Dáil debates

Thursday, 5 March 2020

6:20 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I very much welcome the opportunity to update the House on the ongoing situation relating to Covid-19, coronavirus. I begin by sincerely thanking colleagues for what has been real cross-party and cross-grouping co-operation. On the floor of this House today I commit to continue to keep Members of this House briefed, but more than that: we will hear from them, interact with them and ensure their input is useful in that regard. As the Taoiseach outlined in the House, I intend to put a structure in place to ensure that we can further strengthen the cross-party work, acknowledging the political interregnum that currently exists.

This is a time of national and international challenge and it does require us all to pull together. I know that currently in Ireland a lot of people are worried and concerned. I know that parents in particular are receiving a lot of information and sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, what is appropriate and what is not. I also know the coronavirus is the subject of lots of discussions among teachers in schools, among students in the playground, around the dinner table and in the workplace. People are following social media and at times they can be exposed to myths and misinformation about coronavirus. I strongly encourage all people to take their advice from public health doctors, to listen to doctors and medical experts, to follow the HSE advice and, crucially, to trust public health doctors who have one sole focus, that is, to contain this virus and protect people.

We will continue to provide all the information we can and we are continuing to develop our communications material.

It is important to know that the vast majority of people who contract this virus will not need hospital care but can be treated at home. Some people believe that everybody who gets this virus will require hospitalisation, but that is not the case. It is also important to know that, currently, the likelihood of person-to-person transmission in Ireland is low. These words of reassurance do not mean we are not taking this matter extraordinarily seriously; of course we are. I continue to emphasise that this is not a time for panic or complacency.

I assure the House that our approach to this challenge is, and will remain, both vigilant and proportionate. I reassure Deputies of the considerable effort being undertaken in my Department, led by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, and by the HSE and its public health experts, to contain and respond to this serious public health threat and to mitigate the consequences across society. As people are aware, Covid-19 poses a very serious public health threat, not just here in Ireland but across the globe.

I wish to provide an update on the current situation nationally. Last Saturday, 29 February, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre was informed of the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Ireland. A second case was notified on Tuesday last, 3 March. Both of these cases are in the east of the country. As the House will now be aware, last night the Health Protection Surveillance Centre was informed of four new confirmed cases of Covid-19. These cases are in the west. All of the patients involved - they are receiving appropriate medical care - were identified and tested in line with established protocols for the investigation of suspect cases of Covid-19. I can confirm that the confirmed cases in Ireland are all associated with travel from affected areas in northern Italy rather than contact with other confirmed cases. There is still no evidence of widespread or sustained community transmission in Ireland, as has been seen in other countries. The HSE is working to identify contacts the patients may have had, to provide them with information and advice on how to prevent further spread.

None of the patients has been named publicly by the Department of Health or HSE, nor will they ever be, in order to protect patient confidentiality. This is essential to ensure all members of the public that they can have confidence that their privacy will be protected should they wish to report any matters to our health service. In fact, an effort not to protect this privacy, particularly on social media, has been rather disgusting and despicable. We need people to come forward when they have symptoms, to identify themselves and co-operate with our public health service. Anything that lessens trust or confidence is not helping in terms of containing the virus here or globally.

Deputies can rest assured that the contact-tracing protocols operated by the HSE comprise a proportionate and adequate response to responding to these matters. We have been working very closely with the public health authorities in Northern Ireland on all these patters. Public health authorities have activated all appropriate contact-tracing protocols. I signed the Infectious Diseases (Amendment) Regulations 2020 on Thursday, 20 February in order to make provision for Covid-19 to be added to the list of notifiable diseases so doctors who are at the front line of our response to the virus will be obliged to notify the HSE when a case is suspected or diagnosed and will be able to take appropriate action to respond to the very serious public health threat posed by the Covid-19 virus. There has been a notable increase in the number of cases tested, from 90 to 397, in one week but there has been no community transmission recorded yet. With regard to capacity in our health service, we have now approved an additional 20 intensive care unit beds. The chief executive of the health service outlined these today. Further plans are in place for more in this regard.

Efforts to contain the virus are continuing. I reiterate the advice of the Chief Medical Officer to the effect that central to this is that people know what to do in the event that they have symptoms. That is really the message we have to get out. The general public is advised to follow advice from the HSE and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.

Turning to the international context, as Deputies will be aware, on 30 January 2020, the WHO declared that the outbreak of Covid-19, or coronavirus, as it is known, originating in Wuhan, China, met the criteria for a public health emergency of international concern in accordance with the provisions of the international health regulations. Ireland is guided in its response to emerging international public health incidents by the advice and protocols of the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC. As the situation evolves, we continue to work with our international partners, including the WHO and the ECDC, the other member states of the European Union and the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. I will attend a meeting in Brussels tomorrow where the health Ministers of the EU will have the opportunity to take stock of the current situation and measures already taken in order to find the best approach for a co-ordinated response to the current spread of Covid-19 in the EU. We need that co-ordinated European and global response.

In line with our national emergency-management structures, the National Public Health Emergency Team, chaired by the Chief Medical Officer, has been meeting regularly regarding the Covid-19 outbreak. The team is the forum for managing the interface between the Department of Health and the HSE during the planning and response phases of a public health emergency such as the one we now face. As part of its continuous assessment of Ireland's response and preparedness to Covid-19, the National Public Health Emergency Team, at its meeting on 3 March 2020, recommended a number of further measures. These include an update to the travel advice for Italy to advise against all non-essential travel to the regions of Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont. Mass gatherings guidelines are to be published in the coming days following discussion with stakeholders. The HSE is now moving to a community-testing model for assessment and investigation of suspect cases so everything does not need to be done in a hospital setting. Importantly, four sub-groups have been established to support and provide advice in the following areas: vulnerable people with underlying health conditions or older people; health and social care workers’ protection; acute hospital preparedness; and continuity of supply of medicines and medical devices. I am particularly pleased to inform the House that a meeting with patient advocacy groups will take place in my Department tomorrow. An expert advisory group provides scientific advice and assistance to the national public health emergency team in carrying out its work.

We are acutely aware that while there are significant health consequences posed by the Covid-19 virus, this also impacts more widely on society and poses threats to the functioning of our economy and country. Issues such as port health, travel advice, contingency planning, communications as well as advice and guidance to various sectors, including the public, have been discussed and are being kept under constant review. In response to this, the Government has now established a new Cabinet committee, chaired by the Taoiseach, to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19. The work of the Cabinet committee will include addressing the impacts, mitigation measure and contingencies for cross-sectoral issues that arise in areas beyond the health service, building on the effective public health work undertaken to date. A whole-of-Government approach to the coronavirus response requires cohesive decision-making, a partnership approach, expert public health advice and clarity of communications. The Government also endorsed the establishment of a stakeholder forum. The forum is the mechanism through which engagement with civil society, employers, social partners, local leaders, voluntary groups and others will be progressed and will ensure that are kept informed of developments, what assistance they can provide and raise awareness of the appropriate responses to the challenges posed by Covid-19.

I would also like to take the opportunity to inform the House of a few issues arising beyond the health sector. In doing so, it is worth pointing out that the websites of Departments and agencies are being updated regularly as the situation evolves. For anybody considering travel to other countries, the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs provides travel advice, which is updated as the need arises. The Government is monitoring the situation with our agencies, ports and airports. Airports and sea ports are following the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team and are in continual direct liaison with the HSE through the port health group. The Government is mindful that any sustained period of significant flight restrictions would lead to very significant impacts on tourism and businesses, and is in regular contact with tourism industry leaders.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and the Minister of State at his Department, Deputy Griffin, convened a meeting of their Covid-19 tourism monitoring group on 26 Feb to monitor the disruption to the sector. This group met again this week and will meet weekly, as necessary. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has also been in contact with public transport operators, and a meeting was organised between the National Transport Authority, transport operators and the HSE on 3 March. From a business, trade and labour perspective, the outbreak of Covid-19 is already having an impact.

As the House knows, the Taoiseach announced earlier that the Government recognises that employees who need to self-isolate in accordance with medical advice should receive income support. We know this will require flexibility and responsiveness by employers and in Government social protection schemes. Following consultation with employers and trade union representatives, proposals will be considered at the Cabinet committee next Monday.

The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, and her Department are working on a range of supports and providing inputs across a number of areas impinging on Irish business, for example, in regard to supply chains. The Department and the development agencies, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and our local enterprise offices, are actively assessing and working with affected firms, both in overseas markets and in manufacturing businesses here at home. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has updated advice to business on continuity planning that includes a practical checklist, to which I draw businesses’ attention, as well as links to relevant Covid-19 advice. This, in turn, is being shared by business representative bodies with their members and will help companies to assess risk and consider preparatory actions to respond. Additional engagement with business representative bodies, including the retail and grocery sector, is ongoing.

The Department of Education and Skills, under its Minister, Deputy McHugh, has published a range of useful information, including posters, guidance documents and videos, all of which are available on its website.

I realise that in the time available I have only been able to touch on a brief range of activity happening right across the Government, but I urge all those interested to check the websites of our Government Departments and agencies for comprehensive, up-to-date information. We will continue to push out those messages through the stakeholder forum.

Ireland remains in containment phase. The Chief Medical Officer will update the public, this House and the media every evening regarding the current situation. That is an appropriate forum to have in place so the people of Ireland get to hear daily from our Chief Medical Officer. Our current focus is on identifying and isolating any possible cases and ensuring rigorous infection prevention and control and contact tracing procedures are in place. However, the absolute truth is that circumstances are constantly evolving. We are learning more about this virus day by day and sometimes hour by hour.

I understand just how anxious and concerned people are about this outbreak, but it is important to reiterate that if people are not in an area where Covid-19 is spreading, have not travelled from an area where Covid-19 is spreading or have not been in contact with an infected patient, the risk of infection is low. We will continue to communicate key public health messages to keep people informed and up to date on all matters. Very good information is available on the HSE website about simple measures we can all take to help to protect ourselves, our families and people in our workplaces and to minimise the spread of the virus. I urge everybody, including those of us in here, to lead by example in familiarising ourselves with that available advice.

I trust Deputies will join with me in paying tribute to our health service personnel, our doctors, our nurses, our ambulance staff, our paramedics, our care workers and all of those working on the front line in response to Covid-19. These people are working flat out and have been for some significant time. We need to acknowledge that. I hope the information I have set out this evening will be helpful in understanding the utmost seriousness with which the Government is treating this situation and our willingness, desire and requirement to work with the Oireachtas in that regard.

I urge all of us at this time to recognise the potential severity of this moment for our country and the need to ensure we all act in support of our public health officials in their work. This is a public health emergency. Our response to that emergency can only be guided by the best international evidence and advice available. Therefore, I again thank all the Deputies here for working with us collaboratively as we focus our efforts in the immediate future on minimising the impacts on our country and our society. I very much appreciate the support of all as we work hard to balance the continuation of everyday activities with simultaneously taking all appropriate public health measures to limit the spread and impact of this virus.

Although we may not yet have a new Government, since the recent election we have a new Dáil - the Thirty-third Dáil. I hope I speak for all the Members of this House when I say to the people of Ireland that all Deputies, regardless of whether they are in government or in opposition, are united in doing our utmost to protect our country in the face of this threat. Go raibh maith agaibh.

6:40 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I am sharing the short time available with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh. I assure the House that the Covid-19 outbreak is receiving careful attention across the Government. As we learn more about the virus, we will continue to take actions that are proportionate and based always on medical advice. For some time, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been dealing with the implications of the Covid-19 virus for Irish citizens overseas. Staff at our embassies and consulates on the ground and here in Dublin are providing extensive consular advice and assistance to citizens in affected areas across the globe. As always, we encourage our citizens to register their details on our citizens' registration facility, which is available on the Department's website. This will help us to contact people travelling and enable us to provide assistance in the event of a crisis such as this one.

We are working closely with our EU partners and other like-minded countries and with the World Health Organization, which is leading global efforts to control the spread of this virus and mitigate its impact, particularly in countries with weaker health systems. We have already contributed more than €1 million in support of these efforts. We are also working with the Department of Health, of course, and other relevant Departments and agencies in Ireland and internationally to ensure all appropriate advice and precautions are in place. Our dedicated advice line, which was activated on 25 February, will remain open at 01 6131733. More generally, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issues travel advice in respect of over 200 countries. This is available on the Department's website and on our Travelwise app, which provides advice for staying safe and information when abroad. I encourage everyone to download the app and to take out travel insurance before travelling overseas.

