Thursday, 26 March 2020
An Bille um Bearta Éigeandála ar mhaithe le Leas an Phobail (Covid-19), 2020: An Dara Céim - Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Inniu táimid bailithe le chéile chun dul i ngleic le héigeandáil nár tharla riamh roimhe seo. Sular phléimid an éigeandáil seo, ba mhaith liom ómós a ghabháil dóibh siúd go léir a tháinig le chéile ar aon chéim leis an iarracht náisiúnta ollmhór seo. Is meitheal é. Ag obair ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine: ár bhfoireann chúram sláinte, ár státseirbhísigh, daoine atá ag obair sna húdaráis áitiúla, daoine atá ag obair go deonach, Óglaigh na hÉireann, An Garda Síochána, miondíoltóirí, feirmeoirí agus oibrithe iompair, ár gcúramóirí agus ár lucht cúraim, ár n-oibrithe poist, iad siúd go léir sa saol reiligiúnach agus luchtanna cógaisíochta, táirgthe bia agus seirbhíse bia agus gléis leighis. Tá cách ag freagairt an dúshláin agus tá ár muintir fíor-bhuíoch as sin.
Ba mhaith liom a chur in iúl do chuile dhuine comhairle sláinte an phobail a leanúint agus molaim go leanfaidh siad ar aghaidh leis an gcúig chéim atá molta: ní na lámha go rialta, dea-bhéas a bheith agat agus tú ag casacht, coinnigh do lámha ó d’aghaidh, scarradh fisiciúil a chóiméad agus fanacht sa mbaile muna bhfuil tú ar fónamh.
I wish to share my time with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe.
We are meeting today to take unprecedented actions to respond to an unprecedented emergency. A Cheann Comhairle, I am grateful to you, and to all our public representatives for facilitating this work. I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the staff in Leinster House for going about their business with such efficiency while following the recommended guidelines on physical distance. Our laws derive their legitimacy, in the first place, from being passed by a democratically elected Oireachtas. Such work enables our democratic life to continue in these most trying of circumstances, and it is precisely at times like this that we need to see it in action the most.
I also want to put on record the constructive role played by the Opposition parties and Independents to date, in the main. The Government is grateful to them for their understanding, goodwill and co-operation and it has been an example of politics working well. It shows that when faced by a common foe we can put aside our differences and work together for the good of our country, to protect livelihoods and save lives.
Following my speech, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, will provide an economic overview of the Bill and give a detailed outline of what is proposed. Later, after the contributions of each party and grouping in this Chamber, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, will conclude by looking at the Bill more broadly and how it will affect business. On Committee and Remaining Stages we will have Government contributions from various Ministers including Deputies Harris, Donohoe, English, Kehoe and Humphreys to ensure that the many questions and concerns can be answered.
Unfortunately we cannot stop this virus but working together we can slow it in its tracks, push it back and put it back in its box. Our national objective is to suppress the virus and flatten the curve. We can succeed if everyone takes sustained action. Nothing less will do. That includes all of us here, in the sense of having no unnecessary meetings, using video conferencing and the telephone, and keeping physical distance.
As a doctor and also as a politician I know the value of repetition. Give the best advice and then give it again, and keep repeating it until it becomes second nature and ingrained. I want to advise everyone in the public to follow the public health advice and to keep following these five basic steps; simple steps that are vital to protect us all from the virus: regular hand washing, coughing etiquette, not touching your face, maintaining a physical distance, and staying at home if feeling unwell.
For the past three and a half years so much of our political time and energy was taken up by the issue of Brexit. Who would have thought quite a different crisis would bring our country to a standstill? Time was expended preparing for the impact of a possible no-deal Brexit, and more time was spent ensuring we avoided an outcome that did not see a return of a hard border on the island of Europe, or borders between Ireland and Britain. They were simpler times perhaps. In one sense, this was valuable time that in other circumstances might have been directed at other pressing national issues. However there has been one very positive side effect. Because of the thousands of hours devoted by our civil servants and officials to prepare for all possible eventualities, and because of the work our Ministers did to ensure that we would be able to withstand the worst effects of a no-deal Brexit we are now in a better position than if we were starting to think about some of these issues for the first time. For example, the time spent thinking about supply lines, about the impact of a shock to the economy, the money we set aside thanks to prudent management of our finances – all of this is now being deployed against a single, different kind of national threat. When it comes to so many of our plans that we had on the shelf, we are simply rubbing out "Brexit" and writing in "coronavirus".
We did not expect or predict a pandemic of this kind, although plans were present and afoot to deal with it. We were very much prepared for an economic crisis and, as a result, we are in a much stronger position today, going into this crisis with a budget surplus, falling debt, a rainy day fund and cash on hand. I assure the public that, although the challenges will be great, we are ready to face them. Although the cost of these measures will be very high, we are prepared to pay the price, even if it takes a number of years. We can bear it and we will be able to pay back what we borrow as a nation. We will do so willingly because it is the right thing to do and we owe it to our fellow citizens to protect their lives and livelihoods.
We believe that, by maintaining the link between employees, employers and companies, it will be easier for us to bounce back when this is all over. These actions will keep our economic infrastructure intact and will also give business the best chance of making it through the crisis.
We are also making sure the self-employed are covered. I know the sacrifices that many of our self-employed people have made to build up their businesses and practices. I know how worried they are now. We will do all we can to help sustain the self-employed and bring them through this emergency as well.
Today we are asking the Oireachtas to pass emergency legislation to respond to the Covid-19 emergency. These emergency actions will mitigate the impact of the virus and enable us to continue to provide public services. Today's legislation, to last for the duration of the emergency, will freeze rents, prevent evictions, make it easier for healthcare professionals to re-register to return to work and enable former members of the Defence Forces to re-join at the rank they left with no penalties. We know that the financial impact of mass redundancies over a short period will have a serious impact on the ability of business to recover. Accordingly, we are extending the time periods under which a person who has been laid off and kept on short time due to Covid-19 can claim a redundancy payment from their employer.
So much work is taking place to help save and protect lives. For example, we have also approved a framework agreement with private hospitals to ensure they can operate effectively as public hospitals under section 38 of the Health Act for the duration of the emergency. This will add more than 2,000 beds, nine laboratories, critical-care capacity and thousands of staff to our health service.
Some, of course, have asked and might ask why these things were not done before, why we have previously objected to measures such as rent freezes, for example, or a moratorium on evictions or co-opting private healthcare. The truth is these are extraordinary times. For example, property rights are always subject to the common good in our Constitution. I do not think anyone would argue but that this is an extraordinary situation in which the common good overrides. We know rent freezes, for example, in places like San Francisco did not work. Landlords just sold up and often sold on to owner-occupiers meaning fewer properties were available to rent. We know in Berlin that even the announcement of a rent freeze caused investors, developers and builders to build fewer homes and more hotels and offices instead because the return was better. In normal circumstances, a rent freeze would actually make things worse. It would reduce the supply of places to rent, freeze out people who need to rent for the first time, such as students, migrants and young people who want to leave home.
This is a temporary policy and only for a few weeks - hopefully only for 12 weeks. However, that is not to say that some emergency policy changes might not make sense as longer term policy changes as well. When it comes to childcare, our plan always had been to expand ECCE, early childhood care and education, and to expand the national childcare scheme incrementally, thereby reducing the amount parents have to pay. In some ways we have done that in one fell swoop, an incremental measure done very quickly. The House might decide not to roll back that entirely.
Another area is sick pay. Workers in the low-paid sectors should not have to be out of work for six days to qualify for income support. Six days is far too long. It is bad policy both in terms of social justice, the economy and public health.
Desperate times do not call for desperate measures, rather they call for composure and radical responses which would provide hope and bring maximum benefit to those who need them most. This legislation is designed to do exactly that. We will be remembered for what happened after this emergency visited our shores when we faced our greatest challenges. I believe it will be a story of a great national effort to withstand the worst of it, to come out less scathed than other countries and how every person played their part.
Finally, I want to acknowledge that this emergency has already cost lives and I extend my condolences to all the families who have been bereaved and the friends of those who have died as well. It has also cost people their jobs and it is going to get worse before it gets better.
People are afraid and they are looking for reassurance from us. Politicians do not always have a good reputation. Very often we do not deserve one but we have an opportunity as a House, all parties and Independents, to shine in the next couple of weeks, not as individuals but as a group, as a body politic. We can show that the ideals that first motivated us all to enter politics can sustain us and ring true when our country needs help the most. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
Is díospóireacht faoi leith í seo. Is dúshlán faoi leith atá amach romhainn de dheasca Covid-19. Beidh muidne ag tabhairt tacaíochta don reachtaíocht atá os comhair na Dála inniu. Tá sé riachtanach gach aon tacaíocht is féidir linn a thabhairt d'oibrithe na tíre agus do chomhlachtaí na tíre, go háirithe comhlachtaí beaga, ionas go mbeidh siad in ann teacht tríd an ngéarchéim seo. Mar aon leis sin, caithfidh muid ár mbuíochas a ghabháil do phobal na tíre, atá ag déanamh a ndícheall chun cloí leis an deachomhairle atá ag teacht ón Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, agus a fhoireann. Táimid buíoch de gach éinne atá ag obair sna seirbhísí sláinte agus sna seirbhísí éigeandála éagsúla. Tá obair den scoth faoi chaibidil acu agus tá pobal na tíre fíorbhuíoch díobh.
As we meet today the people of this country and much of the world continue to face real fear and uncertainty. To an extent never seen before people are subject to major personal restrictions which limit their ability to mix with others, look after family members and go to work. It has caused some of our citizens to die. We sympathise today with their loved ones in their time of sadness and distress.
The measures which we adopted last week and those we are adopting today are not ones we would even discuss in normal circumstances but this unprecedented situation has justified and will continue to justify an unprecedented response. Fundamentally nothing can be effective without the strong support of the public and a core sense of community. While it is too early to draw long-term conclusions the evidence is that the public has been responding from the first moments when this emergency became a priority some weeks ago. The figures released by the Health Service Executive last night show that for the cases diagnosed this weekend the number of people it had been in contact with was very significantly down. With very limited exceptions people in every community in this country have for the past two weeks been acting in a very responsible and generous way so that every effort is made to limit the spread of the virus. It is right that we should today thank them, acknowledge their many sacrifices and appeal to them to keep this going until we get through this period. It is also important that we acknowledge the incredible work of our public servants particularly those within our country's healthcare system. It is at times of crisis that we can truly see the breadth of the expertise and spirit which is to be found in our public institutions and services. The scale and speed of the response which we have seen simply would not have been possible without the expertise which has been developed by our public servants over many years and their deep understanding of issue which rarely ever enter public debate outside of an emergency. The national expertise contained within key units of the HSE and the professional staff of the Department of Health, the Chief Medical Officer and others have been central to building the political and public consensus for action in recent weeks. I came to know many of the personnel when working with them on previous epidemics and I and my party are extremely grateful to them for their work.
The importance of how this highly diverse Dáil has been entirely constructive at all points should also be acknowledged. The bulk of the suggestions made by my party and other parties have been made privately and there has been an approach of seeking to limit public disagreements. There is a fine balance to be struck between supporting a common message to the public and maintaining space for asking tough questions and pointing to areas where more action may be required.
This is a balance which is particularly important for us and the media to consider. Over the past five decades, an entire discipline has developed to analyse how to get the best possible response to major emergencies. One consistent lesson from this work has been that we need to make sure there remains a space for debate and for challenging messages. Everyone being on the same side does not remove the need to ask questions. In this context, I would particularly like to commend those journalists who have been persistent in raising questions which go to the heart of whether we are doing all we can or whether enough information has been shared on specific issues. We have, as a Parliament, suspended nearly all of our normal oversight functions. This has been the right thing to do in these circumstances. That is why it is especially important for us to raise issues we believe are important and for Ministers to be very direct in answering questions.
Fianna Fáil will support the passage of this legislation and will use the time for this debate to suggest ways to improve it before the tight but reasonable deadline. Several major challenges face us in our overall response to this emergency. We must limit the numbers of people who contract the virus and make sure we have the urgent care required by those who contract it. We have to address the immediate and drastic economic and social consequences of the emergency, protecting as many jobs as possible, and making sure that families and businesses can survive financially. We will have to move on to help our health system, our society and our economy to recover once the immediate challenges are met. As I have said, we support the actions which have been taken to date and which are in part underpinned by this legislation. A review published yesterday about the speed and severity of official action on the pandemic by a research team in Oxford which is linked to the World Health Organization suggests that action in Ireland is broadly in line with the recommended international practice. We believe it has been a proportionate response and that it has been properly led, primarily by the recommendations of the relevant international organisations, and that the response has had a significant impact.
All of us here no doubt have been approached by people within the health system, pointing out serious problems which they are experiencing. Today is an opportunity for those issues to be addressed directly and hopefully for urgently-needed reassurances to be provided. The latest figures show that 24% of the cases identified up to Monday night involved health staff. This is a disturbing figure which reminds us all how nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals are on the front line in fighting this pandemic and that they are putting themselves in real danger every day. There is significant evidence of health staff lacking the personal protective equipment required to protect them from the virus. I have heard from doctors and nurses who have used their own money to purchase protection in hardware stores. We have raised this issue directly with the Government and would ask that this issue be addressed during our session today.
