I call the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, who is sharing time with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed.
Outbreaks of Covid-19 in Meat Processing Plants: Statements
The Covid-19 pandemic will continue to present a challenge on many fronts, not least in the workplace. At the launch of the national return to work safely protocol, I emphasised the overriding need for collaboration and co-operation at all levels between State agencies, employers and employees, as well as representative bodies.
We saw this in the development of the protocol. The same collaboration and co-operation remain the key to success in the workplace. I know there is a strong desire for employers and employees to get back to work and do so safely. The vast majority of businesses want to protect their staff and customers. Many even closed early to do this. They have adhered to the public health guidance so far and there is no reason to believe this will change. Similarly, the vast majority of employees want to go back to work and the steps and measures outlined in the protocol provide the framework for every workplace.
Compliance with the protocol is being led by the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, which has overall responsibility for ensuring the health and safety and welfare at work of all workers. It is there to provide advice and support to employers and employees on how they implement Covid-19 measures in the workplace. Its approach is to work with businesses collaboratively to iron out any issues. However, where needed, HSA inspectors will be able to take appropriate enforcement action. The HSA is deploying all of its available inspectors across sectors to carry out spot checks and other inspections to check compliance with the protocol. The HSA inspectors will be supplemented significantly by deploying, under the authority of the HSA, other inspectors who already have environmental health, agricultural or other workplace and business inspection responsibilities. The number of additional resources working with the HSA will be in the hundreds from throughout the system. Compliance with the return to work safely protocol will become part of their normal inspection regime. It will start shortly, with approximately 200 officers from the environmental health service. This number will increase steadily as officials from other parts of the system, with varying sectoral inspection and oversight responsibilities, are brought on board in line with the Government road map. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has given a commitment that inspectors from his Department will work with the HSA to ensure the implementation of the protocol in workplaces. Clearly, the Government will not be found wanting in resourcing the important role.
With regard to outbreaks of Covid-19 in meat processing plants, this is first and foremost a public health matter and has been led by the HSE. As a result, a HSE-led national outbreak control team for Covid-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants is in place and is reporting to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre. The national outbreak control team has input from professionals in public health, environmental health, occupational health, health and safety and animal welfare. The HSA is a member of this team and up to 20 May had participated in three national outbreak control team meetings.
In accordance with the HSA's role in ensuring compliance with the return to work safely protocol, inspectors from the HSA are undertaking inspections in a wide range of workplaces and industry sectors. Between Monday and Wednesday evening, more than 240 on-site compliance inspections were carried out. While the HSA does not give details of individual inspections, I can confirm that meat processing plants are included in these numbers. I can also confirm that Covid-19 complaints have been received about meat processing plants and these are being responded to as appropriate, including by on-site inspection where required.
I remind the House that the national return to work safely protocol is a living document. It reflects public health advice about measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19 in the community issued by the National Public Health Emergency Team. As this advice evolves over time, the protocol will be updated. A stakeholder forum has been established through the Labour Employment Economic Forum, LEEF, to oversee the implementation of the protocol, including any changes that have to be integrated. It will meet tomorrow for the first time to review progress so far.
Since the start of this pandemic, the protection of public health has been the Government's overriding priority. The Government categorised farming and food production as essential services under the Covid-19 regulations. Irish food supply chains have continued to operate effectively to ensure the security of supply of safe healthy Irish food for consumers at home and abroad.
In respect of Covid-19 and meat plants, as in all other aspects of the pandemic, we must all listen to the public health experts and adhere strictly to their recommendations. We are all part of the whole-of-government response to Covid-19 and in this instance are focused on ensuring the health and safety of all workers, including staff from my Department in meat plants. Since the start of the pandemic, my Department officials and I have had regular meetings with meat industry representatives. At all times we have emphasised that their priority must be safeguarding human health and following HSE guidelines at all levels of operation. Meat industry representatives have outlined to my Department the type of measures put in place in plants, including, for example, the extension of operating hours, reduced throughput rates at individual plants, the provision of additional PPE, the installation of Perspex screens, temperature checks on entry and the provision of additional facilities to support physical distancing measures. Because meat plants remained open as an essential part of the food chain, these measures were put in place in an evolving situation with new information and advice emerging on an ongoing basis.
When a cluster of cases of Covid-19 does arise in a meat plant, as with clusters arising in any workplace setting, the matter is dealt with by a HSE-led local outbreak control team. The control team then works in close co-ordination with local plant management to put in place measures to contain the outbreak. I understand that there has been good and constructive engagement between meat plant management and the HSE local control team in these cases. As the number of clusters arising in meat plants increased, a national outbreak control team reporting through the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, was established. The group's remit is to oversee and co-ordinate the approach to the prevention and management of the Covid-19 outbreaks in meat plants in Ireland. The group is chaired by the HSE, with a range of participants, including my Department. The first output from the group was a guidance document which issued to all meat processing facilities last Friday, 15 May. This document has been published on the websites of the HPSC and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It provides guidance on the necessary facilities, processes and management required to minimise the risk of Covid-19 for all workers in meat plants. Many of the specific recommendations may already be in place in meat plants. Nonetheless, I am pleased to see detailed guidance specifically tailored to the meat industry. This guidance is detailed; it covers, inter alia, infection prevention and control measures to prevent cases and control outbreaks, screening processes on entry to the workplace, hand-washing facilities, workstation requirements and canteen facilities, steps to be taken when an individual case is suspected or confirmed, additional steps to be taken when an outbreak has occurred and engagement and communication with staff.