Over the past two weeks, due mainly to the Covid-19 outbreak, we have updated our travel advice in respect of over 100 countries. We have raised the overall security status in respect of China and Iran. We are now advising against non-essential travel to regions of South Korea. We have given further details about local developments in Japan and Singapore. Based on advice from medical experts, and in line with many EU partners, we upgraded our advice for Italy on 3 March, which was earlier this week. We are now recommending against non-essential travel to the four affected regions of northern Italy. We will continue to review and update our travel advice and to provide consular support and assistance to all our citizens overseas.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle. I dtús báire, ba mhaith liom aitheantas a ghabháil leis na príomhoidí uile, na tuismitheoirí, na daltaí scoile, na déagóirí agus an méid scoileanna atá i gceist maidir leis an tionchar suntasach atá i gceist leis na cásanna Covid-19. Chomh maith leis sin, ba mhaith liom aitheantas a ghabháil leis na daoine uile fá choinne na ceannaireachta agus na n-oifigí uile sa Rialtas agus sa Roinn Sláinte agus mo Roinn féin as na rudaí suntasacha atá bainte amach ag an Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna as ucht an fhreagra éifeachtaigh, suaimhnigh agus chiúin uaithi.

The Department of Education and Skills is in ongoing contact with the schools impacted by the closures to provide support to the school community. The Chief Medical Officer has provided guidance addressing key areas of concern for school staff, students and parents. The Department and schools will continue to be advised by medical experts on these matters. Over recent weeks, the Department of Health, the HSE and the Department of Education and Skills worked closely together to ensure we had structures in place to respond if this virus reached our shores. Officials from both Departments and the HSE are in constant communication to ensure that we continue to communicate with our education stakeholders as the situation evolves, and that where there is an impact on a school community, the school is informed as soon as possible and supported throughout the process.

All schools, education centres and the education partners have been provided with guidance and information, including child-focused information posters and videos on appropriate hygiene practices. Information for education settings, in consultation with the HSE, is being updated continuously on the website of the Department of Education and Skills and disseminated to schools, education settings and the education partners. There is no need for any school to close unless it is advised to do so by the HSE. A decision to close should be taken on specific public health advice only. It is important that schools and communities follow this guidance and contact the HSE if they have any concerns. Our young people are alert to the danger this virus poses, but also keenly aware of the simple steps that can be taken to minimise risk and combat the virus.

Agus mo chuid ama ag teacht chun críche, ba mhaith liom buíochas agus aitheantas a ghabháil le m'oifigigh féin sa Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna agus leis na hoifigigh agus leis an gceannaireacht atá i gceist sa Roinn Sláinte fosta maidir lena stiúradh sa chás seo.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputies Stephen Donnelly and Paul McAuliffe, with one minute at the end for their colleague, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I will start by acknowledging the hard work that is being done across the public service by our health professionals and, indeed, within the Departments of Health, Foreign Affairs and Trade and Education and Skills and many other Departments. Many people are worried right now, including in the first instance those who are particularly susceptible. The mortality rate is relatively low, compared with some other viruses that have been dealt with globally. The risks for at-risk populations, however, are very serious and those mortality rates climb to worrying levels.

Many people who interact with the public everyday are also worried. I refer to teachers, school principals, taxi and bus drivers and shop workers. Parents are also very concerned. Children are becoming increasingly concerned because of real information they are receiving from the media and, unfortunately, much false and damaging information they are getting on social media. We need to do as much as possible to protect people and to ensure everybody has the best possible information. Some aspects of this are working very well. Political communication has been good and the daily briefings by the health officials have also been very good, as is the HSE website and its Twitter output. Those things are working well.

We can do much better in certain other areas, however. Other social media channels are not being used by the HSE or are being used poorly. The HSE's Facebook channel, for example, is poor. Communications to certain groups needs to be better. For example, school principals, business owners and many others have been in contact with me, as well as with other Members. They are not getting the information they need. We need to make every effort to step this up and target it to particular groups of people who are worried.

In some cases, information is being withheld intentionally and openly withheld, if that is not an oxymoron, from the public. In some cases, we are probably erring too much on the side of withholding information. One example of this concerned the first case and the decision taken on the information concerning the mode of transport from Dublin to Belfast. I am not criticising the Minister or the advice given by the health care officials. However, I saw no benefit in not sharing with the public the mode of transport concerned. I see a real cost in terms of spreading fear and concerns of information being withheld. Unless there are compelling public health grounds, I would ask that as much information be shared as is possible.

In terms of containing the virus, it is clear much good work has been done. I acknowledge the contact tracing work and the testing work done, as well as the securing of supply chains of masks and various other medical supplies.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is slow in some areas in upgrading its advice. Up until two days ago, Italy was still registered as green which is essentially no risk. One had to go about five layers into the Department's website to find any mention of coronavirus and then one had to read through dense text. Are we being overly cautious in categorising it as such? Three or four days ago, Italy should not have been categorised as green. Could we be a bit quicker in some of our responses and clearer in the Department’s communications about the virus?

Schools have still not been directed not to travel to the hot zones, which we have called on for a while. At this point, I do not see any public health benefit of not giving the schools a clear direction. It is not just the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade stating generally people should not go to hot zones but actually telling schools they cannot travel to these areas for whatever trips. There needs to be more action in that respect.

Students coming back from hot zones are being told to go to school and if they become symptomatic to come out. Does that need to be revisited at this stage? There is a fine balance. Somebody could become symptomatic in school. As several school principals have told me, these things can spread quite easily within schools because of the environment. Is it time to be a bit more directive and err more on the sign of containment on these issues?

With regard to travel restrictions, I understand we are following EU advice and moving as one with it. However, there are many people coming from Italy, including affected parts of that country, to Dublin this weekend. Is there an argument that those specific flights from specific airports in terms of containment and public health, should be cancelled for the weekend? It is something to be considered.

Obviously, there are serious considerations required in terms of our healthcare capacity. Our health system is suffering from overcapacity in every single area. It concerns me that the Department could not answer questions today around what level of capacity we can deal with before elective surgery, for example, has to be cancelled. I am slightly concerned that we do not have answers to some of those questions.

We need to see much more communication and action from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. We have been trying to get a briefing from the Department but we cannot get one. That concerns me. Business people are getting in touch telling me they are not getting the information. I have looked at the Department's website but all there is is a checklist. Employers are concerned about their duty of care to employees, potential business shocks from this, and what supports might be available. There needs to be a much more comprehensive and open response from that Department.

6:50 pm

Photo of Paul McAuliffePaul McAuliffe (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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To those parents, children and teachers who are at the front line of Covid-19, the country is behind them. They may be in individual isolation, but as far as this House is concerned, they are not isolated or forgotten.

The word "war" that I use with regard to Covid-19 is not to alarm but to demonstrate that, in this containment phase, all of the resources of the State must be used and brought to bear to prevent wider community infection. A public health crisis like this requires straight and honest communications, confidence in those at the top, and the resources to deal with it, which are resources beyond those needed in peacetime.

I will not name the school at the centre of the first case reported by the HSE at the weekend. However, many of those affected have been in contact with me and my colleagues. These people are at the front line of this war. We need to listen to them and learn from their experience, while at the same time we need to ensure we do not stigmatise them or create wider panic. I welcome the briefings from the Department which I received on Monday, the establishment of the Cabinet sub-committee, as well as the Government's commitment to consult all parties on this matter. However, will the Minister take on board the concerns I have received? If these are not deemed appropriate by public health officials, will he explain why? In the coming weeks as more cases are heard, again and again these suggestions will be made and it is best that we deal with them now.

Many parents are concerned about the siblings of those students who been asked to limit their social interaction. We need to better communicate the definition of "close contact" and why it is so important. Will the Department of Education and Skills play a stronger role with the schools attended by those siblings affected? Families with members in isolation have told me that their other children are being stigmatised. This will only lead to further misinformation. We need to do more to protect those siblings.

Family members of those who are not displaying symptoms but who are in self-isolation are being told they should go about their daily lives. They are often, however, meeting resistance from their employers and concerned members of their own communities. We need to support them with new legislation if it is required.

Family members have also told me that information from senior clinical experts is good but the helpline is not meeting that same level. I would urge that the helpline be open longer and have that expert advice available. With regard to tests being outsourced, results should be made available more quickly to those experiencing symptoms. These people are under extreme stress. Anything we can do must be brought to bear.

Social media is a challenge in a public crisis but it is also a tool. It allows us to debunk myths and to listen to feedback. I urge the Government to use and harness social media where it can.

There is one aspect of our work which we need to do and which the HSE and no other agency can deliver on, namely, our ability to form a government. As this process evolves and we have more cases, I believe people will demand leadership from us on this issue. If we are in a war, we need a war Cabinet, leadership and to provide results.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The duty for all of us living on this island is to be sensible, thoughtful, not to panic and to do everything we can to stop the spread of coronavirus. People are naturally concerned. The WHO has said we are in "uncharted territory". However, we are not in a war.

On this island, we now have nine confirmed cases, eight of which are linked to travel to Italy and one a case of community transmission in the North. As developments today have shown, the challenges we face are evolving. It is clear that the fight against the coronavirus must be a unified all-island effort. The acting Government in the South and the power-sharing Executive in the North must work as one. This means having a standardised approach to protect the health of everyone on the island of Ireland.

Both Administrations must be on their game in the co-ordination of health resources and in communicating the information needed to keep people safe. The coronavirus does not recognise any border and we simply cannot afford a partitioned response to this emergency. To that end, a meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council should be convened as a matter of urgency.

The responsibility of government is to do absolutely everything to protect the public and to do so in the right and timely fashion. The acting Government has a responsibility to discharge its duties with the co-operation of all parties in the Dáil. We need a more structured involvement and an all-Oireachtas approach. That is the best way to ensure the response to this emergency is seamless, coherent and smooth when there is change of Government.

This is a very real challenge for our health services and national public emergency system. Right now, we need to start strengthening our health system. We need to increase capacity rapidly. We need to start opening beds. Not only do we need to open beds, but we need to ensure that no bed is closed. The acting Minister must give a clear commitment today that the beds opened as part of the winter initiative and due to close on 31 March will definitely be kept open. He must also confirm that the 220 community nursing home beds currently reviewed for closure will not be closed.

We need to ensure that we have sufficient capacity in ICU and isolation units to deal with this public health emergency. The embargo on hiring new nurses and doctors must be lifted immediately and a plan enacted to get people off trolleys urgently. Additional resources must be available, both to our health services and to other front-line services which may be impacted.

We also need to free up beds in our hospitals by ensuring that people who have recovered and are well are discharged from hospital as soon as possible. A specific and immediate focus on ramping up the provision of home help hours will facilitate this. There is an onus on government to ensure that people can be cared for in their homes for as long as is medically possible. A comprehensive and fully resourced home help action plan will also facilitate that.

There is also a need for employers to prioritise the well-being and welfare of their staff and the health of the general public. Advice and protection for workers must be guaranteed. We need to ensure that workers are protected and have the confidence that they can take any leave that is required. Such assurances will be extremely important as the situation progresses. Where a worker is unwell or at risk from this virus, he or she must feel free to come forward with confidence to self-report, reduce risk and protect himself or herself and the public.

Particular attention must be paid to the circumstances of low-paid workers and those in precarious working arrangements. Many workers live from week to week and the impact of losing out on pay due to self-isolating could be devastating. The cost of increased household bills and additional food supplies will undoubtedly be a source of stress. Everything must be done to protect incomes. Emergency legislation may be required to strengthen sick pay entitlements and workers' rights. If that is the case, so be it; let us do that.

There is now a need for an immediate, purposeful and focused engagement between employers, the trade union movement, the community and voluntary sector and the Government to work out a genuine partnership approach to the social and economic aspects of this emergency.

Attention has now justifiably turned to what should be done about large gatherings. Every decision must be made in the interest of protecting public health and safety. In no way should the health and welfare of the community or any individual be jeopardised. We need to be guided by what the doctors, the medics and the Chief Medical Officer tell us is needed to protect public health and safety. If the emergency team makes a recommendation that a gathering or event should be cancelled, that is what must happen.

The coronavirus emergency is also a very real challenge for our communities and families. This week, my own family has been affected. My two children attend a school that has been closed down. My son and daughter are now self-isolating at home. I can assure the Dáil that their initial delight at the gift of two weeks off school has well and truly passed. They have learned the meaning of the saying, "Be careful what you wish for." There are no visitors, no sports, no trips out with friends and no craic whatsoever. Reality has dawned on them pretty quickly. It is a trying time. Our family and school community have been thrown a bit of a curve ball, to say the least. I sincerely thank everybody who sent us good wishes over the last few days; it is deeply appreciated.

There is a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty. I know it will be the same now for the families affected by other school closures. Many parents might worry about how they might speak with their children and teenagers about the coronavirus. From my experience, such as it is, my best advice is this. Parents should not dismiss their fears or concerns. They should be honest, keep it calm and factual and, above all, make sure they know about the amount of work that is being done by so many people to fight the spread of this virus and keep them safe.

Young people often do not get the credit they deserve. We can forget how remarkably resilient, adaptable and compassionate our young people are. I have seen this in how my children and their school friends have handled this turn of events. They know that others have been affected in a far more serious way. At the heart of this situation are people who are sick. That is what is most important. Our thoughts are with those people and their families who are under enormous strain at this time. We know they are in hands of some of the very best medical staff in the world. We wish them a speedy recovery.

