Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
6. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the consultation his Department undertook in preparing the list of essential retail outlets it published on 14 October 2020 and updated on 23 October 2020. [33424/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 8, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on Covid-19 was re-established by Government on 29 June to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19 and oversee the cross-Government response. The committee, which I chair, meets regularly as required.
The committee last met on 19 October. The date of the next meeting has not yet been set.
A senior officials group supports the special Cabinet committee and ensures a dedicated, high-level, cross-government focus on the Covid-19 response.
On Monday, 19 October, I announced that the Government had decided to move the entire country to level 5 of the framework of restrictive measures in the living with Covid-19 plan from midnight Wednesday, 21 October, for a period of six weeks until 1 December.
Priorities as outlined in the living with Covid-19 plan and at the core of the Government’s decision are the need to suppress this highly infectious and dangerous virus, to protect people’s lives, to keep our schools and non-Covid health services open and to sustain as many jobs as possible in the economy.
Many of the level 5 public health measures are premised on the need to reduce congregation and interactions between people to reduce transmission. Everyone is being asked to stay at home, therefore, with certain exceptions. These exceptions include travelling to and from work to provide an essential service, to attend medical appointments, attending disability day services, doing the daily food shop, for vital family reasons and to exercise within 5 km of one's home.
No organised indoor or outdoor gatherings should take place. Cafés and restaurants can provide takeaway or delivery only. Essential retail and services will remain open but all other retail and personal services are closed.
The list of essential retail outlets published on 14 October was for level 4. The list was updated in relation to level 5. The list was informed by the list that was in place during restrictions last March and April, taking into account that experience and the learnings from it.
In preparing the regulations underpinning the lists, the Minister for Health consulted the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Ministers for Transport, Justice and Equality, Finance and Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.
I will do my best. In response to a parliamentary question tabled by my colleague, Deputy Louise O'Reilly, the Minister for Health confirmed that he disbanded the behavioural change and vulnerable people subgroups of NPHET in July and that he has not reconvened either since the introduction of level 5 restrictions. His rationale for these decisions is perplexing. He said that the Government recognises that vulnerable groups have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 yet those tasked with ensuring the measures and actions required to protect them are fed into NPHET's work have been, in effect, stood down by the Government. The Minister provided no explanation as to why those subgroups were disbanded bar that they had met their terms of reference regarding preparedness plans being in place across government for vulnerable people. That is clearly not the case. We know, for example, that women and children are living with domestic violence or abuse and people with disabilities continue to suffer from a lack of preparedness at departmental level. We also understand from the Minister's reply that the Taoiseach has established a new cross-government mechanism for higher-risk groups, including those with a disability. It is suggested in the reply that this mechanism is in place of the subgroup yet we got no further information. Can the Taoiseach tell us how this mechanism operates, its members, how often it meets and who it reports to?
On 20 October, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of student nurses and the fact that they are working during a pandemic where they cannot do other jobs for the most part, certainly in other healthcare settings, and are working long hours on the front line of the Covid-19 effort and not being paid. That is scandalous. In that engagement the Taoiseach, who obviously was not scripted on it, said that it was wrong that they were not being paid in the same way as they were in March and April and that he would follow up on it. Since then it is clear that the follow-up is that he is not going to pay them. I want to tell him that there is fury about that. A total of 250,000 people watched the video of that exchange between the Taoiseach and myself, while 120,000 have watched the exchange on the same issue between myself and the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I want to apologise to the student nurses. I got so many messages from them I cannot reply individually but I will give the Taoiseach a flavour of the sort of messages I am getting. One second year nurse worked six weeks on placement. She worked four days a week in the Rotunda Hospital from 7.30 a.m. to 4 p.m. She also had a job in retail at the weekend where she was being paid absolutely nothing. She worked two weeks in a gynaecology ward from 7.30 a.m. to 8.30 p.m. and was not paid a penny.
She points out that for the privilege of working on the Covid front line for nothing, she must pay €3,000 per semester. Therefore, not only does she not get paid for being at the front line in a pandemic, but she must also pay for the privilege, as must all the other student nurses.
What is happening is an absolute scandal. Is the Taoiseach going to pay these student nurses, who are holding the front line when, according to Mr. Paul Reid, 2,000 healthcare workers, mostly nurses and midwives, are out sick because of Covid? We are relying on them more than ever in the battle against this pandemic.
I am sure the Taoiseach is aware of the reports from Denmark about a mutant form of coronavirus that has been discovered on mink farms and that has spread to humans. Globally, health authorities are worrying about the consequences of this for future vaccines. Six countries around the world have experienced outbreaks on mink farms. It seems that minks are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus. The horrific conditions in which they are held in captivity mean that the virus spreads rapidly and has the potential to mutate. Veterinary Ireland has called on the Government to take pre-emptive action now to shut down the fur farms in Ireland in order o ensure that they do not become hotspots. Last year, after Solidarity–People Before Profit introduced a Bill to ban fur farming, the Government finally promised to do so. However, for months we have been told in response to parliamentary questions that the Government is drafting a Bill in this regard. It is clear that we cannot wait any longer. Will the Taoiseach intervene to ensure that this is dealt with as a matter of urgency? We should shut the fur farms once and for all.
