Thursday, 1 April 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
There are so many problems with the vaccine roll-out that it is hard to know where to start. We learned from a meeting of a certain parliamentary party that despite the assurances that we would have 1 million vaccines rolled out in April, the number will, in fact, be just over 800,000. We were told that mandatory hotel quarantine is to be extended. Now, we understand there is no such agreement at Cabinet and, indeed, there are legal difficulties in that regard. This morning, it is reported that the Tánaiste told the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party that the list of workers who would receive priority vaccination was never defined. I am sure he is not sticking with that story because I have to hand a press release issued by the Minister for Health, which clearly defines who was supposed to get the vaccine. It refers to key workers in essential jobs who cannot avoid high risk of exposure, including workers in the food supply system, public and commercial transport and other vital services. It goes on to mention "those who are essential to education and who face disease exposure - primary and second level school staff, special needs assistants, childcare workers, maintenance workers, school bus drivers etc."
Those groups were all defined. Does the Tánaiste understand that there is anger now because people look at what has happened as a breach of a commitment? Does he acknowledge that the Government has broken its commitment to those employees at this point in time?
I absolutely acknowledge that there are many people who are annoyed or disappointed because they felt they were going to be prioritised for vaccination. Whether it was an assumption or an assurance they were given, many people believed they were going to be prioritised. It did not only apply to gardaí or teachers. The list mentioned by the Deputy could probably extend to hundreds of thousands of people who believed they would be prioritised. However, we have to do what is best for society as a whole. The advice from the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, doctors, experts and scientists is clear. It is that a profession-based approach would be slower, would mean opening up society more slowly, would be more complicated to implement and, crucially, would be wrong in terms of medical ethics. This is because people in their 50s and 60s, regardless of their profession, are at more risk than people in their 30s and 40s. That is why we have to prioritise people in their 50s and 60s using an aged-based cohort, just like what is being done in Northern Ireland.
At the NPHET briefing yesterday, we learned that modelling showed that if there was a moderate increase in close contacts from 5 April to 30 September, we would have 578,000 cases or 9,500 cases per day. This is a mathematical equation and I understand that NPHET is simply doing its job. However, the Tánaiste is saying that 3.8 million people will have some form of vaccination by the end of June and that everyone will be vaccinated by September. Did the predictions modelled yesterday include anything about the fact that the Government is saying people will be vaccinated? Why is that not part of the modelling? Should the modelling not factor in vaccinations? If this is not modelled under the equation I have outlined, why not? Will the Tánaiste ask NPHET to do so? The public are wondering how these figures could be projected if such numbers of vaccinations are to be administered.
My understanding is that the modelling done by NPHET and Professor Nolan does factor in our projections in respect of vaccination. The difficulty we have at the moment is that not enough people are vaccinated. Whereas vaccinating all those over 70 years reduces the number of deaths dramatically, it does not reduce the number of ICU admissions dramatically. That is why we need to vaccinate people in their 50s and 60s as well.
The most recent guidelines relating to the ongoing restrictions in maternity hospitals date back to September. Since then there have been significant changes, including that front-line healthcare workers have been vaccinated. The Taoiseach told me back in September that there needs to be and should be a national approach to this. Of course, it should never have been a geographical lottery. In early December, the HSE reclassified partners as an essential accompanying person for the 20-week scan. Incredibly, partners have somehow become unessential for the later scans and most of labour. Earlier today, the Minister for Health said that it was now up to each individual hospital. What exactly is the policy on this? It seems the policy is simply for the Government to wash its hands of it. Over three months ago, the UK changed its policy to allow expectant mothers to have someone with them at all stages of their maternity journey. It is unfathomable that this was not addressed this week along with other issues such as sports. It seems much like the importance of children's shoes. Despite the number of times I have raised the matter, it has been ignored.
We all want to see these restrictions eased. We all want people who are having a baby to have someone there to support them. We want fathers to be able to be there for appointments - of course we do. However, bringing unvaccinated people into a hospital is a risk and there have been miscarriages as a result of Covid.