To be clear, my Department's statutory responsibility in the context of meat plants is to ensure that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine-approved meat plants operate in compliance with the European Union's food hygiene legislation and animal health and welfare standards. Approximately 250 veterinary and technical staff from my Department are routinely involved in supervising, regulating and controlling these standards at Department-approved meat plants. A total of 149 meat premises are approved by my Department, with specific approvals for activities including slaughtering, deboning and-or cold storage of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry. Of these, the Department has a permanent presence at the 49 premises which slaughter animals and carries out risk-based inspections and controls at the remaining approved meat premises.
As we know, in the context of the pandemic, primary responsibility for public health policy and implementation rests with the Department of Health and the HSE. Responsibility for health and safety in the workplace rests with the Health and Safety Authority under the auspices of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. As part of the whole-of-government response to the pandemic, my Department will continue to contribute to the HSE-chaired national outbreak control team and will provide any support required to the HSE at local and national level. My Department has assisted in the dissemination of the HSE guidance to the Department-approved meat plants. In addition, my Department has sought an update from plant management on the measures which have been put in place in each plant to implement these guidelines. To this end, along with the statutory role in respect of food safety, animal welfare and animal health, my Department will support the HSE and the Health and Safety Authority in monitoring the effective implementation of the guidance in Department-approved meat plants.
I reiterate that the protection of public health must be our overriding concern, that is, the health of the workers within the factories, including my own staff, the health of the wider communities in which the workers reside, and the health of the general population. My key message to the industry and to all stakeholders in the agrifood sector is that we must maintain our vigilance, and as more sectors return to work and as life takes on some semblance of normality, all parties must continue to implement and adhere to the public health guidelines for the benefit of all.
I thank the Ministers, Deputies Humphreys and Creed, for their statements to the Dáil this evening. It is very disappointing, however, that the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris is not in the Chamber. Given that we are here tonight to talk about the impact of Covid-19 infections in meat plants, in neither of their statements did the Ministers give an up-to-date position to the House on the number of positive cases or the number of clusters in meat factories throughout the State currently. This is a glaring omission in both of the Ministers' submissions before the House. Will at least one Minister outline in their response an immediate update for the House on that?
It is clear and obvious that many mistakes have been made in how this issue has been handled. I ask both Ministers to clarify if they agree there have been mistakes in this regard. How can the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, be satisfied that there have been no Health and Safety Authority, HSA, inspections of meat plants, given that we are aware of some 900 cases to date? How can the Minister be satisfied there were no HSA inspections up to Tuesday, which is the information we are currently aware of?
On testing and how it is taking place, will the Ministers clarify what are the turnaround times for testing in factories? Are employees given absolute priority in how this is happening? How on earth can it be right that when testing takes place, factories do not temporarily close for a deep clean until the results come back? It is essential that the results are back as quickly as possible, which can be done within 48 hours, but why are factories not closed temporarily during this period to ensure a proper read and assessment of infection levels can be got, and to ensure that anyone returning to work has results back and is negative? Many lessons must be learned here, and especially as other factories in other sectors across the country will be returning to work in the period ahead. The Government has to be upfront about the mistakes that were made and ensure they are not repeated.
Stringent new measures need to be introduced by the Departments of Health, Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and Business, Enterprise and Innovation to reduce transmissions of Covid-19 in meat factories and to protect employees. The rapid increase in transmission of Covid-19 in meat factories is a very serious concern. It is a concern to the health of employees and to the wider agrifood sector, of which meat processing plays a key role. Maintaining the food supply chain is essential, but so too is the health of employees in meat processing plants. They play an integral role in facilitating this chain.
According to the latest figures from NPHET, the number of positive cases in meat plants has increased by more than 300 to 828. Four of those major meat processing plants are in my constituency: ABP Meats in Cahir and Nenagh; Ashbourne Meat Processors in Roscrea; and Rosderra Meats in Roscrea. Could we have figures for the number of cases in those individual plants?
I have further queries for the Minister, Deputy Creed, which fall under the remit of his Department, one of which concerns a boatload of cattle destined for Algeria this week. There is huge dismay among the farming community that this boat has now gone to France to be filled with cattle. It was delayed a week previously and now it has been cancelled. This is the only forum in which we have the opportunity to ask these questions. We need a full report as to how this boat was not filled with Irish cattle at a time when we need competition in the marketplace like never before. This was the first time in a long number of years where heavy cattle had an outlet live from this country. It is a huge disappointment to livestock producers that this boat has now left our shores.
I shall now turn to how Covid-19 affects the greyhound industry.
The greyhound industry is very disappointed that the date for the resumption of dog racing has not been brought forward like that of horse racing. We welcome the fact that horse racing is to resume behind closed doors on 8 June, but managers of dog tracks throughout the country assure me they can adhere to social distancing. They cannot understand why at this juncture they have been divorced from the horse racing industry. I ask that the decision be reviewed and that dog racing resume on the same date as horse racing.
We need to acknowledge, given that the majority of the workers we are speaking about in meat factories work extensive shifts of eight, ten or 12 hours, that it is contradictory, as Deputy McConalogue noted, that we in the House are, unfortunately, permitted to sit in the Chamber for only two hours in one day. That is a bit contradictory in light of this debate.
