Thursday, 5 November 2020
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Le cúplá lá anuas, tá admhaithe ag an Tánaiste gur thug sé cáipéis rúnda dá chara ina raibh 130 leathanach agus achan cheann dóibh marcáilte mar rúnda agus nach raibh cead ann é a thabhairt d'aon duine. Tá a fhios againn, agus ag madraí an bhaile, anois go raibh an rud a rinne an Tánaiste contráilte ach tá níos mó eolais de dhíth orainn faoi seo. This week, the Tánaiste admitted to leaking a confidential document, marked "Not for circulation", to a friend of his. The Tánaiste admitted that he was wrong to do so. The Tánaiste's rationale for doing so was debunked here in the House on Tuesday night and there are a number of issues I want to return to because the Tánaiste has not provided clarity on all the matters surrounding this.
I have looked through both documents and I have found that there are at least 35 changes between the one that the Tánaiste provided to his friend, the president of the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP, and the one that was subsequently published by the Department of Health. The reality is that discussions were still live and ongoing and that this part of the Tánaiste's argument simply does not stake up to scrutiny. Every one of the 130 pages of the agreement that the Tánaiste gave to his friend was marked "Confidential: Not for circulation". It had that stamp on every single page. Can the Tánaiste explain why there was another document attached to the one he provided to the president of the NAGP? I refer to a six-page document that is not marked "Confidential: Not for circulation". Each page of this document is marked "Working draft: Confidential".
It was widely reported last night that the Tánaiste told those present at a meeting of his parliamentary party that they should be careful with the friends they choose. That does not sound like the words of someone who is sorry for his actions. That sounds like the words of someone who is annoyed that he got caught. Is that not the reality? Instead of accepting responsibility for his actions, the Tánaiste threw Dr. Maitiú Ó Tuathail under the bus and then decided to reverse over him. I want to put on the record that Dr. Ó Tuathail is not to blame here. Dr. Ó Tuathail was within his rights, as president of the NAGP, to seek out this document, either from the then Minister for Health or from the then Taoiseach. He was acting in the interests of his members as he saw it and he was perfectly entitled to ask the Tánaiste for this document. The wrongdoing here is that the Tánaiste was not entitled to provide this document, or indeed the other document marked "Confidential", to the president of the NAGP, a friend of the Tánaiste. It was the Tánaiste who made that decision.
Will the Tánaiste answer me this? On Tuesday, he told this House that he spoke to Dr. Ó Tuathail in recent days to try and verify when the Tánaiste sent the document to him because, as the Tánaiste said to the House on Tuesday, "I did not have that WhatsApp message any more and I wanted to check the exact date on which I sent the document." Can the Tánaiste explain what he means by this? Has the Tánaiste deleted these messages? Has he deleted these communications from his phone? I am sure the Tánaiste will be aware that these contacts fall under the scope of the Freedom of Information Act if, as he claims, this document or these documents were provided to Dr. Ó Tuathail as part of an agreed strategy or in the Tánaiste's then capacity as Taoiseach. Did the Tánaiste delete official records of this exchange?
In my statement on Tuesday, I clearly and definitely accepted responsibility for this. I used the term "sole responsibility" and therefore I have not sought to blame anyone else. I have apologised for it, I have accounted for it and I have said that I accept responsibility for it. I have not been equivocal about that in any way.
I do not have a copy of the document that I sent to Dr. Ó Tuathail. I do not know how it is possible for the Deputy to make those comparisons because I do not have a copy of it. I am not sure how the Deputy can make that comparison with a document that we no longer have. Perhaps there was a version at some point in time that the Deputy is making the comparison from but it may not be the document that I sent to Dr. Ó Tuathail.
As I said in my statement on Tuesday, any changes that were made subsequently were minor. This was agreed on 3 April. As the Cabinet memorandum says on 9 April, engagement had concluded with the IMO, and it was publicly announced on 4 April and launched on 6 April. Any changes were so minor that they did not require a return to the Cabinet. They were of that nature. If they were of significance, they would have required a return to the Cabinet.
My contact with Dr. Ó Tuathail over the weekend related to the fact that Deputy Paul Murphy had claimed in a tweet that I shared the document on 2 April. I believed that to be untrue and I wanted to check with Dr. Ó Tuathail that it was not the case because the screen grab that was there said it was 17 April. That was closer to my recollection that I gave him the document in the days before that, and that was correct.