We face a public health emergency and a significant socio-economic challenge. It is an emergency and a challenge that we will overcome. However, we must avoid the mistakes of the past where ordinary people bore the brunt of economic downturns when Governments sought to cut their way out of a crisis, decimating public services and social protections.

The coronavirus outbreak has put up in lights why public healthcare is absolutely essential in a modern, globalised world. Public healthcare must be protected by government, not hollowed out for privatisation. Fully funded and resourced public healthcare is something to which we should all be committed. In truth, we are only as safe and healthy as the least protected in our community. Healthcare accessed on the basis of medical need not ability to pay is a sound principle. It is a fundamental of decent society and absolutely essential in preserving and advancing human health. In these times, as we come together in this crisis, I hope that lesson along with many others are learned by all of us.

7:00 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We now come to two new Deputies making their maiden speeches, Deputy Ossian Smyth and Deputy O'Gorman.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I thank the people of Dún Laoghaire for electing me. I am honoured to represent them in this historic Chamber and I look forward to doing everything I can to represent Dún Laoghaire. I also thank the various Deputies with whom I have spent time in recent weeks from the four parties that the Green Party has met. That has been a very useful first step. I look forward to meeting Deputies from Solidarity, if they will meet me, and Independent Deputies. We are willing to speak with everybody and look forward to that process.

So far, Ireland has nine confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The advice from the World Health Organization is that people who get these symptoms and self-diagnose in the belief that they have this illness should isolate themselves for 14 days.

If a person working in a large company like Google wakes up in the morning with a bit of a dry cough, not feeling himself or herself and with a fever, that person knows that he or she can ring in and be allowed to work from home. That person knows that he or she will get full pay, that the whole building will probably be sent home also, and that there will be no negative consequences for him or her. This, however, is not the case if a person is working in a job where he or she must serve the people who work in a company like Google, and where he or she must handle food - perhaps in a sandwich bar -work behind a bar or operate a checkout. A person's job may involve handling food, handling money and credit cards, and dealing with hundreds of people every day. It is obviously critical that such people stay at home when they are ill, but how can they? They are in a situation where if they do not earn money or do not bring home enough money, they cannot pay their rent. They cannot make the decision. There is no sick pay guaranteed for people in that situation who need it the most. There is illness benefit from the Government, which kicks in after seven days. Except, it does not kick in. After seven days one can apply for it. If one has enough PRSI stamps, one might get it. However, people do not know if they qualify. How can a person gamble on that future on the first day he or she displays symptoms? If that person it wrong and does not get the money, then he or she may not have enough money to pay the rent and may leave himself or herself and his or her family homeless. This situation is utterly unfair, and it also puts society at risk.

I ask that the Minister speak with the Taoiseach and with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection in order to work out a way for people who find themselves in that situation, and possibly with the symptoms, so that they know they will receive their net pay until they are tested and it is found that they are well enough to go back to work. They need to be given a clear assurance, through an advertising campaign or some form of communication everybody can understand, that the right thing to do is not to go to work that day, and that it is feasible and possible to do this. This would be in the interests of the workers and in the general interest.

There are very good communications from the Chief Medical Officer and the HSE every day advising people about the status of this coronavirus. They are generalised communications and contain the same information for everybody. There are, however, some groups in our society that are looking for specific information. We are told that if a person does not have a breathing problem and is not an elderly person, then he or she may be fine if he or she gets coronavirus. This is no reassurance for people who do have those problems. People who have underlying breathing problems and illnesses such as cystic fibrosis or a rare breathing illness like bronchiectasis need specific information. They need to have a portion of the website that explains to them if there is something different they should do. Perhaps their behaviour should be different from that of the general population. Perhaps they should avoid crowded situations. They do not know, and they are asking for that information. Will the Minister consider appointing one person as a contact for those vulnerable groups to give them their information? I thank the Ceann Comhairle and I thank the Members for listening.

7:10 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy. Well done.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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As this is my first time to speak in the House, I will take the opportunity to thank the people and voters of Dublin West for giving me their support and electing me to Dáil Éireann. I am aware of the huge responsibility of this role. I hope I can repay the trust afforded to me by the voters of Dublin West by working hard for them and by taking every decision in the best interests of my constituents, our country and our planet. I also pay tribute to two former Deputies who were unsuccessful in this election, Joan Burton and Ruth Coppinger, both of whom have made major contributions, locally and nationally.

Right now, coronavirus is dominating the media cycle and the wider political discourse and this week I have hardly had a conversation in which it has not featured. There is real concern out there. I thank the Minister for the briefing he gave today and for his commitment to providing ongoing information to the House. In this climate, it is particularly important that those in authority, be it the Government, the Minister or the HSE, give clear and unsanitised information to the public. We have seen how in China and Iran the initial response of the authorities was to deny and suppress information. This has contributed, at least partially, to the particularly severe nature of the outbreaks in those countries. Indeed, even today in the United States of America President Trump invented his own statistics on mortality rates and offered his own advice on self-isolation. This approach erodes public trust in authority and, as such, when public health authorities have a specific message to deliver to the public, it undermines people's trust in that information.

We currently have six cases in the State. When one considers the trajectory of coronavirus in other countries, it is likely that the rate here will increase. There is a real possibility that the increase will be quite sudden. If we do see a sudden leap in infections and they are not put in their proper context, there is a real risk that it could create public panic. It is important to recognise the existing capacity and expertise that our national health services have in dealing with major outbreaks. Each outbreak has its own unique characteristics and our health services are already responding to the particular characteristics of Covid-19. The National Ambulance Service has introduced a home-testing scheme that will, in many circumstances, avoid the necessity for potential patients to go to hospitals in order to be tested. As ever, it is the hard work of our healthcare providers and those who work on the front line that will be the best defence against this outbreak.

Coronavirus is more dangerous to the more vulnerable members of our society. I urge the HSE to pay special attention to those who might often slip though the gaps. Ireland has a significant homeless population and many of these people are not in regular contact with our healthcare services, or they suffer chronic illnesses due to their living conditions. Other groups of people living together in close proximity are those who live in direct provision or those who are incarcerated in prisons. These people are also vulnerable. There is a significant outbreak of coronavirus in Iran's prisons that has necessitated a large-scale temporary release of prisoners there. Due to the vulnerability of these groups and their circumstances, people who are homeless, those in direct provision and those in prison do not have the same agency as everybody else. I ask the Minister and the HSE to provide guidance to these groups.

As we address this evolving global healthcare crisis, we in Ireland are already experiencing a crisis in our health services. We were experiencing this crisis long before the first case was diagnosed in Wuhan. We have come out of a general election where priorities were identified by the public as being our healthcare services, housing and climate change. Most people I have spoken to accept that the solutions to these problems are greater investment and a bigger role for our State. It is the Green Party's view that the scale of this investment would eliminate the capacity for many significant tax cuts in the medium term. In the context of any possible programme for Government negotiations, the Green Party has been very clear that using the available public resources to invest in the day-to-day services and in putting money into the necessary major infrastructure capital projects should take precedent over any potential tax reductions. Our experience from the recent election campaign is that this is what the public demands of us.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Congratulations Deputy.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I wish to express solidarity with Deputy McDonald and her family, and with any families throughout the State and on the island who find themselves under the strain at this time.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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Collectively, we in the Dáil must up our game with regard to Covid-19. In the UK, the Prime Minister has announced that workers will be entitled to statutory sick pay if they are self-isolating in cases of coronavirus. The Conservative Government has also modified the entitlement rules such that workers will be paid from day one, not the fourth day. This is not because of their love of workers' rights, it is because these measures are necessary to help contain the spread of the virus.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has called for the same changes to be made here but the Government has, so far, failed to move on these issues.

If workers cannot pay the rent or put food on the table they will go to work even if they are risk of spreading Covid-19. This is the reality of our economy. We need to change the social protection rules so that workers can afford to stay at home if they need to self-isolate.

There might be some who think that things are somehow worse in the UK than here, but please consider that with 87 cases of the virus, the UK has had one case per 764,000 people in the population. We have had six confirmed cases of Covid-19, which is one case per 805,000 people in the population. In other words, it could be argued that we have proportionately as many cases of Covid-19 in Ireland as in the UK. We should be taking the risk of the virus spreading as seriously as it is being taken by the UK and other governments in Europe. It may become necessary to move from voluntary self-isolation to requiring people to stay at home if they are contagious. It may become necessary to restrict movement to or from some parts of the country if the virus spreads in those areas. It may also be necessary to outlaw price hikes or hoarding of sanitisers or other medical goods or even of food. Existing law, which largely dates from just after the Second World War and from the 19th century, does not provide the Government with the legal power to do these things, especially in relation to potential cases rather than confirmed cases of infectious disease.

The caretaker Government that we have has no democratic mandate or legitimacy in introducing such serious measures if they become required. The Government has proposed to provide briefings to Opposition parties or to consult them. This is not acceptable. It is not for an interim Government or interim Ministers, some of whom are no longer members of the Dáil, merely to inform Opposition Members about what they are doing. The Minister for Health is part of an interim Government, headed by a Taoiseach who failed to secure the confidence of the majority of the Dáil at its first meeting.

The Labour Party's proposal for a Dáil committee on Covid-19 has, perhaps, been misconstrued or insufficiently explained by us. Let me clarify our proposal. In the absence of a new Government that can command the confidence of a majority in the Dáil, it is the Dáil itself that should be making these decisions, not a caretaker Government. A Dáil committee on Covid-19 would not be a talking shop taking up hours of health officials' time. It should be an executive group that would work with the interim Ministers to provide democratic legitimacy for the difficult decisions that may be required. This group should literally be available at a moment's notice to agree actions that are necessary. These are not just health decisions. They are decisions about transport, retail and control of people's liberty.

Potentially, we will have to decide whether to cancel St. Patrick's Day parades before the Dáil meets again in two weeks. While others have spoken about the Dáil's willingness to meet to pass legislation, we all know that this cannot happen overnight whereas some of the vital decisions that may be required in the coming weeks may require rapid decision-making to respond to a quickly evolving emergency. This is how serious the situation is. We must not be complacent. The public needs to see the political system acting responsibly and maturely in response to Covid-19. We need to get ahead of the issue so that we can shut down misinformation and unnecessary panic.

I would make the point that the Dáil sat overnight when it came to the financial crisis. The Dáil also took immediate and strong action when farming was threatened by foot-and-mouth disease. People's lives and their peace of mind are being threatened by Covid-19. It is unthinkable that we would be any less diligent and responsive to Covid-19 when there is clear evidence that this is a very serious emergency.

I spoke to the mother of a child with a compromised immune system. She cannot understand why the Government has not required businesses to provide hand sanitisers, as we did for foot-and-mouth. The people want clear instructions and guidance, including on travel and ordinary business, to come from those with democratic legitimacy. This is not a sensationalist position. On 30 January, the World Health Organization called Covid-19 a public health emergency of international concern. The state of California has declared a state of emergency to activate the necessary powers to deal with this issue. All around Europe, governments are taking the necessary action.

We in this House are in a special position. I do not doubt that our officials and public servants are doing everything they can to address the situation but we do not have a proper Government in power. It is incumbent on all of us in the Dáil to fill the democratic deficit until a new Government is formed. There are a great many workers who will find it very difficult to survive on statutory illness benefit of €203 per week. Many workers will have no contractual entitlement to anything beyond this, but they will have the same requirements to pay rent, pay bills and heat their homes. They may have additional costs associated with GP fees or the cost of medicines. This is the reality for low-paid workers, and one in four workers in this country is classified in this category, as the OECD has confirmed. We have to take action to help these workers take the right actions to stop the spread of the virus, and to the extent that it is possible to do so, we have to avoid low-paid workers being made materially worse off for doing the right thing.

Doctors, nurses and other hospital staff are also likely to be affected by the need for self-isolation as a result of Covid-19. We could very quickly find ourselves in a situation where we do not have enough medical staff to operate our hospitals or primary care centres. This is on top of the problems in our health service where the Government relies far too heavily on temporary agency staff and has an effective staffing embargo that has stopped people gaining permanent roles. This is why we need a committee of the Dáil put in place to make executive decisions collectively. This is what the emergency requires.

It is frankly disappointing, to say the least, that some Members are proposing briefings along the lines of the Brexit briefings, as if we had a normal Government with democratic legitimacy. It is also disappointing that some Members are proposing dedicating time at the Dáil's next sitting to making statements on various issues rather than demanding that we deal with the emergencies facing our society where we, as the people's representatives, are the democratically elected decision-makers. We cannot afford this kind of complacency and I hope that all of us as Members will reflect as the Covid-19 situation evolves and become more prepared to insist on the Dáil's prerogative to be central to democratic decision-making about how we respond to this emergency.