We in Fianna Fáil believe we need to look at stringent measures to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 in meat factories and to protect the employees. Despite the efforts of some of the meat factories to introduce new safety measures, it needs to be acknowledged that the number of confirmed cases continues to rise. Will the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, clarify, with up-to-date figures, how many suspected cases there are in meat factories nationally? Of these suspected cases, how many were confirmed Covid cases? How many of these cases led to hospitalisation? Will the Minister also provide this breakdown specific to the Kepak plant in the Watergrasshill area, which she will know is the location of one of the clusters mentioned in the media last week?
Finally, I ask the Minister, Deputy Creed, to give a commitment to the essential workers in our meat plants that in those factories where confirmed cases exist, those facilities will be deep-cleaned for health and safety purposes, and that any suspected case will be tested expeditiously, given the grave situation the workers find themselves in.
Will the Minister, Deputy Creed, tell us whether something more than guidelines on social distancing in workplaces was issued by the HSE and the Health and Safety Authority? It is factories today, but it could be some other type of enterprise tomorrow. Will the Minister tell us whether the inspectors now enforce a regime that means that people work at a social distance from one another where that is physically possible or otherwise take strong steps to reduce the risk of infection?
Do we know whether the main transmission of the infection was within the factories or outside them? Has an analysis been done as to whether it happened through social contact outside the factories or because of the way the employees were working within the factory premises? If it happened within the factory premises, we should review the workplace guidelines not only for meat factories but for all types of factories to ensure people are safe in their place of work.
How many calls were made by the Minister, Deputy Creed's, officials working in the factories he mentioned where the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has officials? Given that almost 900 cases of Covid-19 have been detected in meat factories, how many calls were made and emails sent from the Minister's staff on the ground to the Department? Surely there is some paper trail that shows the number of phone calls of concern.
What planning have the Minister and his officials co-ordinated to mitigate a second wave and to prevent the collapse of the sector? What exactly is the Department doing in that regard?
Are the private vets who are contracted by the Department self-isolating from their communities or are they still working freely in rural Ireland? What checks and balances, best practices and guidelines has the Minister's Department put in place to protect the people of rural Ireland from the spread of Covid in their communities?
On the statistics, I understand from the HSE that there have been 35 outbreaks associated with workplaces, with 879 cases, of which 16 outbreaks occurred in meat processing plants, with 828 cases associated with these outbreaks.
This is an ongoing outbreak, but preliminary estimates from the national outbreak control team indicate that between 55% to 60% of people in meat processing plants who were infected have returned to work. This information will be subject to ongoing validation and updating. It is not the case that it is all happening at once. Some 60% of the 879 people who were infected are back at work. I wanted to give the Deputies that information.
The Health and Safety Authority, HSA, developed this protocol in line with IBEC, Chambers Ireland, the construction sector and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. They all came together and the protocol that was developed is a baseline guide for all employers. The HSA is responsible for the protocol and it has all the power necessary to carry out inspections and to take action if necessary. However, the HSA is initially working with employers and employees to resolve any problems and iron out any issues. The number of inspections the HSA has carried out in recent days is 240 and it has said that in the majority of places inspected it has found that employers have been complying with the protocol. As expected, many employers are doing the right thing and they are ensuring that all of the necessary procedures are put in place to protect their workers. Since 18 May, the HSA has found a high level of compliance with the protocol across all sectors. It has also inspected meat plants and is happy everything is working well.
In reference to the point Deputy McConalogue made about the Minister for Health, I remind the House that the Minister was present earlier, made a detailed statement on the meat plants and was available for questioning in that context. As my colleague, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation has confirmed, he identified 828 cases and 16 clusters in the meat industry. It is interesting that from the point of view of definitions, a cluster is identified as a place where there are two or more confirmed cases.
Deputy McConalogue made the point that many mistakes were made. It is true to say that this is a constantly evolving situation and that is evident if one looks at the various communications about which Deputy Ó Cuív inquired and which were sent to the management of the meat factories. The first communication was sent on 18 March and detailed the issue meat management plants were dealing with. A line in that communication stated: "There is currently little evidence that people who are without symptoms are infectious to others." Further communication sent on 9 May stated: "While people are most likely to pass on the infection when they have symptoms, current information suggests that some infected people spread the virus to others prior to developing or displaying symptoms themselves." The point I am making is that this has been a constantly evolving situation. All of the actors, including workers, my Department's staff and management in meat plants have been responding and reacting all the time to communications and to greater levels of knowledge that are developing in respect of these matters. I would not identify them as mistakes. Everybody involved was acting in the context of their best endeavours but information was constantly being improved upon. As the information available changed, so too did the responses. I have outlined some of the responses that were made.
The question of closing down plants for the purposes of deep cleaning has been raised. These are issues that will ultimately be decided upon by the outbreak control team.
It is interesting to recall the words of the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Holohan, on 15 May: "We don't think there's a justification at this moment in time to be issuing a recommendation that all meat processing plants should close." There is authority to do so, however, if closure, a deep clean or any other action is deemed necessary. My Department's staff, now working in conjunction with the Health and Safety Authority, will oversee compliance in this regard, but generally speaking we have found that there is willingness among management to co-operate.
Deputy Cahill raised a number of issues. The road map is the road map and I have nothing further to add on the opening up of any sector of society in that context. On live exports, I am as disappointed as anybody else but my function in the Department is to ensure the hard-won markets we get are kept open to us by virtue of our compliance with the health certificate we agree with the countries concerned.
