Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Forestry Sector

I will focus on issues relating to forestry and climate change. I am aware that Private Members' business this evening relates to much the same issue. I have received a number of representations in recent weeks from people who are concerned about forestry. If we are to be serious about climate change, action is required. We are kidding ourselves if we believe that launching Government policy on the matter, with a now familiar fanfare, will result in any meaningful change to current trends. Claiming that there is a climate change crisis will get headlines but without a coherent action plan, nothing will change. Scientists tell us that a single hectare of mature trees absorbs 6.4 tonnes of carbon per annum. Scientists also accept that planting trees is by far the quickest and cheapest way of tackling climate change.

Carbon needs to be removed from the atmosphere. As trees grow, they absorb and store the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving global warming. According to Coillte, wood and wood products are known as climate smart products. They are low energy, renewable and fully sustainable construction materials. When used for construction or furniture, they store carbon for long periods. Coillte also states that wood is a low carbon source of fuel and that using wood and wood products for construction and biomass burning releases much less carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere than conventional fossil fuels.

Coillte has committed to increasing the amount of carbon dioxide stored by our forests by managing our existing forests on a fully sustainable basis and promoting the use of wood and wood products as an alternative to fossil fuels and non-renewable construction materials. Private companies and individual growers also have a significant part to play in this process. This Government has set a target of planting 8,000 ha of forestry per annum. Unfortunately, we are only reaching 50% of that target. The reason is the level of bureaucracy and delays in granting licences for clearing, felling and planting. In 2015, there were delays of up to 522 days in granting a licence. In 2016, there were delays of up to 680 days and in 2017, delays reached a staggering 1,119 days before falling to 959 days in 2018. The effect of this is that growers miss planting deadlines and the whole process is backed up. The Government is ultimately missing very modest targets for forestry planting.

The impact on the businesses involved is also a serious problem. I was speaking with the owner of a clear-felling company in Tipperary this week. He has 12 employees but has no work to do for the first time in many years. I visited a nursery in the Minister of State's part of the country last week and it is also struggling with the amount of planting available. This is seriously affecting the viability of the business. In reply to a parliamentary question recently, the Minister of State told me that vetting applications for licences was a complicated process. I have no doubt that is the case. However, that should not be used as an excuse to allow delays in granting licences to continue. The Minister of State must immediately put in place sufficient manpower to grant licences and significantly reduce waiting times. Without this measure, there will be job losses in the sector and we will continue to fall behind our climate change targets, which will cost the State in carbon credits.

The Forestry Act 2014 is a complicating factor. The in-combination impact assessment being used is unduly bureaucratic and the application of a radius of 15 km to 20 km is completely impractical. This radius should be set at a maximum of 3 km and there must be an exemption for plantations under 8 ha. More ecologists are required in the Department to interpret reports as they come in. Staff must be provided to reduce this delay.

I thank Deputy Cahill for raising this issue. I am keenly aware of the importance of timely issue of approvals by my Department for the planting, thinning and felling of trees, both to achieve our afforestation targets and to ensure a consistent supply of timber for processing and renewable energy. As the Deputy is aware, forestry in Ireland operates within a legal and regulatory framework. This is necessary to protect forests and ensure forestry operations and activities are carried out in compliance with the principles of sustainable forest management. To this end, there are a number of steps to be followed for decisions about proposed forestry operations.

The Department is required to carefully vet all afforestation applications with regard to their potential impact on the surrounding environment, habitats and archaeological monuments and with regard to the social aspects of the proposal, and to ensure that the proposal meets the required silvicultural standards. This detailed examination is carried out by district forestry inspectors supported by experts in archaeology and ecology within the Department. Applications may also be referred externally to an outside agency or a public body, with up to eight weeks provided for a response for these external referrals. Applications often require additional information from the applicant and these take time. For openness and transparency reasons, applications are also open to public consultation, facilitated by the advertisement of applications on the Department's website and by a site notice. Interested parties may make a submission in writing on an application within 30 days of it being advised. The net effect of this is that there is a certain minimum timeframe involved in the decisions.

The Department has received 645 applications for 5,050 ha of afforestation to date in 2019.

Approvals have issued for 3,440 ha of afforestation. In addition, payments have issued for 2,968 ha of new afforestation and 51 km of new forest roads, which are essential for timber harvesting. It is not correct, therefore, to say there is a crisis in issuing licences, although there are challenges. I acknowledge that the requirements in terms of environmental compliance are more challenging than they have been in the past. My officials are dealing with this by means of an enhanced online application system, additional resources and specific training both for departmental foresters and private foresters. We must, of course, meet these environmental requirements to ensure that the public has confidence in the sustainability of our afforestation programme.

