Dáil debates

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

2:10 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I advise leaders that the Committee on Standing Orders and Dáil Reform has strenuously emphasised to me the need to ensure that during Leaders' Questions everyone adheres to the time limits laid down. It is Christmas week, so maybe we would all be very benign and less generous with our words in order that we can stay within the allocated time limits. We will now take Leaders' Questions under Standing Order 36. I call Deputy McDonald.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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On several occasions now, I have raised with the Taoiseach his refusal to pay student nurses and midwives. His decision has been met with understandable anger, not just from the students themselves but also from the public. Last Thursday, I met online with student nurses and midwives from all over the country. They shared with me their experiences and recounted the very real work they do in our hospitals. Their kindness, professionalism and dedication to nursing is in sharp contrast to the shoddy way they are being treated by the Taoiseach's Government. They are angry at the Taoiseach's suggestion that their nursing colleagues are exploiting them. They are livid, in fact, that the Taoiseach deflects from his refusal to pay them by blaming other nurses. They said to me how dare anyone, especially the Taoiseach, suggest they are being abused or exploited by other nurses. They say that the Taoiseach is the exploiter.

Nurses in hospitals are facing overcrowding, a lack of staff and stressful conditions, and this is the result of decades of bad Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael policy. Student nurses walk onto those same wards and they do what comes naturally to them. They say it would go against every fibre of their being not to help patients in distress or relieve pressure on their colleagues when a ward is incredibly busy. They say that the only abuse and exploitation here is the Taoiseach's Government's persistent refusal to pay them. Other nurses are not to blame, so I ask the Taoiseach to drop that nonsense.

This is about the values of his Government. Its treatment of student nurses and midwives demonstrates again that the Taoiseach's chaotic Government is completely out of touch. The appalling lack of fairness is there for all to see. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have no problem showing up for their friends, and no problem whatsoever looking after those at the top. I refer to the developers, the big landlords and super junior Ministers and former taoisigh. Their hands are not tied then.

For student nurses and midwives, it is tea and sympathy, a round of applause and Government sends them back onto the wards with their pockets empty.

The Government just does not seem to get it. Student nurses did not just step into the breach at the start of this pandemic; they have always been in the breach. They have been doing the real work for years, but now because of Covid they have had to give up their part-time jobs which paid their bills and rent and helped them to cover the cost of attending college. Some have told me that, after their 13-hour shift, the first thing they do is go to the break room and cry, not only because nursing is tough but because they are broke and struggling to get by. Yet, they wipe their eyes, they get up the next day and they go back to doing it all over again. Student nurses and midwives show up every day for all of us and it is now time for the Government to show up for them.

Will the Taoiseach finally do the right thing? Will he tell them that they will be paid? Make no mistake; this is what the entire country expects him to do.

2:15 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy has deliberately distorted and misrepresented what I said on the last number of occasions. On no stage have I ever suggested that other nurses exploit student nurses. That is a complete untruth. I said any employer that would take from a student his or her full student status, which is what the nursing degree is about, and use him or her on a 13-hour roster to work and not pay him or her is responsible for that exploitation, not fellow nurses and I never said that. The Deputy knows I did not say that, but it suits her to play the politics all of the time, to distort and to tell untruths about what I said, and to apportion words to me that were never said in this House.

I want to make one point. What the Deputy does not seem to get is that what she wants is to change the nursing degree back to an apprenticeship model. First year students do nine weeks' placement, roughly. That is meant to be a clinical placement and their status is meant to be full student status. The higher education institutes and the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland are clear about that. The nursing degree programme was introduced to separate out and create the status of a student as opposed to a worker. The Deputy steadfastly refuses to deal with that issue, which is at the core of this. In second year, it is a 12-week placement and in third year it is a 12-week placement, although that can vary a little in some hospitals. It is 36 weeks in year four. Students are paid in their internship year in year four.

