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
Louise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
Go raibh maith agat. Before we get into the substantive legislation, this morning I was in my constituency office in Swords which is currently closed to the public but we are helping people as much as we can over the telephone. Some of the stories we have heard are heartbreaking. I was a trade union official for a long time, as most Members here will be aware. I worked with many people who lost their jobs, but they generally saw it coming. Even when the boss would not tell the workers that they were going to lose their jobs, they would know it was coming because there were fewer customers and they were not as busy as they had been. They generally had an inkling of what was coming but this crisis has hit people like a freight train. I will not lie. I sobbed my heart out prior to coming to this House today, having spent only one hour in my constituency office. I do not know how Marian, or any of our constituency staff, are doing their jobs because they are dealing with people whose lives are falling apart. This is balanced against the nurses, doctors, healthcare workers and cleaners who are putting themselves into a situation which they know is dangerous and could result in them becoming ill, and they are doing so willingly. People are voluntarily coming out of retirement. This crisis, in many ways, is bringing out the best in us. It is not enough to for us to say to people that we hope their landlords will not evict them because these people have had every piece of certainty in their lives whipped out from under them. It is not enough to say that we hope there will be forbearance from the financial institutions. These people need a little more certainty and that is our work. We are not in the hospitals or on the front line of this crisis so we have to do everything we can do here.
As legislators, we have to listen to what people are saying. When you lose your job it is absolutely terrifying: when two people in the house lose their jobs is even worse. However, if there was an assurance that one could not be evicted then, at the very least, when everything else was falling down around their ears, people could at least think they can keep the house they live in. That is really important work and we need to do that. I welcome that legislation will be tabled and we may have an opportunity here.
I pay tribute to the men and women in our health service, every single one of them, in every grade, group and category. Whatever amount of time people are giving, it is extremely important. Other people are also involved. The supermarket shelves are stocked and people can get food. Our pharmacies have access to supplies. It is not for nothing and that did not happen by accident. I know they are watching and they are out there doing that work. I also have a special word for the people battling misinformation, because that is a tsunami coming at us. When all of this is over, we might meet and consider legislation to deal with a particular social media app - I will not name it, but we all know the one I am talking about where various theories are expounded and virologists we do not know and never see apparently go to do some of their best work, although they are not seen on the front line. The people trying to combat that misinformation are doing a fantastic job and that is the only way to beat it.
This legislation is extraordinary and the times we are living in are extraordinary to match it. These measures contain some of the greatest constraints on civil liberties ever enacted by this House, potentially. This legislation and the measures to protect the public and public health cannot and must not be abused. Too often, legislation passed here has not been enacted in the manner it was intended. While this legislation will cease on 9 May, it does have a built-in extension mechanism and, in that regard, I welcome the Minister's statement that he is open to discussions about a sunset clause.
The legislation gives extraordinary powers to the Minister to respond to an extraordinary challenge, not least in section 31(A)(1), which allows for restrictions on travel, on travel to specified geographical locations, requirements for persons to remain in their homes and the prohibition of certain events in order to prevent, limit, minimise and slow the spread of Covid-19. These powers may well prove necessary to combat the spread of Covid-19 and it is important the Minister can react as quickly and effectively as he needs to to tackle the spread of this virus. As Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organisation, WHO, has said, "to tackle the coronavirus, we must react quickly and be the first mover". We have to be prepared to act speedily. I urge the Minister, however, always to be cognisant of the civil liberties of people when he uses this legislation. Some of these provisions should be measures of last resort and must only be used in the last resort. We will be watching how this legislation operates and others will be watching how it operates in practice rather than in theory.
I raise a point on section 10 of the Bill. I refer to the insertion of the new section 31A(1)(i) in that it confers on the Minister "any other measures that the Minister considers necessary in order to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of Covid-19". This is an extraordinary measure in that it allows the Minister powers to introduce any measure he wishes in this section by Statutory Instrument or regulation that does not have to be approved by the Oireachtas. We were deliberately sparse in the amendments we submitted. We were conscious that others might be submitting amendments that we may support and we deliberately tried to limit duplication. However, this is a truly extraordinary section. Nobody wants to slow the Minster down in taking fast actions not covered by the list, but this is a point for all of us to be aware of as the days ahead unfold. While we will always seek to hold politicians to account through the Oireachtas, in this instance we do not want to be unnecessarily obstructive given the context, possible urgency and unforeseen issues that may arise.
The section which deals with involuntary detention for a person who refuses to self-isolate when he or she has the virus, or with good reason is suspected of having the virus, tries to balance the curbing of civil liberties with the scale of infectious disease on our doorstep. The legislation should have provided that where a person lacks capacity, a person's capacity is in question or a person needs support to understand the implications, that the person can have access to an advocate and an advocate be provided to them. Will provision be made to ensure that a detainee can have that advocate provided? I ask the Minister to use existing powers for a Statutory Instrument to be issued to allow for pharmacists to issue repeat prescriptions. This is a very practical step and it will take pressure off general practitioners, GPs.
We need to ensure this legislation works for the people and not against the people, that it will have the effect of tackling this deadly virus and that when we no longer need the additional powers that they can be immediately rescinded.