Wednesday, 24 March 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The House has agreed that, for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency only, the rapporteur's report of the Business Committee shall not be read out but shall be taken as read. Arising from it there are just two proposals to put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with today's business agreed? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to? Agreed.
I call Deputy McDonald.
I again press the case for family carers and the necessity of affording them a level of priority in the vaccination programme.
Currently, they are identified just as part of the general population.
Yesterday, the HSE published its plan for the safe return of services. It reflects the huge pressure the system is under and will be under. Therefore, the work of family carers and the value of it should be all the more apparent. They repeatedly ask who, if they fall sick or are left vulnerable, picks up their caring work. The answer is the system would not be in a position to pick up that huge amount of work. There was confusion within government or at least within Fianna Fáil, with one Fianna Fáil Deputy writing to some family home carers to say a decision had been taken by the Minister to afford this priority. The Minister denied that stance. I would like clarity and I would like the Taoiseach to confirm that family carers will be given the recognition and position they deserve.
The Government has given a very strong recognition to family carers and will continue to improve the supports that are available more generally and particularly in terms of providing services across the board for those who need care or help and assistance. It has been clear that the Government vaccination programme, as advised by the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, was to vaccinate in the first instance those who are most vulnerable to the disease, namely, senior citizens over the age of 70, particularly those in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, which we have done, and then front-line healthcare workers, who are particularly exposed to getting the virus in the line of duty on a daily basis. That was generally agreed, I understood, in the House. I do not think it is a good way to go about business to try to pit one group against another and to say the Government is against one group or not recognising a group.
We want to vaccinate the entire adult population and we will take advice from NIAC. We are very conscious of carers and of others who have made representations in respect of the necessity for vaccination.
There is a very important European summit tomorrow on vaccines. What will be the Taoiseach's strategy at that summit? I agree with him on vaccine nationalism, which I do not believe in, and I also do not believe in vaccine ingredient nationalism. However, I do believe in equity and fairness. I ask, therefore, that tomorrow, while we all fight to keep supply lines open and vaccines being produced for us and for those who need them most throughout the world, we also fight to ensure there is equity and fairness in the distribution of vaccines and the honouring of contracts, especially by companies such as AstraZeneca. Just a couple of hours ago, police entered a plant in Italy and found 29 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine there and available, potentially and probably to be exported to the UK.
Will the Taoiseach tomorrow ensure there is equity and fairness? While we do not want vaccine nationalism, we have to protect our citizens in Europe and Ireland. Will he ensure vaccines that were contracted will be honoured and that will be delivered on in the coming weeks before we have a change in circumstances whereby we allow vaccines to be exported en masseagain?
The President of the Commission spoke to me the night before last and told me about those 29 million doses. From my understanding, they emanated from the Halix plant in the Netherlands and some of them had the potential to be used for COVAX, while some of them could have been heading for the UK or Europe. There are two issues here. The first is the failure of AstraZeneca to fulfil its contracts with the European Union. I fully support all measures designed to ensure that AstraZeneca fulfils its contracts with the European Union.
In addition, however, I am very strongly adhering and committed to the principle of keeping open supply chains. That is the most fundamental way to guarantee supply, particularly in quarter 2. I have had a series of meetings with the four key manufacturing companies, all of which, especially Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson, are adamant that the supply chains must be kept open.
Briefly, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has 280 component parts, with 86 suppliers from 19 countries. If any aspect of that is impeded, it will potentially undermine our capacity to get vaccines.
I would like to follow on from the contribution of the leader of the Labour Party on vaccine distribution. We run a real risk of increasing competition between countries and countries' nationalism when it comes to the vaccination programme. We are not safe in this country until every country is safe, and we will not be free from Covid until every country in the world is free from Covid. We can see the new variants coming into play and that will always be a risk for us, no matter how many people we get vaccinated in Ireland or in all the other countries of the EU and in the likes of the UK and the US.
When the Taoiseach meets the EU leaders or talks to them tomorrow, I would like him to raise the issue of the vaccine waiver. The director-general of the World Health Organization has stated it will be a "catastrophic moral failure" if we do not open the intellectual property rights and enable developing countries to develop vaccine themselves. A number of Irish organisations have written to the Government in respect of this, such as Oxfam, Amnesty International and Dóchas.
