Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements

 

12:00 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)

Déanaimid comhbhrón leis na teaghlaigh a fuair a ndaoine muinteartha bás ar an oileán de thoradh Covid-19. Táim ag smaoineamh ar na daoine atá ag fulaingt ón víreas, chomh maith leo siúd atá ag troid i gcoinne an víris gach lá. Bhuail an ghéarchéim ár dtír go trom. De réir mar a n-osclóimid ár dtír agus ár ngeilleagar á thógáil againn, tá deis againn ár sochaí a athmhúnlú sa chaoi go mbainfidh ár saoránaigh buntáistí as, chomh maith leis na glúine a tiocfaidh inár ndiaidh.

Once again, our thoughts are with the families of loved ones who have lost their lives to Covid-19. As of last night, 1,571 people had died in our State and 494 more had died in Northern Ireland.

In total, 24,315 people in the Republic of Ireland have been diagnosed with Covid-19. Some 87% have now made a full recovery and others are well on the way.

This week, we have seen the lowest number of daily deaths and cases, and the lowest numbers of people in our intensive care units since March. While we continue to mourn those who have died, we will never get used to the daily loss of life. We take some comfort from the fact that the trend is going in the right direction. Transmission in the community has been effectively suppressed, which was the strategy from the beginning, and we are now working to suppress it in other settings and clusters.

On Monday, we began the reopening of our country with phase 1 of the relaxation of restrictions. So far, it is going well. Many people are back to work, more shops are open, and friends and family within 5 km are able to meet outdoors again. There has been broad compliance with the five rules and the four steps so I want to say thank you to the Irish people. We have shown our capacity to reorganise our lives to protect the welfare of all, and it is a remarkable demonstration of solidarity and care for each other.

We need to stay vigilant, however. We really will not know until the first week of June whether the easing of the restrictions has increased the reproduction number, or to what extent. The Cabinet will make a decision on the next steps on Friday, 5 June on foot of advice from NPHET. I am aware that some other countries are opening faster but every country’s circumstances are different. We stand over the slow and steady approach. If things go well, it can be accelerated but we simply cannot make that call at the moment.

As of midnight, 18 May, 295,626 tests have been carried out. We will exceed 300,000 today or tomorrow. Over the past week, almost 37,000 tests were carried out, and 932 of these were positive, giving a positivity rate of 2.5%, a decrease on last week but still a little too high. Testing has been ramped up to meet the scale of this crisis, and this week the HSE reached its target of having the capacity to test 15,000 people every day, with capacity of up to 100,000 per week. As the Chief Medical Officer said on Tuesday, we need to be fluid. We have more than sufficient capacity right now but that might change, and we have to keep alert to changing circumstances. We have agreed a strategy that is on target to deliver this week an average turnaround time from swab to result of between one and three days in the vast majority of instances.

There has been a remarkable scale-up in contact tracing by the HSE, as was reported to the Special Committee on Covid-19 on Tuesday. The HSE says the median turnaround time for giving someone a positive result and commencing contact tracing is now just over one day and is improving all the time. Therefore, I extend my thanks and the thanks of the Government and this House to all involved in testing and contact tracing. The work they do is essential. It is life-saving and it is enabling us to reopen our country and economy. Thank you very much.

Work has already begun on preparedness for a possible second wave in late autumn or winter, coinciding with the regular flu season. On Monday, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, announced the decision to make the flu vaccine available free of charge to all children aged between two and 12 this year and to all those defined as at risk aged between six months and 69 years. As we know, everyone over 70 already has access to the vaccine without charge. I believe we can save hundreds of lives this winter and every winter by having a much greater uptake of the flu vaccine. This matters now more than ever as we need to avoid a second wave of Covid-19 coming at the same time as the flu season. It is particularly important that the uptake by healthcare workers be much greater than in the past. This pandemic teaches us that there is no excuse not to be vaccinated. We have experienced a small taste of what the world was like before vaccines, and it has not been good.

We are also examining ways to retain some of the additional critical care and bed capacity that we have gained in recent weeks. The Department of Health has established an independent expert panel to make recommendations ensuring a protective Covid-19 response in our nursing homes is planned for the longer term given that we may be living alongside this virus for quite some time. We need to know how we can better shield nursing homes in the second wave, if that is at all possible.

