Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Friday, 24 July 2020
Special Committee on Covid-19 Response
Covid-19: Impact on Public Transport (Resumed)
We are joined by representatives from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to further discuss the impact of Covid-19 on public transport provision. I welcome Mr. Kenneth Spratt, acting Secretary General of the Department; Ms Deirdre O’Keeffe, assistant secretary; Ms Deirdre Hanlon, assistant secretary; Mr. Fintan Towey, assistant secretary; and Ms Maria Melia, principal officer.
I advise witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I ask Mr. Spratt to introduce his delegation and outline the Department's submission to the committee, which has been circulated in advance. I apologise that very few members of the committee have been able to make it today, as votes are anticipated in the Dáil. In normal circumstances, committees would sit in the room where the witnesses are and the Dáil would sit in this Chamber, and if and when a vote was called, the committee would rise temporarily to enable people to make their way to the Dáil Chamber. That is obviously not possible when the Dáil is sitting in a different location, and everybody is down at the Convention Centre as I believe votes are anticipated.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
We were advised by the clerk to the committee that there was no need for opening remarks to be submitted. I am joined by my colleague, Ms Deirdre O'Keeffe, who heads up the maritime side of the Department; Ms Deirdre Hanlon, who heads up public transport; Mr. Fintan Towey, who heads up the aviation side; and Ms Maria Melia, who will be covering tourism matters today.
I thank the Chairman for the invitation. We are looking forward to engaging with the committee on this important matter.
I am keeping an eye on the clock. I have a number of questions arising out of issues that have presented over time but I also wish to address some matters that arose during this morning's deliberations. I thank the witnesses for their attendance.
There is deep concern that our ports and airports are gateways for further import of Covid-19 and that they will increase the risk of the spread of the virus in the community. We heard from some representatives this morning, including the Irish Air Line Pilots' Association, that the gold standard was testing and tracing. I ask the witnesses to outline what models have been assessed for our ports and airports in that regard. All the measures, checks and controls laid out in A Protocol for the Management of Air Passengers in light of COVID-19 and COVID-19 agreed protocol for International Ro-Ro Passenger Transport Services, Ports & Terminal Service Operators, the documents published for the air and marine sectors earlier this week, are self-declaratory in nature.
I ask the witnesses to address that point. The fact that there are no diagnostic or third-party checks or controls at our ports and airports causes great concern for people generally. That is an important point, particularly since many people are asymptomatic but carry and transmit Covid-19 during that period. We do not have temperature screening, antibody tests or DNA tests, which are often part of the response in other countries. I would like the witnesses to address that, if possible.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
We are guided by public health advice and guidance from NPHET and colleagues at the Department of Health. It is important to remember that travel into the country is significantly reduced. The numbers speak for themselves. We are down significantly in aviation travel and maritime travel. As regards what we have in place, we have the passenger locator form, which will move to an electronic form very soon, and follow-up questioning from colleagues in the border management unit. We acknowledge that has not been as effective as we would like it to be, which is why we are setting up a call centre that will follow up on all the passenger locator forms completed by people who come into the country. We are moving to an electronic version of the form, which the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer is developing as we speak. Although travel into the country is significantly reduced by normal standards, that should enable us to follow up with people in a much more rigorous and robust way.
Regarding the self-declaratory nature of the protocols, when we started to reopen society and the economy, we introduced the roadmap for reopening. Like many of the approaches we have taken to dealing with Covid, that has been based on engaging with people, explaining things to them and encouraging them to abide by the public health guidance, advice, regulations and instructions that have been put in place by the Government. That has worked very well across a number of areas and we believe the self-declaratory approach is working quite well when it comes to air and marine travel. As we understand it, the incidence of contagion is zero on the marine side. We have no evidence of any case having been contracted during travel into the country. Similarly, we have not been alerted to the protocols not working when it comes to air travel.
As regards there not being checks, controls or diagnostics by third parties, we try to engage, explain and encourage people, and we seek to steer clear from enforcement, as best we can, unless it absolutely needs to be done. Mr. Towey may want to add something on temperature screening and DNA testing. We believe more could be done. We are giving consideration to introducing departure point testing, but some testing is in place in Dublin Airport for people who present with symptoms. We are considering what additional measures we could, and perhaps should, introduce.
Mr. Fintan Towey:
The protocols on the management of passengers during aviation journeys include a series of measures to be taken by airlines, airports and passengers. There is a very heavy burden on passengers to observe all the good practices for preventing the spread of the virus, with which we are all familiar.
As in society generally, we are very largely dependent on individuals taking responsibility in that respect. We have looked at the question of whether additional tests or controls at airports might be helpful in controlling the spread of the virus. Obviously, we have to be guided by the expert public health advice in that regard. Our colleagues have looked at these possibilities, not only terminal screening, that is, temperature controls, but also other tests for the virus that might be conducted at either the point of departure or the point of arrival. While it is entirely understandable that people believe that if it were possible to have a conclusive test on arrival, that would be a measure we could take to improve safety, in fact the public health advice is that the type of testing available does not provide that level of assurance. The view of public health experts is that the case for introducing measures of that kind is quite marginal. One of the difficulties is that tests can produce false negative results, and they then create a false sense of security and increase the risk of virus transmission. These things are evolving all the time. We are watching them very carefully and collaborating carefully with our colleagues, our public health experts.
I thank Mr. Towey for that response. I will make a point about the low passenger numbers at this point in time. My sense is that the challenge at the moment is not what it might be in the future. This morning we heard a strong case for a relaxation of restrictions, and we do not know where we are in the development of a vaccine. We may be some months living with Covid-19. We will have to consider our approach in terms of our checks and controls at our airports in particular but also at our ports. Is it the case that the protocol is being actively reviewed in the context of the incoming numbers? Could the witnesses give me a little more detail on the immediate plans in response to the green list as they relate to the passenger locator form and the call centre that was mentioned earlier? The figures that were reported during the week for those filling out the passenger locator form, the follow-up calls and the number of people who answered do not inspire confidence. It is really important that people have confidence in the systems we have in place. Whether the small numbers coming from the United States, the small numbers coming from Germany or someone coming from a green list country, it is important that people are assessed for their risk and followed up on.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
What are we doing with the passenger locator form and the follow-up, and can we do it better? The answer to the second questions is "Yes". We are moving to put the passenger locator form onto an electronic footing and, as I mentioned earlier, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer is developing that as we speak. Once we have that done, we will be far better able to identify and authenticate the people filling out the passenger locator forms. That will be really important for us in terms of the follow-up and a much more effective and robust way to follow up. We will do that by way of increasing the capacity we have working on this at the moment. It is the case that we do not have enough capacity on that, and that is well recognised and accepted. For that reason we are working with a third party with a view to standing up a call centre at least by 10 August, but we hope before then. Those are the things we are doing at the moment and which we need to do better.
