Dáil debates

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

12:00 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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An tseachtain seo caite, d'ardaigh mé an scannal maidir le cáipéisí agus sonraí a bhailigh an Roinn Sláinte agus Feidhmeannacht na Seirbhíse Sláinte ar pháistí a bhí ag troid ar son a gcuid cearta sna cúirteanna. D'inis an Tánaiste dom nach raibh na fíricí uilig aige ag an am sin agus go raibh deis uaidh é a scrúdú agus an clár á fheiceáil. An raibh deis ag an Tánaiste seo a scrúdú ó shin? An bhfuil an cleachtadh seo ag dul ar aghaidh go fóill? Ar cuireadh na teaghlaigh ar an eolas faoi seo go fóill? Tá ceisteanna móra dlíthiúla anseo fosta agus caithfidh an Rialtas na ceisteanna sin a fhreagairt.

I raised the revelations of the whistle-blower in the Department of Health last week on Leader's Questions. This was first reported by the "RTÉ Investigates" programme last Thursday. As the Tánaiste knows, these revelations were on the gathering of information about children who have autism and about their families, who had taken the State to court to vindicate the right of their children to access services that they should have been entitled to in the first place. The Tánaiste said last Thursday that it would be inappropriate for him to comment because he did not have all of the facts in his possession at the time but he agreed that it was a serious matter and that he would watch the programme. I presume that at this point the Tánaiste has had an opportunity to establish some of the facts, that he has watched the programme and that some of the facts are known on the issue. I am sure the Tánaiste will still agree that this is a serious issue. None of the explanations offered so far by Ministers, including the Taoiseach, dilute the seriousness of this issue. The dishonesty of this practice of gathering information about children in this way is self-evident. At the very least, it is extremely unethical and there remain legal uncertainties on this practice. I welcome the fact that the Data Protection Commissioner has instigated its own statutory inquiry into this matter.

"RTÉ Investigates" is reporting this morning that the senior counsel who authored the report in the wake of the protected disclosure being made by the whistle-blower last year is saying he did not see the legal advice on whether the HSE could provide this information to the Department without the consent of the parents. If this is true, this raises a serious red flag. We know this practice of gathering information was happening until at least 2019 and the question we need an answer to is as follows. Is it still happening today? Is this practice happening as we stand here and as I speak? The Taoiseach did not answer this question yesterday and I am asking the Tánaiste for a straightforward answer to a straightforward question.

Another question the Taoiseach did not answer yesterday is as follows. Have families been informed? I understand why he dodged that question because we have learned this morning that no families, nor their legal representatives, have been contacted by the Department to inform it that their personal information is being stored by the Department of Health in this way, as revealed by the "RTÉ Investigates" programme. Why has that not happened? One week on, why are families still in the dark on whether it is they who the Department has a dossier on in relation to some of this extremely sensitive and personal information? When will they be informed? It is important that the Tánaiste does not dance on the head of a pin in his response as to whether this is legal or not. Those questions will be answered in due course.

Does the Tánaiste remember when we were dealing with the CervicalCheck scandal? At the start, senior people told us there was no legal requirement at that time to disclose the information to the patients. Everybody accepts that it was the wrong thing to do to hide and deny that information and that it was unethical to do so. The same applies to this. Sensitive information on what we believe are 400 families has been stored by the Department of Health in this way and not one of those families has been told what information is stored and why.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Understandably, the "RTÉ Investigates" programme last week and the allegations contained within it have been distressing for many people. Parents and families will go to any length they can to protect their children's rights. Since last Thursday's broadcast, families have been wondering whether they are affected. Work is under way in the Department of Health to assess all the files and to see what contact may be needed so that families can be informed. I cannot say today when they will be informed but it will be as soon as possible, once the assessment is done.

The Department of Health, at the instigation of the Taoiseach, has set up a team to examine the facts in respect of the specific allegations made in the "RTÉ Investigates" programme and I look forward to it reporting back as soon as possible and any resulting actions being taken without delay. The team will investigate the matters further and following the broadcast, the Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, met senior officials in her Department. I understand that 110 minutes are being set aside later in the day in the House for further discussion and debate on this matter.

The allegations, which were subject to the "RTÉ Investigates" programme on 25 March, were brought to the Department's attention last year. The Department took the matters raised seriously and commissioned an independent expert review by an external senior counsel. This review was completed in November 2020. The review found that information contained on the relevant files managed by the Department is consistent with and typical of the sort of information which arises in such litigation but I have not yet seen the report myself.

