Dáil debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020

6:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Táimid chun déileáil le Uimh. 12a, ráiteas ón Aire Sláinte agus ceisteanna agus freagraí maidir le Covid-19. It is becoming something of a habit to be here late on a Thursday evening, addressing important matters. Let us hope this will be the last occasion on which we will have to do something like this on a Thursday evening. The Minister is very welcome. It is good to have him here with us and we are looking forward to hearing his contribution. The Minister has ten minutes, after which the other Members contributing will have the opportunity to make statements, ask questions or both.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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As colleagues will be aware, on Monday the Government made the decision that the entire country should move to level 3 of the Covid framework plan. This came into effect at midnight on Tuesday for three weeks. The decision was not made lightly. I am acutely aware of the costs of these decisions to individuals, families, communities and businesses.

The level 3 measures in place are the same as those in place in Donegal and very similar to those put in place in Kildare, Laois and Offaly in August. I will now outline the measures under level 3 of the framework. People may meet up with no more than six others from one other household. A maximum of 25 guests are allowed at weddings. There are to be no indoor organised events although gatherings of up to 15 for outdoor events are allowed. Groups of up to 15 may engage in outdoor non-contact training and individual training is allowed indoors. No matches or other sporting events may be held with the exception of professional, elite and intercounty sports, club championships and horse racing. All must be held behind closed doors. Individual training in gyms, pools and leisure centres is allowed.

Religious services are to move online and up to 25 people may attend at a funeral. There is to be no indoor dining or service in restaurants or pubs while up to 15 may be served outdoors. The one exception to this is wet pubs in Dublin, which are to remain closed. Hotels, guesthouses and bed and breakfast accommodation must limit services to residents. Indoor cultural venues are closed.

People should attend work only if absolutely necessary and work from home where possible. People should stay within their own counties except for work, education and other essential purposes. Public transport should only be used when necessary. Schools, colleges and childcare facilities are to remain open. Healthcare facilities also remain open. Visiting in care homes is suspended except in critical and compassionate circumstances.

These are difficult measures to follow. For a number of weeks in August, the people of Kildare, Laois and Offaly lived with a set of measures very similar to those under level 3. This was not easy but because of their work, commitment, solidarity and determination, Covid-19 was pushed right back down in these counties. The people of Donegal and Dublin have been living with level 3 measures for several weeks and they too will attest to these measures being difficult. It is too early for the measures to have reduced the number of identified positive cases in Donegal but we are seeing an impact in Dublin, where the growth rate of cases has been brought right down.

The Government and agencies across the State are acting in many other ways in response to Covid as well. Additional funding has been sanctioned for An Garda Síochána to support enforcement. Testing and tracing is being further strengthened. Additional technologies, including antigen testing, are being examined. Remote learning is being increased for higher education. Additional business supports have been introduced and additional funding for nursing homes has been sanctioned. We have a launched a €600 million winter plan to help protect patients and our health services. This plan includes funding for approximately 900 hospital or acute beds, 500 sub-acute beds, 5 million home care hours and much more.

We are doubling the public health workforce. The Government has followed much of the advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, including the framework itself, the recommendations for additional enforcement, the recommendations for additional inspections and communications and, indeed, the recommendation to increase nationally from the level we were at. Colleagues will be aware that while the Government decided to move to level 3, NPHET recommended moving to level 5.

Correspondence from and public statements by most political parties are in line with the decision by the Government not to move to level 5 from midnight on Monday last. The Government believed that the conditions in the framework for moving to level 5 had not all been met. Three days earlier, which was the Thursday, NPHET had met and advised the Government to keep Dublin and Donegal at level 3, and the rest of the country at level 2.

The HSE confirmed to the Government that it has sufficient capacity to manage existing cases of Covid-19 and it is not projecting any immediate difficulties in this respect. The Government would also like to see more detail on options for the end of a four-week period at level 5. In its decision, the Government considered the health, social and economic consequences of a move to level 5 at this time. We noted that Israel is the only country currently following such a strategy. We concluded that the best way forward was to follow the advice from NPHET on enforcement, communications, and increasing nationally the framework level, and to do so at level 3 rather than level 5.

Countries across Europe are seeing an increase in cases, and these countries are also taking action. Ireland is currently mid-table in Europe. European countries with higher rates include Spain, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Denmark. As colleagues will be aware, cases are rising fast in Northern Ireland. We are in communication at official and political levels on how best to co-ordinate our responses on the island of Ireland.

There has been discussion today about the chronology of events over the weekend. I received a text message around lunchtime on Saturday from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, to say he had called a meeting of NPHET for the following day. I texted the Taoiseach to let him know. Early Sunday morning, I texted the CMO requesting a call before NPHET met. On the back of that, the CMO and I spoke. We discussed the current situation and the possibility of moving to level 4. I conveyed my belief that it was important that NPHET adhere to the parameters set out in the framework for each level. I contacted the Taoiseach afterwards. Around 7 p.m., I took part in a video call with the CMO, the deputy CMO and the Secretary General. That is when I was informed of NPHET's recommendation to move to level 5. I updated the Taoiseach after that call. A Cabinet Covid-19 committee was convened for noon the following day, and the Cabinet also met later on that Monday.

I would like to provide my colleagues with an update on the epidemiology. As of today, the 14-day prevalence rate per 100,000 of the population is 128. Just two weeks ago, it was 76. Counties with the highest rates now are Donegal at 319, Monaghan at 257, Clare at 183, Longford at 169 and Roscommon at 166. A total of 506 cases were notified today, with 35% coming from a close contact of a confirmed case. A total of 492 new clusters were notified in the past week, to 3 October. The latest estimate, calculated yesterday, for the R-nought number is 1.2. It is important to note that regardless of what level Ireland had moved to this week, case numbers and hospitalisations would continue to rise for several weeks. This is because it takes several weeks for the measures to impact on confirmed cases and hospitalisations.

We now have the opportunity to arrest the spread of Covid-19 throughout our country. This means all of us must follow the measures in the framework. It means following the basics of hand washing, face coverings and social distancing. It means reducing our contacts. Earlier this year, we flattened the curve right across Ireland. In August, the people of Kildare, Laois and Offaly did the same. Right now, people in Dublin and Donegal are working hard to do it again. Our request is that, once more, we all step up, we all follow the measures, and we suppress this virus. I believe that, once again, we will be more than up to the challenge.

6:40 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Minister for his contribution. I call Deputy Cullinane. Is the Deputy making a statement or going back and forth with questions?

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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It will be a combination of both. When I put a question to the Minister, I will give him time to respond. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for clarifying that.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That is fine, and I thank Deputy Cullinane.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister had a telephone call with the CMO last Sunday. I am assuming that call was not about the sporting events that took place the day before. That call was about the CMO's serious concerns regarding the spread of Covid-19, his deep concerns about the contraction of the virus and the number of cases throughout the State.

For the first time, today in the Dáil, we have learned that on that phone call the CMO and the Minister did have a discussion regarding added restrictions. What the Minister said is that he and CMO talked about the possibility of moving to level 4. That is the first time I have been made aware of that fact, and I assume that it is the first time that people in this House have made aware of it as well.

I would like to ask the Minister to respond briefly to my questions. When the CMO put it to him that he was so concerned that he might recommend going up one level or more, was there any pushback from the Minister? Did the Minister say to the CMO at that stage that that would be unacceptable or problematic? Did the CMO have any sense that doing that would be a difficulty or a challenge for the Government? I ask that because the impression that was given for 48 hours after that phone call was that NPHET had gone on a solo run and had bounced the Government. From the Minister's statement tonight, it clearly looks like that was not the case.