With regard to figures for individual plants, the Deputy will appreciate that this detail is never divulged, as has been the protocol all along the line. I do not have access to it. Deputy McConalogue alluded to the fact that I had not given figures. I do not get the figures. They are not reported to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I got the figures from the announcement of the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, today because it is in his area that the figures are collated. They are not notified to my Department.
I am sharing time with Deputies Carthy and Kerrane.
What we have here is a mess. There has been a massive escalation, with 880 cases confirmed. It is very worrying for the workers, in respect of their health and jobs, and other workers who are awaiting test results. I have been raising this with the Minister since Easter week and he has continually told me that he, his officials in the plants and other officials are sure all precautions are being taken. Whoever is telling the Minister this is telling him a load of bull. None of it tallies with the circumstances in many meat processing plants. Whatever about people wearing masks, some must be wearing blindfolds because what is being said does not tally with what workers have been telling me for the past seven weeks.
Some factories have taken the correct action and preventive measures, and I applaud them for doing so, but others have not. That is the reality. In Rosderra Meats in Roscrea, the first case appeared on 20 March. The unfortunate worker almost lost his life. He was critically ill. No testing was done at the time of close contacts of the worker. I have spoken to the families of other workers in the infected cluster. Testing of all workers was not done until 24 April and 25 April, a full five weeks later. After the tests were carried out, workers were sent back in to the production line without having their results. In some cases, they did not receive them until the following Wednesday. On the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, many of the workers continued to work. They turned out to be infected and they in turn infected other workers. One worker who became extremely ill with Covid was confined to bed and was seriously ill but company management still continued to contact him to ask him to come back to work because they were short of workers because so many were out sick.
In Edenderry, the first case was in early April. Even when the cluster comprised ten cases, all workers were still not tested. When they were tested last week - I raised the issue of testing with the Minister three weeks ago today in the Dáil - they were sent back to the production line without having the all clear, never mind a deep clean or anything else. This is crazy stuff. I have been talking to workers and their families about this and I noted they are very concerned. If I heard the Minister correctly on RTÉ on Sunday, he said that workers should not go back to work until they have the all clear. He mentioned who has been consulted but the ordinary workers in the plants are not being consulted. Management might have been. Worse still, many workers are being told they can do it or go home. That is what they have been told in the past. They have had to battle to get basic personal protective equipment. I am told that, in many cases, social distancing was only implemented prior to inspections.
In the Kildare chilling plant, where the Minister's officials are, one of those officials has gone out sick with Covid. No temperature testing has been done there up to the past couple of days. I checked again this morning. The HSE-led inspection teams carried out no inspections until this week. That has been confirmed, and confirmed again here today. None of what was required was done. Management in some factories seemed to know exactly when inspections were going to take place. That needs to be cleared up.
I have some straight questions on this. Will the Minister make it mandatory for all workers in meat plants to have their temperature taken daily? Will he state the number of Covid-related inspections to date? If a worker tests positive in a factory, will it be mandatory for all workers to be tested and put back on the production lines only when they have the all-clear?
Is it mandatory that all workers have PPE and, if so, when did that requirement come into place? The Minister's officials have engaged with management and owners. Will they now engage with the ordinary workers and the shop stewards on the production lines?
The question I am asked more often than any other is why it always appears that there is one set of rules for meat factories to abide by and a different set for everybody else. We have had discussions on beef importation and so on, but this week we learned that the Covid-19 test results of some workers were conveyed to their employers, meat factories in this instance, before the employees themselves. Has the Minister investigated in exactly how many cases this has happened? Does he agree that this behaviour is absolutely scandalous? We know the practice has been suspended, but the Government has not come out and said it should not have happened. Will the Minister do that now?
The Minister referred to the guidelines the Minister for Health has used to excuse himself from this debate. Regardless of how it is dressed up, there is no excuse for a Minister for Health to refuse to attend. The Ceann Comhairle sat through two full sessions today. Obviously, he is getting different health advice from that given to the Minister for Health. What has happened is simply not good enough.
When something affects the meat plants, little things always seem to work their way. We heard about the cattle exports being stopped in the past seven days, yet not a single factory has been closed down for a prolonged period. The guidelines the Minister for Health cited in the context of his refusal to attend state that if all of us spend more than two hours - even if those two hours are spread out - in this Chamber, in circumstances whereby we are all physically distanced, and if one of us contracts Covid-19, then we all have to self-isolate for 14 days. That is a million miles away from the standards operating in the beef plants, in respect of which, as Deputy Stanley just pointed out, there are all sorts of conflicting reports.
As for PPE, are face masks being provided to workers? An email I received today from a constituent in Cavan-Monaghan tells me that in the food production plant where they work, 95% of employees are not observing, and cannot observe, social distancing, and that face masks are not being provided. Will the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine ensure that this is not the case?
I must ask again about the HSA. Exactly how many inspections have taken place in meat plants? When did they take place? The Minister said this situation is constantly evolving. However, as Deputy Stanley stated, almost from the moment Covid-19 arrived on our shores it has been highlighted that meat plants would be particularly susceptible to clusters. Up until now, the correct action that is required has not been taken. I ask both Ministers present, in the absence of the Minister for Health, to take steps to ensure that that is now corrected.
