Thursday, 7 May 2020
Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements
Gabhaim buíochas le muintir na hÉireann as ucht na difríochta móire a rinne siad chun dul i ngleic le Covid-19. Tá an cuar á mhaolú againn agus tá an chuid is measa den ráig thart. Tá na mílte daoine sábháilte againn. Níor sháraigh obair na foirne ospidéil agus an lucht cúram sláinte orthu. In ainneoin sin, tá an iomarca cásanna nua againn agus tá an iomarca daoine ag fáil bháis go fóill. Cuireann sé sin in iúl dúinn go laethúil go bhfuilimid fós ag iarraidh smacht a chur ar an aicíd. Mar is eol don Teach, tá plean againn chun an tír a oscailt ar bhealach fhadálach, céim ar chéim. Tá cúig chéim ann agus trí seachtaine idir na hathruithe go léir, ag tosú ar an 18 Bealtaine. Tógfaidh sé tamall maith ach tiocfaidh ár saol ar ais beagnach mar a bhí sé roimhe seo, ach beidh gnáth nua i gceist. Beimid ábalta sólás croí a thabhairt dá chéile go pearsanta. Beimid ábalta daoine a chur ar ais ag obair. Beimid in ann a bheith buartha agus brónach i dteannta a chéile. An teachtaireacht is mó atá agam do gach duine atá ag féachaint ná gur fiú na híobairtí a rinne siad. Tá na mílte daoine sábháilte dá bharr. An aidhm atá againn anois ná an gníomh a thosaigh muid a chur i gcrích.
A Cheann Comhairle, foremost in our minds are those who have lost loved ones because of Covid-19 and all who are suffering from its impact physically, emotionally or financially. As of last night, 143 people have died since we last met in this format last week.
I offer my condolences and those of the House to their families and friends.
Due to the decisions, choices and sacrifices of the Irish people, the curve has been flattened. It has plateaued, but our grief has not. We now have a road map for how we will bring our country to a new normal. The stakes are too high to rush things now; otherwise, we risk everything we have achieved. As we start to ease the restrictions, we must continue our commitment to the basic actions such as cleaning hands and physical distancing. We must try to find, isolate, test and care for every case and trace every contact. As we ease the restrictions personal discipline around physical distancing, handwashing and respiratory hygiene will become more important than ever.
As of yesterday, just under 215,000 tests have been carried out in Ireland. Over the past week, close to 62,000 tests were carried out and, of these, 2,280 were positive. That gives us a positivity rate of 3.7%, a rate which, thankfully, is continuing to trend downwards. Some 65,000 tests have been carried out in long-term care residential centres, including nursing homes, and 540 nursing homes, or 93% of the total, have been tested so far. This testing continues.
During the course of this Covid-19 emergency, nearly 3,000 people have been hospitalised, and 78% of those have made a full recovery. Some significant developments have taken place since this day last week. The HSE is increasing its testing capacity, which now stands at 12,000 tests every day. By mid-May, we aim to have capacity for 15,000 tests per day. The total number of tests now done, as I mentioned earlier, is 215,000. That is 43,000 tests per million population. Depending on how this is measured, we rank between third and seventh in the European Union of 27 and are now well ahead of countries that led the way in testing previously, such as Germany, South Korea and Singapore. We need, however, to focus also on turnaround times and rapid and aggressive tracing.
One of our focuses from the very start was to build surge capacity in our hospitals. We needed to ensure we had the maximum possible number of critical care and regular hospital beds so we could cope with the predicted number of Covid-19 cases requiring hospitalisation. We need to remember that the 3,000 people who have been hospitalised so far have come from all settings: some from their own homes, some from nursing homes and some from other forms of care home. They are young, middle-aged and older. The whole point of increasing critical care capacity and hospital capacity was that that is where the sickest will end up. To date, 3,000 people have been hospitalised with Covid-19. It is good that we have not run into issues with the availability of critical care beds or ventilators. It could have been very different. The willingness of people in every village, town and city to follow the public health advice has changed the future. It has meant that our hospitals have been able to cope and our healthcare staff have not been overwhelmed. This success, however, has brought a different challenge, and we need now to work out how we can manage separately Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 care for a prolonged period. This will not be easy. It means we need to provide care and services in new ways, such as increased used of telemedicine, online clinics and hospital in the home while ensuring that patients are confident about the quality of their treatment and reassured about the safety of the care they receive.
For those feeling isolated, I know how easy it is to become anxious and lonely when they have to spend a considerable amount of time on their own, especially if they are sociable people by nature, but I ask them to remember that help is always available. I ask them to reach out to a friend or family member and contact Community Call. It is waiting to hear from them.
Last Friday we published our reopening plan. Since then, indicators are that the positivity rate is going in the right direction. ICU occupancy is now below 100 - in fact, falling towards 80 today - and we are increasingly confident, though it is not yet certain, that we can proceed with phase 1 on Monday, 18 May. Cabinet will make a final decision on that on Friday, 15 May, following advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. I know we have faced some criticism that our plan to reopen the country is at a slower pace than those of other countries. It is true that it is slower - slower than those of countries much less affected than us, such as Australia and New Zealand, and slower than those of countries much worse affected than us, such as Spain and Belgium.
This is a decision the Government made on foot of advice from NPHET and it is one we stand over. I would rather have a plan that we accelerate if things go well than one that we might have to pause, draw out or go back on if they do not. We are putting the lives of our people and their health first and we do not want to have to reimpose restrictions like some other countries have had to do. That would damage public morale and further dent economic confidence. We want to learn from the success and errors of other European countries reopening before us and it is encouraging to see the data from Germany which indicates that its reopening has not yet led to an increase in cases. I think ours is a prudent, precautionary and health-led approach.
The Government is keen to hear from sectors and businesses that think they can open more quickly and see their plans for how they will achieve physical distancing and what precautions they will put in place to mitigate the risk where they cannot. Our objective is to help the country get through this emergency, rebuild our economy, get people back to work and keep them safe while doing so. We are currently working with business, unions, the Health and Safety Authority and the HSE on the development of a return to work safety protocol to assist this.
According to our most recent figures, 598,000 people are receiving the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. This is on top of the 205,000 people on the live register, so a total of 803,000 people are now receiving some form of income protection from the State. As we know, we came back from the last economic crisis and achieved full employment. I believe that, with the right policies, we will do so again and the recovery will be quicker this time.
On Saturday, we announced an economic plan worth up to €6.5 billion to help businesses impacted by Covid-19 and minimise the economic damage done by the pandemic. Commercial rates will be written off for three months. A €2 billion credit guarantee scheme will be introduced for small and medium sized enterprises and our sovereign wealth fund, the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund or ISIF, has been mandated to invest €2 billion directly into bigger firms. Maintaining the link between employers and employees will enable a quicker recovery and the wage subsidy scheme will help keep staff on the payroll.
There is also a €1 billion Covid-19 funding package to help businesses with cashflow and banks will also be able to dip into their rainy day capital reserves to keep lending flowing, freeing up €1 billion in bank capital to provide up to €13 billion in credit. Meanwhile, a suite of taxation measures will alleviate short-term liquidity difficulties.
I am keen to see a return to international air travel as soon as is feasible and safe. There is a lot of work to do but I am more optimistic than others that air travel for business and leisure will resume this year. Currently, there is important work being done by the European Commission and various aviation safety agencies and I hope to give an update to the Dáil on this matter in the weeks to come.
We are still learning about this virus. It is noteworthy that initial reports suggest, from retrospective testing, that the virus was circulating in France as far back as December last year. That is before the virus even had a name or a test for it. In some ways, this is not surprising. France is well connected to China, with dozens of flights every day, and Ireland is well connected to France. It is very possible that this virus was already in Ireland last year or in January this year, and we should not assume that it came here from Italy in late February just because the first confirmed case did. Further research and retrospective testing will give us a better idea of that and time will tell.
The coronavirus is the shared enemy of all humanity and all governments. I believe the only way we can defeat a global threat is by working together on a multilateral basis. Working together, we can develop an effective vaccine, treatment and testing systems. Ireland has contributed €60 million in direct or repurposed grants to the United Nations and has quadrupled its contribution to the World Health Organization. On Monday, on behalf of the Irish people, I pledged €18 million to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, so that the poorest and least developed countries in the world will have access to the vaccine if and when it is developed. We are providing about €10 million over three years for immunology research.
The Department of Health is also supporting the WHO solidarity study which is comparing four treatment options, including remdesivir, which is available to Irish patients under certain circumstances. By recruiting patients in several countries, and shortly here too, the trial aims to rapidly assess the impact of these treatments in slowing the disease or improving outcomes.
As always, I look forward to hearing comments and observations from Members.