Will the Taoiseach raise that with the EU and push for it at an EU level? It is important we show leadership and we ensure every country in the world, whether wealthy or not, has an opportunity to access vaccine.
The Deputy is absolutely correct on the necessity to vaccinate the entire world. Otherwise, we will all become imprisoned in our own republics, so to speak, because of the potentiality of new variants over time. COVAX is one vehicle to enable us to do that. The European Union is, I think, the largest contributor to COVAX, and we have contributed pro ratato it and will continue to do so. The United States is increasing its contribution to COVAX as well.
We need to be realistic and to work with the models we have to increase and refine production and manufacturing. Right now, the supplies are increasing, the companies are getting better at what they are doing and more vaccines will potentially come on stream. In that context, the world needs to work together to increase supplies to developing countries. That is something Europe and the US are focused on and, indeed, China is doing some of that as well. That is what we-----
The programme for Government states the Government does believe it makes sense to develop liquefied natural gas, LNG, import terminals importing fracked gas, in light of Ireland's net zero targets. That is the formal Government position but the position on imported fracked gas and LNG is still confusing. The Shannon LNG project remains on the EU's list of projects of common interest, PCI. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has stated there will be a separate policy statement on this but it is not clear, given that it remains on the PCI list, whether this confers on the Shannon LNG project special privileges for the company proposing the project, particularly since it has indicated publicly that it intends to file fresh planning documents.
The Government's position on that has been very clear. It does not favour its continuation or any State support for its continuation. The Government yesterday published the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill, which is probably one of the most far-reaching in Europe in terms of legislating for climate change and dealing with the challenge.
On the LNG issue, since the mid-2000s various applications have been made in respect of that proposal, none of which has come to fruition to date. I am not clear on the status of the current application, but suffice to say, our future is not in fossil fuels. Our future is in renewables, energy efficiency and a whole new green economy that will emerge from that. That is where Government investment will go.
It will go into the national retrofit programme and offshore wind. Wind energy will make up as much as 70% of our electricity supply.
On 11 March, the National Ambulance Service began the vaccination of housebound patients, initially across the Dublin area. A week later, 300 of the estimated 1,500 housebound people in the country had been vaccinated. There has, however, been a vacuum of information since then. I cannot find out when housebound people across the west of Ireland will be vaccinated. HSE management in the region cannot tell me nor can these people's own GPs. Will the Taoiseach intervene and direct the HSE to provide these very vulnerable people with some idea of when they are going to be vaccinated? Even an indication as to when the National Ambulance Service is going to be vaccinating people in a given county or region would be welcome. This is causing a lot of concern at the moment.
In the context of Covid-19, I pay tribute to the National Ambulance Service which has been extremely effective and has worked very hard in testing, in innovating and now in administering vaccines. As a national service, it has really stood up to the test of Covid-19. I thank everyone who works for the service for what they have done for the nation. In the context of those aged over 85, despite all of the noise, criticisms and so on, 99% of those older than 85 were vaccinated within the three-week target period. That also needs to be said. I will intervene with the HSE and ask that it come back to the Deputy in respect of those older than 85 who are housebound. In fact, those older than 80 should now be included because we are moving into that age cohort. I will ask the HSE to try to get figures for the Deputy.
A national group seeking reform in the area of insurance has reacted with dismay to the guidelines recently published by the Judicial Council. Hard-pressed people and organisations, including business people, charities, voluntary and community groups, sports and cultural organisations and small businesses, are severely affected by payouts for minor injuries. We see this effort by the Judicial Council to reduce payouts, but it is half-baked. They are not to be reduced by nearly enough. As we know, businesses are struggling anyway but, in light of the pandemic, it is all the more important that the Judicial Council uses its teeth and reduces payouts by much more. The payout for a minor sprain to a person's thumb is now €12,000 but in England it is only £4,500. In England, the payout for whiplash is only £4,190 whereas here it is twice that. We need to deal with this effectively. The Judicial Council has to go back to work on this and the Government must intervene.
There are two things to be said here. First of all, I welcome this change. I believe it will lead to reduced insurance costs. If the Deputy would like to avail of the opportunity, I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, to talk to him. He is overseeing the whole area of insurance reform and is applying himself with great energy. It is a milestone and will bring the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, back to the centre stage. PIAB will be the faster and cheaper route through which to pursue claims for all. Over time, this will have a significant impact on insurance costs overall.
