Wednesday, 10 February 2021
Covid-19 (Transport and Travel): Statements
I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on the impacts of Covid-19 on the transport sector. I will be sharing my time with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, who has responsibility for international and road transport and logistics at the Department of Transport. I will update the House on the impacts of Covid on the provision of public transport services and the opportunities it has afforded us to make some much-needed improvements in sustainable mobility in our cities. I will also update the House on international travel, while the Minister of State will address the impacts of Covid on our supply chains, especially on the maritime and freight sectors, and also on aviation.
We are now 12 months into the Covid pandemic. Throughout 2020, and into 2021, my Department has been at the forefront of this country's response to Covid-19, just as the transport sector is one of the sectors to experience the most profound and severe impacts of Covid. As with many other public sector organisations, the majority of officials in my Department and staff in our agencies have been working remotely, while managing a wide range of Covid-19 related issues. I commend them on the work they have been doing. These staff have supported the continued provision of essential services and maintained international access and connectivity through our ports and airports for vital supplies and essential travel. They have worked to develop urgent policy responses to address the economic impacts of the pandemic on our public transport, aviation, maritime, travel and trade sectors with innovative thinking. There are also many staff across the transport sector involved in the direct provision of services to the public who have attended the workplace throughout the pandemic to ensure these essential services continue to be available to citizens. I thank those transport workers for the work they have done.
Covid-19 has reached into every area of the transport sphere and has had profound impacts on every industry and service provided by my Department. I will briefly explain these impacts and the steps we have taken to address them to ensure a viable recovery for as many of our stakeholders as possible. We all know that Covid had an immediate impact on all our lives and many of those impacts are still with us, be they personal or professional. One noticeable impact has been a reduction in traffic. Across Europe, public authorities are taking the opportunity to rethink how our urban centres are set out and how they allocate limited space to different demands.
In Ireland, we are also rethinking how we allocate road space and ensure we place pedestrians and cyclists at the centre of our thinking. This reallocation of space is supporting the Government's overall Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business. It provides additional commuting capacity to those people who will still need to physically get into their workplaces, as well as improving social distancing in our urban centres and supporting the gradual reopening of retail and commercial spaces. My Department has funded the National Transport Authority to work with local authorities in developing Covid mobility frameworks which will set out specific plans to deliver wider footpaths, temporary protected cycling facilities, revised bus routings and bus priority measures, and enhanced pedestrian priority zones. Letters were issued to all 31 local authorities in May, resulting in more than €15 million being requested for this purpose and the works identified being funded through my Department's sustainable mobility investment programme.
With the additional funding provided under Covid and the Government's July jobs stimulus, many measures have been put in place to facilitate the reopening of society and business generally. This emphasis on active travel is not just a short-term measure. It has been a feature of the submissions we received during our consultation on our sustainable mobility policy. More people are walking and cycling and, in time, more people will return to public transport, potentially reducing car use in our medium and long-term future. We are also continuing to fund the expansion of our bus, tram and train fleets and making sure we are continuing to plan and design those highly significant public transport projects such as BusConnects, MetroLink and the DART expansion programme, which will have a role to play in our post-Covid future. While I acknowledge the challenges we face in this regard, I look forward to addressing them head-on as we strive to make our transport sector more sustainable now and for future generations. I will be unequivocal in saying I am in no doubt about the scale and depth of these challenges, which are like none faced in our lifetimes. They are felt in all sectors of society, none more so than transport.
I will start with public transport, where profound impacts have been experienced. As Members will know, with the most recent move to level 5, capacity across the public transport network was restricted to 25%. Most, but not all, transport operators have moved to slightly reduced schedules, with some increased services at peak times, to deal with the lower overall transport demand. The Government has introduced a number of measures since the beginning of the Covid crisis to ensure the continued safe operation of these essential public transport services. These include restricted seating signs in place on bus and rail services to align with the 25% capacity restriction in level 5, as well as the mandatory use of face coverings.
The Government has been clear that the continued operation of the public transport sector is an essential service, even though many people are working from home or staying at home in order to comply with Covid-19 instructions. This has meant that although fare revenues have collapsed, most of the cost of operations remains and must continue to be met in order to fulfil Government's broader policy objectives. As part of the 2021 Estimates process, my Department secured significantly higher than normal levels of funding of €670 million for public service obligation, PSO, and Local Link services. More recently, the Government approved an extension of the temporary supports for the commercial bus sector, which were first introduced last summer. These supports ensure that public transport services continue to be available to essential workers across the economy and for broader societal reasons.
I will move on to the issue of international travel, testing and quarantine. As an island, we are heavily reliant on our international connectivity. We have had to keep our borders open throughout this health crisis to maintain critical supply lines and allow essential travel. At various times over the past year, depending on the level of community transmission in Ireland and across Europe, the risk of international travel being a significant contributor to virus spread has risen and fallen. Striking the right balance in our approach has been challenging because the circumstances of the virus keep changing but the health of our people has been our first priority at all times.
Understanding how best to save lives and livelihoods at various times, as the virus has first surged, then retreated and then surged again, has, unsurprisingly, required quick decisions and direction changes as new information has presented itself. I would like to update the House on the Government's current thinking and latest decisions on international travel restrictions and quarantining requirements. The extent to which the public, including arriving passengers, are required to self-isolate, restrict their movements, adhere to other public health measures or undertake Covid-19 testing is based on the advice of the public health authorities. As Members know, the Government continues to advise against non-essential international travel and that any essential travel be undertaken with due regard to public health safety measures.
Since the emergence of new variants of Covid-19 in December in the UK, South Africa and Brazil, the Government has introduced travel bans stopped short-term visa entry schemes and introduced mandatory pre-departure polymerase chain reaction, PCR, tests for all international arrivals. Last week, it put in place a number of additional measures for international travel. A legal requirement to quarantine has been introduced for all travellers, unless their journey originates in Northern Ireland. A 14-day quarantine period must be undertaken at the address specified on the passenger locator form. This also includes people who travel from another country to Ireland via Northern Ireland. They must also observe the mandatory quarantine regime. If passengers do not do so, they are committing an offence and can be fined up to €2,500, sentenced to up to six months in prison, or both. They may only leave their places of residence during the quarantine period for unavoidable reasons of an emergency nature to protect a person's health or welfare or to leave the State. They may also leave to take a PCR test not less than five days after their arrival and if they have a negative and not detected result from this test, their period of quarantine can end. There are also some limited exemptions from the requirement to complete mandatory quarantine, namely, international transport workers such as hauliers, maritime and air crew, and patients travelling for urgent medical reasons.
Essential transport workers, such as those required to carry out essential repair, maintenance, construction or safety assurance of critical transport infrastructure or critical utility infrastructure, must quarantine but can leave to go about their essential function. Passengers from Brazil and South Africa must complete the full 14-day period of quarantine.
This is on top of the already mandatory requirement to have evidence of a negative or not detected result from a PCR test taken within 72 hours of arrival to Ireland, and the requirement to complete a Covid-19 passenger locator form. In addition, An Garda Síochána can fine people who travel to an airport or port without valid reason. The fine relating to non-compliance with Covid-19 measures was recently increased to €500. Earlier, the Taoiseach outlined that the fine will be increased to €2,000 following consultation with public health officials. Urgent work is under way to establish a mandatory quarantine facility for passengers arriving from high-risk locations associated with the new variants emerging. The Department of Health is leading in this regard and is reviewing a number of options, including in the context of location, size and all the other requirements involved. There is cross-Government support for this from a number of Departments, including the Department of Justice and my Department. The Government is taking action to ensure that we protect our population from the risk of importation of new variants of Covid-19.
l now hand over to the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, who will outline the impacts of Covid-19 on Ireland's international transport sector.
I will address the impact of Covid on the aviation, freight and maritime sectors in the context of the vital role they play in ensuring that our supply chains continue to operate effectively during the pandemic.
The maritime sector has had to be agile and shipping and ports operations have had to respond, in one form or another, in order to maintain delivery of essential goods and mitigate the risk of the virus, ensuring that both workers and passengers were transported as safely as possible. I want to say how deeply appreciative I am of these efforts. The maritime sector is essential to the continued supply of goods and accounts for 90% of Ireland's international trade in volume terms. This sector is facing challenges, not least of which is the significant decline in passenger numbers. Passenger figures for 2020 showed a reduction of over 70% in comparison with 2019. Continuing travel restrictions have severely impacted on the combined freight and passenger services and leave questions over their viability. These restrictions have been necessary, however, in order to ensure the protection of everyone. I am hopeful that as we roll out the vaccination programme and case numbers begin to fall, we can once again look to align ourselves more closely with the EU position on a more co-ordinated approach to international travel.
The haulage industry has also played a huge role in keeping flows of goods moving into and out of the country during the pandemic while also adapting to the huge changes to our supply chains arising from Brexit. The challenges to the sector have been compounded by the imposition of testing by some EU member states for some of our essential supply chain workers. A new French law came into force on 28 January requiring truck drivers arriving in France on direct ferries from Ireland to show a negative Covid test result. Following a rapid procurement process, my Department has contracted an Irish company, RocDoc Limited, to provide free tests for commercial drivers travelling to France. Three new test centres are now up and running and testing is also available at an existing facility at Cork Airport. This testing is separate to the public health Covid testing. The new arrangements are working well at both the Irish and French ends, but will be kept under close review. Ireland is still advocating that all EU member states should adhere to the EU green lanes recommendation that essential transport workers should be exempt from such tests in the interest of keeping essential supply chains running.
Turning to aviation, as with maritime passenger traffic, international air passenger traffic has collapsed due to Covid-19 and the Irish aviation sector is currently experiencing its most challenging crisis, more severe than 9/11 or the global financial crash. Many analysts are predicting that it will take several years for the sector to return to 2019 levels. Traffic in 2020 was down 80% on 2019. Traffic levels at our three State airports are down between 90% and 97%. Dublin is down 90%, and Shannon and Cork are down 94% and 97%, respectively. The smaller airports have also been affected. No scheduled services will be operating at Shannon until April at the earliest. Knock, Kerry and Donegal have no scheduled international routes either, and Cork Airport has currently one airline serving one route on which there are only three flights a week. The sector will continue to face a range of challenges over the coming months and a protracted recovery is likely. Irish aviation will only begin to fully recover when there is some prospect of a sustainable return to international travel, including non-essential leisure travel.
It is true to say that the maritime sector does the heavy lifting for Ireland as a global trading nation. It has proven resilient, competitive and robust throughout this and previous economic crises. It continues to provide an essential lifeline to our key markets and for the supply of essential goods into the country. That does not mean that this sustained pandemic has not severely impacted the sector. My Department provided for a financial intervention for the sector for a short period last year by way of the designation of five key strategic routes as public service obligation routes. Shipping operators are clear that their survival is not guaranteed should this pandemic and the associated impacts on international connectivity continue for a prolonged period. My officials continue to engage with the sector to determine the measures we can put in place which will ensure that the sector remains operational throughout this pandemic, particularly in light of the added challenges emerging since Brexit.
My Department is also monitoring the enormous financial impact of Covid-19 on the Irish aviation sector on an ongoing basis, in consultation with all key stakeholders and relevant Departments. The Government has put in place a range of supports for businesses, including the aviation sector. These supports include the wage subsidy scheme, waiver of commercial rates, tax clawback, the Covid restriction support scheme, the credit guarantee scheme, and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, working capital scheme. In addition to these general business support measures, the Government has also agreed a revised €80 million funding package specifically for Irish aviation. Subject to state aid clearance, which is being worked on as a priority, this funding will be made available primarily to our airports through a number of schemes. Despite all of this, and my commitment to do more if it is needed, a protracted recovery is likely. Irish aviation will only begin to fully recover when there is some prospect of a sustainable return to international travel, including non-essential leisure travel.
