Wednesday, 2 June 2021
Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, line 9, to delete “the 9th day of November 2021” and substitute “the 14th day of July 2021”.
The legislation relates to four Acts that were passed by the Oireachtas last year. By any standard, those Acts provided for the most wide-ranging and draconian powers that one could imagine. At that time, the Oireachtas gave the Government approval to introduce that draconian legislation on the basis of the crisis facing the country as a result of the pandemic. It was truly a crisis situation and nobody knew exactly what the future might hold. The Government had to move quickly to safeguard people’s lives and livelihoods. It did so by introducing a range of legislation, which severely limited people’s lives, restricted their movements both domestically and internationally, impinged on their civil liberties and civil rights, separated families and caused untold harm to people. We have to recognise that it was done in the interests of public health, but those powers caused severe harm to many people, including increased levels of depression and other psychiatric illnesses, as well as loneliness. People lacked the ability to get out and mix with family and friends and to take exercise and do other basic things in life. There was a lack of ability to assemble in any way, whether in small or large groups, or to attend religious services. All kinds of activities that people take as normal parts of life were severely restricted on the basis the Government had to move fast to protect public health.
There was a recognition of that in this House. That is why the go-ahead was given to this legislation. Most of us who voted to support that legislation did so with a very heavy heart and in the expectation that, while we faced an unprecedented crisis, in would be reasonably short-lived. We know now, 15 months later, that, unfortunately, it has not been. It has lasted to the present time. The present time is, thankfully, very different from 15 months ago. That is a result of people adhering to the restrictions, of a greater knowledge of what Covid entails and, particularly, of the breakthrough in vaccinations and the successful vaccination programme we are operating. We are in a different place from where we were last year.
Many of us on all sides of this House are strongly of the view that we should not roll over these draconian powers for the Minister of Health and the Government. There is a strong view on this side of the House but, as the Minister knows, many Government backbenchers have expressed serious concerns about the continuation of these powers because they cannot be justified at this point. We were told last year there would be a sunset clause and only one extension to that. That extension has occurred. We were also told that the operation of these powers would be reviewed and that has not happened. It is entirely unreasonable and unwarranted for the Minister to come to the House and seek the extension of those draconian powers in the absence of any kind of assessment or review of the operation of those powers.
The powers that cause us most concern are those underpinned by penal implications, in terms of fines and potential prison sentences. The powers extended to the Garda to enforce those restrictions were draconian in themselves. The Garda had serious reservations about being expected to enforce those powers. In practice, gardaí were expected to enforce powers without being given guidelines on them. It put them in a difficult situation, which they did not want to be in. There is no demand from them to retain those powers for any longer than absolutely necessary and the period when they were absolutely necessary is undoubtedly past.
For that reason, the amendment proposes that, rather than extending those powers until November and giving the Minister the blank cheque he seeks, over the next six weeks or so up to the Dáil recess, he should carry out a complete and comprehensive review of the operation of those powers and come back to us before the recess to report on their operation. We have very little data on them. We have global figures from the Garda on prosecutions but we have no disaggregated figures. What exact powers were used by the force? Where was the concentration of prosecutions? Were there age or demographic implications? Were there concentrations in particular areas? We know nothing about that whatsoever. Fifteen months down the road, with all the country has come through, it is entirely unreasonable and wrong for the Minister to seek the go-ahead from this House to continue with those powers without us having any information about the full implications of them or what the operation of them was.
That is the purpose of this amendment. It is to put a stop on the automatic roll-over of these emergency powers that the Minister seeks. There is no justification for that. We would be prepared to support a six-week extension on the understanding that he comes back to us with a comprehensive review by 14 July. That is a reasonable position for us to take given all the country has been through and all of the concerns that exist about these powers, all the limitations they put on people’s lives and the erosion of basic civil and human rights as a result.
We cannot just give the Minister the go-ahead on this. It would be wrong for us to do that. For that reason, the Social Democrats is taking a very reasonable view: we are saying the Minister can extend the powers up to 14 July and come back to us and reassess the situation then on the basis of having access to the facts on the operation of the powers. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment.
I will be very brief because I am just endorsing and repeating what Deputy Shortall said. Is the Minister minded to accept any of the amendments? It would be very useful to know that at this stage. Could he confirm whether it is his intention to accept any of the amendments that have been tabled? We may not get to deal with all of them. There is a very short period available to discuss them and it would be useful for people to see what options might be possible.
Essentially, too much of what has happened has been by way of secondary legislation. That has been out of sight and we are just being asked essentially to trust the Minister until next November and potentially onwards from that to February 2022.
It is fair to say that it was a very different experience last year. We did not know what was facing us. There was a high level of collaboration at that stage right across the Dáil. There were also many briefings and engagement but that is not the case now. Essentially, the absence of information is incredibly important in terms of what we are being asked to do, which is essentially to give a blank cheque on very significant powers. I will not labour the point, but it would be very useful if the Minister would give us some indication of what amendments he intends to accept.
Amendment No. 2 is in my name and that of my colleagues in the Regional Group. As the Minister will be aware, the reason we are here today is 15 months ago, my colleagues and I pressed for the inclusion of a sunset clause in the legislation, something that was accepted by all the Opposition groups and by the then Government. Had it not been put in place we might not be in a position where we are even discussing the legislation today.
When I spoke on the issue 15 months ago, I said that we would require the legislation for 12 months. Some Members were aghast that such legislation would be required over that period, but we have gone beyond 12 months and it is now 15 months later and we need to review the management of the virus and the approach that we are taking to it right across government. We need to see what works and what does not work and act in accordance with the evidence that it is now available to the Government.
As the Minister will be aware, last year when speaking in the House to the Taoiseach I was very critical of the fact that we were far too reliant on expert advice based on evidence coming from elsewhere in Europe and there was not enough focus on what was working in Ireland and could be effective in an Irish context. Opposition Members still do not have that evidence available to them, yet we are being asked to make a decision on this legislation.
I would love to be in a position where we do not require any draconian laws to be in place, but what is happening outside of this jurisdiction at the moment, in particular in the UK with the Delta or Indian variant, is something that we need to be conscious of. We have seen in the UK that the rate of infection with the Delta variant is increasing and some of the advisers to the British Government have said that while the cases are relatively low at the moment, the variant has fuelled exponential growth in the virus. There are concerns here. I have been speaking with a number of front-line healthcare staff in this country in recent weeks and they are genuinely concerned that hospitals will again be overrun with increased infection as a result of the Delta variant.
While the vaccine will impede the scale and severity of infection, it will not prevent people acquiring the infection and getting sick. There have been cases of people getting sick. We still need mask wearing. We still require social distancing and, sadly, we will require that for some time. We must strike a balance in terms of the public health measures that are needed against the virus and the variations of it and the scale of powers that is currently available to the Government. I believe that the current scale of powers is far too extensive. We do need powers. The Minister needs to have the ability to take emergency measures depending on what is happening in other jurisdictions, but there must be a balance and I do not think it is there at present. The justification has not been provided for it.
Under the legislation as it stands, the Garda have the ability to fine, arrest and to detain for very simple reasons. These are extensive powers that should only ever be reluctantly given by a Parliament. Last March, we reluctantly gave those powers, but they need to be rowed back upon now. They should only be extended on the express approval of Dáil Éireann.
I support Deputy Shortall's comments and the amendment tabled by the Social Democrats. However, if the Minister is not prepared to accept amendment No. 1, I hope he can accept our amendment. The Government is now announcing that it is winding down the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, from September, yet we are going to keep these draconian powers in place until at least 9 November, with the possibility of extending them beyond that, even when the PUP is null and void.
It does not make sense to have such extensive powers available to an individual Minister at the stroke of a pen, when the State itself is saying there will be no need to financially support people through the social welfare system and the PUP beyond September, and that payments are being wound down at that stage, yet this legislation remains in place. We are being asked to make a decision regarding this legislation blind, without evidence being provided. This is evidence that I have sought consistently over the past 12 months from the Head of Government, but we have not seen any of that here.
The amendment I tabled would mean these emergency powers cease on 9 September unless Dáil Éireann reconvenes by that date to extend them. If we still require such draconian measures by the beginning of September, then Dáil Éireann needs to reconvene anyway and be updated on what measures are being taken if we are not out of the woods in terms of Covid infection at that point in time. It is imperative that the Dáil comes back at that point and fully debates the juncture we are at, if we are still trying to manage significant outbreaks of Covid-19 throughout this country. That is why the legislation should not be extended beyond that point.
All of us have received a barrage of emails, and some of them are anti-everything while others are very genuine. I have an email here from Genghis Khan - I thought he was dead - who is against the PCR test, face masks, vaccines, and any kind of lockdown. However, many people are genuinely concerned about the impact this is having on the mental and physical health of the public. Many colleagues have spoken at length about the impact this is having on young people and older people in terms of their mental health and the question of diagnosis, particularly of cancer. These powers need to be used only at the most imperative times and, hopefully, we have moved away from that at this stage.
We are relinquishing responsibility. All Government and Opposition Members are relinquishing responsibility to an unelected body. One of those emails stated, “I did not vote for NPHET or Tony Holohan”. They did not. They voted for 158 Deputies here in Dáil Éireann to make the decisions and to seek the advice of Tony Holohan and every other Tony Holohan. Ultimately, however, we are the ones who need to make those decisions based on all of the evidence that is presented to us, but that evidence has not been presented to us.
