Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Covid-19: New Measures: Statements
John Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
I thank the Minister and Ministers of State for being present. Having listened to members of the Opposition, I am very tempted to look back at the past year and where we were this time last year or a little before that, when the world felt a vaccine would not be available until now. To the Deputies who say the Minister has failed and the Government has failed to look after its people, I would point to the 93% to 95% vaccination rate, which includes those who are doubly vaccinated. The chief executive of the HSE was in the House this morning and told us that in excess of 600,000 booster vaccinations have gone out, with huge progress being made in relation to those who are immunosuppressed and those who have underlying health conditions. By Christmas or late December, we are all hopeful everybody who has had a second dose five months ago or more will be in a position to receive booster shots as well.
I look at all of the supports that the State correctly put in place for those in business. I have just come from a parliamentary party meeting where the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy McGrath informed us that to date, €8 billion has been expended on the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and rightly so, and hundreds of millions of euro have been expended on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. This is not a case of the Government saying, "Look at what we have done for you." This is only right and proper. It is the fulfilment of the unwritten contract that exists between the State and its citizens that holds that, in times of trouble or crisis, the State defends and supports its citizens, particularly the most vulnerable.
Earlier today while the Minister was in the Chamber, a number of parliamentarians from my own party met representatives of the Licensed Vintners Association, the Vintners' Federation of Ireland, the Irish Hotels Federation and the Restaurants Association of Ireland. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Crowe, was there and he, along with others, is cognisant of the fact that public behaviour, involving people pulling back from attending indoor settings, is having a detrimental effect on the hospitality sector again. Once again, the Government that does nothing according to the Opposition, in the form of both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Public Expenditure, following a motion tabled by me and some Senator colleagues, met representatives of the hospitality sector. There was no question but that they would meet them.
There has always been an agility and flexibility on the Government's part in dealing with the Covid crisis. Today, another member of the Government that has done absolutely nothing according to the Opposition, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, has moved to deal with the crisis of teacher supply and substitution in our school system. She met the higher education institutes, colleges and universities that provide teacher training faculties and pushed an open door on the part of the colleges and their administrators and the student teachers in their third and fourth years who have made themselves available to plug the gap that is causing so much anxiety to principals, parents and teaching staff throughout the country. The Minister has now ensured hundreds of supply teachers will be in place to provide supervision and teaching, over and above the placements students already provide as part of their teacher training.
All of this has been done against the background of a cyberattack. This country's response has been remarkably calm and that has been in part because of the calm, non-knee-jerk reaction of its leadership. Calm, level heads have ensured the country, by and large, has been kept safe. Remember that last year we were beginning the learning curve of our mistakes. We opened up and then realised we should not have done so. The figures came back to haunt us and January was an especially dark month. One significant difference, among other differences, between this time last year and now is that 95% of the country is vaccinated. We have known from the start, through NIAC and NPHET, that vaccines do not prevent contraction of the virus but they do prevent serious illness, hospitalisation and death. Imagine the situation we would be in now, with cases at their current levels, if the vaccination programme had not been rolled out to the extent it has been.
I remember saying at the Oireachtas health committee, when the extension of emergency powers came up previously, that this is not Putin's Russia. I have not heard any hue and cry that has overwhelmed me as a constituency politician or that has caused me to believe that vast swathes of people in the land are concerned and anxious about the manner in which the Government is behaving in relation to this legislation. In some cases, the public would possibly favour legislation that goes further. I certainly think they would favour legislation to ensure rigorous enforcement of the vaccination certificate rules. Imagine the civil liberties furore to which that could potentially give rise.
While we cannot rest on our laurels, we can take some comfort from the fact that as constituency politicians, we tend to have a reasonable idea of what the public are thinking at a given time, particularly in terms of their contacts with us, and the overwhelming majority of emails coming into my inbox are related to everyday issues. I am dealing with passport issues, as are my colleagues, which is a good sign and shows that people still want to travel. I am dealing with business-related issues, especially from the hospitality industry which is suffering significantly.
This issue was raised at the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting tonight and both the relevant Ministers and the Taoiseach have responded very positively to it. I could not score the Minister and his colleagues more highly for their own stewardship. They are continually available to their colleagues and they have responded way above and beyond what is required, especially in terms of the hours the Minister has put in. When we questioned the CEO of the HSE this morning, he talked about an exhausted healthcare system and an exhausted human resource in the sector. I think of the politicians, the administrators and all the officials in the Department of Health in particular, because this is the Department we are talking about tonight, whose staff have worked tirelessly. We had some bellyaching about pre-legislative scrutiny in recent days at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health, with no regard whatsoever for the man and woman hours the officials have been putting in and the demands being placed on them on a daily and weekly basis to produce legislation that will pass muster, stand up to the scrutiny of the courts of the land and stand the test of time.
I wish to return to an earlier point and finish on it. We live in a vibrant, open democracy which, by and large, has served us well and where if a Minister or an official was trying to pull a fast one, it would get exposed pretty quickly. There are bodies such as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, for example, and, as I suggested this morning, I have no issue with inviting them in before the Oireachtas committee to enable them to voice their concerns. I have no doubt if the system could have produced legislation more quickly, it would have done so. We are living through a pandemic and a national emergency yet life for a great number of people, while ridden with anxiety on a day-to-day basis, is as close to normal as could be expected in the circumstances. Businesses are running. Hospitals, which had to shut to elective and routine procedures and non-Covid procedures last year are dealing with them, by and large, this year in spite of the surge. Doctors, nurses and ancillary staff are at work. Schools remain open. Today's decision, supported by the higher education institutes, will ensure please God, barring a catastrophe, that those schools will continue to stay open and that children from five to 18 years will continue to receive their education, go through the State examination process and sit their examinations in sunnier times in June.
The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, who is also present, continue to do exemplary work. They have the support and confidence of this side of the House. We live in extraordinary times and have extraordinary stories to tell. They should never mind the begrudgers. There is a very positive story. When the history of this time is written, historians will see that the people of the country were dealt with and cared for by people to the best of their ability. We did not get everything right, but it was not for the want of effort. They kept the country safe and continue to keep it safe. Who knows what kind of slings and arrows remain ahead of us, but we have been well protected and cared for on the official side by our scientists, medics, physicians, nurses, teachers and politicians, who get so little credit for being responsible for steering the country through these very difficult and challenging times?