In just over two months, 1,375 people in our country have lost their lives during this pandemic. Our first thoughts must continue to be with their families and loved ones, and indeed with those who are today fighting with the virus. There is no question that our absolute priority must be to continue to limit the spread and fatal impact of Covid-19 and that this work will continue for some time. During this session, there will be many hard questions asked concerning the Government's actions. That is exactly as it should be. Particularly as we join other countries in moving out of the most restrictive phases of the response, there are many issues where there is no simple answer and different approaches are possible.
Last Friday's publication was welcome, but it has raised almost as many questions as it answered. It is a framework for reaching decisions. It does not provide a level of clarity which could have been expected. The five tests by which different elements of the restrictions can be raised are reasonable and they have been on the record for some time. However, we have absolutely no clarity about the specific triggers for lifting, retaining or reimposing restrictions. In the absence of a clear assessment of the current status and future requirements, the tests provide no clarity. For example, the critical issue of increased mortality from non-Covid cases has now been identified as a consideration. What is the current assessment of the extent of these deaths? How will it be monitored? At what level will this factor come into play? It is a very serious issue in terms of the non-Covid stream in our health services, both primary and acute care, the absence of people coming forward and so forth.
In contrast, other countries have been far clearer in saying exactly what they mean when considering pressure on hospital capacity, the replication of the virus in the community, the availability of testing, and other factors. As we have been pointing out for many weeks, in key areas Ireland has taken a quite limited approach to the publication of real-time data and the quantification of problems. Following the publication of the framework last Friday, we need to move on and to take a more open and rapid approach to the publication of all data relevant to the five tests. Different sectors of our society and economy need to be enabled to come forward with specific proposals for how to lift restrictions while respecting public health advice.
Given the amount of time and effort put into preparing for last week's announcement and the fact it was withheld until a wide range of advertising and other publicity activities were ready, it is surprising how many specific issues are not addressed in the document. The failure to consult the Northern Executive is inexplicable. It is to be hoped the Taoiseach will clarify that this was an oversight which will not happen again. This is not an area where high secrecy is required. In fact, the absence of enough consultation is clear in parts of the document.
The position regarding the leaving certificate is unacceptable. Every single government in Europe has been confronted with how to complete school leaving examinations and prepare for a new higher education year. Nowhere has there been such a lack of clarity and confusion. The fact that the reopening document published last week failed to address it is remarkable. We are now beyond the stage where clarity must be provided and the Government must be honest about the ability to complete the leaving certificate in the coming months.
On Easter Monday, our spokesperson sought a briefing on the public health advice in regard to examination classes and sittings. He has never received this, and it is our understanding that the examinations advisory group has also not received such a briefing or such public health advice. How is it then that arbitrary dates can be bandied about without providing information about the public health limitations for what can and cannot be done? Why have members of Government talked about starting dates for examinations without any detail on how that can be accomplished?
There is no way of addressing the concerns and preferences of every student but there are basic principles of equity which must be addressed. In recent days, I have heard from teachers and principals in many parts of the country about how certain students simply are not able to match others in terms of home-based learning. One principal in a DEIS school told me that his best student has nothing more than a small smartphone to rely on. Other students have family members testing positive, with obvious implications for their capacity to study given the need for parents to self-isolate.
Policy cannot be set based on assuming that every student has a laptop, a room where they can learn alone and a school which has the resources to teach online. I am genuinely surprised that nothing has been published so far by the Government assessing what the teaching and learning environment has been for leaving certificate students in the past two months.
Ó thaobh na hardteistiméireachta de, tá brú uafásach ar na mic léinn faoi láthair. Is dochreidte an easpa soiléirithe atá ann faoi láthair freisin. Tá sé riachtanach anois cinneadh a dhéanamh. De réir dealraimh, ní raibh mórán cainteanna nó comhairle ag teacht idir an Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna agus an Roinn Sláinte nó ní bhfuair an Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna mórán comhairle ó na hoifigigh sláinte phoiblí. Má tá an méid seo fíor. Cén fáth? Nuair a foilsíodh an roadmap ar an Aoine níor luaigh an Rialtas aon rud faoin ardteistiméireacht. Tá cinneadh déanta ag beagnach gach tír eile san Eoraip maidir leis na scrúduithe. Admhaím nach bhfuil sé éasca. Tá sé deacair ach is é an rud is deacra a thuiscint ná conas an ardteistiméireacht a eagrú i gcomhthéacs na comhairle atá ag teacht go ginearálta ó na hoifigigh sláinte phoiblí agus atá léirithe sa roadmap. Measaim go bhfuil sé dodhéanta. Ar aon nós, tá sé in am cinneadh a dhéanamh agus plean dearfach a chur i bhfeidhm.
As well as bringing some finality to what is to be done about completing the leaving certificate, there is a need to urgently give guidance and support to the higher education sector. The financial crisis caused by underfunding in recent years has now been followed by financial meltdown. The broad dimensions of this are getting clearer as overseas enrolments for next year have effectively disappeared. One constructive step which could be taken immediately would be to agree to expand the number of available places in third level for leaving certificate students this autumn. This would help to reduce the impact of the points race and potential disputes involving grades in the event of an alternative emerging. In many cases, it would also ensure we do not see a reduction in places in important faculties, because of the decline in overseas enrolments, where there is already an excess of qualified candidates applying for places, such as in medicine, finance, computing and other areas. The failure to show leadership in regard to what is happening with the leaving certificate and higher education must end. The consultations that were held yesterday need to be maintained on an intensive basis, with hands-on ministerial engagement, with a view to a concrete proposal emerging and being agreed.
On Saturday, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, announced a range of economic measures and repeated the fact that we are facing a series of economic, employment and budgetary shocks which are unprecedented. There are more than 1 million people in the country receiving some form of emergency payment today. This is the highest level of State support ever recorded and anyone who suggests that policy responses should set a new normal is being both misleading and cynical. No one has suggested that we begin a fiscal retrenchment in order to restore access to lending, but to claim that there are no budgetary concerns whatsoever is empty politics.
The critical challenge we face is how to restore as much demand and employment as possible and do so as quickly as possible while respecting public health limits. As I have said during all our recent sessions, the treatment of Debenhams workers is outrageous and unacceptable. I hope we will hear more detail today about what is being done to make sure some companies do not exploit the pandemic to deny workers and creditors their rights. Equally, I hope we will have a greater acknowledgement today of the vast majority of businesses which are desperate to hold on to their staff and get back to work as soon as possible. My party has heard from business owners throughout the country who are doing everything they can to keep their staff and are developing detailed protocols for how to restart and respect health guidelines.
Unfortunately, we have still not received any information about the impact of the pandemic on State companies and local authorities. What is the current scale of the financial hit they have taken and how are they to be protected? Public transport is critical to our society and economy, yet we have heard nothing about how public transports companies are to be helped and what limits they will face before full reopening. The evidence from throughout Europe is that masks are a critical part of a widespread return to using public transport, and this needs to be addressed here. There is more than enough public health evidence regarding the benefit of face coverings and no evidence that the supply of personal protective equipment, PPE, will be undermined by introducing a requirement for face coverings in at least certain public situations. This has been under consideration for long enough. It is time for a decision.
This week we begin to restore important parts of parliamentary accountability and oversight. The national will to fight and overcome the pandemic is as strong as ever. What we need now is greater clarity and openness in deciding on future steps.
I will speak for several minutes, after which I would like a response from the Taoiseach before I continue.
I start by sending sympathies to all of the bereaved, extending solidarity to all of the sick and wishing them a full recovery, thanking every worker on the front line and acknowledging the efforts of our people as they live with extraordinary public health restrictions on their lives.
I listened with great concern yesterday to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, as he indicated that a cut would be made to the Covid-19 payment and the wage subsidy scheme in June. To cut or taper these interventions and supports would be wrong. Such a decision would represent a serious blow to workers and families who have lost their incomes as a result of this pandemic because, as we know, when a person loses a job, he or she still faces the cost of living, bills still need to be paid, money has to be found for the mortgage or the rent, food must be put on the table and children have to be provided and planned for. Those of us living in the real world know that €350 per week is the bare minimum needed to keep a show on the road. We know that it is the bare minimum needed to make it to the end of the week. To cut this payment would be to pull the rug from under the feet of so many and force those who can least afford it to pay for the economic fall-out from this emergency.
That such move is even being floated at this stage suggests that Fine Gael remains out of touch with the lives of workers and families and those bearing the brunt of this economic shock. The comments of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, sent a shiver of apprehension down the spines of those who suffered untold hardship as the result of the vicious cuts meted out by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over the last decade. Many families were still struggling with the financial impact of their austerity policies from the last recession just as the pandemic hit. Those people remember the deluge of mean-spirited cuts of that era. They remember that in the last economic crisis Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil chose to protect the banks and the wealthy and that they chose to punish ordinary workers and families instead. They lived with the minimum wage being slashed. They lived with the numerous cuts to child benefit. They lived with the profound damage done to our public health service and to our housing system. All of these were slash and burn policies that aimed to service a debt that did not belong to the people. At the same time as this suffering was heaped on ordinary people, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil managed to ensure tax breaks for the vested interests and massive pay-outs for bondholders.
