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Debate | Lifting of Covid-19 Restrictions: Motion [Private Members]

14 July 2021

“That Dáil Éireann:

notes that under Bunreacht na hÉireann (Constitution of Ireland):

— Article 40.1 guarantees that all citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law;

— Article 40.3.1° protects the right to bodily integrity of all citizens;

— Article 40.6.1°.ii guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably, subject to laws to prevent meetings which are a danger to the general public; and

— Article 44.2.1° guarantees to every citizen the right to freedom to practice his or her religion, subject to public order and morality;

and calls on the Minister for Health to, in exercise of the powers conferred on him by sections 5 and 31A (inserted by section 10 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 (No. 1 of 2020)) of the Health Act 1947 (No. 28 of 1947):

— allow hospitality businesses across the State to carry on their business, regardless of whether the said business involves the sale of food or beverages for indoor or outdoor consumption, without requiring the occupier, manager, or any other person for the time being in charge of the premises in which the hospitality business is being carried out, to discriminate between customers on the basis of whether or not they have been vaccinated against Covid-19 or SARS-CoV-2 infection;

— allow attendance at sporting and other events, subject only to such non-discriminatory limitations as are necessary and proportionate in the interests of public safety;

— respect the profession and practice of religion, and allow a minister of religion or priest (or any equivalent thereof in any religion) to lead worship or religious services, subject only to such restrictions as are necessary, proportionate, prescribed in the Constitution of Ireland, and respect the autonomy afforded to religious communities in a democratic society; and

— accept that the pursuit of a de facto zero-Covid strategy, aimed at the elimination of all Covid-19 variants, would result in permanent and irreversible damage to the economic and social fabric of the State and the integrity of the democratic process."

I thank the Acting Chair for those warm words and all my colleagues who took the time yesterday, both inside and outside the Chamber, to wish me well. It was a warm welcome and I am grateful. I am told that I am the first ever Deputy to be sworn in while not in Leinster House. The convention centre feels very different. It was also stated yesterday that I am only the 37th woman in this Dáil and only the 131st woman ever to be elected to Dáil Éireann. Those statistics gave me pause for thought yesterday. I am proud and honoured to have been elected to represent Dublin Bay South. I thank and give all my gratitude to those who supported me, to my family and to my campaign team. I have thanked them all and will continue to do so. I am conscious that we ran a campaign which was rooted in the Labour values of equality, solidarity and fairness and which reflected a communitarian philosophy. We also tried to put forward a form of constructive and positive politics. It is in that spirit that I come to debate this motion in my first substantive contribution here.

I was struck yesterday, while sitting through Dáil proceedings, that the manner in which debate is conducted in this House is different from what happens in the Seanad. There is a difference in culture. This is partly because of the gender breakdown. In the current Seanad, where I was proud to represent graduates of Dublin University, the membership is 40% female. This contributes to a more collaborative style of politics. Things are somewhat more confrontational in the Dáil because we only have a small number of women, namely, 23% of the overall membership. That is of interest to all who observe and have an interest in the parliamentary processes and democratic engagement. I want to speak in a constructive manner about the motion and to try to bring a reflective approach to it.

I am concerned and dismayed by some of the language that has been used in respect of the critical issue of reopening, how we deal with the immense threat of the Delta variant and how we seek to balance risks as we move forward out of lockdown and try to provide a safe reopening. Yesterday, others raised the issue of extreme language, hyperbole and using terms like "apartheid" and "Nazism". These are utterly inappropriate terms when we are speaking about balancing risk as we move towards a safe reopening. I should have welcomed the Minister of State when I first began to speak. I know that her language was measured. It is the sort of measured language that we all need to bring to bear on this crucial issue and navigating our way out of lockdown to a safe reopening.

I came of age in the 1980s in Trinity College. Kader Asmal was one of my most inspiring lecturers and he went on to become a minister in a post-apartheid South Africa. The word "apartheid" is one that we should not use lightly in any context. My grandfather was imprisoned by the Nazis in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War. For our family, fascism was a real issue. It is not a word that any of us should use lightly in this country or anywhere else.

I will speak to the motion. For me and for Labour, it is about a safe reopening, balancing risk and moving out of lockdown in a measured way. Our concern is that there should be a range of measures deployed by Government as we move out of lockdown. We are concerned about and have been critical of the mixed messaging and lack of consistency from Government. We have been critical of the real potential for discrimination against young people that may form the base of the Government's plan to move to reopening. My Trinity colleague, David Kenny, described it this morning as an unfair, intergenerational measure to discriminate against those who have not yet had the option to be vaccinated. We would all be concerned about the impact that Covid and public health restrictions have had on young people in particular. I have called for a catch-up for children scheme for our children who missed out on so much through prolonged school closures and the loss of so much extracurricular activity. Deputy Ó Ríordáin and I have called for a catch-up scheme, which would help to ameliorate and address some of the awful impacts that Covid has had for so many young people.

We also need to ensure that we provide safe spaces to socialise outdoors for young people who are out of school, that we offer other options and that we are not seen to discriminate in this way. Other speakers have talked about social solidarity. We have had really strong social solidarity through Covid. It has been a strength in Ireland. We have seen strong uptake of vaccines and an impressive roll-out of the vaccination programme. I am so glad to have been vaccinated. I got my digital Covid certificate yesterday.

We should look at good models of practice elsewhere. Denmark rolled out Coronapas. It is not just about proof of vaccination there but also about rapid deployment of antigen testing. Denmark has a population of 5.8 million and the capacity to carry out 500,000 antigen tests daily. A key part of the Coronapas system is the use of rapid testing. The use of such testing means that system is not discriminatory against those who have not yet been offered vaccines, which is crucial. It enables people who have negative antigen tests to participate in indoor activities, matches and so on, as well as in indoor hospitality. That is the sort of model we are calling for and which Deputy Kelly and my party colleagues called for yesterday. We are anxious to ensure that roll-outs of indoor hospitality are done safely. We want to ensure that we do not fall foul of the Delta variant as we have seen in some countries that have had to close again following reopening.

We have to be mindful that where we have seen failures or flaws in our programmes, it has been because people have felt left behind. They have felt that there is a lack of solidarity, for example, among over-60s. In the by-election campaign, over-60s felt left behind because younger cohorts ended up being fully vaccinated before them because of the issues with AstraZeneca. These are real concerns and they will undermine our collective effort as we come through Covid.

For us, this is about balancing risk, coming constructively to this and looking at how we can support a safe reopening. We cannot see any more mixed messages, confusion and certainty. We owe it to everyone, younger people and those working in indoor hospitality, to come up with a clear way through this. That is what Labour is talking about. It is in keeping with our values of equality and solidarity.