The Government is open to, and wants to, review this. My understanding is agreement has now been reached in terms of the chair of such an immediate review. The pandemic unemployment payment is being made available to student nurses. Student nurses were paid the healthcare system rate in the first wave of Covid, given the enormous impact of that first wave on hospitalisations. That impact has not been seen in the second wave, thanks be to God. We have 210 people in hospital as of this morning compared with 800-odd in the springtime.

Fianna Fáil transformed nurse education in this country. The Deputy will never acknowledge that. It is beyond her to acknowledge it because she is too partisan. I was the Minister for Health who introduced the nursing degree programme. I introduced it because the nursing professions wanted it, the nursing unions wanted it and those involved in advancing nurse education wanted it. They wanted to transform the whole idea of nurse education, not just at undergraduate level but postgraduate as well. That happened. There was an enormous investment, which was probably the largest investment ever, in nurse education, which resulted in schools of nursing in all of our universities and in all of our institutes of technology in the regions. That was the objective.

I am very clear that a student nurse on a clinical placement is a full-time student. If a nurse is asked to do work for a roster, that nurse should be paid by the employer for such a roster. I have been making this clear now for the past number of weeks. We have a problem in that we will need to review entirely the programme. Do we want to go back to an apprenticeship model? Is that what we want to do, such that the quality of the clinical placement and the learning process is significantly reduced, which is what it is meant to be about in the first instance? A first-year nursing student on a nine-week clinical placement is not meant to be working.

He or she is not meant to be treating Covid patients at 2 o'clock in the morning. That was never meant to be the case and it should not be. Successive Governments have invested in a strong infrastructure in hospitals to protect that clinical space and clinical placements for nursing students in order that they are a genuine learning environment for them. Fourth year student nurses get paid for the 36-week placement, which is a transition period into work. We are very committed to increasing the allowances available to students and also the fourth year payment, which is separate to that, immediately. There will also be a more medium-term review of the allowances coming out of that.

2:25 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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What is at the core of this, in reality, is a health service and a hospital system that is creaking at the seams. What is at the core of this is the fact that student nurses and midwives are very often the glue that keeps that system together and keeps the show on the road. What is also at the core of this, put very plainly, is a group of professionals in training working 13-hour shifts and not getting paid. It is as simple as that. The Taoiseach can deflect, divert and point the finger wherever he wishes but he is the Head of Government and this is now a very real problem for these students, for their families, and potentially, for the healthcare system itself. The Taoiseach is now saying that they should be paid. Is he in agreement with me that individuals working 13-hour shifts should be paid? He has stated that. The question then is why they are not being paid and what the Government is going to do to ensure that they are. I ask the Taoiseach not to take us off on a tangent with a discussion more generally around nurse education. Nobody is proposing to go back to the apprenticeship model. What we are strongly stating is that this work is being done and needs to be recognised, valued and paid.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The nursing degree programme, nurse education and the quality of it is not a tangent. It is at the very core of this issue and Deputy McDonald has steadfastly refused to address it because she knows the truth. The truth is that one cannot have both systems.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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I know what is happening in our hospitals and it seems the Taoiseach does not, which is shocking.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I did not interrupt the Deputy. We cannot have both and she is pretending we can. She is not being honest in this debate. The heads of schools and departments of nursing are very clear that supernumerary status is a fundamental expression of full student status, which has ultimately brought enormous benefits to the professions of nursing and midwifery, to the health services and to society. I invite the Deputy to talk to the chief nursing officer.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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They are not supernumerary. They are working on the wards.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I have worked with chief nursing officers in the past. Their greatest ambition was to move out of the dark ages and move into modern nurse education. Student nurses in first year should not have to work a 13-hour shift. They should not.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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They are.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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They have nine weeks of clinical placement for the entire year. That clinical placement should be protected and Deputy McDonald should be demanding that it be protected.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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You should be paying them.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Everyone in this House should be doing that because it is the right thing to do by the students.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Taoiseach's time is up.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Otherwise it is not a learning environment. Let us not kid ourselves and pretend it would be if people were working during the night and at 2 o'clock in the morning as first year nursing students on a nine-week placement. The nine-week placement is about learning.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Disgraceful.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It should not be about working rosters. This is not as simplistic as the Deputy wants to present it for political gain and to win votes and to be popular.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Thank you, Taoiseach. Your time is up.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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It is very simple. They are doing the work and the Government is not paying them.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is the easy thing to do in here-----