In fact, the Minister went on to state that in his response to the CMO he asked that NPHET stick to the parameters set out in the framework for each level. The Government's plan and the framework allows for five levels. Did the Minister, therefore, at any time during that call on Sunday morning, before the NPHET meeting, say to the CMO, when there was talk of added restrictions, that that was going to be a big difficulty for the Government? Following that phone call on Sunday morning, did the Minister inform the Taoiseach of that call? Did he inform the Taoiseach that there was a discussion in the call about added restrictions and the possibility that NPHET might recommend going to level 4 or level 5? I will give the Minister a minute to respond to those questions.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Cullinane cannot decide what length of time that the Minister is going to have. I call the Minister.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Cullinane. The only person whom I have heard suggest that NPHET was going on a solo run is Deputy Cullinane, right now. I have never used that language. I do not know who has used that language. The only person whom I have heard make that suggestion is the Deputy. That is the only time that I have heard that language.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Was that not-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister without interruption, please.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I have not suggested that, nor would it be proper for me to make such suggestions. The meeting of NPHET was convened by the CMO on Sunday, out of the normal cycle of NPHET meetings on Thursdays, something which the acting CMO had done from time to time when the CMO was away. That is what the CMO did, and he was absolutely within his rights to do that. Indeed, if he chooses to convene NPHET again this Saturday, Sunday or Monday, that would be his right. Nobody tries to influence when NPHET meets other than the CMO and NPHET itself.

I outlined what the CMO and I discussed. Did I try to influence the recommendations coming from NPHET? Of course I did not. I would never have done such a thing.

NPHET's job is to provide the best public health advice it can to the Government. While the Government ultimately agreed to move up the levels and implement various other recommendations NPHET came up with on Sunday, we did not move to level 5. We moved to level 3, and we believe that is the best option for the country.

6:50 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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The problem is that the Minister himself admitted that he did not see the interview with the Tánaiste on RTÉ, where the Tánaiste very clearly pushed back against the CMO and gave the impression that the Government was bounced and that the first it heard of added restrictions was when it received that letter from the CMO. The Minister is now telling the Dáil that on Sunday, before NPHET met, there was a discussion about going to level 4 and possibly further. The Minister says he did not try to influence NPHET, which is right, but the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste said that they were caught on the hop and that the first they heard of it was when they received the letter after the meeting on Sunday. That is patently untrue. The fact of the matter is that the CMO did everything possible, as far as I can see, by relaying the information to the Minister for Health, being very clear about the situation of the spread of the virus, and talking to the Minister about the possibility of added restrictions. Yet the following day, on national television, the Tánaiste talked about being bounced. Today in this Chamber he said, in response to my colleague Deputy Doherty, that he had no inkling about added restrictions until he got a briefing after the NPHET meeting. That is clearly not the case.

The Minister did not answer the question I put to him. When he and the CMO had the discussion on Sunday morning, prior to the NPHET meeting, and talked about added restrictions and the possibility of going to level 4, did he relay that information to the Taoiseach at that point and was it given to the Tánaiste? When we had all the controversy surrounding the Tánaiste's interview on RTÉ and the perception that NPHET went on a solo run ahead of the Government and had not briefed it on what it was doing, why did the Minister not put these telephone calls with the CMO into the public domain for 24 hours? We are only hearing today in the Chamber that the Minister did have a discussion about added restrictions. That was a failure on the Minister's part and a fracture has occurred over recent days between the Government and public health officials because of the mishandling of the situation. Reference has been made to there being poor communication between the Government, the CMO and NPHET, but it strikes me that that was not the case. The poor communication was on the Government's side, between the Minister and the Taoiseach, the Minister and the Tánaiste and the Minister and his partners in government. Will he answer the question I have put to him? On Sunday morning when the Minister received that call and had a discussion about the added restrictions, which were a possibility coming from that NPHET meeting, did he have a conversation with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste about that possibility?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Before the Minister responds, I want to be clear that the Minister has a responsibility for who he spoke to but he cannot reasonably be expected to respond to the House in respect of who spoke to somebody else. We do not operate on the basis of "dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi".

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I will answer the Deputy's question in full. I think I did so in my speech but I will do so again. However, it strikes me that this session was booked for several days and it was agreed on Tuesday to talk about the fact that the country has just moved to level 3. Some people, for the past few days, have had no jobs. People have had to close down their businesses. I would have imagined that the Deputy would be interested in a conversation in our Parliament about what we were doing about that and what supports were in place. It is interesting that the Deputy has used his full ten minutes to misrepresent an invented division between NPHET and the Government.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister should answer the question. Did he brief the Taoiseach? That is what the Deputy asked.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister is wasting my time. He should answer the question he was asked.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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As I said in my statement, after I spoke to the CMO, the Taoiseach and I spoke. After speaking with the CMO after the NPHET meeting, which was the second time I spoke to him that day and was the first time level 5 had ever been mentioned to me or anyone else in the Government, I then spoke to the Taoiseach that evening.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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Did the Minister tell the Taoiseach about the level of restrictions? He did not answer my question.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister answered very clearly. The Deputy asked if he briefed the Taoiseach, and the Minister said that he did.

Duncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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Today, the WHO announced an additional 338,000 Covid-19 infections worldwide, which is the single greatest one-day increase in the virus since it came to be less than a year ago. We are living under very serious level 3 designations throughout this country and have been living with them in Dublin and Donegal for some time. There are serious restrictions in place and we understand that. Paul Reid was on the "Six One" news tonight and NPHET, the Government and the HSE are all in agreement that this is a time of great concern. The public are also greatly concerned. Since cases started to creep back up in mid-August, there has been a sense of impending doom and dread that we are being pulled back towards a number of cases that will lead our health service into real distress, if not crisis. Many people have been tested and many have been found to be positive. People have again started to die in increasing numbers. Yet here we are at the last knockings of a weekly Dáil sitting, discussing the fallout from yet another episode of absolute calamity based on the failing or flawed relationships at the top of our Government. We are partaking in some kind of Agatha Christie type mystery as to who said what, when, to who and why.

As I was preparing for this debate today, I wondered whether we needed to discuss this because my constituents, family and friends are all looking forward and asking where are we going next. However, we need to discuss what happened last weekend and get some answers because it will have massive implications for the confidence the people have in the Minister, NPHET, the Taoiseach, and the Tánaiste, who I believe has played a particularly foul role in this sad mini-affair in the midst of this awful crisis. The credibility of those at the peak of the Government is at stake.

In the Minister's statement, he said he received a text from the CMO around lunchtime on Saturday saying he was calling a meeting for Sunday. The Minister then texted the Taoiseach. However, he did not call the CMO until Sunday morning. He says it is not unusual for NPHET to call unscheduled meetings but this was Tony Holohan, coming back to work two days early. He is a titan of this pandemic who has more trust from the public than all of us in this Chamber, present or absent, put together. He was coming back and he was calling a meeting. Why did the Minister of State not call him on Saturday? My inclination would have been to pick up the phone and have a conversation with him. It sounds like the Minister got that text and texted the Taoiseach. That might seem a relatively minor thing but it is an important point. Then, late Sunday afternoon or in the evening, the Minister was informed through videoconference that NPHET was recommending level 5. When did the Minister see this infamous letter? Was it before, during, or after that video call? It was the leaking of that letter that caused absolute panic among the public, as whoever leaked it should have known.