I contacted the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on 4 May, having been contacted by a constituent who was worried sick for her elderly parents who lived near a meat processing plant, given rumours at that time of positive cases in the plant. The Minister's response was to take a total hands-off approach. He stated in his correspondence to me, and has stated a number of times since, that it is a matter for meat plant businesses to ensure that necessary protection protocols are in place. We all know Covid-19 is a public health matter, but there is also a responsibility for the Minister in all this. We know that outbreaks in meat processing plants impact not only the individual employee but also his or her family and entire communities. It is not good enough to leave factories to put protocols in place, hope for the best and leave it at that. The Minister might have faith in a lot of these meat processing plants, but I do not think that faith is shared by many other people.
The Minister also mentioned in his correspondence to me the 250 veterinary and technical staff that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine deploys in meat processing plants. We know their role up to now has been around animal welfare, health and safety of food, hygiene and all of that. Have these Department employees had their responsibilities extended to supervise the health and safety of employees? Is that ongoing now? It is a "yes" or "no" question.
According to the chief executive of the Health and Safety Authority, we learned this week in the committee, and we now know, that no inspections of meat processing plants took place despite complaints. It seems highly strange to me that in all this time the HSA has been inspecting premises but it has not been inspecting meat processing plants despite complaints. I hope the Minister will agree that this is highly concerning. I know of a factory where positive cases were identified in April. The HSA wrote to all staff at the time. Would that not have been a time for the HSA to go into that plant to check the protocols and see what was in place for the protection of those employees?
I welcome the fact that inspections have now begun. I hope that the vast majority of inspections carried out by the HSA are unannounced. I hope that where protocols are seen to be absent the plant is revisited some days later. Again, the majority of these inspections should be unannounced.
Is the Minister aware of a letter issued to all factory employees across the country by one meat processing plant? Part of this letter states that it had been brought to the attention of the plant "by local Gardai that a small number of our employees are not adhering to social distancing outside of the workplace and have not been properly self isolating when required to do so in accordance with the guidelines." The letter continues:
We have also heard that some employees have been arranging large parties at weekends, which is not allowed and unacceptable.
That to me reads of an employer passing the buck to employees. It reads to me of an employer shifting the blame and it is no way to treat workers. I hope that the Minister will see it the same way.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine should acknowledge in the House that no plan was put in place in time for meat processing plants and that this has had devastating consequences for families, employees and communities. Recent weeks have shown that the disregard factories have shown to farmers in this country for a long time is in some cases also shown to employees. I think when all this passes there is work to do when it comes to employees' rights in these meat processing factories.
If there are two or more cases of Covid-19, it is considered an outbreak. It is up to the employer to advise the HSE. Then the national outbreak control team engages through the local outbreak response teams. That is the protocol if there is an outbreak in a workplace.
Reference was made to the Health and Safety Authority. I do not have the exact number of inspections in meat plants. That information is confidential to the authority officials and they do not share that information with me. However, I can say that since last Monday they have had 240 inspections in an overall mix of businesses. Included in those 240 inspections were meat plants.
Why can the HSA not share those figures with the Minister? She is the Minister.
They do not tell me the individual places of work where they visit.
Has the Minister asked them?
That is confidential information.
It is not confidential.
It is confidential.
We should know how many inspections are carried out.
Excuse me, can I finish?
We should know how many inspections of meat plants are carried out.
Can I finish, please?
Does the Minister mean to tell me that we are in the House today seven or eight weeks on, but we do not know how many inspections of meat plants have been carried out? That is disgraceful.
It is not-----
The Minister to reply, please.
Can I explain? The HSA works with employers and employees. That information is dealt with on a confidential basis.
The Minister should know the number of inspections.
I do not have access to it and Deputy Stanley does not have access to it. Anyway, the matters are resolved and if necessary they are brought-----
The Minister should know how many inspections are carried out.
I do not need to know.
What I can tell Deputy Stanley, if he cares to listen and if he would like to listen-----
It is not good enough.
I am sorry, Chair.
The Minister to speak, please.
In the period from 1 March 2020 to Friday 15 May 2020 the Health and Safety Authority work contact unit received 3,188 requests for information and 547 complaints.
Of these, 53% or 288 complaints related to Covid-19. There were 240 inspections carried out since last Monday, and meat plants were included.
Not meat plants.
Is the Deputy listening to me?
How many meat plants were inspected?
I do not have the number he is seeking. I do not need to know it.
The Minister does not know.
The Minister, Deputy Creed, has 90 seconds and I will hold him to the time limit because I want to ensure everybody gets a chance to contribute.
Deputy Stanley has categorised all of this as a mess but it is easy to be a hurler on the ditch commenting on everybody else's best endeavours. With every individual who contracts the virus and every industry grappling with the consequences, there is a challenge. Everybody is doing their best, including those workers deemed to be essential by this House when it approved the regulations. It should be acknowledged that these people have done fantastic work in keeping food supply chains going. My Department has had ongoing engagement with meat plants and there were 11 engagements since early March, with four involving me, and the rest involving Department officials. Since the end of February, there has been ongoing engagement with representative bodies and executives. It has always been about ensuring that in keeping the food supply chain going, the welfare of the employees is put front and centre. If somebody is involved in running a business and wants to keep it functioning, it is clearly in that person's interest to keep those employees safe. To argue there is some kind of conspiracy with employers to damn their workers with Covid-19 would surely be counter-intuitive.
Deputy Carthy railed against the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, for not being here tonight but I heard the Deputy speak today when the Minister was present. He walked out of the Chamber and refused to ask the Minister a question.
