In the past three months this pandemic has claimed the lives of nearly 2,200 people on this island. It is with their families and friends that our first thoughts must be today – and we must also remember the nearly forty people who are today in an intensive care unit because of Covid-19.
The progress of the disease in Ireland has been severe and in some serious areas worse than in most comparable countries. An unprecedented and rapidly evolving public health emergency leads to mistakes being made, and there is no question but that mistakes were made here and in many countries. Once we are through the pandemic we will have to take a deep and urgent look at the lessons we should learn.
No full understanding will be possible until at least most of Europe reports that the immediate danger has fully passed. At that stage we will be able to see a comprehensive like-with-like comparison of figures and the type of detailed scientific work which you need to explain how a single virus can have radically different impacts in different places and on different groups.
It is important to say that from early March onwards not only have hard questions from politicians and journalists been vitally important in challenging gaps and it been my belief that there should have been greater transparency around clusters.
Today our focus has to be on having a substantive discussion about where Ireland goes from here and how quickly we can move to restore as much normality as possible.
From the first moments of this pandemic I and my party have been clear in saying that the primary consideration in policy must be to implement public health advice. However, we have also been clear in saying that there are many options possible while respecting this advice. And today, more than at any point in the past three months the legitimate options for opening closed parts of our social, cultural and economic life are larger than ever.
It is deeply unfortunate that the government has settled into a quite rigid approach to deciding on changes and steps. As predicted three weeks ago by most parties here, we have seen three weeks of on and off the record briefings about what might be done – all leading up to a high-profile announcement tomorrow to be followed by an already booked marketing campaign.
This approach has causing real damage – and people in every part of the country are reporting confusion about what measures are in place. The habit of non-stop briefing of decisions yet to be made means that the difference between the headlines and the guidelines grows significantly by the day.
We need a bit of reality in our discussions today, and when the Taoiseach does his press conference tomorrow we need to hear a far more comprehensive explanation of the current status of the pandemic and the detailed rationale for the restrictions which remain in place.
Unfortunately, in a number of communities we are seeing examples of restrictions being broken. There is simply no doubt that compliance is fraying – and the biggest problem with this is that it is highly divisive. The majority continue to fully respect the guidelines and the tension between those who ignore the guidelines and those who feel a threat to their health cannot be ignored.
The spirit of being in this together can only be protected if we get everyone back on the same agenda.
While we cannot be guided only by practice in other countries – it falls to our government to explain when the policies we are pursuing differ significantly from those in place in other countries.
We are currently in the absurd situation where it is easier for an Irish person to plan a holiday in much of Europe than it is to plan one here. A range of countries this week signalled their intention to be ready to quickly lift travel restrictions and their tourist industries have begun working on the assumption that travel from Ireland will be possible without quarantine before the high-season.
Yesterday it was announced that a review of the airline sector will be prepared. This is welcome. What is borderline ridiculous is that it is scheduled to take at least five weeks.
Smaller businesses bear the brunt of restrictions which remain severe on their operations and where there is no clarity about whether or how they can survive.
There is also a growing divide between a government message which on one hand says things are going well and on the other hand tells us that Ireland is not yet ready to follow other countries.
Taoiseach, in your replies today and in the script being prepared for tomorrow’s announcement, I would like you to explain the exact position in relation to the five tests for reopening which NPHET recommended to you in April.
The first test is the general progress of the disease. According to the briefings the disease is under control and the reproduction number is actually significantly lower than in many countries which have largely reopened. The community spread of the disease in recent weeks is very small and dramatically lower than it was in March or April. In fact, if community transmission is this low, many of the travel restrictions in place do not make as much sense as they did when they were introduced.
There are 1,300 active cases of Covid-19 at the moment – meaning that 95% of the total for positive tests are no longer active cases.
Taoiseach, what exactly is the specific benchmark for the progress of the disease which has to be reached before most restrictions can be raised.
The second test is healthcare capacity and resilience. Today the system is dealing with fewer than one quarter of the cases which is was handling at the height of the pandemic. The government and public health officials have repeatedly stated that the capacity and resilience is there.
The third test has also been achieved according to the government. The capacity to test and trace is, we have been repeatedly told, in place. In fact, there has apparently been significant excess testing capacity.
The fourth test is the ability to shield at risk groups. This is something which has not been fully outlined – however it appears that the preferred policy for this here and internationally relates to advice for people in high risk groups concerning their behaviour. This is something which is not relevant to the bulk of restrictions in place today.
The final test, and increasingly one of great concern, is the risk of secondary morbidity – or people who may die because of other illnesses which are caused or are not diagnosed or treated because of pandemic-related restrictions.
No data on this has been published, but what we do know is that the numbers attending for diagnostic procedures have fallen dramatically as have those attending medical appointments.
Today roughly 1,000 beds in our public acute hospital system are empty and close to 50% of the capacity of private hospitals was unused as of Monday.
Unless we are to believe that something radical has changed in the progress of other diseases and the importance of early detection and treatment, there is now no doubt that we are facing into more people’s lives being in danger because of the lower levels of medical services being accessed.
We also need to understand the growing evidence of serious mental health and psycho-social problems emerging in many countries. The World Bank and the OECD have both also outlined evidence of a profound gender basis for this issue – with women carrying a much heavier economic and social burden.
Taoiseach, what we need is clarity about how exactly the five tests are being implemented. The public deserves the full details. And if it is the case that NPHET and the government believe that Ireland is behind other countries for a reason that reason needs to be outlined in detail, not generalities.
As I have said here every week, the failure to provide any assurances to state companies and institutions about their finances is unacceptable. Public transport and higher education are, for example, facing new deficits of an unprecedented scale but they have received no support – and in many cases are now reading anonymous briefings about how they need to look after themselves. This has to stop. I have consistently made the point that 3rd level education, which is key to sustained economic development in this country, is in real crisis
We still have roughly a million people on some form of state support for their income.
We have thousands of businesses and entire industries who do not know what they are facing into.
We have a growing divide in the population between the majority who are silently abiding by all restrictions and others who are not.
We also have an unexplained divide between measures taken here and those taken in comparable countries.
We need full transparency. We need our government to give all of the details behind its decisions and we need it to understand that the only way of retaining public support for restrictions is to be far more open about the exact basis for the choices which are being made.