As we meet today the people of this country and much of the world continue to face real fear and uncertainty. To an extent never seen before, people are subject to major personal restrictions which limit their ability to mix with others, look after family members and go to work.
The measures which we adopted last week and those which we are adopting today are not ones that we would even discuss in normal circumstances. But clearly this unprecedented situation has justified and will continue to justify an unprecedented response.
Fundamentally, nothing can be effective without the strong support of the public and a core sense of community.
While it is clearly too early to draw long-term conclusions, the evidence is that the public has been responding from the first moments when this emergency became a priority some weeks ago.
The figures released by the HSE last night show that for the cases diagnosed this weekend the number of people who they had been in contact with was very significantly down.
With very limited exceptions, people in every community in this country have for the last two weeks been acting in a very responsible and generous way so that there is every effort made to limit the spread of the virus.
It is right that we should today thank them, acknowledge their many sacrifices and appeal to them to keep this going until we get through this period.
It is also important that we acknowledge the incredible work of our public servants, particularly those within our country’s healthcare system.
It is at times of crisis that we can truly see the breadth of the expertise and spirit which is to be found in our public institutions and services.
The scale and speed of the response which we have seen simply would not have been possible without the expertise which has been developed by our public servants over many years and their deep understanding of issues which rarely ever enter public debate outside of an emergency.
The national expertise contained within key units of the HSE and the professional staff of the Department of Health – the CMO and others – have been central to building the political and public consensus for action in recent weeks.
I came to know many of the personnel myself when working with them on previous epidemics and I and my party are extremely grateful to them for their work.
It should also be acknowledged the importance of how this highly diverse Dáil has been entirely constructive at all points.
The bulk of the suggestions made by my party and by other parties here have been made privately and there has been an approach of seeking to limit public disagreements.
There is a fine balance to be struck between supporting a common message to the public and maintaining space for asking tough questions and pointing to areas where more action may be required. This is a balance which is particularly important for us and for the media to consider.
Over the past five decades an entire discipline has developed around analysing how to get the best possible response to major emergencies. One consistent lesson from this work has been that, we need to make sure that there remains a space for debate and for challenging messages. Everyone being on the same side does not remove the need to ask questions.
In this context I would particularly like to commend those journalists who have been persistent in raising questions which go to the heart of whether we are doing all we can – or whether enough information has been shared on specific issues.
We have, as a parliament, suspended nearly all of our normal oversight functions. This has been the right thing to do in these circumstances.
That is why it is particularly important for us to raise issues we believe are important and for ministers to be very direct in answering questions.
Fianna Fáil will be supporting the passage of this legislation today and will be using the time for this debate to suggest ways of improving it within the tight but reasonable deadline available.
There are several major challenges facing us within our overall response to this emergency.
We must limit the numbers of people who contract the virus and make sure we have the urgent care required by those who do contract it.
We have to address the immediate and drastic economic and social consequences of the emergency – protecting as many jobs as possible and making sure that families and businesses can survive financially.
And we will have to move to help our health system, our society and our economy to recover once the immediate challenges are met.
As I have said, we support the actions which have been taken to date and which are in part underpinned by this legislation. A review published yesterday about the speed and severity of official action on the pandemic by a research team in Oxford which is linked to the World Health Organisation, suggests that action in Ireland is broadly in line with the recommended international practice.
We believe it has been a proportionate response, that it has been properly led primarily by the recommendations of the relevant international organisations and that the response has had a significant impact.
All of us here have no doubt been approached by people within the health system pointing out very serious problems which they are experiencing. Today is an opportunity for those issues to be addressed directly and, hopefully, for the urgently needed reassurances to be provided.
The latest figures show that 24% of the cases identified up to Monday night involved health staff.
This is a disturbing figure which reminds us all about how it is nurses, doctors and other professionals who are frontline in fighting this pandemic – and that they are putting themselves in real danger every day.
There is significant evidence of health staff lacking the personal protection equipment required to protect them from the virus. I have heard from doctors and nurses who have actually used their own money to purchase protection in hardware stores.
We have raised this issue directly with the government and would ask that this issue be addressed during our session today.
The ramping-up of testing is clearly required if we are to come close to meeting the objective of high levels of community testing which was agreed early last week.
The revision of the criteria for testing was clearly required because of the long and rising delay in testing revealed in recent days. However, it is vital that we have a clearer sense of when we will reach a point of much greater availability of testing.
It is true that a person showing symptoms should self-isolate when waiting for a test – but it is only when a test is completed and a positive case found that essential contact tracing can be undertaken and we can understand the true extent of the virus’s transmission.
We strongly support the adoption of a wide range of emergency financial measures to help individuals and companies.
Many of these specific measures are also being implemented throughout Europe and the serious financial cost which they involve is fully justified.
During the course of this debate our spokespersons will address areas where we believe further immediate action is needed and is possible.
In this context the article published by Mario Draghi, the former President of the European Central Bank, is very important.
Mario Draghi, more than any other person, was responsible for delivering recovery from the last global financial crisis and his actions have saved Ireland literally billions in debt costs.
When he speaks with urgency and passion we should listen.
Europe requires, according to him, no less than a wartime mobilisation of it fiscal and monetary resources. In order to prevent another but this time deeper recession, a new mentality is required.
Aggressive, zero-cost lending by banks. Higher deficits, with lower financing costs. New financial rules.
These all form part of the actions which he believes are needed immediately.
Fianna Fáil has for quite a few years been arguing for Europe to play a significantly increased role in helping countries during economic downturns.
In this context we welcome the fact that the Taoiseach has agreed to proposals drafted by France, Spain and Italy calling for the immediate deployment of the European Stability Mechanism and the issuing of bonds underwritten on a cross-EU basis.
The letter which he signed with eight other heads of government is a very positive step and we strongly support this proposal being pushed during the leaders’ online summit.
The current draft conclusions go nowhere near what is required – and now is the time to say unequivocally to reluctant states that we are facing a choice between common action or common failure.
In Ireland we will need to develop our own national recovery plan to be implemented immediately when social and economic restrictions are significantly lifted.
No one can be in any doubt that in order to have the funds to pay for social supports, public services and rebuilding jobs tough decisions will have to be made even with a significantly higher deficit. The choices will be very different from those we were discussing until recently.
We already know about the massive increase in spending which must be implemented. Less clear so far is the fall in state revenues, which will no doubt be severe.
I believe we need a government which can discuss and implement an urgent recovery plan. In doing this we should certainly look at the introduction of some form of social partnership model.
This should involve key stakeholders so that there can be real engagement, and a true societal response to what will be a plan for our national recovery post Covid 19.
If we stay focused, abide by the HSE guidelines we will protect vulnerable people in our society and protect our health care staff.
By working together, we will come through this pandemic and also work as hard for a swift recovery when this is over.