In a press conference today, the Taoiseach gave the Minister the dreaded vote of confidence. We all know what that means in a sporting framework. He also said, as regards the leaking of this letter, that NPHET is a large committee made up of many people. He basically said that someone from NPHET leaked the letter. NPHET is a wide committee with many people on it, which is why I believe that not many people on NPHET would have seen that letter.

There is no way, in that time, that that letter was drafted and circulated to more than 40 people for approval before it got to the Minister. That is just not credible. That letter would have been drafted by the CMO and perhaps one or two other people and sent to the Minister and perhaps his senior staff. Does the Minister share the Taoiseach's belief that this was leaked from NPHET? If so, given the gravity of this leak, is an investigation under way to find out who leaked it? If not, why not? Does the Minister disagree with the Taoiseach and have a different view? Is he willing to state categorically that the leak did not come from his side of the desk?

7:00 pm

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I will answer the Deputy's questions in full. He described what happened over the weekend as an absolute calamity. It is important that the Irish people hear a different response to that, if I may. NPHET met on Thursday and made a recommendation to Government to stay at level 2. On Saturday, the Chief Medical Officer was talking to various people. He decided to call NPHET together on Sunday. He informed me and I informed the Taoiseach. The Chief Medical Officer and I spoke before the meeting. I spoke to him on Sunday rather than Saturday because he had more information on Sunday. When he texted me at around lunchtime on Saturday, the numbers for the day were not in. I was going to talk to him and was better off waiting until he had as much information as possible. The Chief Medical Officer and I spoke. As soon as we spoke, I informed the Taoiseach. NPHET met for many hours. Afterwards, it informed me and we had a long, detailed discussion about the recommendation and why it was made. After that, I informed the Taoiseach. The next morning, the Cabinet Covid committee met. Cabinet met later that day.

We need to be careful with our words because we are asking the Irish people to make many sacrifices to suppress this virus, and I respectfully suggest to the Deputy that the sequence of events I have laid out are a reasonable account of Government and public health teams working through difficult issues over the weekend, at pace, and coming to reasoned conclusions on them. I suggest that that is a more reasonable view of what happened. The Deputy's first question was why I spoke to him on Sunday and I have answered that. I can find out for the Deputy when I saw the letter. It would have been emailed to my private secretary. The Chief Medical Officer, the deputy chief medical officer, the Secretary General and I spoke by video call at approximately 7 p.m., at some length. The letter is a written account of the recommendation. We talked through all of that. I can find out when exactly that letter arrived in my inbox but I imagine it was some time late on Sunday night.

Duncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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My main question is about the leak. Who leaked it? The Taoiseach indicated today that he believed it came from NPHET. Is there an investigation to find this out? We will have many more moments in this pandemic where decisions will have to be made by the Minister, the Taoiseach, the CMO and NPHET. Whatever the Minister says about the word "calamity", it felt like that over the course of those few days. It felt like we were not in control and like there was a problem. If there is somebody who is acting in bad faith, will the Minister try to find out who it was or is he happy to just move on?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I do not know who leaked a letter. I do not know who it was leaked to. The Deputy says it was leaked that night. Perhaps it was. What I know is that RTÉ reported about level 5 on the news at 9 p.m. I do not think it got into detail as to what was in the letter so I do not know if RTÉ had the letter. It is possible that RTÉ was simply told that it was level 5. Remember that we strive to publish these letters as quickly as possible. I have in my bag this evening's letter from the Chief Medical Officer. He and I met before the session this evening, after NPHET met. We discussed what was in the letter. I will, as the Department always does, endeavour to put that letter online and to share it with colleagues as quickly as possible. For what it is worth, I agree that information coming out in an uncontrolled way about a recommendation to move to level 5 scared many people, and I was frustrated to see it happen.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy is in politics, as we all are. Who leaked things and where is unfortunately not something I know but I share the Deputy's frustrations. The Cabinet committee on Covid met with Dr. Holohan, Professor Nolan and Dr. Glynn at 12 noon the next day. We moved quickly. I share the Deputy's frustration about the sense of fear on Sunday night.

Duncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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I am not comforted that something like this could happen and that it could happen again. That is a problem for me and for the Irish people.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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To pick up on a point the Minister made, the practice is not to publish NPHET's letters until the Cabinet makes a decision. They do not come out straight after NPHET meets. Let us get matters clear about the leaking of the letter or the information about the recommendation to move to level 5. Did the Minister or anybody associated with him leak that information?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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With the greatest respect-----

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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It is a straight question.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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No. I do not know how we define anyone associated with me. I can speak for myself. Neither I nor anyone who works for me leaked that letter.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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That is grand. That has clarified the point. The Minister and some of his Cabinet colleagues have mentioned that there was no reason that they could see for changing the levels or restrictions from the Thursday recommendation, and that nothing had changed in those three days.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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No, that is not what we said.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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The Minister said that Thursday's conditions did not warrant raising the levels.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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We did not say they did not change. They changed.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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That was the point that Dr. Holohan was making, that when he looked at the five-day average figures, they had changed quite substantially by Saturday, and there had been a 50% increase in the five-day average over that week. Is that the case?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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There had been an increase. There is exponential growth.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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There was a 50% increase. There were clearly many signs. Dr. Holohan had come back to work two days earlier than planned. There was an unscheduled meeting called for Sunday. The CMO contacted the Minister directly to tell him about that and the Minister spoke to him on Sunday morning. There were many signs that the situation was quite grave. Presumably that sense was conveyed to the Minister by the CMO. What did the Minister expect NPHET to recommend in light of the worsening situation that had been outlined to him?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I want to be clear. The Deputy seems to be suggesting that the advice warranted a move to level 5.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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I did not say that.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy wrote to the Taoiseach on Monday, encouraging him not to move to level 5. We are clear about that. I was not expecting a recommendation to move to level 5. We had a recommendation on Thursday, when NPHET had carefully considered-----

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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What was the Minister expecting?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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-----the epidemiological situation. It recommended that Dublin and Donegal remain at level 3, with the rest of the country remaining at level 2.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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What was the Minister expecting on Sunday?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Let the Minister answer, please.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy will appreciate that if we get a recommendation on Thursday evening to keep the country at level 2, neither I nor, I imagine, any Member in this House, would expect a recommendation three days later to move to level 5. I was waiting to see what NPHET said. While having the greatest of respect for NPHET and its expertise, I was taken aback by the recommendation to move to level 5.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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I made the point that the situation had clearly disimproved between Thursday and Saturday.

There was a substantial increase in the five-day average, and I presume that was conveyed to the Minister on Saturday. I asked him what he expected would be recommended. What did the Minister expect the Chief Medical Officer and NPHET to recommend on Sunday night?

I will clarify one of the Minister's comments. I wrote to the Taoiseach on Monday and suggested that we continue to use the levels rather than putting all counties on the same level. For example, Waterford had a rate of 34 cases per 100,000. This was suggested as an incentive for counties to work together to drive down the virus. That was the purpose of the levels being introduced.

I ask the Minister again what he was expecting NPHET to recommend on Sunday night.

7:10 pm

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I would not presume to expect anything. I am not a public health doctor. NPHET has the public health experts so all I would expect of NPHET, which is what it did, was to provide me and the Government with its best assessment of the public health position. That is what it did and it is what we all expect of NPHET. I certainly would not presume that NPHET would do one thing or another; it is entirely for NPHET to decide.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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The Minister's colleague, the Tánaiste, on Monday night said on RTÉ, "So we thought that this was not the right way to do things, to land something like this on a Sunday night without prior consultation". Does the Minister accept that was a wrong description of the sequence of events over Saturday and Sunday, that there had been communication with the Minister and, I presume, that the gravity of the position had been conveyed to him? The severity of the situation was not just "landed" on the Government on Sunday night. Does the Minister accept that to be the case?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I would not presume to speak for the Tánaiste, who is more than capable of speaking for himself. He answered exactly these questions earlier in this Chamber.

