Wednesday, 30 June 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on Europe oversees implementation of programme for Government commitments regarding the European Union and related issues. It generally meets in advance of a meeting of the European Council. It last met on 22 March 2021, in advance of the meeting by video conference of the members of the European Council on 25 March. Previous meetings of the Cabinet committee on Europe took place on 16 July 2020, 8 October 2020 and 8 December 2020. It will continue to meet as appropriate, including to discuss issues on the agenda of the European Council. There is currently no date set for the next meeting of the Cabinet committee on Europe.
I wish to raise the digital green certificate which is due to go live tomorrow, as planned, with 20 EU member states already issuing certificates and talks with the UK progressing. What is the status of the talks with the UK? That would be good information for the House. We are due to go live on 19 July. Can the Taoiseach confirm if this is still the case? Yesterday, NPHET recommended that unvaccinated people should not travel, even with a clear test. Obviously, we are not taking action on that because it would be contrary to European law. I find it totally bizarre that NPHET does not work within the parameter of the law of the land given that we are part of Europe. There is nothing wrong with saying that. I am very supportive of public health, but surely it must be done within the guidance of the law. There are many comparisons with what other EU countries are doing, particularly as regards indoor dining.
Another matter on which we diverge from other countries is antigen testing. I have raised this previously. I do not understand why we are not doing antigen testing. I did it myself for months. Antigen tests have a major role to play, and they have a major role in getting members of the Government out of the situation in which they find themselves at present. Both Denmark and Britain send out thousands of these tests every day and week. That is hundreds of thousands or millions of tests. They certainly have a role. I believe the Taoiseach believes they have a role, and the Tánaiste has said so as well. They must have a role now. Certainly, that would make more sense as part of a mixture of measures, along with vaccinations, to be able to reopen society and particularly to deal with the indoor dining conundrum. Denmark, a country with a similar population to ours, has a daily testing capacity of 500,000 antigen tests and 200,000 PCR tests. That is how it reopened. It is similar in size to this country.
I do not believe we can continue with a plan that discriminates against young people. I vehemently oppose that. As regards the options for the future, there are the Janssen vaccine, the AstraZeneca vaccine, of which there will be a lesser amount, and antigen testing as part of it. I will strongly insist that this is the route we must take rather than anything else, which is more complicated. Will the Taoiseach confirm that the digital certificate will be going live here on 19 July?
I wish to raise the Conference on the Future of Europe. This was launched on 9 May last. We must have real engagement with citizens here on this matter. In particular, we have to engage with citizens living in Northern Ireland, other EU citizens living in Ireland and especially with young people. I have a question for the Taoiseach about the issue of treaty change. In practical terms, treaty change means giving more power to the EU institutions, including the European Parliament, and diminishing unanimity voting. Arising from the pandemic, there has been talk of giving new competencies to the EU, for example, in the area of public health. According to a report by RTÉ News on 22 April last, an internal Government memorandum indicated that the Irish Government will resist any move to change EU treaties in the context of the conference and it has joined 11 other similar countries to oppose treaty change. Is that the position? As we know, treaty change involves a referendum in Ireland. Ireland previously initially rejected both the Nice and Lisbon treaties. Can the Taoiseach clarify the position of the Government on this issue?
I also wish to raise briefly rule of law concerns. Mr. Victor Orbán in Hungary has introduced a discriminatory law against the LGBT community. The Dutch Prime Minister has gone as far as saying that Hungary should leave the European Union. When is the EU going to ensure that there are real consequences for EU states that fail to adhere to the fundamental liberal democratic values of the Union?
I also wish to raise the EU digital Covid certificate. In particular, I ask the Taoiseach to provide some much-needed clarity with regard to Irish citizens who were vaccinated in the North and to provide an assurance, if he can, that those people will be able to avail of the EU digital Covid certificate. Before this morning, I understood that there was clarity on this matter.
I made several representations to the Department of Health on behalf of people who live in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan but who work in the North. Those I was dealing with happen to work in the health services there and they have been vaccinated through the North's programme. They have every entitlement and right, as I am sure the Taoiseach will agree, to avail of the EU's digital Covid-19 certificate, as we would expect would be the case for all the people in the North who have been vaccinated. A little confusion has arisen in this regard, however, because of a statement issued by the Government press office to RTÉ which cast some doubt on the position. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, indicated on RTÉ this morning that there will be no issue. I ask the Taoiseach to provide clarification and assurance regarding Irish citizens vaccinated via the programme being run by the NHS in the North being able to avail of the EU's digital Covid-19 certificate.
Budapest Pride began on Friday night. I offer solidarity to the LGBTQ activists and their supporters organising the event in the teeth of the Viktor Orbán hate campaign. It is interesting to note that the organisers report that there is no big corporate sponsor and that there has not been for ten years. The rainbow capitalists are fair-weather friends it seems. I understand that Budapest Pride runs for a month and is due to culminate in a major demonstration through the streets on 24 July. Socialists, human rights campaigns and LGBTQ activists throughout Europe and the world should monitor the month to check whether the Pride participants are met with physical attacks or repression on the part of the Hungarian Government and to take solidarity action if they are. What plans does the Government here have to monitor these events over the coming weeks?
