Dáil debates

Thursday, 16 December 2021

1:35 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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This is the last opportunity we have to be reassured that the Government has a handle on Covid before the Dáil recess. There is a lot of talk from the Government about personal responsibility. That is part of it, but I believe that the vast majority of people are already doing their best to keep themselves and their families safe. We must act with our healthcare workers and the burden this pandemic is putting on them in mind. We can reduce our social contacts, make sure to mask up and test regularly, but there are limits. The role of, and obligation on, Government is much larger. That starts with getting the communication right. That means an end to mixed messaging and contradictions, Ministers flying kites or speculating in the media and senior politicians in government blaming others when they do not get things right.

Over the past few months, the Government has failed to make the right call time and again in many areas. It made the wrong call on antigen tests from the beginning. It dismissed them and the role they could have played much earlier in keeping people safe. The Minister recently refused to subsidise them in order to increase usage and accessibility, and supplement PCR testing, where appropriate, with all of the necessary caveats. That is despite the very clear advice from the Covid-19 rapid testing group established in April chaired by the Government chief scientific adviser, Professor Mark Ferguson. Rapid tests will be an incredibly important screening tool this winter as families gather for Christmas and will be a financial burden on far too many who are already struggling with the rampant rise in the cost of living.

The Government has failed on ventilation and making schools as safe as possible. Despite the very clear advice from the expert group on ventilation, which reported in March, the Government failed to use the summer to protect classrooms. The Government denied for months that schools were sites of transmission. That does not mean that they cannot be relatively safe, but the refusal of the Government to invest in proper systems to control the spread of Covid-19 in schools has made them far riskier than they should have been. We now have a window to right that wrong while schools close for Christmas. When they reopen, every poorly ventilated classroom must be fitted with CO2 monitoring systems and HEPA or appropriate air filtration systems. There is a very cold January ahead, as we know. The Government must do everything it can to make schools safer and do right by our children before they reopen.

The Minister for Health also needs to step up the booster campaign. It is unforgivable that the Government took its foot off the pedal after the summer. The vaccination workforce dropped by a third and that has delayed the booster campaign for weeks, if not months. The Government failed to ensure that flexible arrangements were in place to rapidly ramp up the workforce and vaccination capacity. It has not made full use of the pharmacies and pharmacists around the country who have been eager to administer as many vaccines as they can. The Government has failed in many ways regarding booster vaccines, despite the mountain of evidence that they would be needed. This has set us back. There have been incredible problems with the booster campaign to date, especially the booking systems. The Government has blamed the slow pace on no-shows, when in reality many no-shows are people who had already been vaccinated or were issued with multiple appointments. The Government must acknowledge when it gets it wrong rather than blame people who have already done so much.

Alongside boosters for the immunocompromised, the most important task over the next two months is vaccination for those aged under 12. There are many parents with concerns that must be addressed and they must be reassured. Parents must have access to any necessary information to ensure a high uptake of the vaccine among this cohort. The Government must do more to reach people who are unvaccinated as best it can. The vaccines are safe and effective. We must make sure that people know this and have the opportunity to get them. A high uptake across the entire population is essential to control the spread and consequences of Covid-19 for all of our people.

Our hospitals are in the depths of a very difficult winter. At the start of this week there were 534 patients on trolleys, tucked into ward corners and corridors. Over the past week there were more than 325 patients on trolleys in Limerick and 281 in Letterkenny, and five other hospitals had more than 100 patients on trolleys. That is a very unsafe environment in normal times, never mind in a pandemic, for patients and staff. It illustrates the failures of this and previous Governments that have left our hospitals vulnerable and the State in a uniquely exposed position throughout this pandemic. It makes us all the more deeply concerned about the Omicron variant. While it has been reported as potentially less severe, that is little comfort if it is more transmissible when our hospitals are already at capacity.

As of yesterday evening,, there were only 83 open and available general beds in hospitals. Some nine hospitals, including Waterford, St. Vincent's, Sligo and Mayo, had none. Only three have more than five. Incredibly, in the 2022 budget not a single additional inpatient bed was provided or budgeted for over and above what was in place. Our ICUs are full. There are no available beds for children and only seven available beds for adults in four counties. We know we have capacity problems in healthcare and the Government has simply failed to put extra capacity in place.

This is only going to get more difficult for our front-line healthcare workers over the next month. They are already well beyond burnout and exhaustion, yet they soldier on. We owe them a debt of gratitude, but I fear that will not be repaid anytime soon. They deserve breaks, their annual leave and to work normal hours for fair pay. They also deserve the recognition and bonus payments that were promised. We heard a lot of talk from Ministers, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party before the budget about a recognition payment for those on the front line. The budget came and went and nothing happened. After the budget, nothing has happened. This is the last sitting of the Dáil before the Christmas break, yet the Government has done absolutely nothing to recognise the hard work of those on the front line in health care. They will be the very same people that will have to do Trojan work over the next number of weeks and months. Shame on the Government for not resolving that issue when it should have.

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I do not think anyone would have anticipated that we would find ourselves in such a precarious and difficult position again this Christmas after the shocking situation last Christmas and January. We are contending with consistently high case numbers as well as the arrival of the Omicron variant, which is wreaking havoc in other jurisdictions.

The first issue I want to raise is testing. It applies in every county, but in Louth there is still an ad hocresponse to demand. There have been pop-up test centres for a few days here and there, but these are not publicised for some strange reason. Given that they only operate sporadically, it has been quite confusing for people in recent weeks. Due to the surge we are currently experiencing and the arrival of the latest variant, it is time we had two full testing centres in Louth until such time as numbers fall again.

The matter of boosters also needs to be addressed. I checked the HSE website a couple of hours ago. In Louth, booster walk-in clinics are only being scheduled for three hours a day today and tomorrow for those aged over 60 and for three hours a day for three days next week for those aged over 50. The Minister referred to extended times, and I will monitor the website to see if it is updated to reflect that comment. People are reporting difficulties in getting an appointment in local pharmacies in Louth. Boosters have been offered in 700 pharmacies this week, an increase of 150 on last week, which is good, but is still well short of the thousand pharmacies that participated in the first vaccine roll-out. There are 1,900 pharmacies in the State, and it is vital that more come on board given the urgency the new variant has caused. I am also concerned that the pace up until now has been far too slow. It is not today or yesterday that we learned that everyone will need a third dose. By my calculations, we are 15% behind where we were in June during the first vaccine roll-out.

The Minister for Health said that plans to increase capacity are gathering pace, but the urgency only began this week and it is frustrating at this stage of the pandemic that basic public health efforts such as the booster jab are still slow to get off the ground. Another issue that needs to be resolved is updating vaccine passes for those who receive boosters to ensure their stated vaccine status is correctly reflected in their vaccine pass. We need clarity on the current status of that and when we can expect it to be completed. I have heard no clarification whatsoever about that to date.

Schools are another issue. The Government's response to dealing with Covid-19 in schools has been shambolic, to say the least. Finally, there is some recognition of the need for HEPA filters, but why does it take several weeks, or indeed several months, for everything to happen with the Government? There are parents who will not send their children to school next week because they worry about them contracting Covid before Christmas. If parents had any confidence in schools being safe environments for children, this would not happen. The Government needs to get a handle on this and listen to parents, teachers and experts in ventilation in terms of managing our schools.

1:45 pm

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh na hAirí ar deis leo thabhairt ar an ábhar seo.

I would like to raise the plight of community groups and the difficulties they are facing during the pandemic. They have kept operating, in most cases, in very difficult circumstances. The Government needs to do more to help them. They are saving the State a fortune and, in some cases, are saving lives. For instance, our first responders are ordinary men and women giving up their time to help communities to cope with the gaps in the ambulance service. I recently asked a parliamentary question about the funding provided to first responder groups throughout the country and the answer I received stated that community first responder groups fundraise for themselves within the communities in which they serve making them completely self-sufficient. The answer, in effect, is not one red cent comes from the Government to provide funding for those first responder groups. That is scandalous. What do they receive? They receive ambulance cast-offs for equipment and the odd voucher for training. Every community group is struggling to fund-raise. The first responders groups are no different and yet we expect them to get out of bed at 3 a.m. to provide assistance to somebody having a heartache. It is not right. It needs to be fixed. I know at first hand what it is like as I am a first responder.

Many groups that provide assistance and support to our older people have had the same difficulty with fundraising. Our older people have been isolated enough during the pandemic. Please do not continue to give them the cold shoulder. They should not have to rely on the crumbs from the property tax nominations of our councillors. There are groups helping our older people to age in place, which leads to better outcomes for everyone and saves the State money. Our older people have given a lifetime of service and paying tax and they deserve to see a return of that investment.

On the subject of our schools, we had an announcement of funding of sorts earlier this week. Clarity is needed. I believe the forms refer to 2022-23 expenditure. Schools need to know if they are to buy HEPA filters at the expense of next year's necessary repairs. Clarification on this would be appreciated.

Finally, we need to see some clarity from the Government. There are more mixed messages this minute than there are at supermarket tills before Christmas week. I have a gospel choir in Monasterevin where I live and they all sing off the one hymn sheet. The Government is singing off no hymn sheet. It is ridiculous. The confusion adds to the anxiety of parents, teachers and business owners. God knows, we have enough anxiety around as it is. The Government must get the messaging right. There must be fewer reactionary comments and more forward planning. It should share the science behind the decisions and perhaps people will be more understanding.

