Wednesday, 3 February 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Last week the Government announced its quarantine proposals for those travelling to this country. The Taoiseach described this plan as a system of mandatory quarantine. I told him at the time that it was nothing of the sort. The proposal the Taoiseach outlined was at best a form of self-isolation relying on the discretion of individuals but it certainly did not amount to a system of mandatory quarantine. It was a half-baked plan that did go far enough in protecting our people and it certainly falls short of what we need now to assist us in the fight to achieve maximum suppression of this deadly virus.
When I put this to the Taoiseach last week, he was adamant that his plan was well thought out and that the Government was in control of the situation, and he denied that this was a half-measure. I have to tell the Taoiseach that anybody watching the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, on the television last night will be disabused of any notion that the Government has any idea as to what it is doing on quarantine. It is absolutely incredible that at a time when we are at the deadliest stage of this pandemic, the Minister for Health has stated that the Government's quarantine proposal now only requires a person to stay at home and that he or she does not even have to isolate in a single room. The logic of that is that the individual can interact with members of his or her household, who then in turn may venture into the public space, meet with others and run the risk of spreading the virus.
It is very alarming to see that the Government is still at sixes and sevens here, all of which underscores the fact that its quarantine proposal was not thought out at all. Indeed, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly could not give a date for when the Government's very limited system of hotel quarantine would come into operation.
It is now six weeks since the far more infectious UK variant of the virus was identified here. I put it to the Taoiseach last week that his flawed plan was not alone too limited but that it would take a long time to get up and running. Again, he dismissed my concern saying that: "The measures on travel will not take weeks to implement; they will be implemented very quickly." However, the Minister for Justice has now contradicted him and has made clear that it will, in fact, be weeks before the legislation is introduced.
This is all incredible, not least because the issue of quarantine and international travel is not a new one and we know that the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, repeatedly raised concerns regarding international travel, concerns which were ignored by the Government except for the establishment months ago of an expert group to consider approaches to quarantine, yet here we are. What precisely was this group doing for those months? Where is the urgency and sense of purpose from the Government on this critical issue at this extraordinary time as we do battle with this virus?
We were notified of 101 deaths yesterday, a historic low point for us in this crisis. We are seeing the emergence of new strains of this virus and we have a vaccination programme which is still very much in its infancy. We also know, because the CMO has said it publicly, that we still do not have the testing and tracing capacity to hunt down this virus with the kind of speed that we require. Our ICUs are under enormous pressure and again the virus is taking its toll in our nursing homes.
It is for all of these reasons that we need a mandatory system of quarantine. I ask the Taoiseach to drop the half measures, to opt for this full system of mandatory quarantine and to bring the legislation to that effect to the House with all urgency.
I accept that the Deputy's thinking has evolved significantly regarding the issue of travel, and I think that would be true for most Members of the House. The Deputy, as early as last November, was clear that the return of people to Ireland to meet their families was something which should be welcomed and facilitated. I think she used the phrase "For them, coming home this Christmas is an essential journey". We have learned clearly with the variant now that the situation is much different and far more perilous in terms of our behaviour, because the variant now constitutes about 70% of all cases in this country. How we behave in this country will therefore be critical in suppressing the incidence of the virus and keeping it down at low levels.
As I said last week, measures have already been taken regarding travel. The Garda has had checkpoints at the airports already and those are continuing. Fines have been issued to people in breach of the level 5 regulations, whether they have been travelling abroad or coming in from abroad. Those actions have happened. Regulations have been signed to give effect to those aspects, and to increase the fine from €100 to €500. Regulations regarding mandatory quarantining, particularly concerning specific countries, on the advice of the CMO will also be introduced.
Legislation will be introduced to the House quickly. We would appreciate the support of the House in getting that legislation through. Mandatory home quarantine is important. There are legal and enforceability considerations here as well, as well as public health advice. The public health advice concerning self-isolation will continue in specific cases. Policing people in their bedrooms, however, raises obvious challenges. The concept of home quarantine is important in suppressing the virus. About 50% of the 800 people who came in yesterday would have been Irish citizens travelling back in from holidaying abroad.
