Tuesday, 6 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.
The Government co-ordination committee last met yesterday, 5 July, and its next meeting is scheduled for Monday, 12 July. The committee generally meets in advance of Government meetings to review the activity of Cabinet committees, review the agenda for that week’s Government meeting, discuss political priorities and review implementation of a specified element of the programme for Government. I am a member of the committee, with the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party. The Secretary General to the Government, my chief of staff and the chiefs of staff for the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party also sit in on meetings.
Has the co-ordination committee discussed antigen testing at all? The reason I specifically ask is this co-ordination committee co-ordinates things, I presume. It seems there is quite a divided and confused approach across the public service regarding antigen tests. As the Taoiseach knows, I have been raising this issue since last October, when we were still in Leinster House - it is so long ago. I know the issues with antigen testing but I also know the positives around it as part of a mix. After Christmas, the Department of Transport had no problem using these for Irish lorry drivers going to France. Last week, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media used antigen testing for 4,000 people attending a pilot festival in Kilmainham and one person tested positive. The Minister for Health has now come up with another group to progress the use of antigen testing, which is an implementation group. The Taoiseach might tell us what it is going to be doing and when the remit of this group will be published. It is chaired by Professor Mary Horgan, the eminent president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, who said an app would be considered. Will the Taoiseach tell us if that is the case and if it will be rolled out? Many people will be asking why Denmark can make 500,000 antigen tests available every day but, after months of back and forth, we are still engaging with pilots.
Second, I thank the Taoiseach for his confirmation in regard to the national development plan, NDP, timelines. I take it this will not be published before the summer recess but it is a fairly significant publication, so I presume we will have a chance to debate the new NDP in the Dáil after it is published, and that it will be published in September. Will the Taoiseach commit that the whole issue of water and waste infrastructure, which is at crisis point in regard to future developments throughout the country, will have a large allocation as part of that publication?
This afternoon, the Dáil will discuss the actions necessary to tackle sexual, domestic and gender-based violence. I thank the Taoiseach for facilitating my request and agreeing to these statements. The annual Women's Aid impact report published last month highlighted a 43% increase in contact with its services last year. Safe Ireland’s 39 front-line service member organisations provided support to 25,000 women and children from March to December last year.
The programme for Government recognises the epidemic of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and makes a number of welcome commitments to victims and their families. I understand that the review of how responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is segmented across different Government agencies was completed in April but that it has not yet been brought to Cabinet. Similarly, the review of emergency accommodation provision for victims of domestic violence has been completed but has not yet been published. In addition to other commitments and outstanding reforms, including in education, the courts, social protection and in the workplace, the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is also due to commence next year. My concern and that of the sector is that in the absence of a single Department or unit within the Department of the Taoiseach holding overall responsibility for implementation of all strands of the strategy, the reforms and the progress so urgently needed simply cannot be delivered. Does the Taoiseach share these concerns? Has he discussed this matter with his partners in government?
We were told by the Department of Social Protection at the start of June that the State's new work experience programme would be unveiled by the end of June. We are now a week into July and the Department is saying that it will give the details in July. I do not think I am the only one who suspects that the Government might be holding back on the details until after 15 July and the summer recess, so that the new scheme cannot be critiqued or questioned on the floor of the Dáil. We all remember the notorious JobBridge scheme. Is the Government planning a new cheap labour scheme or a JobBridge 2.0? Is this the reason for the delay? A Minister is trying to co-ordinate two Departments so I think it is a relevant question.
I do not know if it is a matter of a lack of co-ordination or a lack of honesty from the Government when the Taoiseach says repeatedly that there will be no cliff edge for income supports for people in sectors impacted by the pandemic where they cannot earn a living or work at all. On the other hand, the same people who are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, receive notice or announcements from the Department to the effect that the payment will be cut completely in September if the rate of the payment drops to €203. Taxi drivers told me this week that they were getting phone calls from the Department of Social Protection and Intreo offices telling them that they would have to sign off the PUP or go on to a jobseeker's payment. One replied that he is not a jobseeker but a taxi driver who cannot make a living because much of his business is still not operating. The official who called said that maybe he could be fixed up with a job on a building site. He is in his 60s. That is outrageous. That situation pertains for people in the arts, music, entertainment and so on. They are now being threatened with a cliff edge in respect of the PUP being pulled or pushed onto jobseekers' payments when they are still waiting for their sectors to fully recover. Will the Taoiseach explain this anomaly and please tell me that he will not pull the PUP rug from under people whose livelihoods or incomes are significantly down and will remain so for some time through no fault of their own?
Nearly two months after the cyberattack on the health service, would the co-ordination committee be an appropriate forum for the Department of Health to present its response plan to address the full consequences of that attack in order that the Taoiseach can provide the public with an update on the delays in treatment and administrative responses caused by this attack?
