Thursday, 21 May 2020
Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements
Déanaimid comhbhrón leis na teaghlaigh a fuair a ndaoine muinteartha bás ar an oileán de thoradh Covid-19. Táim ag smaoineamh ar na daoine atá ag fulaingt ón víreas, chomh maith leo siúd atá ag troid i gcoinne an víris gach lá. Bhuail an ghéarchéim ár dtír go trom. De réir mar a n-osclóimid ár dtír agus ár ngeilleagar á thógáil againn, tá deis againn ár sochaí a athmhúnlú sa chaoi go mbainfidh ár saoránaigh buntáistí as, chomh maith leis na glúine a tiocfaidh inár ndiaidh.
Once again, our thoughts are with the families of loved ones who have lost their lives to Covid-19. As of last night, 1,571 people had died in our State and 494 more had died in Northern Ireland.
In total, 24,315 people in the Republic of Ireland have been diagnosed with Covid-19. Some 87% have now made a full recovery and others are well on the way.
This week, we have seen the lowest number of daily deaths and cases, and the lowest numbers of people in our intensive care units since March. While we continue to mourn those who have died, we will never get used to the daily loss of life. We take some comfort from the fact that the trend is going in the right direction. Transmission in the community has been effectively suppressed, which was the strategy from the beginning, and we are now working to suppress it in other settings and clusters.
On Monday, we began the reopening of our country with phase 1 of the relaxation of restrictions. So far, it is going well. Many people are back to work, more shops are open, and friends and family within 5 km are able to meet outdoors again. There has been broad compliance with the five rules and the four steps so I want to say thank you to the Irish people. We have shown our capacity to reorganise our lives to protect the welfare of all, and it is a remarkable demonstration of solidarity and care for each other.
We need to stay vigilant, however. We really will not know until the first week of June whether the easing of the restrictions has increased the reproduction number, or to what extent. The Cabinet will make a decision on the next steps on Friday, 5 June on foot of advice from NPHET. I am aware that some other countries are opening faster but every country’s circumstances are different. We stand over the slow and steady approach. If things go well, it can be accelerated but we simply cannot make that call at the moment.
As of midnight, 18 May, 295,626 tests have been carried out. We will exceed 300,000 today or tomorrow. Over the past week, almost 37,000 tests were carried out, and 932 of these were positive, giving a positivity rate of 2.5%, a decrease on last week but still a little too high. Testing has been ramped up to meet the scale of this crisis, and this week the HSE reached its target of having the capacity to test 15,000 people every day, with capacity of up to 100,000 per week. As the Chief Medical Officer said on Tuesday, we need to be fluid. We have more than sufficient capacity right now but that might change, and we have to keep alert to changing circumstances. We have agreed a strategy that is on target to deliver this week an average turnaround time from swab to result of between one and three days in the vast majority of instances.
There has been a remarkable scale-up in contact tracing by the HSE, as was reported to the Special Committee on Covid-19 on Tuesday. The HSE says the median turnaround time for giving someone a positive result and commencing contact tracing is now just over one day and is improving all the time. Therefore, I extend my thanks and the thanks of the Government and this House to all involved in testing and contact tracing. The work they do is essential. It is life-saving and it is enabling us to reopen our country and economy. Thank you very much.
Work has already begun on preparedness for a possible second wave in late autumn or winter, coinciding with the regular flu season. On Monday, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, announced the decision to make the flu vaccine available free of charge to all children aged between two and 12 this year and to all those defined as at risk aged between six months and 69 years. As we know, everyone over 70 already has access to the vaccine without charge. I believe we can save hundreds of lives this winter and every winter by having a much greater uptake of the flu vaccine. This matters now more than ever as we need to avoid a second wave of Covid-19 coming at the same time as the flu season. It is particularly important that the uptake by healthcare workers be much greater than in the past. This pandemic teaches us that there is no excuse not to be vaccinated. We have experienced a small taste of what the world was like before vaccines, and it has not been good.
We are also examining ways to retain some of the additional critical care and bed capacity that we have gained in recent weeks. The Department of Health has established an independent expert panel to make recommendations ensuring a protective Covid-19 response in our nursing homes is planned for the longer term given that we may be living alongside this virus for quite some time. We need to know how we can better shield nursing homes in the second wave, if that is at all possible.
Everyone in this House understands that coronavirus has dealt a severe shock to our economy. This has deep social consequences as well, including record-breaking levels of unemployment and lower living standards for many. Some long-term sequelae are also now becoming apparent. For example, due to social distancing, the cost of providing public services and infrastructure projects may rise. It might cost us more to do less. Many parts of our economy might never look quite the same again, sometimes for the better but also for the worse. The recovery will therefore not be easy. As this will be a global recession, an export-led recovery driven by agrifood, tourism and multinationals such as we experienced ten years ago is unlikely. Brexit will further complicate matters. As I said a few months ago, Brexit is not over; it is only at half-time, or, perhaps more accurately, half-time has just ended.
On the upside, we have not been shut out of the money markets as we were 12 years ago, and at least in part due to the policies of the outgoing Government and that which preceded it, we retain the confidence of the European institutions and capital markets. In short, this time we can afford to borrow to reflate our economy at low interest rates and with little conditionality. We are doing that and should continue to do it. I think we all agree that substantial borrowing by the State will be necessary to cushion the blow to our economy and society. We will have a very substantial budget deficit this year and a deficit in the Exchequer borrowing requirement for several years to come, leading to increased national debt. We will use this borrowed money to: first, provide income supports for those who have lost their jobs; second, get businesses open again; third, provide retraining and educational opportunities for our fellow citizens who are now without employment; and, fourth, stimulate economic activity through investment in public housing, healthcare, childcare, transport, regional development, renewable energy and retrofitting, as well as the intelligent use of tax policies to stimulate economic activity. We should continue to borrow until the economy returns to sustained growth. From then on we should seek to reduce borrowing and our deficit and achieve a broadly balanced budget again within a few years. We do not need to be the best boys in the fiscal class but we should seek to run deficits similar to those of our peers in northern Europe, not much larger ones. This is a sensible and sustainable thing to do, it is what the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, is doing, and I totally endorse that approach.
Having said all that, I am concerned that there is a growing belief that we can borrow cheaply forever and that this is the solution to all our problems. This is the "free money" argument and it is coming from the right as well as the left. There is, however, no such thing as free money. Borrowed money, debt, has to be serviced, that is, the interest on it must be paid every year. This will be a new and recurring charge on our public finances and it will have to paid. Debt also has to be refinanced or rolled over when it matures. Some will say this does not matter because it is a problem for someone else in ten, 20 or 30 years' time. I do not agree with that attitude. That someone will be us or, if not us, our successors, children and grandchildren. Furthermore, we should not make the mistake of assuming that being able to borrow cheaply now means we will be able to do so in six months or a year. The world has changed so much in the past six months, and we would be naive to think it could not change again, and quickly. If conditions do change, the countries with the biggest deficits and the largest debts will be the first to feel the ill wind, and we need to ensure that that will not be us because the consequences for our society would be grave.
Even if this never happens, we need to be honest with the public about the consequences of prolonged low interest rates and increased money supply. Yes, there are lots of upsides, such as cheaper mortgages and business loans, but there are many downsides too. Prolonged low interest rates hit savers, mainly older people, and investment in financial assets such as pensions and enterprise is discouraged in favour of physical assets such as land and property. We know this already in Ireland in light of the poor performance of pension funds in recent years while investors piled cash into development land and apartments, thus driving the cost of housing upwards and exacerbating both the housing crisis and the pensions time bomb. Prolonged and excessive increases in money supply can also lead to inflation. We have not seen high inflation for a very long time but that does not mean we will not see it again. We are way overdue it in many ways.
Inflation devalues the spending power of people on fixed incomes - people who do not have the liberty to increase their fees or raise their prices - namely, people on welfare, pensioners and workers. Some have suggested consols issuing perpetual bonds. That should not be ruled out but it is clear that this option would involve having to pay a much higher interest rate on such debt than on ten or 20-year money. This is a fact that we cannot escape from.
There are no easy answers, no risk-free or perfect solutions, no policies or strategies that will produce only winners. The next Government, whenever it takes office, will have to sail the ship of state through the hardest of rocks and the toughest of hard places. It can be done but it will not be easy and at all times we need to be honest with the public, offering frank answers, not easy ones, and real solutions, not fake ones. As always, I look forward to hearing the comments, observations and questions of Members.
Over nearly three months now more than 2,000 people have lost their lives on this island as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our first thoughts today must be with their friends and loved ones as well as those who are still fighting the virus.
It is almost too terrible to contemplate what would have happened if we, as a society, had ignored the threat and carried on as normal. There is no question that our hospitals would have been overwhelmed and that many people who have successfully recovered from or avoided the virus would have been added to the terrible death toll.
I want to acknowledge the work of those who have sustained not only our health system but the many critical professions which have sustained our country through this terrible time. The wider community started restricting its activities from before the formal public lockdown was implemented and the community spread of the virus has been controlled.
