Wednesday, 27 May 2020
Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements
Monday was one of our brighter days since the start of this emergency as we reached a significant milestone. For the first time in 65 days, there were no reported Covid-19 deaths, evidence that our sacrifices are making a difference and that lives are being saved and protected. Last night, the figure was nine deaths, a tragic and timely reminder that this is not over and that we will have days of sadness as well as days of hope ahead before we prevail.
I know this has been a painful struggle for people across our island. Too many loved ones have lost their lives and too many lives are still at risk. As of last night, 1,615 people have died in our State from Covid-19, and a further 514 in Northern Ireland. The fact that the trend is going in the right direction does not lessen the grief of those who have lost loved ones, nor the fear of those who know somebody with Covid today. In total, 24,735 people in the Republic of Ireland have been diagnosed with Covid-19. Some 325,795 tests have been carried out, including 30,000 in the past week, of which 633 were positive, resulting in a positivity rate of 2.1%. That rate continues to decline.
My message today is that we need to hold firm. As a Government, we will not jump the gun by taking an unnecessary risks with public health. Any announcement of whether we can go to phase 2 or whether we can make any changes to the plan will wait until 5 June, when we will have more data available and the latest advice from NPHET.
Ar an Luan bhaineamar sprioc thábhachtach amach nuair nach raibh básanna nua ar bith le tuairisciú. Ba mhaith liom tuilleadh laethanta dóchais mar seo a fheiceáil. Is í teachtaireacht an lae inniu ná seasamh go daingean go fóill. Leanaimis ar aghaidh leis na híobairtí atá á ndéanamh againn sa chaoi go leanfaidh an claonadh ar aghaidh sa treo ceart. Fanfaidh aon fhógra ar cibé a rachaimid ar aghaidh go céim a dó nó go ndéanaimid aon athruithe eile don phlean go dtí an cúigiú lá de mhí an Mheithimh. Fanfaimid ionas go mbeidh níos mó sonraí agus eolas le fáil ó na saineolaithe. Idir an dá linn seasfaimid go daingean agus gheobhaimid an ceann is fearr air.
Covid is a tragedy for all of us, but most of all for those who lost their lives or someone close to them. It is something we all wish had not befallen us. History teaches us that from every tragedy there are lessons to be learned and that from every crisis come opportunities for positive change. We must build on the solidarity we have seen over the past few months and work towards a better Ireland. We owe that to everyone who has been impacted by Covid and to the choices that have been made by so many that have got us to this point. Covid has kept us from our loved ones, leaving some of us feeling anxious and isolated. It has up-ended our businesses and halted our livelihoods. At worst, it has stolen lives and devastated families. This is an emergency that has disrupted our society. It has also challenged us to work differently, to make changes that in normal times might have taken years to implement and prompted us to reflect on what really matters in life.
I believe there are six major opportunities that arise from the terrible tragedy of Covid. If we seize them, we will be better prepared for future pandemics or a second wave, should it come, and we will also make our country a better place for us all. The opportunities are building permanent public health and well-being infrastructure, reviewing how we care for older people, changing our approach to sickness in the workplace, embracing better work–life balance, reducing unnecessary travel and respecting our natural environment.
East Asian democracies learned from the SARS crisis and were much better prepared for Covid than western ones were. We need to be better prepared for a second wave if it comes and also for future outbreaks of new viruses. This means building up a much better and permanent public health infrastructure to test for, track, trace and treat infectious diseases, not just Covid. Linked to this should be a new focus on well-being, for example through an enhanced vaccine programme such as the enhanced flu vaccine programme for this winter, which we have planned already. We can build on what we have done to reduce smoking and alcohol consumption through the Healthy Ireland framework, with added emphasis on reducing obesity, physical inactivity and addiction.
Across the western world, Covid has exacted a terrible toll on nursing homes.
I am aware there is a lot of focus at the moment on when and for how long visitor restrictions should be in place. That is important but it begs a bigger question; is this the model of care we want for older people? Do we want to have no visitors, residents confined to the home, and staff dressed head to toe in PPE for months on end? I do not think so. We need to think again about alternatives and follow through on a new statutory funding model for home care, as well as more supported housing options for older citizens as they age. We will not have to do so from scratch. A lot of the groundwork has already been done by the outgoing Government. When it comes to nursing homes and social care generally, we need greater integration with the health service, not a separation of social care from healthcare as some advocate, as well as clear clinical governance in order that there is no confusion about who is in charge of medical issues when they arise.
In Ireland we often talk about high levels of absenteeism in the workplace and the impact that has on productivity. That is a real problem, but sometimes so is presenteeism. In some professional settings, one is expected to go to work even when one is sick. Sometimes this might be done out of commitment to one’s work, at other times it is because of guilt - one just does not want to let the side down or impose extra work on a busy team. In sectors like retail and hospitality, sick pay arrangements are poor and many staff simply cannot afford to take a sick day. This is not good for the individual who is sick or for society, in terms of infection control. Covid and the new Covid-related sick pay arrangements have changed this. We cannot go back to the status quo ante.
I know from listening to a lot of people, especially busy working parents, the extent to which they have appreciated the opportunity to be at home a little more. There has been more time for family, more time for couples to see each other, and more dinners at home or time together in front of the television. Some overworked parents - mums and dads - are treasuring the extra time they are getting with their kids. Of course, we all want the school and crèches to open as soon as it is safe to do so and for normal working and social life to resume but the bell has been rung when it comes to work-life balance and it cannot be unrung. Home working is now evidently doable for many, as are core hours, flexible hours, job sharing and team working. Of course, none of this is new but employers, employees and Government should work together to make it more mainstream.
The use of technologies like Zoom and Webex has enabled us to do so much remotely and digitally, including staff meetings, conferences, online education, e-seminars, medical consultations, residents' meetings and club meetings, and even political summits. It is no substitute for meeting people in person but perhaps we can find a better balance than heretofore. Better use of technology will mean fewer journeys, fewer business trips, less traffic, better air quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The public and private sectors need to make sure we do not simply drift back to the old way of doing things.
I also believe the emergency has given us a better respect of our natural environment. Because the traffic is so much quieter, we can hear the dawn chorus again. We see foxes at dusk and wildlife is thriving. As an island, we have an abundance of land and sea, rivers, mountains, lakes and bogs. This crisis has reminded us how lucky we are to live in a country like Ireland. I think we all value our natural heritage a little bit more and we need to ensure more people can experience it in a sustainable way in the future.
To recap, we are only starting to fathom the enormous cost of Covid in terms of human life lost, economic damage and damage to the public finances. Even so, out of this tragedy we should identify and build on some of the good things we have seen and some of the lessons we have learned. We see some of this thinking in the significant set of proposals published this morning by the European Commission, which include proposals on how countries will recover economically from this crisis. There are also new proposals for the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and I will give the House an update on these next week. As always, I look forward to hearing the comments, observations and contributions of Members.
As we near the end of the third month of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must never forget to remember the great impact it has had. As of today, well over 2,000 people on this island have lost their lives. Hundreds are still fighting the virus and there is absolutely no doubt that things could have been much worse without the severe action which has been taken here and throughout the world. As I have said every week during these debates, mistakes are inevitable when we have a fast-moving and unprecedented emergency. The best responses are always defined by a willingness to listen to different voices, acknowledge problems and move quickly. Our primary focus here must remain on helping those who are suffering from the virus, continuing to suppress its spread and moving to restart social and economic life as quickly as can safely be achieved.
There is simply no question but that major errors were made in terms of the speed and impact of policies in regard to nursing homes. This is emphatically not simply an issue of the public versus the private systems because some of the biggest clusters have been in public facilities, an issue which has got lost in some of the debate to date. At a much earlier stage of the pandemic, I and a number of my party's spokespeople raised serious concerns about policy concerning nursing homes. To be honest, the answers we received did not show the level of transparency and responsiveness which should have been expected. Deputy Stephen Donnelly has shown how concerns about the lack of a proper voice for nursing homes on key committees were justified. As we heard yesterday, the facts concerning the transfer of asylum seekers across the country into a new facility, with no regard to the spreading of the virus, are developing constantly. They suggest another serious systems failure.
Tagraím do na tithe altranais. Is léir gur tharla botúin mhóra. Ní raibh na polasaithe maidir leo láidir a dhóthain. Is léir ón gcomhfhreagras idir an Roinn agus Nursing Homes Ireland go raibh siad i gcruachás agus go raibh tacaíocht á lorg acu ón tús ach bhí na húdaráis mall ag déileáil leo. Caithfimid a admháil go raibh na deacrachtaí céanna ag na tithe altranais san earnáil phoiblí agus a bhí ag na tithe altranais san earnáil phríobháideach. An rud is tábhachtaí anois ná go bhfoghlaimeofar ceachtanna ón méid a tharla go dtí seo.