Two days ago, public health officials requested that the USA, Germany and 41 other countries be added to the list for mandatory hotel quarantine. This is in order to prevent dangerous Covid variants from entering the country. We still have not heard if or when this is going to happen. Instead, we have the corporate lobbyists, IBEC, out pushing for this public health advice to be ignored because of its impact from a "business and investment reputational perspective". It seems those in IBEC believe the desire of billionaire chief executives to jet in and out without quarantining should outweigh the public health advice.
We know that quarantine works. Even with the tiny amount of quarantining now being implemented, we have found positive cases that otherwise would have come in. However, it should not be a measure that is limited to a small minority of travellers coming from Africa or South America. We need to stop all non-essential travel into the country and ensure proper quarantining for those who arrive.
I do not think this is about billionaires flying in on private jets. That is just a conspiracy theory. This is about hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens who live in the US and France and hundreds of thousands of EU citizens who live here but call places like Poland home.
The situation is that consultations are now under way, as is required under the legislation, about extending mandatory hotel quarantine to more countries. It will be extended to more countries. I cannot tell the Deputy now exactly when or exactly which ones but consultation is now under way about that.
Part of the advice is not only about keeping variants out. It is about extending mandatory quarantine to countries where we are not concerned about the variants but where there is a high incidence of Covid. Certain things have to be worked out. Do we have the hotels to do this properly? What is the legal position in respect of the common travel area and the rights of European citizens to free movement? What is the exit strategy? Covid will exist in the world forever. There will be variants, probably forever. Will we have mandatory hotel quarantine forever? There are many things that need to be considered on foot of this advice.
To go back to the issue of Covid and the roll-out of vaccines, there is a cohort of 3,000 people who are housebound. The National Ambulance Service is rolling out the vaccine to them. However, there is a complete lack of communication on what counties will be done and when. Many people have contacted me, including those from families of affected older people. A woman in my town is 105 years old. The family is worried about when she will get her vaccine. Can the Tánaiste communicate to general practitioners so they can indicate to their patients in what week, indicatively even, each of the counties will be done? In that way, these 3,000 people will know when they will be done. It is causing extreme concern, frustration and anxiety for the families and the people in question. They deserve better.
The vast majority of people aged over 80 have already been vaccinated. We are moving on to those in their 70s at the moment. Indeed, that is well under way in some parts of the country. This can be complicated. Some people are housebound and others are in isolated areas where it is difficult to get to. Arrangements are being put in place using general practitioners and the National Ambulance Service to get to people who are housebound or isolated. I will follow up the matter the Deputy has raised because it is an important point. If he wishes to give me a particular example, I would be happy to follow it up with the HSE.
In a reply to my parliamentary question this morning I was told that 36,820 people were waiting for a colonoscopy. There has been a 59% increase in tho number of people waiting for scopes since the start of the pandemic. These are shocking figures. The Tánaiste talks in reams about vaccines and everything else but this is a cancer growing inside people. Many people will die. Probably more will die from it than will die from Covid. It is shocking. I have asked for figures on the number of people who have become seriously ill. It is truly shocking. No effort is being made to deal with it. The hospitals are closed to people. Covid has consumed everything. It is shocking that this is left to carry on. Our health service was bad before but it is shocking now that people have to wait for such basic tests. People are dying and will die as a result of it.
I thank the Deputy. As a consequence Covid-19 and the need to pare back non-Covid-19 health services in order to keep people out of hospitals where they might pick up the virus, we have seen a very significant increase in waiting lists for colonoscopies and oesophago-gastro-duodenoscopy procedures. It is important to say that when somebody has the frank symptoms of cancer they are, of course, prioritised. As is often the case with cancer, however, sometimes people’s symptoms are not frank and obvious and that can result in delayed diagnosis. Only last week, the HSE published a very detailed plan as to how it is going to restore non-Covid-19 services and do so in a step-wise fashion over the course of the next few months. That is why it is so important that we keep the virus under control and keep driving the numbers down because if we have a fourth wave, that will further impact on other services.