The impact of clusters remains a major concern. When we return to look for lessons to be learned from this crisis, there is no doubt that the situation in nursing homes and the spread of the virus in health settings will be a focus. So too will be the situation in meat plants, which has grown significantly during the past while. I hope today we will hear more details about what measures are to be taken to identify and act on clusters earlier and around the issue of self-isolation for some of the workers involved, as well as more prompt responses for those who have tested positive. This should be done in a constructive and assistive way to help families of people in that situation.
The process of unwinding restrictions is under way and we need a robust debate about how this should be carried forward. The science remains clear but the policies which are possible, while respecting the science, are very much open to debate. There is not only one possible way forward and the range of expertise that should be included in discussions is wide indeed. The strongest responses to emergencies are always those that allow multiple voices to be heard and those which accept constructive challenges. I genuinely believe at this stage that we need a multidisciplinary input in terms of the reopening of society and the economy. We need to look again at moving faster and restoring the effective functioning of the Dáil. I note the reports this morning where the deputy chief medical officer emphasised that there is no clear prohibition on meetings that last longer than two hours. We should look elsewhere in Europe for examples of parliaments that have successfully restarted their work. We do not need a return to full normal business or the general partisan back and forth that defines too much of what we do, but we do need to be able to review major policies. We have seen from the excellent work of individual journalists how the response has been strengthened by a willingness to ask hard questions and point to weaknesses.
There is far more we could and should be doing here. Deputy McNamara's committee, or the committee that he chairs, is already doing important work in teasing out specific issues. Next week we are due to debate and vote on a major spending proposal. At present there has been no consultation with the majority of the Dáil on the details of that proposal. It will not be acceptable to simply present it as a closed proposal. Consultation is not defined by briefing the media before briefing Deputies. It is an important measure and there is no doubt that the majority here will be fully constructive and helpful. Let us ensure that we prepare for next week and any legislation we may need to review in the weeks afterwards in this inclusive spirit.
In discussing the unwinding of restrictions we should start by acknowledging that all of the evidence is that the overwhelming majority of people have been responsible and will continue to be responsible. Department of Health research published in recent days indicates that 85% said they would be willing to wear a facial covering in some situations if it was recommended.
Only a tiny minority oppose restrictions relating to social distancing and other measures to control the potential spread of infection.
As we move forward we do not have to fear complacency but rather we must have clarity in what is proposed and ensure measures make sense and are credible. As with so many matters, it is uncertainty and inconsistency that causes trouble. The division between shops that are allowed to open and those which must remain closed simply makes no sense, and in some cases this is damaging the credibility of the overall restrictions. The distinction between hardware stores and homeware stores is foolish and there is now no doubt whatever that stores that were allowed to open are actively trying to fill the gaps created by keeping other types of closed stores. From a competition perspective, there is clear unfairness in that.
I understand the public health concern is to avoid encouraging the mass movement of people, which is reasonable. However, the evidence increasingly implies that the restrictions are simply concentrating movement into a limited number of locations, which is exactly the opposite of what we should want. The 5 km limit is making it harder to sustain social distancing in areas with a higher population density and it does not appear to be part of restrictions used by other countries in a similar stage in their response efforts. I do not play golf but if we are saying a person can play golf but not if the course is 6 km away, it becomes an example of guidelines that need to be refined or have more nuance. I say this in a helpful way.
As my party have said for some time, we must significantly expand the range of expertise and opportunities considered when deciding specific elements of the reopening strategy. As a broad principle, an inclusive consultation should be established for every area and we should let the professions and businesses involved have the opportunity to propose solutions that may not have occurred to officials but which would work in practice. I know the Taoiseach has stated it is more difficult to reopen than close, and I get that, but it is why we should have multidisciplinary expertise to assist the Government and its work in that regard.
With the reopening of schools we must avoid the scenario that came about with the leaving certificate, where a closed, internal process led to unreasonable expectations and uncertainty. Central to discussions must be an acknowledgement that the closure of schools is not hitting all groups equally. I believe passionately that we must educate children in our schools and find the wherewithal to do that. Many pupils do not have the facilities or equipment to learn properly away from schools. The proven interventions relating to educational disadvantage that have been implemented over the past 20 years overwhelmingly rely on the teacher-pupil interaction. We must acknowledge this and take action to help them to limit time lost and make up for it. This is particularly true for children in disadvantaged settings and DEIS schools.
The economic impact of the crisis has been unprecedented and the reality is nobody really knows the scale of the impact or exactly what we should do to get through and rebuild from the crisis. However, we know certain sectors that are at a greater risk than others and our core principle must be to ensure we do not permanently lose business and jobs. The wage subsidy scheme is effective but it is clearly not a long-term response. Evidence is emerging of an enormous threat to the future of smaller Irish-owned firms and early-stage firms. They continue to face a cash flow crisis that threatens their very existence, and in many cases they face having to take on debt that may undermine their viability.
The core economic principle in this crisis has been to try to see the debt incurred during the response as separate from normal debt. The normal benchmarks have, in effect, been moved because of an acceptance that this debt does not define the structural soundness of overall finances. This is why, for countries, different rules can and should apply in contrast to those relevant for normal economic cycles. However, for firms and small firms in particular, the evidence is that the normal rules are applying. We must find a way of making available to these a combination of grants and long-term lower or, preferably, no-interest financing. The small business sector feels the measures to date have not been on the money for its members, if Deputies excuse the pun. The overwhelming feedback we are getting from the small and medium enterprise, SME, sector is that there has been no response to the core crisis they are facing, and this is particularly true of the domestic non-exporting SME sector, along with the firms that are exporting.
Our public sector must be treated fairly too. We cannot allow public companies and places like third level institutions and universities to be undermined by carrying massive new debt and being forced into major cutbacks. We must have a public sector bailout that is comprehensive and fair. The normal rules of bringing in senior executives and telling them to sort this out must be stopped. The third level sector, including universities, are in trouble as revenues are depleting.
Along with that, there has been an urgent investment in technology to ensure they are ready for the autumn. There is a real crisis there. I hope that we will be told today what financial measures are to be proposed to help the wider public sector, including universities, institutes of technology and public companies.
Tá an earnáil tríú leibhéal faoi bhrú uafásach. Níl daltaí ag teacht ó thar lear. Tá na hollscoileanna ag cailleadh na milliún. Ag an mbabhta seo, níl sé soiléir an bhfuil aon tacaíocht ag teacht ón Stát nó ón Rialtas. Tá an tríú leibhéal riachtanach d'athbheochan eacnamaíochta na tíre. Caithfimid infheistíocht a chur ar fáil dó. Tá drochthionchar iomlán ag an gcoróinvíreas ar an aos óg. Caithfimid ár ndícheall a dhéanamh a gcuid oideachais a choimeád slán agus deiseanna d'ardchaighdeán ó thaobh oideachas tríú leibhéal a sholáthar dóibh. B'fhéidir go gcaithfimid níos mó áiteanna a chur ar fáil don bhliain acadúil nua a thosaíonn san fhómhar.
Though our focus today is on domestic matters, we should acknowledge the positive development of the Franco-German agreement to support limited debt sharing and direct aid for EU member states. The agreement does not guarantee that it will happen, but it is a positive step and our Government's recent conversion to supporting this policy is welcome.
Populists in Ireland and throughout Europe love to talk about a conspiracy of the elites against the people and refuse to acknowledge the many benefits that all sections of society gain from shared standards, open access to markets and generous supports for areas like training, public transport, community development and sustainability. Fianna Fáil's position has for some time been that Europe is under attack for failing to take measures that it has neither the funding nor power to implement. The development of a new way of directly aiding countries and regions in trouble is essential, and this new display of solidarity identified by the Merkel-Macron announcement is a hopeful sign of a new direction across Europe.
No, not as of yet, but who is to say? I might be resigned to playing golf if it is so desired by the public. Let us hope not.
First, I extend our sympathies to all of those who have been bereaved by this virus. I extend our solidarity and wish for a full recovery to all those who are sick, and our profound thanks once again to workers on the front line. I also thank the Irish people for their forbearance. They have held the line and have been remarkably disciplined thus far. Of course, we are making another request of them to continue in this safe, proportionate and thoughtful way as we advance into our exit strategy.
The first step in ensuring that we have a fair long-term recovery from the Covid-19 crisis is to ensure a safe and fair reopening of our society and economy. We need to get it right now so that we have the sound foundations upon which to progress. Fairness has to be built into every phase of the reopening. This means doing everything possible to protect incomes and to ensure that people receive the supports they need when returning to work or reopening their businesses and enterprises.
Where clear problems or anomalies arise, the Government has to be proactive in producing common-sense solutions. The urgency required from the Government in correcting mistakes and delivering common-sense solutions is glaringly absent in two important areas, the first being the provision of childcare as our reopening moves forward. Tá straitéis chúraim leanaí atá sásúil do thuismitheoirí riachtanach d'oscailt rathúil an gheilleagair. Chun an geilleagar a fheidhmiú caithfidh daoine a bheith in ann dul ar ais ag obair. Chun daoine a bheith in ann dul ar ais ag obair, caithfidh cúram leanaí sásúil a bheith ar fáil dóibh. Second, women returning from maternity leave remain locked out of the wage subsidy scheme.