I wish to briefly address the impact of Covid on the delivery of essential transport services a bit closer to home. There have been a number of impacts on driver and road safety services provided to the public by my Department and the Road Safety Authority and arrangements have been put in place to assist those affected. Extensions to both driving licences and learner permits were put in place in 2020 and certificates of professional competence have also had their validity extended. Special measures have also been put in place regarding the renewal of driving licences for the over-70s. The National Driver Licence Service has expanded the online facility to accommodate all driving licence and learner permit applications to enable accessibility online rather than by calling to an office. At present, in level 5, driving tests are available only to those who are involved in essential services and significant backlogs have resulted from this. We are discussing how we can return to the normal target for the maximum waiting time, which is approximately ten weeks. It is important to recognise that there are no quick fixes and that the continuing build-up of applications means that it will take time to reach a normal waiting time. The national car test and the commercial vehicle roadworthiness test inspection regimes are now classified as essential services and there is no suspension or interruption to either service at present.
Staff in the Department and its agencies are working to ensure that the most negative impacts of Covid on the sector are managed, and mitigated. Transport remains one of the hardest hit sectors. The minister and I are working ceaselessly to ensure that the sector continues to meet the challenges facing it and delivers the essential connectivity, supply chain access and services that we all need.
I will focus my comments and questions on international travel and the aviation sector and colleagues will pick up on other issues.
The British Government's announcement on the introduction of mandatory hotel quarantine from Monday next completely exposed the Irish Government's excuses and delays in this area. Mandatory hotel quarantine can be done and there is no reason it should not be done here for all non-essential arrivals. The advice from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, has been crystal clear on this. They stated, as recently as 14 January, that the discretionary elements of quarantine and post-arrival testing should be removed. They also stated that every effort should be made to remove these. Neither direction has been followed. Yet again, the public health advice has been shelved during this pandemic.
While the Administration in London announced detailed plans for self-funded ten-day quarantines with strict measures and severe penalties for breaches, the Minister and his colleagues are still at the stage of confusion and indecision. It also announced mandatory testing for all travellers on days two and eight post arrival, something that Sinn Féin has repeatedly called for in Ireland but that the Government has inexplicitly resisted.
We have had nearly a year of inadequate and reactionary measures on international travel that have protected neither lives nor livelihoods. Every measure introduced to date has been half-baked. On 1 June, Sinn Féin stated that a traffic light system for international travel should be examined. Unbelievably, we had to wait until November before it was introduced, and then only at the behest of the EU. The Government waited until the passenger locator form was ignored en massebefore making it mandatory, and follow-up remains inadequate. Well in advance of Christmas, we called for mandatory testing of arrivals over the Christmas period. The Government introduced voluntary, expensive airport testing, which was ignored by the majority of arrivals, resulting in severe consequences. Even the recent airport fines that the Government stated would be a major deterrent have failed, with people just paying the €100 or €500 and going on their merry way to the Canaries or elsewhere.
It is incredible that NPHET issued advice on 14 January, the Government responded and within hours, its proposals and measures were proven inadequate. I cannot understand how no lessons have been learned. The Government is constantly on the back foot as regards international travel. Leaving our ports of entry wide open during a pandemic has not benefited anyone over the past year. It has not helped aviation workers, kept the travel sector afloat, kept out Covid variants or reduced infections on our island. We know there are combined variants with increased infectivity, transmissibility and mortality levels associated with them.
The Government's measures have not worked and will not work. It needs to go back to the drawing board yet again. A system of hotel quarantine for all non-essential arrivals needs to be introduced immediately until such time as our infection levels drop, our health system is not at risk of being overwhelmed and the vaccine roll-out is more advanced. We realise that this means an extension of the current challenges facing those working in the aviation and travel sectors but decisive action now, with adequate sector-specific supports, will help these industries recover more quickly. Britain is introducing mandatory quarantine for arrivals from 33 countries, covering 800 million people. The Government has stated that it intends to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals from just two countries, Brazil and South Africa, at some future date as yet unknown.
Has the Minister's counterpart in London been in contact with him about Ireland being used as a back door into Britain to avoid the latter's quarantine measures? When will the Government introduce a more comprehensive list of countries to which hotel quarantine will apply?
I thank Deputy O'Rourke for his questions. This is the most serious issue and one on which we take and follow public health advice. The public health advice will come later this afternoon as to on which additional countries we, similar to the UK, should consider applying much stricter restrictions. We will implement that advice with full speed.
I have been in regular contact with the UK transport minister and colleagues in the North - it does not have a commensurate minister for transport - to ensure that we co-operate and co-ordinate as best we can. I will speak to the UK minister again later this afternoon when I have details of our public health advice so that we can inform each other of what measures we intend to take. There will be no holding back or unwillingness to take decisions.
I agree with the Deputy that, in the coming months at this critical moment when we have to get the vaccinations done and reduce the Covid numbers, it would be unfair if we at home were restricting our movements and our lives in many different ways when non-essential travel was seen to be facilitated. The Deputy is right about the fines being introduced and increased. They will be increased again should there be any evidence that they are not proving to be a restraint. We would also consider other measures should such non-essential travel continue.
Looking back over the past year and an analysis of what has happened in various countries within the European Union, which is our peer group, the level of reduction in travel into our airports and ports has just about exceeded every other country. In this as in other areas, the Irish people have seen strong measures to restrict travel. According to the latest figures from yesterday, the level of travel into the majority of our airports other than Dublin Airport had seen a 100% reduction because there was not a single passenger. Dublin Airport had seen a 98% reduction. I acknowledge that may need to be reduced further. We need some flights and ferries because we need cargo and essential workers, and there will be a small number of cases in which people have to undertake essential travel. We have to facilitate that while providing for and listening to the public health advice.
I appreciate that the numbers are down significantly but the risk is not a relative one. It is not a year-on-year comparison. The risk is a real one, given the numbers coming through. If we do not have an adequate system of checks and controls, it will not matter how few are travelling here. All that matters is how many come to Ireland with Covid, particularly its variants.
I wish to raise the related issue of the aviation and travel sectors and the supports for same, given the public health measures' significant impact on them. The Government's approach has not just failed to protect the population from further infection but has also done no favours for the aviation and travel sectors. Pilots, cabin crew, ground staff and travel agents have raised issues. They appeared before a committee yesterday. Significant proposals have been made. The Irish Air Line Pilots Association, IALPA, has pointed to other countries. For example, there has been a $900 million investment in Air New Zealand. Air France has got €7 billion and Lufthansa €10 billion. Fórsa, SIPTU and Connect Trade Union pointed towards a sector-specific intervention and supports based on the German model. When I asked parliamentary questions last week, I was given no figures for the supports for individual airlines. I read in the newspapers that the figure was €150 million. Is that the case and has it been provided? What scale of support is available for individual airlines and, as importantly, workers in the sector? What will the Government do?
I thank the Deputy for raising these issues. Many of the supports that the Government has implemented were raised by the aviation task force and the Oireachtas transport committee, which has done excellent work in this regard. The supports include the wage subsidy scheme, the alleviation of commercial rates, a tax clawback, the Covid restrictions support scheme, the credit guarantee scheme and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, working capital scheme. Many of these supports have been availed of throughout the aviation sector, including by airlines. It is estimated that more than €100 million in operational support has already been made available under these schemes to Irish airlines and airports. The Government has also revised a support package of €80 million specifically for Irish aviation. It is being worked on as a priority. That funding will primarily be made to our airports across the country.
I welcome the Minister's decision to approve the Coonagh-Knockalisheen road finally. I have been raising this issue in the Dáil, given that it has caused considerable concern in my constituency in Limerick. In particular, the community in Moyross has felt isolated, attacked by the Minister and his party, and marginalised. There has been a sense of despair and they have been through trauma for the past couple of weeks because of the Minister's decision or lack thereof. This morning's announcement was positive.
I have no doubt whatsoever but that it would not have happened without the pressure that came from that community and I commend the people there, particularly the Moyross Partners group, which co-ordinates all of the groups in Moyross, including the school, the employers - of which there unfortunately only are a few and hopefully there will be more - the parish priest, everybody involved in the local soccer and rugby clubs, community groups, activists and every person involved in this massive campaign. I thank the Green Party for re-energising the community because they felt they had to defend themselves and they did it very well. I want to mention some people involved, including Jason Craig, who is a family support worker in Moyross school, Adrian Power, the school completions officer, Tommy Daly from Moyross Residents Alliance, Raymie O'Halloran, a local employer, Tracy McElligott of Moyross Residents Forum and Tiernan O'Neill, who is the principal of what I believe to be one of the best, if not the best, primary schools in the country, Corpus Christi School, Moyross. The news this morning has been very positive and very welcome. I have some specific questions on it. Will there be any more blockages to building the road? When does the Minister hope it will start and by when does he hope it will be completed?
I absolutely agree with Deputy Quinlivan that the people with whom I and my party have engaged in Moyross have shown real leadership and commitment and it is absolutely right to focus on the delivery of services for their community. They played a huge part in delivering this. There will be no delay in building the road. I hope that what the Deputy and I can agree on is that this in itself is not the only key thing. I was speaking to the city managers yesterday and to my mind, as Minister for Transport, it was appropriate to test and to look at options and all of the aspects of this, of which there are many.
I hope Deputy Quinlivan will agree, and I will give time to him to come back in, that as we build the road it is also vital that we open up pedestrian access for the people of Moyross in every direction and really provide them with a public realm of the highest quality connectivity. We recently improved the bus services in Moyross but it is absolutely right to go further and to put bus lanes on the new road to make sure the people get high quality public transport. There are other new public transport projects that I hope to bring to the Dáil to seek support. It is also important that we connect to the rest of the city with further measures, such as high quality cycling and pedestrian facilities to the city centre, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick and Limerick Institute of Technology to connect the three colleges in Limerick. There is also new housing and proceeding with speed not only with the road but with the regeneration programme and new investments, which the local authority will be announcing in the coming days. It is about looking at the whole package with regard to transport and the other local measures we all want to provide for Moyross. I hope the Deputy will indicate what he thinks about these additional measures. I am telling those in management that these measures have to come in at the same time as the road, at full speed, particularly pedestrian access for the community.
I thank the Minister and I agree 100% with what he has said. As we are speaking about extra public transport, the Minister might look at the area of Southill, which is another deprived regeneration area. Recently, the bus service into Carew Park was cut. The Minister might intervene and find out why one of the most deprived areas of Limerick is being deprived of a bus service. We can take with a pinch of salt what the Minister has said about the rest of the community if he will not restore the bus service to Carew Park. I believe the project we are speaking about will include pedestrian access, which will open up the Coonagh to Knockalisheen road and the direct provision centre in Knockalisheen, and will allow people in Moyross to feel they are not in the biggest cul-de-sac in Ireland, as they have for a number of years. A train line already goes through Moyross and this service also needs to be delivered. I agree with what the Minister has said. We need to open up the whole area.