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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That is pretty simple and straightforward.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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-----and the Deputy is doing it on a consistent basis.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Please, time is up.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Sinn Féin's policy on nurse education is quite frankly incoherent.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Indeed. The Taoiseach should pay them.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Barry.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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Today is day 250 of the Debenhams dispute. The Taoiseach was asked by multiple parties across this House to intervene to resolve this dispute before Christmas in order that workers could spend the holiday season at home with their families rather than freezing on picket lines and having to stress about an ongoing dispute. He appointed the chairman of the Labour Court, Kevin Foley, as mediator on 25 November. The expectation was that a proposal would be on the table no later than 7 December, allowing workers time to conduct a ballot and have a result a few days before Christmas Day. However, not only was there no proposal by 7 December, there was no proposal by 9 December.

Now, as of 2.15 p.m., there has been no proposal by 15 December. What was meant to happen within 12 days has taken more than 20. Where is the delay in these three-cornered talks? The talks have not been delayed by the workers. They have signalled their willingness to consider any serious offer. I have been highly critical of KPMG's role in this entire dispute, but I do not believe that it has delayed the talks either. Instead, I believe the delay is on the side of the Government.

Let us register a few points here. These are workers, overwhelmingly women, who were sacked by email, and robbed of their jobs under the cover of Covid. They were let down by the previous Government which failed to implement the Duffy Cahill report and lied when it said that a Clerys situation would never happen again. That was a Government which was kept in power for four years by the Taoiseach's party and whose failure to act met with no protest or interruption by either the Taoiseach or his party. These workers have protested for eight long months through a pandemic, through nights and through winter, and they have appealed to the Taoiseach not just for a settlement but for a just settlement.

Last week the Government came in for a mauling at the hands of public opinion for axing the pay rates agreed for student nurses in the springtime and for allowing them to work on our hospital front lines now for not even a penny's pay. Will the Government abandon and betray a second group of women workers in the run-up to Christmas? With ten days to go, will the Government allow the dispute to remain unresolved by Christmas Day? Can it be the case that the Government is so cynical that it is prepared to stall negotiations until such time that the Dáil rises on Thursday for fear of facing comment or criticism on the floor of Dáil Éireann? Is it the case, as many workers believe, that the Government is blocking a fair deal for these workers and intend to deny the justice that both they and their families deserve this Christmas time?

2:35 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is an extraordinary statement to make. The Deputy is an extraordinary propagandist and a populist. He has led people up the hill without levelling with them about the facts and what they could expect. The Deputy's behaviour in this dispute has not been great either because he knows the facts and the legal realities. The only party which has stood up to the plate here are those in Government on behalf of the taxpayer. The Government has come forward with statutory redundancy - the Deputy has never acknowledged that - yet he has the nerve to come in here and say the Government is blocking a deal or a resolution.

The Deputy knows a bit more than he is saying to the House. I have been kept informed of the deliberations with the independent arbitrator. Maybe the tactics and strategy Deputy Barry deployed at the beginning were not the best or were not those that were likely to achieve the optimal outcome for the workers, and to be fair to him, he has been loyal and supportive, but his tactical approach and strategy has compounded the resolution of this issue, unfortunately. I have to say that given the extraordinary distortion he just articulated.

The Government has worked speedily on the statutory redundancy and stands ready to do more within the law to help and to support the workers, but there are limitations because of how long this has gone on and the legal situation pertaining to Revenue and social protection under the Acts and various laws. There are very serious challenges here. It not the Government that is trying to block an agreement. How dare Deputy Barry say that. The Government has facilitated the mediation. It was the Government that asked for the mediator to get involved, but it suits the Deputy to paint a picture that it is all the Government's fault. If liquidations happen, it is the Government's fault.

The manner in which the workers were treated by their employer was shoddy and very wrong, but the Duffy Cahill report would not have dealt with this particular issue. There is a need for a future company law review to look at giving greater protection to collective redundancy agreements in liquidations.

