Dáil debates

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

2:00 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Members and all in attendance are asked to exercise personal responsibility to protect themselves and others from the risk of Covid-19.

We move straight away to Leaders' Questions under Standing Order 36. Deputy McDonald, are you going to introduce some of the Christmas spirit today?

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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I have dressed in red for the occasion. I thought it would be a bit much to don the beard and the hat so I left them.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I will not take off Chris de Burgh.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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However, I might get a more positive response from An Taoiseach if I were attired in that manner. In any event, happy Christmas in advance to all.

I wish to raise with the Taoiseach his Government's management of the Covid booster roll-out. This morning, on his way to Cabinet, the Taoiseach said it is now a case of all hands on deck because of the Omicron variant, but his urgency comes late in the day. The truth is we needed an all hands on deck approach over two months ago, long before the emergence of the Omicron variant, because at that stage we knew we were facing into a difficult winter. We have known for quite some time that an efficient booster roll-out would be needed to protect people and to safeguard our progress. The fact is the Government's lack of forward planning has led to real issues with the roll-out of the booster. We have seen problems with the alignment of the booking system between the HSE, GPs and pharmacies. This means people have received multiple appointments which stay on the system even when people try to cancel. One person has reported receiving nine appointments and has been declared a no-show for each one, despite no longer living in the State. There have been many instances of people receiving up to five appointments, so I am glad to hear that is being updated, but it is late in the day. The lack of Government planning has also hit the number of vaccinators we have. We are down 500 vaccinators since the summer, which means the booster campaign is now operating at two thirds the capacity of the original roll-out.

How has this happened? Clearly, the Government made no contingencies for maintaining capacity in the vaccination network, which is madness. We should not now be facing the need to scramble for vaccinators again. That capacity should have been hardwired into the system. Two years on there is still a lack of preparation and leadership from the Government. That is why we see winding queues and big delays outside vaccination centres. It is why some people have been turned away from the centres and why we are now in a rush to get out doses that are close to expiring. We should not be in this position. All the evidence reflects that the vast majority of people want their boosters. The problem we have is a Government that moves far too slowly and is always playing catch-up. We saw it when it came to use of antigen tests, we saw it when it came to the ventilation of our schools and we see it now again with this booster campaign.

Tá an Rialtas ag bogadh go rómhall ar an bhfeachtas teanndáileoige. Tá an t-am le haghaidh fógraí móra thart. Tá sé thar am anois dul i ngleic leis seo. Tá sé thar am na hacmhainní atá ag teastáil a chur ar fáil chun go n-éireodh leis an rolladh amach. The Taoiseach says it is all hands on deck, but the time for big announcements and big targets is over. It is now time for delivery. He says the Government will ramp up the number of vaccinators. Will he tell us by how many? Will he tell us when they will be in place? Will he tell us what additional supports will be given to GPs and pharmacies? Will he guarantee the problems experienced with the appointment system will not be repeated as the campaign is accelerated?

2:05 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I wish the Deputies opposite a very happy Christmas. I am off to the European Union Council meeting tomorrow, so I may not get the opportunity to do so then. I wish the Ceann Comhairle a happy Christmas and thank him for all his facilitation during the year and his tolerance and patience. I hope it can last another session. I thank the ushers, the Captain of the Guard and the team here for their co-operation and guidance during a very difficult situation in relation to Covid-19.

In response to Deputy McDonald's questions, I want to start by thanking everybody involved in the vaccination programme. I pay tribute to those who have led it from the beginning. It is one of the most successful programmes in the world in terms of the first and second primary doses, which have given significant protection to the population against severe disease and illness. I thank the general practitioners in respect of the booster campaign. GPs have moved very quickly from the outset in respect of the older age cohorts, those with underlying conditions and with healthcare workers. I thank the pharmacists and vaccinators across all the different centres. I wish to make the general point that the vaccine booster programme commenced on 4 October 2021, following advice from the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, to go ahead in advance of that. We are currently fourth in Europe on the administration of the booster thanks to the efforts of all involved.

The arrival of the Omicron variant does lend considerable urgency to this, given the rapidity at which it spreads. It has been designated a variant of concern for about three weeks. We have been in touch with public officials at the office of the CMO, who are concerned. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, is concerned at the rapid spread of Omicron, and that it has a significant advantage over Delta in terms of its infectiousness. That is a concern.

