I call the Taoiseach.
Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements
Are we not doing the Order of Business?
We have done the Order of Business.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle.
Gach lá bíonn an iomarca daoine ag fáil bháis de thoradh an víris seo. Tá an iomarca ag éirí tinn agus fós san ospidéal. Smaoinímid orthu go léir agus déanaimid comhbhrón leo inniu díreach mar a dhéanaimid gach lá. Is dea-scéal é, ámh, go bhfuilimid ag dul ar aghaidh sa treo ceart. Dá bharr sin tá mo dhóchas féin ag dul i méid go mbeimid in ann bogadh ar aghaidh le céim a haon Dé Luain, 18 Bealtaine. Déanfaidh an Chomh-aireacht an cinneadh seo amárach ina dhiaidh di comhairle na saineolaithe leighis a fháil. Bheadh an iomarca le cailleadh againn dá mbrostóimis agus chuirfimis an méid atá bainte amach againn i gcontúirt. De réir mar a laghdaíonn muid na srianta, ní mór dúinn leanúint ar aghaidh lenár ngealltanais maidir leis na gníomhartha: amhail is ár lámha a ní agus fanacht amach go fisiciúil óna chéile. Tá níos mó tábhachta ag baint leis na réamhchúraimí seo ná riamh roimhe seo.
As an Oireachtas and a nation, our thoughts are once again with the families of loved ones who have lost their lives to Covid-19. As of last night, 1,497 people have died in our State and 449 more have died in Northern Ireland. Our thoughts are also with those who are working to fight this virus every day, as well as those fighting with the virus. In total, 23,400 people in the Republic of Ireland have been diagnosed with Covid-19. Some 78%, 19,470, have made a full recovery.
Thanks to the majority of people across our country following the guidelines, we have slowed the spread of the virus. It has not been easy but it has had an impact on all of us in many different ways. Some have lost loved ones. Others have missed out on events which strengthen the ties of family and friendship, such as weddings, birthdays and the birth of a new arrival. Many have lost their jobs or fear losing them and others wonder if their businesses will ever reopen. This has been a test of our solidarity and resilience, and it is one that we are passing as a nation every day. We are seeing what we can achieve when we put the needs of the many above the needs of the few.
Covid-19 has had a devastating economic impact. Our mission is to get people back to work, get businesses open again and get the economy humming so that we have the resources we need to build a better society, a great society worthy of the great people we have proven ourselves to be.
The first steps to reawaken our economy will be done in a slow and gradual way. At all times we will maintain an intense focus on the virus and follow four guiding principles: isolate, test, trace and treat, so that we can quickly react if things go wrong and if there is an increase in cases.
As we are seeing around the world, this is not a straight path. Sometimes progress is halted and there are setbacks. We have seen examples of this in Germany, South Korea and again most recently in Wuhan. The crucial thing is to keep doing the right things, to stick to the strategy and maintain our focus and to expect and look for new clusters and flare-ups. This virus is a fire in retreat. We must quench its every spark and stamp out every ember.
While every new case and death is a cause for serious concern, over the last seven days we have seen the lowest daily number of cases and death since March. As a result, we are increasingly confident that we will be able to move to phase one on Monday. NPHET is meeting today to conduct its assessment and the Cabinet will make its decision tomorrow after we receive its advice. It is worth remembering that we are still in phase zero. All things going to plan, phase one will begin on Monday, if and only if it is safe to do so. The moment we assume that our progress through the phases is inevitable, we risk going backwards.
I acknowledge that as we open workplaces we will see more workplace clusters and we need to be vigilant about that. The Return to Work Safely protocol has put measures in place that will prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace. It is a living and evolving document that ensures we protect those at work as well as customers and clients. The Health and Safety Authority will help business to achieve compliance in a co-operative manner but will close workplaces if necessary. I extend my thanks to the unions and employers' bodies for working with the Government to develop a protocol for playing their part in this time of national crisis.
In the coming weeks, as we ease restrictions, we may see an increase in the R number, as Germany has, so after 18 May we need to be more disciplined and act more responsibly than ever before when it comes to vital public health actions. There must be no handshakes. We must keep a physical distance of 2 m wherever possible. We must wash our hands regularly, sneeze or cough into a tissue or our elbow and stay at home and self-isolate if we become sick. Face coverings, visors and sneeze-guards, while they have a role, are not a substitute for any of this. I have every confidence in the Irish people to embrace this new normal.
As we know, extensive travel restrictions are in place. We are requiring that all people arriving in our ports and airports must complete a public health passenger locator form and self-isolate for 14 days. There are exceptions like supply-chain workers or people stopping over in one of our airports before travelling onwards, or of course people on their way to and from Northern Ireland. We are examining means to strengthen these actions in the next few days. However, we must also remember that we have a land border with Northern Ireland that we want to stay open, a common travel area with the UK that we want to preserve, and our right as European citizens to travel, study and work anywhere in the European Union, which we want to uphold. While these rights may be restricted for a time due to the pandemic and public health emergency, it is our policy to resume normal travel for business, leisure, study and visits to friends and relatives as soon as it is safe to do so but not before. This is something the European Commission is currently working on. However, it is going to be months not weeks before this is possible.
Testing is ramping up and more than a quarter of a million tests have now been carried out. The target of 44,000 tests has been reached since we last met in this format. We understand that we are the first country after San Marino to test all nursing home staff and residents. This is now being recognised as best practice and other countries are following suit. Testing is now under way in care homes for people with disabilities and also mental health facilities. It is now an emerging fact, sadly, that across the developed world a very high percentage of deaths with Covid have involved residents of care homes, with a very high percentage also in countries where total numbers are low, like Norway, Canada and New Zealand. As the numbers come in, those percentages continue to rise, including in Ireland. While it is an easy analysis to blame nursing homes affected or the HSE, HIQA or the Department of Health, it might yet prove not to be fair or factual to do so. It does not seem that any country has been wholly successful in keeping Covid out of its care homes and we are not alone in experiencing this tragedy.
That, however, is no comfort. No matter what their age, every life shortened is a life lost. Families grieve and many have been unable to say goodbye in person or to have a proper funeral. While measles and meningitis target the young, coronavirus targets older people, the frail and those with pre-existing conditions. It has been suggested by some that the best way to protect our care homes is to lock them down, residents and staff, for months on end to ensure they have no contact with the outside world. I am not sure this is the model of care we want for our seniors in the long run.
We need to consider alternatives, for example, more and better home care. This Government was able to afford to increase the home care budget by 40%. It is unlikely the next Government will have such resources so we will need to find a new funding model and place it on a statutory footing. The outgoing Government did some excellent work in developing alternatives like supported housing and housing with care and the new Government can and should build on and operationalise this work. We also need to consider a move away from large, modern, newly-built, 150 to 200-bed, single-room nursing homes towards smaller units, as we have done in the disability sector. We also need to re-examine clinical governance. We must integrate care homes better with the health service and enable therapists, geriatricians and infection control nurses to reach in. We must avoid hospitals as much as possible and ensure that there is a medical director as well as a person in charge.
I do not have all the answers but I am thinking about them every day. I know other Deputies are also doing so. There are many examples of good practice already. We need to identify them and mainstream them. This will be a major challenge for the new Government. It should be approached in an open-minded, non-judgmental, evidence-based way that respects the dignity and agency of older people.
This emergency has hit our country very hard. As we re-open our country and rebuild our economy, we have the opportunity to reshape our society in ways that will benefit our citizens for generations to come. We should seize the opportunity to have greater levels of working from home, online education, ehealth and telehealth, reduced unnecessary domestic and air travel, lower greenhouse emissions and cleaner air.
As always, I look forward to hearing the comments, observations and questions from Members.
As of this week, 1,500 people in the Republic and close to 450 in Northern Ireland have lost their lives due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As the Taoiseach has said, our first thoughts must be with them, their families and those who are today still struggling to overcome the virus. It remains a serious threat and there is no basis whatsoever for arguing for a rapid lifting of all restrictions. There are, however, significant questions to be asked about actions on particular issues. The restarting of basic parliamentary accountability is welcome. I acknowledge the constructive approach of the Covid-19 committee and its elected chairperson, Deputy McNamara. We wish it well in its work and expect that all who are asked to assist it will do so.
We should increase discussions about what can be done to bring the Oireachtas to as close to normal working as possible while remaining consistent with public health advice. There are many critical areas where public oversight and debate is required and Deputies are eager to fulfil their mandates more effectively. As I have said here over the last two months, during a fast-moving and unprecedented crisis, the last thing we can afford is to be defensive when issues are raised. The most comprehensive and effective emergency responses always involve making space for challenging voices and a willingness to quickly and comprehensively admit the need to adopt different approaches. Mistakes have undoubtedly been made and are being made but it is important to reassure everyone across our public sector involved in the response that no one expects it to be free of error. We must respect and honour the expertise of the professionals involved. There are judgment calls to be made and broader public policy must play an increasingly central role. As long as these judgment calls are based on full engagement with the science and an inclusive and transparent procedure, we should acknowledge the good faith involved. This is why, when we reach a stage where we must turn to planning future responses to either a second wave or a new pandemic, we will need to adopt an approach of learning lessons rather than seeking to apportion blame. We need a more inclusive and multidisciplinary approach to how measures are developed and agreed.