A childcare strategy that works, is safe for children and workers and meets the real needs of parents is essential for the success of our reopening and ensuring that we can advance safely. For the economy to function, people have to be able to return to work. For many, that of necessity means quality childcare. It is simple and a no-brainer.
The crux of the problem that we face is that the phased plan for the reopening of the economy is not aligned with the plan for the reopening of childcare facilities.
That will not happen for all workers. It is planned until 20 July, which is more than nine weeks away. Many workers who return to work before then will be expected to do so without an answer to their childcare needs. As we speak, essential workers are working without a solution. Many cannot afford an individual bespoke childcare arrangement from their own resources. It is unclear when people will be able to mix with their extended families. This creates a huge headache for more than half of working parents who rely on their wider family for childcare, including grandparents. The reality still remains that the burden of childcare falls disproportionately on women. It would be very wrong if any woman or any parent for that matter was forced out of a job for the lack of childcare.
As the Taoiseach will know, many households depend on two incomes to make ends meet. It would be crippling for those families to lose one pay packet because the Government had not got its act together in terms of childcare. We all appreciate that the emphasis has to be on health and safety. Take that as read. The Government had eight weeks to formulate a solution. While it was planning for the reopening of the economy in a gradual and incremental way, it should have been giving the very necessary thought to childcare because they go hand in hand. It should have ensured that a workable childcare plan was hardwired into the wider reopening strategy. It is incredible that this did not happen. The current problem is symptomatic more generally of a model of childcare that is almost an afterthought in public policy and planning and it is an approach that has badly failed parents and children. It needs to be corrected. Parents need a plan. Parents need a solution and it is needed urgently.
This lack of urgency is also reflected in the manner in which the Government has approached the issue of women returning from maternity leave who, as things stand, cannot access the wage subsidy scheme. This, too, needs a solution. I note that the Minister for Finance said yesterday that he is examining how to deal with the problem. New legislation is not required. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, already adapted the wage subsidy scheme without an immediate change to primary legislation. The Revenue Commissioners can deal with this matter on an administrative basis. I hope and I trust that the Government does not misjudge the level of stress and anger among the women affected by this exclusion. They had not left the workforce, they were caring for their newborn children. It is wrong and unfair that they are currently excluded because of a legislative deficiency. It is extremely disappointing that this issue has not yet been resolved. Mistakes happen - that is life - but when a mistake is identified it is not acceptable that the Government drags its heels and the mistake is not rectified very quickly.
I have two questions. Will the Taoiseach instruct the Minister for Finance today to instruct the Revenue Commissioners today to include women returning from maternity leave after 29 February in the wage subsidy scheme? Will he acknowledge that the childcare measures under the reopening road map are not fit for purpose and that we urgently need a plan for childcare provision that meets the real needs of parents to allow them to return to work?
I acknowledge that this is a very real problem and one that we want to solve. Women who went on maternity leave and are now due to return to work want to be able to avail of the wage subsidy scheme and we want them to be able to avail of it as well. I do not need to direct the Minister to do anything about this. He is already working on it. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners are working on a solution. Identifying a problem is much easier than coming up with a solution. The problem is not quite as the Deputy described it. This issue affects women who went on maternity leave and were taken off the payroll. There are different cohorts. Some were not taken off the payroll and they can avail of the wage subsidy scheme, which the Deputy did not mention in her contribution.
The ones who cannot are those who were taken off the payroll by their employer and were not on it on 29 February.
This means there are other groups who also need to be considered, potentially people who are on parental leave or paternity leave and people who were on a leave of absence or career break. When one identifies a problem, one has to come up with a solution and also consider all the new problems one may create and try to think of those solutions as well. As is so often the case, it is not as simple as the stroke of the pen the Deputy often claims it is to resolve issues like this. The Minister for Finance is working on it with the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Finance, and if we come up with a solution, we will inform the House of it and implement it as soon as we possibly can.
On childcare, the Deputy will be aware that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, was in the Chamber only yesterday outlining her plans to reopen the childcare sector. The plan is to do so on a phased basis from the end of June. That requires a number of things, including consultation with the sector, which is now very much under way, but also examining how it is being done in other jurisdictions, and that is under way as well.
I thank the Taoiseach. I do not accept any excuse advanced for not dealing with the clear-cut situation of women returning from maternity leave who are locked out of the wage subsidy scheme. The Taoiseach is right that it is those who were not topped up by their employer, but that makes the situation all the worse because they were solely reliant on their maternity benefit. That is unfair. If other scenarios have arisen, we must deal with them too, but it is of no comfort to women who have been excluded from this scheme, who are coming back from maternity leave, and who are employees with a protected status under the equality legislation, to say to them, "Well, you have to wait because there are other problems also." All of these matters need to be dealt with but this issue has been raised for weeks with Government. It is not a new issue and these women need an answer. It is unfair to exclude them and I would ask the Taoiseach to move very promptly. I urge him to instruct the Minister for Finance today, because the matter has not been resolved and what the Taoiseach has said is of no comfort to the women concerned.
As to the considerations of the childcare sector by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I am really alarmed. I hear and understand that we are considering the Norwegian model, with numbers of children in pods and playing with a single toy between them. I have to say that it will take a miracle, certainly for any children I have ever had any dealings with, to enforce that level of physical and social distancing. It strikes me that there is going to be a huge issue around capacity and physical space. There is going to be a huge issue around personnel and the numbers of childcare workers available. I have no sense at this point that the Taoiseach is in any way, in a real-world way, dealing with those very pressing matters. We do not need to hear at this point that the Taoiseach is considering models that might apply. He needs to be considering the day-to-day realities of childcare provision here in this State, how he is going to make it safe, how he is going to grow capacity and how he is going to make up for the fact that fewer children can be in restricted spaces and the consequential need for more personnel. I have no sense that those matters are being considered or planned in a concrete way at this juncture.
I am hoping to frame my contribution mainly around questions and give time properly for their consideration in three areas - transport, employment and education - taking each in turn and being very practical in terms of what is coming next in our management of this crisis. We hope the numbers will continue to improve. It is a shocking loss again for all those families who lost people yesterday. They are first and foremost in our minds, and steady and slow is the right way to try to minimise further loss.
However, we will look in the coming weeks and months for a large number of people to come back to work. Not all of them, and some may find new ways of working from home, but we are looking at a lot of people returning to workplaces in the summer. It will be difficult to do social distancing on the likes of public transport. In my constituency, it is very hard to see how we can manage social distancing on the Luas and, similarly, on the buses. Certainly, our bus network capacity will be significantly restricted if we are still applying the social distancing measures. This gives us an opportunity or necessity in providing other safe modes for people to get into work and the obvious way for a lot of people is to walk or cycle.
Cycling, in particular, has the capacity to allow people to cover distances and is also safe regarding social distancing. We should be looking to do what I believe Transport for London, TfL, is doing, which is a ten-fold increase in the numbers of people cycling. I refer to making it safe and attractive and making that increase happen.
I understand Dublin City Council is due to publish plans. It has done good work in the last month to create safe space on our streets and to use this opportunity, when we do not have large volumes of traffic, to reconfigure some streets. The council is also seeking in the coming days to bring out a significant plan for how we might make it safe, in a temporary but significant mechanism, for this new transport system to apply this summer as people return to work. I do not think we are getting a similar speed, but I believe in a similar system in Cork, Galway, Waterford and Limerick. There are plans in Cork and Galway for bus and cycle routes and we should be putting those in place in the next few weeks, even temporary structures, to create these circumstances.
I am keen to get the Taoiseach's sense on this and if he thinks that is a message we need to send to local authorities. I also refer to getting the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to row in in support to get the scale of flexibility and speed required in creating a safe cycling network, in particular, in our cities and towns so people can get back to work in that way, at scale, in huge numbers to help the recovery we need in our economy. Does the Taoiseach think that is a message? I would be interested to hear his perspective from within Government as to whether there are plans for measures on that sort of scale of ambition.
The Deputy is absolutely spot on regarding this matter. Every crisis does create opportunities, and one of the opportunities that arises out of this crisis is to provide more space on our streets for pedestrians with wider footpaths as well as more space for cyclists. We have already seen a big increase in the number of people cycling into Dublin city centre in recent years, but it is still way lower than in other cities of our scale across Europe. We would like to see much more cycling in cities such as Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford, and other towns as well.
I would put the message out to city councils and local authorities that this is now an opportunity to draw up plans to improve pedestrian facilities and provision for cyclists, and also to implement them. That is particularly the case at a time when it is difficult to do some forms of very complicated construction. I am not an engineer, but I would have thought that this type of outdoor work, widening footpaths and putting in cycle lanes, is probably easier to carry out than some more complicated projects. I think this is an opportunity and I encourage city councils to take up the suggestion being made by Deputy Eamon Ryan. I support that as the Head of Government.
I also recognise the Office of Public Works, OPW, which is part of central government while local authorities are not, for making the decision yesterday to increase by 33% the amount of the Phoenix Park being made available to people cycling and walking. That is a very good move by the OPW and I welcome it.