However, the Deputy should be in no doubt that we have been working with the HSE public officials in terms of expanding and extending further the vaccination programme. There are three essential channels: the vaccination centres, the GP surgeries, and the pharmacies. Discussions have been under way with the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, for example, in terms of GPs throughout the country being able to do more, if possible. To be fair to them, they have done a fair degree of vaccinations in the booster campaign so far. Those engagements have been taking place. There is a generally good response. Those in the primary care system want to respond and to be of assistance to the country at this particular juncture, with the arrival of the new variant. We know the booster gives significant additional protection against Omicron. That is the general view of public health officials and the expertise that it will give cellular immunity against Omicron. That is the general view and belief right now in terms of preventing severe disease and admissions to hospitals, which is the key agenda and objective of the booster vaccination programme.

There were some operational systems issues. However, in my view, we have to look at this in balance and perspective. They were not the key issue. The key issue now is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can. That means extending the opening hours of the vaccination centres and expanding the roll out in the other two channels, utilising our primary care system through GPs and pharmacies. We are going to utilise all capacity at our disposal. We have administered 1.25 million doses between third doses and the booster, which gives the vital older age cohorts significant protection in the time ahead.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Taoiseach does not have to convince anybody in this House or beyond in respect of the booster. All of the evidence is that people wish to receive their boosters. We have a highly vaccinated population. Therefore, the issues that arise are operational. There is a question mark over the management and leadership of the Taoiseach's Government in rolling out this booster campaign.

We have had huge confusion, as I have said, about appointments, we have had long queues, and we have had people being sent away. Now we have a considerable volume of vaccine that will expire that has to be administered to people who wish to get their boosters.

I have asked the Taoiseach a series of questions. We clearly need additional vaccinators. How many will we get and when will they be in place? What additional supports does the Taoiseach propose for GPs and pharmacists? It is clear the Government is attaching great importance to and putting great stock in the booster campaign. The issues of capacity are essential. It is not enough to thank those on the front line. We have to enable them to do their job and to deliver this. When the Taoiseach takes to his feet, will he tell us precisely and concretely how many additional vaccinators there will be and when they will be in place? What supports will there be for our GPs and pharmacists?

2:10 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I was taken somewhat by what was said yesterday in Stormont by Deputy McDonald's colleague, the deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill. She said, "If ever there was a time for a united front on the public health message, it's today, because we are facing into a very, very difficult period in the weeks ahead". I make this general point across the House. It is a fair comment.

That said, with regard to a number of points Deputy McDonald has raised, there is no issue with the Moderna vaccine. It is not being rushed out. I took Moderna myself on Friday. I waited in a line. The mood was good. People spoke to each other. Many people are waiting in line and are happy to get the booster vaccine. There needs to be balance and perspective in the commentary on this. Thousands of vaccinations were done last week. Two days were lost because of Storm Barra. The highest number was last Thursday with 43,000 doses administered. It is more complex than the first campaign. The interval date was one issue and it is also because of doing multiple age cohorts together. GPs, pharmacists and vaccination centres are vaccinating the same patient cohorts at the same time. It is being done differently from the first phase. This has brought an additional layer of complexity. Genuinely, across the country-----

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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So we are not getting more vaccinators I am assuming.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Yes, we will.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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How many and when?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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As I said earlier, we are working through the three channels with regard to additional output, if we can, on the GP side, the pharmacies and extending the hours of the vaccination centres.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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How many vaccinators? The Taoiseach does not know.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The acute hospital system has been told as well and has been engaged with in terms of reducing some activities with a view to engaging with the vaccination programme.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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If the Taoiseach does not know how many he should just say so. I would appreciate an answer. It is a very straightforward question.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It is not that simple.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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Omicron already comprises 11% of cases in this country, as the Taoiseach knows. It will likely be the dominant strain by early next week. Therefore, we need a steely resolve and an absolute focus on ramping up the booster campaign. This is not to denigrate in any way the work that has been done to date. There has been a lot of very good work but at this stage there is a need for an increased national effort to ramp up the booster campaign in every way possible.

At the height of the vaccine programme 400,000 doses were being delivered every week. Last week, there were only 220,000 in total. We need to ramp this up very substantially in all settings. Clearly the suggestion that vaccine hesitancy was an issue does not hold up. We also know the supply of vaccine doses is not a constraint either. What are the limiting factors? What can be done to remove them immediately?