It is not lost on anyone that words like "unaffordable" and "unsustainable" are rattled off and deployed to describe financial measures that benefit ordinary people, but somehow money and resources are always found to preserve the privilege of those at the top. On the Fine Gael street banks are systemic but securing the livelihood of workers and families would always prove just too expensive. The reality is that we will have an unemployment crisis well beyond the summer. Whole sectors of our economy will need more than a couple of months to recover, to get back on their feet and workers will need to be supported and protected. Workers and their families need stability and certainty. At this point in time, they do not need announcements from Government that the €350 per week that they currently rely on is to be cut. Such an action would contradict the promise made at the outset of this crisis that ordinary workers and families would not be thrown overboard on this occasion. It would signal that the motto, "We are all in this together" was just a slogan in the end used to garner public goodwill. It would provide a telling glimpse of what is in store for workers and families should a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil Government transpire.
There can be no return to austerity. The Taoiseach should be in no doubt that this is his first test. Will he give a commitment to the Dáil and, more important to workers and their families, that the payment of €350 will be maintained at its current rate and extended beyond June?
The temporary wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment of €350 per week have protected those who have lost their jobs in a way that was appropriate and was right to do. I think we all acknowledge that it cannot last forever. It was an unprecedented action and it is not affordable for it to last forever, and I think the vast majority of people in the country understand that. However, it will need to continue at least until people have the opportunity to return to their jobs. For the vast majority, that will not be possible before mid-June, so, yes, it will need to be extended beyond mid-June, and I am happy to say that here in the House today.
I am sorry, though, that Deputy McDonald chose to become so party political in her contributions because what she said was so two-faced and so fundamentally dishonest. My party, Fine Gael, never cut the minimum wage. Working with the Labour Party and then with Independents, we increased it by 25% to one of the highest in the world. What is the minimum wage in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin is in power? In this jurisdiction, a Government led by my party introduced a pandemic unemployment payment of €350 a week so the people who lost their jobs had some financial security. What happened in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin is in office? It is £100 a week, with nothing for the self-employed until June. Sinn Féin Ministers on their Facebook site promote the fact that they hand out food parcels to the poor, reminiscent to me of Donald Trump handing out toilet roll after the hurricane hit the islands in the Caribbean. Sinn Féin's leader here in this House, Deputy McDonald, is an Opposition party leader. That is fair enough, and she can criticise what we do and say it is not enough. She can do that every day but she cannot hide the fact that she is also leader of an all-Ireland party, a party that is in power in Northern Ireland, where the minimum wage is lower than here, where they do not give people £350 a week but they hand out food parcels and boast about it on Facebook. I would be ashamed to do something like that. Do not blame it on the Tories and do not blame it on London. If it was not for their money, it would be even worse.
Of course, the budget in the North is a subvented budget - the Taoiseach is quite correct - unlike that budgetary parameters that we have here. I am glad to hear the Taoiseach confirm that the payments will be extended beyond June. Will he indicate for how long these payments will be extended? Will he indicate that the level of payment at €350 will remain the same? Will he indicate also if he could be more ambitious in terms of the supports for small and medium-sized enterprises and micro businesses? What he left out in his exposition of the North is the fact that grants of £10,000 sterling or £25,000 sterling are being made to businesses across all sectors in the economy. In fact, what has been dedicated to those efforts in the Six Counties is far greater than the entire €250 million, which is pretty miserly, that has been set out here. Businesses are contacting all of us, I am sure, to say that it is inadequate.
I am very proud of the community work that our activists do right across the island. It is not just in the North that people are running meals on wheels and bringing packages and parcels to help people who are struggling. Today, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul launches its fundraising effort in acknowledgement of the fact we have many needy people.
I am glad the Taoiseach has changed his mind in terms of cutting this subsidy and income support scheme. At what rate will it be paid? Is it still €350? For how long will the Government extend this payment?
No decisions have yet been made on the rates or on the timelines. That may yet be a decision to be made by the next Government, if we have a new Government by then. If we do not, then obviously this continuing Government will have to make that decision, and it will make it well before mid-June and will give people plenty of time for that.
It is a great thing that people provide food banks and hand out food parcels, and this Government actually funds food banks and we have done that for a very long time. What we do not do is post on Facebook pictures of our Ministers visiting them and handing out food to the poor. What the Deputy should do in Northern Ireland, and she is the leader of Sinn Féin in all of Ireland, is make sure the Northern Ireland Executive matches what we are doing.
Again, we saw the two faces of Sinn Féin when it came to the business grants. The Deputy is correct that it is doing more for business than for the unemployed in the North. When it comes to business grants it is because Sinn Féin is in government but when it comes to its failure to look after those who lost their jobs, as we have, it is somebody else's fault.
I will share time with Deputy Joe O'Brien and I might ask a question of the Taoiseach but I want to make a statement.
Our hearts go out to the families of those 36 people who died yesterday. The other day when I was listening to the radio, Ryan Tubridy was interviewing somebody who asked how Ireland is at the moment. One of the things he said in a short response is that it is good because our political system listens to health advice. That struck me as a very simple truth. It is important and it is a good thing. Therefore, it is worrying that while there are a lot of good signs, such as the fact the ICU numbers and transmission rates are down, the number of deaths announced yesterday was a real shock. They are an ongoing shock for everyone. I understand that today, Dr. Tony Holohan said that if he were to give advice tomorrow on whether we should ease the restrictions as due on 18 May he would be reluctant to do so. This is a concern. He said there is still community transmission, and we can see it in the numbers, and this is also a concern.
We hear different things and today I also heard Alastair Campbell in the UK stating we should follow the scientific advice but we need to know the science and the figures. I say all of this by way of a long introduction to referencing Deputy Howlin, who introduced the open government partnership, as I recall, in 2011. Following scientific advice and emphasising the capability to provide open government, particularly on information in a scientific way, is very important at this time.
I connect this to another comment made in recent weeks by President Michael D. Higgins who, in a very important article in The Business Post, referred to a report from the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, that gives us a map for some of the ways we can manage the recovery. If it is not running into difficulty, I will quote the President, who said the report provided by NESC is a map for recovery and he asks that we be wise enough to use it. The reason I am connecting this is because the report refers to two areas of transformation that will help in the recovery. One is tackling the huge challenge of a reduction in climate emissions and the other is the issue of digitalisation, and how as a country we ensure we deliver a just transition in this as well as in our approach to climate change. The two are connected. As we start to manage the opening up of a recovery the report gives us a guide as to where to go.
The President describes the report as being as important as that written by Whitaker on the country going from a closed to an open economy as it steers us on a map to go from being an unsustainable economy to a sustainable economy. If I were to simplify some of the recommendations in the report, it very much emphasises the need to work at a local level in devising the transformation. The report reiterates what the European Commission and others have been promoting in Open Innovation 2.0, which has four strands of co-operation, between the State, which is centrally involved, business, academia and local communities and citizens. I mention this because it is how our recovery will work. It will start from the bottom up and it is important that we support small and local businesses in particular. Working with universities, the State, local people and agencies of the State we can and will turn around the economy in a way that uses the solidarity we have shown in response to this crisis. This is what we need to do.
This relates first and foremost to the health system. What we have seen in how we have managed our health system over the past two months is an example of how, with innovation, we can be good at this. The fact we have turned around our health system very quickly and have been able to build new extra capacity in ways we never thought we could have done in the timelines we have done is an example of such innovation. We also have the use of digital technology and I recall the Taoiseach stating recently how online clinics are now being done in a way they had not been done previously.
We should maintain that capability. The fact that, as we introduce contact tracing apps, we have to have the trust and confidence of our people that this is really good digital innovation is going to be critical for managing the continuing suppression of the virus. I am sorry if this sounds slightly abstract but the ability to innovate and to involve our local communities, businesses, universities and the State in such a four-stranded approach to innovation is going to be the key to recovery. That starts more than anything else with collaboration in the political space, and co-operation with our local governments and all our parties so that we are all in that collaborative, innovative approach to the recovery ahead of us.