That is something we have said on the record.

Again, I just have to repeat that the Deputy is entirely dismissive of the fact that the Government has worked as speedily as it possibly can in terms of getting the redundancy payments out to Debenhams employees and workers. It remains our commitment to do what we can but there are some real, hard realities presenting themselves to all parties as they have tried to resolve this issue and get something for the workers.

2:40 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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The Taoiseach's criticism of me personally is water off a duck's back. I am interested in what the workers think of my role in this dispute. I am not interested in what the Taoiseach thinks in this dispute, and that is where I will take my lead and my guidance from.

For the matters at hand, I have spoken about the need for a settlement before Christmas. I want to speak now about the need for a just settlement. The Taoiseach knows as well as I do that this is not getting the statutory. This is about them getting more than the statutory. That is what they are campaigning for. At the start of September, an offer was made to the workers that would be the statutory plus the sum of €1 million. The Taoiseach knows and I know that this was rejected out of hand at the start of September by those workers. The very fact that the Government set up talks, negotiation and arbitration with Kevin Foley etc. presupposes the idea that there would be an offer put on the table which would not simply be better than that but would be significantly better than that. What is the point if a proposal that is significantly better than that cannot be put on the table? Its being set up at the end of November, with calls ringing in the Taoiseach's ears that this be settled before Christmas so that those women and those workers could spend Christmas at home with their families, presupposed the idea that this would be resolved before Christmas. Time is ticking. I believe the obstacle here lies not with the workers and not with KPMG but with the Government, irrespective of what the Taoiseach might say about my role in the dispute.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy has just summed it up. His role is to blame Government, full stop. Ignore all the realities, ignore all the legal frameworks and all the challenges. His job is to blame Government and, perhaps, to undermine the trade union involved as well. There is a bit of that in his operation as well. I have picked that up during the course of this. Very often, the Deputy is not very strongly supportive of some of what might be considered mainstream trade unions. There is an element of that in his strategy as well.

These are very difficult issues to resolve and the manner of this liquidation left an awful lot to be desired. Of course it did. However, Government has not been the agency responsible for blocking anything. Anything Government can do, it has done, and Government is seeking to do more, if it can. If the Deputy is trying to create a new paradigm, on the other hand, that Government intervenes in every liquidation that happens in the retail sector, even the most recent ones, above and beyond statutory, then that is a different story, is it not? The Deputy would be better saying let us increase statutory all around for everything that happens, for every redundancy that happens.

What we are trying to do here, and because of the slippage of time and various other things, it has proved difficult, is do what we can to get something additional for the workers. That is our only objective and motivation and that is why we asked Kevin Foley if he would become involved to see if he could facilitate a resolution of this as quickly as possible. The workers have been out too long, they have been on picket too long, and it has been very difficult - extraordinarily difficult - for them and their families. It is not a political blame game and it should not be.

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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I raise the issue of the location of the Covid-19 test centres around the country, in particular the test centre in Ardee, County Louth. The Covid test centre in Ardee was opened in October of this year. It has the capacity to carry out 3,500 Covid tests per week. It operates with a six-lane capacity and can operate on a seven days a week basis when needed. I visited the site shortly before it opened and I must say it is a fabulous facility and very well staffed.

At the time, as the Taoiseach knows, I raised concerns about the location of the test centre. I was concerned at the time that it was unwise to bring a testing centre to the Ardee area and I felt that we could be bringing the virus into the area. At the time, Ardee had one of the lowest rates of Covid in the country and, very often, it was recording cases of fewer than five per 100,000. Unfortunately, Ardee now has one of the highest rates of incidence in the country, with the latest figures showing a rate of 205 cases per 100,000 when the national average is 80 cases per 100,000. I am not saying that the huge surge in cases is a direct result of the testing centre, but it is something that needs further investigation. We need to look at other testing centres around the country to see if any trend has emerged, like a sharp spike in Covid cases in those areas.