I thank the Taoiseach. My second question concerns employment. I agree with Deputy Micheál Martin's earlier statement that we have not really fine-tuned small business supports to make this work. Part of what we should be considering is allowing for a bottom up response where the State provides grants, financing or loans. There could be a whole variety of different supports. We are probably going to see a major transition in the retail space, for example. The local authorities and local community enterprise boards could be proactive in trying to make retail and other spaces, including employment and enterprise hubs, available for businesses to move into during this incredibly difficult time for our small business community.
This opportunity could also be used to not only support existing small businesses, but also to allow them and new businesses to bid-in locally to create new distribution systems. In the area of food, for example, we know we need to create new distribution systems directly connecting Irish food producers with consumers. We could use this as an opportunity to set this up on an experimental basis in different parts of the country to allow new enterprise models to be tried and tested. I refer to putting large resources into doing that, with funding coming from the centre, possibly using some potential European funding, but then allowing existing and new creative business and local enterprises to bid-in and get access to office and retail space in that system.
I know that is slightly abstract, but it will be key to how we get small businesses working in new and different ways as we come out of this crisis. That is the second broad proposal on which I am seeking the Government's support.
The package we have put in place for SMEs is substantial. It involves a three-month rates waiver and a rates rebate of up to €10,000 to make any adaptations a business may need in order to buy new stock for reopening or to do whatever else it needs. Under the wage subsidy scheme, the Government will pay the bulk of staff wages for a period. There are also loan guarantees and credit lines. It is substantial when one puts it all together, but that is not to say that it could not be added to. We are open to suggestions in that regard.
To answer the Deputy's question, I am a big fan of competitive funds. They are a good idea. We established four such funds under Project Ireland 2040, including the disruptive technologies innovation fund, which has been very popular, and the climate action fund. We may consider another competitive fund targeted at SMEs. The advantages of competitive funds such as these are that they are budget-capped such that one knows how much they will cost, the process is efficient because the best projects are the ones that win, and they drive innovation and cause people to think differently. The Deputy has made a very good suggestion.
I will be slightly more critical in making my third point. It seems that the State has responded very quickly in many ways, but in the education sector - I will be honest although I do not wish to say this in a negative way - it has not been seen from the outside to have been as quick to respond. What has happened with the leaving certificate and so on is a real concern. I share the concerns of other Deputies. I do not see why we could not get a system in place such that schools could return in September rather than being radically delayed. Similarly, it is crucial that we manage the new leaving certificate process in order that our students are able to begin third level education at the usual time of year rather than in November. If my son goes to college, please God, I do not want him to have to wait six months to do so. That is a long wait. I must explain to him why it takes us six months to get our act together in this sphere. Many other sons and daughters are in a similar position to him. How can one explain a delay of six months?
More specifically, last week I raised the fact that Scotland and other parts of the UK maintained their special needs schools through the crisis. Deputy McDonald is correct that the issue of how one separates people is very difficult, be that in a care setting, in the context of childcare or in terms of accommodating those with special needs. However, the number attending special needs schools is small and there is a good staff-student ratio. A real health benefit would accrue from getting our special schools and special disability classes back in June. Many parents in particular circumstances are experiencing serious difficulties. It would be a sign of the education system starting to step up to the plate a bit if, in the final days of May, it managed to get our special needs schools back in action in June. At the very least, that should be an achievable ambition for the Government.
One of the things that other jurisdictions have done differently, and that we may have done differently if we had known everything that we know now, is that they did not fully close schools. In Northern Ireland and certain other parts of Europe, schools were not fully closed down but, rather, kept open for a certain number of essential workers' children and those with particular special needs. If we were to do this all over again, the advice from NPHET might be different and we might keep schools open in some way. That is hindsight. Looking ahead, the Government has a particular concern regarding children with special educational needs, autism, intellectual disabilities, behavioural problems or child protection issues who have now been at home for a very long time and really need educational input. I would love us to be in a position to open special schools or special units in some way before September if at all possible. That would require the engagement and co-operation of the public health authorities and the various unions involved. It is not the most straightforward process. We are giving priority to July provision and seeing if we can have enhanced, extended or other July provision in some way such that we can provide something for those children, perhaps not in June, which is not too far away, but maybe in July and August.
That engagement has started but we will need the co-operation of all of the partners - the unions in particular - in getting that over the line and agreement from the public health authorities as well.
Our thoughts are with the families of those who have lost their lives in the last week and with all of the workers out there who are doing such a fantastic job. This week I want to raise three issues with the Taoiseach. The first is workers and the consistency of public health advice. The second is how we are going to open up our health services, particularly cancer screening and services for people with disabilities. The third issue is how this crisis is disproportionately affecting many women.
This week, as a result of the appearance of critical health officials at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, we quite coincidentally had new public health advice offered to the Houses of the Oireachtas, following a request from the Department of Health. I wonder why the Department of Health, at this juncture, asked for that. In summary, the advice said that members or witnesses should only be present for a cumulative period of two hours in any 24 hours. If this is surpassed and if anyone present during any of that time displays symptoms of Covid then everyone else would have to self-isolate for 14 days as they would be considered close contacts. In effect, we now have to create a working environment in here - I have my stopwatch on because I am due back in here later on and that is not a joke - that prevents the possibility of this happening. Hence, the Minister for Health will not appear twice today but this cannot just apply to him; it has to apply to every other person who is working.
We were aware of the two-hour rule but not the cumulative range. All of a sudden, this advice was proffered on Monday evening and was news to many of us. Was it news to the Taoiseach? I have had many meetings with the Taoiseach, virtually and in person, over the last nine weeks. I knew about the two-hour rule, which the Taoiseach often referenced but I do not think that, up until recently, he was even aware of this cumulative two in 24-hour rule. The advice has been supported since by the CMO and the director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, albeit conditionally. They said it was not hard and fast and that risk assessments must be made but I do not think this washes with most people and I do not think it is actually realistic.
In plain language, it is absolutely bonkers that this advice, which may have existed, was only socialised to everyone on Monday evening and made public on Tuesday. I can see the Ceann Comhairle smiling at me because it is absolutely true. It is bonkers that such advice is issued this far into the crisis because this changes everything. Why did NPHET not make this clear before now? I would like to know when the Taoiseach, the Government and Ministers were made aware of it. I was not aware of it. I broke those conditions in here last week. I was in here for questions to the Taoiseach and to the Minister for Health. I was here for well over two hours. The ramifications and knock-on effects for Irish society and businesses are extraordinary. Amazingly, this advice came within 24 hours of the CMO saying that the virus transmission had been "extinguished in the community". This does not make sense. If this is the public health advice, so be it but I genuinely do not believe many, if any, people in here were aware of it. If the Members who are elected to represent the public of this country were not aware of it, how could workers, employers and organisations be aware of it? How are they all meant to operate within this advice? How are they professionally meant to carry out individual risk assessments across all locations? How can any factory, shop, pharmacy or office operate in such an environment? This changes everything. It is obvious that many workers are working in environments where these conditions do not exist, some of whom are not too far from here. We cannot stand over a two-tier society where all of us in here and in the Courts Service operate under one set of public health guidelines and everyone else out there operates under something completely different. We need to treat everyone the same, be it those who are looking after our healthcare, providing food, keeping us safe, working in factories, gardaí etc. What has happened sounds like something from George Orwell, that some are more equal than others.
I do not even want to think what impact this development is potentially going to have on insurance premiums.
There are three choices for the Taoiseach. Either the Government can publish comprehensive and consistent guidelines through NPHET, sector by sector, in the next 24 hours on how shops, factories, Garda stations and everything else can operate under these guidelines, or it accepts this will not be possible in many settings and it will not be viable, if it was done, because many businesses would not be able to operate. In essence, we would accept, as a Legislature and as a Government, that some people's lives have to be put at risk, so I do not think that is an option. The third option is that we, the Government and NPHET work this back - this is not advice from the WHO, I understand - and change it to something that is more realistic, proportionate and implementable.
Everyone here is working hard. The Government has done a fine job, NPHET has done a fine job, the HSE has done a fine job and we are all doing our best, but this is something that needs to be dealt with and dealt with now. While I am at it, going forward, we need to ensure we have one linear voice in regard to public health advice and that comes from NPHET through the Government. To have others giving advice and that being used creates confusion all over the place and it cannot continue.
I say in jest that if the Taoiseach does not change what has transpired, I am not sure how long more Government formation talks are going to take, but they will possibly take another 100 days because the parties will not be able to meet for a considerable period.
There are two other issues. We are reopening the economy and we have a road map but we need a published road map in regard to health care. For three weeks in a row, I have raised the issue of non-Covid preventable deaths. I want to relate two issues, the first of which is cancer screening. We know cancer screening saves lives and 11,000 people a month get screened. I have heard commentary from the deputy chief medical officer that that is not going to happen in the near future. That is not acceptable and I also do not think, by the way, that it is his role, because under the law - the Health Act 2004 - it is actually a role for the HSE. This needs a plan or, otherwise, lives are going to be lost. We already know some of the potential statistics. It needs to be brought in soon.
