Thursday, 23 July 2020
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
On Tuesday, I was glad to see that the Tánaiste agreed with my view when a spokesperson said on his behalf that, if the travel advice for countries on the green list was not different to the advice relating to other countries, we would be better off not having a green list at all. Fair play to the Tánaiste. On Tuesday night, however, the Government agreed the opposite. It gave a green light to go and then said "Do not go". The advice from the Government remains not to travel except in essential circumstances.
Last night, Ryanair sent a notification to thousands of people across the State telling them that they had the green light to fly to Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Malta and more and offering them cheap flights. Has the Tánaiste received that notification? Maybe he also received it. We are used to ridiculous announcements from Ryanair, but we are discussing public health. This is not a gimmick. Yesterday, a Minister was forced to admit that the issue of the green list was confusing. That is a result of Government policy.
Does the Tánaiste share my concern that Ryanair is using the green list to encourage people to fly to the destinations on it? What action, if any, can the Government take?
I thank the Deputy. No airline or tour operator can issue travel advice on behalf of the Government - the Government issues travel advice. If anyone is confused about travel advice, he or she should go to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's website to find it. It may not be simple, but it is clear. What we are saying to people is that the safest thing is to stay at home and holiday in Ireland this year. However, there is a difference between countries that have a very low level of the virus and those that do not. If someone is travelling to and returning from a green list country or just coming from there, that person does not need to restrict his or her movements for 14 days on arrival in Ireland. The list will be updated every two weeks based on public health advice and epidemiological data. If someone is coming in from countries that are not on the green list, which account for the majority of the world, including Britain, that person needs to restrict his or her movements for 14 days. The individual will be treated as if he or she was a close contact. This means staying at home like during the lockdown and only going out for exercise on his or her own or to purchase essential supplies. I hope that is clear.
Every country and jurisdiction is taking a different approach. In Northern Ireland where Sinn Féin is in power, the decision has been taken to have a green list of 56 countries, some of which have a much higher incidence of infection than Ireland.
A couple of weeks ago I raised a sensitive issue with the Tánaiste in regard to adults with intellectual disabilities. I understand that next week the families will protest outside this venue because nothing has changed. The most vulnerable people in our communities and society, those with intellectual disabilities, are losing the will. I spoke to a mother this morning at 7.30 a.m. whose son is 29 years of age and had been up early. They are at their last tether. What has happened in the last two weeks? I have a list of all services in Ireland across each CHO area. There are little services, if any, in many cases. These are the people we are leaving behind. We are genuinely leaving these people behind. It is immoral. What are we going to do to ensure their day services are returned as soon as possible because we cannot countenance any more?
I thank Deputy Kelly for raising the issue. In the last 20 days since I took office I have liaised directly with the HSE and the Department of Health and yesterday I met the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to address this particular issue. I am acutely aware that there are 1,000 services and only 286 of them up and running and only 500 people have returned. We have set in place communication between the Department and the various providers. They are all individual units. As I said, I met yesterday with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly. We are acutely aware that funding needs to be put in place to ensure services can reopen in a safe way. A memo will be brought to Cabinet next week seeking funding in respect of which all providers can submit their plans for their units. The objective is to have at a minimum 50% but hopefully 70% of capacity returned by September. That is where we want to get to.
I get reports of wildlife crimes and habitat destruction on a regular basis. When I contact the National Parks and Wildlife Service the response is that an investigation will be carried out but very few investigations result in prosecutions. Recent successful prosecutions range from five in 2014 to 21 last year. Clearly, these rates are not a deterrent to people who illegally hunt, poison raptors and damage habitats. Why are there not more prosecutions?
The programme for Government commits to reviewing funding for the National Parks and Wildlife Service but it desperately needs to go further. The service needs to be properly resourced and there is need for a specialised Garda unit to deal with wildlife crime. What assurances can the Tánaiste provide that the laws will be enforced?