We have experienced an upsurge in felling licences in recent years, possibly because they are now valid for up to ten years and may cover several felling events on the same plot. The number of felling licences applied for doubled from 2017 to 2018, from 3,300 to 6,600. We have this year issued 3,700 licences, which is double the number issued in 2018. Furthermore, 82% of tree-felling licences were approved within four months.

We can do better and that is why I commissioned an external review of my Department's forestry applications and approvals process to ensure it is as efficient and effective as possible. Mr. Jim Mackinnon, CBE, former chief planner with the Scottish Government, is currently undertaking this review and will report on it by the year’s end. I look forward to his findings. He has met a range of stakeholders right across the industry. We really are anticipating that he will have some positive comments and constructive suggestions.

As is the case with all of my Government colleagues, I am acutely aware of the climate emergency. Forestry has a very significant role to play in helping meet our mitigation objectives, particularly through carbon sequestration, which is why a target of 8,000 ha is included in the climate action plan. I know only too well that achieving this target will be difficult as recent trends have not delivered planting at this rate, despite the generous grants and premiums offered by my Department.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I wish to focus on his statement that there is no crisis in the granting of licences. I have spoken to the nurseries, planting companies and a company involved in clear-felling and thinning and all have concluded there is a crisis. The planting figures for this year will undoubtedly underline that. At most, there will be 4,000 ha of new planting this year. This is only 50% of the target. All those I have spoken to are convinced this is attributable to the bureaucratic system that is in place in the Department owing to the new Act.

An environmental impact assessment on an area of 15 km to 20 km of any area of forestry in the country will undoubtedly cover designated land, special areas of conservation or environmentally protected areas. There would be an impact on wildlife. There is no way that would not occur. A common-sense approach has to be adopted to ensure licences can be granted in a timely fashion. As I said in my opening statement, the first step should be the exemption of plantations smaller than 8 ha under the new Act. For farmer forestry, that would be a great help.

On the ground, farmers have to wait too long to get an answer as to whether their land will be acceptable for planting. They are making other decisions on land use as a consequence. This seriously affects the amount of land that is being planted. This is not coming from me but from the stakeholders in the industry.

As I said, we have commissioned a report from Mr. Jim Mackinnon on the applications and administration process. I hope this will streamline the process even further. The core point is that the applications are down to 5,000 ha. We cannot grant on the basis of applications we do not receive. We need to ascertain the reasons for that. There are competitive factors, such as the surge in dairying, and there is the temptation to enter into long-term tax-free leases. There are many negative connotations about the industry, not to speak of all the other matters. I am not trying to cover over what is going on because a lot of work needs to be done but if the Deputy is talking about adding bureaucracy, he should consider some of the recommendations. We can discuss them later. A fundamental change to forestry policy is recommended, with a move away from shorter rotations to longer ones, agroforestry and semi-wilding. I suggest that the Deputy go back to the people he has talked to and ask them their opinion on what is in the proposal tonight. I would be quite sure that they would be aghast at it. We are talking about trying to mix the commercial good and environmental good, and about biodiversity. We have, on foot of the mid-term review of 2017, implemented in February 2018, seen a marked increase in the number of broadleafs, albeit from a smaller overall figure. There has been an increase from 22% or 23% to 28% in one year. There are signs of this occurring again.

There is a lot of work in progress. I ask the House to accept our bona fides regarding what we are trying to do. I am concerned about what would occur if the policy suggested by the Deputy were to be adopted as Government policy on an afforestation programme. It would nose-dive completely.

Animal Diseases

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for accepting this issue.

The people on whose behalf I am speaking tonight are the salt of the earth. They are predominantly rural people who adore the sport of coursing. Coursing is an integral part of what they are all about. It is part of our history and what we are. I believe passionately in this subject. It is so important to raise it with the Minister, Deputy Madigan. Of the 14 lagomorph carcases found, 13 of which reputedly tested positive for rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus 2, RHD2, how many were hares? If any was a hare, was it made available for independent testing? Has the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, mapped the spread of the disease from its original source? It seems ironic to me - I am not going into theories on what did or did not happen - that the disease is jumping not only from county to bordering county but from one end of the country to the other, from north, east, west and south. What is happening is very erratic. I have questions about that.

