Thursday, 23 April 2020
Health (Covid-19): Statements (Resumed)
I welcome this opportunity to update the House on Covid-19 and our response to it. First, and most importantly, I wish to express my sincere condolences to the family and friends of those we have lost to this disease since this House last met. I am conscious that news bulletins every night are full of statistics and reports of new cases and new deaths but we should never forget that behind every number, every death, is a grieving family, friends, colleagues and a grieving community. That grief is compounded even further by our inability to grieve in the normal ways that we usually do in this country. We think of them today; we think of them every day and we offer our sincere condolences to their families.
Against the backdrop of such tragedy, I can often feel uneasy even discussing progress when it comes to Covid-19 but it is important, if not essential, that we reflect and acknowledge the difference people right across this country have made. Members will remember that when I was here last week I updated the House on the modelling work in relation to this virus. The reproductive rate had fallen to between 0.7 and 1.0. I am very pleased to inform the House today that the reproductive rate has now fallen even further to between 0.5 and 1.0. That means for every one person who contracts Covid-19, we now expect that he or she will spread it to no more than one other person and hopefully, to fewer than that. This progress is a huge tribute to the solidarity shown by the Irish people. However, this number is not static. We have achieved this progress by staying apart and we need to continue to keep that distance. If we continue we will suppress this disease even more. That is our national goal. We must not give up when we are starting to see that what we are doing is working and crucially, is saving lives. There are other encouraging signs as well. The model shows that at the beginning of April, around 100 people per day were being admitted to hospital with the virus. I am pleased to inform the House today that the model now shows that this figure has fallen to around 40 people per day which is quite a significant reduction. The number of people in intensive care is also falling and the number of people being discharged from ICUs is rising. I thank each and every one of our citizens and our front-line staff for all their work and for continuing with us on this difficult path. When better days come, these will be among the reasons we can be proud of our country and our people for the way they have acted in trying to defeat this national and global threat.
The significant number of clusters of Covid-19 in our residential facilities is the area of greatest concern and we have put in place significant measures to protect residents and staff. These measures include infection prevention and control teams, active screening of all staff and ensuring PPE supply to long-term residential care settings and home support providers. A total of 18 Covid-19 response teams across the country, each one led by senior nursing supports, are now assisting nursing homes and long-term residential facilities with senior clinical expertise, infection prevention and control and public health input in preventing and crucially, in managing those clusters. We have established a financial assistance scheme for nursing homes which is open for applications. As already mentioned, now that we have additional testing capacity, and I commend the HSE on its excellent work on this, we are now prioritising the testing of staff and residents in these facilities.
By the end of today, 18,000 tests will have been carried out in long-term residential facilities. I thank the National Ambulance Service for the heroic work it has done since this work started last Friday. Tonight, I will meet again with HIQA, the HSE and the Chief Medical Officer to keep a continued focus on this area.
I am aware there has been much speculation and discussion surrounding the potential easing of restrictions from May. I understand why. It is human nature. It is what keeps many of us going, that need for a light at the end of the tunnel - families missed and friends missed, the simple things in life that we took for granted that we now really miss. I promise that we will set out the next steps, but I need people to keep focused on the here and now because the here and now matters. What we do in the next few days matters. For the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, to make these decisions, all of us as a people have a job to do . This involves staying the course, sticking with it, washing one's hands, coughing into one's elbow, social distancing and cocooning and protecting oneself. These are things which, perhaps, we are tired of hearing and saying but they are things that are vital in the next 12 days.
Covid-19 is a highly infectious disease. We are fortunate that the measures we have taken are reducing that infectivity but we are by no means in a safe place. It is important to stress that we are not in a safe place. If we had to decide on lifting measures today for tomorrow the Chief Medical Officer advises me he would not be in a position to recommend any change but we are working on a roadmap, which we will finalise over the next week. This will allow us to have a frank and honest conversation with each other about the weeks and months ahead, one that must acknowledge that increased movement carries increased risk. There is a very thin line between where we could have been, where we are and where we may yet be in regard to this virus.
When I think of the roadmap, I think of it as a new social contract between Government and the people, a way to try to get our country back on track. This will require the involvement of every part of Irish society. It will demand communication and honesty from us on the public health risks and, also, consideration of the mental and physical wellbeing of all of our people. I wish I could tell the people right now what the future holds. We all crave that certainty, but it is too soon. The coming days matter. They will shape our future so please stay the course and please stay at home.
There is ten minutes allowed per group for questions and answers. Would Deputies prefer one minute questions followed by one minute answers or five minutes of questions followed by five minutes of answers from the Minister?
Deputy Browne and I would prefer to split the time and take five minutes each for questions. My first question will probably take a bit longer than one minute but I will lay it out in a way that allows the Minister to respond.
Big efforts have been made to get our hospitals ready for a surge, which have been successful. Efforts were also made to ensure that surge was as small as possible, which, too, have been successful. The same efforts were not put into getting the nursing homes ready for Covid-19. As we sit here today, seven in every ten Covid-19 fatalities in Ireland are from a nursing home or community care home. Nursing homes are desperately short of staff and personal protective equipment. A nurse told me earlier this week: "Many of our residents have psychological conditions, there is Covid-19 in the air, Covid-19 on the walls and Covid-19 on every door; our senior nurses are all-out with Covid-19 or are self-isolating; we cannot get staff and we cannot get the masks that we need." In this regard, there are two contributory factors. As Covid-19 began to move through the country, nursing homes did not have a voice with the Government or the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. The Government's Covid-19 action plan from mid-March mentions nursing homes only once and only then as facilities to which patients could be discharged from hospitals. There is no mention of supports needed for nursing homes. What of the public health emergency team? According to the minutes available from January to end March, the first time nursing homes were mentioned by NPHET was at its 12th meeting on 10 March. At that meeting it was agreed "that unilateral or widespread restrictions of visiting, which the nursing homes and some hospitals were implementing themselves, is not required at this time." The first time nursing homes were mentioned by NPHET was essentially to advise them to stop their own restrictions. It was a further three weeks before the minutes show that NPHET agreed that action was required on nursing homes. This was at the end of March. The minutes show that NPHET made the decision to close the playgrounds a week before it decided that support was needed for nursing homes.
NPHET has about 45 members and 11 subcommittees. GPs, patients, people with disabilities and the voluntary sector are all represented; nursing homes are not. Nursing homes are represented neither on NPHET nor on any of the subcommittees. The Minister's position is that nursing homes do not need to be represented because they now have good access to him, which is fine, but the Minister also said in his weekend interview with Hugh O'Connell that every single decision he makes on Covid is informed by NPHET, that not a single decision he has made has not been recommended by NPHET. I am not disputing that, but if that is what he is saying then with the greatest of respect, while it is fine that the nursing homes have access to him, surely in terms of effecting policy they must also have access to NPHET.
Will the Minister as a matter of urgency give the nursing homes representation on NPHET? Can he say how many of the NPHET meetings he has attended and at how many of them he has brought up these concerns that the nursing homes have been raising with him?
In those circumstances I will ask my questions as quickly as possible but they will probably not have much context. My focus is on mental health and the issues of disability coming out of Covid-19. Covid-19 is now our new reality and will be for the foreseeable future. We are already focused on the immediate Covid-19 curve and flattening it, but there is another curve that is rising, and that is mental ill health. This curve too needs to be flattened. The fallout of this pandemic will be experienced long after Covid-19 has passed. It will bring a secondary crisis in the months and the years to follow. The mental health of the general public is suffering from unprecedented social anxiety due to health, economic and family strains. Even before Covid-19 there was an epidemic of isolation and loneliness in Ireland. Isolation is now Government policy, for understandable reasons, but that does not lessen its impact. I know many people suffering from the impacts of isolation. I think too of our healthcare workers who are having to make some very tough decisions and may suffer moral injury.
Will the Minister establish a mental health task force to flatten the mental health curve and prepare for the inevitable mental health fallout of Covid-19, which will last much longer after the virus itself? Will he put in place very specific mental health supports for our healthcare workers, who may suffer serious mental and moral injury as a result of decisions that now have to be made? Will he put in place specific bereavement supports for those who have lost loved ones during Covid-19 and cannot grieve in the normal Irish traditional way? Will he ensure necessary funding supports to allow people with disabilities who are currently in residential settings, inappropriate settings, who want to live independently but have not been facilitated by the Government to date, to do so?
I do not think it serves us well in our understanding of public health to differentiate between a response in the community and a response in terms of long-term residential care settings as though they are not linked. Had we not managed to flatten the curve as a people in the community, I shudder to think what the situation in our long-term residential care facilities would be like. I shudder to think how many staff would not be able to go to work in those facilities. I shudder to think how much more prevalent the virus would be. In public health policy terms it always makes sense to put in place measures to suppress the virus in the community. I assure Deputy Donnelly that this was not entirely sequential, that a lot of work was ongoing in parallel. I assure the Deputy that nursing homes do have a seat at the table of NPHET. However, it is not for nursing home owners but for the people who regulate nursing homes, the people who set the standards for which this House has legislated, the people who set the standards to ensure that our residential care facilities are safe. HIQA has been a member of the National Public Health Emergency Team since the very start. HIQA knows nursing homes better than any of us - upside down and inside out. It even knows the floor plans. HIQA is therefore on the National Public Health Emergency Team. I note that Deputy Donnelly has not asked for representation for the nurses who work in the nursing homes or other staff members but actually for the nursing home owners. I do not believe that would be an appropriate membership of NPHET, but it is appropriate - I agree with him on this - that we listen to Nursing Homes Ireland. We have a very good relationship with Nursing Homes Ireland and I am now meeting them twice a week. I assure the Deputy that there are people on that call on NPHET. HIQA is on it, the HSE is on it and senior officials in the Department of Health are on it. I am looking at other ways we can further involve them in the decision-making process because they have an important role to play.
Regarding my attendance at NPHET, I do not attend it. I do not believe it would be appropriate for me to do so. NPHET is an opportunity for the Chief Medical Officer to engage on a technical level and often a scientific level. I am briefed before and after NPHET meetings and am in constant contact, as the Deputy can imagine, with the chair of NPHET, namely, the Chief Medical Officer.
With regard to nursing homes, on 19 February, before we had a case of Covid-19 in this country, the head of the HSE held a meeting with the CEO and chair of Nursing Homes Ireland to discuss their Covid-19 preparedness. I also acknowledge on the record of this House that the World Health Organization did not publish its infection prevention and control guidance for long-term care facilities in the context of Covid-19 until 21 March after we had put a number of measures in place so a lot of work has been done with regard to nursing homes. The Deputy is right. This is the front line now. We now need to look at how we can break the chains of transmission in nursing homes and other long-term residential facilities, as we have begun to do in the community. This is why the decision by NPHET now to test residents and staff in those settings who are asymptomatic makes sense. People can ask why we did not it before now. It is a valid question but the truthful answer is that now as we have grown our capacity, we are directing it into that area in terms of a priority.
Deputy Browne is right. I will work with him and this Oireachtas about how a task force could happen. I think it makes sense. We have put in place a number of supports, including gov.ie/together, which is a website that tries to pull everything together in terms of what somebody can do to protect his or her mental and physical health during this crisis. We have also allocated an additional €1 million towards online counselling services for staff and the public. If more funding is needed there, that will certainly be forthcoming. From my conversations with the HSE, I know that a number of supports are in place regarding occupational health around bereavement and mental health but I am sure that this is an area where we can do better so I would be very happy to engage with Deputy Browne, his party and the Oireachtas on this. There are things other than Covid-19 than can make people sick and mental illness and protecting our mental health are areas we really need to watch. There is a lot of tragedy, grief and difficulty in families and communities and the Deputy's suggestion of a task force under the auspices of this Oireachtas at the right time seems sensible.
I will share time with an Teachta Kerrane.
Before I ask my questions, I acknowledge the passing of a care worker in a nursing home in Swords who died of Covid-19. I have been in touch with some of the families in the care home, who are devastated, as are the residents and the people with whom she worked. I do not want to come in here and not acknowledge that because it is a big blow to the community.
The nursing homes sector is reporting a severe difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff. In a survey of 252 nursing homes, we have been advised that there are over 1,000 vacancies, of which 330 involve nurses and 427 are healthcare assistants. Further pressure on recruitment has been caused by the failure to address the childcare needs of healthcare workers. As I am sure the Minister is aware, the proposals he made were not just offensive to lone parents, they were functionally useless for the vast majority of people, as illustrated by the response of the unions. If somebody does not have a spouse working in the public service who is not on the front line, there is literally nothing for him or her.
The Minister said that the CEO of the HSE met with Nursing Homes Ireland on 19 February. Would he not have noticed at that stage that there was going to be a problem? The failure to prepare happened. They clearly were not ready. It is a bit mysterious that the CEO did not realise that. There is an urgent need to address staffing issues and to assist the sector to respond. To that end, has consideration been given to utilising the capacity in private hospitals to assist the nursing home sector? I acknowledge that securing capacity from the private sector was the right thing to do but there was no need for it to be a bonanza for it either. The announcement on 24 March was made but from what we can gather no deal was done for some weeks. That time could and should have been used to negotiate a deal that was good value for money. This open-ended arrangement is far from that. The taxpayer is on the hook for a minimum of €345 million. Has consideration been given to using the capacity that exists within the private hospital sector or redeploying some of the workers, who are telling me that the hospitals have up to 80% vacancies and are so quiet that some of them may be forced to take annual leave?
It was the Minister who raised the potential relaxation of restrictions in his interviews with the media at the weekend. Immediately following those interviews, I was contacted by parents and other people anticipating relaxation. The Taoiseach said this morning that we cannot be complacent.
He is bang on in that regard. In addition, we must not encourage people to be complacent. The Government needs to stop sending out mixed messages. It needs to be consistent and not fly kites because doing so raises expectations. The Minister did so and, in response, people contacted their local representatives and talked among themselves about when and how the restrictions will be lifted and whether it will be on 6 May or at another time. Those questions were not in people's minds until they were put there.
Will the deficit in nursing homes be addressed? Will the capacity in private hospitals be used? I ask the Minister to provide details regarding where nursing homes and home carers can get a steady supply of masks. I am not referring to medical masks but, rather, non-medical masks, as now recommended. In addition to those working in nursing homes, home helps need access to such masks and they wish to know where they can access them. Several of them have, rightly, contacted Sinn Féin.
Is consideration being given to the usage of masks in the community as an element of any relaxation of restrictions? I ask that the Minister provide details of the supply chain for those masks. In certain other countries, masks are being handed out on public transport and in public areas. Is that where we are going? If it is, are we ready for it?
I wish to ask the Minister about current waiting lists for homecare packages. All Members know the importance of keeping older people and those with underlying health conditions safe in their homes. Where possible, we must ensure that they receive an appropriate level of care at home to meet their needs. Nobody should ever be left waiting for homecare when they have been deemed to need it, but that is especially true at this time. The most recent figures pertaining my constituency are from last month and relate to the waiting list at the end of February. There were 141 people awaiting new homecare packages in County Galway and 69 in County Roscommon, with 27 people across the two counties awaiting additional homecare supports. Have those waiting lists been cleared? If they have not, I ask the Minister to provide the up-to-date number of people awaiting homecare in each county in the State. These are the very people who need this care provided to them now. They are the very people we need to keep safe at home during this pandemic. I ask the Minister to put the necessary funding in place to ensure that those waiting lists are cleared and that those who require care at home receive it.
I join Deputy O'Reilly in offering my sympathy and condolences to the family of the care worker to whom she referred and indeed to all families who have been bereaved. We think of them all.
On staffing in nursing homes, Deputy O'Reilly made a valid point. All Members know that nursing homes often face staffing challenges and that there is often significant competition between elements of the health services, be they public or private, to obtain staff. One of the best things we can do to help nursing homes on staffing, after engaging with them, is to ensure that there is a quick turnaround time for test results for staff in nursing homes. Last week, a very high number of staff were out of work awaiting tests. I will not quote the exact figure in case I get it wrong. As most of those tests will come back negative, allowing the staff to then return to work, the decision to prioritise that testing will result, it is hoped, in many more people getting a negative result and being able to go back to work. The HSE stated that it has so far directly redeployed 61 people into the private nursing home sector. It is a small number but it must be borne in mind that such redeployment is through voluntary agreement. The HSE is carrying out a census tonight and expects the figure to be higher, but that is the current position.
On childcare, I do not wish for anyone to think anything is offensive or discriminatory. What we are trying to do - and I admit that it is more challenging than we anticipated - is find a way forward that respects the public health advice. What we want to do is twofold. First, we wish to allow public service employees to stay at home on paid leave if their partners are front-line healthcare workers. Second, we wish to look at the possibility of allowing registered childminders into the homes of such care workers. However, we can only do so when the NPHET tells us it is safe to so do. That will be looked at in the context of the road map. I engaged with the INMO yesterday and today and will engage with them more formally tomorrow on this issue.
On the Deputy's point about the CEO of the HSE not realising that there was a problem when he met Nursing Homes Ireland, realising there is a problem and challenge is different from being able to keep a virus out of nursing homes. The rate of infection in nursing homes is a problem the world over. There may have been attempts to suggest this problem is specific to Ireland. Of course, it is not. Sadly, the rates of infection and mortality in this country are similar to those in many other countries. We know that many countries, including some very nearby, are not recording data in the way that they are being recorded here.
We are going into nursing homes and trying to identify the virus and not masking it by only announcing deaths in hospitals and not in nursing homes. Dr. Siobhán Kennelly, who is the clinical lead for older persons services, made the point which has been lost in the debate that there are more people recovering from Covid-19 in nursing homes, thank God, than sadly passing away. I say that because I am conscious a lot of people are possibly watching in here who are worried about their mum, their dad or their loved one in a nursing home. The majority of people are recovering from Covid-19.