The reality is that the Minister for Health, the Minister for Education and the HSE are often named as defendants in cases taken against the State. The role of the Office of the Chief State Solicitor is to provide litigation services to Government Departments under the direction of the Attorney General, and it regularly jointly represents the State as defendants in litigation. I am assured by the Department that the legal approach has always been to settle cases on the best terms possible and on the issues and outcome of the proceedings. I reassure the House that the Department of Health and the Department of Education are also clear that regardless of any litigation, the primary duty of them, the HSE and the education system is to children and families, in order to provide the required care and supports, in line with available resources, policy and legislation.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The Tánaiste has rightly acknowledged that this is distressing for many families. The key thing they want to know is if there is a dossier on their families stored in the Department of Health containing sensitive information that they provided to therapists and counsellors on what their families were going through at difficult times? Are these dossiers still accessible to people within that Department, as was revealed in the "RTÉ Investigates" report? When will they be contacted? The Tánaiste said the Department is assessing the files. Can he confirm that every single person on whom information has been stored in this manner will be contacted and told what information is held in the Department? Can the Tánaiste confirm that this practice has stopped and that this information that was gathered is no longer accessible in the manner that it was to numerous people within the Department?

While we understand there are 400 cases in relation to children with autism, can the Tánaiste confirm that this practice, which the Department of Health believes is standard practice, also applies to families who took other cases, such as other health-related cases, against the State? Is the Department of Health also gathering information on them? Will the report that was commissioned this day last year and that has been requested by the Committee on Health be published? Does the Tánaiste have any comment on the fact that this report did not see the legal advice on the legality of asking for this information without the consent of families or parents?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Those are all valid and reasonable questions but the answers are not in the briefing I have been given from the Department of Health and I am not able to give the Deputy the answers this morning. However, the Minister will be here this afternoon and I understand that nearly two hours have been set aside later in the day so that the line Ministers can answer any relevant questions and make statements on the matter.

In the first instance health agencies always endeavour to provide appropriate services and supports to people with disabilities. However, from time to time a person or his or her representative may initiate litigation where it is felt the services or supports do not fully meet the person's needs. It is typical practice for defendants in this type of litigation to gather and maintain appropriate information in order to obtain legal advice or defend proceedings. That is necessary to defend the public interest and is standard practice in the management of litigation. Litigation of this nature is often difficult and can contain sensitive information that can be typical of these cases which may be distressing when it involves very difficult situations and vulnerable people, especially children.

12:10 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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Since the Beacon story broke last week, as I am sure other people have done, I have spoken to people with significant underlying conditions who would qualify for vaccination under cohort 4. Every one of them has said that if they were on a backup list and got a call at short notice, they would drop everything and go. They want the vaccines that were designated for cohort 4 to be given to people in cohort 4. I have spoken to people in their 30s and 40s with advanced cancers. In most cases they have children. Many told me that they literally have not been outside the house for the past year because of the risk of contracting Covid. People with conditions like cystic fibrosis, CF, or serious cardiac conditions have described just how afraid they are, often trying to hold back the tears when they talk to me.

It is not fully appreciated how damaging the scandal has been and how it undermines social solidarity. None of us likes the restrictions and we all feel like the last year has been a stolen year. However, for somebody with a life-limiting condition, the importance of the precious moments they spend with their children is beyond calculation. The vaccine was not stolen from the Tánaiste and me; it was stolen from those in cohort 4. That is the reality of it. There must be consequences or otherwise we will see this happen again.

It is also clear that there is a major deficit in information. I have spoken to people who were told they might get the vaccination within six weeks, which is early in May. We need clarity and better communication.

This morning I read an article by Craig Hughes who told us that the online booking system for vaccine appointments intended for front-line healthcare workers was widely abused. The Tánaiste said the system would be used for the changed plan. Is it fit for purpose and if not, what needs to change?

Daniel McConnell reporting on the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting told us that the Minister, Deputy Foley, appreciates this is a very significant change in the vaccine roll-out and that this was not what had originally been proposed. There was a strong expectation that those working in the education sector would be vaccinated early. She called on the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, to clarify why it had changed. She is one of the decision makers and she requires clarification from NIAC for a decision she, herself, took. Who is in charge?