I wish to raise the serious issue of Ballyfermot Sports Complex Limited on Gurteen Road and of thousands of other complexes like it. The complex is accessed by myriad groups, schools, youth clubs and many local City of Dublin Education and Training Board, CDETB, projects. It has always been a busy hub in the context of serving the community, with 73,000 visits per year pre Covid-19. It is now at a loss of over €80,000 of earned income because of the shutdown due to public health measures. The complex is excluded from the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, because it does not pay commercial rates or VAT. Sport Ireland also does not have funding to allocate to it. The only funding available to leisure centres is through the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media is for those centres with swimming pools. The complex on Gurteen Road does not have a swimming pool. Like other businesses of similar character, it will go under if it does not get financial support. Can the Government look at these facilities and either bring in a CRSS-type system under which they would be excluded from paying VAT and necessary commercial rates or a special funding scheme for them?
I will be happy to take a look at that matter. If the Deputy can pass me on the details later in the day, I will do so. A leisure centre closed by Government order should be in receipt of the weekly CRSS payment but perhaps because the centre mentioned by the Deputy is not a commercial entity in the normal sense, it does not. That would be unfair. We are trying to mop up some of these issues through different schemes or amendments to the CRSS. If the Deputy passes me the details, I will definitely follow up on it.
On the Government’s remote working strategy, I commend the Tánaiste’s initiative in signing the new code of practice today to give all employees the right to disconnect from work. Remote working has transformative potential, particularly for rural constituencies like mine and many other rural locations. It is crucially important that as we make the transition in this regard, we protect the rights of workers. That is why today’s initiative on the right to disconnect is very important. Can the Tánaiste outline his further plans in this area and how we sees matters playing out in the coming months?
On the same issue, I also acknowledge and welcome this initiative. It is a very important public consultation. The world of work has changed and is changing. That change has been fast-tracked over the past 12 to 13 months. Much work has been done prior to this also in my county where many hotspots and digital hubs have been or are in the process of being built. Like Deputy Griffin, I ask the Tánaiste to expand on his plans and indicate how we can hold companies responsible in this area. I refer, in this regard, to Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and many other companies based in Dublin. We do not just want them to get workers to live in their houses, we want them come to remote places such as Carndonagh, Gweedore, Carrigart, Letterkenny, Finn Valley, Donegal town, Kilcar, Buncrana, Milford, Ramelton and Falcarragh. The buildings are there, so how do we exert pressure to ensure that these locations-----
That is not a point of order and I ask the Deputy to resume a seat. I call Deputy Cannon. I have a series of lists here and we are going to run out of time, it is as simple as that. If deputies can co-operate we will get through them.
I also congratulate the Tánaiste on seizing the initiative and ensuring that as people enter into the world of remote work, there is a strong legislative structure underpinning that process and protecting workers’ rights in how we move forward. Grow Remote, an entity which has essentially welled-up from within rural communities across Ireland, has identified that there are thousands remote working jobs available to people living across the country. Aligning with the Tánaiste’s ambitions, is there any way of fast-tracking the roll-out of our rural fibre broadband to ensure that these jobs will become available within the shortest possible timeframe to those living in rural Ireland?
I thank the Tánaiste for publishing the code of practice on the right to disconnect. Working people are under more pressure than ever before. Advances in technology have robbed us all of our freedoms. Those advances mean that we are always accessible, always plugged in and always on. Many people have been working from home for a full year now - working from their kitchen tables, living rooms or bedrooms. For them, the distinction between work and home life has blurred beyond recognition. However, they have also seen the benefits of what life without a commute looks like.
Members will have to give me a moment. I was writing very quickly when I took down the names of those offering. As a result, there are some names I cannot read. I call Deputy Michael Collins now. I have the other names down and I am doing my best.
I welcome the national remote work strategy announced this week. I certainly welcome anything that will help boost the number of people coming back into rural Ireland. There is a planning issue in this regard that needs to be addressed. People come to, work in and build homes in rural communities. When they apply for planning permission, it is refused. Grounds are being dezoned in Clonakilty, which will be a disaster for the town and the rural area surrounding it.