I have questions and will leave time for some answers. I refer to the situation of thousands of people in institutional, communal accommodation called direct provision. I note this in the context of great national and governmental effort to tackle Covid-19 where there has been a massive communication campaign to inform everyone about what they need to do in terms of social distancing and how to protect their health and that of their communities. It is also in the context of the Government releasing an unprecedented amount of funding to protect people's incomes, their livelihoods and their lives and taking dramatic steps that have never been taken before. In these contexts, it is particularly difficult to understand the Government's response to people living in direct provision. My figures tell me that there are 1,800 people still sharing a bedroom with people they are not related to and do not know. Will the Taoiseach confirm this?
The HSE came up with a new definition of "household" to work around Dr. Tony Holohan's advice that social distancing is not possible for people in communal bedrooms such as these. It would now appear that a "household" can mean a group of people who have never met before, are from different countries, speak different languages, did not choose to live with each other and naturally do not have knowledge of each other's movements and activities during the day. Frankly, it is scandalous in these wider contexts I have outlined that this is happening and that this fudge is being actively implemented. I spoke to a man this morning who is in desperation trying to comply with social distancing in a direct provision setting. It is causing great risk to people's health and active damage to their mental health, which in many cases was already under severe strain. How would we all feel if we were unable to comply with the social distancing measures that have been asked of us in recent weeks?
I understand, although I do not agree with it, that the communal accommodation set-up has been the way in direct provision, but it is inconsistent with public health needs at the moment. What is more, the fact that a new centre was set up during the pandemic, which forced people into communal bedroom situations, is mind-boggling when we are supposed to be pulling out all the stops. I have figures of 5,866 people in direct provision and another 1,585 protection applicants in emergency accommodation. Will the Taoiseach clarify how many of these people have been tested, how many have tested positive, and how many have now been provided with their own bedroom where they can isolate? The approach to protecting people's health in direct provision is an active failure. We now have a legal opinion emerging from the Irish Refugee Council contending that it is also a breach of various human rights commitments. It is not that the Government did not move fast enough or did not understand the reality. It is that it knew it was not the best approach and carried on anyway. We must do better.
I thank the Deputy. I am afraid I cannot confirm those exact numbers. I do not have them in front of me but they may well be correct. They certainly sound like they are correct. The definition of a household or a bubble, as some countries term it, is not unique to Ireland. Essentially from a public health point of view, someone's household or bubble is the people he or she lives with. It is virtually impossible to maintain a social distance from people we live with. There are many who share a house with others they are not related to, and they are considered the one household. There are many who share a room with somebody they are not related to, and they are considered to be the one household or the one bubble. Because it is not practical to socially distance or isolate oneself from people one lives with, whether in the same house or the same room, such groups are therefore considered to be a household or bubble. There is no change of definition there. It was always the definition and it is just common sense from a public health point of view. It applies whether someone is in direct provision or not. It does not matter what language a person speaks, his or her household is the people he or she lives with. If that person shares a room, that is his or her household or bubble.
On the issue of people who need to be isolated, Citywest is available and people have been isolated there. There is capacity at the site and also a possibility of isolating people in hotels if necessary. I do not have exact figures in front of me. However, I will correspond with Deputy O'Brien and provide the figures to him.
I do not believe that any Member of this House is of the view that direct provision is a good system. I absolutely believe it should be one of the objectives of the next Government to put an end to it. However, that is easier said than done. There is a shortage of accommodation in the State and it is difficult to predict the number of people in any given week, month or year who will come in from overseas and may need accommodation.
I again pay tribute to all our workers who are doing such an amazing job for us at this time, particularly those on the front line. I offer my condolences and those of my party to all the families who have lost loved ones over the past week.
I will raise four issues with the Taoiseach: I will again refer to the issue of transparency; I will concentrate to a significant degree on secondary non-Covid morbidity, which is a real issue; I will also mention the disability sector, which has been forgotten about; and I will refer to childcare.
Before I begin, I put it to the Taoiseach that the handling of the leaving certificate has been an unmitigated disaster and I ask that he would please intervene. The stress these students have been put under is intolerable. This matter needs to be brought to a conclusion. We need a plan B and it needs to be put out there this week. That plan needs to be agreed. The situation cannot be allowed to run beyond this week. It is unfair and completely wrong. The way it has been handled by the Department of Education and Skills is evidence of a dysfunctionality that has not been seen in some time.
It is two weeks since I wrote to the Taoiseach asking a number of questions on decision-making relating to NPHET. He did not really answer my questions so I wrote to him again last week, and he has not replied. NPHET has not published any minutes for its six most recent meetings. This practice was meant to stop but it has not. On the famous testing target, it is interesting that in his letter to me on 29 April the Taoiseach stated that the target of 100,000 tests was set at the NPHET meeting of 14 April. The minutes of that meeting, however, make no mention of the target. How could it have been set at that meeting? The Taoiseach corresponded with me and indicated that is where it happened, but the minutes do not reflect that. What is going on? This is deeply concerning.
I have also asked the Taoiseach to publish the letters written by the chief executive and chairman of the HSE to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and his Department. They have still not been published and I am asking, quite publicly, for the third week in a row "Why not?" What is the Government afraid of in these letters?
I am becoming worried about the reputation of this Government for transparency when it comes to answering questions, freedom of information, the use of general data protection regulations and the number of times answers are not being given or where people, whether in political our journalistic circles, are being fobbed off. It is happening too often.
The publication of the road map last Friday was very welcome but the Government was very quick to rule out any divergence in views between it and NPHET. The Chief Medical Officer and the Minister for Health, at the press conference on Friday evening last, stated that the Government completely followed the plan. The Tánaiste recently said the same. Philip Ryan of the Irish Independenthas shown twice this week that this is simply and factually not the case. This is an undeniable fact now. I have been trying to get a real insight into the Government's relationship with NPHET, hence all the questions that have not been answered. I want to know exactly why the Government chose to deviate from the Chief Medical Officer's advice on the wearing of face masks and cocooning. Others may not have noticed but there were also changes regarding social visits, retail services and, specifically, travel measures across the grid. I am very concerned about why the Government is afraid to explain all of these. Why is it afraid to admit that it disagreed with the Chief Medical Officer and with NPHET and did not implement their plan 100%? NPHET advises and the Government makes decisions. I do not understand why the Government cannot just admit that and we can all move on. For me, it is not actually a big deal. It is, possibly, a good thing. I am of the view that the Government will have to deviate and take into consideration secondary morbidity and other socioeconomic issues into the future.
I am concerned and worried about why the Government is not willing to be very open about this. It has been consistently denied.
On the issue of face masks, I say pointedly that we need a plan. The Government needs to give guidance on this. Its messaging on it has been all over the place. With secondary morbidity, we face a catastrophic situation unless decisions are made quickly. As Covid-19, thankfully, becomes more controlled - well done to everybody for all their work - and because of the way society has been socialised around Covid-19, we know that people are dying from deaths that would be preventable in normal circumstances. A total of 30% of clinical healthcare appointments are not being fulfilled, while there has been a 30% drop in inpatient activity and a 50% decrease in GP referrals to rapid-access clinics. The UK has made an assessment that an additional 18,000 people will die from cancer. We have no screening programmes and there are scaled-back diagnostics, trimmed-down community work and a drop-off in mental health and disability services. I know of one woman who has been told she will have to wait 24 weeks for her colposcopy results. We have been here before. We cannot go back there. That is not acceptable.
We need a public awareness campaign to ensure people re-engage with the health service. Patients need to be assured that if they need to go to a GP or hospital appointment, they can do so and it will be safe. The campaign needs to be backed up by a plan to get our health service moving. I believe that the roadmap the Government published has a huge gap in it. It needs a correlation with a plan for how we will get our health service moving in tandem.
A plan for reorientating, redeveloping and restarting the health service. It has to be the HSE; it cannot be NPHET. The latter has a certain mandate and a certain competency but it is the HSE's role to deliver health services in this country, otherwise, the board and governance of the HSE may as well not be there.
A piece missing from the puzzle is the issue of normality. I fear that in order to get people back to going to their appointments and re-engaging with the health service, the Government will have to look again at the three-week intervals in the roadmap. I predict that the Taoiseach and the Government will reach a pendulum point in the next few weeks, where non-Covid-19, preventable deaths could outweigh Covid-19 deaths. This is a matter the Government will have to consider carefully. How healthcare is performed, how attendances at clinics will be configured, where people will wait and the use of PPE all need to be prepared for and changed. We also know there is a danger coming down the road in the form of the winter flu. I ask the Taoiseach, please, to take on our request in the Labour Party to give the flu vaccine for free to everybody next winter. We cannot countenance dealing with Covid-19 and the flu at the same time. Please do that. I think everybody in the House believes that it is a good idea.