On private hospitals, the Deputy made some sensible suggestions as she often does. I reject the phrase "bonanza". As I have said to the Deputy before, I know these are phrases she feels she has to say but let me be clear that nobody will make one cent or one euro from the private hospital deal. I published it fully, as the Deputy requested, and all that will be paid is the cost of running those facilities. I want to make them busier. We have seen more than 3,500 patients go through them up to now and we have seen 127 consultants sign up but we need to see more and all costs that we pay over can be scrutinised by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The point the Deputy makes about the spare capacity in private hospitals in the context of nursing homes is a valid one and is something we are actively looking at.
On the relaxation question, when I am asked questions I try to answer them. Sometimes I give the right answer and sometimes I give the wrong answer. I was asked as the Minister and as a citizen what I would like to see coming back at a safe point in time. An awful lot of the commentary has been around the economy and the wishes of certain interest groups in the economy, which are important issues. I get an awful lot of letters and correspondence from kids telling me they are missing school and their friends in the context of their mental health and well-being, and I made the point that I would like to see a way for schools to come back at the appropriate time. I was asked if there is a timeline for that and I said "No". I was asked when that would be and I replied that it would happen when the national public health emergency team deems it appropriate. We need to publish this roadmap over the next week so people can see what the different phases look like because I am conscious of not wanting to give out mixed messages. The next 12 days really matter.
The national public health emergency team will consider the more broad issues regarding masks and I will come back to the Deputy specifically on the supplies for the nursing homes that she referenced.
I will run out of time but on the issue of home care, I have a note here on the fact that we have been looking at both priority 1 and priority 2 clients for how in some cases we could perhaps re-allocate resources from some lower priority cases to help those more in need. We have only done that, however, where there are other supports in case. All cases are reviewed by a public health nurse. If the Deputy has any specific cases, I would be happy to discuss them with her. We are also asking the HSE to closely map the impact of this pandemic on the provision of the home care targets set out in the national service plan.
I have ten minutes then. I thank the Minister for coming in here today. Most importantly, I want to express my sincere condolences to the families and friends of those we have lost to this awful disease. I also want to pay tribute to the front-line staff of all professions. Their vocation has been incredible. I know they have the support of the entire country in trying to help them out.
It is encouraging that the reproductive rate of Covid-19 has fallen even further to between 0.5 and 1. The one issue is the clusters of Covid-19 in residential facilities. That remains an area of huge concern. I also want to thank the National Ambulance Service and all of the people who carried out the 18,000 tests in the long-term residential facilities. It is an issue we certainly need to deal with.
We have to be very careful that we open up certain businesses and schools at the right time. One business a lot of people are phoning me about is builders providers and garden centres. They genuinely want to do the right thing. I know this is not the Minister's decision but it is an issue that is raising its head. Everyone who has contacted me wants to do the right thing. A lot of people want to make use of the good weather to paint and to work on their gardens. It is one issue we can deal with but I will leave that up to the experts.
I refer to what happened yesterday in light of the restrictions currently in place in our Courts Service.
During the week there have been images in the media of large numbers of people congregating. Does the Minister think these gatherings have put public health in danger? What efforts does he believe should be made in the courts to stop these types of gatherings from occurring again? People who are self-isolating have been greatly frustrated by what happened yesterday. Only down the road from there, the Garda Síochana moved people on. I realise that many of these individuals are looking for attention and that it is up to the Garda to interpret this. Should the people pictured be forced to self-isolate for the next 14 days? Will the Minister join me in condemning their actions?
Yesterday, it was announced that the voluntary hospice groups would be provided with an additional €10.5 million until the end of the year. I would like a breakdown of this funding by hospice. How much will the North West Hospice in Sligo receive? For what purpose is this funding to be used?
I refer to the delivery of PPE from China and the problems which arose with one fifth of the original delivery. Was the problem resolved in the context of subsequent deliveries? Will the cost of the incorrect PPE be refunded to the State? I commend the Aer Lingus staff, IDA Ireland, the embassy staff in China and all those involved in securing the PPE.
I support the expressions made by other Deputies about the victims of this pandemic. It is something that happens to individuals and their families. It hits them like it hits no one else. The battle goes on, as it must. I support what others have said that we must be safe. We must continue with the restrictions that are in place in order to achieve the best possible result. Even with all those restrictions in place, there will be casualties, as there have been everywhere. What is confusing is when people can congregate, here or elsewhere, with what seems like impunity. They do not seem to appreciate the damage likely to be done and the message it sends to others who may thing "Why not?" when it comes to gathering and that it is all right to do so. Some of us spoke of these things about international events at the outset, although we will not go into that now. We must go forward cautiously and carefully, and observe the restrictions which have been put in place to the letter.
I join Deputies Feighan and Durkan in thanking our front-line staff, including those in the ambulance service, for the work they are doing. I get the point Deputy Feighan made about builders providers but taking into account the reminder that Deputy O'Reilly gave me about not speculating, which was fair, these issues will be examined by the NPHET to ensure that there is clarity for all industries on what is appropriate and safe, and what may not be.
I do not want to comment on a specific indecent which may or may not have happened in a court except to condemn any action by anybody which jeopardises the public health and well-being of anybody and particularly anyone going to work to provide essential services at a time when most of us have been told to stay at home and stay safe and well with our families, every day there are people who get up and go to work and put themselves in harm's way in order to keep essential parts of our country running. We have a duty of care to those individuals. The law is clear and An Garda Síochána is doing a very good job in the context of enforcing the legislation passed by this Oireachtas and the regulations which I developed.
I am pleased that the Government made an additional allocation of funding to hospices. This was not a direct result of Covid-19-related mortality, rather that some hospices had received less funding from the Exchequer than others and there was a need to equalise that. They had seen a very significant increase in bed occupancy because they had helped us to decongest our hospitals, for want of a better word, to prepare for a potential surge which, thankfully, we have not yet seen.
They have also seen their own funding base dry up. I am very pleased, in regard to the hospice the Deputy mentioned in Sligo and a number of others, that we were able to provide an allocation. The HSE will be in touch to finalise the amount. It has been widely welcomed.
With regard to the issue of personal protective equipment, as raised by the Deputy, our first batch, worth €31 million, has now arrived. It has been quality checked and distributed. Our second batch, worth €67 million, was due to land in May and June but the HSE has managed to expedite it. I thank and commend the HSE, particularly Mr Paul Reid, for this. The first planes arrived from China on Saturday. The HSE has now ensured a continuous supply, or continuous arrival, of more personal protective equipment for ten weeks. This is really good work by the HSE. The third order, costing €130 million, is now in the pipeline. Some 74,000 gowns and protective suits arrived on Monday of this week, with further deliveries of an additional 300,000 gowns expected this week. We now have 275 long-term residential facilities accessing personal protective equipment purchased by the State.
As is well known, there was an issue with some components of the first batch. My understanding from the HSE is that this has been resolved in regard to future batches. There is always a degree of risk when ordering equipment we may not be used to in this country and when we do not have people on the ground. I assure the House, however, that the equipment is all inspected and quality assured before it is distributed to our front-line staff.
I thank Deputy Durkan for his comments. He made the correct point that this country is in a dark place and that there are many families grieving and many people sick. There are many people hurting for a variety of reasons, including reasons of economic well-being. We are thinking of all of them.
The Deputy was also correct to point out that we could have been in an even darker place were it not for the advice of our public health experts and the dedication of the people. It should be remembered that the modelling of Professor Philip Nolan showed that, even with a reproductive rate of 2.7, which is where we were in March, we would have seen 800 people in our intensive care units last week, 2,000 in intensive care units now and 12,000 losing their lives by the first week of May. It is important to outline the context in terms of recognising the difference the people are making.
The Deputy also made a point about people needing to stay the course. Dr. Tony Holohan talks about the risk of anticipatory behaviour. When we shut down elements of our country, in many ways the public were sometimes ahead of us. They thought this was coming so they started cocooning. The risk is that if we arrive at a point where we try over a period to reopen some of our country, the people will start getting ahead of that as well. That would be really dangerous so we need people to stay the course and follow the advice.
I wish to share my time with Deputy O'Gorman. Are we paying our radiography students? I understand that the student nurses are now being paid. Out of fairness, they should have an equal deal. They are dealing directly with Covid-19 patients every day.
I also want to ask about the power to prescribe. I am aware that the Minister has issued an executive order broadening the power to prescribe to pharmacists. That is welcome. Optometrists have asked to have the power to prescribe antibiotic eye drops to take the pressure off general practitioners at such a difficult time.
I want to ask the Minister about contact tracing. I raised this last week in the context of Google and Apple creating an app together. We obviously need effective contact tracing to move on to easing the restrictions. Mobile technology has been central to South Korea's success in tracing the contacts of every person infected with the disease. The European Commission is tracking at least 14 apps that have been developed by member states. The Irish Timesreported that a company named NearForm is developing a contact tracing app on behalf of the HSE but we have not seen any specifications or release plans for it. I have a background in software and medical statistics and I am concerned that we have only one chance to deliver a useful app. We should not rush an inadequate solution in front of the public. If the adoption rate is low, the purpose will be undermined.
How many people are currently actively working on contact tracing? How many Covid-19 victims have they identified and notified? What is the daily rate of such identifications? What is the planned release date for the Irish contact tracing app? Who is developing that app? Will the Minister publish the technical, data privacy, cryptographic and API specifications for this app, just as Google and Apple have published theirs? Has a data-protection impact assessment been carried out? If not, will it be?
Will the app comply with the recommendations of the European Commission's e-health network as to how such apps should handle privacy? Recently the French Minister of State for the Digital Sector, Cédric O, said that privacy specifications outlined by Google and Apple should be relaxed in order to give more control over data to national health authorities, which is a controversial position. Does the Minister share that position? Studies indicate that for this kind of app to be effective, we need more than half of the population to voluntarily adopt it. It is similar to herd immunity. What is the Minister's target penetration level of usage for this app? Does he agree that it would be better not to rush out this app and to answer these questions before launch?
When the Taoiseach spoke this morning he warned against complacency in the battle against Covid-19. While the strong national response has been recognised by many, we have all heard of and seen situations where social distancing rules are not being adhered to. Up to now the public information campaign has been very much of a "let's all pull together" nature. Would the Minister consider bringing forward a harder-hitting advertising campaign to highlight the risks of not adhering to social distancing? I remember the advertisements in the 1990s advising people to use condoms as part of the campaign to stop the spread of AIDS. They were very hard-hitting. I think there had to be a parental advisory warning before they were played but they made the point and were effective. Would the Minister consider something similar to highlight the very real dangers and consequences for the most vulnerable from any potential breakdown in adherence to the social distancing rules?
My colleague, Deputy Ossian Smyth, has referred to the importance of contact tracing in the ongoing fight against Covid-19 in particular as we move towards potentially opening the economy again. Can the Minister indicate what sort of technology is being considered at this stage? Is consideration being given to the use of mobile phone information and records to facilitate contact tracing? I understand that this approach has been adopted in Norway. If we do seek to use mobile phone information what are the implications of that for the general data protection regulation, GDPR, particularly for individuals' rights to privacy?
Earlier in the month, a constituent informed me that their elderly relative who was living in a long-term residential setting had become ill and was exhibiting three of the Covid-19 symptoms. This person, who had an underlying condition, died on the third day of their illness. The family was advised that their loved one would be tested by swab for Covid-19 post mortem but the family subsequently discovered that test was never performed and the cause of death was given as aspiration pneumonia. This definition was based on the person's previous medical history. There was no test or post mortem. This happened four weeks ago but it raises a major concern about our ability to identify clusters in locations such as this long-term residence where the State cares for the people who are most vulnerable to this illness. Does the Minister know how common it was not to test people in these long-term residential settings who had Covid-19 symptoms and who died? Is he satisfied that the situation I have described is not being repeated and will not be?
I thank Deputies Smyth and O'Gorman for their questions. I do agree that we need to sort out the problem in respect of radiography students. I need, however, to find a mechanism similar to the one we used to resolve the issue for student nurses. We have not paid student nurses but we have offered them the right to be employed as healthcare assistants and have paid them for that. I have asked the Department to come forward with proposals for other students usefully working in the health service and whom we need. I hope to bottom that out before we meet here again, which I presume will be next week.
Regarding pharmacy regulations, we did that to free up general practitioner slots, reduce physical movements and help pharmacists at a busy time. I will ask officials in the Department to give me a view on optometrists and I will revert to the Deputy directly.
I thank the Deputy for the question on contact tracing. I have a detailed note with me and will try to refer to some of its most important points. NPHET has made a number of changes to contact tracing policy to respond to international advice and enhance our process further. For example, at its meeting on 31 March, it extended contact tracing to suspect cases within prioritised groups and to encompass the period from 48 hours prior to the onset of symptoms, given the risk of asymptomatic transmissions.
The level of resources supporting contact tracing has increased significantly in recent weeks, and an IT system called the Covid case tracker has been built to underpin this work. Significant resources from across the public service have been redeployed to newly-established contact tracing centres. We now have nine centres in operation, with further centres identified to come on stream when required. Some 1,700 people have been trained to date. This includes personnel from our higher education institutions, the Civil Service and agencies, Army cadets and HSE staff. In direct answer to the question, I am told that there have been on average close to 200 people deployed per day in those centres over the past fortnight to meet the current level of cases. This is in addition to staff working in public health, occupational health and infection prevention and control.
The current efforts to develop capacity across all aspects of the testing process, including contact tracing, will continue this month - a paper is due to be delivered to me on the matter by Friday - in order to build the capacity that we will need in order to aggressively identify and isolate cases on a real-time basis, with "real-time" meaning within a day or the following day. This will provide the ability to respond to any planned expansion of the case definition for testing or easing of restrictions at some point. The HSE has appointed a senior manager, reporting directly to the CEO, to lead this work across the full process, end to end, of testing and contact tracing.
As to how many people have been contact traced, I am told that the HSE currently advises that calls to confirmed cases and their contacts are being made on close to a real-time basis once laboratory results have been notified to the HSE. It has been acknowledged by the HSE that previously there were delays in the process for notifying results, but it reminds me that it is also important to note that there can sometimes be difficulty in contacting people in terms of having accurate contact information and people answering calls.
The median number of close contacts remains at two per case. Over the two-week period from 6 April, the average number of close contacts per confirmed case was 2.9.
I agree with Deputy O'Gorman that it is better not to rush the app. A great deal of work is being done by the HSE to develop this new mobile phone app. The idea is to complement and enhance the contact tracing process while being fully GDPR compliant. The app is being developed by a coalition of developers and analysts led by the HSE. It is at an advanced stage of development, including work to integrate it into the current manual contact tracing process. When restrictions on public life are lifted, it could provide an enhanced ability to identify potentially exposed close contacts, namely, those not directly identified by direct contacts. It could further support our healthcare system in interrupting the chain. Obviously, it is important that the app be fully developed and carefully tested. I agree with the Deputy that we will only get one chance in this regard. I suggest that, at the Opposition's briefing from the HSE next week, it has a specific discussion on the app and its status. Presuming that the Dáil will debate Covid-19 again next week, I imagine that I will specifically include an update on the mobile app in my opening comments.
I agree with Deputy O'Gorman on complacency. The HSE's public advertising has been good, but the Deputy is right, in that we must constantly challenge one another as we move into new phases. This is not just a virus that impacts older people, although we know the mortality figures in that regard are concerning. This is a virus that can affect anyone. We have seen children getting very sick from the virus, and the average age of people who have got it is approximately 48 years. Everyone needs to be aware of Covid-19 and there should not be any part of society that believes it is immune from the serious dangers the virus presents. I will consider the Deputy's suggestion on a new public advertising campaign.
Regarding the older resident in the long-term residential care facility, I extend my sympathies to that person's family. I would be happy to take the details of that case as an example and follow up on it, but what I can say now is that we are doing two things. We are trying to identify and report publicly - I am not sure whether other countries are doing this - suspect cases of Covid-19 deaths. We are also undertaking a full mortality census. At a time when most countries are not even publishing confirmed Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes, we want to find as many of them as possible - it might seem like a peculiar thing to say - so that we can have a full understanding of the prevalence of the virus.
Our hearts go out to all those who have lost their loved ones and friends throughout this pandemic. It is important that we not become desensitised by the sheer scale of death that we have witnessed in society.
I will focus on long-term residential facilities, such as nursing homes. We are very fortunate that we live in a society where care for the elderly is still characterised by compassion and humanity, and so we express our deepest gratitude to front-line workers throughout the country for the work they do hourly, daily and weekly.
Today, I want to speak for those people who live in nursing or care homes. I applaud the Minister's handling of the crisis but there are some questions we feel need to be answered. Today, RTÉ reported that according to NPHET there are 1,944 laboratory-confirmed cases of the virus in nursing homes. According to that report, this is 61% higher than the number of nursing home infections revealed by NPHET on Monday. This represents an increase of 740 cases in two days. The number of nursing home deaths is absolutely frightening and an increase of 740 in two days is astronomical.
What we need is clarity, transparency and a clear communications policy on what is happening in nursing homes. We need to know who exactly is in charge of managing the crisis in nursing homes at present. Is it the Minister, the HSE, NPHET or the Chief Medical Officer? Where exactly does the buck stop? What we need to see is a clearly communicated plan that would give certainty to residents, families and workers in the sector.
Why is the number of cases of Covid-19 in long-term care facilities increasing this far into the crisis? Will the Minister please describe the relationship between stakeholders operating in the State health sector, namely, the aforementioned Chief Medical Officer, NPHET, the HSE and the Minister, and the owners of private nursing homes and their representative bodies? I hope the Minister will disabuse me of this notion or perception I have that at present, there is friction between how the State sector is managing the crisis and how Nursing Homes Ireland is managing its affairs. I perceive some friction in the relationship and I put it to the Minister that now is the time to ensure the safety of older people who are residents of nursing homes. Now is the time to ensure families know who is in charge of managing this element of the crisis. It would be very useful for families of those in nursing homes to have sight of records relating to the day-to-day management of the crisis as it relates to their loved ones. The very notion that in certain circumstances in this society, but for the compassion of individual nursing and care home staff, relatives would not have access to information on how their loved ones died is just not sustainable.
