Over the last three and a half months 2,232 people have died on this island due to Covid-19. Our first thoughts must be with their families and loved ones – especially those of the 39 people who have passed away since this day last week.
The sheer scale and pace of the impact of a pandemic such as this has not been experienced for a hundred years and it continues to impact on nearly every corner of the world. When we look back at the accumulated figures for cases since early March there is no question that a severe response was required both here and internationally.
For the purposes of deciding what we do now and in the coming weeks the obvious focus has to be on the number of cases which are still active and those who are struggling to overcome the disease.
According to yesterday’s statistics, in 92% of all positive cases it has been confirmed that a full recovery has been achieved. Our hospitals are operating well within capacity and there is no urgent or likely risk that they will be overwhelmed.
By every reasonable measure it has been correct that major elements of the severe lockdown required in March are now being unwound here, just as they have been in most of Europe.
However, there are serious issues which we have to address concerning how we move forward and how we tackle the social and economic impact of the pandemic.
I think we should acknowledge the concerns raised in the letter published earlier this week from a significant number of scientists about the pace of reopening – as well as the clarifications which have come since then and the opposing views which have also been aired. They have urged a level of caution which is unusual in terms of the advice being followed in countries comparable to Ireland.
Clearly this links directly to a concern that people might believe that the threat is over and would allow a significant increase in transmission.
The evidence from countries which are far more advanced than Ireland in reopening is that there are two keys to preventing a significant increase in transmission. The first is to do everything possible to reinforce appropriate behaviour and the second is to be able to rapidly test, trace and isolate when symptoms emerge.
My party believes that there is significant work to be done in both areas.
As we have been saying for some time, the emphasis in public policy and communication needs to be on more than explaining restrictions – it has to encourage people to act appropriately irrespective of the level of restrictions. Once people are able to leave their homes, it doesn’t matter much how far from their home they are allowed to travel – what matters is how they behave when they travel.
We should all be concerned that public perception of how strictly people are complying with restrictions has fallen in recent weeks.
It’s long past time to require masks in various settings. Both the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Control have said that masks should be used in public transport, shops and similar settings. There is no evidence of masks causing harm and mounting evidence of them preventing the spread of the virus. This is because the masks both physically limit the virus and encourage greater awareness of proper behaviour.
And let’s be clear, the idea that you can only require masks if the state provides them is absurd. They are cheap to make and every country which introduced rules on face covering has been able to implement them without discrimination and without state-schemes.
In the weekly research published yesterday 84% of people said they would wear a face covering if required – but only 28% say that they are using a mask.
We also have to be unambiguous in saying that we have the capacity to rapidly test, trace and isolate new cases. While the number of close contacts per case has risen slightly, it is only a small fraction of the figure from March. If we have the proper capacities in place, then we can move forward.
I would point out that we still have not received a proper report on estimates of untreated illness and other factors which relate to assessing the impact of restrictions.
After three and a half months the secondary impacts of the response to the pandemic have started to become clearer and require our attention.
Mental health research has shown that up to one in five people can suffer a significant level of psychological trauma during major emergencies including pandemics. The Department of Health’s weekly research has shown high levels of stress which is consistent with this.
We need an urgent plan for how to increase mental health supports immediately and in the coming months.
We also need to move more rapidly to achieve greater clarity on what will happen with schools.
In many countries, special needs services have been maintained or have been reopened. I believe every Deputy will understand how the families of children with special needs urgently want a commitment concerning July.
For these children and their families, the lack of the expert and structured supports which are only available in school is having a deep impact on them. They are rightly calling for everything possible to be done to avoid their children losing over six months of essential support. Distance learning is not an option for them and only the teachers and assistants working in schools have the expertise their children need.
While this week’s loosening of restrictions on some businesses has been very welcome, we need to realise that our businesses, and in particular our small businesses, are caught in their biggest ever crisis.
We still have roughly a million people receiving some sort of pandemic-related support and the numbers are coming down exceptionally slowly.
In many cases industries are coming forward with plans for how they can safely reopen and they are desperate for more urgent engagement with their concerns.
Hairdressers are looking throughout Europe at measures which have enabled reopening and want to implement them here. They deserve a comprehensive reply.
Our SME sector as a whole needs a systematic plan for how to get back on its feet. Measures announced to date are welcome, but they have barely scratched the surface of the challenge of preventing pandemic costs being a millstone around the necks of Irish business for years to come.
Ultimately there is a major series of financial, legislative and policy measures required to help us recover from this pandemic. As we saw last week in Germany, the pandemic has changed the basic rules of what level of intervention should be considered and the role of government in leading recovery.
Ireland needs a comprehensive and urgent strategy for recovery and this is something which will not come while we have a caretaker government and a barely half-functioning parliament.
There have been comments in recent days suggesting that even if a majority of members of this House elect a government it will somehow be a conspiracy against the people. The aggressive populist tropes involved in this are not something which can distract us.
My party continues to work with others with urgency and in good faith to try to form a government which our country clearly needs. Should a government be agreed it will have both democratic legitimacy and a democratic imperative to act.
We have not even begun the work of recovery. To genuinely move to the next stage of the response to the pandemic and to plan and implement recovery we need a fully-functioning government, working collectively and implementing an ambitious plan of recovery.
For our part, we will do everything possible to make sure that this happens with genuine urgency and that we begin to show people that our country will recover.