Thursday, 21 May 2020
Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements
Alan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
Our thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives in the last week and with all of the workers out there who are doing such a fantastic job. This week I want to raise three issues with the Taoiseach. The first is workers and the consistency of public health advice. The second is how we are going to open up our health services, particularly cancer screening and services for people with disabilities. The third issue is how this crisis is disproportionately affecting many women.
This week, as a result of the appearance of critical health officials at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, we quite coincidentally had new public health advice offered to the Houses of the Oireachtas, following a request from the Department of Health. I wonder why the Department of Health, at this juncture, asked for that. In summary, the advice said that members or witnesses should only be present for a cumulative period of two hours in any 24 hours. If this is surpassed and if anyone present during any of that time displays symptoms of Covid then everyone else would have to self-isolate for 14 days as they would be considered close contacts. In effect, we now have to create a working environment in here - I have my stopwatch on because I am due back in here later on and that is not a joke - that prevents the possibility of this happening. Hence, the Minister for Health will not appear twice today but this cannot just apply to him; it has to apply to every other person who is working.
We were aware of the two-hour rule but not the cumulative range. All of a sudden, this advice was proffered on Monday evening and was news to many of us. Was it news to the Taoiseach? I have had many meetings with the Taoiseach, virtually and in person, over the last nine weeks. I knew about the two-hour rule, which the Taoiseach often referenced but I do not think that, up until recently, he was even aware of this cumulative two in 24-hour rule. The advice has been supported since by the CMO and the director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, albeit conditionally. They said it was not hard and fast and that risk assessments must be made but I do not think this washes with most people and I do not think it is actually realistic.
In plain language, it is absolutely bonkers that this advice, which may have existed, was only socialised to everyone on Monday evening and made public on Tuesday. I can see the Ceann Comhairle smiling at me because it is absolutely true. It is bonkers that such advice is issued this far into the crisis because this changes everything. Why did NPHET not make this clear before now? I would like to know when the Taoiseach, the Government and Ministers were made aware of it. I was not aware of it. I broke those conditions in here last week. I was in here for questions to the Taoiseach and to the Minister for Health. I was here for well over two hours. The ramifications and knock-on effects for Irish society and businesses are extraordinary. Amazingly, this advice came within 24 hours of the CMO saying that the virus transmission had been "extinguished in the community". This does not make sense. If this is the public health advice, so be it but I genuinely do not believe many, if any, people in here were aware of it. If the Members who are elected to represent the public of this country were not aware of it, how could workers, employers and organisations be aware of it? How are they all meant to operate within this advice? How are they professionally meant to carry out individual risk assessments across all locations? How can any factory, shop, pharmacy or office operate in such an environment? This changes everything. It is obvious that many workers are working in environments where these conditions do not exist, some of whom are not too far from here. We cannot stand over a two-tier society where all of us in here and in the Courts Service operate under one set of public health guidelines and everyone else out there operates under something completely different. We need to treat everyone the same, be it those who are looking after our healthcare, providing food, keeping us safe, working in factories, gardaí etc. What has happened sounds like something from George Orwell, that some are more equal than others.
I do not even want to think what impact this development is potentially going to have on insurance premiums.
There are three choices for the Taoiseach. Either the Government can publish comprehensive and consistent guidelines through NPHET, sector by sector, in the next 24 hours on how shops, factories, Garda stations and everything else can operate under these guidelines, or it accepts this will not be possible in many settings and it will not be viable, if it was done, because many businesses would not be able to operate. In essence, we would accept, as a Legislature and as a Government, that some people's lives have to be put at risk, so I do not think that is an option. The third option is that we, the Government and NPHET work this back - this is not advice from the WHO, I understand - and change it to something that is more realistic, proportionate and implementable.
Everyone here is working hard. The Government has done a fine job, NPHET has done a fine job, the HSE has done a fine job and we are all doing our best, but this is something that needs to be dealt with and dealt with now. While I am at it, going forward, we need to ensure we have one linear voice in regard to public health advice and that comes from NPHET through the Government. To have others giving advice and that being used creates confusion all over the place and it cannot continue.
I say in jest that if the Taoiseach does not change what has transpired, I am not sure how long more Government formation talks are going to take, but they will possibly take another 100 days because the parties will not be able to meet for a considerable period.
There are two other issues. We are reopening the economy and we have a road map but we need a published road map in regard to health care. For three weeks in a row, I have raised the issue of non-Covid preventable deaths. I want to relate two issues, the first of which is cancer screening. We know cancer screening saves lives and 11,000 people a month get screened. I have heard commentary from the deputy chief medical officer that that is not going to happen in the near future. That is not acceptable and I also do not think, by the way, that it is his role, because under the law - the Health Act 2004 - it is actually a role for the HSE. This needs a plan or, otherwise, lives are going to be lost. We already know some of the potential statistics. It needs to be brought in soon.
The second issue is in regard to people with intellectual disabilities, and I am glad this issue was raised previously. I have received much correspondence and it is an area in which I take a lot of interest. I have received correspondence from the family of Philip, who basically outline how much he has regressed in the recent weeks. We need a plan. We cannot let down this sector of society. We need a plan soon in regard to people with intellectual disabilities, who are regressing. They do not have day services, they do not have outreach and they do not have social interaction outside their own house. It cannot continue, so I beg for this to be brought forward.
With regard to the impact the Covid emergency has had on women, the Central Statistics Office survey was quite welcome but was also quite worrying in regard to many of the statistics, which I do not have time to quote. However, the Taoiseach relays that on top of other issues, for example, on top of the issue relating to maternity leave, which should be solvable pretty quickly, and on top of the issue relating to how nurses in many areas of the country have not yet received their back pay, and the majority of them are women. The Taoiseach also layers on top of that the way in which the childcare situation for healthcare workers, a large majority of whom are women, particularly in nursing, has not been dealt with. On top of that, he layers the nervousness that everyone has that the full childcare solution that is meant to start rolling out in June is not going to happen. Although it may be unintended, it is real, and the Taoiseach can see why many women feel they are proportionately, in some way, being treated differently during this crisis.
The Government and Legislature need to deal with this collectively. I ask that over the next 24 hours somebody in government answer the question my colleague, Deputy Seán Sherlock, asked yesterday. I was in meeting with the Taoiseach eight or nine weeks ago and the Minister for Health had under his arm a proposal on healthcare workers and childcare. I believe this is the solution being pushed forward now, nine weeks later. We need a cast-iron guarantee that childcare will be opened up and in place in early June. Many families need to know that will be the case. I ask the Taoiseach to answer that question directly please.