I would like to know exactly what is the status today in real time of the national and regional Covid-19 infection control teams announced on 4 April. How long will they remain in situ? How many clusters exist today in nursing homes? What are the real-time figures? According to the RTÉ report today, 102 people in nursing homes are presumed to have died from the virus. How does the Minister respond to this?
What relatives who do not have access to information about how their loved one died want is clear communication. They want to ensure they know exactly the manner in which their loved ones passed away and, in certain circumstances, that clarity is still not there and they feel they are not being properly communicated with. I know the Minister is doing his best but he might give us some clarity about how he intends to manage that.
In respect of the 18,000 tests that have been carried out in long-term residential facilities, will the Minister tell us how many more have yet to be done? Is there a sunset for that process in terms of completing the testing regime?
I want to deal with two further issues. First, I am hearing from primary care facilities that they are still in need of PPE and they are very concerned about the shortage. In one instance involving a large community primary care facility, I am told they have a week's supply in store. Second, although this is not directly within the Minister brief, I know he will look through the health prism at the resumption of childcare for working people, not only for those who are front-line workers but across society. I am sure the Minister will appreciate that where two people within a family are working while also trying to manage childcare, it gives rise to domestic challenges. What is the Minister's perspective on whether the Government plans to roll out a childcare scheme that could see more workers outside certain sectors filtering back into the workplace, or at least free up time for people who are working within the home at present by enabling them to send the kids to crèche or a childminder at least to alleviate some of the pressures happening on the domestic front at present?
The Deputy is correct that we are seeing a very significant increase in the number of infections in the nursing home setting. One of the reasons for that, I would imagine, is that we are actively looking for it in that setting. Particularly since Friday, we have seen a concerted effort, starting with nursing homes where there has been a significant outbreak, to test all asymptomatic patients and asymptomatic staff. We are moving then to nursing homes where there is one case and testing everybody - asymptomatic staff and residents - and then looking at nursing homes where there is no Covid-19 and starting by testing all asymptomatic staff there. The ambition was to have this completed within seven to ten days, starting from the weekend, which is the timescale they are working to, and they are doing everything humanly possible to get through that as quickly as possible.
In regard to who is legally in charge, legislation passed by the House defines the person in charge. Every nursing home, private or otherwise, is meant to have a person in charge, generally a clinical person, often a nurse. From my perspective, in terms of how I am managing the crisis, yes, I am engaging with Nursing Homes Ireland twice a week, and it is appropriate I do that as it is a representative body. However, the engagement I am having in terms of overseeing this is with HIQA, which is the regulator and is responsible for the safety of people in facilities and for reporting when it is not safe. By the way, I do not just mean that as a stick to beat the private nursing homes. They also have an obligation, which they take very seriously, to let us know when we are not doing what we should be doing. HIQA has published a new regulatory assessment framework, in line with the Health Act 2007, as passed by this House, and it is going to start visiting public and private nursing homes and inspecting them. As the Deputy knows from his constituency, this will present as many challenges for public facilities as for private facilities. HIQA will also be asked to check with the nursing home owner or the person in charge that the supports we have said should be in place are in place and to report back. There is a meeting on this tonight between HIQA, the HSE, the Department and myself, and that is the way I intend to manage it.
I must conclude as my time is nearly up. With regard to clusters, my understanding is there are 302 clusters in long-term residential centres, 179 of them in nursing homes, which were the figures given out as of last night. In regard to childcare, we will move forward on this as soon as it is safe to do so, but I take the point that it is a very sensitive issue. I assure the Deputy that I do have views on how we need to reform nursing home care and that we need to change after this pandemic.
Now is not the time for it. The time now is for everyone, public, private and voluntary, to muck in and do everything we possibly can to keep people safe.
I will try to ask five questions in five minutes and hopefully I will get five answers. The first relates to the strategy the national effort is based on, that is, a strategy of test and trace on a large-scale basis - 15,000 a day. We have heard that promise for several weeks now and we are currently at 5,000 a day. Does the Minister accept that the point at which we can start to ease restrictions and get back to some kind of normality is entirely dependent on reaching that figure of 15,000 tests a day and having the capacity to continue that for the foreseeable future? Does he also accept that the level of national debt that will be incurred as a result of this pandemic is entirely dependent on putting in place the strategy which has been promised from the very beginning, which is to test and trace 15,000 a day? We are very far from that at this point. We are doing 5,000 tests a day, and we have no data in respect of the numbers that are traced. The Minister did not provide that figure when he was asked for it earlier. I am asking the Minister again for the second week if he can tell us when that figure of 15,000 tests and trace - end to end - will be achieved. Is he in a position to guarantee that that will be available for the foreseeable future?
With regard to nursing homes, this has been the same problem that we have throughout the health service where our services are hospital-centric and there continues to be an overlooking of social care settings. That is exacerbated by the fact that there has been a move in recent years to privatise large numbers of nursing homes and other care settings and to disconnect them from the main health service and the HSE. Apart from saying mea culpa, does the Minister accept that that was a serious mistake? Can he tell us when we will get to a point where there will be adequate staff, adequate testing and adequate PPE for the vulnerable patients in all of those care settings? There is shared responsibility for that. It is the owners of those facilities and it is also the State but there has to be an acknowledgement that the privatisation of these services is a core problem.
Equally, when it comes to social care, there is the lower level of care and the higher level of neglect of the needs of this particular service, that is, the community services - home help services and home care workers - who again have been left to the four winds when it comes to ensuring their safety and the safety of the clients they visit. Many of them are visiting several clients every day. Again, it is about privatisation of this service. It is about pushing it out and keeping it at arm's length from the State. That has been the critical mistake. When will responsibility be taken for ensuring that all of those very low-paid workers, and their clients, will be given the protection they deserve? Who do these people contact when they need PPE? There seems to be a great deal of ambiguity about that. These are people working at community level on very low pay and left exposed.
My fourth question relates to the issue that arose last week in respect of Keelings and the fact that it seems to be acceptable that large numbers of seasonal workers are coming into this country. We are being told that they are following the guidelines that are set down but can the Minister tell us what, if any, supervision exists in respect of particularly large groups of people who come in from other countries and settle down somewhere in this country? We do not know anything about the conditions in which they are living. Apart from somebody handing them a leaflet at the airport, how can the Minister give us any kind of guarantee that those people are self-isolating properly in proper conditions? Can he tell us if he intends moving to a situation where there will be quarantining of people in those circumstances?
My last question relates to the deal that was done with private hospitals.
When will we get a breakdown of the figure of €1,461 per bed per day to be paid? It is very hard to understand how that figure was reached considering the equivalent figure in the UK is a small fraction of that. Does it include earned income from private patients who are in situin those hospitals? What the Minister tell us the actual figure involved and the basis of that figure?
There are a few parts to them. I thank the Deputy for the questions. Regarding testing, tracing and public health surveillance, that will be a major part of the easing of restrictions at whatever point that happens. However, it will not be the sole factor. Restrictions are not in place in Ireland today because we do not have the public health surveillance in place, but because the virus is not where it needs to be. The document published by European Commission President von der Leyen outlines the criteria that must be in place before the easing of restrictions. Public health surveillance, testing and tracing is one of three items. The others are capacity and the behaviour of the virus. However, the Deputy is correct. The HSE tells us it has capacity to undertake approximately 10,000 tests per day. This is in laboratories in hospitals and in the community, including the NVRL, Enfer, smaller laboratories and some international provision. The HSE is due to give an update to the NPHET at its meeting tomorrow regarding how it will achieve the roadmap, as it were, to the 100,000 tests per week that the NPHET believes is necessary. When the Deputy says we are far from it in terms of the number of tests being done today, it is important to point out that with the case definition as of now, there is not the demand for that today, but there will be a broadening of the case definition in the coming days. We are using the extra supplies now to prioritise the nursing home sector.
The Deputy asked if I can guarantee that this will be available into the future. Only an idiot would do that. The best government and public health service in the world cannot give cast-iron guarantees in respect of all the moving parts, be it reagent, supplies or laboratories. The HSE has said it can do 10,000 tests per day in terms of capacity and it has secured a significant amount of additional reagent. It has built up a very good system. It has put a senior manager in place to deal with end-to-end testing, including the contact tracing. I am confident it is moving into a very good place.
Regarding to nursing homes, in the time available I do not want to get into that debate other than to say I am saying a great deal more than mea culpa. I did not bring in the privatisation agenda for nursing homes and I agreed the Sláintecare plan with the Deputy, which moves us to a very different direction. It is important to say mea culpawhen one gets things wrong, but some of the tragedy we have seen in loss of life has been in our public health facilities as well and we must acknowledge that. We have seen a significant mortality rate in a number of HSE facilities as well.
As regards PPE, we are providing PPE to more than 200 nursing homes. We are delivering 2,500 to 3,000 cartons and pallets each week to residential units, in excess of 1 million pieces of personal protective equipment, including hand sanitiser gel, gloves, goggles, face shields, gowns, aprons and face masks. On Friday, 17 April alone, 378 deliveries were made to nursing homes, providing 750,000 items. The Deputy is correct that there is a shared responsibility. If one runs a private health facility, one has a responsibility for the safety of one's staff, just as one has in every organisation. We are trying to supplement that, not replace it.
Regarding home care, we made a decision that home care providers have parity of access to PPE with nursing homes. If there is any confusion in terms of who they contact, I will take that up. We are not differentiating in this regard. If there is an issue with PPE, we are not differentiating between public or private. We are trying to protect the citizen. I will follow up on that directly with the Deputy.
The Deputy referred to overseas workers coming into Ireland. I would make the point even more broadly. We must tighten up further with regard to anybody coming into or back to our country. This will become even more important as we arrive at a point where we begin to ease restrictions. The Deputy is correct that currently we ask people to self-isolate, but that is not checked. The NPHET has made a number of recommendations to the Cabinet committee and I expect to be able to announce them shortly. We have to consult a few more key stakeholders. What it must involve is a person at the airport being required to fill out a form saying where he or she intends to stay for that period of time and that being checked. We need to put that mechanism in place. While there is not a significant volume of people coming into the country now, we must be sure that we are not in a position where we are all following best practice here and people coming in from abroad are following a different one. I expect an announcement on the further tightening of restrictions at the airports and more than just taking somebody at his or her word that he or she is following the isolation restrictions.
On the question of whether the State must provide accommodation, quite frankly, the answer is "Yes" if a person is not in a position to self-isolate. We believe that many people will be able to self-isolate. However, a person must tell us where he or she is self-isolating and we need to be in a position to check that.
On private hospital costs, I will get the breakdown of figures sought by Deputy Shortall.
Cuirim fáilte roimh na hathruithe ón tseachtain seo caite ó thaobh ár dtithe altranais agus na hoibreacha ann. Dá mbeadh an réimeas seo againn ó thús, d’fhéadfaí a lán saolta a shábháil. All of our sympathy and solidarity goes to those who have lost lives, those who are ill and the families who are facing the consequences of this.
I have a question on the death rates in nursing homes. I understand that the most up-to-date figure is 450. Not all of those deaths were laboratory confirmed, but most were. Of the 450 people to whom those deaths relate, nine were sent to acute hospital settings. Does the Minister not find that figure incomphrensible and, in the future, will he be able to stand over every single case where a decision is taken not to send a person to an acute hospital setting? I am aware that there can be many complications and that the onset of symptoms can be very quick. However, referring only of nine out of 450 people to an acute hospital setting does not seem right. Will the Minister be checking in every single case that the right decisions were made, in the right setting and with the right advice?
I shall now turn to the next catastrophe we are facing. Direct provision centres are the next possible catastrophe. In a report released yesterday, the Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Tyndall, stated that the highly contagious nature of the virus "brings into sharp relief just how unsuitable and unsustainable it is to have three or more people in the same room". We are told that this is the provision being made for those who live in direct provision. I put it to the Minister that it is an issue of immediate concern and that we need to ensure that everything is done to try to avoid a situation whereby direct provision will become the next serious cluster. There are healthcare workers who live in direct provision and we were told that they would be put into separate accommodation.
My next question is on the protection of other workers. Bus workers are driving up and down the country without being protected. There are no screens on Bus Éireann's fleet. The unions have asked for free public transport in order to stop any interaction with passengers. They have not been given that. We are told that the Health and Safety Authority has no role to play in health and protection during this public pandemic crisis. The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, has informed us that those responsible are looking into the HSE playing a role, insofar as the role of environmental health and safety officers will be expanded to check out workplaces. Will the Minister for Health elaborate and tell the House that building workers, bus workers and others who resume work will be protected in their workplaces by means of the necessary protocols and by the provision of personal protective equipment, if necessary, screening and social distancing measures?
With regard to the deal with private hospitals, the Minister and the Taoiseach have said that no-one should profit from this crisis. At a cost of nearly €1,500 a night per bed, unoccupied, it beggars belief that vast profits are not being made by some of the wealthiest people in this country who have major shares in the big private hospital chains. I ask the Minister to please explain that anomaly.
My final question relates to masks. How does the Minister feel about encouraging - not forcing - members of the public to wear masks?
Some 20 years ago, 80% of nursing homes in the State were in public ownership and 20% were private. The position now is completely reversed, with 80% in private ownership and 20% public. This has been the result of 20 years of Government policy incentivising the development of the private nursing home sector. I will not go into that now but it means that the majority of nursing home workers do not have access to the HSE's occupational sick pay scheme. It also means that the majority of nursing home workers do not have access to an equivalent sick pay scheme. I would venture a strong guess that the majority of nursing home workers do not have access to any sick pay scheme.
This means that, if they get sick or feel the need to self-isolate, their maximum income is likely to be €350 a week. This is a big cut from their weekly wage. In some cases it would be a cutting in half of their weekly wage. This is very wrong. I will give the Minister two reasons as to why it is wrong. While I am sure that if the majority of nursing home staff woke up in the morning and did not feel 100% they would take the financial hit and self-isolate, this means that there is economic pressure on those workers to take a chance and to go to work. We talk about absenteeism. There is an opposite - presenteeism. This is a push factor as regards presenteeism, which is a danger to health, safety and lives.
It is also very wrong that if such workers get Covid-19 and are off work, those front-line workers will take a cut in pay of possibly half. The other day, SIPTU's Paul Bell said that the private nursing home sector should be taken into public ownership for the duration of the crisis. I believe it should be taken into public ownership full stop. Is the Minister in favour of giving access to the HSE's occupational sick pay scheme to those nursing home workers who do not have it straight away and for the duration of this crisis at least in the interest of health, safety and safeguarding lives? I would appreciate it if the Minister would answer that question.
I thank Deputies Bríd Smith and Barry for their questions. In fairness, Deputy Bríd Smith acknowledged that the cases of those in long-term residential care may be complex because a number of factors quite apart from Covid-19 may be involved in someone deciding to leave his or her home - which is what a nursing home is, his or her home - to seek hospital treatment. That decision is generally made on the advice of a doctor or other clinicians, often in consultation with the individual's family and taking account of his or her wishes. It can also be the case that people have made it clear what they would wish to happen to them with regard to the treatments they wish to get if they get sick. I assure the Deputy that these are clinical decisions. They are not my decisions as Minister - the Deputy is not suggesting they are - or hers or those of the Oireachtas; they are individual clinical decisions made in the same way she or I would expect decisions about our health and welfare to be made by our doctors rather than by the Oireachtas or by the Minister. The clinical guidelines in place in respect of Covid-19 are the same for all of us. Regardless of who we are, what age we are or where we live, there is one clinical guideline governing Covid-19. Of course there are other factors with regard to living in a nursing home, including some of those I have outlined.
Obviously there are many protections in place for anybody who is concerned about any outcome or any conduct of a health professional, although I am not suggesting that issue arises. HIQA also regulates in this area. I am satisfied with the guidelines in place and, having talked to the Irish College of General Practitioners, I am satisfied with the approach being taken by our GPs.
With regard to direct provision, which is an issue the Deputy highlights regularly, the Department of Justice and Equality has undertaken a lot of work to ensure accommodation is available for anyone who has, or is suspected of having, Covid-19 to isolate. I saw a statement from the Department in this regard as recently as today.
On the specific question regarding healthcare workers, there are now 278 people who work in the Irish health service taking up our offer of accommodation. I do not know all of their backgrounds but I know that, so far, 278 people have taken up our offer of alternative accommodation. That is available to anybody working in the health service, regardless of whether they are in direct provision. There are good details on how to apply for that on the HSE's website.
On the issue of bus drivers, or indeed anybody else working in any part of our economy and society, even in environments where it is not possible to fully physically distance, measures must be put in place to safeguard people. These may include guidance on PPE, where necessary. I am thinking of places such as factories and construction sites. I want to be clear that the National Public Health Emergency Team will be monitoring this area very closely as we move towards any decision to reopen any part of the economy. On the specific issue of bus drivers, I will talk to the National Transport Authority through my Department and revert to the Deputy directly.
On the issue of private hospitals, I believe I am going to run out of time to answer. I am happy to stay here and talk as long as Deputy Barry wishes but I am confined by the clock. On the issue of private hospitals, I published the deal last week and laid it before the Oireachtas for all to see.
The issue is that nobody should make a profit. We will be paying the cost of running the facilities and it will be subject to scrutiny by the Comptroller and Auditor General. I am quite sure, and it would be entirely appropriate, if not necessary and essential, that the Committee of Public Accounts will scrutinise this as well. Deputies must bear in mind the conversation we would have been having if we had not secured this agreement. Deputies would be asking me where are the ICU beds, ventilators and isolation facilities. It is some achievement for the HSE and the Department of Health to have secured the use of 19 hospitals for the duration of this crisis. What I want to see now is us making sure we are using those assets and protecting against a surge. By the way, the surge might come. I heard somebody say we should rip up the agreement. It would be an awfully brave politician who would say we should rip up the agreement, give back the ICU beds and give back the ventilators. He or she would be an awful lot more certain about the path of this virus than I would be. We are ripping up no agreement. We are keeping the assets that we have but we are going to make them work. I have heard Deputies in this House, including Deputy O'Reilly, suggest that. We are going to make sure that they are busy.