The measures we have brought in, including the obligation to have a negative polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test, for example, are having a deterrent effect. The two-pronged strategy consists of, first, deterring people from travelling into and out of Ireland, including Irish people travelling on holidays, and, second, protecting people from any new variants of the virus which emerge over time and which would be worrying from a public health perspective. We will be guided at all times by the CMO in adding countries to the quarantine list or in strengthening the quarantining provisions. Travel into the country has collapsed, however, and our objective is to keep it at very low levels for the foreseeable future, bar essential workers and the entirety of the supply chain, which it is particularly important to protect.
Self-isolation has always meant isolating oneself in a single room. Many people who have been very sick fought this virus while isolated in a single room. What the Taoiseach and his Government are now describing is a very loose, very sloppy and very inadequate response. It is one which relies on the discretion of the individual, but does not even ask for full self-isolation. It is suggested that a person landing in Ireland can go back to a household, mix with others and then run the real risk of spreading this virus and, potentially, new strains of it. Gardaí cannot, of course, police every bedroom or home in the country. We are not asking them to do so, and neither should the Taoiseach. Therefore, not alone is it necessary to have a system of mandatory hotel quarantine, but it is also the efficient and reasonable request to make of the authorities of this State. It is a no-brainer.
I cannot understand the Taoiseach's resistance on this issue. The clearest message that can be sent to non-essential travellers to stay away is mandatory quarantine. Why in God's name is the Taoiseach resisting something which is so obviously necessary?
There are compelling legal reasons it is not possible to do what Deputy McDonald is suggesting. That is particularly the case in respect of Irish citizens coming into the country. Regarding having the capacity to home quarantine or, indeed, to self-isolate, those people must be facilitated in that context as well. There are legal issues in this regard as well. We have our Constitution, which has a clear framework concerning personal liberties and freedoms.
Balancing is required, therefore, in respect of getting something in place which can be robust in resisting legal challenge. It must be remembered that throughout the pandemic we have had legal challenges, of one kind or another, regarding measures we have introduced. We had to defend ourselves against airlines early on regarding the advisories which we issued in respect of reducing non-essential travel. We were successful in defending our position.
In coming to a framework on quarantining, we want to make absolutely sure that we are on a firm footing on public health grounds and legally.
That is an important input. Having said that, we are willing to work with other Members of the House in getting procedures which are as robust as possible, because I believe in prolonged suppression of the virus and in getting the numbers down to the lowest level possible and keeping them there. I will work with people in achieving that objective.
Quite honestly, I do not think anybody knows what the Taoiseach is saying. What exactly is he talking about regarding travel? I have consistently said that the failure of this Government and the last Government to address the issue of travel has been the biggest single failing in the response to Covid-19. At no point have we had a coherent and effective system to address the threat posed by inward travel. As my colleague said, this virus does not come in on the wind; it comes in via people travelling on planes and boats. We have never had a serious attempt to tackle that aspect.
At this point, people are getting pretty fed up of all the sacrifices they are making. Life is very difficult for everybody at the moment. People expect that the Government will play its part in doing the things it should be doing. I refer to having proper testing and tracing in place and ensuring we have effective restrictions to drive down the virus to a very low level, which we did last summer. People also expect the Government to deal with the issue of the importation of the virus. The Government has not done any of those things adequately, and that is why we are in this situation now. We are in a third wave, without any prospect of getting out of it for the foreseeable future. The Taoiseach is not setting out any pathway ahead and no strategy is in place to deal with this situation.
What exactly is the Taoiseach talking about regarding restrictions on travel? The question of mandatory hotel quarantine is absolutely essential and we should be doing that for everybody. I cannot understand why the Taoiseach will not go with that policy, which has proved so successful in other countries where it has been operated. He just has not provided any explanation in that regard.