I especially say that in the context of reopening and lifting restrictions. I get a sense that the multidisciplinary dimension is not as evident as it might be.
During these debates, Fianna Fáil's spokespeople are setting out a range of questions based on the input of people from every sector and every part of the country. I acknowledge the constructive and helpful way in which individuals and organisations have been contacting us to give their observations and concerns.
As has been said here every week over the past month, the deal regarding private hospital capacity has to be reviewed. It is now a full part of a system-wide problem of the collapse in diagnostic and treatment activity for non-Covid-19 cases. There is a significant underutilisation of vital hospital capacity that is no longer justified. My party believes that as we move into a wider challenge, there is a need to more systematically engage sectors and general expertise in the discussions.
As we pointed out last month when it was announced, the failure to include childcare professionals in the discussions on the design of childcare supports for front-line workers was a fatal weakness in the Government's approach. As such, no one was surprised by yesterday's announcement that the main scheme was suspended because only nine providers were willing to participate. I acknowledge the difficulties in this area around the public health dimension.
Similarly, the internal proposals concerning the leaving certificate, which are outlined in the media this morning, show a process that in our view should have led to a much earlier announcement of the cancellation of exams. Deputies were inundated with calls on this from parents, teachers and students for a long period. These documents show there was no credible way under discussion to maintain social distancing, employ enough invigilators or even to examine more than half the of the normal range of topics. The uncertainty and public disagreements about what should be done could have been avoided if this information had been shared much earlier. Instead we had a debate based on the false premise that there was a confidence that the exams could be held.
The private hospital deal was an emergency response to the need to create a surge capacity. For nearly a month it has been clear that this surge capacity is not likely to be required. In recent days, it was suggested that extra capacity might be used now to treat public patients - about 30% of the private hospital capacity the Minister set up. Others from the private hospital sector are saying only 30% of the capacity is being used right now. We believe in general hospitals in the public systems that over 1,000 beds are vacant or underutilised.
Overall the situation is a mess. I have been pointing this out for six weeks. The failure to get a proper consultants contract negotiated has gone on too long. The deal with the operators was one of mutual convenience. The State needed surge capacity. The operators have their expenditure sorted in the initial phase probably where their revenue was not coming in. We need a comprehensive strategy - there is none at the moment - to get that hospital capacity back as comprehensively as possible. It has been a very expensive deal. I understand, and I am not criticising, the rationale behind it, but it is being coupled now with a wider underutilisation of vital capacity. We are hearing stories about cancer patients, heart patients and other patients who could have had treatment and earlier procedures but have not had because of this prolonged paralysis in reaching a comprehensive agreement.
Many proposals are emerging and it is important that they are engaged with in a proactive and systematic way. For example, the number of people who need early diagnostics has not declined - the Taoiseach referred to this - and yet the number accessing diagnostics has drastically fallen. Some have suggested that if we pretest every diagnostic patient in advance, it will allow many facilities to operate at close to normal capacity. It is a perfectly legitimate question to ask about why we are spending many millions of euro on hospital capacity we do not believe we will need and which we could quickly recontract were an unexpected surge to happen.
The situation with meat plants is gravely serious and it is not obvious that these clusters are being dealt with comprehensively. Without calling for the shutting down of the sector, it seems very surprising that the blanket testing of a facility is followed by no interruption of work until the results are returned. Would it not be reasonable to halt production for a deep clean and putting in place of new control measures while waiting for the results? Simply sending workers back to work and, indeed, not testing their families does not make sense, particularly given the Minister's assurance that testing capacity is not an issue. There has been a significant lack of transparency on this issue. I have dealt responsibly with it.
I alerted the authorities six weeks or two months ago about the dangers of what could happen. The numbers are high in towns across the country where, ordinarily, there would not have been a high incidence of Covid-19.
More needs to be done on this issue. The authorities need to visit factory floors to see the reality. Táim buartha faoi na monarchana feola, faoin easpa soiléirithe agus faoin easpa comhairle. Tá na huimhreacha an-ard ar fad de réir na bhfigiúirí atá ag teacht amach i ndiaidh na tástálacha. Níl sé seo sásúil in aon chor. I mbailte timpeall na tíre, tá deighiltí soiléire agus tá fearg agus míshuaimhneas ag méadú an t-am ar fad. Thug mé comhairle maidir leis seo cúpla seachtain ó shin agus tá sé in am do na húdaráis dul ar urláir na monarchana chun an réiteach a aimsiú.
We should acknowledge the excellent work of many journalists at national and local levels who have been willing to ask tough questions. Many issues fundamental to the response have only been fully explained to the public because of their persistence. The simple fact is that testing and tracing is fundamental to increasing our options and it is happening faster in other countries. In recent days, an issue about the lack of integration of records and the impact of errors in data inputting has been revealed. It has been stated that we need the entire testing and contact tracing continuum to be completed within three days. However, information supplied to journalists yesterday by the HSE indicates that the median time the process is taking in the community is five days, with many examples of much longer times. It must be acknowledged that much has been achieved since the issue of capacity delays and missed targets for testing was dominant. However, we need clarity on what is to be done to bring down testing and tracing times such that we can quickly identify and respond to new clusters. We hear much about plan, plan, plan. We need a national strategy on testing to encompass whom we test and where we test to use our capacity to the optimal degree and benefit.
The issue of face coverings has gone on for too long. There is broad scientific acceptance of two basic findings. First, basic coverings do no harm in practice and appear to limit the spread of the virus. Second, they are an important part of encouraging appropriate behaviour in public and are critical to getting public confidence to a stage where public transport becomes a viable mass transit option again. Fears that the introduction of a face covering policy would undermine the supply of personal protective equipment, PPE, seem overblown when one considers the impact of such a policy in many other countries. The issue has dragged on for far too long and it is time for it to be definitively addressed.
We need much more detail on the exact financial impact of the crisis on our public companies and institutions. The Dáil will soon have to have a substantive debate and vote on financial matters, so we need to start having an informed discussion about what emergency measures may be required to support these companies and institutions.
Fianna Fáil acknowledges the ruling of the High Court yesterday on the validity of emergency measures the Dáil agreed in recent months. Aside from the legal position, there is no doubt about the strong public support for these measures. I believe that support will continue. We now need a more inclusive and transparent process for discussing how to proceed. We are out of the acute phase of the response and a much broader range of voices need to be brought into the discussions. Only then will we retain public support and ensure that policies are soundly based and effective in opening up our country and ensuring that we limit risks to public health.
Today we again acknowledge those who have been lost to the virus, now almost 2,000 souls across our island. We extend our sympathies and solidarity to their families, friends and communities.
The Taoiseach correctly set out that we will gradually unwind the emergency measures we have asked people to live with in recent weeks. I think we all agree that is the sensible, prudent and only way to proceed. It is worth acknowledging that the heroic efforts of those on the front line will need to continue for some time to come. We need to find a modus vivendi, a way of living with this virus, and that will be extremely challenging. People look to the future with anticipation and hope as well as with a level of anxiety because their health and that of their families must come first.
I wish to ask the Taoiseach specifically about the mooted childcare support scheme for front-line workers.
Nurses, doctors, health care assistants, and others we rely on at the front line of the Covid-19 pandemic, had a legitimate expectation that, as and from Monday, they would avail of childcare under the scheme the Minister announced last Thursday. Last night, however, it was announced that this scheme would in fact be cancelled, and those who would rely on this childcare discovered this fact through the media. The stakeholders across sectors discovered it by way of press release. The primary reason for the collapse of this scheme is that the insurance industry says it will not underwrite or cover Covid-19 related incidents. It says it has been making the Government aware of this for weeks on end, yet this scheme was announced. It seems extraordinary that the Government announced a scheme that was sure to fail.
Was the Taoiseach aware of this insurance issue? Was he aware that the insurer Allianz was saying it would not cover Covid-19 related incidents? Why, therefore, did the announcement go ahead? Why did the Government announce a scheme that was so fatally undermined and flawed? Was the Taoiseach aware that this would prove unworkable because of the stance of the insurance industry? We can fix this but why is it that the Government has not sought to indemnify childcare workers in this Covid-19 emergency to provide that support and assistance to our front-line workers? Why will it not extend the indemnity that applies already to some 200,000 workers - that scheme exists - to cover those childcare workers who are now needed to support the front line in a very direct way, and to indemnify them for that Covid-19 risk? That seems to be the solution in the here and now for this dilemma.
