Seanad debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Covid-19 Pandemic

10:30 am

Rebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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I want to raise the issue of the revision of construction activity due to be announced in the coming days. It was welcome that, since January, essential construction such as social housing has been allowed to continue. If the indications from the Taoiseach are to be believed, however, we are looking at another half a year during which other non-essential construction activity will be restricted. That is fine when it comes to things like people adding extensions to their houses or something that is considered non-essential, but the restrictions on non-essential work are affecting projects of critical importance that fall under the definition.

I want to raise the issue of the Safari Childcare crèche on Clancy Quay, Dublin 8. The renovation works to convert the building to a suitable space have been deemed non-essential. The crèche was due to open in early 2021 but the works were delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions. The date of the reopening was then postponed to May 2021 and it has now been delayed again, with no certainty or timeframe as to when we can expect that crèche to be open.

I have been contacted by an essential worker who is on maternity leave and who will have no childcare in order for her to be able to return to work. She has no family in Ireland and cannot rely on extended family to help. Childcare is essential for women to be able to return to the workplace after maternity leave or to be able to continue in their jobs. We know the majority of care workers, for example, are women. This area has the largest medical campus in the country, at St. James’s, and childcare is even more essential as many people in the locality are essential medical workers. When it opens, the Safari Childcare facility on Clancy Quay will also be providing free early childhood care and education scheme pre-school places. It is essential for many people who live in the area or who work in hospitals like St James's or Crumlin children's hospital to be able to work.

I ask that, in considering the construction restrictions, the Government expands its definition of essential projects so it covers those that are socially essential, including things like schools and childcare. I ask the Minister of State to bring those concerns back to Government in order that we can ensure that half a year will not be wiped out and that work on really essential, including socially essential, facilities will be completed.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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On 6 January 2020, the Government announced that additional public health restrictions would apply under level 5 of the plan for living with Covid-19. The decisions relating to the enhanced restrictions followed advice from the national public health emergency team that the situation with the virus had deteriorated to the point where there was an absolute need to reduce the level of mobility and congregation to reduce all opportunities for transmission. People have been urged to stay at home except for absolutely essential reasons.

The construction sector has responded effectively to the challenges presented by Covid-19 during 2020. Effective protocols were put in place and few outbreaks occurred among construction workers. However, the trajectory of the disease was such that the Government took the decision that most construction should cease with effect from 6 p.m. on Friday, 8 January.

The restrictions were addressed in the regulations made under the Health Act 1947 and provided for certain exemptions to allow the continuation of certain essential construction activity. The exemptions were based on decisions taken by the Government and extended beyond the remit of my Department. The exemptions included the construction or development of essential health and related projects, including those relevant to preventing, limiting, minimising or slowing the spread of Covid-19; the construction or development of essential educational facilities at primary and post-primary levels, including school building projects; certain essential projects relating to the construction and development of the Technological University Dublin campus, Grangegorman; the construction or development of social housing by a local authority where the project is scheduled for completion by 30 April; essential work on vacant residential properties that is necessary to allow the property to be allocated to a household on the social housing waiting list and which is scheduled to be completed by 28 February; construction work relating to housing adaptation grants, subject to the homeowner consenting to the work continuing; pyrite remediation works scheduled for completion by 31 January; the repair and maintenance of construction of critical transport and utility infrastructure; the supply and delivery of essential emergency maintenance and repair services to businesses and places of residence on an emergency callout basis; housing construction and completion works ongoing on 8 January where such works were scheduled to be completed by 31 January; construction and development projects that relate to the direct supply of medical products for Covid-19; and construction related to maintaining certain supply chains.

Work is under way to prepare a revised Covid-19 strategy to take into account learnings to date to enable us to best navigate the period ahead. This is expected to be considered by Government tomorrow. A return to education for our young people and full-time resumption of non-urgent, non-covid health and social care are key priorities. In these vital areas progress will be on a phased basis and at a gradual pace. This is to protect and further advance the recent downward trend of the disease trajectory we have seen through the collective adherence to public health measures by the public. This will be carefully monitored over the coming weeks, especially in light of the variant B117, which is now the dominant variant in Ireland. The health and social care system remain under significant pressure during the current wave. While there has been significant reduction in the demand on the system due to the reduction in hospitalisation, the level of hospitalisation at present has only recently fallen below the previous peak of the first wave. However, the wider construction sector has operated safety since restrictions were first eased in early summer 2020 and I am confident that it will continue to do so as restrictions are eased in the weeks and months ahead.

Senator Moynihan may wish to bring the case she has raised to my attention. She makes a valid case. As a father who needs childcare, I can absolutely see how important it is for families to be given that service and the Senator has outlined the case well. We would be delighted to bring it to the attention of the Department to see if we can get something resolved.

Rebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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My thanks to the Minister of State for a comprehensive reply. I understand the need and the reasons for the restrictions. I believe in expanding the definition to more social projects, for example, those relating to schools or childcare facilities. Anyway, that is a comprehensive and open answer from the Minister of State. I will forward the details to him.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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We will revert to the Senator as soon as we can because she makes a valid case for an essential service. Childcare is one of those services that society needs to be able to work and respond.