I thank the Deputy for the question. The budget for the National Parks and Wildlife Service has been increased in recent years and I am confident it will be again. We have some fabulous national parks in Ireland. A lot of people will have an opportunity to discover them over the next couple of months. I was in the Burren National Park last weekend. I encourage people to visit but not in too large numbers because it does takeaway from it when there are too many people there. It is difficult for me to answer the question so I will ask the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to correspond with the Deputy in more detail. I do know that prosecutions can be difficult to take in this area because for a prosecution to be effective evidence is needed. Evidence of wildlife crimes usually involves either a witness or a video. Without those, it is hard to secure a prosecution. We need to do more for sure.
For some weeks the Government has been promising the famous July stimulus, the details of which we will get soon, with legislation presumably to be discussed next week. Is it not the case that the term "stimulus" is completely a misnomer when what was leaked today and was in the air for the last number of days is that there will not be a stimulus for some of the people on the lowest incomes and some of the people who have been hardest hit by loss of income and unemployment, caused not by any fault of their own but because of the impact of Covid? The plan now is not to stimulate but to slash the payments of people who have lost their jobs and whose incomes have been reduced and to cut progressively the pandemic unemployment payment over the coming months. How is cutting the incomes of people who have lost jobs and incomes a stimulus?
The wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment were welcome supports. I appreciate that these supports will continue as we move towards normal living with the coronavirus but I hope that the stimulus package to be announced today will provide supports for tour guides, small hospitality businesses which only ever operate in June, July and August and as such were not open in February to qualify for these supports. Will the wage subsidy scheme and rates moratorium continue into 2021? Private bus operators surely should also be included.
As we ask more people to continue to work from home the cost for many of setting up a workspace in the home is a barrier. It is vital that when working from home people are able to separate work from personal life for wellbeing. Is it proposed to provide an increase in tax relief for those working from home, besides giving them proper broadband?
The Tánaiste's earlier response to Deputy Pearse Doherty in regard to education was not much of an answer. Surely he knows a bit more about the July stimulus. Reopening schools will require investment. Will the July stimulus contain money for additional space and to ensure every school has hot water and adequate personal protective equipment? When will we know more? A Revised Estimate was introduced with no additional money for the Department of Education of Skills. Will money be provided in the July stimulus to be announced this afternoon to ensure that all schools can reopen? We need staff and hygiene but we need money particularly.
The Cabinet will meet in Dublin Castle this afternoon. At that meeting, all things going to plan, the Government will agree the July stimulus package and publish it this afternoon. The package will, of course, require debate in the House, including legislation next week. Until the decision is made by Cabinet I cannot reveal the contents of it but all of the matters that Deputies have raised will be considered.
Deputy Boyd Barrett asked what is a stimulus. Stimulus is the Government pumping money into the economy. That is exactly what we are doing. We will pump about €30 billion into the economy this year. The stimulus package is only part of that. We are taking in about €50 billion in taxes and spending €80 billion. Therefore, €30 billion is being pumped into the economy. That is a stimulus. The plan was to end the wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment around 10 August but that will now not be the case. They will be extended and there will be a further stimulus but we will set out how they will be phased out because they cannot last forever. People appreciate that. The best way to help people is to get them back to work, not to keep them on welfare forever, which is very different type of policy that I do not support.
The Road Safety Authority closed all national driver licensing services, NDLS, due to the pandemic. The Government provided for an extension of driving licences for three months, which was important, but that three months has elapsed. The NDLS centre in Clonmel, and others throughout the country, are closed, over-booked and cannot provide appointments to people whose licences will expire today, next week or the week after and it is not possible to renew a licence online. This is a very serious situation. People who do not have a licence cannot drive. This is affecting business, families, young people and old people. The Government needs to provide for a further extension of licences that have expired or are due to expire until such time as people can get an appointment to renew them. There is anarchy out there. All proper living people will not drive without a licence. Also, they are not insured to drive without a licence. People need to be given appointments to renew their licences and in the meantime the extension needs to be further extended.