Clearly we do not have sufficient staff in the vaccination centres and clearly we need to open these centres for a sufficiently long time. In looking for staff the Taoiseach needs to look in all quarters. Is there potential for vaccinators to be drawn from the Army, for example, or from other agencies? Decisions about this need to be made very quickly. Walk-in centres are open for only two hours. This is entirely insufficient and it is quite short-sighted. Should we not be seeking staff everywhere we can? The booking system itself has been causing havoc. These issues are still not resolved and need to be tackled immediately. GPs and pharmacies clearly have capacity to do much more.

I spoke to representatives from both today and there is capacity to do much more. We could be drawing pharmacy and medical students in to do the work. They can be trained very quickly and much of that training already exists and they could help out in the effort, under supervision. We should be bringing that resource in very quickly.

There are also nurses who are currently unemployed for one reason or another. Can they come in, even on a part-time basis? We need to look everywhere for additional staff.

It would seem that the rules on age cohorts should also be loosened for GPs and for pharmacies. At the end of November, the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, NIAC, approved boosters for everybody over 16 years of age. Why are there constraints on that now? We should be opening it up for everybody to have as many vaccinators available as possible. It does not seem to make sense that GPs and pharmacies are forced to adhere rigidly to age cohorts in the roll-out as mandated by the HSE and only administer to people over 50 years of age. I am particularly concerned about people under 50 years of age who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the early part of the summer. That is a very rapidly waning vaccine. They are the cohort that are most likely to be out and about, mixing and socialising. There needs to be specific approach to that.

Will the Taoiseach ensure that there is quick decision-making on the part of the HSE, which has been a problem, and that there is an immediate response to issues raised by the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, and the Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, this morning? Will he consider the age constraints that currently exist?

2:20 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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First, there has been constant engagement with the IMO from the leadership of the HSE and indeed the Minister for Health has also been in touch over the week and before that to explore more ways to expand the number of vaccines that can be administered through the GP network and system.

It is important to pay tribute to them and to all those who have worked in this area. Sometimes, some of the commentary does not give due recognition - I am not speaking of anybody here - to the enormous efforts that some people are making out there already in the vaccination programme. When one thinks about it, from 4 October to now, delivering 1.25 million vaccines is a very significant performance in itself. The Defence Forces are, have been involved and will be increasing their involvement in supporting the vaccination programme.

The testing is also being ramped up. It is at 225,000 to 230,000 capacity at the moment and it is envisaged to ramp that up very significantly by the end of the year to 300,000 plus, involving both PCR and antigen testing. The Defence Forces are involved and there is also engagement with the pharmacy union, IPU. Resources are simply not an issue in respect of resourcing the booster campaign and supporting those who are administering the vaccines.

There has been an extensive recruitment campaign underway for the past number of weeks in respect of vaccinators, of part-time and retired people. Basically, all are welcome. We want people to join in the national effort to vaccinate and to help out. There are very structured discussions going on with pharmacists. Not all pharmacists are involved in the vaccination programme. Some 500 plus pharmacies are involved at this stage, together with a very large number of GPs. We want to do more and get more people involved and we will be supportive of those who are involved in administering the vaccine itself and in extending the hours of the vaccination centres to facilitate more and more people being vaccinated.

I spoke to someone this morning who was in Swords who said that everyone waited in line and people were generally in good form and anxious to get the booster. There have been, of course, challenges in other locations but by and large across the country much work has been gotten through.

I want to assure the Deputy that all of the issues raised by her are being addressed in respect of those who could be recruited and we have been assured that that programme of recruitment has been underway for quite some time in getting additional people involved.

The health service itself has also been releasing and redeploying people.

The Deputy mentioned the middle of the summer. Of course, there was a peak in the summer but then it edged down very considerably for obvious reasons and people were redeployed back into the health service.

2:25 pm

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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The Taoiseach did not address the issue of removing the age restrictions. It is a really important issue. I spoke today to a GP who told me that when a patient comes into his surgery for something else, he will ask if the patient has received a booster. He is quite happy to provide it and that can be done quickly, but if the person is not over the age of 50 or within the recognised cohorts, he cannot administer the booster. Equally with pharmacists, if people are coming into their pharmacies, there are opportunities to administer the booster but those people have to be over 50. In particular, the issue of the younger age group who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and are especially vulnerable now because they are not included for the boosters needs to be addressed.

