Thursday, 26 November 2020
Reopening Ireland (Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment): Statements
I wanted to say that coming from a neighbouring county which is delighted with how well Cavan is doing during these difficult times. I have plenty of ushers in my ear telling me Dublin is looking forward to playing Cavan. Good luck with that one. It will be a big match. It was a great weekend of football.
That is difficult for a Meath man to say. It is easier, however, than saying it for Dublin. Good luck with all of that. I also wish the same to Tipperary, as I see Senator Ahearn across the Chamber. I could not leave him out. That was a truly historic day as well. This year, 2020, has been one of those mad years with all that has happened with Covid. I do not think anyone could have predicted the four football semi-finalists we have now. It complements the year. It is a nice throwback to history that the championship is where it was 100 years ago.
I note the clock states "6:00". Is that hours or minutes?
I assure the House that there will be no shortage of socks or other items of clothing in the country.
I thought we were having a discussion on Covid but as the Leas-Chathaoirleach said it is about reopening Ireland. It is apt and I hope this prediction is right. We are all focused on trying to reopen and it is important the Seanad is debating how can we reopen safely. Much of the work over the past couple of weeks has been on getting to a stage in which we can reopen parts of our economy and society.
We all recognise how Covid has put much pressure on many parts of our country. It has been a difficult time across every one of our counties. We often debate regional balance here. Covid hit all of us everywhere, our homes and businesses. Everybody is suffering. Hopefully, with all the talk of the roll-out of vaccines and vaccination programmes, we should be in a strong position during 2021 and get back to some sort of a normal life.
Much change will occur as we reopen. Certain parts of business will have changed forever. We need to work with that sector. It is important we focus our minds over the next couple of days to be in a position next week to have retail back, along with hairdressers, barbers, gyms and other businesses which have been under pressure. There is still a significant conversation around the hospitality sector, restaurants, cafes, pubs and hotels.
The Department would rather not be in level 5. Moving to these restrictions was not an easy choice to take. The Tánaiste spoke about this, as did the Taoiseach and many others. We wanted to do our best to avoid level 5 which is why we stayed at level 3 for several weeks, hoping it would make the difference. However, it did not work out. Everyone hoped, when we published the plan back in the summer, that level 3 would be as far as we had to go. The figures did not go that way and we had to protect people's health and livelihoods in the long term.
Many people said to me that the hospitals were not under that much pressure and the ICU bed numbers were steady when they analysed the figures. We do not want people in hospital or ICU with Covid as it is not the place to be. We all know the percentages of people who do not come back out of ICU. It was not just keeping the numbers in hospital down. It was to keep people from getting sick and to stop our loved ones and family members from contracting Covid unnecessarily. It is not a nice place to be. We all have stories of neighbours, friends and family members who contracted Covid and suffered its consequences. Far too many families are without loved ones this year because of Covid.
Many politicians understand that it is about getting the balance right to have a functioning society and economy, as well as managing Covid and bringing the virus under control. The decision was made five weeks ago to move to level 5 to bring the virus back under control. The figures we have seen over the past three or four nights show it is coming under control. It does not mean we are there yet, however. The Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and many others have said that we had hoped to be a little further down the road. To have a consistent figure of 200 cases over three or four nights is a good place to be as we go through our plans to reopen. Hopefully, these figures will keep going down.
When we reopen, however, it will be more difficult to manage the virus. The best way to deal with the virus is to manage our own behaviour but also to limit our number of contacts. When we reopen various parts of the economy, there will be more contacts. The onus is on everyone to adjust their behaviour to ensure when we reopen that we tread carefully, use caution and follow the best guidance to stop the virus spreading among us.
The Health and Safety Authority updated the back at work safely protocol which contains much guidance which retail and business are following to protect themselves, their employees and customers. The various committees are meeting today and the Cabinet will meet tomorrow to dissect the advice from NPHET and work out the plans. We are all hopeful that tomorrow will bring good news for many parts of the country. It does not mean all restrictions will be lifted but we will be in a much better place than we are today. Hopefully, we can build on that in the weeks ahead. The protocols and guidance are important.
We all know at this stage how to protect ourselves and our loved ones. One gets mixed reactions in any business, factory and family homes. Some are worried and nervous for themselves and their families. Some are less cautious and are not as convinced about the concerns. It is hard to have rules, regulations and laws which bring us all together on this. The majority of people have come with us on this journey and it is their behaviour that has helped us bring the virus back under control. Governments can only give advice and put legislation in place to direct us all in a certain way.Sometimes, that means stepping in a little more than we would like to do but, in general, people want to do the right thing and follow the advice, and they are doing that. That is the reason, as a country, we have saved lives and hopefully will be able to get through the months ahead with fewer restrictions when it comes to Covid-19.
I want to touch on a couple of issues. People are probably familiar with all the business supports. I will not name all of them. Sectors and businesses have said to me say that the wage subsidy scheme is probably the most important one. We have spoken about that in this House on a number of occasions. All the Members put forward suggestions about additional supports for business. The Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, came out of their suggestions and ongoing support to businesses whose premises are closed. That scheme is up and running and will be very successful in terms of companies that are under pressure. We also have the restart grant, the rates rebate and other different supports. I have stressed in previous debates here that the support would not all be in the form of grants but that we would encourage businesses to use their own equity, tap into some of the loan products at the lower cost rates, as well as grants because the taxpayers cannot replace every lost euro. We all wish they could but that is not reality. It is about that blend of supports - lower cost finance, grants, rate subsidies and CRSS payments - coming together along with businesses having to tap into their own equity in some cases.
I want to single out the retail sector, which is my main line responsibility apart from business in general. We have worked very closely with those in the retail sector and they are vitally important to this country in the service they provide. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic many of those in the retail sector have been on the front line, as well as all those in the health authorities and so on, but retail is very much there. Where they were allowed stay open they stayed open and provided a top-class service to all of us. They put all the changes in place, adapted their work practices, changed their shop models and so on to be able to serve us in a safe way. I recognise that has been a very difficult journey for them and they are under a great deal of pressure. I would shout out to everybody to listen to our campaign to shop local if they can possibly do so and to spread their business around to support local businesses and local jobs as much as possible during the months and the year ahead. We have launched a LookforLocal campaign to encourage people to do that. It is important that we do that.
As a sector, I hope they will be open next week because there is a very busy month ahead. We will support them on this journey and have done but they will need the Members' support also. As we move into 2021 and beyond there will be a massive opportunity for the retail sector to expand even further. Some of that will be online, Covid or no Covid, to try to win back some of the business that we know goes abroad but also to try to win business from abroad. I believe we have a very strong retail sector that can do that. That is something on which I will be working very closely with them. We have a retail forum that meets practically every week at this stage and all the representative bodies of the retail sector are on that and contribute. They have been a major asset to us as a Department and as a Government in managing the Covid pandemic but also in preparing for Brexit.
We are looking to a difficult year ahead in terms of trying to manage Brexit and get through and come out of the Covid pandemic. I appreciate the support of this House for all the various business schemes and supports that have been put in place. They have been essential. Business owners have told me they looked abroad and saw what was going on and they realise the support these two Houses have provided, by using taxpayers' money through the Government supports, has been a major help. They are still under a lot of pressure, however, and we have to continue those business supports. The Tánaiste, in his speech in the Dáil, referred to having money secured for next year to continue with the supports where they are needed and to roll out new ones, and new ideas, where that is necessary. In addition to what has been allocated in the budget for next year, and our Department got a decent increase to allow us be able to do our work better, including extra money for the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, to manage all this in terms of safety at work, there is an extra €3.4 billion in the recovery fund, which has not been allocated yet but can be drawn down as we need it for different parts of the business world that need those supports also.
I am here mainly to listen to the Members' contributions, as well as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's comments, but we hope to be in a position tomorrow to announce the reopening of many parts of our society and businesses but there is still much work to do. I want to reinforce the message that we have to manage our own behaviour in the months ahead. Just because the virus numbers have decreased a lot it is still around and it could very easily flare up again. If we all play our part we should be able to limit that and if we are all in a healthy place and get the virus under control we can get back to having a strong, healthy economy. I am an optimist, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows, even in mad times and even when it comes to football, and I am very optimistic about where our economy can go in the next couple of years.
To refer back to retail, there is a lot of opportunity in that sector if we can just get through this very difficult year that most people probably want to forget about but it is important that we look ahead with hope. I hope that with strong supports from the economy and strong actions by the Government and these Houses, we can do that.
I thank the Minister of State for his trademark positivity. Senators have six minutes each. To avoid an issue that arose yesterday by accident where Members were waiting, if they want to plan their times they should be aware that the Minister of State will reply not later than 3.27 p.m. We will probably be all right in that regard but they should be aware of that. Our first speaker is Senator Ollie Crowe.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for coming in again today. To state the obvious, it was always going to be much easier to close down the economy last March than to open it up again. From a realistic point of view and with no disrespect to NPHET, people are going to socialise this Christmas regardless of advice. The choice is between controlled and regulated environments and the uncontrolled environments.
