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Speech of An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D.,
Leaders Statements,
Dáil Éireann, Thursday 30 April 2020.

Ceann Comhairle,

Inniu mar a tharlaíonn ar na laethanta eile, smaoinímid ar dóibh siúd a fuair bás. Daoine a raibh saol agus scéalta acu, a raibh tábhacht agus brí ag baint lena saol agus cuimhneofar iad.

Tá an Rialtas buíoch as cuimse do chuile dhuine atá ag obair go dian chun dul i ngleic leis an gcoróinvíreas. Tá sibh ag glacadh bhur bpáirt sa ghéarchéim seo – má ghlacann tú páirt trí do chuid oibre nó má tá tú ag fanacht sa bhaile. Tá torthaí as ár gcomhiarracht agus táimid ag cur an aicíd faoi chois.

Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil na teoranna deacair agus to bhfuil sé bearránach ach caithfimid leanúint ar aghaidh mar atáimid. Táimid faoi chomaoin acu siúd atá ag obair chun dul i ngleic leis an víreas seo gach lá agus do chuimhne na ndaoine a fuair bás. Táimid faoi chomaoin dár bpobal féin.

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Ceann Comhairle,

I offer my condolences to all those who have lost loved ones sinece we last met. To everyone grieving as best they can in the most difficult of circumstances. As of last night, we have 976 COVID-19 deaths confirmed by a laboratory. A further 214 deaths are suspected, giving us a likely overall figure of 1,190.

Of the laboratory confirmed cases, 453 died in hospitals, 430 in long term care settings, including nursing homes, and 93 at home. Of the totals deaths, 697 had been residents in long-term care.

This is a tapestry of sorrow, suffering and loss.

As always, we are grateful to the extraordinary work of our nurses, doctors and healthcare staff who are giving their all to save lives and bring us through the worst of this emergency.

As a country we owe so much to so many, and when this is all over we will have an opportunity to thank them properly.

I know the lockdown is difficult and people are feeling frustrated, cooped up, even trapped. But we must keep doing what we are doing because it is working. We owe it to those who are fighting this virus every day, and we owe it to the memory of those we have lost. As a country, we owe it to each other.

People have a right to know when things will start going back to normal. I can inform the Dáil that a plan is being developed to ease the lockdown, a roadmap to reopen Ireland. A roadmap to what will be a new normal. Unfortunately, for those who would like an immediate return to a pre-COVID world, the easement of the current restrictions will be slow and gradual and will be done in a stepwise, tiered manner. It will require a continuous effort to suppress and control this virus. Therefore, the lifting of restrictions will not necessarily mirror the manner in which they were escalated.

Public health and safety, and our healthcare capacity will continue to be the foundation for decision making.

The five criteria are as follows:

  • The progress of the disease;
  • Healthcare capacity and resilience;
  • Testing and contact tracing capacity;
  • The ability to shield and care for at risk groups; and
  • The risk of secondary morbidity and mortality due to the restrictions themselves.

As we manage the gradual lifting of restrictions, we will prioritise the public health advice, and give careful consideration of how best to mitigate and manage the economic, and other health and social impacts.

Any changes to the restrictions will be made every 2-4 weeks, as we need to leave a period of time to accurately assess their impact. We will intervene earlier if necessary. Restrictions may have to be reintroduced if it looks like the virus is going to surge back. We expect to have this plan completed tomorrow for approval by Cabinet.

My thanks to the party leaders for their input yesterday and I welcome the views of TDs here today. If a consensus exists, I want to find it.

It has always been my assessment that we are fighting COVID-19 on six fronts, namely:

  • PPE to make sure our staff are protected;
  • testing and tracing;
  • ICU capacity, ventilators and bed capacity;
  • the economic and welfare package to protect businesses and livelihoods;
  • societal actions such as social distancing; and
  • protecting vulnerable groups, including those in care homes, prisoners, Travellers, Roma, the homeless and those in asylum seeker accommodation centres.

It never was – nor ever should be – a case of prioritising one over the other. We have to fight on all six fronts every day and deal with the new challenges that arise every day. As the WHO says, you need a ‘comprehensive strategy’ and to date our strategy has been comprehensive, far-reaching and inclusive.