There have been an awful lot of good innovations that we need to keep, such as collaboration with GPs, ehealth, and video and telephone consultations. We also need to ensure we do what Mr. Paul Reid said at the beginning, namely, that we have Sláintecare on speed. The nationalisation of some of our private hospitals for the three-month period has not been optimal, and while that needs to change, it is a good thing that needs to continue. We need increased bed capacity. Sláintecare identified that and this is the quickest way of doing it. I have to say I cringed when I saw on "Prime Time" a certain consultant who said he did not care really - he was agnostic - about which door patients came through, whether public or private, for treatment at his clinic. That same consultant has not signed up to work under the current Covid-19 arrangements. I dare say that consultant would care if a patient could not pay. That needs to change.
On disability services, we have taken our eye off the ball, collectively.
I am hearing that many people with intellectual disabilities are suffering greatly. The lack of assurance on when day services and specialised services will come back into place needs to be addressed immediately. Many of these people have underlying illnesses.
The Government has not yet got its head around childcare provision. Eight weeks ago, I saw the Minister for Health's plan for this area. In fairness to the Minister, he showed me the plan. It is not acceptable that it has taken this length of time. It is also unacceptable that the detail of the plan has not been worked out by now. The plan for childcare facilities to open in intervals is not acceptable. It will not work because we need to mobilise and get people into a normal system again. The way childcare is being phased in will have to be brought forward.
The Government needs to consider extending maternity leave for women who have had children and are currently availing of this leave. We are not in a normal situation whereby children have been with their parents for a considerable period. I ask the Taoiseach to consider extending maternity leave in some way in order that these parents can look at how childcare provision can be brought about and can embrace this period with their children. There will be an issue with some childcare providers taking on young babies in the current circumstances. The Government needs to consider and plan for this.
If Members decide to consume all of the time available in asking questions, they cannot expect to get answers. Perhaps it is possible for the Taoiseach to correspond with Deputy Kelly.
People are raising all kinds of different issues. The longer we continue in this health crisis, the deeper we get into an economic crisis as well. Practically every aspect of life has been impacted by the virus and the associated economic recession we are in. I want to take us back to stage 1 in this Government's response to this virus, namely, the strategy we are pursuing in this country to contain the virus. That strategy is about testing, tracing and isolating. Some of us feel like a broken record in commenting on this because the issue has not been addressed by the Government in the kind of scale that is required for us to be successful in beating this crisis and to be able to progress through the roadmap that has been set out. There remain major question marks over our ability to achieve either of those goals.
It has been set out from the beginning that the strategy will be to test at the level of about 15,000 people per day and to have quick tracing and isolation. That is the way to control the virus. The Taoiseach can quote figures from other countries but other countries are using different strategies. We should look at the other island countries that have been using very successful strategies, such as New Zealand and Iceland which clamped down completely on traffic in and out of the country. We did the opposite and we made serious mistakes in allowing travel from particularly dangerous areas to continue unabated. To a large extent, we are still allowing that to happen, with movement of people back and forth. We saw in a news bulletin yesterday a report about an Aer Lingus flight where social distancing was not respected.
Is this continuing? How many people are coming into this country in those circumstances? Where are they coming from? Weak arrangements have been put in place at our airports in terms of handing out a leaflet and asking people to give details and their telephone number, but people are simply not co-operating with that.
Our strategy, for better or worse, is a test, trace and isolate strategy. I do not know why the Taoiseach is playing that down so much, why he has not been upfront in telling us what the situation is with the numbers and the reasons we have not met the target numbers we were supposed to reach weeks ago and why he will not explain to us and the general public what the issues are with that. I noticed last week, when public attention was focusing on this, that the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health went out of their way to clarify that they were not talking about 15,000 tests per day but a capacity to do 15,000 tests per day. Why is the Taoiseach making that distinction? All the medical advice is that we need to be testing at least 15,000 per day and we need to be able to trace quickly and isolate where necessary. Why is the Taoiseach going against medical advice in that regard? Why is he not explaining what the position is with that strategy?
The Chief Medical Officer, CMO, has made it clear that there is an adequate level of testing taking place in hospitals and in respect of healthcare staff and, belatedly, staff and residents in nursing homes. The difficulty is, as the CMO has pointed out, that we do not understand the behaviour of the virus at community level, and we will not be able to understand it until there is an adequate level of testing and tracing. We are very far from getting on top of this virus. The CMO has said we must be doing that number of tests and getting the results very quickly. The difficulty with proceeding with the roadmap is that the three week spacing the Taoiseach is proposing between the different phases will not allow time under the current arrangements for cases to be detected, tested, traced and isolated. We will not have that data back in order to determine whether it is safe to continue to the next stage.
A number of prominent medics and scientists in this country have said that it is likely there are hundreds of thousands of cases in the community here. We have no handle on those numbers at present. All we know is the narrow number of people who have been tested. We know something about their cases, but we know nothing about community cases. I believe the Taoiseach is jumping the gun in this regard. Everybody likes to have good news and to talk about returning to normal, but we do not have the right strategy to allow us to do that safely. The big fear is that there will be a second wave of the virus, which would be a disaster for everybody. It would be a disaster for our health, our jobs and our business. Just try telling people three or six weeks into the roadmap that we have to go back to stage 1, which is what we will have to do unless we get the strategy right.
We talk about this and then we look at what is happening in the real world. The Government put in place a very expensive infrastructure for testing and tracing. It recruited hundreds of thousands of people to engage in that important work. However, in recent weeks many of the test centres have been closed down. In fact, the big ones such as Croke Park and Tallaght Stadium were closed all weekend and for a half day on Tuesday. Can the Taoiseach explain why this is happening? This is the most urgent thing we must do, yet we are standing down staff who are ready and able to do that important work.
Places are closed. As far as I understand it, most of the test centres are working at a capacity of about 50% to 60%. Why is that? At a time when we desperately need to do more testing, why is that not being done? Will the Taoiseach please explain that today? It is fundamental to everything else that is being done. What is happening puzzles me greatly. I do not know whether anybody can explain why, when we need to test and trace, these are not happening.
On the roadmap, I am really concerned that there is no accountability and transparency regarding those criteria that will be used for moving on to the next stage. I will leave the Taoiseach the next two minutes to explain why it seems he is not prepared to pursue this strategy.
-----and to do so with a rapid turnaround, followed by rapid and aggressive tracing. That is not contrary to the medical advice or the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, as the Deputy contends.
The testing centres have been underutilised in the past couple of weeks because of the clinical criteria for testing. Now that they have been relaxed by the NPHET and the CMO, I expect to see them used much more than previously.
The decision on the criteria for testing is entirely one for the CMO and the NPHET. The CMO is best placed to answer that question. It is not a Government decision at all in any way.
On the three-week interval, the World Health Organization recommends two and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, recommends four. The incubation period is between five and 11 days. That is why three weeks has been chosen.
On New Zealand, it is important to state we have now tested considerably more people per head than that country. I do not believe New Zealand is comparable. It is in the southern hemisphere. We are in western Europe, which is the epicentre of the virus. New Zealand is a 3.5-hour flight from Australia, which is even less affected than it. It has even fewer cases per head of population We share a land border and a common travel area with the United Kingdom, and we are part of the European Union. The flight the Deputy mentioned is a perfect example of how we are different. It was a flight between London and Belfast, a flight within the United Kingdom, and a flight we had no control over. The only way we could have stopped people on that flight travelling to just this jurisdiction would be to seal the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We are certainly not going to do that.
I am sharing time with Deputy Barry, in accordance with the questions-and-answers format agreed by the Business Committee.
Today, People Before Profit and Solidarity Deputies launched an online petition calling on the Government to abandon plans to cut or taper the €350 pandemic unemployment payment, at least until the pandemic has passed and all the employment losses and economic impacts of the pandemic have been overcome. We also call in our petition for the payment to be extended to groups that have been unfairly excluded, most notably those over 66, those under 18 and those in the gig economy and precarious work. Furthermore, we call for a review because we believe the figure of €350, to which the Government was forced to increase the payment, was an admission that it really is impossible for people to live any kind of dignified existence on a payment below that amount. As Social Justice Ireland have pointed out, a great number of pensioners, jobseekers and people on disability are effectively living on poverty payments.
I am looking for that commitment, particularly in response to the clear hints that have been coming from the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Ms Regina Doherty, about cuts or a tapering of the Covid payment. Would it not be completely unjust to cut further the income of workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own before this pandemic and the full economic impact of job losses are overcome? Will the Taoiseach agree that there will be no cuts or no tapering until we have overcome this pandemic?
I thank the Deputy. I believe I answered that question in response to Deputy McDonald. We acknowledge that this payment is unprecedented, is one of the highest in the world and cannot go on forever as that would not be affordable for taxpayers, but we also acknowledge that it cannot be removed until people have the opportunity to return to their jobs.
Lots of people will not have that opportunity this side of the middle of June, so it will be necessary to extend it. That might be a decision for this Government or it might be a decision for the next one. We will have to see how things develop in the next couple of weeks.