The ramping up of testing is clearly required if we are to come close to meeting the objective of high levels of community testing, which we agreed early last week. The revision of the criteria for testing was clearly required because of the long and rising delay in testing revealed in recent days. It is vital that we have a clearer sense of when we will reach a point of much greater availability of testing. It is true that a person showing symptoms should self-isolate when waiting for a test, but it is only when a test is completed and a positive case found that essential contact tracing can be undertaken and we can understand the true extent of the transmission of the virus.
We strongly support the adoption of a wide range of emergency financial measures to help individuals and companies. Many of these specific measures are also being implemented throughout Europe and the serious financial cost which they involve is fully justified. During the course of this debate, our spokespersons will address areas where we believe further immediate action is needed and is possible. In this context, the article published by Mario Draghi, the former President of the European Central Bank, is very important. Mario Draghi, more than any other person, was responsible for delivering the recovery from the last global financial crisis and his actions have literally saved Ireland billions in debt costs. When he speaks with urgency and passion, we should listen. According to him, Europe requires no less than wartime mobilisation of its fiscal and monetary resources. In order to prevent another and, this time, deeper recession, a new mentality is required. Aggressive zero-cost lending by banks, higher deficits with lower financing costs and new financial rules. These all form part of the actions he believes are needed immediately. Fianna Fáil has been arguing for a number of years for Europe to play a significantly increased role in helping countries during economic downturns. In this context, we welcome the fact that the Taoiseach has agreed to proposals drafted by France, Spain and Italy, calling for the immediate deployment of the European Stability Mechanism and the issuing of bonds underwritten on a cross-European Union basis.
The letter which he signed with eight other Heads of Government is a very positive step. We strongly support this proposal being pushed during the leaders' online summit. The current draft conclusions go nowhere near what is required. Now is the time to say unequivocally to reluctant states that we face a choice between common action and common failure. In Ireland, we will need to develop our own national recovery plan, to be implemented immediately when social and economic restrictions are significantly lifted. No one can be in any doubt that, in order to have the funds to pay for social supports, public services and rebuilding jobs, tough decisions will have to be made, even with a significantly higher deficit. The choices will be very different from those we were discussing until recently. We already know about the massive increase in spending which must be implemented. Less clear so far is the fall in State revenues, which will undoubtedly be severe. We need a government which can discuss and implement an urgent recovery plan. In doing this we should look at the introduction of some form of social partnership model. This should involve key stakeholders so that there can be real engagement across society and a true societal response to planning our national recovery post Covid-19. If we stay focused and abide by the guidelines of the Health Service Executive and the Chief Medical Officer, we will protect vulnerable people in our society and protect our healthcare staff. By working together, we will come through this pandemic. We must then work as hard to ensure a swift recovery when it passes.
Ar dtús báire, déanaim comhbhrón le teaghlaigh na beirte a bhfuair bás inné mar gheall ar Covid-19. Tá cuid mhór le déanamh. Caithfidh muidne sa Teach seo comhoibriú le chéile sa dóigh is go dtig linn na tragóidí seo a ísliú agus a stopadh san am atá amach romhainn. Cuireann muidne i Sinn Féin ár mbuíochas in iúl do na hoibrithe, go háirithe na hoibrithe sláinte agus iad sin uilig atá ar an líne thosaigh, atá ag troid in éadan an víris, Covid-19. Caithfidh muid níos mó a dhéanamh dóibh, go háirithe ó thaobh trealaimh chosanta phearsanta. Caithfidh muid níos mó a dhéanamh dóibh siúd a chaill a bpoist mar gheall ar an víreas seo agus níos mó tacaíocht a thabhairt dóibh. Is é sin an fáth go gcreideann Sinn Féin gur chóir go n-íocfaidh an Stát 100% dá bpá suas go dtí €525 agus go bhfuil leasú againn a dhéanfaidh é sin.
I begin this morning by expressing my deepest sympathy to the families and friends of the two further people who lost their lives to Covid-19 and whose deaths were announced last night. As a result, all of us need to work together. We need to try to minimise and stop these tragedies in the coming period. I pay tribute to our health workers and to all of those on the front line fighting against Covid-19. Their courage, selflessness, and dedication is an inspiration and a comfort to the nation. These are trying times, but I say to each and every one of these people that they have our gratitude, support, and solidarity.
Beyond expressions of support, we have to make sure that our health workers have everything they need to do their jobs. We need to ensure that all available capacity within our health system is utilised, that we have sufficient ventilators, respiratory equipment and beds, including intensive care unit beds, and that our front-line workers are protected. The lack of protective equipment for health workers, carers and others is a cause of very real concern. We know that some front-line workers are taking to the Internet to seek out their own resources. The Government has stated that home health workers do not need personal protective equipment, PPE. This cannot stand. We need action now on PPE. I urge all companies and individuals who have stocks of PPE to make them available to health workers. I also call on the pharmaceutical and food processing industries to donate any PPE they can. Along with the arrival of imported PPE, attempts must be made to ensure a reliable domestic production line of various PPE items to protect our supply chain from external difficulties and to guarantee that our health staff will have the protective equipment they need to do their job of keeping us safe and healthy. That is essential.
The change to the criteria for Covid-19 testing is causing alarm for patients and has also put huge pressure on GPs, who are now contacting patients to tell them that their tests have been cancelled. There must be clear communication when case definitions change so that confusion and panic can be avoided.
The Bill before us is just one part of a series of things that need to be done to ensure our citizens' safety.
Everything we do now must prioritise the welfare and health of our citizens. This is not a time for delay. It is a time for decisive action. Every worker and family must be protected and supported throughout this crisis, however long it lasts. Unfortunately, that is currently not the case. Despite the Government's announcement on Tuesday, many are still unprotected. Today and yesterday, tens of thousands of people left their families and went to workplaces that are not safe. They are coming home in the evening with the fear that they are possibly transmitting the virus to their families. They are builders, factory workers, people working in call centres and many others. The nature of their work does not allow for safe physical distancing. I was contacted by the wife of a construction worker who best sums up the dread these families are living with. She wrote: "Me and the kids have been in all week and my husband has to go out to work every morning and risk coming back to his family. It is a disgrace. Something needs to be done.". We have received many similar messages. People should not be living with the fear that they and their children are being exposed to unnecessary and avoidable risks. For that reason, we believe everything other than essential businesses and services that cannot be done from home should be put into suspension for a period. We must see further action in this regard. This can be done. These workers can be sent home and kept safe and supported.
To do that we must have a proper income support scheme. Sinn Féin has proposed a model that would guarantee 100% of income up to €525 per week for workers and self-employed who are laid off during this crisis. The Government's proposal comes nowhere close to that and does not go far enough. We will propose amendments today to try to strengthen it. These are people who have mortgages, rents and bills to pay. A sum of €350 falls very short of what is needed to support workers who have been laid off and their families at this time. In respect of those who are kept on the books, we fully support a scheme to support employers who are trying to keep going. It is important that they keep going. However, the scheme must be targeted and not open to abuse. Employers should have to make up the rest of the 30% of workers' salaries. Under the Government's proposals employers can record as little as 1 cent towards their employees' pay and still avail of the scheme. That is not good enough.
I am glad the Government has taken on board our proposals on preventing rent increases. However, much more must be done to protect renters during the emergency. Renters who do not have a tenancy agreement must also be covered and we must include provisions to ensure that people do not rack up a crushing level of debt in rent arrears. There is a solution - a mortgage moratorium for landlords of renters who are unable to pay their rent and, in return, tenants must get real rent reductions and rent waivers. The Government must demand that the Central Bank and the banks play their part in making this happen. One action the banks could take is to waive the payment of mortgage interest for the duration of this crisis. The Government cannot allow the banks to profit from this public health emergency as they currently plan to do. We bailed the banks out over a decade ago and now they must play their part in ensuring workers and families are supported. We will table amendments in this regard and we ask other parties and Deputies to support them.
The coronavirus outbreak has challenged our nation in an unprecedented and profound way. The phrase, Ní neart go cur le chéile, there is no strength without unity, has been used a great deal over the last few weeks. To understand the power and meaning of that phrase we need only to look at how our communities have responded to this emergency. Although there is great stress and worry, people are not only thinking about themselves and their families but also about the safety of their neighbours and the wider community. People are checking on the elderly and others who are at risk in their communities, making sure they have enough food and helping them with any difficulties they could be facing. Volunteers are delivering care packages, making friendly telephone calls and even organising outdoor bingo. There is an enormous amount of goodwill, generosity, selflessness and community spirit in our country. These qualities are proving to be some of our biggest strengths in the fight against Covid-19. As a people, we have embraced the principle that nobody is safe unless everybody is safe and we are all the better for it. The distances we are keeping between each other are not spaces of isolation, fear or loneliness, but lengths of compassion, kindness and solidarity. It is how we best protect each other, flatten the curve, ensure our health service does not become overwhelmed and how we save lives.
People need to continue doing what they have been doing. That is essential.
A Cheann Comhairle, as we come together to battle the coronavirus, we must ensure that the House will sit throughout this crisis. We need solidarity in the Chamber but we also need scrutiny and accountability. We need to ensure that the Government works and that it is holding to account key sectors such as banking and insurance. We also need to consider life after the emergency. The people voted for a new Government only last month, and a new Government must be formed. While there has, naturally, been a scaling down of talks in that regard, at some stage soon the result of the election will have to count. A caretaker Government cannot be in office indefinitely. Given the level of work to do, the timeframe is drawing ever shorter. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have made a virtue of the politics of exclusion, and it is quite astonishing that even as we face a global pandemic and a national public health emergency, that exclusion remains their priority. I ask them to think about that because it is a shame. A Government led by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will not deliver real and lasting change nor provide the stability of government that we need at this time. Politics needs to change. A new Government must reflect the demand of the people to do things differently. This crisis has shown us exactly why we need a Government for change, a single-tier national health system, a homelessness sanctuary and a right to a secure roof over one's head, an economy that supports workers and families, and robust social protection - all measures that Sinn Féin was calling for long before Covid-19 entered our lives. Such developments cannot be temporary. They cannot be rowed back once the crisis subsides. Only a Government for change will ensure we will not go backwards and that we will continue to put workers and families first when this emergency has passed. That is what we need, now more than ever.
As others have noted, our first thoughts have to be with those in this country who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus. Their tragedy is made all the worse because the culture in this country of coming together as a community for a funeral to support, help and carry one another through those difficult times is more challenging at this time. Our thoughts and prayers, therefore, are with them.
Our thoughts are also with the hundreds of thousands who have lost a job and who are uncertain of what will come next, not knowing how long the crisis may last, what may happen when things start to return to normal or whether their job will become available again. That sense of uncertainty in respect of the timeline of what we face applies also to those who are lonely because they are isolated at home. I refer especially to older people, who, in particular, have to hunker down and ensure for themselves that they are protected. They must have a strong sense of uncertainty as to how long the circumstances will last. We have been able to manage the past two weeks well as a country, but we need to give people some sense that in managing it well, the period will be shorter and we will come out of it on the other side. Many people were inspired by Dr. Mike Ryan, an executive director at the World Health Organization who has led the global response to the pandemic. His advice to governments, as I recall it a week or two ago, was to act fast. He said we should not be afraid of making mistakes but instead should be willing to get ahead of the virus in everything we do. He went on to say we should throw everything at the virus, without worrying all the time about whether we have all the right pieces in place, and that we should move fast. I commend the Government, the public service and ourselves as an Oireachtas on the fact that, in effect, that is what we in the House are doing today for the second time. We are passing emergency legislation at speed even though it may have flaws or aspects we may have to amend or change. Nevertheless, it is better to act fast than with certainty.
By and large, our country's response has been good, although it is almost impossible to do well in such difficult circumstances. It is hard to know exactly how well we are doing, given that we are all self-isolating, although we are probably doing so to a lesser extent than others because we have to attend sittings in the Chamber. In any contact I have had with people in recent weeks, however, at a distance of 2 m, my sense has been that we as a people - most, if not all, of us - are doubling down on the measures and complying. For those who may fear there are exceptions to that, whereby some people are not obeying the new social norm, I might give some reassurance through what Dr. Tony Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer, told the party leaders at the consultation last week.
He said that as long as most of us are doing it most of the time, it will work. Let us not get obsessed with some fool who is perhaps not applying the norm. Most of us are and that gives us some confidence that we will be strong, as a country, and we will be good on this path of suppressing the virus which we have set ourselves upon.
In terms of speed, there is obviously concern in regard to the rolling out of testing. We have done the right thing by ramping up ambition but maybe, to date, have not been able to match that with the speed of the testing we need to do. I hope that improves and I have confidence in our public service to make that improve in the coming days. With regard to contact tracing, as Deputy Martin and others said earlier, we will see the benefit we are getting from that contact tracing and see that we are adhering to the advice as a people.