On the issue of masks, the NPHET will guide and inform my view in this regard. The team made a change already in relation to health care professionals and health care workers, and it will look at the issue of the broader public as we ease restrictions. On the issue of the sick pay scheme as raised by Deputy Barry, I do not have any plans to extend that scheme to people working outside of the health service but I will correspond with him further on it.
On a point of information or clarification, it sounded like the Minister was suggesting that I suggested that the agreement be ripped up, but I did no such thing. I think the Minister may have misspoken but that is certainly what it sounded like to me. I did no such thing and nor would I.
The Deputy absolutely did no such thing. I just happened to catch her eye at the time but Deputies in this House did, in recent days, contact me through a variety of fora and suggest that we should rip up the agreement and give back the private hospitals, but I have no intention of doing that.
I begin by expressing my condolences to all families who have been recently bereaved because of Covid-19. A heavy price continues to be exacted on our population. Also, on behalf of the Regional Group of Independents, I applaud the efforts of our national medical and clinical care staff and wish a full and speedy recovery to those diagnosed in hospital or home care settings at present.
I wish to highlight some areas of innovation and potential in ongoing Covid-19 management which I hope the Department of Health will acknowledge and support. PPE in development in Ireland at present has no expedited access or pathway to gain certification or standards approval so that it can be formally supplied to public, community and national health services. I am aware of two projects in Waterford attempting to navigate the standards approval process. The first is a barrier face mask, the design of which has already been approved for use in France by means of a standards reclassification, but as yet in Ireland we have been unable to accelerate standards consideration. The second is a new clinical full-face mask being developed by the South Eastern Applied Materials, SEAM, research centre at Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, one of our 15 national technology gateways. Development is in conjunction with University Hospital Waterford's ICU consultants, Boston Scientific, Consort Packaging and Jabil Healthcare. This mask may prove a significant development for clinical care lead protection and I ask for the support of the Minister's office in the coming weeks to assist in the certification of this product. The SEAM technology gateway at WIT is assisting some of the foremost names in medical device design and manufacture in the country. Its 3D printing facility has been manufacturing face visors for local healthcare concerns since the Covid-19 outbreak began. I urge the Department of Health to support the release of approved funding granted in 2018 for the purchase of a CT scanner for industrial X-ray. This apparatus is needed to support the innovation and problem solving that has been second nature to many businesses in Waterford and the south east for many years.
I will now move on to the issues in our nursing and residential care homes. The situation regarding PPE has been well flagged, but there are broader issues which have not been flagged as yet. Some social and political commentary has inferred that we have substandard nursing care prevalent in our community and residential care settings, but I know this to be untrue in my county of Waterford. What is puzzling to me and many others is why the Department of Health and the HSE have not prioritised senior care staff to handle the testing requirements within nursing homes. Testing kits could be made available to nursing staff along with the provision of short training courses to allow for the in-house swabbing of residents and staff as required. These swabs could be sent to local laboratories for analysis. This could deliver a 24-hour test turnaround, the gold standard that we are currently failing to deliver. Beyond this, we have vulnerable patients with dementia, and it is clear that having familiar care attendants conduct swabbing would be far more appropriate to their needs. The Minister has directed HIQA to conduct inspections into Covid-19 activity in residential care settings.
Many nursing homes have already drawn up Covid-19 management strategies in collaboration with HIQA and any further reviews should be minimised to a desktop exercise to prevent individuals accessing care homes and potentially introducing infection.
The Department of Health's announcement of funding to the sector was positive but some of the actions of the NTPF, which the Minister appointed to administer the moneys, have been less positive. Many care homes have expended significant resources in the purchase of PPE, increased staff numbers, creating Covid-19 isolation areas and protocols and bonus staff payments to cover enforced absence of colleagues and the increased workload. The NTPF applications to support funding are onerous in the extreme. The decision by the NTPF that significant preparatory purchases and expenditure in the month of March cannot be supported is unjust. Capitation money is payable for fair deal residents only and not those privately funded. Bonus moneys that have been agreed or paid cannot be supported.
For many care workers the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, would return more money than their weekly take home pay. The State is prepared to support this cost but is not prepared to support an incentive to allow staff to work extended hours in these most difficult conditions. The Government is not adequately compensating residential care homes for the financial hardship which Covid-19 management has caused and, at this juncture, neither is it providing the extra personnel resources promised that could be switched from hospital settings.
Significant progress has been made in securing additional test kits through the efforts of Dr. Paddy Mallon, Dr. Paul O'Brien and Dr. Oisin O'Connell. I ask the Minister for a status update in this regard. A national training scheme for PPE donning and disrobing would be of immense help in reducing Covid-19 cross contamination in hospital and community settings where the virus exists. Does the Minister or his Department have plans to address this issue? Pulse oximeters have been shown to have significant diagnostic value in identifying the early signs of Covid-19 infection and signalling treatment. I applaud the leadership the Department of Health and the HSE have taken in this area which, as profiled in an article in The New York Times this week, may significantly assist Covid-19 diagnosis and early treatment.
The cath lab at University Hospital Waterford, UHW, was scheduled for refurbishment this year. It has been closed since 14 February to allow for a refurbishment programme scheduled to take 15 weeks. In Waterford, the main cath lab and the temporary contract diagnostic cath lab are closed to service, while a reduced offering is available at UMPC Whitfield private hospital. Will the Minister commit to authorising works on the existing cath lab at UHW to be expedited as an essential service? The UHW cath lab configuration delivered over 4,000 patient procedures last year. Will the Minister also indicate a final recommissioning date and the recommencement of fixed and modular cath lab activity at UHW? In addition, the construction of a second permanent lab at UHW announced by the Department of Health in September 2018 has still not gone to build-tender-approval. There will be companies interested in this Government contract. Will the Minister confirm that moneys are ring-fenced to support this capital project and that his Department is committed to advancing it as soon as possible to construction-tender-award? I ask that the Minister deal first in his response with the issues of the cardiac service.
I acknowledge that the Deputy has done a huge amount of campaigning and work in regard to cardiac services in the south-east. I also congratulate him on his election. On the second cath lab in Waterford, money is ring-fenced for it. I will get a status update for the Deputy. It is not for me to police what is essential or non-essential in regard to construction works, but there is an exemption for essential works to continue. I would have thought that the refurbishment of the existing lab was an essential work. I will raise that issue directly with my Department and the HSE and I will revert to the Deputy in that regard. I know how important and sensitive that issue is for the people of the south east.
On the projects which the Deputy highlighted, it is clear the south east is a very innovative place because the Deputy has highlighted a number of projects under way where Irish companies and Irish industry are eager to help and support our national effort. I would appreciate a note on those projects, which I will then ensure is given to the Office of Government Procurement and that any assistance that can be provided by our State agencies will be provided.
On the issue of testing, the point made by the Deputy regarding in-house swabbing is a valid one and one I know the National Public Health Emergency Team is looking at. Currently, we are largely using the National Ambulance Service, mainly for reasons of speed. What we want to do very quickly is try to find as much of this virus as we can in our residential care settings so that we can quickly move to try to break the chains of transmission, as we seem to have largely done so far in the community.
However, the Deputy's point about the fact that many nursing homes have the clinical ability through experienced nurses to carry out in-house swabbing is valid.
Regarding the issue of HIQA and its visits to nursing homes, I assure the Deputy, as I have assured nursing homes and as I have spoken to HIQA, that the purpose of these visits is to be supportive, not to catch anybody out. The purpose is to visit both public and private residential care facilities, voluntary and otherwise, nursing homes and the like, to engage and to see whether what is meant to be happening there is happening and whether the supports and the connectivity for supports that are meant to be in place are in place in order that we can have more than anecdotes of what is going on and see very clearly from the regulator areas that are doing well. I hope to be able to report that many nursing homes are doing well because I believe that people are working really hard in them. We must remember that the majority of our nursing homes are still, thankfully, Covid-free, which is some achievement for them. This is a highly infectious virus, and people are doing an awful lot of work. The visits are therefore a supportive tool to provide us with accurate information from the regulator that I think people in this country expect.
The NTPF is the administrator of that scheme. I do not expect or wish the scheme to be bureaucratic. Obviously, certain checks and safeguards need to be in place. I know that meetings were due to take place today and perhaps yesterday in that regard, certainly in recent days. There has been ongoing engagement between officials, the HSE, the NTPF and nursing home representatives, and I am due to meet Nursing Homes Ireland again tomorrow on this issue.
To respond to the Deputy's final two questions, I thank him for his comments on the leadership being shown by Ireland on research and diagnostics and so on. I want us to remain in that space. We have appointed Professor Colm Bergin to head up a research group on Covid-19 in our country. We have also carried out one of the first health technology assessments by HIQA on new testings that may become available in order that Ireland can be ready to avail of any of these in the future.
Finally, regarding the issue of extra staff for our nursing home sector, I know this is a very important and very sensitive matter. All the unions were brilliant in agreeing a voluntary redeployment scheme, but I must concede that it is tough to match appropriate staff to appropriate settings. We have already seen, I think, 61 directly-employed staff moved to the private nursing home sector. I expect that number to increase, and the HSE is due to give a census update on that this evening.
We are trying to keep ourselves fully alert.
I got a letter some time back from the husband of a worker in the private nursing home sector and another a few days ago. I will refer to an extract from it. It just shows the worry and upset that are out there and the concerns that need to be addressed. The nursing home in question is without masks. It had been promised a supply from the HSE weeks ago but as of yet has received nothing. This was on 4 April. The first letter states that the men and women, mothers and fathers, working in the nursing home are nervous and scared, not only for themselves but also for their patients and families. The staff are resigned to the fact that it is only a matter of time before they are infected. They are still working away and looking after their patients without face masks. This was just a couple of days ago.
Three weeks later, the care centre has three Covid-positive staff members and 19 Covid-positive patients and one dead, with another five staff out sick and at least 18 patients suspected to have Covid-19 and awaiting testing. The staff have still to date received no PPE from the HSE. The home has been in touch with the HSE and we are told it has no PPE for the nursing home. Three other nursing homes where this man's wife used to work and where she still has friends have said they have got no PPE from the HSE. Their children have not left the house in 37 days. It is not that they were afraid they would catch Covid-19 in their community but, rather, that they may have already caught it from their mother and may spread it. The staff in her nursing home are now under tremendous pressure, working in tremendous fear and understaffed. They must hand back used single-use face masks at the end of their shift for them to be cleaned and reused.
I ask the House to remember the scenes we saw from Italy, France and Spain of doctors and nurses struggling each and every day. Those scenes are happening here in Ireland right now, not in our hospitals but in our nursing homes, and it is the same for home help workers. I am getting texts - I presume other Members are - and mobile phone calls from people working as home helps who have not got any protective gear, and it is very upsetting for them. Right up until last night I got texts, and I received another this morning, to the effect that in areas of west Cork they were promised something and nothing arrived.
Nursing home workloads are immense at the moment and we must look at ways where application packs for the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, for extra assistance could be simplified. It is much better for directors and nurses to be dealing with residents and implementing advanced infection control procedures rather than projecting figures and spending time on paperwork. The scheme only covers fair deal residents and not private residents. These private residents should not be excluded.
Older people need to be supported to live independently in their own homes as long as they wish to do so. We have been fighting for this for many years. Previous Governments turned their backs on elderly people. The cuts to home care packages and home helps were unforgivable and the embargo on new home help hours has forced many people into nursing homes prematurely. This mistake cannot be repeated by future Governments. Sadly, as a result of Covid-19, we have seen the danger of dormitory-style accommodation for residents in some of our community hospitals in particular. Are HIQA standards being investigated in all community hospitals? Has there been investment to address the issue? What is the Government doing to incentivise Irish healthcare professionals who return from overseas? These are truly tremendous people, some of whom have come from very lucrative jobs, who have given up their whole lives to save lives here and help in the current crisis. What incentives at least exist to persuade them to remain in Ireland for the next five years?
I commend the Minister on his work on this. My question, which I asked of the Minister for Finance, concerns farming. What is considered essential work depends on the contact in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Many farmers are under severe pressure with harvesting due to the growth rate. They are looking to get construction work done on their farms, and if they do not get it done in the next fortnight, there will be a backlog and they will have nowhere to put their silage and round bales to keep things like effluent at bay. There is a knock-on effect. If they do not have their farm buildings finished by the end of the summer, they will have the same problem in the winter when they need to put their cattle indoors. At the moment, contractors will not go on site because they say they are waiting for a directive to say it is essential work. All farming is essential work. All farm buildings constitute essential work. Social distancing can be maintained 100% but all farming work involving the food chain must be considered essential work. Our dairy industry is essential. Farming is essential when it comes to everything on our tables, but it is not just for now. Contractors are willing and will maintain social distancing but it is not happening.
Some home help workers have been reduced to one hour while others have been reduced to half an hour, but while they are on contract to the agencies, they do not qualify for a Covid-19 payment. I am receiving calls telling me that the agencies will not release these workers because they are under contract. Can we address this with the agencies so that if somebody's hours are reduced below a certain number, the top-up can be up to €350 to make sure healthcare workers are protected?
I thank Deputy Michael Collins for bringing the issue of PPE to my attention. If he wants to give me the details of the individuals or institutions involved, I will certainly liaise directly with the HSE on his behalf. In respect of the letter dated 4 April, I would hope that we have seen an improvement since then based on the decision taken by NPHET to have parity of access regarding PPE for residential settings and hospital settings, but I will certainly follow up those cases for the Deputy. I must make the point that there is also parity of access with regard to home care, so if the Deputy has come across a blockage, he should email me or write to me about it and I will address it.
The Deputy raises the valid point that we have seen a number of Irish people come back home to work in the health service. We have seen the GP from Toronto who contacted me to say that she had come back, and Irish doctors who had been working in Perth and nurses coming back, all of them coming back to be on call for Ireland and to put their shoulder to the wheel. The Deputy is right. We want to keep them here, which will be the challenge. My Department and the HSE need to do a bit of work on how we ensure that it remains an attractive place for people to work in.
I hope that their being back and our being able to sign them up to jobs will help in that regard. The Deputy raises an important and timely point and I will engage with my Department on it.
I am glad the Deputy raised the issue of community nursing units because much of the conversation in the media, the House and elsewhere in recent days has involved a suggestion that all of the challenges are in our private nursing units, which is not the case. We have a blended mix of community nursing units, as well as private and voluntary nursing homes. There have been significant challenges relating to our community hospitals. The HIQA framework published on Tuesday will apply to all residential settings, including those owned by the HSE or the State. As part of that framework, there will be HIQA visits to community nursing units. As Members are aware, there is a significant programme of capital investment to upgrade the facilities. Although excellent care is provided in the facilities, many of them are old buildings in need of refurbishment. The HSE is in the process of implementing its capital programme in respect of residential services for older people. The programme commenced in 2016 to rebuild or refurbish approximately 90 centres requiring upgrading of infrastructure. There has been significant progression of refurbishment across the country, but there is certainly more work to do in that regard.
Deputy O'Donoghue asked me two questions, both of which merit my getting more information and reverting to him with proper responses. The issues in question are somewhat wider than my remit in the Department of Health. On the issue of farmers, I accept that the farming sector is essential and matters relating to food supply are very important. If there is confusion as to what is appropriate, safe or essential, I will engage with the public health officials in my Department and correspond with the Deputy to provide clarity in that regard.
He raised an issue regarding agency home help workers whose hours have been reduced for a variety of reasons as a result of the pandemic and stated his wish that they would qualify for the differential between what they are earning and the Covid-19 payment. That payment is not administered by my Department but I will discuss the matter with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and ask her to revert to the Deputy.
Incidentally, next week there will be an engagement with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, and the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, which will provide an opportunity for Deputies to ask questions of them.
My colleagues, Deputies Joan Collins and Pringle, and I have tabled seven questions. I will not reach all of them in the limited time I have. I ask the Minister to confirm that written answers to those questions will be provided. That will ease matters. I will hone in on questions Nos. 3 to 7, three of which are in my name and relate to residential facilities. The Minister may have heard my contribution this morning when I stated that I have no idea why residential facilities were not top of the list from day one. I still do not understand why that was not so. I have tried to come at the matter in a different way. There is a clear obligation on HIQA, the Mental Health Commission and other bodies, including regional medical officers, to report infectious diseases. Question No. 4 that I tabled asks how many Covid-19 outbreaks in residential care facilities were reported to regional medical officers. I ask the Minister to address that question.
On community healthcare organisations, CHOs, Members received a briefing document from the Department of Justice and Equality on 3 April which stated that those organisations were going to look at congregated settings and do a full assessment. Has that been done? If not, why not? When will it be done?
Deputy Joan Collins tabled a question on the reliance on PPE from abroad. What progress has been made in sourcing such equipment in Ireland? There is a significant amount of goodwill and people have come forward from all sectors, from individual women to the arts sector, to say they can and are making such equipment. What progress has been made in that regard?
Deputy Joan Collins also tabled a question regarding Keelings. The Minister partly answered her question while replying to Deputy Shortall. Is it correct that there was no contact between Keelings and the national public health emergency team? Is the answer to the long question that Deputy Collins took great time to table "No, there was no contact"? If so, what monitoring, if any, is being carried out by the Government of Keelings or any other company that is behaving in that manner?
We need workers. I have no problem with that but what measures are being taken to ensure the law is being adhered to?
The issue of nursing homes is really upsetting me and upsetting people on the ground. Why were all of the residential facilities, including direct provision centres, not the number one priority? Peter Tyndall's report has been mentioned already and I will quote from it again. The report said that this virus has brought into sharp focus "just how unsuitable and unsustainable it is to have three or more people in the same room" and so on. My time is up but I would like to get answers.
