Covid-19 (Transport): Statements

I did not expect to be back in the Chamber quite so soon but it is nice to be here.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House today to speak about the impact of Covid-19 on our transport system and our plans to support the sector in recovering from this crisis. I have spoken to the House on a number of previous occasions on the transport portfolio, but the circumstances in which the sector now finds itself are, it is fair to say, unprecedented. Of course, the primary focus of the Government must be the response to the public health crisis. Nevertheless, we must also do our utmost to help our economy to recover from what is the worst short-term economic shock in the history of the State.

Transport, along with other sectors under the remit of my Department, has been impacted severely as a result of the current crisis. The importance of the transport sector to Ireland’s economy cannot be overstated. We are situated on the western periphery of Europe and the sector connects us with the rest of the world.

The key message I want to deliver to Members and the Irish people at this time is that our transport network and services continue to operate safely and effectively, providing vital connectivity for essential workers and essential trade. Transport and travel up to now have been means of physically connecting us to family and loved ones. While many of these longed-for trips cannot be made at present, one of my primary goals is ensuring that people can make these essential visits safely and easily when restrictions are eased. In the meantime, it is heartening to see increased numbers of people walking and cycling, and I hope this uptick in active travel is maintained, even as restrictions ease.

The public transport system is a critical part of the plan for the reopening of the economy. It is inconceivable that public transport should not function properly during the present crisis. I can, therefore, confirm to the House that the Government will provide the necessary additional funding to continue those services despite the drop in fare income. My Department is working closely with the National Transport Authority, NTA, and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to assess and quantify this additional funding requirement.

A priority of the Government is to maintain Ireland's international transport connectivity, supporting the movement of essential goods into, around and out of the country. It has been more important than ever to maintain strong links with our European partners and our neighbours in the UK. I have worked with European member states and the Commission over the past few difficult months, seeking to minimise the impact of disruption to transport, and the movement of international transport workers, at borders.

A dialogue has been initiated between the governments of Ireland, the UK and France to strengthen our partnerships, share best practices and support the movement of essential goods during this crisis.

My Department is also working with partners inside and outside government to maintain continuity of supply chains. We have had ongoing and frequent engagement with airlines, airports, shipping companies, ports and hauliers. I acknowledge and recognise the vital role they all play in bringing essential supplies to Ireland. The Road Safety Authority has implemented a number of measures to support the continued functioning of the road haulage sector, including a temporary derogation from EU driving and rest hour rules.

Port and shipping services, albeit with some reductions in capacity, continue the vital movement of goods. The maritime sector is essential to the continued supply of goods in and out of the country, accounting for 90% of Ireland's international trade in volume terms. In response to a near collapse in ferry passenger numbers, my Department temporarily designated five strategic maritime routes as public service obligation, PSO, routes for a period of three months. I allocated an emergency provision of up to €15 million towards the costs involved in the continued operation of services on these routes. My Department developed tailored guidance setting out risk mitigation measures for essential workers in the maritime supply chain, and introduced measures to ensure seafarer and vessel certification remains valid throughout the crisis.

Owing to its location, Ireland is highly dependent on air connectivity, more so than most EU member states. It is the lifeblood of our tourism sector and it is critical for our economy overall. In recent months, passenger numbers have fallen by up to 99% and forward bookings have collapsed. The Government is working hard to protect air connectivity for the future. Many of our airports have taken difficult decisions to temporarily lay off staff to help constrain escalating losses. These staff can, and are, availing of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. Both the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, and Shannon Group are availing of support under the Government's Covid-19 temporary wage subsidy scheme. Our State airports continue to facilitate airline services for passengers, cargo operators and aviation business based at the airports. Notwithstanding the challenges facing the aviation sector, I acknowledge the support it has provided during the pandemic, particularly the important role that Aer Lingus, the Irish aircraft leasing sector and other airlines are playing in securing personal protective equipment, PPE, and essential medical supplies. I know the country as a whole is appreciative of their vital work to assist our health sector.

Since the beginning of the crisis, domestic travel has significantly reduced. Notwithstanding this, road deaths remain slightly above the numbers for the same period last year. In particular, there has been a worrying increase in the number of pedestrian deaths. Figures for drink-driving are as high as last year and the incidence of drug-driving is significantly up. At this time, when we are all concerned about the impact of Covid-19, I appeal to all road users to act responsibly and with care.

The Government has been clear that continued operation of the public transport sector is vitally important, and it has been designated among the essential services that are to carry on. I thank operators and staff for their continued dedication to providing this vital service in such challenging times. A number of measures have been introduced throughout the system, guided by public health advice, to ensure the continued operation of services during the pandemic, including enhanced cleaning regimes and social distancing measures across the network. Current capacity is significantly ahead of demand, which ensures social distancing can be easily maintained.

The roadmap published last week clearly sets out a plan for returning to business as usual over the coming months. My Department and the NTA are engaging with public transport operators to determine the practical implications for public transport provision as Covid-19 restrictions are eased in Ireland, and a public transport plan in response to the Government's roadmap for the easing of restrictions will be published shortly. The NTA advises that current levels of service will facilitate the expected increase in passenger numbers, principally in the construction sector, from the start of phase one. The operators are in a position to provide additional capacity, including a return to the normal Monday to Friday schedule and mobilisation of additional vehicles at any particular pinch points in the network, should more capacity be required in phase two.

In the short term, more people will wish to walk and cycle to shops, to work or just to get some exercise. I am glad to say that my Department, through the NTA, is helping to rethink how best our cities can support people switching to active travel modes and facilitate social distancing in urban centres. The NTA is working with local authorities to develop Covid mobility frameworks which will set out specific plans to improve walking and cycling infrastructure. The first framework is being developed with Dublin City Council. I understand that the initial draft will be available in the coming days. It will set out measures to be put in place in the coming weeks and months to facilitate the safe resumption of social and business activity. I intend that similar plans will be developed for Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.

This emphasis on active travel is not just a short-term measure; it has been a feature of the submissions we received during our consultation on our sustainable mobility policy in the last few months. Along with these much-needed temporary measures, we are continuing to fund the longer-term projects like the Royal Canal greenway in Dublin, the Parnell Street improvements in Limerick and the extension of the Waterford greenway into the city centre.

On 1 May the Government published the roadmap for easing of restrictions, phase 1 of which begins next Monday. The challenge for the transport sector is to deliver services safely as restrictions are eased. The sector has continuously engaged with public health advice and we will work to provide safe transport services for our economy, for our people and for our country.

I wish to share time with Deputies Niall Collins, Cathal Crowe and Cormac Devlin. I will take six minutes and each of the other Deputies will take three minutes. As is the case with other contributions, I will use my six minutes to pool a number of questions and the Minister may decide to answer in writing on another day so that we are not wasting speaking time in the House.

I welcome the Minister back to the House. Cocooning in the Wicklow hills did not do him any harm. I fear that when it comes to transport, tourism and sport, however, a lot of the Department may have been cocooning with him. The various sectors are at pains to point out that they are urgently awaiting sector-specific measures to assist them. We are discussing transport today, but we had an engagement on tourism and the hospitality sector last week. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, who was here on behalf of the Minister, briefed him on that debate. A week later nothing further has happened and we are no further on. There is a basic denial or, perhaps, a lack of understanding of the sorts of measures that the sector will require to get off the ground. If we do not take them, we will have up to 260,000 people on the dole. We are as well to have them working and that will require imaginative and sectoral support.

On the transport side, in his opening statement the Minister clearly indicated that he intends to support those agencies of the State that are in difficulty financially. Expressway, in particular, is on the path to insolvency, and that has serious implications for the directors of that company in terms of their fiduciary duties. I hope that the work the Minister, his Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are doing comes to a conclusion very quickly so that we can have the appropriate cash injection, not just for Expressway but also for other aspects of our public transport system which will need it to stand still, not to mention our ambitions for public transportation going forward.

In addition, private operators within the public transport system will require our support. Rural link and taxi drivers have been affected. We need an all-encompassing strategic plan to keep the network functioning and to facilitate the recovery in the post-Covid period once we are in a position to begin. I ask that those figures be announced as quickly as possible and that there is a strategic plan for the sector.

The Minister mentioned the safety of our public transport network. There have been a number of pedestrian deaths in the past couple of months, which is a cause for concern considering that there has been less traffic. There have been more deaths than during the same period last year and, sadly, nine pedestrians have lost their lives. I ask the Minister to raise that matter with the Road Safety Authority and determine what is needed, such as enforcement measures for gardaí to deal with people speeding in urban areas where there is no traffic.

The Minister referred to micro mobility. This is key, given that we have all been semi-conditioned to staying at and working from home. There must be an all-of-Government approach to the incentivisation of working from home, car pooling and walking and cycling where possible.

France has displayed particularly good ambition in announcing that it intends to establish 650 km of pop-up Covid cycleways. That is something we should do now in the larger cities, where cycling is a genuine option for those healthy, capable and willing enough to do so. That could help with congestion. Other cities around the world, such as Oakland, San Francisco and New York, have also introduced new powers, as has the UK, to make certain thoroughfares available only to cyclists, joggers or pedestrians. That is also something we should look at now we have the opportunity.

We must work hard on consumer sentiment and confidence to try to get people to re-engage with public transport. I refer to additional capacity. We had a serious problem with capacity before the current crisis and addressing that issue will involve engaging with the private sector to see if it can help in supplementing public transport capacity, particularly with buses. Regarding aviation, legislation will be required urgently. We heard about the form-filling debacles of last week, where some people in airports were filling out forms but others were not. Post Covid-19, in the period after the lifting of the lockdown, we will have to focus heavily on ensuring we have contact tracing and on knowing who is coming into the country and where they are going to be so we can prevent spikes happening again.