Why has the Department and the NPWS continuously refused offers of help from those best placed to monitor the overall situation? An example is our excellent Irish Coursing Club, which has an integral network of clubs throughout the country and is recognised worldwide as being a protector of the Irish hare.

I remind the Minister that a licence to net was granted on a Friday and revoked on a Saturday on the strength of a hare being found in Wexford. It was supposed to have been infected. How was it discovered, literally within a couple of hours and without due process and proper independent testing, that the hare was infected? All of a sudden, all hell broke lose. The licence was revoked and our coursing industry is now in dire jeopardy as a result. I am questioning everything that has happened. I want everything to be scrutinised because there is an awful lot riding on this.

I too thank the Ceann Comhairle for accepting this matter. Many constituents and I listened to the head vet from the NPWS on "Morning Ireland" recently. The case he made for not issuing the licence for netting hares was absolutely comical. First, the NPWS official said during the programme that the service has been dealing with the disease only for six weeks although, at the beginning, he said his colleagues in the United Kingdom were aware of it for over two years. Why did the NPWS not take action when it was aware two years ago that the disease was so close to our shores? The official also said the disease can be spread by nets and boxes. He said he knew this from his colleagues in England. If so, why did he not advise the Irish Coursing Club last year to disinfect all nets and boxes?

Either he was not asked to say that a vaccine is available to stop this disease, or he avoided the question. If this disease is so dangerous to the native Irish hare and can be spread by humans by means of infected grass on their shoes, why did he say that steps have merely been taken to introduce disinfectant foot baths in national parks and on Scattery Island?

Should a nationwide campaign not have been introduced, as was done in the case of foot and mouth disease, in order to ensure that people who visit farms are disinfected when they arrive and leave? What is going on here? There are too many questions. Is it being suggested that this disease is confined to national parks? Most importantly, why is the NPWS not asking for a cull - by gassing - of all rabbits within a five-mile radius of the affected areas, as was done with badgers during the bovine TB epidemic? What is going on in the Department? Many people are suspicious. As rabbits are classed as vermin, the obvious reason for not culling, or for not calling for this much-needed cull, is that it would upset greatly those who are involved in the animal rights movement. There are too many unanswered questions here. There is too much subterfuge and deceit. We want answers now. The coursing clubs must be allowed to have their licences so they can bring in the hares, see how healthy they are and vaccinate them if necessary.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. It important for the House to be aware of the potentially devastating impact of rabbit haemorrhagic disease. When this disease was first reported in domestic farmed rabbits in China in 1984, it killed millions of animals within one year of its discovery. A new and more virulent strain of this virus, known as RHD2, emerged in France in 2010. It causes death within a few days of infection. Sick animals with RHD2 sometimes exhibit partial paralysis and bleeding from the eyes and mouth. On other occasions, they show no external symptoms whatsoever. Most distressingly, animals that are close to death in the latter stages of the disease often exhibit unusual behaviour, such as emerging from cover into the open and convulsing or fitting before dying. The virus has been detected throughout Europe in wild rabbits and hares. The Irish hare is native to Ireland and is found nowhere else. If this disease proves to be as infectious and lethal in Ireland as it has been elsewhere in Europe, the impact on the hare will be catastrophic.

As the Deputies mentioned, RHD2 has been seen in wild rabbits in the UK for a few years. Brown hares in the UK have also been hit with RHD2. Mortality rates in some areas saw up to 70% of brown hares wiped out completely. RHD2 was first confirmed in the wild here last August, which is not that long ago. The first two records came from rabbits - one in County Wicklow and the other in County Clare. As the Deputies are aware, I issued the licence on 1 August and I had to suspend it on 9 August. The first positive report from an Irish hare came on 9 August and related to an animal that was found dying in the Wexford Slobs. Since these initial incidents, a request for public involvement has led to more than 50 reports of dead rabbits and hares around the country. Each report has been followed up by local NPWS rangers. From these incidents, the disease has now been confirmed from counties Cork, Clare, Leitrim, Offaly, Wicklow and Wexford. There is no rhyme or reason for this distribution. I have simply listed the locations where these animals were found. They could have been found in any county. There is no cure for the virus. Although pet rabbits can be vaccinated against the disease, it has not yet been tested on hares.

That is not true.