People who are in the gig economy are self-employed and they can qualify. Lots of people who are self-employed have qualified for this payment.
The amount of €350 was not chosen for the reasons the Deputy contends. It was chosen because €350 is roughly 70% of the average income of people working in the sectors most affected, that is, retail, hospitality, construction, and accommodation and food. That is how we came up with the figure of 70%. What we originally wanted to do was to give people 70% of what they earned before but it was not possible to administer that. People would have waited weeks for any payment at all, so we decided on a round figure. That has created an anomaly. There are a lot of people, possibly 25% of people, in receipt of the payment who are actually getting paid more now in their pandemic employment payment than they were when they were working. They are mainly part-time workers. It is not a bad thing. I am not embarrassed about that. I am happy we did it, but it is an anomaly that will have to be dealt with in due course, in addition to the issue concerning the over 60s the Deputy mentioned.
The Taoiseach has not given a clear commitment that there will be no cuts or tapering until the pandemic is over and until all the employment lost as a result of the pandemic has been restored. The Taoiseach should give a commitment, and I am asking for a commitment, that the over 66s and the under 18s who are being unfairly discriminated against get the payment also, and that many workers in the gig economy who did not happen to be working at the time but might have been working a week or two later would also get the payment.
Will the Taoiseach also give some sort of serious response to the plight of the Debenhams workers and other workers who could face cynical exploitation by their employers, who might try to throw them on the scrapheap using the Covid-19 emergency as a cover, and intervene and protect their jobs?
Again, I think everybody in the House knows that these are rhetorical questions. The Deputy asked me if I can give a commitment that this payment will not be ended until the pandemic will end. Does the Deputy know when the pandemic will end?
Exactly. Of course it is impossible to give a commitment about the pandemic ending when nobody knows when the pandemic will end. It is a rhetorical question, not a serious one, designed to get press coverage, not to get a serious answer.
I want to ask the Taoiseach some questions about the leaving certificate. There is clearly now a crisis of democratic legitimacy around this year's leaving certificate exams. Some 79% of nearly 24,000 leaving certificate students polled by the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, want cancellation and a mere 15% want the exams to go ahead. These young people feel that they are being forced to do these exams against their will and that they are, in effect, being bullied by the Government. These young people are concerned, first and foremost, with their mental health and the mental health of their friends and peers. They do not want to sit vital exams in the middle of a global pandemic in a country with the eighth highest rate of death from the virus per million in the world when one excludes tiny states. In 20 years as an elected public representative, I have never before seen a Government decision cause so much mental anguish to so many young people.
I will outline my first two questions for the Taoiseach and then I will come back with another question. Does the Taoiseach accept the findings of the ISSU poll that four young leaving certificate students in five are opposed to the Government's leaving certificate policy? Does he accept that the Government's position on this issue is greatly adding to the mental strain on many young people? A Cheann Comhairle, I want to come back in with a very short question before the end.
Democratic legitimacy does not derive from opinion polls, whether it is a door-to-door survey or online and no matter who does it.
In a democracy, and this is a democracy, legitimacy does not derive from opinion polls of any sort carried out by anyone. Sometimes I wish they did because, as the Deputy will know, my own experience is one of doing much better in opinion polls than in real elections. Opinion polls do not confer democratic legitimacy; elections do. Ultimately, this House will form a Government with democratic legitimacy. In the meantime, I will work night and day as hard as I can doing the job that I am entrusted to do by the Constitution.
I fully appreciate and understand the distress and the uncertainty which sixth year students are under. I still get nightmares about my leaving certificate maths paper. I know how traumatic the leaving certificate can be for many people. We will try to bring a conclusion to this matter this week as best we can.
I note the Taoiseach's comment on opinion polls but he swept that one under the carpet quite quickly. His Government meets the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU, and recognises it as in some way a representative voice for secondary school students. The ISSU conducted a poll to which 24,000 students responded. What they said does not count for nothing. It was not 51%, 52% or 53% who said the leaving certificate examinations should be cancelled, but a crushing majority of 79% or almost four in five of the 24,000 students who responded. They will consider the Taoiseach's response to be a little flippant and dismissive of their concerns.
The Taoiseach says he understands and hears their distress. Last night, I had an online meeting with 2,500 leaving certificate students.
They are distressed. The certainty they seek is that the leaving certificate exams will be cancelled. Will the Taoiseach give those students a commitment in this House today that the Government will cancel the leaving certificate exams and find a fair and just alternative?
I reject the Deputy's contention. I was not glib and nor did I sweep anything under the carpet. I gave him a straight answer to a straight question as to whether I accept the democratic legitimacy of opinion polls. No, I do not. If the Deputy did, I imagine he would vote for me as Taoiseach because apparently that is what the latest opinion poll says the public wants. Opinion polls are only opinion polls. That is all they are and I am surprised the Deputy thinks they have some sort of democratic legitimacy when it suits him, but not when it does not suit him.
On the serious question he raised on the cancellation of the leaving certificate or proceeding with it, I totally appreciate that the uncertainty is causing enormous stress for sixth year students. This is an issue we want to resolve. We know it is possible to carry out the leaving certificate within existing public health guidelines but it would not be the leaving certificate as we know it. If it is cancelled, we must make sure we can put in place an alternative that would be fair, which is extremely difficult. That is the work that is being done at the moment involving the education partners - the unions, the State Examinations Commission, the Department of Education and Skills and everyone else - all of whom only want what is best and fair for our sixth year students. That will be difficult. As I said, this is an issue we want to bring to a conclusion this week.
Wexford has several of the finest nursing homes in the country. One is Knockeen nursing home run by Mary and Nicola Doran who are renowned for providing the highest standard of care to their residents. Unfortunately, Nicola Doran found she had to speak out in the Wexford Peoplethis week. The headline of the newspaper stated that testing at nursing homes was a "farce". Testing took place at Knockeen nursing home on 24 April and it waited 13 days on the test results. In a bizarre twist, on 29 March, a member of staff in the HSE told Nicola Doran that the HSE had the results but staff were not at liberty to give them out. Within 24 hours of publication of the report in the Wexford People, the results were made available and, thankfully, they were clear. The situation caused extreme and needless stress for the owners who were concerned to know that they did not have Covid-19 in the nursing home, the staff, many of whom are living with people who are compromised, and the families of the residents who were beside themselves with worry wondering whether their parents were in a home with Covid-19 and whether they could possibly be infected.
Daily in the national media, Government spokespersons tell us that nursing home testing is being turned around in 48 hours. Neither I nor anyone I have spoken to within the medical fraternity or politics has experience of any nursing home being in receipt of results within such a timeframe. Can the Taoiseach confirm to the House that all testing for nursing homes will be completed and turned around within 24 hours? After all, the national public health emergency team and the HSE have had eight weeks to get it right. The nursing homes that have borne the brunt of the questionable decisions of the State deserve at least the courtesy of knowing what the test results are in a timely fashion.
Many physicians and doctors that I have been in touch with are completely frustrated with the testing process. They tell me that most of the testing to date has been an absolute waste. This follows from what Deputy Shortall and possibly Deputy Kelly had in mind. The test results have been so old that it has been impossible to trace all the contacts of those who tested positive. As far as we are aware, the idea behind the model of "test, trace and isolate" is that this will be done in an immediate fashion. The Taoiseach has said that we now have the capacity to test 12,000 people. However, the real question is the capacity to have 12,000 results turned around in 24 hours. Can the Taoiseach confirm the numbers of tests we have? I gather the Taoiseach has already referred to a figure of 12,000 today. What is the turnaround time of delivering the results in 48 hours? What numbers are traced as a result of the positive tests already confirmed? Can the Taoiseach tell us how many people who tested positive recovered before they got their results? We will require these figures to be published to instil confidence and transparency.
I was pleased to see the roadmap. When it was produced it gave hope to people on an eventual easing of the restrictions. However, I believe the roadmap has not addressed the calamity of testing. I believe it was a missed opportunity. Again, no defined targets have been laid down for the HSE in respect of testing. A roadmap is like a house, and we cannot build a house without foundations. What we need is a testing roadmap with defined targets and deadlines for a testing regime, to underpin the opening of the Government roadmap. People want a clear vision of where they need to be. People want to see a trigger for each phased move forwards or backwards. Equally, there is no mention of a containment strategy. All of these things are fundamental to the success of the Government roadmap. I accept that we both know there have been issues in respect of reagents, personal protective equipment and the capacity at laboratories. However, the Taoiseach must also know that without a roadmap for testing that sets down defined targets to address and ensure results are turned around within 24 or 48 hours, the roadmap leads to a cul-de-sac. We have had eight weeks of lockdown. The public have played their part and they need clarity on testing. Can the Taoiseach confirm that such a roadmap will be provided and the date at which it will be provided?