Our amendment No. 51 states that if this legislation is passed, the Minister will have the power to make statutory instruments but those statutory instruments will only remain valid for as long as they have been endorsed by the Members of Dáil Éireann. It allows for a review mechanism of any statutory instrument that is signed by the Minister or his successor and that must be presented to Dáil Éireann within seven sitting days and ratified. It will be enforced in the interim but it must be reviewed within seven sitting days.
We have taken careful consideration in regard to the challenges and issues that are there. I accept things are not easy. I accept it is a crystal ball at the moment in terms of what is going to happen next week or next month. We are talking about the Delta variant and we could be talking about another variant in a month’s time that, unfortunately, might be far more resistant to the vaccines we have at the moment. I accept the risks that are there. I accept the Minister needs to have powers. I accept the principle but these particular powers are far too extensive. The evidence has not been provided to Dáil Éireann in terms of what works and what does not work, and what is the justification for each and every one of these particular measures.
At the very latest, this legislation should come back here on 9 September to be fully discussed, if Deputy Shortall's amendment is not accepted. I hope her amendment will be accepted and that we can discuss this before the recess. Second, any statutory instrument that is signed from here onwards must have a review clause whereby the Members of this House, the people who are directly elected and accountable to the people, have a direct role in saying it is the responsibility of whoever is the Minister to come in and justify why these particular measures are needed, rather than passing the buck and saying “NPHET said this” or “NPHET said that” behind closed doors. We know some of what NPHET says but we do not know some of the other evidence and we do not know the basis for that evidence because a lot of that is not being made available to us. Let us make the decisions. We have a responsibility to make those decisions and we should not remove that power from ourselves. I urge colleagues to support the amendments.
I want to speak to amendment No. 3. In February and March of last year, we were all confronted with a pandemic and a deadly virus that none of us at the time understood and we did not know the full extent of the damage that virus would do. It has been an horrendous time ever since, during which the State and every other country has had to deal with a global pandemic, where a large number of people have lost their lives and a lot of damage has been done socially and economically, and to people's mental health. Nobody in this Chamber underestimates the scale of the challenge that presented to this State, its agencies and Departments. There is a reality that most of us in opposition accept, which is that to position the State to respond to what was a deadly virus and a very dangerous pandemic, we needed to have public health measures and public health interventions. There has been a lot of support from the Opposition in regard not to supporting the Government but to supporting public health measures that were necessary to ensure our health services were not overwhelmed and we could keep people safe and, in reality, to keep them alive, because we could see what was happening in other parts of the world that had very high transmission rates before the virus got here where people were dying in big numbers.
Circumstances have changed substantially since then. After the Minister first came before the Dáil and sought the emergency powers that he was given, the goodwill shown by Members of the Opposition was squandered. I have said this to the Minister time and again. It was squandered for two reasons. The first was the nature of some of the regulations that he then brought in as a consequence of the emergency powers that he had been given. Some of them were ill-thought-out, others were plain daft and silly but all of them were brought in without Dáil scrutiny of any kind. As I said to the Minister in the past, not only was there no Dáil scrutiny of any kind, there was no consultation and certainly no debate in this House, and not even a heads-up that those regulations would be published. Very often, we would be contacted by the media, asking for responses to regulations that had just been published on the Government website. That is how the Opposition was treated after the goodwill demonstrated to put in place the emergency powers and public health measures that were necessary.
When goodwill is squandered, the Minister cannot seriously come back in time and again and expect the same result, and expect the Opposition to continue to expand emergency powers which are quite extraordinary. These are emergency powers which have never been given to a Minister before in the magnitude of their powers and their draconian nature. The Minister himself used the word "draconian", and that is what they are. That goodwill has long been squandered.
I cannot credibly support this Bill in the absence of any Opposition amendments. Deputies Catherine Murphy and Naughten asked the Minister earlier if he was going to accept any of the Opposition amendments. He said that he would wait and listen to the debate and take them amendment by amendment. I would hazard a guess - maybe I am wrong - that he will not accept any of them. I hope that I am wrong but let us see - if the Seanad exchanges are anything to go by, then I certainly hold out no hope at all. I think that is disappointing.
In his Second Stage speech, the Minister trumpeted the amendments he has brought forward as some sort of concession or an effort to meet people half way by only having one opportunity to come back again by way of resolution to extend the measures further if necessary. That is not half enough. The amendments we tabled, including the one that I am speaking to now, ask that the Minster come back towards the end of this month or early July to seek approval again if it was necessary to extend the emergency powers. I accept that it is not possible to unwind every public health measure. There are simple things like having to wear a mask and of course we want those to remain in place, but many of the emergency powers which the Minister has been given will not be necessary and hopefully will not be necessary again. We are starting to unwind many of the restrictions, which we all support and celebrate, and we want to do more of that. However, to ask the Members of the House, Opposition and Government Deputies, to extend those emergency powers until November this year is really a stretch. I cannot understand why the Minister has opted for so long a time. He could have gone for a shorter timeframe or even engaged with the Opposition, but there was no discussion on the heads of the Bill and no prelegislative scrutiny because of the rushed nature of the Bill. We had a briefing from the Minister's officials who told us they were aware of the need for a Bill from as far back as late March, early April yet the Opposition and members of the Joint Committee on Health were not informed until the last minute when everything was rushed again when we were asked to rubber stamp it and push it through because the Minister wanted to extend it until the end of November.
I will finish on this because many speakers want to contribute and everyone who wants to speak should have the opportunity to do so. There can be no more blank cheques for the Minister because when he got a blank cheque before, that was a leap of faith to give him powers to make regulations. Sometimes that was thrown back in our faces and I resent that. That is not how the Opposition should be treated. Some of the more colourful emails we have received were mentioned earlier. Many people have contacted us who are genuine in saying that they do not want us to extend these powers because of some of the Minister's misuse of the regulations he brought forward in the past and because we are being asked to extend them until November of this year and they simply do not see the sense in it. I have to say that I agree, and for that reason, if the Minister does not accept any of the amendments which have been tabled here today, certainly the ones Sinn Féin has tabled, I will not be in a position to support the Bill.
I do not propose to take up the House's time for very long. I am speaking in support of amendments Nos. 2 and 51 put forward by the Regional Group. As Deputy Naughten said, the only reason we are here having this debate in the House is because of the sunset clause that was promoted by the Regional Group. We are discussing the need to ensure that public health, transmission and infection data continue to drive thinking. However, it has to be said the restrictions we have put in place are almost draconian. Others have spoken of the effects they are having on the population at large. We have to acknowledge that we have made significant progress on Covid despite the presence of the Indian variant. A promise was given to the people at the start of the pandemic where we were told "let's flatten the curve". We have done a lot more than flatten the curve, we have reduced it significantly. Thankfully, through international science, we have also managed to get vaccines which are having a demonstrable effect in securing the health of the most aged and vulnerable in our community. That must give us some hope into the future.
However, without doubt, we have seen the overarching authority of NPHET to the exclusion of all other health practitioners and advisers. I think that is a dangerous place to be. If the July amendment is not accepted, our amendment seeks a return to the House on 9 September to review the extension of these powers again. We should propose a review at that stage. The Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, of which I was a member, did very good work. When it was being wound up, I felt it was a mistake and I still believe that to be the case. If we are going to extend powers we should also extend the oversight of the Oireachtas to look at what we are doing. NPHET excluded other voices. We saw it with test and trace, with masks, antigen testing and mandatory hotel quarantining. People have a right to show some disquiet. We need to acknowledge the progress we are making and that we have made. Our proposal speaks to sense and sensibility, that if the Minister will not accept July then we return in September. It is only a few months away. People might be able to live with that for another while. We can look at the transmission data, what is happening, the progress of our vaccination programme and based on that, we can come back to the House and see whether these powers should be extended beyond that date.
The Labour Party is also putting its name to amendment No. 2, along with the Independent Group.
The powers that the Minister is asking us to extend are draconian in any form and nature and I assume the Minister accepts that. In any normal time, it would not even be countenanced in a normal democracy. However, we were not in normal times and it was necessary during the pandemic. We often talk about events that are going on in other countries across Europe that take away individual liberty and in some cases make people fearful. Any legislation that gives extensive powers to a government must have the utmost justification. While there was justification for this when the pandemic first hit us, it was unprecedented. None of us knew what we were facing. It was a once in a lifetime experience, I hope. We had to do it again when we went through our second and third wave. We really need to reconsider all this now. Our citizens are deeply concerned.
Thankfully, we are on the way back to some level of normality and that has changed things but it is hard to understand why the Minister is asking for these powers to be extended until November and potentially later. I will keep on reminding him that since these are extraordinary powers, we need to have measurements as regards the associated decision-making. When I say measurements, they need to be proportionate, fair and justified and they also have to have checks and balances that rotate and are used at all times.