However, the scale of the work still required during this emergency is such that trying to litigate past failures cannot be the priority now. What we need to know is that measures are in place to make sure that nothing like these failures could recur if and when a second wave of the virus appears before we have an effective and widely administered vaccine. The overall situation today is that Europe as a whole has entered a new phase in the response. A fortnight ago, countries of a similar size to Ireland, such as Denmark, Finland, Croatia and Austria, started reporting record lows in new infections and days with no deaths. This has happened weeks after they began to implement opening-up measures. After Germany's major reopening moves, there were reports of a rise in its virus reproduction rate, but two weeks later, it appears that the figure is well below one and is in line with Ireland's figure.
The good news we have had this week confirms that Ireland is following the increasingly well-established pattern in Europe for the containment of the virus. However, there is every reason to be concerned about whether we are handling the process of the return of social and economic activity properly. The evidence is that there remains a broad and strong compliance amongst the public when it comes to measures they have been told are essential. Eighty per cent are staying home and few in urban areas are moving more than 5 km from their homes. A serious concern, though, is that there is a very real danger of a growing division in the population between those who fear change and those who are angry about restrictions which appear not to be fully justified scientifically. Certainly, people are entitled to look at measures implemented in countries where the community spread of the virus has not spiked and ask why the situation in Ireland should be so different.
In my view, there is no remaining serious justification for the 5 km limit. The public health concern is how people behave around others, not how far they are from their home.
In fact, the research shows that this limit may be forcing people in urban areas into more crowded situations. This also applies to the 20 km rule, which is envisaged to replace the 5 km rule. I do not see a logic or scientific basis for it. I believe we must deal with that more expeditiously. Tá sé tábhachtach déileáil leis an gceist seo, mar tá sé in am deireadh a chur leis na teorainneacha 5 km agus 20 km agus gan bacadh leo. Níl aon chiall ag baint leis na teorainneacha agus srianta seo agus níl aon bhunús eolaíochta leo. Tá siad ag cur brú ar dhaoine agus tá daoine míshuaimhneach fúthu.
Equally, the current distinctions between different types of shops are, at best, arbitrary. Supermarkets have been open throughout the pandemic while implementing measures for distancing and hygiene. The figures on community spread suggest that supermarkets have not played a role in spreading the virus, where the overwhelming issue is clustering in health facilities, which has been the dominant one, nursing homes and some workplaces, such as meat factories. That is where the big clusters have been. The supermarkets are a lesson and perhaps require more research in terms of how it worked so well there.
In general, the overriding need now is to move to a situation where the focus is put on showing people how to behave once most activity is restored. We do not need empty, feel-good advertising with a single photograph and a hashtag, but a simple public education campaign. Last week, the media began carrying stories about loosening to be announced on 5 June and most people have concluded, as was the case when the loosening steps were first published, that announcements are being delayed rather than being made as soon as they are justified. The restrictions in place today in respect of most workplaces and many social activities will lose public support if they are no longer seen as being based on clear scientific evidence.
With regard to the 2 m guidance, which it has been acknowledged is not required by the science, it has been helpful but it cannot be allowed to block Ireland restarting activity that is already under way elsewhere without a negative impact. If it is true that our capacity to rapidly test, trace and isolate is now in place, we must see this reflected in the loosening of policies put in place, in part, because we had lacked this capacity. I note the Taoiseach's comments, but it appears that this is still the issue. Testing, tracing and isolating the virus is ultimately the best guarantor we have. The greater activity in the Dáil in the past few weeks must be followed by a review of restrictions so that they are not arbitrary and they move us as quickly as possible to fully restart our core democratic institutions.
As I have communicated directly to the Government, we need immediate clarity on the reopening of special needs education and its provision during July. I am aware that the Government is conscious of that and is examining it. In many countries, the limited reopening of certain classes has been achieved and there is no obvious reason for an announcement on what will happen being delayed. This has been particularly severe for parents of children with special needs and the children themselves. I have talked to teachers who have communicated through technology with them and I believe we must move heaven and earth to see if we can facilitate a return to routine, particularly for children on the autism spectrum.
During the debate on the social welfare Estimates, Fianna Fáil spokespeople set out in detail our approach to the overall economic and fiscal issues. There is no doubt that we have yet to see a proper response to critical issues. The basic strategy being followed in much of Europe is to try to kick-start a rapid recovery and to change critical fiscal benchmarks to reflect the unique nature of a rapid onset recession caused by a pandemic. The overall principle is that the pandemic response should not be allowed to be a financial millstone dragging down budgets, companies and families. It is not yet clear that this is fully understood or accepted here and there are two areas of major concern. First, there is the failure to show much greater urgency and ambition in preventing otherwise sustainable Irish businesses from suffering a terminal cash flow crisis. Sustainable growth for Ireland is utterly dependent on this sector, but short-term measures have not been followed with a credible plan to define the scale of what is needed or to push for new types of support.
Second, there is a refusal to give support to critical public companies and institutions. Due to Government policy in recent years, higher education institutions have been pushed to make up funding shortfalls through international programmes.
These have collapsed everywhere in the world and leave the universities in particular facing a shortfall of hundreds of millions of euro yet, as the Irish Independentreported yesterday, the response of the Minister for Education and Skills has been to tell them that they will have to simply suck up the deficit. This has quite rightly shocked tens of thousands of people working in a sector critical to our future. The same is being repeated in public enterprises of all types. In a world where the German Government can funnel hundreds of millions of euro into protecting one airline, the refusal to prepare a detailed plan for saving our public transport companies is inexplicable.
At the moment, commentary about what the fiscal position will be later this year, let alone in five years' time, is based on informed speculation. We do not know yet what the impact will be but, of course, we do know that there is nothing sustainable in having more than 1 million people directly and indirectly receiving wage supports from the Government. Anyone who claims that an emergency response to an unprecedented emergency should be kept in place forever is simply playing politics with a profoundly important issue. However, if we want to rebuild our economy we cannot do that unless we act now to prevent smaller businesses going bankrupt and put in place a proper rescue package for our public companies and institutions.
I reiterate our sympathy to the bereaved families across this island, record our good wishes to those who are ill for a speedy recovery and our eternal gratitude to our front-line workers, particularly those in our healthcare system but also workers beyond that. I record also the success that has been achieved by everybody in flattening the curve. Everybody was very pleased to see tangible results in the course of the week here, and in the North, and we need to commit to build on that. Congratulations to everybody concerned and to our citizens in particular.
I want to reiterate the point raised by Deputy Martin and raised last week by Deputy Catherine Connolly on the issue of special needs education. I know this is an area the Taoiseach is examining. I believe we are all of one mind that this is something that needs to be addressed very speedily. The level of stress in families and for the people concerned is unbearable.
I have raised with the Taoiseach previously the issue of those workers in receipt of maternity benefit, and only maternity benefit, returning from their leave and being excluded from the wage supplement scheme. I note that there has been no progress in correcting that exclusion. I would like the Taoiseach's response to that.
I have raised with the Taoiseach previously the issue of childcare because this will be an area of critical concern as we return to our new normal and as people seek to go back to work. I am sure he saw yesterday the Federation of Early Childcare Providers survey which explicitly has laid bare the problems regarding childcare. It found, for example, that nine out of ten childcare providers say that either they will not reopen on 29 June or that they have grave reservations about reopening. Many of their concerns relate to health and safety. Many are worried about their ability to implement physical distancing measures, particularly with preschool children. They are concerned about infection controls and access to personal protection equipment. They have real worries about the plans that are being aired in part over the airwaves. Of particular concern is how they would meet the ongoing costs that the plans, as they are drip-fed, appear to indicate, which would necessitate the hiring of more staff and reduce their capacity dramatically. They are worried that the sums simply will not add up for them. The potential consequences of all of that are either crèches and childcare facilities not being in a position to reopen indefinitely, parents struggling to find places for their children and the prospect of increased fees for those fortunate enough to secure a place. Bear in mind that even before this crisis, people were shelling out the equivalent of a second mortgage for childcare. I was alarmed to hear the very stark response yesterday from the chairperson of the Federation of Early Childhood Providers. She was asked about the level of guidance its members have received from the Department and she answered, "We have had nothing from them". That is a signal that something is very badly wrong.
I want to give a sample of the issues that have been raised with me regarding childcare workers. I will go through them quickly but it is important that we place this on the record in order that Members get a flavour of it.
Suzanne from Dublin says that she works in a preschool and asks how social distancing will work in this setting, if numbers will have to be reduced and if staff will lose their jobs because of smaller numbers, or if funding will be put in place for new measures.
Tanya says that they literally do not know where they stand and the way that they have to work with children, staff and parents is getting very worrying. She says that all of their childcare years are to prepare children for school, and that children need their social interaction. She asks how she will comfort children who are upset because they cannot play like they used to.
Maeve says that the facility she is at has already allocated 22 places to children. She asks how they can now tell half of parents that the facility cannot take their child because the facility has to reduce its numbers. She states that places were allocated at the end of February and that they cannot turn away half the children in September.
