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Emergency Covid-19 legislation passed by reduced number of TDs in Dáil

In a marathon Dáil debate, politicians are having their say on emergency legislation.

Updated Mar 26th 2020, 11:00 PM

THE EMERGENCY MEASURES in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill, which addresses resources within six departments, including housing and health, passed in the Dail close to 10.30pm.

The bill was passed without a vote this evening and will now be debated in the Seanad tomorrow.

The legislation deals with issues such as a nationwide rent freeze, a ban on evictions, measures to allow the re-enlistment of former members to the Defence Forces, as well as retired health workers to be re-hired. 

There’s also a  €3.7 billion aid package that will see the government contribute to wage packets.

The emergency measures are part of a major effort by government to mitigate the social effects of Covid-19 and the economic consequences of the virus.

A reduced number of TDs participated in the marathon session, which began this morning and is still ongoing. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the emergency legislation is a response to an “unprecedented emergency”.

“Unfortunately we cannot stop this virus but working together we can slow it in its tracks and push it back,” he said.

Our national objective must be to flatten the curve. We can succeed if everyone takes sustained action. Nothing less will do.

Varadkar said the amount of time spent planning for Brexit means they are in a better position to deal with major changes.

He added: “The work spent thinking about supply lines, about the impact of a shock to the economy, the money we set aside through prudent management of our finances – all of this is now being deployed against a different kind of national threat.”

Today’s legislation, to last for the duration of the emergency, will freeze rents, prevent evictions and make it easier for healthcare professionals to re-register and return to work and also enable former members of the Defence Forces to rejoin at the ranks they left.

“The truth is, these are extraordinary times.”

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said the people of Ireland continue to face real fear and uncertainty.

Speaking in the Dail, he added: “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.

Martin also said that Ireland needs a government “which can discuss and implement an urgent recovery plan”.

HSE

During the lengthy debate, TDs raised a number of issues of concern, including construction sites and factories remaining open without social distancing being adhered to and the delays in testing the confusion among the public about the change in testing criteria. 

However, the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers is an urgent concern that TDs are calling to be addressed urgently. 

A number of campaigns are underway calling for donations of equipment to Irish hospitals.

Sinn Féin TD O’Reilly acknowledged that there is a global shortage of PPE but said that “no one should die in work because of not being protected”.

“We know the HSE is trying but let us be honest. We should not be this low this quickly. No one should die at work because of not being protected. When the stocks are short, the HSE must be honest and tell us and prioritise those who are most at risk,” she said.

“The situation is becoming more difficult as we wait for supplies of PPE to arrive, with 24% of those affected by this virus being healthcare workers. I know we are being told we have orders of PPE arriving, and that is most welcome. However, in the here and now, frontline healthcare workers are telling us there is a real shortage of PPE,” she said. 

She highlighted that many hospitals are running their own campaigns, calling out for donations of equipment from companies or individuals.

“I would urge anyone who has any such equipment to come forward and to donate it,” she said.

O’Reilly added:

We are all in this together but our healthcare workers are on the front line of this emergency. I urge the Government to secure a reliable domestic production line of various items of PPE so we can be assured we have a stable, steady and reliable supply of this vital equipment.
Quite frankly, it’s an insult that legitimate concerns about low PPE stocks on the ground were disparaged by a senior HSE official in the Business Post on Sunday, who said that they were panicking.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he has heard from doctors and nurses who have actually used their own money to purchase protection in hardware stores, while other TDs said some doctors were asking professions like hairdressers if they have any equipment that might be of use. 

The party’s health spokesperson Stephen Donnelly said he heard of one case where hospital staff had sufficient masks for only one of them to help three Covid-19 patients.

He told the Dáil that clinicians have been told the new PPE will be landing on Sunday but won’t be available until Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Labour’s Duncan Smith expressed concern that they don’t have necessary PPE to carry out essential work on dental patients.

Independent TD Catherine Connolly said the government should have clear answers on when the protective equipment will be available. 

“No more waffle and patronizing statements,” she said. 

She admonished the government for not being open and transparent enough about the new measures. 

She said she supported the “draconian” legislation last week, though reluctantly, but said support from Opposition TDs needs to be matched by openness and candor in relation to facts.

Fianna Fáil’s Robert Troy raised concerns that employers have of availing of the wage subsidy scheme for workers, and questioned why businesses that have tax liabilities are not able to sign up.

He said theses businesses will be forced to lay people off. In order to avail of the scheme, a business must declare a 25% reduction in their income, which he states is a business declaring “insolvency”, which businesses won’t do.

He urged the government to continue to put the pressure on the insurance industry to honour the contracts that are not being paid out. On the issue of government loans for businesses, Troy said urging businesses to take out loans “when they are looking over the edge of a cliff” will not work, particularly where the interest on those loans are up to 7%. 

Independent TD Denis Naughten questioned the pandemic payment and why those over 66 are not able to avail of it. 

Other TDs such as People Before Profit’s Bríd Smith and Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin spoke about the new rent measures. Smith said she welcomed that the government had moved on a rent freeze, despite calling in unconstitutional previously.

Meanwhile, Ó Broin said he welcomed the freeze, but said after this is all over, another problem will emerge where renters will have built up arrears on the rent owed, which is something that needs to be dealt with.

Catherine Connolly TD said it is not sustainable for renters to have to pay their arrears after three months, or for mortgage -holders not to have the deferred payment added to the end of the loan. 

- With reporting by Press Association 

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