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 Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)

I thank Senators for attending this special sitting of the Seanad to debate an emergency item of public health legislation. We live in very difficult, worrying times. I detect a sense of both individual and national anxiety at the moment. People throughout the country are worried, scared and upset.We are asking grandparents not to see their grandkids on occasions and asking sociable creatures to come apart as a country - to come together as a country by staying apart. We are asking people to make extraordinary efforts to do extraordinary things to save lives. We must all remember that every word in this legislation is about trying to protect people who have to self-isolate financially and save lives. There will be another chance next week for more legislative proposals to be brought forward in the area of how we protect our renters. I thank all political parties and groupings for the incredible way in which people have engaged since this pandemic took grip of our country. The more intensively I work in this area, the less partisan I find myself becoming each day as people have really been superb in coming together and working on this across political lines. That is what has enabled us, and the country, to be able to bring in emergency legislation through the Oireachtas during an interregnum. That says much about the maturity of our political system and our desire to respond to that challenge.

I want to say to the people of Ireland that the Government can, and will, take actions; we have shown that. The Oireachtas can, and will, take actions, as it has shown. Our doctors, nurses, medical scientists, paramedics and all those working in our health system in all different roles can take actions; they are working flat out 24-7. However, the people who can do the most are individual citizens and communities. That is the real message. Sometimes during this pandemic I have been worried that people have thought "That is great, the Government has made a decision", a plane is out of the sky or a match is cancelled. That makes great headlines and for great political interest. People ask if we are going to close various things and the Government is going to do whatever is appropriate in line with public health advice, and it will help, but it will only help marginally compared with the actions or inactions of Irish citizens. It might sound trite, boring or repetitive but if the Chief Medical Officer was here today he would tell the House this: the hand washing, cough etiquette and, crucially, social distance will save more lives than anything that any one of us in this House or any medic will be able to do. When I met a leader in intensive care recently, a senior consultant, she told me that doctors will save hundreds of lives during this pandemic but the people of Ireland can save thousands. We can save thousands. When we talk of a pandemic, a global situation, we can feel powerless. People ask themselves "What can I do?" but the answer is they can do an awful lot.

I say to school kids that this is not the summer holidays. I understand that it is very challenging for them and it is very challenging for their parents but we need their help. They are not the summer holidays, they are extraordinary times; we have closed the schools not because there was a problem with the school buildings but because there is danger where they congregate together in large groupings. We did not close the schools to move a large group of kids from one place to another.

To everybody, I say this is not a weekend for socialising but one to try and look among their families and communities to see how they can live their lives, but a little bit differently. As we come into the weekend, it is a time to think and have a conversation with husbands, wives, partners, kids and grandkids about what everyone can do to get through the next weeks together. Are there things that everyone can do around the house? Are there ways they can go for a walk and keep the social distance?

I am also worried about the mental health of the nation because people can get sick of things that are not Covid-19. We all have to look after each other's well-being during this time. I am inundated, as is everyone in government and the State agencies, with offers of help, with solidarity and people who want to do the right things. That is what keeps everybody going. We will have to do that. I am conscious that when people listen to politicians, whoever they are, making comments or giving speeches that much of it can worry them, particularly older people. I want to tell them that no matter what we have to do in coming days and weeks, they will not be left alone. The people of this country will not leave them alone, nor will the Government or the Oireachtas. We will come together to make sure that even if we must ask them to do difficult things, we will not leave them on their own.We all need to reassure the people of that. This will get very tough. This is not like the snow which stays for a few days and then thaws. This will be with us for the foreseeable future. As Senator O'Reilly said, the meitheal, that great Irish spirit, will get us there.

We are going to make decisions. As long as I am Minister for Health, we will make decisions not based on political populism or the latest trend on Twitter, but based on sound health advice. Our public health experts are human like the rest of us and they will make the very best decisions based on all the evidence and information they have. I will never bow to pressure from anybody in this House, the other House or anywhere else, saying that I should do this, that or the other. I will act on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and the national public health emergency team. They were working on this before many people in broader society probably knew what Covid-19 was. They have been working on this for weeks. They are true heroes. Senators know some of their names including their lead, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, who is doing a super job. Some other names are not known, but they are all working flat out. Every decision we make will be grounded in that, not based on the convenient thing to do at this moment, but what is the appropriate thing to do to keep the people safe and well. Maintaining public health is about making the right intervention at the right time for the right length of time.

I thank everybody who is working so hard. I thank everybody who has responded, as Senator Bacik has said, to Ireland's call. It is a different Ireland's call from the one we thought we would be engaged in around this time of the year. The last time I checked, more than 40,000 people, including Senator Devine, had gone to offered to help. We need to help to ensure we speed up things such as the registration process and bust through bureaucracy. I assure Senators that we will do that. On Garda vetting, the Garda Commissioner has been really good in promising to prioritise people in these areas. We will do everything we possibly can.

Twenty-four Irish doctors have said they are coming back from Perth because they want to help. An Irish GP wants to come home from Toronto to help. Other Irish people around the world will not be able to come home but are fighting the pandemic in the countries in which they are living. We are proud of them all and grateful for all that they do. What we can do today is pass this legislation and let our public health experts get on with it. I reassure the Irish people who are anxious that they will not be left alone. We cannot tell them when the virus will go away but we can tell them we will mind them, protect them and do everything we possibly can to keep them safe.


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