I have consistently been saying to Dr. Holohan and other officials that we also need to work on the isolation part. There may be many people who have the virus but who do not have easy self-isolation facilities in their own homes and we need to provide facilities for those people. We particularly have to consider those in direct provision centres or nursing homes where the capability for such isolation is particularly difficult. They should be our first priority. It is in congregations or settings where it is not easy to provide this isolated protection that most of our efforts must be. I was encouraged by Dr. Holohan saying that our contact tracing staff, as we get new volunteers coming in, are the real experts in concentrating on those clusters where the risks are greatest, which is the right approach.
I also hope and pray that that aeroplane does come in on Sunday and we get all the personal protective equipment, PPE, that our front-line health officials so badly need. I am encouraged that those 300 workers are now, hopefully, at work on the production line at Medtronic in Galway and turning out those ventilators, not just for us but also for other countries. We have to do is in a collaborative way and be part of an international response.
I want to pay tribute to the cleaners around this country. I was coming up to corridor to the Dáil and Mandy was outside cleaning one of the balustrades. That is life-saving work and it is critical to what we need to do. I was at a petrol pump this morning on the way in and there was someone cleaning the pump nozzle. It is that front-line work that is life-saving. It is that response which is going to make us strong and successful in this country.
I want to pay credit particularly to the staff in the health system. We listened to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and others say we are probably still in the calm before the real storm hits. We have to make sure staff have that PPE and the necessary ventilators. I understand it goes beyond that and that they also need to have oxygen supplies and additional beds. There are so many logistics but we still have a short few days left before the real wave of cases hits. We need to support our staff and thank them for the work they are doing.
Just as we need to move fast and heed Dr. Mike Ryan in addressing the health side, we also need to act fast in protecting our economy. I agree with Deputy Martin that Mario Draghi gives the right advice in saying not to be too worried or cautious. This is the time for a real Keynesian economic approach and for massive additional borrowing to provide income support, which is what we are legislating for here today. I will be honest. We are legislating slightly in the unknown in that we do not have the full figures. As we ramp up as an Oireachtas in managing this crisis, I would love to hear the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council give us some advice, as best it can, on what are the mechanisms.
In the same way that we have the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and others, we need to think about the fiscal implications of what we are doing. I say it for this reason. As well as providing the income support which we are providing today, which is critical, we also very quickly need to start thinking about the nature of the economic recovery and it will not be just income stimulus but investment stimulus that we need to make. That will be an investment stimulus in the health system. As we have said, let us use this opportunity to switch to a public health service. Let us listen to what Mr. Paul Reid said at one of our meetings recently, namely, he was able to do more in a week in moving towards Sláintecare than we might ordinarily do in a year. This is an opportunity to invest in our health system and to change it in every aspect.
The Taoiseach gave the example of our childcare system and the same applies with our healthcare system. At a time of radical and rapid change, there is a chance for us to invest to bring our health system in the direction we want. That will require investment. Similarily, if we have tens of thousands of workers and hundreds of thousands unemployed, we should be looking to ramp up our public housing programme straight away as a way of lifting the economy and as a stimulus to come out of the unemployment that may come with this economic downturn. We also need to start thinking now about how we use the green new deal to deliver a low-carbon economy that strengthens our local economy so we are not so reliant on global systems. We need to start thinking of all of these systems now. All three of those policy objectives will require investment, as well as the money we are committing here to provide future income support.
I echo the comments of Deputy Micheál Martin. I understand the Taoiseach has a European Council meeting by video conference this afternoon or evening. It is important that we are seen to be part of international co-operation in tackling this crisis and we need this to be a time of European solidarity, and not a retreat to nationalism and the building of borders. We had a meeting of our European Green party leaders yesterday and we agreed a joint approach, including support for the concept of Eurobonds. It is vital we do not leave countries experiencing difficulties alone at this time, particularly countries such as Italy. Just as we need to consider direct provision centres here at home and how we manage those cases, we also need to support the Greek government and others with ongoing refugee crises. That is now doubling down with the additional virus problem.
In the bigger picture, there is a question as to what type of politics will come out of this crisis. Will we see a retreat away from some of the populism and nationalism that do not have a regard for science and do not believe in collaboration in the responses we make. We have a chance in Ireland to give a sign that we believe in collaboration. We are showing that here and we should continue to show that in the immediate months of this crisis by working together cross party. I think that will lead to a better response. In a crisis, we are good at working together and not dividing along party lines.
Lastly, many changes will come from this situation, including what we value in our daily lives and how we use technology. One of the other outlying things, however, that I hope comes from this is an appreciation our public service. We are agreeing emergency legislation. As Deputy Micheál Martin stated, this is not seen and is not very glamorous, but the ability of our public service to act quickly in the public interest is very real. I commend the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Health, the Department of Finance, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and others involved in the generation of this emergency legislation, as well as members our own team, of Green Party and other Deputies, that have been willing to do what we can to make it better. We will support it, we will try to suggest amendments and we will be stronger together.
This is my first contribution and I thank the people of Dublin-Fingal for placing their faith in me as one of their five representatives in the Dáil. It is an honour beyond words, and I will do my utmost to repay the faith they have placed in me. Since polling day more than seven weeks ago, the clutch of new Deputies, or even the more experience Deputies, could not have imagined what we are facing now. We are living in a world that is more frightening, more insecure and far more uncertain. We have much work to do to beat back this virus in Ireland and across the world, but I believe we will do it.
We will also, however, have to be mindful that we will be facing the implications of the affects of Covid-19 for many months, and perhaps even years, to come. I refer to economically, socially, politically and beyond. We must be mindful of this when making decisions even in the white heat of the crisis we are experiencing. Now is not a time to panic, however. We have actions to take and we will take them. I commend the leadership being shown up and down the country. Leadership has been also shown from all sides of this House and that has to be commended. That has been strong and consistent and that must continue. Leadership has been also shown by the HSE and the public and civil service, and that also has to be commended. That will also have to continue. All of that pales, however, compared to the leadership shown by ordinary people around the country. I refer to sports clubs, community groups, heads of households and even administrators on community Facebook groups and community WhatsApp groups. They have been on the front line of a battle against fake news and fake reporting.
They have done great work in trying to keep good information flowing to keep people safe and healthy. Front-line workers, support workers, healthcare assistants, porters and cleaners in our health service have been making an unbelievable collective effort. Our retail workers have shown bravery and courage and every day they are there to serve the needs of the community and to make sure we are fed. The panic and worry we had about purchasing behaviours earlier on in this crisis has dissipated as we meet our new reality.
Today's emergency legislation is another important step in fighting this crisis. The measures put forward today will have profound political implications as I have mentioned but I am encouraged by what the Taoiseach said about early childcare and illness benefit. It is a cautious optimism but the measures we take now may not be repealed in 12 weeks or six months if we believe they are for the greater good of the country.
The Covid-19 emergency is a crisis on multiple fronts. It is not just a health crisis but it is a crisis that reaches across the whole of society and of the economy. Like everyone in this House, we in the Labour Party have tremendous respect for all our front-line and support healthcare workers, who are providing care in our hospitals and GP clinics. When we think of the GPs, we must also think of the GP receptionists and when we think of the frontline nurses and doctors, we must also think of the receptionists, porters and cleaners. We acknowledge what the Government and the HSE have done to ramp up testing and to challenge people to change their day-to-day behaviour. It is not an easy task but the Irish people have responded well. Looking at what is happening in other countries around the world, the Irish people have been well served by the way in which political parties have co-operated to support the official response to this crisis.
The crisis does not stop with the health system, however. I am concerned that when it comes to the economy, it will be harder to maintain the same level of political consensus, given how divisive issues such as housing have been in recent years. The Government's response to the overall economic crisis will be as important as its ability to deal with the different dimensions of the health emergency. For example, like much of the economy, our frontline health services rely on just-in-time supply lines and global markets to provide them with the medical equipment they need. This global system has come under enormous strain. Our health service has done a credible job to date in securing personal protective equipment for our frontline workers but there are real concerns remaining. We are hearing reports of frontline nursing staff having to wash PPE in sinks and baths for reuse. I am sure we all agree this is intolerable. We all pray that this plane arrives with enough equipment and we all hope more efforts can be made to source equipment from within the boundaries of the State and to funnel same to the people who need it as soon as possible in order to keep people alive.
It has also been reported that student nurses, who are serving on the front lines assisting Covid-19 patients, are not yet being paid. We need to tackle that issue urgently. Can the Government confirm what is happening and when will the Government guarantee decent rates of pay for all staff across all levels of the health service who are tackling this emergency?
On another front, we do not yet have up-to-date figures for unemployed people on the live register but we know that hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs or been temporarily laid off due to the Covid-19 emergency. We must ensure people are protected and that the most vulnerable workers do not suffer unfairly due to this epidemic.
In principle, Labour welcomes the measures being introduced in this Bill. We welcome the rent freeze and the ban on evictions introduced in Part 2 of the Bill but issues of major concern remain. First, a great many workers in the retail and hospitality sectors are renters and even with the Covid-19 unemployment payment, many of them will have a reduced ability to pay rent alongside their normal living costs. If this crisis lasts three to six months, we will have a generation of low-paid workers who will end up in debt due to rent arrears or other payment arrears. This cannot happen. Second, some tenants may face eviction once the crisis ends and once we return to some form of normality in the housing affordability crisis. This also cannot happen. What plans does the Government have to ensure this does not happen? We need to know the answer to this question. In particular, where landlords benefit from a mortgage holiday for a period of months, will the Government ensure rent will be waived for tenants during this same period? This must happen.
While the housing crisis requires homes to be built, we have concerns about some working environments, such as building sites, remaining open in the context where social distancing may not always be possible or practised on building sites. I have experience of working on small building sites and when I was thinking yesterday and overnight about the work I did, I reflected that it is impossible to keep any kind of social or physical distance if one is labouring for a carpenter, a bricklayer or an electrician.
There is no way around it and we need urgent action in this area. I spoke to workers yesterday in the construction industry who are concerned for their safety and the safety of their families. I have spoken to family members of workers in the construction industry who are concerned for their loved ones who may come home from work and bring Covid-19 with them. This needs urgent attention.
Another serious problem caused by the Covid-19 emergency is that our courts are not sitting due to the need for social distancing. Delays and a future backlog in processing cases could mean that the Statute of Limitations might rule out prosecutions that would have proceeded in the normal course of events. This is clearly not desirable and the amendment we will bring this evening will provide some sort of solution. We hope it will get support throughout the House. There are many other issues we will bring up during the course of the day as the opportunity arises.
I will conclude by commenting on some of the measures announced earlier this week relating to social gatherings. They were the right measures but they have a cost, in particular in respect of funerals. Funerals are still allowed to proceed but under strict new guidelines. Again, this is understandable. Faced with a global pandemic, which is claiming thousands of lives worldwide and which has claimed 16 lives so far on our island, we have all had more than a passing thought about our mortality and the mortality of those close to us, our loved ones. People are passing away from Covid-19, as well as from the usual illnesses, including long-term illnesses, short-term illnesses and sudden deaths. Only close family members are able to mourn their passing and celebrate their lives. I have always thought we in Ireland have celebrated the lives of those who have passed better than almost anywhere else. Those of us who have celebrated the passing of someone close to us recently know the comfort it brings to those who are bereaved. In normal times we mourn as a community, as neighbours and as friends. We need to spare a thought for all those enduring loss at this time, whether through Covid-19 or any other reason. They are doing so at a time when the nation's attention is focused on this battle. Many of us are looking forward to when restaurants and bars open again and when we can bring our children to see their grandparents. We can see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. However, we only get one opportunity to say goodbye to a loved one. The loneliness that such people must be feeling at this time must be especially acute. We must ensure that the sacrifice thrust upon them for the reasons outlined is not forgotten. We must not forget them. When we are reaching out, we must make an extra special effort for these people. This is one of the many reasons we need to stick to the rules and redouble our efforts every day. We need to support all our healthcare and retail workers, as well as all those people who are out working for us at the moment. If we do so we will once again be able to celebrate all joy and tragedies together as we have done as a country, as friends, as neighbours, as a community and as a nation.
I wish to join other party leaders and Members in acknowledging the extraordinary national effort that we have seen in recent weeks. I wish to single out one particular person in this regard, our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, to whom we all owe an extraordinary debt of gratitude. We are exceptionally lucky that we have someone of his calibre who has insisted on operating on an evidence base. He comes with a major background of expertise in the area of public health. He has remained incredibly calm and on top of the situation throughout this appalling crisis.
It is interesting how, up to recently, many people would not have heard of public health. It is a small aspect of our health service and has traditionally been rather underfunded. Yet, we now see at this point of crisis how critically important the area of public health is. Clearly, Dr. Holohan is supported by a team of experts working day and night in this area. We owe them all a great debt of gratitude. It is also important to recognise all the health workers, in the broadest sense, throughout our health and social care services. I have in mind front-line people, including clinicians, but also the many support staff and administrators. Often administrators get a bad name and we say there are too many of them. At a time like this we are glad that we have them to do the vast amount of organisational and administrative work that needs to be done.
It is also important to acknowledge the great effort that we have seen on the part of other Departments and State agencies.
There is no question but that, in the main, all of those public servants have put their shoulders to the wheel. They have done extraordinary things that would not be seen or heard of in normal times. They have very willingly agreed to redeployment and to work extra hours, very often putting their own health in danger. We have seen an enormous effort and I believe we have seen the public service at its best.
