Dáil Speech by An Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Covid-19

It is nearly nine months since the threat of an unprecedented global pandemic became a reality.

Since then Ireland and every country in Europe and around the world has had to take dramatic action to contain the terrible toll which this virus can take.

Every aspect of social, economic and cultural life has been upended as we have worked to shield those most at risk and to limit its damage.

There have been many ups and downs and the second wave of the virus which has hit Europe in the past two months has been divisive in many countries – with societies divided between those who accept the need for continued action and those who want all restrictions lifted.

Thankfully levels of compliance and social solidarity in Ireland have remained very high.

Yes, there are some who prize a return to certain activities over the safety of society as a whole – but the overwhelming evidence that the Irish people accept the need for vigilance, for personal responsibility and targeted restrictions.

And let no one be in any doubt, thousands of lives have been saved by the combination of these restrictions and the personal commitment of the Irish people to limit the spread of the virus.

Almost three thousand people on our island have lost their lives because of the virus. This is a terrible number in itself, but it would have been many times worse without the dramatic actions which have been taken.

The Level 5 restrictions which we implemented to limit the impact of the second wave in Ireland will be reviewed by government in the coming days.

As we decide on the next steps I am determined that we have an open discussion about actions to date and what needs to be done in the months ahead.

This is why I have requested the preparation of a very detailed review of actions, the progress of the virus and key challenges facing us.

It is also why I requested the holding of this debate. I see this as an opportunity for Deputies to contribute to discussions before key decisions are taken and to be able to give their perspectives on how we will move forward.

From the first moment this new government took office nearly five months ago our work has been dominated by the need to manage the direct and indirect impact of the pandemic.

A pandemic such as this does not come with a handbook to follow at every stage – and a defining characteristic of Covid-19 has been how the specific challenges it has presented us with have constantly evolved.

The very worst thing which you could have in the response to this pandemic is a consistent and unchanging approach. If you look throughout the world, many countries promoted during the first wave as the models to follow are in much worse positions today.

I am proud of the fact that we have been willing to quickly respond to new challenges, to review actions and to look for new ways forward.

I want to thank all of my colleagues in government for their willingness to accept an unprecedented intensity in the review, development and implementation of policy. Together with public servants who are absolutely dedicated to serving the interests of the Irish people, this work has made a very real impact.

This morning’s figures from the European Centre for Disease Control give a very clear picture of progress which Ireland has made during the 2nd wave of the virus.

Ireland has the second lowest incidence of the virus in the European Union, with case numbers and deaths very substantially below both the average and what might have occurred if patterns from the first wave had been repeated.

Deaths are 90% below the level of the first wave while at the same time many more critical public services have remained active, our schools have been open and economic activity, while still badly affected, has been higher.

This didn’t happen by chance. It happened because the Irish people accepted the need to alter their behaviour and accepted key restrictions.

Masks are a key tool in limiting the spread of the virus. The introduction of the mask guidelines in July increased the numbers wearing them in shops, buses and other indoor spaces from 37% to 90%.

Travel is also critical to the spread of the virus and different strains of the virus. The decision to limit the easing of travel guidelines in July and August was inconvenient for many, but the figures suggest that this has made an important contribution to avoiding the levels of travel-related infections seen in other countries.

Testing capacity is critical to understanding and catching the virus. When figures were very low in August we decided not to scale-down testing and to keep in place critical sectoral testing programmes.

Over 1.8 million tests have been completed, with a weekly testing capacity of 140,000 in place. There have been occasional problems, but in general the testing capacity has been fast and effective.

62% of the positive cases identified in the testing have had no underlying clinical conditions. Contacting, testing and isolating asymptomatic cases is a critical part of limiting the spread of the virus. I want to acknowledge the incredible work of the HSE and other bodies in leading this critical part of the response.

I also want to acknowledge again the work of our health professionals. They have moved swiftly to both develop and adopt new approaches to managing Covid cases.

Success in treating sever cases has improved remarkably fast, and at the same time major efforts have been made to restore non-Covid activity in our hospitals.

The return of children to schools was a core priority for us and it is worth mentioning again today. It was a daunting logistical and public health challenge and enormous credit is due to everyone involved.

It is not possible to have zero spread of the virus amongst over a million people, but the fact that the spread of the virus appears to be at a lower level in schools than in the community as a whole is a remarkable achievement.

Evidence has shown the great pressure which school closures placed on the children and their families. Almost one fifth of women with children in school were unable to work with school closures, and a much larger number of parents faced increased pressure and limits on their ability to work.

The economic recession caused by the pandemic has required a range of unprecedented measures which we continue to update and review.

Within a month of taking up office we prepared, published and implemented a dramatic stimulus package to protect as many jobs as possible. This was built on in October’s Budget, which provides a foundation for the recovery which I know we can rapidly achieve.

