Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
Issues relevant to the transport sector can arise, as required, at a number of Cabinet committees, most notably the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment. The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment first met on 8 July. It has met on a total of seven occasions, most recently on 5 November. The next meeting of the Cabinet committee is scheduled for 3 December. The Government continues to invest in our national infrastructure. This is evidenced by the commitment of capital allocation of more than €10 billion in budget 2021, making public investment in Ireland one of the highest per capitain the EU.
Specifically, the budget 2021 allocation for the Department of Transport is €3.5 billion, which includes €1.8 billion funding announced for sustainable transport, cycling, walking and greenways and €1.3 billion for national, regional and local roads.
This will ensure that our transport network continues to grow sustainably in to the future, providing viable and affordable transport options, while also working to meet our climate and environmental objectives.
Issues relevant to the transport sector can arise at other Cabinet committees, such as the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change or the Cabinet committee on Northern Ireland and Brexit.
Issues relating to transport are, of course, regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings, where all formal decisions are made.
Aer Lingus workers are still waiting for the Minister for Social Protection to issue an instruction to the Intreo offices to ensure their backdated payments are paid and to ensure they are processed swiftly. Aer Lingus workers continue to suffer real hardship as a result of this issue. I have with me correspondence from a couple who both work for the company. They state that they have furloughed car payments, stopped unnecessary direct debits, tightened their belts and agreed interest-only payments on their mortgage. They are doing everything they can to survive and are not exactly looking forward to when their son writes his Santa letter because they will have to guide him on what they can best afford and not bow to his every Christmas wish. Can the Taoiseach ensure the Minister for Social Protection writes to the Intreo offices requesting that the backdated payments for short-time working are processed quickly?
In regard to taxi drivers, the Covid restriction support scheme excludes taxi drivers because they do not own premises. In regard to the moves made in the budget to deal with the hardships facing taxi drivers, the widespread feeling of taxi drivers is that they do not go far enough. Will the Government revisit this issue and consider including taxi drivers in the CRS scheme?
Driver instructors have written on several occasions to the Minister for Transport asking for a meeting to discuss grievances, including the denial of access to them of basic facilities at the Road Safety Authority, RSA, centres. They have received no satisfactory reply from the Minister or the Department. Will the Taoiseach ensure that they do so?
We are heading into the Christmas period. Airport testing is a real issue for me. The aviation taskforce recommended testing at our airports in July but, as the Taoiseach will know, it has been left to the private sector to provide it. The State has not stepped in. We now have a fairly small testing capacity being outlined for our national airports. It is clear that the contact locator forms are a joke. Has a risk analysis been carried out in regard to the lack of proposed testing facilities that will be available at airports? That is a simple question which the Taoiseach needs to consider. More people are going to be coming home via our airports at Christmas than any of us expect. This is a big risk. It is a big issue and we need to be able to test people. This has been noted to the Taoiseach now. I do not want to have to return to it because of a failing.
There is also the issue of the volume of buses required in Dublin, given the needs of front-line workers as well as children travelling to school. In addition, people are going to be using public transport more over Christmas. I understand that 43 extra buses are being deployed by Dublin Bus. Will the Taoiseach look at that issue? The number needs to be increased dramatically.
Finally, on Project Ireland 2040 and its plans relating to transport, is the Government reviewing those plans which were set by the previous Government? What changes are being made, particularly as regards indexation in terms of capital projects? Have any already been commenced or proposed?
I have spoken out repeatedly on behalf of taxi drivers since the Covid pandemic began and their industry was decimated. Before I ask my specific questions, the Taoiseach should understand just what a fantastic service the 26,000 taxi drivers provide. The National Transport Authority, NTA, reported today that of 40 million taxi journeys last year, there were just under 1,000 complaints. That means the percentage of complaints per journey is 0.000025%. I just did that on my calculator. It is an extraordinary figure. I do not think there is any other service about which there are so few complaints out of that vast volume of journeys. However, the Government has effectively abandoned taxi drivers when they are on their knees.
The Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, and grants being provided to businesses hit by the pandemic are being denied to taxi drivers because they do not have a rateable premises. That is completely unfair when the taxi drivers are carrying anywhere between €6,000 and €11,000 in ongoing fixed costs, yet the Government is denying them the grant support they need. The one grant for which they can apply, the restart grant, comes to a miserable €1,000 and the taxi drivers have to sign off the PUP to get it, which is absolutely disgraceful. The electric accessible scheme that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is talking about setting up will only be available if a person scraps his or her car, which means the vast majority of taxi drivers will not be able to get it
The NTA suggested today that we need to issue more taxi licences when, in fact, by a significant margin,there is not enough work to go around for the taxi drivers who are currently on their knees. I ask the Taoiseach to look into these matters and give real support to the taxi industry and taxi drivers.