It is very important that we recognise the importance of public servants. Part and parcel of that is recognising the critical role of the State in any society or economy. There are proponents of a small state but I would say to them that at this point of crisis, we are grateful for the fact that we have a reasonably well-functioning State. Let us learn lessons about the need to strengthen that State and ensure that, no matter what issues arise or crises or difficulties face us as a country, we keep a central role for the State.
The State is about public provision. The current crisis underlines the need for the public provision of services. Whether that is in the critical area of health and social care, childcare, housing or protection for tenants, we now realise, if we did not before, how essential it is that there is public provision of those key services. Sometimes people feel that public services are for the poor. We know that is not the case, and it should never be the attitude of society. Sometimes it is the case that people think they are for those who are marginalised and everybody else pays their way. At a time of crisis like this, we see the importance of the provision of public services that are universally available and I hope that the work that has been done in recent days and weeks, in terms of unifying the health service, will be work that will never be undone in this country.
Deputy Eamon Ryan referred to Sláintecare. What is happening now was described by one senior official as "Sláintecare on speed", and that is precisely what needs to be done and let us keep it that way. It is about having a unified, single-tier public health service that is available to people when they need it, irrespective of what money they have in their pockets. It is also about people pulling together, and the response from people with medical training all over the world and those working in other areas in this country has been quite extraordinary and encouraging in terms of the national effort and ensuring that everybody plays their part in providing services that are available and accessible to everybody. Let us learn those lessons. We must realise that we need to support all of the things I have mentioned, such as healthcare, childcare and good public housing, all of which are public goods, and ensure they are publicly provided.
It is also important to recognise the role of the community and voluntary sector, which swung into place quickly and is doing extraordinary work. GAA clubs, residents' associations and community groups stepped up quickly to support older people and the vulnerable and ensure that we are putting a blanket of care around people. Most of all, it is individuals who have responded most encouragingly to this crisis. People have taken it upon themselves to take responsibility for their health and safety but, more importantly, through their co-operation with the guidelines on social distancing and all of the other guidelines provided they have taken responsibility for public safety and good public health. That is really encouraging and shows people living in Ireland at their best.
We also have to recognise the work of retail workers, suppliers, hauliers and other critical workers who maintain the supply chains on which we are all so dependent. They deserve our gratitude.
At a political level, there is a high level of co-operation across political parties.
Key to maintaining that, of course, is good communication. Communication must be open and it must be two-way. We are all in this together at every level in Irish society and that means politically that we are in this together. That is why, in approaching this crisis on that basis, we have had a high level of success to date and there has been little, if any, attempt to score political points. It is essential that it continues like that. For this to happen it is important that there is openness, enthusiasm or determination to ensure timely responses to issues that are being raised by us right across this House because we are a filter for the public. Often we are the first line of contact for people looking for information. If we are in a position where we are given good quality, timely information, we can disseminate that to our constituents and help in the national effort. Of course, it is two-way then because we are finding out at a very early stage where there are problems in relation to supplies, services and responses to the Government decisions that are taken and it is important that we have a mechanism for feeding those back into the policy area. I ask the Government to pay some attention to that. I appreciate everybody is under a lot of pressure but we need to pay attention to that. That is essential if we are to maintain the cross-party united response to this crisis.
There are clearly significant issues in relation to procurement. Across all of the products required urgently, there is a worldwide competitive market. The HSE is doing its utmost in that. I refer to particular individuals. Dr. Colm Henry, especially, is worth noting in terms of his efforts. Not only should we be accelerating those efforts but the Government also needs to play a role in accelerating efforts to produce and manufacture any of those products that we possibly can here. Probably more attention could be given to that.
The messages have been heard and in the vast majority of cases, there is a very positive response. There are outstanding issues in relation to childcare. We have talked about how childcare arrangements might be made for healthcare staff - that has not yet materialised - and wage replacement, which I will reference later. At a European level, the noises from Europe are positive. There is no doubt about that. We must insist on the principle of solidarity prevailing throughout this. I welcome talk of the issue of eurobonds or coronabonds. That needs to happen soon. We must not ignore the lessons of the past where, when this country was in difficulty in the not-too-distant past, there was severe austerity. The issue of who the burden falls upon is a critical issue. We must learn the lessons of the past to ensure that when we come through this crisis and get to the point of recovery, it is a recovery for everybody and that particularly vulnerable sections of the community do not pay a heavier price than others.
The nightly figures are, I would say cautiously, holding reasonably firm and that is thanks to the efforts of everybody throughout the country. It is important that there is absolutely no complacency in this. While the figures are encouraging, there will still be a surge. We are all clear about the message about the need to flatten that curve and to ensure that the surge, when it comes, is stretched out as long as possible so that the health services are not overwhelmed. I say, to everybody involved at every level, "Thank you."
We all understand we face an unprecedented threat to public health and to society. Our first priority must be to do everything we can to avert the tragedy and calamity that we see unfolding in Italy which, understandably, is striking fear into the hearts of many in this country and across the world.
As others have done, I extend my condolences to everybody who has lost ones whether it is in this country or Italy or anywhere in the world. We must do everything we can to minimise that tragedy and protect people against the threat of Covid-19.
The first thing that must be done to do that is to support, equip and resource our health workers, who are the front line and who are putting themselves on the line to protect our health. As the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control clearly underlines, we have not done that. We do not have enough staff, we do not have enough beds, we do not have enough ICU capacity, we do not have enough personal protective equipment and we do not have enough laboratory testing capacity. Consequently, we urgently need to provide those resources to support those health workers and all those who are volunteering in their droves - the heroes who are now volunteering to build up the capacity, support and resources that we failed to provide for health workers and services in this country. Our particular plea, which we have made over the past few weeks, is that given that we do not have that capacity, we must support health workers who are coming into the health system financially and in every other way, that is, by paying the student nurses and immediately and without hesitation, taking control of private laboratory capacity and private industrial capacity that could be used to produce personal protective equipment, as well as getting hold of any stockpiles of personal protective equipment in order that it can be provided to our health workers who are currently rationing it in hospitals. That is the situation. I urge the Government to do that. There should be no negotiations or discussions regarding companies that can produce ventilators. We need that productive capacity to produce that equipment.
We need to support our essential workers and reward them. Retail, public transport, power and water workers and public servants who are putting themselves on the line need to be supported and resourced and I hope we learn forever the importance of these people, who have often been very undervalued and underpaid in our society.
We need to support everybody - the millions of people who through staying at home and practising social distancing are protecting our public health and the ability of our health service to cope with the surges that are coming. We need to support them. While I welcome the Government's change of heart regarding increasing the €203 payment to €350, we must remove all stresses, burdens, anxieties and worries from the shoulders of people who have lost jobs and income and who are at home and contributing to the public health effort. I would say to the Minister and Taoiseach that we need to press the pause button on rents, mortgages and utility bills until we are through this emergency. We need an amnesty for the duration of this emergency in order that those pressures are not coming down on the shoulders who, through their actions, are contributing to protecting us all.
Finally, we need to protect the vulnerable. We need to protect the homeless, people with disabilities and people living in overcrowded conditions. As all public health advice says these things are bad and weaken our ability to prevent the transmission of viruses like this, we need any empty apartment blocks, hotels or spaces that could be used to ensure that people are not living in overcrowded conditions to be requisitioned immediately and made available to people in order that they are not living in those conditions. Many are asking that given that the Government has now recognised that €203 is not enough for workers who are laid off to live on, whether it enough for our pensioners, those with disabilities or those who happened to lose their jobs six months or a year ago and who are looking for work. The answer is "No", so I hope we will learn these lessons. What is essential? It is protecting our health services and the vulnerable so that we as a society can come together to face the threat of Covid-19 and come through it with the least possible tragedy and calamity.
I start by paying tribute to all the workers who are putting their health and lives on the line in the fight against the coronavirus. Above all, this includes everybody who works in the health service - the nurses, doctors, porters, cleaners, paramedics, care assistants and home care workers and many others.
It is also everybody who is engaged in essential work: the truck drivers bringing food to shops, the retail workers, the postal workers, the bin collectors, the pharmacy workers and the bus, Luas and train drivers bringing all those workers around.
The crisis is laying bare many realities about society. One of those is highlighting those who are essential workers. People can see in that list there are no CEOs, no hedge-fund managers, no senior bankers. The workers who are doing the essential work in our society on the ground are workers who are invariably substantially underpaid, undervalued and working in sectors that have been underfunded by successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments. For too long, our health workers have been underpaid and overworked. Their calls for improvement in staffing levels, hospital conditions and wages were met with shrugs by the Government. Now, when they have been called on they put their shoulders to the wheel and went beyond the call of duty. The same applies to the massively underpaid Defence Forces. It applies particularly to student nurses today who need to be paid immediately and all of this must not be forgotten when the crisis is over. Those workers are added to by all those workers who cannot go to work, who are making a huge effort to socially distance to protect themselves, their families and society at large, all the community groups that have been set up to help each other out and to drop food and supplies to older and vulnerable people and to help people who are self-isolating.
The very best of solidarity has been brought out in the vast majority of people. Unfortunately, their efforts are being undermined by a small minority, the non-essential companies that are still opening up, the call centres, the factories, the construction sites – stuff that is non-essential for the running of our society. They are putting their private profit before public health and endangering the health and lives not only of their workers but of people in the wider community. I have been inundated by calls in relation to this. I had a call yesterday from a guy about Heatons-Sports Direct asking part-time and casual workers to come in and do work, very evidently non-essential retail work. The Mandate trade union has done good work in highlighting it and in protecting the interests of retail workers. It must be shut down. The most blatant case of endangerment has been in the construction sector. Again, I have been inundated with calls. I was talking to a guy yesterday on a major site in Dublin who said, first, it is simply not possible to socially distance on big sites and, second, there is no hand sanitiser available on the sites. I got a message yesterday from Niall who says:
I really feel we construction workers are being thrown under the bus. I travel between 3/4 sites a day with a combined workforce of about 1500 on them. Social distancing is impossible. My wife is working from home my son is home from school then I go out all day and bring whatever I've been exposed to back into the house.
Please fight for us.
People should go onto Unite's Twitter account. It has been doing Trojan work in exposing picture after picture of construction sites. The CIF said yesterday that 200,000 people work in construction in this country. If up to half of them got infected and became ill, which is the percentage estimated by Paul Reid, and even if the current mortality rates of 0.6% in Ireland was applied to those workers, we are talking about 600 workers who could die as a consequence. That does not include the risks to other people that construction workers come into contact with. One could expand that out to factories. I have a message from Ger, a factory worker who says he suffers from asthma:
I work in a factory that is not essential and will not close unless told to.
I suffer from asthma and am living with my parents. My father would be high risk as he is over 60 and has underlying health conditions.
I couldn’t live with myself if I got infected and brought it home with me and god forbid passed it on to my parents.
So my query is can I refuse to go to work and if I do would I be eligible for the social welfare payment?
We need a clear direction from the Government to shut down all non-essential work. It is the only way it will stop. It is the only way to protect the lives and health of those workers and the wider society.
If that does not happen, workers will be left with no choice but to take similar action to which we have seen in the North in ABP Meats and in Moy Park where workers simply walked out and said they were not prepared to continue to work in unsafe conditions. We need action and direction from the Government now.
I pay tribute to all front-line staff and all who have answered the call, both at home and from abroad, to help meet the challenges facing our health services at this unprecedented time. These are the people at the forefront of this battle which faces our nation at this challenging and uncertain period. These are the doctors, consultants and all other medical professionals, as well as the Garda, fire services, local authority, Defence Forces and social welfare staff. In addition, we must acknowledge others who are working each day such as cleaners, those working in essential services, food suppliers, hauliers, pharmacists, supermarket staff and more. These are difficult and challenging times. Everyone who is playing their part must be acknowledged.
A Cheann Comhairle, I thank you, your staff and the staff of Leinster House who have kept the House open to ensure we can pass this emergency legislation. I acknowledge the tremendous work of an Taoiseach, an Tánaiste, the Ministers for Health and Finance and all other Ministers who have shown great leadership, as well as their staff and advisers. I also acknowledge the tremendous work of the Leaders of the Opposition and all Members who are working at this challenging time which faces our nation.
This is the biggest challenge ever faced not just by our nation but by the whole world. Covid-19 adheres to no borders or continent. Sadly, many lives will be lost over the world and, unfortunately, here. I offer my sympathy and condolences to the families of those who have lost loved ones to this virus. We can reduce that number if people listen to the advice of the medical experts. I call on all our citizens to heed this advice.
Many people in our country are sitting at home worried about the future. Their first worry is about their health and that of their families. Their next worry is the financial implications of this pandemic, namely, how it will impact on their livelihoods, how will they be able to put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads when all of this has passed and, in the long term, will they have a job.
SMEs are particularly worried. SMEs, including hotels, restaurants and bars, are the backbone of this country, employing over 1 million people. The hotel industry alone employs more than 260,000 people with 27,000 of them in Galway. Some of these companies will have the resources to survive this but, unfortunately, many companies will not.