The Minister signed off on the regulations that determine what limitations there are on people's liberty. Essentially, we are all subject to house imprisonment, except for being allowed to avail of essential services or to visit essential retail outlets. The essential retail outlets are listed clearly to be fair to the Minister. The list says that hardware stores are essential retail outlets, as are outlets that provide equipment for gardening. Given that, why are other Ministers going on the airwaves saying that garden centres and hardware stores should only open in emergency situations and should not be open? When this Chamber delegates the power to the Minister to make law, and he clearly makes law, surely that should be adhered to and other Ministers should not be giving information that is contrary to that law. I would like the Minister to confirm whether the regulations he has signed off on say in black and white that hardware stores and garden centres are essential retail outlets or whether they do not.
Ursula von der Leyen's criteria for opening up have been mentioned quite a bit. She also spoke about moving away from blanket measures and more towards regional measures. The law which this House passed, which gives the Minister the power to make the orders, talks about areas and regions and the Minister chose to make an order in respect of the whole country. The transmission rates are different across the country and there are particular pockets of infection. Has the Minister given consideration to having different regimes in place for different areas? What is required for a city such as London, where there are 2 million people on the Underground every day is different to what is required for a city such as Dublin and is different again to what is required for rural Clare. However, it seems to me that regardless of that, there is the same infringement on liberty, on people going about their lives, on people seeing their family members and on people earning some money - because ultimately the health service has to be paid for, whether it is paid for through a planned economy or a capitalist economy but either way, we need a functioning economy to provide for the health service. Has the Minister given consideration to that?
One of the tracing measures which will probably be looked at is an app. I heard the Minister answer questions on this point already. Will there be open sourcing in advance? Will the coding be published in advance? If not, why not? If the coding is not published in advance and if there is no open source coding, how will the app get buy-in from the public? People will obviously be distrustful of the app if they are carrying it around while it is collating essential information about where they are at any time and who they meet. People will understandably want to know who that information is being collated for, where it is going and who it is being given to. Will that be open source coding and if not, why not?
I thank the Deputies. There were quite a few questions there and as I have a limited amount of time, I will respond to each of the seven questions that have been tabled in writing. I want to reassure Deputy Connolly because at the heart of her questions is this idea of why long-term residential facilities were not the first priority, presumably because of the vulnerability of the residents living there. I assure her that from day one, work has been done on this. HIQA, the regulator of the nursing homes, has sat in the national public health emergency team and has done a good job. Guidance was published in February and meetings took place in February before we even had a case of Covid-19 in Ireland. We know that every year, whether it is with the flu or the vomiting bug, it is very difficult to keep infections and viruses out of residential settings. We know it is difficult to keep infections and viruses out of our homes and we have homes with large numbers of people but that is not to say efforts were not made. However, it is right and proper, from a public health point of view, that when the virus is suppressed within the community, and it is thankfully looking like we are beginning to do that in Ireland at least at this moment in time, that sectors that need more supports are then further honed in on.
I said this earlier and I mean it: I would not like to think how much more difficult things would be in our long-term residential facilities today had the virus not been suppressed in the community. Residents are not going out of the facilities, the virus is being brought in. The more that the virus is prevalent in the community, the more it can come into a long-term residential care facility, including by essential staff who are doing a very good job.
I have a detailed note, which might be best to send to the Deputy in the interests of time, on what we can do to work with Irish companies. We are not reliant on anyone else to provide us with PPE - work is ongoing on that - but the short answer is that it is about speed and the time it takes to ramp up production here when we need the PPE yesterday. That is the challenge that we are trying to work our way through.
On Keelings or any other firm, it is not the job of the national health emergency team to consider individual applications. The airports are open and people can come into the country. The issue is for them to give advice on what should happen when any of us comes back to or into our country. The answer I gave to Deputy Shortall earlier indicates the direction of travel in that regard, perhaps tightening the monitoring process so one does not ask people if they would mind self-isolating for 14 days but would ask them where they will self-isolate and that there will also be an ability to check that. That is important as we begin to open up the country more in due course.
On Deputy McNamara's question on hardware shops, it has been much debated. The view of the National Public Health Emergency Team is that they should only be open for emergencies as of now.
I know that. I am aware of that and if Deputy Byrne wants to ask me a question about that in a moment, I ask that he please do so.
The clear advice from Dr. Tony Holohan, our Chief Medical Officer, is that hardware shops should only be open for emergencies. That will be reviewed as will all other things. We have operated a compliance structure based on buy-in and support from the public, not based on the law. The law has been there as a safeguard. The Deputy makes good points on infringement on life but the biggest infringement on life is death. We are trying to save lives here. The Deputy is correct - the Oireachtas has given me the power to look at regional areas. It is something we keep under consideration. The current view is that the size of the country means that would not be practical in terms of the transmission of the virus but it is always kept under review.
I agree with the Deputy that there would need to be significant public buy-in in a voluntary capacity for an app to work. The more information that can be published, the better and I have committed to the House already to provide a detailed update on the mobile app in my opening statement next week.
Gabhaim buíochas le mo chomhghleacaithe uilig as an seans labhairt leo inniu faoi na príomhrudaí a bhaineann leis an oideachas. Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom focal pearsanta a rá leo maidir leis an chaidreamh dhearfach a bhí eadrainn thar na laethanta agus na seachtaine seo a chuaigh thart agus maidir leis an eolas, comhairle agus rudaí mar sin. Táim ag dúil go mór leis an díospóireacht inniu agus leis na moltaí a dtiocfaidh amach as. Níl an léarscáil atá againn soiléir i gcónaí. Is dúshlán agus míbhuntáiste é sin ach tá rudaí dearfacha ar nós comhrá, comhluadar agus caidreamh iontach tábhachtach.
I extend my condolences to those who have been bereaved as a result of Covid-19 and I spare a thought for those currently battling against the virus. I pay tribute to all those helping in the fight against it and the many front-line staff helping us all to get through it. I thank staff across the education and training sector, including teachers, principals, lecturers, special needs assistants, school secretaries, school caretakers and all those who have made an enormous effort to respond to the unique and unprecedented challenge presented by this crisis. Most importantly, I acknowledge our young people, for whom this is a very challenging time. Their educational interests, safety and well-being will continue to be the heart of my concerns as Minister. This is a view shared across the House.
The message to students is that even when times are good, it is normal to feel stress and worry ahead of examinations. With all the public health measures, there is inevitably more anxiety. The important point is that if you are feeling lost, stressed or unsure, you should reach out. Your friends, family, teachers, school and community do care about you and want the best for you. You are not alone. All of us struggle to adapt and adjust in times of great change but remember you are playing your part.
We are all in this together and I am grateful to colleagues across the House for their collaborative approach to date. The views of Deputies have been important in informing my approach to critical decisions. I refer in particular to the strong preference shown by Deputies at the briefing on 1 April for holding the leaving certificate examinations. I also thank the education partners, the teacher unions, students, parents, principals and management bodies that are meeting regularly to help us chart the way forward. In particular, I acknowledge a very strong voice in the Irish Second-Level Students Union, Ms Ciara Fanning, who, with her team, has been very competent in leading the way and leading the charge in providing a platform and a voice for young people.
It is exactly six weeks since the Taoiseach announced the closure of schools and educational institutions. The people across the education and training sector have shown an agile and innovative response to this national crisis. There have been phenomenal efforts right across schools, further education centres, higher education institutions to ensure continuity of learning to support students and to seek to mitigate educational disadvantage. Since the beginning of the crisis, my Department has significantly reoriented its structures in order to steer an effective response in the education and training sector. At the core of this has been significant stakeholder engagement to quickly identify emerging issues and shape responses. Each of the new engagement structures is meeting regularly. I thank all the education partners for their strong and constructive engagement.
Ensuring continuity of learning has been a key issue. All schools have been asked to continue to plan lessons and, where possible, provide online resources for students or online lessons where they are equipped to do so. A series of guidance notes to assist schools in how to support and effectively engage with their students has been compiled to address challenges in providing programmes of continued learning in the current context.
Contingency plans have been developed by higher education institutions and the further education and training system for shifting to online provision, and assessment of third level programmes has also been implemented across the tertiary education sector comprising higher education and further education and training. RTÉ has developed a home school hub which is an additional support for parents and primary school pupils and this week TG4 began to broadcast "Cúla4 ar Scoil". There has been a major focus on supporting the needs of vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs, those from disadvantaged backgrounds for whom a loss of school time can be most harmful, homeless children and children in temporary accommodation and refugee centres or asylum seekers' accommodation.
I announced yesterday a major €50 million funding package as part of our suite of measures to support all students particularly those at risk of disadvantage due to Covid-19 school closures. This includes a special €10 million fund to support the purchase of technology and devices for disadvantaged students. A total of €7 million additional funding will be provided in the post-primary sector and €3 million in the primary sector. This is part of an overall response which has included guidance being issued to all schools to support the ongoing learning of children with special educational needs and children who are at risk of disadvantage; collaboration with Cisco to support schools with training in Webex video; conference software for use by teachers with their classes; guidance and resources developed by the National Council for Special Education for supporting children with special educational needs; continuation of the school meals programme funded through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to provide food parcels to children who are at risk of food poverty; continued funding of home tuition or, where this is not possible, flexibility to bank hours for use at a later time in the year; and resources to support good mental health and well-being among students, produced by the National Educational Psychological Service.
I also acknowledge the contribution of the education and training sector to the wider national effort from the phenomenal response of the special needs assistants, SNAs, to the call for redeployment of the critical contribution which our higher educational institutions are making to the clinical and research response to this crisis. All this tells a tale of the ongoing commitment across the sector to continuing to provide education and support services in the most unprecedented situation that society has found itself in.
I will do my best to answer as many questions as possible this evening from Deputies as we continue to work to support our education and training system in responding to this crisis.
It is fair to say that while I have been accepting of the decisions of the Department of Education and Skills in this crisis I am not best pleased by its approach over recent weeks. The Minister mentioned a briefing for Deputies on 1 April. When he spoke in Irish he mentioned the good relations among parties in the House and, yes, we have spoken on several occasions. I asked for a briefing two weeks ago and was promised it by telephone but it never happened. The Department of Health runs regular briefings for Deputies but the Department of Education and Skills has not done that. A lot of what has happened and the mistakes that have been made could have been avoided with more political engagement.
The one thing that students need is clarity. The reason they do not have that is the constant stream of leaks from the Department of Education and Skills which are adding to great uncertainty. I believe the Minister was forced into his Good Friday decision by the fact that there was an unauthorised leak to The Irish Times. I wish no disrespect to the journalists, who are doing their jobs, and indeed the Taoiseach referred on Instagram to postponing the leaving certificate before anybody knew about it. Since then the Minister for Health has been musing about schools possibly returning for a day a week and the Minister for Education and Skills made an announcement on Good Friday about the junior certificate, which seems to have been supplanted by what the Department is saying unofficially to RTÉ that there will be no State-certified exams. That is not what he said when he gave his decision on Good Friday. This uncertainty has to end. I have been pleading with the Minister to end it for some time but it has not ended yet. It is lethal and very discouraging to students.
The voids are real. Not many families have multiple laptops for students to use. In our house the kids are fighting over laptops. They are only in primary school. I do not know what it would be like for a family with a kid doing the leaving certificate or one with a kid doing with leaving certificate and another doing junior certificate, and other kids trying to study too. I know of teachers living at home with their parents, as many young teachers do, where there is hardly any broadband.
They do not have the access necessary to enable them to teach their students. It is difficult and the kids are losing out.
While the Minister's plan for the junior certificate seems to have unravelled to some extent, I hope that he has a good, solid plan B in place for the leaving certificate. The goalposts keep changing. When he made his decision on Good Friday and announced it, I assumed that he was acting on the basis of public health advice. I asked for that advice but have not received it. The public health advice received by the Department asserting that the exams could go ahead in the late summer and early autumn, or the manner in which they would take place, has never been publicised. Since then, there have been briefings to education partners trying to work all of that out.
I accept that we are in an emergency and I have been accepting of the decisions made, but the Department of Education and Skills has not handled this to the best extent possible. It was slow to recognise the reality of broadband, socioeconomic and other divides. Some kids simply do worse outside a classroom setting. All Deputies raised these issues on 1 April, particularly that of broadband and devices. An announcement was made yesterday, which was three weeks later, on this matter, but that will take some time to implement.
What is the Minister's plan for the leaving certificate? Is it happening? Has the Minister worked out a plan B? Has he considered that the ultimate purpose of the leaving certificate is to show that students have finished school and allow them to enter college on a fair and transparent basis? There are other ways of doing it and we have supported what the Department has been doing, but it has been frustrating to see the constant stream of leaks in newspapers. If that has been frustrating for me, as a Deputy, then the frustration felt by the students doing the exams is multiple times that which I have experienced.
Yes. I will be as brief as possible.
I apologise for Deputy Byrne not getting the briefing. I will ensure that it happens.
The clarity that was asked of me at the briefing on 1 April when we were all on a web conference was about whether the leaving certificate would be going ahead in June. The demand made of me that day was that clarity was needed ASAP, be that the next day or within a couple of days. I responded by giving that clarity and stating that the exams would not go ahead in June and would be postponed until late July and early August. I did that in order to provide clarity to students, who had been asking whether the exams could go ahead in June.
The Deputy asked about the public health advice. The decision to postpone the exams was based on the fact that schools would be closed until 5 May. That meant that we could not ensure a six-week lead-in period for schools to build students up, inform them and give them enough time. It took away the six-week minimum period and we would have had to prepare for two weeks back at school. That informed the Department's recommendations and my decision to postpone the leaving certificate until late July and early August. It is still my intention and belief that leaving certificate students need to be in their classes for a minimum of six weeks. At the heart of all these deliberations is the public health advice. That is because the health and well-being of our students are at the heart of any decision that I make.
I thank the Minister. I will be as brief as I can because time is of the essence. I will ask two short questions on the leaving certificate. I will then concentrate the rest of my contribution on the third level sector.
It has been put to me that fees for sitting the leaving certificate are payable at the end of this month. Given the constraints and economic conditions, some parents and families are under pressure with those fees. Perhaps the deadline could be extended in light of the fact that the exams are being postponed. A reasonable suggestion has been put to me. Given the fact that the curriculum has advanced to a particular appoint - it probably fell off in February just before schools were suspended - perhaps a reduced curriculum for exam purposes could be considered. For example, if there are normally 20 poets on the literature paper, perhaps 15 of those could be confirmed and that could be communicated.
It might give a little bit of a confidence boost to students and help them focus their studies and reflect the fact that, despite their best efforts to learn remotely, they may not catch up with the studies they have missed in school.
I will spend the remainder my contribution focusing on the third level sector. It is fair to state that science is recognised as core in the fight back against the virus here and globally and that experts, despite the ebb and flow in how they were regarded politically in recent years, are again respected. Science is back in the spotlight, and rightly so. It is also fair to say that those countries which invest heavily in research and development and science, such as South Korea and New Zealand, and which punch above their weight and which spend at least 2.5% and more of GDP spent on research and development, have done well in the fight against Covid-19. This is not a coincidence. Of course, I commend our domestic efforts but a lesson we can learn is that the value of science can never be underestimated.
The plight of fixed-term researchers has not received attention to date. There are 14,500 such individuals in this country.
They are the workhorses of the research sector. These people are caught between two stools because they cannot perform their experiments, work in their laboratories or attend their universities and they also are not eligible for the wage subsidy scheme. The laboratories and higher education institutions are running down their grant money to pay their wages as a humanitarian response in the context of the welfare of their researchers. This grant money will be exhausted and we will potentially lose three years' worth of work instead of three months' worth because programmes that were time-boxed and grant-funded will run out of time, steam and money before the work is finished.
I suggest to the Minister that the wage subsidy scheme be made available to these fixed-term researchers, which seems an obvious solution, or that a commitment be given that no research institute will fall short of funding to continue its work when researchers can return to the laboratories.
More generally, with regard to the plight of the universities, their income from international students, accommodation and private sector collaboration has gone through floor. There will need to be massive support for the universities when this is over.
The Deputy raised the issue of fees to be paid at the end of the month. We will extend that date until after the exams. This is only fair and I thank the Deputy for raising the matter.
With regard the structure and timetabling of exams, I have set up an advisory group to work on this. The advisory group has already met and will meet again tomorrow. It will meet twice a week. It comprises parent representation, students and unions. They are all around the table and they will work through how we do it. This will be very important because they will work with the various instructions coming from the health officials. It will be a very important group with regard to the determination on where we move in July and August.
The Deputy made some very interesting suggestions regarding third level education. We have the higher education authority group led by Mr. William Beausang. All of the members are listening to this debate and we will take what the Deputy has said on board.
I have been contacted by students throughout the State who are under severe pressure. To do the leaving certificate any year is extremely testing, much more so against the background of a pandemic and much more so again against a background of such complete uncertainty. They are worried and anxious and, what is more, they are frustrated and angry at the lack of detail and the fact that many ideas are first floated half-formed in the media rather than concrete full plans being proposed.
I am also frustrated. I appreciate that the Department is busy. I have had some good conversations with many of the officials and I am grateful for the discussions I have had with the Minister, but I have submitted dozens of questions in writing to the Minister and many of them have not received an adequate response. Students need certainty and clarity. Níl sé maith go leor agus tá siad go mór leis an brú agus an strus atá ar scoiláirí. It is provoking absolutely massive mental health issues for many students. There are huge, unanswered questions about how the Department will deliver the leaving certificate. What will the timetable be? How will it work with social distancing? Can it work? How will we tackle the chasm that has opened up between students in terms of disadvantage and digitally? We need clarity.
I want to use the rest of my time to get answers to questions. I will give way and ask for a brief response and I hope the Minister will be efficient.
I was contacted today by the father of a student who has two conditional offers to study medicine in Britain. Both universities are insisting that those offers will be lost unless leaving certificate results are issued before 31 August 2020. Can the Minister tell Irish students that the results they need will be ready in time for Irish universities and, more urgently, will he secure offers under the UCAS system and internationally?
On the first issue, that individual is one of 4,000 people who have applied to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is a major issue and that is why I picked up the phone to the Secretary of State for Education in London, Gavin Williamson. My Department's Secretary General is in contact with his counterpart in London as well, and I have written formally to the Northern Ireland Education Minister, Peter Weir, in regard to this issue. We need to find a solution because we are talking about 4,000 applicants. It is an issue that is on the radar. While I do not have an answer for the Deputy today, it is certainly an issue we are taking seriously.