There does not seem to be any way of recording the fact that a person has had a booster. Increasingly, other European countries are placing limits on people who do not have proof of having received a booster. Austria, for example, is not allowing people in unless they have proof of a booster. We do not have any records in that regard.

How many additional beds is the Taoiseach making available from the private sector in order to deal with what is likely to be a very substantial increase in the need for hospital beds?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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First, the older age cohorts sequence is the established public health approach to the vaccination programme. In other words, those most at risk by dint of age, illness or underlying conditions are vaccinated first. That has always been the process.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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It is a constraint.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Yes, but it also protects us against the worst the virus can do in terms of hospitalisation and ICU. It protects people who are more at risk of being severely impacted by the virus. That has been the case from the beginning of this pandemic. Older age cohorts and people with underlying conditions are most impacted by the virus, unfortunately. That said, we are hoping that we will shortly be in a position in relation to the 40- to 49-year-olds to bring that date forward. I take the Deputy's point in terms of flexibilities with general practitioners and pharmacies. These are issues that can form part of discussions that are ongoing. It is critical that we get those older age cohorts done because when you look at the data - I looked at them before lunchtime - they are very clear. For those who get the booster, hospitalisations are reduced significantly. That is clear in the over-80s, the over-70s and, indeed, now the over-65s. I take the Deputy's point and her positive perspective in terms of flexibility for those on the primary care side in terms of their interface with patients.

On the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it is my understanding that it has been raised with the Chief Medical Officer and NIAC in terms of the Johnson & Johnson cohort. I, too, am concerned about that cohort because of the waning efficacy of that first and only dose they received. That is an issue that NIAC has stated it will keep under constant review.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Time is up, Taoiseach. In fact, we are over time.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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What about records of the booster?

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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I wish all present, and the entire parliamentary community, a Happy Christmas.

I wish to raise with the Taoiseach the situation in Ukraine because I know it will feature at the European Council meeting he will attend tomorrow. It is a very serious situation. There are more than 100,000 Russian troops on the border, backed up by armour, artillery and aircraft. As every day passes, it looks less like posturing and more like genuine preparation for an assault on Ukraine. I mention that because the HSE, to be fair, was ill prepared for the pandemic because that is the nature of pandemics. Also, our cyberdefence people were ill-prepared for the cyberattack because that is the nature of cyberattacks. One thing that is for sure is that the Defence Forces are hopelessly ill-prepared for any outbreak of hostilities on the Continent and any overspill that may arrive on our shores. Whenever I am in Europe, my counterparts there always tell me that all they are asking Ireland to do is to be able to police its own skies, patrol its own waters and not be a burden on its neighbours in the context of defence and security. That is an entirely reasonable request of a supposedly sovereign independent republic. On that basis, I was very happy to see the commitment in the programme for Government last year to establish a commission on the Defence Forces. That commission, to be fair, was established at the start of this year and is due to report approximately 17 days from now.

I am very much in favour of the principle and I support the concept. Last week, however, there were some concerning reports in the media, particularly relating to the independence or perceived lack of independence in the commission's process, whether the report will be ready on time and whether there will be enough resources on the table to implement its findings. I am particularly concerned about the independence or otherwise of the commission's findings. It would be a very retrograde step if the secretariat appointed to the commission did most of the writing and drafting of the report, with the commission only really there to rubber stamp any recommendations.

Will the Taoiseach provide any reassurance to the House that the Commission on the Defence Forces is autonomous, is independent, has editorial autonomy and is free from any bureaucratic interference? If the commission requires more time beyond 31 December to furnish its report, would the Taoiseach be supportive of such a request? If it needs an extension in order to submit the report, what would be the Taoiseach's views on such a request?

2:35 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising a very important matter. On the question of Ukraine, there is a range of EU meetings tomorrow and Thursday, including an EU Council meeting. Ukraine and the position pertaining to Russia will be raised. We have already had preliminary discussions and preparatory meetings late last week in respect of that matter. It is entirely unacceptable that this type of pressure is being put on Ukraine by the massing of so many Russian military personnel on Ukraine's borders. The European Union is making it very clear that this is unacceptable and there will be consequences - certainly economic consequences - as a result of any infringement or violation of Ukraine's sovereignty. The matter is being taken very seriously in Europe and we know it is being taken very seriously in the United States. It is a global matter and the more major players are engaging with Russia on this to avoid any conflict. It is critical that we avoid such conflict.