What does the Taoiseach understand the term "home quarantining" to mean? Two of his Ministers - the Minister for Health last night, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs today - have conveyed very confused understandings of what that term means. In the context of international travel, therefore, what does the Taoiseach mean by the term "home quarantining"? What are people being expected to do? Whatever about having home quarantining to reduce community cases, the point here is that we are talking about international travel and the threat of new and stronger variants of the virus which we do not know anything about. What does the Taoiseach mean by "mandatory home quarantining"? How does he see that working? What is the requirement for somebody sharing accommodation with family or housemates? How does the Taoiseach see that working, and how does he see it being policed?
I disagree with the Deputy's assessments of the Government's responses to the pandemic. We are in an unprecedented era of the most draconian measures regarding people's movements and personal liberties that we have ever experienced. We are in this situation because of a global pandemic. That is in respect of the level 5 restrictions which we now have in operation regarding people's personal movements.
We now have Garda checkpoints at airports restricting people and penalising those in breach of the level 5 regulations. This is absolutely unprecedented. We are going to put in place hotel facilities to facilitate mandatory quarantining for people who come into Ireland from countries such as South Africa, Brazil and the UK. On the advice of the Chief Medical Officer a person will have to take a mandatory PCR test if he or she has not taken one in advance of coming into the country. It will be an offence not to do that. For home quarantining, people will have to stay within their homes. This will be enforced by An Garda Síochána and others.
I ask the Deputy to answer that question in the context of common sense and practicality around enforcement. That said, the public health advice on the specific circumstances of cases will apply to people as they apply across the board. They are very clear issues. There is a balance to be struck in us getting it right around personal freedoms, legal enforceability and sanctions. We are taking comprehensive legal advice on this as well as ensuring that we get the numbers down for travel into the State and that there is an effective quarantining system. There is legislation and regulations that have been passed, for example, the removal of short-term visa free travel into the country from many countries has already happened and been regulated for. All of that will have an impact on numbers coming into the country and it is having an impact already on the numbers coming in. Deputy Shortall said it has been a consistent failure, but Deputies from her party have stood up in this House and criticised the Government around the lack of supports for airports and for airlines on the basis of our policy of being so restrictive on foreign travel. The Deputy cannot have both ways in that respect.
In response to the issues, I have outlined that this will be a very severe regime for the quarantining of people. It involves the quarantining in hotels of people from certain countries where there is a particular concern around the importation of the variant and home quarantining of Irish citizens and people more generally, with follow up in terms of enforcement.
The Taoiseach has not answered any of the questions I asked him. His point about support for the airlines is nonsense. Of course we need to support airlines and airline workers if there are serious controls on travel. Throughout last year we had advice to self-isolate, which did not work. We know there was not any enforcement of this and that there was no serious system in place. This changed to restrict one's movements. We know there was no policing of that and it did not work. In Christmas week the Government was advising people to self quarantine at home. We know how that ended. None of these things is enforceable. When I asked the Taoiseach how exactly would quarantining at home work he did not answer the question, but he talked about people's rights and not being able to police what goes on in homes. This is exactly what we have been saying. This idea of home quarantining is unenforceable. The Taoiseach has admitted this himself. What is he talking about? The Taoiseach mentioned personal freedoms.
The Taoiseach needs to put a system in place of mandatory hotel quarantining so that we have some prospect of people being able to exercise personal freedoms and so we can have some element of opening up the country to normality. That can be done with a zero Covid policy. It cannot be done-----
The people have adhered, by and large, to the restrictions. When one makes something illegal and a penal provision is made, it has an impact in people's behaviour. It has had an impact on people's behaviour. Consider mask wearing, for example. I pushed very hard to make mask wearing compulsory in public-----
-----but we were told it would not be enforceable. If we brought it in for public transport, we were asked who would enforce it. Would it be the bus drivers or the gardaí and all of that kind of stuff? I heard all the problems about it. It was enforced from day one by the people. The people themselves adhered to it.