I will make a contribution including questions and if there is time at the end the Minister can answer them and if not, I ask for the answers in writing. This would be most helpful. On mandatory hotel quarantine, we are expecting legislation next week. We are all waiting with bated breath to see the detail. I have been contacted by a number of Irish people who went away for Christmas to visit family and have stayed away with the schools being closed. They are asking for advice with regard to coming back. Should they come back now to quarantine in their houses for 14 days? If mandatory hotel quarantine comes into play will they have to go to a hotel when they come home or will they be able to quarantine in their houses? I have had several contacts in this regard. I would appreciate the views of the Minister on it.
With regard to the aviation sector, yesterday we had an hour long committee meeting which was wholly inadequate. This is no one's fault given the constraints under which the committees are operating but it was inadequate to discuss the many complex issues with regard to the aviation sector. I want to focus on the package of supports agreed and the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, funding. I know the Minister for Finance has a role in this. Has there been any move with regard to applying conditionality on employers to ensure workers and their jobs are protected while in receipt of any State assistance, be it through the ISIF or anything else? Have those conversations taken place in the Cabinet? Will the Minister for Transport, who is responsible for these workers, advocate for such conditionality to ensure that for however long the sector remains on the ground that their jobs will be there for them when we as a country will rely on the sector's recovery to get our economy back up and running?
This morning, my colleague, Deputy Nash, raised extending the employment wage subsidy scheme for aviation workers. There have been issues with regard to short time work forms still being filled out incorrectly by employers. As the Minister with responsibility for these workers and that sector, I ask the Minister to raise this with the Ministers for Finance and for Social Protection.
There has been a report that Ireland is in breach of WHO regulations for failure to designate a competent authority at our ports and airports for dealing with contagious disease control. This has been reported in the media today. I must say it was news to me. I would appreciate a comment on or a response to the charge from the Minister. Are there measures he will put in place to rectify this?
At the end of her contribution, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, spoke about road safety. An element of road safety is improvement and maintenance of our roads. Will the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, be signing off on the regional roads maintenance grants? It is three and a half weeks later than when they are usually signed off. Local authorities throughout the country are seeking an update on this. The main representations I receive about road maintenance in north County Dublin are from cycling groups who look for the roads to be maintained in order that they can take part in their cycling, racing and training in a safe manner. I would appreciate an update on this.
As I am speaking about roads, and this issue has been raised already, we welcome the U-turn on the Coonagh to Knockalisheen bypass. The community of Moyross must be applauded. I have engaged with them through the Labour Party's local councillor, Conor Sheehan, in recent weeks. I have seen the positive campaigning they have done for this through their Facebook group and through engaging with all public representatives. I welcome this and commend the community.
There are other very important roads and infrastructure. We have the Athy distributor road and the M11 to Rosslare Europort, and all of the problems in the port. The M11 needs to be extended. There are traffic pile-ups in villages such as Oilgate, which are not good for the environment and need to be addressed. The Mitchelstown to Mallow road needs upgrading given the amount of haulage that takes place on that road and the impact it is having on the environment. When roads are done properly they can have a positive impact on the environment compared to what is there now. They are not the overall answer. There is a bigger picture at play and we know this. There is also where we want to get to with rail and active travel. We need these works to be done as soon as possible.
My advice to constituents with questions as to whether they should travel home now is not to travel. If the question is when might be best, the answer is not now if there is a choice. ISIF funding is a matter for the Department of Finance. It is financially independent borrowing based on a contract arrangement with the company. The Government set up the fund to make sure we protected jobs and did not lose them but the specifics of the loan contract is a matter for the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, and ISIF in its funding.
The regional roads programme has been signed off and local authorities will get details of that. I had a meeting this morning with Kildare County Council and I can say that the Athy distributor road is also proceeding.
I want to come back to the issue of Moyross because Deputy Quinlivan and others referred to it. When I was talking about pedestrian access, it is not just via the distributor road dual carriageway. This is for the entire community, and not just for that community but for all the local communities, particularly those in South Hill and the other areas the Deputy mentioned. We need to provide good-quality local connectivity and local ability to walk between estates or to have easy access to the shops, to school and to college. That is the critical issue. I was working with the council on this to ensure we get the entire transport plan right, not only to think about the infrastructure but also about people being able to move from one place to another very easily.
I will just take one minute. I have been informed by the National Transport Authority, NTA, that the provision of an urban bus service in Carlow town is currently at the top of the list of the NTA towns project but requires funding from the Department. This troubles me because there was supposed to be funding coming for this project. I have been told that it is at the top of the list many times yet, at the moment, my understanding is there is no funding. The estimated cost of providing a Carlow town bus service is in the region €1 million to €1.5 million but the NTA funding allocation for 2021 does not include provision for the introduction of the new services. My understanding is this is because double the annual funding was required to sustain the current network of public transport services during the Covid-19 public health emergency. I know the NTA is fully committed to delivering the Carlow town bus network as soon as possible, once it gets the funding. I also know Carlow could have applied for funding if it had known that no funding was coming through this mechanism. There is no funding. What is happening with regard to a town bus service for Carlow?
I realise I did not answer Deputy Duncan Smith's other question about the report. In that newspaper report, Dr. Ronan Glynn said that, as he understands it, the HSE is the designated authority. I apologise that I did not answer the question.
With regard to Carlow town, I absolutely support, and fully understand the Deputy's desire for, such a service. As we have seen in Kilkenny, a very similar urban bus transport service which was introduced prior to the onset of Covid was proving its worth and was hugely popular, with very high patronage, and it was transformative in terms of connectivity in the town. Although we do not have it in the 2021 budget - in part, as the Deputy said, because of all the emergency funding we have had to provide - this sort of service is exactly the sort of priority I would like to support if we have any budgetary flexibility. That type of bus service is exactly what we need for our towns.
I want to raise a number of separate transport issues relating to my constituency of Tipperary. We constantly hear of the need to move towards a more sustainable, greener form of transport, yet Tipperary is losing services, left, right and centre, and a lot of what remains is unreliable, inefficient and needs major improvement. The people of rural Ireland deserve adequate public transport links. Nenagh and Roscrea in north Tipperary lost the Bus Éireann X12 service at the end of January. This was the main bus route that linked north Tipperary to Dublin and Limerick. Outside my constituency office in Nenagh where a bus stop is situated, I would see the crowds getting on this bus service every morning. Reducing public transport services that run through two major towns in the north of my constituency is not what a just transition is about. In the south of the county, the people of Cashel and Cahir in particular have been given some reprieve as the X8 Dublin to Cork route has been granted permission to continue, but the new reduced timetable in place to serve these towns is not permanent or guaranteed to continue beyond Covid-19.
With regard to the Ballybrophy train line, Roscrea, Cloughjordan, Nenagh and Birdhill have a train service on the Ballybrophy line that is unreliable, inefficient and slow. I understand the Minister had a productive meeting with the North Tipperary Community Rail Partnership a couple of weeks ago and that he committed to engaging with Irish Rail with a view to determining if it is possible to have train speed reviewed and increased, and an additional midday service introduced on the line. In 1962, the steam-powered train serving this line could complete the route in one and a half hours. In 2021, it takes the train two hours to complete the same journey. Line speeds are simply too slow and services need to be increased.
Tipperary town needs a bypass and I respectfully ask the Minister to engage with other Ministers, local authority officials and representatives of Tipperary town to ensure that it is included in the national development plan. The people of Tipperary town are currently living with the fact that their main street forms part of a major road on which 70,000 vehicles travel each week. This needs to be addressed as a matter of priority.
I believe the Government should engage with ride-sharing apps, such as Uber, to investigate the potential of introducing such a system in rural Ireland. Such a move has the potential to massively increase connectivity in rural towns and villages, which could help to save the local shop or pub in rural areas, and is something that needs consideration.
I ask the Minister for his intervention in order that my rural constituency will not be left behind as we move to a more sustainable, greener way of living. Tipperary deserves a just transition in this process, particularly in the context of transport. I ask the Minister to: intervene with Bus Éireann in order to reintroduce the X12 and X8 services for the people of Tipperary so they remain connected to our major cities; continue to support and engage with the North Tipperary Community Rail Partnership as they work to improve services along the Ballybrophy line; ensure that the Tipperary town bypass is included in the national development plan; and engage more with ride-sharing apps, such as Uber, with a view to introducing such services in rural Ireland.
I am happy to follow up on all four of those proposals, with which I am in broad agreement. First, in regard to changes to Bus Éireann services, we agreed on previous occasions, for example, when it took away a Cork route, that we would try to make sure that no town that lost a service would be left out, and that we would reconfigure the public service obligation to make sure we provided connectivity. I will come back to the Deputy with regard to those Limerick and Tipperary services.
I ask the Minister to provide a written reply to these interventions that will allow myself and my near colleague and dear friend, Deputy Devlin, the opportunity to make our contributions. To be specific, these are transport questions in regard to dealing with Covid-19. Understandably, many Members have spoken about air travel but we all know that it is community transmission which is of most concern.
The areas I want to touch on are the use of public transport, first and foremost, and the fact that, particularly on the Luas line and the DART, with which Deputy Devlin would also be familiar, there is still serious concern among front-line workers, who simply have to take that service, that the services are overcrowded and there is not enough security or inspection to ensure that social distancing and mask wearing is maintained. While I welcome the appointment of the 61 assurance controllers, this is something that is still lacking.
I know of a number of front-line workers in my constituency, particularly in the healthcare sector, who are so worried about transmission on public transport that they are not willing to get the Luas, the DART or the bus, and they are being forced into their cars. Taking a car into the city centre means they are then liable for massive parking charges, either in hospital car parks or car parks near hospitals. This is something I raised with the Minister and, more pertinently, with Dublin City Council a number of times because, from a personal point of view, back in May, I joined the long wait of expectant birth partners or fathers along Merrion Square, feeding euro after euro into parking machines. That was fine for a once-in-a-lifetime miracle appointment but, for those who have to go in every day on the front line to protect us, more needs to be done in regard to parking charges because they do not feel safe enough on public transport and that is driving them into their cars. Unfortunately, not everyone is in a position to walk, cycle or run into the city centre.
The public transport system has played a vital role throughout this pandemic. I want to pay tribute to all front-line transport workers, who have really shown tremendous effort throughout.
I wish to focus on the taxi industry in Dublin. I have raised this with the Minister before. Taxi drivers are front-line workers. They have been impacted severely by the pandemic. They are doing their best but are dealing with unhelpful speculation, particularly about whether they will continue to be able to use bus lanes. There are also other issues facing the industry. While I welcome the introduction of the PUP for those drivers under 65 years, many older drivers who had to cocoon for their own safety and that of family members have not been able to get back to work. They feel that they have not been provided with sufficient supports by this or the previous Government which is extremely disappointing. They have worked hard all their lives. They have been there for many of us over the years. What are we going to do for them now? What does the Minister propose to do for those drivers, particularly those over 65 years who might need to come out of the industry for any reason? Will he offer a scheme for that?
Taxi drivers tell me they are concerned about the future of the industry. They have repeatedly raised the fact that almost two thirds of the taxi advisory council membership is vacant. I have raised this in a parliamentary question to the Minister. When will those posts be filled? Will the Minister engage with the stakeholders to agree a road map for the future of the sector?
Will he consider convening a high level stakeholder group to prepare a plan for the future of aviation and connectivity? Ireland is an island nation and after Covid the airline industry will be crucial to the viability of Ireland's economy. The Minister may reply to me in writing if there is no time.
