Wednesday, 30 June 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
We have seen some moments of chaos during the lifetime of the Government but yesterday was a new peak. The Taoiseach says the advice given to him by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, came as a bolt out of the blue. That advice was not to reopen indoor hospitality and that when hospitality would be reopened, to make it available to vaccinated persons only. The Taoiseach says he was caught unawares by that.
That is an extraordinary situation given the Taoiseach heads the Government and it is incumbent on him to put in place plans and contingency measures in light of the very real danger posed by the Delta variant. However, the Taoiseach did not do that. Once again, he marched the hospitality sector to the top of the hill, only to march it back down again and he now pursues a plan which gives zero consideration to young people.
I ask the Taoiseach to consider the situation of a 19-year-old, a 25-year-old or a 30-year-old in Ireland this morning. Many of them have held and hold the line on the front line, while working in retail and in schools and hospitals. Others have lost jobs. Many have not seen a day's work in a year and a half. Others had their time at college but they were not on campus; they were in their bedrooms. All have had their opportunities to travel severely curtailed, taken from them at that time of their lives when it is natural to wish to explore the world. Tógadh gach rud ó dhaoine óga, fágadh ar leataobh iad le linn na paindéime seo agus níl sé seo maith go leor.
On top of all the pandemic disruption, consider their prospects for an affordable or a secure home. They can forget about that on the Taoiseach's watch. If they are relying on the PUP because their job disappeared, it is going to be slashed. If they find themselves on jobseeker's allowance, the message to young people is they are less deserving than people who are older than them. We now find ourselves in the summer months, after an extraordinary year and in a time when our young people deserve a break. It is perfectly legitimate for young people to want to socialise together and meet up with their friends. They were told they would have an outdoor summer and to prepare for that, and they did. They socialise outdoors and most behave themselves perfectly well. A small element, not all of whom are young people by the way, misbehaves yet all young people are then treated as a nuisance, a threat and a problem. They are told essentially to get off the streets and wait for the pubs to reopen.
Yesterday, the Government told young people they can work in pubs and restaurants and serve their elders but they should forget about having a drink after work in the same establishment or a meal in the establishment next door. The Taoiseach cannot do that. The time has come to stop paying lip service to young people and to listen to them and meet their needs. I am asking the Taoiseach to give young people a chance to benefit from the reopening of our society and from the very hard work they have invested in protecting everyone else in society. In other words, I am asking the Taoiseach to treat young people fairly.
So far, the Government has disregarded the obvious solutions in this regard. We have talked about antigen testing for what seems like forever, yet the Government stubbornly refuses to pursue widespread antigen testing. People now ask why Ireland is the last place in Europe where people cannot eat or drink indoors. The answer is that elsewhere antigen testing is being used. We need to get our young people vaccinated. We need to ensure people in the 60 to 69 age group get their second vaccine and that happens quickly. We still have no clarity as to when the changes to the vaccine programme, which are woefully late, will take effect. The Government is only now engaging with the hospitality industry. It is truly a mess. This must be sorted and the Government must now deliver a plan of action that is fair to the hospitality industry but also to the younger generation.
I agree with the Deputy's fundamental assertions. I regret the fact that since this Government was formed, she has been so divisive in her approach to Covid-19. She has always sought to use it as an avenue to exploit for political gain. My more important point is this. Everyone in the House should take on board that the Delta variant is a serious and challenging issue, and will be across Europe. The advice from NPHET is to that effect. Whether we like it or not, the Delta variant is far more transmissible and creates risks. That is the essence of the advice that was presented to us by NPHET and of the modelling that was also presented to us, which was stark with respect to case numbers, hospitalisations, ICU occupancy and deaths for July, August and September. I ask that Deputy McDonald take that on board and accept it.
Is is Deputy McDonald's view that we should have pressed ahead with the opening of hospitality on 5 July given the warnings and projections we got about the impact of the Delta variant? I would like her to answer that question openly and honestly because this is a key point. The Government's decision yesterday was not to proceed. That is the fundamental decision we took. We decided to delay proceeding on 5 July and engage with the hospitality industry. Covid has been devastating for the hospitality industry. I know that. It has been devastating for travel and tourism since the very beginning, not just here but around the world. The impact of Covid has been devastating for many societies.
I spoke yesterday with Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, and she used a very telling phrase. She said Delta will rip through an unvaccinated population. Scotland has all its eggs in the vaccination basket, with 60% of the population fully vaccinated. There are some hopeful signs that there may be a breaking of the link between case numbers and hospitalisations but that is not certain yet and will take more monitoring.