The substance of the Deputy's question is whether it was a surprise to me to get a level 5 recommendation on Sunday evening. It was a surprise. For the various reasons I outlined in the speech, we chose to go with level 3. The Deputy is asking whether I or my Cabinet colleagues were surprised by a recommendation to go to level 5. Yes, we were.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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In light of the Minister being brought up to date with the deteriorating position on Saturday and again on Sunday, I presume he was expecting level 4. I will just assume that is case.

This debate was promised by the Taoiseach when a number of us asked for it and he told us he would be present for it. It is a pity he is not. The debate was also rescheduled, as it was supposed to be tomorrow, which would have been better than late on a Thursday night.

There are a couple of general questions I want to ask on the Government's handling of this matter. Why did the Minister change the policy in his Department on the monitoring of incoming travellers at ports and airports? The Minister's Department confirmed last Thursday that the purpose of contacting people who travel into the country was not to monitor them any longer but to check where they were for the purpose of contact tracing. It is a very significant change in policy, which means there is no monitoring of incoming travellers at all. Why is that the case?

I have put my other question to the Taoiseach a number of times. There is a need for unity in the response to what is now a national emergency arising from the pandemic. Why is it the Taoiseach has not taken up the suggestion that an all-party forum should be established so we can have across the board agreement on the right way to deal with the pandemic? This should not be a matter for political disagreement, and the approach and strategy should be based on evidence.

Is the Minister of the view that we need a cross-party approach? Why has no action been taken in this regard? Is the Minister in favour of the suggestion I have made a few times, which is that the Taoiseach should establish a cross-party forum in order to respond to the many aspects of this national emergency?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I will get to the second question and send the Deputy a detailed note on travellers, if she agrees.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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Is the Minister responsible for changing the policy?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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No, but I will get the Deputy a note on that. On the idea of an all-party forum, I am very open to any forum of engagement. I was asked to be here tonight and I am here. I have appeared before the Covid-19 committee several times.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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I am talking about a forum where real work can be done in a collaborative way.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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Real work can be done in here as well and in a collaborative way. I have seen it happen. On a serious note, I am open to any suggestions the Deputy has. Neither I nor the Government nor any government in the world has a monopoly on how to respond to this virus. Everyone in this Chamber has something to say and I am very open to meeting the Deputy and other Deputies. The more input we can get from the Oireachtas, the better.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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Why is that not happening?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy is raising it now and I am telling her I am very open to meeting others.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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I have raised it with the Taoiseach for months.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy said she raised it with the Taoiseach but I cannot speak for him. The Deputy is raising the matter with me now and I am saying I would love to have as much input as possible on a cross-party basis. I fully agree that the more solidarity we have in facing this down, the better.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We now move to Deputy Boyd Barrett, who is sharing his time with Deputy Paul Murphy.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Before this debacle emerged at the weekend, People Before Profit and RISE had already come to the conclusion we needed to move to a higher level of restrictions and that we should pursue a zero Covid-19 strategy. We held that view because after fairly intense discussions with public health and infectious disease experts, they predicted where we are now, with rising infection rates all over the country. They indicated that regardless of what the Government said, we would need to increase restrictions.

I want to get to what annoys me about what unfolded at the weekend. It is the manner in which the Tánaiste and the Government in general tried to trash the Chief Medical Officer and undermine his credibility in a very cynical way when it was clear he was simply offering a view about the need for greater restrictions based on his fears that if those restrictions were not introduced quickly, the health position would deteriorate but so would the social and economic position. Both employment and the wider economic position would become a bigger problem in three weeks if we did not act at that stage.

I point this out because the Tánaiste, in the most cynical way, suggested that the Chief Medical Officer did not give a damn about economic impacts, loss of employment and loss of income. It was the really dastardly part of the attack. The suggestion was that the Chief Medical Officer had no right to say what he did because he would not have to suffer on the pandemic unemployment payment. That is quite ironic from a Tánaiste who is part of the Government, which is cutting the payment. He was pretending it was his concern.

This was fundamentally dishonest because the Tánaiste and the Government knew that the view of NPHET and the Chief Medical Officer, whatever one thinks of it, sought to minimise economic, social and health damage. The Government might not have agreed with that view, and we could have an honest argument about that. Was it not deeply cynical, devious and wrong to try to undermine the Chief Medical Officer in that way or to say he did not have a rationale?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I am loathe to get involved.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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You are becoming involved. You might stop the clock.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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In fairness, even on a human level, I suspect this is something the Deputy would be much better taking up with the Tánaiste than the Minister for Health. I know we have collective Cabinet responsibility but the Deputy would be much better having that debate with the Tánaiste than a third party.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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My point-----

7:20 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We can start the clock again.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The Government politicised this in a dishonest way instead of addressing the substance of the argument. There was an attempt to trash the person and the rationale behind his suggestions. That is what is wrong here. I ask the Minister to apologise for that treatment of the Chief Medical Officer on behalf of the Government and move on to a serious discussion about strategy, which cannot be had in the limited time we have here. We have been asking for this for several weeks. We have a particular view. We want to hear the Minister's view and we want to hear what the public health experts have to say. I would appreciate if Deputy Donnelly would respond to that.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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As the Ceann Comhairle said, I do not speak for the Tánaiste. I can apologise on my own behalf but not on behalf of anyone else. It would not be proper for me to apologise for the Government decision because I believe it was the right one. Even if it is not, just like the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, it was arrived at with only one intention, to minimise the damage and do best by the country.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Does the Minister agree that the Government's response to Dr. Tony Holohan's letter and recommendation was not the best? Should the Government not apologise for the treatment of the Chief Medical Officer?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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This pertains to the second part of the Deputy's question. I would like to divide this into process and substance. The substance is what matters. What matters is that we have moved the country to level 3. The debate over whether we should be at level 3 or level 5 is the debate that matters.

With regard to the Chief Medical Officer, I have given multiple interviews, had a press conference and appeared on "Prime Time", and in every one of those appearances I unequivocally and wholeheartedly endorsed the man and his role. That is all I can say. I am happy to do so again right now. The Chief Medical Officer and I have met every day to discuss precisely these questions: testing and tracing, masks, antigen testing and suppression of the virus.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The Minister and the Government made a very grave mistake this week by not following the public health advice. The consequence of that mistake is that we will still go to level 5, but we will do so later, for longer and after unnecessary deaths. That is a decision the Government made against the explicit opinion of NPHET that "[a] graduated approach will not have sufficient or timely impact on the trajectory and scale of the disease and will not protect the core priorities". This is clearly a Government decision. The Government cannot hide behind NPHET. It is ignoring the public health advice.