Has the co-ordination committee discussed the issue of ventilation? Last September, during Leaders' Questions, I said, "One crucial, immediate issue is that of ventilation." Since then, I and People Before Profit have consistently pushed for serious energy and effort to be given to ventilation in workplaces to help to combat Covid. It is ten months on from then. Last week, when I questioned the Tánaiste at the enterprise committee, he admitted that there are still no legally enforceable standards for ventilation. There are voluntary guidelines and protocols but there is no systematic monitoring, enforcement or investment. It is not just about indoor dining and hospitality; we are also talking about schools, universities and offices. Ventilation is a crucial part of any safe reopening. This is an airborne virus and that is why being outside is so much safer than being inside. We should have CO2 monitors in our workplaces and a threshold above which it is not safe for people to work in them. Will the Taoiseach act now, almost a year and a half into the pandemic, to ensure that there are proper, enforceable ventilation standards for all workforces, and put in the investment to make it happen?
Today, 24 people will lose their lives to cancer and 480 people will get cancer. In the past week, I have secured statistics from the HSE, which state that so far in 2021, the number of people referred from GPs to rapid access clinics for cancer is 153% of the figure for the same period last year. It is 126% of the same period in 2019, which is worrying. Consultants have stated that a tidal wave of advanced cancers will hit health services in the coming years as a result of the lack of timely diagnosis. The HSE has also stated that cancer services are still not operating at pre-Covid levels or capacity, which is incredible. When will cancer services be able to operate at 100% of pre-Covid capacity? What research is being done by the Government or NPHET with regard to the impact of the restrictions in the health service on people's health and lives where Covid is not involved?
I will deal with the questions in the order that they were tabled.
In response to Deputy Kelly, the Cabinet co-ordination committee does not have endless debates on every issue. Its primary focus is to clear the agenda for the Cabinet, to discuss general issues affecting Government and issues related to Covid. We have Cabinet sub-committees on Covid, as the Deputy knows, the economy, education, environment, housing and social issues. Antigen testing was on the Government agenda today and was referenced to at our meeting yesterday evening. In terms of decision-making, the Government approved the establishment of the group chaired by Mary Horgan to primarily advise Departments, agencies and other sectors of the economy about how best to deploy antigen testing in certain settings. As the Deputy pointed out, it is in use in meat factories. It has been in use in other sectors of the economy. A significant pilot by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is under way for third level and further education campuses with a view to facilitating and assisting the reopening of those facilities for the academic year in the autumn. The Minister was anxious put together a strong team, which he has now, to assist sectors, Departments and agencies in rolling out antigen testing where it can be of value and assistance as an additional tool to the range of other tools available for testing.
It is fair to say that our PCR testing is among the best in class. We are not where Denmark is because it is way ahead of most other European countries but our capacity for PCR testing is high now. The HSE helped with antigen testing in a number of locations as well. The indications are that we will need that capacity in the coming weeks, given the rise in Delta variant cases. We are witnessing a significant increase in the numbers coming forward for testing. In the past week in particular, the numbers coming forward were significantly ahead of the previous week. The key message that we have for people is that, if they have symptoms, they should please come forward to be tested by the HSE. That is extremely important.
We will have an opportunity later to make statements on the issue that Deputy McDonald raised.
Her points about emergency aid, supports for NGOs, in particular, and Women's Aid are issues that the Government is very seized of. We are anxious to make progress on them over the coming weeks and months, in addition to the work we have already done.
On Deputy Barry's point, Pathways to Work will be launched very shortly. It is not being held back because of the recess or any fear. The Minister is not in trepidation of any questions the Deputy might ask in respect of this but, clearly, the Deputy will have a different perspective from the Government or a Minister. Our key objective is to get young people back to work, to facilitate the long-term unemployed to return to work and to have a massive programme of investment in training places, apprenticeships and further and higher education as a key part of the economic recovery programme and the utilisation of recovery and resilience funds.
There will be no cliff in terms of impacts of supports. The Government has provided unprecedented and quite extraordinary supports, including the PUP and other supports such as the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS and the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. The bottom line is that we will continue to work with different sectors and groups, as we have all along the way.
Indeed, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, has engaged with those in the arts and entertainment sector on a range of proposals they have brought forward and has responded generously to their suggestions. Likewise, we have met with members of a taxi group and those in that sector as well. Facilitation has been made to allow taxi drivers to earn so much. There is a threshold to facilitate that, which is important.
On Deputy Calleary's point about the Cabinet co-ordination committee, it has been briefed on cybersecurity. The cybersecurity issue had an enormous negative impact on our health services, and especially on front-line workers. I pay a very warm tribute to everybody in administration, in the higher levels of the HSE and on the front line of our healthcare services who bore the brunt of an appalling criminal act that attacked our health services and patients but, above all, put enormous strain on our workers in health. I salute them for their commitment and persistence, particularly coming after the pandemic.
There are guidelines on ventilation and reports have been published. CO2 monitors are being put into schools across the board. That came out of a working group, which recommended they be put into our schools and it is happening.
On Deputy Tóibín's point, the reasons we are being cautious in reopening society - people attacked us earlier about our approach to indoor dining and hospitality - is to give space to the health services to restore non-Covid treatments and screening programmes and to facilitate diagnostics for non-Covid diseases, particularly cancer and diseases of the heart, liver and all the major organs of the body. We know there is a logjam because of Covid-19 and no other reason. That is one of the reasons we have to be very vigilant in keeping virus levels down. Once the virus infection rates go up again and hospitalisations rise, we retard the progress we have made to date in restoring health services.