The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, told the parliamentary party meeting that 860,000 vaccines would be given in April, which is a change from the 250,000 per week or 1 million in April. How many people will be vaccinated in April? That number was reiterated by the Taoiseach.

Richard Chambers, who was reporting from a briefing and helpfully provided a table, told us that 950,000 vaccines were in the country last Friday, but 800,000 would be administered by the weekend. I know some need to be held back, but what is happening with the extra 150,000?

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We are way over time.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I ask the Tánaiste to tell us about the 150,000 doses and about the number of vaccines for April. Will he commit to a backup list for people in cohort 4?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It is important to emphasise that the decision the Government made to revise the priority groups for vaccination was made based on public health advice and the advice of doctors and scientists, both in the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, and the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. I often hear in this House, Government and Opposition Members saying that we should follow public health advice and that they always follow public health advice. I appeal to those in the Opposition who say that they follow public health advice to do so on this occasion and come behind this decision that Government has made on the advice of NIAC.

The decision is made for the very good reason that people in their 50s and 60s are at much higher risk of getting severely ill or dying from Covid than people in their 20s and 30s. Someone in their 30s has a 0.2% chance of dying from Covid whereas for somebody in their 50s it is 1.3%, which is six times higher. For somebody in their 40s it is 0.4%, whereas for somebody in their 60s it is 3.6%, which is nine times higher. No group, other than healthcare professionals, when taken in the round has a higher risk of getting severely ill or dying from Covid than the average person in their 60s. That is why it makes sense to prioritise people in their 60s and 50s.

The Government is vaccinating first the front-line healthcare workers and nursing home residents and staff, which is largely done. Next comes people over 70 and those with underlying medical conditions who are under 70, and then everyone else according to age. I believe that is the right approach.

What happened in the Beacon was wrong. The Government's and the HSE's rules and regulations were not followed which was wrong. The Deputy is right in saying that that undermines people's confidence in the vaccine roll-out and is terribly unfair on people who have been cocooning or have been stuck in their homes for the best part of the year. That is why there were consequences and the contract with the Beacon was suspended. Further investigations are being carried out on that.

One advantage of moving towards an age-based system is that it is simple; all that is required is proof of date of birth. When it is done by profession, it can get very complicated. Every profession contains people who frequently deal with the public and people who are largely based in an office. Trying to distinguish between them in the health sector did not prove to be possible on all occasions. I do not think it would be possible on all occasions with any other profession. Within any group of people, there are those who deal with the public 20, 30 or 40 hours per week and there are those who are largely based in an office and might only deal with the public for a few hours a day. At least with an age-based cohort system, it will be simple and quicker. It is to the advantage of all of us because if we vaccinate the most vulnerable people first, which means people in their 50s and 60s ahead of people in their 30s and 40s, we can open up the country quicker.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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The last time I looked, the Minister for Education was a member of Cabinet. There is no point in throwing it back on the Opposition. Certainly, the evidence is incredibly important, and I do not diminish that. We are getting mixed messages here. Who is in charge?

The Tánaiste did not answer my question about 1 million doses in April. Is it 860,000 doses or 1 million doses? Are we capable of rolling out all the vaccines? Why do we have 950,000 doses available with only 800,000 being given, up to last weekend? Are the logistics in place? For example, are the pharmacists being approached? Is the online system that the Tánaiste talked about fit for purpose if it was widely abused? If not, what needs to happen to bring that system into place?

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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In giving information, I am quoting media outlets because we do not get briefings. It would be very helpful if we did rather than relying on a variety of sources.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy should get briefings on this. I will try to make arrangements with the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach's office to ensure that happens.

On vaccines, 112,000 vaccines arrived last night which meant that we reached the target estimate of receiving 1.187 million vaccines in the first quarter. Supplies are now firming up. More than 800,000 vaccines have already been given and we expect that to hit about 1 million doses given by 7 April. We can never be 100% sure about supplies; things can always go wrong. However, they are coming in and supply is firming up, which is very encouraging.

We expect to get about 1 million a month through April, May and June, but it will be less than 1 million in April and more than 1 million in May and June. We expect to have most adults vaccinated by the end of May and the vast majority of adults offered their first dose no later than the end of June.

The good news is the data keeps coming in and it shows that the vaccines work. They work on the variants too in terms of preventing serious illness and death. As the head of Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US said yesterday, it appears that the vaccines prevent transmission as well. That is really encouraging.