I was glad to hear the Minister saying how vital the aviation sector in general is to our recovery as an island nation with an outward-looking economy. We need a package, perhaps Europe-wide, to support aviation. We are lucky in Ireland with the relative health of the balance sheets of Aer Lingus and Ryanair. They will not last, however, unless we are in a position to assist them in some way.

I have two closing points before I hand over to my friends. Driver testing, particularly for learner drivers, has a backlog of approximately 20,000 building up. We need a plan to deal with that, because young people have been asked to deal with enough and sacrifice enough. They cannot be faced with losing their vehicles, having them seized or being prosecuted for driving. We need to be imaginative on that topic. I have also been asked to raise the issue of car tax. Many elderly people have been cocooning. Can they be refunded a portion of their car tax for the year? Can that be looked at?

The National Oil Reserves Agency, NORA, has approximately €300 million in its accounts. It needs €90 million. I know this is more a matter for the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, and his Department, but there is also a transport-related levy of 2c per litre of fuel. Given NORA has €300 million in its accounts but needs only €90 million, I suggest there needs to be urgent legislation to provide for it to make a one-off payment to the Exchequer of €210 million, because those much-needed resources could be put to work on some of these measures.

I note the Minister stated he is going to step in and help to fund the public transport system so that it can get through the crisis. That is very welcome, and particularly so for the workers and their families who rely on it for their livelihoods and for users. We must note the strain Bus Éireann, Irish Rail and Dublin Bus are under because of the cash shortages being experienced.

I also wish to comment on air connectivity. I welcome Ryanair's announcement yesterday that from 1 July, it will seek to get back to 90% capacity on its routes. That is good and the public has broadly welcomed that announcement, subject to the existing guidelines. I ask the airlines, including Aer Lingus, to try to step up to the mark a little better regarding refunds. I had communication from the CEO's office in Ryanair recently following a representation I made which stated the airline has 5 million refunds to get through before getting to those for April. A bit of urgency is required there by the airlines.

Regarding the region I come from, what is the Minister going to do to help Shannon Airport? The mid-west region, which comprises Limerick, Clare, Tipperary and north Kerry, relies on Shannon Airport as a key factor in our regional competitiveness and as a driver for the region. Difficulties are being experienced and I would like to hear what the Minister is going to do in that regard. We know Shannon Airport has been experiencing a fall-off in passenger market share since separation, sadly.

I also want to make special mention of the Aer Lingus crew members who are based out of Shannon. There are almost 100 ground crew and pilots based out of Shannon. Has the Minister had engagement with Aer Lingus to ensure that both Ryanair and Aer Lingus keep their bases in Shannon for the foreseeable future?

I will remark briefly on tourism and the hospitality sector. Basically, what the Government has offered to date is not good enough. If we have no employers, we will not have jobs for people to go back to. The suite of measures which have been offered is simply not good enough. These businesses need cash grants and liquidity to get back into operation as soon as possible. They also need cheaper finance. Financing through AIB and Bank of Ireland at a margin of 5% simply is not good enough. We need to see the zero percent liquidity and funding which is available from Europe coming through at zero cost to these businesses to allow them to reopen.

I welcome back the Minister, Mr. Ross. There are a number of topical issues I wish to bring to the Minister's attention today.

In my constituency, we have Clare Bus, a not-for-profit company operating a fantastic rural transport service since 2002. For the past 18 years, they have provided transport links to the most rural parts of Clare. We are not a leafy suburb with DARTs and Luas trams going down through it. We rely very much on rural transport. It is essential in our county.

At the time of its founding, Clare Bus's overarching principle was that it would be fully inclusive. Insofar as that is concerned, it has operated a fully-accessible fleet of buses. As I am sure the Minister will understand, they have carried some of the most vulnerable people throughout County Clare.

The National Transport Authority has for a number of months been waging a most unfair war against Clare Bus. They have left Clare Bus out of pocket to the tune of €96,000. There is agreement that €22,000 of that will be paid but there is an outright impasse and dispute relating to €74,000 of that. It is utterly shambolic that a vital rural transport service provider would be left short-changed by a Government body. There are many losers here - the hundreds of people who depend on Clare Bus day in, day out and, of course, the Clare Bus workers. Right now, all 25 Clare Bus workers are in receipt of Covid-19 social welfare payments. They are the only group of workers I can think of in the State at present who have been made redundant, not by the Covid crisis but by Government body hard-balling. It would be cheaper for the State to stop these Covid payments and immediately let these men and women get back to their jobs. One worker recently told me he feels like he and his colleagues have been subject to a constructive dismissal on the part of the National Transport Authority. To pay redundancy to its workers right now, Clare Bus would need to sell some of its bus fleet. The National Transport Authority will tell one that it offered fresh contracts, but how could any company engage in contract talks when so much money is outstanding to it?

Shannon Airport is the driving force in Clare and the mid-west region. At this time of crisis, it has been deemed essential and has accepted many cargo flights of personal protection equipment, PPE. When the crisis is over, there will be an acute need for the Department to provide the airport with a capital expenditure fund. For too long, the airport has had to self-finance all major projects, including a recent €15 million upgrade of the runway. All such outlays seriously eat into the airport's financial resources meaning that it has very little funding left over for marketing the airport, attracting new routes and retaining existing routes. There is urgent action needed in that regard. The funding needs to be ring-fenced for the airport to safeguard it in the future. When the State seeks to reboot its economy, the Minister will be reliant on Shannon Airport in the west and mid-west.

Finally, on tourism in general, tourism is worth over €400 million per annum in a good year to the Clare economy. That sector needs an adrenaline shot at present and groups, such as Quilty cottages, have asked that the Minister might move the reopening date from Monday, 20 July, to Saturday, 18 July in order that they could get a full week's booking as opposed to ad hoc days.

I welcome the Minister to the House today. I will leave time at the end of my questions for him to answer them.

At the outset, I pay tribute to the front-line transport workers who have kept Ireland moving throughout this pandemic and I ask the Minister to pass on our praise and thanks to them through his offices.

In relation to the taxsaver scheme, I acknowledge the National Transport Authority, NTA's role in ensuring that over 60,000 commuters will be compensated. This is only fair. I thank the NTA for the speed in which it dealt with that query.

I also acknowledge the role and innovation of many local authorities right across the country, including my own of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, which have responded to the needs of cyclists and pedestrians during this period.

Businesses across the country are taking steps to ensure employees and indeed their customers are physically distanced when they reopen on Monday next. Supermarkets have made great strides in providing gloves and hand sanitisers at the point of entry into their premises.

Some are even washing down shopping trolleys between use by one customer and the next.

What contingencies has the Government put in place to protect the public and limit the spread and transmission of Covid-19 as businesses reopen and the public starts using public transport, mainly the DART, Luas and Dublin Bus services, during the first stage of the lifting of restrictions next week? Will masks and hand sanitisers be provided to commuters? Will bus carriages and the buses themselves be sanitised between uses and between journeys, as is the case in many other countries across the world? If we expect members of the public to use public transport, they have to know it is safe to do so. That assurance needs to come from the Department.

Finally, I ask the Minister to make a statement about those over the age of 70 whose driver licences require renewal and about the national car test, NCT, which was not addressed in his speech.

The Minister has 50 seconds to reply.

That is going to be difficult. I do not know whether to start at the bottom. I will start with Deputy MacSharry's questions as he was first. He addressed the issue of tourism. As the Deputy knows, I hope to have the tourism recovery task force named, set up and running by the end of the week. It is very important. As the Deputy said, it is one of the worst-affected industries in the country, if not the worst. It is very important that we get the right task force ready. We are almost there and I would be surprised if we do not make an announcement before the end of this week.

The Deputy is right that the situation concerning Expressway is very grim. The National Transport Authority, NTA, is working on this with CIÉ on a daily basis. We hope to be able to make an announcement on that very shortly. It is inconceivable that any public service body which is currently subvented should be allowed to go bust.

The Minister may provide written answers there. Deputy Darren O'Rourke's group has 15 minutes.

I am sharing time with Deputies Cronin and Wynne. We will respectively take seven minutes, four minutes and four minutes. If the Minister does not mind, I will ask some questions and request a response, and we might go back and forth.

My first question concerns the Covid-19 checks and the controls at our ports and airports, particularly the latter. We know that our airports have never been quieter. Passenger numbers at Dublin Airport were down by 57% in March, and possibly by as much as 90% in all Irish airports last month. Despite these low passenger numbers, the current system of Covid-19 checks and controls, including the public health passenger locator form, has proven entirely inadequate. It is reported that approximately one third of passengers do not fill out the form and a further one third do not answer follow-up calls. We know that Ryanair wants to resume 40% of flights from 1 January. This could lead to significantly increased passenger numbers at our airports at a time when the citizens of Ireland are supposed to be staying within 20 km of our homes. We also know that the European Commission is today publishing a strategy paper on resuming leisure travel in a safe and co-ordinated manner. Will the Minister acknowledge that the current system of checks and controls at our ports and airports is not fit for purpose? Will he assure people that public health advice, and not the commercial interests of airlines, the European Commission or anybody else, will determine transport policy at ports and airports at this time? Will he outline the measures that will be introduced to ensure the very highest standards of Covid-19 checks and controls at our ports and airports as we progress through the different phases of relaxation? Are protocols being developed? Are temperature checks being considered? What about additional powers for the Garda? What are the plans for the 14-day period of isolation? Is the Minister working with colleagues in the North to ensure that these protocols apply to all ports and airports on the island of Ireland?

Does the Deputy wish me to answer now?

I am happy to do that. I thank the Deputy for his remarks. I share his concerns but I do not share his conclusions. What happens at airports and ports is absolutely vital to keeping coronavirus out. The Deputy has put his finger on a point which has caused some concern and difficulty, namely, the locator forms.

There were reports in the press that about a third were not being filled in by people who were coming in to the country and ought to be. First, do not exaggerate the problem. The airports are virtually closed. To say there are masses of hundreds of thousands of people coming in unnoticed is not true.

I have not said that.