People Before Profit was not a latecomer to calling for mandatory quarantine or for a zero Covid strategy. We have been calling for this for months. Yesterday we saw that Ireland paid a very bitter price with 101 fatalities, a record number, for the Taoiseach's failure to embrace a coherent zero Covid strategy and to impose mandatory quarantine.
I now will address another chronic failure. It is ironic that the Taoiseach referred to workers in his justification for not imposing quarantine and zero Covid. Today is the 300th day of the dispute of the Debenhams workers. This is a group that the Taoiseach has very badly let down and who have been treated despicably by a company for whom they had worked for 20 or 30 years. They have fought an heroic battle to force Debenhams, and indeed to force the Government, to ensure the collective agreement they had for proper redundancies of two weeks statutory plus two weeks for all of those years worked would be honoured. The Government has abandoned them. The Government has insulted them with a €3 million retraining fund, which is just ridiculous. We also have 490 Arcadia workers in Top Shop and in many other stores who now face a similar situation. They have a similar agreement with Arcadia for two plus two weeks redundancy arrangements, and they are facing the prospect of getting only the statutory redundancy and their employers doing the same despicable thing that was done to Debenhams workers.
I want to know, even at this late stage, whether the Taoiseach is going to show the solidarity for workers he implied in his last contribution by, as a minimum, giving the €3 million retraining fund as a direct cash down payment on the two plus two that those workers are entitled to. Will the Taoiseach answer the question the workers have asked, and on which Mandate has written twice to him this month, although he has not even bothered to reply, about the precedent of the Irish Banking Resolution Corporation, IBRC? The Taoiseach said that we could not possibly bump the workers up the priority list of creditors in a liquidation. However, we have happened upon what happened in the case of the IBRC when there was a similar claim made at the time by the a previous Minister, Michael Noonan. It was discovered that €5.5 million had been put aside in IBRC in the wind up of Anglo Irish Bank, which was bailed out by the people, where they were given an enhanced redundancy arrangement. Guess who the liquidator was then? It was Kieran Wallace of KPMG, which also claims that we cannot do this. Even one of the Taoiseach's own spokespersons has spoken about a statutory fund to assist workers such as this who are shafted by employers and who do not get their proper redundancy.
I dispute the Deputy's assertion that the Government has not engaged on this issue. It has. I was very clear and honest in our presentation to the workers from the get go. Politically, others created expectations that were never going to be realised within the legal framework available to the Government. The Government is not responsible for the actions of the company. The company has treated the workers very badly. Government is the only party to this entire dispute that has actually fulfilled its obligations, and €13 million has been provided in direct Exchequer support to guarantee the employment rights for statutory redundancy. This gets dismissed by the Deputy and does not even get mentioned.
The State is the only player here that has stood up to its responsibilities. It then tried to see if it could do more within the legal framework available to it. We initiated and facilitated talks which were chaired by the chairman of the Labour Court, Mr. Kevin Foley. They concluded in December and he issued a report reflecting the outcome of that process. As a result of that process the Government said it would accept the recommendation to provide €3 million to support career guidance, training, education and business start-ups for former Debenhams workers.
Essentially, what the Deputy is saying is that we should just increase the statutory redundancy for every other liquidation that happens as the way out of this. That would facilitate rogue employers left, right and centre throughout the country to exploit the taxpayer forever in terms of liquidation processes and the employers not fulfilling their legal obligations to workers. Mr. Foley refers to the 2016 collective agreement in his report and states that "it is clear that the agreement has no legal application in 2020". Legally, the Government cannot just top-up redundancy payments from the Social Insurance Fund and the Deputy knows that. He knows the very real legal constraints on the Government, but he has chosen to ignore them and just label the Government as not caring and having no interest. These are false assertions. They are designed and articulated by the Deputy for political ends. That is how he engages in this situation.
In terms of other enterprises, we believe companies have obligations. They should fulfil their collective agreements with their employees - absolutely. From our perspective, the State is open to reviewing legislation with regard to giving further protections to workers and also to strengthen the situation for workers in the general workforce in any way we can.