Everyone in this House understands that coronavirus has dealt a severe shock to our economy. This has deep social consequences as well, including record-breaking levels of unemployment and lower living standards for many. Some long-term sequelae are also now becoming apparent. For example, due to social distancing, the cost of providing public services and infrastructure projects may rise. It might cost us more to do less. Many parts of our economy might never look quite the same again, sometimes for the better but also for the worse. The recovery will therefore not be easy. As this will be a global recession, an export-led recovery driven by agrifood, tourism and multinationals such as we experienced ten years ago is unlikely. Brexit will further complicate matters. As I said a few months ago, Brexit is not over; it is only at half-time, or, perhaps more accurately, half-time has just ended.

On the upside, we have not been shut out of the money markets as we were 12 years ago, and at least in part due to the policies of the outgoing Government and that which preceded it, we retain the confidence of the European institutions and capital markets. In short, this time we can afford to borrow to reflate our economy at low interest rates and with little conditionality. We are doing that and should continue to do it. I think we all agree that substantial borrowing by the State will be necessary to cushion the blow to our economy and society. We will have a very substantial budget deficit this year and a deficit in the Exchequer borrowing requirement for several years to come, leading to increased national debt. We will use this borrowed money to: first, provide income supports for those who have lost their jobs; second, get businesses open again; third, provide retraining and educational opportunities for our fellow citizens who are now without employment; and, fourth, stimulate economic activity through investment in public housing, healthcare, childcare, transport, regional development, renewable energy and retrofitting, as well as the intelligent use of tax policies to stimulate economic activity. We should continue to borrow until the economy returns to sustained growth. From then on we should seek to reduce borrowing and our deficit and achieve a broadly balanced budget again within a few years. We do not need to be the best boys in the fiscal class but we should seek to run deficits similar to those of our peers in northern Europe, not much larger ones. This is a sensible and sustainable thing to do, it is what the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, is doing, and I totally endorse that approach.

Having said all that, I am concerned that there is a growing belief that we can borrow cheaply forever and that this is the solution to all our problems. This is the "free money" argument and it is coming from the right as well as the left. There is, however, no such thing as free money. Borrowed money, debt, has to be serviced, that is, the interest on it must be paid every year. This will be a new and recurring charge on our public finances and it will have to paid. Debt also has to be refinanced or rolled over when it matures. Some will say this does not matter because it is a problem for someone else in ten, 20 or 30 years' time. I do not agree with that attitude. That someone will be us or, if not us, our successors, children and grandchildren. Furthermore, we should not make the mistake of assuming that being able to borrow cheaply now means we will be able to do so in six months or a year. The world has changed so much in the past six months, and we would be naive to think it could not change again, and quickly. If conditions do change, the countries with the biggest deficits and the largest debts will be the first to feel the ill wind, and we need to ensure that that will not be us because the consequences for our society would be grave.

Even if this never happens, we need to be honest with the public about the consequences of prolonged low interest rates and increased money supply. Yes, there are lots of upsides, such as cheaper mortgages and business loans, but there are many downsides too. Prolonged low interest rates hit savers, mainly older people, and investment in financial assets such as pensions and enterprise is discouraged in favour of physical assets such as land and property. We know this already in Ireland in light of the poor performance of pension funds in recent years while investors piled cash into development land and apartments, thus driving the cost of housing upwards and exacerbating both the housing crisis and the pensions time bomb. Prolonged and excessive increases in money supply can also lead to inflation. We have not seen high inflation for a very long time but that does not mean we will not see it again. We are way overdue it in many ways.

Inflation devalues the spending power of people on fixed incomes - people who do not have the liberty to increase their fees or raise their prices - namely, people on welfare, pensioners and workers. Some have suggested consols issuing perpetual bonds. That should not be ruled out but it is clear that this option would involve having to pay a much higher interest rate on such debt than on ten or 20-year money. This is a fact that we cannot escape from.

There are no easy answers, no risk-free or perfect solutions, no policies or strategies that will produce only winners. The next Government, whenever it takes office, will have to sail the ship of state through the hardest of rocks and the toughest of hard places. It can be done but it will not be easy and at all times we need to be honest with the public, offering frank answers, not easy ones, and real solutions, not fake ones. As always, I look forward to hearing the comments, observations and questions of Members.

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