I wish everybody a very happy Christmas. Thanks for everything.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Foley. It is fair to say that the sense of partnership between the Department and individual school communities is non-existent. The feeling is that schools are being abandoned, that teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, are being abandoned and that individual school principals are being abandoned, and what they have had as a source of comfort for more than 18 months has been the mantra from Government that schools are safe. When HEPA filters have been raised for the past 18 months, they have been told schools are safe. When antigen testing was being put forward as a tool to battle Covid within schools, they were told schools are safe. Indeed, when the issue of substitution was raised with the Minister, she seemed to be in some way surprised that substitution was even being raised when everybody else in politics knew that schools were screaming out about the issue.

What I want to do for the Minister is to provide her with three solutions for the new year. I find the lack of political partnership within these Houses a little discouraging as well. I wrote to her on this very day last month, 16 November, and I asked her to meet with all spokespeople on education from all Opposition parties so that collectively we could convey to her what we were hearing from school communities and she could then act on it in a spirit of partnership. That meeting has not taken place. There is no sense that that meeting will ever take place. In fact, the only reason she is here today is because members of the Opposition demanded it. That lack of communication from her even to members of the Opposition is mirrored by the poor communication from the Department to individual school communities who feel that they are not being listened to. The only reason schools are open and in any way functioning is the dedication, the patriotism and sense of genuine public service of our teachers, SNAs and principals, all those volunteers who go with every school community, and school caretakers and the secretaries. I remind everybody, perhaps in future political debates or debates in public discourse, that whenever they feel the need to criticise teachers or SNAs, they should remember this pandemic and that it was not the political leadership of the Government or the Department of Education's attitude that kept schools open but it was teachers, SNAs, school principals, secretaries, caretakers and everybody in those school communities.

I have three suggestions. First, there needs to be an early decision on the leaving certificate. It is not tenable for us to say that the leaving certificate can go back to the way it was in 2017, 2018 and 2019 when it comes to 2022. The level of disruption that fifth year and sixth year students in this senior cycle have endured has been unfair. They missed out on some in-school teaching last year. They are now in a situation where, effectively, there is a substitution crisis at second level and much of what they would have been expecting to learn is just not being taught. An acknowledgement of that early from the Department would be welcome along with a process rolled out this year as happened last year. Let us just do it. Let us acknowledge that they have lost out and that they can have a hybrid model of in-school written examination allied with the assessed grade model similar to that rolled out last year because, in fairness, any second level principal will tell the Minister that students are not learning as they should be and whatever adjustments the Department is saying to the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will be rolled out will not go far enough.

Second, we cannot treat every school the same when it comes to this pandemic. Areas in my constituency have the highest infection rate in the country. Why not have a crack team of education and public health officials proactively engaging with these schools where a raft of students and half the staff are out to ascertain what resources they need, be it HEPA filters and so on? Why do we have such a generalised view of what every school community is doing? It is not difficult to get the data. Here is a high infection area. Here is an area where it is clearly a problem. Here is an area where the school is obvious struggling. Let us proactively engage with that school. What happens? For example, in a school in my constituency with the highest infection rate in the country a number of weeks ago, 58% of the students were out and people could not get anybody on the phone for a week. That is a practical suggestion for the Minister. Let us get rid of the trench warfare between different Departments, let us work together and identify areas where the infection rate is high, and let us proactively engage with those schools. However, that would, of course, take the Department of Education to actually believe that it has a role in the day-to-day management of schools. The attitude the Minister has inherited is that you are on your own.

Third, as a practical suggestion, I note that the roll-out of vaccination for five- to 12-year-olds will take place in vaccination centres in the new year and I welcome that. It will be a game changer for education. Why are we not doing it in schools? Why do we not roll out the vaccination for five- to 12-year-olds, not in vaccination centres but in schools? While we are at it, why do we not vaccinate the school staff in the process?

It just makes so much sense. We are asking parents to go to a vaccination centre to get their children vaccinated. Why not be proactive and go to the school community, vaccinate the children on site and vaccinate the staff - teachers, SNAs, secretaries and caretakers - at the same time? It makes perfect sense. It has been done before.

I will leave the Minister with three points. Let us change the leaving certificate and do what we did last year. Let us have proactive engagement with areas of high infection rates in a way that will make a difference, and let us vaccinate young people where they are learning to ensure schools can remain open.

1:55 pm

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to speak again on this fundamental issue of the Government's response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. This is especially timely given the risks and challenges associated with the new Omicron variant. The current level of Covid-19, both nationally and internationally, is of concern and yet again is placing a huge strain on public services, not least the health system. I again acknowledge the enormous contributions made by all healthcare staff in the continued operation of vital services throughout the country.

Notwithstanding the challenges that face us, I take the opportunity today to provide an update, following statements last month, on some of the significant progress that is being made to further enhance protections, in particular for the older population and people using mental health services in response to Covid-19. I am pleased to say that significant progress has been made in the administration of booster vaccines to the over-80s population within the community. Among the 164,000 people in this age cohort, more than 140,000 vaccines have been administered to date through the excellent work of GPs. GPs are also administering additional doses to over-70s in the community, of which there are approximately 339,000 individuals.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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On a point of order, given that the Minister is leaving the Chamber, is anybody representing the Department of Education?

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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That is not a point of order. We are in the middle of a speech from the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. I will let her continue.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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It is an important point. There are education spokespersons present. The debate is supposed to include education.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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It is important, but it is not a point of order in respect of the speech from the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler.

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

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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It is so disrespectful.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I have to agree.

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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We purposely sought to have education included.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has possession.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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To date, in excess of 276,000 vaccines have been administered. It is expected that this group will be substantially completed in the coming weeks. The 60-69 age group are being vaccinated through vaccination centres, with more than 208,000 vaccines administered to date. The expectation is that this group will be substantially completed by the end of December. Importantly, test positivity has been reducing in some older adult age groups, which shows that where people have been taking up the offer of a third dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in high numbers, we are seeing significant reductions in the incidence of disease.

I also welcome NIAC's recent recommendation to extend the booster vaccine to all individuals aged 16 years and older, and that the interval between completion of primary vaccination and the booster dose be reduced to three months. In making its latest recommendations, NIAC has reiterated that vaccine booster doses should continue to be offered in the priority order previously outlined. As Minister of State with special responsibility for mental health and older people, I am pleased we are continuing to protect those most at risk of severe illness and poor clinical outcomes.

Huge inroads have been made in the administration of booster vaccinations through the home vaccination service. The first phase of the programme, which commenced at the end of October, included people who are immunocompromised and individuals aged 80 years and older. The programme was extended to people aged 60-79 years last month. To date, more than 780 vaccines have been administered and the programme is expected to be completed by the end of December.

The roll-out of the booster vaccination programme among people aged 65 and over in long-term residential care facilities, including nursing homes, has been substantially completed since the end of last month, having commenced on 4 October. Vaccination teams were operational within all areas of the country, seven days a week, which saw the majority of care facilities complete the booster programme within a three-week period. Following extensive discussions with the Department and the relevant health agencies, I very much welcome the expansion of the booster vaccination programme to individuals of all ages living in long-term residential care facilities. To date, more than 4,500 booster doses have been administered to persons aged younger than 65 years who reside in long-term residential care. As of 12 December, more than 24,000 residents aged 65 years and older in long-term residential care facilities, including nursing homes, have received their booster vaccination. Community vaccination teams will continue to administer vaccines for people who were advised to have their booster vaccine deferred or who are in facilities where there was an outbreak of cases at the time. The booster programme, which has been extended to all healthcare workers, including those in nursing homes, is progressing and will add further to the protections afforded to front-line health staff and the people under their care.

I take the opportunity today to assure the House that significant supports continue to be made available to nursing homes in response to Covid-19. The outbreak assistance element of the temporary assistance payment scheme provided to the private and voluntary nursing home sector continues. I am delighted to announce today that the outbreak assistance element of the scheme, which was to conclude in December, will now be extended until March 2022. Some €134 million has been made available to the sector between 2020 and 2021. Due to the extension of the outbreak assistance until March 2022, which we will keep under review, €1.75 million has been paid to nursing homes under 75 separate claims since the end of June. A broad suite of other supports and measures continue to be provided to nursing homes, including 23 Covid-19 response teams; the supply of precautionary and enhanced PPE, free of charge; where possible, access to staff from community and acute hospitals; a suite of focused public health guidance and training resources, including a further series of infection prevention and control webinars delivered by HIQA in September, with nearly 800 attendees from nursing home staff; and temporary accommodation for nursing home staff to support measures to block the chain of transmission. All of those assistance measures are still in place.

Of note, serial testing has been reintroduced to all nursing homes for two cycles and commenced on 6 December. The second cycle will begin in early January. I reassure the House that I meet regularly with the HSE, HIQA and the Department on the evolving impact of the pandemic in nursing homes and I continue to monitor the situation very closely to ensure all necessary supports and guidance are sustained and enhanced where required. There is no doubt the protection of people living in nursing homes has been prioritised once again through the roll-out of the booster vaccination programme and the continuation of a broad range of supports. Furthermore, almost €18 million has been allocated under budget 2022 to ensure the continued implementation of the recommendations of the Covid-19 nursing homes expert panel report. This investment will provide for further improvements across the sector, including, among others, the establishment of a permanent multidisciplinary, enhanced community support team in each community healthcare organisation, CHO, and the pilot of the safe staffing framework for long-term residential care.

I wish to provide an update on the progress that has been made in mental health services to address the emerging challenges posed by Covid. I am very pleased to confirm that all consenting individuals in long-term residential mental health care have received their booster vaccine. In addition, the roll-out of booster doses to people with certain mental health difficulties in the community is well under way. All eligible mental health staff are being called for their booster vaccine through their community vaccination centres.