First, my only interest is to see 1,000 Debenhams workers, who have gone through an extraordinary struggle and have been treated despicably, get the justice and fair redundancy they deserve. It is similar for the Arcadia Group's workers, another group of workers faced with the same situation because of the failure of this and successive Governments to address this abuse.
I put to the Taoiseach a concrete example. The Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, which was bailed out by the people, put a €5.5 million fund of enhanced redundancy in place out of its assets so the workers who earned less than €120,000 could get enhanced redundancy. This was despite claims at the time by the Government, similar to this Government's claims, that it could not be done. The former Minister, Michael Noonan, said it could not be done, but it was done. It was done by the same liquidator that is telling Debenhams workers it cannot do it. The Taoiseach must answer that. Why cannot the Government, in the particular context of Covid but also more generally, impose a levy on employers, such as a Covid levy or solidarity levy, to provide enhanced redundancy? By the way, the Debenhams workers paid for their redundancy. They paid €1 million per year for 20 or 30 years. They paid for it and they are owed that redundancy by the State.
It is one with which the Government could not interfere. The Oireachtas liquidated the IBRC in an all-night sitting. The Oireachtas did not liquidate Debenhams. There are fundamental differences and the Deputy knows it, but he is being populist in his presentation of the issues.
That is what he is doing and has been doing, with others, since the commencement of this dispute. I do not doubt the Deputy's sincerity about looking after the workers, but he also creates platforms to increase support for his movement. That is in a lot of the approaches he adopts.
The Deputy seeks to apportion blame. The State is not a guilty a party to this. It has upheld its obligations to the workers and, believe me, we tried everything we could within the law to support the workers in terms of facilitating arbitration and so forth. That is our position.
Previously, I highlighted that University Hospital Waterford, UHW, has the lowest budget and lowest staff-to-bed ratio of all nine model 4 hospitals in the country. Parity of esteem is not extended to this hospital by the South/South West Hospital Group. UHW has just passed the tragic milestone of 40 patient deaths from Covid-19 in one week. Additional emergency morgue capacity has had to be sought. It now has one of the highest numbers of Covid-19 inpatients in the country while continuing to have the lowest number of healthcare personnel available to them. The crisis situation sees patients contracting Covid-19 in hospital while the front-line staff are beyond burnout caring for them.
Additionality promised to this hospital is a mirage. The cardiac care waiting list has doubled in the intervening period of a catheterisation laboratory build saga that has long since descended into the realms of farce. We note discussion of building a new hospital in Cork, despite the significant elective capacity that exists there. It appears that it will take three years to deliver this new hospital, while the second-largest hospital in the south of Ireland can continue to wallow in a mire of want and need, with no relief beyond baseless commitments and transparent platitudes.
In the higher education sector, Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, saw its last new teaching building go through planning 24 years ago. Constrained of capital funding for over 20 years, WIT has defied all the odds to position itself as the leading institute of technology nationally year after year, winning the Institute of Technology of the Year for the third time. It is attended by two thirds of all third level students in the south east and generated over €21 million of the €22 million research money brought into the region last year. Despite this exceptional record, we understand the technological university process appears to have turned negative, with outside political influence wishing to see WIT's leadership credentials dismantled. The Taoiseach, the Government and the line Minister have taken the decision that despite being the institute of excellence in the region, WIT should not be confirmed to retain the headquarters and governance of the proposed new merger structure from the outset. It appears that proven leadership, performance and vision are to be hostages to political patronage, a recipe to deliver the educational equivalent of a half-bred camel rather than the promised thoroughbred racehorse.
The Government's position ignores any analysis or due diligence and probity. It countermands the aspirations of Project Ireland 2040. Considering locating the headquarters and governance outside Waterford will significantly destabilise third level educational efforts in the south-east region and the region's ability to continue to attract and retain high-end foreign direct investment, FDI. Where is the equity and transparency from the Government in respect of UHW and Waterford Institute of Technology retaining the academic lead and headquarters of the proposed technological university in the south east?