As for other things we could do, my colleague, Mr. Towey, mentioned earlier that we were giving consideration to departure point testing. We are exploring that and will make a decision on it fairly soon. In addition, we would like to increase the soft pressure at the point of departure, whereby airlines at time of booking and at time of departure would ensure that people coming in from countries not on the green list would be made aware of the need for them to restrict their movements when they arrive.
Potentially, we could also do some entry screening at Dublin Airport and step up the testing we are doing there at the moment. We do have processes in place whereby somebody who is symptomatic can be and is being tested. We have random testing under way, and the level to which we would step that up is being considered as well. The things we are doing we need to do better. We also need to do more things to try to make sure we prevent the virus from being imported. I do not know whether there is anything to add to that.
The Deputy has spoken for 13 minutes. He can speak for as long as he likes within the time allocated to his party, but his colleague, Deputy Ó Murchú, wishes to come in. I do not know how the Deputies wish between the two of them to use their time.
That is no problem. I am watching the clock myself.
Representatives from the taxi sector appeared before the committee this morning. They outlined a deep sense of frustration in their industry and how it has been affected by Covid-19 and with the supports from Government. One issue they raised was engagement with the NTA and, to a lesser extent, I think, the Department and the Minister. Issues with the taxi advisory committee were raised. Will the Department engage with the taxi sector? More generally, how does the Department propose to address and engage with the concerns that have been raised? I am sure the witnesses will have access to the submissions that were made earlier. There is deep concern within the sector. Many of those in the sector are highly vulnerable workers who have been forced, through the way in which the system was set up, to work through the Covid period despite being quite vulnerable.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
It was with the Advisory Committee on Small Public Service Vehicles. In a couple of minutes I will hand over to my colleague, Ms Deirdre Hanlon, who looks after the public transport side of the house. I am relatively new in this role of acting Secretary General. For however long my tenure lasts, one thing I am keen to do on behalf of the Department and the Minister is to ensure that any stakeholder who has need to engage with officials or the Minister will secure a meeting. We do that regularly and would be happy to do it again. I am also keen to encourage the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and our Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to engage and to meet. That is something we can take away and follow up on. I will ask my colleague, Ms Hanlon, to elaborate on the recent meeting if she can.
Ms Deirdre Hanlon:
There has been engagement by the NTA, the Department and the Minister primarily through the taxi advisory committee. Its official name is, as my colleague said, the Advisory Committee on Small Public Service Vehicles but it is known more commonly as the taxi advisory committee. It is set up under statute. It has a number of members, including six from the taxi industry. There are also members appointed with a public interest perspective and members appointed with a business perspective. The chairman is a retired head of traffic in the Garda. The committee has put together a number of recommendations. At the Minister's meeting with the committee, it was in the process of looking at the situation across the industry. The Minister encouraged the committee to produce its report and send it in. That has arrived within the past few days, during the course of last week, and I can assure the Deputy that there will be further engagement.
There is a meeting scheduled for next week that both the Department and the NTA will be attending and giving an initial reaction to the recommendations that the industry group has to come up with.
I thank Ms Hanlon. I welcome the fact that there has been engagement, but in addition to the assessment, it is fair to say that a question arose in our earlier session in terms of the representativeness of the taxi advisory committee. I ask that the witnesses engage in a full and comprehensive way with the groups we met earlier. I do not know the exact detail in terms of the make-up, but the principle of comprehensive engagement is an important one and I ask that they make that effort.
My final question is on a separate issue related to Ms Hanlon's Department. An issue has arisen around full driving licences and people being caught since the start of this month with driving licences expiring and being unable to get an extension or an appointment for a renewal. They have been left in a legal limbo in terms of insurance and being able to drive. Will someone outline to me the immediate action that will be taken to address that anomaly, which I and a number of colleagues raised in the Dáil this week?
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
I thank the Deputy. It is definitely a challenge, one of many that we have at the moment. I understand that licences were given additional periods, in other words, they did not expire at the time they were due to expire, but we can have a good look at that. I am afraid I am not joined by my colleague who has responsibility for the road safety side, so it is something I can look into and revert to the Deputy directly on, if that is okay with him.
I congratulate the Chairman on his new role. I want to follow up on some of the points made by my colleague. Serious dissatisfaction was expressed earlier between representatives of taxi drivers and the NTA. They specifically spoke about the issue around insurance and the difficulty whereby insurance companies blamed the NTA, saying that it did not change its rules for the period of the pandemic and that it did not negotiate with taxi companies from the point of view of people being able to reduce their premium from a taxi driver policy to a regular policy to allow them continue their regular work of bringing people to doctors, shopping or whatever the day-to-day activities all of us needed to engage in, during a period when they could not work. When the witnesses have a conversation with the NTA, I would request that this issue is put to its representatives first and foremost.
We know the issue of insurance crosses many Departments. I would like to think that the witnesses would be part of the conversation on finding solutions. They may wish to comment on that.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
I thank the Deputy. Before I came into this role I had responsibility for tourism and sport, and insurance was a big issue in both sectors. It was one which led our previous Ministers to seek meetings with the insurance industry and to engage directly with them with a view to ensuring that the industry fully understood all of the challenges that were presenting to hoteliers and others in the tourism and hospitality sector, and in the sports sector. It is something on which we can continue to apply appropriate pressure as best we can across Government and on which we have been doing as best we can up to now. I do not know if there is anything in particular Ms Hanlon would like to add to that.
Ms Deirdre Hanlon:
The Deputy asked about the role of the NTA. As he knows, the NTA is statutorily independent and it is the regulator for the taxi industry, but we are aware of some of the measures it has taken to support the industry with regard to regulatory affairs over the period since the commencement of the pandemic.
He mentioned that there had not been a change in rules. They have taken steps to facilitate taxi drivers, especially in the early days of the pandemic where they wished to suspend their licences. The NTA also engaged with the insurance industry to try to come to an arrangement where insurers would recognise a suspension of a licence while a taxi driver was not trading. They were significant factors. The issue now is trying to facilitate people in returning to business as business picks up, but those were the specific points the Deputy mentioned around the engagement on that.