I want to talk about the hospitality sector. It is worth pointing out that in the period the hospitality sector and businesses were open this year, 99% or more followed all guidelines and offered a safe environment. I am talking about restaurants, hotels and bars, in particular. There were more than 30,000 visits by gardaí across the country, as there should have been, and a minute percentage were found to be not adhering to the guidelines. I am sending out the message from this House that if businesses are not adhering to the guidelines the full force of the law should come down on them and they should be closed forthwith.
It is important to point also that thousands of people across the country use restaurants, bars and hotels as their main source of socialising. I am thinking in particular of people who live alone. All of us in this House are aware of the impact this period has had on people's mental health in terms of loneliness and isolation. That should not be forgotten. That will be especially important around Christmas, which is a difficult time for many people who may be dealing with bereavements and other issues.
It needs to be stated that the hospitality sector in general, as the Minister of State is aware, has played no role in the spread of the virus in Ireland. Less than 1% of the clusters relate to the environments within that industry. The Minister outlined in his contribution the supports that have been given to the industry. He will agree that there are hundreds of thousands of employees and businesses and the vast majority of them are small, family-owned businesses, particularly pubs in cities and in rural Ireland. Surely it is not too much to ask that they would be allowed open their businesses for the next three weekends because we are all aware that January and February are much quieter months. Discussion is going on in the media that there will be a phased opening in terms of 1, 8 and 15 December but we have to be practical about that. NPHET advise but the Government should decide. I would like the Minister of State to take the message from this House that there is no point in trying to pack it all into two weeks. It would make much more sense to have three weekends and people in the business realise that.
From a practical point of view, there is no point in restaurants, particularly those in Galway city that I know well, closing at 10 p.m. The reality is that many people with young families might not go out until 8.30 p.m. or 9 p.m. The last serving should be 9.30 p.m. and the restaurant or the pub could close at 11 p.m.We have to be practical. It is just not viable to be closing restaurants, bars and hotels, for example, at 10 p.m., when the off-licences are open until 10 p.m. as it is. It is not viable and there is no solution-based thinking involved in that.
In his contribution, the Minister of State outlined the grants and supports, which have been welcome and have kept an awful lot of jobs safe in recent months. I ask the Minister of State to consider using those supports on an opt-in and opt-out basis. There are hundreds and thousands of bars across the country that are too small. Their owners will feel it is not safe to open for a number of reasons, for example relating to the square footage of their premises or the underlying conditions that they or their staff might have. I am asking that they be allowed to open but if they do not want to open, they should have that opportunity. The supports should remain in place for them if they are not in a position to open because of their size or whatever the case may be.
I want to take this opportunity to discuss the importance of physical exercise with the return of gyms, swimming pools and outdoor sports. These are essential activities for people's mental health and well-being. I appreciate that some precautions will need to remain in place but for the most part, it is time to allow these sectors to open up and to get some degree of normality back in our lives. Outdoor training for sports teams in pods of 15 should resume and all outdoor sports and games should resume immediately in January.
I know many people in Galway who are working from home and they hardly see anyone. Their main social activity would be a night out with the local soccer, GAA or rugby team. The absence of this outlet is damaging for the quality of their lives, as I am sure the Minister of State is aware. I appreciate that NPHET has a job to do and that its focus is solely on Covid-19, but the Government must think more broadly and that must include allowing people to start living once again. Those most at risk should continue to take every precaution but we must allow society, broadly, to resume and we must trust people to behave responsibly. I have no doubt that the vast majority will do that.
As has been outlined in the House this morning, we need to send out the message on green Friday tomorrow. The Minister of State alluded to this in his speech. We need to shop local and forget about black Friday, unless we are encouraging and supporting Irish and local companies. We have to remember that these companies support local jobs and community initiatives. Online companies will not sponsor community initiatives or GAA clubs, for example. People need to realise that and they need to realise where their people will get jobs.
I welcome the Minister of State. I want to make a few general points about opening up the economy. I am not one of these sceptics who believes in deriding the measures taken by the Government but I am sceptical about blanket measures which are non-discriminating in the effects they have and are not based on proper science. I echo the remarks made by Deputy Eoghan Murphy recently in a debate on the response of the country to the Covid-19 pandemic. His words were well chosen and his points were well made.
There are far wider implications from Covid-19 to be taken into consideration than simply mortality. Happily, it appears that medical practice has improved to the point that the health services have kept mortality to a low level. There is more to public health than the Covid-19 pandemic. There are serious mental health issues, for example. There are serious side effects for cancer screening programmes, etc., which have suffered immense damage as a result of the lockdowns. Some of it may be inevitable damage but immense damage has been done due to the non-availability of many medical services. I mention the withdrawal of so many services for dependent persons, adult and children, with mental disability. The suspension of facilities and communal services for them has had a very significant effect. Public health has to be seen in the round, not just in the narrow path of responding to Covid-19.
When it comes to the economic effects of the measures the Government puts in place to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems to me that the precautionary principle should apply. This principle does not just apply to science, health or risk to health. It also applies to damage to jobs. I do not know whether we are really alert in this country to the issues which were discussed yesterday in Westminster by Rishi Sunak, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer. Huge costs are piling up all the time. The indebtedness we are running up in this country will have to be paid for by somebody and there will be taxation implications. It is in everybody's political interests to say nothing about this because Opposition parties in the Dáil take the view that they do not want to talk about raising taxation and the Government does not want to do it either. There is a background of enormous economic consequence and damage to be dealt with at some stage in the future and we just have to face up to that fact.
I refer to opening up the economy and our society more generally. Society is more than an economy. Huge damage has been done to the fabric of small and medium-sized enterprises in Ireland, not just in the hospitality sector but across the board. If the Government is going to issue blanket edicts, the presumption should be against restriction, unless it can be proved that it will be effective. If the Government is going to say what kind of stores should be closed and open, it should not be in a position to stay that all stores should close. It should work out where there is a significant risk in a particular shop or business opening up. This is something that is providing a highly specialised service to other people. If the Government is going to say that all outdoor sports are to be restricted, it has to go through every single sport carefully and ask if it is a risk. The precautionary principle requires much more care to be taken than we have seen so far in going through every single restriction we impose to see if it is really scientifically justified.
Perhaps this House, but certainly Dáil Éireann and this House together, should reinstate the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that Deputy McNamara was chairing. It did valuable business and it is an illusion to think that its activities can be fairly spread around the other committees, which do not have the week-on-week capacity to follow this pandemic and the Government's response to it. I ask the Government to reconsider what I consider was the ill-considered disbandment of Deputy McNamara's Special Committee on Covid-19 Response and to consider putting in place proper Oireachtas scrutiny of the pandemic and the public's response to it.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English. He has a difficult task today because he will be listening for two hours or four hours to Members putting in requests for what should be opened, what should not be opened and when they should be opened. The Minister of State has to answer those questions, knowing that there will be an official announcement tomorrow and not today.I will probably do the same, but from a cautionary standpoint, albeit while calling for things to open. I understand the caution. I understand the benefit of being cautious these past number of weeks.
I was someone, as I stated previously, who had Covid. I understand the implications of having it and the feeling one has of guilt of giving it to someone else. The restrictions that we put in place, whether it is in workplaces or in pubs or restaurants, or to socialising, were all about minimising contacts. I was quite lucky. I had two close contacts, which is unusual for someone in public office, and that is because of the measures put in place.
When we are making decisions tomorrow, we obviously have to put the health of vulnerable people to the fore. We need to be honest that if we start opening up sectors of society, the potential for increasing the number of cases quicker than we hope is always possible, but we have to protect jobs and we have to protect the economy. In some ways - Senator Crowe touched on it as well - the horse has already bolted in respect of Christmas. People have decided already what they are doing for Christmas, certainly on Christmas Day. It does not make a difference what level we are on; people are going to their families on Christmas Day. The decisions that we make as a Government need to understand people. These are good people who have adhered to all the messages over the past nine months and have strictly adhered to the guidance that has been given to them from the Government but Christmas is different. They feel as though they need to go to their family, to their parents and to their neighbours or whoever is close in their lives that they need to visit. When we talk about reopening Ireland, we need to be conscious that people have made up their own minds for that short period.
In relation to announcements tomorrow, I would ask that we as a Government recognise the importance that December has for people who go to mass and religious services. Many places can facilitate the number of people they would normally have attending mass. It is important, certainly in my area, that people will get the opportunity to go to mass and to have that service during the Christmas period.
It is a difficult issue but we also need to be able to do something to enable some sort of visit for very close family members of people who have been in nursing homes. They have not had anyone visiting them for weeks and months for good health reasons. It has been extremely difficult to be confined in one building with no close family members being able to visit for such a long time. I hope there is something we can do, even if it is that one family member can go in on Christmas Day and merely be able to wish someone well and support him or her.