Unprecedented resources have been allocated to the health services this year, including in Waterford. That will continue, in the context of both Covid-19 and non-Covid health services. There are unprecedented resources across the board, including in University Hospital Waterford. The Waterford catheterisation laboratory project is happening in terms of the tendering process and so forth, and the Deputy knows that. We will see that brought to fruition given that the tendering process is close to completion. The Deputy has been apprised of that with regard to the second catheterisation laboratory. Discussions are ongoing on the progression to seven-day extended hours working on an incremental basis during 2021. We all know Covid has impacted on non-Covid health services across the board and in all hospitals due to the fact that elective procedures and outpatient services have had to be reduced.
As regards the technological university of the south east, the Deputy's comments are unfair. The most important point is that there will be a technological university for the south east. That is critical. People have campaigned for it for years. I recall that when I was Minister for Education I was responsible for the most significant expansion of footprint for Waterford Institute of Technology in terms of acquiring new lands for the campus to develop and expand. The Government is committed to expanding the footprint of Waterford Institute of Technology as part of the movement to university status.
It is anticipated that an application for technological university designation will be submitted, under the Act of 2018, by the consortium to the Minister, Deputy Harris, for a decision no later than 28 April 2021. The consortium will then be subject to peer review and the various processes. The consortium is anticipating technological university establishment by 1 January 2022. That is something we should collectively go after for the benefit of Waterford and the south east as regards higher education participation.
No decision has been made on the headquarters for the new university. I have had this discussion perviously. The most important aspect of this is the critical mass of the technological institute itself. As I said, the Government is committed to expanding the footprint of the existing institute in Waterford and that will happen. All Deputies have been consistent and constructive in pursuing this objective, which is an important objective which we should not undermine in any way because that would be to the detriment of Waterford.
I do not understand why the question of the Technological University of the South-East, TUSE, headquarters is at issue. WIT took in €21 million in research last year while Carlow IT took in about €1.2 million. Delaying a discussion on that matter has made this a very difficult and fraught process and it should not have to be that way. We should recognise where the competencies lie.
It is always different for Waterford as regards any political delivery. We have seen it with the catheterisation laboratory build, which is now going on for more than four years and will take another 56 days for the final tender approval. We would have another hospital built in a different part of the country in the same time. The build time for the proposed elective hospital in Cork, from build to commissioning, is less than three years while we are in a four-year process to deliver a cath lab. We have the same issues about funding for UHW and additionality. Eight consultant posts that were announced have not even been approved by the Consultant Applications Advisory Committee yet. Regarding SFI funding into the Higher Education Authority, €70 million was given last year to higher education but nothing was given to WIT. A programme I brought to the Government for €2.8 million for an X-ray scanner, which was submitted in 2017, is still not approved. Some €193 million was announced yesterday for technology headquarters but again, nothing was given to WIT because we are being browbeaten into a process. I promise the Taoiseach that Waterford will not accept that.
My understanding is that that second hospital in Cork was announced about five or six years ago and was included in some reconfiguration report. It took some time even for a working committee to be established to consider it. I can tell the Deputy one thing: the cath lab will be built before any movement is made on that hospital.
The real point here is that for years people have campaigned for WIT to evolve into a technological university. That has happened across the country, with the three ITs getting together in Dublin and Cork and Tralee institutes of technology getting together as well. I appeal to the Deputy. There is no necessity to create division here, given that we are on the cusp of WIT becoming a technological university with Carlow IT. That is for the benefit of everybody in the south east but particularly the people of Waterford. It would be wrong now to create division around this.
As someone who has been involved in education for most of my life, both politically and otherwise, I know that what goes on in the campus is the key. That is the central issue here. The Deputy has raised the matter of the headquarters. That is an issue but it is not the core of a university. Waterford Institute of Technology has grown significantly in the last decade and more and will continue to grow but we need to move the language to one of self-confidence and asserting strengths. That will continue to be the case and the Government is committed to expanding its physical footprint into the future. That brings obvious realities with it in terms of more students and staff but, critically, there will also be a greater impact in research and other areas.