The second issue is in regard to people with intellectual disabilities, and I am glad this issue was raised previously. I have received much correspondence and it is an area in which I take a lot of interest. I have received correspondence from the family of Philip, who basically outline how much he has regressed in the recent weeks. We need a plan. We cannot let down this sector of society. We need a plan soon in regard to people with intellectual disabilities, who are regressing. They do not have day services, they do not have outreach and they do not have social interaction outside their own house. It cannot continue, so I beg for this to be brought forward.
With regard to the impact the Covid emergency has had on women, the Central Statistics Office survey was quite welcome but was also quite worrying in regard to many of the statistics, which I do not have time to quote. However, the Taoiseach relays that on top of other issues, for example, on top of the issue relating to maternity leave, which should be solvable pretty quickly, and on top of the issue relating to how nurses in many areas of the country have not yet received their back pay, and the majority of them are women. The Taoiseach also layers on top of that the way in which the childcare situation for healthcare workers, a large majority of whom are women, particularly in nursing, has not been dealt with. On top of that, he layers the nervousness that everyone has that the full childcare solution that is meant to start rolling out in June is not going to happen. Although it may be unintended, it is real, and the Taoiseach can see why many women feel they are proportionately, in some way, being treated differently during this crisis.
The Government and Legislature need to deal with this collectively. I ask that over the next 24 hours somebody in government answer the question my colleague, Deputy Seán Sherlock, asked yesterday. I was in meeting with the Taoiseach eight or nine weeks ago and the Minister for Health had under his arm a proposal on healthcare workers and childcare. I believe this is the solution being pushed forward now, nine weeks later. We need a cast-iron guarantee that childcare will be opened up and in place in early June. Many families need to know that will be the case. I ask the Taoiseach to answer that question directly please.
I want to make brief reference to the health advice we received late on Monday evening with regard to the Covid-19 committee. It came out of nowhere and I still cannot figure out who took the decision to request it or go to that particular source. It has certainly caused major problems for the operation of the committee, the House and, we now know, the Courts Service, and goodness knows how many other workplaces. It has the potential to cause chaos because its implications are so severe. It is important that today, as leader of the country, the Taoiseach makes a clear and categorical statement on the status of this advice and what the advice is generally, not only for the operation of this House but for many different settings. How can we possibly operate if this is the prevailing health advice?
It is very important that we operate on the basis of official health advice from the WHO and that the Taoiseach checks out what is happening in other parliaments. I am not aware of any other parliament that is acting in this way, with members forced to behave like Jack in the boxes, jumping up and down and in and out. If nothing else, we should think forward about how to operate on the basis of this advice. For example, we have been speaking about the need to go down to the convention centre to legislate. Would the two-hour limit apply there? How could we possibly get legislation through the Oireachtas if we cannot spend more than two hours together in any one day? It make things completely unworkable and the Taoiseach needs to provide clarification about it today.
I want to concentrate on decision-making on the lifting of restrictions. It has been said that it is a much more complex task to lift restrictions and open up the country than it was to close it down, which happened very quickly, and rightly so. It is more than a week since I put it to the Taoiseach that he needed an expert multidisciplinary task force to plan and manage the reopening. At that time, the Taoiseach said the Cabinet sub-committee was the task force and I challenged him on that. I put it to him that however competent a group of Ministers is, it does not possess the expertise and skills to plan and manage the very complex task of reopening the country. Issues that need to be looked at are the health advice, which must be the priority advice, and skills with regard to risk assessment and risk management, logistics, human resources and the various sectors being considered for opening up. My understanding is there is no body in which those skills exist.
We do not know the basis for the very big decisions being taken. They are life changing. They impact people's lives, livelihoods and futures, their psychological and physical health and many other aspects of their existence. Because the Government does not provide a rationale for these decisions, it is hard to keep people with it.
It is hard for the public to understand why the Government is saying certain sectors can open and others cannot.
For example, looking at what would appear to be some illogical decisions that have been taken, why is it that the construction industry and big construction sites can open up? It does not make sense and people who understand how the construction industry works would say this is high-risk stuff. We also heard the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, yesterday referring to the fact that the construction industry had pushed and pushed to get an early opening. Is that how decisions are taken? Is it the case that powerful lobby groups have access to Ministers? Is that what it is about? How is it decided? Another powerful interest group is the horse racing industry. I gather that it has been successful in its lobbying to get horse racing opening sooner than had been planned. We now see a clamour from vintners looking for pubs and bars to be opened earlier. What is the basis on which decisions are being taken? I raised this with the Chief Medical Officer the other day. We had a discussion about risk assessment. Obviously, the health expertise is in the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. They have access to a certain amount of mathematical expertise also. However, the CMO made it very clear that the decisions on particular sectors are taken by the sectoral groups, Government Departments.
I put it to the Taoiseach that he needs to be much more forthcoming and transparent about the basis on which decisions are taken. I referred the other day to what happened in Denmark in terms of reopening the schools, where a complete risk assessment was carried out of the impact of opening schools and the impact on the R-nought number, for example. It was estimated that it would go up slightly initially but would come back down. Everybody understood that and teachers, teachers' unions, education authorities, health authorities and everyone understood what they were embarking upon. They were all signed up to it and it appears to have worked well. There is none of that kind of transparency here around the Taoiseach's decision-making. It is really important that he is much more open and that he explains the basis on which decisions are taken rather than there being the suspicion that they may be a result of political pressure.
The Taoiseach also referred to the schools. I am very familiar with what is happening with schools in the UK, which continued to open. They catered for the children of front-line workers, health workers in particular but also supermarket workers. They catered for children where there were welfare concerns and for children with special needs. The numbers that actually came in were quite small but services were provided for them. They were provided by a mixture of teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and childcare workers. In the main, that has served very well. Why was that approach not taken here and why can we not do it at this point? Certainly there are going to be a lot of problems relating to children with special needs, children at risk and children who are possibly being minded by other children at home in unsatisfactory circumstances. There is also the whole question of children missing out on the social and educational benefits of attending school. We had a situation where it was stated by the Taoiseach that the leaving certificate was definitely going to take place. Then it was a case of maybe it will take place and then it was a case that it did not have to be done. All of these things, the speculation and thinking aloud, results in an emotional roller-coaster for our schoolchildren. It has been a very tough time for them. For that and so many other reasons, I call on the Taoiseach to be absolutely clear about the evidence he is using for decisions around this and that he ensures there is adequate risk assessment and continuous risk management. We may have to take steps backwards depending on what happens with the virus. I urge the Taoiseach to do so.
I am not expecting a detailed reply but perhaps the Taoiseach will just acknowledge the points I have made.
I am happy to acknowledge the points the Deputy made, which are very well made. We do have a plan for reopening the economy and society. It is published and is being implemented. It is also, however, a living document that can be amended, updated and clarified as we go on. That is what is happening. Ultimately, any decisions made on reopening the country, the economy and society are made by Government on foot of advice from NPHET.
I would not rule out the idea of having a task force, but by their very nature task forces are non-statutory. They may be made up of very capable people, but by their definition they are advisory, have no legal personality, cannot hire staff and cannot enter into contracts. The decisions are made by Government in the end. There is much ongoing consultation. There is, for example, much consultation with unions through ICTU and with the employer bodies, such as the Construction Industry Federation and IBEC, which is where the protocol came from that enabled many businesses to open in recent weeks. It was the unions and employers coming together with the Government. On Friday we produced three papers, and not just the public health advice from NPHET. There was also an economic analysis and a social analysis, and we propose to do that ongoing.
I accept that there are other models. I have looked at the model in Belgium, where they have a group of experts in charge of the exit strategy, GEES, which comprises people from different backgrounds who advise the Government on its reopening plan. I do not rule out doing that. We may yet decide to go down that road of having an advisory body different from NPHET that is made up of multidisciplinary advisers, as Deputy Martin would describe it. We do, however, need to be realistic about it in that there will still be lobbying and there will still be political pressure from different sources. Decisions will still be contested. One of the biggest problems we have in all of this, which is true in Denmark too, is that there is not an awful lot of evidence because this is a new virus and is a pandemic the likes of which we have not seen for 100 years. All the models are only models and all the evidence is pretty weak. This is the truth of what we are dealing with.
I have raised repeatedly the plight of particular groups of workers who find their livelihood and employment devastated as a result of the crisis: the 2,000 Debenhams workers; English foreign language teachers; workers in the arts, music and live entertainment and gig economy; and taxi drivers - all of whom need specific road maps and specific packages of support. In the short time that I have I will zone in on two of these groups.
With regard to the arts sector, €6.5 billion is being given to big business in grants and supports. The arts, on which we have depended more than ever in recent months, got €1 million, which is pathetic. This industry faces a bleak, if any, future in the short to medium term and yet we can only come up with €1 million. Will the Taoiseach agree to a national campaign for the arts sector demands for €20 million in extra funding for this year and next year, to extend the Covid-19 payment to those who were denied it because they were not working on 6 March, to continue that payment at least until these sectors recover, and to use our national broadcaster to give particular support to musicians and artists?