In terms of opening up pubs and restaurants, we need to be consistent on this for all pubs and restaurants. We need to understand that wet pubs have proven that they can do the exact same as pubs that opened up already that served food. Wet pubs are well able to manage it the same. We need to recognise that if we have more pubs and more restaurants open, the flux of people will go to more areas and one will have fewer people in individual pubs.
There has been a number of supports brought through the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, including the online trading voucher. The Covid restriction support scheme, CRSS, payment has been welcomed by many people. One message I get from some pub owners in County Tipperary, in Clonmel in particular, is that if it proves to be the case that they will not be allowed to open, the 10% they get in weekly payment is welcome but for the Christmas period, that should be increased from 10% to a higher rate. This would take into account their fear that the Government will segregate them and treat them differently from other restaurants and pubs that serve food and that this should be recognised.
The restart grants went down well. We have 2,500 businesses in Tipperary getting approximately €20 million from the restart grant, and then from the restart grant plus. I compliment the staff, led by the CEO, Mr. Joe MacGrath, in Tipperary County Council. It is one of the fastest local authorities in the country to deliver, whether it be the restart grant or the restart grant plus. Businesses literally only had to wait until it was in their account to get it and they were so quick with it.
Can the Minister of State give reassurances to businesses in County Tipperary, in particular to the chambers of commerce, that we as a Government will continue to support the retail sector through the Christmas period? Can he give reassurances that we will do everything we can to make sure they have viable businesses going into the new year? Although the Minister of State probably cannot bring clarity today, I seek clarity on the confusion within businesses as to whether the economy will open up on 1 December or 2 December. When the announcement is made tomorrow, perhaps that could be made clear.
I support what everyone else has said in terms of black Friday and supporting people to shop local. We always do that in Tipperary and Clonmel. Now more than ever, every euro we spend in our local communities brings back €5 to the economy. If there was ever a year for us to shop and to support and buy local, and to encourage people to do so, this is it. It would be appreciated.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. This is the first opportunity I have had to make a contribution on the issue of Covid following the introduction of the social bubbles. My party leader and I lobbied hard when I came up with the suggestion and talked to him about it. I thank the Government for taking it on board. It has made a real difference to thousands of people around the country in this lockdown that they are able to form social bubbles. I meet people all the time now who tell me about their bubbling with some person or other. That was a small measure that did not cost anything. They listened to a member of the Opposition and it has made a real difference to thousands of people in the social isolation that is there. I merely wanted to put that on record to thank the Government.
We are moving to a situation tomorrow where, hopefully, announcements will be made and there will be an opening up of the Irish economy. However, this pandemic is still with us. We know that at times, the growth of the virus can be very quick where people gather. I saw with dismay on social media a bus company advertising a bus coming down to Dublin because, as the North was closing down, the South was opening up. Every Member of this House, at one stage or another, has spoken about the need to have an all-island approach because borders are political constructs and they are certainly not recognised by a virus. There is a real danger if we see the likes of that happening over the next months and we have a bustling Christmas, that we will be potentially heading back into this in January. I say that as somebody who has been somewhat sceptical about decisions that have been taken but who realises and understands that it is for the greater good. Such incidents are worrying. There is important public communication to happen around that if anybody is thinking of travelling down.
I would also like to address the issue of tomorrow. In the decisions that we make and the announcements that are made, there should be an element of consistency. The decisions should be made on the basis of evidence but then stuck to. We have seen, for example, a Minister announcing, after a Twitter storm of a video of a street in Dublin, that the Government would ban takeaway pints on which a memorandum would be brought to Cabinet. Why are we in a situation where memorandums are going to Cabinet on the basis of social media storms? We do not know what the basis of that was. It was a short video. I was not there. What I saw of it was people outside. I am not sure it was a contributor but it is important that we do not see such things. The current Minister for Health has certainly proven to be a more shaky hand than his predecessor.He needs to be consistent and stick to the decisions that are made to give certainty for December.
I want to address the issue of some sectors that have been closed but could potentially open safely. Senator McDowell made an important point when he stated that our instinct should not be to restrict activity but to control the virus. I am talking about the arts sector, where theatres, galleries and centres operate in relatively precarious financial positions at the best of times. As anybody who has ever been to a gallery will know, however, they are not jam packed with people walking through. They are safe and controlled environments. I understand that the reason they have been told to close is to limit movement but we need to reconsider that.
I was recently contacted by a regional arts venue about the fact that when it reopens, it will need content and artists who are creating. They will have to have something ready to go for next year or whenever a vaccine comes and the venue reopens. It has hired some artists under the wage subsidy scheme but cannot get confirmation from Revenue that that is okay. The venue is hiring artists on the basis of working a day or two a week as employees of the centre, in the same way as cleaners or administrators who are employees of the centre, but Revenue will not give the centre confirmation that it will not have to pay back that money. The centre told me that the risk is that it will end up having to pay back that money after having paid it out. I have been chasing up the issue, as has a Minister's office. The employee wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, is potentially a solution to allow many performance and artistic venues to keep going over the course of the pandemic. An artist being an employee is not a ridiculous concept but, for some reason, Revenue will not confirm that for the centre.
I raise the issue of faith and mass over the course of December and places of worship being allowed to open. I did not grow up in a religious background. The only times I ever went to mass was when we went to funerals, and we did not even go at Christmas time. I always thought that sandwiches were given out at the end of the service. Nevertheless, it is very important for many people of faith to have access to faith institutions. Even in January, we might find a way of allowing people, particularly older people who get a great deal of comfort from their faith, to attend gatherings in a safe manner.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I attended a meeting on rural isolation earlier with Muintir na Tíre, Social Farming Ireland, Mental Health Ireland, the men’s shed movement and a few others. Isolation has always been an issue in rural Ireland, as the Minister of State will be probably know as a man from Meath, where there are plenty of rural areas, but no more so than during this pandemic. I cannot put into words how important is the way in which this reopening is done and that it is done safely in order that society will remain open. We have a significant personal responsibility as citizens in how we behave during this next reopening. I would hate to tell people who live on their own in the middle of nowhere, with no visitors during the week, that they cannot even go to the shops and that there will be another lockdown in January. I appeal to people to think about the issue from the perspective of someone who has had no visitors and does not meet anybody and whose only outlet is to go to a shop or mass. We need to bear such people in mind when we think about our behaviour over Christmas.
Local authorities have worked hard to ensure that we can manage our streets and public realm safely and that they can provide an enjoyable experience over Christmas, with the pedestrianisation, the cycling infrastructure that has been given over and the removal of cars from town centres. Over Christmas, space will be given back to people and it will enable them to enjoy their shopping experiences in a safer way. It will be friendlier for older people, people with disabilities, children and so on.
I want to encourage people, before the reopening happens, to think about supporting Irish businesses. There has never been a more important time for that. Jeff Bezos and all those guys have made €39 billion in the past three months, not a penny of which goes into the local economy. We need to think about that. I know that if I do a bit of online shopping, no matter what I look for, Amazon appears as the first result because it spends millions of euro generating advertisements and ensuring that it appears at the top of the feed. We all know that Silicon Valley is controlling it all anyway, according to "The Social Dilemma". It takes a bit more effort but it is so important that we make that effort to spend even €10 more per week or per purchase and to think really hard about supporting small businesses.
I ask the Tánaiste, and the Minister of State who is with us in the Chamber, that when the final decision is made in the Cabinet, clarity be given, which is all that people want. I acknowledge that the Government has been holding meetings with the business sector up to today. At every age, whatever we are doing in our lives, we want clarity. I plead with the Government to meet the business sector tomorrow, straight after the Cabinet meeting when decisions have been made, to let it know exactly where it stands and what it can and cannot do.
The local enterprise offices got great supports from the Government and, as a result, they were able to give many good supports to local businesses. Even though people might think their local shop is not online, the chances are that it now is. There is a haberdashery at home, James Devitt's in Ennistymon, where it feels like going back in time. He is on Instagram and nobody thought we would see the day. We need to highlight the click-and-collect options. While a shop might seem closed, it could be open online. Customers do not have to go to the large multinationals to buy their things all the time. Some shops are proving that their prices are competitive, so let us not rule them out.
I welcome the look for local campaign, which was launched yesterday by the Ministers of State, Deputies English and Troy, and the Tánaiste with the local enterprise offices. That is important because they support small businesses. Look for local is a good concept. Most of us will have a bit more time over the Christmas and we might have time off work. I urge people to find their local farmers' market and local shop and see what is open and what they can do in their local area. If shops are not able to open, people should consider click and collect, because many shops now have that option.
All my time could be spent talking about the importance of turning black Friday into green Friday. Black Friday is an American concept and I do not know whether taking on American concepts is where this country needs to go. I am all about a green Friday with 20% off. The black Friday concept will work in this country only if we turn it into a green Friday and support local businesses offering those discounts. If we all spend €10 more per week for the next four weeks, we will save thousands of jobs in the country.