I had to do so because of the social distancing rules being applied here.
The Deputy is more interested in grandstanding than getting information.
Not at all. I am interested in getting answers but, unfortunately, the Ministers cannot provide them. That is disappointing.
I thank the Minister. The Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, might claim back some time from the Minister.
I will not take up the full slot but I have a couple of quick questions. I welcome the protocols published over a week ago and I ask the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, about their implementation. My understanding is there is an assumption that everybody wants to protect staff, employees and customers. I assume the reports are of a positive engagement around the protocols but perhaps the Minister can update us on that. I ask that the HSA take the approach of working with employers to give guidance so there is no fear when the authority is to be contacted; the opposite should be true. I accept, as the Minister, Deputy Creed, has said, that employers want to protect their staff. I assume if they contact the HSA, the authority will provide guidance and advice and it will work with employers. It should not just be assumed that the HSA exists to catch out employers but rather that it is there to help. We want staff to be protected and there should be no cover-up.
There will be an extra cost to all employers, not just in meat factories, from putting in place these protections. When is it hoped that the grants announced a few days ago will be up and running? Are we still on track for other businesses to access those grants, including those for restarting businesses?
The Minister, Deputy Creed, said there was ongoing engagement with different stakeholders and he has had regular meetings with industry representatives. Will he consider visiting a factory to indicate confidence in what we are doing here and the procedures being put in place? It is important to send out that message. Everybody wants to know about this and, naturally, we are watching the different sectors that are opening first, as well as those that remained open. It would indicate confidence if the Minister could visit a facility and let us know about his engagement.
The protocols and guidelines are in place but there is some confusion around the guidance here. We get our own advice and every place must get its own advice. I presume the protocols in place can be updated as we go along based on feedback from different sectors.
I thank the Deputy. This protocol concerns employers and employees working together. It has been developed on the basis of collaboration between, among others, the unions, employers, IBEC and ICTU. We have all worked together, as have the HSA, the HSE and the officials in all the different Departments.
This protocol has been a collaborative effort and I expect the same will apply in the workplace. There are many employers who shut down their premises early to protect their employees, and I have no doubt that they will continue to protect their employees and put in place the necessary protocols.
This is a living document. As the public health advice on various issues changes, it will be reviewed and the necessary changes made. The situation will be monitored. A stakeholder forum has been established through the Labour Employment Economic Forum, LEEF, which will oversee the implementation of the protocol, including any change that may be introduced along the way. If there are concerns from employers or employees, those can be brought together through the relevant organisations. The protocol can be reviewed and we are happy to work with everyone.
The Deputy mentioned how some businesses had to adopt new protocols to adhere to the new rules. A grant called the restart grant is available and applications for it to local authorities can start tomorrow. It is a minimum of €2,000 and a maximum of €10,000, depending on the rates one was due to pay last year. There will be a simple, online, one-page form, the grant will be paid through the local authorities and it will open for applications tomorrow.
I will reference some of the points that I have not had a chance to reply to yet. I am conscious that I am straying into the jurisdiction of the Department of Health, but it is my information that, as the Minister, Deputy Harris, put on the record today, the local HSE teams that dealt with outbreaks initially and the local and national outbreak control teams that were subsequently established have had the authority to prescribe all and every action deemed necessary to protect the workers in question, up to and including closure of the plants. I mean deep clean, PPE, temperature testing and whatever else is deemed necessary. The feedback-----
From some of them.
-----is that management in plants are co-operating. Communication with plants has been a movable feast because there were different communications on 18 March, 27 March, 9 May, which was the protocol to which the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, alluded, 15 May, which was the first specific guidance to meat plants, and 19 May, entailing Covid-19 checklists, etc. There have been different communications that we expect all plants to respond to. No one could have hit the ground running on day one with the kind of actions that were only communicated to the plants by, for example, the national outbreak control team on 15 May. In fact, early communication on Covid-19 was much milder. There has been a learning process for all of the actors involved.
To reassure the House, the teams have the authority to invoke whatever is deemed necessary. Included in this are other agencies, for example, the HSA and my Department's staff, who are working to ensure that the requisite measures are implemented.
It is unfortunate that Deputy Kerrane, who raised a question in the previous round, has left before I had a chance to reply. She made a point about my staff. Obviously, there is ongoing engagement between those of my staff who are in the locations in question and the Department via the chief veterinary officer, the deputy chief veterinary officer, etc. This reflects the dynamics of the communications. They have been working with local management as our eyes and ears to encourage management to take the necessary steps and so on. The feedback is that all of those plants are responding. Some respond on day one, others on day two, but all of them have been responding, including to subsequent communications issued to them. That is as it should be.
To answer the Minister of State, Deputy English, I have visited a plant and seen at first hand the efforts being made.
I am not sure if any of the Members who are so critical have taken time to visit plants. With regard to deep cleaning, anybody with a knowledge of the food industry will know that the level of biosecurity in the food industry generally is extraordinarily high. It is far easier to walk into a hospital than it is to walk into a food plant or food business of any sort because of the biosecurity measures that are part and parcel of the food industry. This has been enhanced by the actions that are necessary as a consequence of Covid-19.