7:20 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Sherlock has made a very valuable contribution but I should point out that we are not in a constitutional lacuna. The Constitution is quite clear in respect of the responsibilities that exist for the Government, albeit a caretaker Government, and any Government that existed before it or any Government that may come into existence after it.

I now call Deputy Jennifer Whitmore, who will share time with Deputy Cian O'Callaghan. Is this Deputy Whitmore's maiden contribution?

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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It is. I thank the Ceann Comhairle and all of the Oireachtas staff for welcoming us and facilitating the new Members of the House as we transition into our new roles. This is my first speech as a newly elected Deputy and I am delighted have the opportunity to stand here today as a representative for County Wicklow. I thank all of those from County Wicklow who have entrusted me with their vote.

I wish it were under different circumstances that we are here today but it is imperative that we discuss the developments of Covid-19. What developed as a localised disease in one country has now spread throughout the world, with several cases now confirmed in Ireland. I acknowledge the difficulties being faced by those coping directly with Covid-19, particularly those who have tested positive, and I wish them a quick return to full health.

As have most Deputies in the Chamber, I have spoken to many concerned members of my constituency and community over the past week. While their primary concerns are health focused, they also raise many issues relating to other aspects of their lives. I have met many parents in Wicklow who are concerned about further school closures. They worry about the impact this will have on their children's education.

They also worry about what will happen to their income if they have to take time off work to care for their children. Local shop owners are worried about their business. They are afraid their transactions will decline if public gatherings are curtailed or tourism numbers drop. If that were to happen, they worry about the impact it will have on their businesses. Culturally, there are fears that major events such as St. Patrick's Day or some Galway 2020 events could be cancelled.

These are valid concerns felt by many people throughout the country who are trying to do their best by their families in circumstances where there are many unknowns and much uncertainty. One matter of which I am certain is that Ireland will do its best throughout the crisis if we can respond together as a community and if we recognise that through our collective efforts we will restrict the potential of the virus to spread. Our care for the vulnerable in our families and communities is a priority now, and those affected by the virus will need the support of everyone around them to get through this difficult time. We all rely on one another and our communities in this crisis, as we always do.

This, in effect, is what we call social democracy, where we recognise our interdependence, our reliance on our community and how vital it is to nurture and support that community. We also rely on our Government and our public services to respond correctly in a rapidly-changing environment, following hard-won lessons in other countries. Accessible, reliable and timely information will be crucial over the coming weeks, as will the assurances that the Government has robust plans in place to deal with any necessary escalation phases. I thank the Minister and the Department for the updates we received earlier. A great deal of work is going on in the background. As public representatives, we have a responsibility to provide leadership in our constituencies and not to add to any panic that could be within our communities.

On a broader note, the rapid spread of the virus and the daily news of its progression are a sign of the interconnectedness of an increasingly global world. Not many opportunities arise that allow us to reflect on how connected we all are. It takes a global crisis such as climate change, a global recession or, as is now the case, a virus spreading quickly for us to gain a perspective on the challenges of this increasingly interconnected world. We have an opportunity to acknowledge there are vulnerabilities within our modern societies and we need to respond by examining how we can be more sustainable on multiple fronts. The challenges of globalisation tell us we need to redesign our interconnected world in a manner that benefits not only our health but also the future of our environment, of biodiversity and of an economy that serves our society by creating sustainable, robust communities across the board.

7:30 pm

Photo of Cian O'CallaghanCian O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay North, Social Democrats)
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Ós rud é gurb í seo mo chéad uair ag caint sa Dáil, ba mhaith liom i dtús báire an deis a thapú mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le pobal Chuan Bhaile Átha Cliath Thuaidh a chur anseo mé. Oibreoidh mé go crua mar ghlór ar son na fírinne agus ar son cearta sóisialta. Ba mhaith liom freisin thar ceann an phobail buíochas ó chroí a ghabháil leis an iar-Theachta, Tommy Broughan, a chaith na blianta fada ag troid ar son leas an phobail.

I commend all the healthcare staff, everyone in the HSE, all the public health officials and our front-line staff on the work they are doing. In times of crisis, it is often those who are marginalised or vulnerable who bear the brunt of the impact. Without swift action in this instance, that is what will happen. We need action to protect people who are homeless or living in overcrowded housing, those who are in precarious work and individuals with underlying health conditions in order that they will not be hit hardest. Workers with temporary contracts or near-zero hour contracts and those in the service industry are particularly at risk. Due to changes in demand in the services industry, many already face reduced hours and income before any additional threat might arise for them.

I attended the launch of a report by the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, on household debt yesterday. One of the findings of the research is that those who rent privately are four times more likely than homeowners to face not being able to afford to heat their home. Many low-paid workers already struggle to make ends meet and, therefore, any reduction in income will put them in an impossible position. They cannot be left in a situation where they will potentially be out of work, have their hours reduced or have to self-isolate, without their income being protected. It is very important that we move as quickly as possible to guarantee income protection, especially for low-paid workers, given that people are in different circumstances in more permanent working arrangements. That is not just important for people on low pay but also for wider society, for which there may be a health consequence. Research in the US has found that in those states that have introduced mandatory sick pay conditions, flu risk decreased by 11% in the first year. If the conditions are not created whereby people on low pay can take the responsible action they want to take, namely, to protect their health and that of their families, it will have a wider health and societal impact. This vital move needs to happen fast.

Our healthcare system has half the capacity of intensive care beds compared with the European average, although it is welcome that steps are being taken to try to increase it. We must do everything we can to increase capacity in private healthcare to supplement the capacity available in the public healthcare system.

I turn to the issue of people living in overcrowded accommodation. We all know from our constituencies that it can be common for three generations to live in one house or for an entire family to share one bedroom. Such people will also be in a more vulnerable position and we need to examine what additional measures can be put in place to support those living in emergency accommodation or direct provision and homeless people.

We need to act now to protect workers on low pay or zero-hour or temporary contracts and those working in the so-called gig economy. We need to act now to co-opt what increased capacity we can in the private healthcare system, which will need to be drawn on.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I agree with all Deputies that the response to this issue includes all of us as individuals and our personal hygiene, and that how we conduct ourselves is crucial. If I start coughing, please do not panic. I do not want a national panic on television because a Deputy is coughing. I have a cold. We should be discussing the overall response of the State to this serious crisis. In the public eye, and at the briefing earlier, the HSE has been downplaying the seriousness of the lack of capacity to deal with a significant rise in the spread of the virus. Anybody who has had reason to visit an accident and emergency department in the past six months has had the experienced being in a war zone. Trotting out advice to self-isolate and stay at home will not convince the public otherwise. Giving minor statistics, such as the number of beds increasing from 12 here to 22 there, will not help to deal with the capacity problem. The public needs a much more thorough explanation.

One measure taken in Britain would be useful, namely, the testing of existing patients in hospitals who have chronic lung problems in order to ensure that they do not carry the virus. At the briefing earlier, I raised the issue of the inadequate supply of hand sanitiser in schools but I did not get a satisfactory answer. There was no acknowledgement of the matter except to say that children are better off washing their hands than using hand sanitiser. As we know, however, in many schools there is not an adequate supply of hot water or paper towels for children to dry their hands with. Drying them with hand towels is a no-no.

I agree with Deputy McDonald about cross-Border co-operation.

It is in a national situation such as this that one realises how farcical and unworkable partition is and that we need an all-Ireland health service with an all-Ireland response.

I want to raise the question of intellectual property rights. We were told this morning about a company called Gilead Sciences, that has a base in Cork. Ironically, Gilead is also the name of the spooky medieval country in The Handmaid's Talebut apparently Gilead Sciences is developing an anti-viral drug. Intellectual property rights are important because in the privatisation of medicine and cures, intellectual property rights can be held onto by a company without being shared with the public services and the people who work therein who have the knowledge and experience of dealing with anti-viral medication. We need to move away from that. There should be a global discussion to say no company should have the intellectual property rights to an anti-viral drug that may find a cure for Covid-19. I wrote to the caretaker Minister, Deputy Harris, about the pharmaceutical industry. LloydsPharmacy, which is notoriously anti-trade union but which has many branches across Dublin city, particularly in working-class areas, has almost doubled the price of hand sanitation lotion. Many people have phoned or emailed me to complain about this. I have asked the Minister about this and I asked again this morning what the Government intends to do about this. Can the Government intervene to stop that exploitation that seeks to never waste a good crisis by profiteering? If not, will the Government at least issue a public condemnation of profiteering from this crisis? I agree with the ending of access to two-tier medicine.

On the issue of workers' rights, we are exposed in this country as being weak and as often providing non-existent protection for workers. We already know how poor workers' rights are in Ireland in comparison with the rest of the European Union but it is a decrepit system and the statutory rights of workers were changed in 2013 by a Labour-Fine Gael Government when the three-day period without sick pay was effectively extended to one week. If one looks at what Boris Johnson is doing, he has already acknowledged that in the first week, everybody will be paid from day one if they have to self-isolate. It is a bit of a stretch but it makes him look a bit like James Connolly compared with what the Government is doing for workers' rights. We have heard nothing about it. We have seen correspondence from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, to IBEC. We have seen pronouncements from the WRC which state there is no obligation to provide sick pay and where companies do not have a sick pay scheme, there is no obligation for them to provide it. It beggars belief that we are not recognising the needs of workers, particularly low-paid workers and workers in the gig economy, to have a basic living income if they have to self-isolate. There will be a reluctance on behalf of these workers to acknowledge they have symptoms and that they need to stay at home because poorer workers and workers on low pay not only depend week by week on the money they earn but often day by day. We do not depend on our wages in this way and neither do many other people but we need to recognise that hundreds of thousands of workers do. This State needs to intervene and pass emergency legislation that allows sick pay from day one, which increases that sick pay to a living wage and provides that, if necessary, employers will be faced with an extra levy or extra taxation to pay it. We cannot allow workers to not be able to self-isolate where necessary. This is not just a workers' issue; it is a public health issue. I hope we can move immediately to introduce legislation on that basis.

7:40 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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On the issue of intensive care unit beds, will the Minister bring the number of intensive care unit beds in this State up to at least the EU average within a short time? There were 5.2 intensive care unit beds per 100,000 of the population in this State at the end of last year. The European Union average is 11.5 per 100,000 people. That is less than half. The recommended level of occupancy is 75% but in reality, the level of occupancy is 88% and in some units, it is 96%. Dr. Rory Dwyer, clinical lead of the Irish National Intensive Care Unit Audit said last year, "You can cope with sporadic cases but if there is a large number we will struggle to cope and probably won't." Dr. Michael O'Dwyer of St. Vincent's University Hospital stated that repeated calls he had made for increases in ICU beds had been ignored, that the HSE had its "head in the sand" and that the system here lacks surge capacity. There were 255 ICU beds in the system in 2019. The Minister gave information on an increase and any increase is welcome. The figure he mentioned was 20 but 20 is not adequate. I put it to the Minister for comment and reply that the number of ICU beds within the system here should be brought up to the EU average - in other words it should be more than doubled - within the space of one week. That would be an emergency response and I ask the Minister to respond to that. Beds and staff are needed in preparation for a potential emergency.

On sick pay and illness benefit, we have an absence of a comprehensive occupational sick pay system in this State. A previous Government increased the number of days which a worker must be absent from work before being eligible to apply for illness benefit from three days to six days. That was implemented by a Labour Party Minister in a Labour- Fine Gael Government. We have the phenomenon of presenteeism. There has been talk about absenteeism but there is also presenteeism where workers who are sick feel they have no choice in seeking to defend their precarious situations and their families but to go to work when sick or possibly sick, compromising their health, the health of their work colleagues, the health of the public and so on. We need to have a comprehensive occupational sick pay system that can immediately be accessed by workers, funded by a proper regime of employers' social insurance contributions and heavily weighted on the most profitable companies, that will cover a worker who is ill, who needs to self-isolate or who needs to care for his or her children or family members.

The example of the nurses is the best practice. Their unions have negotiated an arrangement with the HSE whereby there is already an existing sick pay scheme but they would have sick leave on full pay if they self-isolate. The National Bus and Rail Union has correctly said that should apply for public transport workers and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has rightly said it should apply for all workers. I add my voice to the calls from those unions.

The cuts in the illness benefit arrangement that were made in 2012 by the then Minister, Joan Burton, must be immediately reversed.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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I would like to start my maiden speech by thanking most sincerely the people of Wexford, 11,849 of whom voted for me, first preference or otherwise. I thank my campaign team and express the admiration I have for each and every one of them. They came out to canvass in their hundreds, in most cases after a long day's work, which was a big honour for me. I hope the attainment of a seat in the Thirty-third Dáil is in turn testament to their hard work and belief in me.