It is important to remember the artists and musicians of this world. When the first lockdown was lifted, I got to go to a couple of gigs - spaced-out sessions, they were called - in Hotel Doolin. There were only 50 people in a venue that holds 400. I have never felt so safe in my life. I felt safer there than I do when walking the streets of Dublin. Venues can do this safely. What struck me most, apart from how safe I felt, was that the musicians were almost crying because of how happy they were to have an audience. Even if there are only 15, 30 or 50 people in a venue, we need to look out for that sector. Events are good for our souls and for the musicians and artists. We are a nation of creative scholars, writers, poets and artists, and they need outlets to create. We all know that Zoom is not where it is at when real interaction with people is wanted.
The most important thing we can give people over this reopening is our time, and that is free. When we are reopening, we will be able to find time to visit our families and friends and have a peaceful and happy Christmas, no matter what happens with the reopening. We need to do so in a really safe way in order that we will never have to go into lockdown again.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I have made no secret of my cautious approach to Covid-19. I regret, for example, that we did not opt for a four-week level 5 lockdown when it was first recommended. I think we could be facing figures of 100 cases rather than the 250 that we still have, and that would be a better place to be in as we move into Christmas. With that in mind, the precautionary principle in Article 191 of the EU treaty is really important and I am big fan of it. The principle has a scientific basis. The burden of proof is not to prove danger but the absence of it.What is unique about the precautionary principle is that in general we try to prove things, but where a health or environmental risk is assessed, we tend to err on the side of caution. I absolutely accept that there needs to be nuance, and we have seen situations where church services have been held in a different way, and music events have taken place outdoors, but the burden of proof in such situations must be that it can be demonstrated that safety will be provided. We need to be really careful on where that burden of proof lies and, where it exists, let there perhaps be nuance, because that is important. Within the general cautious approach, we must also make prioritisations. The issue of schools has been discussed before, and there have been examples of risks being taken in one area to protect others in a different area, which is important.
I believe that at Christmas and over the holiday period, relationships are key. I do not wish to diminish the importance of areas such as sport and business, but family and other relationships are the most important thing at this time. It may be that some relationships are facilitated through community or religious moments that are safely managed, and those moments that concern our personhood and relationships should be protected. I urge that these relationships are not put at risk by any undue haste, and that real care is taken to what we do in the first two or three weeks in December to protect that period of time in late December. People will probably be visiting family, so decisions could be made to reduce risk. For example, if the schools were to close one day earlier on Friday, 18 December, that would allow more time before children, who may have been in a classroom, find themselves with grandparents. The small decision to finish school one day earlier could have a proportionate benefit.
It is similar to the issue of working from home. People are constantly being told to work from home, but many do not have the discretion to decide to work from home, as it is their employer who will decide whether they will be permitted to do so. It is important that the Minister of State and the Government send key messages both to employers and employees to support the idea of working from home. Even in cases where it is not the norm, working from home should be accommodated in the week running up to Christmas to give people a longer gap between their activity in one crowded space and potentially their contact with vulnerable family members.
Depending on our testing capacity, another step that might be taken is that where there are high-risk individuals involved, there may be some role for precautionary testing before they meet with others. We already know that we will need to do that in airports and for those travelling home from overseas.
I am a little concerned about the announcement being made tomorrow. This is another part of nuance. I support the proposal from Senator Crowe on an opt-out. Businesses that know that they will not be safe to reopen, should not have to do so, and staff should be permitted to continue to receive the PUP. I know some businesses are worrying about putting their staff at risk because they will not be able to receive the PUP if businesses are required to open, so there must be nuance there. In respect of the qualification for the Christmas bonus element of the PUP, as I understand it, the decision will be based on activity from tomorrow, Friday evening, and through the following week. I am concerned about this. Perhaps the Minister of State can reassure us that the announcement tomorrow will not mean that lots of people who have been receiving the PUP for months will no longer qualify for this bonus simply because they may have a day of work next week.
Concerns also exist around the safety of workers in factories and retail. Will there be clear guidance to support the safety of workers in retail, to ensure they have handwashing breaks, for example, and similar things that are very practical but make a big difference to the safety of workers?
There may be some redundancies in the businesses that do not open, which we do not want to see, given that Brexit will also be happening over the Christmas period. We do not want to see multiple cases similar to that of Debenhams, so it is important that issues such as sick pay and redundancy pay are addressed, as there could be dovetailing with the impact of Covid and redundancies.
While I encourage SMEs, local businesses and others to support An Post, perhaps the Government could also support it, considering the incredibly positive role it has played throughout the pandemic. We know that it traditionally hires extra postal workers at Christmas, so perhaps some additional resources could be directed to An Post to support it while it, in turn, supports local businesses around this time. That is a very practical measure and a way in which the State could give encouragement to an organisation which has provided great support and encouragement to others.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I echo the comments of the Leas-Chathaoirleach that the Minister of State always brings optimism to his role, and we need optimism and hope over this period in order that we can come through these difficult times. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State is engaging with the retail forum, as it is very important to engage with the business sector on this, and also the Government's innovative approach in a number of areas, including, as Senator Ahearn mentioned, the CRSS scheme. It is also important that Members of this House thank the retail workers who have kept the supermarkets and other shops open during this period, some of whom are vulnerable. Therefore, they must be thanked and the role they have played must be recognised.
When we come out of this, the best way to get the economic recovery that we all want, and to address some of the economic challenges that Senator McDowell highlighted, is to get people back to work. We must prioritise getting those people back into employment who may have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Of particular concern to me is what is happening with young people. This is not just because of the economic impact it is having, but also the social impact. The Minister of State is aware that during the summer, youth unemployment peaked at over 40%. We must look at very targeted ways of ensuring that young people who have lost their jobs are able to get back into employment or into upskilling and retraining. One specific issue that I ask the Minister of State to address is the waiting list for driving tests, because it is preventing many young people from taking up employment. The waiting time for driving tests is now over 30 weeks, and that has a knock-on effect on the employment market, particularly when people do not have access to public transport.
I want to echo the concerns raised by Senator Crowe around the hospitality sector. I am concerned that we are only receiving announcements this weekend for what might happen in the hospitality sector next week. It is not possible for hotels, cafes and restaurants to simply switch on the lights and presume that they can reopen. I, and other Members of this House, have asked that there will be a lead-in period to reopening, and people will be given notice. It is not just about being able to bring in employees; it is also about being able to order stock, etc. It does not make sense to expect an announcement one evening in which one may be told that one can open within a few days. There must be adequate notice given to the sector. We also need to look at how we can learn from this experience to revitalise our hospitality sector. I recall Senator McDowell once singing the praises of cafe bars and I think that, bizarrely, our experience during this pandemic may lead to - and I hope to see it - an opening of outdoor dining facilities. We must put in place - particularly at local level through local authorities - the supports required to do that. Some of that work has started and it must continue.
There are a few specific sectors that other Senators have mentioned and on which I share their concerns. In the area of sport and well-being, it is important for people's well-being that they are able to get back into gyms. If people are working out in their own corner of the gym, they will not come into contact with anyone else. Any of the gyms that I am aware of have put in place very stringent cleaning measures to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. The Minister of State will be aware that while running on the roads is great most of the time, at this time of the year it is not, so we should at least give people the opportunity to be able to exercise indoors.
As we are all aware, the tourism sector is one that has been particularly impacted by the pandemic. I want to specifically talk about many of the tourist venues that are not regarded as fully commercial venues, and as a result they have not necessarily been able to avail of some of the commercial opportunities the Government has provided.Many of those tourist venues are not regarded as fully commercial and, as a result, have not necessarily been able to avail of some of the commercial opportunities that the Government has provided. The income levels of tourist attractions in Wexford such as Hook Head, the Irish National Heritage Park and Dunbrody House are down significantly this year. While some measures have been put in place by Fáilte Ireland, it is not enough to ensure that those tourist attractions will recover quickly.
Like Senators Moynihan and Garvey, I want to make a strong case for the arts sector. Our theatres, galleries and arts venues are controlled environments and can operate safely. It is not just important for them to be able to survive commercially, it is also important for our sense of community well-being. We would meet more people in a supermarket than we would if we walked next door and into the National Gallery of Ireland, as Senator Moynihan has said. We must look at how those venues can be reopened safely.
All of us here want to support local business. I referred to this matter earlier, but there has been a shift in purchasing to the online market. One of the associated difficulties is that it puts the high street and main street businesses at a distinct disadvantage because they continue to pay commercial rates. Commercial rates is a model of funding local government from the 1820s. It is completely outdated. It is a ridiculous situation that the local government funding in this country is determined on the basis of the size of the shop floor of premises when more and more money is being spent online. We, as a Government, need to radically reform the commercial rates system.
I know that the Minister of State is enthusiastic and optimistic. We have to get the country moving again. I ask the Minister of State to take on board the points I have made.
The Minister of State is welcome. It is always good to see him and the optimism that he brings.
I am happy and anxious at the same time. We stand at the end of a lockdown period that has been, largely, a great success, whether we agree with it or not. It would appear that we have had a second wave of infection, experienced a peak and are managing the case numbers and caseloads that are coming through. All the trends are downward and that is positive and great.
