As we near the end of the third month of the Covid-19 pandemic we must never forget to remember the grave impact which it has had. As of today, 2,129 people on this island have lost their lives. Hundreds are still fighting the virus and there is absolutely no doubt that things could have been much worse without the severe action which has been taken here and throughout the world.
As I have said every week during these debates, mistakes are inevitable when you have a fast-moving and unprecedented emergency. The best responses are always defined by a willingness to listen to different voices, acknowledge problems and move quickly.
Our primary focus here must remain on helping those who are suffering from the virus, on continuing to suppress its spread and on moving to restart social and economic life as quickly as can be safely achieved.
There is simply no question that major errors were made in terms of the speed and impact of policies in relation to nursing homes. This is emphatically not simply an issue of the public versus the private systems – because some of the biggest clusters have concerned public facilities.
At a much earlier stage of the pandemic I and a number of my party’s spokespeople raised serious concerns about policy concerning nursing homes and, to be honest, the answers which we received do not show the level of transparency and responsiveness which should have been expected. Deputy Donnelly has shown how concerns about the lack of a proper voice for nursing homes on key committees were justified.
As we heard yesterday, the facts concerning the transfer of asylum seekers across the country into a new facility and with no regard to the spreading of the virus are developing constantly. They suggest another serious systems failure.
However the scale of work still required during this emergency is such that trying to litigate past failures today cannot be the priority now. What we need to know is that measures are in place to make sure that nothing like these failures could reoccur if and when a second wave of the virus appears before we have an effective and widely administered vaccine.
The overall situation today is that Europe as a whole has entered a new phase in the response. A fortnight ago countries of a similar size to Ireland such as Denmark, Finland, Croatia and Austria started reporting record lows in new infections and days with no deaths. This has happened weeks after they began to implement opening up measures.
After Germany’s major reopening moves there were reports of a rise in its reproduction rate, but two weeks later it appears that the figure is well below 1 and is in line with Ireland’s figure.
So the good news we have had this week confirms that Ireland is following the increasingly well-established pattern in Europe for the containment of the virus.
However there is every reason to be concerned about whether we are handling the process of the return of social and economic activity properly.
The evidence is that there remains a broad and strong compliance amongst the public when it comes to measures they have been told are essential. 80% are staying home and few in urban areas are moving more than 5 kilometres from their homes.
A serious concern though is that there is a very real danger of a growing division in the population between those who fear change and those who are angry about restrictions which appear to not be fully justified. Certainly people are entitled to look at measures implemented in countries where the community spread of the virus has not spiked and ask why the situation in Ireland should be so different.
There is no remaining serious justification for the 5 kilometre limit. The public health concern is how people behave around others – not how far they are from their home. In fact, the research shows that this limit may in fact be forcing people in urban areas into more crowded situations.
Equally the current distinctions between different types of shop are at best arbitrary. Supermarkets have been open throughout the pandemic while implementing measures about distancing and hygiene. The figures on community spread suggest that the supermarkets have not played a role in spreading the virus – where the overwhelming issue is clustering in health facilities, nursing homes and some workplaces like meat factories.
In general, the overriding need now is to move to a situation where the focus is put on showing people how to behave once most activity is restored. We don’t need empty feel-good advertising with a single photo and a hash-tag – we need a simple public education campaign.
Last week the media began carrying stories about loosening to be announced on June 5th and most people have concluded that, as was the case when the loosening steps were first published, announcements are being delayed rather than made as soon as they are justified.
The restrictions which are today in place in relation to most workplaces and many social activities will lose public support if they are no longer seen as actually being based on clear scientific evidence.
In relation to the 2 metre guidance, which it has been acknowledged is not required by the science, it has been helpful but it cannot be allowed to block Ireland restarting activity which is already underway elsewhere without a negative impact.
If it is true that our capacity to rapidly test, trace and isolate is now in place, then we need to see this reflected in the loosening of policies put in place in part because we lacked this capacity.
The greater activity in the Dáil in the past few weeks needs to be followed by a review of restrictions so that they are not arbitrary and they move as quickly as is possible to fully restart our core democratic institutions.
As I have communicated directly to the government, we need immediate clarity in relation to the reopening of special needs education and its provision during July. In many countries the limited reopening of certain classes has already been achieved and there is no obvious reason why an announcement on what will happen is being delayed.
During the debate on the social welfare estimates Fianna Fáil’s spokespeople will set out in detail our approach to the overall economic and fiscal issues.
There is absolutely no doubt that we have yet to see a proper response to critical issues.
The basic strategy being followed in much of Europe is to try to kick-start a rapid recovery and to change critical fiscal benchmarks to reflect the unique nature of a rapid-onset recession caused by a pandemic. The overall principle is that the pandemic response should not be allowed to be a financial millstone dragging down budgets, companies and families.
It is not yet clear that this is fully understood or accepted here and there are two areas of major concern.
First there is the failure to show much greater urgency and ambition in preventing otherwise sustainable Irish businesses from suffering a terminal cashflow crisis. Sustainable growth for Ireland is utterly dependent on this sector but short-term measures have not been followed with a credible plan to define the scale of what’s needed or to push for new types of support.
Second there is the refusal to give support to critical public companies and institutions.
Due to government policy in recent years, higher education institutions have been pushed to make up funding shortfalls through international programmes. These have collapsed everywhere in the world – and leave the universities in particular facing a shortfall of hundreds of millions.
Yet as the Irish Independent reported yesterday the response of the Minister for Education has been to tell them that they will have to simply suck-up the deficit. This has quite rightly caused shock to tens of thousands of people working in a sector critical to our future.
And the same is being repeated in public enterprises of all types.
In a world where the German government can funnel hundreds of millions into protecting one airline, the refusal to prepare a detailed plan for saving our public transport companies is inexplicable.
At the moment commentary about what the fiscal position will be later this year let alone in 5 years’ time is based on informed speculation. We really don’t know yet what the impact will be – but of course we do know that there is nothing sustainable in having over a million people directly and indirectly receiving wage supports from the government.
Anyone who claims that an emergency response to an unprecedented emergency should be kept in place forever is simply playing politics with a profoundly important issue.
However, if we want to rebuild our economy we cannot do this unless we act now to prevent smaller businesses going bankrupt and unless we put in place a proper rescue package for our public companies and institutions.