Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements


12:25 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)

Over nearly three months now more than 2,000 people have lost their lives on this island as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our first thoughts today must be with their friends and loved ones as well as those who are still fighting the virus.

It is almost too terrible to contemplate what would have happened if we, as a society, had ignored the threat and carried on as normal. There is no question that our hospitals would have been overwhelmed and that many people who have successfully recovered from or avoided the virus would have been added to the terrible death toll.

I want to acknowledge the work of those who have sustained not only our health system but the many critical professions which have sustained our country through this terrible time. The wider community started restricting its activities from before the formal public lockdown was implemented and the community spread of the virus has been controlled.

The impact of clusters remains a major concern. When we return to look for lessons to be learned from this crisis, there is no doubt that the situation in nursing homes and the spread of the virus in health settings will be a focus. So too will be the situation in meat plants, which has grown significantly during the past while. I hope today we will hear more details about what measures are to be taken to identify and act on clusters earlier and around the issue of self-isolation for some of the workers involved, as well as more prompt responses for those who have tested positive. This should be done in a constructive and assistive way to help families of people in that situation.

The process of unwinding restrictions is under way and we need a robust debate about how this should be carried forward. The science remains clear but the policies which are possible, while respecting the science, are very much open to debate. There is not only one possible way forward and the range of expertise that should be included in discussions is wide indeed. The strongest responses to emergencies are always those that allow multiple voices to be heard and those which accept constructive challenges. I genuinely believe at this stage that we need a multidisciplinary input in terms of the reopening of society and the economy. We need to look again at moving faster and restoring the effective functioning of the Dáil. I note the reports this morning where the deputy chief medical officer emphasised that there is no clear prohibition on meetings that last longer than two hours. We should look elsewhere in Europe for examples of parliaments that have successfully restarted their work. We do not need a return to full normal business or the general partisan back and forth that defines too much of what we do, but we do need to be able to review major policies. We have seen from the excellent work of individual journalists how the response has been strengthened by a willingness to ask hard questions and point to weaknesses.

There is far more we could and should be doing here. Deputy McNamara's committee, or the committee that he chairs, is already doing important work in teasing out specific issues. Next week we are due to debate and vote on a major spending proposal. At present there has been no consultation with the majority of the Dáil on the details of that proposal. It will not be acceptable to simply present it as a closed proposal. Consultation is not defined by briefing the media before briefing Deputies. It is an important measure and there is no doubt that the majority here will be fully constructive and helpful. Let us ensure that we prepare for next week and any legislation we may need to review in the weeks afterwards in this inclusive spirit.

In discussing the unwinding of restrictions we should start by acknowledging that all of the evidence is that the overwhelming majority of people have been responsible and will continue to be responsible. Department of Health research published in recent days indicates that 85% said they would be willing to wear a facial covering in some situations if it was recommended.

Only a tiny minority oppose restrictions relating to social distancing and other measures to control the potential spread of infection.

As we move forward we do not have to fear complacency but rather we must have clarity in what is proposed and ensure measures make sense and are credible. As with so many matters, it is uncertainty and inconsistency that causes trouble. The division between shops that are allowed to open and those which must remain closed simply makes no sense, and in some cases this is damaging the credibility of the overall restrictions. The distinction between hardware stores and homeware stores is foolish and there is now no doubt whatever that stores that were allowed to open are actively trying to fill the gaps created by keeping other types of closed stores. From a competition perspective, there is clear unfairness in that.

I understand the public health concern is to avoid encouraging the mass movement of people, which is reasonable. However, the evidence increasingly implies that the restrictions are simply concentrating movement into a limited number of locations, which is exactly the opposite of what we should want. The 5 km limit is making it harder to sustain social distancing in areas with a higher population density and it does not appear to be part of restrictions used by other countries in a similar stage in their response efforts. I do not play golf but if we are saying a person can play golf but not if the course is 6 km away, it becomes an example of guidelines that need to be refined or have more nuance. I say this in a helpful way.

As my party have said for some time, we must significantly expand the range of expertise and opportunities considered when deciding specific elements of the reopening strategy. As a broad principle, an inclusive consultation should be established for every area and we should let the professions and businesses involved have the opportunity to propose solutions that may not have occurred to officials but which would work in practice. I know the Taoiseach has stated it is more difficult to reopen than close, and I get that, but it is why we should have multidisciplinary expertise to assist the Government and its work in that regard.