Jeanette states that she is currently on the Covid-19 payment with no return date as of yet. Her question is whether she will still have to pay for her child's place even though she will not attend crèche until Jeanette returns to work.
Orla says that reduced numbers cannot work and asks who the childcare facility she is at turns away. She states that she runs a wraparound service for all ages and that if primary schools take smaller numbers in September, parents will need her to care for children who cannot be at school and she cannot cater for this.
Julie asks that clear direction be given now because preparations will take time. She questions the idea of pods of four children and its sustainability.
Melissa, who is a childcare worker who has children, says that she will have to bring her kids to work. There are other staff who also have children so this, in its own way, eliminates places for parents.
Siobhán from Sligo sums up the situation of many families when she says that her husband's boss is putting terrible pressure on him after weeks without childcare. He may lose his job over it. They thought an end was in sight with 29 June approaching but their crèche is not certain that it will be in a position to open. It is not the fault of the crèche but the lack of help and information from Government. Siobhán is a front-line worker and her husband is an essential worker. She says that they will be in the dole queue if this continues.
I am not sure I picked up on the exact questions but I will address some of the Deputy's points. As the House knows with regard to maternity benefit, women who were still on the payroll prior to the pandemic when they went on maternity leave can be included on the wage subsidy scheme. However, women who were not on the payroll and were only in receipt of maternity benefit cannot. We are trying to find a solution to that. Much work has been carried out by the Minister for Finance and the Revenue Commissioners. A solution has been developed but it is not adequate and does not really solve the problem in the Minister's view. They continue to work on it but we will hopefully come to a resolution soon.
I thank the Deputy for sharing some of those individual queries and questions about childcare. The plan is to allow childcare centres to reopen at the end of June. That is in phase 3. We appreciate that all centres may not be able to open, or some may choose not to open, but they will be allowed to open from the end of June, and I believe that many will. Public health advice has been sought and there has been detailed engagement involving the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and NPHET on the public health advice about reopening childcare centres. It needs to be refined and shared with the sector in good time for it to read, understand, digest and implement it. We hope to be in a position to share that with the sector sooner rather than later and to give it a good few weeks before the end of June to implement measures. The sector is being consulted and the Minister, Katherine Zappone, is leading on that. Childcare staff will be able to return to their centres before the end of June to make any changes or preparations that may be needed. Teachers already can return to schools and lecturers to colleges and that will be allowed for childcare workers too and it is happening in practice in some cases.
A survey has been done of parental demand. As is the case in other countries, we anticipate, at least initially, a fall in demand for childcare. It will not just go back to the way it was. That will not surprise people. Many people are out of work. We are heading into the summer. There is concern among some parents about sending kids back to crèche. We know from other countries that initially demand is depressed at the start. That, at least, will help with the capacity issues.
That the scheme for front-line workers was launched on a Thursday and collapsed the following Wednesday has not built confidence among the general public in planning for childcare. I repeat to the Taoiseach that many people across the sector are saying publicly that the level of consultation and engagement is simply not sufficient. There is a call for clear guidance to cover childcare settings, including crèches and early education facilities. We also need guidance on childminders. What will the public health guidance on that be?
The State currently covers the wage bill for the childcare workforce. Will the Taoiseach make a commitment that this support will continue until the end of the year? That would come as some relief and reassurance to childcare workers and childcare providers.
Many people face the prospect of not being able to work, not because their job is no longer there, but because they will not be able to access adequate and safe childcare. What reassurance and what support can the Taoiseach afford to those workers? Can he guarantee them that they will not be left permanently unemployed and that they will not see their income slashed because they cannot return to work owing to insufficient childcare for them?
Our thoughts are with those families who yesterday lost loved ones to this pandemic. We had a good news day on Monday when there were no such deaths. I hope that can now start to become the norm.
I believe the Taoiseach said earlier that on 5 June there might be a review of the timeline of some of the measures. Given the reduction in the levels of infection I think many people will be hoping we can move some of the dates on the opening up of restrictions. I come from working in the tourism industry. What a difference it would make to thousands if not tens of thousands of small Irish tourism businesses if we could move that opening date and, as Deputy Micheál Martin said, perhaps not have that 20 km restriction along with a change to the timelines on movement restrictions if the tourism industry had two months of domestic demand rather than just one under the current timelines. That could make the world of difference to people's livelihoods, employment and future. We hope that some of the good news we have seen in recent weeks will continue to allow the Government to make some of those decisions on 5 June.
To give further hope, if I can, I want to refer to the broad economic strategy we need to manage this crisis. Two documents produced today are particularly important in that regard. The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council's publication of its fiscal assessment report is very welcome and timely. Today's publication of the European Commission's €1.85 trillion recovery plan is also very significant in terms of the economic response. Both give us a very clear sense of direction and a very clear understanding of the right economic approach.
Sometimes we give out about the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council taking the bowl of punch away when we all have various appropriate spending priorities. However, today it has been very clear in reporting that what has been done to date with interventions such as the pandemic unemployment payment, the wage subsidies and other supports has been appropriate. Critically, the report states, "While policy needs may evolve, and policies should be adjusted as appropriate to fit these needs, support should be provided on a large-scale for as long as is needed to avoid lengthening and deepening the economic crisis."
More specifically, it states:
Borrowing to support weak demand would be an appropriate countercyclical approach for the government to manage the economy. It should be temporary, targeted and conditioned on the likely state of the economy.
This is not similar to previous economic downturns when there was a structural problem with the economy where we could not borrow, such as the 1980s, or in the crash of 2008-10 when our economy was fundamentally broken because we had allowed a property bubble to build up. That is not the case here. The correct economy strategy is for us to borrow on international markets and stimulate the economy to help us get out of the economic downturn. That is what is being said across so many economic sectors.
Hopefully, as in the Central Bank's baseline scenario, the return to the economy in respect of some of the stimulus measures will see employment return in the next two to three years. That may be sufficient on its own and the best way of managing our deficit. We must plan, over a four or five-year period, not just to kick-start and stimulate the economy but to get the deficit back in line in order that we continue to enjoy the prospect of low interest rates that will allow us to borrow.
Things may be worsened by what happens with Brexit or the OECD corporate tax changes. An adjustment to manage the deficit in three years' time may be needed but we will not know until we see what happens in the next two or three years. It is likely, however, to be much smaller in scale than any of the previous crashes to which I referred. Regardless of the gap that must be closed by taxation or other measures, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, noted "Nonetheless, ambitious policies can still be achieved in areas like health, housing and climate change." The economic situation is not impossible. The analysis from bodies such as IFAC is very clear and matches what the European Union is saying today. The Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, stated:
The recovery plan turns the immense challenge we face into an opportunity, not only by supporting the recovery but also by investing in our future: the European Green Deal and digitalization will boost jobs and growth, the resilience of our societies and the health of our environment. This is Europe's moment. Our willingness to act must [be] up to the challenges we are all facing. With Next Generation EU [which is what the Commission is calling its plan] we are providing an ambitious answer.
That European green deal is the centre of its €1.85 trillion stimulus package. It is saying specifically we should invest in things such as renovating our buildings to improve building stock and tackle climate change, in renewable energy - wind and solar in particular - and the prospect of a new hydrogen economy where Ireland could be very successful as a country, and in cleaner transport and logistics. That is the best economic analysis in Europe and matches the Fiscal Advisory Council's advice that this is the time to invest in the future, a time to borrow for something that will give us a return which is social, environmental and environmental.
I acknowledge that as we progress, we will have to review matters in two or three years' time, particularly given the risks from Brexit or changes to corporate tax rules but it is not an impossible situation. We should not be overly fearful or pessimistic for our people. We have the economic plan. The direction coming from almost all the economists I have seen is that this is manageable and we can do it. Recent days have seen the good news of infection rates decreasing. If we may adjust slightly some of the timelines for opening up, we may, even during this summer, we will start to see unemployment turning around, then we will have to tackle long-term unemployment to make sure that is going the right way.
I have a question for the Taoiseach. The clear economic advice is to borrow to invest for the future and invest with a good return. I do not want to be too picky but I have a concern. The Government has announced investment by the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, in companies that may be running into difficulty. My concern is that in future investment, we should try to use whatever resources we have in new opportunities and investment areas. I understand that ISIF has not yet received any applications.
I very much understand the political imperative in terms of trying to support companies, but I am very keen that if we are investing in ISIF funds, or any other funding that we may raise through borrowing, it would be for the new economy that is going to grow. I believe the focus must be on that sense of the future, new jobs and new prospects. That is a difficult thing to get right. I am trying to think of examples. We could, for example, in particular with Brexit, have real difficulties in our food industry. Rather than just keeping the current system in place, we could invest in a policy to improve school meals and to improve our health and well-being, as the Taoiseach stated in his comments. It would be great to make an investment to connect the farmer to the local school and to set up a new food distribution system and a new retail system that would help that level of connectivity, help Irish food producers and make something new work.