Do not exaggerate the problem. The Deputy is right that it is a problem. It was acknowledged and identified as a problem last week. I met with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Health. If I am wrong, it could have been with officials. There have been so many meetings. The three Departments certainly got together to address the problem that some locator forms were being missed and the reasons for it were being investigated. They wanted to look at whether this should be voluntary or mandatory, because it was not mandatory beforehand. People were for some reason not filling in forms or not handing them in. It might have been because some of them were being handed to them by the airlines and airports at the point of departure, not the point of arrival. It might be because some of them were not handing the forms out. I am not suggesting that but it is possible. Proposals are due shortly about the possibility of making it mandatory for people to fill these forms in, so that the gardaí can follow-up, make telephone calls and do spot checks, so that it can be absolutely certain that this is being enforced. I am not sure that there is a bad reason. If they are not getting the forms, they will obviously not fill them in. The Deputy is quite right that some were not filling them in but it is being addressed.

I thank the Minister. I am satisfied with that answer. I want to raise the issue of traffic guarantees and how they might be affected at this time during the Covid-19 crisis. Has the Minister any information about the liability that the taxpayer is now coming under as a result of traffic guarantees on public private partnership projects, given the fact that traffic volumes have nose dived? What are taxpayers' liabilities for March and April, for example? Have the Minister or his Department investigated whether there is a force majeure or business interruption clause in any of these contracts? I think the taxpayer would be justifiably disgusted at the idea of private operators being given cast iron guarantees on income at this time when insurance companies are, as the Minister is aware, running a mile from their liabilities for pubs and other businesses. Will the Minister tell us what the additional liabilities relating to traffic guarantees are, as applied to the Covid-19 crisis?

The Deputy is right that there will be a loss to Transport Infrastructure Ireland in various functions that it carries out. There will be a loss from toll takings. It estimates that there will be a loss of between €57 million and €92 million, which is substantial. There will also be losses due to traffic guarantees but I do not think it will be as high as that. I do not have the figure but can check it for the Deputy. I think it is significantly smaller. It is certainly something that we have to take into account when looking at the finances of such a semi-State body. The loss in income will be twofold. I think we are talking about a substantial loss in income to TII this year, from the matter that the Deputy mentioned and from tolls.

I thank the Minister for his answer and ask him if he could forward a written response.

Is mór an onóir dom agus ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le muintir Chill Dara Thuaidh as mé a thoghadh. I thank the voters of Kildare North who expressed their faith in Sinn Féin to lead a Government of real change, returning me to the Dáil as their first female Sinn Féin Deputy. Politics is all-consuming and I want to thank my mam, brother, sisters and my children for their unwavering love and support. I also thank my republican family, the Ruth Hackett Cumann, and Sinn Féin activists across Kildare North for keeping the faith in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, ratified by An Chéad Dáil. I hold this same faith and I promise to work hard for workers and families in Kildare North to deliver the change they voted for.

This is my maiden speech and it is all the more emotional to be delivering it at a time of national and international crisis. I take this opportunity to pay my respects to every one of the almost 2,000 Irish people who have lost their lives to Covid-19. Many of us have experienced the grief of losing a family member, and I remember my daddy today. I cannot imagine the distress those families endured, not being able to kiss their loved ones goodbye. Ar dheis Dé go raibh siad.

I had anticipated that my first address on transport would be about exploring the possibility of extending the light rail system to Kilcock and Sallins and the Luas line to Naas; about improvements to the Dublin Bus service for Leixlip, Celbridge and my home town of Maynooth and returning Dublin Bus to Kilcock; about improving the Bus Éireann service for Prosperous and Clane, as well as the bus scoile for Rathcoffey and the other places in the hinterland of Kildare; and, critically, about ensuring all public transport is accessible to citizens with disabilities. Those are the issues I would have addressed if these were ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times.

We have people going back to work next week, before we have built an effective testing and timely tracing and containment infrastructure for the virus. The most immediate concern for families in north Kildare right now regarding transport is how they are going to travel to work safely from next week. I read the Return to Work Safely protocol at the weekend and public transport barely got a mention. I welcome the Minister's statement that he has been engaging with public transport operators but when will he publish a comprehensive plan for transport during the Covid-19 outbreak? This protocol must include, among those issues already mentioned, plans to carry workers to their place of work without bringing a return of traffic chaos to the streets; managing social distancing at bus stops, train stations and on board; and whether face coverings will be mandatory.

I welcome the Minister's statement that public transport will be disinfected. How regularly will that be carried out? Will hand sanitiser be available at entry and egress points on public service vehicles? Those are vital concerns for workers and families in north Kildare and for workers delivering this essential service.

It is our duty, in accordance with the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, to take all necessary measures to safeguard the health of our people. That is what we must do. The Minister must communicate a comprehensive transport protocol now. It is a critical part of the reopening plan. We cannot look back and say that this was another weak link in suppressing the virus.

It is a huge honour for me to deliver my maiden speech in the Chamber today. I sincerely thank all of the Clare people who entrusted me with their votes in the recent general election. I am so proud to say I am now one of only three women ever elected to represent the people of Clare, and the first ever female Sinn Féin Deputy in the county. I take great pride in representing the Clare people and will do so to the best of my ability. I will work hard to deliver the change that people voted for. That means delivering solutions on housing, health, climate change, pensions, giving workers and families a break and advancing Irish unity.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented public health emergency and I send my condolences to the many families who have lost loved ones. As we now prepare to rebuild the economy and society, it is imperative that we prioritise a fair recovery. That will mean rebuilding the economy and investing our way out of recession; investing in universal healthcare; delivering the biggest public housing programme in the State's history, while creating thousands of jobs; and investing in our forgotten regions that will suffer most as a result of the neglect of successive Governments. That must be the bottom line.

Clare is one of those areas that has suffered at the hands of successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments, not least in the area of transport. The loss of the Clare Bus service contract while arrears are outstanding, only to be given to a private operator at a higher cost to the taxpayer, beggars belief. The board of Clare Bus feels its members have been discarded and cast aside. It is not acceptable that such a vital service would be treated in this manner. I welcome the planned meeting by video conference between Ms Anne Graham, CEO of the National Transport Authority, and Deputies from Clare, which I requested. However, I am disappointed that Clare Bus will not be represented at the meeting. I will seek a clear commitment on the future of Clare Bus, due to the loss of its service contract. Will the Minister clarify whether there has been a policy shift against the unique position of Clare Bus due to its being both a transport co-ordination unit and a bus company?

Will the Minister also step up and engage an independent mediator to resolve contractual issues between the NTA and Clare Bus, thereby enabling the release of funds owed to the company? Will he ensure this is done in a timely fashion to safeguard the future of Clare Bus and to allow it to potentially resume operating at some level? Some 72% of services currently provided by the private operator are not accessible and therefore exclude wheelchair users and those with reduced mobility. This is a distressing state in which to leave persons of need. Will the Minister confirm his commitment to this measure?

I also highlight the needs of Shannon Airport which, as we all know, is a vital asset to County Clare and the mid-west region. The Sinn Féin team in the mid-west recently met the CEO of Shannon Airport to convey our party's support in bringing forward solutions to help Shannon as we emerge from the Covid-19 shutdown. Unsurprisingly, given the total shutdown of international and tourism as a whole on this island, the challenges the airport faces are significant both financially and logistically. There is much concern about the future of Shannon Airport in light of its known struggles, which predate the Covid-19 pandemic. We need to protect it and to grow passenger numbers to ensure it can continue to operate successfully in a post-Covid world. What financial supports will be put in place to ensure the doors remain open, that flights continue and that, ultimately, jobs are protected?

I congratulate both the Sinn Féin Deputies on getting here. These were their maiden speeches. I thank them very much for their contributions and wish them successful and long careers in the Dáil.

Deputy Cronin said she does not have much confidence with regard to safety on public transport. Dr. Tony Holohan addressed the issue of masks, which the Deputy raised, yesterday. He said he will make a recommendation by the end of the week. It looks like people will be asked to use coverings on public transport. They do not like to say "masks" as this word is rather clinical. It may be recommended that coverings be allowed and encouraged in places such as on public transport and in supermarkets. There would be positives and negatives to such a recommendation but guidance is needed. There will continue to be social distancing. That particular issue must be monitored very carefully because we do not know what demand will be like next week. It is very difficult to know whether people will be reluctant to go on buses or whether they will move to their private cars. It is being monitored very closely. We are very confident about phase one. Phase two is coming a few weeks later and adjustments will be made accordingly.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but other people will be deprived. It is not his fault. We will move on to Fine Gael Members. Perhaps we will gain time from them.

I will share time with Deputies Feighan, Higgins and Heydon. I welcome the Minister back to the Dáil and wish him every success. My first point relates to MetroLink and BusConnects. It is essential that these projects proceed. There must be no go-slow on them. The statement today from the very eminent representative of the National Bus and Rail Union, Mr. Dermot O'Leary, who makes very significant contributions to transport policy, does not make sense. We must not abandon these hugely important public transport policies in the face of the Covid-19 threat. At some stage we will find a medical solution or vaccine for this evil virus. It would not make sense not to proceed with these major public transport projects, particularly in light of the tens of thousands of extra people they will be able to carry in the coming years.

My second point relates to the statistics on roadworthiness testing for commercial vehicles. The failure rate for vans and jeeps is 40%, for trucks it is 38%, and for buses it is 31%. The rate of test failures due to dangerous results is 4.9% for jeeps and vans, 4.7% for trucks and 3.1% for buses. More than 168,000 commercial vehicles had to be retested in 2019. This is a very serious issue. I appreciate that this testing has stopped as a result of Covid-19 but it is essential we take whatever steps are necessary to protect workers and so on by testing these commercial vehicles, which are currently on the road doing a very important and strategic job for our economy.