There is also the issue of broadband. Is the Tánaiste not going to support the set-up of wireless broadband? He told me in an answer to my question approximately three weeks ago that it would take five to seven years to roll out broadband in rural towns and villages. We need a wireless operating system that can be rolled out immediately and we need the Tánaiste’s support on this for this plan to work.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. There has been much talk about remote working and of people working from home. What about people who do not have homes or broadband? What about the towns and villages in Kerry? I remind the Government Chief Whip, who orchestrated this event today in order that Fine Gael Deputies could praise the Government, of that fact. What is he going to do about the towns and villages which have either no sewerage schemes or ones that are inadequate and where people cannot build houses as a result? There are about 20 villages and towns, in case Deputy Griffin does not know of them, without sewerage schemes. I am asking the Government to provide the money in this regard. There was a great deal of hullabaloo about the rural work initiative during the week but there is no fear of money being made available for any scheme, town or village in Kerry. I ask him to come out now to tell us where the money is.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. How do we ensure that a gendered lens will not apply in respect of the remote working plan and the right to disconnect that has been introduced, which is fantastic? I refer to circumstances where we have seen women and men having different opportunities to work three- or four-day weeks at an early day stage in family life. The cultures of various organisations, particularly those in the commercial sphere, means that this is applied in different ways. Can the Tánaiste ensure that, in the context of his new initiatives, we can take steps to ensure that those cultural pressures do not become part of this process as well?
For the past 12 months, I have been the only person living on my suburban street who has consistently left home to go to work. How can people who are in the workplace and seeking to advance their careers ensure their rights under this plan are respected by employers? What enforcement powers, if any, will be made available?
I too welcome this new piece of work on the right to disconnect. I have listened to the debate since the code of practice was announced. I have a question regarding the consideration that has been given to the parents of young children in particular in terms of flexible working hours. Many companies are very flexible and allow parents to leave their job to do school runs or pick children up for sports, music and so on, for example. Has that been considered in the context of this piece of work? Will those flexible working hours continue to be available? That is very important, particularly for working mums and dads.
On the issue, there are post offices in every community. In the context of the digital hubs and the remote working that is envisaged by the Government, has the post office network been factored in as a focal point around which to build digital hubs?
It is ironic that Fine Gael has raised this issue today. It was under the previous Government and the current Government that broadband was not rolled out in the first place. Listening to the Fine Gael Deputies, the doors are open now and things are all wrong. It was under their regime that broadband was not rolled out properly in the first place. Rural areas have suffered under the previous Government and the current Government. When will the Government give equality to rural areas and stop taking all the funding and putting it into highly populated areas? There are people working from home in rural areas. Some 37% of the population live in rural Ireland. Deputy Griffin should grow up a small bit.
Tá a fhios agam gurb é inniu Lá na nAmadán ach ní hí seo an chaoi chun déileáil le cúrsaí sa Teach. Más é do thoil é, bíodh meas agat ar an gCathaoirleach agus beagán níos mó measa agat ar an rud atá ag tarlú anseo. I call Deputy Ó Cathasaigh.
Does the remote working strategy offer an opportunity to fulfil the recruitment targets that will be set out in Bille na dTeangacha Oifigiúla (Leasú) 2019 in terms of 20% of recruits to the Civil Service being competent in Gaeilge? Is there an opportunity within the remote working strategy to relocate some of that work to Gaeltacht areas? I refer to Gaeltacht na Rinne in my constituency, which would benefit enormously from this kind of remote working strategy, particularly if some of those civil servant jobs are decentralised into the area.
I welcome the extension of remote working, the right to turn off and the provision of rights for people who work remotely. However, it is unbelievable for one Fine Gael Deputy after another to stand up and talk about the great work they are doing on workers' rights. What about the Debenhams workers who were lifted off the streets today while they were trying to stop stock being removed? Tomorrow will mark one year since the Debenhams workers were sacked and put out on the road. This happened on the Tánaiste's watch and that of Fine Gael. They abandoned ordinary working people, yet Fine Gael Deputies are singing his praises. What about the rights of all the workers?