The Deputy used the word "chaos" and the word "mess" gets mentioned. If one looks back over the last number of months, we have reopened society steadily, successfully and effectively, in terms of schools, childcare, sport for young people, construction, outdoor hospitality, personal services and retail. That is not chaotic. It has not been a mess. It has been steady, progressive and wise, and it has produced results. The decision yesterday is to protect all that. That is my only motivation and the only motivation of the Government is to protect that and protect people, not divide people and society. We want to protect society.
I understand how difficult Covid has been for young people. I know that. It has affected their college life and work. That is why the pandemic unemployment payment was brought in for students in the first instance. The threshold that has been set in respect of vaccination for hospitality is a very high one that will prove very challenging. We want to engage with industry because we understand how difficult it has been for the sector and for young people. The Government does not take decisions on the immunisation strategy. The NIAC decision will help us accelerate vaccination and that is a good thing.
The aggressive transmissibility of the Delta variant and the danger it poses were not new to the Taoiseach yesterday. The Government has known about that for a considerable time, as has NPHET. How is it that we are at lastminute.com again, with eleventh hour decision-making again? As I said, the Government is marching this sector up the hill only to march it back down, again? It is divisive to single out young people who do not have the opportunity to avail of vaccination and tell them they can work in the hospitality sector but they cannot avail of it. That is wrong and divisive.
The Taoiseach asked me what should happen. The sector should be reopened, and safely. A clear plan for that should be set out. We should have a Government that is not announcing days beforehand that this will not, in fact, happen. When will young people be vaccinated? What is the timetable for that? What of antigen and PCR testing? How will the Government deploy these measures to ensure that when the sector is reopened everybody, including the young, who run these services to an enormous extent, can also avail of them? The Taoiseach should answer that. He is, after all, the Taoiseach.
I asked the Deputy a question which she did not answer. The modelling from NPHET was new and stark in its scale with respect to the number of cases predicted through different scenarios, namely, optimistic, central 1, central 2 and pessimistic. However, I asked the Deputy a straight question and she did not answer me. Should we have proceeded? Should we have ignored the modelling and advice? I recall what Deputy McDonald said at Christmastime. Subsequently, she was in favour of massive suppression of the virus. She changes every time. It is regrettable because she seeks to exploit it for political and electoral advantage. That seems to be her only motivation when it comes to Covid-19 and that is very regrettable. I am asking her what she would do if presented with that modelling by NPHET. No one likes the message. I do not like the message.
The Government does not brief people because it is chaotic.
The Opposition has been presented with nothing because the Taoiseach does not agree that his Government's actions are chaotic.
There is an element here of turning on NPHET or its modelling. The results of the modelling are not something we all welcome. It is difficult and challenging. Therefore, I think we did the right thing to pause and delay the reopening of hospitality in light of the stark advice. Surely we have learned something from the past year and a half about this pandemic. I never underestimate this pandemic.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach announced what amounted to an indefinite postponement of the reopening of indoor hospitality. At this stage, there is no clear plan or new date for when that sector will open. Some 24 hours later, there are still many unanswered questions. While I accept that this is a challenging situation, the public should be entitled to basic information on the background to the shocking announcement the Taoiseach made yesterday. I would very much appreciate him answering some of my questions. I am posing these questions not just for me or other Members in the House but for the many thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on this extremely important sector, many of whom have not been able to open their doors or return to work in 16 months.
On the Monday before last, 21 June, the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, announced that the Delta variant accounted for 20% of Covid-19 cases reported in the previous week. He stated that the figures demonstrated "a concerning increase in transmission of the Delta variant". Did he raise these concerns about the proposed reopening of hospitality with anyone in the Government at that point or at any point this week? The Government seemed to be briefing that there was likely to be a postponement of that reopening. What action has been taken in that regard and when did the CMO alert the Government to this matter?
In the CMO's letter to the Minister for Health published yesterday, he referred to the revised national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, advice that those under 40 should have the option to receive either an AstraZeneca or Janssen vaccine but it is unclear if that advice was factored into the modelling. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether the modelling published by NPHET incorporates the revised vaccination programme?
The Tánaiste discussed this matter on the radio earlier. I made the point that the Government has highlighted the minority of EU countries that operate a Covid-19 pass for indoor services. Does the Taoiseach accept that these countries planned for this system in advance and that he majority facilitate the use of PCR and antigen testing in order that they do not discriminate against unvaccinated people, who are predominantly younger people? In that regard, how can the Government stand over the fact that unvaccinated younger people will be working in bars and restaurants where they will be unable to sit down for a meal or a drink? The Tánaiste said this morning that retail workers are not vaccinated. That is true, but they are not banned from entering shops.