Perhaps somebody else might be able to tell me if they are legally entitled to travel on the Continent without this certificate of vehicle roadworthiness in real time. It is a very important issue that needs to be urgently addressed.

The Minister is well aware of the situation regarding bypass roads. In my constituency the Ardee bypass has been designed and money has been provided for it. That bypass is on hold for the moment while Louth County Council undertakes a reassessment. It is essential that the Ardee bypass is commenced this year. Excellent work has been done by Meath County Council and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport on the proposed Julianstown bypass. That is the 16th busiest road in the country carrying more than 20,000 vehicles and the bypass needs to be urgently prioritised. Whatever compromises are reached in the Government or elsewhere, if rural people travelling to working in Dublin or travelling around the towns of Ardee, Drogheda etc. are not able to do that efficiently owing to being held up in stagnant traffic for hours, that is not a price my constituents will pay. They would be extremely angry if these road projects do not proceed.

In the limited time I have I would like to get a progress report on the N4 Castlebaldwin roads project. When will it be completed? Has Covid affected the completion date?

Members of Leitrim County Council have contacted me. The cathaoirleach of Leitrim County Council advised that the local improvement scheme in County Leitrim is substantially reduced from what was hoped for in 2020 to €250,000. The council had been hoping for closer to €400,000. Could additional funding be made available? I welcome the announcement of a tourism recovery task force and I look forward to that meeting being held as soon as possible.

The public's response to this crisis has been impressive and because of that we are making progress. However, that progress is fragile, and a very real threat is posed at our ports. As the Minister said, one in three Dublin Airport passengers refused to fill out an optional form telling us where they planned to self-isolate. Passengers can waltz through our airports, claim they are travelling to Northern Ireland and not have to comply with any restrictions regardless of the threat they pose to the island. It is worth remembering that it is less than three months since the first passenger with Covid-19 travelled through Dublin Airport. A small number of passengers like this brought this virus to our shores. Less than three months later we now have more than 23,000 confirmed cases and, tragically, 1,500 deaths. Our way of life has come to a standstill.

Passengers coming into Ireland are at a trickle, but change is coming. Ryanair is gearing up to service nine out of ten of its routes and passenger numbers will soon soar again. Allowing an optional form govern people's responsibilities to self-isolate on arrival in Ireland is an insult. It is an insult to everyone who has spent weeks trapped in their homes, to our front-line workers who have been risking their health to protect and help others and to the families of the 1,488 people who have died from coronavirus. Is making a form obligatory, as the Minister has suggested, really enough? Do we not need emergency legislation to force passengers to provide the address where they will self-isolate and put a system in place to police that?

It is good to have the Minister back here. I welcome today's announcement by Horse Sport Ireland that the following engagement with Sport Ireland outdoor equestrian sport will be included in phase one of the reopening on 18 May, or at least that is the interpretation they have of it. While responsibility for horse racing and breeding rightly comes under the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and not the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, I believe the precedent set in respect of outdoor equestrian activity makes a very strong case for the early resumption of horse racing activity in Ireland also.

Horses are already being exercised by jockeys every day on gallops all over the country. Ten meetings were held behind closed doors before the closure of tier 2 activities and Horse Racing Ireland has since further strengthened the protocols around the resumption of racing behind closed doors.

Horse racing is an industry, not just a sport. It employs 30,000 people in the racing and breeding sectors. The current restrictions on racing have very significant knock-on implications for breeze-up and other sales as well as the breeding sector more broadly, trainers, jockeys, racecourses and the future viability of those racecourses. Horse racing can return in a safe manner. With racing having already resumed in jurisdictions such as France, where it resumed this week, it is crucial that Ireland is not left behind. It can be done in a safe way.

Horse racing is a source of much-needed enjoyment for many people at home, many of them cocooning, who are looking for activity. When one knocks on doors in County Kildare, one meets plenty of people of that age bracket who have a racing paper on their lap and keenly follow racing throughout the day. Many racing supporters at home would dearly love to have Irish horse racing back on television.

I ask that due consideration be given by NPHET and the Cabinet and in any discussions being had by the Minister to the resumption of racing in Ireland earlier than originally anticipated. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, and his Department are also pushing this issue.

The Minister has a minute and 25 seconds to answer all those questions.

I will deal with as many as I can but that will probably be very few. I apologise if that is the case.

Deputy O'Dowd referred to the statement by Mr. Dermot O'Leary, the head of the NBRU, regarding the metro and BusConnects. There will be no go-slow on those projects. I wish to take this opportunity to thank the members of the NBRU for the fantastic job they have done on the front line of transport in recent weeks. It should be acknowledged that the unions have behaved very responsibly up to now and will continue to do so. The members of the workforce have done a great service to the nation at some risk to themselves and I wish to thank them for that. Deputies should be aware that BusConnects is seeking to do exactly what Mr. O'Leary is looking for. MetroLink will open a new high-capacity public transport corridor through the city and into Fingal. I have read that in responding to our new circumstances the answers lie in projects which have already been considered. Most interestingly and incredibly, I have read that this huge multi-billion euro programme can be delivered in five years. All Deputies will agree that we need to expand and improve the capacity of our public transport system, whether to deal with the climate action challenge that will be with us for many years to come or the Covid-19 problems of today.

I thank the Minister. I acknowledge that the amount of time for his response is unsatisfactory but I must move on.

I will leave time for the Minister to answer my questions. The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted travel patterns across the world in a profound way. In a variety of ways, transport will never be the same again. The 2 km and 5 km restrictions coupled with economic shutdown and the requirement to socially distance have pushed us to walk and cycle more. We need to do all we can to retain as much as possible of the resultant mental and physical health benefits of this increased activity, the cleaner air and the lower greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to do what we can to ensure people do not return to traffic gridlock and see more of their precious time slip away while waiting in a car.

It is crucial that we do all we can to ease the pressure on our public transport services, where social distancing will be required for some time to come. I disagree with the Minister's statement that capacity is significantly ahead of demand on public transport. I am unsure of his sources for that inaccurate claim. I have received reports of buses on which social distancing is required passing people waiting at bus stops because more passengers could not be safely accommodated.

I am asking the Minister to take quick, cheap and easy measures to encourage and support walking and cycling.

It is not just because these are good things to do but because we have to do them if we are to beat Covid-19. It is indeed a strange situation for me to recommend that the Minister follows measures adopted by the UK in response to the pandemic. On Saturday last, the UK Secretary of State for Transport issued detailed guidance to local authorities on what they could and should do in reallocating road space for pedestrians and cyclists. He stated:

Active travel is affordable, delivers significant health benefits, has been shown to improve wellbeing, mitigates congestion, improves air quality and has no carbon emissions at the point of use. Towns and cities based around active travel will have happier and healthier citizens as well as [long] lasting local economic benefits. The UK Government, therefore, expects local authorities to make significant change to their road layouts to give more space to cyclists and pedestrians.

I note and welcome the measures the Minister has cited that the NTA is taking. They are limited measures and every local authority should be asked directly by the Minister to reallocate road space for walkers and cyclists. They should also be asked to assess spaces around the entrances to schools and, indeed, the routes to schools. Where possible, space should be reallocated so that, come September, when we hope our children will return to school, that will be a safer and healthier place and better facilitate social distancing, walking and cycling. Bus stops in the areas immediate to businesses also need to be considered, as we will soon be increasingly familiar with queues outside every business and service. This could be especially useful for cafés and restaurants and indeed the tourism sector.

The Minister also mentioned the issue of increased road deaths. Will he consider using his own power to reduce speed limits by ministerial order, and I support the Love 30 campaign to do so, particularly in the current context?

I have four questions. Will the Minister consider issuing guidance to local authorities regarding the use of the large budget allocation the Department provides for roads, as per the UK Department of Transport, which urged local authorities to reallocate road space, to better protect walkers and cyclists and embed altered behaviours and the positive effects of active travel? Second, Will the Department drive a clear, comprehensive national communications campaign on the health and safety measures the public needs to follow on public transport, including the use of face masks? I understand there will be some guidance soon but things are going to get busy on Monday and increasingly so on 8 June in particular. I fear that we are playing catch-up. There is an urgent and pressing need for a strong, clear message from Government on how people on public transport should behave, especially in respect of the use of face masks. The providers are doing their best but they need to be backed up with a clear message from Government on actions that public transport users can follow and expect of others. It is also crucial that providers are funded to provide the additional capacity. I am getting reports of buses that are not in a position to carry the required passengers in a safe way. Third, can the Minister provide written assurances to the large public transport companies such as Irish Rail, Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus that the financial losses they are incurring at the moment will be covered? I understand verbal assurances are being given but for good corporate governance those assurances need to be in writing.

Finally, I refer to rural bus services and the great work they have been doing, particularly over the past few months. Local Link services all over the country have been responsive and adaptable in moving with the changing transport needs of recent times. They can do this because they are embedded in the communities they serve. The Local Link service in counties Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim has adapted not just to transporting essential workers but also Covid-19 test packs and essential equipment and animal feed for farmers. This co-use of public transport is something that happens in a large scale organised way in other EU countries and is another lesson from our pandemic response that we need to build on. It is, again, greener and more efficient.

My colleagues and I have mentioned the rural bus services, especially the Clare Bus Company, also known as Clare accessible transport. After 18 years operating rural transport programme services in Clare with 100% accessibility, universal design and cost-effective services, supported by €1 million worth of community fundraising, the organisation is now in jeopardy. It is being replaced by operators that do not have the community connection, are more expensive and do not have the crucial accessible buses.

I understand the Minister met representatives from Clare Bus last year. It won the tender to continue providing the service in the county but in March, as the Covid-19 crisis was taking off the NTA refused to sign the new contract with Clare Bus. Will he intervene to ensure that this vital high-value, high-performing service is maintained?