12:20 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Next Friday, it will be precisely 365 days since almost 2,000 Debenhams workers received the shocking news, via email from the company, that they were being dumped after decades of loyal service. Those workers were soon to discover that despite having a collective agreement for two plus two weeks of redundancy per year of service, they would get nothing from this company that continues to generate tens of millions in online sales, including in this country. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to those Debenhams workers who continue to fight on. They are an inspiring exemplar of the decency, dignity and determination of working people, particularly women, fighting for their rights and decent treatment.

The Government failed to protect the Debenhams workers. Following on from what happened with Clerys, successive Governments have failed to introduce the legislation necessary to prevent this sort of this despicable treatment of workers. In the past week or so, 460 workers were reluctantly forced to accept statutory redundancy by Arcadia, another company that had committed in an agreement to pay them two plus two weeks. These workers are also being failed by the Government. As already stated, that is because successive Governments have failed, following what happened in respect of Clerys, to act and introduce the necessary legislative protection for workers.

The despicable treatment of the Debenhams workers reached new lows last night in Blanchardstown, which is in the Tánaiste's constituency, where, in the midst of level 5 restrictions, agents acting for the liquidator, KPMG, sent strike-breakers into the store there to pack up boxes and load up trucks with stock. Workers, shop stewards, mothers and grandmothers who were there peacefully protesting, socially distanced, were lifted off the ground by gardaí and dragged away. Meanwhile, strike-breakers were allowed to remove stock from the store and move away unhindered. Since when is strike-breaking an essential category of work during level 5? Is that acceptable? Since when are workers who have been treated in a despicable way denied the right to protest in a socially distanced, responsible and peaceful way against their despicable treatment? When will legislation to ensure that the despicable treatment of the workers of Debenhams and Arcadia will never happen again be introduced?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. I only heard about those events in the past hour or so. Without knowing all the facts, I do not want to comment any further. However, I am of the view that the former Debenhams workers were very badly treated by their employer in the way they were laid off over a year ago. The Government has done all that it can to ensure that their legal rights and entitlements were upheld. Over €10 million has already been paid in statutory redundancy payments from the Social Insurance Fundto former Debenhams workers. Another €3 million has been offered on an ex gratiabasis in terms of a retraining fund for workers . Discussions about how that might be deployed are taking place with the unions today. The Taoiseach, a number of Ministers and I have met the workers, the unions and Debenhams UK. We also made contact with the liquidators involved, the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, an office under my remit, and the chairman of the Labour Court. Major efforts have been made to resolve these issues in a way that is fair but also that is legal and does not create other unfair precedents.

The Debenhams workers have not been treated very fairly in other ways in the sense that they have not always been told the full truth regarding this dispute. The comparison the Deputy makes with Clerys is a bogus one. In that dispute, there was a very large and valuable property asset, a large building on O'Connell Street, and as a result of that it was possible for additional payments to be made to the former Clerys workers. In this case, the only assets are some fixtures and stock. Those assets are declining in value every day and have a total value that does not exceed the moneys owed by Debenhams to others. It is not the same as Clerys, it is very different. While we can and will make changes to company law and employment law, those changes that might have resulted in a different outcome to the matter relating to Clerys would not have resulted, I believe, in a different outcome in the case of Debenhams. Deputy Bríd Smith has acknowledged that in comments she has made in the Chamber.

In terms of the collective agreement and the two plus two mentioned by the Deputy, when this was examined by the chairman of the Labour Court he questioned whether it was valid in the event of an insolvency. That was a collective agreement reached in 2016 when voluntary redundancies were being made. It is highly questionable as to whether such an agreement applied in the event of an insolvency. It certainly did not apply in law, whatever about in contract. Examples have been raised in respect of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation and it has been suggested that public money from the Exchequer was used to pay termination payments in that case. We know now that that was not the case. There are many sad aspects to this whole affair, both the way in which Debenhams workers were treated by their employer and also the way in which they have been misinformed by certain people all along. That is wrong too.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I would not patronise the Debenhams workers by suggesting that they do not know precisely how they have been treated and what the facts of their dispute are. Is it not funny, as the shop stewards from Debenhams and Arcadia asked me before I came here, how the law and the system always favours the big corporations over, as the workers describe themselves, "the little people"? KPMG, a massively wealthy accountancy firm, sent its agents in to break a strike during level 5 restrictions which prevent non-essential retail outlets from opening. KPMG was allowed to do that but workers who protest peacefully, wear masks and are socially distanced are removed. That is the reality. How is it that the law never protects the workers? It is always too complicated to protect the workers. One of the Arcadia workers just told me that this is the third occasion in her lifetime she has not been paid her redundancy entitlements in situations of retail insolvency because successive Governments have failed to act to protect workers. There is always emergency legislation for the big people. There are always excuses for them, but action is never taken to protect workers who are treated in this despicable way.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy knows full well that the legal entitlement to redundancy in Ireland is two weeks per year of service. That is statutory redundancy. If the House or the Government decides to increase that to three or four weeks, so be it. That cannot be applied retrospectively, however. The legal entitlement is two weeks per year of service. Sometimes people have collective agreements that entitle them to more in certain circumstances but, as is almost always the case - if not always the case - such agreements for additional redundancy payments apply in a structured redundancy scheme, not in the event of a liquidation or an insolvency. That is an important point that people have chosen not to recognise in this instance.