As I said, I raised my concerns in this House at the time that I felt it was not a good move to locate a testing centre in an area that had virtually no Covid cases because I feared that it would result in a sharp spike in cases. Unfortunately, my fear has been proved right on this occasion. It is important now that we find out exactly why there has been such a spike in cases in Ardee and, indeed, other cases around the country where test centres have been located. I know from speaking to many locals in the Ardee area that they feel that people visiting the test centre are also visiting the local shopping centre, which could be a cause of the spike in cases. It is also being said that people are arriving at the test centre early and are being asked to return later. In the meantime, they are visiting the local shops, which again could explain the huge rise in cases.

It is not about blaming anybody. It is about finding the causes of the huge spikes and dealing with that. Will the Taoiseach confirm if it is the case that the location of test centres is indeed contributing to sharp increases in Covid cases in the immediate vicinity? Is Ardee an isolated case or is this a common occurrence in areas with test centres? It is important that we get to the bottom of this, find out what exactly is happening and put in place measures that will protect people living in areas close to test centres.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. First of all, it is a phenomenon we have not come across that there is a higher incidence of Covid-19 in close proximity to testing centres, but I will ask the Chief Medical Officer to investigate this and give his comments and his perspectives on it, and those of the HSE personnel involved.

Testing and contact tracing is a key component of the Government's strategy in terms of combating Covid. We now have an all-island capacity to test up to 126,000 people per week, which can be increased to 140,000 per week by utilising available surge capacity. We have a very strong capacity now in terms of testing and tracing. We have completed about 2.1 million Covid-19 tests overall. We consistently rank among the highest countries in terms of tests completed as a percentage of population, something that does not often get the acknowledgement it deserves, and 91% of GP referrals get a swabbing appointment within 24 hours. The median end-to-end turnaround time from referral to end of tracing for detected cases in the community is 2.1 days. We continue to recruit significantly in terms of community swabbers and contact tracers.

On Louth, the spread of the virus in the Border counties, including in Donegal and Monaghan, is concerning us, and there may be issues in terms of the higher levels in the North as well. That is something we are keeping a very focused eye on. Once it gets to certain levels, it does increase exponentially. There is a large-scale static testing site in Ardee. It has been operational since October and it has a capacity for 600 swabs per day. The HSE said it decided on that location having looked at and assessed a wide range of locations. The criteria included suitability and sustainability of the location as a long-term testing centre, and the location of the test centre relative to observed travel times to it was also considered. The HSE identified Ardee as best to meet these criteria for a testing centre in Louth, noting travel times from both Dundalk and Drogheda as fewer than 25 minutes. That is what the HSE has said to me.

In recent days, demand for testing has been in the region of about 200 to 250 swabs per days in Ardee. There are currently no pop-up test centres opened in County Louth. The HSE's view is that, within County Louth, testing is available in a relatively accessible manner and it does not have any particular plans for changing that right now in County Louth itself.

The HSE says that demand in County Louth is well within capacity. The community healthcare organisation area which includes Louth has an average time from referral to swab of 11 hours, with 56% of people receiving a same-day appointment. Some 96% of all people get an appointment on the day of referral or the next day. The Deputy is correct to note that the incidence rate in County Louth is 87.7 per 100,000, with a swab positivity rate of 6.6%.

2:50 pm

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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One does not have to be a genius to realise that there is a problem in Ardee. A few weeks ago the incidence rate was 5 per 100,000 compared to 205 per 100,000 now. It is vital to get the bottom of what has gone wrong in Ardee. I appreciate the Taoiseach's promise to come back to me. I ask him not to put this on the long finger. The last thing we want is for more people to catch the coronavirus and die. It is very important to ensure that when a test centre is opened the people living in the area are protected. People do not mind test centres, but they want to be sure the correct facilities are in place. The facility in Ardee is not a good facility; it is an absolutely superb one. It is simply in the wrong location. There should be a waiting area for people who are early for their appointments so they do not have to hang around the local shops.