Having studied what the Minister said in Seanad Éireann, I believe he has failed to date to give a satisfactory explanation as to why the powers need to be extended until November. That needs to change. The Minister said previously he has an open mind on this. Frankly, we will find that out. Many of us in the Opposition are saying the Minister should reflect on this. We will be satisfied if he accepts the amendment of the Labour Party and the Independent Group or that of the Social Democrats. To be proportionate, he should accept one of them because the time proposed by him is simply too long. It is unfair and unjustified and does not pass the tests I spoke about.
As matters stand, the Labour Party is of the view that these measures should be in place only until September. If the Minister supports that view or the other amendments proposed, we will come with them on this journey one more time. If he does not, we will not support him. It cannot be any clearer than that.
The Minister has admitted that 80% of the adult population will be vaccinated by the end of June or shortly thereafter. Non-essential international travel is due to begin at some time over the summer. There seems to be a complete contradiction in what the Government is saying and what it is legislating for. The opening up is proceeding at a different pace than the extension of powers. When we take these things in the round, it makes little sense to us to see the extraordinary measures being extended until 9 November if the opening up is to occur on various dates over the summer. Why can we not have a more proportionate response in line with the vaccine roll-out programme, which is going so well?
Yesterday the Government announced the unwinding of several support schemes, such as the PUP, from September. If we are seeking to unwind supports from September, we should surely be reviewing these emergency measures with a view to them ending in September. We have an opening-up programme based on one date and changes in regard to the PUP in September. An overwhelming majority of the population will hopefully be vaccinated by the same date, yet we are extending the powers for several months beyond that. It is inherently contradictory. Outdoor and indoor dining will return in June and July. As announced by the Taoiseach last week, people will be allowed back to view sports. It is hoped people will be going to League of Ireland and GAA matches over the summer. I still intend see Tipperary win its 29th All-Ireland final this year. I have high hopes for that. If I am to attend an All-Ireland final to see Liam Sheedy and his colleagues pick up the cup, I do not see why, proportionately, we need to have extensive draconian powers like those suggested until November.
We hope that as we unwind, circulate and have an outdoor summer, with a bit of an indoor summer in proportion, numbers will be controlled and the vaccines will be rolled out. As we do that, there will obviously be less of a threat although we have to watch for the variants and keep our guard at all times. By 9 September, this House should be back. We will have seen what has happened over the course of the summer and the gradual unwinding. That is why the Labour Party believes that would be a more appropriate point to extend the restrictions, if necessary. Importantly, the situation would be reviewed. That is our proposal. We believe it is a belt-and-braces approach that acknowledges what is happening now is proportionate, takes into consideration other decisions the Government has made and, in tandem, acknowledges the roll-out of the vaccination programme across the country.
I am uneasy over the fact that there has been little or no analysis brought forward to this House on the impact of the restrictions in the past 12 months. I now want to dwell on this. We have no analysis of the impacts on people. We have no qualitative or quantitative analysis of the impacts, including the hidden impacts, on people. This work should be done in advance or early in the timeframe we propose. In all good faith, it is very difficult for the Minister to come into this House and ask us to rubber-stamp the continuation of these measures without providing context and an analysis of their effectiveness, as well as an analysis showing they undoubtedly have negative consequences for people. None of that has been done.
It was difficult but understandable that pre-legislative scrutiny was waived last March when we were literally in the thick of it with Covid, but we are in a very different space now thanks to everybody across the country. My party and, I am sure, others in the House would have been much less uneasy if appropriate time and consideration had been given, in conjunction with other stakeholders, in respect of what would have been a more proportionate response. I refer to what could have occurred if we had taken more time and examined all the data. We had time. Nobody comes into this House more often than the Minister talking about data. I am not being funny in saying that. In fairness, we had time to analyse the consequences of this and prepare.
My colleague, Senator Hoey, rightly suggested to the Minister in the Seanad Chamber that there needs to be a human rights analysis of these measures. It needs to be carried out in advance. We should not be extending these measures beyond September without proper analysis and scrutiny. I, like every other Deputy, have been inundated with correspondence from so many people. They have contacted me by email, in writing, by telephone and orally. I have heard different opinions, some realistic, some fair and some unfair, but all expressing concern. We need to ensure the rights of people we represent are respected and that the most basic tenets of democracy that we are expected to uphold in this House are honoured. There is a sense of rush here. If the Minister is not going to accept the amendments, will he commit to a review of how these laws are being implemented and how often they will have had to have been used in the House before the end of July? That, at least, would be something.
When it comes to legislation such as this, we should be presented with more information on its effectiveness and necessity. It is not good enough to come in here and use the Oireachtas as a rubber-stamping body when it comes to draconian legislation such as this. Therefore, I am asking the Minister to meet us halfway and accept one of two timelines proposed in various amendments. If he does so, we will come a little bit on this journey with him again, but we cannot do so unless the legislation is proportionate, evidence-based, justified, fair and balanced.
Given what the Minister has articulated and put forward to date, it is simply none of those at this moment.
I begin by apologising to Deputy Kelly. We did not mean to interrupt. Deputy Tóibín and I were agreeing that there were more U-turns on display here tonight than anyone would see at a Garda checkpoint.
The Minister was asked a straight question as to whether he would be accepting any Opposition amendments. He said he would like to listen to the discussion on all of the amendments and then make an informed decision. I would like to believe that is the case but, unfortunately, as someone who understands how Dáil and Oireachtas procedure works, I cannot.
Yesterday, there was a vote to guillotine this Bill. That means we stop considering amendments and take a vote on the overall Bill after 150 minutes, regardless of whether amendments have been considered. That decision did not come out of nowhere because that is not how things work here. The Chief Whip to the Government - the Minister is a member of Government, so the Chief Whip is the Chief Whip to the Minister - went into the Business Committee and the guillotine was agreed. I doubt it was agreed without debate but, ultimately, whatever the Government proposes is accepted after it is debated because the Government has the numbers. The Chief Whip said we would guillotine the Bill and we would not debate all amendments because the Government could not be bothered. The view was that it was a nice night and they would go for pints as the lads wanted to enjoy themselves. They have had a difficult winter, so to hell with debate. That is how we got here tonight.
It was disingenuous of the Minister to say he would listen to amendments because we are not going to reach them. There are 60 amendments. I have no doubt the House will accept the Minister's amendments because that is what happens, but we will not be accepting Opposition amendments. That was the question Deputy Denis Naughten put to the Minister.
There is a broader issue with these amendments. I am not convinced that the issue is whether we extend these powers by six months, three months or four months. The issue is more the absolute power to make amendments that lies with the Minister. I cannot accept these amendments. I would accept the amendments tabled by Sinn Féin and the Technical Group - I proposed a similar amendment - but, again, I do not believe they will be reached. Those amendments require explicit Dáil backing for any regulations the Minister introduces. That is real democratic oversight. In the case of my amendment, the proposal was for affirmation to be made within ten sitting days as opposed to ten days. The Minister could not say there could be an emergency during the summer and the Dáil might be unable to sit or that he would have to bring in regulations. He could not say the heavens might fall, the Dáil would not be able to sit to affirm the regulations and, therefore, they would fall and we would have chaos because no one would know what they were doing and it would be awful. That would not arise. It would mean, however, that the Dáil would have to consider the Minister's regulations and affirm them.
Even in the hands of a competent Minister for Health, these powers are dangerous and I would oppose them since they have been used in the past to restrict rights, potentially unlawfully and unconstitutionally.
When this State was founded, we copied the UK Parliament. We take most of our procedure from the House of Commons, just as we take the procedure in our courts from the courts that predated ours. The House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights considered this matter and stated it was glad that it was explicit that religious organisations could practise. They could open the doors of their churches, say masses and hold Sunday service. Synagogues and mosques could open. Religious organisations were expected to behave responsibly and they did. In fact, many did not open the doors of their houses of worship because they believed it would be dangerous or irresponsible to do so or they took the view that, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, it was unnecessary to do so. Nevertheless, they were allowed to do so. The Commons Human Rights Committee stated that was a good thing because to have done otherwise would be contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. It stated that a similar level of clarity was lacking on the right to peaceful assembly and protest.
I believe we have a lack of clarity around both issues and I have raised both with the Minister repeatedly. In October, the Minister, who was sitting where he is sitting now, took umbrage when I suggested it would be a penal offence for a priest to say mass in public. The regulations said it was an offence to leave home without reasonable excuse and that a reasonable excuse in respect of a minister or priest - I am fairly certain those were the words used in the regulation - included saying mass but only if it was online. By extension, saying mass in public was not a reasonable excuse and in saying mass in public or carrying out another religious ceremony, a priest was committing a criminal offence. The Minister explicitly stated in the Dáil that he had read the regulations the previous night and assured me it was not a penal offence and would remain thus. That regulation lapsed in December when we were all having the meaningful Christmas that the National Public Health Emergency Team dreamt up. It was a disastrous campaign to justify an unnecessary lockdown at the start of October. Then the regulations were reintroduced in January word for word, comma for comma, line for line. The regulations the Minister said did not contain a penal offence were challenged in our courts and legal counsel for the Government - the Government's legal representatives - clarified to the court that it was a penal offence to say mass in public.
That concerns me on several levels. It concerns me that we are potentially infringing constitutional rights and it concerns me even more that the Minister assured the House that it was not a penal offence. He said he had read the regulations, knew what he was doing and that what was being suggested by the Opposition was simply wrong. Then the Minister's lawyers clarified the exact opposite to the courts.