I am fearful about opening up on 1 December, although I hope we do because many people have made appointments for that date, some urgently. I am fearful that the cycle of positive cases will start going upwards from a fortnight to three weeks after the reopening and that we will end up with an emergency meeting around 16 or 18 December reflecting a rise in cases because people have been out shopping, our hospitality establishments have reopened and people have resumed visiting them. People feel that, after such a long time of sacrifice, they deserve their Christmas and to meet their families. All of that is true. However, 2,033 people are dead. They may not have died were it not for this serious virus that is afflicting our country and the world.
I wish that we were back in the situation we were in during the summer. I wish we were in a place where we were looking at an opening up of Ireland and that we had a plan for what to do next Monday and three weeks later. That was a great success during the summer. The opening up of the economy and life was clear and decisive. People had hope and a date for which to aim. I booked a holiday in Cork for the date on which we could travel. I was gone once we could go. We were able to pull the original plan back and open even earlier. Christmas, and the here and now, make that a difficult thing for our Government to do. I do not envy the sub-group or the Cabinet who will try to make a decision tomorrow. In an ideal world, we would open everything up, including the hospitality sector, and I would like to be in a position to say that. I see hardship in the group of people who are around me. There are 30 or 40 people who have had a grand time during Covid-19 and have sailed through it. They have worked from home. It has been challenging because of childcare and they are worried about the mental health of people, which is serious in itself, but there are others who have lost their businesses, have had to organise moratoriums on their mortgages and have actually lost loved ones through Covid and otherwise. Those people face into a lonely Christmas without members of their family and need to get together.
There are difficulties around Christmas. There is an impetus to pile pressure and urgency on the Government, especially around the hospitality sector. I do not blame those in the sector. This is the time of year when a lot would be sold across retail and hospitality. It is the one opportunity to store up profits for the lean times of January and February. We are in a difficult place. The only thing I can say is that if the Government is prepared to open things up and, as a part of that narrative, we say that we may have another lockdown in January, we are giving licence to an attitude where people go for it because they think we are going to be locked down again in January anyway. I fear for a relaxation of the adherence to regulations that has brought us to the place in which we are today of having lower numbers of infections. We have lower numbers because people and businesses have made incredible sacrifices. We, as a nation, have complied with the regulations for the most part. We have made good choices.
As much as I want to stand here and give the Minister of State a list of all the things that I believe are urgent, I find it difficult to do so. I worry about small businesses that took out personal loans to advance themselves. I worry about extracurricular activities and the effect their cancellation is having. I have a child who has not had a play date since last March. Moments in people's lives are passing that can never be got back. There are rites of passage that can never be reclaimed. Things are passing. Every day is a huge development for the young. The old are sitting and waiting, fearful that death awaits them if they go out to the shop, church or wherever.
If we are going to open churches, we need to think about every type of church, denomination and religion. It is not just the Catholic and Protestant churches that have fine big buildings. There are newer churches. Many of the international communities that live among us have evangelical churches that meet in community centres. We are going to have to start discriminating the minute we make a decision. We must make a decision around square footage, or something like that.
I do not envy the Minister of State. I urge him to make the communication and vision strong and clear. We must craft a vision for the new year when we can open up because we will have a vaccine and all of these things. We must urge people to adhere to the regulations for Christmas because we want to have a happy new year.
It is fascinating to sit here and listen to every contribution. I am a former Deputy and new to the Seanad. I have to give credit to each of my colleagues. Senator Seery Kearney expressed some anxiety about how we move forward. Senator McDowell seems to be more open to getting things up and running. It is wonderful to hear everybody having a point of view and expressing it honestly. Some really good points have been made.
I want to join other Senators in again praising all the front-line workers, our local authorities and local enterprise offices, LEOs. They have really stepped up to the mark. I also compliment the Department of Social Protection. I deal with the Department on behalf of constituents and its staff are excellent. I want to give a word of praise to the Minister of State, Deputy English. He has been sent out to bat for the Government on many occasions. It has not been easy. A member of my party said to me last week that at least the Minister of State gives us a little bit of hope for the future.
It has been difficult all around. It is difficult for the Taoiseach and the new Minister for Health.I have said before that dealing with the first four months of the pandemic was completely different compared with dealing with the second four months, and I will tell the House why. Every one of us was of the opinion that this would not last. I have praised the previous Taoiseach, now the Tánaiste, and the previous Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, but I also see the work being done by the present Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and by our present Minister for Health. It is not an easy task, not only for the regime in this country but for any government across the world at the moment. The virus has caused problems everywhere.
Senator Higgins mentioned An Post and I think other Members did as well. It was a very important point. I add to that by mentioning the work done by postmen and women, particularly in rural areas where they actually still call to the door, ask people are they okay, bring them out a newspaper or take a message for them somewhere else. All of this is okay by the top brass in An Post. It is fantastic to see that happen and it happens in urban areas as well. It is fantastic to see something that was so important in the past to people now being there again. The Leas-Chathaoirleach will know this as well from the rural parts of County Cavan.
When I say this I am probably not going to please all of my constituents but I am very much in favour of reopening our hotels, restaurants and pubs. Having made that statement I will get 50% of the people calling me saying I was right and 50% telling me I should not have said that and we cannot open them. I will explain where I am coming from on this. The attitudes of many people have changed and they have changed again. Going back to the point I made about people thinking this was going to be a three- or four-month event, now I think most reasonable people understand that even with a vaccine, we are going to have challenges and problems well into 2021. We are probably going to have to wear masks and we going to have to do a lot of things differently than we did in the past. I have a great belief that there is a huge area of personal responsibility with the Irish public, and let us get that message out today. Therefore, if the pubs are allowed to open let us be clear that for publicans who break the rules there will be consequences when they want to renew their licences. This must be a carrot and stick approach. I am against opening the pubs for a few weeks and then closing them. We either open them or close them and that is what publicans are telling me. We need to be very careful about that. The level of outbreak from the hotel and restaurant sector when it was open was minimal. It was so low. I think it was 0.12% or something like that. Again, I know from visiting hotels and restaurants that they were fantastic all over the place. They really did what they were asked to do by Government and the experts, and they will do so again. It is important we put our faith in the people. They are exhausted from Covid, they are anxious about it. As many speakers have said, people have anxieties about banks and Revenue. Despite all the assurances and reassurances people still have a lot of worries and quite a number of them will say, "I had X amount of people employed here and I really worry about them". We must have faith in them.
The Minister of State might clarify a few things concerning the reopening. From my own perspective and from a rural one, will we allow some people back into the marts as that is an issue? Will the shooting season be allowed to happen? I think churches are going to open. A number of Members have mentioned that we speak for all churches. I admit I am a practising Catholic but we must apply this to all churches and all faiths. They should all be allowed to have their desire to go to church met. A lot of people who might not attend church during the year, of whatever religion, nearly all go along at Christmas time. That might create problems in the church but I am sure more ceremonies can be put on. Will non-contact sports like golf and tennis be allowed?
My time is up. This has been a good debate, fantastic points have been made. I wish the Government well with its decisions tomorrow. I am sure the Minister of State will relay our concerns and our views to the Taoiseach and Tánaiste and I thank him for his time today.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I concur with everything that has been said about this great debate and I wish the Minister of State well with all of the proposals that have been made today.
I have a different issue to raise with the Minister of State. I think it is partly in his area of responsibility but it mainly pertains to the Department of Social Protection. It is an issue I have raised before with the previous Minister for social protection. I am referring to redundancy. While I have been involved in small businesses all my life, it is nearly more difficult to close a business than to open one because one must pay creditors, banks and tax. Winding up a business is a very difficult business. During the downturn there were many businesses, and I am talking specifically about sole traders or self-employed people, which downsized or eventually closed and had to pay redundancy to their staff.
The Redundancy Payments Act 2003 mandated that an employer must pay two weeks wages per year of service to all staff, going back to whenever they started, which could be back in the 1970s, 1980s or whenever. The result is that many businesspeople, sole traders or self-employed people are now facing the prospect of their home being used to pay for the redundancy. Some people downsized, and they cashed in their private pensions to pay the redundancy. Eventually, the day of reckoning always comes and they closed. For the rest of the funds, in some cases they plead inability to pay, with the result that the State paid the redundancy to the staff, and rightly so. I have no problem at all with staff having to get their due amount of money upon redundancy. The problem I see here is that in some of those cases, and this is going to be a huge problem going forward, there are many businesses that will never open again. Let us face it, there are many small businesses that have been employing people for years that will never open again and are going to be faced with the prospect of paying redundancy to their staff whether they are closed at the moment or no. Over the last six months we have seen - and in fairness, one must congratulate the Government as there is a lot of money around - but there is no money around to pay redundancy on behalf of self-employed people or sole traders. What really happens at the finish, at the end of the day, if a sole trader or a self-employed person cannot afford to pay the redundancy is that it is going to be taken out of their estate eventually and that is the family home.