While there are new and evolving challenges posed by Covid-19, we continue to make significant progress in our shared, collective response to the virus. Our health system continues to adapt and reconfigure through the provision of additional investment and enhanced supports to ensure the continued delivery of much-needed services. This includes the provision of services to some of the most vulnerable in society, including older people in nursing homes and individuals with severe or enduring mental health difficulties. The Government has moved quickly in an attempt to stabilise the current situation and will continue to do so, building on current public health guidance, revised travel measures, a world-class vaccination programme and the continued roll-out of the booster vaccine.

It is essential, however, that we all continue to adhere to basic measures to protect ourselves and those around us. This means isolating and getting tested if we have symptoms; wearing a face covering, where appropriate; making sure indoor spaces are well ventilated; maintaining social distancing whenever appropriate; and covering our coughs and sneezes and keeping our hands clean.

I conclude by again appealing to anyone who is not yet vaccinated to come forward and speak to a medical professional about their concerns, and to those offered the booster to please take it. I was one of the cohort that was vaccinated in late May with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. I have to say I was concerned over the last month that the efficacy had waned so I was delighted to receive my booster from my pharmacist last Monday week. It was a relief. It is something I have raised with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health in regard to that cohort who received Johnson & Johnson. In my age group at the time, it was the class of 1966 who were called and I met so many people that day. I am conscious there are many 20 to 30-year-olds who also received the one-jab Janssen vaccine, although they were delighted at the time. I welcome the fact they are going to be accelerated, as the Tánaiste said earlier. If we all contribute to this collective effort, we will keep our society and economy open, we will maintain our progress and we will keep people healthy and safe.

I wish everyone in the House, all the staff and all my colleagues a happy, healthy and safe Christmas. I am very conscious of all of the people who will be working in retail, the health sector and hospitality over Christmas and who might not get Christmas Day off, as we hope to. I wish everyone a happy and safe Christmas.

2:05 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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There is no part of Irish society that has not been impacted by this pandemic. Unfortunately, the response to the different sectors has been far from fair and equal, particularly in the sporting community. The rules and regulations on a return to sport during this pandemic have seldom been seen to treat all sports equally. We saw it last month with the sudden decision to allow only vaccinated children aged between 12 and 17 years to play indoor sports. This decision caused much pressure and stress on coaches and volunteers across the State and they turned children away from training and matches. Thankfully, the Minister eventually saw sense, engaged with stakeholders and rescinded the decision.

On Monday, I was delighted to see a major investment in sport of nearly €80 million to help sporting organisations recover from the impact of the pandemic. However, once we dig into the figures, we cannot help but feel a sense of disappointment and unfairness because there is an ever-growing gap for sporting organisations beyond the GAA, the IRFU and the FAI, which are being treated particularly generously compared to smaller sports. The vast majority of sporting organisations are being treated like an afterthought when it comes to funding. For example, Basketball Ireland, a sporting organisation with a higher than average level of female participation, certainly significantly better than rugby, and an organisation with over 250 clubs spread right across the island, received just slightly over €1 million in the funding announced on Monday. While this funding is to be welcomed, and I am sure it will make use of every cent, that funding pales in comparison with what the IRFU will receive. The IRFU has about 50 clubs across the island and whole chunks of the island have no rugby clubs present at all, yet it will receive 17 times the funding that Basketball Ireland receives. We have to ask where is the logic in this. The funding allocation gives the impression that rugby is 17 times more popular than basketball but club numbers do not reflect this. We need to see funding that reflects sporting participation, not funding based on who can lobby the best. We need a sports facilities strategy and we need to see fair play in Irish sports funding.

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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As the Minister, Deputy Foley, could confirm if she had bothered to stay for a debate she was specifically included in, I have been questioning her on air quality and safety in our schools using the parliamentary question system for a long time now because I am deeply concerned at her Department's attitude to safety in our schools. I am relieved that, at long last, it seems HEPA filtration is being addressed but I cannot understand why, even at the 11th hour, with Omicron upon us, the onus is being put on schools to apply. Given the Department’s delay and the urgency of the situation, I do not see why the Minister cannot announce today that the Government will buy the HEPA filters and deliver them to schools over the Christmas break. We bailed out the banks overnight so surely we can get HEPA filters to schools over the Christmas break to protect our children from the long-term effects of a novel virus. We all want our schools open but we want them open safely. Repeating the mantra that schools are safe did not make them so. Defending poor decisions can never supersede our children's safety.

Ethics are also crucial to education. Our children can see a virus that is blazing through countries in the global South because we, in our vaccinated comfort, allow it. The lack of action on the TRIPS waiver has tripped us up, resulting in Omicron. Last night, the Seanad Opposition had a Private Members’ motion supporting the TRIPS waiver and thanks to a Fianna Fáil Senator and a Green Party Senator who spoke against the Government amendment, the Government withdrew that mean-spirited amendment. We should remember it was the tax of workers that paid for the research and development that went into the vaccine.

I pay tribute to Sinn Féin’s Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and our MEP, Chris MacManus, for their work on No Profit On Pandemic and A People's Vaccine in Europe. With the Christmas season upon us, I urge Fianna Fáil and the Greens to press Fine Gael on its resistance to sharing and its chilling belief that inequality is good for the capitalist economic model. Greed is not who we are. We are a small island but we are a great one and a generous one. Sharing is who we are. We must work to make sure our shared world is vaccinated. I too was boosted last weekend. I commend the many volunteers for their efforts, despite some having to take abuse. We really need to commend them. I thank our healthcare workers, who are once again courageously facing another variant to protect our people this season. I know from Naas General Hospital that it is their solidarity to each other that is keeping them going. I salute each and every one of them.

Nollaig shona to everyone here and across our small, great and generous Ireland.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Gary Cannon.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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It is no surprise that the rate of Omicron has doubled in the last two days, meaning it will become the dominant variant by the weekend. There is a real urgency about getting the boosters out. On Tuesday, I called for the age restrictions to be lifted for boosters. It seemed like that was going to be done yesterday. An announcement was made that there would be no age restrictions applying to GPs and to pharmacists, which was a very welcome development. Unfortunately, that was not the case and pharmacists have been told today they have now to go back on that and they are only allowed to provide the boosters to those over 50. The issue about that, of course, is that a flood of bookings was made yesterday with pharmacists from people of all ages and pharmacists now have to tell those people their appointments are no longer valid. It makes no sense whatsoever to do this.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I understood that was being addressed, as the Tánaiste said today on Leaders Questions.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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They have not been told that formally.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I will check it out.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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Okay. They are currently dealing with complaints from the public about the news that went out. There is a need for clarification on this. There is no justification for making a distinction between what GPs can do and what pharmacists can do. This needs to be addressed urgently. These are, of course, the Johnson & Johnson people in the main, who are now highly susceptible because of the waning immunity.

The second issue I want to raise, and which I want the Minister of State to bring to the attention of the Minister along with the other one, is that there is no official record of boosters. This is going to raise huge problems over Christmas and in the new year. Other European countries are moving to require evidence of the booster. In Austria, for example, to where many Irish people will travel over the Christmas break, people must have a booster and evidence of the booster, but people currently do not have that. People who have had Johnson & Johnson have no evidence of it. Equally, people who had their vaccines early in the year, such as healthcare workers, have no evidence. The situation is similar in France. This has to be dealt with quickly.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I will bring that back to the Minister.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I cannot but acknowledge the fact that, in an allocated two-hour debate on education, there is no representative from the Department of Education here. The Minister left after 30 minutes. I intended the tenor of my contribution to be constructive but the fact there is nobody here will alter that slightly. Given the fact there is an absent chair where a Minister should be, I cannot help but feel this is symbolic of a Department that is not in control of what is happening on the ground and has been absent for much of the time, while the crisis has got worse in our schools.

I wanted to come in here and be constructive but I cannot help but also channel the anger of the teaching community, including principals, teachers, SNAs, and parents who have contacted me and others around the Chamber daily, in the Opposition and the Government alike, expressing fear and frustration. That needs to be brought to the fore tonight and it is lamentable that the Minister has left after 30 minutes.

Had the Minister been here I would have acknowledged two realities that existed in our school community over the past four months since they reopened in September. First, the Department of Education, the Minister and various different representatives of the Government have repeated ad nauseamthat schools are safe. At the same time, in the past two weeks the highest recorded number of Covid cases has been among those five to 12-year-olds who sit in those cold classrooms every day and then they are among their parents and grandparents. We were told by the Minister there was no crisis in getting substitute teachers while at the same time school principals were going on Twitter to call for substitute teachers to go to their schools. Second, not too long ago the Minister told us she was on the side of children with special educational needs and then she sought to remove banked hours for special education teachers. Those two realities existed in our schools.

I have not had the opportunity to talk to the Minister, but every week during her Questions on Promised Legislation slot I have raised the issue of mitigation in schools. It has been a slow and arduous process even to bring it to where we are now. There has been a fund and I acknowledge there has been an increase in fund for essential small budget work, but it is still not in place for HEPA filters. We have a scenario in our schools where the essential grant scheme has been doubled to €45 million but where there will still be schools that will have to choose between refurbishing a bathroom, fixing a window or providing a HEPA filter. Then we have a ludicrous scenario whereby the responsibility for what HEPA filter goes into a school is left with a school principal. School principals are already cut to the bone in the work they have been asked to do. If you read the Minister’s comments today, you will see that they have been left in charge of antigen testing, sourcing substitute teachers, and dealing with incredibly low morale in schools and with the panic of parents and guardians alike. Now we get a budget for essential air filtration devices and it is left to school principals to source them, go online and become an expert on where these air filtration devices can be purchased. The Taoiseach said last week they would cost between €1,400 and €1,700. Others are saying they are buying them for €120. We have a seller’s market now. Schools will open up in January and most of them will still not have been able to source HEPA filters by then. That is a shambles and once again it will be a failure.

