Dáil Speech by An Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Covid-19
Check Against Delivery
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. I
reland’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.