Did the Minister read the regulations the night before, as he told the House, or did he not read them the night before? If he read them, did he not understand them? If he did not understand them, did he not take legal advice on them? How did we arrive at a situation in which the polar opposite of what the Minister assured the House was the case came to be the Government's position in the courts? If the Minister did not understand what he was signing with regard to religious freedom, how are we to believe that he understood what he was signing with regard to the impact the regulations would have on any of the panoply of rights that exist and that inhere in all human beings the State? I am referring to the rights in the Constitution that the constitutional order is here to protect.
I raised this matter before and the Minister said he did not understand the question. I will be simple. Did the Minister tell fibs to the House with respect to the fact that he read the regulations and understood the regulations or their import?
Surely, it was one of the three. The great powers the Minister has under these regulations make me very uneasy. As I have said, were Deputy Donnelly an entirely competent Minister, I would still be uneasy but I say with sadness that, unfortunately, he has demonstrated otherwise on the floor of this House. I invited the Minister to explain the scenario. I invited him to retract what he said and explain how this came about but he declined to do so. Now here he is saying, "Trust me, guys", using the lingo of certain management consultants. It is a bit like saying "Trust me, I'm a doctor", if the Ceann Comhairle will pardon the pun.
We have heard NPHET mentioned. NPHET called for most of these powers. We have seen NPHET give public health advice. I do not have a problem with that per se. We need somebody to give the Government public health advice and who is better placed to do so than the Chief Medical Officer? However, advice as to whether restrictions should be policed and how they should be policed and advice as to whether people should be allowed to gather together is not really public health advice. These are State matters. I am concerned NPHET has overstepped the limits of its function massively. NPHET is led by the Chief Medical Officer. It is obvious why he and the deputy chief medical officer are on the team but there are others on it as well.
I have been contacted by many doctors from across this State over the past six months. They work in public hospitals with people who have contracted Covid. They are working in very difficult circumstances but completely oppose the position Deputy Donnelly has advocated as Minister for Health. Not only has he put forward and advocated for his position but he has made it a criminal offence not to agree with it. It is not democratic that he can do so at the stroke of a pen without being accountable to any committee or either House. Let me phrase it differently. The Minister knows when a regulation is going to expire, because it is written within the regulation. He therefore knows if he will need to introduce another regulation in a week or two, if the advice from NPHET is that it is necessary. Why then would the Minister not want to go before a committee and tease it out so that it can be clearly understood what is or is not a penal offence? In a democracy, why would he not want to tease that out? I simply do not understand why that would be so, unless the Minister has a tendency towards authoritarianism. That does not just worry me, but frightens me.
I come from a part of the country that is very proud of its tradition and tendency towards freedom and the protection of freedom, which it had for a long time before the end of British rule in this State and has had for a long time since British rule ended. Many made the ultimate sacrifice. In fact, some of those who did so could not even be commemorated because of the pandemic. I am not suggesting it would have been right to have had large commemorations. On the contrary, I would not feel comfortable in a large crowd at the moment. What I am saying is that it is wrong to impose public health advice through criminal law and it is even more wrong to do so by way of delegated legislation. It is still more wrong to remove any possibility of checks and balances being applied in this House and to prevent the House looking at what is being done.
Last week, last month and last year, I asked whether we had any idea of the mental health impacts of these restrictions or of their impact on suicides. I note that last week the Central Statistics Office announced the number of deaths and the number of suicides that occurred last year that had been recorded as of 22 May. I may be mistaken as to the particular date but it was certainly in May. Thankfully, the number of suicides was down on the previous year. However, that does not really tell us much. Deaths have to be recorded within three months in Ireland and the vast majority are. It can, however, sometimes take a lot longer to record the cause of death. Sometimes, a coroner's court must rule. Of course, all courts, including the coroners' courts, faced long delays last year. There is therefore a delay in establishing the cause of certain deaths. I hope that the number of suicides was down in 2020 but the information we have to hand only says that the number of suicides in 2020 recorded as of May was down. They are two entirely different things.
It is interesting the number of deaths recorded was up on the number of deaths recorded in May 2020 in respect of 2019. Again, there could be a delay in recording deaths, although this is less likely because, without meaning to be glib, it is much easier to establish whether somebody is alive or dead than it is to establish the cause of death. The deaths of most people who died in 2020 will therefore have been recorded by May. Even if there had been a delay, provided the delay in both years was similar, the number of deaths had increased by 600. That is about 2% of total deaths. I have lost more people who were close to me than many of my age will have so I know what it is like to grieve for a loved one. I know how awful it is but, equally, I know that I have to go on living for the living. I do not wish to minimise the deaths of these 600 people, as they are very important, but I wish to point out that the number was only up 600, or 2%, on the previous year. The same increase in deaths took place between 2017 and 2018 as took place between 2019 and 2020. This again causes me to question not whether there is a pandemic, because there clearly is, and not whether people need to be cautious, because they clearly do, but whether some of the restrictions that were put in place and some of the public health measures policed by An Garda Síochána were necessary, proportionate or advised. It does cause me to question that.
Deputy Paul Murphy has drawn considerable attention to an issue in respect of fines. It is hardly surprising but most of the fines have been handed out in a couple of areas in the State. Towards the end of last summer, I warned we were effectively penalising poverty through some of these Covid restrictions. That is what we have done. It was not in Greystones or east Clare that the number of fines was high but in parts of the country which the State has consistently failed, parts where people are poor. That is where fines were issued. It will be interesting to see whether they will be paid because there are all sorts of constitutional frailties in much of this legislation.
At the start, Deputy Naughten said we gave the police powers to do all of this last March. We did not. We incrementally gave the Minister more powers, rather than fewer, as the year went on. We were acting blindly in March 2020 but it was in October, through the Health (Amendment) Act 2020, that we gave the police powers to issue lots of fines. Those powers were subsequently increased. Then mandatory hotel quarantine was introduced after Christmas, which was a fiasco. Rather interestingly, the Minister himself has said that, if the mandatory hotel quarantine regime had been in place before Christmas, it would not have stopped what happened at Christmas. I found that astounding because, if it would not have stopped what happened at Christmas, what was the point? What we have done has made Belfast International Airport a success story after many years of stagnation while Shannon Airport, which was enjoying some nascent success after facing some difficulties, has plummeted.
It is now open to international travel. Many people from this State are travelling through it to travel internationally as we speak.
That is what we have achieved. I hope the Minister will withdraw the guillotine and agree that these powers are extreme and that we need to debate them, even if that means sitting tomorrow, Friday, Saturday or Sunday because I doubt there is a rock concert taking place on those days. There is plenty of time and plenty of space. Let us debate what is involved. Let us get back to democracy. Let us return to normality in some shape or form. I oppose the particular amendment.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak to these amendments. This is an important debate. The people of Ireland have experienced a lot of anxiety and have had an awful lot to put up with. They are saying in their droves that they do not want the Minister for Health or the Government to be given a blank cheque to continue at will without having to consult us, as legislators, or them, the people. The fact is that people have had an awful lot to contend with financially, mentally and in every other aspect of their lives. We all agree that at the start of the pandemic it was right that certain measures had to be put in place. A pandemic of this nature had never before occurred in modern times. It took extreme measures to deal with and contain it. There is a point at which all that must stop. The Government, just as it is doing in regard to the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021, is going so far east it is going west.
I will give some examples. I spoke this week to the Taoiseach on the floor of the Dáil with regard to mental health and suicide and the affects on people in terms of what they are going through. I am not for one moment saying that the suicides which are occurring are a direct or indirect result of the pandemic, the lockdown or the lack of social contact that people have had. What I am saying is that we have to look at everything in the round. We have to look at the bigger picture. There are things that the Government should be doing to help people that it is not doing.
My colleagues in the Rural Independent Group and I have put forward amendments and I am supporting other amendments that have been tabled. I am not supporting the Bill, however, because I have studied it and it can be only described as a blank cheque for the Government. I cannot for the life of me understand how, for example, Deputies from County Kerry could support the Bill and give the Government a blank cheque. If they were listening to the people in Kerry, they would hear what they are saying. They are saying, "Enough is enough" and "We have done enough." They have put their shoulders to the wheel, but business owners are on their knees, be it hoteliers, shopkeepers, small traders, hairdressers, beauticians or the various categories of tradespeople who have worked hard to build up their businesses and who have been held back for so long. They are suffering financially and mentally, as are their families. They have been through a lot. On a daily basis, and as late as this evening, they have been saying to me: "For God's sake, will you tell them above there that enough is enough, we want to get back to normal and we do not want the Government to be able to come along at any time and do what it did in the past and go over the top."