I thank the Deputy for giving me some time to answer the questions, it is the first time that this has happened. Across Dublin, public authorities are taking the opportunity to rethink how their urban centres are set out and how they allocate limited space to the different demands. Similarly, at a national level, we must rethink how we allocate road space and ensure we place the pedestrian and cyclist in the centre of our thinking. The reallocation of space will support the Government's overall roadmap to reopening society and business. It will provide additional commuting capacity to those who still need to physically get into their workplace as well as improving social distancing generally in our urban centres and supporting the gradual reopening of retail. My Department is funding the NTA to work with local authorities in developing Covid-19 mobility frameworks that will set out specific plans to deliver things like widening footpaths, temporary protected cycle facilities, including new contraflow routes, revised bus routing and bus priority measures and enhanced pedestrian priority zones. The first of these frameworks is being developed with Dublin City Council. It is intended that similar plans will be implemented in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford and works identified will be funded through my Department's sustainable mobility investment programme. I understand the initial draft of the Dublin city plan will be available in the coming days and it will set out the measures that will be put in place in the coming weeks and months to facilitate the reopening of society and business generally.

On road safety, the Deputy is absolutely right about speeding; I am with him entirely on this. There was a Bill, which we are handing over to the next Government, on graduated penalties for speeding. It was approved by Cabinet in November and is with the Attorney General. It is ready to go and waiting for the Deputy to take on board or the next Minister for transport. The Bill also addresses speed limits throughout the country. We hope for a report on speed limits so we get some uniformity and common sense on them.

I will return to the matter of a national communications campaign. I will not get through all the questions but Clare Bus was one the Deputy was particularly keen that I answer. It is a procurement issue which is a matter for the NTA, which manages Local Link. The NTA has advised that the direct award arrangements with Clare Bus for the provision of bus services expired on 1 July 2019 and that negotiations with Clare Bus on a new direct award contract were ongoing between July 2019 and October 2019 while maintaining bus services. The NTA considered that the price proposals submitted by Clare Bus did not represent the best possible value compared with other direct award contracts for similar routes and took the decision to undertake a competitive tendering process to secure the delivery of the relevant bus services. Arising from the tender process, Clare Bus emerged as the preferred bidder with the signing of contracts due to take place in January 2020. The series of correspondence issued from the NTA to Clare Bus between January and March 2020 in an effort to enter into a contractual relationship with the company. Clare Bus did not sign contracts by the deadline set by the NTA. The NTA considered that in the interest of customers across the county, it was left with no option but to put alternative measures in place. As of Monday, 23 March 2020, two local transport operators have been contracted by the NTA to deliver Local Link services in County Clare.

I welcome the Minster. This unprecedented pandemic has stood much of our thinking on transport on its head. Three months ago, a single occupied vehicle in this city would have been frowned upon and, in fact, actively discouraged. Our investment in transport was to be concentrated on mass transport systems, transporting as many people as possible, as closely and densely packed as possible. How permanent this new attitude will be remains to be seen, but I do not think, and the Minister has said so himself, that things will not revert to pre-Covid 19 norms in their totality.

Fewer people will travel, more people will work from home and residual fears of close contact will probably exist for some considerable time to come, so our transport investment must be rethought but it also must be multifaceted. We should not have a knee-jerk reaction and think that all our mass transport systems can be simply scrapped, as some have suggested. We need to invest in walking, as others have said, in cycling, electric vehicles - again, bus, trains and trams. We need to invest in all of those areas but, right now, we need to address the task of moving our people back to work, our students back to school and our goods to and from our markets.

I want to pose four groups of questions and the Minister might respond quickly to each of them. The first is on our plan for getting people back to work and I have listened to him again on that. I have talked to operators and they do not know if there will be a significant return to work starting next week or how we will have that with the stock, the crews and capacities we have and applying social distancing.

The Minister spoke about masks. Who will bear the cost? I refer to a Wexford company, Wexford Bus. Very few passengers can be allowed now on its systems. It is losing money on each route it is now operating. In terms of my first question, in concrete and real terms, will the Minister underwrite the loss currently for private operators providing essential transport systems getting people back to work? How much, in real terms, will he provide for the CIÉ companies? He mentioned providing money in his contribution. How much will he provide and when will he give real written guarantees to them? The Minister might take a minute to answer that first question.

The Deputy is absolutely right. There is a lot in what he says and the questions are perfectly fair. Nothing will be like it was before and we are stepping into the unknown. There is no doubt about that. In terms of making any definitive statements about what will happen next week, the week after that or the week after that and how much it will cost over a year or two, I do not know.

Will the Minister give them the money?

I will answer the Deputy's question if he does not interrupt me. It is like old times but the Deputy might give me time to answer. We are in the dark here but we can say that for next week, which is what the Deputy referred to, and phase 1, we are confident. I have talked to the NTA, and who better to talk to than the NTA about this? I have talked to the bus companies about this also. Despite the obstacles and the difficulties of social distancing and everything else, we will be able to provide the necessary buses and other public transport. That will be looked at. As the Deputy rightly said, we do not know the number of people that will stay at home. We do not know exactly the number of people who will move to their private cars because they are frightened of going on buses. That will be a moving target which we will have to follow. That is why it is being done in phases.

I thank the Minister. I need time to ask my questions, if I may.

I would like succinct actual answers. I asked about money, not about generalisms and assurances. My second question-----

I am sorry. I was going to get to that before the Deputy interrupted me.

I am afraid I only have very limited time.

I know, but I cannot answer all the Deputy's questions in the limited time available.

He might skip the preamble when responding to my next question. I refer to the plan for getting students to school. A number of parents and community groups have contacted me about rural transport, including the operators of school transport. The Department of Education and Skills will provide 50% of contract costs to the private operators from 29 March. In terms of ensuring that schools can reopen in September, will there be a comprehensive school transport system because within weeks, the normal allocation of tickets would be given? Has the Minister or the Department of Education and Skills had any discussions with the rural transport systems to ensure that there will be, operating the rules of social distancing, a rural school transport system in operation in time for our schools to resume in September?

I have not had those discussions. That would be something the NTA would have and not me. It would be its duty to do that, and it will certainly do it.

The whole point of the 50% is to keep the show on the road in order that they are up and ready to go at that time. Those who have the contracts will be getting 50%, and the condition attached to that is that they would be ready to go and that the transport system would work when it is necessary.

The problem is that capacity will be vastly diminished if there is social distancing in the rural transport system. Who is going to provide the extra vehicles? Who is going to cover the cost of running larger vehicles with reduced capacity? That is going to be much more expensive.

My third question relates to getting goods and services to market. Will there be a quarantine on people coming into our ports once we open? Has the Minister discussed that with Cabinet colleagues? Many countries are going to operate a quarantine. Is there any thought of that and where will it happen? For example, will there be provision for accommodation in places like Rosslare Europort? Do we have the capacity for getting goods moved? Who is going to check the people driving the goods arriving in our ports? Is that going to happen? Will they be isolated if they have temperature issues? Will health and safety checks be done on the goods arriving in our ports? The maintenance of standards is very important. Some of the trade unions involved are already telling me that they are fearful that some of the maritime companies will use Covid as an excuse to undo the hard-won terms and conditions of workers. Will the Minister keep an eye to ensure that does not happen?

It would be absolutely reprehensible if that were to be used as a cover. I give the Deputy a guarantee that I will keep an eye on that because anybody who exploits this situation for commercial or other advantage should be tackled immediately. That is not something that could be tolerated. As long as I am Minister - I do not know how long that will be - I will keep an eye on that, because it is unthinkable.

On the issue of quarantine for people coming in, as the Deputy knows, at the moment we recommend self-isolation for everybody coming in and that is continuing. The Deputy should not ask me about issues like this as though I am some sort of an expert. He knows that measures are taken based on recommendations from the Department of Health, and those recommendations will be adhered to. If we are talking about isolation, quarantines or anything of that sort, while we have had difficulties so far, we have behaved correctly in terms of quarantines, and we will continue to take the advice of Dr. Holohan and others. That is not something on which I could make a statement today.

Regarding people coming in, the Deputy will know that hauliers are in the category of people who do not have to go into quarantine. That is for a good reason because they are doing a job for the nation, which would not work if they had to go into quarantine every time.

I have one brief question. While the car insurance refund is a finance matter, it comes under legislation which is under the Minister's purview. When will those who have paid car insurance and whose cars are now off the road or in very limited use get the refund that has been promised?

I do not know the answer, but that is a matter for the insurance companies. The insurance companies made this pledge. It is not a Government promise.

The Minister for Finance promised it.

The Minister for Finance pushed them to it, but it is something the insurance companies have said and they will decide it. I do not have a clue, but we will make sure they do it.

I will cover a number of points and leave some time at the end for a response. Public transport has largely continued to function from the time of the lockdown and has largely been empty, though not exclusively. It is not easy to judge what it will be like once we start opening things up.

This roadmap and its five phases will hopefully commence next week and there are very good signs that this will be the case. Essentially, it presents problems. Just as one can have general guidance, there are areas where a bespoke solution is required and public transport is one of them from the perspective of the commuter and drivers. Will there be highly specific proposals and is the Minister liaising with the various stakeholders, including the unions, in this regard? Are commuters being consulted? There will be a restoration of full bus and rail schedules. If this is not done properly, buses and trains could become incubators. I take the Minister's point about the guidance that will come from NPHET regarding face coverings so I am not asking him to deal with that. Will there be consideration of congestion, for example? What arrangements will be in place for spaces like buses, where drivers are present for a greater period of time than commuters, were a driver to become ill? Is there a public communications strategy regarding what the National Transport Authority is doing with regard to managing this system, because it is difficult to get one's head around it? Let us hope it works well because if phase one does not work well, phase two will not work because one is dependent on the other. The first phase will be really important. Obviously, there has been significant loss of income for public and private transport providers. Has there been an assessment of the requirements to the end of the year? If so, could the Minister outline what that is and the plan to deal with it?