It is fantastic to know that a vaccine is coming. We all appreciate that. The Government is doing a fantastic job. I ask the Taoiseach to come back to me in the next 24 to 48 hours. This is urgent. I come from a Border area. I complained about people crossing the Border from the North or the South. In fairness, that has sorted itself out. Ardee does not deserve to be in its current situation. I ask the Taoiseach to get someone to respond to me, perhaps from the HSE, in the next 24 or 48 hours to inform the people of Ardee that they are safe in living near a test centre.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I certainly will. As yet, there has been no indication of a correlation between the location of testing centres and a higher incidence of Covid-19. I will ask the Chief Medical Officer to consider this and I will check with the HSE about facilities for visitors at the site itself. People generally tend to arrive and leave again, but I will ask the HSE to take the Deputy's concerns about protocols on board. I have no doubt that the issues raised by the Deputy have been articulated to him by local residents. This is therefore a concern in the area. I will talk to the Chief Medical Officer and the HSE and ask for a response to the Deputy on those issues.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Baineann mo cheist leis an vacsaín in aghaidh Covid - i ndáiríre, bheadh sé níos cirte "na vacsaíní in aghaidh Covid" a rá - agus leis an tslánaíocht ar chúiseamh a thug an Rialtas do na comhlachtaí cogaisíochta. Ceangailte leis sin, ba mhaith liom ceist a chur faoin mbearna mhór atá ann ó thaobh córais cúitimh do na daoine a bheidh ag déileáil le dochar ó na vacsaíní, is cuma cé chomh beag a bheidh an dream sin.

My question concerns the indemnity offered to companies involved with the vaccine or vaccines. Integral to that is the absence of any compensation scheme. This is in spite of the Meenan report, which does not appear to have been published. I will come back to that report. I will save the Taoiseach time in his response by stating that vaccines are an essential tool in our fight against Covid-19. I ask him not to tell me how important they are. Maybe he could dírigh isteach ar an gceist. The question is this. What are the details of the indemnity given to the companies? What about a proper system of compensation for the group of people who may suffer or will suffer from the vaccines?

I ask this because we need trust in the system. We will get that trust and encourage maximum take-up through transparency and facts. The Taoiseach's response to a Deputy who asked about this in the Dáil was an exhortation to "get real", and a reminder that we are dealing with an unprecedented situation. The Taoiseach's comments were quoted by Professor Luke O'Neill in the Irish Independent, who went on to compare the vaccine to the atom bomb. In the context of today's discussion, those words were totally unacceptable in comparing the vaccine to the atom bomb in our fight against Covid. They were the words used by Professor O'Neill. He wrote about this as a marvellous scientific advance, which it absolutely is, and noted the quick progress that has been made. There was absolutely no acknowledgment of the public funds that have gone into the development of these vaccines through the Commission on our behalf.

Absolutely no information has been given to Deputies on the amount of public money spent on the development of the vaccine or the indemnity that has been offered. What will happen to the small number of people who suffer as a result of the vaccine, as happened with the swine flu vaccine? The most recent figures on that refer to 123 claims, 113 of which are live and are being fought every inch of the way. The claimants in the recently settled case of Benjamin Blackwell were at pains to point out that they were not anti-vaccine or anti-science. If they had been given full information at the time, however, they would not have allowed the swine flu vaccination to be given to their child.

I have two specific questions. What are the details of the indemnity given? What will be done about an independent compensation system?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Government considered the Meenan report and the law of tort around medical negligence today. The report recommends that we pursue a vaccine compensation scheme, the development and production of which the Minister for Health and the Minister for Justice are working on.

Regarding indemnity, the content of advance purchase agreements, including provisions relating to liability and indemnity, are negotiated with vaccine suppliers by the European Commission and its negotiating team, acting on behalf of member states. Member states may decide to opt in or opt out, but they do not have scope to recast the terms of any advance purchase agreement.

