Higher Civil Servants in Leinster House have voiced their strong concerns about the dangers to their safety caused by the Dáil and Seanad sitting during the pandemic.
In a letter to Peter Finnegan, who is clerk of Dáil Éireann and secretary general, Houses of the Oireachtas Service, Higher Civil Servants voiced their concerns regarding the level of activity and the level of attendance by members, and also regarding the “lack of compliance” with pandemic safety measures.
As opposed to limiting their movements as ordered by the Government, they said they “note with alarm” that the political system appears to want more meetings, and this was made clear at the recent meeting of the working group of committee chairs.
“The Houses of the Oireachtas, as our national parliament should be taking this threat very seriously indeed. Businesses, sports clubs, charity organisations, museums, religious organisations, and others have all responded to the challenge by radically changing the way that they operate. The Houses of the Oireachtas should be doing nothing less,” the letter says.
“With high levels of community transmission, staff having to attend the office and having to sit in poorly ventilated committee rooms are being put at increased risk of contracting Covid or of having to isolate by virtue of being close contacts of positive cases. This is already happening."
The letter, from union reps Charles Hearne and Ted McEnery, hits out at the numerous committee hearings scheduled for this week on a what is a “non-sitting week”.
“Many committees are scheduled to meet, having agreed extra meetings at short notice. We also know that with the long sessions of the Dáil in recent weeks that many of our colleagues are exhausted. These staff, who are effectively running on empty, are more likely to have lower levels of resistance to Covid and may indeed have more severe symptoms if they do catch the virus,” the letter says.
The letter says ‘concern’ is a "wholly inadequate word to relay the level of worry arising that our members, staff who support us and members of other unions, are being exposed to totally unnecessary risks”.
“We are asking that you bring to the attention of the Ceann Comhairle, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, and the business committee our concerns so that there is a review of the timetables for the plenary sessions and the Committees,” the letter says.
“It is excessive for us in current circumstances to have to support meetings of the houses or of committees with full membership present when debating legislation, approving Estimates or deciding questions,” the letter says.
Likewise, members of committees should attend only when their speaking slot will arise within the two-hour session.
“We are also asking that witnesses not be asked to attend in Leinster House for committee meetings and that a direction issue in that regard. There is also a need to confine meetings to key business matters such as legislation. We cannot have a ‘business as usual’ approach during the pandemic, with statements, commencement debates and topical issues and other activities that are less essential in the context of Covid-19,” the letter says.
“We are also concerned at the poor levels of compliance with social distancing measures. In particular, committee clerks and temporary clerks working in the plenary chambers (as well as members of another union) are frequently approached by members who do not maintain any social distancing. We are also frequently approached by members who wear visors HSE advice is that visors provide very little protection for wearers and almost no protection for other people,” the letter adds.
Finally, the letter’s author wants to draw attention, "under the Health and Safety at Work legislation, that in circumstances where members are neither wearing masks nor maintaining social distancing, a safe work environment is not being provided on the contrary, a positively and demonstrably dangerous workplace exists, where the risks include long-term health issues or death, as has been demonstrated by the 1,885 deaths to date".