This is a global phenomenon in meat plants. We are grappling with it. As mentioned earlier today by the Minister, Deputy Harris, it is reassuring to know that of the 828 cases that are confirmed in the meat industry - 828 being the cumulative figure - 60% are back at work. I hope that the remaining balance of cases will recover and have the opportunity to return to work as well. We cannot guarantee anything. This is an insidious virus that is difficult to combat but we are doing everything possible collectively to ensure that we protect workers and keep food supply chains functioning as well, but only functioning where the primacy of the health and welfare of those working in the industry is protected.
I thank the Ministers for their statements. Meat processing facilities have become one of the worst hit workplaces in Ireland and around the world during Covid-19. The issue will only get worse now that their production has increased for the summer period. As already mentioned, figures from the national public health emergency team, NPHET, show that there are a total of 828 cases in the meat processing plants. Despite the figures and a number of complaints no inspections have been carried out by the Health and Safety Authority or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I am aware that HSE outbreak control teams have been sent to each of the clusters in the meat processing plants. Can the Minister clarify the specific functions of this group, what plans are in place to prevent further spread of the virus and where within the plants the virus has been detected?
Representatives from migrant organisations and union representatives have raised the issue of migrant workers at meat processing plants. They have made it clear that migrants in these working conditions are being disproportionately impacted by the virus. Some migrant workers cannot adhere to social distancing guidance at home due often to cramped living arrangements with non-relatives as a result of their low wages. Complaints have been made to Migrant Rights Centre Ireland by workers in various meat processing facilities who feel their safety at work is being neglected. They also feel that the owners of these plants have higher priorities than worker safety. This raises a series of questions. What clarity can the Minister provide with respect to measures currently taking place within these plants to ensure social distancing regulations can be adhered to? Will he ensure the shutdown of plants for a two week period where Covid-19 has been detected to allow for deep cleaning and are there contingencies if closures become widespread? Crucially, in situations where plants are closed due to Covid-19 will the Minister ensure workers are paid for that period as many employment contracts are without sick pay schemes or similar benefits?
There have been reports of the Garda visiting meat processing plants to warn workers that breaches of social distancing guidelines and regulations will not be tolerated. Many of these workers are on low paid contracts resulting in them having to live in extremely cramped conditions with non-relatives and sometimes with colleagues or workers from other meat processing plants. This increases the risk of the virus spreading and makes adherence to the HSE guidelines impossible. Will the Minister comment on the issue of workers in the meat processing sector who have contracted the virus but are not in a position to self-isolate and adhere to social distance guidelines due to their living in cramped conditions with non-relatives?
Some of my colleagues will know that I was raised in the market town of Carrickmacross, where I fondly remember wandering around the cattle market on Fridays, looking curiously at the animals in their stalls and the hustle and bustle of the auction house. I also recall the relatively open nature of the slaughter of animals in the local butcher's shop. However, over the years, this sector has become overly industrialised. While there have been efforts made to improve animal welfare, there have been no similar efforts to improve the welfare of farmers and the industry's workforce. This is an industry that appears to treat its livestock better than it treats it people.
As matters stand, three companies control 65% of the traditional Irish beef processing market. The IFA and other farmer representative organisations have accused the industry of cartel-like behaviour. These companies have continued to amass huge profits and market share at the expense of our farmers. The organic beef market is in even worse shape, with only two processors, both of which are controlled by a single majority shareholder. It is clear that we need to shift our focus to create a circular economy that would allow for local and community-led production. Not only would this make the whole industry more sustainable, it would also allow our farmers more control of the market, shortening the supply chain as a result and increasing community income.
Ireland has recently enjoyed success in the creation of local businesses in similar areas. In recent decades, we have seen a huge increase in the number of micro breweries and distilleries, where before there was only a handful of big players. The State has given the needed support for that industry to prosper and generate sustainable local business. It is possible to buy locally sourced and slaughtered products in many parts of the country, and this creates sustainable jobs for our communities and high-quality food for consumers. We have also seen success with dairy farmers having access to co-operatives. The recent crisis has made it abundantly clear that changes like these, and more, need to be made to improve the working conditions in our beef industry. After consulting the independent research conducted by the IFA, I ask the Minister, if beef processing is so profitable, why have we not seen the emergence of successful beef farmer co-operatives? What is Teagasc doing to give beef farmers support and assistance to improve their efficiency, sustainability and profitability? Finally, considering that there is high transparency when it comes to cattle prices, I ask the Minister if data on the prices paid to the processors by the retailers can be made public.
I thank the Deputy for the matters he raised. On the issue of work permits where workers come in from abroad, the general operative employment permits for the meat sector have a number of conditions attached concerning pay and hours of work. In addition to those conditions, the employer applicant must provide the Department with a signed declaration that the company will ensure the foreign national employee has access to suitable accommodation and training, including language training. When the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, which is the inspectorate in this regard, carries out a compliance check in relation to these general operative permits, the inspector will inquire, as part of the inspection, in order to confirm that conditions are met in respect of accommodation and language training. Permits for the occupation of meat deboner do not carry these conditions, but the salary threshold for that occupation is higher and stands at €27,000 per annum.
Since January 2019, 17 employers associated with meat processing have been inspected by the WRC. In six of those cases, contraventions of legislation were detected and three have been approved for prosecution, with inquiries ongoing in the other three cases. No breaches of the language training or accommodation conditions were detected. In addition, the HSA has all the necessary powers to take action in such matters. The first thing it wants to do is to work with employers and employees, but the authority has all the powers it needs to go into any place of work and close it down if that is what it deems necessary to do. I want to make clear that it has those powers.