Obviously, we would like to see increased engagement. The taxi driver representatives had a serious difficulty in that they did not believe that the NTA, and the insurance companies, had done all that was necessary. We need to ensure that happens, and I would like it put on the agenda.
Another major concern they have is that there should be a stimulus programme specifically related to them. They even spoke about some sort of grant aid for people who may want to leave the industry. Have the officials spoken to their Government colleagues about that because we do not see that it relates to the current stimulus programme but to future programmes that will be decided during the budgetary process? That would need to be determined as soon as possible.
Ms Deirdre Hanlon:
There are a number of what we call horizontal supports available across a range of businesses. Development of those is led primarily by our colleagues in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Several of those are applicable to the taxi industry, as they are to many other business areas. For instance, in the business area there is restart grant, which is linked to the waiver of commercial rates. An enterprise support grant is also available. There is-----
I accept that but the taxi drivers themselves stated that most of those did not apply to them. It is something that would need to be looked into. It happens to many groups, when necessary blunt instruments are brought in, that they can fall between stools. We need to look at that. I just want to know if it is on the Department's agenda. The stimulus programme announced this week is only part of a number of programmes that are to be operated. We need to ensure taxi drivers are put into the consideration in that regard.
Ms Deirdre Hanlon:
Certainly, and that is a point we have raised with our colleagues in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation where we have looked to make sure that where schemes are introduced, eligibility would also comprehend sectors such as ours. A significant initiative that was brought in that many operators in the sector have been eligible for and able to avail of is the pandemic unemployment payment for the period they are not operating and then, as they come back into the system, they can-----
They spoke about that as a necessity to survive but their costs were still running in many cases, and we have dealt with some of those. They also spoke about the fact that it is incredibly difficult to get protocols on safety and security. As a result of rules relating to insurance and such, they cannot put in screens in cars or whatever. That is another issue they believe needs to be addressed.
Ms Deirdre Hanlon:
There are a few features of that. The Deputy is correct. That is the type of area that is addressing the core of the issue, which is the public health issue. The economic supports come after that but the core issue is to address the public health aspect. From the very early days of the pandemic, the NTA made available on its website protocols and information for the sector about cleaning arrangements based on public health advices we were getting from colleagues in the public health area.
That is significant. There is advice around the wearing of face coverings, which is highly recommended and moving to mandatory. We are engaging with our colleagues in the Department of Health about the legal arrangements for that. It is expected that it will be expressed very shortly.
Ms Deirdre Hanlon:
In the meantime, it is open to taxi drivers under the existing regulations to make a reasonable request of a customer. In the current circumstances, a reasonable request would include a taxi driver telling an intending passenger that he would like them to use a face mask if they are using his vehicle. They have the ability to refuse the fare if the intending passenger does not comply.
I agree. The unfortunate thing is that not everyone is always reasonable. I will finish up on the green list, which came up this week. I accept some of the commentary from the officials on the fact that they would be looking at putting the passenger locator online, which would allow for a greater level of authentication. I assume they are talking about stronger protocols in respect of follow-up. There is the whole question that was brought into play by the Tánaiste about what previously people called quarantine and isolation, which is now referred to as restricted movement. People will need greater detail on what that actually means. Mr. Spratt spoke about the possibilities of certain testing procedures that would be carried out in airports for people incoming and outgoing. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, spoke the other day about possibly random testing of passengers coming from certain places that do not fall under the green list. How far progressed are all those possible procedures and protocols? The biggest question of all is whether we have the capacity to put them into play as quickly as possible? Even last week we saw the difficulty in certain nursing homes where although a couple of weeks ago they were able to get testing turnaround times of four or five hours, suddenly it went out to 48 hours. The important thing at this point is that we test, trace and isolate.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
It is still the case that we are in a fight for our lives. We are doing well and that is good. However, we have lost 1,763 of our citizens, including two parents of very good friends of mine. Some 25,826 people have been infected. We had seven new cases yesterday. While we are getting a grip on this virus, it is still out there. While we had seven new cases yesterday, the UK had 769. Its total now stands at 297,146. It has lost 45,554 of its citizens. Globally it is important to remember that there is still a major battle on. The virus is still accelerating. While we are doing well, we must continue to be vigilant and to fight on two fronts. We must suppress the virus and save lives but we must also reboot the economy and save livelihoods.
When it comes to travel, we know that 21% of recent new cases are travel-related and we cannot ignore that. While it is the case that some travel is essential and required, the Government has been quite clear in stating that its preference is that there would be no non-essential overseas travel.
I agree there should be nothing other than essential travel. Unfortunately, there are people travelling and there are people travelling to Ireland from places in the US where there is an absolute disaster as regards Covid-19 outbreaks. It is about ensuring that we can mitigate against the worst excesses.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
That is really important. We can touch again on the measures that are in place and the ones that we have planned.
There was a lot of social media commentary last week about Dallas in the USA. We had four flights in from Dallas last week. There was an average of 24 people on each flight. I do not have the exact figures but I think it is safe enough to suggest that probably half of them were probably Irish people returning home. While there was quite a lot of hysteria and social media commentary we had a total of 96 people coming in from Dallas last week. We are acutely aware of the need to ensure that we do as much as we possibly can in order to stave off importation of the virus, allowing for the fact that some people do have to travel for essential work reasons, essential caring reasons, or because they are Irish citizens wanting to return home or Irish people wanting to come home to Ireland for important family events. Mr. Towey and I touched on the measures earlier on. Suffice it to say that as a result of the Government decision earlier in the week around the green list, we have been given our riding instructions in terms of additional measures that could be introduced around departure testing, entry testing, entry screening, random testing and the other things we have mentioned already. I do not know if there is anything Mr. Towey wants to add.
Mr. Fintan Towey:
Just to confirm that is the position. This is something that is constantly moving as we continue to battle against the virus. We will constantly be looking at what additional measures might be necessary and introducing them if it is the appropriate course of action. The Deputy mentioned restricted movement and the question of whether it aligns with quarantine. My understanding is that the restricted movement advice for all incoming passengers is intended to align with the advice that is given to close contacts of a confirmed case of somebody having Covid. The intention is to put in place measures that are proportionate. Restricted movement as I understand it would allow an individual to undertake some limited exercise and travel to shops for essential supplies. The view of experts is that this is the appropriate, measured approach right now.
I thank the witnesses for what they have done today. I accept the difficulty in the situation we are all dealing with. The big thing is that we give people as much clarity as possible and ensure that we put the best procedures possible in place. As we open up more, even in respect of all elements of this economy and society, we need to ensure that we have the capacity and ability to move fast to test, trace and isolate. I assume the officials will be in communication with other Members of Government and the Department of Health ensuring that we have everything in place.