I cannot make those commitments in the Chamber but I will certainly give them consideration. On the €6.5 billion for business, what the Deputy said is a little misleading. That is for business and incudes the arts and entertainment sector. I appreciate that everyone in arts and entertainment is not a business but many are. It is also a huge industry and of course that €6.5 billion is also open to them. The €1 million provided was for particular projects through the Arts Council of Ireland. There is a huge amount of resources that arts, entertainment and leisure businesses can draw on, just like any other business can.
Companies that are giving massive dividends to their shareholders, making big profits and who are big multinationals are benefiting from these schemes, as I raised with the Minister for Finance yesterday, whereas the arts get €1 million. It is a stark contrast.
The taxi driving industry has been absolutely decimated, with 70% to 80% of people off the road. The Taoiseach may be interested to know that of the few taxi drivers who are still on the road, many are over the age of 66. This is because the Government has denied them the Covid-19 payment. They are the most vulnerable group of taxi drivers but they are on the road because the Government will not give them the Covid-19 payment.
As a result of this industry's link to mass gatherings, sports, tourism and the arts, which is similarly devastated and will be for the foreseeable future, they are in deep trouble. I am asking again for a specific package of financial supports for taxi drivers, that the Covid payment be extended to taxi drivers who are over 66 and that it be retained as a minimum subsidy for taxi drivers, but that they be allowed to continue to work to top it up until their industry recovers at some unknown future point. Will the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport agree to meet representatives from the different taxi representative groups who are coming together as we speak and who want to discuss with him the specific packages and supports they need to keep 23,000 taxi drivers with some sort of livelihood for the future?
Anyone over 66 is eligible for either the contributory State pension or the non-contributory State pension. Given the fact that some people may have dependants, many of those in receipt of the State pension, contributory or non-contributory, will actually get more than €350. That option is there for people who need it. What we are not doing is paying people the pension as well as the pandemic unemployment payment. That would be two benefits.
Almost all taxi drivers are self-employed. Anyone who is self-employed whose income has dropped is entitled to the pandemic unemployment payment. I suspect there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of taxi drivers who are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. They are entitled to that and they should get it until such time as they are able to get going again. I agree that the sector will need help. I do not know exactly what will have to be done but I imagine it will require an adaptation of the cars in some way, perhaps by putting screens between the back and front or something of that nature. I do not know. I certainly would welcome an engagement between the Minister, Shane Ross, and the sector to work out what needs to be done to allow taxis to get moving again, what work would be carried out and how we might help to co-fund it with them.
In the Watergrass Hill area, which is on the border of my constituency, there is a Kepak meat plant. Kepak has 650 workers there, of whom more than 120 tested positive for Covid-19 last week. All over the world, meat plants are hot spots for Covid. In the United States, where President Trump has come in for particularly sharp criticism, more than 10,000 meat workers have been affected and at least 30 have died. That international criticism has been justified, but the USA has 100 times the number of meat plants that we have. Ireland, with 860 infected workers, has an infection rate per meat plant more than eight times greater than that of the disgraced USA.
On Friday morning last, in a riveting piece of radio, RTÉ's Brian O'Connell reported on meat workers working shoulder to shoulder and on top of one another. He interviewed two immigrant meat workers who told the nation that workers at their plant with high temperatures had been sent home but were told to come in the next day. No PPE had been distributed until very recently. The workers did the interviews with voice-overs for fear of losing jobs and accommodation. Gerry McCormack of SIPTU has said this problem in the industry is more generalised. He has spoken of some employers as having "ignored completely the recommendations from the HSE on how to do physical distancing".
Here is an industry with a low-paid, largely immigrant workforce that has been run like a dictatorship, with workers treated little better than modern-day slaves. In Northern Ireland, meat workers were forced to walk off the job at Linden Foods, Moy Park, APB and the Foyle Food Group just to secure improved health and safety. Here is an industry that needs to be run under workers' control. Workers' control of the meat industry would give far greater priority to workers' health, safety and lives. Can anyone seriously doubt that infection rates would be lower, possibly far lower, in the meat industry if it were to operate under workers' control?
The virus has been ripping through meat plants for at least a month. When was the first inspection of a meat plant carried out in this crisis by an officer of the Health and Safety Authority?
We know that zero inspections had been done by last Wednesday. The HSA spokeswoman seemed to imply at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that the first inspection may only have been done last Monday. Why was there such a shocking delay? Did the Government fear treading on the toes of the meat plant bosses, even as their workers suffered? What alternative explanation can the Taoiseach provide?
Does the Taoiseach agree that when a cluster is found in a meat plant, not only must every worker and his or her family be tested but work must stop at that plant until such time as the tests are complete? Does he also agree that any worker forced to take time off for this reason should receive full pay in the interim?
On the Deputy's first question, I do not have that date but I will see if we can find that out for him.
The answer to the Deputy's second question is "No, absolutely not."
On the Deputy's third question, I would have to give the matter consideration but I am not sure it is practical. It is not the approach we take in healthcare, for example, or in many parts of the public service. If somebody tests positive, we do not shut down the hospital in question, the Dáil or wherever. I am not sure we would apply to meat plants that approach of shutting everything down if one person tests positive while testing everyone in his or her family. That is not an approach we have applied anywhere else that I am aware of and it is not one we would apply in the Houses of the Oireachtas. The answer to the Deputy's question, therefore, is probably "No" but I will ask for some guidance on that from the public health authorities.
On the Deputy's fourth question, the rules that apply to people who work in meat factories are the rules that apply to everyone else. If anyone is required to take time off to self-isolate, he or she qualifies for the pandemic illness benefit payment of €350 per week.
I acknowledge the continuing impact of Covid-19 on our most vulnerable. Our debt of gratitude to our front-line and community healthcare workers grows ever greater.
I want to update the House on some people from Waterford who are supporting our national efforts to overcome the many challenges the coronavirus epidemic is presenting every day. I thank Commandant Dr. Patrick Kelly of the Irish Defence Forces. Dr. Kelly is an expert in infectious disease management and has been supporting my office in recent weeks in assisting implementation of large industry back-to-work protocols. I thank the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation for their support and assistance in these matters.
I commend Ambassador Daniel Mulhall. Through close co-operation over a number of weeks with the consul general in Atlanta, Mr. Shane Stephens, Ambassador Mulhall and the British Consulate General, along with my office, secured the repatriation yesterday to Ireland of four Irish nationals. These citizens had suffered weeks of arduous lockdowns on ships off the coast of the United States, with no immediate prospect of returning to Ireland. I thank Ambassador Mulhall for his services in this matter.
I thank hospital management at University Hospital Waterford, UHW, for their continuing efforts in Covid-19 activity. Further to my request some weeks ago in this House, they directed the UHW south east regional pathology laboratory to facilitate the analysis of covid swabs to be taken in our residential care settings. This has enabled test results to be turned around in less than 48 hours and is assisting greatly in keeping nursing homes in Waterford largely free of Covid-19. Additionally, further to support I requested and received from the Minister for Health, I can confirm that significant initiatives in medical device and PPE development by our applied materials technology gateway at Waterford Institute of Technology are in development and are being supported by the HSE. Furthermore, business promoters in Waterford. who wish to remain anonymous, are playing a major part in assisting large volume specification approved PPE purchases in China, which are helping to protect our front-line healthcare workers.
Waterford and the south east are giving much to the national effort but a significant issue remains to be clarified with respect to our national standing and treatment. In recent days, the modular cardiac catheterisation lab in place since 2017, providing diagnostic angiogram services, has been removed from University Hospital Waterford, leaving the entire population of the south east of 500,000 people entirely dependent on one operational catheterisation lab being operated in the UPMC Whitfield private hospital.
The people of the south east have yet again been pushed back to 2016 operational standards. I refer to having one catheterisation laboratory for 39 hours per week in a supposedly nationally designated cardiac care centre dealing with acute heart attacks. The 14-year-old main catheterisation laboratory in University Hospital Waterford was scheduled for a four-month refit, which has been stopped because of Covid-19 infection control protocols. UPMC Whitfield recently installed and commissioned its laboratory in eight weeks. Our remodification is scheduled for 14 weeks, which will now probably be 20 weeks.
A second catheterisation laboratory, which the Government promised on 18 September 2018, saying it would be built under a 13-month programme, has not yet been cleared even for a pre-qualification listing for construction tender award. I could make five telephone calls here today and find five contractors who are pre-qualified to do the work. It is fair to say that if political capital in Waterford were counted in currency, it would currently constitute a bucket of escudos.
Questions I asked the Minister for Health on these issues in this House on 24 April remained unanswered until about five minutes ago, when I received a communication from my office to the effect that a statement had come in from the Minister. Funnily enough, it is dated 14 May. I welcome the press release that was issued two days ago through one of the Fine Gael Senators. It states that, with respect to the development of a second catheterisation laboratory at UHW, it is anticipated "the project will go to tender before late July." I am anticipating a three-course meal at home this evening when I return to Waterford but given that my wife works full-time and I have three young children, I would say I have little chance of getting it. The timeline being discussed is 22 months after the initial announcement. Must we conclude that we may anticipate the reactivation of the refurbishment of our existing catheterisation laboratory also in the coming months?