We are moving into our third term of sixth-year students who do not know what examination they will be sitting come May and June. That is a failure of contingency planning and a failure to learn lessons and apply a sense of compassion and decency to these students. They have already suffered so much with the interference in their learning environment and taking days off to isolate or for whatever reason. I met some of those leaving certificate students during the week on a Zoom call and they told us they did not get to a sit a junior certificate. They have never had a State examination and yet we still have this scenario where they do not believe they will be sitting a traditional leaving certificate. However, we have not yet intervened to say what our contingency plan is and that they can be safe in the knowledge they will be going back to the hybrid model.

2:15 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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As we head into Christmas week, it is worth reiterating the value of antigen testing for anyone who has met up with or who plans to meet up with friends and family. I have been speaking about this a lot recently because, when used correctly, antigen tests are extremely effective, particularly in situations where people are asymptomatic. With the Omicron variant so transmissible and in our community, it is more important than ever that we use antigen tests before and after meeting with groups or engaging in indoor socialising or activities. For a few months I have been calling for an increased social media campaign to make sure we reach young people with the correct messaging around antigen testing. This is extremely necessary, especially as we approach Christmas. They are pretty inexpensive and widely available and using them could be the difference between keeping your friends and family safe this Christmas and not.

I commend the success and speed of the booster campaign. It is reassuring to see older family members, healthcare workers and the vulnerable having that added protection. I must admit I have particular concerns for those who received the Janssen vaccine. Given the waning immunity we know is associated with this vaccine, it is important its recipients are boosted as soon as possible. More than 236,000 people received the Janssen vaccine and a majority of them are aged between 18 and 34. They are right in the age cohort that is most likely to be socialising and mixing with friends in indoor environments and they are entitled to do that, but it seems we are setting this age group up for increased spread and infection. I would be interested to hear from the Minister of State if there are particular concerns among NPHET and NIAC on an increase in infection in these age groups. Are we seeing any increased level of infection or cause for concern? France has determined that those over 65 years of age who got the Janssen vaccine before October are deemed no longer to be fully vaccinated. There is much confusion among Irish tourists set to fly to France over the holiday period, especially those under the age of 35 who received the Janssen vaccine and who do not know yet whether they will be allowed into bars and restaurants at this stage. I ask the Minister of State to work with her French counterparts to provide clarity to this group.

Our vaccine roll-out has been one of the most successful in the world and our third dose campaign is following suit. However, the messaging is starting to get confusing as to who can get a booster, when they can get it and where they can get it. It is essential we nip any confusion in the bud and that we are unified in our approach and in the message we are giving to the public.

I mention the digital Covid certificate. Like many other Deputies, I have been receiving a lot of correspondence from constituents wondering when their digital Covid certificate will be updated with details of their third dose. We know some countries require proof of a booster dose to travel, and I am sure many others will be following suit. I hope an EU-wide approach will be taken to this but I would welcome clarity today on how this will work and whether it is something the Department is working on. I know the priority is to get boosters in arms but for those who already have their boosters, having that recognised in their Covid certificates is the next step.

I have also been contacted by a constituent who, unfortunately, had an extremely rare reaction to their first dose of the vaccine and had to be hospitalised. This person may never be able to be fully vaccinated and has been advised by medical experts not to take any other brand of vaccine either. This person is completely pro-vaccine and would get fully vaccinated if it was medically possible to do so but it simply is not. They can no longer engage in a lot of indoor activities as a result. I am sure the number of people who are medically unable to take a vaccine is extremely small, but we should consider introducing some sort of exemption for these people. Other countries, such as the UK, have exemptions for people who are medically unable to take the vaccine. While I know they are at no less risk than someone who is unvaccinated by choice, it is important to recognise the medical advice they have received.

I thank our front-line healthcare workers and all those involved in the ongoing fight against Covid-19. We owe them a debt of gratitude and I am not sure how we will ever repay them. We should remember that the best present we can give those working on the front line is to try our best to keep ourselves and those around us safe this Christmas.

Photo of Paul McAuliffePaul McAuliffe (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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In contributing to the Covid debates, it often feels as though you are speaking while standing on shifting sands because Covid continues to bring about changing circumstances and to be inconsistent. The prime example of that is that only a few weeks ago we renewed the emergency powers legislation and the lead Opposition party said the restrictions were long past their sell-by date. Yet we are back at the stage where restrictions are being examined. I do not say that as any criticism of the Opposition because the Covid pandemic shifts and turns and variants emerge. This time last year we were facing into a Christmas with a new variant with Covid restrictions being discussed and proposed, and during the following weeks we saw that variant have a devastating impact on case numbers in this State.

In that context, we must be concerned about Omicron. We do not have all of the relevant data yet but it is important that the Government has taken the steps it has taken because we are better prepared now than most European countries for dealing with Omicron. Across Europe, countries are considering new restrictions. In the Netherlands, bars and restaurants now close at 5 p.m. and that will be extended into the holiday season. Austria and Germany have proposals under which unvaccinated people will not be able to use certain types of retail. The UK has gone from appearing to have a very laid-back approach to this pandemic to scaling up its warnings significantly.

I support the Government's approach to this. We were never about zero Covid or about letting it rip; we always sought to manage this and to strike a balance between risks and freedoms. In general we have gotten it right. Of course, we have gotten it wrong on occasions too but on balance, Ireland has managed this pandemic well. I do not say that in a self-serving way from this side of the House. I say it because objective observers have said it. We have one of the lowest mortality rates and one of the highest vaccination rates in the European Union. The Bloomberg index that balances restrictions, freedoms and Covid incidence rates continuously places Ireland in the top tier. While there are some things we could do differently, by and large Ireland has managed this pandemic well and many of the people I meet acknowledge that.

With Omicron on the horizon, the booster vaccine is incredibly important. We are still awaiting details on Omicron but what we know already is very worrying. Some of the data appear to suggest that previous infection offers little protection against reinfection. It would appear that vaccines like Sputnik and Sinopharm and even Astra Zeneca offer ineffective or even very poor resistance to Omicron. That means that many people awaiting a booster really want to avail of it. Of course, we had very limited use of Astra Zeneca on this island and the cohort that was targeted with it has now, by and large, received a booster dose. I would say to anybody who is due to receive a booster dose and has not yet availed of it, especially those who have taken one of the vaccines about which we have concerns, to go and get a booster dose. People who have been infected before may think they will not need a booster but the evidence would appear to suggest that they also need to get a booster shot. That means that the Government must do better than it has done to date with the 1.4 million boosters that have been administered already. It is only 20 days since Omicron was declared a variant of concern. The booster programme has given us a significant level of protection. On my way to the Chamber today I received a call informing me that my daughter's dental appointment in January has been cancelled because the dentists are going to be involved in the vaccination programme. When we get to the other side of January we will have come a long way. I believe that because I trust the HSE and its vaccination programme because it has the track record. While everybody is right to have concerns, we have had one of the best vaccination programmes in Europe and there is no reason to believe we will not have one of the best booster programmes too.

I ask the Minister to consider the evidence on Astra Zeneca as it emerges. I am deeply concerned because thousands of people in the North received Astra Zeneca as their primary vaccine and we do not know when they will receive their booster. We know that they have not had restrictions in the North for a significant amount of time and we also know that infections in one part of this island invariably lead to infections in other parts. I would say to people who are eligible, particularly if they have taken Astra Zeneca, to get their booster dose. The Government needs to have contingency plans in place if people in the North do not receive their boosters at the same speed as people in the South. We need to respond to the people in the North. They are as much a part of our island and our country as anybody else. If we get our booster programme done, we should step in and assist people in the North as well.

2:25 pm

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I concur with Deputy Gannon that it is unacceptable that the Minister has not stayed in the Chamber to listen to the statements. It would be remiss of me not to welcome some of the Government Deputies but they have gone again. Last week when we were in committee they did not stay in the Chamber for their slots and we missed ours. In the new year, it would be good if Government Deputies would stick around for the Thursday evening slots.

Throughout this pandemic I have raised on a number of occasions the fact that people who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 have slipped through the net vis-à-vis the supports they need and what they actually get. Another case has come to my attention this week concerning a young man who has muscular dystrophy. He lives in the same house as his parents who provide care for him both day and night. This young man has his own quarters and lives as independently as possible but Covid has brought particular challenges to the house.

Stephen emailed me recently to say that he had applied for home care hours from the HSE. He was awarded one hour per week of home help and two hours per week from the local independent living centre. Stephen and his family were told by the HSE that they would get more home care hours but then that was rolled back on because of shortages of healthcare workers in the south east. Effectively, through broken promises he had hours that had never been given to him cut back. He worries for his parents and is fearful of what would happen if something were to happen to them. Those fears became a reality this week when his parents contracted Covid-19. He emailed me to tell me that he is now confined to his room to avoid contracting the virus. For his own safety, he and his parents are trying to cut down their interactions with each other, save for essential care like the use of his respiratory machines and so on. The situation is by no means ideal. Stephen is worried about his parents and they are concerned for him. When they asked the public health nurse about the possibility of further home help hours they were told that Covid would prevent home carers from coming in anyway. They have had no HSE care for two weeks. Stephen has his own quarters in the house which are accessed by a separate, outside door so anybody providing care to him would not need to go into the part of the house that his parents are in. They are now left in a situation where Stephen's ill parents are doing everything they can for him while also taking every possible measure to limit their contact with him. They have been left with no choice but he is worried for them. He is increasingly isolated and his parents are very stressed, ill and worried for him. They have no choice but to continue what they are doing.