I wish to raise the issue of testing at airports and ports. Last week, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, confirmed that Dublin Airport and Cork Airport have a capacity of just 150 daily PCR tests and that this will increase to just 300 tests by year end. Even taking account of the 91% fall in passenger numbers recorded last month, 8,500 people still pass through Dublin Airport every day. My colleague, Deputy Darren O'Rourke, pointed out to the Minister of State that the projected increase in testing capacity to 300 by year end would barely cover a single flight coming into the country. I am conscious that at Christmas many people will heed what I assume will be advice to be cautious or not to travel at all, but there will still be an increased number of people coming onto the island.
The president of the Irish Air Line Pilots Association, told the Joint Committee on Transport and Communication Networks last week that he believed rapid testing should be available for arriving and departing passengers as well as for staff working at the airports on a daily basis. That seems to me to be just a matter of common sense. I am concerned and astonished. I wonder why there has not been a comprehensive comparison of PCR, LAMP and rapid antigen testing to identify the effectiveness of each when used in various settings. Is it the intention of the Government to maintain its very hands-off approach to the inevitable public health challenge that will arise from an increase in passenger numbers through the airports next month? More generally in terms of bringing us through this crisis in one piece, why we are still having this debate about the necessity for testing at ports and airports when it is obviously necessary and a priority matter?
It is very simple. The public health authorities are not convinced about the efficacy of rapid testing or antigen testing. There is no mystery. That has been the position from the get-go and the beginning of the pandemic. The same applies at European Commission level. There will be a further meeting on this issue this week in terms of co-ordination across Europe. There is no definitive evidence-based Europe-wide approach to antigen testing or other forms of rapid testing.
I met recently with the Dublin Airport Authority. The Government is not hands-off. I am engaging with all of the stakeholders in the aviation sector. They are working with the National Virus Reference Laboratory, NVLR, in relation to LAMP testing and its possibilities. HIQA did its study and analysis. NPHET is currently validating antigen testing out in the community. The feedback or the sense we are getting from the public health advice is that they are not converts to antigen testing.
I am not an expert in testing. I suspect there are very few Deputies who are experts in it. I think there is an issue here that we would like to bring to resolution but it is not one we can address by just stating a particular course is the common-sense approach. It must be one that is informed by science and public health evidence. That is the position in relation to the airports. Testing facilities are being developed in Cork Airport and Dublin Airport.
I visited Cork Airport recently. It was empty. Everything was closed there. Two airlines, namely, KLM and Aer Lingus, operate three or four flights a week if we are lucky. That is the reality on the ground in airports at the moment. Shannon Airport has equally low numbers, if any, at the moment. Knock Airport is the same.
I take the point raised by Deputies in terms of what will happen in the lead-up to Christmas. As I have stated, he Government is preparing its approach to exiting level 5 and that will include the travel issue. The travel issue will be challenging and it does pose risks, as any congregated setting will. How we manage risks and human behaviour is going to be essential in terms of the broader management of the exit from level 5. We have done a bit of work in terms of understanding what drove the spikes in Covid during the summer and into September and the kind of areas involved or the super-spreading events that occurred in certain locations after certain events. Without question, congregation is an issue. Let us be clear about that. That has implications for the hospitality industry or certain sectors of it. This is going to be very challenging. It is not just about Christmas. It is also about the aftermath of Christmas, the economy and jobs. It is about taking informed decisions that enable us to deal and live with the virus more effectively until the vaccine is fully in place.
I point out to Deputy Barry that I also met with Aer Lingus more generally in terms of the broader issues. I will speak to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys and seek to get the moneys due to the workers as urgently and quickly as possible because I do acknowledge that many workers and their families are in a difficult position as a result of the impact of Covid-19.
In terms of taxi drivers and in terms of the other supports that Government has introduced, the supports have been unprecedented.
As I stated yesterday, the pandemic unemployment payment is providing more than €100 million a week. The cost of the wage subsidy scheme will be more than €5 billion from March 2020 to March 2021. The CRSS will ramp up fairly fast as well in terms of its supports.