When I checked my WhatsApp messages, it was not there. I do not, as standard, keep all text messages. I have a personal email address. Anything on that which could constitute a public record I then forward to my official account but I do not, as standard, keep text messages.
Somebody requesting a confidential document is an official request to the Taoiseach. The Tánaiste was the Taoiseach at the time. It falls under the Freedom of Information Act and it is very clear. There has been a judgment in relation to this in the past. Therefore, it is an official record.
There was not just one communication the Tánaiste had with Dr. Ó Tuathail in relation to this document. The Tánaiste had at least one more communication that we know of. Are both records deleted from the Tánaiste's phone? Were there other records in relation to seeking this document and the Tánaiste providing this confidential not-for-disclosure document to his friend? Were those records also deleted from the Tánaiste's phone? It is important that we know this.
We have requested that the documents - the one that the Tánaiste received from the Minister, Deputy Harris, as he claimed, early in April and the one that the Tánaiste asked of the Secretary General of the Department of Health on 10 April - would be published with all communication. Will the Tánaiste makes sure that happens straightaway so that everybody can scrutinise those documents because it is hard to follow some of this? The Cabinet agreed this on 9 April, but on 10 April the Tánaiste looked to the Secretary General for another copy. At 2 p.m. on 10 April, the Tánaiste looked for Dr. Ó Tuathail's address. Can the Tánaiste also talk to us about whether there was a second document, one that was stamped not "Confidential: Not for circulation" but "Working draft: Confidential"?
I do not recall there being a second document. I only recall there being one document. As I have said, I do not, as standard, keep all of my text messages. I do not think most Members of this House do. Obviously, anything I consider to be a public record - for example, if somebody sends an email to my personal account, which happens from time to time - I forward to my official account, which is in line with the Department of the Taoiseach's policy on email.
Before last week's recess, I raised my concerns with the Taoiseach in relation to putting in place a robust contact tracing system. We had seen a spectacular failure the previous weekend, when thousands of people who tested positive had to trace their own contracts. We cannot see a repeat of that. When I raised this at Leaders' Questions, I was told that there would be 90 people recruited each week and up to 800 overall would be recruited on the contact tracing side. We were looking for a gold standard in relation to this. It is absolutely vital. Can the Tánaiste give us an absolute commitment that this will be in place before the level 5 restrictions end?
In addition to the testing and contact tracing we know we have to mitigate risks. Meat plants are a risk and work practices are part of that. What is happening in relation to that? Direct provision centres are a known risk and if there was a will, something could be done about that. Is there such a will?
International travel is a known risk. Dr. Holohan was before the transport committee this week and he said that movement of populations around areas with high incidences of the disease, particularly in Europe and North America, are not safe. He said the vast majority of countries are red and getting redder. We are due to adopt the EU traffic light system for international travel this Sunday. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, told us on 4 October that a senior cross-departmental group was working on a report and on a plan and that that report would be available on 10 November. Are the report and plan still due on that date?
It is for testing at airports. The traffic light system requires a domestic approach to the wider European system. If we are going to open up on Sunday under this traffic light system, is that plan available now? How long will it take us to put that plan in place in a practical sense? The airline sector is very damaged and this sector is also vital for the connectivity of our country as an island nation. Some 400,000 Covid locator forms were submitted between 1 September and 30 October. That is a considerably reduced level of traffic movement but it is still a significant number of people. However, in the absence of testing at ports and airports, we are effectively taking a fingers-crossed approach. We need to know what is going to be put in place. We cannot come back in a number of weeks' time, having discovered that this is a known risk that we have not properly mitigated and that we have not put systems in place where we know a risk could be mitigated and we could reduce the problems. There are a number of questions there on the testing and tracing system and the mitigation of risks.
On the meat plants, we very much acknowledge they are high risk environments. It is to do with the temperature, the airflow and so on and that is why there is a surveillance programme of testing in meat plants. Thankfully, the percentage of results coming back positive has so far been very small.