It struck me that in his interviews and press conference the Minister was asked if he and the Government would take responsibility for this. He is the Minister for Health during a pandemic. He has made a decision not to go along with the advice of public health experts. If the level 3 strategy fails, as I believe it unfortunately will, does the Minister accept that is on him and on the Government? I have a second question to offer.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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Governments are responsible for the decisions they make and I am a member of the Government. There is no ambiguity about that. The much more complex and difficult question is this: what will the outcome of this decision be compared to a counterfactual scenario we cannot evaluate, that is, a move to level 5? I know the Deputy wants to ask another question but I will give him one brief example. If we had moved to level 5 this week, it is clear that the number of cases would be lower in six weeks than if we stay at level 3. That is the whole point of the framework. We agree on that. We probably also agree that if we move to level 5 for four weeks, six weeks or whatever period, there would be very serious economic consequences. Just before coming to the Chamber I had a meeting with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform about next year's health budget. That budget, and what the HSE and health workers around the country will do with it, will definitely save lives. There is no simple trade-off. The Deputy will forgive me if I misquote him, but I believe I heard him suggest that this was a trade-off between economic benefit and public health. I promise him it is not. I am the Minister for Health. All I want to do is keep people safe and have the best healthcare system we can possibly have.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Murphy has another question.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I have to consider that if less money is available for healthcare next year because of a move to level 5, that will also have very serious health implications.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I will offer some quick-fire questions. When the Minister spoke to the Taoiseach before the NPHET meeting, did he discuss level 4? On a separate issue, I note the Minister published a kind of propaganda video boasting about the great things the Government has done in its first 100 days and threatening us with more to come. Who paid for that video? Is it a Department of Health publication, in which case it is paid for by the public, or is it a Fianna Fáil or a personal Deputy Stephen Donnelly effort?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy. The answer to the first question is "Yes". The Taoiseach and I discussed level 4. The video came from Fianna Fáil.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We now move to the Regional Group. I understand Deputy Matt Shanahan is sharing his time with some of his colleagues.

Matt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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Yes. Magnanimous, I know.

The Minister and I, along with other colleagues in the House, have engaged in hearings of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response. Unlike other Deputies here I am not interested in what happened last weekend. I am interested in our strategy and where we go from here. Without going back over where we were, the committee was very important and I am personally sorry to see it conclude without some continuing platform for the interpretation and interrogation of Covid-19 strategy. I know this function might be taken over by the Committee on Health, but I thought we were doing a pretty good job.

We have learned that testing and tracing are key. In that regard, I will give the Minister a synopsis of where I think we are at the moment. Earlier this evening I was looking at some data about the R number. In Dublin it is probably about 1.2 and for the country at large it is about 1.5. On that basis, incidence of the disease will double within two weeks. We know that testing and tracing are key and that we can individually test based on symptoms, which is what we are currently doing. We could screen test based on the indices, but we would need more capacity. If the disease keeps on rising we cannot continue to do either without adequate testing capacity or tracing resources.

NPHET has persevered with real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, RT-PCR, testing only. It has refused to look at loop-mediated isothermal amplification, LAMP, testing or antigen testing, despite it being used everywhere else in the First World. Our border is open and air travel remains unrestricted. Our intensive care unit, ICU, capacity is fast diminishing and other diagnostic procedures such as breast cancer and cervical cancer screening are being deferred. As I have already told the Minister, my own hospital, University Hospital Waterford, has just one cardiac care isolation room. The Minister kicked that question on to the HSE, which has not bothered to answer me yet.

On top of this, numerous business sectors are also in need of intensive care and cannot continue to endure on-again, off-again business. The Tánaiste has suggested a circuit-breaker for the country in the form of a national lockdown.

What plan does the Government or NPHET have to deliver screen testing or asymptomatic targeting as a strategic move to isolate disease clusters in individuals? I brought antigen testing information to NPHET 13 weeks ago. All evidence shows it could seriously augment our national testing capacity. Why has this testing not been considered or used? Why has NPHET not considered the use of LAMP testing, which is now in use in Germany, France and Italy? Will the Minister commit to providing a pathway for outside medical opinion leaders to engage with NPHET on a regular basis regarding the ongoing modelling and testing it approves?

Will he provide a platform for private industry to engage with NPHET on the possible roll-out of new technologies and to ensure a structured platform is developed such that follow-up analysis is communicated by NPHET to these industry leads?

7:30 pm

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The latest update I have from the Chief Medical Officer tonight is that the R-number is 1.2 for the country. Cases are continuing to rise but the R-number has come down. On mass screening, which is also referred to as serial testing, there are several programmes under way. There is serial testing in nursing homes, the meat processing industry and direct provision centres. The positivity rates are very low. The latest data indicates approximately 0.3% positivity, which is very positive, if the Deputy will excuse the pun, because it means very few of those people have it, but the testing is catching cases. It is catching staff who are asymptomatic and have no idea they have Covid. It is not catching everybody who has Covid. It cannot do so. There is a very serious case in one nursing home which was reported in the past 48 hours.

On antigen testing, I am delighted to be able to provide some good news. We asked HIQA to do a technology assessment on rapid testing technologies. That paper was considered by NPHET today. The Chief Medical Officer, the deputy chief medical officer, the Secretary General and I met soon after the NPHET meeting and discussed this exact issue. Where it is at now is that it is the view of NPHET that the technology must be validated. That means that pilot schemes will be set up in which antigen testing will be run in parallel with PCR testing, which is seen as the gold standard. I believe HIQA, NPHET and the HSE will work together to validate that. I would like it to be very quickly validated and for our experts to believe there is a role for antigen testing. We discussed antigen testing used in other countries. Their view or understanding is that although other countries are using it, they are not using it as their primary test. The PCR testing is still the way to go in that regard. I am delighted to be able to report that progress as of today.

On the Deputy's question regarding companies, companies do not engage with NPHET. I am not sure such engagement would be appropriate. However, companies do engage with the HSE, which is working or engaging with companies in Ireland and abroad on various testing solutions.

Matt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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Companies should engage with NPHET. That has been a problem. It will be proven that antigen testing should have been augmented 13 weeks ago when I brought the issue to members of NPHET. The validation could have been done in the meantime. We need it now. We need to get these things delivered and we need people to be able to engage with thought leaders in NPHET. They cannot be blind to or out of communication with industry peers and medical peers. We are all in this together. We need to use all our resources.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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For many months, I have been calling for rapid testing at airports. I raised the issue again and again with the former Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, and the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin. I have called for rapid testing at airports to try to keep the country open. According to an article published on TheJournal.ie on Wednesday, 7 October, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, stated it would take "some time" to adopt the so-called traffic light system after it is agreed by the European Council of Ministers on 13 October. This is alarming. EU Governments must work together to safely open borders and adapt their health strategies. When that policy is approved, it should immediately be widely implemented throughout Europe so as to streamline enforcement measures, mitigate the risk of spreading Covid-19 and allow international travel within the EU in a safe and controlled environment.

A rapid test currently available on the market gives results in just 15 minutes. Some countries have tested these tests and approved them for use. This is another issue I have repeatedly raised with this Government and the previous Government, but it has apparently fallen on deaf ears. Airports can be equipped with a facility in the departure hall to test passengers before they proceed to check-in desks or security. In the 15 minutes it takes to get a result, a temperature check and a track and trace questionnaire could be completed before the passenger leaves the facility. If this procedure is advertised at the time of booking and the cost of the test is included in the ticket price, it would be a clever way to make people aware that they must stay at home if they show symptoms. In addition, it would instil confidence in people that air travel has been made safer. More and more educated people, professionals and experts, will migrate to other countries, which will deprive Ireland of knowledgeable and skilled workers with Brexit looming. Ireland will be even more isolated from the rest of Europe and will soon be an outlier and an exception in the EU. We do not want that to happen. Solutions have been readily available for some time and can be implemented in days. Putting them in place only requires a bit of vision and goodwill. We cannot afford to discuss this any longer. Actions need to be taken immediately.