I raise with the Taoiseach the issue of the looming deadline for the registration of public rights of way. That registration is to be concluded by 30 November this year. In light of the travel restrictions arising from Covid, which are affecting engineers, solicitors and those families who cannot visit solicitors or meet engineers, I ask that this deadline be extended for at least another five years. Many people do not know that this process is ongoing, or should be ongoing, at this present time. To give the land registry, solicitors, engineers and, more importantly, those people who use public rights of way the chance to register rights of way, I ask the Taoiseach to extend that deadline because it is not feasible to carry out what is envisaged.
One of the more bizarre and unfortunate consequences of Brexit has been the impact of Revenue's interpretation of third country rules on second-hand car sales. Due to the size of the market and because we share a right-hand drive system, Britain has been the source of a large proportion of our second-hand vehicles. The new situation means that, bizarrely, a car produced in Britain can enter the Irish market at no extra cost while a car produced in the EU before being traded in Britain incurs a further 10% customs levy on entering the Irish market, on top of VAT at 21% and vehicle registration tax. This makes second-hand cars in this State the most expensive in Europe. Will the Taoiseach commit to engaging with Revenue, the Department of Finance and our EU counterparts to see if this situation can be resolved in the interest of consumers and the businesses involved?
This issue was not caused by Revenue but by Brexit. This is how the trade agreement has been interpreted, and not only by the EU. We are engaging with the European Union with regard to a number of goods which have been similarly affected by third country status when traded from Europe into the UK before returning to the EU through Ireland. That is the position. It is not bizarre but one of the real foreseeable, predictable consequences of Brexit. That is why I always felt Brexit was a very bad idea. I believe many companies in Britain do not yet realise how bad an idea it is for many British jobs, companies and businesses. This is the unfortunate reality of Brexit. We will engage with the EU on these issues, but it is the reality of Brexit.
I raise with the Taoiseach the need for additional supports for the tourism and hospitality sector. Operators in this sector are having a really difficult time. I acknowledge the supports that have been put in place to date but much more is needed. We also need to send out a very strong signal from Government through the extension of the period for which the 9% VAT rate will apply. It is really important that, as more and more people in our communities are vaccinated - and I congratulate everyone involved in that exceptional work - we give an opportunity to the tourism and hospitality sector to safely engage with vaccinated customers, many of whom have a lot of pent-up spending power after the last 12 months, to try to turn the benefit of the vaccination programme into an economic benefit, particularly for the tourism and hospitality sector.
On a similar issue, given the Government's repeated statements regarding the vaccination programme which suggest that between 78% and 82% of our population will be vaccinated by the end of June and the proposed development of a digital green certificate within the Commission, will the Taoiseach commit to a health-led return for air travel in the tourism sphere when we have reached the point at which more than 80% of people have been vaccinated and we potentially have this digital green certificate in place? Will he comment on that?
The Government must support all of Ireland's tourism and hospitality communities. That also includes members of the National Association of Visitor Experiences and Attractions. I want to protect the 5,800 livelihoods in Mayo that are dependent on tourism, not to mention the 275,000 such livelihoods nationally.
Government needs a long-term reopening plan, including metrics that are subject to public health. It must work with the tourism recovery oversight group and extend existing support packages.
I want to address the same point. We have a vaccination programme under way. When does the Taoiseach anticipate that the vaccination programme will form part of the process of reopening? When does he see it becoming a feature from 5 April on? The hospitality sector in Limerick includes publicans, restaurateurs and hoteliers. They are severely anxious about the future of their industry, both in retaining the staff and skill sets they have, and more particularly when they will be able to reopen. What does the Taoiseach anticipate will be the process by which he will announce that reopening, tied in with the vaccines and the green vaccination certificates for that sector?
We all acknowledge that the hospitality sector will be the last to recover from the pandemic and to be rebooted and restarted. The Government has established an excellent tourism recovery task force that will oversee that process and try to determine how we carry out that valuable work. We found out yesterday in an Oireachtas committee that hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation and tour operators are represented on that group but there are no representatives from our thousands of pubs across the country and in our cities and towns or from our restaurants. This sector is an integral part of our tourism offering. One might argue that it is the reason thousands of tourists come to this country each year. It is worrying that our pubs and restaurants have no voice on that tourism recovery task force. I ask that this would be rectified.