Vulnerable people are slipping through the net because the health service is not meeting their needs. This was true before Covid but it is especially so since the virus has presented itself.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I am not going to rerun the conversations on antigen or PCR tests. We just need to ensure that we have adequate testing capacity. We know what can be done and we know what needs to be done. The same goes for HEPA filtration in schools. Whatever streamlining is necessary just needs to be done.

We all know the difficulties we are facing at the minute with Omicron. While we do not know the full scale of what we will be dealing with, none of it is particularly good. We know that boosters are the way to go but we need to deal with issue of recording the fact that people have received boosters. We have had multiple teething problems rather late in the day. In my own constituency there were issues with Fairways Hotel vaccination centre. A number of people called to my office who had checked the system, heard reports on the media and understood that the centre was dealing with those over 50. That changed and the centre was only dealing with those over 60. In fairness, these people accepted that and were willing to move along with the system but we need to deal with these anomalies. We need to address the fact that GPs are operating a slightly different system from the one operating in pharmacies. We know that we need to maximise capacity and get it done.

It goes without saying that at a European level, we need the European Union to stop stalling vis-à-vis vaccine inequity and enacting a TRIPS waiver. We must play our part and call it out for what it is. We need to have decency and integrity at an international level. Beyond that, it is in our own self-interest because none of us is safe until all of us are safe.

I would like an update on the most recent cyberattack on the Coombe hospital. I do not have all the details but I believe the hospital is operating. We all know of the difficulties we have had in terms of cybersecurity, with a report published this week on weaknesses in the HSE. The National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, has a plan to upgrade its resources which is absolutely necessary. There has been much engagement on this but we need to do absolutely everything we can here because it looks like ransomware and cyberattacks are a pandemic that will be with us for a long time to come.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for her engagement on Sruthán House and necessary respite.

I hope there will be a solution on that.

The HIQA report shows that we still have serious issues around homecare. I know she is doing her upmost but we need to expedite it so that we can provide the resources and services that families need.

I wish the Minister of State a happy Christmas.

2:35 pm

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I wish the Minister of State happy Christmas. I will start on a positive note because we have to be positive during the ongoing pandemic. Hospitalisations and ICU admissions have plateaued or fallen. That is a good indication of the direction of things. So far, so good. However, there are dark clouds on the horizon. You only have to look at Britain where the cases are going through the roof. Britain is probably two to three weeks ahead of us with its booster campaign. The indications are that we could be facing an extremely difficult four to six weeks of infections. Hopefully that will not translate to hospitalisations or ICU admissions. If it does we will have a different situation on our hands.

The booster campaign has been very successful but people queuing for four or five hours is not conducive to creating the spirit we had before. People will just not go. That needs to be ironed out. The ongoing public health emergency has been extremely challenging. This is something that our public health services have never seen before. We all have friends who work in hospitals. The environment they have to work in is beyond traumatic. We have said many times, we have huge gratitude for those who are protecting us and our loved ones. There are signs that Omicron is overtaking Delta. It seems much more infectious.

I have two criticisms. The first is not an abstract matter. The TRIPS waiver is a mechanism that provides equitable access to vaccines for those who have not had access. For the EU to block that is shameful. If you cannot do it now when can you do it? Italy and Portugal have unilaterally supported the TRIPS waiver but Ireland has not. If I was a conspiracy theorist I might ask why that was the case. Is it because there are so many multinational pharmaceutical companies in this country? Maybe the Minister of State could answer that. The Seanad passed a motion on the TRIPS waiver yesterday. Ireland has to step up and say that we stand with countries across the world which need access to vaccines.

On ventilation, I welcome the Government's allocation of €62 million to improve ventilation but it is late to the table. This should have been done over a year ago. Ventilation is crucial and HEPA filters have been proven to be really good.

This is not easy by any means. Regardless of who you are, the colour of your politics or what Government is in office, the difficulties are huge. We wish everyone in the health service the best.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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What will happen in our hospitals in January? On Tuesday Dr. Mike Ryan of the World Health Organization said that the sheer weight of numbers with the Omicron cases will put hospitals under pressure internationally. This morning Dr. Susan Hopkins, the UK Health Security Agency's chief medical advisor, told the House of Commons health committee that the R value of the Omicron variant could be as high as five, making it four times as transmissible as Delta. By today it will be the dominant strain in London. Public health experts have not ruled out 1 million cases per day by the end of the year for the UK.

Here in Ireland Omicron has increased from 1% of total cases at the start of last week to 27% of new cases now. The Tánaiste has indicated that it may be, and I think it will be, the dominant strain by next week or sooner. Even if Omicron proves to be a less severe strain than Delta, and I hope it does although that has not yet been proven, the sheer weight of numbers, as Mike Ryan put it, will most likely put unprecedented pressure on hospitals in the new year. Will there be more pressure on the hospitals than in January 2021? It is possible. The hospital system did not collapse under the strain last January, thanks largely to the efforts of our healthcare workforce, but it was a close run thing. The Minister of State cannot give a guarantee that our hospital system will stand the strain this time. No doubt the Minister of State will point to how 30% of private beds can be accessed under the deal. The deal was a 12-year deal. It was signed on 8 January last year. When will that deal be extended? Does it run out on 8 January? In any case, the Minister of State cannot give a guarantee that 30% extra would be enough. There should be no risks taken. All the hospital capacity in the State should be available to the State. The Government should nationalise the private hospitals and put all their resources at the service of the public health effort. Public health must come before private profit.

Professor Christine Loscher was right. The schools should be closed tomorrow. They should not open next Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. Primary schools are the No. 1 location for the spread of the virus. How many school goers might contract Covid over those three days next week? Is it hundreds? Is it thousands? They will be mixing with parents, grandparents and other generations over Christmas. It is not a case of keeping the nerve, as the Taoiseach says. It is a case of using common sense. Keeping the schools open next week is reckless. They should close tomorrow.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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If what is happening in the UK is repeated here, as expected, there will be an Omicron surge. That is clear. It will probably be when schools return in January. Last night, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly warned that it was entirely possible that the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variants meant that the number of Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations could exceed the spike of last January. Once the children take their Christmas holidays next week, are plans being made for 2022? I welcome the funding from the Minister for Education for HEPA filters. It is crucial that the funding is there and I thank her for that. Some 1.7 million people will have their booster doses by Christmas. The boosters will increase protection against severe outcome from Delta and possibly from Omicron. The incidence of Covid-19 among those aged five to 11 years is falling now.

Omicron is expected to be the dominant strain in Ireland next week. That is how rapid it is. It doubles infection every two or three days. The Irish public have come with us in this pandemic. If you give them the plan they put on the green jersey and do what they are asked for the greater good.

Are there plans to increase health care capacity to treat the expected higher numbers of cases? Have we staff on standby for testing and tracing? What are the plans for the vaccine certificate? Are we going to follow France and declare invalid vaccine certificates where the person has not had a booster? Will there be a renewal process for certificates? Will new vaccine certificates be put in place? There were some difficulties with the system at first. I have encountered many cases where people were vaccinated but were repeatedly offered appointments. That glitch ended up costing them when they went to get their certificate and it took a long time for the issue to be fixed.

The ramping up of the booster campaign is welcome. However, I am concerned when I hear that GPs are being instructed to prioritise booster clinics over routine care because in my area, it has been hard to get doctor appointments. I understand that we have to do this but we should be mindful of those who need other care. People still need to see the doctor for other things and that should be taken into consideration.

I also wish to acknowledge that we have had a really successful vaccine roll-out. It was probably one of the best in the world. Now we are giving out the booster dose. I am hoping to go the nearest clinic to me tomorrow to get mine. I encourage people to get their booster because it is important. We must all be mindful of everyone else. My own mother is nearly 87 years of age and I am working with people all the time. It is important that all of us, if we can, go down and get our booster because there is a booster vaccine centre near all of us. I encourage people to go.

It is also important to recognise all our front-line workers. This year has been another exceptionally hard one for people. We have had all the different variants of Covid. Nobody is expecting these because we seem to be going from day to day. None of us want to be here again asking what is going to happen next. However, from knowing the Minister and Ministers of State, I know how hard they have all been working in the background. I know how hard it is with this disease that is changing constantly and I know the work that goes on. It is important to acknowledge the work the Minister and Ministers of State are doing. I would say this has been a very hard year for the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and all the Ministers of State. I wish everyone a really happy Christmas and a lovely new year. Again, we do not know what is happening in the new year. We do not know what is facing any of us. We do not know what challenges we will have. All we can do is be there, support each other, support our communities, work with people and work with our Government. All of us can solve this by working together and not by finding faults. I am not saying there have not been mistakes. As the Minister and Ministers of State will tell you, I will always say it when there is an issue somewhere. I constantly address these issues, especially those to do with my own constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny. I can honestly say, as someone who, like all of us, works so hard to represent the people of my own constituency, that the amount of work that goes on in the background must be acknowledged. Again, I wish everyone a happy Christmas and a happy new year.

2:45 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thought the Deputy might invite some of us to come down and spend some time in County Carlow over the Christmas period.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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The Ceann Comhairle knows he is always welcome. I would love to have as many Members down as possible.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I often invite Deputy Murnane O'Connor to Dún Laoghaire but I think this is the only place in Dublin and outside County Carlow she actually attends. I too join other Deputies in wishing the Ceann Comhairle and all the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas a very happy, peaceful and indeed healthy Christmas. It has been a very challenging year for the House and its Members. I thank all the staff for their patience and assistance during that time.