What work has been done on this? When does the Government expect to be in a position to have legislation ready for this new plan? How long is it likely to take to finalise it?
Again, the Delta variant has been described as a cloud on the horizon for quite some time. We got advice from which we formulated the original opening in July and at that stage we were told we were in a low- to medium-risk scenario. The Delta variant had not quite penetrated here at that point but everybody knew in the days leading up to last weekend that there were issues arising in the context of reopening. The clarion calls all weekend were that we should bring forward the meetings in order to get an early decision and not to have the hospitality industry waiting until Thursday or Friday for that decision by the Government. We brought forward those meetings. The results of modelling we received from NPHET and the group led by Professor Philip Nolan on Monday certainly makes the decision to pause the reopening of the hospitality industry the correct one. I ask the Deputy if she agrees that on the basis of that modelling alone, a decision had to be taken to pause and delay the reopening the hospitality sector.
The further advice given in respect of vaccination is going to give rise to challenges. As the Deputy knows, the Government's original position in late May was that vaccinations would be a factor in permitting access to domestic access to facilities and services. We now have a significant challenge with respect to indoor hospitality. What NPHET is saying, very clearly, is that indoor activity poses the greatest risk, particularly indoor hospitality. We know that from previous waves of the pandemic. The challenge now as we engage with the hospitality sector is to see if we can work our way through this in order to facilitate the reopening of hospitality. The threshold being set by NPHET is very high and it will be very challenging in itself when it comes to non-reproducible and enforceable elements. We are committed to examine this matter further and to engage with the industry on it.
The NPHET letter and the modelling have been published. The significant shock was in respect of the modelling, with NPHET indicating the very high numbers that could arise as a result of the spread of the variant. On the plus side, it is clear that the faster we can get people vaccinated, the more effective that weapon will be against the Delta variant and the effects of the pandemic. This matter will be under review by NPHET as the weeks go by. In particular, NPHET will follow what is happening in the United Kingdom.
I asked the Taoiseach specific questions and he has not answered them. I will ask them again. How long does he expect it will take to devise a Covid-19 pass from scratch? What is the timescale the Government has in mind in that regard? Why is the Government not engaging with the Opposition on this matter? It has not organised any briefings since last December. The latest data on the Department's website dates from April. How can the Taoiseach expect us to work collaboratively on this when he does not include the Opposition and provide the most basic data that we require?
I put it to the Taoiseach that action must be taken on this quickly. The Government needs to be very clear with the industry about what exactly is being proposed. It must also be clear with the public and the Opposition. I ask that consideration be given to other measures that would help mitigate the spread of the virus in indoor settings. I refer, in particular, to ventilation in this regard. Measures implemented in other countries in this regard include better mask-wearing and reducing numbers. What consideration has been given to introducing such measures?
The Deputy is being slightly disingenuous about briefings. I have had ongoing discussions with people. When things are going well with Covid-19, the Deputy never refers to the pandemic or seeks a briefing. That seems to be the rule of thumb. When challenges emerge, Deputies pile in. That tends to be the nature of the exchanges on Covid-19.
We can leave that to one side. A briefing will be organised. The Deputy had a discussion with me not so long ago and arranged a briefing for me from the zero Covid group for which she was advocating. I met that group.
She advocates zero Covid one month and something else the next. I agree with the Deputy about other measures and we must consider them for the hospitality industry, including testing and ventilation. Recommendations have been made on the ventilation for premises across the board because that is an important issue.
My question is on another matter, but I have to say that the entire country is flying blind and the Taoiseach should restore those briefings as a matter of urgency if he wants to take people with him in what is a difficult situation.
If the recent opinion poll taken in respect of the by-election in Dublin Bay South is anything to judge by, there is a very real possibility, maybe even a likelihood, that the Government parties are going to lose a seat. There are many reasons that this might happen.
From my experience at the doors the issue is very much to do with an entire generation of young people, which we talked about earlier, and their parents, who are absolutely furious about the failure of successive Governments to provide for that entire generation of young people the prospect of actually being able to have an affordable roof over their heads in the coming years. That problem of the housing crisis caused by the successive failures of Fianna Fáil- and Fine Gael-led Governments is not just for a whole generation of young working people. It also affects older people who might find themselves separated, evicted by landlords because of loopholes in residential tenancies legislation and so on.