So far, over 150,000 tests have been carried out in Ireland. That makes Ireland 6th out of the 27 EU countries on a per capita basis, and a higher number than many countries that have led the way on testing such as Germany, South Korea and Singapore. We will continue to increase capacity and improve turnaround times. There will be bumps in the road.

I want to thank all the staff involved, including GPs and occupational healthcare staff, assessing people for a test and counselling them on the results. There is an extraordinary team effort in all our testing centres, from those in admin to the swab takers, from the medical scientists and staff in our laboratories doing the tests, and the IT professionals and managers who make sure it all comes together. So thank you all.

Recently there has been much public focus on nursing homes, and rightly so. This is an area where much work has been going on behind the scenes for a considerable period to protect as many people as possible.

Ireland took the lead in deciding to test asymptomatic residents and staff in nursing homes wherever there has been an outbreak. And other countries are now following suit. From the very start, we counted nursing home deaths alongside hospital deaths every day. I see other countries are now starting to do that as well.

In recent weeks, we have provided a funding package for nursing homes and PPE deliveries are now regular. The total number of PPE daily deliveries is 558 and three-quarters of these are to Nursing Homes and Long Term care home.

There are now 23 Community Response Teams in operation across the country. They are being helped in their work by 16 Infection Prevention & Control staff. About 200 HSE staff have now been redeployed to private nursing home facilities, and homecare workers and homecare hours are being redeployed to long-term care.

When it comes to staffing, we have an agreement with the unions to allow HSE staff to work in the nursing homes. It is voluntary, but we are asking people to volunteer, to take up posts in nursing homes to help out there.

As a Government we have taken a focused approach with regard to vulnerable groups including homeless people, travellers, Roma, drug users, prisoners and residents in Department of Justice accommodation centres. This involves testing, treating, isolating and cocooning as well as tending to other health conditions.

Having met and spoken to many of the people and organisations caring for these groups, I am satisfied that we have a robust, well-resourced response in place.

There is much debate about comparisons with cases, deaths and death rates in other countries. On the face of it we compare well with our neighbourhood in Western Europe, but not so well with other parts of the world. The more I study this the more it seems that the data is not yet comparable. It isn’t even comparable between North and South on this island. Countries are at different stages in this pandemic. Some have peaked, some have yet to. Some parts of the world including Eastern Europe, and much of the southern hemisphere appear barely affected so far. I hope that doesn’t change. While Western Europe, China and the United States have been the epicentres.

The scale of testing also varies greatly. Our policy here is to test, test, test and we’re in the top tier in that regard.

There is also a difference in demographics. Different countries count differently. Our policy is to count all cases – laboratory confirmed and suspected – as well as all locations – hospitals, care homes, and private homes. We also count all cases regardless of whether or not there was an underlying condition that may have been the main cause of death. We are only one of four countries in Europe that does so, to the best of our knowledge.

The only truly comparable data will be the mortality displacement figures, what is often called ‘excess deaths’, and we may not have those figures for some months. In any case, it’s not a competition, and every country is doing its best in difficult circumstances and different circumstances.

Ceann Comhairle,

I am increasingly concerned that some people who need medical care are not seeking it. I met a GP in DCU yesterday and he said he hadn’t diagnosed anyone in his practice with cancer for a month, he’d never experienced that before. We know cancer hasn’t gone away.

Perhaps people are afraid of contracting COVID-19, perhaps they do not want to be a burden on healthcare staff. My message today to everyone is to seek help if you need it.

GP surgeries are open. Emergency departments are open. Ambulances are operating. Please seek medical attention if you need it.

Finally Ceann Comhairle, it is now seven weeks since I announced the first actions we were taking to slow this virus in its tracks and push it back. I said then that acting together, as one nation, we could save many lives. By staying apart, we have come together as a nation and we have saved many lives. But we are not out of danger yet. More lives are at risk and we cannot falter now.

In the days to come we will provide a pathway for how we will emerge from this crisis and give hope to people that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But it cannot be a false hope. We are still in the tunnel and we have some distance to go.

As before, I look forward to hearing Members’ observations and suggestions.


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