I thank the Deputy. It is a matter of great regret that the childcare scheme for healthcare workers cannot go ahead. The focus of the Minister, Ms Zappone, and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs for the next couple of weeks will be to get crèches and childcare facilities open by the end of June for all essential front-line workers first, and then more broadly after that. I know that the Minister and the Department put a lot of work into developing this scheme. They developed it, and there was consultation, perhaps not enough, with the sector, and they secured the funding for it. Ultimately, for lots of different reasons, not just insurance, the uptake from the childcare sector was very low. It gave numbers of reasons beyond insurance, including issues around Garda vetting or the general concern that a childcare provider would have in being responsible for an employee who is not on their premises but is in somebody's private home. The sector gave lots of reasons it was not willing to sign up to it in the numbers we would have needed.
I was not aware of the insurance issue. The first I heard about that was on the RTÉ news. That is not to say that others were not aware of it in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or even in my Department. Unfortunately, given the nature of my job, it is not possible to be aware of everything. I am sure the Deputy would appreciate that. I am actually not sure that insurance is quite the issue it is being made out to be. There are tens of thousands of workplaces in Ireland open today, private and public sector. There will be tens of thousands more workplaces in Ireland open next week. They will open notwithstanding the fact that they do not have insurance against a virus because the truth is this is a new virus. It is a deadly virus but it is not the first virus we have dealt with and not the only deadly virus we have dealt with. I am not sure it has ever been the case that insurers have indemnified employers for the possibility of being sued over getting a virus. That is something that needs to be considered but I am not sure it is the barrier that perhaps it is being made out to be because there are already so many workplaces in Ireland open now this week, and which will open next week, that are potentially a higher risk than a childcare facility, and yet that insurance does not exist.
I am not sure that it is possible to indemnify someone against getting a virus or that one would have much of a case if one tried to sue. I could go into any house, office or workplace tomorrow and pick up a virus, bug or bacteria. For me to prove that it was someone else's fault would be an unusual case to make. One would only have a case if somebody deliberately tried to infect one or was totally negligent in his or her actions. I would not like to indemnify anyone who deliberately tried to infect someone or was negligent in their actions. This requires some thought but I am not sure that the Deputy's analysis is correct.
I have correspondence from a childcare provider from the Arachas childcare insurance team, dated 7 May. That was the day on which the Government scheme was announced. The correspondence makes two things absolutely clear: that the insurers were in constant contact with the Government for some six weeks and that they set out very clearly that they would not cover Covid instances. They made that clear, and I am alarmed to hear that the Taoiseach did not know that this problem existed. He should have known, notwithstanding his busyness. The correspondence sets out that potential exposure to the Covid-19 virus - they say - represents a material change in circumstances, it heightens risks and they are not prepared to cover it.
I am sure the childcare sector and the more than 25,000 early education and childcare workers across the land are very alarmed at what happened for front-line workers. The Taoiseach will recall that last December, many childcare providers were put under huge pressure because their premiums had gone through the roof. They had ballooned to the extent that it threatened the existence of these services. Many questioned whether they would be able to open their doors again. Now there is a scenario where insurers say they are not prepared to cover Covid risk. Childcare providers have said very clearly that was the main reason why this scheme collapsed.
I have two questions. First, I have asked the Taoiseach step into the breach in this emergency situation and indemnify now those workers who are required to support and care for the children of our front-line workers, as otherwise, the front-line workers cannot go to work. I want the Taoiseach to ensure that people who put their lives and their safety on the line for the rest of us have the childcare that was promised to them. That means the State has to intervene where the insurance industry will not.
Second, what are the implications of the stance taken by the insurance industry for the childcare sector and workers and for parents more generally? Might we face a situation in June, heaven forbid, where the Taoiseach announces the reopening of childcare and crèche facilities but insurers either refuse to cover the risk or insist that the premiums of childcare providers balloon again? This must be about ensuring that every parent has the childcare cover he or she needs, that childcare workers have jobs to return to and, immediately, that the Government must act. The Taoiseach promised workers on the front line that they would have the support of childcare; he can act now to make sure that is the case.
Incidentally, it has happened in the North. In the North, because the Taoiseach likes to talk about the North occasionally, the Department of Health has conceded that insurers will not cover Covid risk so in these emergency circumstances, it now will cover those workers. The Government should do the same.
I am sure that this issue will be ongoing. It is a matter to which we will have to give consideration as we work with the childcare sector to reopen crèches and childcare facilities by the end of June.
We will examine, of course, what is being done in other countries and other jurisdictions, including Northern Ireland, to see if there are things we can learn from those because there are other parts of Europe where crèches and nurseries did not close and others where they have reopened. The question I would ask is whether insurers are covering Covid-19 related risk in the tens of thousands of workplaces that are already open today - offices, factories and shops - and the tens of thousands more that will open next week. It might be that this is not an insurable risk and before we were to take on any indemnity from the State, we would have to make sure that we are not indemnifying people who are negligent in their actions in knowing that there is no consequence to that because the State or the taxpayer will cover their bills.
The ongoing tragedy of the loss of life in this country and the potential for that to continue means that the Taoiseach was absolutely right when he said that as we lessen the restrictions, it will be done in a slow and gradual way. That makes sense. Mike Ryan, from the World Health Organization, says that we will also have to be very fast in our response so that if clusters appear, we have got to quickly identify them, isolate everyone and manage that part of it.
I hope that application of being fast in our response can apply in other ways. I sense from the public, particularly around the education area, for example, that if we find that international experience, and we need to know this quickly, shows that there is the potential for a safe reopening of educational facilities, we should be quick to respond to that because mental health and a range of other issues have to be taken into account. There are specific areas, and the Taoiseach mentioned people in the disability sector in education, which tends to have smaller groupings that are much more easy to manage. The parents involved in that area, if they are looking after a child at home, can often be doing so in very difficult circumstances so if there is the ability for us to open up such facilities quickly, we should act quickly, while listening to all the health expertise.
Similarly, we will have to be fast when it comes to managing the economy recovery. I had intended to ask a series of questions but if the Taoiseach does not mind, I will use my remaining time to make a wider statement on the need for speed in the economic recovery because the scale of the shock in that respect is beyond compare. I was slightly encouraged yesterday when I heard some figures showing that our manufacturing output had held up slightly during the downturn. I checked with some contacts overnight who were directly involved and have a good idea in terms of what is happening and they reported back to me that, unfortunately, the figures are masking an incredible contraction, even in that area of international manufacturing and the high-tech sector. While ostensibly the figures look as if they are holding up, they say demand is crashing across the world and that the prospect there is not as strong as it might seem from the figures of recent months.
Similarly, there is concern when one hears talk of what is going on in the Brexit negotiations. The economic implications of that adding to the shock we are experiencing is something that possibly could hit in the next year, just at the time when we do not want it. Figures were reported in the newspapers today of large numbers of people, particularly younger people, remaining unemployed until the end of this year and into next year. One newspaper quoted a figure of 300,000 people. Those sort of figures raise real concern because the consequences of that in terms of mental health is not insignificant.
We have to act fast to get our younger people, in particular, back working, to get the economy lifted and for that to be part of our health strategy. As to how we can do that, we can look to previous periods when we managed our way out of economic difficulties. We have to be careful not to apply lessons from the past in this case. I do not believe this is similar to what happened in the management of, and recovery from, the financial crash because that was due to an underlying structural problem in our economy where our property sector had bubbled up, and private debt and the loss of tax revenue meant that a restructuring of the economy was needed.
That is not where we are today, because our economy going into this was in relatively good shape. If anything, the structural problem, as identified by Danny McCoy and IBEC a number of months ago, was that the State needed to expand its capability in housing, public transport, water and other infrastructure to support the economy. The underlying problem was not that we needed to contract anything; in fact we were in an economic situation where we were going to have to expand our State enterprise and capability. Similarly, we should be careful to avoid the experience of the 1980s, when - for those of us old enough to remember - youth unemployment was a damaging and disastrous consequence of that economic recession. We managed to get out of that in the late 1980s by getting our budget in order but this will not be the same because that is not the problem now and therefore we should not revert back to that as a solution. The circumstances were very different then. Our mortgage interest rates in the early and mid-1980s were at 16%, whereas now, the State's creditworthiness and the underlying strength of our economy before this crash mean the circumstances are very different.
