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
Stephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
I will be sharing time with Deputies O'Dea and Troy.
I acknowledge the extraordinary work and dedication of many people across the country. Our healthcare workers are putting themselves in harm's way and stepping up. People are coming back from retirement at an extraordinary level. They are working night and day to make sure that the country is prepared and that when people need to be treated, we have the best knowledge available from the other countries that have been dealing with this outbreak for longer than Ireland has.
I want to mention the HSE workers as well. The HSE and people who work in the HSE come in for much criticism in the normal course of events. Certainly, what I have witnessed in recent weeks has been incredible dedication, professionalism and hard work from the people working within the HSE. The same has to be said for other frontline workers, including the gardaí, who have now moved to 12-hour shifts to ensure we have enough police available. Indeed, it applies to every individual who is making an effort and to every parent. I say that as the proud owner of three young boys who are now out of school. Many people are having to adjust their lives and balance various commitments at close quarters. Individuals in communities are stepping up. They are knocking on the doors of friends and neighbours asking whether they can help if people have to self-isolate. Community groups are stepping up. I have been getting calls - I imagine it is the same for every Member - from business people throughout Wicklow. They have been asking if I want to use their hotels or nursing homes. Others have had to close down restaurants but they will open them again if healthcare workers need food. The response from individuals, families and the community has been incredible. We should be proud of our nation and the response we have seen so far.
The potential impact of this virus on our nation's health cannot be underestimated. The Minister quite rightly gave a figure of 10,000 cases by 29 March. The figure was from the Department of Health. That would be a very large number. We received an important clarification yesterday to the effect that the figure of 10,000 is not actually the predicted number but the number of cases that would arise if none of the measures had been taken. If the schools and colleges had not been closed and if individuals and communities were not practising social distancing, we would in theory be at 10,000.
We have seen other countries bring in measures. We have seen communities in other countries respond to this. Thank goodness, we have seen the growth rates fall dramatically. In Italy, for example, we are seeing daily growth rates of 30%, 35% and 40%. During the past week, we have been looking at a daily growth rate of 30%, but Italy is down to approximately 13%. The French and Spanish and others have brought these growth rates down. That is the challenge for all of us in the Oireachtas as legislators as well as for our healthcare professionals and every community. It is to bring that growth rate down. The difference we can make is extraordinary. The figure we were given for 29 March of 10,000 assumes a 30% growth rate every day. If it continues, that 10,000 will grow to 600,000 in only two weeks. That is how damaging and dangerous a growth rate of 30% is. By the way, in the past seven days we have been growing at 30% per day. If we can bring that 30% per day down to 20% per day, then the figure of 600,000 cases falls to 60,000 cases or one tenth of the potential impact. That is how much of a difference we can make. It is how important all of these measures are. That is why it was necessary to close the schools. It is why the social distancing is important. It is why the restrictions on travel are important. It is why Fianna Fáil will be supporting this Bill.
I do not imagine anyone in this House would contemplate the powers that are in this Bill under normal times. They are vast and extensive. Most of them are not time-limited and do not have a review clause. Most of them are not subject to appeal. These are extraordinary measures and, in normal times, we would not remotely consider such things. Yet, if the task before us is to bring the total number of cases down from a potential of 600,000 to 60,000 in only four weeks, then, unfortunately, we need to consider such measures, and so Fianna Fáil will be supporting the Bill.
The Minister for Health referenced that he is open to some of the amendments. I am glad to hear that and I look forward to getting into some of the detail with him. I have concerns about the fact that there are no real sunset clauses and that the provisions can be extended for any length. I also have concerns around the breadth of the designated people who can essentially tell a citizen that he has to say in his home. As I read it, there is a low bar in terms of qualifications. It is far wider now than "medical officers".
It includes everybody designated by the HSE, if I am reading this right. I want to get into some of the detail of that with the Minister. We have to do whatever it takes to bring this down but when we are considering powers as serious and extensive as this, we must as an Oireachtas make sure that there are checks and balances in place. I look forward to that debate later on.