The Deputy makes a very good argument. I am not up to date on the matter. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is here and she may be up to date on it but if not I will seek a reply from the Department for the Deputy.
The Government correctly, in my view, made a decision on public health guidelines to make mandatory the wearing of masks on public transport and in retail outlets. Masks cost money. A pack of 50 blue masks costs €50 or €2 each if bought separately. A pack of four cloth face masks costs €24. Has the Government decided to reflect the public health guidance and provide masks free of cost to those on social welfare, old age pension and disability benefits and homeless people?
I have seen homeless people trying to get on buses and trams and they have not got face masks on because they cannot afford them or access them. Will the Government discuss this in detail and put some system in place to provide free face masks for those who need them?
It is not necessary for people to purchase surgical masks or respiratory masks. I look around the House today and I see a large number of Deputies who are wearing cloth face coverings. That will suffice-----
I want to ask the Tánaiste a question on education. Some smaller schools will lose a teacher this year because of a drop in pupil numbers. Can a moratorium be put on that for 12 months to allow them to meet their requirements in respect of Covid-19? For a school of four teachers to go to three, it will have a significant impact on social distancing within that school. It is common sense that there be a moratorium for 12 months on smaller schools losing a teacher.
I have raised this matter before and I have serious concerns. The pragmatic step to take would be to bring in a moratorium. I raised the issue with the previous Minister with responsibility. It is only fair and right because many additional substitute teachers will be needed. There are schools that are falling only marginally short of the number of pupils required to retain teachers. If they lose that valuable teacher, it will put them in a difficult position. In my constituency, I am aware of one school in Ferbane that is losing a teacher. It is totally unfair. Given that we are in the middle of a pandemic, I ask that we show some common sense and put a moratorium on any teacher losses.
This is an important issue. I understand that a mechanism is in place for small schools that were due to lose a teacher to have that decision appealed or reviewed. I do not know whether there are plans to have a moratorium. As I mentioned earlier, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, will be here to take oral questions next week. The deadline is still open for Deputies to submit questions and I am sure she will be happy to answer them in detail.
The programme for Government promised to increase the capacity within our hospitals, which means additional beds. This week, at a meeting of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, the Irish Hospital Consultants Association, IHCA, stated we need to fast-track 7,100 acute community and rehabilitation beds, as well as doubling the capacity in ICU. A total of 25% of acute hospitals' inpatient beds could be lost as a result of physical distancing measures. Given what the IHCA stated and what is promised in the programme for Government, why are we failing to carry this out on the ground?
Belmullet hospital is a case in point. There are five patients within the hospital and there is a full complement of staff. There is no provision to do the slight maintenance work that needs to be done. At a Labour Court hearing on this last year it was recommended that four staff would be employed, but then the Government brought in the moratorium, so that could not happen. There are carers who cannot avail of respite and there are no step-down facilities. All we have is empty promises.
I cannot answer the Deputy's question specific to Belmullet hospital but I will ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to correspond with her on that. There is no moratorium. We have 15,000 more health staff now than only a few years ago and we are recruiting all the time. Bed capacity is being increased. Three new hospitals are under construction in the country, one of which, the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire, has recently been completed, while new hospital wings have been built or completed all over the country, in Clonmel, Waterford and Limerick, for example. It might not be happening fast enough but it is happening and we will try to speed it up.
It should not all be about beds. I can understand why hospital consultants and people who work in hospitals will always say there should be more hospital beds but there is more to the health service than hospitals. Although when compared with many other countries, we have many fewer beds, it is interesting that when we are compared with countries such as Denmark or Sweden, where primary care is very advanced, we actually have more beds per head than they do, and a similar number to that of the UK National Health Service. It should never be simplified to that level; it is a very hospital-centric view of things.
The previous Government promised and failed to deliver a new fair deal Bill. Farmers and business families are being penalised due to the current fair deal scheme. Will the Government address the shockingly unfair deal? When will it introduce legislation on a new fair deal?