I have been contacted by the print media and local radio stations which have informed me their revenue has dropped 70% overnight as a result of this crisis. Cash flow has gone to zero overnight, particularly in the hotel and bar industries. Stock will go out of date but will have to be paid for, putting huge pressure on the limited resources they have. Many of these businesses thought they were covered by insurance. When they contacted their insurance companies, however, they were refused cover on the basis that they closed voluntarily. This issue must be dealt with and insurance companies required to pay out. These companies closed in the public health interest. Accordingly, they cannot be penalised.
I have spoken to many businesspeople in the past few days and weeks. They are very fearful for the future and are not in the position to guarantee that they will take back all the staff who they laid off over the past several weeks. When the banks were in trouble, we were able to bail them out to the tune of €200 billion. It is time for Ireland and Europe to come to the rescue of our SME sector and put in place a rescue plan. The SME sector, as I have already stated, is the backbone of our society. We must help all the businesses affected by closure due to Covid-19 and give them incentives to take back all their staff. A grant system, not a loan, must be put in place. No rates should be paid for the rest of the year, not deferred. There must be a six-month break on paying PRSI and VAT. These proposals will give them a chance to build up cash flow and take back all their employees.
Many of these small businesses were already on the brink of closure due to escalating and increasingly unaffordable insurance premiums.
A Government-backed insurance scheme should be considered. This is the least we can do. These measures will help kickstart our economy when this public health emergency has passed. This is about the survival of our nation. If we do not support the SME sector hundreds of thousands of people will be out of work in the long term. I have been also contacted by a number of accountancy practices highlighting concerns regarding the operation of the wage subsidy scheme and I will be writing to the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation later today about those concerns and to ask her to deal with these issues.
In respect of healthcare, I particularly want to mention the tremendous work of Dr. Tony Holohan, our Chief Medical Officer, and Dr. Ronan Glynn, deputy chief medical officer, who is a neighbour of mine in Galway. Their calm and assured approach to conveying a serious public health message without alarm is reassuring to the general public, and with their guidance I hope we will be able to flatten the curve and reduce the numbers of hospitalisations and deaths from this virus. One issue which has been brought to my attention, and which I hope can be resolved, is the plight of student nurses, many of whom had part-time jobs to pay their way through college. Unfortunately, these jobs have been lost and they have been called to the front line to help with the crisis. They cannot avail of the emergency Covid-19 payment and they are now effectively working for less than they would receive if they had stayed at home. These student nurses must be paid for their work in recognition of their efforts. We must have a streamlined approach to getting the people who are coming back from retirement or returning from abroad following the big 'On Call for Ireland' campaign into the workforce quickly. I welcome the fact that this Bill addresses this issue. We cannot have these people being frustrated and bogged down in red tape when they are coming to us in our hour of need. I ask that extra resources be allocated to processing their applications if that is what it takes. I also welcome the fact that people coming out of retirement will be screened for their own protection. It is a very worrying trend that almost 25% of those contracting Covid-19 in Ireland are healthcare workers. This is a much higher percentage than in other countries. I welcome the decision that healthcare professionals will be prioritised for testing but we need to ensure that all healthcare professionals, in hospitals and in the community, have the appropriate personal protective equipment. I have received calls from people providing care to vulnerable people in the community who are struggling to secure protective equipment. Perhaps the Government might consider the needs across the healthcare sector as a whole.
There are Government schemes that have ongoing deadlines that will cause huge inconvenience to people over the coming weeks, for example, driving licence renewal, particularly for those aged more than 70 years, who are still required to present in person; closing dates for the basic payment scheme at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; dates for lodging legal papers and many other things that we have not even contemplated. In an ideal world we could bring in emergency legislation to deal with each of these individually. However, because the absence of a new Seanad prohibits us from introducing new legislation we are looking for a simple provision to be written into legislation that gives Ministers the ability to postpone renewal dates and other deadlines for a period of six months so that they have the flexibility needed to ensure nobody is denied a right or a service, or is forced to leave his or her home in the coming weeks to renew such documents.
I ask that the Covid-19 emergency payment be made available to widows and to full-time carers who because they worked part-time are not eligible for social welfare top up. This needs to change because these households have lost a significant element of their incomes. This needs to be replaced through a social welfare or income support mechanism. Also, the habitual residency condition for welfare entitlements in Ireland which applies to Irish workers abroad returning home due to the coronavirus must be lifted as it may place many returning migrants in uncertainty and financial hardship.
I welcome this Bill and will support its passage through the House today.
Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an gCeann Comhairle agus le gach Comhalta as an obair stairiúil a rinne siad.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for recalling us today and for convening our meeting of the Business Committee this morning. These are pretty strange and difficult times.
I acknowledge the Taoiseach's address and the work he, the Minister, Deputy Harris, Dr. Tony Holohan and others are doing, and all their supporters, staff and advisers, as well as all public servants, both indoors and outdoors, who have continued to work under enormous strain and difficulties and are ag déanamh a ndícheall. Ní neart go cur le cheile. As has been said here this morning, it is a very important phrase. There is a sense of a meitheal, as I said last week. It is a huge, Herculean effort. It has to be done to defeat this beast worldwide. It knows no borders and respects no boundaries. People might think it is for people of my age and older. It certainly is not. We have seen that and I thank the media for the responsible way they have handled this, especially RTÉ and indeed our local print media and radio stations. Without those, we would not be able to function in rural Ireland. They are of huge benefit and must be supported. I am glad to see the Minister for Finance here and thank him too. At these times, we see and know the value of those institutions. People trust them now as if they were the Bible. They trust the local radio, having built up that relationship with them and with the local papers.
I thank and commend all the front-line workers. That goes for the nurses, and student nurses who have to be looked after too when they are called up. I raised this with the Minister, Deputy Harris, two weeks ago. A mechanism should be found under which they can be remunerated because they are answering the call of duty and putting themselves at risk. We have to ensure that PPE is available. I saw a wonderful story the other night from a small business in Donegal. It changed from making garments for the clergy to making protective gowns. It is a wonderful initiative. We must find those entrepreneurs and use them. They are ready, willing and able to do this. We must not have nurses, doctors, consultants, surgeons or anyone of any rank being forced to buy their own protective equipment and, worst of all, being unable to get it. The Dáil is back today for specific legislation. Deputy O'Donoghue and I represent the Rural Independent Group and we are supportive of the measures in this legislation. We are willing, ready and able to engage at all times and to help in any way that we can to try to sort this out.
As for the issue of the private hospitals, of course this had to be done. People have complained to my office about it. It had to be done. This is an emergency time and must be treated as such, then we will return to normal. Valuable lessons will have been learned from this whole episode when we return to normal. Will normal ever be the same again? Maybe not. Will there be a mad rush for the commercialism that has taken over much in our society in recent decades? It is now that we see the value of local people helping one another. I encountered Séamie Morris this morning, a postman from Nenagh, and discussed the work An Post is doing. Postal workers provide that help every day. A blind eye is turned to it but they have that relationship and special bond.
We must think of the farming community and, in the same breath, of rural isolation. Farming has become a very lonely profession. When I was young, there were 13 or 14 around the kitchen table at lunch time. Now it is a different scenario. Many people have gone from the land. A farmer may be on his own and his wife may be working, perhaps as a front-line worker in nursing. We must think of them now and their difficulties with livestock. With the marts being closed, we must find a mechanism. Beef Plan Ireland has come up with a worthwhile app and I appeal to the Minister to look at it. It needs funding to get it up and running. People could engage with trusted sources to buy and sell their livestock by using this app. There is a huge population of calves now, since we have just finished the calving season, and the lambing season is about to start. Nature and farming must continue. Cows must be milked. We need the milk, the meat and the food supply chains too.
I thank the Road Haulage Association. I believe that the RSA should be asked to close down NCT centres. I raised this at the sub-committee on Monday with the Taoiseach and others. The waiting rooms are too small and are just not suitable. That is a quasi-national body and centres all operate to the same standard.
They are just not suitable. I have had many calls from people waiting in those waiting rooms. The centres are only carrying out half the test at the moment anyway because it is not possible to inspect underneath the car. It should be suspended. It is not that I want anyone to drive recklessly - I do not - but we cannot ask people to self-isolate and take precautions with regard to distancing in these cases. There is not 2 m from one corner of these rooms to the other. I believe they are all standard. I have only been in two but they were standard. The Road Safety Authority must shut them down. Farm inspections must also be ceased by the relevant agencies. These bodies should be supporting self-employed hauliers and farmers. Every category of self-employed person - Deputy Grealish mentioned some - must be helped and supported.
I would also like to mention our clergy at this time. Regardless of denomination, people are flocking to church online services. I compliment the parishes of Tipperary and the many others which have been holding online services and looking at imaginative ways to put on extra services. It is only the clergy in the church but they are broadcasting to thousands. People are taking great solace from that, which they need. Goodness knows we need prayer now more than ever. People of all denominations and none are helping. It is an interesting time from that point of view.
We have seen the difficulties with regard to childcare. Efforts are being made. As the Government makes an effort to solve one problem, another arises. We have to be forbearing and understanding and give the Government a chance to work through these issues because its efforts all have different unintended consequences. I am forever asking for impact analyses of how the normal legislation we pass here beds in. I like to call this wartime legislation because it is a war. It is a war against this virus and we must treat it as such. We must also support An Garda Síochána. It is wonderful to see retired members of An Garda and the armed forces volunteering to come back. They have great and valuable expertise. In addition, some 50,000 people have offered to work in the front-line services of the HSE. We would not normally see the likes of that. Mr. Paul Reid has told us that it would normally take a year to do some things which have now been done in a couple of days. Red tape is being cut through but that could not be done without the goodwill of staff, management, public servants and front-line staff. We must note that.
I will move onto another issue. I hate to divert a little but I wish to refer to a very important and vital service, the community air ambulance based in the south west, and to the funding crisis it faces. It runs almost totally on revenue from fundraising. It cannot fundraise in these times and is quickly running out of money. I plead with the Ministers for Finance and Health to find some money to keep it running. It carries out contracts for the State every day and rescues people in remote areas who could not be rescued by road. We need it.
The South Eastern Mountain Rescue Association, SEMRA, Civil Defence, the Red Cross and all such agencies are in a similar situation. I saw SEMRA out yesterday morning. Somebody had fallen in a wood and got hurt. These bodies are, and will be, on call but I ask people not to put themselves in the way of danger, forcing them to go out. Their members should not have to put themselves in danger. They have to look after themselves as well.
I will make another appeal to the Minister with regard to an issue with which the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is trying to deal. Many hundreds of our people are in Australia and other countries. Some are students on work permits and short-term visas and are working on farms which are being closed down. They are penniless and cannot get home. Some have got money together for flights but cannot get home. There is also a sizeable cohort of experienced nurses, paramedics and doctors who want to come back to work on the front line here. We must get chartered planes to fly them home to Ireland. They are going from one airport to another only to find them closing because of the lockdowns. We need those people here now. They want to come. They have decided to come back to make an impression here and to answer our need.
This is Ireland's call. We might sing a song of that name at rugby games, but this is a call for people to come out and support one another. It is in the interest of every man, woman and child in the State to look after one another - our siblings, our grandparents, and everybody else belonging to us. I have no time for the galoots or yahoos who spit at gardaí or those working in front-line services. That must be dealt with and dismissed. It should not be allowed to spread on social media. It is anathema to the 99.9% of people who want to do good, to do right, to help and to be supportive of each other in this time of crisis.
I dtús báire, ba mhaith liom comhbhrón a chur in iúl do na teaghlaigh atá ag déileáil le bás a mhuintire de bharr an víris seo. Níl sé éasca dóibh agus níl sé éasca a bheith sa Dáil arís ag cur reachtaíocht éigeandála tríd an Dáil. Tá cuid den reachtaíocht seo iontach agus cabhrach ach tá cuid eile de ag cur isteach go mór ar chearta an duine, go háirithe ó thaobh daoine atá ag streachailt le fadhbanna meabhairshláinte.
I have only a few minutes. First, I extend my sympathy to all the families who have lost loved ones. We are back in the Dáil for the second time in a week to pass emergency legislation. While I will support the legislation, I wish to highlight the serious implications for human rights in both this and the previous legislation, and particularly in this legislation with regard to mental health. I would have preferred if there had been two separate legislative measures. Last week it was all put into one measure, which makes matters very difficult. During the last week I prepared for legislation on housing and rent, which is very welcome although it does not go far enough. There are other aspects, particularly mental health, which are extremely worrying. The Mental Health Act 2001 was introduced after a long campaign to bring a rights based approach to the treatment of people who suffer from mental health problems, and in this situation particularly with regard to involuntary admissions. I wish to put that on the record. I note the legislation will fall in November unless there is a resolution of the Dáil before that, but it is important to put on the record what we are doing. What we have been forced to do because of this virus is extraordinary.
With regard to the Taoiseach's speech, I do not believe we will ever go back to where we were, and I hope we do not. I hope we have learned from this and the extraordinary measures that are now being taken on a rent freeze, which I and like minded colleagues have begged for repeatedly over four years. We were laughed at, derided and told it was not possible. Suddenly, it is possible for a small length of time. I hope we learn from that. We also asked the Minister to declare a housing emergency, given all that would ensue from that. He told us that was no good either and just symbolic. Look at what we have managed to do now.