Being elected by the people of Wexford as the first Independent female candidate to take a seat, and only the second woman after Avril Doyle to hold a seat in the constituency, represents change in itself. I intend to execute that mandate for change in full. The quest for change saw Sinn Féin and Independents garner 40% of the first preference vote in Wexford. This was reflected across Ireland. The national media and the Government were shocked. Why did people vote for change? Since 2007, many people's lives have changed immeasurably and though they have been continually lectured by the Government on the huge strides that have been made in mending the public finances and saving them from oblivion, to many, their lifestyles remain where they were in 2011.

I refer to rents spiralling, negative equity, high taxes, unaffordable childcare, free GP care with no GPs, no mental health services, no mortgages and no homes. They had expectations that the recession would not last forever, that the wage cuts were necessary,that the increased taxes were temporary and that the bank rescue and the troika were the only show in town. There was no way out. NAMA was to save the day. Socialism for banks and vulture and cuckoo funds but capitalism for everybody else has been the reality. These entities prosper in an environment of low or, in many cases, no taxes, while all the time middle income Ireland is screwed. The reason people voted for change is because they now realise that corporate Ireland prospered on the backs of Joe and Mary. An expectation to own their own home was shattered by the reality that the home offering will be an apartment or a duplex-style unit in a high-density development in a rural constituency like Wexford that they neither want nor can afford. That is why people voted for change.

If the economy is stronger and employment levels so high, how could things be so bad? Why are there no houses? Why are rents at an all-time high? Why are there long hospital waiting lists? Why are farmers on the breadline? Why are fishermen destitute? Why can parents not afford to send their children to college? Why are children in their 30s living with their parents? The answer lies in the fact that the politicians have failed to deal with solutions that do not accommodate their notion of the optics. For example, NAMA was initially sold to the public as a system that would warehouse loans and ease the impact of the crash. Instead, the position changed midstream and the loans were sold to vulture funds. This resulted in the utter collapse and devastation of the housing market in Ireland. The main adviser to the Government on these loan sales ended up being the main purchaser of the loans. The decision to sell Irish loans to international funds had the following effects: it collapsed the Irish home-building industry; it created a home rental crisis; it created negative equity for the majority of homeowners in Ireland; and it created the greatest homeless crisis in the history of the State. Somebody had to be blamed for the bust and builders were an easy target. NAMA pursued them with vigour. Meanwhile, the banks and corporate Ireland got a bailout.

When the Government realised that there was nobody left to build houses and that the skilled workforce had left for greener pastures never to return, it had to employ new policies to cover its mistakes. What did it do? It introduced tax breaks for cuckoo funds to purchase properties. It introduced ministerial guidelines to increase densities in order to bring volumes to the market faster, albeit it was advised that this was not viable outside the M50. It never meaningfully consulted the building industry. Whatever the spin doctors say about builders, and they may have been part of the collapse, as were the Government and its agencies, the main cause of the collapse was the oversupply of credit presided over by a regulator who could only be described as being asleep at the wheel. Builders are part of the solution. They are the ones who will build houses. They need to be brought inside the circle. Politicians and civil servants alike need to listen to them.

The main people now facilitating the building of properties are the cuckoo funds which, as we know, pay no taxes but the optics are that we are building. We will never be able to break free of the rental limbo this Government has put us in nor will the affordability crisis ever be over unless we change how we do things. That means taking decisive action that works. It is not about the optics. I hope the lesson has been learned. Change means policies that work. It means strong leadership, standing up and being counted when faced with officials that will not listen.

In Wexford, people earning the average industrial wage cannot purchase the average three-bedroom property being sold on the market, without the site costs included, for €230,000 because they only qualify for a mortgage of €170,000. Change means looking at and introducing current macro-prudential rules, not applying rules of another era. Can we consider a mortgage interest rate cap? As we hear every day, banks are making excessive profits. Can we simply legislate to equate multiples of borrowing to the current interest rates, not ten year old interest rates?

We must not forget that for every new build the Government takes in 33% in taxes yet Irish Water does not have a guaranteed funding structure. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is refusing to change the ministerial guidelines to accommodate the housing requirements of rural areas, which is endorsed by the Planning Regulator, Niall Cussen, or vice versa, all of which requires change if we are ever to truly solve the housing crisis. Change most definitely meant that the people did not want the pension age to rise to 67. It should remain at 65.

Most of all, we need to recognise that Ireland is not Dublin and that life exists beyond the M50. While the voters recognised this, it appears the Government did not, introducing Dublin-centric policies that devastated the very essence of rural towns and villages. If one were to examine the IDA Ireland policy, one would think that, particularly in the context of my constituency of Wexford, motorways were being provided to go only one way. There were only three visits to Wexford in 2019 but there were 269 visits to Dublin. Legislation introduced such as zero-tolerance drink-driving laws that were overbearing and ill-thought-out when implemented in rural Ireland served only to devastate rural areas and businesses and create social isolation when all that was required was a rural transport infrastructure because in urban areas there are buses and taxis on every street.

Rural Ireland depends on rural industries - farming, fishing, haulage and tourism. With too many businesses such as tourism operating on a seasonal basis, they do not have the footfall of urban businesses. That is why the VAT increase should never have been applied across the board in the hospitality sector. It should have been a city tax. That is a prime example of the urban-rural disconnect. In farming and haulage, the lack of labour, the green agenda and overregulation are all serving to erode the bottom line and are making many smallholdings and businesses that raised families in the past unviable. The EU budget is currently under discussion. Due to Brexit, the budget is reduced, which means that, in turn, the CAP budget is being revised and reduced. It is time we stated our case for farmers and hauliers. As a country, Ireland is not just geographically disadvantaged, it is also competitively disadvantaged as a result of Brexit. We should call on the EU to institute the support it promised so vocally in the hope that it might overturn Brexit, or was that more optics?

Rosslare Europort must be upgraded to its operational potential. We have to start to walk the walk if we are ever to alleviate the congestion in Dublin Port that causes the increase in carbon emissions, which is the very thing we are being penalised for through carbon taxes. When hauliers' productivity is halved due to congestion and lack of space, they are being asked to pay more. Why is it impossible to join the dots and see the benefits of change?

7:50 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputy is out of time.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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I have one final paragraph. All of this was happening without resolve and then the coronavirus hit. What can we do? What can the Government do? It can take the lead. We must display truth and transparency in how this process will work. Are we prepared - yes or no?

As leaders, the burden is on those in government to make clear decisions to close schools and cancel mass gatherings. It should not assume that its message is being heard.

I have one question for the Minister.

8:00 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputy is out of time now.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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In the event that any of the main parties, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Green Party or Sinn Féin, can agree a formation of Government, would all have to convene a special delegate conference to allow members approve a programme for Government?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We do not have this time problem with people from Cork and not normally with people from Wexford.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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Has due consideration been given to a contingency plan-----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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It is contagious.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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-----so as not to give the country the excuse of the coronavirus as an excuse for forming the Government?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Thanks be to God for mentioning the coronavirus at the end.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am glad to see the Ceann Comhairle is in great form this evening. He is very lenient.

I will begin by complimenting our medical staff and all those research specialists who are working tirelessly to meet the challenges that are being presented by the coronavirus, Covid-19. Containment remains the top priority for all countries. The situation is serious and very worrying. According to the World Health Organization, management of Covid-19 globally is not a one-size-fits-all approach and must be tailored to the transmission scenario faced in each country.

Early robust measures, which are key to saving lives and halting transmission, need to be implemented here in Ireland. It will only be possible to measure their effectiveness in time. It is absolutely vital that we do all we can to interrupt human-to-human transmission including reducing secondary infections among close contacts and health care workers, preventing transmission events, and preventing further international spread.

Many of the concerns that have been raised with me, and no doubt with most other Members of this House, other politicians and with health care professionals, centre on the capacity of the HSE and our wider health systems to cope with this virus should it become more widespread among the public. There is general concern and a feeling of hopelessness on this. The sub-committee and the agencies are doing their best but people are worried. They do not have great faith in the HSE on many things. We wish the HSE well in its endeavours but people are concerned and rightly so. As Deputy Verona Murphy noted some moments ago, the Government was not listening to the people and has a habit of not doing so. It needs to bí ag éisteacht le cluas oscailte i gcónaí.

We already know that before this outbreak, the state of our preparedness was not exactly world class. That is acknowledged by all. We have heard more concerns about the mid-west by Deputy Connolly. If anything, Covid-19 has exposed the extent to which the chronic capacity issues within our hospitals can lead them to become easily overwhelmed. We see that on a daily basis with the trolley crisis. People are not even on trolleys any more but are on chairs, stools and anything they can sit on. South Tipperary General Hospital and Limerick University Hospital are the worst affected in the country with regard to trolleys. Parts of Limerick University Hospital are fairly modern but Clonmel is an older hospital and does not have space. There is a league comparing the worst hospitals for trolleys and there is a trolley watch. The situation is much worse in Clonmel, which is an old building with narrow corridors and the Minster himself has accepted that.

The Minister visited the hospital in Cashel and admitted he was quite taken aback by the extensive range of facilities which are unused there. I have suggested locally that in light of the ongoing capacity issues facing South Tipperary General Hospital, it might be more prudent for the HSE to consider locating its coronavirus isolation units at Our Lady's Hospital, Cashel. The Minister has visited it with colleagues and myself when he saw that its top floors were empty. There is activity on the ground, which we appreciate and which cannot be interrupted, but it would be ideally located for the purpose of isolation. It is a relatively modern building. The HSE has confirmed that it has identified isolation units in all acute hospitals, including South Tipperary General Hospital, where specific multidisciplinary virus preparedness committees also will be created, which we welcome.

The priority here has to be about maintaining patient safety and minimising the risk to the general population should a case of coronavirus be identified in Tipperary, while ensuring the safety and protection of all the healthcare workers, including nurses and doctors and the general team from the porters to the consultants. It must also be about maximising the best use of existing resources in such a way that will not cause greater levels of disruption than are warranted in an already overstretched health system. That cannot be said strongly enough. We are overstretched and we do not want to make the existing trauma and stress worse. This is why the HSE should at least explore the possibility of locating the isolation units in a hospital facility such as Our Lady's Hospital, where there are no inpatients and where the impact on patient care can be minimised. I acknowledge that there are day cases and child and special needs facilities there but they can be relocated if necessary.

South Tipperary General Hospital is already at absolute capacity and under enormous pressures to maintain normal services, as is University Hospital Limerick. It makes sense therefore to see if we can make positive use of Cashel hospital, especially as most people would accept that it has the potential to offer a wider range of services. If it turns out on foot of expert advice that locating the isolation units in Our Lady’s Hospital, Cashel are not appropriate, then that advice must of course be deferred to in the interests of patient safety. I do not want the usual excuse rolled out that there is no lift and it is not accessible. There is something wrong there. Some €22.5 million was spent on that complex and it is outrageous that it is left empty.

Much more needs to be done on advice to workers and employers. The OECD has already warned that the virus presents the global economy with its greatest danger since the last financial crash. That is a stark warning. Meanwhile the Minister for Finance has said that he will review the economic effect and see if a policy action by the Government is necessary. This seems totally absurd; surely this must be examined now, rather than waiting for what will happen and trying to deal with it afterwards. Why are we still having this wait-and-see approach from the Minister and the Government when as we speak businesses, schools and tourism is being negatively affected?

While I accept we need a proportionate response, that kind of measured response will only come if the public and the business community are convinced that the appropriate protective measures are in place. During the severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, epidemic in 2003, the House debated a motion aimed at assessing the adequacy of the State’s response. It centred on the actions of the then Minister for Health, Deputy Micheál Martin. It was felt that there had been a serious erosion of confidence in the public health service arising from the mishandling of the SARS threat by the Minister and the issuing of inadequate, confusing and contradictory communications. The motion also noted that these failures were symptomatic of a more general failure by Government to effectively and efficiently manage the health service at a time of unprecedented spending. The HSE was set up under the Minister’s watch. Bedlam, confusion and distress ensued among the public, which we are supposed to serve as Teachtaí Dála sa Teach seo. We are meant to serve the public which we have not been doing. There are parts of that motion which could have been written yesterday because in many ways, we do not seem to have learned many lessons 17 years on. That is very sad. We experienced the SARS outbreak and should have learned from the mistakes in order that we can be ready.

There is still a need to deliver a more comprehensive public information campaign.

The public feel they are in the dark. When that happens, rumour and panic can spread, as we all know. We must do all we can to prevent that, while ensuring we hold those responsible for effective public health and safety to account. I am very concerned, as many people are. I am aware of the efforts of the churches, schools and people in other areas of public life to minimise any risk. However, the Minister saw the hospital in Cashel. It is a shame and scandal in 2020 to have that lying empty after €12.5 million has been spent on the building, with the rest spent on the complex, some of which does very valuable work in regard to services for the elderly and so on. It is a shame to see it empty. It could be fortuitous if this unfortunate epidemic forced it to be opened, given there has been resistance in the HSE to opening it. People are on chairs and on trolleys in Limerick, Waterford and elsewhere. The Minister and his officials have seen it and I ask him to examine the issue.