I heard a proposal yesterday from someone in the Taoiseach's party which I thought made great sense. It was that we would create work hubs in the centre of every town and village where people could do distant working. They would not have to travel all the way to work but they would not just be at home. We could have innovation hubs such as the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen. We could start to make things happen in such digital centres. I will only touch briefly on these points as I want to leave the Taoiseach a minute or two to answer. It is clear what the strategy is. We must invest in the future.
Yes. The economic plan is clear. We must invest, stimulate and get people back working. The way out of the economic crisis we are in is to invest in a green new deal and in digital. It is doable and manageable. We have very good economic advice and it gives us a certain sense that we can manage this time.
What is intended with ISIF is that €2 billion has been set aside for the fund to invest in Irish companies that run into trouble in order to save them from failing and, most importantly, to save the jobs of the people working in those companies. That will be done through equity investments. We would expect companies to pursue all other options first - to look to their own shareholders, loans and other such options before coming to the taxpayer to invest. However, other governments are doing it and we may need to do it too. We will treat our own public companies differently. The investments the Deputy talks about are wise investments the Government could make but perhaps they would come from a different fund or a different source.
In terms of appropriate fiscal policy, I have always been of the view that the right fiscal policy is a countercyclical one. When the economy is growing fast, one tries to keep public spending under control and one reduces debt, if not in cash terms at least as a percentage of GDP. When the economy is in recession, one is then able to increase public spending to cushion the blow of the recession on people's incomes, to stimulate the economy so it can grow again and to allow one's debt to rise. That is the policy that this outgoing Government has pursued. For many years in this House we resisted the demands of people that we should spend more and borrow more – €22 billion more in one case – at a time when the economy was growing fast and overheating. We were right to resist those demands, and because we resisted those demands we are now in a position to do what could not be done ten or 12 years ago, and that is a countercyclical response to this crisis, namely, increasing spending and increasing debt. However, as IFAC points out, that does come to an end. It suggests that in or around 2023, we may need to take measures to reduce the deficit, but between now and then we should try to make the economy grow as fast as possible so that the deficit that is there in 2023 is closer to €6 billion or less rather than the €14 billion it put at its upper end, because any retrenchment that will happen when the economy returns to sustained growth should be as minimal as possible. That is why we need to go for growth and opt for pro-growth policies in the next year or two.
This week we reached a major milestone on Monday. I congratulate everybody – all the workers - for all their hard work. I hope the trajectory will continue in this way in terms of the volume of deaths and the volume of cases.
I have a number of questions for the Taoiseach today to which I would appreciate his response. I will allow enough time for him to respond to the individual questions. However, before I start I wish to make a plea to the Taoiseach. I have never come into this House and stressed something as passionately or emotionally as on this occasion. We have to do something immediately to change the way in which we are dealing with funerals. We all work together. We are always working in our communities and supporting one another but we are also together in death.
The rules are too rigid and ten people is too small a number. At many funerals the families are bigger than that. The social conditioning, the things we have all refrained from doing and the ways in which we have all changed, supports an increase in that number. I beg the Taoiseach to increase the number to 30. A friend of mine buried his father. His immediate family comprises much more than ten people. A funeral director told me a very sad story about grandchildren crying outside a church. We can do better. I plead with the Taoiseach to change this. I suggested a figure of 30, but everybody knows the social conditioning we have to work with. I hope everyone in the House can support me on this.
I was very struck by the report published today by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, entitled "No Going Back". We will need a new social contract. I want to raise some questions relating to where we go from here and I would appreciate the Taoiseach's responses. We must continue the pandemic unemployment payment, which we have argued for but some of the conversation around it is unacceptable. It is said that some employers cannot get workers. They are obviously not looking too hard. The Contract Cleaning Association of Ireland is now saying that it will not honour an employment regulation order requiring a 40 cent pay increase for contract cleaners. These are front-line workers who are putting their lives at risk to clean and save all of us. These cases demonstrate a narrative that I do not want to see continuing. I ask the Taoiseach to recognise the fact that we need to continue the pandemic unemployment payment. Furthermore, as we come out of this we will have to provide stimulus for several different sectors. This should be conditional on those sectors honouring industrial relations decisions arrived at by the State mechanisms. This is our chance to do that.
The Government has made two attempts at a proposal for childcare for front-line workers and healthcare workers. We must get this right. The Taoiseach's answer was not good enough. He said the Government will allow them to open. That is not going to work. It is not a case of allowing them to open. We need to create conditions where that is viable. This is the fulcrum around which all of our economy and society will turn. I am not sure this message has got through. The Government has failed twice. This needs a lot more attention.
I refer to the HSE's roadmap. I 100% believe that we need a plan for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. I have spoken to families in which children and adults are losing the will to go on. Intervention is needed now. I also want to see screening. How will the Government deal with disability organisations and various other section 38 and section 39 organisations that do what the State should? How will we chart a roadmap for them? They cannot all be funded through "The Late Late Show". We need a plan. What will it be?
A cross-reference group is needed along with NPHET to assist the Government in working through the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business with the participation of the social partners because critical decisions will have to be made. If things go the way they are going, the roadmap will have to change. We need a way to manage this.
My final question relates to antibody testing. We have spoken about how we are going to conduct our business in Dáil Éireann in future. It is very obvious that we are going to have to live with this virus for a considerable period. We are going to have to use antibody testing for the economy, society, schools and everything else to function. I have taken an awful lot of time to research this and I have spoken to a lot of people. A huge amount of work is going on. It could be introduced relatively quickly. What is the status of that?
I thank the Deputy. He started by talking about funerals.
I know this is a really difficult issue for many people and families, where only ten people are allowed to attend the funeral. I have spoken to some people who had to make that awful decision of choosing which ten and then explaining to the 11th, 12th or 13th person why he or she could not be there. I think we have all seen the scenes of people gathering in a car park or along the street, which is sometimes touching but also really painful. We understand that it is a really difficult thing for many people. Whether the person died of Covid or not, it is just as difficult trying to get through a funeral of that nature with these rules. We have started a discussion with the churches about we might be able to amend that over the next couple of weeks, and much of that may be more to do with the size of the church than anything else because a large church could take more people with social distancing than a small church. The idea is to develop a practical solution to that, and protocols already exist in other countries such as Germany and Italy.
In addition, in my discussions with the Catholic bishops a few weeks ago, they were particularly interested to know what we might be able to do to allow some baptisms and weddings to happen again. They, again, would be small, but a lot of people have been waiting a long time to christen their child. Obviously, we want to make all these things possible sooner rather than later, but to do so safely.
Childcare centres will be allowed to open at the end of June. I am not saying they will just be allowed to open, with the matter up to them alone; they will, of course, require guidance, as Deputy McDonald noted. They will require guidance on what changes they need to make, at least a few weeks before the opening date so they can digest and implement it. There may well be some centres that decide not to open. That will be true in any sector but I believe it will be possible for the vast majority to open and we will work with them to do that.
On the pandemic unemployment payment, I reiterate that anyone currently in receipt of the payment does not need to be concerned about it being stopped on 8 June. It will continue to be paid beyond 8 June; we just have not agreed an end date for it yet. We want people to have the opportunity to get their job back, and while some people in sectors such as construction have, in most sectors they have not yet, which is why it will need to be extended beyond 8 June. If people are offered their job back and they refuse that job, they will lose the pandemic unemployment payment, but the vast majority of people have not yet even had that opportunity, which is why it needs to be extended.
The payment was a temporary, emergency measure and it is not affordable or sustainable for it to go on forever. We are just playing politics with people if we somehow pretend that is possible. It will have to come to an end at some point and it would not be right to create different classes of unemployed people, with people unemployed before Covid getting one set of benefits, people made unemployed during Covid getting a different set of benefits and people who lose their jobs after Covid getting a different set of benefits again. That would not be right or fair so it will all need to be merged again, but these are not decisions for this week or even next week.
I thank the Taoiseach and ask him now to answer the rest of the questions. I refer to the issues relating to the roadmap for intellectual disabilities, section 38 and section 39 organisations, antibody testing and whether he will bring forward a cross-reference group to help us come out of the roadmap. There were four different questions.
On antibody testing, the latest I have heard, and I might not be fully up to date on all these things, is that HIQA and NPHET are not satisfied that any of the tests available are currently accurate enough to use. There are too many false positives and false negatives, and HIQA has published a health technology assessment on that. Once we have antibody tests that are accurate, they could be used. Approval has been given for a zero prevalence survey using antibody tests but that is very different. It will not give an individual result from an individual test of an individual patient. It will be a survey of the extent to which there is exposure and immunity within society.
On the reference group question, I know that other countries have done this and it is under consideration. It may be something the next Government decides to do rather than this one, but it has been proposed by others. Deputy Micheál Martin has proposed a similar approach to that, as has Deputy Shortall. We have our plan, it is working and we are sticking to it, but that is not to say that at a point in the future, some form of expert group or reference group that is multidisciplinary could be established to give advice to the Government in addition to advice from NPHET.
