March 26, 2020
This is a time for decisive action to support workers and families – Pearse Doherty

Below is the address of Sinn Féin deputy Dáil leader Pearse Doherty TD to the Dáil on the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020:

I want to begin this morning by expressing my deepest sympathies with the families and friends of the two further people it was announced last night have lost their lives here as a result of Covid-19. All of us here need to work together to try and minimise and stop more of same tragedies in the coming period.

I want to pay tribute to our health workers – those on the frontlines in fight against Covid-19. Their courage, their selflessness and their dedication is both an inspiration and a comfort to the nation. These are trying times, but to each and every one of them I say – you have our gratitude, our support and our solidarity.

Beyond expressions of support, we have to make sure that our health workers have everything they need to do the jobs.We need to ensure that we utilise all available capacity within our health system, that we have sufficient ventilators and respiratory equipment, sufficient beds (including ICU beds), and that our frontline workers are protected.  

The lack of protective equipment for health workers, carers and others is a cause of very real concern. We know that some frontline workers are taking to the internet to seek out resources and the government have stated that home help workers don’t need PPE. This cannot stand and we need action on PPE now.

I would urge any companies or individuals who have stocks of different PPE items to them available to health workers, and, I call on the pharmaceutical and food processing industries to donate any PPE equipment they can.Along with the arrival of imported PPE, attempts must also be made to ensure we have a reliable, domestic production line of various PPE items to protect our supply chain in case of external difficulties and guarantee our health staff have the protective equipment they need. That is essential.

The changed criteria in respect of Covid-19 testing is causing alarm – not just for patients but it has put huge pressure on GPs who are contacting patients to tell them their tests are now cancelled. There must be clearer communication when case definition changes so that confusion and panic can be avoided.

The Bill before us today is just one more part of a series of things that need to be done to ensure we keep our citizens safe.

Absolutely everything we do right now must prioritise the welfare and the health of our citizens.

This is not a time for delay. It is a time for decisive action.

Every worker and family must be protected and supported throughout this crisis; however long it lasts. Unfortunately, this is not currently the case – despite the government’s announcement on Tuesday.

Today and yesterday, tens of thousands of people left their families and went to workplaces where they’re not safe.

They are coming home in the evening with the fear of possibly transmitting the virus to their families.

They are builders, factory workers and those working in call centres and many more

The nature of their work doesn’t allow for safe physical distancing.

I was contacted by the wife of a construction worker who I believe best sums up the dread that these families are currently living with.

She wrote; “Me and the kids have been in all week and my husband has to go out to work every morning and risk coming back to his family. It’s a disgrace. Something needs to be done.” 

I have received many more similar messages. Nobody should be living with the feeling that they and their children are being exposed to unnecessary and avoidable risk. It is for this reason that everything other than essential businesses and services should be put into suspension for a period, and we need to see further action in this regard. 

This can be done. These workers can be sent home. They can be kept safe and they can be supported.

To do that, we need a proper Income Support Scheme.

Sinn Féin have proposed a model that would guarantee 100% of income up to €525 a week for workers and the self-employed who are laid off due to this crisis. 

The government’s proposal comes nowhere close to that and does not go far enough. 

These are people who have mortgages, rents and bills to pay.

€350 falls well short of what is needed to support workers and their families who have been laid off at this time.

In respect of those who are “kept on the books”, we are fully supportive of a scheme to support employers who are trying to keep going, but this must be targeted and not open to abuse.

Employers should have to make up the rest of the 30% of workers’ salaries. Under the government’s proposal, employers can pay just one cent towards their employees pay and still avail of this scheme. That’s not good enough.

I am glad that the government has taken on Sinn Féin’s proposal to prohibit rent increases.

However, much more needs to done to protect renters during this emergency. Renters who do not have an tenancy agreement must also be covered and we must include provisions to ensure that people do not rack up a crushing level of debt in rent arrears.

Here is the solution – a real mortgage moratorium for the landlords of renters who are unable to pay their rent and in turn, tenants must get real rent reductions and rent waivers. 

The government must demand that the Central Bank and the banks play their part in making this happen. One clear action the banks could take is to waive the payment of mortgage interest for the duration of the crisis.

The government cannot allow banks profit from this public health emergency – as they plan to do.

We bailed them out over a decade ago, and now they need to play their part in making sure workers and families are supported. 

We will be putting forward amendments in this regard and we are asking the other parties to support them.

The Coronavirus outbreak has challenged our nation in an unprecedented and profound way.

The phrase “Ní neart go cur le chéile” – there is no strength without unity – has been used a lot over the last few weeks.

To really understand the power and the meaning of the phrase, we only have to look at how our communities have responded to this emergency. Though there is great stress and worry, people are not only thinking about themselves and their families, they are thinking of the safety of their neighbours too.

People are out checking on the elderly and others at risk in their communities, making sure that they have enough food and helping with any difficulties they might be facing. Volunteers are delivering care packages, making friendly phone-calls and even organising outdoor bingo events. 

There is an enormous amount of goodwill, generosity, selflessness and community spirit in our country.

These qualities are proving to be some of our biggest strengths in the fight against Covid-19.

As a people, we have truly embraced the principle of ‘nobody is safe, unless we are all safe’ and we are all the better for it.

The distances that we are keeping between each other are not spaces of isolation, fear or loneliness.

They are lengths of compassion, kindness and solidarity.

It is how we best protect each other, how we help flatten the curve and how we ensure our health service does not become overwhelmed.

It is how we save lives.

And people need to continue what they’ve been doing. That is essential.

As we come together to battle the Coronavirus, we must ensure that the Dáil sits throughout this crisis.  

We need solidarity in here, but we also need scrutiny and accountability.

We need to ensure that government works and that we are holding key sectors; such as banking and insurance to account.  

We must also look to life after the emergency.

The people voted for a new government last month and a new government must be formed.

Whilst there has, naturally, been a scaling down of talks in that regard, at some stage soon the result of the election will have to count. We cannot have a caretaker government in office indefinitely. Given the level of work to do, that timeframe is drawing ever shorter. 

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have made a virtue of the politics of exclusion and its quite an astonishing – even as we face a global pandemic and a national public health emergency – that exclusion remains their priority. I think that is a shame. 

A Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil government will not deliver real and lasting change.

Politics needs to change.

A new government must reflect the demand of the people to do things differently.

This crisis has shown exactly why we need a government for change.

A single-tier national health service.

A home as a sanctuary and the right to secure roof over your head.

An economy that supports workers and families.

Real and robust social protections.

All measures that Sinn Fein was calling for long before Covid-19 entered our lives.

These developments cannot be temporary.

They cannot be rowed back once the crisis subsides.

Only a Government for Change will ensure that we do not go backwards.

Only a Government for Change will continue to put workers and families first when this emergency has passed.

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