8:10 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Connolly, who is sharing time with Deputies Joan Collins and McNamara.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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As I have only four minutes to speak, the Minister will forgive me if I do not dwell on the niceties. However, I thank the staff who are at the coalface. It is important to keep a balance during this crisis. At the end of the day, we are talking about a virus where over 80% of people who are infected will only suffer mild to moderate effects. While this is not to lessen it in any way, we need to keep it in perspective.

The crisis has focused our attention on a number of issues. One is the issue of workers being advised to self-isolate without any clarity whatsoever in regard to their pay. The second is the issue of the washing of hands and the fact that, in this country, we have got to the stage where we need to be directed as to how to wash our hands with soap, which is worthy of consideration. I heard the term "respiratory etiquette" being used. We need to update our respiratory etiquette, which, in itself, is a message.

We then look at the Minister's message, which comes from the establishment, as it were. The Minister has to learn the lesson from the cervical smear scandal that we need to give out as much information as possible, stop being patriarchal and realise that information is power. Information empowers people, so we must give out the maximum amount of it.

The state of the health service has been brought into acute focus. Earlier today, I read some of a letter from Fórsa. I want to put this in perspective in regard to Galway, where I understand there are four cases in the regional hospital. I see no difficulty in naming that hospital. In fact, I think it helps to empower people to know that the hospital is able to cope, and the effort should be in regard to telling us that the hospital is able to cope. As I understand it, four cases have been brought to the attention of the hospital. Whether they are in the hospital or not, I do not know, but it should be clarified whether they are and, if so, whether they are in isolation. I understand they are not from Galway but from outside the county. Maximum information is very important, particularly in regard to Galway city. As the Minister knows, Galway is in serious crisis and the hospital has a serious shortage of beds and staff on every level, including ICU beds.

We then come to the Fórsa letter. The Minister advises people not to go to the hospital and to stay at home, and to go to their GP or to get the GP to come to them. We see that that system is crumbling. Fórsa uses the most forceful language I have ever seen in my life. I am going to give the Minister a copy of the letter, which is three pages long and dated 4 March. It states that more patients will end up in hospital for longer because they cannot be discharged, and that the scale of closure orders in regard to primary care centres is a significant shock to the overall system in the west and also unprecedented. I am reading this letter again, as I did this morning. It states: "I have not witnessed that scale of service closure in my two decades as a trade union official". That is a letter worth looking at.

When the Minister talks about building confidence and encouraging us, the best way to do that is to acknowledge the crisis that exists in our health service and in primary care. Let us have a clear, honest information package in regard to what is going on, such as the embargo that is not an embargo and all of the posts that are not filled. Let us acknowledge that first and then, when we are trying to build confidence among people, give them maximum information on how a hospital will cope. Today, there are 36 people on trolleys in Galway and the figure was 26 yesterday and 32 the day before. Mr. Reid, who is in charge of the HSE, tells us we are facing a potentially unprecedented health situation arising from the virus. I say we were facing that prior to the virus.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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As I only have four minutes, I will also avoid the niceties. I know that front-line workers and public officials have done a lot of work. I wish them well in their work in the next period because they are possibly going to face a difficult situation in hospitals and elsewhere.

I refer to the letter from Patricia King, the president of ICTU, to the Taoiseach yesterday. The letter refers to the problems that could be faced by hundreds of thousands of low-paid, non-unionised workers who do not have a contract for sick pay with their employers. In a severe crisis of Covid-19, these workers may be asked to self-isolate or even face temporary lay-offs without pay. Under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, employers have a duty to protect staff and, under the same Act, employees have a duty of care to fellow workers. Workers in this situation will have to rely on sick pay or unemployment benefit if laid off. These benefits are very low in Ireland. While we have pay-related social insurance, we do not have pay-related benefits, as is the norm in most EU states. The flat rate of sick pay is €203 per week. However, it does not cover the first six days because, as has been said, it was extended from three to six days in 2012. I note the Tory Government has moved to reduce the waiting time from four days to none. Workers classified as self-employed, often in bogus self-employment, may not even be entitled to State benefits.

What is the Government going to do about this? I heard the Taoiseach say today that the Government will make an announcement next Monday. When is the Government going to meet ICTU? Is it going to bring in legislation, if necessary, to change these mechanisms?

With regard to high-risk groups, I was with Cystic Fibrosis Ireland this morning as I have a family member with cystic fibrosis. There is huge concern among people with cystic fibrosis, COPD, cancer and diabetes. I was talking to a woman who said that in the first 71,000 cases in China, the death rate among people with diabetes was 8.4%. We have to plan to put in place a liaison officer along the lines of the officer in place during the swine flu epidemic in 2002, when the first patient who died was a cystic fibrosis sufferer. That has to be done.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I thank Deputies Collins and Connolly for sharing time. An outbreak of Covid-19 or coronavirus in County Clare became public knowledge across the county today. Obviously, people are very concerned and afraid.

I want to pay tribute to one group of people in particular, those who work in the ambulance service. As we speak, people are being contacted and the ambulance service is travelling out and swabbing and testing people for Covid-19. In a way, I am very humbled by that, when we compare how seriously they take their duties and responsibilities with, perhaps, how seriously this Dáil has taken its duties and responsibilities since we were all elected. It should be of reassurance to the people of Clare that the ambulance personnel are doing what they are doing. Obviously, there is an inherent risk to all medical personnel from this outbreak. It is a huge tribute to them that they are doing what they are doing.

If anybody in Clare is listening to the Dáil at this hour, I urge them not to present to their GP surgeries or accident and emergency units if they fear they may have contracted the virus but instead to telephone ahead. I am happy that people are being contacted. I am not happy because the Minister has told me but because I have heard from health professionals across the county that people who have been in contact with the virus are being contacted and ambulance personnel are making their way to them to test them. I pay tribute to them for that.

8:20 pm

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I wish merely to take the opportunity to update the House and set out to procedures in place across a number of key agencies and services under the remit of my Department, namely, the immigration services, An Garda Síochána, the Courts Service, and the Irish Prison Service, IPS, some of which were referred to earlier. One essential characteristic that all the services have in common is the high degree of interaction between the personnel and members of the public. It is probably unnecessary for me to say that a level of particular care is needed in this. In this regard, my Department has established a cross-functional Covid-19 response team comprising senior officials from within the Department and from the agencies to which I referred.

With reference to immigration services, the current EU advice is for borders to remain open and for persons to follow the travel advice issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. A number of aspects of the immigration system involve engagement with persons moving into the State or non-EEA nationals. The most visible of these is at airports, in particular Dublin Airport, where border management immigration officers of my Department immigrate approximately 16 million persons per year. There is a close working relationship between staff at the Airport, the DAA and the HSE. Immigration personnel closely follow all advice from the HSE and, in the event that a suspected case arises, the clear protocols laid down are carefully followed. The immigration services of my Department are also working closely with the HSE on a daily basis across a number of areas, including accommodation centres for international protection applicants, public offices used for registration of immigration permissions, and international protection offices. Along with guidelines on good respiratory and hand-hygiene practices, hand sanitisers have been provided, Covid-19 risk assessments have been issued to each of these service areas, and together with the HSE, my officials are ensuring information is kept updated on a daily basis and that any changing circumstances are responded to in an effective manner.

With regards to the visa regime, in line with other EU member states and overall Chinese Government policy, the public offices to accept visa applications in China remain closed until 16 March and the matter will be reviewed in advance of that date. In accordance with best practice, contingency planning is also in hand to ensure priority immigration services can continue to be provided, should circumstances warrant.

An Garda Síochána has been closely following HSE and the Department of Health guidelines and has been issuing advice to staff via An Garda Síochána's chief medical officer, CMO, on the matter and will continue to do so. Garda management have plans in place to manage on a case-by case basis any issues that arise in their workforce, which totals more than 17.500 people. An Garda Síochána continues to operate as normal and will keep their procedures when dealing with members of the public under continuous review.

Regarding the Courts Service, a contingency planning group to review its plans to meet the challenges caused by the arrival of Covid-19 in Ireland is in place. Business continuity plans for courthouses and business are being updated and reviewed and official HSE guidance is now issued to staff and a communications plan is in the course of being developed for staff and court users.

The IPS continues to work closely with the HSE in developing contingency planning specifically for the management of Covid-19 should it present in prisons, in line with best international practice, to reduce the risk of exposure to staff, prisoners, visitors and the wider community. This includes maintaining safe prisons with all essential services including,inter alia, staffing, healthcare, catering provision and the maintenance of plant and equipment. The IPS has dedicated its executive clinical lead infection control manager to preparedness in this regard. A comprehensive information pack has been made available to all staff and an educational module has been completed.

In conclusion, I acknowledge the leadership, commitment and dedication of the Minister, Deputy Harris, his team in the Department of Health, and right across the HSE. Regarding my Department, I commend all our officials and staff who are working on the front line to deliver public services at such a time of challenge.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Cathal Crowe.

The coronavirus is a serious challenge globally and nationally. It is crucial that we all follow the advice of public health experts as they are in constant contact with the WHO. The coronavirus affects older people and those with certain health conditions to a greater extent. Older people who may contact this virus will need additional wrap-around supports to deal with it. This morning I met with the CEO of ALONE, Mr. Seán Moynihan. ALONE is an organisation that supports older people and it is urging older people to take extra care but to remain calm. Its advice is similar to the HSE guidelines - to wash their hands regularly, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment, and to avoid close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections or other illnesses.

The HSE website has the most up-to-date information. Not all people, however, especially the elderly, are in a position to source this information. This can create a vacuum and can cause anxiety and upset. It is imperative through community care, public health nurses and GPs, that the correct information can be circulated to elderly people who are not online, to avoid any unnecessary panic and misinformation. As we are currently in the containment phase of this virus, clear, clinically-based information is essential. I welcome the fact that the Minister will meet patient advocacy groups tomorrow. I have spoken to him and he has informed me that he will raise the issue of those who are not online to enable them to access the relevant information.

There is an onus on other Departments to be actively involved at this worrying time and I welcome the fact that the various Ministers have been present for the debate. I specifically refer to he Department of Education and Skills, which has a role to play in supporting school principals, boards of management and school pupils, given there is a critical mass of people in schools on a daily basis. Several schools, especially secondary schools, had pupils on school tours in Italy during the mid-term break. The information on the 14-day quarantine has led to much confusion for some parents. More clarity is required on self-isolation and on whether the school has the authority to request self-isolation. If a student has been on holidays in one of the affected areas, clear guidelines are required to prevent panic or confusion. I witnessed this recently in a school in the south east where a pupil returned who was not infected, but it caused panic and confusion among parents wondering whether that particular pupil should have been quarantined. We need more definitive guidelines on the 14-day quarantine, especially for pupils in schools.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas as an deis labhairt ar an ábhar fíor-thábhachtach seo.

It is right that this House should be sitting tonight to discuss the coronavirus. It is a pity that we did not sit in the past number of days as many communities in our country lay beneath flood waters. As is well documented, there are four confirmed cases of the coronavirus in north County Clare. The health and welfare of the affected family is topmost of my concerns.

The HSE has chosen, quite similar to last week's confirmed case in Dublin, to anonymise the names of the affected family and the part of Clare from which they hail, but with most people now on various social media platforms, there is no effective anonymity. Overnight three separate schools in Clare texted parents to announce that, on precautionary grounds, they would not open today. I know of a number of businesses in Ennis and beyond who have instructed workers to stay at home until more is known. These closures are fine in the short term but not sustainable on a long-term basis. The people need confidence and supply at the moment of a very different type. They need to have confidence that the Minister for Health and the HSE will lead from the front in the containment of the coronavirus and they need a supply of accurate information. In the absence of accurate information, people have turned to social media news feeds that are riddled with mistruths and misinformation, all of which gives rise to levels of hysteria that will no do the country any good. The public advice needs to be a bit better than to talk to one's GP, to the HSE and to wash one's hands well. We need to have far more capacity to contact trace those who have been infected with the coronavirus.

Perhaps the Minister could consider assigning a team of workers in each local authority area to help the HSE in this regard.

Business owners and schools also need assurances that suspected cases of coronavirus can be ruled in or out as the case may be. All of this can only happen through scientific testing. I implore the Minister and all the staff in his Department and that of the Minister, Deputy Harris, to better resource the screening and contact tracing systems that have been put in place.

8:30 pm

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the officials in the Department of Health and those working in the HSE on the front line of this healthcare challenge. I express my very sincere best wishes to those who have contracted the virus. I hope they have a very speedy recovery. I sincerely hope that those who are worried about contagion can get the comfort and the information they need. Many of us here this evening have been privy to briefings. The fact that we still have questions, and questions are being asked here this evening, should serve as a signal to the Minister that more information is needed. If we still have questions after the briefings we have had, we can only imagine the questions people outside this Chamber must have.