The Deputy mentioned how the law works. Debenhams was a big corporation and it failed. The owners of the company - the shareholders - lost all their money. In insolvency, the first people to be wiped out are the owners, the shareholders in a company. Where there is money left over, there are creditors to be paid. Those highest up on the list of creditors are often the public, for example, through the Revenue Commissioners and local authorities, and also workers in the context of unpaid wages and statutory redundancy considerations. Collective agreements for additional redundancy occur and apply when a voluntary redundancy scheme or an agreed redundancy scheme is happening. They do not apply in the event of a liquidation.

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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I again wish to raise the issue of the Covid-19 vaccination programme. I do so because, like so many colleagues in this House, I have been inundated with calls from constituents who are deeply concerned about the roll-out programme. The vast majority of correspondence to my constituency office relates to the vaccination programme. As the Tánaiste will be aware, my constituency office is located near the Border.

As things stand, the North will, in effect, be leaving lockdown at some stage in June, just like other parts of the UK.

I have very real concerns that the North has raced ahead of us in the fight against Covid. I stated from the start that we should have taken an all-island approach to this pandemic. If the North continues at its current pace and reopens fully in June, we in the South will face some very difficult times. One can imagine the chaos if all retail is fully reopened in Newry while we in Dundalk remain in lockdown. This will cause a lot of businesses along the Border to close. Those business owners have sacrificed a great deal in fighting the coronavirus and they must be fully supported. We simply cannot allow a situation whereby one part of the island is open and another part is, in effect, closed.

I am sure the Tánaiste is aware of the situation in Northern Ireland but I will remind him of it. As of 31 March, total vaccinations administered in the North numbered 887,598. Everyone over the age of 45 in that jurisdiction can enrol for vaccination. A new vaccination centre was opened in the SSE Arena in the past week and more than 350 community pharmacies have joined the vaccination programme. There is even a vaccination date calculation system available online where citizens can get an estimated date for their vaccination. The death rate from Covid in the North is at its lowest in six months. Almost half of the adult population has had at least one vaccination and the plan is that society will be reopened there before the end of June.

If we compare the situation in the South, it is clear that we are nowhere near opening our society in June. Statistics do not lie. The latest figures show that 806,541 vaccinations have been administered in the South. We have a population that is approximately three and a half times that of Northern Ireland. At this stage, if we had kept in line with the North, we should have administered at least 3.1 million vaccines. Looking at it in those terms, we are behind the North by just under 2.3 million vaccinations. That is a staggering statistic. There is no doubt that the Tánaiste will blame the supply chain and say that the vaccines have simply not been delivered by the manufacturers.

The question I would like answered is why the North did not have the same problem with supply that we have. Nor does it seem to be an issue in the rest of the UK. Questions need to be answered as to why the Government has failed miserably so far in securing more vaccines. The message from the Government continues to be vague and, at best, confusing. We are told now that the vaccination programme is to be changed to an age-based system. What is the rationale for that? Has the advice been changed and who took the decision to change the roll-out programme? What is the situation with teachers, SNAs and members of the Garda? Are they no longer considered a priority?

The North will be fully open before the end of June. What plans has the Government in place to ensure the South can keep up with the North in terms of the reopening of society? Can the Tánaiste confirm that teachers, SNAs and members of the Garda are no longer deemed to be priority groups for receiving vaccination? Can he also confirm that changes to the vaccination roll-out programme are the result of new advice and, if so, why has the advice changed and what was the basis for this change in approach?