May I bring the Taoiseach back to a statement he made in Waterford on 31 July 2017 at the opening of the extension to Bausch & Lomb, where he was speaking on the issue of educational healthcare? There he said that for as long as he was Taoiseach, Waterford would not be neglected or forgotten. I am asking him now to act on this fine sentiment, which he so clearly expressed and which he expressed as someone with deep roots in Waterford. Will he instruct his Department to take responsibility for and oversee both the remodification timelines for the existing catheterisation laboratory at UHW and the project execution in respect of the second permanent catheterisation laboratory facility?
Will his Department also oversee the equitable expansion of cardiac resources at the Waterford centre? We know from three years of recent HSE ambulance data that just 1.5% of heart attack patients transferred to regional centres when the Waterford centre is closed arrive within the clinical timeframe. This means 98.5% do not. The people of the south east have waited long enough to have this national centre placed on par with the other five regional cardiac care centres in the country. Will the Taoiseach, during the remaining term of the Government, ensure steps are taken immediately to approve and mandate the delivery of what has been promised to us and is required by us and in so doing provide some redress for the inequality and capacity constraint in the regional cardiac service in the south east?
I thank Deputy Shanahan for his remarks. In particular, I echo his words of thanks to that great Waterfordman Dan Mulhall, our ambassador in the United States, who has done a lot of work getting people safely home.
As the Deputy is probably aware, my Department is made up of 150 civil servants. While they are great people, I am afraid they just do not have the wherewithal to take on the project management of specific projects, be they associated with catheterisation laboratories, motorways or other infrastructural works. It is, however, a matter in which I have an interest. I am as frustrated as the Deputy and, indeed, Senator Cummins over how difficult it has been to get the second catheterisation laboratory built in Waterford and how slow the process has been. I will continue to pursue it in the term of this Government, and the next if I am part of it. I know the Deputy will also.
I am advised by the HSE that there has not been a break in continuity for cardiology patients in UHW. The new catheterisation laboratory in the Whitfield is welcome and ensures there is a more stable solution while we await the building of the second laboratory in the university hospital.
A further consultant interventional cardiologist is in the final stages of recruitment through the Public Appointments Service. The HSE advises me that an additional interventionist will allow for a seven-day service from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the existing catheterisation laboratory. Interviews for this position took place on 27 January so I hope it will come to fruition.
The South/South West hospital group has advised that the existing cath lab is being prioritised for upgrading. This decision was based on an assessment conducted by the national clinical head of medical devices on the history and age profile of the equipment in the lab and a number of incidents of equipment failure in 2019. It advises that a number of options were explored and that, following this exercise, it was agreed by all stakeholders to work in partnership with UPMC Whitfield and reach a service level agreement to use its newly constructed cath lab in Waterford for the duration of the upgrade. The Minister for Health is proceeding with the provision of a second cath lab in Waterford based on the HSE's preferred option for its location and operation. As set out in the appraisal, the preferred option is for a second cath lab associated with a 12-bed day ward delivering six additional beds on the roof of the existing cardiology department, which will operate five days a week and provide diagnostic services.
The HSE has advised that funding was allocated in the 2019 capital plan for the provision of the second cath lab in Waterford. That money was carried over to 2020 and on 9 January planning permission was received by Waterford City and County Council. The HSE further advises that preparation of the contract documents has now commenced, contractor selection is under way, the tender will be complete by the end of July and it is expected that construction will commence in October with a ten to 12-month programme. The HSE notes that the works and schedules were delayed due to Covid-19. That is the updated position. I know that Deputy Shanahan, other Deputies from Waterford and Senator Cummins will pursue the matter. Given that this has taken so long, I fully appreciate that nobody in Waterford will believe it will happen until it does happen, but I will continue to take an interest in and pursue the matter.
The funding has been released by the Department of Health to the HSE. If there is any problem with the funding, I have not been informed of it. I know there is a delay in getting the works done but I will check with the CEO of the HSE today whether there is any difficulty with the funding.
I have praised the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, for the way in which they have dealt with the pandemic, mainly because of the former's medical background. We are lucky we have a person from a medical background in that position.
For the past nine years, however, the Government has forgotten about rural Ireland. When the pandemic hit, rural Ireland did not forget about us. It kept food and drink on our tables and has kept us going through the pandemic. Yesterday has gone, today is here and tomorrow has not come. How do we get our businesses and our country up and running again? Let us move forward. There are 39 constituencies in Ireland, 11 of which are in Dublin, and 19 seats in 26 constituencies outside of Dublin were filled by Independents in the most recent general election. What does this tell us? We all know Dublin is the capital, but Limerick is my capital. I want to work with the Government and with others. People may come to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil looking for positions. I do not want positions. I want to help and I want to work. I want direct access to Ministers. I am for the betterment of Ireland. I want Ministers positioned around the country, not just in Dublin, where there are at present seven Ministers. I want the Government to listen to the people of rural Ireland. I will sit down and work collectively with anyone, bringing a voice for rural Ireland. Rural people live outside of areas with speed limits, in small towns such as Croom, Adare, Newcastle West and Kilmallock. Once you leave the areas with speed limits, there is no rural broadband and there are no bus services. People have to drive to work.
I understand what is happening. I am self-employed. I am from a farming background. I have been a member of Limerick City and County Council. What has Covid-19 taught us? It is that our broadband is not fit for purpose.
We need a collective approach. It is not viable in its present format. It needs to be grand-aided. We need to incentivise the private companies to look at the amber areas. It is easy to target the profitable areas. The information on amber areas in Ireland is well documented. Companies are cherry-picking the areas that are profitable and leaving the areas that are not profitable. They are massaging the figures. Realistically, it does not add up. How do we fix this? The word here is "incentivise". Why does the restart grant only cover companies with up to 50 employees? A progressive hotel in Limerick has seen bookings decimated for the year ahead. So much has been cancelled. The hotel owners had hoped to have up to 100 people employed by Christmas.
The World Health Organization recommends social distancing of 1 m. Social distancing in Ireland is 2 m. It would be very difficult to run a business or run hotels on this basis. I would not like to see my dinner coming at me from a 2 m distance. Some common sense is needed here. We have all heard today how different countries are dealing with different things and how the Government is learning from different countries. The World Health Organization has the distance at 1 m.
This is something I have spoken about before. As I understand it, the most recent advice from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is 2 m. The distance of 2 m is used in the United Kingdom and mostly across Europe as well. I see in other countries like Australia and New Zealand they are talking about 1.5 m. I see that the World Health Organization is talking about 1 m. This is under review. I think we all agree that getting the country going again would be far more practical, especially in schools and businesses, if it was 1 m rather than 2 m, but ultimately it is one of those things that is and should be a call for the Chief Medical Officer and the National Public Health Emergency Team. While the Government makes the decisions, I believe there are some things that are pure public health advice and this is one we have to defer to the team on. Having said that, I know the team considers evidence as it comes in and will be considering that matter as we go on.
In defence of the outgoing Government as it approaches the end of its term, we established the Department of Rural and Community Development with a capital budget of €1 billion. We can really see that taking shape now on the ground. Whether it is the town and village scheme, LEADER, CLÁR, rural recreation or greenways, we are really making a difference. We signed the contract for the national broadband plan. It had been promised forever but now it is actually happening. It is a €3 billion investment in rural Ireland. It is the biggest investment in rural Ireland ever connecting more than 500,000 homes, farms and businesses to fibre over the course of the coming six or seven years. That work is now under way. It will be rolled out to approximately 100,000 premises per year. It will take time to do but it is being done. I hope that the new Government will not cancel that contract but will honour it and ensure that it gets done. We got the road maintenance programme and the roads programme going again, including the local improvement scheme.
What we were unable to do - I admit this - was to protect the incomes of farmers, especially beef farmers. I very much regret that we were unable to do that but I believe that was largely due to factors well beyond our control.
The Ireland of today has totally changed, a change that will take us years to recover from. The small-time business will struggle to survive this crisis, which is far greater than anything we have ever faced before. People from business after business are contacting me daily, I assume they are contacting other Deputies too. They tell me they cannot see how they are going to survive, never mind reopen.
Tourism is a major employer throughout this island. The incoming Government must fully focus on a clear way forward. People throughout the country and in my constituency who own restaurants, pubs or hotels are in contact with me daily, including people from Kinsale, Bandon, Clonakilty and all the way down at Crookhaven and Mizen Head. They are asking me one question: when can they open? How can they reopen taking into account social distancing? Can they survive reopening a restaurant, pub, hotel or café with a handful of customers and still be expected to pay staff, rent, rates and every other overhead that can be thought of? The reality is that if the Government will not concentrate a serious focus on tourism and on Ireland's capacity, then the consequences will be devastating for many years to come.
Two weeks ago today in the Dáil, I urged the Taoiseach to set up urgently a public tourism task force. In fairness to the Taoiseach, he answered me positively by saying that he would support the task force being set up. The announcement of the setting up of this task force was made yesterday and I welcome it. Why, however, was there no board member from Cork announced?