This is an incredibly important issue. Like the Deputy, I am getting a lot of direct contact, primarily from students but from some parents as well. There is much stress and anxiety. There is the shock that people are dealing with but there is also the shock of not knowing where we will be in September, October or November, never mind where we will be next week. There is uncertainty in terms of the overall pandemic but for students, and specifically leaving certificate students, we are going to announce formally in the next couple of days a whole outreach and interactive support system. It will be a combined announcement between the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills, and well-being will be at its heart. For students who are under stress and pressure, and suffering from anxiety, we are going to have that dedicated helpline. We will make the announcement in a couple of days.
I am glad to hear that and I look forward to seeing the detail. On what date will the Minister outline the full details of the timetable, including the procedure for exam halls and papers? Will he publish the detail of any plan B he is preparing?
The significant dates are that the leaving certificate is to start on 29 July. We are working on the timetable, which is important. As outlined earlier, that is going to be tested through the advisory group in the context of how we work within the public health advice. The Deputy asked when that will be ready, and it will be in the first week of June. Tomorrow week is 1 May, so, four weeks after that, there will be information on timetabling and the structure of the exams. The reason we are leaving it until the first week of June is that we want to have as much available advice as possible on where we stand with the curve and with the pandemic. The reason we are leaving it until 1 June is to have as much information as possible available in order to hold the exams later in July.
All the conversations we are having are through the dedicated advisory group. As recently as last Friday, the Irish Second-Level Students Union raised issues such as plan B and what are the contingencies, such as contingencies for sickness or bereavement. All of these pertinent questions are being asked. We are going to work on the contingencies and we will not go into this in a blinkered way because we are living in a real world of uncertainty.
I appreciate that is very important. Plan B needs to be as nailed down as plan A because things could move quickly.
I have been lobbied by many students who are either living with somebody who might be vulnerable or who are worried that they might be displaying symptoms. If that was to happen at the time of the exams, what provision would be made?
Again, that is one of the questions to be explored by the working group. The group will be very busy. It will be meeting formally twice a week but there will be a constant conversation in between. Again, we are not - and, as Minister for Education and Skills, I certainly am not - going to put any student in jeopardy in terms of his or her health or healthcare needs. While the group works through the logistics of the exams, part of that mapping out will be the public health stipulations and criteria, which will be central to any decision.
As the Deputy outlined, things change very fast but we are working within those parameters. The next major announcement on 5 May by the National Public Health Emergency Team and the Government will be another step towards being in a more informed position as to what will happen after that.
I will not take up any more time by seeking answers but I appreciate that. We need clarity on that very soon. I would also say, and I do not want the Minister to respond now because it would be taking from my colleague's time, that people doing construction studies and project works need certainty also.
I raise the issue of children with additional needs who might rely on special needs assistants, SNAs, or even resource hours. I refer to children with autism. What supports are currently in place for them as it is a very difficult time for them and their families? Routine is very important, particularly around autism, but these children's lives have been turned upside down. What supports are currently available? My experience is that, unfortunately, there is very little support available. Crucially, what supports will be available in September? I refer to the length of time children have been out of school, particularly if they already struggle and need resource hours. Schools usually have to battle for those hours and for special needs assistants. I would like a guarantee or reassurance that these children will get extra supports in September or will we see many children being forced to repeat various classes, which would be very unfair?
I should have said at the outset that I am combining my two questions to the Minister. My other question relates to school readiness. Something that all of this has shown us is how much we rely on the two years of early childhood care and education, ECCE. I know that does not fall directly into the Minister's brief but in terms of children's first experience of education, the ECCE year, or two years as it is now, is very valuable. Many facilities do not believe they will be able to reopen because the supports that have been announced do not go far enough. One measure we suggested was a sustainability fund for this sector. That is important because we need to know that, come September, these pre-schools will be able to open again and offer that service to children. In that regard, will there be any extension of the ECCE year for children who might benefit from that given that they had to finish up on 12 March? It goes back to the first question about children who might be struggling who might benefit from extra time or supports. Will any consideration be given to that?
I would make the point that it is crazy for those of us who are elected to this House to be limited to two and three minutes to ask questions on what is a crisis.
The first point the Deputy raised was about additional needs and resource hours. We issued guidelines yesterday to all schools and principals to ensure that we connect with our most vulnerable students. That attention to detail will continue. Second, many of our SNAs have already been engaged in ensuring that continuity of connection between their students within schools. The feedback we are getting formally and also anecdotally is that that relationship is very strong but anything we can do to ensure there are additional resources or to protect the existing resource hours will be kept to the forefront.
The Deputy raised the issue of childcare, the ECCE years and what will happen in September. We are in the space where we are working within public health advice but I am happy to raise that issue with my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone.
I thank the Acting Chairman for his generosity. I ask the Minister about large-scale capital infrastructure projects such as the new building extension at Summerhill College, Sligo, and other classroom infrastructure projects in my constituency such as the ASD unit at Abbey Community College, Boyle. The projects were announced by the Department last year. Will they be able to commence construction next year? Will the funding be in place to ensure that these types of projects nationwide can be developed despite the financial realities for the State due to Covid-19?
Another issue is food parcels for DEIS schools. Due to the Covid-19 crisis there is great difficulty in delivering these to vulnerable families. There was a very worthwhile initiative with An Post, but there appears to be a problem. What will the Minister be able to do to ensure that some schools will be able to deliver these food parcels to vulnerable households?
On the continuation of work, whether it is tendering within the Department, the building unit in Tullamore or land procurement, that work is ongoing. Any work we can do while complying with social distancing continues. Regarding the specific issues the Deputy raised, once construction is allowed again we will be in a position to move on a number of projects, but I will refer back to the Deputy directly on those two matters.
As regards the food parcels, I acknowledge the work of An Post coming on board with this and the goodwill it showed from the beginning and continues to show, but it is a massive logistical exercise. There are over 1,600 schools in the DEIS programme and An Post is working with some schools. With other schools voluntary groups such as the GAA, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other organisations are working on the distribution of food. It is an enormous logistical exercise and I acknowledge everybody who is doing anything to ensure the delivery of food to disadvantaged students.
I am seeking an update on school transport with regard to refunds for pupils and their parents and regarding the school bus operators. The bus operators were paid the normal rate after the initial announcement of the schools closing, but when the closures were extended during the Easter holidays their pay was cut by 50%. Can the Minister clarify the situation regarding refunds for pupils and their parents and the arrangement for bus contractors? Second, applications for the school transport scheme for new applicants must be made by tomorrow. Does that still remain the position?
I thank the Deputy for raising this question and for his ongoing engagement on these issues. He is correct that when the first announcement was made the school bus operators were paid 100% and after the extension of the closure they were paid 50%. I have had discussions with officials about this and it is only right that bus operators be paid up to the end of term, irrespective of schools opening or not. That is only right and I wish to put that on record. Regarding refunds, many parents have paid for school transport. Like my previous point, I believe it is only right that they get refunds. We are in the process of working out what is the best and fairest way of doing that, but it will have to be pro ratafor the time they did not use the bus transport. We are examining that issue. Will the Deputy remind me of the last question?
I thank the Minister for his ongoing engagement and transparency on the leaving certificate. It is very complex and he is operating in a fast moving situation regarding the pandemic. It is important that he engaged in the way he has with the peers and leaving certificate students through the various fora. I have a question about the €116 payment for the first-time leaving certificate in view of the uncertainty surrounding the leaving certificate and parents and families being under significant pressure due to loss of income. If one has a medical card one is exempt from the fee.
Is there anything more the Minister can do in connection with reducing the burden and hardship of these fees for each family and household?
I know the Minister is very familiar with the Holy Family National School in Mullingar. I have raised the issue bi-weekly and have been in the Minister's office on a number of occasions on it. The Minister has been to Mullingar discussing it also. It is very important that the school is on the cusp of completion. I was there during the week before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and it was very heartening to see furniture in most of the classrooms and the paintwork almost finished. The mechanical and engineering works were at 97% at that juncture. An extremely inordinate amount of pressure was put onto the project in the last months and weeks to bring it to that stage. I thank the Minister and the Department for their engagement in doing that. I also acknowledge the staff of Holy Family National School. The teachers gave a lot of their time in looking after students while they were situated in St. Loman's during what was a very difficult and stressful period. Students also had to travel to St. Etchen's in Kinnegad, which was very stressful for those families. I acknowledge Mr. Michael Molloy, all the staff at the school and the parents for bearing with it to date.
I thank Deputy Burke for the issues he has raised and also the point about the leaving certificate fee. I am announcing today the extension of the late payment for the leaving certificate fee until after the leaving certificate exams. I take the Deputy's point on the difficulties some families will experience and are experiencing with financial pressures. This has been an item at nearly every one of our management board meetings in the last couple of weeks and we will continue to have that discussion.
If there is an example in the State of patience it is the Holy Family National School and its community. They have had so many false dawns. The last time I spoke on this I believe I used the line that I did not want to "tempt fate" by putting another date on the project. This time, because of the uncertainty, we do not know what the public health guidance will be around construction. I do know, however, from the information I received from the people directly involved with the Holy Family National School project, that once construction workers come back in there - the Deputy has pointed out correctly that the majority of classrooms are furnished at this stage - then we are talking of a period of perhaps three weeks or a month to get it finished. Hopefully things will move and progress after that.
I thank Deputy Burke for all of his engagement on that issue. It was very important that we went to Mullingar to see exactly and to hear and get a good feel for the dilemma the community was going through at the time. Hopefully there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The past few weeks have been like nothing any of us have ever seen. Yet, in the face of crisis this country has shown the good grace for which we are known through an incredible example of unity, sacrifice, kindness, compassion, discipline and good humour.
Thank you has been said many times in this House and by many across the country but it bears repeating to the front-line staff across the island who are working heroically to keep us safe. These are the front-line healthcare workers who deal with the dangers of Covid-19 daily, the retail workers and all those who ensure that the chain of food and vital services is kept open, our Garda and our firefighters.
Our thoughts are with all those who have died and with their families, friends and communities who have been deprived of being able to mourn properly the tragedy of their passing.
In the same way the country has come together, we in Dáil Éireann have co-operated and worked together to an unprecedented level to enact emergency legislation. It is a shame, however, that this unity of focus and purpose did not go further at this time through forming an inclusive, national Government, not just to play the vital role of managing the daunting and prolonged crisis by bringing as many people as possible on that journey, but by also ensuring that people of all walks of life, as many as possible, buy into and play a constructive role in the incredibly difficult Covid-19 recovery phase that lies ahead. It is regretful that some continue to practise exclusion and selectivity in politics, even at this time when we all need to come together.
It may yet prove that the idea of a unity government is only temporarily parked rather than permanently shelved and may re-emerge for consideration. That may become more apparent in the near future if other options, after being exhausted, do not produce white smoke.
This has been a particularly trying time for all of those in the education sector, including students, teachers, parents and all staff who work in our educational institutions. I have a number of questions. I will ask all of them, and if the Minister does not have enough time to answer, perhaps he will furnish me with a written reply if he has time.
One of the primary issues facing the sector relates to the postponement of the leaving certificate. The unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves is already having an immense impact on students' mental health. On 10 April it was announced that exams would be postponed until later in the summer. Very little was clear and this announcement left students with more questions than answers and added further to their stress and confusion about the situation. On Tuesday evening this week I, like thousands of others, found out through social media that the Minister had announced the provisional date of 29 July during an informal questions and answers Instagram video. This casual delivery of vital and important information is simply unacceptable and shows a lack of regard for students and their welfare at this time.
Many students were calling for a predicted grades system as an alternative to the leaving certificate exam. Has the Minister investigated the possibility of this alternative? Does he have a contingency plan prepared and ready to go if the crisis continues in such a way that it is impossible to hold the exams in July and August? When will we get sight of that plan? What extra provisions will be put in place to ensure that the mental well-being of students will be supported as they continue through their extended school year?
At third level, our students are facing a wide variety of issues but housing and academic uncertainty around assessment are two of the most pressing. The Minister indicated to me in a Covid query response last week that he would like to see private providers of student accommodation provide pro ratarefunds. This issue has arisen for many students not just in respect of refunds but also the retention of deposits by landlords. Has the Minister taken any concrete steps to tackle this issue or prepared any real measures to do so? While six of our seven universities are offering pro ratarefunds to students who have to vacate their accommodation, it is my understanding that the University of Limerick is still refusing to do so. The Department has been engaging with the university with regard to this issue. Will the Minister outline what progress has been made?
When it comes to deferrals or alternative arrangements for assessment, it is not just about timing and delay. The issue of support for students is also involved. Many students' ability to support themselves through higher and further education is dependent on the availability of work during the summer. Such work is unlikely to be available to many this year. It is also dependent on SUSI supports, which are based on income levels from 2019 which does not take into account the enormous changes in circumstances faced by many students and their families in 2020. What measures is the Minister putting in place to protect not just students' academic futures but their ability to support themselves for the next academic year? Will there be any alternative assessment of financial circumstances given the current context?
Cad iad na hacmhainní a bheidh ar fáil do dhaltaí le Gaeilge mar chéad teanga - daltaí Gaeltachta agus daltaí na nGaelscoileanna uile sa tír? Molaim an obair atá á dhéanamh ag TG4 chun freastal ar na páistí seo ach cad a dhéanfaidh Roinn an Aire chun a leasa? Cén cúiteamh a bheidh ar fáil do phobail Ghaeltachta agus cúrsaí samhraidh na gcoláistí ar ceal? Braitheann na Gaeltachtaí go mór ar na daltaí agus múinteoirí a thagann gach bliain. Nílim ag tagairt do na coláistí agus na mná tí amháin ach do na gnóthaí timpeall orthu. Tá níos lú airgid ag dul go dtí Gaeltachtaí na tíre ná aon áit eile. Gan cúnamh ón Rialtas, beidh na pobail seo agus an teanga Ghaeilge thíos go mór leis an ngéarchéim seo.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta. I concur with her introductory comments regarding front-line workers. If I do not get through all of this, I will ask for a direct response to be organised for her.
The postponement of the leaving certificate was the first issue raised. One of the things we attempted to do was to bring clarity around whether it was happening in June or not. The postponing of the leaving certificate until the end of July was both an indication and a commitment that we were going to work towards making that happen. The Deputy is correct in saying that during a conversation with approximately 18,000 students online on Instagram - they were not necessarily all leaving certificate students although a lot of them were - I said we were looking at a provisional date of 29 July. One of the things I was accused of was not communicating directly with the young people themselves and I thought that engagement was a good opportunity to do so.
On the issue of predicted grades, plan B and contingency, we are working on all contingencies because we do not anticipate that things will be normal any time soon. We do not anticipate that we will be any more or less informed next week or the following week. We just do not know, and with that level of uncertainty, we have a moral obligation and duty to work on all contingencies and we are doing that. The vehicle for doing that is the stakeholders themselves. The students' voice is critical which is why the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU, is at the heart of this, as is the parents' voice, that of the teacher unions and the different patron bodies. That group is critical in determining how we move forward and answer the question as to how we do this at the end of July or the beginning of August.
With regard to mental well-being, there will be an announcement in a couple of days. There has been a lot of engagement between officials from the Departments of Education and Health. There must be a reach-out service for young people and I would encourage them, when that is announced, to use it. I know that young people live in the real world and have a lot of interaction with teachers. There is a lot of teacher to student support, whether that be from a guidance counsellor or a physics teacher. That type of support is usually available in schools and I appreciate that the teacher to student, shoulder to shoulder help is not there at the moment. It is a gap that we have identified and we want to add more support in that regard.
The Deputy mentioned the University of Limerick, UL, with which there is an issue at the moment. I have asked my officials to engage with officials from UL. I have asked them to continue with that engagement because we are not getting the answers sought by the people who are directly affected. We will continue with that engagement. I know that is not the answer the Deputy is seeking today but in general, in terms of the private providers, I have asked publicly that they consider pro-rata refunds and will continue to do so. I would argue that they have a moral duty or obligation to refund those students who are not in their private rental accommodation today, who were not there last week or the week before and who will not be there next week. There is a duty to look at some form of pro-rata reimbursement.
Maidir leis an gceist faoin Gaeilge táim ag breathnú ar rudaí a bhaint amach sna cheantair Ghaeltachta cosúil leis na coláistí samhraidh agus rudaí mar sin agus chomh maith leis sin na bunscoileanna agus na meánscoileanna sna Gaeltachtaí agus ag amharc go dtí an t-am go mbeidh siad ag obair le chéile na scoileanna lasmuigh den Ghaeltacht maidir leis an nGaeilge. Maidir leis na mná tí, tá obair ag dul ar aghaidh idir Roinn Cultúir, Oidhreachta agus na Gaeltachta agus Comhchoiste Náisiúnta na gColáistí Samhraidh CONCOS agus fuair an Roinn moltaí ó CONCOS agus táimid ag fanacht ar an toradh sin.
I thank the Minister for being here. Like others, I have not been impressed by the level of communication on the part of his Department and on that of sections of this Oireachtas. I wrote to the Minister on 12 March suggesting a collegiate, collaborative partnership approach across the Chamber. We have had one meeting in the past six weeks, on 1 April. The Minister has said much about the advisory group. He has put a lot of stock in it but my understanding is that he has not attended any of the group's meetings. The Minister got support across the Chamber in respect of the oral examinations and political backing regarding the postponement of the leaving certificate, but every issue relating to the Department of Education and Skills has been mishandled. It was once said to me by a leading trade union official that the Department of Education and Skills understands two things, teachers and buildings. If an issue does not relate to a teacher or a building, the Department does not know how to deal with it.