In the context of our Defence Forces, there is a Commission on the Defence Forces, as the Deputy said. It was established and is independent. It is to examine structures for governance, joint command and control, the arrangements for the effective defence of the country, the composition of the Defence Forces and its pay structures. A separate organisational capability review of the Department of Defence is currently under way.

The commission is independent and is mandated to make recommendations as it sees fit within its terms of reference. The commission's report, when submitted, will be fully considered. I have looked at the list of the people on the commission again to refresh my memory and they do not sound like people who would stand for any rubber stamping by any secretariat of any report. There are strong personalities on that commission. There are people on it with experience in the military world, the public service, the Civil Service and the industrial relations world. These are people generally with solid experience in life so the scenario does not arise where somebody will write a report and they will rubber stamp it. That will not happen at all.

It is a real opportunity to look radically at the entire matter. We need to change and improve in respect of our capabilities. There is a range of matters, including specialists that need to be recruited to the Defence Forces across the board. The Deputy instanced cybersecurity as an example and even across Europe we need a Europe-wide response. The most important defence against cyberthreats is a collective defence, where we can pool our knowledge and experience of cyberattacks and dealing with them, as happened in our case. Poland came to help us, as did the United Kingdom and others.

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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I thank the Taoiseach for the very helpful response. On the implementation of the recommendations, we have a very poor track record in this country of implementing defence policy once it is decided. There was a White Paper from 2015, for example. Dozens of projects from six years ago have yet even to be commenced, let alone completed.

Can the Taoiseach guarantee or assure us that the resources and the political will required to implement the findings of this report, if it is finalised, will be forthcoming when required to make our armed forces an armed forces for the 21st century?

2:40 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I have discussed this with the Minister for Defence. We want a strong and accelerated follow-through on the recommendations of the commission. It cannot be a report that is just left on the shelf. It has to be activated, followed through on and implemented. Obviously, we will have to see the nature of the recommendations and make an assessment of them, but it is critical to the country. We have seen since the beginning of the pandemic that the Defence Forces have been outstanding in a range of areas to do with the pandemic and in different ways. In the beginning, they helped out in nursing homes. They have helped out with the logistics of distribution and in testing and tracing. The Defence Forces have been a significant underpinning of the national effort in respect of the pandemic. Even to this day, there are further discussions between the HSE and the Chief of Staff in respect of additional help and work the Defence Forces can bring to the table to respond to the Omicron situation.

We are very conscious of that. I hope the commission represents the dawn of a new era for our Defence Forces.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, for whom I am standing in today. He has asked me to raise this issue. Contractors are finding it increasingly difficult to stand over tendered prices for periods of up to two years, which many projects run to, because of the rising cost of materials. In the past year, construction material prices have increased every month, by 26.7% on last year, which is a shocking amount. That is according to the Central Statistics Office's most recent wholesale price index; they are not my words. This represents a truly staggering statistic.

The materials shortages have started to ease but the rising cost of materials will probably continue well into 2022. The price of rough timber, meanwhile, has increased by more than 80%, the cost of plaster has increased by 20% and the cost of steel has doubled. Several local authorities have highlighted the effect this has had on housebuilding. Construction costs inflation is impacting on tender prices and contractors are finding it increasingly difficult to price and even to procure prices themselves from suppliers for that length of period. If somebody gets a price today, whether for a house, a house extension or whatever, the building suppliers will give him or her only three days or maybe one week at most. It is not that they want to blackguard people but that the prices are increasing weekly.

The crisis in this sector is jeopardising major initiatives such as homebuilding and national infrastructure projects. It is completely untenable for the construction industry to take on all the risks for the exceptional price inflation under current State building contracts. This impacts on all contractors, and on subcontractors down the line. A builder may find out, whether in the case of a school project or whatever, that he or she cannot complete the project within the tender price because the material is old. It could be a year and a half, because of delays with the Department and everything else, from tender time to getting the job. Builders then end up in crisis and cannot complete the job, despite their efforts and despite being good builders, and cannot pay their subcontractors, with the knock-on effect they cannot pay their suppliers.