The Government and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, have said they are going to try to do something about it. I have very serious doubts about that and about the Government's actual commitment to provide public and genuinely affordable housing for the people who need it. Tonight the Land Development Agency Bill 2021 will be completing its journey through the Dáil. In our view, the Government is going to open up the entire public landbank to private financiers, private investment funds and so on, when that land should be used exclusively for the delivery of public and genuinely affordable housing. By "genuinely affordable" we do not mean €450,000 in parts of Dublin or €400,000, which is completely unaffordable for the vast majority or working people. We mean affordable based on the people's income, where they should not have to pay 50%, 60% or 70% of income on mortgage repayments or on rents. They should have to pay no more than 25%.
When we debated these issues on Committee Stage of the Land Development Agency Bill 2021 recently, on foot of our objections about this the Minister said he would bring in amendments that would mean, at least in the major urban centres, there would be a change of heart by the Government and that public land would be used to provide 100% public and genuinely affordable housing. The Minister has not brought forward those amendments. The Affordable Housing Bill is still not clear that affordable housing will actually be affordable for ordinary working people. Why has the Minister reneged on his commitments to bringing those amendments?
Why will the Minister and the Government not commit to actually making affordable housing genuinely affordable on public land and on developments where we are getting affordable housing from private developers?
I agree with the Deputy that housing is the single greatest social issue facing the country, and particularly for generations of our young people. It is absolutely essential that we do everything we possibly can to build houses, get supply up, and to provide social and affordable housing: houses that people can afford to buy. The Minister has brought in a range of measures, and is bringing in measures both legislatively and through initiatives, to help people and young people in particular to be able to afford to buy a house. The help-to-buy scheme was expanded and 22,000 people availed of that. The scheme was a benefit to them, even though many in the House opposed it. Likewise, some €700 million is allocated in the budget to affordability measures such as cost rental homes, shared equity schemes, the Rebuilding Ireland home loans and so on. Extra funding has been allocated to the serviced sites fund, which will provide housing through the local authorities that will be affordable for people. Those measures will have an impact.
The Minister has brought forward amendments in the Land Development Agency Bill 2021. The Deputy used the phrase "genuinely affordable", so clearly he is arguing in terms of definitions of what is and is not affordable. The Minister and the Government have approved an amendment to provide for 80% affordable housing in urban areas with populations greater than 150,000. This will provide for 100% affordable and social housing in those areas, given the proposed revised Part V arrangements to be brought in through the Affordable Housing Bill 2021.
It is very important that we get the Land Development Agency Bill through the House before the summer so we can get on with the job of getting houses built and getting houses built on public land that are affordable and social homes, so people can avail of them. I urge everybody, in every political party and on every local authority, to do everything they personally can to get projects through and to reduce delays and opposition to projects that are shovel ready. We need them built. If we do not get supply up then younger people will be denied access to the kinds of affordable housing, the type which the Deputy wants people to have genuine access to, and which I do too. I accept this. We cannot, however, keep on navel gazing forever on these issues. We need to make sure that we build enough affordable houses and social housing for those who obviously require social houses.
Consider areas of Dublin such as the Glass Bottle site at Poolbeg where developers like Johnny Ronan and so on are involved. These developers are not building anything for less than €500,000 and often more. That is not affordable. The concern is that the Government will not strictly define "affordable" to ensure that it is actually affordable based on people's income. To pay for a house that costs €400,000, €450,000 or €500,000 a person would need an income in excess of €90,000 or €100,000. That is not affordable.
It is completely unacceptable that house prices would be at that level on public land such as 20% of the strategic development zone land, SDZ, in Poolbeg, which is still in the hands of NAMA. This is unacceptable. Why has the Minister reneged on the commitment he gave to the committee to ensure that publicly-owned land would be 100% genuinely social and affordable housing? Will the Government define "affordable" and not base it on what Johnny Ronan is charging in Cherrywood or the SDZ-----
The Deputy is great for motions, but motions will never build a house. That is all that goes on here, motion after motion. It will not build a house. Once we get the Land Development Agency Bill through and once it is on a statutory footing, the agency will build houses. Up to 4,000 homes can get started fairly quickly-----
No, I am not talking about individuals, I am talking about across the country. We can get State land working to get houses built, with social houses and affordable houses, for people. The majority of such lands will remain in local authority ownership post development. There is a portfolio of nine sites already waiting to go that can provide 4,000 houses. The difference really is that to a certain degree the Deputy suffers from paralysis by analysis. The Deputy keeps on analysing every single scheme, and he keeps on finding something wrong with each scheme and a reason to oppose it. This has been the consistent thread on local authorities from the parties opposite with regard to housing provision and housing schemes.
In light of what has been happening in the past couple of days, I wish to raise the issue of the regions and regional development. A lot of businesses are suffering right across the country as a result of the pandemic. There are two areas I wish to discuss.