Yesterday I was contacted by a constituent whose mother is a resident in the Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon. By chance, on a visit to her mother last week, she was told that, in four and a half weeks' time, her mother and residents from two other wards in the home will be removed to two other nursing homes in the county. This relates to works that are necessary for the nursing home to be HIQA compliant.
Understandably, families are really concerned about any relocation of residents, given the Covid-19 crisis, which we are not through just yet. A HSE statement today stated consultation is under way with families and residents, yet in the case of the resident whose daughter I spoke to yesterday, the family have not even got a letter or any communication from the HSE about this move. Will the Government please ensure that the HSE communicates and consults the families and residents who are going to be moved? Will it also ensure that the HSE communicates with HIQA on any alternatives that could be put in place, rather than moving residents in the midst of a global pandemic?
I am glad to hear the facility is being upgraded to comply with HIQA standards and I am sure the Deputy is too, but it is not right that families are not communicated with and that should happen. I will certainly let the Minister for Health know that the matter was raised and, perhaps, he will be able to contact her directly.
I wish to ask the Tánaiste about the detail of the promise in the programme for Government to "[i]ncrease the number of specialist palliative care beds countrywide over the next five years, ensuring that there will be a hospice serving every region in the country." I was very disappointed when reading the programme for Government that there is a lack of detail throughout the document. There are very few numbers, which means there are very few clear targets. I feel that this is just a way to avoid being held to account when little or no progress is being made. What is meant by a "region"? Is it a county, a province or a major town? County Laois does not have an inpatient hospice or a specialist palliative care unit but we need one. We need a clear plan as to how and when it will be delivered, and we need one that is fit for purpose and for the future. In developing end-of-life services, the care and dignity of a dying person and his or her family must be our focus.
I think we would all agree that our hospices in Ireland provide excellent end-of-life care, both in terms of hospice care and home care. There has been a significant increase in capacity in our hospices in recent years. The hospice in Mayo opened only in the past year or so, I think a new hospice is due to open in Wicklow soon, while there are new hospice developments both in Waterford, in the Dunmore wing, and in Drogheda. Much progress is being made in this regard.
A "region" does not mean a town or a county; it is bigger than that. It is acknowledged that one region that does not have a hospice at the moment is the midlands region. There has been some difficulty in agreeing on where in the midlands that should be, but the Government wants to put that right and ensure there is an inpatient hospice in the midlands within the next five years.
The programme for Government does not explicitly mention the Navan rail line but it does not mention a commitment to rail. Navan is the largest town in Ireland not serviced by rail. Before and during the general election campaign, all parties committed to delivering a rail line to Navan, including the three parties now in government. Will the Government deliver a rail line to Navan, as was promised during the campaign for the general election?
The programme for Government gives a commitment on page 5 to value our older people and in this regard I raise the closure of Mount Cara on Redemption Road in Cork city. This is a residential care setting with capacity for 25 patients and which currently has 15 patients. The latest HIQA report from January indicates that residents reported being happy and content in this setting. This is another devastating loss to the north side of Cork city and the patients, their families and the staff are very worried about being moved from a nursing home that does not have Covid-19 now. They are very nervous about it. Will the Tánaiste give a commitment that the HSE will step in and take over the running of this facility?
Deputy Colm Burke only mentioned this matter to me recently as well. I do not have detailed information on it but I know it is a matter of concern for people in Cork. I will see the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, later today and I will let him know the matter was raised here and ask him to reply to both Deputies.
I raise the matter of the drug Spinraza, which was approved in June 2019 for the treatment of spinal muscular atrophy. The roll-out has been very slow as only 12 of 29 children with this condition have so far received treatment. Spinal muscular atrophy is a degenerative disease and these continued delays have a real and psychological impact on children with the condition, who lose a little more motor function every day. Adults are not included in the roll-out of the drug. Will the Government address this matter and ensure all children and adults who need it can receive the drug?