I have seen at first hand, as I am sure has every other Deputy here, bereaved families, brothers and sisters, sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces sitting in their cars in the yards of churches watching the burial mass for their grandfather or grandmother on their mobile phones while there were only ten people in the church. I challenge the person from NPHET who recommended to Government that only ten people should be allowed in the cathedral in Killarney. For God's sake, it did not make sense. The people officiating at those masses, the priests, were repeatedly saying that it did not make sense because they were on the altars looking down into the churches and they could see what ten people looked like. It was an act of insanity on the part of this Government to put that restriction in place. It was grossly wrong, highly offensive and it will never be forgotten by the families involved. They will never forgive Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Green Party or anybody else who thought it was a good idea to support those parties in doing that because they were denied the right to have be at the burial masses for their loved ones and they cannot get a second chance in that regard. That was the case up until very recently. Nobody could look me in the eye and tell me that that was right or proper or that it was in the interests of public health. It was absolute nonsense of the highest order that only ten people were allowed into the cathedral in Killarney. It would take a person a long time to find ten people in that cathedral. It was crazy. No matter how many times the Government was told that what is was doing was wrong, it would not listen. There are plenty of other examples, but this is an example in the extreme because that is a time in a person's life that he or she cannot get back. For young people who loved their grandparents and lost one of them during that time it was deeply upsetting, highly offensive and wrong.
We listened to the so-called experts and we put up with an awful lot from them. They are now the prophets of doom and gloom. We have all seen the tweets over the last couple of days. Let us consider what the Government is now telling people. The Government would want to stop talking out of both sides of its mouth. I will give an example of a contradiction. The Government said recently that this summer is to be a summer of outdoor activities, eating and drinking. Everything is to happen outdoors. Yet, it is shutting down outdoor areas the length and breadth of the country by putting up barriers. It is hiring barriers and buying barriers such that there is a scarcity of barriers in the country. It is using those barriers to close off green areas and parks. It is using them to segregate and close off places outdoors. For God's sake, where is the intelligence in that? Does Government not realise that in doing that, it will push people into other places where there will then be larger congregations. We need to allow people to spread out. I have seen what is being done in Dublin. It is crazy. It is an overreaction. What genius thinks we can save people by closing off a particular place or that that will stop them going to another place? The Government needs to make up its mind. Is this the summer of the outdoors or is Government telling the people that it is going to shut down the outdoors because it wants them to stay indoors? The Government needs to make up its mind. Could it do the opposite and trust the people, be it young people, the middle-aged or the elderly, to do the right thing? I trust the people. I trust the publicans in a way Government did not trust them. They remain closed because Government does not trust them. I believe that publicans are probably the most trustworthy and reliable people. I will explain why. They run public houses in respect of which they have to go before the courts every year for a licence to operate. Not many people in business have to do that every year. Publicans have to be respectable, reliable and dependable families. I use the word "families" because the majority of pubs and hotels are family businesses. They are highly respected in their communities. They work with the people and they provide a nice, friendly service in a warm atmosphere for them. They should have been allowed to reopen their businesses a long time ago. I will explain why. It would have helped to stop the spread if every place had been open because we might not have had people congregating in one place.
There might not have been the parties where the virus did spread, had young people not all been in one place and had they more opportunities to go to different places. However, the Government was hell-bent on going down the road of total control and total manipulation.
The killing thing about it is that the Government wants, on 2 June, to continue to do the same thing and to be given ongoing powers by way of this legislation. I really hope that enough people do not support this Bill. I hope some of the amendments that have been put forward will be supported. From this day forward, the Government should not be given any more continuing powers. I do not agree with the different dates being put forward by different groupings. The day should be now. These powers should stop now and the people should be trusted to do the right thing by themselves, which I know they will do. I could say a lot more but I would like the opportunity to speak on other amendments later.
First, I want to make it clear that I cannot support this draconian legislation. Where is it going to end? Are we moving towards dictatorship in this country? It was always said that things would change once the most vulnerable were vaccinated. People in their 70s and over got their vaccines first and on it went down through those in their 60s and 50s. Now people in their 40s are being vaccinated. I saw a statistic today showing that chemotherapy appointments are down by 12%. Unfortunately, there are people suffering from cancer who have either been neglected or are not going into hospitals. That is going to be a problem in the next year or maybe sooner. People needing different operations, whether for cataracts or anything else, are having their treatment kicked down the road, all in the name of Covid. There are going to be consequences to that. Mental health issues, especially in young people, will be a major problem.
Looking at the recovery plan yesterday, with the billions that will be thrown at X, Y and Z, I heard it said that the country is going to take off like a Ferrari. One thing I can tell the Minister is that young people around the country will not take off like a Ferrari because they cannot get a driver licence at the moment. They cannot even get a theory test. It probably suits some people in certain offices not to have those theory tests taking place. It is absolutely scandalous. In the agricultural sector, it is not possible at this time to get a youngster who can drive a tractor to bring in silage. There are fathers and mothers on farms around the country who are reliant on youngsters to do a certain amount of tractor work. People cannot avail of the simple process of applying to answer 35 to 40 questions. There was a big hoo-ha about bringing in an online system. After 15 months of talking about it, the system is now parked because the appointments are all booked out. Everybody who got an offer of a theory test appointment, which they were told would be done in the next few days, have since received an email telling them they will not be taken. Does anyone in the Government understand that the likes of agricultural work is summer work? Do they understand that silage is made over the next month from now? It is not done in October in November, when the Government's powers will lapse. In fact, those powers may not even need to be renewed if things keep going the way the Government is proposing.
As Deputy Michael Healy-Rae said, we have had all the talk about opening up the country. I have heard many people criticising others for congregating, to drink or whatever they were at, in different parts of the country. Yet, the Government is telling everyone we will be having an outdoor summer and Tourism Ireland is promoting that. Do people forget that we were all young once? Would any of us have liked to be locked up when we were young for 15 months, unable to go out to a nightclub or disco or to meet friends? What is going on is not normal. It is fortunate that we are in a situation where, from now on, the Minister should be able to do without these powers. A line was crossed in that regard when it came to churches. Regardless of what religion we are talking about, and I am not referring to any specific faith, we were told in the Dáil that churches and priests would not be affected. On the day members of the Garda went into a church, I believe we crossed a fine line in this country.
The Government needs to rethink and take responsibility for its decisions. We are constantly hearing that such-and-such an expert said this and such-and-such an expert said that. We do not seem to do any reports in this country but we rely on every report from every other country. Everyone else is making the decisions for us and the view is that if it goes wrong, someone else can be blamed and the Government will not have to shoulder any responsibility. Government is for governance and taking decisions. Ministers can listen to everybody and take their view into account but the Government must make the decisions.
Can the Minister do something in the Department of Transport to help young people get their licences? This issue is affecting their mental health. Young people in rural areas want to earn a few pounds by helping their parents or the contractors on farms. We are talking about a recovery and putting loads of people back to work. The first thing people need to be able to do is drive a car or tractor if they are to go to work. It is as simple as that, especially in rural Ireland. There is no bus or any other way of getting to work.
It looks like the Minister is not going to accept any of the amendments that have been put forward, including the ones tabled by my group. He has decided that he will be in charge of everything, lock, stock and barrel. He will write statutory instruments as he feels like it and then toddle along. That is not good for the country. A country should be run as a democracy and all of these decisions should be debated in the Dáil. If something crops up, one, two, three or four weeks after these powers run out, I am damn sure every politician in this House will come in here to deal with it, as they did before. They were always willing, in fairness, to give their tuppence worth and do things democratically. However, this idea of statutory instruments and so on has led to a back-door system. I recall that the habitats directive was signed into law by our now President as a statutory instrument. When such measures are not debated in the Dáil, anything can be done by way of statutory instrument.
This situation has gone too far. If the Minister listens to people, that is what they are saying. I am not talking about people who are against everything. Most people we talk to day by day are saying the time has come and the hour is here that the Government must start letting go of these powers. People do not know whether we are in level 5, level 4 or level 3 at the moment. One thing and another is opening next week and the hairdressers are already open. Have we moved away from the levels altogether and on to a different system? I ask the Minister to rethink where we are going in this. The ordinary Joe Soap speaks a lot of common sense, if one listens to what he is saying.
I have had a large number of telephone calls today from youngsters who are desperate to earn a few pounds. They will not get the PUP because they were not working before Covid. They are trying to get a few quid together. There is a major problem for farming contractors around the country, who are left with machines standing idle because of a lack of people to work them. Unless it tackles these issues and makes sure they are sorted out, all we are getting from the Government is bluster. It took five or six months of head scratching before an online driver theory test was brought in and, within two days, it was all over, with appointments booked out until 2022 or 2023. Will the Government do something that works and will help people, instead of bringing in more draconian powers? When is this craic of bringing in more and more powers going to end? This country is not a dictatorship and it is not run by communists. We believe in democracy and the Government working with people. I ask the Minister to rethink the whole Bill.
Fortunately, we are getting to where we want to be.
As more opens, the country is coming back. I spoke to a couple today. Yes, the EWSS was and is important, but why did the Government not do something constructive and go to a bank and tell it not to refuse people on the EWSS or their employers their mortgages? I know several people who have been approved for a mortgage but who, because they are on the EWSS, will not get the mortgage now. Their lives are on hold. They do not know where they are going. They have been in that position for a year or 15, 16 or 17 months. Just for good measure, while that has gone on, their costs have gone up by probably €40,000 each for the same house, so there is more money to borrow and maybe they will have to go back to the bank to be refused for the lot.
For God's sake, we need to listen to the people on the ground. They will learn us more than anyone what we need to do. No one is reckless. I am not talking about recklessness. I am talking about people who have common sense and who have adhered to a lot of stuff over the past 15 months.