Clearly, there would be some difficulties with vaccinating animals in the wild. Potentially, there are 233,000 hares and 2 million rabbits in Ireland. The Irish Coursing Club, ICC, has been mentioned. Hare coursing is administered by the ICC, which was set up under the Greyhound Industry Act 1958. Statutory responsibility for the Act resides with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Licences are required by the ICC under the terms of the Wildlife Acts on behalf of affiliated clubs in order to facilitate the netting and tagging of hares for closed park meetings. As stated, I issued the licence for the 2019-2020 season to the ICC in late July to allow affiliated clubs to net hares for the purpose of hare coursing over the season.

The disease is density dependent, which means that the higher the density of animals, the higher the incidence of the disease. The virus is extremely resistant and remains viable for up to two months in the environment. It can be passed on by direct contact. Deputy Mattie McGrath mentioned that it can be carried on people's shoes. It can be passed on in faeces and urine. Infected carcasses can harbour infective virus for several months post mortem. The virus can also be transported on soil, shoes and clothing.

I was shocked to learn that the only criterion for being informed by the Minister as part of a briefing session she held last week was to be a representative of Fine Gael. It was very disappointing. It was very disrespectful to the people in Fianna Fáil who are keeping the Minister in power that a spokesperson was not chosen from that party. What was wrong with Sinn Féin? Why was a spokesman not chosen from that party? Why was a spokesperson not chosen from the Rural Independent Group? Why was our Whip not called to that meeting? It is as if a cosy Fine Gael cartel was getting information. This is a very serious national issue. People who are involved in coursing were not happy to hear that anyone who wanted to get the information that was there to be given out had to be wearing a blue shirt in order to go in and be briefed by the Minister. That was extremely unfair and disrespectful to the other Members, including the people who are keeping the Minister and her colleagues in power. They should not forget that the only reason they are in power as Ministers is that Fianna Fáil wants them to be there. It was disgraceful of them to keep Fianna Fáil out of a room last week. This is a very serious issue and the Minister is handling it very badly. I am disappointed.

I am disappointed with the Minister's reply. Is it a fact that a vaccine to stop this disease from spreading is now available? I am told that it is. I am also told that vaccination against this disease is taking place in Italy. I am very concerned about the Minister's impartiality. She made it known on national radio recently that she wants to see an end to hare coursing. Having expressed this opinion nationally, she is hardly impartial when she deals with the observations of the NPWS, which has shown itself to be incompetent in all matters relating to this virus. It knew about this two years ago, but it did not start to deal with it until the last six weeks. A good number of staff have been hanging around since they were political appointees in John Gormley's day. They have a vested interest in stopping rural pursuits and stopping coursing in Ireland. As far as I am concerned, all of this is blackguarding. The blackguarding must stop. I would have enjoyed a briefing last week as it would have allowed me to get answers from the Minister. Instead, we have had to raise the matter in the House as a Topical Issue. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating that. This is not going to be hidden and brushed under the carpet to suit the Minister and her Dublin-centric Cabinet colleagues who want to banish a tradition that has gone on in rural Ireland for centuries. It will go on. If the Minister drives it underground, it will be dangerous altogether. I want honesty, truth and upfront answers.

Deputy Mattie McGrath accused me of the same bias when he spoke about a rural-urban split during a Topical Issue debate last week.

No Minister in my shoes in these circumstances would have been in a position to make any other decision than that which I made. I am disappointed that Deputy Michael Healy-Rae is being political about this matter because my assistant secretary spoke to him and gave him some details about this matter.

The Minister is being political.

People from Fine Gael asked to meet me. We have also met people from Fianna Fáil. We are open to meeting any public representative who wants information on this matter. There is no conspiracy. I regret that having issued the licence, I had no option other than to row back on it, based on the scientific evidence.

What about the Minister's personal views?

As a Minister, I will not have it on my conscience that I could be responsible for exterminating - for want of a better word - the entire hare population. I understand the ICC's concerns. We have worked with the ICC and we are working with it now. When officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine meet representatives of the NPWS and the ICC on Thursday, it will be possible to consider many of the proposals that have been mentioned by the Deputies to see what can be done to get back on track.

Time is running out.

Another few hares are already with the laboratories. They are being tested. It is a very expensive test. We are waiting to hear the results. We are also looking at another three or four hares that have been found. This is something that has the potential to wipe out the hare population completely. I am not going to stand over that, despite any issues. It is my own party, so out of self-interest I would like to see coursing starting again.

That is not what the Minister said on the radio.

There are people in my party who want to see that happen. In all good conscience, I cannot do that, based on the scientific evidence.

