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 Deputies Ó Cathasaigh and Ossian Smyth, if I may, a Cheann Comhairle.
I commend the Taoiseach on his speech the other night. It articulated the desire of our people to show solidarity and collective action in response to this unprecedented crisis. That sense really came home to me on Saturday night, when people watched the video online showing a good-time crew in "the temple of the bars" singing "Sweet Caroline": "Hands holding hands ... touching me, touching you". Sweet Jesus, you could not make it up. It was so out of tune with where we all were. In some ways, I felt at that moment the same way that, during the 1980s, we decided collectively that if our soccer supporters were going abroad, and if other people were going to be hooligans, we would be the best behaved people on the planet. There was the same sense when we watched the video and said we were not going to do that - hands touching hands - but rather we would look after one another.
I know that people ask questions such as whether we will develop fatigue in our behavioural response. Any scientist who thinks that has yet to meet my mother, Mary Ryan, who is at home watching the debate like many a mother, father or grandparent. If there was an antiviral Olympics, we would win gold. My mother would make the Chinese Communist Government look like wimps when it comes to the measures that will be taken to hold this threat at bay. We are going to be good at this. We are going to take it on and pull together, as the Taoiseach and others have said.
It was interesting what happened when we were chatting at one of our leaders' meetings. I hope I am not breaking a confidence by mentioning the following, given that it is just one issue. We agreed we would go down the suppression route rather than the mitigation route. If things go wrong down the line, we may have to move to mitigation, but for the moment, we are going to take on the suppression route. In doing that, the way we maintain the mental health of our people will be important. I cited the example the other day of whether we could keep hardware shops open. I know that it is not the most important matter but if we kept them open, and if we had to work from home or be at home for a period, let us paint the back of the house with the paint from the hardware shop. Let us get every south-facing windowsill in the country and plant our seeds in the next week in order that if there is any food supply crisis in two or three months' time when this really hits hard, we will have our salads ready to go. I refer to everyone's home and every windowsill, with all of us being part of the solution.
As I said to the Taoiseach yesterday, and as leaders we all agreed on it, we need to come together and increase political involvement in respect of the solutions. I regret that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, is not in the Chamber because I was keen to offer other examples of what we could have done before the announcement about schools was made earlier. I do not mean to second-guess the Government on anything or to criticise it, but I would love if the leaving certificate oral examinations could have been done via Skype. Could we not have done that? Given that everyone else is mobilising, we could have mobilised our teaching profession and every leaving certificate student to get the oral examinations done in some online way. It is just one example. Not least because of the mental health issue, particularly for leaving certificate students, we all know how stressful it is. I would love to have given them the reassurance that we would have been able to do the oral examinations in June or July, no later. We can sit in the Chamber in an organised way. The leaving certificate is a very regulated event. Spreading people out and ensuring they do not move one way or the other should not be beyond our capabilities to organise.
I have to echo the "thank you" expressed to our public servants. We have all talked to medics such as anaesthetists on the front line, knowing that this is the calm before the storm that is about to hit. Fair play to them, one and all, for standing up for public service and their people. We will support them in every way we can.
We also have to look at our unity and solidarity as a political system. I am glad in a way we were in a bit of a lockdown in the past week or two, not really talking politics, which may not have been a bad thing. We could focus on the public service message, which was the key. We have a herd sense whereby we are going to take on the issue. We have been clear and consistent in our messaging but we recognise that we in our political system also have to show the same solidarity in how we work together. We as a party will commit to doing whatever we can in that way, working with other parties as needs be in the coming weeks and months.
However, we need to up our game. It will not be easy. It will be difficult. Decisions must be made but the Irish people are up for it and we will be good at it, as hard and as difficult as the times are.