It is very obvious to all of us that people are cycling and walking more. This will be necessary to ensure we conserve space on public transport to allow for social distancing when people go back to work. Has the amount of money that is available to local authorities been enhanced for cycling and if so, could the Minister tell us what it is? On the reallocation of road space, has guidance been given to local authorities in this regard? There are many issues involving obvious things, such as reallocating road space, but there are areas where small pieces of a network that could be brought into play very quickly are missing. I am talking about the Royal Canal and Grand Canal from Kildare to Dublin. In some places, there are relatively small pieces that are missing. Can this be fast-forwarded?

Obviously there is a problem with the airlines. We want to keep our ports and airports open but it must be done safely. The idea that it involves guidance and people not having to adhere is highly problematic for those who are adhering to social distancing and possibly limiting their movement. I do not believe arrangements pertaining to airports can be voluntary. To a certain degree, they must be mandatory because if we are going to contain this, we must do so with some degree of certainty and it is not obvious that this will happen or that there will be co-operation in that regard. Can the Minister deal with this point? Will it be the Department of Justice and Equality or the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport that will deal with it? Can the Minister briefly deal with the issue of refunds and airlines? Is he in favour of the voucher system being used on a temporary basis? What is the guidance on that? I ask the Minister to try to give a succinct response to as many of those points as he can.

It is difficult to be succinct about the voucher system because it is complicated but I will be as quick as I can in replying.

Perhaps the Minister could send me a note.

It is a problem that was addressed today by the European Commission, as the Deputy probably realises. The Commission has said that it is imperative that people who are entitled to a cash refund get one. That is not negotiable. Ryanair and other airlines are offering vouchers but that must be done on a voluntary basis. In other words, there is no way that the European Commission will allow airlines to force vouchers on people instead of cash. Those customers have an absolute right to cash.

There is also a problem with travel agents. Many people whose tickets have been cancelled are looking for cash refunds but have been offered vouchers. That is a system I have favoured. I do not favour a compulsion on customers accepting vouchers but I favour it on a voluntary basis. We favour allowing travel agents to offer vouchers to customers whose holidays have been cancelled. The customer can refuse. Customers will be guaranteed the cash, one way or the other, but the travel agents will be allowed to make the offer of vouchers. The reason is that travel agents are suffering badly. There is a real danger that travel agents will go bust and, if we allow that to happen, there will be no choice for consumers. The affected consumers will get their money, whatever happens, and that is guaranteed by the Government. I hope that answers the Deputy's question, albeit in a slightly roundabout way.

On the locator forms, I do not know the answer because it is being looked at at the moment. I think there are multiple reasons these forms are not being sent in. That is what I think is happening.

Would the Minister respond to the question about public transport? I asked about the public communication strategy and the requirements and plans involved.

The plan is not out yet, but it is coming. A public transport plan will come out shortly. It is not out yet, as I said in my initial speech, but it will be coming out shortly. At the moment, phase one is all-important and we are confident about all the phases. Let us not say that everything is written in stone forever because, as I said in reply to another Deputy, this thing is moving fast and in many different directions. I am confident that, on Monday mornings for the next three weeks and thereafter, the National Transport Authority, NTA, will manage things properly. We have spelled out what will happen in phase one and I am confident that it will. Public transport will run efficiently and effectively while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

The Deputy knows that the programme for public transport was reduced to a Saturday-plus service some weeks ago. It is open for that to be changed back so there is flexibility there, which is important. If there is a high amount of demand for public services, we can change back to the old timetables.

Has there been engagement with the stakeholders?

As far as I know, the NTA is engaging with every possible stakeholder. All I can say is that I have had absolutely no negative reaction from any stakeholders saying they are not being engaged with. It is quite obvious that the unions are being engaged with because I have already paid tribute to the fact that they have been highly co-operative in what they have been doing. They have been making sacrifices and pulling in the same direction.

I have not engaged personally with Dermot O'Leary, if that is what the Deputy is asking, but I would be perfectly happy to do so if he wants.

I will be sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy, with five minutes each.

Bus Éireann is flouting the Government's protocols for the return to work, published on 9 May.

They require that if bus workers cannot social distance on Bus Éireann buses, there should be screens. There are no screens, however and bus workers are very concerned about the return to work that will see passenger numbers on the Bus Éireann fleet rise on Monday. Frankly, I think they would be right to walk off the job. There are no screens on 90% of the fleet and staff are having to handle cash without anywhere to put it. They are putting it in their pockets. The company will not allow passengers to get on buses through the middle doors where they would be away from the drivers. That is not acceptable and it flies in the face of the commitments the Minister gave just a moment ago. The social distancing protocols and the Government's Return to Work Safely protocol from 9 May need to be implemented immediately.

Second, taxi drivers, who are also front-line essential transport workers, are facing the absolute devastation of their livelihoods, not just in the short term, as many tens of thousands are at the moment, but in the medium to long term. For the foreseeable future, tourism into this country is a dead duck. Mass gatherings, the live entertainment industry and large sports gatherings, upon which taxi drivers depend to make their livelihoods viable, are not coming back in the foreseeable future. Therefore, there needs to be a package of financial supports for taxi drivers, who have insurance, car loans and mortgages to pay. They need certainty about income supports as long as their industry remains devastated. They need the NTA to provide and pay for partitioned screens in taxis so that drivers are safe, and sanitisers and other cleansing and disinfecting equipment must be made available to them.

I have two further brief points to make. A lot of people have, for obvious reasons, turned to cycling during this pandemic. That is good for public health and the environment, but we need to significantly expand the bike to work scheme, get rid of the five-year requirement to purchase a new bicycle and extend the scheme to people on social welfare and pensioners. If the Minister wanted to take the opportunity to be really radical in this area, he would give people free bicycles. That would be a radical and progressive move.

My final point relates to the tax saving scheme which allows workers to pay for their monthly or annual travel pass. They are paying for it out of their salaries and wages but are not able to make use of it at the moment. They should be given a break by offering them a refund of the money paid for their travel pass, or by enabling them to opt out and then opt back into the scheme so that they are not paying when they cannot use it.

I know the Minister will not be able to respond to all my points but I am making a particular shout-out for the bus workers. Another issue in this regard is that the cleansing and disinfecting teams who are supposed to be cleaning the buses are not working properly and are not cleansing and disinfecting the vehicles or many of the bus depots.

I thank the Deputy for the points he raised. Bus Éireann continues to explore options for protective screens in the driver's cab area in those vehicles that do not already have them. The company has begun trialling portable screens on coaches. According to guidance provided by the health authorities, the risk of contracting Covid-19 from handling cash is negligible, but this measure was introduced to provide further protection to bus drivers by reducing their level of interaction with members of the public. The measure is in line with steps taken in other jurisdictions, including London, Barcelona, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand. The company is tackling the problem and the Deputy is absolutely right that it is something it should do.

He is right that taxi drivers are in a really bad situation, with some 97% of them no longer operating. They have contracts which are null and void in effect because they are not working.

I must stop the Minister there to allow Deputy Paul Murphy to speak. If there is time at the end, the Minister can come back in.

I will send the Deputy a written reply.

I want to focus on the question of airline vouchers, which was mentioned previously. Tens of thousands of people are legally entitled to a cash refund within seven days for flights that have been cancelled. They are being obstructed by airlines, including Ryanair, which are trying everything to avoid people availing of their legal rights. Even the vouchers that are being offered to them are less than their legal rights in terms of vouchers. They have an expiry date of one year when people are entitled to at least a five-year expiry date. People are entitled to cash refunds.

The Minister said that if people are entitled to cash they should get cash. Is it not the case that the Minister, along with a series of other member states, co-signed a statement calling for that right to be rescinded? The joint statement on airline vouchers calls for that right to be rescinded, for airlines to be able to give vouchers, and for people not to be able to avail of their legal right to cash refunds. In other words, the Minister took the side of the airlines against the customers, effectively enforcing the idea of a bailout for airlines being forced on consumers.

I asked the Taoiseach about this a couple of weeks ago. He said he knew nothing about it and the Government had made no decision. As I understand it, this statement emerged from a meeting of transport ministers which the Minister attended. Will the Minister explain whether that was his position at the time and if it is no longer his position?

I am delighted to answer that question. On the issue of airline vouchers, I am not an apologist for Ryanair, so the Deputy should not ask me to answer for its behaviour. It is not up to me to do that; it is an independent company. The Deputy is correct in saying, however, and I heard the chief executive of Ryanair speaking on the radio yesterday, that Ryanair is offering vouchers. The airline has suggested that because so many millions of people are looking for cash, it cannot administer the claims in time. I understand the figures involved are extraordinary - approximately 20 million people - and because it does not have the administration to deal with that, it was offering vouchers as a quick way out. It will produce the cash in the end. I do not know. I am not a spokesperson for it. That is what the chief executive said. Anybody who has a complaint about the behaviour of Ryanair or who is not getting the cash to which they are entitled should note that the European Commission issued a statement today. It is turning its back on the letter that was sent, to which the Deputy referred, and which is a rejection of that letter, in effect. It has stated that cash must be paid. That is a definitive response to the situation.

There is a procedure in place for consumers who wish to make a complaint. The Deputy will be aware of that, and it does not involve coming to the House. Rather, people should contact the Commission for Aviation Regulation and advise it that they are entitled to this cash and they want it now. It is not for me to administer the procedure.

What the Minister is clearly responsible for is the joint statement with other European states. That is the simple question I am asking. Is it the case that the statement, which called for consumer rights to be suspended in favour of the airlines, emerged from a meeting and that the Minister signed up to it? The Taoiseach said to me in the House that the Government had made no decision about that. Was it a solo run by the Minister or was it agreed by the Government? Will the Minister please clarify that, because it is a matter for the House?

I am still the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. When I signed that letter, I signed it as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. The letter is open to the public and there was no problem about it whatsoever. I wanted to make sure that there was a pan-European approach to this and to get a decision from the European Commission about a problem which was causing immense difficulties, not just for consumers but also for airlines, and to ensure that the lines were open and the aviation sector and consumers were properly protected.

