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Ceann Comhairle,

Monday was one of our brighter days since the start of this Emergency as we reached a significant milestone. For the first time in 65 days there were no reported COVID-19 deaths, evidence that our sacrifices are making a difference and that lives are being saved and protected. Last night the figure was 9 deaths, a tragic and timely reminder that this is not over, and that we will have days of sadness as well as days of hope ahead before we prevail.

I know this has been a painful struggle for people all across our island. Too many loved ones have lost their lives, and too many lives are still at risk.

As of last night, 1,615 people have died in our State from COVID-19 and a further 514 in Northern Ireland. The fact that the trend is going in the right direction doesn’t lessen the grief for those who have lost loved ones, or the fear of those who know somebody with Covid today.

In total, 24,735 people in the Republic of Ireland have been diagnosed with Covid-19.

325,795 tests have been carried out, including over 30,000 in the past week, of which 633 were positive, resulting in a positivity rate of 2.1%. That rate continues to decline.

My message today is that we need to hold firm.

As a Government we won’t jump the gun by taking unnecessary risks with public health.

Any announcement of whether we can go to Phase 2 or whether we can make any changes to the plan will have to wait until June 5th when we have more data available and the latest advice from NPHET.

Ar an Luan, bhaineamar sprioc thábhachtach amach nuair nach raibh básanna nua ar bith le tuairisciú. Ba mhaith liom tuilleadh laethanta dóchais mar seo a fheiceáil. Is í teachtaireacht an lae inniu ná seasaigí go daingean go fóill. Leanaimis ar aghaidh leis na híobairtí atá á déanamh againn sa chaoi go leanfaidh an claonadh ar aghaidh sa treo ceart.

Fanfaidh aon fhógra ar cé acu go rachaimid ar aghaidh go céim a dó, nó go ndéanfaimid aon athruithe eile don bplean go dtí an cúigiú lá den Mheitheamh. Fanfaimid go dtí go mbeidh níos mó sonraí agus eolais le fáil ó na saineolaithe. Idir an dá linn, seasfaimid go daingean agus gheobhaimid an ceann is fearr air!

COVID is a tragedy for all of us but most of all for those who have lost their lives or someone close to them. It is something we all wish had not befallen us. History teaches us that from every tragedy there are lessons to be learned and from every crisis come opportunities for positive change. We must build on the solidarity we have seen over the past few months and work towards a better Ireland. We owe it to everyone who has been impacted by COVID and the choices that have been made by so many.

Covid has kept us from our loved ones, leaving some of us feeling anxious and isolated. It has upended our businesses and halted our livelihoods. At its worst, it has stolen lives and devastated families. This is an Emergency that has disrupted our society.

It has challenged us to work differently, to make changes that in normal times might have taken years to implement, and prompted us to reflect on what really matters in life.

Ceann Comhairle, I believe there are six major opportunities that arise from the terrible tragedy of COVID. If we seize them, we will be better prepared for future pandemics or a second wave should it come and we will also make our country a better place for us all. These are:

building a permanent public health and well-being infrastructure;
reviewing how we care for older people;
changing our approach to sickness in the workplace;
embracing better work-life balance;
reducing unnecessary travel;
and respecting our natural environment.

Ceann Comhairle, East Asian democracies learned from the SARS crisis and were much better prepared for COVID than were Western ones.

We need to be better prepared for a second wave if it comes and for future outbreaks of new viruses. This means building up a much better and permanent public health infrastructure to test for, track, trace and treat infectious diseases not just COVID. Linked to this should be a new focus on wellbeing, for example, through an enhanced vaccine programme, such as the enhanced flu vaccine programme for this winter which we planned already. We can build on what we have already done to reduce smoking and alcohol consumption through the Healthy Ireland framework with an added emphasis on reducing obesity, physical inactivity and addiction.

Across the Western World, COVID has exacted a terrible toll on nursing homes. I know that there is a lot of focus at the moment on when and for how long visitor restrictions should be in place. That’s important but I think it begs a bigger question. Is this the model of care we want for older people? No visitors. Residents confined to the home. Staff dressed head to toe in PPE. For months on end. I don’t think so. We need to think again about alternatives and follow through on a new statutory funding model for home care as well as more supported housing options for older citizens as they age. We won’t have to do so from scratch. A lot of the ground work is already done. When it comes to nursing homes and social care generally, we need greater integration with the health service, not separation as some advocate, and clear clinical governance, so there is no confusion about who’s in charge of medical issues when they arise.

Ceann Comhairle, in Ireland we often talk about high levels of absenteeism in the workplace and the impact on productivity. That’s a real problem. But sometimes so is presenteeism. In some professional settings, you are expected to go to work when you are sick. Sometimes it’s out of commitment to one’s work. Other times it’s guilt – you just don’t want to let the side down or impose extra work on a busy team. In some sectors, like retail and hospitality, sick pay arrangements are poor and staff cannot afford to take a sick day. This isn’t good for the individual who is sick nor is it good for society in terms of infection control. COVID and the new COVID-related sick pay arrangements has changed this and we cannot go back to the status quo ante.

I know from listening to a lot of people, especially busy working parents, how they have appreciated the opportunity to be at home a little more. More time for family. More time for couples to see each other. More dinners at home or time together in front of the TV. Some over-worked parents, mums and dads, are treasuring the extra time they are getting with their kids. Of course, we all want the school and crèches to open as soon as it’s safe to do so and for normal working and social life to resume.

But, I think the bell has been rung when it comes to work-life balance and that bell can’t be un-rung. Home-working is now evidently doable for many, as are core hours, flexible hours, job sharing and team-working. Of course, none of this is new. Employers and employees and Government should work together to make it mainstream.

The use of technology like Zoom and Webex have enabled us to do so much remotely and digitally – staff meetings, conferences, education, medical consultations, residents and club meetings, political summits. Of course, it is no substitute for meeting people in person but perhaps we can find a better balance than heretofore. Better use of technology will mean fewer journeys, fewer business trips, less traffic, better air quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Public and private sectors need to make sure we do not simply drift back to the old way of doing things.

I also think the Emergency has given many of us a better respect of our natural environment. We can hear the dawn chorus, see foxes at dusk and wildlife is thriving. As an island we have an abundance of land and sea, rivers, mountains, lakes and bogs. We are very lucky to live in country like Ireland. I think we all value our natural heritage a little bit more and we need to ensure more people can experience it in a sustainable way.

To recap Ceann Comhairle, we are starting to fathom the enormous cost of COVID in terms of human life lost, the economic damage and the damage to the economic finances. Even so, out of this tragedy, we must build on the good things we have seen and the lessons we have learned.

We see some of this thinking in the significant set of proposals published this morning by the European Commission, including proposals for how our countries will recover economically from this crisis. There are also new proposals for the MFF and I will give a update to the House on these developments next week.

As always, I look forward to hearing the comments, observations and questions of Members.

Translation of Irish lines

Ceann Comhairle,

On Monday we reached a significant milestone when we had no new deaths to report. I want more days of hope like this. Today’s message is to hold firm. Let’s keep making the sacrifices we are making so the trend continues to go in the right direction.

Any announcement on whether we go to Phase 2, or whether we make any changes to the plan, will wait until the 5th of June. We will wait until we have more data and more expert advice. In the meantime, we will hold firm and we will prevail.

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