I note that the Chief Medical Officer's comments on the use of face masks, as opposed to visors, endorse mine. I would appreciate it if a communication strategy could be circulated in that regard.
I do not expect the Taoiseach to be able to tell us today what is going to happen in December but I would appreciate it if he could give us an indicative date as to when he will be able to announce what is planned for the period from 1 December onwards. Will it be a week beforehand or three days? I am seeking a date; I do not expect the Taoiseach to tell me what he is going to do. Is the plan to move to a phase covering all social and economic areas or is it to have two separate phases over the Christmas and new-year period whereby retail, social life and worship could be placed in one category and hospitality, food, restaurants and pubs in another? Is that being considered? That is all I am asking.
On the issue of a Covid-19 vaccine, will the Taoiseach give us a guarantee that it will be supplied free of charge through the public health service? What steps does he plan to take to ensure that there will be no queue-jumping, with people using the power of the wallet to jump the queue? In this regard, I am referring to the private health sector. Can the Taoiseach give more information than he provided last week on the major staffing arrangements that will need to be put in place for the distribution of a vaccine?
Last but not least, I note that Pfizer shares were up 15% on the US stock market and that BioNTech's shares were up 24%. BioNTech received assistance from taxpayers in developing the vaccine. It received €375 million from taxpayers in Germany. What is the Taoiseach's position on the idea of imposing a Covid-19 wealth tax on companies that have made big profits during the Covid period and using the money to fund the health services needed in this country and other member states?
I have raised this before. Covid is obviously a serious illness and we obviously need to do the best we can to reduce its incidence. Ireland is the sixth most restrictive country on the planet, yet it has the third lowest incidence of Covid in European terms. That would be fine but there is a massive cost to the restrictions in terms of patients missing cancer appointments, the large number of people waiting for cancer screening, the mental illness pandemic and the complete flooring of the retail trade, whereby 51% of business is now being transacted online. My question is very simple. Why is the Covid committee choosing a strategy that is a radical outlier in international terms?
On the issue of student nurses, as Deputy Boyd Barrett knows, discussions have been under way for quite some time. The Government's priority is to protect and support the education of all students, including student nurses and midwives. We recognise the impact of Covid-19 on student nurse and midwife placements. The Minister for Health is currently considering proposals to revise the existing student nurse and midwife allowances for clinical placements in the short term to support their ongoing clinical training. In addition, there have been discussions between the INMO and HSE on this. What happened on the previous occasion was that approximately €41 million was provided in payments. The arrangement was in terms of temporary healthcare assistants to support in the response to Covid-19. The decision was taken to suspend-----
Hold on a second and listen. The decision was taken to suspend clinical placements for all students and to offer all undergraduate nurses and midwives temporary healthcare assistant contracts. At the same time, the salary level for fourth-year internship students was raised to the healthcare assistant rate. The cost of that was about €41 million. That worked on that occasion.
The situation is much different now in terms of the impact on Covid itself. In April, there were approximately 900 patients with Covid-19 in hospitals. As of 8 November, the number was 285. Therefore, there is a different level of intensity in the hospitals regarding Covid.
I have hopes for the current discussions. It seems from what I am hearing about the negotiations that people are looking for different rates now than were agreed in April. I want those negotiations to be brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible and to protect the clinical placements for students.
Deputy MacDonald referred to behavioural change and the vulnerable. At all levels, that remains a priority for the Government in its response to Covid-19, particularly in terms of funding and resourcing disability day services, mental health supports and other supports. Right across the board, priority is accorded to the most vulnerable, not least in terms of nursing homes and the serial testing programme that is being implemented in them regularly. The HSE provides additional supports to nursing homes to ensure that we can reduce their vulnerability to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Deputy Kelly raised the issue of exiting level 5. We are doing a lot of analysis of the data, sector by sector, to facilitate and inform the approach to exiting level 5. We want to give indications so there will be some degree of preparation on the part of those who want and need to be prepared if we are in a good position at the end of this month. I have been very clear that my focus up to now has been on keeping the pressure on the virus and keeping everybody focused on adhering to the level 5 restrictions so that there will be maximum flexibility and manoeuvrability at the end of this month and the beginning of December. The approach is working. The various measures we have taken since moving first to level 3 have resulted in a downward trajectory. Level 5 is accelerating that. We should acknowledge this. On Deputy Tóibín's point, the approach is working in terms of public health and protecting lives by comparison with other countries in Europe. The precise nature of a phased reopening is still to be decided upon.
I did say on the record of the House that I wanted to get back to level 3 - that was a target - for 1 December.