Friday, 27 March 2020
An Bille um Bearta Éigeandála ar mhaithe le Leas an Phobail (Covid-19) 2020: An Dara Céim - Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I thank all the Senators for their constructive comments. Even when concerns are expressed, it is constructive criticism. I appreciate that and we will take it on board. Like others, I express condolences to Senator Ruane in respect of her loss.
On the issues raised by Fianna Fáil and others relating to the availability of PPE, there is a global shortage of PPE for healthcare staff.There is a competition, if one likes, that is intense to try to get contracts in order to get large volumes of PPE into different countries. We have been planning for quite some time to ensure that we would have sufficient stocks. We have effectively done a deal with Aer Lingus, which is going to fly charter flights in and out of Beijing - dozens and dozens of them - to bring back PPE that is being purchased with a contract that involves Ireland spending well over €200 million. My understanding is that this is buying what would normally be considered about 13 years worth of PPE for our health system all at the one time, potentially to be used in the next three to five months. The start of those shipments will come through in the next few days - it is expected on Sunday - and, of course, other PPE is being made available from other sectors of industry and other sources in different parts of the world. However, the bulk of what will come into the system in Ireland is expected to come from China, in particular the initial stocks in the coming days.
I congratulate and thank Paul Reid and his team for the extraordinary work they are doing, not just in Ireland but also in other parts of the world, to make sure that our healthcare staff get what they need in terms of clothing, equipment and protection. I want to thank all of our hospitals, healthcare institutions, nursing homes and so on, which are managing with the stock they have right now, which will be bolstered very shortly, I am glad to say.
I also want to thank the many Members of the House who indicated they are not going to push their amendments. We will read all of the amendments carefully and if there are real issues behind those amendments that we need to respond to, the Government has a responsibility to do that. I want to give Members that very strong signal today. However, we need to get this done today. That is why I want to thank all of the parties here for indicating they are not likely to push amendments or, if they do push them, it may just be to a voice vote. There is enough experience in this Chamber to understand the consequences of amendments being accepted here, and the need to go back to the Dáil to get this legislation concluded, which would delay very significant volumes of payments for people who need them shortly.
Senator Craughwell raised the issue of the Defence Forces. As a former Minister for Defence, I understand a number of the points he raised quite well. In the medium term, we need to commit to setting up a separate commission for defence in regard to pay and conditions, and so on. They are a different category to every other worker in the country. They are our last line of defence and they are a resource that needs to be always there. That needs to be taken into account in the context of ensuring we have the capacity to recruit the numbers we need and, obviously, the consequences for pay and conditions that flow from that.
I want to deal with the issue of those who are coming back to re-enlist in order to assist in a national effort, particularly when many of them may be in other employment that is inactive right now. We need to ensure that people who leave the Defence Forces in a few months time, having come in to assist during this emergency, will, of course, have jobs to go back to. I will raise that issue directly with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, who will be here during Committee Stage to answer Members' questions.
With regard to the points raised by Senator Marshall, as always, he is a rock of sense in regard to the need for North-South co-operation. In an emergency, we all have the same objective. Regardless of political background, ideology or identity, we are neighbours and friends on this island, who should be working together to save as many lives as we can, and we will. I got a letter last night from Colum Eastwood, asking questions around whether an employer south of the Border, which was employing employees who are travelling from North to South, could get the subsidy. That is something the Senator can clarify with the Minister for Finance in a few minutes.My understanding on that is clear. The Revenue is not making wage subsidy support payments based on the address or nationality of a person. This is about supporting and ensuring the connection between employees and employers remains intact. That should also apply to companies close to the Border.
Regarding employment law practitioners raising issues that may well be relevant to this legislation, this is a time for people to have a can-do attitude and to try to ensure this legislation works, and not to try to undermine it. We will make it work. The Revenue Commissioners last night issued new guidance. I got correspondence this morning from several business people which stated the guidance has been greatly helpful in clarifying some of the questions they may have had yesterday and that are being answered today. We are asking all employment law practitioners and experts advising companies to ensure that this works for their clients so that they are not excluded from the benefits that will flow from it. We can do that if we work together and if we ensure companies seek their advice from the Revenue Commissioners, and not from politicians. If important questions that need answers come from advisers and employment law practitioners, let us look to the Revenue Commissioners to provide clarity, flexibility and assurance on those questions so that this emergency legislation works for as many people as it possibly can to protect jobs and incomes. That is what we are about here.
Regarding the contribution from Senator Higgins, she is correct. I am the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and, believe me, I am spending much time trying to get Irish people home from other parts of the world right now.