What Dr. Ferdia Marnell, head of animal ecology at the National Parks and Wildlife Service-----

What about a vaccine?

I take this very seriously, but my hands are tied at the moment and I regret that is the case from the Deputies' perspective. That is how it is.

I asked how many hares were affected and I never got an answer. We did not get an answer, which I would like to put on the record of the Dáil. Can the Minister please tell us how many hares were affected? There are people around the country who want to hear how many hares have been affected. Can I please put that on the record of the Dáil?

Deputy, you have had your opportunity. We are moving on to the third item.

Emergency Departments

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue matter, which is an important and urgent issue. It is not important to the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, because, once again, he has not bothered to turn up. I know he does not turn up to Topical Issue debates and I do not know how to get him to turn up. I have been elected to the Dáil for over three years. I have tabled a number of Topical Issue matters on this issue and the Minister has never once turned up. The Ministers of State, Deputies Finian McGrath, Catherine Byrne and Jim Daly, have come to the House, but never the Minister, Deputy Harris. He does not respond to the letters we send, requests to meet Oireachtas Members or letters signed by a number of Oireachtas Members from across the mid-west region.

This is a crisis. The Minister should be ashamed of himself, not just for not turning up to address my Topical Issue matter, which I can live with, but because he allows what is happening in the emergency department in University Hospital Limerick to continue day after day. Today 81 people were on trolleys and 1,400 were recorded as being on trolleys during September, the highest number ever recorded in any month since records began. It is an increase on last year, despite the Government spin. I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and the other Minister of State would stop laughing while I am speaking. There was a 57% increase in trolley numbers for September this year on last year. This is an ongoing crisis. There is a story in the Irish Independent today about a woman was left on a trolley for 105 hours. These stories happen every single day of the week.

The Minister does not have the decency to come to the House to answer questions. It is not just that he is missing the debate today; he has missed every debate for which this has been selected as a Topical Issue matter. He has never been here once. He was at a Fine Gael gig when the party was electing its party leader. Obviously, that was more important to him than talking about the hospital in Limerick which is at crisis point. People in Limerick deserve better than what they are getting from the Government. There is no proper intervention.

The Government talks about plans. The Minister of State read out a list of statistics. The statistic is that the hospital in Limerick is at crisis point. People in the hospital are dying unnecessarily. They should not be on trolleys but there are no beds available for them. The Government should be ashamed of itself. The fact that the Minister has not bothered to come to the Chamber is shocking. The Minister of State will read out a script. I will quote from a previous reply in May 2017, when concern was expressed by a nursing union that at least 24 people would be on trolleys from the get go, a concern we shared. He rubbished the union and what I said. At the time he said, "The CEO of the UL hospital has confirmed that there is no basis for any suggestion that 24 patients will be accommodated on trolleys in the new emergency department." We would almost wish the figure was just 24. There were 81 people on trolleys today and on three separate days in recent weeks. In September, 1,400 people were on trolleys.

The Government has not intervened. There are no proper step-down or primary care facilities. General practitioners are not being funded. The Government has spoken about building extensions, but the 60-bed extension will not be in place for at least a year. The winter months will, unfortunately, result in more overcrowding than during the summer months. There are historic numbers of people on trolleys. I know older people who will not go to hospital and families who are stressed. When they get access to hospital the service they get is very good, but the problem is entering the hospital in the first place.

On the problem you raised about the Minister for Health not being present, it is entirely in order for a Minister of State from the relevant Department to take a Topical Issue matter. However, if a Deputy is unhappy, he or she can make contact with my office and we will always try to arrange for the Minister and Deputy concerned-----

I appreciate that, but it is frustrating that the Minister has not come to the House on this issue for three years.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the issues raised by Deputy Quinlivan. I want to stress that I never rubbished anyone's arguments about Limerick hospital. I understand the issue and apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, who was unable to attend this debate.

I wish to acknowledge the distress overcrowded emergency departments cause to patients, their families and front-line staff working in very challenging conditions in hospitals throughout the country. The number of patients attending emergency departments continues to increase year-on-year. For the first eight months of 2019, the number of patients attending hospital emergency departments increased by 2.9% and the number of emergency department admissions increased by 1.7% compared to the same period last year. The emergency department at University Hospital Limerick, UHL, is one of the busiest in the country. As such, the hospital and CHO mid west were identified as one of the nine focus sites requiring additional investment, focus and support last winter.