12:30 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I answered some of those questions earlier but I am happy to expand further on them. First of all, the vaccine roll-out is going really well in Northern Ireland. I want to congratulate the authorities in Northern Ireland, and in Britain, on the fabulous job they have done in securing vaccines and getting them to people very quickly. That is happening because the UK had a different set of contracts from the EU. Northern Ireland is part of the UK and benefited from that on this occasion. We do not know the exact reasons but it appears that the United Kingdom got preference for the AstraZeneca vaccine over the European Union because of research grants that were given to the University of Oxford by the UK, whereas the EU did not seek such a concession in regard to the grants we gave Pfizer-BioNTech to develop the vaccine in Germany.

However, we will catch up and we are catching up. As I mentioned earlier, we are now much more confident about supplies, and supplies are firming up. More than 1.1 million doses have already arrived in the country. Once they get here, most are in people's arms within three days and almost all within seven days. Over 800,000 vaccines have been given already and 112,000 arrived last night alone. We expect to have up to 1 million doses given by 7 April and to be giving an average of 1 million doses per month in April, May and June. We anticipate that the vast majority of adults, or certainly a clear majority of adults, will have had their first dose or both doses by the end of May, and more than 80% of adults will have been offered their first dose by the end of June. We are on track to achieve that.

Northern Ireland is following the UK approach, as I said, and that approach is based on age-based cohorts. Why were age-based cohorts chosen in Northern Ireland and the UK? It is because it is the fairest way to do it, the quickest way to do it and the best way to do it in terms of vaccinating those most vulnerable first. We are taking this approach in order that we can open the country more quickly, not as quickly as Northern Ireland but more quickly than would be the case if we followed a much more complicated and slower approach.

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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I thank the Tánaiste. The bottom line is that the North is way ahead of us in its vaccination roll-out programme and, as a result, will open its society much earlier than us. As I said, this will cause untold damage to the economy in the South, particularly to businesses along the Border, in areas like Dundalk.

I asked the Tánaiste about members of the Garda, teachers and SNAs. The Government made promises to those groups and it has failed miserably to deliver them. In June, when the North opens up, we will depend on the Garda to help patrol the Border. More than 1 million students are going back to school on 12 April. In fairness to teachers and SNAs, they have done a fantastic job over the past number of months under a false promise from the Government. Why did the Government make those false promises? I agree that there are a lot of people who particularly need the vaccine. However, the Government makes promise after promise and then reneges on them and blames someone else. That is not fair and it is about time the Government stood by its actions instead of blaming somebody else. Gardaí are breaking up house parties and stopping people from crossing the Border. Teachers and SNAs have done a fantastic job. Why did the Government make false promises to those people? I ask the Tánaiste, please, to answer that question.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I think it is the case that Britain and Northern Ireland are going to open up faster than here, largely as a consequence of the fact that the vaccine roll-out is happening faster there. However, the difference is going to be a couple of weeks. If one goes to Northern Ireland or England now, one is not going to find restaurants or non-essential retail open. None of those services are open there yet. They are a few weeks ahead of us but not as much as people may think. The Deputy should bear in mind that we are far ahead of other EU countries and most of the world in terms of our vaccine roll-out. There are 200 countries in the world, 27 in the EU and we are in the top tier when it comes to all of these things.

In regard to vaccine priority, nobody doubts the essential work and the quality of work that is done by teachers, retail workers, SNAs, carers and the ten or 20 professions I could mention whom we all respect and whose work has been essential during this pandemic. The reason we have gone to an age-based cohort is that it is the fastest way of doing it. It is also the fairest way of doing it because people in their 50s and 60s are at much higher risk of getting very sick or dying from this virus than people in their 30s and 40s, regardless of their profession. It is based on scientific advice. If the Deputy wants to make a submission to NIAC, if he is sincere about this, he should do so. He should set down which people he thinks should be prioritised, in which order, and then present the evidence that they are more at risk than people in their 50s and 60s.

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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I did not make a promise to gardaí and teachers. The Tánaiste made that promise.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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That completes Leaders' Questions. Táimid ag bogadh ar aghaidh. I understand that, at the request of Members, Questions on Promised Legislation have been cancelled for today because Deputies wanted a break. It seems I am wrong. It must have had to do with Lá na nAmadán.