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
Simon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
I thank everybody for their contributions. We are living through times that people will be writing about in the distant future as moments of challenge, change, trauma and tragedy in Ireland. As the Taoiseach said earlier this week, we are in the preparation phase, in many ways. While the virus is spreading relatively slowly today, that will pick up pace and pose enormous challenges for society, families and businesses. We need to prepare for those challenges as best we can. The institutions of the State and the people who are elected to represent citizens will do everything to make sure that we manage as best we can the challenge of supporting people through a difficult period. This period will pass but will scar Irish society in a way that we are trying to limit as best we can.
As the Taoiseach has said, we cannot stop the virus but we can slow it down. We can ensure, if it is slowed down sufficiently, that our health services can manage to the furthest extent possible to provide the required supports, particularly to vulnerable communities, including elderly people, those with disabilities and weak immune systems and others in similar categories.
What we are doing today is not normal. We are asking people to facilitate the passage of legislation that is not getting the scrutiny it normally would, in a Chamber that does not have the number of Deputies that it normally would. We are asking Members to do this because it is necessary. We will try to take on board amendments, or the spirit in which they are proposed, as appropriate. I suspect we will be bringing forward legislation next week to deal with a number of other things that I know many in this House want us to deal with, and with which we want to deal, but are not in the Bill before us today.
I heard what people said about the multiple responses that are needed, including to support local radio stations in providing accurate information in the months ahead when their revenue streams may dry up. We will also reach out to vulnerable communities, including those in direct provision centres, students and people who are in the country without permits and may not have access to supports to which they would be entitled if they were Irish citizens. People are people, and they need shelter and support during these difficult and worrying times.
I know that a lot of people have concerns about renters. Tens of thousands of people have lost employment in recent days and will suffer considerable drops in their incomes. Many of those people were struggling to pay the rent when they were in jobs and on full salaries. They will find it impossible to pay the rent from social welfare payments, which are about trying to support a basic level of income. We will legislate to ensure that there will be no evictions during this period and that renters are protected so that they can focus on what they should be focusing on, which is their health and that of their families, through the next number of months. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, will consult with other parties to try and get this right for next week. I hope other Members will give the Government the space and support to do that.
Deputy Connolly and others raised issues around civil liberties. I get those concerns, as does the Government. There are, however, times when temporary measures need to be introduced to respond to something that has come out of left of field. Sixteen or 18 weeks ago, none of us had heard of Covid-19 and we are now preparing for it to sweep through our population.
We need to ensure the Government - supported by this House, I hope - can take the actions necessary to save people's lives. The decisions we make, the leadership we give and the certainty we give in terms of people protecting themselves will be the difference between whether this virus kills hundreds of people, thousands of people or tens of thousands of people in Ireland. It is as simple as that. That is why we are asking people to work with us.
We will provide as much transparency as we possibly can in terms of the decision-making going on within Government right now. However, Members need to understand that each individual Department is working night and day to protect their sectors and co-ordinate with other Departments on how we protect society generally. The HSE is doing the same. While everyone is working and we are trying to co-ordinate the work centrally in the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Health, Members need to understand that communications can be a challenge because of the pace of change and the response. That is not an attempt by Government to try to hide anything from anyone - believe me. In fact, we are trying to do quite the opposite, because if we are going to maintain trust between people and their Government and the Oireachtas generally through this process, we need to be as open and as truthful as possible even if the news is not good - and we will be.
We will talk about the detail as we go through Committee and Report Stages. I call for the support of the House for a 40-minute sos at this stage to allow the House space to manage the amendments. There are 86 amendments. Many of the Members present have not seen the groupings of the amendments yet because I understand they became available only in the past ten minutes. I have not seen them either. We could take a sos for 40 minutes to give the spokespeople and parties time to study the groupings. Then, we could come back to the Chamber and move through Committee and Report Stages in an efficient manner.