The Tánaiste is aware that the Debenhams issue affects its workers in Newbridge. He may not be aware that KPMG recently went in and emptied the lockers of the workers. That is an invasion of their privacy and I want to know what will be done about it. The workers have emailed KPMG to assert their rights and get back their possessions from their lockers but that has not happened. I need an explanation.
I have to agree with Deputy Duncan Smith. We are in the realm of farce.
On the issue of remote working, remote working hubs and broadband provision, how has the Tánaiste got on in terms of his conversations with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, regarding the acceleration of the roll-out? Beyond that, has he spoken to private operators about possible interim solutions for areas that may have to wait four, five, six or seven years for proper broadband provision?
Yes. On the matter of the rural plan, I hope the Tánaiste will answer the question asked by Deputy Cannon, that is, whether there is any prospect of an acceleration of the rural broadband plan. If there is not, it is just fluff. What we can do is ensure that those who currently have broadband and Internet services get a proper service, but ComReg does not have sufficient powers in that regard. I have twice asked the Tánaiste about this issue. The most recent time I asked him about it, he told me legislation would be passed by Cabinet in December and brought before the House in February to give additional powers to ComReg to make it provide the service it is contracted to provide. Where is that legislation?
On the issue of the Debenhams workers, as the Tánaiste is well aware, the first anniversary of their being made redundant is coming up. The workers are being treated abysmally by KPMG and their former employer. The Tánaiste is aware of what happened last night; the issue was raised with him already. Why is KPMG allowed to remove stock as an essential activity under level 5 restrictions? Will the Tánaiste ensure that is not done in other stores? I have been dealing with the workers in Limerick. They are a fantastic group of people who have been treated abysmally. I urge the Tánaiste to intervene and ensure there are no further breaches of the restrictions.
To answer the questions that have been asked, last night I signed the new code of practice giving people the right to disconnect. Essentially, it has three elements: the right not to be expected or required to reply to emails and phone calls out of hours; the right not to be victimised for refusing to do so; and the duty to respect the right of others to disconnect. It is a code of practice that has been signed by me and, therefore, although it is not an offence to breach it in itself, it can be admitted as evidence by the Workplace Relations Commission in disputes over working times. The most important thing that should happen now at workplace level is for employers and employees to sit down and agree a policy for their workplace because every workplace is different. Some workplaces operate from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, while others operate 24-7 and work on an international basis. We encourage people to sit down and agree a policy for their workplace now.
Today I launched the public consultation on the right to request remote working. This is very important for rural Ireland and small towns and villages because we are asking people's views on how we should enshrine that right in law. At the moment, one can request the ability to work from home or a village, town or remote hub, but there is no legal framework under which one's employer must reply and give reasons for accepting or rejecting the request and there is no way in which one can challenge the decision. We wish to change that. The public consultation on that opened today.
As regards the national broadband plan, this is a €3 billion investment in rural Ireland. It is the biggest single investment in rural Ireland ever. The contract was signed by the previous Government, which I had the honour to lead, and is being delivered by this Government, of which I have the honour of being a member. It is now well under way. I have met NBI. We are exploring the possibility of accelerating the plan. It can only be done so fast. It will be approximately 100,000 homes, farms and businesses every year. If it can be done faster, it will, but it can only be done so fast. My meeting with NBI went quite well and we explored the kind of things that might be done to speed up the process.
As regards the question asked by Deputy McNamara on the competition Bill-----
It is a competition Bill but it also gives additional powers to ComReg. It is being drafted at the moment and is at an advanced stage. We anticipate having it enacted before the summer recess.
I compliment the Minister for Community and Rural Development, Deputy Humphreys, on bringing forward the rural Ireland plan, building on the work done by her predecessor, Deputy Ring. The plan will see considerable investment in enterprise hubs and remote working hubs in towns and villages around the country, which can make a big difference to rural Ireland because it means that people who do not want to commute in and out of cities will now find it much easier to work from rural Ireland, either part time or full time.