In the name of God, what is the mindset when every county where tourism is a major sector is represented but Cork is not? It is right for these counties to be represented but Cork, a county that plays a massive role in tourism, has been dropped from the task force. I ask the Taoiseach and Deputy Micheál Martin to intervene and include a member from tourism sector in Cork on the task force. Why has no member from the Vintners Federation of Ireland, VFI, or the Licensed Vintners Association, LVA, which employ over 50,000 people, been put on this task force? What is wrong with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport that it has failed to include two of the biggest contributors to tourism in this task force?
Will the Taoiseach intervene and work with the Minister, Shane Ross, as well as the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, to right this wrong? Let us all work together to rebuild tourism to its former glory in all sections of Ireland. I am getting a large number of questions about tourism in west Cork and, unfortunately, we are not able to get answers. I understand the pressure on Departments currently with respect to reopening, rules and directives but could Fáilte Ireland, an established tourism body, be put in charge of queries that are coming in daily from businesses that want to reopen? It can lay out the required answers.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, announced in the past week there will be no driving tests for the foreseeable future. This is terribly unfair to the young people in the country who want to attend jobs and college. The Minister simply slammed the door but why did he not look at a road map as to when people might be able to sit their driving test? Those who genuinely and urgently need to drive in rural communities, where there is no public transport, should be given a special emergency permit so they can drive to work or colleges until the end of the crisis.
I join the Deputy in welcoming the establishment of the tourism recovery task force, which is under the chairmanship of Ms Ruth Andrews, whom I worked with when I was the Minister responsible for tourism. I know she will do a really great job. I remember when I was Minister with responsibility for tourism many years ago, the sector was going through a very bad patch but recovered very quickly. It is an amazing and resilient industry and it can bounce back. It is the industry that was hit first and worst, and it will be hit for the longest time. It will need much Government support to get going again and I am determined that it will be put in place. It can really only happen when tourism is possible again. I am still optimistic that domestic tourism will be able to be resumed some time in July, with international tourism resuming later in the year. It will be a bad year but I hope something can be salvaged and 2021 can be a good year again.
As I understand the representation on the task force, nobody is there to represent a particular county, whether that is Dublin, Cork, Wexford or Donegal, and the people involved should not be thinking that way. This is a tourism recovery task force for the entire country and not one particular county.
Ní cúis iontais é don Cheann Comhairle nach mbeidh mé ag díriú isteach ar chúrsaí gailf. Beidh mé ag díriú isteach ar ghasúir le riachtanais faoi leith agus ar scoileanna speisialta atá dúnta le dhá mhí anuas anois. Coicís ó shin, d’ardaigh mé an cheist seo leis an Taoiseach. Bhí sé ionraic agus macánta ag an am agus dúirt sé nach raibh an litir léite aige. Tá súil agam go bhfuil sí léite aige anois. I will not focus on golf today in any event but I will come back to it in a moment in discussing the voices that have been heard relating to golf, construction and vintners. No voice is being heard on behalf of those with a disability. I have often heard it said here that nobody has a monopoly on empathy, which is true, but the Taoiseach has a duty to demonstrate leadership.
Two weeks ago I raised this matter with the Taoiseach and pointed to a letter he had received but he said he had not had the chance to read it. It was redirected to the Taoiseach. I understand he is busy and he has read it since. I do not want to use my words so I will use my few sentences to describe the words that have been relayed to me. The loss of skills being experienced by children and the regression into negative behaviour has been described as "heartbreaking". It is a grim indictment of our nation that education and welfare appears to have been cast aside for six months, if we go to September, without any documented rationale or justification. This goes back to Deputy Shortall's points on how decisions are made and whose voices are heard.
A parent stated that the closure of the schools until September was nothing short of a disaster. An Inclusion Ireland study has pointed out that home schooling is not working.
I will provide three brief examples, the first of which is of a nine year old boy with autism. We want to hear his voice in the Dáil. He is non-verbal and has serious functional issues. When he finally got a place in a special school, he accelerated to being very functional. His routine made him a smiley boy.
Another parent has twin boys who are autistic. One of them attends a special school. He needs and breathes routine, structure and certainty. Parents are living in their own unspoken or unacknowledged hell within the national pandemic.
The final voice is of a parent whose son is 14 years old. He has a diagnosis of autism with global developmental delay. He is non-verbal and incontinent. Directly as a consequence of no attendance at his special school for more than two months, he has become aggressive and self-harms from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to bed. His hand is lacerated. As soon as the wound is closed, he opens it up again. He head bangs. He breaks items and so on. He has a sibling attempting to do the leaving certificate.
What voice is there at Cabinet level and on NPHET for these children? Having read the correspondence, I ask the Taoiseach for recognition of the problem and his agreement to a meeting with the parents who have written to him. One has written on behalf of 60 parents. Make our special schools an essential service. Examine what has worked successfully elsewhere. Seriously consider reinstating teachers, special needs assistants and so on.
The Taoiseach mentioned July provision. He has a minute to answer me. Please do not mention July provision again. I accept that it is going ahead and that the Government is looking to extend it. What I want to know is what actions are being taken to open special schools.
I thank the Deputy. I read the letter that she alerted me to and I have replied. Actually, I have received many letters from parents of children with autism, with intellectual disabilities, with behavioural problems. I know they are really distressed. I am concerned about their welfare and I know they are, too. They may not have a powerful lobby, but they do have a voice at Cabinet. That voice is the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities, the first Cabinet Minister for disabilities that we have had, Mr. Finian McGrath. I am sure he would be willing to meet with any group that may wish to-----
The decision made by the Government on foot of advice from NPHET back in March was that schools would close - all schools, including special schools - so I cannot give the Deputy any commitment now about them reopening. I would love to see it happening if it can be done, but it would require public health advice from NPHET and the co-operation of staff and unions. I am sure that will be forthcoming, but I cannot make a commitment to the Deputy here that I might not be able to follow through on.
As the Deputy knows, it is my practice not to arrange meetings in the Chamber. I do not think that is fair to people who do not have a Deputy who can seek an appointment with me in the Chamber, so any request for meetings will be considered in the normal way.
I wish to ask about two issues, the first of which I raised with the Taoiseach previously, that of victims of domestic violence accessing the emergency rent supplement. The Taoiseach stated that he would look into the matter. In response to me yesterday, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Ms Doherty, told me that she was looking at amending the referral pathways. That is important and good, but it addresses only 50% of the problem. A part of the criteria for accessing this rent supplement is one's financial status and employment status. Domestic violence is as likely to happen in a wealthy home as in a, let us say, poorer one. Being a victim of domestic violence should itself be sufficient to access the emergency rent supplement. Will the Taoiseach ensure that the Government completes the second half of the work? I thank him for the first part.
My second question brings me back to face coverings, which we have discussed for the past two weeks. I was pleased with the Government's recommendations. However, the numbers wearing face coverings on public transport and in shops are still low. I did a back-of-the-envelope check. Take the three weeks between phase 1 and phase 2 and assume the R number is 1, even though I know it is less.
In that time, if wearing a face mask was to cut back the numbers infected by 10% that would mean that at the end of three weeks 50% fewer would be infected. If the face mask did not work well and people did not follow protocols and only one in five wore a mask, 30% fewer would be infected. Even if it was one in 100, it would be 7% fewer infected. As part of a suite measures they are important. Will the Taoiseach specifically strengthen his advice around face coverings? I am not asking that they be mandatory but that the advice be strengthened. Will the Taoiseach consider following the example of other countries and have face masks distributed free of charge to citizens? Will he work with local groups and businesses to ramp up the production of face coverings? Will he launch a public awareness campaign in regard to the homemaking of face coverings and will he consider their distribution on public transport? Many people want to wear them but they might forget. If they were distributed on public transport that might be part of the solution to increase capacity on public transport, which in two, three and four weeks' time will be a paramount issue.
Rent supplement is means-tested. I think everyone in the House appreciates that. Rent supplement is not provided to people who can afford to pay their own rent or mortgage or buy their own home. If we were to extend rent supplement to any group that does not need it for financial reasons that would be a big policy change and an expensive one and I am not sure it would be the right course of action, notwithstanding the very difficult individual circumstances that people may find themselves in.
In terms of the advice on face coverings, there is new advice on face coverings that the Deputy will be aware of. The advice is that people should wear face coverings on crowded public transport and in crowded indoor places like shops but it is not mandatory. It is also strongly advised that people not see it as a substitute for hand washing, social distancing and all of the other actions. This is very much one of those things that is a public health issue. While people are entitled to offer their opinions, including Deputies and me, we have to be guided by the CMO and NPHET on something that is purely a matter of public health advice. There is a public awareness campaign under way advising people when to use masks, how to use them, how to make them and so on and that will be stepped up.
The Taoiseach said that rent supplement is means-tested but he knows as well as I do that much of the domestic abuse is around financial abuse. Many of those who are abused are not in a position financially to pay rent. A solution needs to be found and I ask the Taoiseach to work to try to find one.
I acknowledge that financial abuse can be part of the abuse that people who suffer domestic violence face, both men and women but mostly women. The solution is probably the urgent needs payment, which is available under the social welfare code.