The Minister knows well that we have a serious and ongoing issue with capacity in our health service. We know the causes. We have discussed the failings of Government policy on many occasions at committee, in this Chamber and elsewhere. I do not want to dwell on the policy decisions that have brought us here, but I note that the capacity of our health service to respond to the challenge of Covid-19 is dependent on the availability of staff. We have heard from the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, that staff are queuing up to be hired - those are the INMO's words, not mine. Staff members are available but they are not getting contracts. They need to get them as a matter of priority. Regardless of whether the Minister chooses to acknowledge it, the recruitment embargo has to be lifted without any delay. The emergency needs to be dealt with in a practical way. The only way to deal with it is to recruit and hire more staff.

We need to be cognisant that a whole-of-Ireland approach is needed if we are to address this challenge meaningfully. That means we need to have an all-Ireland public health approach that maximises the benefits of being a small island while ensuring we meet the challenges we face as an island. Practically speaking, this means harmonising the advice given between North and South; ensuring the provision and sharing of capacity between North and South; if necessary, a ring-fenced and dedicated all-island budget; a joined-up approach to the purchasing of essential equipment and devices; the unlimited sharing of medical information between North and South; and the development of an all-island model of contagion. These are practical steps that will serve to protect our island. We managed the outbreak of foot and mouth disease as an island and this outbreak should be no different.

The Minister and I both know that the single biggest determinant of ill health is poverty. The poorest and those in the lowest-paid and most precarious work are likely to be impacted very heavily by this emergency. We are asking the Minister to waive any waiting period for sick leave to ensure workers who get up early in the morning but cannot afford to lose a day's pay are compensated. We are also asking the Government to be very clear with employers that they have to play their part.

I wish to take this opportunity to request that a plurality of voices is brought into the decision-making process from this Oireachtas. I do not want to upset the work of the national public health emergency team and the HSE national crisis management team in any way, but rather to work to help with this serious public health emergency. With the greatest respect to the caretaker Minister, in a few weeks he may not be the person in charge of the Department of Health. For that reason it is imperative that there is high-level involvement from the main parties in this House, so that if the caretaker moves out and the new Minister moves in there is continuity, no time is lost and the new Minister can hit the ground running. I hope this request is taken by the Minister in the spirit in which it is intended; that is, as a constructive suggestion.

I ask the Minister to focus at least some of his advice on those who are living with the consequences of the housing emergency. How can someone self-isolate if he or she is living in a family hub? How can a person in a homeless hostel self-isolate? Will additional respite beds be provided? Let us think about this practically. If a person is caring for someone in his or her home, he or she cannot self-isolate unless that person can be cared for.

I pay tribute again to the front-line healthcare workers who are at the coalface of this challenge. I pay tribute to the families that are now dealing with this and trying to ensure good sense prevails. They may need to access respite services. They need to know that such beds are there, not that they are coming, and that they can self-isolate quickly. People want to act in the interests of public health but they need to know that the Government, in whatever capacity, will be on their side, will provide the facilities they need and will respond to the needs of carers, who have a very particular concern at this time of public health emergency.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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We face a very serious and potentially very dangerous situation. As this debate has been going on, the tenth case in Ireland has been publicised. It is being reported that this is the first case with no known link to northern Italy. The person who has unfortunately contracted Covid-19 was not in northern Italy and potentially got it from someone in this country. The worrying trends in other countries show the potential for exponential growth in the infection rates and the impact the virus will have on our society. It is clear that any weaknesses in the health service will be ruthlessly exposed.

It is worth looking at the situation in South Korea, where there has been an explosive growth of the virus. More than 500 new cases have been discovered in a day. The South Korean health system is now on the verge of running out of hospital beds for those who need them. South Korea is a country with 12 beds per 1,000 people; Ireland has three beds per 1,000 people. If we get into that kind of situation, the weaknesses of our health service, which are the product of decades of underinvestment by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, mean we will have a very big problem indeed. This underlines the need to invest in building a properly resourced and adequately funded national health service, with a massive expansion in staff and resources. In the immediate term, it underlines the need to avoid this level of exponential growth.

I have no doubt that the workers on the front lines in our health service and other parts of the public service will work as hard as they can to cope with and prevent the further spread of Covid-19, but a key element of successful containment is public co-operation. The HSE correctly instructs those who have symptoms of the virus to self-isolate for 14 days. That is a big responsibility and a big ask of ordinary people suffering from a cough, shortness of breath or fever. The State needs to step up to assist those people in doing this. That will be of benefit to those individuals, but it will be of particular benefit to society as a whole. This means being serious about providing people with assistance in dealing with the impact on their lives. Those who are self-isolating will not be able to go to work or look after their children. What provisions is the State putting in place now to assist those people and ensure they are not afraid to not go to work because they will not be paid or will lose their jobs? Such people might go to work even though they feel a bit sick and think they might have the coronavirus. We need emergency measures to introduce mandatory sick pay. Businesses must be forced to continue to pay their workers if they stay at home, either because a workplace shuts down and instructs people to stay at home or because workers themselves contract the virus.

If the business cannot pay, it must open its books, prove it cannot pay and the State should step in to cover the costs. In the case of school closures, which may have to become widespread, all of a sudden, parents are in a crisis and they should also be allowed to stay home from work and continue to be paid. Similarly, those who rely on welfare should no longer be required to go into dole offices and interact with others, and so on. If we do not take such measures, it will be disastrous because people simply cannot afford to forgo their pay cheque or to leave their children home alone.

My final point relates to one which has already been mentioned and concerns those who are living in overcrowded conditions. We are facing a housing crisis. Generations of families are living in single housing units and overcrowded emergency accommodation and hubs. I was contacted by someone whose family suffers from Bart syndrome, a disorder where those affected have a very weak immune system because of their white blood cell count. The family is living in emergency accommodation with around 40 other families, including more than 100 children. There are communal play areas for children and kitchen areas for families to cook their own food. Visitors are only allowed in the reception area. This family has to avoid all of those amenities because of the danger of contracting an infection. If they or someone in the homeless hub were to contract coronavirus, one can imagine how rapidly it could spread. Again, action is required. Could vacant buildings be taken and used immediately to provide necessary housing for people?

8:40 pm

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the fact that we are having these statements tonight. I express solidarity with the people who have been directly affected by the coronavirus so far, and their families. I also commend the many people in communities who are working at the front line to try to contain the situation. I thank them on behalf of everybody in this House for the work they do.

The virus has already brought considerable human suffering and major economic disruption across the globe. According to the latest OECD interim economic assessment, the coronavirus presents the global economy with its greatest threat since the financial crisis. At this point, it is too early to be able to assess what will be the overall impact on the economy, but the potential impact is huge.

Not much has been said tonight specifically about the tourism industry, but it is an area that is hugely exposed. I assure everybody in the sector that we are very much on top of this and monitoring the situation. If necessary, we are ready to intervene if the situation becomes worse. The importance of tourism in Ireland cannot be overstated. More than 260,000 are employed in tourism in the Republic of Ireland alone and those jobs are in every community. It is a critically important part of our economy. We have seen the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak in Italy. Flights have been suspended. In addition, the airline, Flybe, collapsed last night. The spin-off effect of the coronavirus outbreak is immense. We are keenly watching this space as I am very concerned about potential job losses, especially in the tourism sector. We know the bite has started to take effect. There have been numerous cancellations of events, in particular of corporate events but also across the board. Speaking to people in my constituency and throughout the industry, I have heard of many cancellations, in particular over the past ten or 11 days. That is very worrying for the season ahead.

The Minister, Shane Ross, and I have established and participate in a Covid-19 tourism monitoring group made up industry stakeholders, the tourism agencies and Department officials. We met yesterday and the previous Wednesday and we will meet again next week. The group is monitoring the disruption to the sector and is assisting in formulating our response to what is still an evolving situation. Fáilte Ireland has set up a Covid-19 industry advisory group, which met on Tuesday. The purpose of the group is to provide support to the tourism industry and facilitate the rapid sharing of information and insight to help improve the sector's understanding and response to the outbreak. Tourism Ireland expects a decline in holiday bookings from overseas over the next four to six weeks, especially from the USA, which is very worrying. Tourism Ireland's marketing activity in markets is being kept under close review. That will continue as necessary, with marketing campaigns being monitored on a case-by-case basis. Despite the nervousness and uncertainty we now face in the sector, in addition to the couple of years of uncertainty due to Brexit, which had a particular impact on the UK market, it is important that we remain calm, react proportionately and proceed with business as normal, while at the same time adhering to public health guidelines. As of now, the St. Patrick's Day festival is going ahead as planned. This could change if the situation escalates and pending the guidance on mass gatherings to be published by the national public health emergency team. The significance of the St. Patrick's Day festival is that it effectively kick-starts the tourism season in this country. The message that would go out if the festival were to be cancelled would be very worrying and detrimental to the entire industry.

In the area of sport, like everyone else, I am very disappointed about the postponement of the Six Nations rugby match but, again, we must look at the bigger picture and public health measures. I hope that people recognise the postponement was deemed a necessary precaution in the interest of public health. It remains our intention that the game would be rescheduled later in the year, as happened in 2001 when we had the foot and mouth outbreak. I express my appreciation to the IRFU for its timely response to the advice of the Minister and the Chief Medical Officer. Other upcoming rugby games and soccer matches may now be in jeopardy. In particular, I am mindful that we are due to host four Euro 2020 games in June. We are monitoring that issue closely and will react as appropriate as time progresses. Similarly, regional sporting events, be they national league or even local games, will be monitored as the situation evolves. We will keep a very close eye on it. I assure everybody of our absolute vigilance in relation to all matters pertaining to tourism and sport. We will continue to work with all of the people concerned, including those in agencies and Departments, to ensure the best possible outcome.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Like everyone present, I have deep concerns and many questions regarding our preparedness for an escalation in cases of coronavirus in this State. Many previous speakers raised issues and concerns that I share but one area of concern is not being addressed in the way I would like. There seems to be a concerted effort to get good, clear information out on mainstream media and I am thankful that Twitter and Facebook have joined the fight against misinformation. However, I am concerned about how we are getting information and how prepared we are to protect vulnerable adults. It disappoints me to see updates without Irish Sign Language interpreters. I struggle to understand how small typefaces can be used in infographics, marginalising those with impaired vision or who have difficulty reading. It is important that in our quest to inform, we include everyone. This is especially important in workplaces where the onus should be on the employer to inform all employees of plans and policies in relation to this global outbreak.

In disability services across the country there are vulnerable adults who can only be dealt with by a trusted carer. Are those carers and service staff being trained to check for the presence of the virus? If we enter a stage of community contamination, what are the contingencies for such service facilities if an outbreak occurs? They find it difficult enough already to access funding to which they are entitled. Is there a fast-track application process for those units to apply for increased resources if they were to be placed on lockdown? Likewise, what will we do in homes when unpaid carers of the elderly and vulnerable get sick? Who will we send in to take over their full-time caring jobs? Those are issues that need to be addressed when we are informing the public about what is being done to combat and prepare against the virus.

The Taoiseach told the nation this week that there would not be a problem with the Minister for Health increasing health funding where necessary because a massive amount would not be needed. In a televised address following the caretaker Cabinet meeting, the Taoiseach said the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform and Heath would meet to identify additional requirements. He said they did not expect a large amount of money would be needed. He said they were not talking about a huge amount of money, but they were talking about additional money. There is never enough money available in health so it is important to clarify how this issue will not impact on funding. I have serious concerns about this.

Funding will be a key issue. It is important to acknowledge the hard-working care professionals who are doing their best to try to resolve this. The Minister needs to clarify tonight the exact position on funding. He is saying that he does not believe we need much funding, but that funding is available. He also needs to clarify that no other services will be affected by this because there are those who need services on which they are still waiting.

8:50 pm

Photo of Christopher O'SullivanChristopher O'Sullivan (Cork South West, Fianna Fail)
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This is my maiden address to the Dáil so I will take the opportunity to thank the people of Cork South-West who have put their faith in me. I assure them that I will repay them for it.

It goes without saying that I share the concerns expressed by other Deputies regarding public health. Public health is paramount. The safety of our communities is also paramount. All necessary precautions must be taken. That goes without saying.