The biggest impact on containing the second wave was of course the decision to first move to an enhanced Level 3 and then, in light of the escalating problem in Europe and the need to exercise added caution, Level 5.

The 2nd wave is not over by any means. If there is one thing we know now it is that taking the virus for granted is the foundation for its spread.

The virus can very quickly get out of control if you believe it’s no longer a threat.

Ireland’s relative success in the second wave has been because we were willing to act. We had a less comprehensive reopening than many other countries. Individually we continued to modify our behaviour. And when the threat of high levels of transmission appeared we acted.

After nine months the one overwhelming fact about this deadly virus is that it thrives in social settings. And therefore, we have to respect social distancing. We have to limit our social interactions.

The very thing we value most in our society, which is our sense of family and community, can be a major threat when we hold social gatherings and move in hospitality settings.

That’s a hard message when we have endured so much this year, but it is one we simply have to understand if we are to continue to limit deaths and serious illness in this pandemic.

So, as we look forward to the next stage, complacency will remain our enemy.

We are not yet in a position to return to normality or close to normality.

Our approach will continue to be to go as far as possible, but no further.

I accept the goodwill of every group which is calling for the relaxation of restrictions impacting on them. They care passionately about their businesses and their sectors.

And I fully accept their statements that they want to respect guidelines.

But the reality is that for some activities the guidance will be that there is too much risk – and for all activities there are core guidelines and restrictions on how we act which we must respect.

In the last few weeks there has been great news about promising vaccines.

An effective and widely used vaccine is the final route to recovering from the pandemic and I want to say again that this government will do everything to make sure that the Irish people have rapid, fair and comprehensive access to the vaccines.

The remain vital checks before the vaccines are authorised for public use, however we have begun critical steps.

In the Summer we joined an EU joint initiative to place advance contracts for purchasing different vaccines. This EU initiative is vital for smaller countries in ensuring fair access.

The major logistical, medical and ethical issues involved in the roll-out of the vaccine are being addressed by a cross-public service task force which we have established. Its external chairman Professor Brian MacCraith – has both run a major university and is an internationally-respected scientific leader.

But between today and when the vaccines are widely administered we must remain vigilant and we must accept the need to limit our activities.

As a country we have worked together to achieve great things in limiting the spread and impact of this deadly virus. This work is not over yet. But we have shown how much we can achieve.

In the coming days we will decide and outline in detail the next phase of our national response. I have no doubt that if we maintain our national solidarity we will be able to look back at our shared response to the pandemic as a moment when we faced great danger together and came through it with strength and determination.

Speech of the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar T.D., Statement on COVID-19, Dáil Éireann, Tuesday 24 November 2020

Ceann Comhairle,

It’s been some time since I have given my views on Covid and I welcome the opportunity to share some of my thinking.

As we all know, the Government faces difficult decisions in the week ahead, as we approach the end of six weeks of Level 5 restrictions.  We sail between Scylla and Charybdis in trying to set the right course.

In doing so, we know for certain that increased human interaction will result in more people getting infected thus increasing the chance of a third wave.

2020 has been a write-off for many families and for many businesses, for young and old alike.   For others it has been a year of grief, with three thousand lives lost across Ireland. We should never forget those who grieve and I extend my condolences to them once more.

While we have not done everything right as a Government or as a society, I do believe, we have managed the pandemic well compared to our peers.  We acted quickly in our response.

Today, the 14 day incidence of the virus is the third lowest in Europe and even though we use the widest measure to count deaths, recording even suspected cases, we rank 34th in the world in terms of mortality, and falling.

It is clear now that the second wave has been very different to the first.

While the number of cases detected has been many times greater; the number of hospitalisations, patients requiring admission to an ICU and deaths, has thankfully, been much lower.  Indeed, there is no evidence yet of any statistically significant increase in ‘excess deaths’ in the second wave.

Of course, had we not acted as we did, this would almost certainly not have been the case and we would have experienced the high level of excess deaths such as are now now being seen in other parts of Europe.

There are many reasons why the second wave was not as serious as the first.  These include more testing, a younger cohort of people getting infected, the older and infirm being better protected, and better knowledge of how to treat the disease.  These trends are likely to continue.

The fact that the second wave was so different than the first is significant and should guide us in how we can go forward.

First of all, it is clear that there should not be an over-emphasis on case numbers and particularly not daily case numbers.  Cases translate into hospitalisations and deaths but not at rates previously projected. Once again, our health service never came close to being overwhelmed.  Also, it seems there is a seasonal component to SARS-CoV2 just as there is for other coronaviruses.

Level 3 was probably more effective that we thought at the time.  Level 5 was not as effective as was modelled, but was needed to get the numbers down. It is worth noting that the objective set out by Government 5 weeks ago was the R < 1 and cases and hospitalisations falling, rather than NPHETs model-based target of an R < 0.5 or cases at < 100.