That leads me to the economic analysis that our response must be an increase in borrowing. It would be a fairly dramatic initial increase, which would continue as the economy lifts and we could reduce the deficit. We should not be afraid this autumn and over however many years it will take us to effectively provide the correct economic response to this crisis. Our ability to do that is contingent on having low interest rates, and we are right not to just rely on the ECB in that regard. We should be maintaining our creditworthiness but that will be best achieved when we are seen to be acting quickly in using this economic strategy to address the underlying fundamental problems, namely, the need to increase our public infrastructure, to get our young people back working and to protect against any Brexit shock. Anyone looking at a country doing that would say that country is on the right path and is a good safe haven in these difficult international times. The question is how we can practically use that borrowing, in real terms, to manage those three difficult and amazing challenges, that is, to improve public infrastructure, to get our young people back working - which was not a problem six months ago but sure as hell is now - and in so doing to stimulate demand, while managing any Brexit risks at the same time. It is important that we do it at speed. If someone is on the dole for six or nine months, and I have been there myself, it very quickly saps one's confidence and ability and people would only hunker down and increase their savings, which would bring us into a worse position. Therefore, we need to be quick.
We need to be quick in the building of public housing. I am glad that our construction workers are going back to work next week. They have a good record and the ability to practice good health and safety. We should all be enterprising, in both local authorities and Departments, to get housing supply back quickly, including high-quality housing close to town centres. We can do something similar in transport. In Dublin, for example, we are using this opportunity of empty streets to reconfigure it. We should be getting every engineering company and every capability in the State to make this quick transition and do what we have to do to improve bus, cycling and walking infrastructure. That is not a huge employment centre but it would be one aspect of the economy. We need to act quickly to do it and in that it would be an immediate economic stimulus. Similarly, in health, we need to make sure our procurement rules are flexible in order to employ every Irish online computer consulting systems company to make sure we get real efficiency in our health system as we move towards a much more online system in these coming months.
We are talking about months, not years, when it comes to turning the economy in the latter part of this year into next year and the year afterwards.
With regard to retrofitting, why not have 20,000 apprenticeships starting this autumn? If I am correct, these are the numbers ICTU estimates we need to meet our retrofitting targets. Let us start now. There will be work in this for the next 20 or 30 years so this is good work to get started on but we should start with 20,000 apprenticeships because that is a very productive and good use of money that will produce savings in a range of different ways.
I could go on in terms of employing people to re-wet our bogs. Deputy Fitzmaurice and others have spoken about a farming scheme that would involve going to every farm, asking the farmer to put aside a hectare and telling him or her that we will pay him or her for that to be a native woodland area. Let us start fencing it out this autumn and getting the agricultural adviser visiting and paying people because this is a better direct protection against any Brexit shock to the farming community than any other and has significant benefits down the line. We need to be quick in terms of getting that sort of thing going.
It is the same with the food sector. The real problem will be in our retail and leisure sectors and creative industries so we could be quick in the food sector and decide to ramp up our organic scheme. Some of the empty retail spaces will come forward so let us convert them using our community enterprise schemes, local enterprise offices and local authorities to say we are setting up a new market retail community and new distribution systems for local food to get to local people with local cooks being involved in new ways of doing business. We must be quick here. It must be on every street of every town and in every way create a vibrant new economy out of this downturn.
I am sorry. I have gone over time. I have not even given the Taoiseach a minute to answer a question. I apologise. It is important. We must be quick with regard to the economy now.
It was an impressive stream of consciousness.
It was. I lost the run of myself. I apologise, a Cheann Comhairle.
We will have to give the extra minute to Deputy Kelly as well.
Now for another stream of consciousness. I join the Taoiseach and other leaders in offering the Labour Party's collective sympathies to those who have lost loved ones this week, although I must acknowledge that the trends we are seeing are very positive. I thank everybody for their collective work across the country on this. I also pay tribute to our front-line heroes. This week saw International Nurses Day. We all acknowledge the incredible work done by nurses across the country. However, it is not enough simply to thank our nursing fraternity, which is made up of incredible public servants who are doing so much at the moment. Real commitments were made to all our nurses last year that need to be honoured, but are not being honoured. Approximately, 6,000 healthcare workers have been affected by Covid, of whom over 2,300 are nurses. This figure is the one of the highest in Europe. They need to be protected and they need to get their PPE. I had to deliver some PPE in the past number of weeks and have helped to organise PPE coming in for a number of weeks. They need the best protection available because they really are the front line. That figure is very frightening. I hope I have everybody's support when I say we need to do more for them.
I also want the Taoiseach to ask the Minister for Health to ensure he signs an order that all payments due to nurses across the country are paid. This dates back to March 2019. It might surprise the House that a considerable number of nurses have not received their due and many of them are due an awful lot of back pay. A total of 890 nurses in the mid west are due €1.6 million so it is not insignificant. There is also agreement with regard to setting up a group on nurse management pay, which will conclude this week, but it has not even sat. We are talking about nurse management pay so perhaps the Taoiseach could embellish and bring that along.
As the Taoiseach is aware, I have raised the issue of transparency with him for a number of weeks.
I received a letter from the Taoiseach and, just before I came in here, I received a letter from the Minister for Health acceding to a lot of what I have requested and hopefully that will transpire. However, I want to point out that, when I started raising these questions, I did so because transparency is not a luxury. The minutes of the six most recent meetings of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, have still not been published. That is not acceptable, given the commitments the Taoiseach gave on the matter. We are being ignored and that is not acceptable.
There was a pretty embarrassing situation yesterday. This is not, and is not meant to be, a slight on the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach made some pretty honest comments yesterday about schools and childcare that related to what he had been told by Dr. Michael Ryan of the WHO and representatives of HIQA. Those comments were subsequently shut down by the Chief Medical Officer, CMO. That was a critical moment for all of us in this House. It was not good for the body politic and is something on which we all need to reflect. The Taoiseach definitely needs to reflect on it because it was not good. I do not say that in any personal way. For the public to hear one message coming from the Taoiseach and, a couple of hours later, to hear the opposite message coming from the CMO is not good. The chronology, the way in which messaging is done between NPHET, particularly the CMO, and the Government needs to change. There needs to be one voice, that of the Government.
I want the Taoiseach to publish the letters from the HSE to the Minister and Department of Health of 19 and 20 April regarding governance issues. They still have not been published although I understand they will be soon. I hope that a lot of these governance issues will be dealt with by the Covid committee, which we asked to be set up at the first outing of this Dáil, something that everybody shot down at the time but have now come around to. I am delighted that my good friend and colleague, Deputy Michael McNamara, took up our suggestion to put his name forward and has been supported as chairperson of that committee.
I want to concentrate on issues relating to competency in the context of how we are coming out of this crisis. I want particularly to concentrate on what has happened with the leaving certificate examinations, childcare and how we are going to get our health services back. I also want to point out that we need an intervention from the Minister for Finance as to how the banks are performing, particularly as it relates to mortgages. Mortgage approval is being denied or put back for anybody whose employer has put them on a Covid payment. That is an unacceptable action that has been taken by many banks.
I turn to the botched childcare situation. Was that the original scheme that the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, said he had nine weeks ago when he showed it to me under his arm? I am not sure it was. Any of us who looked into this scheme knew that it was not going to work. I found the way it was announced strange. Schemes do not fall just before the 9 o'clock news as they did last night. It was amazing, after the statements of the Taoiseach and the CMO, that the scheme fell by 9 o'clock last night. We all knew that scheme was not going to work. Issues relating to insurance must be dealt with. The issues relating to this scheme, whereby the Taoiseach did not consult with the providers or those who needed it, meant that it was always going to fail.
I do not agree with the Taoiseach's commentary on insurance. I respectfully ask him to look at this again. We are the first party to come out and say that we need an indemnity scheme that will be levied on the insurance industry. My colleagues and I are talking to people all the time. It is not just across the childcare sector that businesses cannot open. There will be a number of businesses in other areas that will not be able to open either. This needs to be looked at in an intricate way because otherwise the roadmap will not happen. We are not talking about insurance for those who act in a reckless way. In fact, we are saying that people who would act recklessly should not be insured in any way, shape or form.
I have two specific points to make about the leaving certificate. School profiling has to go. It is completely wrong, as my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, has made clear in the Chamber in the last couple of days. We also have a question mark over the legality of what is happening. Put simply, will somebody who passes the exam this year be able to join An Garda Síochána, where it is mandatory to have a leaving certificate? I would like the Taoiseach to reflect on that because I do not think they can unless subsequent legislation is passed because such a person will not have a certificate. The State Examinations Commission will not be sitting.
A separate section is being set up in the Department to deal with this, the reason being that it is not the leaving certificate. Will the Taoiseach deal with that point?
An issue I have been talking about for some weeks now is that of preventable non-Covid-related deaths, which I believe will surpass Covid-related deaths if the trajectory goes on the way it is going in the coming weeks. We have 42 people on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick, UHL, as I stand here. That is not very good for infection control. What is the plan for the roll-out of a roadmap for the health services? What I have heard from the Health Service Executive to date is not inspiring, probably through no fault of its own. From where will it get the capacity it needs?
