Seanad debates

Friday, 20 March 2020

An Bille Sláinte (Caomhnú agus Cosaint agus Bearta Éigeandála eile ar mhaithe le Leas an Phobail), 2020: An Dara Céim - Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020: Second Stage

 

11:00 am

Photo of Catherine ArdaghCatherine Ardagh (Fianna Fail)

I intend to share some of my time with Senator Clifford-Lee.

I thank the Tánaiste for coming to the House. He gave a message, which I do not think was for us but was probably for the wider public, relating to people adhering to social distancing. Yesterday, I was driving around town when I had to go to vote in the Seanad elections. I noticed that there were many people on the street talking to each other and walking side by side. I drove by a skate park in Dublin 8 which was packed with teenagers skating and chatting to each other. Personally, it did not feel eerie enough. We may have to do far more to get the message across to people that they have to stay at home. I would almost say the streets of Dublin were busy albeit shops and restaurants were closed. People were on the streets and gathering. Teenagers, especially, were gathering.

Many of the efforts within the legislation, especially the social protection elements, are altogether necessary. So many people who are living week to week are going to be affected by the closure of small businesses throughout the country. We have approximately 250,000 small businesses in the country. Many of them will be closing and the majority will be laying staff off for this period. They are guessing whether they will be able to survive it. They are living day to day.

Extensive negotiations are going on with banks at the moment. Anecdotally, we are hearing back that banks are going to give a payment holiday on the capital but not on the interest. That is a serious matter. They should be giving a payment holiday on the full capital and interest. That is something the Tánaiste may want to raise. Small businesses are happy that Dublin City Council will give a two-month reprieve on rates. This is not enough and the council might need to give something more than two months. I know some landlords are being generous and accommodating small businesses in terms of giving a holiday or deferring rent, but others are not.Perhaps the Government could give a bit more guidance to landlords on the protection of small businesses. If the cashflow of small businesses is not protected in some way, these businesses will not be there when Covid-19 is finished. Landlords need to know this. There may be a deferral of rent in the short term but in the long term they may not have tenants to occupy these buildings. They will be affected in that regard.

There are some points regarding the payment to those affected by Covid-19. When a person applies for this payment, he or she needs a public services card but there is a two-week wait for that card. Will the Tánaiste flag that with the appropriate Department? Many people who are applying for the Covid-19 payment have never applied for social protection payments before and this is the reason they do not have the card. Many employees are terrified that if they take this payment and their jobs are ultimately made redundant, this will be a sort of "get out of jail free" clause for employers and they will not have to pay statutory redundancy that would be due, especially if somebody has worked in an organisation for a long period. There is also the matter of undocumented people living in the country who will have no access whatever to a Covid-19 or supplementary payment. We must consider introducing some sort of relief payment for these people. They are really on the margins.

I was contacted by members of the farming community who would like to play a role in disinfecting streets using fertiliser machinery, as has been done in other countries, like Portugal, very successfully. During the foot and mouth disease crisis, when a virus was spread in a similar way, there were disinfectant mats at the doors of hospitals and schools. We almost acted more quickly then than we have now.

We need to look at improving what we are doing. Businesses are closed and the country is almost in lockdown without officially being placed in lockdown. These measures are necessary and I hope people will take on board rules for social distancing. As the Tánaiste states, they worked in China and Singapore. As he also said, we hope we will not be looking back wishing we had done more when in six weeks our intensive care units could be overcrowded and we may have run out of ventilators. These are unimaginable times and I thank the Tánaiste for taking it so seriously and for his message.

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