I am going to bring forward a Private Members' Bill to eliminate the family home from such cases. I hope the Government will back me. The family home should not be used in this case. In lots of cases the family home goes back generations. A small business person or a self-employed person who had been employing people for donkey's years is going to be faced with the fact that his or her family home will be taken to pay the two weeks' statutory redundancy for employees, and good employees as well. The Minister of State should bring that back to Government because I have a number of cases. There are also a lot of former sole traders and self-employed people who are afraid to talk about this issue but that is what is going to happen. I brought this to the attention of Senator Doherty when she was Minister for social protection and I must say that the Government is turning a blind eye to it. However, it is going to be more common as we face into the unknown of what is going to happen after this virus is hopefully beaten when we get the vaccine. It is a very distressing thing for businesspeople who must face into this where they plead inability to pay, where they sell their businesses to pay for redundancies and it may not be enough, and then they face the possibility that their family home will eventually being taken to pay for the redundancies. I hope the Minister of State will take that on board.I hope the Minister of State will take that on board because, eventually, some of those people may end up having to go to nursing homes. There will be problems between the Revenue Commissioners and social welfare which will look for their money back. We will have the person going to a nursing home and the problem with the fair deal scheme. It will, therefore, cause problems as we go forward. If I bring forward the Private Members' Bill, I hope I get a bit of backing from the Government.
In any event, I wish the Minister of State well. The Government has done a magnificent job on keeping the country open, and as previous speakers have said, I hope businesses will be up and running from 1 December because we need that for people's sanity. We need to get back to some form of life where people can go about and do their business, whether that is business or relaxation or whatever. I wish the Minister of State well.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House. I thank him for the work he is doing in dealing with a difficult sector of the economy that has gone through a difficult period in recent months.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel as we begin a process of coming out of the latest level of lockdown and it is incumbent on all of us to show leadership in how we manage that process. The State stepped in, as it had to and should, in protecting businesses to the greatest extent possible with various financial supports through this period. Of course, it is never enough. It never could be enough. Of course, it will not address the significant loss in income that many small businesses have suffered. It has, however, effectively helped them to survive in a basic way during this period. Now, as there as some light at the end of the tunnel, we must be careful how we re-engage with the public, and the public must be careful how it re-engages with social and retail activity.
I believe, as we enter the Christmas period and exit this latest level of restrictions, that the public have learned an inordinate amount about this virus. Much more care is taken by people now. People do not congregate in the same way. They wash their hands much more, wear face coverings and keep their distance. In the main, people have stayed away from events such as funerals, matches and different visitations to houses. Even in important circumstances, people have chosen not to do that. We must, therefore, show people that we trust them, and I believe that requires opening the economy to the greatest extent possible. People have learned a lot. People who feel they have compromised a health situation are saying to me that they could have gone to a work event but did not. They chose to stay at home to protect individuals and family members. They chose not to do the grocery shopping on a weekly basis because they know it might put them in some danger. There is, therefore, much better understanding.
Human behaviour has changed immensely, so let us start to treat people as adults. Let us stop this blame game. I am sure, when restrictions lift, a bunch of teenagers who have been dramatically affected by this lockdown will do something we might otherwise say was stretching the boundary. Let us not hammer them, however. There will be small breaches. That is why regulations and rules are there. People will have minor indiscretions. Let us concentrate on the big picture which, for me, is getting that economic activity going. Let people engage with it in a careful and conscious way that limits the risk of them contracting the virus, and where they might be prone to have caught it, to limit to the greatest extent possible the ability to be a spreader of the virus.
Retail is on its knees. The Minister of State does not need me to talk to him about that. We need to see the retail sector open. We need to see beauty care, hairdressers, barbers and nail parlours. That needs to open next week. I argue that we need to see restaurants and pubs open too. There is some argument against opening wet pubs but if we tried to corral everyone into a restaurant right now - because the demand will be there - we will only increase the intensification of people in a social setting. Set certain limits on the numbers that should be there. Set earlier closing times or put greater restrictions on owners regarding sanitation and sanitising certain areas. Let people make choices, however. I believe they have learned a lot and will make those choices.
Cattle marts need to have buyers back around the ring. I appeal to the Minister of State because I see no chance of there being any risk of the spread of the virus in that environment. I mention hunting. I am not a huntsman, but other people are, and for them it is an important pursuit. It is part of their leisure activity. That restriction needs to be lifted next week. Hare coursing meetings are set around the country. I am not into hare coursing. I do not have a dog, but other people do, and it is their livelihood. The return some people might get from the breeding and sale of dogs in a controlled and regulated environment is the capacity to send a kid to college. Hare coursing, in the manner it is now practised, is part of that whole industry. The State supports the industry, and it should, in the same way it supports the horse racing industry because it employs many people. We must let those activities operate again.
I am also taken by the fact that certain activities were allowed in the last period, but something like dancing was excluded. Perhaps, I underestimate it. None of my kids danced in the past when they were younger. I have, however, been taken by the number of calls I have received from people who want to get back dancing. To them, it is not just an important leisure pursuit; it is also good for their physical activity, particularly the kind of figure dancing that is done among a younger cohort of people. Some people go to the gym, some play hurling or basketball and some dance. If it is done in a controlled and careful way, I do not see a good reason for restricting it.
I appeal to the Minister of State to be as trusting as he can be of the Irish people, accepting that there will be indiscretions. Give as much advice and as many guidelines as are necessary so people who want to adhere to them will do so. Place some trust as we head into the Christmas period.
While I listen to what NPHET and the various experts say about international travel and not wanting to seed another cluster of the virus from outside the State, there are people who will want to come home for Christmas to see their parents. In some cases, it might be their last opportunity to see an elderly parent or grandparent. I appeal that by lifting restrictions, we do not create some enormous burden on those who want to come home. Let the advice be that we would prefer they did not, but if they do, let us not put an inordinate burden on them. Let us not put them in some kind of closet or put some kind of shadow over them that they will be embarrassed to be seen when they come. Let us not do that.
That is okay, we must accommodate our senior seasoned representatives. In the first instance, like everybody else, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, into the House. He has done a sterling job on late-night TV and radio selling the message of what we are trying to achieve here, which is to flatten the curve and try to live with this awful disease. He has done a remarkably good job in that regard.
I wish to start my remarks by thanking the Irish people for their resilience, patience, determination and sacrifice in helping as a collaborative meitheal effort to try to deal with this pandemic. They have been resilient and made enormous sacrifices. Hundreds and thousands of them at the moment are on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, because they want to do the right thing to save the vulnerable people in our society.
I hear the calls about opening various sectors and I agree with much of it. I do not see the harm in having a clothes shop or shoe shop open.This is the time of year when retail outlets need to sell their product in order to provide themselves with a cushion going into the early part of next year when things will be quiet.
I acknowledge the arguments, discussion and discourse taking place about restaurants and pubs, the prevalence of alcohol and the challenge it seems to present to this disease, not just here but throughout the world. The Government has a job to do and, ultimately, it is its decision. I hope that, as we speak, the people responsible for advising the Government are going through the ifs, buts and maybes. I hope we will return with safe protocols on the opening of restaurants, because the last thing we want at this stage is another spike after Christmas. We are so near to a vaccine being rolled out that I would hate to see all of the sacrifices and hard work of recent months being washed away because of a reopening programme that is too ambitious. That said, we do need to try to give people a normal semblance of Christmas, as much as possible. We know it is not going to be a normal Christmas. However, we want to try to create as much flexibility to facilitate people to, as much as possible, have an enjoyable Christmas. It is difficult and challenging.
What we have seen is the Government and society react in a way that would make one proud. Future generations will look back and see the way in which society, the Government and the leadership of all sectors, religious organisations and others responded to Ireland's call. The people who magnify what is great about our communities and country are the many front-line workers who risk their lives. Many of them got Covid and, sadly, a small number of them have died as a result. The sacrifice they have made to protect citizens is remarkable. We owe it to them and to the connective meitheal that has happened in this country to be cautious but, at the same time, ambitious.
I agree with people who say 2021 will be a great year. It will be a year where we will have a vaccine that will prevent people picking up this disease. At some stage, if time permits this side of Christmas, we should have a debate on the roll-out of the vaccine because it will be the big challenge of quarters 1 and 2 of 2021. I look forward to 2021 with optimism. We have learnt a lot, experienced a lot and suffered a lot. We have lost loved ones and people have got sick in 2020 but we have come together as a nation and in 2021 we will build on the strength of character that we have adopted, developed and nurtured. I think of the words of Seamus Heaney: "If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere."
I thank Senator Conway. Before I call Senator Cassells, I am conscious that we now have seven Senators waiting to speak. With six minutes each, that is 42 minutes and the Minister of State also has to respond. There are only 28 minutes left. I ask Senators to be conscious of their time. It would be great if they could tighten it up so everyone has an opportunity to speak.
I welcome the Minister of State. I acknowledge his words and his work in ensuring that businesses that were forced to close as a result of the pandemic and their staff were supported.