Also, trajectory is important and the situation can deteriorate rapidly and return to exponential growth.  And while we know much more about the virus, it is just as contagious and transmissible as it was before.

I believe we should seek to ease restrictions next week but not so much that it requires it to return to Level 4 or 5 for a prolonged period in the New Year.

A short third period of enhanced restrictions may well be necessary in January or February but we should try to avoid it being a prolonged one.

Our strategy of ‘suppression’ is perhaps best described as one of ‘delay and vaccinate’ and I do not believe we are too far away from seeing it succeed.

Safe and effective vaccines are on the way, and when we vaccinate those most at risk like nursing home residents and healthcare workers, about 200,000 people, we will change the calculus for future decision-making.

It will reduce the R number, case numbers and mortality rates even as we extend the vaccine more widely to other groups, as we must, to achieve herd immunity.

Antigen mass testing, notwithstanding its limitations, will have a role to play in 2021 in identifying more cases, more quickly and reducing the risk of spread.

Ceann Comhairle, it is well understood that there are risks associated with international travel.   This is particularly so for travel from areas of high incidence to areas of low incidence.

The European traffic light system which Government has adopted, linked to pre and post-travel testing, does not eliminate this risk but does reduce it.  We need to embrace it and enforce it.

Another real risk that we cannot ignore is north-south travel within Ireland.  The incidence of the virus in Northern Ireland is a multiple of what it is in this State and so is the mortality rate.

Northern Ireland is a different jurisdiction and makes its own decisions under the Good Friday Agreement.  We respect that.  However, we would be in denial not to recognise that a less intensive approach to the virus there, since the start, has its consequences.

Our public health authorities collect very good data on cases imported to Ireland due to international travel and even cases related to imported cases.

Such data do not exist for cases linked to cross-border travel on the Island, this is a gap in our data which needs to be closed as it affects our ability to make evidenced-based decisions.

As Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment my responsibility is to protect jobs, businesses and livelihoods, to create the conditions where we can safely return to work and stay at work – to give everyone with a job confidence for today, as well as hope for the future.

The Government has put in place extra-ordinary measures to protect incomes and keep businesses alive –

  1. the pandemic unemployment payment,
  2. restart grants,
  3. low cost loans,
  4. a commercial rates holiday,
  5. lower VAT,
  6. wage subsidies
  7. and the weekly payment for businesses that are closed, the CRSS.

It is essential that these interventions should continue as necessary and should not be removed too quickly.  For this reason, we have set aside €3.5bn for 2021 in the form of an unallocated Recovery Fund so we can respond to the twin challenges of Brexit and Covid.  While the pot is limited, and has to last the full year, we should not be afraid to deploy it.

When it comes to decisions on re-opening, Government has a particular responsibility to provide clear guidance to the public and to businesses.  We also need to marshal our agencies from the Gardai, to HSE Environmental Health Officers to HSA inspectors to improve enforcement.

Last Friday, to assist, we published an updated Work Safely Protocol which sets out the actions that need to be taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.

Unfortunately, many see the debate about what to do in December as a conflict between protecting lives and protecting jobs, as if our society and our economy were in some kind of contest.

It is a false dichotomy and always has been.  It’s as if the people who work in shops, or own a small business, don’t also worry about their own health, and that of their family and loved ones.

As if the people who are most at risk from COVID don’t also yearn for the company of other people, or to be able to do some shopping, or to enjoy some Christmas cheer.

In an ideal world we would be able to provide certainty to businesses and to consumers, and give plenty of advance notice, but we cannot.

There are, unfortunately, too many moving parts, too many factors beyond our control, too many new things to take into account every day.

COVID-19 behaves in unexpected ways, so we have to plan for every eventuality, and make decisions based on changing evidence and new facts.

During this period of restrictions, many of us have become frustrated and downcast – annoyed by examples of people breaking the rules – impatient for things to reopen and return to the way things were before.

Too many lives have been lost.

Too many lives have been put on hold for too long, especially for younger people.

No one is immune from feelings of anger or resentment or fear or frustration.

But, we will not fight community transmission with anger, blame or finger-pointing.   We will beat it with community spirit – just as we did before.

As a country, even in the darkest days, we never lost hope.

We have a little way to go still and we should not lose hope now.

As a Government we will do everything we can but this will not be a normal Christmas.  We will have to limit ourselves and our movements.   We will have to be patient.  We will have be tolerant of each other and understanding of lapses.  All the time redoubling our efforts against COVID-19.

Ceann Comhairle, for centuries people have debated the true meaning of Christmas – the original wish upon a star.  At its most meaningful, it is about thinking of others and about bringing the happiness to others.  Hope.  And Good News.

This year will be a Christmas like no other, but it can still be a good one, if we keep the faith.

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