Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Covid-19 Pandemic

10:40 am

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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3. To ask the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the reason the Irish step dance community has been denied the right to run indoor solo classes following a pod system and adhering to strict social distancing guidelines at levels 3 and 4 in view of the fact that similar and comparable artistic and athletic activities, such as stage school, gymnastics and drama for children, have been allowed to continue and places the national dance form and cultural heritage under threat (details supplied). [36360/20]

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Why has the Irish step dancing community been denied the right to run indoor solo classes, following a pod system and adhering to strict guidelines, as other comparable activities and sports have done? I have received 1,208 letters from dance teachers and students. Some of them are very sad. They need to be able to do this activity and we have to protect their right to dance.

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for his question. He has raised the issue of step dancing a number of times.

The guidance set out in the Government's Plan for Living with Covid-19 specifies that no exercise or dance classes are allowed at levels 3, 4 or 5. This precludes any exercise class, including gymnastics, and any type of dance class, including traditional, step, jazz or ballet. Similarly, the guidance precludes any indoor gathering taking place at levels 3, 4 and 5 and, to date, there are no exemptions. To provide clarity to the Deputy, there are no distinctions of the type he referenced in his question across levels 3, 4 and 5. I acknowledge his feedback. I have received a lot of correspondence about this.

Given the current epidemiological situation with a high incidence of the disease, widespread community transmission and a considerable number of hospitalisations and deaths, it has been necessary to put in place very significant restrictions to assess the current trajectory of Covid-19 and break transmission chains.

This means asking people to stay at home and eliminating as much activity and contacts as possible to ensure that opportunities for the virus are minimised while allowing essential activities to continue. Unfortunately, this means minimising discretionary activities, including cultural activities. At present, Ireland is at level 5 in our plan for living with Covid-19. The public health risk at level 5 means we are all asked to stay at home, with very limited exceptions.

The Health Act 1947 (Section 31A - Temporary Restrictions) (Covid-19) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 give effect to level 5 restrictions currently under the plan. The regulations list essential retail and services that may operate under level 5. This list does not include private or any type of dance classes. Under the regulations, essential education encompasses primary and post-primary schools and higher and further education where remote learning is not possible. Where a service provider considers that it falls into the essential education category, for example, as part of a national curriculum or a specific State-sponsored course of study, it should refer to the Department of Education's guidance on the operation of education services.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Similarly, the Health Act 1947 (Section 3 IA - Temporary Restrictions) (Covid-19) (No. 7) Regulations, which applied when the country was under level 3 of the plan for living with Covid-19, did not allow any exercise or dance classes, irrespective of the form, such as Irish, jazz or ballet.

I fully understand the benefits that activities such as dance bring to people's overall health and well-being. The measures in place to suppress the disease's transmission are intended to minimise the risks to public health while striking the right balance in prioritising and protecting some activities over others. Such activities include health and social care services, education and other essential needs, work and economic activity, and other key societal interests as much as possible.

10:50 am

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I do not know whether the Minister of State is aware that in December 2015, Ireland ratified the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and it was important that we did. Sports are allowed to go ahead in groups and people can practise. Teachers and dancers recognise that the restrictions are necessary to curb the spread of Covid but this is totally unfair. I have received 1,208 letters but one of them, from a six-year-old girl, is very striking. She wrote that she misses and loves dance, and asked that she be let back to it so that she can dance, be happy and have fun. It is vital that we protect our culture and heritage, and dance is a very important part of that. What is the point of signing up to United Nations conventions if we are not going to allow the people the right? Dancing schools are very safe environments. The dancers are in pods and there are some very expensive and well-designed dance studios. They are very well designed, safe and well ventilated. The Minister of State may not be a dancer himself but he is well able to sidestep this issue, so he would be a good learner.

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I have had a great deal of correspondence and engagement with many constituents that is representative, I am sure, of many of the letters the Deputy received. To be clear, there is no distinction at levels 3, 4 and 5 between indoor activity. That is the context in which the Deputy raised the matter and he compared it to sport, but sport is allowed at level 3 in certain instances, outdoors in pods. There is not, however, any distinction for any type of indoor activity relating to some of the comparative examples the Deputy gave.

To be constructive, I am giving the Deputy the position as it is. I encourage the groups and associations that have been in touch with him and are regularly in touch with me and the Minister to engage with the Arts Council, the Department and the document on living with Covid. We will always engage with sectors on how the restrictions impact people. We do not want to undermine what we have signed up to and subscribed to under the United Nations, as the Deputy outlined, but it is about having a basket of measures and a balancing act to protect public health while ensuring that important indoor activity, whether sport, dance or culture, will be promoted and enhanced. I appreciate the Deputy's feedback and encourage the people who have sent him letters to continue to engage with the Department and the Arts Council.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Minister of State is dancing all over the UNESCO convention and he is wrong. A gymnastics school can operate under levels 3 and 4 but we cannot, so there is a discrepancy. I urge the Minister of State to consider the physical, emotional, mental and pedological benefits that dance can bring to young people, and to allow the CLRG and other dance organisations to continue sharing their knowledge and expertise by advocating and permitting the continuation of Irish dance classes indoors and in socially distanced pods. These are not reckless people but they want to go on with the excellent tuition they have. Many of them danced as daoine óga and went on to be world champions. Look at Riverdance, Brú Ború or the cultural activities of Comhaltas. This is so important for us. The Minister of State mentioned schools, where 30 kids are in a classroom with a teacher. Many people do not excel at school but they might do so at dancing, art or music. They too have to be catered for; we are not all going to be in academia. This is very important for our culture, heritage and dúchas. Going forward, we need this and will be proud of this. If we are to deny these people a full year of tuition, however, we will lose them.

I remind the Minister of State of the letter from the six-year-old girl. Sin an fáth go bhfuil mé ag obair ar sin inniu. I hope he will be in some way sympathetic and empathetic. I ask him not to dance all over the UNESCO convention. What is the point of signing up to it, with great fanfare, if we are not going to honour it?

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I assure the Deputy that the Government is not dancing on anything in respect of UNESCO.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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There are a lot of dancers.

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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We fully support our cultural activities, including dance, but the most effective way to ensure many of our activities in society can operate is to suppress the virus-----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Gymnastics.

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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-----and get back to a scenario where there can be a whole range of activities in society. When we are at level 5 and the virus is out of control, there is a limit and our current message is for people to stay at home-----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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What about levels 3 and 4?

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I accept and take the point. We want to be constructive about this. The longer that restrictions go on, particularly in levels 3 and 4 - I accept the Deputy's point - it limits important cultural activities and indoor sporting activities. There is engagement between the Department and the groups and associations the Deputy mentioned to try to be helpful in that regard. Nevertheless, the current position is as I have set out. We are engaging to try to ensure we will get the balance right and we are trying to be constructive in that regard. I hope the Deputy recognises that.