I place that in the context of the new criteria, which I welcome. Vulnerable people should have been prioritised from day one. It is unfortunate they were not. I would not go so far as to say it is chaotic in Galway, but there are very contradictory reports about the delays in getting the test and the results of the test. I have repeatedly written to the Health Service Executive, not in an argumentative way but in an effort to inspire confidence and trust. I am finding that difficult when I do not get proper answers regarding the delays of ten and more days and then another ten days for the results of the test. There is also the number of testing centres. In addition, what deal has been done with the private hospitals? Where is the information on that? I welcome that we are using them, but is it being done at a cost? What are the details?
I am extremely worried about direct provision. I have written repeatedly to the HSE, but it has referred me to the Department of Justice and Equality even though it is a public health matter. What provisions, if any, are being made in respect of direct provision? We are inundated with concerns from people. The Minister knows the situation was intolerable before the virus and now we are dealing with the virus.
Another issue is factories. I come from Galway city and am very proud of it and the number of factories there. However, while there are signs and, in theory, everything is being done correctly on the ground, in practice there is no distancing of workers. We will have to address this. I am not sure why we are not giving a clearer direction to them or carrying out inspections. People are travelling from all counties to the various factories and there is no distancing in place. We have people whose permits have expired and there is no provision for them. There are also the nurses who have been called back and the student nurses. No financial provisions have been made for them. I am told doctors are working for 24 hours. I am constantly hearing this.
Please have no more of "we know best" or "listen to us". Just share the information. I pay tribute to the people on the ground who, by and large, have managed to socially distance and remain home. My foremost gratitude goes to them.
Like Deputy Connolly, I extend my sympathies to the families of those who have lost loved ones to Covid-19.
Like many Deputies, I have a sense that the measures the Government has put in place are, by and large, adequate to provide a safety net or comfort blanket for ordinary workers, retired people and so on. It means they can have a sense that they can survive this time and have a future to look forward to. I found it interesting earlier to hear the Taoiseach say some of the extraordinary measures put in place might be kept in place. While they would certainly be modified, it is a recognition that we as parliamentarians can and must step outside our comfort zones and that we must smash the status quowhen we need to. I hope the lessons we have learned will remain.
More than anything else, this crisis is about people and the significant levels of uncertainty and fear they feel. The legislation we passed last week, as well as that which we hope to pass today, will deal with some of that uncertainty. There is confusion about the parameters for testing and I understand people's frustration, expecting tests and so on. People want to know that tests will be available further down the line but each one of us must behave as if we have the coronavirus and must treat each person we meet as if they have it too. While the Government, the HSE and the WHO issue advice, how that advice is followed will ultimately determine the pathway of Covid-19 in Ireland.
In respect of the legislative proposal before us, my colleagues, Deputies Fitzmaurice and McNamara, and I have submitted a number of amendments, which we will deal with as the debate progresses. They will address concerns about lodgers, people who share homes, the need for substitute consents in certain circumstances, and the possibility of speeding up the registration process for health professionals for a defined period. Other areas of concern relate to health and safety in care homes, asylum centres and emergency accommodation. I am not sure what plans the Minister has in that respect but measures need to be put in place immediately.
Two other groups, namely, farmers and business people, need to be provided with a more adequate safety net for their income and with a sense that they have a future. Our response in this regard has just been not sufficient up to now. In the case of the closure of marts, for example, the shock of that has been incredible for the beef and sheep trade. Farmers cannot move stock. I do not know whether it is possible, but perhaps we should investigate possible measures to determine whether, with reduced numbers and people linking in remotely, any solution can be found. At EU level, we must lobby significantly for intervention schemes. They are called intervention schemes because they are used to intervene when there is market failure, which is what is happening.
Businesses have received some relief but more is needed. I have examined some of the measures taken in other EU countries to give support to businesses and I think we need to do a little more. Some measures might include a rates exemption for six months or a deferral of VAT payments, payroll taxes and so on. Furthermore, businesses need more than loans. For example, Belgium is putting in place a replacement income for self-employed people, with city tax is to be abolished in Brussels, while in France, there is the possibility to postpone part or all of the payment of employer and employee contributions. We also need to consider the rates on loans. The Microfinance Ireland rate, for example, is 4%, whereas the equivalent in Belgium and the Netherlands is 2%. It is hard to speak of using this crisis as an opportunity but there is an opportunity for Irish businesses to consider increasing their online presence during this time if they are given additional support to do so.
As every other Deputy has done, I want to open my words by offering condolences for those who have lost their lives as we battle this virus. I also want to offer recognition of all of those who are playing such a vital role in allowing us to respond to the virus and, I am confident, with the passage of time, contain it and then defeat it. To all of those who are devoting their lives and their time, at risk to themselves, we owe our great gratitude.
As other Deputies have done, I want to acknowledge those who have worked with myself and the Government, over the past week in particular, to look at how we marshal our resources in a new way to support those who are in need at the time of greatest risk. I want to thank my officials in the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, and I want to acknowledge all of those in the Revenue Commissioners who have engaged in extraordinary work in recent days and those working in the National Treasury Management Agency, all of whose unsung work in recent weeks and days has laid the foundation for the Bill we bring to the House today.
I want to pick up on a point made by Deputy Eamon Ryan when he placed the response to this pandemic in a global context. It is appropriate to do that because we are dealing with something that is global in context and that knows no boundaries or borders. I believe it is imperative in our response, which is always anchored in the nation state, always anchored in the Government which the citizens see so close to them, to do this in a way that is anchored in the project of the European Union and anchored in a project of international co-operation and response.
Deputy Michael McGrath used the analogy of a wartime effort and, in so many ways, he is correct because what we are looking to do is defeat something that poses a risk to so many. However, in one area, that analogy could be used differently because war is about division, about separation, and what we are actually looking to do, as the Deputy acknowledged in his speech, is find how we can bring people together. That is why I believe it is vital that, within the EU, as acknowledged in the contribution today by the former president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, there is a vital element of the response that is collective, a vital element to the response that is about solidarity. While I understand that concerns about moral hazard sometimes play a very prominent role in those kinds of debates, such concerns about moral hazard have to be seen in the light that we have European neighbours and friends who are experiencing a loss of life on a daily basis that is truly comparable to what sometimes happens in war. That is what we, here in Ireland, are devoting our resources to try to stave off and reduce in our own country. I know this is an issue the Taoiseach will address in the European Council and that will develop across today and in the coming days.
Deputy Shortall made a very important point in regard to the role of public services and the fact public services here in Ireland, nearly all of the time, are universal in how they are constructed. What I ask her and others to consider, when they are evaluating this Bill, is that this is precisely the concept this legislation is anchored upon. What I have always argued in many debates in the House is that, as strongly as I feel about that role, I do not see the state as a response to the failure of others or as something that has to step in when the market fails. The state is a vital, positive, constructive force. It is the animating concept in our lives as citizens and it is the vital response at a time of need. However, it is also something that exists within constraints, it is also something that creates incentives, it is also something that needs to be able to fund itself.
It is precisely because of decisions made in recent years that we are at a point where we can marshall our responses to this extraordinary challenge ahead of us. I acknowledge the work of many who have allowed us to be at this point where we can respond. At the heart of the sections of this Bill for which I am responsible as the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure is the concept that at the time of a loss of income the State should step in. It should look to guarantee and subsidise a portion of that income. By investing in that income, the State can keep a job, stand by citizens at a time of need and lay the foundations for a recovery that will come when the recovery in our public health allows.
Underpinning this idea is that by acting now we offer ourselves the ability, but not the guarantee, to stave off even worse challenges, that could be economic in nature, potentially, in the near future. By intervening now, we can stand by citizens at a time of great economic need and, hopefully, allow them and those who employ them to retain a contract, a relationship, an economic relationship, in the place of work at the very time in which we are aware of obligations and commitments to each other that are even deeper. All of this is being done at a time of relative consensus within this House on the need to do it.
As we acknowledge that consensus, however, we should not do so at the expense of not acknowledging what a massively significant intervention this is. The cost of this intervention to the State will be approximately €300 million per week. That cost is only based on estimates we are creating at a point of huge uncertainty. That cost could grow, depending on the challenge we face, or it could diminish if we are successful. That acknowledgement of risk and what could change, however, only deepens my view that this is the kind of action a State needs to take at a time of need. I spoke earlier about the employment contract between employers and employees. We take this action because at a time in which we talk about those contracts, we acknowledge a contract that is even deeper, that is the social contract.
At a time in which citizens experience a profound and massive loss of earnings at a speed for which we have no precedent, the State needs to play a role. We acknowledge that because, as Deputy Grealish touched on, at a time when we have small companies and the self-employed all over Ireland not knowing where their futures stands, where we have people who never thought they would be losing a job now finding themselves having to access a Covid-19 pandemic payment, we have to say to those people that even though the journey back to economic health will be long, could be fraught and could have new risks, that we will complete that journey. Completing our journey in our public health is the first step back towards rebuilding an economy.
Listening to what Deputy Harkin said in her contribution, the economy we will rebuild will be different to the economy we are now seeing changing. It will be an economy that is very different in how it is organised, potentially, to before the crisis. Equally, however, it will be an economy that, with the right decisions taken now, will be capable of providing the incomes and employment so many need.
As I approach my last few moments making a speech, as would be expected, focused on our economy, let me also state that the guiding light of our decisions is the public health of our citizens and of seeing them as citizens. In a day, and in moments, in which we reflect on other sources of nourishment, I think a poem was acknowledged this morning on our national airwaves by Derek Mahon. In that poem, he offers assurances to many that better days could be ahead.
It is an appropriate poem because during it, he acknowledges that "There will be dying, there will be dying". In our efforts, led by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health and supported by everybody here, we are looking to diminish those deaths. Elsewhere in that poem, about the act of writing a poem, he says "the hidden source is the watchful heart." At this point, as citizens in our communities and families, let us use that watchful heart to ensure social distancing does not become loneliness. That is an act that all of us, public representatives or not, can be complicit in and can play our role in discharging.
I join with other colleagues in starting by conveying my deepest personal sympathy to those who have tragically lost their lives as a result of Covid-19 to date and to pay a heartfelt tribute to all of those working on the front line in our healthcare sector and in so many other vital sectors across the country at this extraordinarily difficult time; a time when we are asking the Irish people to make great sacrifices. It is difficult for so many people to do what we are asking them to do and it makes it all the more important that the State and the Government stand by those people and provide the supports, insofar as they can, to workers and businesses and give them a realistic and credible prospect of recovering once all of this passes, which it will.
Our overall priority, whatever the cost is, has to be to minimise the human toll of Covid-19 and we should spare no effort and no resources in order to do so. There can be no doubt there will be a sharp economic contraction as a result of this crisis. The ESRI has put initial numbers on this of a contraction of 7.1%, a deficit of close to €13 billion this year and unemployment potentially reaching 18%. It could be better than that and it could be worse than that. Those figures are based on certain assumptions. We must ensure the inevitable recession does not develop into a prolonged depression across our economy. That will require significant and seismic decisions to be made in the weeks and months ahead. We need support at an international level and we need cheap debt but we need more than that. I welcome the comments made by Mario Draghi, as have been referenced already today, in his article in the Financial Times. The support of monetary policy and what we can do in our fiscal policy here, underpinned by support from the European Union, will become all the more important in the period ahead. A lot of sectors will be badly damaged in our economy and it will not be a simple case of clicking the switch and everything going back to normal once this health emergency has been declared to be over. That will not be the case. A lot of significant and costly decisions will have to be made.
Turning to the provisions of the Bill, and I look forward to Committee Stage later on, the Minister has put a cost of €3.7 billion on this. I would like to find out at some point whether the €3 billion that was already announced on 9 March, €2.4 billion of which is for social welfare, has been subsumed into this €3.7 billion or whether we can add that €3 billion to the €3.7 billion and arrive at a cost of €6.7 billion. The Parliamentary Budget Office has done up a good paper on that issue, as it always does.
I also seek clarity on the basis of those estimates. Is it the case that the Minister is assuming that about 800,000 people will be affected by these schemes, whether it be moving onto the Covid-19 pandemic emergency payment or the employees who will benefit from the temporary wage subsidy scheme?
Are we talking about a number of that order? Can we extrapolate what the cost would be if the numbers ended up being different from that?
On Committee Stage, I will be raising several issues with the Minister relating to section 26, especially around the qualifying criteria for employers and the role of Revenue in that regard. There are employers who have cash resources at the moment and who perhaps can pay wages in the coming weeks. They may not benefit or avail of the scheme. We need to put some flesh on the bones of exactly how Revenue interprets this issue. Reference is made to a reduction of 25% in revenue for the period the Minister defines, but relative to what period? Is it relative to the same period last year? Is it relative to the forecasts for the period in question?
I believe the Minister should reflect on another provision. It states the Revenue will publish the list of businesses that will avail of the wage subsidy scheme. Is that really necessary given that state aid provisions have been essentially set aside by the European Commission? That needs to be reflected on. It could have trading implications for businesses down the line. Others may say they were not in as healthy a position as they had thought pre-Covid-19. I believe this issue needs to be dealt with.