It is important that this debate is framed by acknowledging how it was predicted last spring that our economy would shrink by 8%, but now it is predicted that it will only shrink by 2.3%. I wish to highlight the resilience of business in Ireland, especially in the multinational sector and the strong exports by IT companies and pharmaceutical companies that have made sure we will get back to a level playing field. There are plenty of people in this House who tell us what is wrong, but they are missing for this important debate. Their absence is notable. They have a love affair with Cuba. They were at it again this morning. They were talking about Diego Maradona and brought Cuba into it, a country that is in the depths of despair and poverty. There is no sign of them now for a debate about the reopening of this country. We had a predicted decrease in economic activity of 8% and it is 2.3%. Spain's economy has decreased by 12.4%, Italy by 9.9%, and the UK by 10.3%. There is no sign of the Cubans.
The actions to support businesses during the pandemic and the philosophical approach in general has made sure that this country can recover. Senator McDowell spoke about how the reopening cannot be measured and analysed purely in commercial terms. He is so right. The Minister of State used a phrase in his speech to the effect that we need to support businesses in their journey. He is correct. There will be many journeys. It is not all about pounds, shillings and pence. It is about the very fabric of society. I refer to sport, which is part of the reopening as well. I made the point to the Minister of State at the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Jack Chambers, that we supported these organisations financially, which is welcome, but I argued that elite sports should continue during level 5, and I am glad I did. Many here did not. We saw the joy last weekend in Tipperary and Cavan and the despair in Meath. It is all emotion, but it is all part of making sure that life can continue with some normality. I praise the arts community. We saw the Abbey Theatre broadcast a number of plays online to mark Bloody Sunday. The Solstice arts centre in Navan has continued its visual art performances online as well. Many have spoken about the churches. I do not need to speak to the Minister of State about it, as Fr. Mark would be on the phone to him, but I praise the Taoiseach for engaging with the leaders of all churches.
The retail sphere is the Minister of State's area of responsibility. I noted his words to the effect that many will need to avail of trading online. I praise the Government for the funds it provided to get small retail operations trading online, that would never have engaged in it previously. Here is the rub and the big challenge: we had a problem with retail businesses in town centres before this and we are now encouraging online business for even the smaller businesses that would not have traded online. I am fearful that in trying to help businesses, we could hasten the death of the main street. Last Sunday, the television programme "The Week in Politics" had a segment about our home town of Navan and spoke to many traders based in Navan Town Centre, including Michelle Coldrick. Ms Coldrick posed the question as to whether she will be there next year. That is the big question. Will we be here next year? We need not just a focus on keeping business alive, but keeping our towns alive, because if our towns die we lose something in terms of the fabric of society as well.
I will. I welcome the Minister of State. There has been a more measured discourse in recent weeks about young people and how Covid is affecting teenagers. I welcome that. I remember when summer holidays seemed like an eternity. Lives were changed over the course of three months and yet many of them have had nine months at home with mum and dad and no social life. There is more empathy now than there was for the challenges young people are facing.
I wish to speak about the smallies because they have not had the same amount of attention and everything that has happened has been a massive upheaval for them. As the Minister of State is aware, I have two small children who are six and seven, and he has small children. The thing about small children is that it is not a problem until it is a problem. They have been going through a lot. I thought mine were coping fine until Hallowe'en and I told them there would not be any trick or treating. What came out in one sentence is something that I did not pick up on as being there to the extent it was. My daughter said to me that first it was St. Patrick’s Day, then it was Hallowe'en and next it will be Christmas. I wish to flag that. It is completely understandable. We are talking about businesses reopening, but we must also remember the magic of Christmas and that we only have a very small number of Christmases with our children. We do not want them to be afraid of what Christmas is going to be like or that it is anything less this year than other years.I welcome what the Minister for Foreign Affairs said in the Dáil today, clarifying for all children, including my own, that Santa is an essential worker for essential purposes, meaning he does not have to self-quarantine but should observe social distancing.
It is not just about Christmas but it is about January. The data from the schools with a positivity rate of 2.5% suggests we are managing school transmission. Non-contact training outdoors in pods of 15 is working. There have been no playdates, ballet classes, Irish dancing, drama, Beavers or Cubs for small children, however. I fear for them. I want them to have more than just school. This also has an impact on the family as well. I know about this as I am of that age group looking after small children and elderly parents. There is much anxiety around my age and stage.
To have the reassurance that we will be going into January with a more organised calendar, and that it is not just about school but about their hobbies, would be a great relief for many parents and the businesses which run those activities. That is why the roadmap over the next couple of weeks will be important. It is also important that it is clear, incremental and that people and businesses know what to expect.
So much of our focus has been around Covid health. In January, I hope it shifts to general and mental health. Our general mental and physical health are important. We also need to turn our attention to support those who have had Covid.
I welcome the Department's protocol in helping businesses open safely and stay safe. We need a booklet that goes to every home about working safely at home, to ensure people know their rights, as well as employer and employee obligations in that regard.
I am glad to hear other Senators use the phrase that I asked them to use earlier, namely, Green Friday. Tomorrow is Black Friday. We want to turn it to Green Friday by supporting and clicking local, championing our local businesses, jobs and communities.
The safest environment I have ever been in since Covid began has been our local church. By that, I mean social distancing and the way the rules were implemented. It is important all religious practices are resumed. They have done an excellent job and the people are, by nature, compliant with those rules.
If we open any pubs, we should open all pubs. Apart from equity, from my experience in small rural towns - I am not as adept at speaking about Dublin - if every pub were open, one would have a naturally dispersed socially distanced crowd. It is not a difficult thing to achieve in that territory.
We need to begin religious services for everyone. We must open all pubs with strict rules with enforcement if they are not adhered to.
I will be mindful of it. While I will take the Acting Chairman's advice, with all due respect, they should be here. I am not sure if there are many committees sitting at this time on a Thursday. Perhaps the fact that there are no votes for the rest of the day means people skedaddled earlier. I can only assume and cannot make any real guesses about it.
Could Members take their seats? I am advised that Members who are not here may be on other business, be it governmental or departmental. We cannot attribute any reason they are not here. If Members would please respect that. It is not my ruling. It is what I have been advised.
Going back to the subject matter, which is not about the best Opposition ever provided in the history of the State, I find it is important that I personally turn up to all briefings about topics like this to ensure that I am well-informed so that when we debate specific matters, I can discuss them. That is what I am doing here.
Retail has more or less been sorted this afternoon. However, GD Tours, a company based in Derry, last night proposed to take a bus load of shoppers from Derry on a round trip of 452 km to Dundrum Shopping Centre on 5 December. As retail would be closed in Northern Ireland but open in the South, they felt they could come down here. It has now subsequently put a post on Facebook stating that it did not realise the restrictions in place. Was the company living on the dark side of the moon for the past 12 months? Where has it been since February of this year that it thought it would be acceptable to bus down a whole load of shoppers more than 452 km on a round trip to Dublin? That seriously undermines the real efforts being made on both sides of the Border.
When we talk about an all-Ireland approach to Covid, it works both ways. It is not just about people on this side of the Border having to make sacrifices while people in Northern Ireland think that they can come 450 km down the road to shop here. Perhaps if other people turned up to briefings, they would know that too.
The Minister of State is very welcome to the Chamber to give us an update on how we are going to move forward. Covid is not the problem; the living with Covid plan of the Government is the issue. It is killing business and society. The silent lie of this Government to those flip-flopping in and out of business is crippling entrepreneurs. There is plenty of money and there are plenty of ideas but the brain drain is sitting at the Government table with no ideas or plans. The Government has little or no respect for the timelines associated with doing business. Can the Minister of State give us details on how much money has been given out to indigenous companies to date? What have been the challenges and how has he addressed them? The problem for many companies is the box they fit into, or do not fit into. There is money in the enterprise centres, Fáilte Ireland and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland. The Government is giving 80% guarantees to the banks, and I am told the banks are refusing to support Irish companies. What is the Minister of State going to do about that?
Living with Covid is a lie. We have had no plan in this country for 12 months while we have been waiting for a vaccine to cure all our ills. What happens if that fails? Already this morning, we have heard warnings about bird flu. Here we go again. Has the Minister of State a plan for that? Who will pay the bills when the Government fails to support enterprise? People are looking for hope. The Government should give them a firm indication that it has a plan for business. Tough decisions must be made and taken. Has the Minister of State respect for business? How can businesses plan for services or production in 2021? Businesses are one cheque away from closing. God forbid that interest rates will increase. Has the Minister of State a plan for that? I am sure he has a plan for keeping inflation down.
We have already heard the many tales of companies complaining about not getting product because of the massive effect of Covid on production and supply. We all know what happens when supply volumes drop; prices go up. Are we ready for that?
One of the best arms of the State is the Revenue Commissioners. If they can get it right, why can we not employ the same standards in health, education and justice? The reason the Revenue Commissioners get it right is that they deal with businesses every single day. The Government should be mindful of the businesspeople in this country. The business community is the lifeblood of the State. It needs a transfusion now so the Government should get on with it.