I also welcome the opportunity to discuss the Covid-19 situation. Who thought we would be discussing the pandemic at a second Christmas? We thought over the last couple of months that things were changing but we need only look at the epidemiological forecast. It looks extremely challenging, especially if we look across the water. It is likely we are facing a very significant wave of infection generated by the Omicron variant. Initial evidence suggests Omicron infections can be milder to vaccinated people but it seems to be significantly more transmissible. The situation in London is an indication of what we could be facing here. We are in a race against time to ensure as many people as possible are offered a third vaccination before Omicron becomes more established here. The national effort being deployed and the news today that additional resources are being deployed are exceptionally welcome. I also welcome the news that the HSE centres will have extended opening hours and that we are on track to administer at least 300,000 vaccinations in the next week. I pay tribute to all the front-line staff, pharmacists and GPs working on the national effort to administer as many third doses of the vaccine as possible.

I ask the Minister of State to raise the issue of people who received the one-shot Jansen vaccine. Many of them took it quite some time ago and evidence suggests immunity is waning. Many of them have contacted me and are asking that they be permitted to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

While there may be a very challenging few weeks ahead, we know there is cause for hope as the antiviral medications are coming on stream. Hopefully, those combined with the boosters will ease the incidence of very serious infection.

Just as I paid tribute to the front-line workers, it is also important to pay tribute to teachers and school staff because they have put in so much work to ensure students are safe and to reduce infection in those situations.

Last of all, I pay tribute to the Ceann Comhairle and his colleagues in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I thank him for his assistance during the year and wish him and his family a happy Christmas.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Go raibh míle maith agat, a Theachta.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I suppose everyone is entitled to a break but it is so important the Department of Education takes time over the Christmas period to ensure we get schools right and ensure they are safe. Keeping schools open and functioning well is so vital. The latter aspect is important; it is not just about them being open but that they are functioning well. Now, over the Christmas period, is our chance to get that right and ensure children are returning to school buildings in January with all the mitigation measures necessary to allow schools to reopen, stay open and function well. We need to throw the kitchen sink at this. There can be no necessary expense spared. In truth, that has not happened. The Government has been dragging its heels on some of the issues. There is no question about that, in my mind. This is far too important to get wrong.

HEPA air filtration systems have a vital role to play in our schools. I am glad the Government is finally coming to acknowledge this and at least conceding to the principle of it. However, the way it has been announced is not practicable, workable and will not deliver the results we need it to. Doing it under the cloak of the minor works grant is incredibly inefficient. Firstly, it puts these filtration systems in competition with other desperately needed projects within a school, and that is wrong, especially at a time when school budgets are already overstretched. It is putting filters in competition with broken windows, doors, gutters or whatever other items are badly needed. This is at a time when kids are freezing in their classrooms with the windows open. Schools need every support they can get and they do not need to be in a position whereby they are deciding between HEPA air filtration systems and replacing the window.

The work involved is massive. In the last week of term, the Department of Education has dropped one final Christmas present of significant additional administration on the desks of school leaders and principals - and it is not that they have been short of it. They are already handling a substitution crisis and doing contact tracing, which is something I will come back to. The scientific jargon in guidance documents provided by the Department is like another language. An expert in the area might know what to buy in a minute but for principals, this is taking up a significant amount of their time this week and it will do so into next week. There are formulas on square footage, what is necessary and all this kind of stuff. These are principals who are stretched to the pin of their collar, to be honest. The least the Department could have done would have been to provide access to expert advice and support for principals that stated in plain English what they need to buy and where they can buy it. It would be much more sensible and logical to procure these filters centrally and distribute them by need. This has been done by the Department of Education and many others in relation to Covid-related expenses. I do not understand why the Department has not done this. I expect it would be more cost-effective and would certainly involve less administration for schools. The Department has shifted the burden onto school leaders, who are already under incredible pressure.

I wish to raise contact tracing again. As far as I am concerned, it is a public health function and should be led by public health. The Opposition and many school leaders fought for school-specific contact tracing teams. When that happened at the start of the year I believed they were a step forward. They were largely successful. Then in September, out of nowhere and even though we were dealing with new variants, these teams were taken away. In fact, any and all contact tracing was effectively taken away and it is fair to say we are paying the price for that now. When schools ring the HSE, they cannot get through to tracers and cannot get a call back. The new plan for contact tracing again passed the buck onto school leaders. There seems to be very little that the Department feels it or the HSE would be better off doing. Instead it feels it would be better if the principal or the board of management did it.

School communities feel as if they have been taken for fools and asked to believe transmission does not occur in schools. There are some concessions on that now, I think, but ultimately the resources that should follow have not arrived. Let us not operate on the basis schools that are immune but acknowledge that Covid can enter schools and that schools are important. That is the point. It is not that they are inherently safer than anywhere but that they are important. They are crucial. They are crucial to our children and to our society. Thus, we need to throw the kitchen sink at them and do everything we can. We must put in every measure needed to ensure that schools reopen in full in January, that they do so safely and that they can function well.

I would like to make an additional point, as this is my last speech. The Minister of State is aware of the case of Calum Geary. He is entering 2022 still denied access to an education, as is his right, with a sign language interpreter.

I urge the Minister not to allow another year to go by where deaf children like Calum continue to be denied an education. Guím Nollaig shona do gach duine freisin.

2:55 pm

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute. As we all know, we had our first official case of Covid-19 in Ireland in February 2020, almost 22 months ago. It is fair to say that, since that date, we in this country and everyone throughout the world have endured a very difficult period. So many people have suffered and continue to suffer. The many thousands of people who have contracted Covid-19 and are still feeling the effects of long Covid continue to struggle with their day-to-day lives.

In the past, I have supported the efforts of the Government in tackling this crisis. Unlike others, there is no point in trying to make political gain from this situation, but the simple truth is that people have grown very weary and tired. The public messaging, especially in the past number of weeks, is very confusing and is adding to the frustration of people and the business community. The Omicron variant is the latest battle in this war against Covid. It remains to be seen how this will to affect us all moving forward. On the one hand, we have advice stating that this will be the worst variant to date, while other advice states that it is much milder than previous variants. All this advice is coming from what is termed "expert opinion". I can understand why the public has grown tired and weary at this stage.

I call on the Government to make its messaging much clearer. Surely, it is not hard to outline a plan, including what parameters are being used and what actions we need to take, to ensure that society remains open. The business community is screaming out for this. At this point in time, the hospitality sector is unaware whether it will be open during the festive season. It is now 16 December and a whole sector is still in limbo. I understand that we are dealing with unknowns, but we need a rock-solid plan to get out of this situation. It is clear from previous occasions that simply locking down society is not the answer. All it does is put the brakes on this virus for a period. Once society opens up again, the virus again takes hold.

What most people cannot understand is that we have all been told that vaccinations will get us out of this situation. We have one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, yet we are still in a very difficult situation. Are we any better off than this time last year? Moving forward, my big fear is that we are facing a crisis in another area, namely, cancer. I am concerned about it because it is very important that cancer is detected at an early stage. I hope that I am wrong on this occasion, but I fear we are heading towards a real crisis with this issue. How many people have missed vital appointments, scans and check-ups as a result of Covid? How will this affect them in the future? The waiting lists are off the charts now. Who will get on top of this plan? People are very worried and concerned.

I spoke earlier the week in a debate on private health insurance and the fact that we need private hospitals to tackle the backlog and the waiting lists. Why is this not being openly discussed? During that debate, we discussed giving private health insurers additional scope for profit margins. We should be discussing how they can help the system reduce waiting lists. Some 46% of the population have health cover but what about the other 54% that do not?

My biggest disappointment during this crisis is the fact that, despite the additional millions of euro being invested in the health system, very few additional ICU beds were put into operation. We were all told that the main reason for the lockdown measures was to reduce the pressure on the health services, especially ICUs. It would be interesting to know how many additional and fully functioning ICU beds were created from the millions of euro in additional funding that was pumped into the health system.

It is only right and proper that we acknowledge the great work being carried out by school principals, teaching staff, SNAs and all other staff in keeping schools fully functioning. The school system has performed brilliantly and continues to do so, but having spoken to several school principals there is a sense that more could be done. At times, school principals feel that they are not getting the most up-to-date support or that messages are mixed.

One area that needs to be addressed is the use of HEPA filters in classrooms. They are used successfully in many other countries throughout Europe. We unfortunately have a situation in many schools where windows are being kept open resulting in freezing cold temperatures in the classroom. Children are trying to do schoolwork in freezing conditions and with their coats on. This is not the environment we want our children taught in. What is the policy on HEPA filters? Why are they not pushed more in this country as they are in other European countries? Again, this is another area where public health and Government advice is not clear. Surely, if filters can be used to monitor a classroom and allow windows to be kept closed in the depths of winter, then they should be deployed. Why are they not being deployed?

I will once more reiterate the point that I will support the Government in these measures. It is very important that it tackles the virus, that clear measures are taken and that people know what is happening. I will not support continuous lockdowns because they have not worked in the past and will not work in the future. We need a plan to live with this situation. Society cannot be continually locked down. This is the equivalent of putting a small plaster on a gaping wound. It simply does not work.

I urge the Government to look again at the effectiveness of HEPA filters in schools and why they are not being actively used. The bottom line is that we need a plan that will work long term and not just as a stopgap. It is very important that we look after the health of our citizens and the education of our children. A lot more can be done that we are just not doing. Why are we not using the private hospitals that we spent millions of euro on during the past 22 months to help cancer patients and others? There was talk that the Government was thinking about buying some of these hospitals. People will respect the Government if it makes a decision. Ireland is known to be a very intelligent country. Maybe it is time we got some external people in to give a little advice, such as real businessmen and entrepreneurs. They seem to be travelling around the world getting massive money for public speaking in other countries. Why can we not ask them to give us the help in Ireland?