Deputy Richmond is looking very well after a year of sleepless nights and so on. I commend him on that. There have been exceptions and we have to police it, but the public transport system here has, by and large, lived within the parameters set out in public health advice which is stricter than in other countries. There are very few other countries which apply the signage on the seats in effectively taking out half or 75% of the seats. That leads to enforcement, in a way. Similarly, I understand that mask wearing is in the high 90%. It is the Irish people who have policed that. I will look at parking charges particularly for critical workers at this time.
Deputy Devlin is correct that the taxi industry has had real difficulty. Their business, like so many transport businesses, has disappeared. The PUP has been critical. There is also the ability to earn and cover expenses for those who are able to work which will be a vital measure as numbers return. I will engage with all the stakeholders. The Department is currently looking at filling the vacancies on the taxi advisory committee. I will engage further and listen to the taxi industry representatives.
The Minister of State said that in normal times, there is a ten-week waiting list for driver tests. The waiting list for a driver test in the Tallaght centre was 9,500 in November. That is nearly one tenth of all the people waiting for tests in the State. There is clearly a problem. There was an increase of over 4,000 in just four months, so it is safe to assume that the number waiting now could be 10,000 or 11,000. I do not have the figures, maybe the Minister of State has them to hand, but the waiting list in Tallaght is equivalent to the population of a good sized Irish town.
Delays can have serious implications for employment, holding onto employment or simply bringing children to school or doing the weekly shop. Restrictions on public transport due to Covid mean this is having an even greater impact on people's lives. What specific actions does the Minister of State propose to take to reduce the backlog? Has she consulted with instructors, testers and their unions to find a way to accelerate the numbers of tests that can be carried out safely in the coming months? Have overtime, additional staff and so on been considered? I am looking for answers because it is a huge challenge and is negatively impacting a huge number of people.
I agree that it is very frustrating for people who want to get their driver tests. As a result of the suspension of the driver testing services during the first lockdown there has been a significant backlog. During level 5, driver tests are only available to those who are involved in essential services, including retail workers.
We should bear in mind there is no magic bullet for this because no matter how many testers we have, the issue is around the health protocols which limit the throughput in centres and the number of driver tests that can be done every day. In December 2020, the Department approved the hire of a further 40 temporary testers for 22 months. They will be in addition to the 36 temporary testers who were rehired over 2020. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, will examine how the number of tests that can be performed every day can be increased, but of course we must make sure that we adhere to the health protocols around that.
The RSA has also advised that it has established a dedicated web form so that essential workers can access a driver test. Anyone looking for an urgent driver test appointment who falls into that category can apply online through myroadsafety.ieto request an urgent driver test.
There will be a backlog and delays. The RSA is hiring but it comes down to the numbers of people who can be put through the centre while ensuring that everyone is safe, both those working in the testing facilities and those getting their tests.
The Minister of State referred to significant amounts. It could be 10,000 or 11,000. I understand the challenges we face at the moment but I want to know if a plan will be put in place to deal with the backlog in the Tallaght area specifically. One person in ten on the national waiting list is waiting for a test in the Tallaght centre. It is equivalent to the population of a town. Something needs to be done. Will she address the situation regarding family carers, for instance? They are not seen as essential workers by the Government but it is essential for many family carers to have a car and to be able to access the test. Will the Minister of State look at the possibility of fast tracking that cohort?
It is possible to contact the RSA and request an urgent driver test and provide the relevant details. It is a decision for the RSA with regard to essential workers. Without wanting to repeat myself, the RSA is hiring those 40 extra testers and more will be hired if needed. However, the real issue is the pandemic and the consequent need to restrict the numbers going through the centres. Sometimes it is not down to the number of driver testers but the capacity of throughput in a centre while keeping people safe and ensuring we suppress the virus.
Over the last year, we were repeatedly told that international travel was low risk. That was blown out of the water particularly with the new, more transmissible, UK Covid variant, the prevalence of the virus and the increased loss of life during January. We are aware of two other variants, the South African and Brazil variants, but we do not know what others will emerge. It already looks as though there is a new variant to the UK variant of Covid. It is essential that we consider that when we look to what controls need to be put in place.
About three weeks ago, the Tánaiste told me here that most international travel was essential yet, as the Taoiseach told us this morning, about 60% of travel was Irish people returning from holidays. What I was told was not true. I find it very difficult to rely on information when I am told things that turn out to be untrue.
I ask the Minister where the responsibility for transport lies, particularly international transport. It appears that the Department of Health has a more significant role than the Department of Transport. That seems to be to be at odds given the extent of the risk in respect of transport. The Minister might address that issue.
The Minister replied to a question from Deputy Duncan Smith on the WHO in the context of Ireland not having a competent authority. I believe it was the Department of Health, the HSE and the Department of Transport that were originally involved. Has the HSE been designated? Has the WHO been informed that the executive is the competent authority? If there is an organisation in place, what type of organisation is it? Is it a subset of the HSE?
The Minister talks about transport and this virus. Most of us could go on all day about that because there are so many components to it. One particular component is that the state aid rules have been relaxed in respect of the fiscal treaty. We have seen how that has resulted in high levels of investment by the likes of Germany or France in the airline sector. How is this different to the way it plays out here? The Minister might address that.
With regard to surface transport, additional money has gone into the public service obligation, PSO, for public transport. Does the Minister have any idea of the impact it will have on those companies and their survivability, particularly the non-commercial elements of the routes that normally fall under the PSO levy? Surviving this pandemic will be the key issue and we will require an airline sector, a shipping sector and our public transport systems post Covid-19.
The Minister focused on sustainable transport. In the past day or so, I got a reply to a question on the amount of money that has been allocated to each local authority in this regard. It seems to be demand led in respect of the ability of the local authority to roll out the new cycle ways. In terms of getting to national standards, will the Minister talk to his counterpart in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage about that because it is clear that some local authorities are doing better than others? That may well be down to the local authorities and to staffing, and I believe that is the case in some local authorities, but if we are to have a fair distribution across the country, we cannot have some local authorities not pulling their weight in respect of the rolling out of this or drawing down funds.
I think every Department has a role in this matter. Regarding international travel and quarantine, the Department of Justice has a key role in terms of Garda checkpoints at Dublin Airport and how we manage border control. Our Department has a key role. We have just rolled out a whole new antigen testing scheme for hauliers travelling to and from France. On the passenger locator form, we got stuck in with regard to using the expertise of the Dublin Airport Authority to get the call centre to try to operate that. In the end, however, the Department of Health has the final say. That is appropriate because if we are going to follow public health advice it has to make the call in respect of the final measures, not just on our public health system but also in terms of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC.
In terms of what we have been doing this past year, we were following the European Commission's traffic light system. We did that not because it was from the European Commission - it was reciprocal - but because it was the ECDC advice. It will be critical in the coming days. I understand it is due to report on Monday with advice on how countries manage the variants. We are best following that advice because-----
If there is any instance where the ECDC or our own public health authorities are saying that we should take a measure, we will take that measure. That is critical in terms of managing this variant issue, which does change everything. I heard Mike Ryan of the WHO say that the key thing is co-operation internationally and not necessarily banning in every instance but monitoring, managing and sharing the latest information so that we can isolate it.
I am sorry I have not got to the other points. I have some details on Kildare County Council as an example. I had a good meeting with its members today. I believe the council could be an exemplar. We have agreed 11 additional engineering staff to help it roll out the walk ways. I will be honest. If certain councils cannot do it, do not want to avail of that and are not up for it, I would prefer to see the resources reallocated to those that do in order that there will be a real impetus behind those councils which that want to make it happen.
I want to deal with a number of issues. The Minister might answer my question on the first and I will then ask my follow-up question. I very much welcome his announcement on Limerick's Live 95FM this morning that the Coonagh to Knockalisheen road will proceed as planned in its entirety. It is a good news day for Limerick. Common sense has prevailed and I thank the Minister very much for making that announcement. It brings huge clarity and certainty to Moyross, the north side of the city and Limerick city overall with regard to development and in terms of connectivity, promoting public transport along the route, cycle ways and also investment. A specific investment around the Moyross area is about to be announced by Limerick City and County Council, which is to be greatly welcomed.
In that context, when will the Minister be signing off on this project to allow the final phase to proceed? I refer to the documentation going back to Limerick City and County Council to enable it appoint the preferred bidders who can then, when the lifting of the Covid-19 restrictions on construction, move on site and we will see JCBs in place to build the road.
We have had sometimes lengthy and passionate discussions on this issue so I thank the Deputy for his welcoming of the announcement and his kind words this morning. I am just checking this. There has been a very useful engagement with the council on this issue. I am hearing that as well as the road, we should put in a bus lane in either direction, that we should address the pedestrian access issues in Moyross in order to ensure that we open up access in every way and that we should build high-quality cycling infrastructure from Moyross and Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, to the city centre, Mary Immaculate College and University of Limerick as a way of connecting the communities and the city. The investments that will come on top of this good transport planning is only the start. We should have real ambition in terms of new housing and a high-quality public housing realm. The answer to the Deputy's question is "today". From what I hear, he is very supportive of those other aspects of what needs to be done as the road is built.
A submission has come up from Limerick City and County Council. It has to be signed off by the Minister to allow it appoint a preferred bidder so we can get the road works physically under way. When will that be signed off by him?
I welcome that. Shannon Airport is a big issue for us. We had the union representatives for the entire airline industry in before our committee yesterday. There is serious concern about the future for their members. Is the Minister looking at a plan to inject further specific direct investment into airlines to support them through this pandemic and allow them come out of it intact? Also, when does the Minister anticipate that he will be making the announcement regarding the appointment of a new chairperson of the board of Shannon Group?
The Minister of State and I had a very good series of interviews with prospective candidates. We expect to be able to go to the Government on Tuesday next and get approval from it for our preferred chair. I think it will be someone who will be able to help Shannon Airport and the whole Shannon Group to manage its way out of a very difficult situation in which it finds itself. That is critical. That leadership will be needed to help in the recovery to which the Deputy referred.
I will take three minutes and I would appreciate it if the Minister and Minister of State could provide a written reply. Significant travel restrictions continue to have an impact on our daily lives and it is fair to say the aviation sector remains worst hit by Covid-19. I welcome the publication of the Irish regional airports programme, with €21.3 million being allocated for 2021. The regional airport programme is a vital source of funding support for Ireland West Airport Knock in my constituency and other regional airports. I note the 2021 funding has been welcomed by Ireland West Airport Knock and it will continue to work with the Department to pursue further supports.
It is worth noting that the passenger numbers at the airport had risen to 800,000 during 2019, compared with 143,000 in 2020, representing a substantial collapse in people using the airport. The last time similar passenger numbers were seen at the airport was 1995. The people of the western region will again flock to the airport when the time comes and I am hopeful passenger numbers will bounce back quickly.
I recall the task force for aviation recovery made 12 recommendations, one of which was a stimulus package for the regional airports. It is excellent that progress is being made on this recommendation but it would be useful today if the Minister could outline the progress being made on furthering the remaining recommendations. In recent weeks there have been increasing concerns by those employed by the aviation sector, particularly airline employees, who point to the state supports given directly to the airline sector in other countries, citing various reports on aviation packages. Has engagement taken place, either with the Department of Transport or other Departments and employee representative organisations in the airlines sector? If that has not happened to date, it should be considered as a matter of urgency.
My final point is to raise the inclusion of the climate action initiatives to help the greening of Ireland's airports, which is an important step in the right direction. I certainly hope carbon neutrality can be achieved at Ireland's airports over the next five years as part of the national effort to seriously tackle climate change.