On international travel, I confess I am not across things as much in the past few days as I should be but this is an issue the Minister, Deputy Ryan, is leading on. I understand we are very much advising people that we are in a level 5 period. Under level 5 restrictions a person is not supposed to go more that 5 km from his or her home, except for work, education or compassionate reasons such as caring for a relative. That applies to international travel too, so if people are travelling internationally it should only be for work, education or a compassionate reason which may involve, for example, having to care for a relative.
We have adopted the European traffic light system whereby once a week the European Centre for Disease Control, ECDC, produces a green, red and orange map of all the different regions of Europe - it is done by region rather than country - and that determines the rules around foreign travel. We are in level 5 but there is no requirement to quarantine or test for travel into Ireland from a green area. As I understand it, people travelling from an amber area can avoid the 14-day restricted movements requirement if they have a prior negative polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test. People travelling from a red area must restrict their movements for at least five days and then have a negative PCR test at that point. The whole idea of bringing in testing related to travel from amber and red areas is to reduce the risk of the virus being reseeded into the country. That is going to be particularly important given that as we get the numbers down the risk of reseeding becomes higher and we want to avoid that.
At the moment we are up to 120,000 tests per week. This compares very favourably other countries. Of 23 western European countries, we rank eighth out of 23. We are ahead of places like Germany or New Zealand. We are behind Denmark, which is doing a lot more testing than we are but now has a higher incidence of the virus than we do. That indicates that it is not all about testing, although testing is extremely important.
On contact tracing we are trying to ensure that is up to a higher level at the end of level 5. We are trying to use level 5 to put in place even more robust testing and contact tracing regimes than we had before. Testing is going extremely well. We have the capacity to test 120,000 per week. We are really trying to scale up the number of people working in the tracing centres. I am told there are 650 people working in the tracing centres at the moment, of whom 344 are new recruits. The rest are staff redeployed from other areas.
That was an incredibly disappointing response. This is a known risk and it has been talked about for a considerable time. We cannot take the fingers-crossed approach to international travel. We saw one instance where 56 cases resulted from one case. We must put systems in place that are about more than having our fingers crossed. This system is to be introduced on Sunday. The Government must put systems in place domestically to match the traffic light system. We have not put those systems in place. We are just hoping people will comply rather than having a means to ensure they comply with those systems. We cannot switch our economy on and off with lockdowns in the way we are doing. If we are going to live with this virus, we absolutely need to put those systems in place where there are known risks. This is a known risk and Dr. Holohan pointed to it in recent days. We need to know what is planned and when it will be put in place. Will the gold standard be place with testing and contact tracing system before we end this lockdown?
One of the issues we are going to have to consider is enforcement. As the Deputy knows, at the moment the requirement for a person to restrict his or her movements having come in from abroad is not mandatory. It is very highly advisory but not mandatory. Neither is it mandatory, however, for a person to restrict his or her movements if he or she is a close contact, which is a much higher risk than international travel. One thing we are giving consideration to as a Government is whether we need to make mandatory and make legally enforceable the requirement for a person to restrict his or her movements or self-isolate in certain circumstances. It would not make sense to apply that to international travel which is actually a lower risk than somebody who is positive not self-isolating or somebody who is a close contact not restricting his or her movements. We need to be proportionate in that regard.
International travel is a risk but we also need to be realistic about that too. We are an island country but we are not an island state. We share a land border with Northern Ireland that is wide open. There is a relatively liberal regime in Northern Ireland for international travel. There are no restrictions on travel to Britain and a very extensive green list, much more extensive than ours. We do not detect an appetite from the Northern Ireland Executive to change that. We need to be very realistic about that. We could have very strict rules at our airports but they could be made a mockery of by virtue of the fact that we have open travel with Northern Ireland which obviously we are not going to restrict.
I raise the adverse affect the coronavirus is having on people with various other illnesses or health issues in County Kerry and around the country. At present there are no orthopaedic procedures being carried out in Tralee General Hospital unless they are emergencies due to fractures or something very urgent. People are being told that routine procedures will take four to five years and it is two years for elective procedures. Sick people cannot visit GPs or GPs cannot visit them. Consultations are mostly by phone and this system does not help the confidence of patients in terms of recovery. There are bed reductions in our community hospitals. Killarney Community Hospital closed 15 beds. Perhaps consideration should be given to opening up the single beds in the Kenmare hospital which is a new hospital that does not have wards but single rooms. St. Columbanus Home, a public nursing home, is to close 27 beds.
