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 want to put on record Social Democrats appreciation for all the work and dedication of those in the front line - those in healthcare, those ensuring the supply chain of food, medicines and other essential goods, those who are keeping us safe in our communities and those who are reliably informing us about what we need to know. I also want to thank the public, who are leading from the bottom up in demonstrating their ability to distance themselves socially, to self-school, to wash their hands and do what is asked of them.
I also want to acknowledge the anxiety we are hearing and seeing, which goes way beyond the risk of infection. It is about concern for others but it is also about the anxiety in regard to putting food on the table, paying the rent or mortgage and paying bills, and concern about the ability to re-open or reboot a business after this pandemic passes, and it will pass.
The leadership from the bottom up is also about the public seeking the early school closures, the cancelling of mass gatherings, the travel restrictions and the closing of pubs. It was very obvious there was a mood for this. It was done in the knowledge that it would hurt but what would hurt more was not doing it, or not doing it in time.
The Bill we are here to pass is needed and it is, in the main, proportionate and balanced in the circumstances. However, it does need some strengthening and we will play our role in both strengthening it and passing it.
We have seen numbers modelled in recent days, which is only right and proper, and we hope the measures that have been already taken will have overstated what plays out. However, modelling the numbers is not merely an exercise in maths. It is about calculating the response, both in terms of healthcare needs and available resources, and about modelling further measures, such as restrictions on movement.
While this is stated in the legislation, largely absent is information on what kicks in and when. It is essential that we are not behind the curve but it is also essential that it is proportionate.
Economic modelling is also happening. I note that the European Central Bank, ECB, has announced a €750 billion pandemic emergency purchase programme. It is important that we understand what is available from the European institutions and the ECB and how it is intended to work, and that we make full use of it. Before we become sick we need to plan for our recovery. This includes our nation's economic recovery.
We are hearing much about delays in testing. I am aware that this is being scaled up as we speak. If a person has symptoms then of course he or she needs to self isolate but, as has been said already, there are issues with some of the definitions whereby a person may queue but may not be a risk. There are also issues with the definition whereby a person may be advised to isolate because his or her immune system is compromised but the person is not symptomatic. Do these people qualify for a payment? What is the definition and can there be an expansion of the definition in that regard?
There is confusion too about adult and child dependants and what people are entitled to. This could be helped through a briefing. If a person who has a family of five discovers that he or she is allowed a payment of perhaps €203 it will be an unbelievable shock when he or she has had a sustainable income before this.
I believe it is important to highlight instances in the past when we have introduced emergency legislation. The Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, legislation was presented to us before midnight and was passed before dawn, and there were problems later on. It is, therefore, essential that we consider the wording of the legislation before the House today, and that we ensure it is as robust as it can be, which is just as important as passing the legislation. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, and Sage Advocacy have both expressed a need for the sunset clause and other measures. I welcome that the Minister for Health has said he will work with Opposition on that.
I appreciate the Minister's and the Government's bona fides on the intent of the Bill but it is very important that it is stated as comprehensively as possible that it is bespoke legislation relating to Covid-19, and that there is no equivocation or doubt about that. I do not believe there is any equivocation but the message must go out in that regard.
The Bill may not be the only legislation needed. There may be other minor legislation needed. I am aware that Deputy O'Callaghan has proposed an amendment on extending the Statute of Limitations, particularly in civil cases, and I believe this makes complete sense. There also may be limits on planning legislation, for example where there is a requirement for a person to adjudicate on site where technical staff are not available, and so on. Such legislation may be relatively minor in the overall scheme of things but it is important and it would be prudent to put it on record.
The Bill makes provision for emergency payments. It is important that the logistics of this are considered. Community welfare officers, for example, need to be given additional staff and more resources. There will be exceptional needs payments. I thank the staff in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection because they are certainly going beyond the call of duty.
The debate on this Bill does not preclude us from talking about other separate legislation. I welcome that the Minister has said there is legislation due on housing. I do not know the scope of that and perhaps the Minister will give Members a briefing on this to outline the scope. I hope that central to the legislation will be the issue of evictions, and especially evictions during this emergency. I continue to see individuals and families in this regard, four of whom I saw on Friday morning. They were in an absolute panic because they had eviction notices and they were finding it impossible to find alternative accommodation. It is difficult to see such scenarios living side-by-side with luxury apartments that could not be let because the rents were so exorbitant, which we have seen happening recently. There has to be something that can be done about this type of situation.
More accommodation may be released from Airbnb because of the impact of this crisis on the tourism sector. That will, hopefully, fill some of the need.
I am told that, because of reductions in staff, housing assistance payments are being delayed. There are serious concerns for someone making an application for assistance now, or for someone who is in receipt of payment and has lost his or her job. If somebody in receipt of HAP does not pay his or her portion of the rent, the payment to the landlord completely stops and the tenant will become ineligible for HAP in the future. Those are practical issues about rent assistance that could be dealt with under section 38 of the proposed legislation.