I refer to the level of lockdown that was forced on businesses in the space of days. I have my own thoughts about this fiasco. In my view, the recommendation to go to level 5 was leaked so that when the level 3 restrictions were announced by the Government they would be accepted. What is the Government doing? It sounds like it is codding genuine people whose businesses are simply going under. Staff in pubs, cafés, restaurants and hotels, some of which had just reopened, are losing their jobs. The businesses were again closed nearly two weeks to the day after their reopening. Bars received bills for television licences, insurance and rates but they had been forced to close their doors. Bars, restaurants and coffee shops are now being forced to close again. Many of them will disappear. What advice would the Minister give to business people who phone him in the early hours of the morning to tell him they cannot afford to pay any of their bills, never mind their mortgages? The banks have put two fingers up to the Government and will not continue the moratorium. Covid-19 is killing people who have never contracted the disease. NPHET needs to be disbanded and reformed, with a wider variety of specialised people appointed to it in order that it understands every walk of life. All Members know the virus can be a killer if contracted, but what NPHET and the Government do not understand is that Covid-19 is killing more people who have not contracted it than people who die from it directly.

Richard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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A report from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, indicates that 0.0002% of all outbreaks occur in hotels and 72% occur in private homes. I spoke this evening to the president of the Irish Hotels Federation. It wishes to meet the Department of Health and the Department of tourism. It is seeking an overall plan and for the Minister to tell it what it is missing, if anything. I spoke to various hoteliers from a business point of view. I am in business myself. One hotelier told me that the money the hotel took in that week was only enough to cover staff's wages and that if it had not been for the wage subsidy scheme that is in place, there would have been no money to pay for food, the ESB, phone bills and the other expenses that need to be paid to keep the hotel open. That indicates how important it is to subsidise these businesses. When the pubs reopened there was a big scare that there would be many outbreaks within the pub system, but pubs are a controlled environment and the HPSC has indicated that more outbreaks come from private homes. The Government is again driving people back into their homes. A couple from County Tipperary were due to get married this Saturday in County Limerick. After the level 3 announcement, the hotelier had to try to book the couple into a hotel in Tipperary to make sure they can get married on Saturday. Between them, they managed it. The hoteliers are working together.

The Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, stated on television a few nights ago that there are 40 medical people on NPHET. When I spoke on television afterwards, I asked how many members of the Cabinet are self-employed or from a business background. People from the hotel, music sector and travel agency sectors wish to sit down with a member of the Government for a meaningful conversation to give their day-to-day experience. Ministers, with their experience of being in Cabinet, could then work together to get them what they want.

What I want from the Minister this evening is a commitment that in the short term he will meet with the hotels federation. Its president, who is from Limerick, is Ms Elaina Fitzgerald Kane of the Woodlands House Hotel. I want a commitment that the Minister will meet and listen to them. They will work with the Minister and give him whatever advice and experience they have for both sides to help each other to go forward. I would like a reply to that from the Minister.

7:40 pm

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy O'Donoghue. I am one of the people at Cabinet who has a business background. I have a sense of how difficult it is to get up in the morning and work every hour so that you can pay your staff, pay your bills and, heaven forbid, get a bit of a margin at the end of the day to take home and live your own life. It breaks my heart to see what has happened around this country because of this disease. I see people who have dedicated their entire lives to running small local businesses or big businesses, or families who have done so for generations, who have been annihilated and it breaks my heart.

The Government has spent several billion euro, as the Deputy will appreciate, on the wage subsidy scheme, on the unemployment benefit and on the restart grants. This week, an additional 30% top-up for the restart grant was included. None of that will be enough. I spoke last week to hoteliers in my own county of Wicklow and it broke my heart to listen to what was going on, their stories and the stories of their staff, and staff who had worked in their hotels for generations. They were having to tell them the staff were at 10% occupancy or 15% occupancy, and they were closing. It is heartbreaking and it is not fair on anybody. I would love if we had the money in the country to do more. There is a multi-billion euro plan, probably the biggest economic stimulus plan that has ever been seen, in terms of the July stimulus and what came after that as well.

Of course, I will meet the industry. I met hoteliers recently in Wicklow. My understanding is they are engaged with the relevant line Minister as well.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We must move on.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am glad to hear the Minister speak those words so genuinely because these people's lives and jobs have been upturned. I speak of generations of families. I stay with one in the Minister's own constituency in Bray - he knows where it is. It is a family business employing 250 people and they want to keep those people. I was there last night and saw they still have 30 or 40 staff. They have loyalty to their customers going back and forward, and I salute them. I hope that the Minister has said this to the Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and Michael McGrath, because the budget is on Tuesday. These businesses need funding. Whether the Minister has to get it from Europe or wherever, they need supports.

Is the Minister intent on reforming and revamping the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET? The NHS, across the water in England, has totally revamped its equivalent. Seven months have gone in since this team was pulled together. I salute the work and Dr. Tony Holohan, and wish him and his family well in case anybody would think otherwise, but they need some change or revamping because the fiasco at the weekend was not pleasant. People's livelihoods are depending on it. Forty is far too many. We need people from industry, the self-employed and people from mental health associations. Has the Minister made any calculation as to the cost of the damage to people's health, both mental and physical? I could name all the different checks that have been postponed, and note the mothers giving birth and having bad outcomes with their siblings or partners not allowed in.

A number of people have offered solutions for testing much more cheaply than what it is being done for. The Minister, in answer to Deputy Shanahan earlier, stated that the HSE is dealing with that. It is too cumbersome. It is too slow. We saw the people who volunteered for Ireland from the Army and the different specialties and they have all been left. Some of them have lost their jobs now that they came home. The HSE only employed a minuscule amount of them. Are they keeping the positions for themselves? Is there a closed shop? I am aware of people who have gone with testing systems that are much cheaper and much quicker and they have not even got a look in. There is something wrong in the HSE that it is not engaging with these people. We need everybody with any idea of a good system to be engaged with now. That Minister might answer those questions.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Mattie McGrath might come back to me. Apologies, I was taking notes on his final question, which was testing. There are good solutions out there. Rapid testing or antigen testing is being looked at. NPHET considered a paper on it today. They will now do so-called "validation" of it, that is, run it side-by-side with polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing, which is the accepted gold standard. I would like to see it deployed but, obviously, we have to get the nod in terms of validation.

The HSE is working and engaging with companies. HIQA took a fairly broad look. The Department of transport is also looking at rapid testing in potential solutions for the airports because there will need to be a great deal of testing as we go on.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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What is the delay?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I do not know that there is a delay. Various countries are testing it. For example, there is a pilot programme in Heathrow Airport at present. We are looking at it. NPHET had it today. I would hazard an estimate that it will be deployed in the future, for example, as part of the airport testing, but we will have to have it validated by the health experts.

In terms of hiring, the HSE is hiring more than 3,000 people on the testing and contact tracing.

I beg the Deputy's pardon. Will he remind me of his first question?

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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My first question was whether the Minister would revamp, revitalise and re-energise, NPHET. They have all been at the coalface and working very hard, but the NHS has done it significantly. After seven months, surely there are things can be done differently and experts that can be brought in there.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Restructuring NPHET.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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Given the fluidity of the situation and the fact that we are learning all the time, that suggestion should be kept under consideration. Certainly, what I want to see and what, when we launched the framework, was brought in was an oversight committee with representation from other Departments, such as business, transport and foreign affairs, to try to do that. Should we have as much broad and rounded experience from the very best women and men in this country feeding into what is a national effort? Absolutely, we should.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for being here.