I can answer one of the later questions first. There is ongoing engagement on the aviation sector between my Department and the airlines and at a high level in the Government. It is absolutely critical. I do not need to tell the Deputy or anybody in his region the importance of Ireland West Airport Knock to the region. When we come out of this pandemic, airports like Knock should be in a position to be able to rebound and get back their critical international connectivity not just for the west but Ireland as an island nation.
As the Deputy mentioned, €21.3 million has recently been announced as part of the regional airports programme. As part of the announcement last year, the Government also allocated the supplementary support scheme for Irish airports, amounting to €26 million. That is subject to state aid approval but Knock Airport is one of the facilities that would be able to avail of it, which would help to address liquidity issues.
The Deputy can be assured that it is of significant concern to me and the Government that all our airports can be in a position to come back and we can support them through this critical time, as he has stated.
I will use half of my available time and leave the remainder for the Minister. Roads have been the topic of debate for the past week or so. I welcome the announcement of the Limerick road but a road in my constituency of Cork North-Central has been a topic of debate for approximately 25 years. I refer to the north ring road in Cork city. Great work is being done on the north side of Cork city with the rolling out of the Cork metropolitan area draft transport strategy, CMATS, which would provide for railway and cycling infrastructure on the north side of Cork city. Will the Minister comment on the status of the north ring road and where it might go?
I also ask about PCR testing. I welcome the circumstances in which Government is changing with the virus in that it is bringing in further restrictions, testing and quarantines. I listened to the Tánaiste on RTÉ Radio 1 yesterday indicating that, where possible, a two-island approach would be sought with PCR testing and quarantine. Given that the British have this week announced a fairly stringent regime and draconian measures - although some may be required and welcome - what is the view of the Minister, given that the Tánaiste was indicating that a two-island strategy may be the best way to approach the matter?
In the programme for Government, 20% of overall capital funding of roads was to be designated for active travel transport initiatives, walking and cycling infrastructure. Will the Minister elaborate on that 20% provision? Is it a requirement on all capital programmes from now or will it be specific to certain plans?
I have had very good meetings with council members about the north ring road in Cork. There is a variety of plans and I am trying to remember the full details. I recall the argument being made for immediate construction of a new distributor road for public transport and good active travel measures. I am trying to recall the geography of this across north Cork. I spoke with the council members and it seemed that the upgrade in the road network there was needed. I will have to come back with the details.
There is the wider question of an outer motorway or distributor road and this is connected with a variety of other matters to be considered. Included in that is the advancement, in my mind, of significant rail infrastructure projects in Cork. This includes the twin-tracking from Midleton to Kent Station and the building of new stations in the likes of Monard or Blarney on the way to Mallow, giving the potential to develop a new metropolitan rail network for Cork that would particularly benefit the city's north side. That is a project that would bring significant enhancement on housing and other matters.
I agree with the Tánaiste on a two-island approach and it is why we are in regular contact with the UK Government. That is clearly framed by the fact there are two administrations on this island and a Border we cannot seal. It makes sense in that context to work on a two-island basis.
The Deputy mentioned a 20% figure and it relates to the overall capital funding, with 10% for walking and 10% for cycling. They dovetail significantly but it is an OECD recommendation. It is following international best practice.
I am sure the Minister will agree that communities right across the country, as well as businesses, families and individuals, have gone above and beyond anything we could have imagined this time last year with the onset of the pandemic. The truth is there are some things that only the Government can address if they are to be addressed adequately. The first is an adequate testing, tracing and isolation regime. The second relates to controls, regulations and the monitoring of particular sectors where clusters can develop very quickly and bring about a significant impact, including the meat industry. The third point relates to international travel restrictions. These are three big examples and with all three, the Government has fallen down somewhat in different areas.
I have listened to our transport spokesperson, Deputy O'Rourke, since the formation of this Government and on repeated occasions he has brought issues of concern to the Minister and the Government as a whole. These relate to the need for testing for passengers before and after travelling and he raised the need for a traffic light system as far back as last summer. He has spoken consistently about the need to put in place a quarantine regime. Any movement on these matters has often been too little and almost too late, although it is better late than never. Progress has been far too slow and we must address that.
This week in my county we have seen a number of additional checkpoints put in place on cross-border roads. The message should come from this House very clearly. People should not engage in unnecessary travel, regardless of where they are from. My native county of Monaghan borders six other counties, with three in the North and three in this State. The virus does not care which is which and will move across communities.
My fear is that the prevalence of checkpoints in one direction is, in many respects, a distraction, because it does not deal with the issue of community transmission. The big advantage that we have had since the start, that we have articulated since the start, and that Ireland has in the battle against Covid-19, is that we are surrounded by water. That advantage has not been utilised to the degree that is necessary.
My two questions are as follows. When will quarantine measures actually be in place for all those who enter this State without having completed a PCR test for non-essential travel? Second, what is the Minister doing to promote and encourage cross-border and all-Ireland approaches in respect of this? I refer, in particular, to passenger locator information. When will the Minister ensure that there is seamless sharing of necessary information between authorities, both South to North and North to South?
We work as fast as we can in the circumstances we are in. I will provide some examples. When the UK Government raised a concern about a new variant, the next day, we banned travel from the UK. I believe we were the third country to do this. Perhaps the Danes and the Belgians were an hour ahead of us in doing so. Our response was immediate. At the same time, I believe we were one of the first countries in Europe to require the completion of a PCR test 72 hours before arrival. We did this ahead of the UK Government and others. We do not always respond in lockstep. While it makes sense to follow a two-island strategy, in that case we were ahead. The French Government raised concerns about the new variant and demanded antigen testing for hauliers. We set this up within days and it has been running without any difficulty. It was a difficult thing to set up and turn around, but we did it.
As for concerns that have been raised about cross-border travel, I agree with the Deputy that we cannot completely seal off the Border. For example, someone who lives in Newry and works in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital or in Dundalk cannot be stopped from crossing the Border. One could think of a thousand such examples. There are those who have rightly pointed out that they were being restricted from travelling in the South but there was no provision in place to restrict others travelling from the North. In response, we immediately approached the Office of the Attorney General with a view to implementing a measure to impose fines in such cases. This was not easy from a legal perspective, but we did it.
To answer the Deputy's question on when quarantine measures will be put in place for those who arrive in the State without having completed a PCR test, the legislation will go to Government on Tuesday. It will then go straight to the Dáil. It depends on the business of the Dáil and there will need to be a vote on the legislation. It is something that is being worked out by the Business Committee. It will be done as soon as is possible. The legislation is not without complexity, and there are real concerns around civil liberties and other issues that we are seeking to get right. However, subject to the legislation being passed by this House, I imagine that it will be a matter of days following that, before it will be in place.
I also want to focus on the issue of mandatory quarantine. Anybody who watched the RTÉ documentary last night about our public health workers would have been struck by the superhuman sacrifices they have made. Then we wake up this morning and listen to the Minister and other Government Ministers talking about what needs to be done. The utter disconnect between what we witnessed on the documentary last night and the reckless behaviour of the Government is quite shocking. Last week, the Taoiseach spoke of his regrets about opening up the economy in December; a decision that led to the horrific impact of what we saw last night. However, for all those regrets, there is now a refusal by the Government to prepare and implement what is necessary, namely, a mandatory quarantine policy for people travelling to this country. It is incomprehensible and none of the Government's arguments stack up. The arguments on the technical difficulties, the Border and the civil liberties concerns do not stack up. The key argument that the Government has against implementing a zero Covid policy is the question of mandatory quarantine. The failure is not technical. It is political. It is not driven by the interests of public health. It is driven by economic interests and the interests of those who lobby the Government the hardest.
Yet again, there is talk of opening up the economy, resuming construction, ending restrictions and opening up the schools. For many people, the prospect is terrifying. The Government might see light at the end of the tunnel but most people see another lockdown at the end of the tunnel. It could possibly be in April or May. People see that as being inevitable. The public is way ahead of the Government yet again. The latest RED C poll has shown that 86% of the public is in favour of a tougher, Australian-style mandatory quarantining system for all international arrivals into this country. Yet, yesterday, the Tánaiste stated on RTÉ Radio 1's "Drivetime" programme that he had looked at the possibility of adopting this approach last May and decided it was too difficult, in respect of opening up the economy and civil liberties etc. I reject that assertion. This response clearly comes from the lobbying of big business interests. The Business Postreported how the chief executive of the US Chamber of Commerce met the three most powerful people in government for special meetings. Perhaps this explains why bizarre exemptions are in place, such as the construction for foreign direct investment companies like Intel being able to continue throughout the lockdown, with thousands of workers travelling throughout the country. It has to stop. We must start treating this pandemic as a public health issue, in its entirety, rather than as a bit of this and a bit of that.
I have two questions for the Minister. First, will he intervene to ensure that the 20% cut to Dublin bus services across the city is reversed? Essential workers, including healthcare workers, are being affected by this cut and I have been contacted by many. One route, for example, used by staff to travel to Tallaght University Hospital in the morning, has seen the number of services halved at that time. It makes no sense to implement this cut at a time when our individual buses are running at 25% capacity and those who have to go to work are being negatively affected by it. It was done without any consultation with the front-line workers or with their unions and with almost no notice. It was announced on a Thursday and implemented on the following Monday.
I will respond to Deputy Bríd Smith first. The advice that we must follow is the public health advice. As I said, we expect further details later on this afternoon in respect of public health advice on the countries to which travel restrictions should be applied and the type of restrictions that should be put in place. We will follow that advice.
We must consider the issues around the reopening of certain activities. In my mind, it is not driven by any lobbying or economic imperative, but by the following. First and foremost, children need to go back to school. The imperative there is mental health, which is a public health issue. It is a particular concern for children from disadvantaged communities, who may not have the same access to online facilities that other students have. In that case, while listening and discussing the issue with public health, we must get the balance right. We must decide when the right time is for schools to come back. Similarly, there is also an issue in respect of construction. We want to build homes for our people and other facilities, such as hospitals. A balancing of priorities is required. It is appropriate for us to open the schools and construction first.
In response to Deputy Paul Murphy's question, I will have to look into the details of the 20% cut in services and revert to him. I cannot make a comment on that issue immediately.
My second question is this. The Minister is on record as supporting the idea of metro south west. In fact, he has spoken about his preferred route being Harold's Cross, Terenure, Knocklyon, Firhouse and Tallaght. He is now the Minister responsible for this issue. The National Transport Authority, NTA, has commenced a feasibility study. However, there are major flaws in it. For example, the feasibility study ruled out many of the stops that are part of the Minister's preferred route, including in Harold's Cross, Firhouse and Tallaght. It does not include the whole area between the green and the red lines in terms of potential beneficiaries. It does not include a place of work, school or college anonymised records, POWSCAR, survey.
In addition, it is not clear that it is entirely independent. I have two questions for the Minister in this regard. Will he agree to meet with the Metro South West group, which has written to him about this issue? Second, will he ensure there is a proper, impartial and independent feasibility study in respect of this project?
There are three potential routes for metro south from Ranelagh. One would be to go up the existing line. I do not expect we will opt for that route but we should look at it. The recommendation to the NTA is that we should look at all three options. The second option is going south west, as the Deputy outlined, taking in Harold's Cross, Terenure, Knocklyon, Firhouse and beyond to Tallaght. The other option would run to the south east, through Donnybrook, UCD, Stillorgan and Sandyford, which has the benefit that it could address the issues of capacity on the green line. All three routes will be looked at and we will then have to pursue the best solution. I will deal with all the different communities in a very open and transparent way as we go through that process.