With the reopening of schools we must avoid the scenario that came about with the leaving certificate, where a closed, internal process led to unreasonable expectations and uncertainty. Central to discussions must be an acknowledgement that the closure of schools is not hitting all groups equally. I believe passionately that we must educate children in our schools and find the wherewithal to do that. Many pupils do not have the facilities or equipment to learn properly away from schools. The proven interventions relating to educational disadvantage that have been implemented over the past 20 years overwhelmingly rely on the teacher-pupil interaction. We must acknowledge this and take action to help them to limit time lost and make up for it. This is particularly true for children in disadvantaged settings and DEIS schools.

The economic impact of the crisis has been unprecedented and the reality is nobody really knows the scale of the impact or exactly what we should do to get through and rebuild from the crisis. However, we know certain sectors that are at a greater risk than others and our core principle must be to ensure we do not permanently lose business and jobs. The wage subsidy scheme is effective but it is clearly not a long-term response. Evidence is emerging of an enormous threat to the future of smaller Irish-owned firms and early-stage firms. They continue to face a cash flow crisis that threatens their very existence, and in many cases they face having to take on debt that may undermine their viability.

The core economic principle in this crisis has been to try to see the debt incurred during the response as separate from normal debt. The normal benchmarks have, in effect, been moved because of an acceptance that this debt does not define the structural soundness of overall finances. This is why, for countries, different rules can and should apply in contrast to those relevant for normal economic cycles. However, for firms and small firms in particular, the evidence is that the normal rules are applying. We must find a way of making available to these a combination of grants and long-term lower or, preferably, no-interest financing. The small business sector feels the measures to date have not been on the money for its members, if Deputies excuse the pun. The overwhelming feedback we are getting from the small and medium enterprise, SME, sector is that there has been no response to the core crisis they are facing, and this is particularly true of the domestic non-exporting SME sector, along with the firms that are exporting.

Our public sector must be treated fairly too. We cannot allow public companies and places like third level institutions and universities to be undermined by carrying massive new debt and being forced into major cutbacks. We must have a public sector bailout that is comprehensive and fair. The normal rules of bringing in senior executives and telling them to sort this out must be stopped. The third level sector, including universities, are in trouble as revenues are depleting.

Along with that, there has been an urgent investment in technology to ensure they are ready for the autumn. There is a real crisis there. I hope that we will be told today what financial measures are to be proposed to help the wider public sector, including universities, institutes of technology and public companies.

Tá an earnáil tríú leibhéal faoi bhrú uafásach. Níl daltaí ag teacht ó thar lear. Tá na hollscoileanna ag cailleadh na milliún. Ag an mbabhta seo, níl sé soiléir an bhfuil aon tacaíocht ag teacht ón Stát nó ón Rialtas. Tá an tríú leibhéal riachtanach d'athbheochan eacnamaíochta na tíre. Caithfimid infheistíocht a chur ar fáil dó. Tá drochthionchar iomlán ag an gcoróinvíreas ar an aos óg. Caithfimid ár ndícheall a dhéanamh a gcuid oideachais a choimeád slán agus deiseanna d'ardchaighdeán ó thaobh oideachas tríú leibhéal a sholáthar dóibh. B'fhéidir go gcaithfimid níos mó áiteanna a chur ar fáil don bhliain acadúil nua a thosaíonn san fhómhar.

Though our focus today is on domestic matters, we should acknowledge the positive development of the Franco-German agreement to support limited debt sharing and direct aid for EU member states. The agreement does not guarantee that it will happen, but it is a positive step and our Government's recent conversion to supporting this policy is welcome.

Populists in Ireland and throughout Europe love to talk about a conspiracy of the elites against the people and refuse to acknowledge the many benefits that all sections of society gain from shared standards, open access to markets and generous supports for areas like training, public transport, community development and sustainability. Fianna Fáil's position has for some time been that Europe is under attack for failing to take measures that it has neither the funding nor power to implement. The development of a new way of directly aiding countries and regions in trouble is essential, and this new display of solidarity identified by the Merkel-Macron announcement is a hopeful sign of a new direction across Europe.


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