Think of our youth as well. It is not natural for youngsters of 16, 17 and 18 to be in under your feet of a Saturday night. You are gone early every Saturday night or Sunday night when you are young, wild and free. We have to start helping out those people. If we do not, there will be a revolt against us.
Seven Deputies are indicating to speak separately from the proposers of the amendment. I will leave it up to the Deputies. The next speaker is Deputy Mattie McGrath. If each speaker takes the same amount of time other speakers have taken, other Deputies will not be reached.
I am truly shocked that the Minister persists with these draconian measures. He sees the rising opposition, thankfully in the House as well. People have woken up to see what is going on: the power grab. The Government has consistently and deliberately stoked fear over the coronavirus while behaving like an authoritarian regime, relying on police state tactics. The Government's handling of Covid has resulted in the State's exercising coercive powers over its citizens on a scale never previously attempted. The ease with which people could be terrorised into surrendering basic freedoms which are fundamental to our existence is truly shocking. Now the Government wants to hold on to these powers for potentially up to another eight months.
"Liberty" is a word much hawked around in recent years by both bullies and liberals, but personal liberty is a fundamental right. We agree to let governments walk over this threshold as a temporary measure - a wartime measure, really. Once the war is over, let us make sure this is removed. However, the Government does not want to remove it. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This power has gone to the Minister's head. The Bill and the associated powers it allows for clearly indicate how the Government values our hard-won democracy, especially on this 100th anniversary of our freedom fighters and the people who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The extension of these powers does nothing to enhance our democracy. Rather, they are an attack on our democratic values and freedoms. Power, as I said, is addictive.
What if one of the legacies of this pandemic turns out to be profound economic hardship, sparking unease? Other Deputies have referred to the fact that most of the fines have been given out in poorer areas. Might future politicians be tempted to use similar powers? I think they will be. The Government has the patent designed now and it is a very dangerous patent. In a crisis of this kind, where so much is unknown, you may well need a strong government. We all backed the Minister at the start. He was in opposition at that time. We were all frightened, but when we saw the reality and woke up to what was really going on we said "No". The Minister and the Taoiseach have not briefed the oppositional leaders since last October. The Government got so punch-drunk with its powers it thought it would just walk in here with a nod and a wink and be on its way. It has not had respect the for the Opposition leaders or any other Members of this House to engage with or talk to them.
As I said, we have supported drastic action to prevent our health service from being overrun, but it has been overrun for nearly 20 years and there was not a word about it. I salute the front-line workers and what they have tried to do in the past 15 months. I think we will look back on this period as an inspiring time when citizens made huge sacrifices for one another as well as a time which saw the supposedly democratic Government set some worrying precedents. There has been a serious impact on health services, with a lack of diagnoses or delayed diagnoses for cancer patients, mental ill health and many other areas. The figures are there but the Government will not release them.
By using propaganda, the Government has to some extent been able to create its own public opinion - that is a fact, and it is a shocking way to treat people - with fear being deliberately stoked up by the Government, national broadcasters and whoever else joined the gang. The public has not even begun to understand the seriousness of what the Government has done but they are all educated and will make up their own minds. The Government has discovered the power of public fear and we have let it get away with it.
Since the onset of Covid, we have seen a loss of effective parliamentary scrutiny of emergency Covid powers as many are granted via stroke-of-the-pen statutory instrument. The Minister stood up here and told us he had read the regulations the previous night and told us point-blank that no priest or cleric of any order could be arrested, let alone fined or imprisoned. The Government's barristers and legal team told the courts below that was the position. We saw Fr. P.J. Hughes, a brave man, have to deal with six gardaí in his church on Sunday morning. Has the Minister any respect for the House that he will not correct the record and say he was wrong on that? He is not wrong on anything. He is infallible. The Pope was only trodding after him.
Cumulatively, these emergency measures are the most significant interference with personal freedoms since the independence of this country. I believe that 100%. As I said, we will look back on the measures taken to contain the pandemic as a monument of collective hysteria and Government stupidity. Governments in Ireland hold power on the sufferance of the elected Chamber of the Legislature. Without that we are not a democracy. The present Government has given the State the authority in the past 14 months to enforce public measures. I could read them out.
I understand that many other Deputies want to talk, but this is a step way too far. We were supposed to come back to the House on 9 June to debate a sunset clause. That is what we expected. Instead we have four pieces of legislation in this kind of omnibus Bill just fired together with no accountability, no pre-legislative scrutiny and, above all, no debate here. The Minister has come here just to guillotine the debate, and that is what he has done, with all Stages to be taken in two and a half hours, a vote and off you go. The Government needs a rain check.
I am alarmed this evening. I have no truck with any protester anywhere who is aggressive or violent or who causes damage, intimidation or fear. In fairness to the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, she is getting unduly harassed over a decision I reject totally, namely, the closure of a hospital in Carrick-on-Suir, but there is no place for an elected person to be intimidated. However, when I heard one Sinn Féin Deputy say this evening that the protests were dangerous, I was shocked. Sinn Féin has really gone full circle now and we are in a strange place when we think of recent history, with the water protests and everything else.
The Minister will not take any amendment, it is quite clear. I thank Brian Ó Domhnaill and our team for putting forward our amendments. We have many tabled. They will not even be debated or reached. By condensing the whole debate into two and a half hours, it was the Government's abject desire to crush democracy and stymie any debate. The Minister would not answer the question when he was asked whether he would take any amendment. He has no notion of taking any of the amendments. This power, as I said, has become a little dangerous to him and his accountability to us or to this House. He will not meet us. We fully oppose the Bill. We will call votes on any amendments and a vote at the end. I suppose it will be passed, but it is interesting to see backbenchers say one thing to their people and come in here and do the opposite. The genie is out of the bottle. The people have found out the trickery that is going on and the damage to our democratic society.
I will not say much more, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, because I get no answers. I have got no answers to any questions. I have stood here week in and week out asking questions. I was never afforded the dignity of one written answer from the Minister. He thinks he is above the people of this House and the people of the country with his nice, plush area in Greystones and his nice big fence around it to keep him safe. It is shocking.
It is shocking, though. I have asked the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Ceann Comhairle, the Whip, Deputy Chambers, and everybody else for answers, which we are entitled to get. We cannot get them.
That is a dangerous place to go in a democracy. I am fully opposed to this. I will not take any more time from anybody else.
I will do my best to get to the points fast.
Today, we see the Government guillotining this Bill. The act of guillotining a Bill is in itself a phenomenally undemocratic act. It cuts out the Opposition's ability to push and challenge the Government to make sure that the laws it is introducing are actually correct. It is a guarantee that the law will not be tested properly before it is implemented. Accordingly, it is very likely the law will be significantly poorer as a result.
This guillotining is being done by one of the most undemocratic Governments that I have seen in the history of the State. On most occasions throughout the past 15 months, the Government has bypassed the Opposition and Oireachtas. It has treated Opposition Members simply like a decoration. It is an incredible thing that has happened over the past while.
All of this is facilitated by legislation which, in itself, is grossly undemocratic. It radically gives undemocratic, and at times unconstitutional, powers to the Government. If one has a Government unchecked, naturally it will make mistakes and push its power to the limit. Over the past several months, we have seen incredible things happen. There was a Donegal helpline to encourage people to tell on each other. We had pregnant mothers having to watch their partners in hospital car parks because they were not allowed in with them. We had gardaí going into churches. We had Protestant pastors arrested and families sent away from funerals by priests from the door of a church with family members lying in coffins inside. When students gathered in Galway, the Fianna Fáil Senator in the area stated the Army needed to be brought in.
The Government has closed down practically every public venue that exists in the country. It then tells young people it will be an outside summer. When young people gathered in several streets recently, the political establishment hammered down on them at an unmerciful rate. It is an incredible situation. The Government, by its actions, created the situation in South William Street last week. If people had been allowed gather in outdoor settings in pubs and restaurants, then this would not have happened. The Government is now going a step further on this occasion. There are photographs on social media of the bandstand in St. Stephen's Green being fenced off. I am hearing that in other parts of the country, the Government is also fencing off the public realm from young people. Only 0.1% of the transmission of this illness happens outside, yet now the Government is actively fencing off the outside from people.
These restrictions do not delete human activity but simply displace it. If we reduce the spaces in which human activity can exist, then people will be corralled in bigger numbers. The whole action is self-defeating in the long run. The Taoiseach is reported as saying the July reopening might be reviewed. He said if people do not follow the rules, he is going to catch them. This is an unbelievable response from the Taoiseach, basically saying that if they are not good children, he will punish them with further restrictions in the future.
One issue which has frustrated me over the last while is that there is a virulent variant which I call the Dáil variant. It is a serious and deadly threat to common sense. All the things that we have seen in the past while have shown that common sense has been heavily attacked by this particular variant. The sad point is that the Opposition is not immune to this variant. In fact, most of the Opposition want to go further than the Government, even up to a number of weeks ago. Even Sinn Féin was sitting on the fence when it abstained in the Seanad on this Bill and flip-flopped on a "No" vote here today. Opposition needs to hold the Government to account. The Government will not be able to do its job properly unless it is pushed to the limit by the Opposition. The Opposition has not done its job in this State over the past while.