The clauses in the advance purchase agreements relating to indemnification and liability are open-ended. They require member states to provide legal supports, costs and payment of claims arising from any damages associated with the administration of the vaccine. It is not possible to quantify the extent of any claims that may arise. A balance must be struck here. We need access to a vaccine and there must be some element of risk. We must remember that trillions of euro have been spent around the world to combat the worst effects of Covid-19. The health effects have resulted in the deaths of 3,000 people on this island and many more worldwide, as well as the illnesses people get. To protect the overall population, we need a vaccine or a series of vaccines to deal with Covid-19. The human race achieved this with smallpox, polio and tuberculosis, with tremendous outcomes and results. The State Claims Agency has been consulted and agrees that it would be appropriate for the State to take responsibility for claims management as part of these agreements, and is on board with the decision that has been taken.

This has been an extraordinary development. There was no co-ordination across Europe at the time of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, epidemic, which happened during my time as Minister for Health and Children. There was no chance for pharmaceutical companies to produce anything collectively or in partnership with governments. It was every member state for itself and the smaller member states lost out hugely. This is a very good initiative and the European Commission deserves credit for co-ordinating it. It will enable the Commission to ensure sufficient supplies of the vaccine for every citizen living in the European Union. It will also help to look after states which will not be in a position to secure the vaccine, including states in the western Balkans and the Third World. Other countries may not have sufficient incomes. Europe is committed to helping those states to procure the vaccine. Working collectively, we are stronger.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I specifically asked about the details of the indemnity. Is it a blank cheque? What conditions are attached? Has there been a risk assessment? I perfectly understand that there is a balance of risks between the damage done by Covid-19 and the damage done by vaccines.

I am specifically asking the Taoiseach where this decision was taken. Was it taken at Cabinet? On what was it based? What was the risk assessment? We should have a full discussion of this in the Dáil if the Taoiseach wants full trust in the system. If he wants to maximise the number of people who will take the vaccine, he must give full and transparent information. That has not happened. We are reliant on jigsaw pieces from newspapers that tell us this is a standard procedure, which is not accurate. We are being told that so many companies have signed up. We do not know how many. As a Deputy, I am looking at a distorted jigsaw picture of an indemnity and a complete lack of action on an independent compensation system. The Taoiseach mentioned the Meenan report. It was commissioned back in 2018. The report has been finalised for a very long time. One specific term of reference concerned a scheme in respect of the damage from vaccines. Where is it? I expect a proactive approach to the indemnity and to the compensation scheme.

3:00 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I have just said that we considered and adopted the Meenan report and we are working on a vaccine compensation scheme. I said also to the Deputy that the advance purchase agreements, which the European Commission entered into on behalf of member states, and the indemnifications and liabilities are open-ended.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Bank guarantee, here we come.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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They require member states to provide legal support, costs and payments of claims arising from any damages associated with administration of the vaccine. It should be remembered that we are trying to get vaccines to people.

As to what has been achieved, there are two ways of looking at this. We can always undermine and seek to pick holes in this, or we can say this is far better than anything ever attempted before in the history of states working together. Until now, the pharmaceuticals would have produced them on their own and would have charged the highest price to the highest bidder. That is what we would have had if we did not have a co-ordinated European advanced purchase agreement taken up by the Commission on behalf of the member states. Sometimes it does work, and perhaps Deputy Connolly would acknowledge that.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Taoiseach would want to get real.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I know that Deputy Connolly wants me to say what I am not supposed to say, as if I am not allowed say these things.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The Taoiseach is being most unfair-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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No. I just have to say that. As for the six advance purchase agreements, and as I have said before, there is Moderna, AstraZeneca, Janssen, BioNTech-Pfizer, Sanofi Pasteur and CureVac. Those are the ones in respect of which the Commission has approved contracts. A seventh may also come along, but balanced decisions have to be taken in that regard. What was the prioritisation? It was to have a safe vaccine produced and developed that we can administer to the population to try to get herd immunity from Covid-19, which has absolutely destroyed lives and upended our societies across the world. That is the agenda. The motivation is as clear, as honest and as principled as that. There is no underhand motivation here. The entire campaign will be open and transparent and based on informed consent from people who want to take the vaccine.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That concludes Leaders' Questions. My request to stick to the time limits obviously fell on deaf ears.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It is Christmastime.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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It is Christmas.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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It is Christmastime every week as far as timekeeping is concerned.