I know the drug was approved for use some months ago if not last year. However, the process is not straightforward and this is not just a medicine that can be given to a patient, including children. This must be administered in hospital in a particular way. The Children's Health Ireland group, including the Crumlin hospital, must scale that up over time. It has committed to doing this but it has been held back a bit by restrictions relating to Covid-19.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government on the future of the aviation sector. We are an island nation and the sector is of essential strategic importance but it has been adversely affected by Covid-19. The approach of the industry in response to this has been to delay refunds and the issuing of vouchers to people who had flights cancelled, to charge exorbitant rescheduling fees for people adhering to the public health advice and to cut jobs and change the terms and conditions of workers. This is doing reputational damage to the sector and undermining public health advice and the public health effort.
Does the Tánaiste agree that this approach is unfair, unsustainable and unacceptable to workers and customers? What will the Government do to address this matter and to provide supports for customers and future sector needs?
I thank the Deputy for his question. I have been engaging with the airline sector over the past week and will continue to do so next week. I am very concerned about the aviation sector, including the consumers involved and the vindication of their rights. It is something I have been working on in my Department. I have also met representatives of travel agents but I will continue to engage with airlines.
Mr. Pádraig Harnett from Killarney posted on social media two hours ago, stating that a drive-in cinema is allowed but our hard-pressed musicians and comedians cannot do drive-in shows because the law does not give permission for anybody to be on a stage. He referred to "more of this lazy one rule fits all governing". The income of our musicians, comedians and all the crews has been wiped out, with no date set for a return to indoor events. Venues that looked to be proactive and book acts had to cancel them due to another poorly written law.
There are 35,000 people involved in the entertainment business. Taking the Gleneagle INEC venue in Killarney as an example, a far finer venue than where we are sitting today, it had a summer schedule arranged. It included people like the great comedian Bernard Casey and others. It was arranged but now the venue has had to stop the performances. It does not make sense that we can go to a drive-in cinema or drive-in bingo but not this. There was drive-in bingo in Castleisland two weeks ago that drew a great crowd. I went there and played bingo and I was very glad to do so. However, it makes no sense that we cannot have a drive-in concert.
It is not a bad idea. The Deputy makes a valid point and this is something we will examine between now and the announcement on phase 4. We have some time over the next couple of weeks to examine the matter. I am not a public health expert but if people on stage are adequately socially distanced, it should be okay. That would apply if a comedian was on his or her own or if people are reasonably separated on stage. It should be possible. It is something we will consider between now and any announcement in the run-up to the next phase.
The programme for Government makes a commitment to enhance public transport. There was a commitment to metro north by this Government and previous Governments. Will the Tánaiste outline whether the plan to deliver the project will proceed? Has the target date changed and will funding be a problem? The benefits to the environment would be significant as it provides a vital link to Dublin Airport, removing tens of thousands of car journeys on a weekly basis.
As we are speaking about public transport, the Tánaiste might be aware there is an issue with public and private bus operators in counties like my own, which do not have a rail network at all. Is the Tánaiste aware some local authorities are now putting in place additional restrictions on bus operators with respect to pick-up spots along main roads? We are trying to promote the use of public bus transport so does the Tánaiste agree such restrictions are ludicrous and that measures should be put in place to increase the number of stops along main roads rather than reduce them?
The programme for Government commits to making the metro link happen. I know it has been promised for a long time and I want this to be the Government that at least gets construction under way. It is targeted for 2023 but I will see the relevant Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, this afternoon. I know he is committed to it as well and very keen to see the project completed. I hope that by the time it opens Dublin Airport will be busy again. We would not quite need the capacity now even if we had it but we will need it in future.
I am not aware of the restrictions mentioned by Deputy Carthy being introduced by local authorities. If he wants to pass the details to me or the Minister, Deputy Ryan, we will have them examined. Of course, we want to encourage people to use public buses more but we want it done safely. I would rather see local authorities carrying out work to make this safe than putting in place additional restrictions.