I would like to ask a couple of questions around airport testing. I note the officials' position on airport testing and their concern that there would be false negatives. How do they square that with other European countries which have seen transmission rates fall substantially and that have been allowing people in? In the case of Vienna airport, they have been allowing people in since March. Testing is organised and they have seen rates fall.
Mr. Fintan Towey:
I can answer that. Across Europe there has not been a consistent approach to introducing airport testing. There are some instances where it happens. The question of its effectiveness is not clearly proven. In the case of Austria, their performance in terms of the control of the virus overall is not in fact as good as it is in this country.
Not the percentage of people who test positive. Obviously, I would have thought Russia has a very low number per 100,000 of population diagnosed because it does not carry out much testing. Why is Russia not on the list? What if a country does no testing? I ask this because Donald Trump has suggested that testing be reduced in the United States of America because too many positives were being found. Various countries have very different attitudes to testing and the numbers being tested.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
In addition to the 14 day incidence as referred to by Mr. Towey, we also take into account other factors, including the trend of new cases compared to the previous 14 days and whether or not that trend is increasing or decreasing. We also look at the overall response, including testing, surveillance, contact tracing, containment, reliability of data and so on. Assessments of the overall response will comprise the international health regulations score, which is across 196 countries, and where possible it will be complemented by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade reporting from the capital of the country in question. There are four elements: the 14 day incidence; the trend of new cases; the overall response with regard to trust in and how happy we are with the regime in the country; and the reporting from that country's capital by the Irish Embassy there. That is all fed into the system and, based on the analysis of this by colleagues in the Department of Health, the advice comes up to Government. Based on that the green list is issued, which contains countries that are at or better than Ireland based on all of these criteria. It is quite detailed. I have looked at the appendix that went to Government for its decision this week and the reporting is quite substantial. Even though a report from the countries' capital cities is part of the work, there are also the three other science-based components.
Will Mr. Spratt explain further? I am a little confused about territories such as Gibraltar, for example. Is Monaco on the list? If I am not mistaken, the only way to get to Monaco is through France or through Italy. Gibraltar, however, is pretty hard to get to from Ireland unless one goes through Spain. Yet, it appears there is no concern if a person goes through Spain. Obviously, it is impossible to go through an airport without interacting with people and people will typically either get public transport from an airport in Spain to Gibraltar, or hire a car and be in a queue, and eat or do what humans do. I just find it difficult to understand how it is considered safe to travel through France to Monaco or through Spain to Gibraltar and there is no need for a person to undergo any isolation upon return, when if a person was to travel only to Spain it is considered dangerous. I find this difficult to understand conceptually.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
The approach we take is based on the international health regulations. Each of the states and countries mentioned on our green list is considered to be its own jurisdiction for the purposes of international health regulations, IHR. The vast majority of people who go to or return from Gibraltar or Monaco would come from another country. It is that other country we consider when we decide whether or not the person is coming into Ireland from a country that is or is not on the green list. If, for example, a person travels from Gibraltar and has to transit through Spain, we look at Spain and therefore the person is considered to be coming from a country that is not on the green list. Similarly with Monaco, if the person comes through France, we consider France to be the country from which the person had departed and therefore not on the green list.
The person would be required to restrict his or her movements on return to Ireland. These would not be considered normal precautions. For this reason, travel insurance would not apply to the person while he or she is in that country.
I thank Mr. Spratt for clarifying that. With regard to the list, freedom of movement is a right under EU law but, as with all rights, it is subject to the common good and public health considerations. I would have thought that any restriction must be proportionate and pursuant to law. Is it fair to suggest, as some earlier witnesses did, that what Ireland has determined to be proportionate is out of kilter with the rest of the European Union and that we have adopted a more cautious approach?
While no law has been put in place with regard to these restrictions, it has been made very difficult for people to travel to countries that are not on the green list. Private sector workers are being asked by their employers where they are going on holiday and with whom. That is unusual and has never happened before. Public sector employees, even those who have been asked to work from home for the past four months and may continue to do so, are being told they cannot work from home and must take leave if they holiday abroad. That is a barrier to going on holidays but it is not necessarily a barrier pursuant to law. I ask Mr. Spratt to comment on both those issues.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
I think it is safe enough to make some comments. The Chairman asked if we are taking a very cautious approach. The Government believes it is taking an appropriate approach that tries to steer a middle course between saving lives on the one hand and doing as much as we possibly can to save livelihoods. The approach we have taken with the green list is the start. The green list will be reviewed every two weeks. We have the first green list and we will have our second iteration of it in a couple of weeks. We needed to start somewhere and now, thankfully, we have a start. It is our first attempt to reopen international travel, albeit in a very limited and restricted way in this first iteration of the green list.
The Chairman asked if it is a proportionate approach. We think it is. Does it have public support? That is hard to judge but it seems to us that the reaction to it has been okay. People understand the need for us to do everything we can to keep the virus suppressed and to continue as best we can to save as many lives as we can. We will learn, as we have been learning, about the other impacts of Covid-19, and we will respond as best we can.
On the restriction of movement and whether something needs to be put into law, this is a matter for Government to consider. As I stated, the whole approach where we explain, engage and encourage, while trying to steer clear of enforcement, has worked well and we hope it will work well when it comes to restriction of movement.
Has the Department sought or received legal advice on whether it should be made pursuant to a law? I am not asking Mr. Spratt to outline what the legal advice is but whether the Department has sought or received legal advice on that question.
I am referring in particular to the many practical barriers that are being put in place for people travelling. I am not second-guessing the Department's determination, which is proportionate. I asked whether it is out of kilter with the rest of the European Union, which it would appear to be. It is implicit in what Mr. Spratt said that we have adopted a more cautious approach. The question is whether these restrictions should be pursuant to a law rather than through administrative circulars that require, in particular, public servants to take additional holidays. It is almost as if there is an intentional policy of penalising them for going abroad because they are not allowed to work from home when they come back, even though they may be working from home now and have been asked to work from home up to now.
Mr. Fintan Towey:
I thank the Chairman for his question. On the question of the approach in Ireland versus other countries in Europe, across Europe the approach is not uniform. It is correct to say that in comparison with many countries in Europe, the approach taken in Ireland is more cautious in seeking to control the virus. The Government has set out very clearly the rationale for that approach.