I know the Taoiseach is only too aware that this is costing the country between €200 million and €400 million each working day. The Taoiseach must see the need for a roadmap on testing as I have outlined. The nation is at breaking point from being locked up. Testing is the only safe way of easing restrictions. I appeal to the Taoiseach to answer these questions.
My thanks to Deputy Murphy - I will certainly do my best. In answer to Deputy Murphy's first question, I cannot confirm it. A period of 24 hours is extremely difficult to achieve. It is almost impossible for tests that are sent to Germany, because they have to be flown to Germany. However, turnaround times are improving and they will improve further.
I think people accept that there were unacceptable and inordinate delays some weeks ago. It is far from perfect now but it is improving. Certainly, for healthcare workers and staff we have a quick turnaround but it is longer for others. The objective is to have results within 48 hours. Can I promise that 100% of the time it will be possible to do that? I cannot. I am not sure anyone is able to achieve that 100% of the time but certainly we anticipate having the vast majority of tests back within 48 hours.
I do not have the exact date that the Deputy requests. It may not be available but if it is, I will ask the Department of Health to provide it to her by correspondence.
The roadmap that we produced on Friday was about re-opening society, the economy and Ireland.
It was not a roadmap on testing. A lot of work is being done to build on the work already done on that by the Department of Health, the HSE and NPHET. If we are to proceed with easing the restrictions, it is really important we have a robust testing and contact tracing system in place and operating. However, lots of countries around Europe are now easing their restrictions - for example, Germany, Denmark and, quite soon, Spain and Belgium. None of those countries has tested as many people per head as we have yet they are proceeding with easing their restrictions, so it is not that one element is absolutely and totally contingent on the other.
I do not agree with the Taoiseach's last statement. In fact, the two are intrinsically linked. Testing, tracing and isolating are the only things that will see the country open up in such a way that it will not have to close down again because we do not have a testing system. I again ask the Taoiseach to ask the HSE to produce a roadmap that underpins the Government's roadmap in the way in which I have suggested, that is, that we set and define targets that we can reach through testing, tracing and isolating. The Taoiseach says it is difficult to get tests to Germany. I appreciate that, having been in the logistics industry all my life, but we have 26 laboratories here in Ireland and I am fully aware that some of them are prohibited for some reason from testing nursing home samples. I do not fully understand that but without a shadow of a doubt it should be looked into. We should be using all our capacity in our 26 laboratories.
I will indeed ask the HSE to produce a roadmap on testing. It may have done that already. There are lots of documents being developed all the time and lots of drafts that people will be aware of, but that would be a useful thing for the HSE to do and I will certainly take that up with the HSE CEO.
On the Deputy's final point, there are about 40 laboratories now that can test for Covid. I have not heard of any being prohibited from testing nursing homes samples. Perhaps that is the case but I cannot confirm it is the case.
I again ask the Taoiseach to look into whether we are utilising all our laboratory capacity and whether there are any prohibitions on testing. If testing is turned around within 24 to 48 hours, it gives us a much better chance with the contact tracing and isolating model.
The Deputy is absolutely right: the quicker we can turn around the tests, the better we can do on contact tracing. I should point out, however, that contact tracing can and does start before the tests come back, so if somebody is a suspected case, the contact tracing can be started even before the test comes back. That is what is commonly done in South Korea and other jurisdictions.
I appreciate that. I have many people contacting me saying they have never been contacted but were clearly in contact with people who had not only been tested but tested positive. In addition, there is a newspaper report today that says we are only using 2% of the people who were employed to do contact tracing. That is very worrying and, again, it needs to be looked at. After all, I think we are all well aware that politicians make the decisions based on the medical advice. That is all I am saying. In order to get our house in order on tracing, the Government will have to take the bull by the horns, put in place a testing system and insist on a roadmap that underpins the Government's roadmap. The Taoiseach has already committed to the latter, and I thank him for that. Then we may well get out of phases 1 to 5 within or before the three-week periods defined.
I extend my sympathies to the families of all the people who have lost their lives and a huge "well done" to the front-line services.
The Taoiseach mentioned earlier moneys being made available for businesses to start up again. Cash flow is the biggest problem for any business. When a small to medium-sized business comes out on 18 May, it will start back into work. Companies are paying fixed costs, insurance, leasing costs and rates. The Taoiseach said rates will be written off for three months, but still these companies are coming back into a time when they will have to pay rates again. Some of the companies I am talking about are paying €8,000 and €9,000 a month between all their charges.
Similar to what happened during the most recent economic crash, credit insurers have insisted that no credit be extended to any supplier. To restart any business, a business owner will need to have eight weeks worth of wages, eight weeks of fixed costs and four weeks of materials. The banks replied on this issue and stated that they are inundated and short of staff. Applicants who applied up to six weeks ago have been told that the staff are working from home with little or no Internet coverage and no link to departments. The banks also stated that they are owned by the State and that the stringent policies are too tight, and hinder and prolong decision-making. We need a plan to restart companies and put proper mechanisms in place for them.
The Minister for Finance said two weeks ago in the House that there are five major banks. He forgot to mention the credit unions. The five major banks froze payments on loans for three months but customers will still have to make them in their entirety within the term of the loan. Credit unions were the only financial institutions that extended terms of loans by three months and gave a full break to the people and businesses of Ireland. Credit unions are being over-regulated while the banks are getting extra.
Dentists have been treated badly during this crisis. Hospitals and the HSE closed their clinics on 16 March and dentists were told to keep working. They were offered no PPE and, if they had to source it, were unable to. All GPs are getting a capitation fee of €30 for dealing with Covid-related telephone calls from medical card holders while dentists get nothing.
I wish to talk about the roll-out of broadband. The national broadband plan estimates that there are 540,000 rural premises with little or no Internet service. In Limerick alone, 21,024 houses and businesses have no Internet access. It might be fine for people in Dublin, or other large cities, where Internet coverage is available but, for some people in rural areas, especially Limerick, there is no Internet so those people have no businesses.
The Deputy is absolutely right in his initial comments that businesses need money to restart. That is why rates are being waived for three months and businesses can reclaim their rates from 2019. Businesses that are reopening can claim up to €10,000 worth of their rates from 2019, so it is effectively a rates rebate. Some 80% of businesses in Ireland pay less than €10,000 a year in rates so this is particularly advantageous for those small shops and businesses that we all want to see up and running really quickly because they are the ones that employ considerable numbers of people around the country, particularly in rural Ireland.
There is also the temporary wage subsidy scheme, which will continue, and the credit guarantee scheme, which will give loans at favourable rates to viable businesses that will be able to pay them back.
The Minister for Finance is in contact with the banks all the time and I hope to meet them myself in the next couple of weeks, if not the next couple of days. I will raise with them the issue of banks not getting back to people quickly enough.
On one factual matter, we do not own the banks but we are the majority shareholder in two of them.
We need to help dentists to get back up and running again and my office is in contact with the IDA about that.
I offer my sympathies, like every other Member, to the bereaved and their families.
These are extremely difficult times. I have a couple of questions that I will try to fit into the next five minutes. I will focus my questions on the main pillars of our country, namely, the farming, fishing and tourism sectors. The constituency I represent of Cork South-West is totally dependent on those sectors to survive but, for that to happen, the Government will have to dramatically step up its efforts. Farmers have been in crisis for a lengthy period but the current crisis could well result in hundreds of farmers being wiped out of business. The fast solution for farmers lies inside meat factory gates.
I ask the Taoiseach to intervene and stand up to the superpowers inside that factory gate to ensure the survival of those farmers.
In terms of my first question, the fishing industry is floating closely to the edge. Trawlers as well as inshore fishing boats are parked up to the pier, some of the vessels costing millions of euro. Many Irish fishermen and fisherwomen face ruin unless aid is given. Those people cannot survive on the €350 Covid-19 payment. What plan has the Taoiseach in place for those Irish trawler owners and inshore fishermen and fisherwomen? Also, are the current discussions between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael giving serious consideration to having a stand-alone senior Minister for fisheries in the new Government being set up?
I thank the Deputy. I am very aware of the difficulties our fishermen and fisherwomen are facing at the moment. I had a conversation with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, about that particular matter in the past couple of days. He, with his European colleagues, is working on a solution that can assist them at this particularly difficult time.
Obviously, anything relating to conversations on forming a Government are a matter for the parties and not a matter for the Dáil just yet.