This is impacting badly on people in the Killarney catchment area. Patients in hospitals or homes cannot have visitors, which is very hard on elderly people. We should be able to facilitate one or two family members every four or five days. I know of a family who brought their father home because they could not bear the thought of not seeing him in Tralee general hospital. More likely than not, elderly sick people do not have time on their side. The primary medical certificates required by disabled people, children and the elderly, including people who have had strokes, to adapt their car or help them to buy a modified car are not being processed. Where are all the billions been given to the HSE? If the HSE allocation was doubled, I do not believe it would or could deliver a proper service.
People in Kerry cannot get the flu vaccination. Doctors have only a small number of vaccines and have to decide who needs it most. People are ringing every day for more than a month and they cannot get the vaccine.
Depression and suicides have increased because of the virus. It is very clear that even before the virus Kerry did not have adequate facilities to admit patients with mental health issues. Dr. Finnerty has said that patients who have repeated admissions because of a lack of adequate facilities have to be let out and brought back in again. She calls it the revolving door of admissions. I know of one person who has been waiting in constant pain since 1 March and had a pre-operative assessment on 12 August.
I tabled a parliamentary question to the Department of Health and the reply I received told me it is recognised that waiting times for scheduled appointments and procedures have been impacted as a direct result-----
The Deputy has raised a few important issues. With regard to the flu vaccine, there is very high demand for it at present, which is encouraging. People who did not seek the flu vaccination in previous years are seeking to be vaccinated this year and this is a real positive. Supply is short, not just in Ireland but internationally. There is more on the way. No matter what happens, we will vaccinate many more people against the flu this winter than we have in any winter in the past. Important progress is being made. We do need to prioritise and it is those who need it most who are being prioritised, including healthcare workers, older people and those with chronic conditions, and children between the ages of two and 12 years using the nasal spray to vaccinate them.
With regard to suicide and deliberate self-harm, we recently had a discussion on the mental health impact of the pandemic and the lockdown at the Cabinet committee on social policy. The evidence and research we have so far does not show any increase in suicide or in deliberate self-harm during the pandemic period. Please God this will continue to be the case and will continue to be true. It is certainly the case that the pandemic and the lockdown are having an impact on people's mental health and we are seeing an increase in calls and inquiries to mental health services and resources are being increased precisely because of this.
With regard to waiting lists, I totally appreciate what the Deputy has said, and far too many people are waiting for too long in Ireland for the operation or appointment they need. The health budget for 2021 is €4 billion higher than this year, which is an extraordinary increase in the budget. It is ten times the type of increase we might have seen in the past. Of this, €2 billion is for Covid and €2 billion is for non-Covid. I hope this will allow us to make real inroads into the waiting lists in 2021.
The Tánaiste has spoken about health service workers. A young fellow told me that he is lame since February and was told today he will have to wait three years before he is seen to. The people of Kerry and Ireland want to know who is responsible for giving the order to specialists, consultants and hospitals to cancel or defer appointments and defer elective procedures. Is it the Government, the Minister for Health, NPHET or Dr. Tony Holohan? What will these specialists be doing in the meantime? People can die from other illnesses and diseases as well. Just because the coronavirus arrived does not mean people will not get other illnesses or suffer great pain and, indeed, die from other illnesses.
We do recognise that and I know the chief medical officer recognises it also. One of the real concerns we have during the pandemic is what people call secondary deaths, for example, people who have a heart attack not going to the hospital because they think it is overwhelmed and they do not want to bother the doctors and nurses, and perhaps people who have stroke symptoms delaying seeking medical help because of the pandemic. This is a real worry we have, which is why we are sending out the message that everyone who needs medical attention should seek it. We have 800 more beds, including 400 acute and 400 subacute, than we had in March, and many fewer than this number of patients in hospital with Covid. If we look at the level of overcrowding and the number of trolleys, people on trolleys in our hospitals has not been lower since records began. We have capacity and we are saying to people that if they need medical help they should seek it. On occasion, hospitals do have to cancel operations and there may be various reasons in different cases why this is. It could be because of a lack of beds but it could also be for other reasons.