I concur with several issues raised by Deputy Howlin. I do not wish to repeat them, but I have sent correspondence to the Department and I would be happy if the Minister replies in writing.

I will now talk about Government formation talks taking place between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. The incoming Government will face major challenges as a result of Covid-19 and its consequences. Whatever sensible short-term funding is needed to address resulting issues should be provided. Post Covid-19, the Government will also have to deal with Brexit, housing and carbon emissions. The role of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is central to creating viable long-term solutions to all these issues. The Department that will provide the infrastructure to facilitate the long-term development of our economy. In my previous role as president of the Irish Road Haulage Association, IRHA, I observed regularly the consequences of the second-line effects of Government policy. All too often, Ministers pursue policies for perfectly legitimate objectives, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes without any regard to the disastrous consequences of those primary policies.

We have had experience of this in recent years, such as with the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, collapsing the housing and building industry, an increase in heavy goods vehicles, HGVs, on the roads due to a reduction in load-carrying capacity and high-density guidelines to justify viable rail lines. All too often, Ministers are not in command of their portfolios and weak Ministers lead to bad Government. An idealistic Secretary General or official can become the master of his or her Minister and shape policy to meet his or her agenda. In formulating policy, Governments need to be conscious of their objectives and effects. Accurate data are essential to make informed decisions.

Transport faces three major challenges: providing an efficient infrastructure to deal with Brexit; providing a green rail network to accommodate meaningful reductions in carbon emissions and to facilitate efficient housing; and the moving of major infrastructure, such as Dublin Port, to meet all these challenges. While there is much talk and confusion coming from politicians regarding how to achieve targets set for a green agenda, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Transport is one area where change can be achieved faster and with lasting positive green results.

Now is the time to take a serious look at the nitrogen oxide, NOx, emissions polluting the air in Dublin and face the fact that Dublin Port, and all it entails, is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in this urban setting. Nitrogen oxide is linked strongly with traffic emissions and high levels affect our lung health. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has found that two areas in Dublin have reached or exceed the EU limit on NOx emissions. Those are the M50 and the entrance to, and exit from, the Dublin Port Tunnel, areas that experience significant traffic congestion. We must remove traffic congestion from our capital city if we are serious about carbon emissions. This can be done by moving Dublin Port out of the city environs. All over the world, governments are initiating greener urban environments and all over Europe docklands are now home to parks, pleasure marinas and thousands of tourists, as well as architecturally-exciting residential developments and offices. Cities such as Copenhagen, Oslo and Barcelona have created new areas with low-rent artistic spaces, clubs, bars and cafes. Dublin Port is the greatest waste of prime land imaginable. The main port on the north side of the river comprises 510 acres, while the port on the south side of the river, although much smaller, still constitutes 130 acres of prime development land with waterfront aspects within about a mile of the city centre.

One wonders why on earth such a green policy has not been mentioned in Government talks. There has been no mention by any political representative, not even from the Green Party, of following such European and world trends. Such a proposal can, however, deliver cleaner air and provide much needed land for an overcrowded and growing city. The relocation of the port is a golden opportunity to ensure a permanent reduction in NOx emissions and to create a modern, high-density area within the city. The port lands offer an opportunity for the Land Development Agency, LDA, to deliver housing at scale. By 2040, Dublin Port will have reached full capacity. In three years, we will begin to build new and additional port facilities elsewhere on the east coast, informed by our masterplan for 2040 and the national planning framework 2040.

The moving of Dublin Port can be carried out with relative ease. Rosslare Europort is currently only at 40% capacity and is Ireland's most strategically placed port for roll-on, roll-off traffic while 60% of Dublin Port's traffic is roll-on, roll-off. Rosslare Europort has the potential and should be developed as a tier 1 port. It should endure little or no combustion congestion, and thereby NOx emissions are not an issue in the same realm as at Dublin Port. Rosslare Europort has the only other border inspection post after Dublin and, because of Brexit, has seen significant investments in facilities for regulatory inspections. It is a natural fit for Dublin Port's traffic. The one vital element that has been agreed for Rosslare Europort but not yet started is a separate port access road, and works should begin without further delay.

The high dependency being placed on Dublin Port is not sustainable, particularly because of the growth limitations. Further growth of Dublin Port will exacerbate the greenhouse gas emission level which, we all agree, must be reduced. The money that can be raised by selling the land contained in Dublin Port and the surrounding docklands can be used to upgrade Rosslare Europort and any movement of the lift-on, lift-off operations. A big bonus would be the vast reduction in NOx emissions having alleviated the congestion. If we are to take the greening of transport in Ireland seriously, we must take a good look at how we develop policy in relation to it. The truth is that Dublin-based politicians do not want this commercial activity moved out of the city. They are prepared to suffer and inflict the most dangerous emissions on their populations to keep their beloved port. I will watch with interest the position of the Green Party on NOx emissions.

We need to fund rail lines, not ghettos. Transport-oriented development, TOD, is a form of urban development that seeks to maximise the provisions of housing, employment, public services and leisure space near frequent high-quality train services. It is a form of development that is friendlier to public transport users, cyclists and pedestrians and it seeks to convert car trips to public and active transport trips. This, in turn, improves mobility and environmental conditions and delivers more efficient and sustainable urban development. Dublin Port and the docklands is exactly what one would imagine a strategy like TOD would look like, but transport-oriented development is a model that does not work practically for the regions. It is a cost-recovery model and for it to work, houses must be built to the density within the national framework to ensure passenger capacity for the rail service. However, the builders will not build at this density because they cannot sell the houses unless the rail infrastructure is there. If the housing is not built, Irish Rail will not provide a service unless it is viable, and unless subvention is continued, there is no hope. To say it is putting the cart before the horse is an understatement. The future of solving the housing problem is the greening of transport and providing high-speed electric trains with continued subvention on the basis that one must speculate to accumulate to assure people that they can get to work and to ensure they are not car-dependent. If we do not have strong leadership in transport, including a Minister who can join the dots beating the drum to the Department of Finance to safeguard the funding and who will ensure the greening of transport actually happens, we will be building the ghettos of the future.

Intrinsically linked to replacing dependence on car commutes is a high-speed train with capacity and a frequent timetable. People will use cars only at the weekend, thereby being far more likely to purchase an electric green alternative. Such a rail network is required in all regions. The EU provides significant funding for such projects, thereby enabling a future Government to provide subvention until the population drives the requirement independently. Our roads will be less congested, with usage primarily for heavy goods vehicles, HGVs, and essential journeys only. The development and building of houses will evolve if such infrastructures are in place. However, the densities of such developments should be left to the local authorities, which are best placed to ensure requirements in their areas are met, rather than urbanised plans being forced on them with no regard for the social issues that will ensue. Ballymun is an example of this. If we provide a high-speed rail network to ensure the greening of transport, we will ensure the targets set down in the current climate action plan have the potential to be achieved. Without this turnaround we will still be paying fines in the hundreds of millions for missed targets long into the future.

I am glad to get the opportunity to raise several issues with the Minister today. I will start with the problem of the youngest person who approached me. I refer to youngsters above the age of 16 who could legitimately get a provisional driver licence. We are told they will be able to apply for these licences online on 20 May. That is great, but they need to have personal services cards to do so and there is nowhere currently open where they can get these cards. Can that matter be addressed?

I refer also to provisional licence holders who have done their theory test, have everything in order and have been waiting for months to do the test. Can anything be done to speed up the driver test for these youngsters who have been waiting so long? They need their cars to go to work.

Taxis and how they can be supported has not been mentioned during this pandemic. Can the Minister and the Government do something about taxis? These operators provide a wonderful service and they jump through a lot of hoops to do so. They are in serious trouble and some of them may not start up again when the lockdown is over.

Hotels, pubs and guest houses around our county are in an awful state. They are supposed to open on certain dates, but many are afraid to so because there is no certainty around business or when tourists will be allowed to visit our country again.

This brings me to the testing of lorries, buses, vans and jeeps. No testing is going on at present. We are told that operators' certificates will cover them until some time in October. Will the Minister ensure an extra grace period when testing resumes? They will not all be tested in one day or in one week. We were under pressure to keep vehicles tested as it was. There is one anomaly that will certainly have to be addressed. We were looking for a solution to this before the lockdown. If a vehicle has been off the road for three or four months and it is tested, a 12-month certificate will not be issued. Only a six-month certificate is issued. On behalf of the haulage industry and bus operators, I ask the Minister to ensure that when vehicle testing resumes, 12-month certificates can be issued, for the first time at least. That is vital. Otherwise the system will be clogged again. This has been bad enough for long enough, and now testing is not proceeding at all. When the lockdown is over and the country starts moving again, I appeal to the Minister not to stop operators again by only issuing six-month certificates. I refer also to elderly people who have been cocooning in their homes for the past two months with their cars parked in their yards. Is there any possibility of refunding motor tax?

As I have said to previous Ministers, seasonal workers were not provided for in the pandemic supports that were given to many people. The same is true for people above the age of 66 who were employing people, because they were over 66 and possibly receiving a pension. Will the Minister bring them up to equivalence with the €350 payment others are getting?

The Killarney bypass has been proposed for the last 16 or 17 years. I ask the Minister to give funding again this year for the preparatory work that is needed to get it going.

I appreciate that the Minister is here today and if he does not get time to answer my questions, I would be grateful for a written reply. I remind the Minister of the people who were trapped abroad when the close-down came and found themselves calling Aer Lingus call centres, which happened to be in India. I have nothing against the good people in India, but I have examples here of the phone only being answered after two hours. Could the Minister imagine being on holiday, ringing a call centre and waiting for two hours and 55 minutes, three hours and ten minutes or two hours and 15 minutes to talk to somebody in a call centre in India instead of Fexco in Cahersiveen where the call centre was previously? When these people answer the phone, the first thing they say is that they cannot hear or understand the caller, and then they put down the phone. That happened to our people when they were abroad and trying to deal with Aer Lingus. I am calling out Aer Lingus because what it did to people was a scandal. It was horrible to do that to people who were on their holidays and trying to get home. I ask the Minister to highlight that and do something with Aer Lingus and its bloody call centre. I have nothing against India but this was wrong.

