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
Richard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
I intend to share time with Deputy Mick Barry, with nine minutes and six minutes, respectively.
With the Covid-19 virus we are facing a truly unprecedented and, quite honestly, frightening public health emergency that threatens our society and the health and well-being of vast numbers of people, especially our elderly and vulnerable citizens. We have to do absolutely everything to fight the virus - throw every resource available to us at fighting it - and protect those who could fall or suffer from its advance. Critical to this, as many have said, is that we support our health workers and the health service. They are on the frontline fighting this. They are heroic people who are risking their health to protect us and those who may fall victim to the virus. In particular, in this regard, the student nurses who are going to be asked to assist in this effort should be paid and not asked to do the work for nothing. I also want to pay tribute to the other essential workers in retail and other key public services who will help our society sustain itself through the trauma and crisis we are facing in the coming weeks and months.
It is critical that in responding to this crisis we are led by public health advice and science and not by anyone playing politics with the lives of people and the crisis that faces us.
We see the dangers of that happening in the North and in the UK, where politics have trumped science and public health considerations in a quite shameful way with the behaviour of Boris Johnson and some of those in the Northern political authorities. It is critically important that we continue to put maximum pressure on the Northern authorities to have an all-Ireland, consistent approach to addressing a crisis which affects all of this island and which, as we are all aware, knows no borders. It is also critical that we protect and support the incomes of people who are going to be affected, as many tens of thousands already have been. More will be affected as this crisis unfolds and people lose their jobs or are forced to stay at home or self-isolate. We need to put the maximum resources into protecting our citizens, who have already demonstrated incredible willingness to be part of the collective effort of fighting this virus and adopting the protocols of social distancing and avoiding unnecessary gatherings and interactions. Of course, it needs to be repeated again and again that the absolute key to defeating this virus is what we do in the next few weeks in terms of practising those social distancing protocols and avoiding unnecessary interactions. The more people avoid interactions, the less possibility there is for the transmission of the virus, in turn reducing the possibility that our health services will be unable to cope and will be overrun as virus transmission surges. One only has to look at the frightening scenes in Italy at the moment to see what we could face if we do not get this right in the next few weeks.
However, as well as the collective effort of all of society and the willingness that people have already shown, it is important to say that we have a responsibility to put every bit as much resources and energy into protecting our people and resourcing our health service as we showed willing to do to protect and bail out banks back in 2008. We need to show at least as much and indeed more willingness to provide those resources to our citizens, health workers and key front-line services in order to sustain us through this crisis. That leads me into some of the amendments that we have proposed. I welcome the various payments and income supports that the Government is proposing in this Bill but I do think they need to go further. We have tabled amendments in that regard. The €305 payment should be available to everybody who is losing income or employment as a result of this crisis, not just those who are diagnosed or who are advised to self-isolate. The truth is that a bar worker who is instructed to go home or a worker who decides it is not safe to go to work because he or she might act as an agent to transmit the virus is doing as much as anybody to prevent the transmission of the virus. They are all acting on public health advice and therefore they should all be treated equally in terms of the income support. I do not see the case for two tiers of income support. The €305 payment should be available to everybody. By the way, some workers are still being forced to go into non-essential workplaces where they cannot practice social distancing. Those workers should have the right to say they are not going to work but are going to stay at home. They should have the income supports provided to them if they make the responsible decision to do that.
The other series of amendments we put in provide that if the people are being asked to make big sacrifices, then it is also important that industry and big business do the same. I refer to all private healthcare capacity and all privately held industrial capacity or buildings that could assist in preventing the transmission or spread of the virus or in helping to treat those who fall victim to this crisis.
I refer to the companies that produce medical equipment, of which we produce a large volume, ventilators, personal protective equipment and laboratory capacity. All of that should be put under the direction and control of the public health authorities. There should be no question of two tiers of healthcare in the face of this unprecedented health crisis. We have a series of amendments in that regard. To outline the importance of this, Mr. Paul Reed of the HSE told us yesterday that personal protective masks, which our health workers need, cost 37 cent each before this crisis. The cost is now €11 per mask on the open market. That sort of profiteering is unacceptable. In this situation, more than ever, people must come before profit. All the capacity to produce that equipment and to do anything we require to respond to this crisis should be put under the control of the public health authorities. There should be no question of anybody being allowed to profiteer from it.
We must ensure that people are not suffering pressures due to rent, mortgage repayments or utility bills. We have tabled amendments calling for an amnesty on all those payments for the duration of the crisis.
We must give power to our public health system to respond to this crisis. Therefore, we support this legislation. However, it contains some very draconian powers. There must be checks on that. It should not be the case that if these powers are to be extended after 9 May that it can be done by simply laying an order before the Dáil. The Oireachtas must vote on any decision to extend these draconian powers. In addition, the medical health officers who will exercise these powers must be clearly defined as medical specialists.