On the restrictions or the various elements of guidance that are in place that have the effect of restricting international travel, these are based on the principle of setting out good guidance for members of society, and appealing to their human goodwill and good citizenship to support the efforts to suppress the virus. These are not generally based on any legal restrictions. That is true even in the case of individuals who have been diagnosed with the virus or of close contacts of these people. To a large extent it is not a legal framework and our Department has not sought legal advice on the restrictions to which the Chairman is referring.
To be clear, if an employee of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport decides that he or she is going to a country that is on the green list and returns from that country with their family on a Sunday, is it correct that that person can go to work on the Monday morning?
I understand the advice but what I am getting at is the difference between advice and law. If the person is advised not go to work on the Monday morning, and this may be a selfish thing for the person to do, but the person may say that he or she wants to go to work on the Monday morning as the family has to be fed. They have just been on an expensive holiday for which the family has saved up for some time. The family cannot afford to go on a holiday every year and bought one this year. The Department the person works for allows airlines to fly in and out and the person cannot get a refund and has tried to do so. The person is going on holidays and wants to work on Monday morning. Can that person show up for work on Monday morning or not?
What if the employee says that he or she would love to take leave but cannot afford to as the person needs to go to work to support his or her family and does not have any leave left for that year. What happens then?
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
There is a certain legal basis for terms and conditions of employment in the Civil Service and to that extent it has a legal basis.
That is rather vague, but I will take Mr. Spratt’s word on it.
Returning to another point, Mr. Spratt does not appear to have any confidence in testing on arrival. We are slightly out of kilter with some other EU countries in that regard. Mr. Spratt nonetheless says that he is looking at departure-point testing. How would he differentiate between the accuracy of departure-point testing and arrival-point testing?
Mr. Fintan Towey:
Can I interject here, please? To be clear, I did intimate earlier that we do not have any confidence in testing, as referred to by the Chairman. I may not have been clear. On the question of confidence in testing processes, I am not personally an expert nor is the Department an expert but we are guided by the advice of public health experts on this matter. Our understanding of the public health expert advice is that the case for testing is very marginal with regard to its efficacy in contributing to the process of virus control. I know that other countries do it. Apart from the strict public health efficacy, other factors may be at play such as public confidence or the potential disincentive effect to travel that such a testing regime might entail. If nothing else, there is a significant cost involved in a testing process.
Is Mr. Towey saying he would be concerned that introducing testing in Ireland would be a disincentive to people travelling to Ireland? Is it not the purpose of red lists, green lists and all of this to have a disincentive to travel? We have all of this confused messaging about a requirement to quarantine, no requirement to quarantine, it might be possible to quarantine, and we actually cannot quarantine. Is the purpose of all of that not to disincentivise travel to Ireland?
Mr. Fintan Towey:
The purpose of those measures is to try to give the best guidance to citizens based on the public health advice. As part of that process, the public health expert advice has been engaged on the question of whether additional testing protocols would be beneficial. The advice has been that at the stage we are at, and given the status of testing, the case for that is marginal but it is not excluded. It is something we will continue to keep under review. We will assess what is happening in other countries and will continue to engage with our public health colleagues on this.
I notice that Deputy Shanahan is joining the meeting, which may be a welcome relief. I have a few more questions to ask before I bring him in. The first of them relates to the doubts about the accuracy of testing on arrival. Mr. Spratt has spoken about looking into departure-point testing. Is it the case that testing is more accurate in other countries? If we do not trust the accuracy of testing here, why would we trust its accuracy in other countries?
I would like to ask about what happens if one flies into Northern Ireland from one of the 44 countries that UK citizens can fly to and from. I am not suggesting that one can fly to 44 countries from Belfast as I have no idea where one can fly to from there, but I know there is an airport there. If one flies into Belfast having been in any country in the world, or if one drives or gets a bus or train to Belfast having been in any country in the world, the Department will have no record whatsoever of one's movements. Any such passenger may be a non-resident in Ireland coming to Ireland on a holiday via Belfast, or an Irish person who does not fancy being unable to go to work on a Monday morning and instead decides to go on holidays via Belfast.
I am referring to people who are deliberately choosing to do that, which I presume Mr. Towey would discourage. That being said, I am sure there are people in the Border area who fly via Belfast. People from Belfast regularly fly from Dublin so I presume the opposite is equally the case.
Mr. Fintan Towey:
The Chairman is correct, that is possible. I also think it is clear to people generally and think most people understand that the advice has been given for the purpose of preventing transmission of the virus and as such it should apply equally whether an international journey is taken via Dublin or Belfast airports.
I do not have the figures. If you had a more accurate figure I would welcome it. Would you accept that there is no record whatsoever? I accept the majority of these people are travelling from somewhere a couple of miles from one side of the Border to somewhere a couple of miles on the other side of it for work, family reasons and so on. There is also, however, a large cohort of people who decide to come to Ireland from the United Kingdom or from many parts of the world via Northern Ireland. Would you accept that?
My question is whether the very restrictive measures being put in place in the Republic of Ireland are proportionate given the amount of travel via Northern Ireland and the complete lack of any record of people travelling via Northern Ireland? These could be people travelling from Larne to Stranraer or via other routes. Are there two airports in Belfast? I do not know whether there are two airports which have international flights. Perhaps one closed. There is certainly an airport in Belfast. We are clear about that.
Mr. Fintan Towey:
There are two. The Chairman is correct that there are people who can travel via those airports to and from the Republic of Ireland. With it being a different jurisdiction, the requirements for the passenger locator form and the follow-up measures will not apply to those travellers. If I understand correctly, the Chairman's question was: having regard to the fact that that possibility exists, should the requirements that apply here, namely the passenger locator form and guidance on restricted movement, be applied? Without having the precise numbers, it is clear that it is still the case that the majority of travel to and from Ireland will take place through Dublin Airport so where virus control is concerned the argument there is evident.
Okay. I thank Mr. Towey for all those clarifications. I have one last question and I see Deputy Shanahan is indicating.
Why has the number of centres in which public service vehicles can be tested been reduced? There was a time when one could test in almost every DOE testing centre, as they were called. Now, for example, one can only do part of the test in Ennis and must go to Limerick or Galway for the rest of it. Is there a particular reason for that?
I thank those from the Department who are here today.
