Thursday, 21 May 2020
Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements
Róisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
I want to make brief reference to the health advice we received late on Monday evening with regard to the Covid-19 committee. It came out of nowhere and I still cannot figure out who took the decision to request it or go to that particular source. It has certainly caused major problems for the operation of the committee, the House and, we now know, the Courts Service, and goodness knows how many other workplaces. It has the potential to cause chaos because its implications are so severe. It is important that today, as leader of the country, the Taoiseach makes a clear and categorical statement on the status of this advice and what the advice is generally, not only for the operation of this House but for many different settings. How can we possibly operate if this is the prevailing health advice?
It is very important that we operate on the basis of official health advice from the WHO and that the Taoiseach checks out what is happening in other parliaments. I am not aware of any other parliament that is acting in this way, with members forced to behave like Jack in the boxes, jumping up and down and in and out. If nothing else, we should think forward about how to operate on the basis of this advice. For example, we have been speaking about the need to go down to the convention centre to legislate. Would the two-hour limit apply there? How could we possibly get legislation through the Oireachtas if we cannot spend more than two hours together in any one day? It make things completely unworkable and the Taoiseach needs to provide clarification about it today.
I want to concentrate on decision-making on the lifting of restrictions. It has been said that it is a much more complex task to lift restrictions and open up the country than it was to close it down, which happened very quickly, and rightly so. It is more than a week since I put it to the Taoiseach that he needed an expert multidisciplinary task force to plan and manage the reopening. At that time, the Taoiseach said the Cabinet sub-committee was the task force and I challenged him on that. I put it to him that however competent a group of Ministers is, it does not possess the expertise and skills to plan and manage the very complex task of reopening the country. Issues that need to be looked at are the health advice, which must be the priority advice, and skills with regard to risk assessment and risk management, logistics, human resources and the various sectors being considered for opening up. My understanding is there is no body in which those skills exist.
We do not know the basis for the very big decisions being taken. They are life changing. They impact people's lives, livelihoods and futures, their psychological and physical health and many other aspects of their existence. Because the Government does not provide a rationale for these decisions, it is hard to keep people with it.
It is hard for the public to understand why the Government is saying certain sectors can open and others cannot.
For example, looking at what would appear to be some illogical decisions that have been taken, why is it that the construction industry and big construction sites can open up? It does not make sense and people who understand how the construction industry works would say this is high-risk stuff. We also heard the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, yesterday referring to the fact that the construction industry had pushed and pushed to get an early opening. Is that how decisions are taken? Is it the case that powerful lobby groups have access to Ministers? Is that what it is about? How is it decided? Another powerful interest group is the horse racing industry. I gather that it has been successful in its lobbying to get horse racing opening sooner than had been planned. We now see a clamour from vintners looking for pubs and bars to be opened earlier. What is the basis on which decisions are being taken? I raised this with the Chief Medical Officer the other day. We had a discussion about risk assessment. Obviously, the health expertise is in the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. They have access to a certain amount of mathematical expertise also. However, the CMO made it very clear that the decisions on particular sectors are taken by the sectoral groups, Government Departments.
I put it to the Taoiseach that he needs to be much more forthcoming and transparent about the basis on which decisions are taken. I referred the other day to what happened in Denmark in terms of reopening the schools, where a complete risk assessment was carried out of the impact of opening schools and the impact on the R-nought number, for example. It was estimated that it would go up slightly initially but would come back down. Everybody understood that and teachers, teachers' unions, education authorities, health authorities and everyone understood what they were embarking upon. They were all signed up to it and it appears to have worked well. There is none of that kind of transparency here around the Taoiseach's decision-making. It is really important that he is much more open and that he explains the basis on which decisions are taken rather than there being the suspicion that they may be a result of political pressure.
The Taoiseach also referred to the schools. I am very familiar with what is happening with schools in the UK, which continued to open. They catered for the children of front-line workers, health workers in particular but also supermarket workers. They catered for children where there were welfare concerns and for children with special needs. The numbers that actually came in were quite small but services were provided for them. They were provided by a mixture of teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and childcare workers. In the main, that has served very well. Why was that approach not taken here and why can we not do it at this point? Certainly there are going to be a lot of problems relating to children with special needs, children at risk and children who are possibly being minded by other children at home in unsatisfactory circumstances. There is also the whole question of children missing out on the social and educational benefits of attending school. We had a situation where it was stated by the Taoiseach that the leaving certificate was definitely going to take place. Then it was a case of maybe it will take place and then it was a case that it did not have to be done. All of these things, the speculation and thinking aloud, results in an emotional roller-coaster for our schoolchildren. It has been a very tough time for them. For that and so many other reasons, I call on the Taoiseach to be absolutely clear about the evidence he is using for decisions around this and that he ensures there is adequate risk assessment and continuous risk management. We may have to take steps backwards depending on what happens with the virus. I urge the Taoiseach to do so.
I am not expecting a detailed reply but perhaps the Taoiseach will just acknowledge the points I have made.