I wanted to raise two separate issues. The first relates to the events on Sunday. Second, I want to ask about the ongoing Covid issues.

First, in the Minister's statement here outlining his discussions with the Chief Medical Officer on Sunday morning, he stated: "We discussed the current situation and the possibility of moving to level 4." Looking at some of the stories that were released about the matter, the Irish Examinerpublished an article at 5.10 p.m. stating that the country was on the verge of moving to level 4. That was the only mention of level 4 at any stage during that, and that was at 5.10 p.m. on Sunday. In light of what the Minister stated here, that is interesting. Also, The Irish Times, which is not published on Sunday, stated that it was understood that NPHET met at noon and the meeting was ongoing. It reported that one Government source said the source thought they were in a very difficult situation. There seems to be something between the initial phone call that the Minister had from the Chief Medical Officer and before the end of the NPHET meeting on Sunday that seems to have been reported widely. The Irish Examinertalks about level 4 and the Minister has talked about level 4 in his own statement. It seems the leaks came from somewhere within the Government. The Minister stated in response to a question earlier on that it was not him or any of his staff, but the Minister was not asked if he spoke to any journalists between the phone call from the Chief Medical Officer and 5 p.m., when the ongoing reports then started to appear, and particularly where they mention level 4 and that seems to be the only time that it has been mentioned.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I can cut to the heart of the Deputy's question and allegations. I can assure the Deputy that I did not talk to any journalists about moving to level 4. The events were quite clear. The events were: I contacted the Chief Medical Officer early on Sunday and said I would like to talk before NPHET; he and I spoke; we had a very productive conversation; he talked about the escalating situation; the prospect of moving to level 4 was raised; and we spoke after NPHET. NPHET met, I believe, at noon.

I do not know when they finished but the Chief Medical Officer, the deputy CMO, the Secretary General and I had a call around 7 p.m. That was the first time I heard about level 5. I noted it was then reported on RTÉ either on the nine o'clock news or perhaps before that.

7:50 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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According to The Irish Examiner it was 5.10 p.m.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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Okay. Honestly, who knows? People leak information. The Deputy and I have both been here for the past ten years and we know that. I can only say that I was not leaking anything. I was focused very much on NPHET, the situation and what could happen. The recommendation was very serious even if we did not go to level 5, going to level 3 is a really serious thing to do and a very difficult decision to make. That was my sole focus.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I know the decision was difficult to make. I agree that people leak but only some people leak, not everybody does. That is important in this. It has become very important where the story leaked from and how it was leaked because of the reaction of the Minister's colleagues and what they have said publicly about it. It was not my intention coming into the House this evening to discuss that but when I saw what was being said, I wanted to raise it. The leak came between 12 noon and 5 p.m. on Sunday so it is important to know who knew then what was actually discussed. It seems the only person who is not here who did know something about that then is the Taoiseach. It is interesting that we were supposed to have this discussion tomorrow with the Taoiseach present, but now we are not and he is not here tonight. Maybe there is something to that.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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It is not my job to defend the Taoiseach or anybody else but that is not what I heard.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I am not asking the Ceann Comhairle to defend him. Do not worry about that.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That is not what I heard in the discussions.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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The Minister has said that he discussed what had happened with the Taoiseach.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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After 7 p.m.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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No, he said he discussed it before when he got the call from the Chief Medical Officer.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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My apologies.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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He said he contacted the Taoiseach afterwards. The only two people in Government who knew about this were the Minister and the Taoiseach and some of the officials.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Fair enough.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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Therefore the leaks seem to have come from within Government. That is what I was trying to get to the bottom of.

The Minister said the Government would like to see more detailed options for the end of the four week period at level 5. I believe that we should have gone to level 5 and things look like we will go to level 5 in the next week or so anyway, with schools closing early for Hallowe'en. Maybe that will not happen. I want to tease out what the Minister said. What are the detailed options on carrying on as we are? I was at a meeting last week when very prominent medical people outlined what happens in Africa and so on with virus outbreaks etc. where peaks and troughs are ongoing. They said this pandemic would be ongoing for at least two to three years. We are looking at another two or three years at least of this cycle of lockdowns and reopening. How is that good for our society or for the businesses that many Members have mentioned this evening? How can we sustain things into the future like that? Maybe NPHET has modelled it differently and the Minister thinks that this will break the back of the pandemic now. If that is the case I would like to hear it. That is the crux of the matter. If we went for a full lockdown now and closed the whole thing down we could close the numbers down and then open everything back up by having proper testing and tackling the instances as they arise. We would have to do that on an all-island basis, that would be very important. Those are the options and that is what we should be talking about.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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My apologies for interrupting Deputy Pringle.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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On the leak, the Deputy and I have worked together for many years and he knows I have the height of respect for him but I think the comments about the Taoiseach are unfair. I know he is just wondering out loud but ------

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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The Minister said that two people knew about it.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I do not think that it is fair. I acknowledge the gravity of the Deputy's second question and thank him for asking it. Many are asking questions abut who texted who when and who called who when and why did something happen at 6 p.m. on a Saturday instead of 12 o'clock on a Sunday. There was a very clear process over the weekend which led us to have to make a decision. All that matters is the substance of the Deputy's question.

I have met the zero Covid people and we have had some good conversations. There is good thinking there. We all agree on the direction of travel, namely to suppress the virus. They want to go further and have a view of what can happen when we get there. The public health officials who advise me have a different view and the experience around Europe is also different. No country knows the right answer to this, it is new, but other European countries are not pursuing a zero Covid strategy.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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No other European country is an island.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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Yes but we share it with another jurisdiction and we are an open country.

The R-nought is 1.2. I want to see a national effort to achieve across the country what the people of Kildare, Laois, and Offaly nailed in August. If we get the R-nought below 1 the virus will begin to go back. We need to push it right back down. The reason we are staying at level 3 rather than going to level 5 is because when one considers the societal, health and economic impacts - and the latter is related to future healthcare provision, it is not just about the economy - that that was the best option. We could end up on level 4 or 5, that is why they are part of the framework, but we must do everything we can to avoid that in coming weeks.

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I have a substantive question but I am somewhat perplexed by the Minister's apparent lack of understanding of exactly what happened across families and communities from Sunday night until Monday night after the news broke at 9 p.m. that NPHET proposed to move to level 5. The reaction, the briefing against NPHET that culminated in the outright attack on it by the Tánaiste on Monday night, created a level of anxiety, frustration and concern that we have not seen since the initial outbreak of the virus. That is why the questions are being put to the Minister by Members because Deputies have been getting those questions from constituents all week. For the Minister to diminish or belittle that or to besmirch the motives of anyone who asks about it is unbecoming of him.

The Minister has answered many questions, in fairness, so I just seek one clarification. The Minister said that following his conversation with the CMO on Sunday morning, where he suggested that there might be mention of level 4, he spoke to the Taoiseach. Am I correct that the Minister conveyed the information to the Taoiseach that NPHET was considering an escalation of the levels up to or including level 4? According to a recent tweet from an Irish Independent journalist, the Taoiseach's spokesperson told the paper yesterday that the Taoiseach did not know that the NPHET meeting on Sunday was about changing levels until afterwards.

8:00 pm

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I am going to refute various statements that the Deputy made. NPHET met on Sunday. I then met the Chief Medical Officer, the deputy Chief Medical Officer and the Secretary General and we discussed what was a very serious recommendation. NPHET met the Cabinet Covid committee-----

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I am asking about Sunday.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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-----the next morning at 12 noon. Then the Cabinet met. The Deputy has suggested that some attacking and negative briefing against NPHET was going on during that period, culminating in something else on Tuesday. That is simply untrue. I have, as has the rest of the Government, a close working relationship with NPHET.

