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
If the State was not faced with the threat it now faces from the Covid-19 virus, we might well be sitting in this Chamber arguing about how to commemorate the War of Independence. Let this time be our answer. Let how we treat the vulnerable and most at risk in our society be a tribute to those who believed we needed an Irish state and that this Irish state would protect its citizens and everybody who lived here, and would do so regardless of their wealth or their ability to pay for it.
I commend the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and the Cabinet on how they have dealt with this crisis to date. They and the Government have my support and they will also have my support for this extraordinary legislation. However, I have four proposals to make on how it could be improved. The first proposal, which I make with Deputy Marian Harkin, is in regard to how the extraordinary provisions affecting liberty, freedom of association and assembly, and civil liberties can be extended beyond 9 May. We believe only the Houses of the Oireachtas should be able to extend these very restrictive provisions. We are confident the Houses of the Oireachtas will be able to be convened to do so, and we have made a suggested amendment in that regard. In the event that the Seanad or even the Dáil cannot be convened, we have also made a proposal for that eventuality.
We firmly believe it will not come to that. Above all, we must remain a democratic state, where crucial decisions affecting rights are made only by the elected representatives of the people. Therefore, I welcome the commitment of the Minister, Deputy Harris, to accept proposals on the so-called sunset clause. If people are to be detained against their wishes to protect public health, we propose that it must not only be appropriate, as provided for in the legislation, but it must be determined to be necessary.
This is very important in order that Ireland complies with its commitments in regard to international human rights and those contained in our Constitution.
I endorse Deputy Catherine Connolly's points about the extraordinary, wide ranging and insufficiently defined powers contained in this Bill. Deputies Fitzmaurice and Harkin and I have proposed that the Minister for Finance be empowered to postpone for a period of three months the payment of any mortgage, loan, rent, local authority rates or other debt payable in the State. At this time of crisis people's lives are in jeopardy, but so too are their livelihoods and their ability to earn a livelihood once the threat to life has subsided. These are people who have done the responsible thing. They are hairdressers, publicans, restaurateurs and taxi drivers. The small businesses and self-employed across the State will not be able to pay rent, rates and taxes or to repay mortgages or loans at this time and they should not be expected to. This is not the time for fumbling in a greasy till. This is a time to pull together as a nation. I urge that the Minister for Finance is given the powers to ensure this happens. Deputy Fitzmaurice specifically requests that I raise the issue of insurance policies being voided, and FBD in particular refusing to pay out on insurance policies, where pubs have been closed.
We also propose that the Minister for Health is empowered to seize any medicines, goods or equipment in the State that he deems necessary in order to provide care and treatment to persons infected with Covid-19, with fair compensation to be paid once the crisis has passed.
I saw a headline today that said some 24,000 people have answered Ireland's call and are coming back to work in our health service. The State must do everything so that each and every person who works in our health service receives every possible protection in this regard, including protective equipment. I am aware that the Minister for Health is working hard to ensure this is imported into the State. If this requires the Minister being able to seize equipment then so be it.
I commend the Minister for Health on his efforts to boost numbers in our health service, including from among retirees and those who had gone overseas. I suggest that the Government also looks to those who are claiming asylum in the State and who currently cannot work. We need to check to see if there are doctors, nurses or other qualified medical personnel among them whose skills could be put to use at this time of extraordinary need. I also urge the Minister for Health to look to the 37 university-qualified paramedics currently on the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council's register who are ready, willing and able to take up work with our ambulance service but who are currently prevented from doing so by needless bureaucracy. This is not a time for such bureaucracy. This is a time to get all hands on deck.
The Government needs to think carefully about what a so-called full shutdown would entail. People, including those specifically confined to their homes, will need to be able to access food and groceries, and this needs to be ensured. I also suggest that garden centres need to stay open. This might seem an unusual proposal but as Deputy Eamon Ryan has said, now is a good time to plant. Fresh food is, and will remain, essential. Farmers need to be able to access their farms. People who work in the grocery sector need to be treated as essential staff.
This crisis has clearly demonstrated the need for reliable and verified media. There is a plethora of media out there and there has been the talk of the breakdown of traditional media. We can see what this entails when there is so much misinformation out there. We need to recognise the pressures that media come under, especially the broadcast media and local media, as advertising revenues dwindle. We need to make sure those media are protected because they are essential to the efforts required to deal with this crisis.
I urge the Tánaiste to lead as he has done to date. Now is not a time for bickering. There are weaknesses in the Bill that need to be addressed and I believe they will be addressed.
We need to move forward together to ensure we overcome this, and we will.