There are thousands of section 38 and section 39 organisations and they are all in different circumstances. Some have got additional funding, such as the hospices. Some are section 38 organisations whereas others are section 39. It depends on the individual organisation and its individual financial position.
At this point we are approaching two hours of the Taoiseach being present in the Chamber. I ask him to relocate to committee room 1, where he will be beamed into us. I propose we have a brief sos while he takes himself to committee room 1, after which we will proceed to Deputy Catherine Murphy's questions.
I find this really abnormal and I think it is a very bad look.
At the outset of this crisis it is fair to say that normal politics was parked. Almost everyone sought a political consensus on decisions, which were underpinned by solid medical and scientific advice. It worked well because we all understood that the advice was coming from NPHET and was designed to save lives and protect everybody insofar as it was possible. I expect this is still the motivation. While Dáil sittings have recently resumed it is important to note that a lot of the discussions prior to that had happened behind closed doors in briefings not seen by the public. Many of us had been raising concerns about nursing homes, direct provision and testing, tracing and personal protective equipment, on which there were discussions forward and back but out of public view.
The news in recent days of the continued reductions in the numbers of cases and the constant decline and levelling off of the R nought number is hugely welcome and I congratulate everybody who worked towards that. Surely this now means we once again need to look for a political consensus on how we move forward on some things. This becomes slightly more difficult in a situation where the medical and scientific advice on certain aspects either differs somewhat or is vague. The current conversation on the 2 m versus the 1 m distance is a prime example of this. Perhaps the Taoiseach will agree that the discourse on this, politically and among the scientific and medical community and NPHET, has been varied. There is a lot of talk about guidelines as opposed to regulations, and there are references to best judgment. By and large, people are doing their best to do the right thing to get through this. Situations where the interpretation is vague do not help any of us. There are many things on which the Taoiseach and I will disagree but there are some things where we could all agree, across the political spectrum, to reach a consensus. It strikes me that agreeing on a minimum distance is one issue on which we can find a political consensus. I believe we can also find a political consensus on the two-hour rule. We need to find a way of working in this House. I believe this to be a very safe workplace given its size and the amount of cleaning done, which is premium.
The World Health Organization recommends that people stay at least 1 m but ideally 2 m from each other. There is no consensus across the European Union with its varying approach. So far, our Chief Medical Officer has erred on the conservative side, and he may be right on that, but we could do with a consensus on it. Essentially, there is a very big difference between 1 m and 2 m with regard to the unravelling of the roadmap. It is, for example, the difference between a business being viable or not and whether schools go back full time in September. We are aware that this will be a significant difference.
Regarding some of the rules and the roadmap, there is a big difference, for example, in construction between working inside and working outside. There are subsets of other sectors that could safely go back to work. The roadmap is very rigid. We must find some political consensus on the opening up of the economy in relation to the roadmap.
Essentially the public was ahead at the beginning in terms of the closing schools, having a view on visitors from Italy and on Cheltenham. I feel the public is now starting to move ahead of the decisions being made. This virus has been assaulting all of our senses and there is a darkening of a mood. If one is going to bring people along, one has to be in symmetry with them. I feel we are out of step with the public mood. The confusion in respect of the expert advice is a real problem.
People are working from home. While doing a full-time job, they are also childminders and teachers. They can only do that for so long. There has to be some hope. There are people with children with special educational needs who can see the difference in the child where they have lost social interaction as much as the educational opportunity. We need to find some political consensus on all of this. Will the Taoiseach meet the leaders of the groups and the political parties with a view to looking at the 1 m versus 2 m distancing guidance, the two-hour contact rule and how we deal with the roadmap in order that we can do this differently but by consensus?
I am not sure if it is possible to get a political consensus on the 1 m or 2 m guidance or the two-hour close contact rule. If there is a place to do that, it probably is the Covid committee that has been established. The committee seems to be working well and is very representative of the Dáil. I do not think it is something for the party leaders to be honest. Obviously some Members represent big parties that have a lot of political support while some are small and some are not parties at all. The right place to do that is the Covid committee. It can hear the evidence and then make a recommendation to the Government on the 1 m or 2 m rule and the two-hour contact tracing rule. It might be the best forum for political consensus to be found, if it can be found. I am not sure, however, if it can. In the meantime, we will follow the advice of the public health emergency team.
It has to be seen in its overall context, however, namely, how prevalent the virus is in the community. A set of rules that were right when there were hundreds of new cases and dozens of deaths being reported every day may not be the right rules at a time we have 30 or 50 new cases and fewer than ten deaths being reported every day. We need to bear in mind that, while there is no such thing as zero risk from this virus, as the risk reduces, then rules can be relaxed. That is what the plan is all about in many ways.
The Deputy is right in saying the public was ahead of us in terms of demanding school closures. Many businesses, pubs, restaurants and gyms closed before they were instructed to by the Government. That is what we call anticipatory behaviour, which was not necessarily bad. What we have now is another form of anticipatory behaviour, which is the public ahead of us, looking for us to unlock things, in some cases, perhaps, before we are sure it is safe to do so. I heard a call from a prominent person this morning that flying is entirely safe, for example. We have to continue to base our decisions on evidence.
The plan, as agreed by the Government and published, is a living document. I said from the very start and I will say it again that as things develop, elements of that plan could be accelerated and brought forward. I ask the public and the House, however, to hold firm for now.
We are only in phase 1. One of the reasons the phase lasts three weeks is in order that we can have proper data. We will not really know what effect the easing of the restrictions has had for about two weeks. If the numbers are still going in the right direction in the first week of June, that would give us an assurance that we could accelerate some aspects of the plan, but to do that earlier would be acting without evidence and would be premature. I ask people to hold firm until that first week in June. If the numbers are still going in the right direction at that point, we can have some confidence about bringing forward some of the things from later phases.
Spokespeople for Fianna Fáil and Ministers from Fine Gael have been expressing horror at the idea that people who may have earned less when working before Covid-19 are now getting €350 a week. They are trying to justify suggestions that the €350 payment should be cut for those people and many others who have already seen a reduction in income. Does the Taoiseach think that is fair? Does it chime with the motto "we are all in this together" for Ministers and Deputies who earn multiples of €350 a week to tell people who were essentially earning poverty wages that €350 a week is too much for them? For example, I met a woman named Lisa, who has given me permission to mention her name, on the Debenhams picket. She has worked for Debenhams for 20 years, since she was 16. She earned just under €350 a week but with overtime she sometimes earned more. She was unceremoniously sacked by Debenhams and thrown on the scrap heap. She says she does not want to be getting the €350 payment. She is applying for jobs but she cannot get one at the moment. Does the Taoiseach honestly think it is fair to Lisa and people like her, who have worked all their lives and never claimed social welfare, to even consider cutting their €350 payment?
I am not aware of anyone who is considering cutting Lisa's payment, if I accurately picked up the Deputy's description of her case. It sounds like she was earning €300 or €400 a week, and nobody I am aware of is considering cutting the pandemic unemployment payment in that circumstance, and certainly not in the near future when we are still in the early phases of the pandemic. I have not heard anyone expressing horror at people getting €350 a week. I am the head of the Government that introduced this payment, which is one of the most generous welfare schemes in response to pandemic unemployment in the world, and I stand over it. We introduced it because we wanted to get money to people quickly - to people who needed it and who lost their jobs largely because of a Government order to close the businesses in which they worked. We stand over doing that. We wanted to do something a bit more logical or fair, which was to give people 70% or 80% of their previous income, with floors and ceilings, but we could not do that and so we had to just put out a flat payment. That is what we did and we stand over doing so. That flat payment is €350 a week, which is 70% of average wages in the sectors most affected, as I explained previously. People are trying to connect this matter to low pay, but I do not accept that argument. Someone working full time for 38 or 39 hours a week on the minimum wage of €10.30 an hour would have been earning over €400 a week. Nobody is suggesting that the €350 be reduced in that case. Someone working a full week on the living wage would also have been earning more than €350. Nobody is suggesting for a second that any of the people in that category should have their pandemic unemployment payment cut. What has been identified, which is a commonsense issue that many others have noted, is that some people who were working only ten hours a week, perhaps earning €20 an hour and €200 a week throughout January and February, are now getting €350 a week.
The Taoiseach went way over time.
The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, has talked about cutting and tapering the Covid payment, saying it is unsustainable. Deputy Rabbitte of Fianna Fáil has said that the payment is unfair and unsustainable. It is not. People who are earning multiples of the amount of the payment are suggesting it is unfair, unsustainable and needs to be cut. It is good if the Taoiseach is backtracking on that position but he should give a clear commitment to people such as Lisa, workers in the arts and retail sectors, taxi drivers and others who may face protracted periods where, through no fault of their own, they will not be able to get back to the amounts they were previously earning, or employment at all, that the Covid payment will not be cut for them. That is the commitment we need.
