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 Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I will share my time with Senator Ruane.

I welcome the Tánaiste. It is appropriate that we began the debate with him, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, because this is an international crisis. We share the messages of solidarity sent to the people of Bergamo and around the world, including those in developing countries who we hope can be supported to be resilient and protected in advance of this crisis affecting them.

I thank the Minister for Health and those working with him for the many robust and responsible actions taken recently and for the willingness to take on ideas that others have put forward, which will be crucial. The rent freeze legislation, which we will have a chance to debate next week, will need to work for the most vulnerable in the housing market.

On public health services, others have rightly praised the extraordinary, wonderful contribution that people, including some Senators, have made. It is yet another reminder that a public health system and other public services have a speed, scale and flexibility of response that cannot always be seen in a privatised sector or where there is a bottom line of profit. There has been a willingness to change systems, such as the scaling up of testing, which has been heartening over the past week and will be crucial in our response. Nevertheless, some of those we are asking to make extraordinary contributions in the front-line services also need protection. Concerns have been raised with me by a number of doctors who have been told that if they work outside of their specialty, they may not be indemnified. It is a concern if those we ask to step into the breach, including those we ask to return to our health service, may find themselves personally vulnerable through a lack of indemnity. I have written to the Minister for Health about the issue and I ask that he address it. It is vital that we support those who are supporting all of us.

Many people have offered their services to the HSE, while communities throughout Ireland have stepped up in many different ways. It shows the strength of our social fabric, even as it is stretched. As the threads between us get longer and further away, they are also becoming stronger. People have found new ways to support one another and to show care and appreciation for one another, including small businesses. It has been clear that many businesses see themselves as part of the social fabric and have put the well-being of their staff or communities above profit, showing social solidarity.The intergenerational solidarity that has been spoken about today, that we have seen in the young people who have made loving choices to protect and support older citizens, will, I hope, be echoed in choices we might make in the very near future to protect the children who are most at risk from environmental threat and who will need our help and positive choices.

Care is precious and can keep people alive and well. I hope that after this we become better at recognising and rewarding all those who do care work in all its forms and the invisible work which has become clear in its essential nature, the carers, cleaners and postal staff and the factory workers in medical technology companies who are making life-saving equipment such as ventilators who are working at full capacity who need support. I have written to the Minister to ask that we engage, not in some requisitioning of warehouses, but in a positive pro-active partnership with companies such as Medtronic in the west of Ireland who are making ventilators and who need our help in adapting their supply chain, getting derogations from Europe where needed on individual parts of the thousand parts needed. We must ensure that the very skilled people in Ireland are recruited and directed into this area. There should be 24-hour production of ventilators. It is not simply needed for our hospitals but for others around the world. It is one of the ways that Ireland can show practical global leadership in this crisis. We need to recognise these as critical services.

We face many difficult decisions in the short, medium and long term. This Bill is about the short term by its nature. I welcome the developments on the sunset clause, on which we had put down amendments, that there must be a time-bound nature on it. That is important. We must also be realistic that when we get to the other side of this difficult and dark time it probably will not be business as usual. We need to emerge with a society and an economy that are more sustainable and more resilient to future shocks and challenges. There will be job losses and changes in the nature of work. SIPTU and other unions have asked the Government to engage in talking about that. The European Central Bank has released €750 billion to help tackle the coronavirus and its aftermath. It is vital that goes first to strengthen our public services, that it is climate proofed, and that if it supports businesses and sectors that they will be on our side when it comes to the next crisis, that of climate change. It is important that we look to the other threads in our businesses, employers and innovators and that we value responsible business in all its forms. One is local radio, which was referred to in yesterday's Dáil debate, which is something that is important in sustaining communities.

Finally, I refer to the voluntary sector organisations which the health service works with, which other members of the Civic Engagement group who cannot be here today asked me to mention. Many of those services reach homeless people, migrants and those at risk of domestic violence and those at the margins. This requires all our responses. We must work and support together but the legislation must work for everyone in society, because everyone is part of the solution. I look forward to further debate on the Bill.


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