When will young people who have learner permits be allowed to sit their driving tests? When will the tests start again? Many of these people are front-line workers and need their vehicles to carry out their duties. When will NCT and commercial vehicle roadworthiness test, CVRT, centres reopen? Many people, specifically owners of commercial vehicles, cannot tax their vehicles without having a test.

As the Minister knows, County Kerry is the tourism capital of the world. Kerry County Council, which is the best local authority in the country, stated at a recent briefing of its elected members that tourism in County Kerry is worth more than €600 million. Due to Covid-19, initial projected losses are now close to €500 million. The hospitality sector in Kerry especially and throughout Ireland has been decimated. This sector needs a number of measures implemented to help it, namely, business interruption grants to help businesses to reopen and interest-free capital grants that are repayable over time. Businesses cannot afford to take out any more loans. They need grants. Local authority rates and water charges need to be waived for the duration of the business interruption and initial recovery period due to Covid-19 and not just for three months as announced previously. The hospitality VAT rates and employer PRSI contributions need to be reduced to nothing until the industry has recovered.

I commend the Taoiseach suggesting the idea of a 0% VAT rate in this House last week. The VAT rate should never have been raised in the first instance. I need the Minister to ensure that it is lowered to help save what is left of the industry. Insurance grants to cover business, public liability and property insurance are needed for the duration of the crisis. The Government needs to require the insurance industry to be more flexible with charges for businesses that are closed.

Many seasonal workers in the hospitality trade, along with people over 66 who may be running bed and breakfast accommodation or pubs, for example, have been barred from the pandemic unemployment payment simply because the majority would not have been back in work or open until the St. Patrick's Day weekend or 1 April. What can the Minister do to try to correct these wrongs? Will his Department actively engage with local authorities to support a new strategy for domestic tourism when it is safe to do so?

Can the Minister commit that the sports capital programme will go ahead as usual at the end of this year? Will the Minister make a statement on the Macroom to Ballingeary bypass, which is very important for people coming from County Cork into County Kerry and vice versa? It is to begin and everything is in line but I want to ensure that the Minister will guarantee to the House that no financial constraints will stop that major project from going ahead.

I have just enough time to say that I will make sure that we communicate with the Deputies in writing about all those issues. I counted 23 and I do not think I can deal with them all now. With regard to driving tests, since both Deputies asked, it would be reasonable to speculate that they will happen fairly late in the day.

That would be very difficult to introduce under social distancing because the distance between people when they are in a car together is so close and anything that comes into that category would make it hard. Similarly with NCT tests, it would be difficult to conduct them because of the health requirements but we will be guided once again by NPHET on that. The Deputy should not hold out too much hope about driving tests resuming early because that is a situation where the closeness of people to each other is threatening. Given the lack of time, I will arrange for the Deputies to get written replies.

I have two questions for the Minister. At the beginning of his contribution, he referred to the fact that there have been 54 deaths on the roads so far this year. That is shocking when one considers the reduction in traffic on the roads. That should be said an awful lot more.

The Minister also stated that tests for drink-driving and drug-driving have increased significantly and the number of people being caught has also increased significantly. Is it the case that there is more enforcement following the increase in checkpoints rather than more drink-driving taking place? I am very interested in hearing his views on that.

The other question I wish to ask him about is rural transport and the companies providing it. As he will be aware, the NTA has maintained the funding for rural transport companies at 100%. That is very welcome and it is very encouraging of the authority to do that. As we move into the new phases, given the social distancing requirements, the existing rural transport buses will only have a significantly reduced capacity of 23%. Do the Minister's plans include increasing capacity on them?

The Minister referred to masks and hand washing on flights and on buses. Will that also apply to rural transport? Will funding be provided so that rural transport companies can provide masks and hand sanitisers for people travelling on their buses?

I agree with the Deputy regarding deaths on the roads. It is disappointing. I am not sure whether I am going to answer his question because I agree with everything he said, so it is a bit difficult to respond. It is disappointing that in circumstances where there is so little traffic on the roads the road deaths have gone up. The explanations are difficult to understand. The statistics, sadly, show that a significant number of pedestrians have been killed. It is difficult to connect that with the fact that there are fewer cars on the roads. The evidence is that drink-driving is still going on, as is drug-driving. It may well be that more people are being caught and convicted because of there being more gardaí on the road. The RSA is looking into the matter and it is due to report to me shortly on why it thinks this is happening. It is almost inexplicable that deaths are going up given that traffic is down by approximately 70%. That is something we should find out about. The early indications are that a lot more people are out walking and a few more of them are, very sadly, getting killed, but that does not explain bad driver behaviour. I do not know at the moment, but we will get an answer to that shortly. We would expect the figures to be lower.

The Deputy is correct that social distancing is going to be as challenging for rural transport as it is on buses in Dublin. The maximum number a single decker bus can take is 12 and 17 can travel on a double-decker bus. We are talking about a situation where there are challenges, but the determination is there in all cases to meet the capacity wherever that is possible. Transport providers are aware of the situation and they are making the necessary arrangements. It is a difficult question to answer because we do not know what exactly the demand will be in any area of public transport, including rural transport, in the coming weeks and months because we do not know how many people will be afraid of getting on a bus and will travel in their cars.

We do not know how many people are going to be working from home. This is being monitored very closely. There is great confidence that the first phase will be all right. This will be monitored to see how it goes and adjustments may be made accordingly.

Towards the end of the last Dáil, the Minister met with Clare Bus and the National Transport Authority about an ongoing dispute between them over moneys owed. Some 50 days ago, I wrote to him to outline the situation. The contract had been pulled at the last minute and Clare Bus effectively lost the tender that it had won. During those 50 days in which I have not received a reply from the Minister, those workers have effectively been laid off and somebody else has operated the route. In my letter I asked that a mediator be appointed between Clare Bus and the National Transport Authority. That has not happened yet. I ask the Minister to respond to the proposal of a mediator. If he does not accept that proposal, how does he propose to ensure justice is done for the staff of Clare Bus, particularly the drivers, who provide an excellent service right across rural County Clare and for the passengers who rely on its fleet which, unlike most others, is accessible?

I do not know where the Deputy's letter was sent. Does he know at what address he wrote to me?

Yes. I wrote an email to the Minister's office. I also left two messages on what I was told was his mobile phone.

The Deputy wrote to my office in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.

Yes. If the Minister did not get the letter, I proposed that a mediator be appointed. I ask the Minister now whether a mediator will be appointed.

If the Deputy wrote to my office, I will make inquiries.

I would like the Minister to answer now, in the three minutes and 40 seconds available. Will he appoint a mediator between Clare Bus and the National Transport Authority? I also left messages on his telephone about this.

I have already answered that question and outlined the plans. I will tell the Deputy what the situation is. As of Monday, 23 March, two local transport operators were contracted by the NTA to deliver Local Link services to Clare.

The Minister has not, to my knowledge, answered as to whether a mediator will be appointed, as I proposed to him in writing 50 days ago. Since then, other Deputies from Clare have also written to propose a mediator so this should not come as news. If it comes as news and if all of these letters and all of this correspondence has been lost, there really is a problem in the Minister's Department. I expect there is not. Will the Minister appoint a mediator between Clare Bus and the National Transport Authority with regard to moneys owed such that Clare Bus can take up a contract for a tender which it won?

In that instance, I will ask a follow-up question. Does the Minister think it is acceptable for a company to essentially be blackballed by a State authority as a lockdown looms? In this Chamber, his colleagues criticised Debenhams for using lockdown as cover to treat workers very badly. The National Transport Authority, under the aegis of the Minister's Department, is effectively withdrawing the offer of a contract to a company to which money is owed - a fact which the National Transport Authority accepts - because that company does not have the cash flow to keep going. Those workers did not have the opportunity to protest here or anywhere else because of the lockdown. They were essentially silenced by the National Transport Authority. Is the Minister saying that he intends to do nothing whatsoever about this?

I have answered the Deputy's question already. The contract has been awarded. The Deputy asked about the NTA. The NTA has advised that the direct award arrangements with Clare Bus for the provision of bus services expired on 1 July 2019. I am sure the Deputy is aware of this. It has further advised that negotiations with Clare Bus on a new direct award contract were ongoing between July 2019 and October 2019, while bus services were maintained. The NTA considered that the price proposals submitted by Clare Bus did not represent the best possible value when compared with other direct award contracts for similar routes and took the decision to undertake a competitive tendering process to secure the delivery of the relevant bus services.

Clare Bus went through a similar process.

Arising from the tendering process, Clare Bus emerged as the preferred bidder, with the signing of contracts - which is anticipating what the Deputy is saying - due to take place in January 2020. A series of correspondence issued from the NTA to Clare Bus between January and March 2020 in an effort to enter into a contractual relationship with the company.

Rather than run down the clock-----

-----does the Minister think this is a fair way to treat workers?

I am just going to finish this because the Deputy asked me for a reply.

Does the Minister think it is fair to lay them off under the cover of a lockdown?

Clare Bus did not sign contracts by the deadline set by the NTA. The NTA considered that in the interest of customers across the county, it was left with no option but to put alternative measures in place. As of Monday, 23 March 2020, two local transport operators have been contracted by the NTA to deliver Local Link services in County Clare.

Has the Minister no sense of fairness to workers?

I pushed it because we are over time. I gave the time. We have to take a break of 20 minutes.

Sitting suspended at 5.10 p.m. and resumed at 5.30 p.m.