Seanad debates

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Pharmacy Services

10:30 am

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for coming to the House today to discuss the all-important matter of the shortage of pharmacists and pharmaceutical technicians. I have been contacted by a number of pharmacists who are very concerned about the skills shortage in the sector. I have communicated with the Minister of State's Department in regard to it. A pharmacist Limerick, who has a number of pharmacies, simply cannot get pharmacists. The person concerned is afraid that the pharmacy will have to close down because it cannot function without having a qualified pharmacist working in it. One or two members of staff came from Brazil, but their qualification is not recognised in this country. They are working with the Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, to have their qualifications recognised. It is impossible to get staff. Pharmacists I have spoken to say it is taking between six and 12 months from the time they advertise a position until they get people into the role. The sector has reached crisis point.The IPU conference was held last weekend in Dublin. As part of his speech, the president, Mr. Dermot Twomey, highlighted the fact that he had been in communication with the Department in terms of getting pharmacists and pharmaceutical technicians listed on the critical skills list. He highlighted what I outlined a minute ago, which is that the IPU fears there will not be enough pharmacists to actually open the pharmacies. That really is frightening.

We only have to look back at what we went through in terms of Covid-19 and the number of people who relied on pharmacists. While doctors, we will say, were predominantly online, some pharmacists were open 24-7, and most were open five or six days per week and provided in-person consultation. We are so reliant on pharmacies for anything from a little minor bite to something serious. Certainly, there is a shortage and it needs to be addressed.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Byrne for raising this issue and giving me the chance to address the Seanad on the matter. It is timely with regard to the process.

Ireland operates a managed employment permits system, maximising the benefits of economic migration and minimising the risk of disrupting Ireland's labour market. The regime is designed to facilitate the entry of appropriately skilled non-EEA nationals to fill skills or labour shortages in the State required to develop and support enterprise for the benefit of our economy. This objective must be balanced by the need to ensure there are no suitably qualified EEA nationals available to undertake the work and that the shortage is genuine.

The system is managed through the operation of the critical skills and ineligible occupations lists, which, respectively, prioritise specified in-demand skills and identify occupations for which a labour supply should be available in the EEA. The lists are subject to regular, evidenced-based review incorporating consideration of available research and a public consultation, providing an opportunity for stakeholders to submit information and perspectives on the extent of skills or labour shortages. Account is taken of education outputs, sectoral upskilling and training initiatives and known contextual factors such as the ending of the pandemic unemployment payment scheme or the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis and their impact on the labour market.

Submissions to the review are considered by the interdepartmental group on economic migration policy, with membership drawn from senior officials of key Departments, including the Department of Health, which will be relevant in the Senator's case, who may provide their observations on the occupation under consideration. The occupations of pharmacy technician and pharmacy assistant are currently included on the ineligible occupations list. Occupations on the ineligible occupations list are occupations in respect of which evidence suggests there are sufficient EEA workers available to fill such vacancies and, therefore, an employment permit shall not be granted. No submissions were received with regard to these occupations in recent reviews.

The next review of the occupational lists is due to take place in quarter 2 of this year, so it will be open shortly. When open, submissions will be invited from sector representative bodies and interested parties via the public consultation form accessible on my Department's website throughout the consultation period.

In the case of the area the Senator is representing, I would urge the IPU to come forward. It made recommendations in the past in other areas and they were listened to. It must be based on evidence, however, and has to be in conjunction with the Department of Health and other relevant Departments. We are happy to engage with the IPU around that process. Again, if the evidence is there, we can adjust to be able to deal with its concerns around the ineligible occupations list.

The Senator raised the timelines involved in processing permits at this time. While no one can stand over the lengthy waiting times for last year, which was far too long for the second half of last year, we came into 2022 with a backlog of more than 10,000 applications. That is because there was a 70% increase in the number of permits that were applied for last year, which was on top of a 50% increase in the years before that as well. There was, therefore, a massive increase in the permits option. We have trebled the staff in the division to try to deal with this and with the backlog, and they are having an impact. The backlog is now back down to under 6,000 permits as of today. We have trebled the outcome per week, which would have been approximately 300 permits on average this time last year. That is now more than 1,000 most weeks and in the week just gone, 1,200 permits were processed. Much work has been done, therefore, to try to speed up the delivery of these. We have now got the critical skills timeline back down to six weeks, which is very competitive compared with the rest of Europe.

The difficulty is on the general work permit. For trusted partners, we have got it back down to 16 weeks now. It was as high as 24 or 25 weeks at one stage. For non-trusted partners, it is still approximately 21 weeks. All our efforts in the weeks ahead will be to drive that back down and to get all permits down to approximately six or seven weeks, if we possibly can.

A big impact on that will be an issue we discussed here quite a lot, that is, the changes we made to the system last October allowing for an extra 3,000 work permits in the horticulture and meat industry sectors. They would all have been applied for quite quickly as they are after October. It put a lot of pressure on the system but most of those 3,000 are nearly completed and being processed now, which will free up our staffing timetable to be able to focus on other key areas like hospitality, chefs and so on. The Senator identified the pharmacy sector, with which I think we can also engage during this review process.

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State very much. I was of the understanding the IPU had been in consultation, but obviously it has not. I will go back to the pharmaceutical union and inform it of the process. I appreciate this will be opening shortly because, certainly, it is not just affecting my area; it is affecting areas throughout the country. Their union was actually calling for pharmacists to be added to the critical skills list. While I know a couple of hundred people are qualified every year in the role of pharmacist, the industry cannot get people to apply for the jobs. That is the big problem. I think a lot of people are in employment, to be honest about it. A recent report that came out shows that unemployment in my region is down to just over 4%, which is ahead of what it was prior to Covid-19. It is quite a low figure, which is great, certainly in terms of the mid-west. We are all so reliant on our pharmacists, however, so it is critical. I will tell them about the process, and I am sure the Department's website probably lays out the different things they must do to qualify. I thank the Minister of State.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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Again, I thank Senator Byrne for raising this issue. It is a very important area because we know the service our pharmacists provide to all of us. Certainly, they have been extremely busy in helping with the response to Covid-19 over the past couple of years. They do great work and it is important they can access the level of staff they need.

Again, to clarify for the record, the IPU does engage quite a lot with our Department. It also feeds into our retail forum quite successfully and engages quite a lot. What is important on these processes is the evidence. From memory, I think the IPU had submissions for certain categories of workers. When we are doing the Department's review, however, each area of concern must be specified. A formal response was not sent in for the previous two reviews. There might have been on the ones before that. It is important, therefore, we have that formal piece of evidence as well. There was engagement, and some progress has been made in other job categories, but the specific ones the Senator mentioned are probably the focus of this year's involvement. The IPU will no doubt be involved. I am happy to meet with it because it provides a great service.