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
I am conscious that as we talk about this issue every family in the State is enormously affected by it. It may be stating the obvious but very simple and ordinary things are not happening such as grandparents being able to talk with their grandchildren and to see them and wish them a happy St. Patrick's Day in person. Mother's Day will not be happening the way it normally would. There were three funerals this week of people I knew very well. They were not distant relatives, I knew them very well. I could not go to the funerals and I am conscious that those families have not had the opportunity to grieve in the normal way we do in Ireland with many people coming to meet them and to express sympathy. This situation has changed Irish society is many different ways very quickly.
I am the chairman of a school board of management. The schools have changed their plans with oral examinations being scrapped. There is potential for the leaving certificate itself to have to be moved, maybe with the knock-on effect of no first year students going on to third level education next year because there may be no exam results. I do not want to panic people but we are probably all aware that it is highly unlikely we will reopen pubs and restaurants on 29 March or anything like it. I do not want to scaremonger but the majority of people are realising this. It was on this day last week when it only hit home a little bit. The pubs were still full and were still quite full on the Saturday, but they are not now. There are thousands of people in the pub, restaurant, hotel and hospitality sectors who are behaving amazingly responsible but there is a tiny percentage who are not. This legislation needs to be used in cases where people are opening premises when clearly they should not, and where social distancing is essential everywhere.I commend the Minister, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty. I commend all the Ministers who have been on the front line on this issue. This is a national issue and not one with which we are playing politics. I am cognisant that every person in this Chamber, bar one, is in the process of an election but we are all here because this is far more important. Elections are important but this is a much bigger deal and affects every human being in the State.
We must acknowledge the sacrifices that many people are making in the retail and hospitality sectors, and other sectors where thousands of people with good wage packets are being paid off. I will not labour the point because I think the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, may have made a statement on this issue at approximately 12 o'clock, reported by The Irish Times. The Government has said it will look again at who is entitled to a refund in the legislation. A pub, restaurant or any business that decides to pay its staff more than the €203 per week legislated for in this Bill, which is commendable if such a business is in a postilion to do so, will not get a refund. That is apparently the current scenario. The Government is looking at that again, and I commend it for doing so, but it is not equitable that businesses which pay extra are punished when compared with other businesses that treat their employees to the minimum payment of €203 per week.
We are facing a crisis not only of people's physical well-being. The Minister has a Minister of State with responsibility for mental health who is still in office at the moment, although there will be another one in time. The mental health aspects of this crisis are important. Ireland is one of the most social countries in the world. It is renowned for its welcome and our willingness to socialise, to be with other people and enjoy their company. We are in an unnatural situation and people's mental health is going to suffer as a result. We need to ramp up whatever supports are available online and over the phone. People's physical and financial well-being are also very much in question.
We must talk to large businesses such as those in the insurance industry. The television company, Sky, is not showing live sport and yet expects pubs, even though they are closed, to pay for live sports that are not on. That costs a considerable amount of money and €2,000 to €3,000 a month in many cases, which amounts to €30,000 or €40,000 a year, is being paid to a large corporation. Large, profitable corporations need to play their part in ensuring that small businesses are not exploited at a time when they are under enormous pressure.
I have concerns for many businesses that were teetering on the edge of financial unviability after Christmas and were looking forward to St. Patrick's Day, Easter and the busy tourism season. Many people in this Chamber come from parts of the country that are dependent on tourism. I worry that those types of businesses may never get properly back on their feet. I do not want to scaremonger but we must be cognisant of the struggles and hardships through which people are being put.
This legislation is important and Fianna Fáil is supporting it. We must all work together in solidarity. Where people are not behaving correctly, we need the Garda public order unit, or whoever it needs to be, to intervene if there are large gatherings of people, house parties and social gatherings that completely flout the rules. There are good images on Facebook and other places that demonstrate the importance of social distancing. One such demonstration is a video of a line of matches which are lit and the flame travels along until two or three of the matches step out of the line and the fire goes out. We all need to stay at home, stay safe, talk to people on the phone and online.
People should keep their distance but look after their elderly neighbours and relatives as best they can. I have a neighbour who will be 95 years old in the next week. That person is in good health but I would worry for any older person, let alone somebody who was born in 1925 and is vulnerable to colds, the flu, pneumonia and so on. I know of people who have died of pneumonia in their 40s. It is a serious disease. This is a serious virus and we need to make sure that young people appreciate that.
I commend the Minister, all of the Government and the Members of both Houses for the work that is being done. Constructive opposition is being provided - or, perhaps "constructive opposition" is the wrong term, it is constructive help from the Opposition. I wish the Minister well in his work and I hope that this Bill can pass speedily through the House.