The Deputy is making a different argument, that everyone should be paid the exact same no matter what job they do. I appreciate that is his political position but it is not one shared by many people in this country.
When we discuss tapering, it is important to bear in mind that the only people who are now getting less than they were earning before the pandemic are those who earned more than €350 a week. Someone who was earning €700, €600 or €500 a week is now receiving the reduced payment of €350. Separate to that, there is a group of people who were not earning €350 a week. All of those who were earning €200 a week, for example, would have been part-time workers rather than full-time workers because full-time workers earning the minimum wage would have been paid more. That group of people is getting paid more than they were paid before the pandemic. Anyone who is talking about tapering is doing so in the context of making sure that any tapering ensures people are not better off than they were before the pandemic. People who earned more than €350 a week are the exception and are already worse off.
I will try to regain some time here so I ask the Taoiseach for a very short answer to my first question. It is undeniable that we have seen a massive propaganda campaign in the past week or more to attack those on the pandemic unemployment payment. Pat McDonagh, a millionaire, has been complaining that it is tough to get part-time workers to work in Supermac's for €200 a week because of the availability of the pandemic payment. A Government Minister has suggested it is unsustainable to continue to pay it. Deputy Rabbitte has said that some people are "a hell of a lot better off" due to the payment. My first question is simple and will require ten seconds to answer. Is the Taoiseach willing to live on €350 a week, before he cuts that payment for anybody, to see what it is actually like?
I am willing to live on whatever salary I am given for the job I am doing; that is how these things work. I appreciate that the Deputy's argument is that everyone should be paid the same but he does not say what that would be or how that would be funded. It is the Deputy's choice to take such an action and if he wants to demonstrate that, he should do it.
My argument is simply that before the Taoiseach cuts the pay of anybody who is currently on €350 a week, he should see what it is like to live on that amount.
Everything about this propaganda campaign reminds me of the "Welfare cheats cheat us all" campaign that was rolled out when the Taoiseach was the Minister for Social Protection. It is the same attempt to divide and rule workers through the use of the same scaremongering and exaggeration about people scamming the system and from the same underlying motivation of driving people to work for poverty wages. It emerged that at the root of that campaign was a big lie. The Taoiseach, when he was Minister, claimed that the amount saved by people reporting others for social welfare fraud was €500 million. It turned out that the real figure was less than 10% of that, less than €50 million. I wonder if the same sort of creative accounting is being used in this propaganda campaign.
Last Thursday, The Irish Timeshad an unpublished report, presumably leaked from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, which stated that 38% of recipients of the Covid-19 payment were previously earning less than €300 per week. That was used by people, including the Taoiseach, to suggest that a considerable number, almost 40%, of people are better off under the pandemic unemployment payment. That is not true, is it? Is it not the case that, of the 38% who are supposedly better off, a substantial number were already in receipt of social welfare payments which meant that their total income was already higher than €350?
The article referred to more than 200,000 people who are better off unemployed than they were when they were working. That number includes a substantial number of the 40,000 availing of the one-parent family payment, the 50,000 on the working family payment, the 5,000 on the back to work family dividend and the 35,000 part-time workers who were previously in receipt of jobseeker's allowance along with their wages.
Can the Taoiseach confirm that the reference to pre-Covid income in that report does not include their social welfare payment and, therefore, the suggestion, which he has echoed, that 38% of people who are on the pandemic unemployment payment are better off is simply not accurate?
I cannot confirm or deny that. I do not have the report in front of me, although it was published either on Friday last or on the Friday before. If the Deputy has heard what I have said about this publicly on a number of occasions, I have acknowledged that there are people who would be better off on ordinary long-standing welfare payments than on the pandemic unemployment payment. There are people who were part-time workers in January and February who are better off on the pandemic unemployment payment. There are also people who are on the pandemic unemployment payment who would be better off if they were moved to jobseeker's - largely people who have dependants - or moved to other payments such as the one-parent family payment. There are anomalies in both directions and I have always acknowledged that.
This was a temporary measure brought in during an emergency. It had to be done quickly. Everyone got a flat amount. However, over time we need to reconcile that in order that those who got more than they would have got normally have their payments tapered and those who have been left short and would be better off on other welfare schemes are moved to those welfare schemes and get the increase to which they are entitled.
First, I hope the Taoiseach and the other groups in this House can join with me in recognising that today is international Emergency Medicine Day. The response of all our medical staff during the pandemic, and particularly those at the front of house, has been exceptional. The Covid-19 crisis has shown the entire country how we should do things and how we should not. The greatest tribute we could all pay to our medical staff is to ensure that we do not go back to overwhelmed and overcrowded emergency departments with trolleys on the corridors.
I welcome the publication of the just transition commissioner's report and the resulting discussions at Cabinet last week but we need to see talk and promises converted into real and practical action to deliver immediate jobs within the communities right across the midland countries now. Every time we hear of just transition, we are always one more announcement away from action. We cannot accept a situation where we must wait for Covid-19 restrictions to be lifted or the next budget cycle before we see action on the ground. We do not have the luxury of time. We must see action now because 360 families depend on a peat harvest this summer and, sadly, there is no guarantee that peat harvesting will be allowed pending the complex planning process that Bord na Móna must go through.
I also echo the call of the just transition commissioner, Mr. Kieran Mulvey, that it is imperative that the €11 million just transition fund announced last October would be used this year to stimulate and finance projects that have employment potential and that can contribute to the economic, social and environmental sustainability of the region. This must be in a manner that complements other sources of public funding available to the region. Mr. Mulvey went on to say that the funds needed to be made available as quickly as possible for allocation to selected projects.
On 23 July last, I wrote to the Taoiseach requesting as an immediate measure that €30 million from the climate action fund should be ring-fenced to commence the work of rehabilitating the cutaway bogs - work that must be carried out on these bogs regardless of the future of peat harvesting. The front-loading of this work was to be carried out over the 15-year period but would provide security of employment for the 360 Bord na Móna staff at this anxious time, as well as reducing peat oxidation and carbon loss on our bogs. On 9 September, the Taoiseach wrote back to me to say that funding the rehabilitation of cutaway bogs from the climate action fund should form part of the solution.
Bord na Móna has a landholding of just under 200,000 acres across the country.
While some of these lands may be considered for new commercial uses, such as the growing of herbs, other lands will naturally return to nature. As a result, there is a considerable land bank, where peat extraction has already ceased, that would flood naturally and where work on rehabilitation can start. This work would include the provision of recreational facilities such as walking and cycling trails, which would be less than two hours' travel from Leinster House.
As the Taoiseach knows, the decision has already been taken, as part of Project Ireland 2040, to develop a 35,000-acre national wetlands park on the Mount Dillon bog complex in counties Roscommon and Longford. A further example of the opening up of bogland for public access is the Ballinasloe parkland project, which would utilise the cutaway bogs outside the town of Ballinasloe. It is envisaged that it will form part of the Dublin–Galway greenway.
Public access alone is already attracting over 50,000 visitors a year to Mount Lucas in County Offaly. Two hundred and seventy days after the Taoiseach’s letter to me, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, has announced that work on the advanced rehabilitation of these peatlands is "subject to further Government consideration". Again, we are another announcement away from action. Not a single cent has been spent on rehabilitating these bogs, nor has a single cent from the just transition fund been allocated for alternative employment in the region, yet we are quite happy to borrow money on the back of every citizen in this country to subsidise the wages of Bord na Móna staff or pay them unemployment benefits at a cost of approximately €65,000 every week, forcing them to sit at home although the rehabilitation work will have to be done regardless of the future of peat harvesting.
I have a number of questions. First, I want a commitment from the Taoiseach that the funds will be released immediately, in line with his commitment last September, to re-employ Bord na Móna staff currently laid off to commence the rehabilitation of State-owned and State-controlled bogs. Second, I want a commitment that the National Oil Reserves Agency, NORA, amendment legislation to provide moneys for the climate action fund will be agreed by the Cabinet and ready for publication within seven days of the formation of the new Government, and that it will ensure part of the fund will be ring-fenced for projects across the midland counties. Third, will the Taoiseach confirm that the Government has received the €5 million committed by the ESB for the just transition fund, and will he provide me with the date that moneys from the €11 million just transition fund will be allocated for shovel-ready projects that can create jobs now, not in ten years' time?
I thank the Deputy. I agree with him on the overall point. If we can front-load bog rehabilitation, we should. It would be a great thing to do. It would secure jobs in Bord na Móna. It would also help to restore our natural heritage and promote tourism. The question the Government is grappling with now is that of how to fund it. The carbon tax revenues for 2020 have already been ring-fenced for particular circumstances. I am aware that the Minister is considering repurposing the Bord na Móna PSO for rehabilitation-type work. If that could be done, it would be really great because it would mean a substantial amount of money that could be used in the region and on the bogs.
