Seanad debates

Friday, 30 April 2021

Business and Covid-19: Statements


10:00 am

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I also thank Senators for a very interesting and informed debate. It is nice to come to the Seanad. I must come to the House more often because it is less adversarial and, therefore, sometimes a little more grown-up. I appreciate the comments and remarks of Senators.

Senator Ahearn has often mentioned the Ballingarrane campus to me.There is specific mention of Clonmel in the IDA Ireland strategy. I look forward to working with the Senator on that matter because I know he has a particular and personal interest in it.

Senators McDowell and Keogan said something with which I strongly agree. They stated that when this pandemic is over - let us hope it is over in months and not years - we should carry out a proper and independent analysis of our pandemic response. We have not faced a pandemic like this in 100 years but it would be foolish to assume that it will be 100 years before we next experience one. Perhaps there will be another in a few decades or within our lifetimes. Asian countries in particular learned a lot from their experience of severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS. We did not have that experience but next time we will have no excuses because we need to have a better response than we had. We need to think about how that will be done so that it is done in a way that yields lessons we can learn from and does not become adversarial or overly political. Paul Reid, the CEO of the HSE, rightly stated at the start of the pandemic that there is no manual for dealing with a pandemic and that we would get approximately 70% of things right and maybe 30% of things wrong. That was a good prediction but it is important that we know what the 70% we got right was so that we do that again, and what the 30% we got wrong was so that we can change our response for next time.

Critical care capacity has been scaled up in recent years, particularly in the last year, but it needs to be scaled up further to about 400 or 500 critical care beds on a permanent basis. As Colm Henry always says, an ICU bed is not a bed and it is not hard to buy the kit. It is a system involving intensivists who take ten years to train. I include ICU nurses, who are in short supply everywhere in the world, in that regard. This is something that will take some time to build up. Even though we had less critical care capacity than many other countries in Europe, we did not run out of it and other places did. The Netherlands, for example, had to send patients to Germany and Austria and Italy did something similar. While we might have had one of the most stringent and longest lockdowns in Europe, our rate of mortality has been among the lowest. That is not a coincidence. Countries that are perceived to have better health services than ours - the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Austria; and Luxembourg, which have health systems that we are often told to copy - have had mortality rates that are at least significantly higher than that of Ireland. We should not forget that.

I will not make a speech on Seanad reform but we should it and do it well. Something that Senator McDowell and I differed on in the previous Oireachtas was whether we should have constitutional reform. I think we should but perhaps the best start to that is to have some sort of symposium or opportunity for everyone to express their views. Everyone has different views on this, regardless of what party one is a member of, and everyone should be able to freely express their views on what the Seanad should look like. We could take it from there and not do it on party grounds. I stumbled across the Free State Constitution the other day when I was making preparations for an article I am writing. It was interesting to see how the Seanad worked in that. It was set up with the particular purpose of representing minorities and had directly elected elements on national and regional panels. I am not saying we should copy that but there are even interesting ideas from our history that we might consider.

Senator Crowe and others asked about the employment wage subsidy scheme. That will stay in its current form at least until the end of June. We will then continue it in some form after the end of June. We are not exactly sure how we will do that, whether it will be sector or turnover-based but we will work that out.

The NPHET letter with the public health advice will be published today, tomorrow or in the coming days. That says that hotels should be opened, including all of their facilities, but that indoor dining and restaurants should not be opened. There is no medical or scientific advice on that and I need to be honest about that. The reason hotels are allowed to open their restaurants or indoor dining is because they always have been allowed to do so. It has always been the case that hotels have been allowed to serve meals to their residents and we did not want to take that away. However, I hope that people who work in the restaurant sector will see outdoor dining as just a step. We would intend to move to indoor dining in July if everything goes to plan.

Senator Wall mentioned youth unemployment. The rate of youth unemployment in Ireland is high and we need to act on it. Such action must include: job opportunities from my Department; education and training opportunities from the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science; and maybe more schemes from the Department of Social Protection. I often hear this figure used that we have youth unemployment of 50% or 59%. That is misleading. When we calculate youth unemployment in Ireland, we exclude anyone who is in education or training, and most of our young people are in education and training. Therefore, it is only 59% of those not in education and training who are unemployed.By increasing places in education and training, we increase youth employment, if one understands how the maths work as I am sure the Senator does. The real figure is somewhere around 22%, including people on the pandemic unemployment payment. As retail, construction and personal services open over the next few weeks, I would hope to see that 22% fall to some figure beginning with a "1", but that is still high. We need to bear in mind that, generally, in a recession young people suffer economically the most. In a recovery, they are the ones who regain their jobs quickest. It is often people in their 50s who find it hardest to get back to work when they have lost their job in a traditional industry. We need to bear that in mind too.

On Safe Pass, we will check up that issue about it being online. It is not my area but I will check it up. I fully agree with the Senator's remarks on the local enterprise offices.

On the issue of a waiver for intellectual property rights, that is an EU matter. None of that intellectual property is held in Ireland. At present, I am not convinced that it would benefit anyone to waive intellectual property rights regarding vaccines. If there were large numbers of empty vaccine factories in the global south that could produce vaccines within weeks or months it would be one thing, but that is not the case. There is a risk that it could be counterproductive and might send the message out to scientists, industry and enterprise that if they develop these vaccines we will take their invention away from them. If we knew that would definitely benefit people in terms of production being ramped up in the global south that would be one thing but we do not know that. The debate on this has become a little too ideological and needs to be practical. What companies should do is license this to be produced in factories all over the world, whether they are in the global north or the global south, if they exist but, as we know in Ireland, they do not. There is no empty vaccine factory or pharmaceutical factory in Ireland that we could make vaccines in. We looked. It would take two or three years to produce that kind of infrastructure.