The Minister stated that the leaving certificate will start on 29 July. I ask him to confirm that date because what he says, how he says it and what the Department says has a massive impact on the mental health of the young people who are due to sit these examinations. It is a thumbscrew. It is not good enough for somebody in the Minister's position to state that the examinations might take place in July or in August and for it to be reported in The Irish Timesthat they might not take place until September. The Taoiseach stated in the House last week that the universities might not reopen until November. Every young person who is due to sit the leaving certificate is hearing all of this and wondering when somebody is going to make a decision. Also, the Government proposes to charge them €116 for the privilege. I am stunned at the Minister's statement that the best he can do is postpone the date for payment of the fee. It should be waived. Students should not be asked to pay €116 for the privilege of sitting the leaving certificate this year, particularly in light of what the majority of families are going through. The Minister would get cross-party support and plaudits were he to stand up right now and announce that for this year the fee will be waived. There is an argument that it should not be charged in a country that values the concept of free education.
On SNAs, the Minister mentioned that he is thankful for their contribution to the national effort. I am of the view that SNAs are owed an apology by the Department of Education and Skills for the manner in which their redeployment was mishandled. Yet again, there was a communication to our SNAs, not from the Minister or his Department but from the HSE, to the effect that some of the redeployment work in which they may be engaging will be carried out at HSE premises. There is also a suggestion of a 12-week contract that will continue throughout the summer. What SNAs are wondering and worried about is if they are going to stay in the educational sphere and why it is taking so long for this to be clarified. Hand on heart, I believe the Department would not deal with the teaching body in that way or with any other public servants in that manner. I am quite sure hospital consultants are not being dealt with in that manner.
I appreciate that the Minister referred to rent refunds and the University of Limerick. On speculation regarding primary schools, I accept that what happened is not the fault of the Minister present. However, it is not good enough for another Minister to wonder in a Sunday Independentinterview about schools reopening in June because every teacher then begins to wonder what will happen in June. They think that if a Minister is saying this in an interview, there must be something in it. Every teacher then starts to worry about childcare and every parent begins to wonder if he or she can justifiably send his or her child back to school in June. They wonder if this is really happening or if it is just something a Minister said off the top of his or her head. I appreciate these are trying times. Nobody here is trying to score points. We have been doing our best for the last six weeks to back the Minister but we are receiving huge numbers of emails from exasperated parents and students around the country. It is not good enough for a Minister to suggest that the schools will open for one day or for a half a day per week in June.
I want to ask the Minister a direct question about students who received SUSI, VTOS and back to education initiative grants and who are not able to complete their courses.
Could the Minister address that?
Finally, is there a plan B for the leaving certificate? None of us in this House looks at the Minister's situation and feels that any of this is his fault. He was handling the situation and the pandemic arrived. In fairness, as far as the oral examinations and the postponement of the leaving certificate are concerned, he has chosen the best worst option and has got political support on that. No one in the political system has pulled him up on that or scored a point against him on it. There must, however, be much more transparency on this issue because everything that comes out of his mouth is listened to by, as I said, every student and every teacher in the country. It is justifiable criticism that it was on an online forum on Tuesday that he decided to give us the date of 29 July. That date should have been announced in this forum, this House, or in a forum with which everyone in the country is familiar or in which everyone feels able to have some over and back with him on the matter.
I have raised a lot of issues with the Minister but I want him to address the timetable. I want him to refer in his answer to the fee, special needs assistants and the other issues I raised.
I thank the Deputy for raising a number of issues. Let us be very clear on the date. He is correct in what he says about a public forum on Tuesday night. What I said exactly was that the provisional date we were looking at was 29 July and I said I would confirm that in a couple of days. It has been a couple of days, so I confirm in the House tonight that 29 July is the start date. The Deputy asked a really important question about the timetabling and the sequence of timetabling now to try to work through the wider uncertainties which will continue to be there. The first week in June will be the time after the work of the advisory group is completed. Working with the State Examinations Commission, that will be the date on which to let students know in advance of 29 July how the format and the timetable will look then. That is the sequence of events. I take the Deputy's point about the uncertainty and lack of clarity, but that is the world within which we are working and there are so many unknowns as to where we will be. If there are better ways of communicating messages - certainly if there is a better and more efficient way for my Department to communicate to Members of this House - I will ask my officials to do that. However, we must have a complete understanding of how this disruption has affected not only wider society at a general level and the movement of people. Some 1,300 departmental staff members, between Marlborough Street, Athlone and Tullamore, had to change completely their way of working. They are working remotely. They are complying with the social distancing ruling and so on. There is a bombardment of issues, whether school meals or SNA redeployment. The world continues to go on within the Department. This is a disruption, but I will certainly take back to the Department the issue the Deputy raised about communicating messages back in a more efficient manner.
The Deputy also talked about the SNAs. I wish to acknowledge the Fórsa trade union. It sat down with officials and worked hard in advance of coming up with this formalised redeployment plan. Within that plan was an aim to ensure that SNAs could formally continue with the work they were already doing. Many SNAs from day one of the school closures continued to engage with their students, be it at primary school or leaving certificate level. Yes, the Deputy is correct that there has been confusion on this matter. As of now, however, there has been engagement and Fórsa and the Department officials have agreed that there will be a training element to this which will involve the HSE. That is just the training element and it may involve some of the training taking place for some of the SNAs in particular HSE buildings or community care settings. This will be remote work for the SNAs, not work in any other capacity that is not within the agreement between Fórsa and my officials.
Schools will not open unless it is safe for them to do so. I said here this evening that I am engaging with my officials on the issue of school fees. We have changed the date for payment to after the examinations but I will continue that conversation. I know the Deputy has raised it publicly with me previously and I am certainly listening here this evening.
I am becoming increasingly worried that the pursuance of the leaving certificate almost at all costs is becoming something akin to the great Dunkirk moment in our response regarding how we demonstrate our resilience or overcome adversity in the face of this pandemic, that we will do it regardless and get through it. With every day and week that passes, that window where we can present a viable alternative seems to be closing. One of the reasons I am growing more concerned about this is that with every phone call I get from a young person in my constituency telling me about his or her anxiety or distress, it seems like it is not going to be possible.
As I understand it and based on how I engaged with it through my previous role working in DEIS schools, the leaving certificate has always been something that illuminates the privileges that exist within society. It has always been a way for people to lock in privilege and ensure that their sons or daughters were able to get the best places in our universities and those who experienced disadvantage had less opportunity to do so. In the current environment, that gap of inequality that already existed is becoming a chasm. We have talked about this in the context of the digital divide, which is very important and to which I will return, but it is not just a digital divide that makes our system and how we judge our young people in terms of whether they are worthy of university. There are a multitude of other divides. I am dealing with students in inner-city Dublin who do not have access to a school table upon which they can do their homework or where they can study. Some of the parents of these children are working in front-line services and supermarkets. It is these same young people who are supposed to be doing their leaving certificate this year who have been asked to step in and provide care work. This is something being faced by these children. That gap of inequality will be exacerbated if we continue as we are.
I want to talk about how it is widening inequality and placing further pressure on students who are already dealing with it. The vast bulk of the two weeks about which we are talking when we bring students back before they do the leaving certificate will be taken up by teachers dealing with mental health support for students. They will be taken up by teachers sitting down with students and having students burst out of their classrooms and expressing the fact that they are not prepared for this. That happens every year and will happen to a even greater degree this year.
I will touch on the digital divide and the announcements made on the last day because I have some questions about them. I am particularly fascinated for a couple of reasons by the €7 million that was announced for secondary schools. Will the Minister confirm whether the €7 million for secondary schools to invest in digital technology was taken from the ICT budget that usually goes to top-ups from the Department to reward schools with good digital strategies? If so, technically, that is not an investment. If it is taken from the previous ICT budget, will that be available to the same extent next year or later on in the year?
Regarding what the €7 million actually looks like on the ground for schools, I am on the board of management of an inner-city school with 160 students. For my school, that works out at about €2,900 in total from the Department. For a similar school up the road that has 750 students, it works out at about €17,000 in total from the Department - €2,900 for my school of 160 students and €17,000 for the school with 750 students. That is fair enough. It is about €20 per student in the school or if schools are to take the advice of the Department and focus on the leaving certificate students, it is about €120 per sixth year student for devices. A circular from the Department stated that schools are left to purchase and distribute their own devices themselves, which I am sure will bring an added cost.
In a circular issued yesterday, the Department suggested that schools buy a HP Mini Tower with a 4k monitor for €979 or a Dell laptop for €1,178. The school of which I am a board member has 160 students and could buy three devices from its allocated funding. The school with 750 students could buy 17 devices. How will that be effective? Reference was made to the digital divide. How will the sum being provided be effective in bridging the digital divide when the need is far greater than the amount being allocated?
I do not wish to highlight only problems. There are solutions. Has the Department considered collaborating on proven initiatives? I previously brought to the attention of the Department a very effective initiative under way between the ESB, Camara Education Ireland and Trinity Access. It has the capacity to deliver devices directly to students on a national network and has sourced devices at one fifth of the cost of the devices suggested by the Department in its circular yesterday. I ask the Minister to address those questions, particularly that relating to leaving certificate students.
Given the level of inequality that exists and the fact that, unfortunately, many international students will not be taking up places in Irish universities this year, has the Minister considered increasing the number of access programme places in universities? If I have time remaining after the Minister replies, I will address the junior certificate. I ask the Minister to deal with the issues I have raised.
The Deputy expanded on a couple of major points, particularly the leaving certificate. He may have entered into dealing with where we need to go with the leaving certificate in the future in terms of the leaving certificate review. I have no doubt he will add to that debate when it arises. There is no doubt that future leaving certificates will have to be different from those in the past because this debate is about the class of 2021 as well as the class of 2020. Those students are losing out on class time with their teachers this year and dealing with uncertainty around the starting time for the new school year in September and how it will impact on them. The current situation has opened up the conversation on alternatives to a two-year leaving certificate course where everything goes down to the wire, such as through more continuous assessment. Unfortunately, we are not at that juncture. Given the current challenges for the leaving certificate, we do not have a standardised system that would lend itself to considering different ways of progressing it. However, we have a system that allows for objectivity, transparency and fairness by virtue of the papers being corrected anonymously. That fairness is central to the leaving certificate. The Deputy raised several issues and I take his point. I have been contacted by many individual students who highlighted the stress they are under and the difficulties they are experiencing. There is a big push from young people for predicted grades, but there are inherent challenges in ensuring that fairness would remain at the heart of the leaving certificate under such a system. For example, what recourse would be available to a student who receives a predicted grade and is left a few points short of achieving a place on a college course?
That brings me to the third element of the Deputy's questions. I will return to the issue of the digital divide. There may be extra places available on third level courses as a result of having fewer international students. As to whether we are looking at providing more access programme places, we are looking at everything. We are considering every scenario, which is why we set up the higher education group within the Department to look at the transition to third level.
On the digital divide, one of the challenges in politics is that the announcements one makes do not always cover everything. As the Deputy correctly pointed out, the €10 million allocation was originally intended for the back-end of the year and was to go to schools of excellence.
I made the decision, therefore, to look at that money, and rather than taking it all from the primary schools, we left €3 million for them. That €7 million is to go specifically to targeted intervention. I know the Deputy's board of management and principal will know exactly where the gaps potentially are and who needs the devices. Many of our students have smartphones and so they have that capacity, but as another Deputy mentioned as well, there is a competition going on in households for usage of devices, with parents working from home as well. There is extra funding for DEIS schools as well. We are also looking at bulk buying and we are looking at companies to see how we can get extra devices such as laptops at a more reasonable price.
I am sharing time with Deputy Barry. My main question centres on the rescheduling of the leaving certificate. As we all understand, that position will be taken in early June, which is five weeks away. There is a huge amount of uncertainty and a lack of clarity on this issue and there is a huge amount of anxiety among all parties, including teachers, parents and students. The general trend across Europe is quite mixed. In Britain, they have completely cancelled all exams this year. In France, they have cancelled all exams and they have done the same in the Netherlands. Some countries are waiting on the best medical advice. Those approaches should be kept in consideration over the next while. People Before Profit's view is that the leaving certificate should be cancelled and students should be admitted to a college certification scheme where grades would be allocated based on their work throughout the year. Any student that is not satisfied with his or her results should be allowed to sit the exam. The current situation is disadvantageous to students from underprivileged backgrounds because of a lack of access to laptops, Wi-Fi and educational space because most students are at home. That is a key factor. If the situation on 1 June is the same in relation to the recommendations on public health and gatherings of any size, is it the Minister's intention to cancel the leaving certificate and to give clarity on this issue?
I will leave the Minister plenty of time to answer that question. The Minister said earlier in the debate that there has been a collaborative approach but he also said there has been a consensus in the House on the issue of the leaving certificate. That is not correct. There is no consensus in this House on the issue of the leaving certificate. Solidarity, along with People Before Profit, does not agree with the Government's position on the leaving certificate. We think the leaving certificate should be cancelled. I will give the Minister ten reasons the leaving certificate should be cancelled this year. First, the students have not had classes in their schools for weeks upon weeks. What kind of preparation is that? Second, many students are in homes with no devices and others are in homes with a shortage of devices.
Third, many students trying to prepare away from their school are in areas that do not have broadband or its quality is poor. Fourth, students have been denied access to their schools and libraries and have been forced to study at home. Many of those homes are overcrowded, some seriously so, leaving aside the people who are living in direct provision, young Travellers or those who are homeless. Fifth, students prepared for an exam with an idea of where the finish line would be and now it is being extended, not by a couple of days or weeks but by the best part of two months. The sixth reason is anxiety. Exam halls will not be empty or nearly empty. The Minister and the teachers will ensure they are made as safe as is possible but a student who is anxious, sitting on a chair at a desk with a paper in front of them, will feel anxiety about the Covid-19 situation, regardless of how safe the exam hall is made with social distancing.
The next reason is the number of children living in homes where there is the additional stress of a parent or parents being front-line workers. The next is the number of students who will be studying for exams who have gone through the trauma of a family member being hospitalised by Covid-19 in the run-up to the exams. How many will sit the exams who had a family member die as a result of the disease in the run-up to the exams? All these lead to the key, overarching reason which is mental health. Something that I have picked up during this debate, is that students and teachers tell us that stress levels are not just increasing a little but are in many cases going through the roof. The Minister told us earlier that the health and well-being of students would be at the heart of any decision he makes. I do not see how he can say that when the vast majority of students are in favour of the cancellation of this year's leaving certificate. That is what we see all around us. I am sure that most years, some students would say they would like the leaving certificate to be cancelled but this time around it is not a small few but a large majority including many of the most conscientious students who see the mental health pressure on their friends.
I do not see how the Minister can give me or anyone else a real guarantee that the mental health pressures this is putting on young people will not have very serious consequences. We should not take risks with things like this. Since entering this House, I have heard many speeches on the importance of mental health, including for young people. I think it is pious hypocrisy if the Minister drives on regardless with this leaving certificate. I am asked in return what is my alternative. That is often a good question but not always; sometimes something is so much of a mistake in itself it is not necessary to fully answer that question. Where there is a will there is a way. We can learn from other countries. We can give every student the leaving certificate and increase State investment in such a way that there is a place in third level next year for every student who wants it and find various mechanisms to allocate places, whether it is students' first, second or third preference.
Finally, this is about respect.
I understand. The greatest way to disrespect any person is to force him or her to do something he or she really does not want to do. That is what the Minister is doing to the majority of the students facing the leaving certificate examinations in the period ahead. Will the Minister cancel them?
The plan we are working on is to have the leaving certificate examinations this year. They have been postponed. I take the points on pressure and anxiety. That is why I stated earlier that central to any decision will be the well-being and health, including mental health, of every single one of the 61,000 young people in this year's leaving certificate class. That is why we are putting the support systems in place.
There is, however, international evidence of different countries doing different things. We are monitoring the different practices. Central to every decision we have made since the pandemic became a massive issue is ensuring we will be guided by public health officials. I am informing myself, be it through direct contact with Dr. Tony Holohan or any other health expert, including, as recently as today, Dr. Mike Ryan from the World Health Organization. I had a 15-minute conversation with Dr. Ryan because I am taking this seriously. I am getting the same emails as the Deputy in respect of the pressure young people are under. However, I am also getting emails and messages from young people who are studying hard, doing the online courses and using technology with innovative teachers who are staying in touch with them. This is different. I do not have time to deal with every point the Deputy made and I do not believe it would be fair to negate every single one of them. Let me deal with the first, however. The Deputy is saying that because leaving certificate students have lost a number of weeks of classroom teaching, we should cancel the leaving certificate examinations. That same argument could be made for the 2021 class. They are also losing out on class time. These are the scenarios we are working on, but central to any decision will be the health and well-being of the students. We will work with the advisory group. It is the advisory group that has to examine the practicalities and health advice and determine whether what is proposed can work. That is what we will work through over the next couple of weeks.
I referred to anxiety. The Deputy raised the issue of cancellations in some countries. He mentioned France and Great Britain. We are also looking at examples of where countries are going ahead with exams, including Germany and South Korea. We are looking at international evidence. We are not in the same position as Britain in the context of how it deals with its GCSEs or A levels. It operates over a longer period. That is resulting in difficulties for it also, as I have learned from my contact with some of my British colleagues.
In a couple of days, we will be making the announcement on the supports, bearing in mind the anxiety, pressure and stress. There is help for every young person who feels under pressure. They should reach out. There is somebody at the other end of the line.
In recent weeks I have been contacted by numerous students and parents about non-reimbursement of fees paid for unused student accommodation. This has been mentioned previously. Universities and large private accommodation operators differ greatly in their approaches to handling student accommodation refunds. It is interesting to note that UCC students are in the fortunate position to have received confirmation that they will receive a pro rata refund of their accommodation fees while students at the University of Limerick and the accommodation of other large providers are, on the other hand, offered no reimbursement. Likewise, some large accommodation providers have also refused to offer a partial refund of fees paid.
Student accommodation providers must refund students who have had to return home because of Covid-19. Students are following the HSE guidelines by returning home. Many of them have lost their jobs. There are families who are temporarily out of work and they cannot be expected to pay for student accommodation that cannot be used. Many students are helping vulnerable family and community members while trying to keep up with their college work online.