We will have to continue with private hospitals in a different way because of rostering requirements. How will we fit in appointments and screening when everything is going to take longer? Diagnostics will take longer. How is work in the community going to happen for people with disabilities or mental health issues? All of that will take longer. Nurses, doctors and other healthcare staff will have to be provided with PPE. Scheduling will take longer and people will have to sit in their cars because there will not be waiting rooms. How is all this being planned for? We need a plan quickly and for it to be implemented. We had 2,000 nurses brought in from non-EU countries each year in recent years but only some 600 came in this year. How are we going to increase that number and ensure we can deal with the situation? When will screening be brought back, for example? The figures given by RTÉ in the past week are quite scary as regards the potential outcomes if we do not bring back screening in the coming weeks.
In producing a roadmap, we cannot just substitute or push out the volume of beds we will require by using Citywest or the new camp that has been set up in UHL. They are not sufficient for the level of patient activity there will be under many of the scenarios given. I am dying to see what plan will be put in place that will be able to deal with the situation. As a country and as a Government - the Taoiseach and his Cabinet and we, as a country, working collectively - we have got to a certain phase in dealing with Covid-19. That is thanks to many people across the country, including, dare I say it, the Government. However, we are now at a different milestone and there are issues regarding the roadmap and how we deal with that roadmap, how we interchange and make decisions, and how we deal with those decisions competently. I believe competence has dropped over recent weeks in relation to a whole range of issues I have just outlined. We need to deal with insurance and the issues relating to education. Most of all, and I am begging the Taoiseach on this point because I believe it will have a life or death impact for many people, we need a plan that is considered, resourced and which will work for the roll-out of non-Covid services across the healthcare service. It cannot wait any longer and the plan that is being envisaged, which the Minister for Health will talk about later today, is simply too long and will not work.
I too express my sympathies with those who have lost their lives. Those deaths are an individual tragedy for the families themselves and it is all the more incumbent on us to make sure we minimise the risk into the future. We all agree that we want to move forward as quickly and as safely as possible to a situation where we reopen as much as possible of our society and our economy. The numbers are encouraging and we hope the trend continues in that direction. There is a significant job to do in terms of the testing and tracing regime, which still requires some work to build confidence.
The five phases of the plan are welcome, but we need to understand that it is vitally important to successfully navigate between one phase and the next and ensure each phase works well and as it should. The first phase will be critically important and we need to get it right. Should the decision be made to move to phase one, the construction sector will be really important in terms of both the protections that are put in place and how that pans out.
There are significant health and safety issues. The protocols for the construction sector differ quite a bit from other industries. This poses a risk not just to those working in the sector but also to the rest of us, and there is a potential impact on how we roll out the five-phase exit plan.
Since construction was effectively thrown under the bus in 2009, there has been little in terms of support for the sector in respect of employment and conditions. Many sites are substandard and are not represented by the CIF or ICTU. Some of the protocols that have been put in place, which it is hoped will work, will not apply to the whole sector. I have raised the issue of an all-island approach because a significant number of firms and workers in Northern Ireland are part of our construction sector.
Orla Hegarty has raised a number of issues. She stated that 100,000 people will be on the move from Monday, that 80% of the sector works in Leinster and that it is common for workers to share vehicles. We all see that happening. These workers are with their families at weekends. They also have weekday families, whereby they live in a location for a few days but cannot permanently reside in the area where construction is taking place. Many are subcontractors and financial penalties and pressures are building due to projects not being completed on time. Taking time to do something may not be an option. There is also the sharing of things like huts, toilets, vehicles and so on. The CIF protocol is advisory, but it is not represented in all locations.
I want to concentrate on the capacity of the Health and Safety Authority, HSA. There were elevated protocols over the weekend, but capacity and resources are required to implement them. It was stated recently that there are as many dog wardens in the country as there are HSA inspectors. Capacity is limited and will have to be elevated if there is to be oversight. There will of course be very good firms who will do things properly, but we all know that it is a sector that is very informal and, with the best will in the world, the HSA will not be able to cover the entire sector.
A resource is available, which is the trades unions. They train their members in health and safety and could be positively engaged with to ensure the necessary oversight. We are in a very dynamic situation. Guidance, advice and direction will not be enough. There needs to be more than that. In a reply to Deputy Paul Murphy regarding the 200 complaints that have been made to the HSA, it was stated that none has been processed so far. That gives us an indication of the kind of backlog and problems that we will face in the future.
I have two specific questions for the Taoiseach. One relates to the powers and resources that will be available to the HSA and the second concerns the arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic in terms of an all-island approach to this sector.
I thank the Deputy. She raised the issue of the capacity of the HSA. Environmental health officers in the HSE will play a role. Capacity is a very real issue. We have had discussions about that at Government level. The Ministers for Health and Business, Enterprise and Innovation might be able to give the Deputy a more comprehensive answer than I can because they have been dealing with this issue.
It is acknowledged by the Government that the HSA will need more staff and more resources. The plan, which may or may not be operational - I understand it is - is to redeploy people from other parts of the public service and Civil Service to the authority so that it has the additional resources it requires.
This is something that has not been done before though, so there will be teething problems. We all acknowledge that. One of the welcome aspects of the protocol agreed by the Government, unions and employer bodies is that there is a protocol. I appreciate there will be workplaces where it might not be followed, but I think it will be in most of them. In each area there is a designated worker or staff member who is responsible in that workplace or on that site for ensuring the protocol is implemented. In many cases, that person is going to be a shop steward or a union official. Unions working together with business and Government will mean we can make this work, because I know unions and employers want people to get back to work and everybody wants that to happen safely. Tripartite co-operation between the Government, unions and employers on this issue, and other issues, can be a good example. I am not sure of the specific question. I think it is on North-South issues?
Many firms and workers based in Northern Ireland are working on construction sites in the South. There is an issue with driving and moving between the two, because two different arrangements are in place. Is the Taoiseach in discussions with his Northern Ireland counterpart regarding that issue? Are there specific arrangements about next Monday and how that will be handled?
I have not been involved personally in any of those kinds of discussions but that may well have happened. There is a regular quad meeting involving Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive and Ministers from the Government here. Under our memorandum of understanding, MOU, there is ongoing contact and co-operation between the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, in Northern Ireland and the CMO here. Certainly, anybody coming from Northern Ireland to work here in construction will still be bound by the protocol and by our rules and regulations. People are, however, free to travel to work. I do not think anybody would want to stop people coming from Northern Ireland to work here on construction sites but the same standards and rules that apply in this jurisdiction will apply to everyone, no matter from where they are coming.
Are there additional financial resources available in respect of the Health and Safety Authority or is this just about moving environmental health officers across to undertake that function? Are there financial resources associated with that scaling up and are there real consequences for those who do not abide by the rules and standards?
It is both, Deputy. There are additional financial resources and additional staff, mainly redeployed from other areas in the public service. There are also real consequences. The approach that is going to be taken by the HSA, as is always the case, is one of compliance and working with employers to enable them to comply. The HSA will, however, be able to close businesses and sites, if necessary, and prosecute employers under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, if needs be. The approach that will be pursued will not be about closing businesses and prosecuting people but one of helping businesses to comply. The powers to close business and prosecute people do exist, however, and will be used if necessary.
Is the Deputy happy with that?
That is fine.
We proceed now to the Solidarity-People Before Profit group. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.
We are sharing time. I urge the Government and this House to start working immediately on a new deal for workers facing the prospect of protracted or long-term unemployment. I hear that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, briefed the Green Party and Fianna Fáil about potential economic devastation and a return to a 1980s-style depression with long-term unemployment. I do not think we should sit back like astrologers and wonder which way the stars are moving or which way the wind is blowing. We need to proactively act to ensure we do not return to a period of mass, protracted unemployment.
We need a new deal for workers, we need to be ambitious and we need to think outside the box to ensure that people get back to work, have decent incomes and are not thrown on the scrapheap. I refer to arts workers.
In the foreseeable future, live entertainment is in deep trouble. That is the reason I asked for the debate tonight. We need answers for workers in the arts. We need answers for taxi drivers, 20,000 of whom have had their industry decimated, and where for the foreseeable future that is likely to be the case. Two thousand Debenhams workers thrown on the scrapheap by a cynical company could be the first of many who will face that situation. How are driving instructors to do driving tests or driving lessons in the foreseeable future? There are many others. I believe that this House has to act urgently to work on a new deal for these workers. Indeed, this relates to the issue of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response. We cannot wait weeks for these discussions to happen. We need committees set up immediately to discuss and bring in people from these affected sectors to hear from them. We got it wrong on childcare because we did not listen to the childcare providers. We need the Debenhams workers in here next week to hear from them. We need to hear from the arts workers. We need to hear from the taxi drivers. We need to hear from the driving instructors. We need these people in here to help guide us as to how we will prevent a return to mass unemployment and develop a new deal that ensures that does not happen. I would like to hear the Taoiseach's response to that. We must respond and not let ourselves return to a period of mass sustained unemployment.