We all had our ups and downs over the past 12 months, but the Ceann Comhairle is always fair and I appreciate his guidance. In fairness, he kept the House going during 2021. I wish him, his staff, all my colleagues in Leinster House and everybody else a happy Christmas and a happy new year.

The people of Ireland have sacrificed a lot over the past 22 months. A clap on the back is not good enough. As a father and grandfather, I would like to know that when my grandchildren go to school on a Monday morning they are protected. The amount of we borrowed and have invested is not in the thousands, hundreds or millions but billions of euro. Have we moved any further in the past 22 months? It can be very frustrating and annoying. As I said in the Chamber two weeks ago, I am very annoyed that I can walk down a street in Dundalk or Drogheda and everybody seems to ask me what is going on. Nobody seems to know what is going on. I ask the Minister of State to be open and upfront. The Irish people can take it on the chin. I ask her to try to be honest and let us try to get the work done. As I said, I have supported this Government since the coalition came into office nearly two years ago and will continue to do so. It is a tough job, but we just need to make the right decisions and protect the citizens of Ireland.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy O'Donnell has six minutes.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle and all his staff in Leinster House, at every level, for their great help and support throughout the year. I wish them all, and their families, a happy and peaceful Christmas.

I will concentrate on this afternoon's announcement by the Minister for Health that we will expedite the roll-out of the vaccine by opening vaccination centres for longer hours, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., which is very welcome. I have two provisos from a Limerick perspective. First, I am conscious that health staff are exhausted at present because of their long hours. I was very lucky and privileged to get my third Moderna vaccine shot in Scoil Carmel on O'Connell Avenue in Limerick city last Saturday morning. Staff there were highly efficient, courteous and professional. I could not speak highly enough of the service the staff rolled out. Scoil Carmel is in the city centre and does not have the same capacity as the vaccination centre at Limerick Racecourse.

It is against a backdrop where it is being rolled out exponentially by the GPs and pharmacists. Is the Minister satisfied there is sufficient capacity in Scoil Carmel to ensure the roll-out of the vaccine at speed? We are trying to get ahead of Omicron. It was 14% a day or two ago; it is now 27% and escalating at a rapid rate. To get ahead of it, we need resources. That is about personnel and capacity in vaccination centres. Is the Minister satisfied there is sufficient capacity at Scoil Carmel, in addition to the GPs and pharmacies, to ensure we get the vaccine out as quickly as possible?

We are coming into the Christmas period. If we are opening from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., we must set out clearly to the public when the centres are open. I noticed it will be a combination of walk-ins and appointments. It needs to be rolled out by the HSE, if it has not already done so, as to how it will work over the Christmas and new year period. Everyone wants to work to get ahead of the Omicron variant but HSE staff have been under constant pressure for a long time. Capacity at Scoil Carmel is not the same as at Limerick Racecourse. We need a plan and to explain to the public how to get appointments and what the walk-in clinics will be, spelled out down to the days of the week. I acknowledge that the roll-out of the most recent vaccination programme by the HSE in the mid-west has been excellent. There are no complaints. It is operated in an efficient manner.

The main thing at the moment is whether we will have sufficient personnel. We should be conscious that people will need time off with their families over Christmas, that the capacity at Scoil Carmel is not as high as that at Limerick Racecourse and that the public must be fully aware of how it will operate over Christmas. It looks as if, from listening to the experts, this Omicron variant is more virulent than Delta or any of the others. It is creeping through the community at an unmerciful and rapid rate. We must get ahead of it. The right decision is being made by Government. We must have the capacity and personnel but we are coming into the Christmas period and I am conscious of the human toll on HSE staff giving vaccinations and on GPs and pharmacists and their staff.

We need a roll-out programme. What I want to see over the coming days, if it is not already in place, is 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., how people can get appointments, where the walk-ins are, where the capacity will be and, if there is a need for additional capacity, how we can upscale faster so that when we come to new year, we are ahead of the Omicron variant. It is not easy but it is extremely important that we do it.

3:05 pm

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I join other Deputies in extending my best Christmas wishes to people.

Across society, we are exhausted. We have learned more about the Greek alphabet than any of us cared to learn and the sooner we forget it the better. People in the healthcare system are exhausted, as are those in the education system. I will stick to the education system, which is what I know best. That is not to say I do not acknowledge the work of our front-line healthcare workers.

They are exhausted from the daily in-and-out of dealing with Covid and from the low level anxiety we are all experiencing but which is doubly potent when you are in a classroom of 30-odd children. You have low level worry about your own health and that of the people around you, the teachers in the classroom and the special needs assistants are the same. I spoke to my school secretary recently about the number of phone calls she has to make to harass parents who have to find their way in because their children have the sniffles or whatever else. That all factors in and keys in.

I acknowledge what Deputy Ó Laoghaire said on the huge extra burden placed on principals this year. Deputy Cullinane said governments must acknowledge when they get it wrong but Opposition must acknowledge when we get it right. The vaccination rate in Ireland is among the best in the world. I disagree slightly on HEPA filters. I think the minor works scheme is the way to do it because principals are used to using it. I agree with Deputy Ó Laoghaire on streamlining the advice because we cannot expect principals to be ventilation experts. Principals are used to the minor works scheme format and it is a good way of getting it to them.

It is affecting the way people teach at this time of year. This is usually a joyous time of year in teaching. Everybody is crammed in for the Christmas concert, play or whatever else. Unfortunately, we have had to atomise our children out in a way that does not come naturally to people who choose to teach in a primary school.

Masking of third to sixth class children was difficult to bring in. It goes contrary to what I would like to be doing with my children but the children have taken to it. There is no problem. My boy is heading in with his mask on and is used to it.

We have reacted as best we can to the substitute shortage. It is extremely difficult as there is a straight-up staffing problem in getting enough substitute teachers in place.

I reiterate a suggestion Deputy Ó Ríordáin made earlier and there was not a Minister for Education in the House to hear it. He suggested schools should be used for vaccination sites at primary level. That is a great idea because we do it already. There are other injections that children get in schools. It would minimise disruption for parents and teachers. The teachers would be well able to manage getting the kids in and out. That suggestion has merit and should be looked at.

We have to look to the medium term. First and foremost, we have to make an early decision on leaving certificate 2022. The students of that cohort deserve as early a decision as we can give them. Their schooling has been so disrupted over recent years. The sooner we can give them certainty about whether they will sit a physical exam or have a blended exam like last year, the better for their mental health as much as anything else.

Much of the good work being done in education is being masked by Covid at the minute. Good progress has been made on the pupil-teacher ratio over the last two budgets. The CLASS scheme, which the Minister of State introduced, has great potential but has been hamstrung by the fact that many special educational needs, SEN, teachers are being drafted in to provide substitute cover. We have to look to remediate the disruption in education, particularly for children who are vulnerable in terms of additional needs or socio-economic factors. Damage has been done to the education of our children. Hopefully, as we begin to move beyond this pandemic, we need to look to how we remediate it.

In the longer term, we need to trust our teachers. The reason our education system has performed so well, despite chronic underinvestment over a long period, is we still attract good people into teaching. It is a valued profession and we must continue to trust it. There has been an erosion of that, which should be rowed back. We need to invest in our education system, in our children and their well-being and in the physical fabric in which we educate, that is, the school buildings.

We need to prioritise the citizens' assembly on education and make sure we are looking at an education system that is fit for purpose. The senior cycle review is important in that.

In the much broader scope, as we move beyond this pandemic, we need to re-examine the social contract across education, health and society. Since the general election in February 2020, there has been a massive expansion in the State and there needed to be. It was shown that the market was not going to respond or look after people during a global pandemic. As we move beyond this pandemic, we need to re-examine and revise that social contract and define what we feel the role of the State is in the life of the nation.

3:15 pm

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I wish the Ceann Comhairle, all the staff and all my colleagues here in Leinster House a good Christmas. I hope 2022 will bring better times for all of us.

Today we are speaking of Covid-19 and its impact. Every person I speak to is concerned about the impact on our hospitals and our ICUs. People are concerned that our health services will become overwhelmed with Covid patients. While we know that the number of patients becoming infected with Covid-19 in Ireland in the fourth wave, which we are in the middle of now, is higher than at any point other than last January and February during the third wave, we also know that the number of people in hospitals and ICUs is significantly lower. That is positive. However, what Covid has done is expose many of the weaknesses in our hospital system. Ireland, with 2.9 hospital beds per 1,000 population, is far below the OECD average of 4.4. We also know that Ireland has 5.2 adult ICU beds per 100,000 population, compared with the OECD average of 14.1. I know those are 2019 figures and we have improved somewhat but we are still below those averages. Those failings in our hospital system have been exposed.

We are now at a critical juncture because of the highly infectious Omicron variant and many people are concerned about what may happen in our hospitals in January and February. We need to look today at contingency plans for all our hospitals. We need, in particular, to look to those hospitals that are already at crisis point. Before I came to the Chamber, I visited one or two websites. I looked at the Irish Patients Association website, which monitors the most overcrowded hospitals. Two of the top three were in the north west, namely, Letterkenny University Hospital and Sligo University Hospital. Letterkenny hospital is in second place and the Sligo hospital is in third place, with 166 patients on trolleys for the week ending 10 December. That did not only happen that week. I will give the Minister of State further figures to show this is an issue that has been escalating. If we consider the top five most overcrowded hospitals in the ten weeks before 10 December, Sligo University Hospital features six times on that list. I had a quick look to ensure this did not happen only in recent months or was primarily driven by Covid-19. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, provides figures through Trolley Watch, and I thank it for them. According to the annual figures, in 2006, there were 784 people on trolleys in Sligo University Hospital. Those numbers have continued to grow, year on year. In 2012, there were more than 2,000 people on trolleys. To the end of November this year, there were 3,852 people on trolleys. We will exceed 4,000 this year.