According to provisional HSE TrolleyGAR data, there was a 70% increase in patients waiting on trolleys to date in the UHL emergency department in September 2019 compared to the same period last year. In September 2019, there were 897 patients counted on trolleys in UHL, a 28% increase compared to the previous month. It is acknowledged that this is unacceptably high and the HSE is actively working with the UHL group to ease congestion in the hospital, with a focus on facilitating transfers to level II hospitals, assistance from rehab units and community health organisation services and the prioritisation of diagnostics to aid inpatient discharges.

The health service capacity review published last year highlighted the need for a major investment in additional capacity. Progress has been made on increasing capacity in UHL. The average number of open inpatient beds increased by 4% between 2017 and March 2019. Since 2017, an additional 25 beds have been opened in UHL, including eight as part of last year's winter plan. A capital budget of €19.5 million has been approved for the provision of a modular 60-bed inpatient ward block at UHL, with funding of €10 million allocated in 2019. The new modular ward will include three wards comprising 20 single occupancy rooms with en suite facilities, two of which will be full isolation facilities and will provide care and treatment for patients from admission to discharge. The HSE has advised that the enabling works are complete and the main contractor is commencing work. In addition, the national development plan includes a 96-bed replacement ward block in UHL and capital funding was provided in 2018 to progress the design phase of the project.

Planning for winter 2019-2020 has also commenced. The Department has engaged extensively with the HSE in regard to planning for this. In that respect, the HSE has been asked to consider actions and initiatives over and above non-funded actions and to look at the building capacity and options available to them to alleviate the expected overcrowding. The Department expects to receive a draft winter plan in the coming weeks. In the context of planning and preparing for the challenges of the winter period, the Department and HSE have been considering a comprehensive approach to the current high level of delayed transfers of care. However, recognising the urgency of the situation, approval was provided to the HSE to begin actions immediately to the value of €5 million in 2019. As part of these measures, the HSE released a significant number of funding approvals with the NHSS this month, bringing the waiting time for the release of funding back to four weeks.

The Minister of State read the same thing he read to me before. The 96-bed unit to which he referred has been talked about for a number of years. There is no update on that, apart from what he said. We are all well aware of the project. It will not alleviate the current problem.

The 60-bed modular unit is very welcome, but it will be more than a year before it can be used by patients. What immediate action will the Government take? That has not been addressed. What will it do for the 81 people who are on trolleys today? There will probably be a similar number on trolleys tomorrow and every other day in October. I hope that is not the case, but it seems likely.

I hope the Minister of State will pass on my concerns to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, as he stated he would. The Minister should come to the House to apologise to the people of Limerick and the thousands of patients who suffered on a trolley in the past year. This year, there will be a record number of patients on trolleys. The 2018 levels have already been exceeded. The Minister should also apologise to the nurses and other hospital staff who daily run up and down corridors apologising to patients for the way they are treated in emergency departments. It should not be the role of hospital staff, who deliver the best care they can, to apologise to people. Rather, the Government should do so. The Minister should be in the Chamber to address this issue, as I have requested on several occasions, and to apologise to the people of Limerick. I hope he will take that step.

I do not know what are the plans of the Government. I have not heard anything about extra funding for step-down facilities, homecare packages or immediate access. The Minister of State referred to the modular unit. As I pointed out, it will not be ready for a year, while the 96-bed unit is so far into the stratosphere that we will probably never see it being built. It was supposed to be constructed several years ago but it was not delivered.

I believe the Government has no interest in the hospital. Fianna Fáil decided to merge the three hospitals in the mid-west region in spite of being told that these problems would arise. In fairness, nobody expected the scale of the increase in admissions to the hospital, but that is what happened and the Government has not intervened. Ministerial intervention is needed on this issue. If the Minister is not up to it, he should go.

It must be acknowledged that attendances at emergency departments are growing year on year and that the health service capacity review indicates that Ireland has among the highest rates of acute bed occupancy in the developed world.

It is widely agreed that additional beds are a key part of the solution for Limerick. Over the past two winters, an additional 25 beds were opened in Limerick, including eight beds as part of the winter plan 2018-19. The new emergency department which opened in May 2017 provides a modern, safe and fit-for-purpose facilities that meet the expectations of patients and their families while providing high quality accommodation that better protects privacy and dignity. In addition, the new 60-bed ward was established to provide a rapid-build interim solution to the bed capacity issue at University Hospital Limerick and in response to the health service capacity review by the Department. The UL Hospitals Group welcomed the commitment in Project Ireland 2040 to build a 96-bed ward block over the current emergency department. A design team has been appointed to the project.