We disagree on many issues but there are issues we agree on. One of the issues we agree on is that the best economic policy and the best social policy is high levels of employment and full employment where that can be achieved. That is the best economic policy. It is also the best way to reduce poverty and to reduce disadvantage.
The best new deal for people who have lost their jobs is job creation. Something the new Government, and this Government for so long as it lasts, will have to do is to make sure that we create new jobs, whether through public investment the likes of which Deputy Eamon Ryan spoke about earlier, whether through private investment - we need to make sure that we continue to be a country that is a good place in which to do business - or whether through foreign direct investment, which creates good, well-paid, pensionable and secure jobs, and of which we need to make sure we as a country get more than our fair share in the years ahead. Job creation policies are essential.
What is essential as well is education and retraining opportunities because economies are always changing. This pandemic will cause economies, not only here but across the world, to change quickly and dramatically and we need to make sure that we quickly institute programmes to allow people to return to education to engage in training, particularly for those jobs that will exist in the future about which nobody knows for sure. One might call it astrology - one can only estimate to the best degree possible what the economy will look like in the future - but it is reasonable to say that there will be many more jobs in care, in the public service and, for example, in construction. There will probably be fewer jobs in retail and perhaps in transport and the entertainment sectors because of the way the economy will change, not only here but across the world. We need to think about that and make sure that we prepare people and educate them and train them for those jobs of the future in the new environment, which will be a green, but also digital, recovery and which will have impacts on some jobs that basically cease to exist. It has been done previously. When the party that I lead came onto these benches in 2011, we had 15% unemployment and over 30% youth unemployment. As recently as 29 February of this year, we were very close to full employment. It can be done and we will do it again.
Yesterday, I received a letter from the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, which confirmed that there have been over 200 complaints about breaches of the Covid-19 guidelines in workplaces and there has not been a single on-site inspection of one of those workplaces. That is 200 groups of workers potentially working in unsafe conditions and 200 appeals to the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, falling on deaf ears. BAM and JBC Construction workers on the Intel site were told to return to work on Monday last despite the clear guidelines that it was not safe to restart work this week. They have been on-site this week doing excavation, fitting telecommunications ducting and other non-essential and non-preparatory work.
I have photos and videos. If they blatantly broke the rules this week, what rules will they be willing to break next week? Workers reported this to the HSA, as Deputy Bríd Smith and I did, but no site inspection has taken place and the works continue today. More than two weeks ago, a complaint was made regarding Moyvalley Meats, this time to the HSE, with information from inside the plant that sick workers were working and living alongside other workers. There have been several confirmed cases of coronavirus in the factory. There are even reports that some workers are doping to keep temperatures down while clearly sick, with management turning a blind eye. There has still been no inspection of Keelings, though I made a complaint with documentation on 20 April. These big businesses are breaking the rules. Why are they being allowed to do it? Will the Taoiseach intervene with the HSA now to ensure there are on-site inspections where there are complaints?
I am afraid I do not have any information or details on the companies or particular workplaces the Deputy has mentioned, but I will absolutely make inquiries with the HSA. There is a procedure that the authority will follow if complaints have been made. I will make inquiries with the HSA about it today.
Does the Taoiseach think it is acceptable that 200 workers or groups of workers have complained about not being safe in their workplaces to the HSA, the body to which we eventually found out they are supposed to complain, and it has not inspected their workplaces? Are workers who are asked to return to work next week expected to have confidence in the system when those who have complained have had no inspection? It appears that the HSA and the Government have been asleep at the wheel, carrying out no inspections at precisely the time strict enforcement is needed. Will the Taoiseach intervene now to ensure on-site inspections, starting with Moyvalley Meats, the Intel site and Keelings? Considering the fact that individuals who break the guidelines can face a fine or a prison sentence, does the Taoiseach agree that companies and CEOs who are consciously flouting the rules should similarly face sanctions?
I thank the Deputy. As I said earlier, I will have to make inquiries with the HSA. Before coming to any judgments, I would like to hear its side of the story. I have heard the Deputy's in this Chamber but I have not heard the HSA's. I will make inquiries with the HSA and find out what the factual position is. As the Deputy knows, employers who breach the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 can be prosecuted and fined. If it is appropriate to do so, they should be.
In that case, does the Taoiseach agree that workers and unions will have to take action themselves to protect health and safety? The HSA is not intervening or doing the job it is meant to do. I have it in black and white from the Minister that there have been more than 200 complaints and zero on-site inspections related to Covid-19. As such, unions need to prepare and stand alongside their workers. Safety committees must be elected by workers. Fundamentally, no worker should go back to work unless he or she feels confident that he or she will be safe. Workers can only do that if their own representatives say that the proper measures have been put in place.
I am not sure if there was a question there. As I said, I will make inquiries with the HSA about this today.
It is quite rare that two medical doctors get to converse in such a magnificent debating chamber as this. It is also quite rare for a recently retired member of the Defence Forces to get to address the Taoiseach, who is also the current Minister for Defence. I would like to focus my comments this afternoon on Defence Forces issues and how they impact on the Covid-19 emergency. As always, my comments will be constructive. I come here to solve problems rather than to cause them.
I have three points to make. First, I thank the Taoiseach and Deputy Martin for their worthwhile response to the Labour Party's submission in the past few days, in which they promised to establish an independent statutory and standing pay review body for Defence Forces personnel. This is a hugely significant development and has the potential to transform completely the defence experience in this country between now and Christmas if it is established and structured properly.
I take this opportunity to thank every party and person in the Chamber, and indeed members of the media in the Gallery who have advocated so powerfully and effectively for the Defence Forces over recent years. It is rare that there is any consensus on any issue in this Chamber, but there is virtual unanimity on the issue of Defence Forces pay and everyone deserves thanks in that regard. I point out to the Labour Party that its stance on this issue has not gone unnoticed by the defence community all over the country, in every constituency.
I see my role here as being informative with regard to Defence Forces issues. I have read many press releases and statements in the last couple of months which are more like fairytales. They bear no resemblance whatsoever to the reality of what is happening on the ground. For example, we all voted for emergency legislation on 26 March. A sizeable chunk of that legislation related to the Defence Forces and re-enlisting and rehiring former members of the Defence Forces. Seven weeks later, it would be reasonable to assume that 40, 50 or 60 soldiers have been rehired, but the reality is that not a single one has been rehired to date. We are not even close. No interviews, medicals or Garda vetting have taken place. It is an issue we need to focus on.
There are a number of reasons that no one has been rehired, but the main reason is that the terms and conditions are pretty appalling. If a fully trained former soldier wishes to return to the Defence Forces to fight Covid, he or she will be offered a three-year contract. Incredibly, if he or she does not stay for the three years, he or she will be fined €300 by the Department of Defence. As incredible as that sounds, I guarantee everyone in this Chamber that it is absolutely true. I have signed off on thousands of these forms over the last 23 years. It harks back to Van Diemen's Land 200 years ago, where one had to purchase one's freedom from one's employer or master. It needs to be changed. I am sorry to have to bring such mundane and routine housekeeping issues to the Taoiseach's attention because this is definitely below his pay grade, but this is the only option. There is no internal mechanism to resolve these issues within the Department of Defence itself. If the Taoiseach could look into the matter, it would be very much appreciated.
Some 300 of our troops are currently stranded in Lebanon as a result of the Covid crisis. I fully understand the UN Secretary General's letter. The letter states that we should, as a general rule, keep all our peacekeeping troops in location until at least 30 June. That is all well and good. Exemptions are allowed and Ireland has submitted an application for an exemption. I totally accept and understand that. There are six issues that the Taoiseach and people in the House are most likely not aware of. There was advance warning that this letter would be issued. There was a window of opportunity to rotate our troops and that opportunity was not seized. It took Ireland 17 days to apply for an exemption, which is 17 days wasted, and we are further down on the list. Our troops, who should have been home on Tuesday, might now have to wait for another six or eight weeks in-theatre in Lebanon.
The real issue while our troops are still in Lebanon is that we have no military air transport. This is not normal. Every one of the EU 27 states, even tiny Malta and tiny Luxembourg, has military air transport to move its people around. That is how we got people out of Mali. We could hitch a lift on a Spanish aircraft and on a German military aircraft. The UN is paying for these rotation flights. It will cost approximately €250,000 for two return flights to Lebanon. That gives the UN a significant say over where and when the rotations take place.
There is a myth that if we rotate our troops out of Lebanon early, it will somehow adversely affect our case for a seat on the UN Security Council. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our two competitors on that panel are Norway and Canada, which are moving their peacekeeping personnel all around the world even as we speak. There should be no reason we should think that moving our troops out of Lebanon on time is going to affect any chance of us getting a seat on the Security Council.