Yesterday, the Government agreed to begin work on an overarching well-being framework for Ireland as a way of establishing a better view of how our society is performing beyond the existing economic measurement tools. Quality of life needs to be at the very heart of our policies and transport mobility has a significant part to play in that regard. We must change how we think about transport projects and, in that regard, people should be at the centre of what we do. Our priority must be focused on moving people in a way that is healthy and sustainable for them, for our communities and for our environment.
Transport makes up one fifth of our emissions. During this pandemic, while we have seen a significant reduction in road traffic, our transport emissions have reduced by only 17%. We need to triple that reduction approximately in the next ten years. The scale and urgency of our challenge is daunting. As Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action, I am pleased to tell the House that committee members are starting a work programme to look specifically at transport and climate action. I am very grateful to my committee colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, with whom I am designing the work programme. The committee will shortly be inviting a range of national and international expert witnesses to inform our work.
Transport is a vital part of climate action but its benefits reach far beyond that. Poor spatial planning and urban sprawl and its resulting car dependency have had severe adverse health impacts on our population. People are dying because of them. Each year in Ireland, there are 1,500 preventable deaths due to air pollution. Polluted air from traffic emissions is linked to asthma, eyesight loss and Alzheimer's disease. Research has found that inactive lifestyles are linked to heart disease, stroke and premature death. We have designed physical activity out of our daily lives through poor planning. We must proactively redesign it back into our lives.
I warmly welcome the Minister's announcement today about the improvement of the transport network in Limerick. It is vitally important that road access is not a stand-alone measure for the community in Moyross. A road for private cars alone will never solve a connectivity, economic or social inclusion problem. The revised approach of including dedicated bus lanes and finally opening up access from Moyross to neighbouring estates and education facilities for active mobility, walking and cycling is crucial for good connectivity and to provide true opportunity for Moyross. This applies across the country in all communities. Moyross is not a stand-alone community. It is part of Limerick city and its future is to be a centre of housing and employment as an integrated part of the city. For too long, despite its proximity to the city centre, it has been effectively segregated. That cannot continue and I will make every effort to ensure we resolve it. We are committed to investing heavily in a suburban rail system in the Limerick city area, with new stations in places such as Shannon, Raheen, Ballysimon, Adare, Annacotty and Moyross. Connecting all of them will bring very significant investment and development to those areas.
Let there be no doubt that sustainable connectivity is not only better for the environment but far better for public health, economic development and social inclusion. A modern national transport and mobility network helps to ensure that everyone can avail of the opportunities that come with access to education, employment, public services and amenities. We need to grow vibrant and sustainable regional cities if we are to achieve balanced regional growth in Ireland. I thank the Minister for taking the time to review the entire transport plan in order to achieve a better outcome for Moyross, the city of Limerick and the entire mid-west region.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, for being here for this debate. First, I want to acknowledge the continued work and effort they have both shown in the Department. I have been working with some of their officials on a continual basis and they have been excellent to deal with during these incredibly difficult and challenging times. They are not only dealing with Covid but also Brexit and the impact it is having on our aviation sector and on other areas which come under the Minister of State's remit. In addition, the Department is dealing with the transition towards a greener transport system for the country.
I have a couple of points to raise with the Minister in that context. First, the active travel measures were a fantastic initiative by the Government to encourage more people to engage in more sustainable methods of travel and transport such as cycling and walking. It should have been done long before now but it is good to see a focus being put on it. I thank the Minister for his work in that area.
An issue that has come to my attention from talking to county councillors and people working in local government is that there is a significant number of blockages and a lot of red tape around projects in a number of communities, including in my own town of Youghal and in Cobh as well. Local authorities are trying to invest in sustainable travel and transport options such as cycleways and footpath improvements. However, when it comes to medium-sized and large-scale projects, a lot of projects are being held back because there is a fear of investing in them. I would like to see more targeted funding going towards projects that are specifically identified by local area representatives or county councillors in communities, as well as Oireachtas Members, in order that footpaths can be constructed in areas that should have been serviced long before now. That is just one helpful suggestion I am offering the Minister. I ask that he take it on board and, if possible, give me a reply.
The national development plan is an incredibly important part of the programme for Government. It is an opportunity to address many of the inadequacies that are currently there by focusing on increased investment in our rail capacity and road network. I have raised with the Minister on multiple occasions the situation in Castlemartyr and Killeagh. I take this opportunity to stress once again the requirement for that project to be included in the national development plan. I have brought to the Minister a far greener option than what some officials in our semi-State bodies and the local authority may have wanted. I know that process will be concluding shortly and I hope the issue can be reviewed with some degree of urgency.
I take this opportunity to talk about the eastern side of Cork city and the east Cork region. In terms of cycling infrastructure, we are seeing very significant investment in the Midleton area and in Youghal. I would like to see Cork city being joined up to those metropolitan towns and areas around the city in order to allow people to cycle to and from work and perhaps walk some of the shorter distances. At present, there is no real link between Midleton and Cork city. That is something we should try to address. It is a cyclable distance, particularly for people working in Little Island, which is a huge employment centre in Munster and one of the largest in the country. It would be fantastic to see those issues being addressed at a national level and a more localised focus from the Department in this regard.
In the time that is available, I would like if the Minister could come back to be verbally on the points I intend to raise. I welcome the positive announcement he made today in regard to the Coonagh-Knockalisheen section of the Limerick northern distributor road. I thank him for his engagement on that project. It is a positive development that will improve connectivity and investment in the mid-west region, including for educational facilities such as Limerick Institute of Technology. It will also enable improvements in sewage facilities in the village of Meelick. I really welcome it.
In regard to aviation, can the Minister inform the House as to the appointment of a chairperson to the board of the Shannon Group? I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks and we heard yesterday from the coalface, when representatives of the unions told us about the severe challenge the sector is facing.
They referred to tailor-made income support packages that have been made available to workers in the sector by the German and Swedish Governments. I ask the Minister to consider such packages and possibly take the idea on board. We heard from the Irish Air Line Pilots Association regarding the need for direct investment in airlines. I recognise the support package put in place last year, amounting to €80 million, but we need to take a big step further and inject supports directly into our airlines.
I thank Deputy Leddin for his remarks. He is absolutely correct. Well-being comes from how we look after our local environment. Transport is critical to that. It will encourage him in the work he has been doing on transport policy in Limerick to know that what I heard today amounted to broad agreement that as we build the Coonagh-Knocklisheen road, we should put in bus lanes. As we build it, if not in advance, we should open up pedestrian access so the community gets the very best of access to the rest of the city and neighbouring areas. As we build it, we should put in high-quality cycling infrastructure connecting the three Limerick colleges, namely, Limerick IT, Mary Immaculate College and University of Limerick, and completely transform the way the city works.
On Deputy O'Connor's points, it is funny that we were discussing Castlemartyr with the Department yesterday. It is a very good example of what we need to do. Our Towns First strategy is central to everything the Government is doing. Investment in transport should be supporting that. I am not necessarily referring to over-dimensioned initiatives or those involving considerable expense or length but to critical bypass infrastructure that can revitalise villages and towns. The 19th century market towns and villages need to be the centres of our development. That is what the national planning framework states. We need to use the beautiful historical buildings and the public realm. I absolutely agree with the Deputy in that respect.
I assure Deputy Carey that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and I are absolutely focused on Shannon, in particular, because we have an immediate decision regarding the chairperson of the board, but we are also focused on making sure the industries we need to create employment for our people, including the tourism industry and others that require connectivity, will be protected as we move out of this Covid crisis.
I will leave a bit of time as the Minister might update me on the Navan rail line. Twelve months ago, we were all elected to the Thirty-third Dáil. During my campaign, one of the biggest issues to arise was the Navan rail line. Navan is the largest town in Ireland not serviced by rail. We have always maintained that the re-establishment of the Navan rail line must be a priority for whoever is in government. We were supported in this not only by our own voters but also by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, which all said during the election campaign that they would deliver the Navan rail line. Meath County Council has made it a major part of its new county development plan as it is so important to the future success of the county. I thank the councillors, of all parties and none, and the council officials in Meath for their total support for this project.
As the Minister knows, well over 200,000 people live in County Meath. More people leave Meath to go to work than from any other county in the country. The rail project will benefit so many, create jobs and benefit local businesses, and it will be a great asset to commuters. It will have a considerable impact on our environment, taking thousands of cars off the road every day. Many who choose to travel by public transport in County Meath spend many hours of their day waiting on buses, if they are on time or if they are not already full, in order to begin travelling and sit in backed-up traffic before eventually getting to work. They do their day's work and then face the agonising journey home. For some of the affected families, commuting means that the only time they get with their kids is at the weekends. The quality of life is very poor or non-existent.
At the minute, we have reviews of the national development plan and the greater Dublin area transport strategy and a reassessment of the Navan rail line project. We have enough reviews in County Meath. Will rail line infrastructure be prioritised? If so, how much additional funding will there be? Will Deputy Eamon Ryan, as Minister for Transport, prioritise the Navan rail line and deliver it? This year, 2021, is European Year of Rail. There has never been a better opportunity to connect all our regions through investment in our national railways. Meath has been left behind by successive Governments. The Minister can bring us up to speed by delivering the Navan rail line for the people of Meath.
I thank the Minister for engaging with our party spokesperson, Deputy O'Rourke, on this project so far. I hope he will keep the line of communication open. I acknowledge the Minister is in favour of the Navan rail line. Could he give me an update? Will he prioritise the rail line and deliver it in the lifetime of the Government?
I am very much supportive of the rail line. I appreciate the interest of Deputies Guirke and O'Rourke therein. The key point Deputy Guirke made that makes the case for the rail line is that the local authority is keen, in its development plan review, to really make it work and help deliver it.
The key thing we need to do in transport now is what is called "transport-led development", whereby new housing, communities and infrastructure are placed beside high-quality public transport infrastructure. That is the key next-stage approach. The review of the greater Dublin transport strategy will proceed. The National Transport Authority and others will examine the specifics regarding the Navan rail line but what will make it happen is the economics that come when the hands of housing and the hands of transport work together. I understand Meath County Council has plans that reflect very extensive population growth. It has to be sustainable and new developments have to be located close to the stations and connected to good local access travel systems. That is the way forward. If Meath County Council is following, in its development plan, an approach to back up the transport infrastructure that a rail line would bring, it would get it over the line. That is the key point.
I wish to raise the issue of driving licences. Are the Minister and Minister of State aware of the service being provided by the Road Safety Authority to learner drivers and those seeking to renew their driving licences during this pandemic? Are they aware that learner drivers who booked a test as far back as June 2020 still do not have a test date? Are they aware that learner drivers are regularly on hold for 90 minutes trying to get through to the Road Safety Authority? Are they aware that emails are not being responded to and that booking systems are repeatedly coming up with errors that are not being rectified? Are they aware of the stress and difficulty this is causing for learner drivers across the country, many of whom are essential workers who have spent additional months having to be accompanied by a qualified driver? In some cases, the only qualified driver available is over 70 and should be cocooning. Are the Minister and Minister of State aware of the difficulty this is causing for young rural dwellers, who have no public transport? What plan can be put in place to rectify this?