I understand that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, met with representatives of the Saudi Arabian regime recently. Can the Taoiseach tell us if the Cabinet subcommittee on Europe has discussed the issue of the absolutely terrible war in Yemen, which has lasted for almost seven years? Approximately 16 million people, half the population, are suffering from hunger, 3 million have been displaced and an estimated 220,000 have lost their lives, either directly or indirectly as a result of the war. The Saudi Arabian regime is deeply implicated in the horrific military campaign which has caused this humanitarian disaster, and, of course, the United States has also provided military and logistical assistance to the Saudi Arabian regime.
That regime in Saudi Arabia is involved in crushing any dissent. It is not possible to oppose the war, although many Saudis Arabians do. I was at a protest with Saudi Arabians and Yemenis outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in the past two weeks. Has the Government anything to say about this situation? Will it call publicly on the Saudi Arabian regime to end its horrific siege and the military attacks on the people of Yemen? Many of our European counterparts are selling weapons to the Saudi Arabian regime, and those arms then go on to be used against the people of Yemen. Is the Government going to speak out in Europe about this humanitarian disaster that the people of Yemen are facing?
We have all heard about the undocumented Irish living in the United States. Less commented upon are the approximately 20,000 undocumented people from outside the EU who are living in Ireland, including 2,000 to 3,000 children. It has been reported that almost a quarter of those people are earning below the minimum wage, with nearly half of them working more than 40 hours a week. They are facing extra exploitation due to their immigration status. They also face issues like lack of proper healthcare for themselves and their children, while others are the victims of crime but feel unable to seek help from the authorities for fear of being forced to leave Ireland. I welcome the draft scheme to regularise undocumented migrants, but it does not go far enough in the context of including all undocumented workers. The Minister's proposed scheme does not, for example, include people with pending applications under section 3 or deportation orders, people with fewer than four years residence and people who have been living in Ireland for a long time but who have been undocumented for fewer than four years. Will the Taoiseach intervene to ensure that the proposal is amended to include those people in the scheme?
Regarding the points raised by Deputy Kelly, I welcome the agreement and there was a broad welcome at the European Council meeting at the end of last week for the EU digital Covid-19 certificate framework. From a European Union perspective, that is a significant achievement, given that it was only mooted in December last year. It was initially an idea proposed by the Greek Prime Minister and the Commission then took it on board. Ireland will operate the new digital certificate from 19 July for travel originating within the European Union and the EEA. It will be subject to the prevailing public health situation, but we intend to go ahead as we decided this week. We broadly align ourselves with the approach of the European Union regarding non-essential travel into the Union from third countries, including from the United Kingdom and United States. I think this will facilitate safe international travel in accordance with clear safety protocols and public health advice.
Turning to the matter of testing, the European Commission has provided supports regarding antigen testing. Different countries have different models. Deputy Kelly mentioned Denmark, which from the outset has been one of the countries with the highest capacity for testing. We are also best in class, with 120,000 tests conducted per week. We are now flexible in the context of our walk-in centres and self-referrals. All of those were open in the last week and that indicates that people themselves are cautious and taking precautions on their own initiative. I thought that was interesting and I got interesting figures in that respect this morning from the CEO of the HSE.
Moving on to the vaccination advice from the national immunisation advisory council, NIAC, we have approximately 100,000 doses of the Janssen vaccine in stock and we have some more additional vaccines as well. However, we want more visibility towards the end of July and in August. Regarding AstraZeneca, the current trend is that 300,000 doses came in yesterday, but those will be used for the those in the 60-to-69 age group and people who need a second dose. I understand that 25,000 doses are due in from AstraZeneca on 5 July. That is what we have visibility of. In addition, there will be more than 37,000 on 12 July. Following that, there will be approximately 500,000 doses, but we do not have visibility yet from AstraZeneca on the actual delivery schedule for the last two weeks of July. We must have visibility in that regard before we can make commitments concerning that delivery. If that was to transpire, however, it would have a significant impact on the vaccination programme. There would be a similar situation in the context of greater availability of Janssen vaccines. Equally, the model which has been developed with pharmacies has worked well with the Janssen vaccine. Therefore, it lends itself to rapid deployment in respect of the arrival of additional Janssen vaccines in the context of the advice we have received.
Deputy Haughey raised a pertinent point regarding treaty change and engaging with young people in respect of the Conference for Europe. I agree wholeheartedly with that and we need a debate in Ireland on our participation in Europe. We must energise younger generations regarding the European ideal, how it is the greatest peace project since the Second World War and its major achievements. In the context of international relations, Europe is the most progressive and advanced bloc in the world in respect of the humanitarian assistance it provides to many people. That was most recently manifested in the form of the vaccination programme, with more than 350 million vaccines exported from Europe across the world. We have not brought in protectionism or sought to stop such exports.
On the point concerning competencies, the memo which was referred to is not Government policy. Our policy is to be open to treaty change. I believe we must be open to it. Not all treaty change means a constitutional referendum either, by the way. In the area of public health, particularly, and given our experience during the pandemic, I am an advocate for greater competencies in that regard at European Union level, in respect of epidemiology, for example. I believe we need a European Union chief epidemiologist-----
No. I am afraid that each set of questions has 15 minutes allocated to it. I am tied by that, so we must move on to the next question.
If the questions took less time, there might be more time for answers.