I wish to return to the issue of testing in airports. Last week in the media I requested that we do Polymerase chain reaction, PCR, Covid testing at Dublin and the other airports. I believe this is eminently feasible and have made the point that if we do not do it at the airports, we will end up doing it in the community a little bit later in the year. I note the comments made by a previous speaker who I think said that the medical advice was that the testing regime was not robust enough or did not capture enough and therefore it was almost not worth doing. PCR Covid testing is what we do in the hospitals at present and is about 80% to 85% effective. I am not sure there is any test anywhere more effective than that. Essentially, we decide when we test that we are going to miss people who are asymptomatic at the time or are very early on in the infection because it does do not show up then. A subsequent test, if they have symptoms, is we how establish that they are Covid-positive. Then we go through the rigmarole of contact tracing and all the rest of it. I heard what Mr. Spratt said about testing at airports and foreign centres. Has anyone looked at the cost of doing what we are proposing to do abroad which we could probably do now quite easily here? We certainly know the costs of doing it here. I am not sure that we know what we are going to pay for doing it abroad. We will still have the same number of cases slipping through regardless of where we do it. Perhaps someone will take that question.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
I might make some remarks and then see if Mr. Towey has anything he wishes to add.
The benefit of departure testing is that the person would be required to take the test himself or herself 24 to 72 hours before actually departing. That result would be presented to the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, on arrival at Dublin Airport. The person would not travel if he or she had received a positive test result. The benefit of that would be that that person would not have actually travelled and potentially come into close contact with all of the other travellers. Therefore, we would avoid a situation where if we had entry testing and someone tested positive, we would have to do all of the required follow-up with the other travellers, so there is that benefit. There is also the benefit of the cost being borne by the traveller. There is also the issue of capacity. The capacity for testing on arrival does not arise if one has departure testing. That is why we are looking at that as closely as we are. There is the potential to do not only a high-street test where a person purchases his or her own test but we could improve the standardisation of that through colleagues in the Department of Health, NPHET and the HPSC. As such we would set the bar relatively high and apply that to departure points. Again, that would reduce issues of capacity, credibility and cost. That is why we are looking at that as closely as we are.
I apologise for cutting across Mr. Spratt but my time is limited. I accept the logic of what he is proposing but if this is the route we are going down then the next question is are those tests available at the points of departure or prior to people departing? Furthermore, when does Mr. Spratt see something like this being put in place?
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
It is still being considered. As I said, it is possible to purchase reputable Covid-19 tests and to take them oneself in most countries around the world, so they are available. On moving to the Irish-applied standard, that is something that is being considered in consultation with colleagues at the Department of Health but that will take some time.
There is obviously potential there for people to defraud that test if they are presenting their laminar flow or whatever it is that they are required to bring in to show the result they got.
It would be like bringing a pregnancy test kit to show somebody the stripes on it. Effectively, that is what is being addressed by the diagnostic test kits to which reference has been made. That is essentially how they work. Unless, of course, the Department has another one I do not know about, which it may have. I am not an expert but I know a little bit about it. Having said that, the most important thing the Department needs to flag is whether this is what is being proposed, and, if so, that it is proposed and gets done because we need to take action in respect of foreign travel, particularly from the US, South America and other places that are not on the green list.
We heard from the aviation sector this morning. It has more or less been established that it is assumed people getting on flights do not have Covid but for those who are asymptomatic, the transmission rate appears to be very low because of the negative air pressure in the cabin, recirculation and the high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters. We can assume that we are saying it is safe for people to be beside each other for six hours wearing masks.
The question then is why we are not doing this for the taxi sector. Why are we not making masks mandatory? I heard a previous contributor state that taxi drivers can ask people to put on masks. I remind the committee that a couple of weeks ago a bus driver was kicked to death in France by two people full of alcohol because he asked them to wear masks getting on a bus. It is not operationally possible for many people going back out to drive taxis, particularly those earning very little money, to start asking customers to wear masks. The first thing a customer might say is that he or she does not have one. In such circumstances, taxi drivers will have to supply masks at their own expense. Even then, customers may not wear them. It would be far better if the Department took a leadership role on this matter. The witnesses will say that the medical advisers, NPHET and everybody else have not come to them and stated that it is a good idea. We need to look at what is going on in other countries. Those responsible for providing leadership within the Department are in a position to make a strong recommendation to the effect that the wearing of masks in taxis should be mandatory. Is this a reasonable assertion?
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
Before we go on to wearing masks in taxis, it is important to note that we are learning as we go. We are at the start when it comes to a lot of measures, particularly in the context of international travel. The engage-explain-encourage approach we have taken up to now has worked quite well across the board. If somebody were to test positive at departure point and then decide to hell with this, travel anyway and put people in danger, it would be a pretty serious decision for that person to take. It would be contrary to what we have seen with regard to almost universal compliance with requests for people to be in this together. We expect to continue to see good compliance along the lines we have seen until now. I will ask Ms Hanlon to comment on the issue of the use of face coverings in taxis.
Ms Deirdre Hanlon:
The Deputy is right that face coverings are important. We are moving to introduce mandatory face coverings in taxis. The first priority was to arrange it for mass transit, namely, buses, trains and trams, on which large numbers of people travel together. This has been introduced. We understand the compliance levels are very high. The NTA has been in constant touch with the operators of the services and we hear that compliance rates are typically in the mid 90s and in some cases 100%. There is particularly strong compliance when the vehicles are more full at peak hours on buses and trams.
We need urgency. I know the Department is considering and analysing it but for public confidence, it needs to demonstrate urgency. This is what people want. The witnesses have told the committee that the Department is looking at it and wants to get it done on public transit. However, there is no reason it cannot be done across the board. The officials should ask the Government, if necessary, to put in place emergency legislation to make it mandatory. With respect, that is what needs to be done.
Another issue that arose during this morning's session was that of the use of screens in taxis. The NTA does not have a preferred screen in the context of protecting taxi drivers and their customers. At the same time, however, a person who installs a screen is essentially breaking the law and will probably have an insurance issue as a result. Can we not find common ground in order that we might make recommendations? This is not rocket science. I am responsible for two initiatives taken up by NPHET.
I am not an expert but I look at these things and speak to the people concerned, and logic tells us what we need to do and they can be done. I am frustrated today as I ask why these things cannot be done and as I listen to what we are hearing. I accept that the Department has a remit and must look at this in the round, but it is not rocket science. These are simple measures that would give confidence to the public and employers, would show the country we are trying to mitigate the disease and would not make simple solutions difficult to implement. The witnesses can come back to me in writing on the screens for the taxis.
