Seanad debates

Friday, 30 April 2021

Business and Covid-19: Statements


10:00 am

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I warmly welcome the Tánaiste to the Seanad. It is a privilege to hold political office as a Senator and to be able to address him on matters of great public importance. I commend him on the calm and assured leadership he displayed last year when the pandemic reached our shores. In a time of grave uncertainty, he communicated with the nation in a very clear and composed way, which gave people a measure of reassurance. The main themes of my statement today are recovery and reform. People have suffered greatly on account of the pandemic and the restrictions. Some have suffered more than others, of course, so recovery is needed to give them back their jobs, improve their lives and provide hope. I am talking about recovery in a holistic sense, including the recovery of people's physical and mental health, recovery of the health system and public services and economic recovery, job creation and a social, cultural and religious revival. Reform is also needed.

We need to take an objective and forensic look at every aspect of the pandemic and how it was handled. We need to learn from it. What did we do well? What worked? What failures were there? What did not work? What were the costs and benefits of lockdown? We need to examine all the evidence through an impartial and critical lens. We need to permit open discussion to make sure that we are much better prepared for any similar kind of emergency in the future. We can agree that weaknesses have been exposed by the pandemic, not least our intensive care unit and hospital capacity issues. Both bed numbers and staffing shortages need to be addressed to help ensure that we will not be inclined to enter into the harshest, longest lockdown in Europe should another pandemic materialise. We need commitment from Government to address these chronic issues of capacity and staffing, to reduce hospital waiting lists, alleviate the suffering of patients and save lives. What can we do better to ensure the economy and society can function more normally next time? Could we designate an exclusive pandemic hospital in each region and isolate all cases in these facilities to enable normal healthcare to continue with minimal disruption? Could we utilise rapid antigen testing to allow the economy and society to remain open to a far greater degree?

I want to highlight one area of the economy that is very much neglected, that is, social enterprises. I understand that social enterprise falls within the remit of the Department of Rural and Community Development and I echo the sentiments of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, that social enterprises can play a central role in the economic and social recovery. I believe there is potential to generate employment that will enrich communities and achieve social good. The Tánaiste is the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and I am challenging him not to overlook this sector. Covid-19 has shifted our understanding of our society, laid bare the inequalities that exist and revealed the inadequacy of the systems we have to serve everyone in our communities. Never has it been more important to invest in our social economy and back those who can generate not only economic value but social value too.

Forfás has estimated that the social enterprise sector could employ 65,000 people if it reached even average EU levels of output. Look at the success of social enterprises such as MyMind in providing affordable mental healthcare for 33,000 people. If I could give the Tánaiste one idea to support social enterprise start-ups to help them upskill, I would ask him to look at putting supports in to local authorities through the enterprise boards so that social enterprises can access free rental hubs and retail spaces for 18 to 24 months. These enterprises need our Government to believe in them.

Otto von Bismarck stated, "Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable". I believe that to be the case. I am driven by the desire to help people, to find solutions to their problems and those facing the communities in which we live. That is what motivates me. If we have political vision and take the initiative, the people of this country will attain a tremendous amount, including economic, social and environmental recovery.


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