As the Deputy said, the climate action fund legislation has to be approved by the Cabinet and passed by the Dáil and Seanad. That is intended to be a competitive fund. The idea is that people bid into it.
What I am told about the ESB is that it has agreed to contribute an additional €5 million, and arrangements are being put in place by the Department to transfer the money to the just transition fund 2020. I assume that means it has not been done yet but that arrangements are being made to do so. It means €11 million will be available for projects in 2020 through the fund. The first call for that money was opened by the Minister, Deputy Bruton, last Friday. In addition, there is a separate €5 million for bog restoration and a rehabilitation scheme. That is on land of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. It will restore 1,800 ha of bog in seven counties. Bord na Móna won the contract for doing the work, which will support 40 jobs.
I thank the Taoiseach for his response. I will come back to the comment made last week by Mr. Kieran Mulvey, the Government-appointed just transition commissioner, in his report.
He made specific reference to the just transition fund. I am disappointed to hear that the ESB money has yet to be lodged to that account, but there is potentially €11 million available. My fear is that this issue will be kicked down the road. While we welcome Deputy Bruton's call for submissions, he might as well be calling out in Croke Park because we still do not have a closing date for applications, a date on which decisions will be made, or a date on which communities and projects across the country and across the region will know that money will be allocated. I want to know the date on which decisions will be made, the date on which money will be allocated and the date on which projects across the midlands that can create jobs now can start.
I do not have those dates. It is reasonable to ask for them so I will check with the Minister and either he or I will contact the Deputy once I know what those dates are. I do know that the €11 million just transition fund for the midlands is there even if the ESB's €5 million has not yet arrived. The money is there and it is ring-fenced for just transition in the midlands. The Minister opened the call for applications last Friday. We should not waste any time in this regard.
I spoke here last week. It is a shambolic situation that I am speaking to the Taoiseach's empty seat while he is in another part of the building. We had this debate at the meeting of the Business Committee yesterday and again this morning. We called a vote on the matter but, unfortunately, people who objected to the proposal decided to vote with the Government and to allow the Taoiseach to carry on with his nonsense. There is clear scientific and medical evidence that there is no issue with spending two hours in this massive Chamber. The Taoiseach is just hiding but there is no place for the Taoiseach to hide and there will be nowhere to hide when the real truth about all of this is found out.
I asked him about our peacekeepers last week. They are still out there. We should be thankful that they have now got a date for their return, which is 29 June. These 300 gallant men and women and their families at home are suffering. I hope that date is honoured and that there will not be another shambolic excuse given.
I also mentioned the issue of nursing homes last week. Different doctors have resigned from the Medical Council and other bodies. They have better knowledge of this issue than I do. What happened was nothing short of national sabotage. I hope there will an inquiry into what happened and that people will be held accountable. As I mentioned last week, people who got oxygen tanks had to give them back. Tanks that were nearly empty were taken away and people were left without oxygen. Let us think about that. People were just left without oxygen. What happened to our young people and our people aged over 70 is shocking. There is a cohort of people aged over 66 who are working and sustaining many families and communities and who are not getting a bob in payment.
Mention was made of the Covid payment. I argued that the payment should be made pro ratabased on what people had earned in the month or four weeks prior but I was told that could not be done. We would not have the problems we now have had that been done. I do not agree with what Members on the left are saying, which is that we are trying to be mean; we are not. Many people are not getting enough but it is clearly unsustainable to give €350 to people who were earning €80 or €100.
The issue of the mental health of our young people and our old people is just shocking. On the issue of the 2 m distance, a very close relative of mine visited a hospital in Cork last week and had to sit in huge queue in a waiting room separated from others by only 1 m. Who is codding whom? Even the WHO, about which we hear so much, does not recommend 2 m.
I also want to ask the Taoiseach about the carry on with the private hospitals. I have a very sad letter from a woman who has given me permission to use her sister's details. She states:
For the last 45 years, my sister has paid for private health insurance to cover all her hospital stays. She has never asked the general taxpayer to pay for any of her medical treatment. She is now 66 years of age and needs urgent surgery for a stage 3 prolapse, which could go to emergency stage 4 at any time. Her consultant has clearly stated he cannot operate on her until July at the earliest, or even into September. Each day the surgery is delayed means that further damage is happening inside her body. Therefore, in order to repair the damage, she will require much more extensive surgery at the end of the time.
There are many thousands of people like her. It is totally unfair. This woman supplied me with figures, for which I thank her. They relate to the number of beds occupied in Cork hospitals on 14 April, 20 April, 28 April and 7 May.
In the Bon Secours Hospital, which has 300 beds, the numbers occupied on those dates were 30, 36, 89 and 103, respectively. This means that 200 beds or more were empty at all times. That is shocking. In the Mater Private Hospital, which has a capacity of 102, six beds were occupied the first week, and the figures for the following weeks were 25, 37 and 23, respectively. It is an absolute shame. We had to take over the private hospitals and I supported that, but for how long? When are we going to give them back and allow surgery of all kinds to go ahead for people? There are no cervical cancer smear tests taking place. There are no tests of any kind happening. Many people with serious diagnoses will require treatment and everything else.
I said to the Taoiseach last week that there was a con element or large con element in this. I am still saying it. I am glad to see today that in Spain, lawyers are challenging the government there, and the unelected officials who are wielding all the power, to prove the evidence. I am asking the Taoiseach to give us the evidence. We cannot get the minutes of meetings. Give us the scientific evidence which we are not being given. The officials in Spain will be called to account and I hope they are called to account here too. Big business is flourishing and all those companies can open, but the same is not true for small businessmen - na daoine beaga - who include ordinary people such as shopkeepers, taxi drivers and all those small business owners. What is going on is that we seem to be wiping all those people out and letting the big companies flourish. We must let small businesses trade, whether they are selling a bit of homeware or whatever else. Let us support the small businessmen who employ from one to ten people or one to 50 people. There is a con element going on here and the sooner we realise it and the sooner people stand up to it and question it, the better.
We must have accountability in this Parliament, not the Taoiseach fleeing to some other building because he cannot face us here. I hate talking to faceless people. I talk to get answers for the people from Tipperary on whose behalf I have the privilege of having been elected. We are not getting answers and I want those answers. I do not know what is wrong with Deputy Feighan.
I know the Deputy is here but I am not talking to him. I congratulate him on getting elected, and more power to him, but I want answers from the Taoiseach, not to have him hiding from us. We saw plenty of pictures of him sunbathing in the park and elsewhere, but we do not want to see them.
I would be very grateful if the Taoiseach would respond to me in writing because I have too many things to highlight. There are many reports and surveys indicating that Kerry will be worse affected by the pandemic than any other county in the country. Indeed, I do not need to see any of those reports because I know of it first hand. We see that there is nothing at all happening in towns like Killarney, Dingle, Cahersiveen and Castleisland.
In relation to seasonal workers, it is very unfair that they were not recognised. If the lockdown had not happened for another two weeks, all of them would have been back and would now be getting the Covid-19 payment. Bus workers, hotel workers and many others have concerns. Indeed, in the past two days, I have had over 700 emails from bus drivers and others concerned about the transport industry in Kerry. It is shambolic the way they have been treated. We are seeing yards of buses, none of which are moving, and there is no payment for any driver. Their stamps are gone and they have been totally left behind. I am asking the Taoiseach to address that matter.
My next question concerns the social distancing requirement and whether it should be 1 m or 2 m. In order to get going and give some kind of assistance to the tourism industry, I am asking the Taoiseach to reduce it to 1 m. Other countries, like France, Austria, Norway, Sweden and Finland, have all applied the 1 m restriction. The World Health Organization, WHO, to which the Government lately gave €9 million for its advice and assistance, is recommending distancing of 1 m or more. One metre is sufficient in rural places. If we do not apply that smaller distancing requirement, and the longer we leave businesses in the hotel and tourism industry without releasing them and allowing them to get going and avail of the national tourists who come down from Dublin and all around the country to towns like Killarney and other places in Kerry, the less hope there is of those businesses ever again opening. That is probably what will happen.
I have a question regarding the young drivers waiting for a driving test.
Is it possible to give them a temporary amnesty? There are thousands of them. If the Taoiseach cannot do that, surely the schools of motoring or the driving instructors could be asked to put a division between the instructor and the learner driver to allow the learner to do the lessons or the test. After the lessons are completed, and most of the learners have completed them, they could be allowed to do the test in the driving instructor's car.
I am glad other Deputies raised the issue of funerals and churches. I sympathise with all the people and families who have lost loved ones during the pandemic and who did not have a proper funeral. It makes no sense that only ten people can go into the massive cathedral in Killarney. There should be some other way of deciding. I would support it being looked at again.
With regard to nursing homes, I call on the Taoiseach to explain to the people of Ireland why people who toiled and worked so hard all their lives had to die alone with no member of their families with them. As somebody who lost someone very dear to me in the last few years, I know what it means for the person who is dying. Those people surely could not understand why there was nobody with them.
