News & Media

Guidance needed from Government on bonkers 2 hour rule

21 May 2020

Speech by Alan Kelly TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Health and Disability Services

Taoiseach, our thoughts are with the families of this who lost their lives in the last week and to all the workers out there who are our heroes.

This week I want to raise three issues with you:

  1. Workers & Consistency of Public Health Advice
  2. Opening up Non Covid Health Services & Cancer Screening & the Disability Sector
  3. How this Crisis is disproportionately affecting many women

This week as a result of the appearance of critical health officials at the COVID committee, we had new public health advice offered to the houses of the Oireachtas. The advice in summary said that members or witnesses should only be present for a cumulative of two hours in any 24 hours otherwise if it surpassed this then if anyone present during any of that time displays symptoms of COVID, then everyone else would have to self isolate for 14 days as they will be considered a close contact.

So, in effect, we have to create a working environment in here that prevents the possibility of this happening. Hence the Minister for Health won’t appear twice here today. I understand the advice from NPHET has been updated to reflect this under the national Interim Guidelines for Public Health management of contacts of cases of COVID 19 – page 4.

We were aware of the two-hour rule but not the cumulative range of this and all of a sudden this advice was proffered on Monday evening. It was news to many of us. Was it news to you Taoiseach? 

This advice that no one was aware was supported by the CMO and Cillian de Gascun, (Director, National Virus Laboratory) … They did condition that by saying that it wasn’t hard and fast but that a risk assessment should be taken in every setting including size of room, ventilation etc. That doesn’t wash with most people to be honest.

 

Taoiseach in plain language ‘it is bonkers’ and ‘inexplicable’ that such advice only became socialised this week. For instance were you aware of this? In the past 9 weeks have you been in the same room with anyone for more than 2 hours in 24 hours? I know I have.

 

The ramifications and knock on effects for Irish society and business are extraordinary. Amazingly this advice came within the same 24 hours that the CMO said that the virus transmission had been ‘extinguished in the community’.

 

If this is the public health advice, so be it. But I genuinely don’t believe many people, if anyone in here, was aware of it and if it’s the case that we the representatives of the people weren’t aware what chance have the public and businesses?

 

So I ask, how are businesses and all other organisations meant to operate within this advice? How are they to professionally all meant to carry out individual risk assessments across all locations? How can any factories, shops, pharmacists or offices operate in this environment? It changes everything so Taoiseach.

 

It’s obvious that many workers are working in environments where this isn’t the case across the country and not a stone throw from here. We cannot stand over a two-tier society where all of us in here  and in the courts service operate under one set of public health guidelines and everyone else ‘out there’ who have to look after the healthcare of our citizens, provide our food, keep us safe and keep factories operating are under a different set of guidelines. Its sounds like something from George Orwell, that ‘some are more equal than others’. I don’t want to think what impact this will have on insurance premiums and the courts are in a difficult position themselves.

 

There are three choices here Taoiseach.

 

  1. That the Government publishes comprehensive and consistent guidelines sector by sector in the next 24 hours as to how shops, factories, garda stations and everything can operate within these guidelines
  2. Accept that in many cases this won’t be possible or viable and that employers are in essence going to be putting some employees at risk.
  3. This is not advice from the WHO so they work this back today. It changes the advice to something that realistic, proportionate and implementable. In other words, admit that they were over zealous and got this one wrong given where we are with the virus now.

Government, NPHET have done a fine job Taoiseach and we are all with you but you need to make a choice. The current situation isn’t credible.

Besides if you don’t change it, your tri-partite Government formation talks may have to go on another 100 days!

 

On Monday, the first phase of your roadmap to reopen our economy and society began Taoiseach. I welcome this. However I am concerned that we have yet to see a similar roadmap for the reopening of our health service. For the last three weeks I have raised the issue of non-Covid related healthcare in this House. I am extremely concerned that the number of non-Covid related deaths will soon outweigh Covid deaths. In your own roadmap you committed to implementing measures to ensure safe delivery of Covid and non-Covid care in our hospitals. When will you publish your roadmap in this regard and a public information campaign encouraging people to get health concerns checked? Because I don’t think the message is sinking in Taoiseach.

 

We need to hear from the HSE as to when screening programmes will be back on stream. I was really concerned to hear the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health on Morning Ireland this week say he doesn’t see how screening can work in the foreseeable future? Firstly I don’t believe it’s his domain to give such predictions. That is the role of Paul Reid and the HSE otherwise why have a Board and forget about Goverance.  The fact that most public cancer screening programmes such as BreastCheck and CervicalCheck have been suspended for over ten weeks is causing a great deal of stress, particularly among women. 11,000 screens take place each month. One person dies of cancer every hour in this country. Some can’t be prevented but some can if they are found early enough.

 

We need a clear roadmap outlining when exactly screening will re-start, what the testing capacity will be and what the turnaround time of results will be.

In terms of disability services, the €35 million scheme your Government has announced for the community and voluntary sectpr is insufficient to secure the services of many disability organisations. This sector cannot be forgotten about in this crisis. They have been. Those with intellectual difficulties especially so. We need a plan for the immediate recommencement of day services and training services as the lack of social interaction and intervention is having huge impacts on their lives and that’s multiplying every week.

Taoiseach, I want to speak frankly about the profound impact this crisis is having on Irish women. Figures compiled by the CSO show the really damaging impact this crisis is having on the wellbeing of Irish women. Over 36% of women who took part in the CSO study stated that their satisfaction with life at the moment is low. Women also want to get back to the workplace when possible once Covid-restrictions are lifted. With men expressing a much higher interest in continuing remote working post Covid (61%), compared to women (44%). This might have something to do with the unintended consequences Covid-19 is having on women. Women are facing discrimination whether unintentional or otherwise. Women returning to work during this Covid period after Mat Leave are finding themselves at a disadvantage - the latest development is worrying examples of women now being turned down for the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. This is just not on.

Ministers can’t keep acknowledging the problem but refusing to act. This can be fixed administratively with immediate effect if there was the political will.

The childcare issue is having a huge impact. Whether we like it or not, in Ireland in 2020, most of the care-giving is done by the mother. Many working mams are finding themselves completely bogged down with childcare, home-schooling and trying to fit in work. I’ve spoken to many women this week who are at their wits end because they don’t know if they are going to have a childcare facility to send small children to when they are expected to go back to work, they still don’t know if schools will return in September and can’t rely on grandparents or family members for some respite. The same situation is absolutely heightened for women who are working in our healthcare service because of the completely botched childcare scheme - many women have maxed out their annual leave before they have even got a chance to consider a break at anytime this year because they have no other childcare options or don’t want to stretch the goodwill of family or friends.

We need to see better, more sensitive planning as we go forward Taoiseach, to help shift the burden off women in this crisis. As what we are doing at the moment is not sustainable.