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Please, answer the question.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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Are we always going to agree with NPHET? No. The Deputy's own party did not agree with the move to level 5.

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I asked the Minister a specific question. Will he answer, please?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I am answering-----

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister is not.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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-----but I am first refuting-----

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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That is fine.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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-----various false allegations the Deputy has made.

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I asked the Minister a question.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I have answered it repeatedly, Deputy. Yes, I spoke to the Chief Medical Officer on Sunday morning. We discussed the escalating epidemiological situation. The potential for a move to level 4 was raised. I emphasised my desire to see NPHET stick to the parameters of the framework. The information about level 4 was conveyed to the Taoiseach.

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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That was the only information for which I asked. Will the Minister ask one of his media monitors to go through the Twitter feeds of political correspondents from Monday regarding the response from Government sources to the NPHET recommendation of the evening before? It was an outright attack. It was broadcast live to every home in the country that had "Claire Byrne Live" on a television set last Monday when the Tánaiste launched an unprecedented attack.

The Minister will be aware that I have raised the issue of meat plants and food processing factories a number of times. I have a major concern that we might be better off if we had handled the situation better. Some testing has taken place in meat plants. Last month, 109 positive cases emerged from testing in meat factories where each of the cases was asymptomatic. That gives a sense of the potential issues. We do not know how many cases there were in factories where there was no testing.

I am afraid that no Department is willing to take on this matter. My fear is exacerbated by the fact that, on 6 August, NPHET agreed the interim recommendations of the "Investigation into a Series of Outbreaks of COVID-19 in Meat Processing Plants in Ireland". Like me, the Covid-19 committee and others have been asking for that report to be published. This week, the committee received a notification from the HSE that the report still would not be published. Why not? Will the Minister endeavour to ensure that it is?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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Yes. That would not be a problem. Perhaps we can engage after this session and the Deputy can tell me exactly to which report he is referring. I will certainly endeavour to get it for him. There should not be any issue with that whatsoever.

Serial testing is under way in meat processing plants. Happily, the positivity rate remains very low. The tests are working and picking things up, but the Deputy is right. Due to the nature of this disease, many people who are asymptomatic could be working in higher risk places like meat processing plants or be in direct provision or nursing homes. They have absolutely no idea that they have the disease. We are continuing with the serial testing for exactly that reason. If there is any information that the Deputy needs, or if he has any idea that he wants to discuss with me about how to make the situation safer and better for the industry and workers or about any associated issue, let us sit down and go through them.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister has approximately nine minutes to conclude if he wishes to making concluding remarks.

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Is it not ten minutes?

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I apologise. I did not realise that there would be ten minutes at the end, given that we were dealing with the questions as we went along.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Okay, but if the Minister wishes to make some general remarks, that would be fine.

Photo of Stephen DonnellyStephen Donnelly (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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Thank you. I thank all of the Deputies for their various questions. I will finish with this. While there has been a great deal of debate, as there always will and should be in this Chamber, none of us wants to see the country moving to level 4 or 5 because we understand the consequences of that. We know it is possible, but I do not believe it is inevitable. We will have an opportunity over the next few weeks to push the R number below 1. If we do that, the virus will begin to shrink. We will then keep pushing it back. However, it will take every one of us embracing what level 3 means. The vast majority of people are following the measures the vast majority of the time. If any of us can find an extra little way of pushing that a little more, then let us do that and help one another do that. For example, if staff really do not need to be at work, employers can work with their employees to help them work from home. During training, let us be sure that those who need to be present are socially distanced. Obviously enough, this means the people who are training, but also parents and others.

To this day, the best and clearest advice I have heard came from Dr. Ronan Glynn at a press conference a few weeks ago. He made it simple. We have tried to keep the framework as straightforward as possible, but we are laying out five levels of measures across our entire society and economy. With the best will in the world, that cannot be captured in a single message. We each must look at the measures and see what we need to do at this level for our counties. Dr. Glynn summed it up well. At the time, the R number was 1.6 or 1.5. He said that we had to get it below R-1 and then told us what to do, namely, to have a think about tomorrow and the coming week and where in that week we would meet people, because that is how this bloody virus spreads. It spreads from one person to another when we are together. The framework is in place to stop the virus. Dr. Glynn said that, whatever number of people we were planning on meeting, be it in a friend's house, at training, at work or wherever, we should try to reduce it. At the time, he suggested trying to halve it, which he said would bring the R number down from 1.6 to 0.8. That would be a drop from rapid growth to negative growth.

Before I came to the Chamber this evening, I sat down with Dr. Holohan, Dr. Glynn and the Secretary General to discuss the latest NPHET advice from today. As I was leaving, I told Dr. Holohan that I was going to the Dáil for an hour and a half of good debate and that, hopefully, some people would be watching. I asked him whether there was any message he wanted me to try to get out from the Dáil to anyone who might be watching. He told me to just ask people to double down on this. We are at level 3. We all know and accept that he wants to go to level 5, which I fully respect. He told me to ask the nation to double down on level 3. We saw this working in the Ceann Comhairle's constituency and county. It worked in Kildare, Laois and Offaly. It should be more effective now, given that the entire nation is at level 3 rather than just those three counties, Dublin or Donegal. It was harder for them because other counties did not have the same restrictions. Level 3 applies to the full Twenty-six Counties right now.

That is the note on which I would like to end. There has been much talk about text messages and so on. I firmly believe that what happened over the weekend was entirely sensible and reasonable and was the Government functioning. When we are all considering decisions of the magnitude of moving our country to level 5 - asking people to stay at home and shutting down businesses across the country – or even level 3, there will inevitably be disagreements. Sometimes, there will be robust debate, and there was in this instance.

If we embrace the current restrictions for a few weeks, do as Dr. Holohan said and double down on the level 3 measures - the people of Kildare, Laois and Offaly showed the way and the people of Dublin are showing it now, because the infection rate has flatlined there - I believe that we can do this and we can push the virus back down. A total of 1 million students have gone back to school and continue to go to school. Some 250,000 students have gone back to higher education. A lot of that activity has moved online but they are back in higher education or in it for the first time. Something north of 400,000 people have gone back to work and moved off the PUP since the height of the first wave and since we began to open things up again. These are things of which we should all be proud. The hospitals are open and screening services are back up and running. What our doctors, nurses, therapists and disability service providers are having to do to get those services back up and running is not easy but, by God, they are doing it. We should be incredibly proud of our teachers, clinicians and business people. Indeed, I know all of us are proud.

We are capable of pushing this virus back with the current measures. Kildare, Laois and Offaly gave us hope and showed us the way. Dublin is doing the same now and the rest of us are more than capable of doing likewise. Notwithstanding the debate this evening, everyone in this House wants the same thing. We have a common enemy in Covid. We need to work together to push the virus back, keep schools, colleges and businesses open and get the remaining businesses open, and keep the hospitals and primary care centres open. We must work together through the winter, because it will be a hard winter in many different ways for the people we represent. People are going to feel isolated and scared. Businesses will struggle. Our public services and public servants are going to struggle. It will be a hard winter and we need to help and support each other to push this godawful virus back and open up our country, society, economy and communities as much as we possibly can.

8:10 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank Members for their contributions and the Minister for his motivational remarks. We will meet again next Tuesday in the national convention centre for budget day.

The Dáil adjourned at at 9.25 p.m. until 1 p.m. on Tuesday, 13 October 2020.