We are in a situation today where there are 93 people with Covid in hospitals. All of these people could fit into Navan hospital with 20 beds left over. Thankfully, the number is extremely low. It amazes me how insular this country still is. We are so inward looking. I talk to people internationally and they still cannot believe the pubs and restaurants are closed in this country. Denmark and Finland had similar levels of Covid morbidity and mortality to this country. Denmark opened its pubs and restaurants in mid-April while Finland opened up on 12 May. However, the Government is not considering this for a number of months. We have the illogical situation that hotels can open for indoor dining and drinking from today. That, however, is not going to happen for a number of weeks in the rest of the hospitality industry.
Aontú is calling for the Government to open up all hospitality under the same science and the same regulations. The Tánaiste was on the radio earlier this week saying it is not a scientific reason that they are not opening up together. He said it was a practical reason. It is an absolutely incredible situation. The Government needs to get practical. If the Government needs particular restrictions in the future, it can come knocking on the door of the elected representatives of the people of Ireland to ask us for those. If we consider it logical at that point in time, due to the evidence on hand, that is when the decision will be made.
Writing the Government a blank cheque in this situation is absolutely illogical. It has already spent those given to it in a manner which is completely over the top, unfair and undemocratic. I urge all Opposition Members not just to vote against the Government amendment but to vote against any extension of these restrictions. I heard Opposition leaders today say that the time has passed for these restrictions. Their amendments, however, seek to continue those restrictions for another six weeks potentially. They spoke about not giving the Government a blank cheque for another six months but are happy to write one until the end of July or September or whatever arbitrary date has been chosen. The truth of the matter is we need to make sure that we protect the most vulnerable, that we roll out vaccines to those who need them and that we make sure we socially distance and protect people. We need, however, to start to live again.
I will be brief. I will not be supporting the extension of these powers. The Minister will say he expected that anyway. The biggest reason is because hundreds of my constituents have contacted me by email and in writing. I said last week I pity my postman because my post box is full every week back in Lowertown, Schull. They have also been ringing the office. I have not met anyone yet who has asked me to support this legislation. That is an incredible situation. They have outlined many reasons as to why they do not want these powers to be extended.
They have given and done their best. There is always a rogue person but the majority of people have worked hard to work within the rules and safe guidelines. People need to be praised and given an opportunity to reap some reward for that careful behaviour. They are willing to do that.
I thank Máirín McGrath and Brian Ó Domhnaill who put together our amendments but we will not get an opportunity to discuss them. We have given ourselves very little time here for discussion of the matter. These amendments are genuine, progressive and honest. We should have got enough time to debate them but we seem to be rushing through this serious legislation.
I am aware of the seriousness of the pandemic and what it has done. Our energies now need to be used on progressing a safe reopening.
We do not want to be in a situation where, at weekends, we push young people into large gatherings in small areas instead of considering opening things up. People need to get out to enjoy themselves in a safe manner. The owners of public houses and restaurants are very annoyed and frustrated as they do not know whether their businesses will survive. They have mortgages and so on. I worry about many of these businesses given the regulations that have been put to them, even before they reopen, requiring them to keep a distance of 1 m between customers who can only stay for a certain time. It is impossible to staff that type of a system. Businesses would need to double their staff. Genuine customers will be kept more than 1 m apart and could be told to leave the premises where they may be eating or having a drink. That is very unfair and I will not support it.
It will also be difficult for An Garda Síochána to administer these extended powers if they are used again. The Garda in west Cork worked hard during the pandemic. Gardaí were always present in Ballinascarthy, Drimoleague and Innishannon. They were very fair in most cases and it was difficult for them to figure out what was and was not genuine. People who were travelling were held up and had to answer questions, which many felt was unfair. In one rare case, in Ballinascarthy, a person buying farm machinery ended up being fined, which was totally wrong. People interpret the law differently. Farming was meant to be a genuine, allowable activity.
I saw so much hardship with funerals and weddings. Many people are still pinning their hopes on being allowed to have more than 50 people at a wedding held in an open setting. A wedding is a once-in-a-lifetime event and they want to have a little enjoyment and at least have all their family attend, even if they cannot invite neighbours and friends.
Funerals have been hugely stressful for everybody. People were streaming on to roadways to show respect because Irish people have always been great at showing respect for their neighbours at funerals. It is a sad state of affairs when people, including family members, cannot attend funerals or get into a church when it is pouring rain outside.
These measures have left a great deal of hurt, which will not go away or be forgotten for a long time. Some people love to go to Mass. Plenty of churches in west Cork can hold 500 people but their doors are shut. People are not allowed to attend a prayer service. Priests and pastors were arrested because they wanted to serve their people, as they have always done. We have not seen scenes like this since we were under British rule many decades ago. It is not right that people were literally not allowed to pray. This was a hurtful time for many and made them feel very lonely and isolated. It caused an increase in mental health problems among the 99% of people who wanted to attend church to socialise in a nice and careful way.
The Government should be concentrating its efforts on addressing standards in hospitals, community hospitals and nursing homes. Unfortunately, there were many cases where Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, standards were not met for people. In Clonakilty Community Hospital staff could not have done more but the bottom line is the hospital was not up to standard, as various reports have repeatedly stated. Clonakilty has a large hinterland area. I pay tribute to the staff of the hospital and extend my deepest condolences to those who lost family members during the pandemic in that type of a setting. That was so unfair and could have been avoided. We seem to be concentrating our efforts on extending powers rather than focusing on ensuring the rule or guideline that we achieve an 80% single-bed occupancy rate is observed. It is not being met in some of the community hospitals under the control of the HSE. That is where we should be concentrating our efforts. It is the kind of conversation we should be having today, rather than giving the Minister a blank cheque to impose further restrictions.
I am very disappointed that we cannot discuss the amendments. Other Members want to contribute. I will not support this Bill and the Rural Independent Group will press for a vote. There are many Government backbenchers here. I listening to them every day on the radio and I am somewhat annoyed with the media because these Deputies are never questioned. They come in here today to vote for this Bill but they are out there on the radio saying they are against it. That is incredible. A person who votes for something supports it. We need a system where they can understand that because they do not seem to understand it. They go on radio and television condemning these measures and then come in here and vote for them. It is a strange way to be and it seems to be the case with every other issue as well. We are at a new juncture in Irish politics where politicians say one thing on their local radio station or in a local newspaper and then come in here and do another thing. I cannot understand for the life of me what is going on.
I was wondering if we would have an opportunity to speak on this matter. I want to mark my opposition to what the Government is doing in its proposals. My reasons for doing so differ from those that other Members have set out. The Government has been too quick to reopen. It is doing so to get publicity and a pat on the back. We should have waited for another month or so before reopening.
We have to put measures in place that will make the Government row back a bit and require it to consult the Dáil, as it should. That is why I am supporting these amendments and others that we will propose later to require the Government to submit reports on what it will do before extending any of these measures. The whole of last year was lost because the Government did not learn or put anything in place on this issue. We have spent a whole year with these measures in place, which is just wrong. I am not go on any longer because everybody else went on for too long and other Deputies are waiting to make their contribution. I oppose the Bill.
I will be brief unlike some of my colleagues. I was going to make a point about why we have arrived at this point and why I supported the emergency draconian legislation in March and October 2020. The key point is that we did not have vaccines then. We now have them and we know they are working. The fact that there are only 93 people in hospitals with Covid is a vindication of that and of NPHET. The Government is saying the vaccines are working, which is good.
Most of those aged in their 60s have only received one dose of the vaccine. I urge the Minister to clarify if they will have a second dose in their arms sooner than the 12-week interval. That should be done where people are vulnerable. In Britain, the second dose has been brought forward from 12 to eight weeks as a precautionary measure. We have been told to be very cautious with the Delta or Indian variant. Why has the Government not been proactive in doing that?
Many people in the very high-risk category have only had one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine and must also wait for 12 weeks for the second dose. I know 63-year-olds who received the first dose a month ago and will not be fully vaccinated until July. The Minister has to be proactive and act with urgency on this.
We have reached the stage where the Government is opening up and cutting back on payments. It will also review the mandatory hotel quarantine in July and travel will potentially open up on 19 July. We have told people they can have an outdoor summer. The Government's responsibility is to provide the facilities to allow people to have an outdoor summer.
There is no point telling young people or anyone else that they should have an outdoor summer and then closing areas and not providing public toilets, bins or places where people can congregate safely. That is the Government's responsibility and it cannot keep pointing the finger at people. It must be proactive, put the money in and direct the local authorities to provide the facilities. Councillors have raised this at local authority meetings but we hear from the local authorities that if these facilities are provided, it will lead to more people wanting to come out. We have to manage this and that is the responsibility of the Government.
I will support the three amendments in this grouping.
In the house where I was brought up in Kilgarvan, I was taught that when a person gave their word on something, they stood by it. Regardless of whatever else you had in life, if you did not have your word you had nothing. The Minister and the Government told us when they extended these powers the previous time that they would not look to extend them further. When they got these draconian, extreme, exceptional powers, it was for an exceptional reason at the time, but there is not an exceptional reason now because we have the vaccine and the vaccine is dealing with the matter. To give credit where it is due, the Government is rolling out the vaccine, but it does not have the science or, at least, has given no concrete reason the powers should be extended or that it should be given control to continue to oppress the people and lock them down.