As the Taoiseach indicated, there will be a package for tourism and the tourism sector and we hope to have that as part of our announcements for the end of May. Senators Currie and Carrigy both raised the issue of the outdoor furniture grant. They said they should be for pubs and not only for restaurants, cafés and gastropubs. I agree with that and I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, about it. The Minister agrees too and she is working with Fáilte Ireland on it. We think it can be done, certainly for pubs that have their own outdoor space. It is a little trickier when it is a public footpath for many different reasons that the Senators will understand but we are hoping that it can be extended to pubs with their own outdoor space.

My Department is updating the workplace safety protocol in the next few weeks and that will have a new chapter on antigen testing giving employers clear guidance and encouragement to carry out antigen testing regularly in their workplaces.

I very much agree with Senator Malcolm Byrne's remarks on the new deal for younger people on cultural institutions. The Senator's idea of replacing commercial rates with a different model is a very good one but I do not know what it is. As is always the case, there will be different views on it, and winners and losers. It is work that somebody should do anyway. It will not be me. Perhaps the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, or the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, might do it.

In response to Senator Cummins, we are re-examining the Covid credit guarantee scheme to see if we can make it more attractive for business. We are constrained by state aid rules. It is a Government-backed loan. It is a low-cost loan, but it is a loan and has to be on commercial terms. We can only go so far within the EU state aid rules but we may be able to make it a bit better and more attractive and we intend to do that.

I very much take Senator Cassells's point on local newspapers and the coverage and information they provided our citizens during the pandemic. That needs to be recognised too.

On the issue of pharmacists, 1,200 of them have signed up, as Senator Byrne informed us. Some of them are a little annoyed that they have not been asked to help yet. They will be, almost certainly in June and through to July and thereafter. I would say to anyone who is a healthcare professional, even though he or she might not have been asked yet, that they should do the online course. It takes three or four hours. It means that one is a certified vaccinator. We might find in June that we have 1 million vaccines, or maybe even 2 million, and need to administer them quickly. Fifty thousand healthcare workers all putting their shoulders to the wheel, if we facilitate them, can do this very quickly.

Senator Warfield mentioned the issue of nightlife - something I miss terribly, as I know the Senator does too. I hope I am not too old to enjoy nightlife by the time this pandemic is over and our clubs, music venues and late bars reopen. It is certainly my view that the offering in our cities here in Ireland should be as good as anything on offer in Germany, Spain or the Netherlands.That is not currently the case and probably never was. I look forward to the publication of the report of the night-time economy task force, which I think is imminent. Like the Minister, Deputy McEntee, I would support a change to licensing laws which would make opening late more economical and also a system of licensing that is more predictable in order that people who are organising events - I do not just mean night events but include people organising concerts - actually know they will get a licence. It is still the case that most of the concerts that happen in Ireland are subject to licence. There must be a better system where people have predictability around licensing. We have made provision in the summer for pilot events and I am aware some have happened in England. I was really encouraged by the results of an outdoor concert held in Barcelona. It was attended by 5,000 people and there was no social distancing but masks were worn. As very few cases were detected 12 days after the pilot, that is really encouraging and reinforces what we know already about outdoors being much safer.

Senator O'Loughlin and many other Members of the Houses have mentioned the issue of businesses without a rateable premises to me. Such businesses did not receive the restart grant or the CRSS. These are mostly home businesses although many have vans and vehicles. They have not been ordered to close by Government and have lower fixed costs than businesses with rateable premises. However, they do need help in some form and it is something I am mulling over with the Ministers of State, Deputies English and Troy. Perhaps if we do a new round of restart grants, and we intend to, we can do something for those businesses so they at least get some financial support which they did not previously.

I agree with what Senator Seery Kearney said about the new marketplace. The economy is going to be very different post pandemic and we must have a think about the changing demand for childcare. Blended working is going to mean people will want blended childcare. It is going to be different and we must think that through.

On the credit unions, for the first time there are now some credit unions, albeit only a small number, which are lending to businesses through the Government-backed guarantee. That is a change and a positive one for the future. People often talk about bringing the Sparkassen model to Ireland and perhaps we should give that more and further consideration. However, could our credit unions not become that, to a certain extent? The credit unions in our local areas are the people who know our local citizens and business people and maybe if we are going to have a community banking system that lends to business, it might be an adaptation of the credit unions rather than something set up from scratch by people who do not know our business people and communities so well.

Finally, on the Duffy Cahill report, as I mentioned earlier the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, will bring in a new company law Bill before the summer. We are leaving some space in that Bill to make some changes, as recommended by that report. However, we must be honest about the difference that legislation can make. It certainly is not going to be retrospective. As the Senator will know, the Clerys dispute was a very different dispute to the Debenhams one. All disputes are different but in the Clerys case there was a very big asset in the form of a very big building on O'Connell Street, and that allowed for an additional payment to be made to the workers there, over and above their statutory redundancy. Debenhams was a much more straightforward insolvency. The company went bust; its debts exceeded its assets. In that scenario, people only get what they are legally entitled to, unfortunately. The workers there were badly treated by their employer but they were not very well advised by others on what was achievable and what was not. That is unfortunate because a deal was there on the table for statutory redundancy, an extra €1 million and several hundred jobs being saved. There was not even a ballot on that and I believe that was a mistake.


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