I had thought I had a clear understanding of the position on the taxation treatment of the wage subsidy. I had understood it was not taxable and any top-up would be taxable and a change in the PRSI would be factored in. However, there is a line in the Revenue guidance stating that the subsidy will be liable to income tax and the universal social charge on review at the end of the year. Can that issue be clarified? It seems to me there is a contradiction there.
I am sure some positive things will come out of this. If anything, I hope it will be a stark reminder to all of us of what matters most in our lives: health, family, community and friendship.
There is no doubt this is a time of great uncertainty for all of us and a time of great financial stress for those who have been laid off and for employers who have had to close their premises. All this brings hardship for thousands or hundreds of thousands of workers and families throughout the State. The Government must act fast to mitigate the damage caused by the public health emergency. It must do whatever it takes to support incomes and workers. It must ensure there is relief for business so that we are in a position to respond in the best way possible on the other side of this crisis.
The health emergency will be temporary. Effective Government policy must now ensure that the economic damage is not long-lasting. It will come at a great cost; there is no doubt about that. However, the cost of failing to act will be even greater. It is our view that this challenge, which is a European challenge, must be responded to at a European level. We submitted proposals to the Minister earlier in the week - we announced them at the weekend - on how the European institutions can respond through the issuing of joint bonds through the European Stability Mechanism without the conditionality that would previously have been attached. We welcome the fact that the Government is pursuing this course of action.
Others have their part to play too. I am keen to focus on several key areas. In my previous contribution I mentioned the banks. The Minister made a major public announcement last week. The banks came out with great fanfare and said a moratorium or three-month break would take place. The reality is that these banks will profit on the back of the pandemic and that is not acceptable. Let us consider Bank of Ireland. Its website shows this clearly. Someone with a 30-year mortgage of €200,000 will pay €1,804 extra to the bank because of this three-month break. That is how much extra the bank will take from such a customer. That is not acceptable. A vulture fund - let us name it - Pepper, is telling customers that it will give them the three-month break but it will increase the repayment from €1,500 to €1,600 each month until the amount of money the customer should have paid, including the interest, is paid off. The fund is not extending it over the full duration of the loan. Not only are the banks not waiving interest, they are charging interest on the interest they are rolling up. It is absolutely scandalous and the Minister needs to call them to task.
There is no surprise that those in the insurance industry are trying to wriggle out of the commitments they have made to policyholders. Policyholders have paid an arm and a leg in premiums throughout the years. I have before me an email from FBD to a policyholder.
It states, "As outlined our VFI DPU policy which your policy will be written under is covering coronavirus and it is the amount specified on the policy. The pub must be forcibly shut down and cannot be voluntary". It is covered, but because the pub did the right thing for themselves, their customers and wider society - not under law because there was no requirement to do so - FBD, which says its policy covers coronavirus, has decided not to pay out. Multiple other insurance companies are doing the same. The Central Bank is writing to them, but we have seen what it has done in the past in regard to tracker mortgages. Banks had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing. We do not have time; we do not have four or five or years to get this right. The Minister needs to call the insurers in and talk to them in an upfront manner about the need to settle legitimate claims for which money should be paid out.
On the Bill, I have made the point that the pandemic unemployment payment is too low. I welcome that it has been increased from €203 to €350. However, the appropriate response is to make sure that the families of those workers who have been laid off at this time are not building up massive debts or are unable to pay their mortgages, bills or rent. We must guarantee a payment of up to €525, 100% of their income. We also have concerns about the subsidy scheme, whereby employers are not required to pay the remaining 30%. I have been inundated with messages from workers who have been laid off and have been told they must go back to work, but whose employers have told them they will not be paid more than 70% of their wages which works out at about €350. That is exploitation and it should not be allowed. We need to address that in the amendments to the Bill.
We also need to put in place safeguards to ensure that employers do not continue to employ staff while ramping up production during this period. Orders may have fallen by 25% and, therefore, businesses would be allowed to avail of this scheme. We cannot allow them to ramp up production while having their wage bills subsidised by the State by 70%, and then when the crisis is over and demand for products increases laying off workers for a period of time. They cannot be allowed to exploit the scheme and act in bad faith. We want to bring forward a number of amendments in respect of these issues. I know time is limited and we are under immense pressure. We will work with the Government and welcome the briefing we will get. Our amendments are about strengthening the supports, making sure the scheme is not abused and ensuring that families and workers are protected in the way we believe should be done.
I am mindful today that I am speaking in response to the finance portion of the Bill, not just as Green Party spokesperson on finance but also as a Teachta Dála representing Dublin Central. My constituency is home to many thousands of people who are among the most vulnerable in our society. We have some of the highest rates of homelessness, single parent households, children living in poverty, addiction and unemployment in the country. In short, I represent a constituency where many people will be unable to cope on their own with the impact of this unprecedented crisis and will not have the resources to make it through without the help of the State and their community.
I would like to commend my constituency colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, on the work completed so far. While there is always more work to do, there is a clear intention in the Bill to ensure that our constituents are protected in the face of this national health crisis.
I am a new Member of this Dáil and I am sure there have been some years where Members proceeded with the business of legislation and governance with hard work and little fanfare. I am also sure that there have been some years that come along once in a generation, ones that, whether by design or necessity, reshape our communities, set a new course for our nation and set a new normal for all of us. This is one of those years, and I believe that this Dáil and the Minister have made a good start. In the coming weeks and months, we will see our economic outputs and infrastructure put under unprecedented pressure. A downturn triggered by a pandemic is different to other kinds of economic contraction and will require a unique package of financial measures, one that is broader and deeper and asks more fundamental questions than we have up to now.
The measures introduced last Thursday and added to today effectively begin the work of providing a basic income to all and is a meaningful safety net for a large proportion of people in this country. We will need to work together in the Chamber to ensure that is universal and every person is seen and cared for. In the short-term, all of our collective effort must be focused on saving lives but people's livelihoods must also be maintained. Our new normal recognises that everyone deserves a minimum standard of living and that the State can and should play a role in that.
Our new normal recognises that the caring economy - one that has been so long under-recognised in this country - has real worth. Carers matter. People who work in the home matter. People who volunteer matter. Those people up and down the country who are buying groceries for their neighbours and who are ringing their elderly relatives matter. In an era where a pandemic is the reality now and may be again, our new normal should provide everyone with a basic income. As we move through this period of crisis, we should consider what it reveals to us about what we truly value as a society. A recognition of the need for and the achievability of a decent quality of life for everyone in our community through the provision of a universal basic income would appear to be one of them.
In this new normal we all have a responsibility to look seriously at the foundational core of our economy from its functional elements and its infrastructure through to insurance services and SME supports. The announcement by some banks over the past week of a reduction in banking services, the closure of branches and the difficulty some will find in accessing mortgage breaks and the real issues with those breaks highlight like never before the real need for a more public-focused banking sector - one that is based on regional and community solidarity and that considers its responsibility to provide services to those with disabilities, older people and those who are unable to access online services as a public service. We can now see the critical role that our local post offices and our important credit unions must play in a fully functioning and caring society and how important it is that we now progress with serious proposals for public banking that utilise our existing resources.
As these measures take effect in the days ahead and as stimulus packages are developed in future, every Member of this House must prioritise industries and businesses that demonstrated solidarity with and responsibility to their community. We must resist the provision of our finite public funds to sectors which will go on to create further catastrophes for the planet and for the people on it. We must focus on the resilience of our communities and on our national infrastructure to ensure that we are better equipped to deal with this crisis and others to come. We must work with the European Union to provide responsible financial aid packages which will protect our public services and, importantly, our public assets. This legislation, which seeks to provide everyone with a safety net, suggests that it is time to trade our old habits for a new spirit of community, social equality and climate justice - an economy based on people's needs and their quality of life. The scale of this legislation is unprecedented but so is the severity of the Covid-19 crisis. Our aim to protect and safeguard everybody must be of a similar ambition.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Covid-19 emergency Bill on behalf of the Labour Party.
It is fair to say that nobody could have predicted this pandemic but we can always predict the response of the Irish people when faced with a crisis of any description. It is only through shared solidarity through community and collective action and a selfless concern for others that we can overcome this challenge.
Our front-line heroes are the embodiment of those values - the healthcare staff who are putting their lives and their health at risk to keep us all well, the workers who have helped to keep Ireland moving and vital supplies on our shelves, and the many thousands of others who have answered Ireland's call. I salute every single one of them and their families. It is important for their sake and for the sake of our loved ones, and for the sake of our own health, that we all adhere to the stated expert public health advice.
This crisis is undoubtedly our country's greatest challenge, and indeed, the European Union's greatest challenge of this age. It is perhaps the biggest challenge the EU will face. It puts Brexit in the ha'penny place but it also has profound implications for the State and for our people. Every crisis, as has been enunciated by colleagues today, is an opportunity for collective action and constructive change and provides the opportunity for all of us to reflect on developing something better to emerge from this crisis. We take for granted many of the social protection schemes, such as illness benefit that the Taoiseach referred to earlier on. They were introduced in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War when we were developing the idea of the welfare state. Likewise our battle against the coronavirus serves as an opportunity to reset the economy globally, on an EU basis and nationally and put it on a more sustainable and fairer footing than before.
EU supports in the form of direct funds or low-interest loans via the ESM will be needed to cushion this unprecedented external shock. However, those supports cannot come with the strings and conditionality attached to those imposed post-2008. This would only lead to prolonged economic and social crisis. Disaster is avoidable but only if the political will is there. Additional measures are also needed and I support the call from my colleagues in the Party of European Socialists for an EU-wide reinsurance scheme. This is particularly relevant to the financing of the temporary wage subsidy scheme contained in this Bill and I hope the Minister will join me in welcoming that call. I am sure he will have more to say on this in his contribution.
I now turn to the contents of the Bill and the wage subsidy scheme. The trade union movement deserves considerable credit for developing this concept, as indeed do employer bodies for the collective action they have taken together in working with Government over the past couple of weeks to develop this scheme. It shows what is achievable when social partners work together. We also need to be mindful of the fact that social partnership is not just for a crisis. Social partnership and social dialogue should be a concept that is maintained in ordinary times. Despite the merits of the principle of the scheme, it is important that the scheme works in practice so that the link between the workers and their employers can be maintained, as intended. To achieve this, we need to make sure all employers see the merits of the scheme because if it is deemed to be more hassle than it is worth, the reality is that employers will move to a default position of laying off workers which, ultimately, defeats the entire purpose of the scheme. I would welcome clarity from the Minister about the specific nuts and bolts of the proposed eligibility requirements for business. I have taken time in the past few days, as have others, to assess the merits of the scheme and to talk to local employers and local accountancy practitioners and auditors to get their sense of it. There is a view that there is insufficient detail from Revenue about how the drop of 25% in turnover will be calculated. Regarding businesses that face seasonal fluctuations in their turnover, how will Revenue factor those exigencies into the calculation in terms of meeting the thresholds for qualification for the scheme? In addition, it should and could be clearer as to how a business can precisely and persuasively demonstrate its inability to make the wages - effectively to pay those salaries. Some key concerns have been expressed and I look forward to teasing out this with the Minister on Committee Stage with regard to that section of the Bill. There is a significant fear that when an employer acknowledges it cannot make the salaries, it then becomes somehow exposed around insolvency. The message needs to be very clear. Companies should use this scheme to protect their business and maintain the relationship with their employees. We do not want the potential for creditors to circle around vulnerable businesses at this point. It is very important that we provide for legal protections for businesses in that regard.
There are many other questions I will raise with the Minister on Committee Stage. I conclude by saying that we need to look very forensically at the Redundancy Payments Act. Some work has been done around this in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We will propose an amendment later that seeks to ensure that periods of lay off are included in terms of calculating redundancy entitlements if it is the case that a worker in the future is made redundant. I look forward to looking at that in detail with the Minister on Committee Stage.
The Social Democrats very much welcome the proposals in respect of wage replacement and the co-operative approach that has been shown in terms of the proposals brought forward by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and IBEC. We know from all of the academic advice on this and the experience in other European countries that this is the right thing to do and I commend the Minister on that. Wage replacement is clearly critically important to keep workers attached to the workforce, to maintain demand in the economy and liquidity and, essentially, to keep companies afloat because we know from experience in other downturns, particularly the crash, that when companies go to the wall in a recession, very many of them never get back afloat.
That is why it is important to keep as many companies as possible afloat, to keep people attached to them and to keep money in the economy in order that demand is maintained and we will be better placed to reboot the economy when we come through this crisis.