This lockdown has caused severe stress to people with cancer because their treatment has been delayed. This is causing mental illness and isolation. People are gone mad and it has hurt young people and tied them down. It has also affected elderly people, who do not have time on their side. They missed visits from their daughters and sons throughout the lockdowns. They did not see their grandchildren in all that time. One month or one year to a man or woman of 80 years of age is an awful long time when they consider that the clock is against them and they do not have much time left.
Where was the science for keeping people out of churches, as was mentioned, and preventing them from going in when the funeral of their grandmother, father or mother was being held in the church because only ten people were allowed in? In the cathedral in Killarney or the church in Castleisland, the ceilings are four storeys high, there is plenty of space and the doors can be opened. It is as if the Government is against religion. I believe that many members of the Government are against religion of all creeds and description. They think they are gods themselves and they do not believe in any other god.
I cannot see the reason for this extension or for giving the Government control and power to lock down the people any further. Some people could not travel to their local town because it is outside their county. Take the people of Duagh or Moyvane, who could not go to Abbeyfeale. They had to go farther away, to Caslteisland or Tralee, because they could not go beyond their county boundary. Those rules did not make sense. What is the Government doing asking Deputies to vote for this again? It is absolutely unfair on people in rural Ireland.
The Government has stated that people can go into an hotel and have a meal and a drink but they cannot go into the restaurant or pub next door. We were told we would have an outdoor summer, and then when the young congregate after their year in college or whatever, having been told to go out, now they are criticised and castigated. Dr. Tony Holohan said he was shocked and the Taoiseach said he was amazed, and now we are hearing that open spaces are going to be cordoned off and the people are going to be blocked out of them. Dr. Holohan will draw me and the people, even though they are quiet people, to outside the doors of the convention centre.
I appeal to the Government to listen to Deputies who deal with the people. Like other Deputies, I have received hundreds of emails and phone calls asking me not to vote to extend the Government's powers to lock down the country for another three months. After that, they might be extended again to February. It could be a further six or seven months, therefore, of the Government wanting to keep control. The Minister should direct his efforts to the people on the waiting lists for cancer treatment, and the Government at large should do something about the young people who want to get on the road, get their provisional licences or be allowed to drive a tractor to help their fathers and mothers in rural Kerry. It should do something about that and look after the young people because it is not doing that. It just wants to keep control and keep a rein on the young and the elderly. It has frightened the country and many people are in trouble with their mental health because they have been isolated for so long.
It could take an awful long time to get the country back to where it was, but if the Government extends the powers further and keeps the people under lockdown for another six or seven months, the country may never recover. I ask the Government to be sensible and to have some common sense because nobody can tell me how it makes sense, because of science or anything else, to tell people they can have a pint and a meal in an hotel but they cannot do so in a pub or a restaurant. What is wrong with the Government? Whom does it think it is codding or trying to cod? All of us will have to face people at their doors at the next election, but I would not face them if I was going on with the carry-on the Government is going on with.
I apologise for going on but I am very cross. I will not support any further lockdown, but if the need arises, the Government can come back to the House any day and we will support it, even though I did not support the Bill's passage on Second Stage. Even if it is during our summer holidays, I will not mind coming back to the House. I am here to represent the people who elected me and those who did not vote for me. The doors will not be locked. We can come back here any time and debate the matter further if there is a need for a lockdown, but right now there is not and we have vaccines to deal with the virus. The Government is wrong, wrong, wrong, and it is worse it is getting.
I agree with all the previous speakers. I, too, will not vote with the Government on this grouping of amendments. If the Minister looks up at the convention centre stage, he will see the Irish flag. More than 100 years ago, people in Ireland fought for their freedom. The number of emails, phone calls and letters we have received about this issue is unbelievable. As my colleagues said, if there are exceptional circumstances, this can be revisited.
I was driving through Dublin last night and I passed a canal where people were sitting. While I was waiting at the traffic lights, people walked in front of my car, went behind a dustbin and urinated on the side of somebody's house. That was all because the Government closed the facilities.
I have seen people who have been locked up for the last two years nearly. Enough is enough. One must realise that people are responsible.
Regarding young people, I stood in this House a number of weeks ago when the Minister of State turned to us and said that a theory test was not essential. We have heard from people working on the harvest that their children could not help them at home to bring in the silage or to do other such farming necessities. However, the Minister of State said that a theory test was not essential. This goes back to what I have been saying, the Cabinet is too city based. Cabinet members are too used to having transport available to them when they walk outside their front door. I have invited Deputy Eamon Ryan to Limerick for one week. I can give him a place to stay and a bicycle. I will tell him to do his work from there and we will see whether he has an Internet connection. He can do his shopping. He can do my daily work in the way he wants to live, with the wolves running around the countryside. These are the thoughts he has. I have asked him, but he has not taken up my offer yet. I spoke to Deputy Leddin today and asked him to come out of Limerick city and go out to the countryside. I can give him the same things as the Minister and let them off. They have no concept of what it is like to live in a rural area.
One thing we have in rural areas is social distancing. We can see how responsible and respectful the people in the areas around our towns and villages are, but now they need to get out because of their mental health. We have heard about the churches. All of us here are sitting 2 m. apart and yet there are churches in Ireland bigger than this Chamber. The Government closed all the churches. My grandchild had to wait 11 months until he could be christened. It took 11 months. If it took any longer, he would have been able to walk up the church aisle and probably say the blessing himself. This is what we are coming to. There are people who cannot get out of their houses to go to mass because the Government is stopping them. In rural areas, one would be lucky to even have 50 people going to mass, but at least give them the choice. We are able to congregate here.
The media is not portraying anything outside of Dublin. Has the Government bought the media? Is it that media outlets do not want Covid-19 to go away because they will have nothing else to report on? I grew up with RTÉ in my house, Gay Byrne, Mike Murphy and Gerry Ryan, all of them.
The time permitted for this debate having expired, I am required to put the following question in accordance with an Order of the Dáil of 1 June: “That the amendments set down by the Minister for Health, and not disposed of, are hereby made to the Bill; in respect of each of the sections undisposed of, that the section or, as appropriate, the section, as amended, is hereby agreed to in committee; the Preamble and the Title are hereby agreed to in committee; the Bill, as amended, is accordingly reported to the House; Fourth Stage is hereby completed; and the Bill is hereby passed.”
Colm Brophy, James Browne, Richard Bruton, Colm Burke, Peter Burke, Mary Butler, Thomas Byrne, Jackie Cahill, Dara Calleary, Ciarán Cannon, Joe Carey, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Jack Chambers, Niall Collins, Patrick Costello, Cathal Crowe, Cormac Devlin, Alan Dillon, Stephen Donnelly, Paschal Donohoe, Francis Noel Duffy, Bernard Durkan, Alan Farrell, Frank Feighan, Joe Flaherty, Charles Flanagan, Seán Fleming, Norma Foley, Brendan Griffin, Simon Harris, Seán Haughey, Martin Heydon, Emer Higgins, Neasa Hourigan, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, John Lahart, James Lawless, Brian Leddin, Marc MacSharry, Josepha Madigan, Catherine Martin, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Charlie McConalogue, Michael McGrath, Aindrias Moynihan, Michael Moynihan, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Hildegarde Naughton, Malcolm Noonan, Darragh O'Brien, Joe O'Brien, Jim O'Callaghan, James O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Kieran O'Donnell, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, Roderic O'Gorman, Christopher O'Sullivan, Pádraig O'Sullivan, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, Éamon Ó Cuív, Anne Rabbitte, Neale Richmond, Michael Ring, Eamon Ryan, Brendan Smith, Niamh Smyth, David Stanton, Robert Troy, Leo Varadkar.
Mick Barry, Cathal Berry, Richard Boyd Barrett, John Brady, Martin Browne, Pat Buckley, Seán Canney, Matt Carthy, Sorca Clarke, Joan Collins, Michael Collins, Rose Conway-Walsh, Réada Cronin, Seán Crowe, David Cullinane, Pa Daly, Pearse Doherty, Paul Donnelly, Dessie Ellis, Michael Fitzmaurice, Peter Fitzpatrick, Kathleen Funchion, Gary Gannon, Thomas Gould, Noel Grealish, Johnny Guirke, Marian Harkin, Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Healy-Rae, Brendan Howlin, Alan Kelly, Gino Kenny, Martin Kenny, Michael Lowry, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Mattie McGrath, Michael McNamara, Denise Mitchell, Imelda Munster, Catherine Murphy, Paul Murphy, Verona Murphy, Johnny Mythen, Gerald Nash, Denis Naughten, Carol Nolan, Cian O'Callaghan, Richard O'Donoghue, Louise O'Reilly, Darren O'Rourke, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Thomas Pringle, Maurice Quinlivan, Patricia Ryan, Matt Shanahan, Seán Sherlock, Róisín Shortall, Bríd Smith, Duncan Smith, Brian Stanley, Peadar Tóibín, Pauline Tully, Mark Ward, Jennifer Whitmore, Violet Wynne.