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
I will share time with Deputy Louise O'Reilly.
Across this island there are citizens, families and communities bracing themselves for what will be a very tough few months. The crisis presents us with the challenge of our lifetime to protect health, defend livelihoods and save lives. Nobody here has all the answers to all the challenges we face but we have been elected and we have a job to do. We must listen to and be guided by sound advice, take decisions and lead. It is what we must do. Social distancing and keeping ourselves to ourselves will slow this virus and social solidarity, community and family will protect us from isolation, anxiety and fear; we must practice both in equal measure.
People have responded to the collective effort to stop the spread of Covid-19. They have heard the public health information and people have made the conscious decision to minimise social contact. People and communities have rallied to the call to slow this virus. Over the weekend and on St. Patrick's Day, people cancelled parties, gatherings and family occasions in order to protect and save the lives of loved ones and neighbours. Nevertheless, yesterday tens of thousands of those same people went back to work in factories, on construction sites and places where there is no real prospect of being able to practice social distancing, where there are no hand sanitisers and where there is no adequate protection. These workers now worry that they are bringing the virus into their homes. This is a concern that must be answered.
The legislation before us affords the Minister extraordinary and far-reaching powers; these are extraordinary powers for an extraordinary time. People want to know that these powers will be used to protect them so they ask why it is that large gatherings are still allowed. They ask why it is in this race against time that the Government has not yet introduced measures to give full effect to social distancing. Nobody relishes the idea of what is called "lockdown" but people want the full assurance that half-measures are not being taken, corners are not being cut but rather that every necessary measure is being deployed to protect health and safety and it is being done now. The Government must give this reassurance to people and provide full explanations of what is happening, when and why. Orderly and decisive action will bring about calm and reassurance.
Equally, people must know that the powers vested in a Minister can be used exclusively for the purpose of addressing this crisis. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs and many more will lose their jobs in the days and weeks ahead as businesses are forced to close their doors. For these families, the fear of the virus is matched by the fear of bills or rent that cannot be paid or mortgages that may be defaulted. Today's legislation is just the start of the welfare response for these families. Illness benefit and jobseeker payments are just part of what must be a comprehensive response. It should be said that anybody would struggle on €305 per week and this must be acknowledged.
The memory of the banking and financial crises is still fresh in people's minds and the disastrous cutbacks and austerity had dire social consequences. We cannot walk that path again. The people of this State bailed out the country's banks a decade ago and the legacy of that crisis prevails. It was the resilience of ordinary workers that got our economy back on its feet so now, in the eye of this new storm, the State must deliver for its people as guardian of the common good. That is our job here.
At this time, people's homes are their sanctuaries. Never before has the need for a secure roof over one's head been greater. It is why we have today proposed an amendment to the legislation that would prohibit evictions for the period in which this legislation is in place. That proposal must be upheld for the common good and no threat of eviction should hang over anybody's head at this time of crisis. We must ensure no person is left behind. It is our responsibility to demonstrate leadership and reassure people that we can get through this crisis.
I have no doubt we can do that. We need look no further for our inspiration than to the example of our healthcare workers who are returning in their tens of thousands to work in our hospitals and communities to deal with the crisis. They are the ones whose example we should follow.
In that spirit, today, the Dáil needs to resolve that during this emergency no renter will be left unable to pay his or her rent, nobody will be forced into default of their mortgage, nobody will have their utilities or telephone services cut-off, nobody will be left without enough income to put food on the table, no viable business will be left unsupported and no front-line worker will be left without the basic protections necessary to do his or her job. Everything that we do now socially, economically and politically must have as its sole priority the health and wellbeing of workers and families because this is a time for us all to pull together.
The Dáil will meet again next week to take further decisions. The work of the Dáil cannot cease at a time of national emergency. I believe that together we have to approach this crisis with resolve and with determination. I again acknowledge the work of everybody who has been involved in the public health response. I commend all, and each one of them, for their work thus far. Their work is invaluable. We salute them and their efforts at this time. Special tribute must be paid to our healthcare staff across the Irish health system, but in our hospitals in particular. Truly, these are the people at the front line of this crisis and none is more deserving of our respect, admiration and support.
We need to do our bit. We need a single island-wide response. We live on a small island and we must be in lock-step North and South. This is the only way we can keep our people safe because this is a road that we walk together. In years to come, we will talk about life before the coronavirus and life after the virus, but for now the most important time is the present, the here and now at this daunting time. There is no doubt that we shall overcome. The togetherness we see in our communities, the bravery and professionalism of our front-line health workers and the enduring spirit of our people should fill us all with hope. We have overcome hardship in the past. We are no strangers to dark days, but we will endure together.