Improving timely access for patients is at the heart of Sláintecare. Building upon the progress made in this area in recent years, the Sláintecare action plan 2019 published by the Department includes a specific work stream on access and waiting lists. In addition, many of the other service reforms and enhancements in the action plan will support timely access to care for patients in the coming years. Progress has been made in implementing the Sláintecare action plan this year.

All Members acknowledge that the challenges faced in this area are significant. However, it is my firm belief that we all want patient-centred, evidence-based, results-focused and sustainable solutions to the challenges currently facing our health services.

Animal Diseases

This very important issue was brought to my attention by the Dundalk and District Brown Trout and Salmon Anglers Association. It is also of great concern to many others who are interested in their environment. All Members know that the number of Atlantic salmon entering our rivers has declined in numbers in recent years. There are similar causes for concern in all European countries. In spite of the catch and release programme introduced in recent years by Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, our stocks continue to be depleted and are at risk of reaching zero.

This issue concerns what some believe to be an unknown disease affecting salmon and sea trout in the Castletown, Fayne, Dee and Boyne rivers in County Louth. Anglers in the north east rightly brought this issue to my attention. Fish are being caught in very poor condition, with welts on their backs and lots of scarring. The initial response received by the anglers was to catch and retain live sick fish and that the IFI would collect them. The anglers were of the view that that was a very ambitious proposal as they had no means of retaining the fish and worried that the fish were in such a poor condition that they would not survive long enough to be collected. The anglers are also worried about health matters such as the possible spread of disease through handling the fish. They reported that sea trout are displaying the same symptoms. They reported this to IFI inspectors on several occasions and sent photographs of the diseased fish, but did not receive a satisfactory response. I contacted IFI on the matter yesterday, but have not received a response.

In the international year of the salmon, is the Minister of State aware of this recent disease outbreak in the rivers to which I referred? What actions is the Department taking or willing to take to identify the disease? Does the Minister of State have a plan of action to deal with this situation? Can he find out whether the problem will, as suspected, cause cross-species infection? Does he plan to implement bio-security measures to stop the spread of the disease? Is he of the view that bio-security measures are not necessary in this case? These are the questions to which people want answers. The concerned fishing clubs in the north east wish to know whether the disease is harmful to humans. Does the Minister of State have information on the spread of disease from salmon farms on the west coast of Scotland to the wild stocks in rivers on our east coast?

It is no coincidence that Deputies Michael Healy-Rae and Mattie McGrath tabled a Topical Issue on rabbit haemorrhagic disease. My suspicion from researching the matter is that the disease about which the fishermen are concerned is ulcerative dermal necrosis. I am familiar with necrosis, which is rotting of the flesh. I cannot help but speculate on the phytosanitary concerns in regard to the movement of animals that may have to be addressed post Brexit. The well-known RTÉ programme "To the Waters and the Wild" was produced by Gerrit van Gelderen and Éamon de Buitléar. Our wildlife and our waters know no bounds. I have serious concerns arising from this issue, and the issue of rabbit haemorrhagic disease as raised by other Members, regarding the need to protect our wildlife and waters.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. Following reports of salmon returning to Norway and Scotland with a red rash skin disease in spring 2019, Inland Fisheries Ireland has been proactive on this issue in respect of Irish rivers and waters. All possible action has been taken by IFI since that time. Any suggestion that no measures have yet been undertaken does not accurately reflect the situation on the ground. IFI immediately issued a statement on 17 June 2019 to inform anglers that a small number of salmon showing signs of bleeding and skin ulceration had been observed returning to Irish rivers. It appealed to anglers and fishery owners to report any incidences of affected salmon with rash-like symptoms to help determine the scale of the problem nationally. I am advised by IFI that salmon with these symptoms began appearing in Irish rivers in early June. By mid-June, there were reports of fish with ulceration in at least six rivers on the east and west coasts of Ireland.

The affected salmon show signs of bleeding, ulceration and haemorrhaging, mainly along the area on the belly of the fish, as well as on the head and tail. Secondary fungal infection usually sets in and can result in death.

IFI advised that until the cause of the disease was determined and the risk of spreading the disease established, affected salmon should not be removed from the water. Any anglers who captured salmon with these symptoms were advised to follow normal biosecurity procedures and disinfect tackle, waders and equipment. IFI set up a dedicated email address, salmon.symptons@fisheriesireland.ie, for anglers to report any incidence of diseased salmon encountered in rivers and provide photographs. Anglers were also advised to contact IFI's 24 hour confidential hotline, 1890 34 74 24 or 1890 FISH 24, in this regard. The dedicated email received approximately 25 reports of diseased salmon with red skin rash symptoms from 15 Irish rivers. Photographs were also received of diseased fish from the majority of rivers.