I want to touch on the potential impact on the tourism industry. I am delighted the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, is in the Chamber while I am making this point. I am delighted he has assured the tourism industry that some steps will be taken. I come from Cork South-West. Many Deputies will be familiar with the area and may have been there. It is a place of immense beauty, from the Old Head of Kinsale in the east all the way down to Dursey Island in the west. There are beautiful tourism towns, such as Kinsale, Clonakilty, Skibbereen and Bantry, and they depend on tourism for employment. We have to put safeguards in place to ensure that there is as little an impact as possible on such towns. The café owners, restaurateurs, hoteliers and publicans are worried and concerned about the potential impact. Obviously, there will be an impact because containment will mean a restriction on the movement of people. Potentially, there will be a restriction on flights. It is already happening. I guess the impact is evident already. We have seen the situation with Flybe. The Cork-Cardiff flight will be affected. I have already heard of hotels in the Cork area whose books have been cleared because of cancellations, including cancellations of business trips. Therefore, we need to put plans in place. The tourism bodies - Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland - need to take steps and may need to rethink strategies, including marketing strategies. If there is a marketing strategy for northern Italy, maybe we need to rethink it and focus on the domestic market in order to keep it robust. Perhaps we need to think the same way about the United Kingdom, obviously depending on the escalation of the spread of the virus there.

It is really important that we do not turn our backs on the tourism industry. It was said when the VAT increase was made that we would revisit the measure in the case of crisis. This is a crisis and it is worth revisiting.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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As the Minister for Health is more than aware, it was confirmed within the past hour and a half that there is a patient in the intensive care unit in Cork University Hospital who has tested positive for the coronavirus. The patient is receiving intensive care in an isolation unit. As with many other Deputies from affected areas, my phone has been hopping since the case arose. There is obviously great concern in the community, as there will be in every community across the island. No community is likely to be untouched by this. It will have a great impact on life in Ireland and on health. We need to do everything we can. I appreciate everything that previous speakers have said about the impact on industry but I appeal to people and say that if our primary consideration in dealing with this illness is the economy, there will not be much of an economy left if the issue is not dealt with. The overriding consideration must be public health. It must outrank all other considerations.

I am sure the people of Cork are very concerned, as am I and every other Deputy. I emphasise to the people of Cork that they may have heard advice on washing, coughing and sneezing, and they may have paid some attention to it. Now is the time to enforce the advice absolutely, every day, every minute every hour. People have a role to play. The impact of such advice, when it is effective, is unbelievable. I appeal to the people of Cork to do their part and try to minimise the transmission of the infection. That is what people can do.

Much of what can be done rests in the hands of the public service, particularly the health service. There are people who are working very hard. I understand and appreciate that individuals such as Dr. Tony Holohan, Dr. Ronan Glynn and the Minister for Health and his staff are working extremely hard. We need a number of things. For many years, we have had a health system under pressure. Our bed occupancy rate is about 92%. We need to free up beds. Some 20% of people who contract the coronavirus will have to be treated in hospital. The other 80% can be treated in the community. Our priority, which I am sure is being explored, is to take people out of hospitals in so far as we can. If they can be moved to nursing homes or step-down facilities, that needs to happen. If they can be moved home, with the assistance of home help, that needs to happen. If we can find alternative care settings that are not being used for medical purposes but which are suitable, they need to be identified and used as soon as possible. I urge the authorities in Cork, but also those across the rest of the State and the Minister, to try to achieve what I am outlining. Staffing is central in this regard. Staffing is central to being able to bring people home and deliver the extra beds. In this regard, I appeal to the Minister to lift the cap on home help as soon as possible in order to allow as many home helps as possible to get into the system and help people to come home as soon as they can in order to free up the beds that are so badly needed. I urge the Minister to lift the employment embargo in order to ensure as many nurses as possible can be employed. The INMO is always saying there are nurses who are dying to work. They should be given the opportunity.

The Department of Education and Skills needs to step up its communication with schools - not only with those that are affected but also others in the affected communities because there will be a crossover between primary and secondary levels. Schools in the communities in question need to be communicated with and given guidance on what they should be doing. They can be in a difficult situation. I will be conveying this directly to the Minister. Schools are not just places of education; they are also pastoral settings. Children are scared. A principal told me that contact had been made with the Department of Education and Skills to inquire about the resources that may be available for teachers or students in regard to empathy and teaching people how to cope, but there is nothing in that regard. This matter needs to be addressed. We need to offer some peace of mind and security to children. We need to give teachers the support they need to deliver in this regard. That is important. In addition, there must be clear guidance. Schools are in a difficult position in terms of deciding whether to close. I urge them to err on the side of caution but I realise that they are in a difficult position.

My final point relates to social welfare. As soon as possible, we need to deal with the position of people who are forced to self-isolate such that they will not be wrecked owing to a lack of income. The changes in recent years, pertaining to the six-day rule on sick pay, were regressive. They make this even harder. If legislation is needed to address this matter, we should produce it. People should not be left out of pocket.

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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Ós rud é gurb í seo mo chéad óráid sa Dáil nua, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an bpobal i gCuan Bhaile Átha Cliath Theas. Is mór an onóir agus an phribhléid í bheith tofa mar Theachta Dála sa Teach seo arís. Tá súil agam go mbeidh mé ag obair go héifeachtach ar son na ndaoine sna blianta amach romhainn. I thank the people of Dublin Bay South who re-elected me as a Deputy.

I am disappointed that I am speaking for the first time in this, the Thirty-third Dáil, on such a depressing and dangerous issue as the coronavirus. It is important to note that unfortunately every generation produces its own diseases. This fact has dominated human history for centuries, but it places a huge challenge upon us. Particularly at times like this, policymakers have important decisions to make.

I welcome what the Minister had to say. It is important that all the decisions made in respect of this issue be guided by experts and people who have the requisite medical expertise. It is a very serious issue. It is affecting people's health and also their way of life. I am aware that the Minister is consulting experts.

I also ask the Minister to look beyond the people advising him at present to other experts who have knowledge in the area, who are concerned about the issue and have something important to contribute to the debate. I have been fortunate in recent days to have been contacted by Dr. Carmen Regan, who is a consultant specialist in maternal medicine with approximately 30 years' experience. I ask the Minister to read the article and letter Dr. Regan has written, which is published in today's edition of the Irish Independent. It would be worthwhile for the Minister to give that consideration. Dr. Regan makes a number of significant points in the article and letter. Specifically, the issue she raise, which I acknowledge the Minister and others will consider, concerns what we do about the significant threat posed to Ireland and other parts of Europe, by the significant outbreak of the disease in northern Italy.

In many respects, northern Italy, unfortunately, is the place where Covid-19 is at its most prevalent in Europe and we need to consider what steps need to be taken in that regard and whether we need to restrict transport from that area. Self-isolation is an integral part of responding to this but it will be difficult for those who are self-employed if they are told to self-isolate. We need to do something for them if we place an obligation on them to self-isolate.

9:00 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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De ghnáth, deirimid go bhfuil áthas orainn labhairt ar aon ábhar atá faoi chaibidil sa Dáil ach níl áthas ar aon Teachta a bheith anseo ag caint ar an ábhar seo. Tá buairt ar gach duine. Tá an baol ann go mbeidh daoine sa tír seo trína chéile le buairt ach mar a dúirt an Teachta Ó Laoghaire, tá comhairle tugtha ag an HSE do dhaoine, go háirithe chun a bheith ag ní na lámha. Sin an rud is tábhachtaí agus caithfidh muidne anseo agus muintir na tíre an eiseamláir sin a thaispeáint do gach duine ionas go mbeidh gach duine ansin ag glacadh an comhairle sin agus tá mise ag cur mo mhéar i mo aghaidh, rud nár cheart dom a dhéanamh ach an oiread. Caithfimid a bheith an-chúramach. Tá a lán rudaí ar siúl agus tá buairt ann ach tá sé tábhachtach go n-éistíonn gach duine leis na saineolaithe. Aontaím le mo chomhghleacaí, an Teachta O'Callaghan, go bhfuil saineolaithe eile ann agus tá an-mheas agam ar Dr. Tony Holohan agus an fhoireann sin. Tá an-taithí acu. Bhí seisean ag obair i rith géarchéim an SARS i 2003 agus tá sé tábhachtach go bhfuil an taithí sin aige. Tá taithí ann ar fud an domhain freisin. Tá mise ag impí ar an Aire, gan aon eagla nó buairt a bheith air nó ar an Rialtas, aon chinneadh a thógáil, is cuma cé chomh dian, ait nó nua agus atá sé. Má tá gá ann scoileanna a dhúnadh nó aon rud eile a dhúnadh agus a stopadh sa tír seo ionas go mbeimid in ann smacht a chur ar an ngalar seo, caithfimid é sin a dhéanamh. Tá sin déanta i dtíortha eile ar nós na Síne, Singeapór agus tíortha difriúla ach níl aon dabht ann ach go bhfuil dul chun cinn déanta acu maidir leis seo le rialacha an-daingean agus an-ghéar a chur ar fáil ar son leas an phobail. Aontaím le gach Teachta gur an rud is tábhachtaí ná leas an phobail agus sláinte an phobail. Beidh damáiste eacnamúla déanta ach tá sé sin chun tarlú. Caithfimid pobal na hÉireann a chaomhnú agus a choimeád sábháilte.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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Up until this evening, there were nine confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland. That may be changing as we speak. The head of the HSE, Mr. Paul Reid, said that Ireland remains in a containment phase regarding the coronavirus but he said it would be a challenge to maintain this and the health service was preparing for further phases. Mr. Reid also said many people had been asked to self-isolate for the protection of the public. The British Government stated yesterday that up to 20% of the workforce may be off sick during the peak of a coronavirus epidemic in Britain. Unfortunately, that figure could be realised in Ireland, unless everything that can be done is done during the containment phase.

I have serious concerns that thousands of low-paid workers may be unable to afford to self-isolate. The Government must ensure that nobody is forced to work due to financial pressures, despite medical advice to self-isolate. We have had welcome statements from different Ministers regarding their portfolios. Several Departments were also referred to in the Minister for Health's speech. The one glaring omission is a statement from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Such a statement is badly needed because under health and safety legislation workers are obliged to ensure they do not pose a threat in their workplace. The right thing to do is for all employers to continue to pay workers who fall ill or have to self-isolate due to the coronavirus.

Unfortunately, some employers will not pay their workers. Yesterday, IBEC refused to give assurances that employers would provide sick pay to workers affected by Covid-19 on an across-the-board basis. The only option for many workers is illness benefit. Due to the qualifying criteria, however, many might not have sufficient PRSI contributions to qualify for illness benefit. Even if a worker qualifies for the full illness benefit, there is no entitlement for the first six days of absence from work. That period was increased from three days under this Government. The Government must make immediate changes to ensure illness benefit is paid from day one. Where there is a financial need, there must also be an emergency payment for anybody who does not meet the qualifying requirements for illness benefit. A simplified application process must also be rolled out to ensure people do not have to attend their Intreo office or a GP to get a medical certificate.

We will continue to work with the caretaker Government to ensure that virus containment efforts succeed. Central to that effort, however, are the thousands of workers who may be fearful that they cannot afford to self-isolate. We must ensure they can do so without the fear of being financially impacted. It would be helpful to get a statement from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection on that issue. It would also be helpful if the Department would clarify if legislation is needed to ensure people are not going to be financially impacted because they do the right and responsible thing by self-isolating. That aspect also needs to be looked at.

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for taking these statements and listening to the concerns of Members. I acknowledge the efforts of our public servants, particularly the medical staff encountering the spread of Covid-19 throughout the country. It has not, thankfully, yet been widespread but in monitoring what has happened in other jurisdictions, we may be at the beginning of something in this country. I hope I am wrong on that. I also acknowledge the efforts of others across the country, in particular the Garda, teachers, transport workers, front-line service workers and workers in shops, hotels and other service industries for their co-operation and assistance during this period.

As mentioned earlier by our spokesperson on health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, general communication has been good. I call, however, for more of an open approach, particularly regarding the identification of certain areas. I do not refer to individuals because we need to protect individual identities. We need people to self-identify and we do not want to put that in jeopardy but we need to trust the public. Public health must be our main concern in all of this, and it should be our top priority at all costs.

The HPSC had identified nine cases so far but that could be ten from what we are hearing this evening. I express my solidarity to those families and individuals concerned because it is worrying for them and their communities. The public expects a plan to deal with community transmission when that happens. That needs to be forthcoming. Unfortunately, I found the Minister's statement earlier a little light on detail. I know this is an unfolding issue for him and his officials, but we need to reassure the public with more detail of the Government's future plans regarding the coronavirus.

In China, 80% of the cases were mild, 15% needed treatment in hospital while 5% required intensive care treatment. On that basis, the Minister’s earlier announcement of just 20 intensive care beds is entirely insufficient, and I fear it may feed public concern.

I also welcome the establishment of the Cabinet sub-committee to co-ordinate our national response. The Government must show leadership on this issue. Constitutionally, the appropriate body to exercise such power is the Government, not an ad hoccommittee of the House.

I welcome the guidelines put before the House earlier. The regulations to prevent the stockpiling of sanitised or medical products should be put in place. Vulnerable individuals must be guaranteed access to such products.

Debate adjourned.

The Dáil adjourned at at 8.30 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Thursday, 19 March 2020.