provide for any other measures that the Minister may consider appropriate for the minimisation of the spread of Covid-19. It is important to say that, at this stage, many events have been cancelled, schools have been closed and crèches have closed. People have complied and have complied in the national interest, but it seems prudent to ensure that we have legal clarity on these matters.

Subsection (2) sets out what the Minister must have regard to in making regulations, reflecting the extreme nature of this national emergency. Under subsection (3), in making the regulations, the Minister will consult with all other relevant Ministers and relevant persons. Subsection (4) provides that the Minister may exempt specified classes of persons providing essential services, statutory functions, other specified public services or other services from the provisions of any regulations made. This is important to maintain essential services during a time of emergency.

Subsection (5) provides that this new section is without prejudice to other provisions in the Health Act 1947, including as they may relate to Covid-19. Subsection (6) provides for offences relating to regulations and compliance. Subsections (7) to (12) have enforcement powers, including powers for An Garda Síochána. There are also related offences. Subsection (13) provides for the implementation and enforcement by relevant persons, for example, medical officers of health. Subsection (14) provides for assistance to relevant persons by An Garda Síochána. Subsection (16) defines terms used in sections 31A and 31B.

The new section 31B provides that the Minister may, by means of an order, specify an area or region to be an affected area. This means an area where there is a high risk of infection or importation of Covid-19. Travel and event restrictions relate here. When making an affected area order, the Minister will have regard to the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and will consult other relevant Ministers.

Section 11 inserts the new section 38A into the Health Act 1947. The intention of the new section is to allow a medical officer of health to order the detention and isolation of a person where the medical officer of health reasonably believes that the person is a potential source of infection and where the person refuses to self-isolate. The medical officer of health must keep the person under review and a medical examination must be carried out as soon as practicable but in any event no later than 14 days after detention. This reflects the incubation period and is intended to indicate an outer time period. In practical terms, the person would be medically monitored throughout any time of detention. The person detained may also ask for a review of his or her temporary detention by another doctor.

Subsections (1) and (2) of section 38A set out the order provisions and what a medical officer of health must consider. Subsection (3) imposes a requirement upon a medical officer of health to certify his or her opinion on the matters outlined in the order. Subsection (4) requires a medical officer of health who makes an order to keep the matter under review and to ensure that a medical examination is carried out. Subsection (6) provides for a review by another doctor where one is requested by the patient.

The intention under subsection (7) is that the provisions of subsections (2)(a) to (g), (3), (4) and (5) of section 38 of the Health Act 1947 shall apply to a person who is subject to detention and isolation.

Under subsection (9), the costs of maintenance and treatment will be paid by the HSE. Subsection (10) defines the terms used in section 38A.

I am conscious, as we introduce emergency legislation in our Houses of the Oireachtas at a time of great national anxiety, that it is important to say to people in our country that these measures will be imposed for exceptional circumstances, should they arise. We intend to continue to deal with this public health emergency through the co-operation of our people and collaboration between all of our State agencies. We must, and will, legislate to ensure that we have all the required powers to help save lives threatened by this virus.

Covid-19 is having an immense impact on our society. These are unparalleled and extraordinary circumstances. Our sole objective is to safeguard the lives of our citizens and to ensure that they have sufficient financial resources as we work our way through this crisis together.

I hope that in these troubling times people can be reassured that we have extensive, detailed and evolving plans to deal with every aspect of this crisis. We are realigning all our systems and services to cope with this emergency. Part of this realignment is to free up resources so that people will get treatment as quickly as possible and receive payments rapidly.

The Government will continue to work closely with all stakeholders across society as we respond to the crisis. We will continue to work with every Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas.

I again acknowledge the incredible response to date of many people in our public service, across Departments and agencies, particularly those on the front line in the health sector, but also the people in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection who have worked hard to get this Bill to this point. These front-line staff have stayed in post and gone above and beyond what we could reasonably expect of them in making sure that people can be tested and treated and have access to income supports.

The Government cannot provide the certainty that we all crave about the course that this virus might take. We can assure the Irish people that they will not be alone as we face this crisis.


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