A person in my constituency wants to renew his driving licence. He is 70 years of age. He submitted all the paperwork last November and his licence expired on 12 December. The person still does not have his new licence and will not put the keys in the car without having it. His son spends 45 minutes at a time on the telephone and all he gets is a reply stating an internal memo will be sent around. This is not good enough. Owing to this complete breakdown, which is partly attributable to the exceptional health circumstances, will the Minister consider giving first-time drivers who have done everything right, who may have bought a car and who have work but cannot get to work a full licence on a temporary basis for up to 24 months on condition that they do their test in the meantime? It would allow them to get insurance and put them on the road on a legal basis. It is crucial where there is no public transport. I would like a reply to those points.
I thank the Deputy for raising this question. I know there have been issues in relation to people contacting the Road Safety Authority. My Department has been in contact with the RSA. There were delays for people who contacted it and had to wait online. We have been assured by the RSA that those issues are being resolved.
I will give an update on a number of other issues the Deputy raised. Driving licences that expired between 1 March and 31 August 2020 were extended for seven months and the possibility of further extension of driving licences is under consideration in Europe, with a decision expected shortly. On learner permits, they are a national competence and permits that expired between 1 March and 30 June 2020 were extended for eight months. In addition, learner permits that expired between 1 July and 31 October 2020 were extended by four months and the further extension of such permits is also under consideration.
Drivers aged over 70 are being invited to renew their driver licence by post and applicants will be contacted directly in the case of anyone over 70 whose licence has expired. If there are issues, the Deputy can raise them with me separately and I will follow up on particular cases. Drivers aged over 70 do not need to provide a medical report unless they have an identified or specified illness. This means they do not to leave home to visit their general practitioner, provided they do not have a specified or identified illness, and can renew via An Post.
The front page of today's The Irish Timesleads with a headline stating that new Covid restrictions will target foreign travel. It also states that a revised plan for living with Covid will be unveiled by the end of the month and that there will be some form of restrictions until at least the end of the year. It further states that the Minister and officials intend to introduce legislation next week which will provide for mandatory quarantine in hotels for incoming travellers. I find it incredible that we are still talking about something that should have been done well before Christmas. This sums up the Minister's approach to travel and Covid.
We keep hearing about plans but we need to see real action. Official figures show that 110,930 people came through Dublin Airport last month, of whom 60% travelled for non-essential reasons. I find it incredible that even at the height of the third lockdown, such a large number of people were travelling through our main airport for non-essential reasons. The requirement for a polymerase chain reaction, PCR, test was only introduced on 16 January. Some 64,000 people passed through Dublin Airport between 1 January and 16 January. This is another example of the Minister doing too little too late.
I have been calling for much tighter control of our Border with Northern Ireland. At a time when the North had one of the highest rates of infection, we had no control of our Border and people were free to travel in both directions. It was no coincidence that counties along the Border had the highest rate of infections on the island. Only last week, An Garda Síochána was given the power to turn back travellers from the North if their journey is not deemed essential. This is another example of the Minister doing too little too late, which unfortunately seems to be a regular occurrence with him and his Department.
With regard to new powers given to the Garda in the area of cross-Border travel, will the Minister indicate whether the PSNI will replicate the actions of the Garda and turn back travellers from the South who cross the Border. My understanding is that the PSNI is not following the same guidelines as the Garda. The Minister needs to get a grip of the travel situation and speak with his counterparts in the North to ensure we have a common approach on the island of Ireland. I understand the need for essential travel and have no issues with people crossing the Border for essential purposes but we must put a stop to people on both sides of the Border crossing for non-essential purposes.
I read in recent days that UK travellers were using Dublin Airport as a means of returning from trips to places like Dubai and Portugal. They were apparently using it as a back door to Britain. The reason is that direct flights to these regions have been stopped in the UK. This is another example of the lack of action by the Minister and his Department. The UK Government took the decision to stop these direct flights and now UK travellers are using Dublin Airport as a means of going on holiday to Dubai and Portugal. This matter must be investigated and action taken. It is not fair on airport staff. I have spoken to a number of them and they have raised serious concerns about this. It is simply unacceptable, should not be allowed to happen and must be stopped immediately. Can the Minister confirm that he has discussed this with his UK counterparts? On people arriving at Dublin Airport and travelling onward to the North, will the Minister indicate whether he is in contact with his counterpart in Northern Ireland about this matter and on people using airports in Belfast and travelling onwards to the South? As an island, it makes sense to have a common approach to the pandemic when it comes to travel restrictions.
The Tánaiste was reported yesterday as stating that talks were ongoing between officials in Ireland and Britain about agreeing an overall two-island strategy, that we would see all jurisdictions adopt similar travel restrictions and that this could involve Ireland adopting the same restrictions as other countries. I find it incredible that, in the third wave of a pandemic that has been with us for a year, the Government is still having discussions with our nearest neighbours on travel restrictions. The Department and Government need to get a grip of this situation. The time for talking is surely over; we now need action on the ground.
I urge the Minister and his Department to get to grips with travel and Covid restrictions. It is not good enough that the Minister continually states that we are in talks with other jurisdictions about introducing restrictions. We were at least three months late introducing Border restrictions between North and South and we all know the consequences of that. I ask the Minister to take control of the situation, show proper leadership in his Department and, once and for all, introduce travel restrictions that will keep the pandemic at bay and prevent any new strains or variants from entering the country.
I raise the issue of the airline industry, which is of major strategic importance to Ireland, far more so than any other EU member state. Over the coming years, I am aware there will be massive over-capacity in the airline industry. However, that does not ensure that access will be available for Ireland, which will be crucial. What goals has the Minister set for Ireland to protect our strategic interests, particularly in the event of restructuring occurring in airlines that prominently serve our airports? Has he assessed what are the best policy instruments to achieve these goals? I know there are attempts to underwrite certain routes but can that be a direction of travel? Should we consider taking preference shares in airlines that are making commitments? What is the process of evaluation being undertaken here?
One of the great challenges we face in transport is cutting dependence on fossil fuels. While I am as enthusiastic as the Minister is about modal shift, I am conscious that 80% of vehicle journeys made in Ireland cannot be easily replaced by public transport, cycling or walking. Will he commit to accelerating the roll-out of electric vehicles? The roll-out of electric vehicle chargers has been stalled. I suppose it is understandable, with Covid, but only 3% of the plans by local authorities and the ESB have been delivered to date. Half of the population would now consider a shift from combustion engine to fossil fuels. Will the Minister accelerate that and copper-fasten the ban on new combustion engine sales after 2030?
On cycling, I congratulate the councils on what they are doing and acknowledge the support from the Department of Transport. Would the Minister consider simple things such as the surface used by cyclists as an early win? Is he considering changing traffic rules to enable flashing amber signals at traffic lights for cyclists who can safely move at times but do not always observe the rather inflexible laws in place now?
Given the number of questioners there are in this session, I will take all the questions and see if there is time at the end for the Minister to respond. Otherwise, I ask the Minister if he would correspond with the Deputies, if that is acceptable.
I will only use 60 seconds and leave 60 seconds for the Minister to respond, if he can. We all know that during Covid-19 public spaces have proved invaluable, yet some of them remain very unsafe as a result of illegally driven scrambler bikes. I thank the Minister and the other leaders for securing a commitment on this matter in the programme for Government. I thank the Taoiseach for the leadership he has shown in convening a cross-departmental meeting on this issue, the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, who held a meeting of the antisocial behaviour forum this morning, and the Minister for Transport for prioritising a road traffic amendment Bill in this legislative term. Will he update the House on that matter and provide some of the details on what he proposes to amend?
I too will use one minute of my time to give the Minister time to respond. We had very good news today regarding the Limerick northern distributor road, which starts and ends in my home parish of Parteen-Meelick-Coonagh.
It is good news and I am glad the Minister signed off on it. When are works expected to commence? When will phase 2 begin? The project is in the doldrums and clarification is needed in respect of it.
When does the Minister expect a new chairperson to be appointed to the board of Shannon Group? We recently met unions with members who work in maintenance, repairs and operations. They would like to know what supports or reassurances the Department can offer to help them through these difficult and meagre months of trade.
After the Minister's good news for Limerick, we will all be seeking roads, which is exactly why I am here. I raise the need for the completion of the Bandon southern relief road. It has been 30 years in the making and it makes complete sense in the context of the town's sustainability and viability. The Minister may have seen the "Eco Eye" programme last week on which Clonakilty was featured. Clonakilty, my home town, is held up as a success story. The reason for that success is that Clonakilty has a southern relief road, which has allowed incredible public realm work to be carried out within the town, allowing for wider footpaths and big open spaces. The people of Clonakilty have taken back public spaces within the town and this has led to higher footfall in shops and much greater vibrancy within the town.
It is a model for success and Bandon is seeking exactly the same initiative. There is a partial southern relief road there and we are seeking its completion. Bandon can follow Clonakilty and take back those public spaces for its people so that they can have wider footpaths, greater pedestrian access and increased footfall in the town in order that the businesses and the town can be vibrant and flourish. I ask the Minister to give his full commitment to the completion of the Bandon southern relief road.
It is very important that we all remember that pandemics end. The Spanish flu ended, the black plague ended and the Covid-19 pandemic will end as well. The important thing for policymakers and politicians such as us is to ensure that we keep in place the fundamental structures in society while this very difficult period proceeds. The Minister's responsibility is to ensure that public transport continues as effectively as it can in light of the circumstances so that when the pandemic has passed, we will be able to avail of it again in great numbers.
One of the most depressing aspects of the pandemic has been seeing empty Dublin Bus vehicles, empty Luas carriages and empty taxis. Many people just do not have the work available to them to allow those services to fulfil the roles they play in public transport. One matter the Minister needs to consider is the possibility of giving free travel on our public transport system to healthcare workers. That is done in Northern Ireland to great effect. It would be a good indication of the support that we, as a society, wish to give to our front-line healthcare workers if we were able to afford them free travel on public transport as of now during the pandemic. Obviously, those who generally avail of free travel, namely, people over 65 years of age, simply are not using public transport to the usual extent.
The Minister has been questioned on the imposition of mandatory quarantine and he will have to give it close consideration. At present, we are living under extraordinarily draconian restrictions. Our children cannot go to school, engage in their pastimes or play sport. We are allowed out of our houses only to get food or to exercise. I can understand, therefore, why there is a concern that if variants are travelling around the world, we should use our best endeavours to ensure that we keep them out of Ireland. I do not think that is too much to ask, considering the great sacrifices we are all making. I look forward to seeing the legislation that will be produced, hopefully next week. It is important and the public expects its Government to work on it.
Deputy Bruton is correct; we need connectivity. It is critical to our economy. In response to his question, we will have to look to retain diversity in regard to the destinations and connectivity we have because that has been a significant benefit. We also have to look at diversity in terms of regional development. We have to maintain more balanced regional development and that will be a secondary element of any long-term plan. First and foremost, it is about getting through the immediate crisis. As Deputy O'Callaghan said, it will end, but particularly for people in the tourism, travel and hospitality sectors, it will be especially difficult. We are facing a second summer where we probably will not have a big international tourism season. For aviation, there is no end in sight for these measures in the coming months and that will present difficulties. Managing matters in this regard will be the first objective. Critically, we will absolutely support Deputy Bruton's call for accelerating the roll-out of electric vehicles and his suggestion - we hope to bring in legislation on this - for more flexible traffic management arrangements to improve cycling behaviour and the ability of people to manage how they make their way on the streets.
To respond to Deputy McAuliffe, the Road Traffic (All-Terrain Vehicle and Scrambler Motorcycle) (Amendment) Bill 2020 is a key to our Department's legislative programme and we expect to introduce it in the House. Obviously, it depends on the House's sitting times. We are restricted at the moment, but I hope we will be able to introduce it and a series of other items of legislation fairly soon after we return to normal sitting hours. It will address the regulation of scramblers, e-scooters and variable speed limits on the likes of the M50.