I also call on the Taoiseach to look at what has happened with the direct provision centre in Cahersiveen, all the inconsistencies and the things that should have happened. It is clear now that the opening of a direct provision centre there should never have happened. The HSE did not agree with it, the people of Cahersiveen did not agree with it and the residents in the direct provision centre do not agree with it. I ask the Taoiseach to examine this, to close it down for once and for all and to give the people of Cahersiveen and the residents fair play.
Tá dhá cheist agam, ceann amháin i mBéarla agus ceann i nGaeilge. Ní mór dom a rá i dtús báire go bhfuil an teachtaireacht iomlán mhícheart ag dul amach go dtí an tír inniu. Tá muidne i Seomra na Dála, tá sé folamh agus níl aon Taoiseach ann. Tá gá le hathbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar an gcinneadh sin. I have two questions for the Taoiseach, one in Irish and one in English. First, however, the fact that we are in an empty Dáil Chamber and the Taoiseach is ensconced in another room sends the wrong message to the country at a time when we are trying to instill confidence that we are going in the right direction. There is something seriously wrong with the decision and the advice.
Tá ceist agam maidir leis na coláistí samhraidh. Tá a fhios aige nach bhfuil siad ag dul ar aghaidh an samhradh seo. D'ardaigh mé, an Teachta Éamon Ó Cuív agus Teachtaí eile an cheist seo agus cé chomh práinneach is atá sé pacáiste tarrthála a chur ar fáil. Cén fáth a bhfuil moill ar an bpacáiste tarrthála sin? An bhfuil an Taoiseach réidh le fógra a thabhairt go bhfuil pacáiste tarrthála ann agus cén uair a bheidh an fógra sin tugtha? Gabhaim buíochas leis. Tá ceist eile agam freisin.
As the Deputy knows, I am here for three hours today to hear Members' statements and answer questions. I am happy to do that and to be held to account for as long as I hold this office. I agree with the Deputy that it is sending the wrong message that I spent two hours in the Chamber and one hour here, but that happened because of a procedural row and a vote that went on for an hour and was unnecessary. If anybody sent the wrong message to the public, it is not the public health people but some of the Independent Deputies who decided to spend an hour on a procedural wrangle and vote that were entirely unnecessary.
That is my view on that. With regard to the coláistí samhraidh, the Minister is working on a package to help them. We want to do something to help them because I realise they will be financially hit by having no income for the summer. However, we must ensure we do it in a way that is fair. There are many other groups in society and other businesses and organisations that will not get their summer income either because of the pandemic and we cannot do something for one sector and not have regard to what other sectors may want as well. It is being considered in the round. We want to do something to help the coláistí samhraidh and ensure that they can function as normal in 2021.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Taoiseach ach tá rud difriúil faoin earnáil seo agus tá a fhios aige é sin. Beidh na mná tí agus na coláistí thíos leis. Beidh impleachtaí maidir leis an gceantar, leis an nGaeilge agus leis na Gaeltachtaí. Is rud thar a bheith tábhachtach é seo.
It is very important that the implications of the summer colleges not going ahead is realised at Government level. I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach could come back to me in writing on when the package will be announced.
My second question relates to children with special needs. I have repeatedly raised it with the Taoiseach at this level as well as with the Minister for Education and Skills. Can we, please, have some certainty as to what is being put in place, whether the special schools will be reopened and-or, in the meantime, that a package would be in place?
Finally, I do not accept the Taoiseach's response in regard to a row in the Dáil. I do not know how we could put trust in any advice that says it is not safe to be in this Dáil, which is empty, and that the Taoiseach should be ensconced in another room. I go back to Galway and I see people working. I go to the shops where they have to work all day. They cannot hide away in any room, neither can the nurses or the doctors. What I am saying to the Taoiseach is that we should be sensible. We are giving out contradictory messages that some people are more important than other people, and we are giving a very wrong message that we are now moving in the right direction in terms of Covid-19. Let us have a little sense and review the advice. I read the advice last Thursday that was passed out by the Ceann Comhairle at 2 p.m. and it made no suggestion that this should happen. I ask the Taoiseach to use the 45 seconds remaining to me to answer the question relating to certainty for the coláistí samhraidh, and particularly for the children and teenagers with disability and their families.
I thank the Deputy. I will come back to her on the summer colleges once I have more information on what the package is and what may not be possible.
On children with special needs, we are totally aligned on our concern about that issue. I share the Deputy's desire to do something for children with special needs over the summer to ensure they get the education, attention and therapy that they need. NPHET is doing a lot of work at the moment on how that might become possible.
On the two-hour rule, we do make our own procedures in this House. It is a matter for the Business Committee and I am happy to abide by whatever decision is made in regard to how we conduct our business in the Chamber. If that means that I or many of us have to self-isolate for 14 days for some reason then so be it, but I do not make the rules. I am in the hands of others in that regard.
I note the Taoiseach's comments on the committee's role with regard to the 2 m rule. I would certainly be happy to convey that to the committee and we will see if we are in a position to deal with it. The extra session we will have per week will certainly help us deal with more issues.
We had the HSE representatives in last week and I asked what the testing was costing. It was at the end of a very long day. We were confined to two hours and I was told that it was hundreds of millions of euro. That was as specific as we got in the time period available to us. We cannot bring in the same people every week - we have a lot to cover - but I wonder if the Taoiseach has any more information than that on the cost of Covid-19 testing per person.
I thank the Deputy. I might be out of date on this but the last time I was briefed on this, which was a week or two ago, the estimate for the cost of testing for Covid this year will be somewhere between €400 million and €450 million. That is because of the fact that the tests cost about €200 a go, which is a lot of money. I might be out of date but that is the most recent briefing I had on it.
It is a huge amount of money, particularly in circumstances where, as a former GP, he will know that a viral swab test that is referred by a GP practice in Ireland typically costs about €25. There may be differences - I am not saying there are none - but it does seem like a very large difference. In Vienna airport, and this brings me on to my next question, they are carrying out accelerated testing, which is obviously more expensive. The cost is borne entirely by the passenger and one gets the result within three hours. It is accelerated testing so it is more expensive. It is €190. I worry that if we get to 10,000 tests a day and if there is a discrepancy between what we are paying and what we should be paying, that could be an enormous cost to the Exchequer. I cannot put it any further than that.
That brings me to my next question. There has been a good deal of controversy about people coming into the country, the regime in place and whether we should be testing and quarantining.
In any event, regulations were made. They were not put before the committee but they were made and are in place.
We should also look at potentially testing people leaving the country, for one particular reason. Foynes, and later Shannon and all of Ireland, has been an aviation gateway to North America for some time. The entire economy of the mid-west is built around that. There are no flights going from Shannon to North America. There are flights from Dublin but only American residents and citizens can go on them. We have customs pre-clearance and were the first in the world to have it. Has there been any investigation of the possibility of testing passengers in our airports? I appreciate that it would be extraordinarily difficult to accommodate the numbers and to distance and segregate those who are tested from those who are not. Significant space would be needed to do that. Having spoken to the officials in Shannon Airport, while they would clearly not be able to do the testing, they would be able to accommodate it. It may well be that other airports in the country would also be able to. It might open the possibility of passengers flying from Europe to North America via our airports, using the existing paradigm of customs pre-clearance. Has the Taoiseach considered that? If not, will he consider it and will he task the diplomatic corps to see if there is any possibility of that going ahead?
I think the cost of tests will come down. Everything in healthcare is at a premium at the moment, whether PPE or testing kits. Everyone is looking for the same stuff and the cost is very high, but I think the cost of testing will come down. The Deputy is right that in Austria, one can have a test done in the airport but one has to bear the cost of €190. No work has been done in our airports that I am aware of to see if we can set up testing there, but we can give it consideration. The direction of travel in policy is probably a bit different. We currently have a 14-day quarantine for people coming into the country through our airports and ports. We would like to get to a point at some stage in the future, within months rather than weeks, where we can lift that quarantine requirement if people are flying to or from another country where the virus has been successfully suppressed, and then we would not need to do testing at all. As things stand, neither Britain or America is one of those countries.
Driver testing is a livelihood issue for people in rural Ireland, as opposed to in urban Ireland where more public transport is available. A lot of young people need to sit their driver's tests to get a licence to get to work. Perhaps social distancing is not even being observed to get them to where they need to be. Is there any possibility of reinstating driver testing in cases of need, particularly in rural Ireland?
We hope to get driver testing going again as soon as possible when it is safe to do so. Somebody suggested that part of the solution might be a Perspex partition between the passenger seat and the driver's seat, and having a similar solution for taxis. That is being examined. I totally appreciate that we need to get testing started as soon as possible. A car means freedom in large parts of the country, particularly rural Ireland. People need to do their tests so they can take up employment that they need.