Moving our personnel around the world is an issue of national competence. It is like taxation or public health. If Brussels decided to tell us what our tax rates should be, we would rightly tell it that it is a sovereign issue for our nation state. Similarly, having our troops in Lebanon, deploying them, redeploying them or rotating them is an issue for this House and this Oireachtas, not an issue for UN headquarters in Manhattan.
They are the six points I would like to raise. I would be grateful for the Taoiseach's view in this regard but this is my personal view with which perhaps he might disagree. We have sent approximately 50 Aer Lingus flights to China to pick up cargo and PPE, and rather than have our troops waiting for another six to eight weeks, could we not send two Aer Lingus flights to Beirut international airport to pick up our people and bring them home? Six months is long enough. Some of these people have not seen their families since November and we should bring them home.
It is always a pleasure to converse with somebody who is another doctor as well as another Deputy. I was feeling a bit lonely in the previous Dáil. There have usually been a few doctors in the House and I think I was the only one in the previous Dáil.
Of course. I am sorry. He is gone. It was always a pleasure to converse with Dr. Harty as well. It is good to see Deputy Berry is here as well, so there are at least two of us. I look forward to a good, robust and positive relationship.
As the Deputy rightly said, about 500 people have expressed an interest in rejoining the Defence Forces, which is really encouraging. Those 500 will certainly not turn into 500 re-enlistments but it would be really welcome if we could re-enlist 100 or 150 people, especially those with particular skills. We have had some pilots come back and I only signed off on that the other day. However, we would like to see people come back across the Defence Forces and into all three services as well. I am disappointed to hear that a barrier to that might be the terms and conditions, which always seem to plague progress in the Defence Forces. I will not go into too much detail on that at the moment but I will be in touch with Deputy Berry about it.
We have sought an exemption regarding Lebanon. It is not solely up to us, as it does involve a decision of the Lebanese authorities and the UN. We hope the rotation can happen in June. I have no objection to using commercial aircraft to bring people home, including from Beirut to Dublin, if that is a solution that works. I had not heard the myth of it affecting our SECO campaign, so it must be a myth, because if it was a problem I would have heard it. I do not know where that is coming from.
Military air transport is a real weakness for us. We are unusual as a country, in that we cannot get to our own troops in Lebanon or in Mali. We rely on commercial aircraft or the defence forces of other countries. That works, but it is suboptimal in my view. The Defence Forces have invested a lot in recent years in new ships, equipment and aircraft, including a Pilatus aircraft. The CASA aircraft are being replaced at the moment. I have said to the Chief of Staff that given there are so many aeroplanes on the ground at the moment, and perhaps aeroplanes are inexpensive at the moment, that this might be an opportunity for us to invest and purchase aircraft that would allow us to get our own troops back and forth to Lebanon. There is always a sensitivity around the Defence Forces buying jets, as people will know, but this would be for the use of the Defence Forces not for the use of the Government.
We are on the Taoiseach's side and we are at his service. We are at the service of any Deputy in this Chamber who assumes the role of Taoiseach. Are there problems in the Defence Forces? Yes. Have they adversely affected the performance of the Defence Forces' response to Covid-19? Yes. Can they be fixed? Yes. These are man-made problems and it is within our gift to solve them. I very much look forward to working with this Government and the next one in that regard as well.
In April, I highlighted the fact that without a series of immediate interventions to help alleviate the staffing shortages in nursing homes, enormous difficulties would emerge. A number of nursing homes in my constituency of Laois-Offaly have contacted me in recent months about a chronic staff shortage due to staff members being out on Covid-19 sick leave and due to the fact that some were awaiting test results. This fact undermined the capacity of many nursing homes to operate efficiently. It put a huge strain on small numbers of staff members who had to work very long shifts and on the management that was trying to fill shifts and fill the gaps.
I emailed the Minister for Health about this particular nursing home in my constituency which was at crisis point. I sent that email on 17 April and I am still waiting for a response. I sent a copy of that email to six HSE managers in Laois-Offaly. It was only after it was sent a second time that I received a response. That is absolutely appalling. It sends a very strong message that our nursing homes are being abandoned. I genuinely feel that urgent and decisive action needs to be taken because those nursing homes are still encountering staff shortages and feel ignored. I spoke to a number of managers over recent weeks and they genuinely feel that they have been left out of the plan for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. They really feel aggrieved. Government and the HSE need to get their act together fairly quickly.
As I have said, a number of nursing homes still require assistance. I acknowledge that 18 Covid-19 teams were put in place nationally and that 183 nursing homes had contact with the telephone helpline put in place to support them. While these are welcome gestures, they are certainly not the solution. Staff on the ground is the only solution in this instance. That needs to be dealt with quickly.
I also acknowledge that many community groups and volunteers have stepped in and made sure that PPE was donated to nursing homes. A business in Tullamore contacted me and I delivered some PPE equipment myself, as did a number of volunteers. That is unacceptable. There never should have been shortages of PPE. While I welcome the goodwill shown in all communities and that everybody put their shoulder to the wheel, there were gaping gaps with regard to our nursing homes. Answers are needed. I hope that there will be a review or investigation into how the whole nursing home situation was dealt with across the State.
I acknowledge that a little progress has been made but challenges still remain. One of these challenges relates to the continuing and troubling difference of opinion between the Chief Medical Officer and the director of Nursing Homes Ireland. Last week the Chief Medical Officer categorically stated that visitors did not bring the virus into nursing homes. This was in response to a question as to whether appropriate measures had been taken quickly enough. In response to this the director of Nursing Homes Ireland said, "I don’t know how Dr Holohan can be so definitive on that [...] I would be asking to see the epidemiological study on that." That was a fair comment. I too would like to see the evidence on which the CMO felt he could make such a clear and unequivocal statement. The reason this issue concerned me is that it highlights a growing sense that a certain level of institutional and reputational self-protection is already kicking in. There was clearly already a major gulf of opinion between the CMO and Nursing Homes Ireland in the earliest phases, particularly with respect to visitor restrictions.
I hope that this issue, along with many others, will be addressed during the proceedings of the Covid-19 committee. This has absolutely nothing to do with blame or fault-finding but we have to be constructive and we have to recognise where mistakes were made and ensure that they are never made again. I want a clear sense that accountability will be obtained without fear or favour and without a sense that we should always and in every case simply give deference to those who are making decisions on public health.
What actions and interventions are being taken to address the staff shortages in our nursing homes? These shortages are chronic in some nursing homes. I would also like a timeline of the actions that are being taken.
I sympathise with all the families and people who have lost loved ones in these precarious and very difficult circumstances. I am, however, growing very frustrated. I am privileged to be the leader of our group to attend regular two-hour briefings with the HSE.
They are an absolute waste and an insult to the intelligence of the Deputies sitting there and the officials. We had one yesterday evening which was a joke with no answers whatsoever.
I compliment the new Kildare Deputy for his insight into what is happening with the Army. I also want to raise the issue of our 300 peacekeepers who are the most noble of all and the duty that they carry out. The Taoiseach waited 17 days to reply to a letter to apply for some leniency from the United Nations directive. It is simply appalling and quite disgusting. They have families; there are 300 families involved there. There are young children some of them who were to make their first communion. Some of them were anxiously waiting to see their dads and mums come back again to live together, work together and be homemaking together. They have given their six-month stint and this creates uncertainty. To add to the disbelief, we do not have any carrier to bring them home. It is shocking. We always praise them like we are praising the nurses now instead of paying them and respecting them. We too are seeking proper pay and conditions for our soldiers and members of our Army and Navy. The Taoiseach is the boss and is in charge of this. Can he get answers for me and Deputy Berry as to why it took 17 days to reply?
The mandarins in the Departments are calling the shots. I challenge the Taoiseach directly on that. The Taoiseach's statement last night about the crèches and schools appeared to be an affront to Dr. Holohan. I compliment and support him so far, but he is not the Taoiseach. We have to look at him every night on the Nine O'Clock News and the propaganda and spin. I challenge RTÉ and the media for not asking questions about what is going on.
Others welcome the fact that we are returning to parliamentary democracy slowly but surely. However, parliamentary democracy as we had it, before ever we had this election or before we ever had Covid, was unaccountable. We see the saga of what is going on with the children's hospital. We see it now with our nursing homes. A deliberate plan, I put it to the Taoiseach, was designed to forget about the nursing homes. Deputy Nolan referred to the statement by Dr. Holohan and how he can be so sure that visitors did not bring it in. Who brought in the infection? It was not the help they were getting from the HSE. What the Government offered after several weeks was to send in HIQA. My God, what a response to a group of dedicated people who were pleading for help and begging all of us in our respective constituencies to help them. The HSE, in fact, directed the suppliers of oxygen not to supply to a nursing home; they countermanded that it should be supplied to hospitals. That should be happening in a war situation and let the nursing homes go to hell or to Connacht. These people do not matter. We saw what the Government's value of life was when it introduced abortion with a desperately liberal regime. The Taoiseach can roll his eyes to heaven if he likes. The value of life diminished among members of the Government.