IFI collaborated with the fish health unit in the Marine Institute in Galway and provided, for disease testing, a live salmon with symptoms of the disease captured in the upstream trap from the national salmonid index catchment on the River Erriff. A freshly caught salmon with disease symptoms was also provided from the River Lee for disease testing. Salmon were also collected from the River Boyne by IFI staff and given to a specialist fish veterinary group in Galway for examination. No responsible disease was identified in any of these samples tested that could explain the red rash symptoms observed in Irish salmon. The vast majority of reports of diseased salmon were from June and July with small numbers of reported incidences since that time. Information also suggests that the number of fish which died from the disease was small, with east coast rivers such as the Boyne, the Dee, the Castletown and the Fane appearing to be worst affected.

Given the international dimension to the issue, IFI scientists consulted their colleagues in Norway and Scotland since early June in an effort to establish the cause of the disease. To date, no laboratory in Europe has definitively identified the cause of the disease symptoms observed although it is thought that there may be some link to a change in salmon diet at sea and a related vitamin deficiency that is being investigated further as a possible contributing factor. In this context, an IFI scientist will attend an international workshop in Norway shortly and present the available information on the disease outbreak in Ireland. The workshop will cover exchange of observations and knowledge about the disease between countries, results of disease testing and the identification of knowledge gaps and potential future collaboration.

The experience of anglers, certainly those in the north east, has not been as the Minister of State describes in terms of IFI being proactive. He mentioned the River Boyne but, to my knowledge, that has not been the experience of anglers with respect to the other rivers I mentioned. Anglers have been asked to deal with the issue but the IFI has trained staff. It would have been expected its staff should have either netted the river or extracted live samples using electro-stunning, of which I am sure the Minister of State is aware.

I wish to place on record the fact that, as far back as 25 June, emails containing photographs were sent to local inspectors and that the replies received indicated that no formal action was being taken by IFI, which was trying to capture diseased fish in Galway nearer to its testing laboratory. Other emails were sent on 9 and 12 July and on 5 and 19 August containing photographs of diseased fish. On 13 Sept, a video was sent to the local IFI inspector showing diseased fish in the Castletown river.

I ask that priority be given to what is considered to be an environmental disaster in the rivers to which I referred. Effectively, no fish are to be found in them or those that found in them give rise to serious concern with respect to this disease. The Minister of State has not confirmed whether the disease found in the fish is ulcerative dermal necrosis. From what I have read, that it what it appears to be. However, I am not a scientist. More importantly, we need to get to the bottom of the matter. If the Minister of State checks the record of these disease trends, I am advised that disease almost wiped out the stock in 1877. He referred to the period from 1960s through to the 1990s. This issue will become much more serious if we do not address it immediately.

I am treating this issue with all the seriousness it deserves. Our rivers are a natural resource and an amenity that we must protect. The Deputy mentioned that telephone calls have been made and videos and photographs have been submitted. I assure him that if there is any failure in terms of communication, it will be rectified. I will bring that issue to the attention of the IFI.

The local IFI inspector has been in regular contact with members of one angling club, namely, the Castletown Angling Club, regarding this matter. The regular contact has been by way of telephone calls to the inspector. There have been calls from anglers for IFI to electro-fish the river to ascertain how many diseased fish were present. However, I am advised this is not a practical measure in the circumstances. Rather the priority is to get the live infected fish for sampling and the local fisheries team had been proactive in developing a plan to fish for salmon on the Castletown river and to try to obtain a live sample of infected fish to provide to the Marine Institute for virology and pathology testing. The team has also set up a holding station isolated from the water body for any infected live fish which are caught.

As already stated, a dedicated email address was set up and the IFI received a number of communications to this address, some of which included photographs. This is a reporting mechanism and it would not be the usual practice to respond individually to reporting emails to a notification type address but rather to concentrate on the intelligence gathered in same. The majority of communications locally appear to have been by telephone. I will be happy to have the IFI liaise directly with the Deputy on this matter . From a personal point of view, the local anglers are the people who have the local knowledge and that is what will help us solve this problem, but it is a worry.

That concludes today's consideration of Topical Issue matters.