Dáil must take Corona Virus risk seriously
Statements on COVID-19
Dáil Éireann, 5th March 2020
Check against Delivery
- Calls on Government to change the social protection rules so that workers can afford to stay at home if they need to self-isolate.
- Calls for a Dáil committee on Covid-19, which would be available at a moment’s notice, to make the difficult decisions that may be required; briefings or consultations with Opposition spokespeople are not enough
- Calls for businesses to provide mandatory hand sanitiser products as was the case during the foot and mouth outbreak
Colleagues, collectively, we in this Dáíl have to up our game in relation to COVID-19.
In the UK, the Conservative Prime Minister has announced that workers will be entitled to statutory sick pay if they are self-isolating in case of coronavirus. The Conservative government has also modified the entitlement rules, so that workers are paid from Day One, not the fourth day.
This is not because of their love of workers’ right, which they are seeking to undermine in other areas, but it is because these measures are necessary to help contain the spread of the virus.
The Congress of Trade Unions has called for the same changes to be made here, but the Government has failed to move on these issues.
If workers cannot pay the rent, or cannot put food on the table, they will go to work even if they are risk of spreading COVID-19.
That is the reality of our economy. We need to change the social protection rules so that workers can afford to stay at home if they need to self-isolate.
There might be some who think that things are somehow worse in the UK than here.
But please consider that with 87 cases of the virus, the UK has had one case per 764,000 people in the population.
We have had six confirmed cases of COVID-19, which is one case per 805,000 people in the population.
In other words, we have proportionately as many cases of COVID-19 in Ireland as in the UK.
And we should be taking the risk of the virus spreading as seriously as it is being taken by the UK and other governments around Europe.
It may become necessary to move from voluntary self-isolation to requiring people to stay at home, if they are contagious.
It may become necessary to restrict movement to or from some parts of the country, if the virus spreads in those areas.
It may also be necessary to outlaw price hikes or hoarding of sanitisers or other medical goods, or even of food.
Existing law, which largely dates from just after the Second World War and from the 19th century, does not provide the Government with the legal power to do these things, especially in relation to potential cases rather than confirmed cases of infectious disease.
The caretaker government that we have has no democratic mandate or legitimacy in introducing such serious measures, if they become required.
The Government has proposed to provide briefings to opposition parties, or to “consult” with them.
This is not acceptable.
It is not for an interim Government – or interim Ministers, some of whom are no longer members of the Dáil – to merely inform opposition members about what they are doing.
The Minister for Health is part of an interim government, headed by a Taoiseach who failed to secure the confidence of the majority of this Dáil at its first meeting.
Labour’s proposal for a Dáil committee on COVID-19 has perhaps been misconstrued, or insufficiently explained by ourselves.
Let me clarify our proposal.
In the absence of a new Government that can command the confidence of a majority in the Dáil, it is the Dáil itself that should be making these decisions, not a caretaker government.
A Dáil committee on COVID-19 would not be talking shop, taking up hours of health officials’ time, but it should be an executive group, which will work with the interim Ministers to provide democratic legitimacy for the difficult decisions that may be required.
This group should literally be available at a moment’s notice, to agree actions that are necessary.
These are not just health decisions.
They are decisions about transport, about retail, about control of people’s liberty.
Potentially, we will have to decide whether or not to cancel St Patrick’s Day parades before the Dáil meets again in two weeks’ time.
While others have spoken about the Dáil’s willingness to meet to pass legislation, we all know that this cannot happen overnight, whereas some of the vital decisions that may be required in the coming weeks may require rapid decision-making to respond to a quickly evolving emergency.
This is how serious the situation is.
Colleagues, we must not be complacent.
The public need to see the political system acting responsibly and maturely in response to COVID-19.
We need to get ahead of the issue, so that we can shut down misinformation and unnecessary panic.
I would make the point that the Dáil sat overnight when it came to the financial crisis.
The Dáil also took immediate and strong action when farming was threatened by foot-and-mouth disease.
People’s lives and their peace of mind is being threatened by COVID-19.
It is unthinkable that we would be any less diligent and responsive to COVID-19 when there is clear evidence that this is a very serious emergency.
I’ve spoken to one mother of a child with a compromised immune system. She cannot understand why the Government has not required businesses to provide hand sanitisers as we did for foot-and-mouth.
The people want clear instructions and guidance, including on travel and ordinary business, to come from those with democratic legitimacy.
This is not a sensationalist position.
The World Health Organisation called COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on the 30th of January.
The State of California has declared a state of emergency, in order to activate the necessary powers to deal with this issue.
All around Europe, governments are taking the necessary action.
We are in a special position.
I do not doubt that our officials and public servants are doing everything they can to address the situation.
But we do not have a proper government in power.
It is incumbent on all of us in the Dáil to fill the democratic deficit until a new government is formed.
There are a great many workers who will find it very difficult to survive on statutory Illness Benefit of €203 per week.
Many workers will have no contractual entitlement to anything beyond this.
But they will have the same requirements to pay rent, to pay bills and to heat their homes.
They may have additional costs associated with GP fees or the cost of medicines.
This is the reality for low paid workers. And one in four workers in this country are “low paid”, as the OECD has confirmed.
We have to take action to help these workers to take the right steps to stop the spread of the virus, and to the extent that it is possible to do so, we have to avoid low paid workers being made materially worse off for doing the right thing.
I’d also make the point that doctors, nurses and other hospital staff are also likely to be affected by the need for self-isolation as a result of COVID-19.
We could very quickly find ourselves in a situation where we do not have enough medical staff to operate our hospitals or primary care centres.
This is on top of the problems in our health service where the government relies far too heavily on temporary agency staff and has an effective staffing embargo that has stopped people gaining permanent roles.
This is why we need a committee of the Dáil put in place to make executive decisions collectively. That is what this emergency requires.
It is frankly disappointing, to say the least, that some members are proposing briefings along the lines of the Brexit briefings, as if we had a normal government with democratic legitimacy.
It is also disappointing that some members are proposing dedicating time next at the Dáil’s next sitting to making statements on various issues rather than demanding that we deal with the emergencies facing our society where we, as the people’s representatives, are the democratically elected decision-makers.
We cannot afford this kind of complacency. And I hope that members will reflect as the COVID-19 situation evolves and become more prepared to insist on the Dáil’s prerogative to be central to democratic decision-making about how we respond to this emergency.