I have received correspondence from a person with a limo business who works at weddings. The gentleman says his vehicles must pass an NCT every six months and the cars are then booked in for a suitability test, which is an inspection to grant the licence. He pays every six months for the service and licence. This gentleman paid over the phone for a suitability test, which was then cancelled due to the lockdown. He was refunded for the booking but during the lockdown he had also paid for the NCT for a number of cars, which have been idle for a number of months. When he tried to book again he was informed that he has seven days in which to complete the booking and, if not, the NCT for the cars will have to be done again. He has received no reimbursement for the NCTs and is now expected to carry out 13 NCTs in the next seven days or face a €500 fine per car.
Can we please address this type of nonsense and lack of joined-up thinking? People in business are at their wits' end. Various Departments dealing with Government regulation do not speak to each other and small business people are being hammered time and again. They cannot get into business and when they are in business all they have is one regulation to meet after another. I implore the Department.
There is also an issue with driving tests. I know of a young lady who has graduated college. She has been offered a fantastic job, one of only three in the country, and needs a full driver's licence to get the job but she cannot get a test. She has been told by this multinational company that if she does not have a full driver's licence by September, it cannot offer her the job because it is a contract of employment. I am running around trying to see how we can get her a driving test. We are told there is no safe way for a driving test to be completed. Dual-driving cars could have a screen placed in them and we could certainly get emergency driving tests done. Is this an unfeasible ask?
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
I thank the Deputy for bringing these issues to our attention. It is very important to remember that Covid-19 is throwing up an awful lot of challenges to the private sector, the public sector, the Civil Service, State companies and State agencies. It is very important to remember we are doing really well when it comes to the suppression of the virus. If we look at the statistics, we will see that we are in the leading pack when it comes to suppressing the virus. This is down to how the Irish public has responded under the leadership of Departments, including our Department. It is not the case that we have solved every problem and there are still plenty of problems to be solved, including the problems mentioned by the Deputy, but we will redouble our efforts and do everything we can to try to identify these issues and solve them where we can. The Deputy has brought some issues to our attention and we will look at them to see what we can do to try to resolve them as quickly as we can.
I do not wish to argue the epidemiological outcome of Covid and how we are doing, but to set out what might be of benefit. Deputies and other representatives in Leinster House would be very happy to meet the Department to discuss these issues. The committee is not the place to do it. Some of the issues are quite small and a quick decision could get them answered. That is what all of us want to hear. We want to see movement. I accept it is difficult and there are new learnings. We are all on a learning curve here. It would be better if we learned together, and we can do this by having engagement. I seek engagement with the Department and any other member of the committee who wants to come with me, to discuss these issues to see whether we can come up with some resolutions for people.
A Dáil vote is taking place in the Convention Centre. We are in here, but we are meant to be voting as representatives of our constituencies in the Dáil. A bad mistake is being made here. In future, we cannot miss our Dáil activities because they are clashing with the activities of the committee. I respect this is a very important committee but we should be allowed to vote.
The only thing I can say is that everything we do is run by the Business Committee of the Dáil so we do not know what will happen as we make plans, going forward. Until now, we have never clashed with a Dáil sitting. This is a Dáil committee. We do our best, but it is up to the Business Committee to alert us to these clashes.
Maybe we should write to the Business Committee in the future to see that we are not losing our right to vote. We are elected by our constituencies to do that and to be here. I know this is a difficult time but we cannot be in two places at the same time.
I thank our guests for being here today. As I said earlier, taxi drivers are suffering extreme stress. Taxi drivers and private bus operators are going through a difficult and anxious time during the Covid-19 crisis as their incomes have dropped and some taxi drivers have been wiped out. Nonetheless, they must keep their cars taxed, insured and licensed. They are fearful of cancelling their insurance because they may find it difficult or impossible to get insurance in the future and a renewal of their policies could see inflated premiums.
Many drivers are over 66 years of age, working full time and paying income tax but, because of age discrimination, are unable to avail of the Covid-19 payment. Significant numbers of drivers have been in the business for 40 years and, having paid exorbitant fees for their taxi plates under the old system, are still bearing this financial burden. They face repeated costs, such as the cost of a taxi licence, which amounts to €250 for five years, and €125 per year for a vehicle licence. Can existing licence holders who are over 66 years of age be given some incentive? Perhaps licences should be made free to drivers over the age of 66.
Regardless of the condition of a taxi, it must be taken off the road once it is ten years old. Drivers have to upgrade their cars to keep a licence active and, in the current business climate in these difficult times, their cars are predominantly parked up. In these exceptional circumstances, could that ten-year limit be increased to 15 years to ease the financial stress on drivers?
Does the National Transport Authority, NTA, have surplus moneys that have been collected from taxi drivers over the years? If so, could those funds be made available to support drivers with car upgrades? These grants are already available for wheelchair taxis. Taxi drivers need support now.
Was there anything for taxi operators or private, independent bus operators announced in the stimulus package? I asked that question in our first session this morning and the union representatives said that they did not see anything in the stimulus package. Many operators are going out of business and I am worried that there was nothing in the stimulus package for them. Our guests might be able to answer those questions.
Ms Deirdre Hanlon:
I will take those questions. To answer the question the Deputy asked about initiatives for the private sector, he may be aware that, on 25 June, the Government made a decision to introduce a new system of temporary funding supports for the commercial bus sector. These are operators that typically provide scheduled bus services but are not a part of the public service obligation, PSO, regime because, in normal circumstances, they make a profit from their business. However, at the moment, because passenger numbers have been hit so hard by the Covid-19 emergency, those operators are not in a position to make profits. The Deputy has described the situation correctly. Those operators have high costs but need to keep services running. In this case, we are talking about services where there is a strong public interest for the services to keep running because they are providing a facility that the travelling public needs, particularly people who are either essential workers or others making necessary journeys. To that end, the Government made a decision that, on an exceptional basis for a period of six months, it would introduce a new temporary funding support arrangement. That is being done within the provisions of EU and Irish law and being administered by the NTA. It is putting contract arrangements in place with relevant private sector and other commercial operators where it judges that the services that those operators provide have a public service justification for their continuation. That is significant.
The Deputy also asked about the stimulus package. I understand that an initiative has been announced as part of the stimulus package specifically for coach tourism. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is progressing that initiative.
The Deputy also asked about the age of vehicles used as taxis and licence fees for taxi drivers.
He might be aware that those matters come within the ambit of the NTA. Under legislation passed by the Houses in 2013, the NTA is the regulator for the taxi sector. It has statutory independence from the Department and we do not have a role in areas in respect of which it makes decisions. The two issues about which the Deputy asked come within the remit of the NTA.