Over the past ten years, the national broadband plan has been spoken about, and last year the Tánaiste and other Ministers signed the new contract, which is welcome. The questions with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, we were dealing with prior to Leaders' Questions were about broadband. Work on this has started in various parts of the country. Some people will say the main contractors got a heavy price or a good price, and it probably is, but I would always say that we need to get broadband in rural Ireland and that is the bottom line.
Worryingly, over recent days in different parts of the country we have heard there have been stand-offs with the polers, who are the people who put up poles. Some of them are back on site again today. Ironically, the first thing that is done in going from pole to pole is to clip the top of hedgerows, the 6% of which we left out of our climate mitigation plans, to make sure the wire does not get cut. Unfortunately, 80% of the contractors throughout the country have pulled off site. They tell us the surveying has been done wrong and the way it has been added up is completely wrong compared with the other providers we have in the country, and we all know them. This is bread-and-butter stuff and there are already stand-offs. There are some parts of the country where a few contractors are working. Other than this, they have all pulled off site. If this has cropped up already, at the beginning of the roll-out of broadband, what measures has the Government put in place to make sure there is oversight of what is going on?
From what I can see, we seem to have a main contractor that does not seem to have a lot of gear or machinery and subcontracts it down, and then it is subcontracted down again and then subcontracted down again. Is there anything in place to make sure the ordinary contractors at the bottom of this ladder are protected and get the proper price for the work they are doing, or is this a big figure for broadband and screw everyone down along? What has the Government put in place to make sure these people are protected?
I thank the Deputy. I am genuinely not aware of the dispute with the polers that the Deputy has mentioned. I will see the Minister, Deputy Ryan, this afternoon and I will mention to him that it was raised in the Dáil and he might be able to inform me, or inform the Deputy directly, as to what is the difficulty.
As the Deputy knows, the contract is given to National Broadband Ireland and it will employ and is employing subcontractors to do a lot of the work on the ground. There is an oversight mechanism in the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications which is responsible for communications networks to make sure this is project managed, driven and delivered. We would expect that if the main contractor, NBI, is getting paid by the taxpayer, it should honour any agreements it has with subcontractors to make sure the money goes down the line. It should honour any contracts and commitments it makes with subcontractors, so we would expect that to happen.
I think it is good that the national broadband plan is now a reality. I remember being in that school in Wicklow and being present for the signing of the contract and I remember somebody saying to me that despite all the controversy, I would never regret the day the contract was signed. I do not think we will regret it. I think it will come in cheaper than the price, by the way. It is the reverse of the children's hospital contract. It can go down and it cannot go up, so I think it will actually come in at a lower cost than the €3 billion which was quoted at the time.
As the Deputy said, the work is now under way and it is going to connect 1 million people across rural Ireland to high-speed broadband and over 500,000 homes, farms and businesses. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is how essential this service is because people living in rural Ireland, running a business, running a farm, trying to access education or attending college from home, need this service. It is as essential as electricity, water or landline phone lines in the old days. I think we made the right investment and it will pay off.
I thank the Tánaiste. I fully agree. I am a supporter of broadband right around rural Ireland, especially with Covid, given the number of people who are able to work from home. The quicker we can roll it out, the better and if we could roll it out twice as fast I would be in full support of that. I want to be very clear on that.
The Tánaiste said it may go down in price and it is great if it does. The problem at the moment is that there are subcontractors who have basically gone away from it because they could not survive or make money on the rates they were being offered. The surveys done seem to be ludicrous compared to what has already been done with providers each year going back the years where broadband has already been done. There are standards that are needed. There is no point cutting something 3 inches below if we have to go at it again next year. Certain standards are needed to make sure that we only have to go along, say, every five years.
The way this is starting at the moment, I worry about it. This is the beginning of it. Funnily enough, the hedge cutter that goes along is the beginning of putting up the wire that will bring this to every home in the country. If we cannot get that simple bit right, and if we have contractors who are walking off because of the prices involved, there is something seriously wrong.
I will give the Tánaiste the information later. I ask him to talk to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to make sure there is oversight for these people. They are entitled to make a living as well.
I thank the Deputy. If he can give me that information later, I will be happy to speak to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, about it in the afternoon. Given what I have learned in the last week, I will make sure that whatever the Deputy gives me is somehow scanned onto some sort of system so nobody can accuse him of being informal or something like that.