I do think a bit of time was lost. This is a crisis situation for everybody and we might have moved quicker on it. I am not sure also why it takes so long to put the system in place. In the meantime, it is welcome that the welfare payments are to be increased to €350. That, in itself, raises questions if that is deemed to be the minimum that is required to survive in the current circumstances. What does that say then about all of the other welfare rates? One might say that somebody who has suddenly lost his or her job is hit with a lot of unexpected additional costs but the fact of the matter is that there is an impact, not only in terms of health, well-being and anxiety that people are encountering at the moment, but also in the substantial additional costs for all families in coping with the present situation, whether that is difficulties in accessing food, additional heating and lighting costs and other such costs and trying to keep children amused. All of those things have costs associated with them. Where people are or have been just about keeping their head above water on the basic welfare payments, there is not a recognition of those additional costs impacting on families who have been on welfare. My concern is that unless that is recognised, what we are then creating is a two-tier welfare system, which is very undesirable. Points have been made about universal basic income, which I support. Coming out of this crisis I hope we will learn lots of new ways of doing things and that we will maintain some of those new systems, in particular in respect of income support, the health service, childcare, all of those things which I hope will not be undone but it is not desirable that we would have a two-tier system and I would welcome a response to the issue. It is those people who are in receipt of welfare payments who are on the lowest incomes who are likely to take the brunt of the crisis that is affecting all of us at the moment and that is not acceptable.
I also have a couple of questions on the operation of Part 7, in particular the provisions of section 26(3). Does this infer that payment will be made in arrears? If that is the case, how can company cashflow sustain that? Otherwise, how does the business prove the 25% reduction over the period specified? I know the Minister has had to move into this very quickly but there are questions that arise in that regard.
The Minister is aware that moneylenders have been to the fore recently in the media. Following on from what I said, there are lots of families in a highly vulnerable position financially. What we see now is licensed home collection moneylenders going on a marketing spree and calling around to people's homes at a time when they are particularly vulnerable and offering them cash. As we know, the charge is 187% APR. That, in itself, is problematic and should have been dealt with by now. As we do not want people to get into further difficulty by this kind of promotion of very expensive debt, could the Minister put out some message about that and encourage people to use the services that already exist, such as MABS and the credit unions?
Everything possible has to be done to allow workers to effectively socially distance.
We need to ensure workers do not have a situation where they are laid off in this crisis not to be taken on again in the future or to be taken on at lower pay rates and worse conditions. We need to ensure all workers are guaranteed a continuation of their jobs and employment rights. We must ensure all workers who are affected by the coronavirus and should not or cannot go to work for any variety of reasons, namely because they are self-isolating, minding children, looking after vulnerable people or their work is not continuing because it is non-essential work, are guaranteed 100% of their income. Workers’ lives are built not around 70% but around 100% of their income. While 70% is a definite improvement on what we were facing before, it is not enough unless one has a situation where rents or utility bills are frozen, as in do not have to be paid for the period of the crisis. Unless that happens, then workers need to get 100% of their wages and we have an amendment tabled to do that. This should be paid for, particularly by big businesses from the profits they have accumulated, unless on the basis of proven need, as will be the case for many small businesses, that they simply cannot do that.
I want to raise a broader point relating to a point made by the Taoiseach on St. Patrick's Day, which I thought was significant. Then he said that the bill for dealing with the coronavirus crisis will be enormous and may take years to pay. The question of who is going to pay that bill is going to be a central question in this country and around the world for the coming years. As the crisis deepens and the months go by, will we see massive bailouts for the airline industry, banking system and the hotel industry? Are these bailouts going to be paid for by workers over the next several years? Instead, will we see a bailout for workers starting now, guaranteeing 100% of income that is good not just for the workers and their families but for society and the real economy to ensure there is not a downward spiral in terms of demand?
The bottom line in my opinion is that workers must not pay the price, now or in the future. There are simple things which can be done now by the Government to raise the revenue to deal with this crisis, rather than placing it on the shoulders of workers in the future. First, the Government must immediately drop its case for Apple to keep the €14.3 billion which is now sitting in an escrow account. We need that money now for tackling the crisis. Second, we need an emergency substantial levy on the wealth of millionaires and billionaires in this country. A 5% levy would raise €8 billion. Third, we need an emergency levy on the reserves of the insurance industry which has disgracefully been seeking to avoid paying out for this crisis when it is precisely moments like this for which small businesses have paid insurance.
People will tell us that dropping the Apple tax case or these levies are not possible. The problem is that these are the same people who told us a one-tier health system was impossible and that the banning of evictions or freezing rents was unconstitutional. When faced with the enormity of this crisis and public pressure to do what is necessary, many of the sacred cows of neoliberalism have been sacrificed in Ireland and around the world. The Minister for Finance said we will never be returning to the old normal. I agree. People will see that if it is possible to ban evictions, to take private hospital beds into the public health system, to pay workers substantially more than the dole now in a time of a crisis, then it should be possible at other times.
We face a crisis right now in terms of Covid-19. We all know, however, that working people, the very people on the front line who are facing this crisis, face crises every single day, crises of rent, cost of living and healthcare. These supports should be made permanent and we will be fighting to make that happen. We will also be demanding that we go further.
The Government is, thankfully, largely attempting to do what the science around coronavirus demands. For decades, scientific experts have also been warning of the existential threat of climate change and to take far-reaching radical measures now to save lives. Just like with the coronavirus, the free market, production for profit, capitalist system is the barrier and at the root of these problems. All the talk of putting capitalism to rest like a sleeping beauty to be re-awoken at some future date by an economist prince is ignoring the reality. Things will not be the same after this crisis. People will fight for the most radical and far-reaching change possible.
We need a set of policies that will restructure society and the economy to focus on the needs of people and our environment, not the desires of billionaires and the super wealthy; a green new deal, with socialist policies, to deal with the economic fall out from this crisis and to prevent the climate crisis; a jobs programme; public ownership; democratic control and planning.
I recognise that the Government is working around the clock and is under massive pressure. I also recognise that this is a gargantuan task and there is little or no rule book on decision making for the Government to follow at this time. However, while we should all put on the green jersey, that does not mean that the Opposition should delete scrutiny. Oversight of the Government's actions is more important now than it ever was. I believe the response of the Government to the financial impact of the virus at the start was slow and inadequate, compared to the financial responses of our near neighbours. The €203 a week that was proposed for six weeks was seriously insufficient and would have pauperised families. We in Aontú called for companies and businesses not to lay off staff. We looked for staff to be paid at least 75% of their salaries during this crisis up to a limit of €30,000 and we called for the ability of businesses to then be able to draw down these funds as rebates from the State. This we felt would be necessary to maintain the proper income floor under families and to maintain the relationship between workers and employers during this time. We welcome the fact that the Government has changed tack in regard to some of this in recent times, especially around the debt chain in the State. There is a necessity for forbearance on credit. We cannot allow the debt to be crystallised in the hands of people who cannot pay rent or mortgages. The Government has recently changed tack on that and we welcome that change.
One of the key questions that is not being addressed is how all of this will be paid for. There is a debt chain between the renter of the home, the Government and possibly the European Central Bank, ECB. Where on this chain will the debt be crystallised? Ireland is already emerging from a debt crisis. The health service, infrastructure and housing have all been hammered over the past ten years due to the fact that we are carrying such levels of debt. Over the past ten years we have paid approximately €60 billion to service the interest on that debt. We already have one of the highest national debts per capitain the world. The ECB treated Ireland radically differently from other countries during the last debt crisis. That led to a direct cost to this State of €41 billion. We believe that now is the time to negotiate with the EU on how this debt will be resolved. Some might say this is not the time to be worrying about how we will pay for this. I would argue completely differently because if we do not negotiate on the terms and conditions of any debt that will be created at the start of this process, we will enter into agreements that could massively overburden this State with debt in the future.
EU treaty arrangements prohibit the ECB from directly funding nation states. This is absolutely wrong. There is no doubt that Britain, the US and other countries will allow their central banks to print money and put that money into the economy to make sure it functions. There is a history of the EU being against this but we are living in different times. We need to make sure that a mechanism for funding is there and that the sovereign debt of this State is not increased. If it is, we will see another lost decade when we emerge from this crisis, when health, infrastructure and housing will be hammered again. That is not an option. I ask the Minister for Finance to make sure that negotiations are entered into with our so-called European partners at this stage in order that we do not suffer from that as well.
With regard to investments for workers and those who are employed, it is interesting that Britain has indicated that it will invest approximately €400 billion into its society and economy. Adjusted per capita, that would be the equivalent of approximately €30 billion in this State. We have heard the Government mention €3.7 billion so far. New Zealand, which has a smaller population than this State, has announced an investment level of about three times what this State has indicated so far. I ask the Minister to detail how much is expected to be invested by the State to make sure that society, enterprise and workers do not suffer.
There is an all-Ireland dimension to this. The Executive in the North and the Government in the South have been at sixes and sevens with regard to how to deal with the crisis. I ask the Minister what efforts are being made to make sure that we have all-Ireland management of the economy and the health response.
I offer my sympathies to the families of people who have lost their lives due to Covid-19 and other illnesses, and to the families and friends who could not attend funerals to show their respects due to the health restrictions in place. I have questions for the Minister about payments, which have been increased from €203 to €350, which I welcome. I get questions every day from part-time workers, apprentices and trainees, whose incomes might only have been €200. They are afraid that when they apply for this funding, if it is €350 when they were only earning €200 to €300, they may be told that they have to repay the balance at the end if they have been overpaid.
Our front-line services are doing an amazing job, from our healthcare services, to shopkeepers, to chemists and across the board. If one is an apprentice blocklayer, plumber, electrician or plasterer, one is paid a wage when doing one's training. The nurses in our front-line services do not get anything while they are training, and should get an immediate subsidy to allow them to survive, since we need all of our healthcare staff.
People who are over 70 are made to turn up to the motor tax office in person to renew their licences. They have to travel by themselves because they have nobody who will take them, because they are afraid to pass anything on. This has to be changed.
The banking sector is freezing payments, which is welcome, but if one has a term loan of two, three or four years, a bank will freeze it for three or six months, but it wants the full payment within the term of the loan. That means that when this comes back to normality, one has to pay the full amount to the bank within the term of the loan. This has to be changed. Due to this crisis, people might be living in rental accommodation with someone elderly and with their children, because they are on a housing list. They are now looking for alternative accommodation so that they can have a separation distance from their loved ones, so they are working. Many people need to be looked after in this crisis.
Some insurance companies have shown that they are liable and some have shown that they are not. As a goodwill gesture, all insurance companies should freeze all insurance payments at this time for three months to allow businesses that had to close down not to pay the premium. Their cover should be held in place for three months as a goodwill gesture. It should be made law that this must happen immediately.
The companies that are liable can be dealt with afterwards. In the interim, insurance should be frozen for small, medium and large businesses and everything should be kept in place. In order to maintain one's insurance cover, a hotelier must have somebody in the hotel 24-7. Otherwise, one's insurance is invalid. A measure must be introduced to deal with this.
To return to our nurses, if anything comes out of today it should be that our trainee nurses and our front-line staff immediately receive a payment to allow them to continue to provide the help and front-line services we are asking for.
In his contribution, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, spoke of global and European solidarity. This word, "solidarity", can help us to defeat this crisis. If we can put it into action, we will come out of this a better society than that which went into it. I am very pleased to see that Ireland is part of a group of countries seeking a so-called coronabond. As Members will remember, some time ago there were proposals with regard to eurobonds, but that concept never really saw the light of day. Some member states are still talking about moral hazard. The number doing so, however, may be fewer and their voices may be less strident. As this crisis plays out, I believe there will be more support for this approach at an EU level. We did not do it during the last crisis, but we must do so now to deal with this one. The EU must not only put in place a €750 billion loan fund, but must look at coronabonds in order to provide both a stimulus and a safety net. In many ways, the future of the EU will depend on it.
Speaking of solidarity, we have to ensure solidarity from our banks. Several speakers have referred to this need. I spoke to some people on the front line in the banking sector yesterday. They are coming under terrible pressure. The Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, are in constant contact with the banks. Using whatever further pressure they can exert, they must ensure that we do not see the interest on interest of which some of my colleagues have spoken. It must not be the case that payments deferred now still have to be paid within a specified time. People are outraged at the idea of interest on interest. I know the Minister of State does not have complete flexibility, but these are extraordinary times and we require real and meaningful solidarity from our banks and financial institutions.
My colleagues, Deputies Fitzmaurice and McNamara, have drafted our response to the Covid-19 crisis, which we have sent to the three major political parties. This response is based on ensuring as much certainty as possible in these uncertain times. We support the Government's proposals but, as in any crisis situation, the first thing to do is to steady the ship. I believe we are doing that. Of course, in addition to short-term measures, there must be longer-term measures. At the moment we are firefighting but when businesses close, many owners will question whether to reopen. Unless we put proposals in place to support those businesses, some owners will still have that question in their heads. That needs to be dealt with in the weeks and months ahead in order to give those people hope and confidence. That also applies to everybody else. As I have said, the àla carteapproach shown by many financial institutions with regard to loans, mortgages and so on cannot continue.
I have spoken to many business owners who are shell-shocked and feel their future is uncertain. We must follow the example of some of our European colleagues, as I mentioned earlier, and give more support and hope to all those people who plan to re-open. It is not just loans. We must consider cash injections, deferral of payments to the Revenue Commissioners and so forth. We always say SMEs are the backbone of our economy so now is the time to show it.
Like many speakers, I wish to recognise the heroic efforts of so many people in our communities. However, one group in particular was mentioned by my colleague, the student nurses. Every Member agrees that they must be paid for the work they do. An extremely negative message will be sent if that does not happen.