This is a very stressful period for everybody. While there are numerous reasons given for refusing to provide the refunds. the fact is that student accommodation is shared and possibly overcrowded with as few as three or as many as seven students sharing making it impossible to be at a social distance and comply with Government advice. Some providers are arguing that students may or were free to stay in the accommodation. Why would they cocoon themselves in student accommodation with six other people and be expected not to return home between March and May when the colleges were shut down? It is also the case that many of these accommodation providers received public supports through tax incentives for sites and other supports and may now be availing of a mortgage break. Many of these providers are not in many instances incurring the running costs associated with the students' presence. The Government needs to call again on all private and public accommodation providers to make refunds to students and return deposits. It needs to give a clear direction to these accommodation providers. Will the Minister tell the forlorn students and their families what actions he and the Government have taken to assist those, in particular those who receive no State grants, to be given a refund?
I am also inundated with queries about future deposits being requested by the end of May 2020 to secure accommodation in advance of the 2020-2021 college year. Parents are very anxious that Covid-19 may result in the leaving certificate not going ahead or that Covid-19 related problems may prevent their student child attending their desired college and the deposit will be non-refundable, causing a great deal of anxiety and stress to parents, many of whom are now unemployed, and to their children. Will the Minister outline what actions if any he intends to take to ensure that students' deposits will be refunded.
Year on year Irish students travel to America on the J1 programme. It is a cultural exchange and a unique experience for those who avail of it, making lifelong acquaintances and memories. On 12 March the US State Department announced the temporary suspension of the J1 visa programme until 11 May due to Covid-19, with a review to be conducted every 30 days thereafter. This is compounded by the closure of the US embassy in Dublin. There will be no visa interviews until further notice due to Covid-19. Since this announcement there have been further significant measures taken by the US federal and respective state governments on work and travel restrictions with potential implications for the J1 students obtaining obligatory summer work. Given that thousands of Irish students have secured places and made payments on behalf of their Irish agents also, some of whom are small and medium enterprises seeking to continue in business throughout the pandemic, will the Minister seek clarification from the US embassy on a proposed reopening date and seek clarity from the State Department on the status of the J1 programme? The unfortunate prospect for some is that due to the appointment of a liquidator to the largest J1 agent in Ireland, USIT, which in thousands of cases has acted as travel agent for flights and other services for students, they and their families who have paid for a visa, flights, insurance and other expenses now face the prospect of losing thousands of euros. What actions do the Minister and the Government intend to take to ensure that students are not at any loss as a result of USIT's insolvency?
The Minister has stated that the leaving certificate will go ahead. While the bulk of those concerned are happy for it to go ahead, there are many students and their families who have been affected to varying degrees by the crisis, whether because of poor or no Internet access, a difficult family situation or, worst of all, a bereavement in the family either due to Covid-19 or during Covid-19. All of the aforementioned cause a magnitude of pressure and stress, coupled with the worry for parents that the chosen college, if any, may not be on the cards in the coming autumn mainly because of financial strife. With this in mind I ask the Minister to reconsider the leaving certificate fee and college fees for next year. Student grants are decided on the basis of the previous year's income.
This will in no way reflect the reality of 2020, the Covid-19 year. I am aware of great anxiety among students who have to change CAO applications because of unexpected family financial strife, with parents now unemployed and students unlikely to earn any money to assist them through college. Therefore, providing 2019 financial statements will in many cases preclude access to the SUSI grant. Will the Minister set out what actions the Government intends to take to ensure that students will be able to access college education in the 2020-21 year?
Yes, there were about seven or eight questions asked. We will ensure the Deputy gets a note on each of those important issues.
I will reiterate a message that I have already stated publicly to private operators and accommodation providers - they should consider the difficulties that families are experiencing. If families have paid deposits or advances up to the end of the term, I would ask the providers to do the right thing and pay back that money, to which the students are rightfully entitled. In the first instance, I advise students to engage with their providers. There is a legal mechanism available through the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019, but the first port of call - the providers paying back the money - would cut out much of the hardship involved. I would ask them to do so.
The University of Limerick is not a private body, but a public one. Our officials are engaging with its officials, who I am publicly asking to reconsider their approach. That should be done.
There is considerable uncertainty and nervousness around the J1 programme. I understand the difficulties that the liquidation of the company that administers the J1 USA visa system will cause for Irish students wishing to go to the United States. I would ask that they register with the liquidator if they have paid deposits. As I understand the matter, that is what should be done to pursue any refund that might be available. Students might also have private insurance that covers this scenario.
On the wider point about travel to the US, its entry requirements are a matter for the US Government. I am aware that my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and our ambassador in the US are monitoring changes in those requirements. I would also remind students of the public health advice at home in terms of travel and ask that they bear that in mind when making arrangements to travel.
As to the difficulties with the leaving certificate, I would be repeating what I have already said in the Chamber, as we have gone through the matters raised. However, the Deputy also mentioned the leaving certificate fee. I asked my officials to consider the issue and will do so again. I have changed the payment date requirement to after the exams, but I hear the message coming from the Chamber relating to the fee.
A number of other Deputies also raised the question of the SUSI grant and the 2019 assessment. Things are different now - Covid-19 has changed everything, and we are reviewing how to move forward with the SUSI grant.
I will raise an issue that has been raised a great deal. Leaving certificate students are concerned by the way in which the exam is being handled. In their opinion, the recent announcement gave little to no clarity. It gave them no date to work towards and told them that practical exams would have to be completed two weeks before their actual exams even while they tried to catch up with what they had missed. It created more questions than it answered. What about subjects like art, where work can only be done in school? What about leaving certification vocational programme, LCVP, exams? The postponement of the leaving certificate extends pressure on everyone and maintains the great anxiety people feel.
Students had planned to get jobs in the summer to earn money to support themselves in college and try to secure accommodation.
Now all of that has been thrown out because the leaving certificate is hanging over them. Even if we take away the fact they will lose the summer and will have to try to teach themselves remotely for the foreseeable future, another major problem will remain, namely, that if the virus has not fully dissipated by July or August, what will they do then? If the exams are run it will increase the risk of infection. In many families there are parents and siblings with underlying conditions and others working on the front line. This means students will have two choices. They can risk infecting their families or risk losing their future. For the sake of the mental and physical health of students, as well as the health of everyone as a whole, the leaving certificate should be cancelled and replaced with a predicted grade system.
Hundreds of students and parents have sent me emails. Will the Minister please indicate where all of the incoming first year university students will find accommodation when they finally receive their college places, given that all of the other year groups will be back before them? There are not enough on-campus accommodation places for everyone. This is another unintended but extremely problematic consequence of the Minister's decision.
One student who emailed me stated that the Minister's decision is not the fairest, while the decisions made in the UK and most other countries are fair to all. The writer states that students should not be the ones to suffer because of the Minister's lack of an alternative. The writer also states that the Minister was presented with a favourable alternative, as voted for by students and teachers. This is to implement a predicted grade system, taking into account the work done over the past two years. If students are unhappy with their grades, they can sit the exam. Everybody would win. The writer sees no reason the Minister has chosen to ignore this option. From the information I have received since the most recent announcements were made, it is obvious that the students of Ireland are looking for the leaving certificate to be cancelled and a predicted grade system to be implemented. Perhaps we could also offer them the alternative whereby if they do not want to take part in a predicted grade system, they could sit the exam, as is proposed now. This would give everyone a fair chance.
Colleges are not offering refunds to students for on-campus accommodation. All colleges have a duty of care to all students during this time. Many students and families have lost their jobs and are under extreme financial pressure. Students should be refunded for accommodation that is not in use. Does the Government intend to make changes to SUSI grant applications for college students who will be commencing their studies in September? Will the Government increase the income threshold for families and thereby enable them to get the full grant?
Will the Minister seriously consider implementing a no detriment policy in third level institutions in order to ensure that no student's academic achievements will be negatively impacted? Will the Minister consider a predicted grade system for the leaving certificate class of 2020, similar to those implemented in many other countries?
I concur with all of the sentiments we have heard from across the House. It is all about the leaving certificate, and rightly so. The point has been raised that not everyone has connectivity through good broadband and Wi-Fi, particularly in rural areas where people are lucky to have phone reception. The children there cannot even participate Skype or Zoom. It has been rightly said that secondary school is not all about the leaving certificate and that it is also about fifth year. Fifth year is as important as sixth year. In the context of practical subjects, most of the work is done in fifth year and the final six months of sixth year involve revision. For many classes, such as art, the students need to be in the school.
Parents who are now off work might be back in work - if it is available to them - when the exams take place. Depending on their job situation, they may have to work. This will cause a problem for them. There has to be a happy medium when it comes to the leaving certificate. As Deputy Michael Collins stated, if people want to sit the leaving certificate, let them do so. If they do not, let them, as has been stated, obtain grades pro rata.
As important as the leaving certificate is when moving from second level to third level, sixth class in national school also marks a massive changeover. Primary school pupils are in one classroom from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. When they go to second level education, their classes are broken up with different teachers.
It is huge for sixth class children, who have lost out on the integration before starting first year of second level education. We also have to look at what we want to introduce for them in the aftermath of this to allow them to integrate in first year. The move from sixth class to first year will be overwhelming for many, including in regard to mental health, and they will need support. We also need support for fifth year and sixth year students and this need will go into 2021.
I thank both Deputies for raising these important matters. On Deputy Collins's point on clarity around practicals and the leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, those issues are being prioritised at the advisory group forum. They were discussed on Friday, there is another meeting tomorrow, and there will be biweekly meetings in the weeks ahead. We need to get more clarity on the practicals. The Deputy is correct that some artwork is still in the schools and there are issues around construction studies, woodwork and on-site practicals. There is a lot of working out to be done but we will get clarity as soon as possible in that regard.
The Deputy asked where we will be in July and August in regard to the risk of infection and the answer is that we do not know. With everything we do in the next period until we find a vaccine, there is going to be a risk. We are going to go into another winter period potentially with no vaccine and we are going to face further risk in terms of this flu potentially still being there. I will leave nothing undone with respect to ensuring we do not put students at risk and we will be working within the public health advice. I am reaching out to everybody involved. I am reaching out to Professor Philip Nolan on NPHET, and as I said earlier, I am reaching out to those like Dr. Mike Ryan. These are the experts in the field in terms of ensuring the health, safety and well-being, not just of students but of staff, support staff, supervisors and all the teams that will be in the school at the end of July and beginning of August.
The Deputy asked about the potential to have predicted grades and to sit exams at the same time. We looked at all the scenarios. Deputies raised the question of whether we are looking at a plan B or at contingencies. We are looking at all contingencies. I am confident that with the people and voices we have around the table, such as parent representative groups, student representative groups, union representative groups, teacher representative groups and all the patron bodies, we will ensure we do not put any student at risk.
The Deputy also mentioned the no-detriment policy for third level. It was announced by the Minister of State with responsibility for higher education on 8 April that further and higher education institutions will not be holding written, oral or practical assessments in examination centres during the Covid-19 emergency. Universities and colleges have finalised alternative assessment arrangements, with options including online exams, written assignments or rescheduling. New assessment arrangements have been communicated to all their students. An important point is that students who are not able to participate in alternative assessment arrangements will not be penalised.
I thank Deputy O'Donoghue for raising various issues and I note his concerns around the postponement of the leaving certificate. It is not an ideal scenario, nor is it the ideal world we would like to find ourselves in. We are working and making decisions with sometimes very limited information in terms of predicting where we will be at in a number of weeks. The most important timeframe is that there will be a further announcement from NPHET in regard to schools on 5 May, and that week from 1 June will be very important in determining how we implement the leaving certificate in July and August.
I take note of the Deputy's point that this is not just impacting on sixth year students and that fifth years are being impacted in terms of their own practical and course work as well as their class time. I note his point that it is a big step up from sixth class of primary school. It is a big transition that can have a big impact. That is something we will be cognisant of in terms of wrapping that support system around students who need it.
I am glad the Deputy raised that point because it has not been raised to date.
Agus an clog ag teannadh linn, déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall a bheith chomh sciobtha agus is féidir. I understand that some issues are complex, such as the leaving certificate, and that there are pluses and minuses involved. In that context, the specific questions in my name and in those of my colleagues, Deputy Pringle and Deputy Joan Collins, are not complex. They are straightforward, practical solutions, and justice comes into it. They have been raised by other Deputies so I will not dwell on them. One relates to the private providers of accommodation to do the right thing and give back the money. Could the Minister give me something stronger than telling them to do the right thing? What actions has he taken? What actions does he intend to take?
Along with that, we have the University of Limerick as an outlier. As I understand it, the latter distinguishes itself by being the only public institution that has not returned the funding. What exactly has the Minister and his Department done in regard to that matter? What contact has the Minister had with the University of Limerick? I understand that a sizeable number of students are affected - 2,800 - but there are also the multiplier effects of that on their families who have lost jobs, lost loved ones and so on. What exactly has happened? What has been the engagement? I note the Minister mentioned engagement but we need firmer action than that, particularly in the context of students going home to families that are suffering. Those questions have been tabled in my name and those of my colleagues.
I have another specific question which I will deal with very quickly and perhaps the Minister can answer it. I welcome the €50 million the Minister referred to in his contribution, although it is difficult to gauge how effective that will be or how it will be used without details. He might return to that in due course.
In the context of a national school in Galway which has come forward, and it is a DEIS school, it pointed out to me the extra expense incurred. It is one thing providing money for technology, which I welcome, but one must also realise that technology is only part of the help that is needed. We need human help. We need practical help on the ground. The school in question is incurring expense every week as a result of posting out packages, which has to be done for children who are participating in particular programmes and children with special needs. It has asked specifically if an arrangement can be made with An Post. Presumably, the question is also whether the money the Department is making available can be used for that extra expense that schools are incurring.
In the last couple of minutes available, because I want to leave time for the Minister to answer, I wish to raise the other main concern which is the foreign language students who have been left stranded, primarily in Dublin but also throughout the country. I believe the Minister is in receipt of correspondence. If he is not, various Ministers are in receipt of such correspondence in respect of this matter. Dublin has the highest percentage of these students but they are also in Galway, Cork and Limerick. I understand that at least 1,000 students are left stranded and living in dangerously overcrowded accommodation. They have lost whatever part-time jobs they had. There are major risks to their health and to the health of other people. Our former colleague, Clare Daly, who was a Deputy but who is now an MEP, has written to many Departments over a number of weeks trying to draw attention to this issue and get some response. The teacher who has gone to the trouble of pointing out the extent of the problem in Dublin and in other countries has been very helpful. They have highlighted that there is a problem with accommodation, financial security, PPS numbers and other documentation but the biggest problem is that these students have been left stranded without anybody mentioning them. It is unfortunate that nobody mentioned them today in the Dáil either. I will leave the Minister time to answer the questions and I might get a chance to come back in depending on how quickly he responds.
Regarding private providers, all I will do today is appeal to them to use their judgment and do the right thing in regard to paying back money that is owed to these third level students.
In the first instance, I ask the students to engage with the provider. The Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019 provides for recourse as well. It is difficult, and there is no excuse for that not happening. I make that appeal once again.
The Deputy asked about engagement with the University of Limerick. The Secretary General of the Department has been engaging directly with the president of the University of Limerick. I and the Department appeal to the university to join with the other third level colleges regarding the decisions they made.
As regards the €50 million ICT announcement, primary and secondary schools were expecting the €40 million announcement for this time of year. In fact, it should have been a number of weeks earlier but with all that is going on in the Department it has been announced at a later date. I have decided with regard to the €10 million, which was usually announced at the end of the year for school excellence funding for the use of technology, that €7 million of that is to be used by post-primary schools that have specific data and information on hard-to-reach students or students who might need a laptop or to use it in an autonomous way as they see fit. It is a fund of €7 million and they have complete autonomy with it. Deputy Gannon is a member of a board of management and was raising this earlier in terms of whether it would go far enough. It may not go far enough in some schools but the schools have the autonomy to use the money as they see fit. The Deputy also raised the matter of human health. We are working closely with our colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure that we continue to use the mental health supports to deal with the stress and anxiety of students. There will be an announcement on that in a couple of days.
The fund, unfortunately, will not be used for a contribution towards funding for postage. Schools are using resources in different ways now, with much communication to families and potentially harder to reach families who may not have proper broadband facilities. They are sending material out. There is capitation funding that can be used at the schools' discretion in that regard.
International English language students is an issue that has been raised a number of times. Fiachra Ó Luain in Carndonagh has contacted me indirectly through a colleague of mine in Culdaff and raised this issue. We have been engaging with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Department of Health to provide whatever support we can in this regard. It is a difficult one because some international students who were in temporary employment or had a temporary employment contract get the payment, but the students who did not have an employment contract or were being paid in cash are not included in the Covid-19 payment. As English is not the first language of students in this sector and as a number would not consume the same media as domestic students, we must ensure the information and messaging on the latest health advice reaches these students. The Department of Justice and Equality has undertaken a range of measures to ensure the students do not have to worry about their immigration status during this crisis and through engagement with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection students have been informed that where they have lost their job as a result of the pandemic, they are eligible for payment. They have also been informed that their employers can avail of the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme which enables employees whose employers are affected by the pandemic to receive significant supports directly from their employer.
The public gets frightened when we mention a task force, and sometimes it is set up to not do work. There has been very strong engagement between the Departments. For example, the Department is also engaging with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. The HSE is putting facilities in place to allow for the isolation of individuals if they are required to self-isolate.
Nobody will be left out. I assure Deputy Connolly that I will have one of my officials make direct contact with the Deputy to update her on the work that is being done and if there are any gaps we will get back to the Deputy.
I thank Members. It was a well-deserved round of applause for those whom it was intended and for all those involved in the struggle against the virus.
Members can continue with questions and the Minister has the option of a five minute reply.
I have said to the Deputy that I will have one of the officials contact her directly to link in and to update on what has been done. There has been quite a considerable amount of work done at an interdepartmental level. If there are other gaps that we can help to work on then we would be happy to do that.