The recent announcement of €4 billion in supports and loans is welcome. They are desperately needed for many businesses in my constituency of Cork South-West, as they are for others throughout the country, but from what I can gather they are dependent on a new Government being put in place. Our country is hugely dependent on tourism. Brilliant initiatives such as the Wild Atlantic Way lie in tatters, and the job losses in this sector are running at more than 200,000. We see today that a large percentage of people flying into Ireland are not filling in the form asking them how they intend to socially isolate for two weeks. We need to allay any fears in tourism communities, and that can be done if the completion of these forms was mandatory in airports and ports. We need to open the tourist communities and that can be done if rules can be met. Small retail businesses in smaller towns and villages are suffering as the big multinational supermarkets are wiping them out. Garden centres cannot open but large supermarkets can sell garden centre products every day. Small retail clothes shops in towns must remain closed while the large multinational shop can sell clothing every day, which will make it even more difficult for the small retail shops to reopen, no matter what we do.
My questions are on tourism. I welcome any moves that VAT on tourism could be reduced to 0%. I totally opposed the Government's proposal in the last budget, which was supported by Fianna Fáil, to raise the VAT rate on tourism from 9% to 13.5%. That was prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. That led to numerous restaurants and cafés closing their doors in west Cork. Yesterday, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Griffin, sought support for a 0% tourism VAT rate. Is the Taoiseach seriously considering that? Will he consider having a stand-alone Minister for tourism in the future Government? Also, has there been any discussion on the creation of a new tourism task force on which there would be voices from areas of west Cork and other strong tourism communities?
I thank the Deputy. As is often the case, the Deputy suggested two new stand-alone Ministries but did not enlighten us as to which two stand-alone Ministries he would wish to abolish to make that possible. The Constitution provides for a maximum of 15 senior Ministers, and only 15. I would be interested to know whether it is rural affairs, agriculture, children and youth affairs or which Ministries Deputy Collins would wish to abolish. He may wish to tell us.
In terms of the airport forms, they are not yet mandatory. They may well need to become mandatory. That is something we are considering at the moment, but I disagree with the Deputy. Making it mandatory for people to fill in forms to self-isolate for 14 days when they come to the country is not good for tourism. People will not come to Ireland if they have to isolate for 14 days. We need to get to the point where we can have air travel start again. I want air travel to start again for business and leisure but that will have to be done safely. That is being worked on at the moment.
Reducing VAT on the tourism and hospitality sector to 0% would be contrary to the EU VAT directive, so that is not possible for as long as we are a member of the European Union. It would be possible for the next Government to reduce it should it choose to do so, but that will be a matter for the next Government.
I absolutely agree that we will need a tourism recovery task force, as we did in the past, to get tourism going again. I had the privilege of being Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in my first job in Government and was able to oversee the implementation of the last report of the previous tourism recovery task force, which led to record levels of tourism in Ireland. I believe that is possible again.
Yes. Will the Taoiseach confirm that it is not his intention to abolish the Department of Children and Youth Affairs? That possibility has been raised, albeit in a joking manner.
I have just under five minutes and have only one question, which I will preface with a number of comments. The question relates to children with autism and special needs of all sorts. I understand the Taoiseach is in receipt of a letter from a man who describes himself as a professional but is not writing in that capacity but in a personal capacity in regard to his child, aged 13, with autism. He is speaking not for himself and he recognises that, in a sense, he is in a privileged position in that he and his family are relatively well off. He is highlighting the fact that no provision at all has been made for children with disabilities. He says in his letter, which I am sure the Taoiseach has read:
We have been holding onto the hope that there must surely be some recognition of the need for some relief for this group in the first stage of lifting social restrictions. They are amongst the most vulnerable people in our society. It is a grim indictment of us as a nation that their education and welfare appears to be have been cast aside for six months without a documented rationale or justification for an intended good.
I draw attention to the writer's reference to "without a documented rationale or justification". There have been many such letters. Another correspondent said of their child with severe learning disability and epilepsy, who is non-verbal and doubly incontinent, that the child "needs and breathes routine, structure and certainty". What impact analysis has been done on the decision to ignore this part of our society? What voice is on the expert committee to speak for these people?
In regard to testing, I absolutely agree with Deputy Shortall's comments. We talk about misinformation, but the best way to deal with misinformation is with accountability, openness and facts. We had four testing centres in Galway but now there are only three. We were told by the World Health Organization to test, test, test. That has not happened, not for clinical reasons but because we simply did not rise to it in terms of structure and money.
This situation did not come upon us from nowhere. We prepared in 2007 for a flu pandemic. I understand there was an exchange last December between Deputy Micheál Martin and the Taoiseach regarding an emergency co-ordination centre and an emergency plan. The Taoiseach said at the time that such a plan was imminent. What happened to that plan? This last is an accessory question and I am leaving myself two minutes to speak further on the matter of children with disabilities.
I confess that I have not yet read the letter to which the Deputy referred. I am sure she appreciates that I receive thousands of individual items of correspondence to my office every week and it is not possible for me to read them all. If the Deputy wishes to pass on privately the correspondent's name and address, I will check out his letter and ensure he receives a proper reply.
In terms of the voice of disability, we have a Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, at the Cabinet table who is responsible for disability. We are the first Government ever to do so. At every meeting of the Cabinet, the Minister of State reminds us of the importance of disability issues, ranging from the need to look out for people with disabilities living in residential care to the difficulties around people-----
There is nobody on NPHET who is a voice for a particular subgroup in society, whether women or men, business people or workers, people with disabilities, older people or younger people. That is not how NPHET-----
Decisions are made by Government, not by NPHET. The latter advises Government. At the Cabinet table there is a Minister of State whose responsibility is disability. He is the voice on these matters. Where NPHET acts entirely independently of Government it is on those matters that are solely matters of public health such as the clinical criteria for testing and so on. Political decisions are made by Government.
In regard to planning, there is a national emergency plan and a pandemic plan. As the Deputy rightly pointed out, it was a plan for an influenza pandemic and we have been able to draw on it in recent weeks.
The reality of a coronavirus pandemic is somewhat different to the influenza pandemic which was predicted.
I would like to ask three questions, the first of which relates to the wearing of face masks as a containment strategy for Covid-19. The science and the evidence is clear. There are issues around how we wear them, but not whether or not we wear them. There are concerns around supply and cost, but homemade masks require a needle, thread, a piece of material and, for some of us, a little tuition from YouTube. A group of volunteers from Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon and Donegal, known as North West Sews Masks and Gowns, has supplied 500 scrubs and 4,000 masks nationwide with the help of the Garda. They have fund-raised and they and other groups would be willing to upscale. This work could provide a small income stream for some people. How soon can we expect guidance on masks?
My second question relates to the public health passenger locator form, on which the Taoiseach earlier responded to a question. It is important to emphasise that Irish citizens are not allowed to travel more than 5 km from their own homes. If it is not proposed to enact legislation to require incoming passengers to sign this form, how is it proposed to close that gaping hole in the containment strategy for Covid-19?
My third question relates to our local authorities, many of which are on their knees in terms of resources. This is due not only to the collapse in rates payments for three months, which it will take until year end to sort out, but the collapse in other revenues such as parking charges, planning application charges and so on. All of this income has disappeared. There are also increased costs around Covid-19. I take this opportunity to thank our local authorities for the sterling work they have done in this instance. What plans are in place to support our local authorities who are literally running out of money?
The wearing of face masks and face coverings is still very much a matter of scientific debate. Some scientists speak about it with great certainty, but within the expert advisory group, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, the World Health Organization, WHO, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, one hears different advice because there is not a scientific consensus on this matter. The research that has been done has largely been done in healthcare settings, not in the community, and it has been done more generally and not specific to SARS-CoV-2 and therein lies the difficulty. The advice currently from NPHET is that healthcare workers should wear a face mask and that those with symptoms should do likewise. NPHET is currently considering whether to extend that advice more widely. There are different types of masks, including surgical masks, respirator masks, face coverings and we do have to bear in mind the risk of a lack of supply. We do not currently have a problem with the supply of face masks but if we ask people to wear two, three or four of them a day, having 16 million per day available will be difficult. It is not the slam-dunk that the Deputy may suggest it is, but it is something that is very much under consideration by the National Public Health Emergency Team.
On the passenger arrival form, we are considering regulations to make that mandatory. Primary legislation is not required. It is possible for the Minister for Health to make regulations under existing legislation and that is under consideration.
The Deputy made a very good point about local authorities being under some difficulty with their funding arrangements. The three months' rates waiver will help them because they will get that money from central government. They will actually get more than they would have taken in because there is never 100% payment of rates. We will be giving them 100% so that will be a bit of a cash boost to them. I fully appreciate that they are going to have other lost revenues in other areas and we will work with them on that.
I need to be frank with people, be that individuals, businesses, public bodies, local authorities or State agencies, it may not be possible for the taxpayer to compensate everyone for everything that is lost. That just may not be possible but we will do the best we can within the resources we have.