It is also important to note that we are not just looking at figures; we are also looking at the trauma and pain that patients experience and the unrelenting pressure on staff. We know that excess deaths occur as a result of overcrowding and waiting.

A few weeks ago, an INMO protest at Sligo University Hospital was averted at the very last minute. On that particular day, there were 25 patients waiting for a bed, the third highest total in the country. I raised the issue with the Taoiseach, who told me that extended financial provision had been given to hospitals, and I accept that. The truth is that is simply not enough for the hospital. Two and a half weeks ago, he stated: "I will ask the HSE to focus specifically on Sligo to determine how we can help further and alleviate pressure there in the next while." I do not know what has happened in the two and a half weeks since he promised that the HSE would further support the hospital. All I can say is that I am getting more emails and Facebook messages about the chronic overcrowding there. I received another two messages earlier from people who were in the emergency department over the past few days. One woman told me it is beyond dangerous.

I acknowledge that all hospitals need support but those hospitals in the most difficult position now and that consistently have the greatest numbers of patients on trolleys must be prioritised. I know there is no magic wand and I am happy that the Government has had a lot of success dealing with Covid and with the vaccination programme, etc. However, our hospitals are now in a very dangerous situation. Where hospitals require specific support, as is the case for Sligo University Hospital and Letterkenny University Hospital, I ask the Minister of State to look at providing that support over the coming weeks, like the Taoiseach promised.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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I take exception to some of the comments that have been made to the effect that there has been no difference between where we were 22 months ago and where we are now. We now have a vaccine that has worked quite effectively. It is stopping infection and death in the country. No one ever said it was going to stop infection, and that should be clearly pointed out. We also have a Covid savvy population. Even before the call came from NPHET, people were making the decision not to mix as they had planned to in the run-up to Christmas. They made decisions to try to protect their families over the Christmas period. I hope the same situation as last year will not come to pass.

I also salute the workers on the front line across the board, particularly our healthcare workers who are at the coalface in hospitals and ICUs. The next couple of weeks and months are going to be a difficult period for those workers.

I raise the urgency of the need for a response and to build up the booster programme, and access to it. On 29 November, the Canal Communities Local Drug & Alcohol Task Force discussed the issue of the booster vaccination programme at a meeting. I had attended the Citywest vaccination centre at 8 a.m. that day. I was a walk-in patient because I had not received an appointment from the HSE. I am 60 and have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, so I was expecting a booster shot a bit earlier. I was feeling anxious and went to the vaccination centre. I queued, along with all the other walk-ins. They were 60-year-olds, some on walking sticks and others in pushchairs. Some of them were very healthy and seemed grand. We queued for two hours in the cold and damp in the marquee outside. When we got inside, we were another hour queuing. It was quite chaotic. That has happened subsequently in Croke Park, Swords and other vaccination centres over the past two weeks.

After their discussion, the members of the canal communities task force said we have to get these boosters into people's arms as quickly as possible. They wrote a letter to the Minister for Health on that matter on 29 November. The letter stated succinctly that a motion was passed to ask the Minister to provide the booster vaccine in local communities through whatever means possible, such as primary healthcare centres, GP surgeries and community centres, and through organisations such as Safetynet. The task force asked the Minister to do it as a matter of the utmost urgency in the interest of public health. The activists in the task force felt, after discussion, there was a need to send this letter to the Minister. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh and I also signed the letter, as members of the task force.

The two key words in it were “local” and “urgent”. I even checked last week and only four pharmacies in our area were doing the booster programme. One of those contacted said it was not going to get any of the boosters until January and the other three were full.

I was also quite concerned that last week, up to 8 December, only 34% of 60 to 69-year-olds were boosted with their third vaccine. Obviously, that has increased in the last eight days but that was a huge concern. I believe that if access was more local, it would be taken up much quicker. The Omicron variant is doubling every two to three days. It will be the dominant variant in the next week or two. Does the Minister of State feel that 300,000 vaccinations per week is sufficient? I worked out that would mean it would take at least eight to nine weeks to cover the next 2.4 million people who need that vaccine very quickly. In the meantime, the Omicron variant is developing and could have a big impact on our hospital care beds and ICU units. That is a big concern.

Looking quickly at where we have the vaccines at the moment, GPs were doing approximately 75,000 to 85,000 per week. Dr. Mary Favier said on the radio yesterday that could easily be doubled on the basis of what we are doing now with more GP practises involved in it. They could, therefore, be reaching 150,000 to 170,000 per week over the next number of weeks.

Mr. Jack Shanahan from the Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, said yesterday that not as many pharmacies are involved in the vaccine programme as there was in the summer when they were doing 50,000 per week. He said if there is a will and the supplies are there, there is a capacity to do 80,000 to 90,000. Therefore, between GPs and pharmacies, we are talking about 240,000 to 260,000 vaccines per week. I did not know that dentists had become involved. Although dentists seem to be involved in it now, I do not know how they will meet that. Then, we are really looking at the vaccination centres, pop-up centres and SafetyNet playing a role in backing up 240,000 to 260,000 vaccines. The vaccination centres are doing 200,000 at the moment anyway. We are talking about bringing in the Army as extra vaccinators. We should be targeting up to 500,000 per week. We would then have everybody vaccinated within the next five weeks. In the meantime, Omicron is developing. I raise that question because I believe it will be a serious issue if we leave it for eight weeks to get everyone vaccinated, and that is not including our five to 12-year-olds.

The other point I will make is about the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, which was discussed last night in the Seanad. The motion, which was supported, called on our Government to support the TRIPS waiver of the WTO and push the European Commission to support it. The fact that the Government withdrew its own countermotion means that it should be supporting that.

3:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank Deputy Collins very much. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, will conclude the debate for us.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Collins for her contribution. I will be speaking very briefly about special education but I will bring her comments back to Minister, Deputy Donnelly. With regard to the TRIPS waiver, the Government has noted the decision made by the Seanad last night. There is ongoing engagement at a European level in that regard. I know the Tánaiste is also aware of it.

I wish the Ceann Comhairle a very happy Christmas, in particular given the fact that he has recovered from Covid-19. It is not easy. He is living proof that the vaccinations work, which just shows their importance.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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You cannot kill a bad thing.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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You cannot kill a bad thing. It is very positive that he is well and thank God for that.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire, who was here earlier, also recovered from Covid-19, as did a number of other Senators and Deputies. None of us in this House, therefore, including staff, are immune to suffering the effects of Covid-19. We are all human beings at the end of day. I wish the Ceann Comhairle well and hope he has a very peaceful, safe and happy Christmas. I thank all the staff in the Oireachtas for the incredible work they do. There is huge pressure on all of us during this pandemic. My colleagues are also under pressure in their respective constituencies and receive representations on a daily basis all the time.

Specifically, with regard to special education, one of the main concerns I had with this pandemic is the risk of regression for children with additional needs. It is a very real concern. There was regression because children with additional needs learn best in person. Remote learning is just not ideal for them. It is extremely difficult for them. We will move mountains to make sure the schools reopen in the new year, particularly for children with special educational needs, SEN, in special schools and classes and in mainstream classes.

In terms of regression, one of the first things we put in place was the supplementary scheme back in February at a cost of €10 million. That helped approximately 14,000 children receive additional targeted hours during that period of time. We also expanded the summer provision for the very first time so the whole of the school community - all 4,000 schools - were eligible to apply. Some 81,000 children were eligible. We doubled the spend on it and increased the funding to €40 million this year, and more than 24,000 children availed of it.

Deputy Ó Cathasaigh mentioned the Covid-19 learning and support scheme, CLASS, earlier. We put a significant amount of funding, €52.6 million, into that. That is a total amount of more than €100 million to support these children. The CLASS is not just for children with additional needs but also children going to Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, schools and perhaps children who have not availed any sort of support within the school education system before. Some children were affected in terms of their mental health by anxiety, concern around socialisation or whatever it is. We left it to the discretion of the principals and school community to look after them.

I thank school community, as I am sure the Minister, Deputy Foley, did earlier. I commend the principals, secretaries, school staff and SNAs. We have 19,000 SNAs in the country doing incredible work, serving the very intimate needs of children with additional needs, particularly in the special schools. Out of 126 special schools, three to four of them are quasi-medical. An SNA needs to give a huge amount of care to these children in those circumstances and in very challenging times.

It was mentioned earlier that many in the school community and the health services, as Deputy Collins said, are exhausted. We are all exhausted. Everybody is tired and this pandemic is very trying for everybody, but particularly those at the front line. I assure this House today that all the contributions made by all the Deputies will be brought back to the Ministers, Deputies Donnelly and Foley, and, indeed, to Ministers of State such as myself. No stone will be left unturned to make sure we look after both education and health insofar as we can.

Funding is important, and €600 million in total has gone to the school community. There is no point giving funding if it is not going to the right place, however. It is important that we, as line Ministers, ensure that the money goes to where it should be going and not down into empty void.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and wish everyone a very happy Christmas.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Minister of State very much for her kind words and for that very positive response. That concludes our discussion on Covid-19 for this day and this term.