The Deputy might be aware, from the comments we made earlier, that within the past week or so the taxi advisory committee has made a report to the Minister and the Department. The previous Minister met representatives of the advisory committee a number of weeks ago and encouraged them to come up with a report after looking at what needs to be done across the sector. The advisory committee has come up with a list of measures that it thinks are relevant. Some of those measures are relevant to the Department, some to the NTA and others to a few other Departments. There will be an engagement next week between the Department, the NTA and the taxi advisory committee to give preliminary feedback on the proposals that have been put forward. Some of the proposals will be possible to be implement and others will not. A few, indeed, are already in train.
The Deputy asked about grants specifically for the taxi industry. There are no initiatives under way in that regard but, within the stimulus package and more generally in the horizontal business supports that have been introduced by the Government in recent weeks and months, a number of initiatives are relevant. The pandemic unemployment payment is relevant to those who are not currently working and have temporarily ceased working in the sector because of the emergency. As was announced yesterday, that payment will continue for a considerable period.
Specifically considering a business focus and helping people with their business costs, restart and enterprise support grants are available. There are also credit guarantee schemes available for businesses that need to undertake loans. Advisory supports are also available. They do not get as much coverage as other supports but can be very helpful to small businesses such as taxi companies and others. Those supports offer advice on matters such as financial planning, business continuity and how to get going and cope with business challenges.
There is no way we are underestimating the business challenges because they are real. They affect the taxi sector as they do practically all other sectors of business. The motivation to be of assistance and help business as best possible is what is underlying Government policy on things such as the stimulus package and the range of horizontal supports that have been announced. I hope I have captured the main points that the Deputy raised.
Ms Hanlon absolutely has. The impact of Covid-19 on the finances of coach tour operators has been disastrous. Such operators traditionally plan their finances on the basis that they need to cover their operating costs throughout the winter period until the tourist season commences the following March. The timing of the outbreak of Covid-19 has meant that many of those operators have no reserves left to enable them to survive the crisis until the revenue, we hope, starts to flow again in the 2021 tourist season. What financial support mechanism should be put in place, considering that the turnover for the coach tourism and private hire industry is €250 million per year and that fixed costs amount to 17% of this amount? The latter highlights a need for a yearly subsidy requirement of €42.5 million. What other measures can be put in place to keep this vital part of our economy in operation?
Ms Maria Melia:
I will come in there. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport announced earlier that a €10 million fund will be provided for coach tourism business continuity. This fund will be administered by Fáilte Ireland and will assist the coach tourism sector. The Deputy mentioned the impact on that sector. It has been severe. The Minister established a tourism recovery task force earlier this year to which I provide the secretariat. Although I was not there, I know that coach transport, car hire and chauffeur service representatives this morning presented the task force with their concerns, thoughts and ideas about survival, stabilisation and the long-term sustainability of the sector.
Their thoughts and ideas would have been heard by that group this morning and we would hope to incorporate any of their recommendations in the final report to the Minister.
I have a couple of final questions. I thank the witnesses for answering all of our questions. I appreciate the questioning has possibly been more in-depth than usual given the limited number of Deputies present, for the reason Deputy Michael Collins outlined. Deputy Catherine Murphy specifically sent her apologies. Other Deputies to whom I spoke also regretted the fact that the Dáil is sitting in the Convention Centre while we are in the Seanad Chamber. None of us has the gift of bilocation.
I have a couple of questions on departure-point testing. Is it being looked at as an alternative to isolation on arrival in Ireland or in addition to isolation in Ireland? Is it envisaged that it would apply only to incoming passengers, that is, non-Irish residents, looking to come to Ireland or would it equally apply to Irish residents who have gone abroad and are seeking to return to Ireland? If it does, will it even extend as far as people who have gone abroad temporarily for a holiday who are looking to return? They are my three questions on departure-point testing. Perhaps it is not at a sufficiently advanced level.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
That is the answer, Chairman. This is something the Government addressed in its meeting this week, which signed off on the green list. Arising from the green list, and the Government meeting and decision, we have been asked to look into the efficacy and potential for use of departure testing. We are at a very early stage and it will be another couple of weeks before we come back with any recommendations.
The green list contains some very large European states that have a very regionalised approach and it does not contain other large European states with an equally regionalised approach. I am thinking of Germany, France and Spain, which are not on the list and Italy, which is. There is significant variation within all four of those states in terms of the incidence of Covid-19 in their various regions. Are the witnesses looking at a more nuanced or regionalised approach going forward?
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
No, is the short answer to that. The Government has decided that it will take a country-specific approach. The difficulty that would be involved in taking a regionalised approach would make it a little bit unwieldy, so the smallest unit, geographically, that we are using now will continue to be the country approach.
So even though Corsica and Sardinia are right beside other and they are relatively similar islands to all intents and purposes, one is on the green list and the other is off. The Department is taking a country-specific approach rather than looking at an approach to Europe based on regions.
I will come in briefly if I may, Chairman. I thank Mr. Spratt for agreeing to arrange a meeting with him and some of his senior colleagues. I will try to organise some Members so we can get it done quickly. That would be very helpful.
I wish to point out an issue concerning the luxury coach sector. I believe there is an anomaly vis-à-visthe coach service in Northern Ireland, which does tours around Ireland. We are very grateful for that, but there is a substantial difference in VAT between Irish coach tourism and private bus operators compared to those in the North of Ireland. Perhaps that is something the Department could look at in terms of competition given the significant advantage to operators based in the North.
There are no open windows on buses any more so they require air to be recirculated through the air conditioning system. Some newer buses may have the ability to easily put on HEPA filters but it is a more involved job for older buses, as it requires a modification of the existing air circulation system. Perhaps that is something the Department needs to examine in terms of passenger safety.
The cost of adding a HEPA filter is not too expensive, between €700 and €900, but it is probably a lot more to put the filters into older buses. Such an initiative should be considered. We must try to get our fleet up to standard and get a reasonable level of infection prevention in the private bus sector.
Mr. Kenneth Spratt:
I am happy to meet the Deputy. We might try to arrange a meeting for next week if he wishes. We are keen to understand the challenges and to do our best to try to resolve as many of those issues as quickly as we possibly can. We will be in touch with Deputy Shanahan's office to set up a meeting.
On behalf of my colleagues who are present and those who could not be here because they are in the Convention Centre, anticipating a vote, I thank Mr. Spratt and all of his colleagues for coming here this afternoon, for the information that they have given to us and, most of all, for explaining the reason behind many of the decisions that are made. It is very much appreciated.