There are many questions to be asked about other countries and how we have dealt with Covid. There are a lot of questions here. I am beginning to question if it is a great con. Many people die every year of influenza. Is there something else more subtle and more serious underneath this whole crisis and pandemic? Big business has too much power. This Government, the last Government and the big parties are mixed up completely with them, and have not and will not challenge them in any area.
In the meat industry, independent farmers are now trying to get live exports of cattle. We got one out. It did not suit the moguls in the beef industry. Now the Department is blocking 1,200 cattle leaving this country when it is so badly needed to keep our farmers literally alive and off the breadline. It is being blocked with red tape again because big business has the Government in its pockets and is keeping it firmly in its pockets.
Covid is now being used and abused. We have this lovely hospital, St. Brigid's in Carrick-on-Suir, now closed. The Government commandeered it and took it over. It is now removing furniture from it. I might add that the people of the town of Carrick-on-Suir funded the hospice beds and everything else there.
There are numerous questions to be asked. The gloss and sheen have gone off the spin. People are asking serious questions. Certain very well-educated professors and scientists are challenging this issue. Other countries got banished. They are being banished from the media here too. I am challenging for honesty, openness, integrity and the truth.
Why is the Taoiseach making one statement and Dr. Holohan making a different one a couple of hours later? It is a pure affront to democracy as far as I am concerned. I recognise his stewardship, but I also have questions that he needs to be asked. I turn up at briefings with my colleagues to ask numerous questions and I get no answers. I have been told when a woman waits six weeks in the town of Cahir in Tipperary for a test that it is a once-off. Deputy Pringle had another one where 21 days was a once-off.
The testing is a fiasco. The centres that so much money has been spent on are not working. No tests. A testing laboratory in County Kildare did not receive a test from midday on Friday of the bank holiday weekend until the following Tuesday. The mandarins decided that it was business as usual on the bank holiday weekend and one would think that we are out of the crisis. We need answers and accountability but we are not getting them. Above all, the Taoiseach, above all, must provide them, as must his caretaker Government. He is cobbling together a new Government to try to get back into power. There are too many questions that need to be answered. This situation is too serious and lives are being lost.
I am sharing time with Deputies Harkin and McNamara. There are two issues I wish to raise. The Taoiseach will have time to respond to my questions before we move to the other members of my group.
Deputy Mattie McGrath referred to testing. It is very frustrating that consistently positive news is being given regarding testing when we know the situation is different. Like many other Deputies, I take part in Skype meetings with the HSE at which we are supposed to be given a full run-down on what is happening and get answers to our questions. At a meeting on 5 May, the HSE told us that 15,000 tests are being done per day and that it is fantastic and great. When the call ended, we got an email from the same HSE, which outlined the success of the testing programme and stated it was carrying out an average of 6,000 to 8,000 tests per day. Which is it? If it 6,000 tests are being carried out, the HSE should state that is the case such that we can get on with it. I would not slate the HSE for such an announcement. I would like it to get up to speed and achieve 15,000 tests per day but it is not at that level. Unfortunately, the Taoiseach has presented the same figures and stated there are 15,000 tests per day. It seems the HSE has the capacity to carry out 15,000 tests per day but it is not doing that. The Taoiseach seems to be repeating the same thing, which is very frustrating to hear. I know of several people who were tested but have not received the results three or four weeks later. There has been a so-called blitz on nursing homes. I know of a nursing home where at least 20 people were tested but have not received the results three weeks later. In spite of such cases, we are constantly given positive news on testing and that is very frustrating.
The issue of the testing app that will be rolled out was previously raised with the HSE. There are concerns about its safety, the criteria that will be used and for what purpose the information will be used. The Council of Europe, the human rights body of which Ireland has been a member for many years, issued a statement this week on the use of such apps across Europe. It questions how voluntary the voluntary participation will be. We need to consider this issue. It states that there will inevitably be social pressure on individuals to download and use the apps and, furthermore, that many public health regimes incentivise participation or penalise citizens for not voluntarily participating. For example, Israel places its citizens lower on waiting lists if they do not agree to voluntarily donate their organs. Questions have been raised regarding where the data are being stored and who will get to see them. In the United Kingdom, its Government intentionally chose a model incentivised towards continually asking for increasing amounts of private information. Legislation requires a formal assessment of the proportionality of Government usage of personal information as balanced against the legitimate aim of protecting the population. Personal information is afforded special protection under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. If such an app is to be rolled out here, is the necessary legislation being prepared and will it meet the standards set out in Article 8?
On testing and tracing, the HSE will publish its revised plan on testing and tracing today, with updated key performance indicators. On the volume of testing, as I stated earlier, 44,000 tests have been carried out in the past seven days. That works out at roughly 6,000 per day, which I think is the figure referred to by the Deputy. As he rightly pointed out, the capacity is there to do more. The current clinical guidelines are to test people who have symptoms, as well as carrying out some screening in certain places.
It is a good idea to have spare capacity because if we find that there is a surge or a series of clusters next week or the week after we will need that spare capacity. I am happy with the volume of testing being done. We are in the top ten EU countries for tests per head. I am not yet happy with the turnaround times; they need to improve. I think the HSE and everyone acknowledges that. I know from my own clinical practice that healthcare staff are getting the results back within a day or two but within the community it is closer to five. It needs to be better than that. We acknowledge that there is a shortcoming there.
The app is being developed. I had a verbal briefing on it yesterday. It will be voluntary, not compulsory, and because it is voluntary, it will be less effective. The more people who download and use it the more effective it will be, the fewer that do so the less effective it will be but it will be voluntary. It will have the benefit of additionality but it is not an alternative to traditional manual contact tracing. The data will be held on the phone. It will not be held centrally by Government. I understand it will be field tested in June. I do not know the exact answer to the question about the European Convention on Human Rights but I will check it out.
I express my sympathy to the family and friends of those we have lost from Covid-19. I spoke to the Taoiseach last week about face masks. Yesterday, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport said it was likely that facial coverings would be encouraged from next week on public transport, etc. We need certainty on this for three reasons. First, we have to plan. Many face masks can be homemade and various groups are making them voluntarily, to avoid a spike in costs and shortages, we need to give certainty to people as we open up next Monday. Second, of course we do not have certainty but if we consider countries where SARS and MERS were prevalent we can see what they did in practice and we should learn. Finally, the Taoiseach said this morning that face masks are no substitute for handwashing, social distancing etc. I fully agree. Nobody is saying they are a substitute. They are literally an extra barrier to stop the spread of the virus. As we open up next Monday, can the Taoiseach please give us some certainty about recommending the wearing of face masks in public?
"Wash your hands" has been the most consistent mantra since this pandemic arrived in Ireland, perhaps the only consistent mantra. Throughout west Clare, a number of water schemes have completely outdated water mains, including Cooraclare, Doonbeg, Miltown Malbay and Mullagh. One has broken down four times since this pandemic arrived in Ireland. The Irish Water staff locally have done an excellent job repairing it each time but twice in the past three years, that water mains was the subject of a contract to be replaced. That has not happened. The problem is not the length of time it is out in Miltown Malbay; there are group water schemes around Miltown Malbay where the people pay their water charges and rely on this water. In those group schemes the water is out for days on end. Five days was the last outage, the last of four outages. I know it is not the Taoiseach's role to manage where Irish Water replaces water mains but it is a public body. The Government is the ultimate shareholder and the Taoiseach is the Head of Government. Does he accept that it is not good enough at any time for people to be without water for days on end, but particularly at this time? Will he ask somebody in his Department to find out what Irish Water is going to do to replace those mains because while the staff locally are fixing them every time they break down, which is every couple of days and that is great, it is not enough? They need to be replaced.
I agree with the Deputy. Water mains that need to be repaired should be repaired and replaced if they need to be replaced. Deputy Carey mentioned this to me as well. I will make inquiries at Irish Water about that and find out if we can get the work done quickly. We all know the importance of clean water in terms of public health and general hygiene.
In response to Deputy Harkin, when it comes to face coverings, there is an active scientific debate on that.
We have been waiting for quite some time for advice from NPHET and we expect it today or tomorrow. Hopefully we can give people clarity. I believe the advice will be to advise face coverings in certain circumstances but perhaps not face masks as we do not want to be in a situation where we run into shortages of surgical or respiratory masks for those who need them most, namely our healthcare workers. If that is the case, it will be necessary to have a public information campaign as well to inform people how and when to use them and reminding people, as the Deputy rightly said, that it is not a substitute for the other things. It may have some additional benefit in certain circumstances but it should not be seen as an alternative to social distancing, hand washing and respiratory etiquette.