I thank all the front-line workers who have worked throughout this pandemic. I am very mindful today of all those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic. My family had a bereavement in that I lost my godmother. I realise how difficult it has been for families to grieve during the pandemic. I am particularly mindful today of all the affected families.
The Government's response has been extraordinary. It has provided an extraordinary amount of support to individuals, businesses, schools, sports organisations and communities throughout the country. It has been unprecedented; there is absolutely no question about that.
I would like to mention the circumstances of one sector, however. I am aware there have been discussions about it in the Minister of State’s Department. I ask him to examine again the circumstances of companies that do not own their own business premises. A catering company in a city, town or village will have received the restart grant, the restart plus grant, the rates waivers and, now, the Covid restrictions support scheme payment, but a catering company that operates from its owner's home will not have received any of those. I ask that this be considered.
Senator Keogan mentioned the credit guarantee scheme and said the banks are not lending to businesses. I would like to give the Minister of State an example of the opposite occurring. It concerns a business whose owner came to me a couple of months ago. I made the individual aware of the credit guarantee scheme and said it is not just for new lending. I totally appreciate that some businesses may not want to borrow at this time but they can actually refinance existing loans using the credit guarantee scheme. The business owner who approached me was advised by the business's accountant not to apply on the grounds that the application would not be successful. The owner applied on my advice and, within three days, had approval from the bank, thereby reducing the interest rate from 7% to 2.2%. The scheme has been extended until the end of June next year, which is very welcome, but the take-up has been low. Perhaps it has been low because people are saying the scheme is not working, and perhaps accountants around the country are telling businesses not to apply because they will not be approved. I suggest to them that they should apply. Where there is a refusal, the case can be taken to the Credit Review Office.
Senator Currie mentioned mental and physical health. Coming from a physical education background, I am a strong supporter of gyms. They made strong representations to remain open. I supported them in their calls because not all gyms are the same. Many personal training facilities worked exceptionally hard to try to segregate areas and to have only one, two or three clients in the building at the same time. I am not referring to the big gyms that we know of throughout the country. It is important that when we reopen the economy next week, it remain open. That is what businesses need. They need assurances that they are not just going to be closed again and that they will remain open.
I have just one comment to make, on entertainment. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. On the last occasion that gastropubs and restaurants could open on a limited basis, no live music was allowed. We might have an official announcement tomorrow that some hospitality venues can open. Has the Government had any discussions with NPHET specifically on live music and live performance? The plight of live performers has been well articulated in the Houses so I will not go over it again. Even if live music had no impact on the ability of a venue to impose all necessary social distancing rules, would it be allowed? It would serve us well to have a test case to determine whether a musician could play a hospitality venue in December if guarantees on social distancing are made.
Much of today's businesses will concern the reopening of vital services, such as screening and testing services and therapies. I will be speaking about these later. I draw the attention of the Minister of State to a Bill before the Dáil today, the Mental Health Parity of Esteem Bill, whose aim is to place the treatment of mental health issues and the right to access that treatment on the same footing as the treatment of physical health conditions and access thereto.
I am not sure whether the previous speaker mentioned our not covering about four portfolios in this Chamber, one of which has about ten portfolios within it. Some people would do well to follow their own advice and tone down the attacks on Sinn Féin and other Opposition parties.
I am sorry that I will not have time to answer everyone's questions but I will come back on specific questions and I will try to cover some of the topics. I thank the Senators for the debate, which has certainly been worthwhile. There are ongoing negotiations through the various subcommittees, there will be the Cabinet today and tomorrow and we will also be dealing with NPHET. I will feed this in. I have sent the Tánaiste some of the messages that have come in already. I am sure the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, also has them. All of the concerns and questions raised will be fed in as was the debate in the House on Tuesday. It is worthwhile having this discussion and getting all this feedback. I am conscious many of the Senators have been in touch regularly with suggestions, feedback and ideas and they are all fed into the system as best as we possibly can.
I will identify some of the areas that were asked about, including enforcement and the Garda doing its job to support Government messaging, and it certainly has. The inspections led out by the HSA involve many other Departments. It has brought in an extra 700 inspectors and has carried out more than 20,000 inspections on following the back to work protocol. This is to give confidence in the system and that we are checking up, watching and working with businesses in all sectors, which are going to great lengths to protect their staff and customers.
Senator Higgins asked about planned testing, which is going on in nursing homes and the meat sector. Quite a high number of tests and inspections are carried out. Very positive results are coming back. The Senator is probably asking that we spread it out and it certainly is the plan. Now that we have testing capacity built up, and at one stage 140,000 tests were carried out in one week, we have the capacity to do many more tests and I certainly will bring it forward, as it makes sense. It is working well in the key areas that we had to focus on.
The message about green Friday and shopping locally backs up our campaign that was launched this week on looking to local. A very good message has been sent out and endorsed by everybody here with regard to shop local and green Friday. Earlier, I referenced the importance of working with our retail sector, as well as many other businesses that need our help for a few weeks.
Many Senators raised issue of business supports and I touched on many of these earlier. We have money set aside to continue these supports for next year in the recovery fund and to take on new ideas that are brought forward. The House brought forward some today and on other days. We will work with them and take them on board as best as we possibly can.
I understand the pressure of the hospitality sector, which was mentioned by many including restaurants, pubs and hotels. I cannot give the answer on what will happen tonight and tomorrow on that. Retail is another major area, as are gyms and leisure facilities for the kiddies and everybody else. Some of the adults also want to go go-karting and want to go to activity centres. Play centres and activity centres are a key area also. Hairdressing and barbers are essential, as we have been told by many people although I question that. I am only joking. There is a bit of work. We recognise the importance of all of these sectors and getting as many as possible reopened next week is the aim.
Senator Higgins spoke about level 5 coming earlier. There was an effort made not to have to go to level 5 and we really felt strongly that had level 3 worked, we would not have had to inflict level 5 on anybody. Nobody wanted it. The effort as we remove and reduce restrictions will be to try to make sure we do not have to go back to level 4, level 5 or anything like that in future. That message was reflected by everybody and most speeches mentioned following the advice and guidance. Governments and health authorities can set out advice, rules and regulations. We would rather there were not rules and regulations and laws but sometimes there have to be. The main message is to be aware of ourselves and our own behaviour. It is within our control and most people have stepped up to it. Not everyone accepts the necessity of it, and some are very worried, as Senator Higgins has said. Others do not care as much. We need everyone to work together over the weeks and months ahead to protect all of us and our society in order that we can reopen. Everybody must play their part for everybody else, even if people do not share the concerns but people should respect those concerns and that they could be a carrier and could pass it on. We must all play our part. This is what the advice and guidance will be, to reflect the debate here today. Everybody is asking for strong communication and clear messaging. That is the intention and the aim.
People are asking about the science behind particular sectors and areas and why sports, retail or business cannot open up. To be very clear, we understand the pressure for each individual sector. I meet many groups every day of the week in many retail business in other sectors and everyone can state it is not in their sector and it is a standard conversation. People say that it is not in their houses and it is not here and it is not there. We have to understand it is the movement of people and the contacts. That is what we are trying to limit. While some people might say the restrictions and advice did not make sense it was all about trying to restrict the movement of people and to limit close contacts. What will happen as we remove restrictions is there will be more contacts and we have to make sure they do not become close contacts. This is the effort we all have to work on over the weeks ahead as we try to reopen society for all of the reasons of the benefit to community, society, neighbours, friends and family. The importance of relationships and family was stressed. I stress the importance of business from my background and where I am coming from here today. They are all important and the key is to manage our own contacts and behaviour and follow the advice and guidance.
When people are shopping in the month of December, apart from going local, which is very important, people should work with that sector. People should help whatever business they go into to do their job. They have advice on the door and they have direction. They set out their stores and shops to mind us but we have to work with them. It is difficult for them. Compliments were given to the retail sector that it is very much on the front line along with all of the others who are front-line health services. We have to respect that they did their job for the past seven or eight months so we have to work with them and help them. That is an important message to give.
I would like to be able to answer all of the questions but I cannot. I will reflect. People mention churches, retail, hospitality, gyms, centres, restaurants, cafes and pubs and trying to get them reopened. We know now what is important to us as a community. Family and relationships are number one and that is what this was about. It is about trying to manage the virus to protect ourselves and our families. Next in importance are our local services and local shops and businesses, be they churches, gyms or whatever people like to do themselves. We want to be able to open up as much of these as we possibly can. Important in supporting all this is our economy and most people get that. It is about trying to get the balance right. That is what we will try to achieve tomorrow and the next day and in the weeks ahead.
There is an issue that Senator Ahearn raised with me. The regulations state that the restrictions are until 12 o'clock on 1 December. The Cabinet is very well aware of this and the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have said they will bring absolute clarity to this tonight or tomorrow when making their announcement. People are wondering whether it is 1 December or 2 December. That will be absolutely clarified when the Cabinet brings forward its position.