This is a huge issue and it impacts on the construction economy as well. Rising material and labour costs could hurt competition going forward and will have a significant impact on our post-pandemic recovery. The materials crisis means there is an urgent need to overhaul how the industry procures and manages supply itself, yet the Government will not look at that. It has promised to do so, but the construction industry has not seen any cogent plans offered nor anything changed.

Higher energy costs and prices, whether for gas, coal or diesel, along with carbon tax have had a considerable impact on site clearances and on industrial machinery and lorries hauling cement, gravel and other aggregates to sites. Costs are spiralling. These are good builders who work as duine amháin, maybe with duine eile, and small builders who work with ten, 20 or 50 people. They cannot survive because of the cost of labour, insurance and materials.

What is the Taoiseach's Government going to do to alleviate the pressure on this worthwhile sector that needs to be respected?

2:50 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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First, I want to pay tribute to the sector, which I think has responded very well since we reopened society and sectors of the economy. Since the springtime, the construction sector has really rebounded, to be fair to it. From October to October, we are looking at approximately 31,000 housing commencements, which is a significant piece of work in terms of getting housebuilding back on track to the kinds of levels we need to deal with the housing crisis and the situation facing many people.

The Deputy correctly points to cost inflation in respect of construction, mainly because of global supply chain issues resulting from Covid-19, which have been a big problem across Europe and the globe. Some date it back to the blockage in the Suez Canal, which the Deputy may recall. Then Brexit can be added, which has not been helpful either in terms of some supply chains. There has been inflation and it has affected and impacted public sector contracts. We have had some situations where people who won tenders did not take them up on the basis that the costs have now overreached what they bid and could afford. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is introducing changes and they are being put in place now for new tenders. The fixed-price period is being reduced by six months to 24 months, material price variation can be accommodated, subject to certain limits, and guidance is being issued for current contracts. The Minister acknowledges the issues the Deputy has raised. He brought the matter to the attention of Government some weeks ago. Measures are now being introduced to try to ease the situation and create additional flexibility to accommodate the new realities arising out of the supply chain issues and the increase in costs that have affected the industry.

The view from the ECB and others is that this should not be a long-term issue and that things will come back to an even keel towards the end of the first quarter of 2022, but that remains to be seen. There can never be any certainties in life, particularly in the middle of a pandemic, but we are very conscious of the issues. The Minister has moved on the tender front to recognise the realities of the situation and ensure construction projects that we want to get ahead have the capacity to get ahead, be they schools or housing across the board. There is a significant piece of infrastructural work that we require to be done and we have very large capital programmes. We want value for money and we want to be responsive to the current situation also.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Taoiseach paints a picture of a perfect storm. We saw this coming over the past 12 months and the Government and its advisers must have seen it too, because it is crippling. There is a huge delay with people working from home in getting the tenders out, getting documents back to schools and builders and all of that. Contractors are tendering in good faith and we need them now to engage the new apprentices we are taking on in Thurles and elsewhere, who are badly needed in the construction industry. If the builders cannot stay above water level, they are in trouble and they will get no mercy from Revenue and less from the banks. We need to deal with this seriously and we are coming late to the table. This storm has been brewing and it is a hurricane now. We have no red alerts about it. People are going to the wall and projects cannot be finished, with knock-on effects on subcontractors and suppliers, all of whom are local. Most of these people spend money locally in their own 25-mile radius. They have track records in supplying, building and delivering the best projects on time. They want to do that again.

I did not catch the figure the Taoiseach cited for the reduction in fixed-price tenders. Are they down to 24 months? That is way too long. Did he say they are down from 30 months to 24 months? We cannot have a fixed tender for 24 months. It cannot be done. It can hardly be done now for eight weeks because the situation is so serious with prices going up by the week.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The time is up, Deputy.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I acknowledge the Deputy's experience in the contracting world and so on. The Minister has responded to the issues. Contracts will now permit mutual cost recovery for material price changes of more than 15%. Therefore, where costs rise by more than 15%, the contractor can recover that. Measures have been taken in response to this issue. The balance always has to be struck between achieving value for money, protecting the taxpayer, getting a fair deal for the taxpayer and - I take this point - ensuring people have a viable situation in terms of tendering, getting work done and getting projects completed. That is clearly important also.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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What is the new fixed-price term?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The period is 24 months.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That concludes Leaders' Questions.