I agree with my colleagues about the tourism and hospitality sector. West Cork is one of the top tourism spots in Ireland and it is particularly badly affected. The lead-in to Easter would have been a boom time for the hotel sector, restaurants, pubs and cafés. They need further supports. They are continuously in contact with me and they feel their voices are not being heard. Their doors are not reopening and some of them may not reopen for months. They need us to look at bringing the VAT rate for tourism back to 5% at this stage. The Taoiseach might explain to us what packages are in place for these businesses that are in serious trouble.
We all want to get back to normal life once it is safe to do so. Some six out of every 50 adults in Ireland have received their first vaccine shot. It is time to give them something tangible to hope for. Will we, as Professor Luke O'Neill predicted, be back in beer gardens this summer? Our hospitality and tourism sectors need that certainty.
I recently met representatives of the hospitality sector, along with the Tánaiste and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. We heard good submissions on the impact of Covid-19 on the sector, which has been the hardest hit sector across the economy, along with the arts and entertainment sectors. That is because of the virus and not because of Government policy. The variant has made it worse and more difficult for the hospitality sector more generally.
The Government has provided unprecedented supports to the hospitality sector and to other sectors of the economy in underpinning them through very difficult times in the midst of a global pandemic, which has up-ended the industry and this sector. Government will continue to look at what additional measures can be taken and we will work with the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform with a view towards the medium term. We have agreed to extend the supports until the end of June and we will see in the national economic recovery plan what specific measures can be introduced in line with task force recommendations around more medium-term guarantees that we can give to the industry and the sector.
The EU is considering the digital green pass. There are some differences of opinion among member states in terms of health advice and the utilisation and application of the digital green pass health certificate, which demonstrates that one has had the vaccination, to wider civil society in the conferring of rights to some over others. That said, we will be part of that interoperability and these are issues we will discuss as the vaccination programme rolls out. Suffice it to say that the nuts and bolts of such a policy are under active consideration, not just by Government but across the European Union. It is not as simple as it has been presented.
We are in a fragile state in terms of where the virus is right now. The Deputies should bear that in mind in how we look forward. We have made no decision on what will happen post 5 April. That is the current position.
I want to raise an issue I previously raised, namely resources for the ambulance service in the south-east region. Last weekend, as happens every weekend, resources from the mid-west region are sent into the south-east to provide an ambulance service there. The ambulance unit from the Thurles station spends most of the weekend in the Clonroche and Wexford area and servicing Waterford. This means the ambulance station in Thurles is without its service. This has a serious impact on response times to get to a patient when a call for an ambulance is made. This is happening consistently and the HSE needs to put enough resources into the south-east on a constant basis as opposed to redeploying ambulance crews from the mid-west, which leaves that region without a proper service.
I understand the seriousness of the situation as presented by the Deputy. I will talk to the national ambulance service on the points he has raised and revert to him.
I would like to bring up the issue of the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor. This group launched its report at an event hosted by David McWilliams earlier. This report was put together by all of the regional local authorities, combined with Dublin City University and the University of Ulster. That entire region and its connectivity has been impacted by partition and Brexit. What are the Taoiseach's plans for the shared island unit in progressing this, particularly the corridor? The likes of Dundalk, Drogheda and Newry should be major development centres for enterprise, innovation, jobs and all that is required in that area.
I welcome the announcement and it is an exciting and interesting plan that is in line with the principles and ideas behind the shared island initiative that I have undertaken. The shared island unit will be in touch with the corridors. I recently met the north-west regional group, for example, involving Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council and the growth strategy they have for the entire region, which we will also support. Likewise with the Dublin-Belfast corridor, we will engage with the local authorities here in respect of a number of measures through the shared island initiative. It is something that dovetails well with the principles that underpin that shared island initiative.
Why is the human papilloma virus, HPV, vaccine not covered under the drugs payment scheme for women who are advised to get it by their consultants or medical practitioners? The reason I ask is that the cost of the HPV vaccine is €600. Many families and women who do not qualify for a medical card because the thresholds are so low are under severe financial pressure. Forcing them to pay €600 for a medical intervention that is deemed necessary by their medical practitioners demonstrates to me that we have not learned from the cervical screening scandal and that we are not listening to women. Can the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Health to review the exclusion of the HPV vaccine from the drugs payment scheme and to liaise with national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, to ensure that women who are deemed to be a high risk can have it without pushing them into further financial stress?