Turning to Deputy Cathal Crowe and the position of chairperson of Shannon Group, we hope to be able to bring that to the Government next week and have that chair in position. It will be critical to the future viability of the airport and, going back to what I said earlier, to the region.
To respond to Deputy O'Sullivan, "Clonakilty, God help us" was what we were brought up to say as we went through the town, but now it is the pride of west Cork because it is such a beautiful town. I have seen it transform over the years, not only the central spine but the whole town. It got the public realm right and dampened down the traffic in the main street. It provided good pedestrian access and on-street furniture, and other small things. It is the hanging-basket capital of the world. It made a difference and changed people's perception of the town. People wanted to live there and people now work there in huge numbers in brilliant shops. This move in Clonakilty towards active travel and a public realm is the best working example I cite to everyone. Part of that involved taking cars out of the town but Clonakilty is a good example of how that can work. It is not a massive bypass and it did not cost us an arm and a leg, but it delivered fundamental change. I would use Clonakilty as a good example for Bandon, if it is not a bit raw as a neighbouring town, and it is the way forward. We should follow Clonakilty in every town. God help us, that would be a turn for the better.
If Deputy O'Callaghan could send a specific written proposal about the public transport fares, I will happily consider it as part of the emergency measures we are taking. He is correct and, as a barrister, he will understand this. As I said earlier, the issues in the legislation are not insignificant and we had to consider them quickly last week, but the emergency requires it. The sacrifices we are all making in domestic travel mean we need something similar and commensurate in respect of international travel, and that is what we will do.
I am sharing time with Deputies Michael Healy-Rae and O'Donoghue.
I will bring the Minister on to Tipperary from "Clonakilty, God help us". A wonderful exposé was aired by RTÉ last week and I hope the Minister saw it because he is due to hold a Zoom meeting next week with Jobs for Tipp, March4Tipp and the chamber of commerce. I thank him for that. We want to do in Tipperary what happened in Clonakilty and we want him to assist us.
The M20 reaches from Limerick to Cork. Joe McGrath, the Tipperary county manager, put forward a proposal some years ago that I brought to the then Minister, Shane Ross. The proposal sought to extend the road from Limerick to Pallasgreen and on to Cahir. The M8 is there but it is underutilised. It would have saved €400 million and cut emissions, and while it would have added 20 minutes to the journey, it would have been a quicker way to get to Cork or to Dublin. It would have had linkage from the port of Foynes to Rosslare, which is so badly needed.
The other issue I have to ask the Minister relates to the new tariff on imported goods that have supposedly been repackaged. Cars are not repackaged but, unfortunately, they fall into this category. There were 18 lorries this morning in Dublin Port, with up to ten or 12 cars on them, all held up because the duty on the cars has to be paid at the point of entry. It should be paid when the vehicle registration tax, VRT, is paid at a VRT centre, where it is always paid. The traceability is there. Will the Minister please look at this? Drivers are being incarcerated for one day or perhaps 48 hours in their cabs at the ports if money is not in the account to pay for one car or if that money has not been credited properly by Revenue.
That is wrong. There is a problem with the Revenue Commissioners. It is trying to help at local level but the Ministers for Finance and Transport and the Secretary General must sort this out nationally. I ask the Minister to please sort out those issues. He might give me a written reply because he obviously does not have time today to sort that out. It is important that he deals with that last issue. I look forward to the meeting with him shortly in County Tipperary.
First, I very much respect the powerful position held by the Minister and I wish him well with it. This idea, however, that he is Minister for Transport but does not really like building roads is not going to work. He saw that last week with the issue in Moyross in County Limerick. He will have to be proactive and understand that we need roads in Ireland. We need a considerable amount of money for the maintenance of roads. There was a €38 million cut last year. We need €630 million to be spent each year in the upkeep of our regional and local road network.
In the county I represent, for instance, I will give the Minister an example of some of the money we will need in the future, which will hopefully be in the term of this Government. The Minister will be presiding over that and over the building of many roads, because they are required. His partners in government fully understand how much they are required. I will give the Minister examples of what we require. In the great town of Killarney, for instance, we need what I call a bypass for the bypass, that is, a road that will take us from Lissyviggeen to Farranfore and give us great connectivity from the new Macroom bypass road and carry us into Tralee and on to Limerick. We needed that to be bypassed and for that road to go ahead.
We need, for instance, money for the great town of Killorglin to relieve the traffic congestion coming from the Iveragh road and to carry out upgrading work on the Laune bridge. We need money to continue further investment in the roads around Kenmare and throughout County Kerry from the Ring of Kerry to the Dingle Peninsula and in mid- and east Kerry. Work has started already on a good project there and we want to see those jobs progressing, proceeding and continuing.
We need money for our local improvement schemes. The Minister should always remember that the most important journey a person living in a rural area must go on is when he or she rises out of the house in the morning and sits in his or her motor car. People will have motor cars for many years to come whether the Minister likes it or not. He knows now this idea of five cars for a village will not work. We want those people living in rural areas to be able to travel on their local improvement scheme road. I ask that the Minister please announce funding for the local improvement schemes as soon as possible.
I will start by giving two statements. First, I welcome the road in Limerick. It was a wise decision and I commend the Minister on that.
The Government has committed to a 7% average reduction in overall greenhouse emissions with a target of zero emissions by 2050. Has the Minister ever driven by car from Limerick to Cork? He may think these are two random statements but believe me, they are not. We must be realistic here.
First, we are looking at the Adare bypass, which has been prioritised yet has been ongoing for the last five years. This must be completed by 2030 for Shannon Foynes Port to keep its port status. It is the deepest port in Europe and with a road and rail infrastructure it could facilitate the largest ships in the world. The long-awaited investments into Shannon Foynes Port would mean we can take produce in through Foynes from all over the world. All produce could come through this port to supply the western seaboard. Strategically, Limerick makes much more sense. It can make such a difference logistically as it is centrally placed in the country. Therefore, I will save the Minister's emissions. We are in the middle of the country. The Government should invest in Shannon Foynes Port, the deepest in Europe. The Minister does not have to bring everything down from Dublin. We will send it back up to him. We will send it all over the country because we are centralised in Limerick. There are no park-and-rides in our area.
I will ask again if the Minister has ever driven from Cork to Limerick. A one-hour journey by motorway can now take two hours with the current road structure. In the national development plan, €21.8 billion is allocated to energy and climate change and only €4.5 billion to the local road network. The Dublin metro, however, gets €5.4 billion and the DART expansion brings it up to €7.4 billion. Therefore, 94,427 km of local and regional roads are getting only half the funding the Government is giving to Dublin. Twenty-five other counties in Ireland are contributing to this country. Give us our equal share and invest in the infrastructure. The Minister should take a common-sense approach. He should look at Shannon Foynes Port, the deepest port in Ireland. We will save his emissions and bring them down because we are centralised. Remember, it is the deepest port in Europe that can accommodate the largest ships in the world.
I thank both Ministers for their written speeches. It is helpful to have the details. The Minister for Transport talked about how we are an island heavily reliant on international connectivity. That is correct. We have had to keep our borders open throughout this health crisis to maintain critical supply lines and allow essential travel. I do not believe there is a single person in this country who would have a difficulty with that. It is not what happened, however. We utterly failed to deal with people coming into our country and we are now belatedly looking at quarantine. That sentence is therefore disingenuous and should not be part of the speech.
Generally, with regard to transport, I agree with the Minister that there are opportunities now as a result of Covid-19. I hope we seize those opportunities. I will take a parochial view, although with national implications, and refer to Galway. To date, the Minister has refused to sanction a feasibility study for light rail. We know Galway is one of the five cities destined to grow with a 50% population increase by 2040. We know traffic congestion bedevils the city. Notwithstanding that, it is a beautiful city and lucky with regard to employment, although it has been particularly affected because of Covid-19.
I would have thought one big difference the Minister could make is to sanction a feasibility study for light rail. Why do I say that? The Minister knows more than anyone the contribution transport makes towards greenhouse emissions. Indeed, at the moment, we are working in a vacuum since the judgment on the last day of July, which found that our mitigation plan was not fit for purpose. It was an unusual decision by a unanimous Supreme Court composed of seven judges that said the plan was not good enough and was not set out clearly enough for any reasonable citizen to know what was going on.
We are therefore working in a vacuum, and in that vacuum even Covid-19 has not managed to allow us to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions significantly. One way is a feasibility study so we can have it out of the way, one way or another. The second is to ensure there are park-and-ride facilities in Galway. As the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, knows well, the objectives were put in the plan in 2005 yet here we are in 2021 and no park-and-ride facility has ever been rolled out in Galway city. These are practical things. Equally, during both lockdowns we had better facilities on the promenade. As soon as we lifted those facilities, however, we went back to the old way in Galway.
I am utterly on the Minister's side with regard to all these measures. What I am frustrated with is the tardiness. We are using language to say there are opportunities but we are not seizing those opportunities to make lasting, long-term changes to our city and country in order that we comply with our obligations, not under national legislation because it is not clear enough, and as I said, we are in a vacuum, but for future legislation we bring in.
I thank the Minister and Minister of State for waiting. I have two questions and I will take a written answer to the second, if necessary. I have spoken before to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, about the need for essential funding for Sligo Airport. As it is not a regional airport, it no longer qualifies for funding. We know that and therefore we must look elsewhere.
As I explained to the Minister of State approximately a month ago or perhaps more, the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, told Sligo Airport that certain mandatory works must be carried out in order for it to continue to provide, as it does now, the largest search and rescue base in Ireland with 24-hour air traffic control. I subsequently questioned the Tánaiste on this issue and he said that Sligo Airport will have to be provided with funding, if it needs it, to keep that service up and running. After that, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, organised a meeting on 22 December with the airports division of the Department of Transport, local representatives, Coast Guard representatives and a representative from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. They were all present. Arising from that meeting, Sligo Airport was asked to put forward a funding request through CHC Helicopter.
To date, no feedback has been received. The essential works have been completed and the airport has used its own operational funds to front-load the cost. When will it receive word on this funding?
My second question, to which I will take a written answer, refers to the €80 million support package announced in November, which is essentially a grant for Irish airports. This is needed but where are the funds to support our airlines? British Airways has received €2.7 billion, Lufthansa has received €10 billion and Air France has received €7 billion. Unless we want all flights into Ireland to be Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France flights, we need to support our airlines. I will take a written answer on that but I would like an oral answer from the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, on my first question.
Officials in my Department are working closely with the providers of the search and rescue service in Sligo. There is no threat to the search and rescue service. We will revert back but the Deputy can be assured that there is work ongoing. I completely understand the importance of the search and rescue service in Sligo.
I will address Deputy Connolly's questions. I hope we can advance that feasibility study on a light rail system in Galway. Similar to what we are looking at in Cork, we need to connect it to what we must immediately do in the likes of rolling out BusConnects for Galway and then look to see if that can be upgraded. That is my sense of an approach we might take in both Cork and Galway. Similarly, as the Deputy said, the next time we come out of a lockdown we might keep some of the measures that are in place on the promenade so that we could transform the seafront in Galway. We could have it on a test basis for six months even, to see what the summer in Galway would be like on the promenade with that space held over. I know Deputy Naughton and other councillors have had extensive discussions about that. That would be a brilliant benefit to the people of Galway and to any visitors this summer, who will hopefully be able to come.