Friday, 19 February 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Cathaoirleach and I appreciate that he has selected this matter today. I welcome the Minister to the House. I know he has a busy portfolio and is very active in it. I wish him well in all his endeavours. I am sure the Minister is aware that there is quite a large backlog in relation to the theory test. This has been flagged to me by several councillors nationwide. Councillors Arthur McDonald and Paul Taylor have recently contacted me about clients who are trying to book a theory test. Some spots available were as late as November of this year. Following further inquiries, I believe there are 54,000 people booked to do theory tests between the middle of March and November.
There was talk of a pilot scheme to bring the driver theory test online. There is no reasonable excuse not to conduct the theory test online, particularly as the Covid crisis is lasting much longer than anticipated. Every other facet of Irish life has moved to Zoom, Teams and other formats. There is no reasonable excuse for the theory test not to be carried out online safely, securely and, most of all, to the benefit to the Irish road user.
I know there a pilot scheme but we have had very little feedback on that. I ask the Minister, as the senior Minister in this Department, to think outside the box, come up with an answer and allow people who need transport for school, work and everyday life to take the test. If they do not have their theory test, they cannot progress to get their driver test. I am hopeful the Minister will have a positive response to this issue. It is not the first time I have flagged it with his office.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter. The driver theory test service is the statutory responsibility of the Road Safety Authority. My Department has been in constant contact with the authority since the start of the pandemic regarding all of its services. The impact of Covid-19 on these services and how they can best be maintained in the current circumstances is a critical issue for us.The driver theory test has not been deemed an essential service under level 5. As a consequence, the service is closed while level 5 restrictions remain in place. Candidates who have a theory test scheduled up to 5 March will be contacted via email with a rescheduled appointment.
Theory tests were first suspended due to Covid-19 in March last year. The service resumed on a gradual basis in mid-June. This was possible due to detailed work undertaken by the Road Safety Authority and its contractor, in conjunction with expert medical advice, to examine each aspect of the testing process and to ensure, to the maximum possible extent, the resumed test would be safe for the public.
When operations resumed there was, inevitably, an increased level of demand due to the consequent backlog. Unfortunately, due to social distancing and other public health and hygiene needs, service capacity was considerably reduced and customers experienced longer waiting times. Level 5 restrictions took effect again for six weeks from 22 October 2020 to 1 December last and were reinstated from the end of December. The service will remain closed until at least 5 March. While I fully appreciated the inconvenience this causes, I am sure the Senator will agree that limiting the spread of the virus and safeguarding public health takes priority.
The Road Safety Authority has advised it is engaging with the service provider to examine ways of increasing the number of tests, within in the current health constraints, when services resume. In this regard, the aim is to double capacity over a three-month period. Subject to decisions on future Covid-19 restrictions, additional capacity would be made available in April, May and June 2021.
Given that normal capacity was approximately 25,000 tests per month, this initiative will provide an estimated 75,000 extra testing appointments over the three-month period, making substantial inroads into numbers waiting. My Department has requested that the Road Safety Authority, as a body legally responsible for the driver theory test, examine whether theory tests can be taken remotely online, and what is needed to do so.
I am pleased to inform Senator Davitt the driver theory test service has launched a pilot phase of a new initiative, which offers a remote testing service for specific categories of theory test. During the pilot phase, remote testing will be available on a limited basis. Extra capacity will be added as it is rolled out to allow more customers to sit their bus or truck certificate of professional competency or advanced driver instruction theory test online.
Remote testing allows candidates to test from their homes or another suitable environment, once the minimum requirements for the service have been met. Following a review of the private phase, the RSA expects the initiative to be extended to cars and motorcycles. The RSA is keen to extend the service to all categories of driver theory test. However, scaling up operations to facilitate higher numbers will take time to achieve. As remote testing facilitates additional capacity while also enabling the service to continue in the event of future lockdowns, it is expected to greatly reduce the service to normal waiting times.
The Department has been in discussions with the Road Safety Authority on how to return to the normal target for the maximum waiting time. It will not be possible to arrive at this quickly, given the restraints which must be put in place due to Covid-19. It is important to recognise there are no quick fixes and the continuing build-up of applications as the pandemic goes on means it will take time to return to normal waiting times. It is important to emphasise that an extension of the level 5 restrictions, currently in place until 5 March, will impact on how quickly the backlog plan can be delivered.
I am delighted to hear the scheme the Minister had introduced on a pilot basis has been a success. However, we are more than a year into this pandemic. There will probably be changes for another year. It would be a step forward to have the theory test online and to have an adequate system so that people could do it online. It would make more sense going forward.
I question the preparation the Road Safety Authority, RSA, has put into this. How did it not see this staring it in the face a year ago and why did it not work on this a bit harder? How can the system not be rolled out when every other facet of Irish society has managed to move on? It is a necessity. I ask the Minister to stress to the RSA that this be made a priority.Driving examiners are at home. Why can they not look at the theory end? We have the manpower. If these examiners are only carrying out tests on a very limited basis, or not at all, at present, they could be used to help get the theory end out of the way.
I agree with the Senator. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is the line Minister in this regard but I will work with her. I have a meeting coming up with the RSA and I will impress on it the imperative to get the remote system working not only for bus and truck drivers, but also for car drivers. We had a meeting of the Covid subcommittee last night. Unfortunately, the advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, which is good advice, is that we will probably have to continue with level 5 restrictions past 5 March. Everyone is aware of that. This remote testing system was introduced in December and has worked well. It will take some time to set it up more widely but the Senator is right, there is an imperative to do so. I will make sure we do everything we can within the Department to help the RSA to deliver.