Since it was first introduced, the LEADER programme has brought a huge amount of positivity to the regions in economic enterprise, job creation and the provision for community groups to be able to access funding for important activities in their areas. We have seen at first-hand how the local action groups have really garnered all of this money and made sure it is spent in a good way. I understand that the CAP talks have been agreed and now the rural development fund needs to be put in place. I accept that the Government has put in place a transition fund for this year and next year. Will the Taoiseach clarify if this fund can be increased for 2022 so we can meet the demand by the communities that look for this funding, and for the enterprise it will create?
An issue brought to my attention this morning is that today the temporary assistance payment scheme, TAPS, for nursing homes, many of which are family-run and based in regional areas, is to cease today. Will the Government consider extending this support scheme, which has been very good to these family-run nursing homes, in line with what the UK has done and in view of how aggressive the Delta variant is? The Taoiseach stated earlier that Nicola Sturgeon said it would cut through the country. Nursing homes have had a very serious time in trying to deal with Covid. The scheme is regional based and means jobs in family-run businesses in local areas. I ask the Taoiseach to comment.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue and I accept fully the importance of the LEADER programme in respect of regional economic development. Since 1991, I have been a great advocate for it and it has played a huge role in the development and enhancement of rural areas, particularly through rural economies and entrepreneurship. With co-financing from the European Union, LEADER has created thousands of projects throughout Ireland, along with job creation, community development and environmental projects. It is funded under Pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy and the European agricultural fund for rural development. On 28 June, European Union agriculture ministers accepted the provisional agreement reached between the Portuguese Presidency and the European Parliament on the CAP post-2020 legislative proposals. These will cover the period 2023 to 2027. A transitional arrangement agreed in 2020 will continue to apply for 2021 and 2022.
The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, in line with the programme for Government, announced details of allocations of approximately €70 million transitional LEADER programme funding for the period covering 2021 and 2022. This came into effect from April of this year. Of the €70 million announced, €20 million is funded by the European Union recovery instrument funding, which is Next Generation EU funding. Of this €70 million, €65 million will be made available to local action groups for the delivery of the transitional LEADER programme and 75% of the funding is being allocated to new project activity, with the remaining 25% for administration and other costs. A further €3 million of the funding is being allocated to support co-operation projects and innovation between local action groups. The remaining €2 million is being provided to support strategy development for the next LEADER programme.
Project activity has already commenced and 68 core projects to a value of €2.8 million have been approved so far. A further 22 co-operation projects, with a value of in excess of €1.8 million, have also been approved. There will be an increase in the maximum rate of aid each local action group may award to private enterprises, community projects with a commercial basis and social enterprises from 50% to 75% for the duration of the transitional programme. Increasing the rate of aid, which was effective from 1 April 2021, will help stimulate rural economies and sustain jobs in rural areas, particularly in a post-Covid recovery scenario.
The final call for applications under the €15 million LEADER food initiative has been announced. This is for €5 million and it is available for investment aimed at assisting artisan, micro and small food businesses to respond to challenges posed by Brexit. I will speak to the Minister about the Deputy's request for additional funding for 2022.
With regard to the cessation of TAPS, I have dealt with it previously. There are facilities and there will be support for any outbreak that happens in a nursing home over the coming period. An outbreak assistance payment will continue to be made available to the end of the year.
I thank the Taoiseach. He rightly pointed out that the LEADER programme has been such a benefit and the money that has been allocated has been spent wisely. I reiterate my request that for 2023 we increase the funding allocation because there is pent-up demand and people see the value of it.
With regard to TAPS, it is important to realise that, right now, these family-run nursing homes are under pressure. I know a review of the nursing home sector is ongoing with regard to how it dealt with Covid and how it is being funded. It is very important that nursing homes, especially family-run nursing homes, continue to have TAPS in place until we deal positively with the Delta variant and we get people vaccinated to the extent required. I compliment the vaccination process.
With regard to Deputy Canney's point on LEADER, I will engage with the Minister again to see what can be done. With regard to the TAP scheme, the vaccination programme has been very effective in nursing homes and very effective overall in terms of those aged over 65. The prospect has been raised that if we have very high volumes of infection as a result of the Delta variant in the non-vaccinated population, it would feed through and break through the vaccine protective wall. We will be keeping a very close eye on this. As I have said, an outbreak assistance payment will continue to be made available until the end of the year as a support for any nursing home that experiences a Covid-19 outbreak. Other supports have continued. To be fair, approximately €134 million has been made available under TAPS between 2020 and 2021. The HSE has given very strong supports to the nursing home sector over the past while.