That was a wide-ranging contribution on Covid-19. If the Deputy would like me to give chapter and verse on what we are doing for the beef industry, I draw his attention, for example, to a simple item called the beef data and genomics programme, BDGP, aimed at improving the genetic merit of the herd, thereby improving its environmental and financial efficiency. That is just one scheme. Several new schemes opened this year to deliver direct income support to the beef sector as well.
I share the Deputy's observation about the lack of a co-operative structure in the meat processing industry. There are plants for sale and I would like to see farmers perhaps organise themselves in a co-operative manner. It is not a closed shop. Entry into the processing sector is open to anybody. Farmers have made a successful venture into dairy co-operatives. It must be said, however, that farmers were previously involved in co-operative efforts in the meat industry, but they exited it pretty quickly and financially scarred by the experience, I think. That is the historical record. The industry is open, however, to anyone who wants to enter it.
I will make one point in conclusion. The Deputy stated that the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine was not doing any inspections. That is to misunderstand the statutory role we have. We have 250 staff who in many ways, outside of their statutory responsibility, are our eyes and ears in these plants. They have been engaging with our senior management in the Department, but also with local management in stating the appropriate steps that have been communicated and the things that should be done. By and large, the feedback has been that meat plant management have responded accordingly. Though we may not have a statutory role, and we will be working now in a more formalised engagement with the HSA through our 250 staff, in the interim those staff have been playing a constructive role in working in tandem with local management to deliver the kind of measures necessary to protect workers.
I thank the Ministers for attending this evening.
How long will the Deputy be?
I am going to speak, ask some questions and leave some time for the Ministers to answer. I start by echoing our support for the call SIPTU has made for a taskforce for the farm to fork process for the meat industry. We believe the return to work protocol document is strong. We have major concerns, however, about how it is going to be implemented across several sectors, one being the meat and food sector.
The HSA and Patricia King of ICTU were at the third session of the Covid-19 committee on Tuesday. It became clear that the number of inspectors available is totally inadequate, particularly in the regions. In the south west and north west, we have nowhere near enough inspectors to ensure this return to work protocol is hammered home and becomes an effective document. I say that because it is a worthy and impressive document when one holds it in one's hand. The proof is in the pudding, however, and that will be when we see its application in the workplace. We echo that call from SIPTU. Does the Minister agree with it and will he agree to establish immediately a task force for a farm to fork working group?
The second topic I want to focus on is migrant workers. Three weeks ago, we stood here and, among other things, we spoke about matters concerning the Keelings issue, as it was discussed at the time, including issues regarding how migrant workers are accommodated. We have had three weeks of increased cases of Covid-19 for workers in the meat industry. I thank the Migrants Rights Centre Ireland, MRCI, for providing me with some data for tonight's debate. According to SIPTU, 70% to 90% of workers in meat processing plants are migrant workers. If the Minister responds to any one of my questions, I ask him to respond to this one. Does he believe that what has evolved through the Covid-19 crisis regarding migrant workers has reached a threshold where we need a further inspection or investigative regime to examine their pay, conditions and rights? Does the Minister believe that a working group should be set up to examine the conditions of migrant workers in the agricultural sector? I ask that because I, like many Members at the start of this crisis, stood up here and praised the food industry for being able to deliver full shelves of food and even coping with the spike in purchasing and panic buying that took place at the start.
If I had known then what I know now, or been aware of the questions subsequently raised with me, I would have been somewhat more circumspect in my praise. We have lost confidence in how the meat industry is treating its workers. I wish to know, as I am sure Deputies Stanley, Bríd Smith and others also do, when we go into a store to buy meat, which processors are treating and paying their workers well, allowing them access to trade unions and advocacy groups and accommodating them well and safely. The Minister, Deputy Creed, stated that the processors are passing tests, but some are not passing them. My party and I believe they are treating their workers poorly.
The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, stated and the Minister, Deputy Creed, repeated that up to 60% or 70% of workers who were infected with coronavirus have returned to work. I have no confidence that this is true. These workers are tied to their employers for their permits and right to work. They fear that if they do not go back to work, they will have no work to go back to. There are similarities to the situation in direct provision, where there are concerns that people in direct provision are afraid to state that they have symptoms because they do not wish to be moved to another part of the country, away from whatever few support systems they may have, such as family, friends or a key worker in their current centre.
Some of the quotes attributed to workers are really frightening. One stated that if the disease was in animals, the factories would have to close, but when it affects workers, the factories can do what they want. Another stated that there was no social distancing and that workers had to go through areas where everyone was practically on top of each other, sneezing or coughing. Workers were not given masks or gloves. Rather, they had to buy their own. People were scared and it was unsafe. Staff were given one mask each per week and had to bring it home and wash it at the end of each day. That information provided by workers is enough to breach any threshold needed for a working group or inspection body to examine how migrant workers are treated in this industry. There have been too many questions across too many aspects of the work for that not to happen.
The Minister has a great opportunity to tackle this issue and to commit to doing so. I acknowledge that it will be a longer piece of work, but there is a perception, right or wrong, that the Minister is backing the few stakeholders who control this €2.4 billion or €2.5 billion industry rather than backing the workers.
These are vulnerable migrant workers who are open to exploitation. It is possible that some are not being exploited, but others may be suffering exploitation. We need to find out. I am of the view that they are being exploited. The Minister has an opportunity to back them by setting up a working group with officials from his Department, representatives of the trade union movement, advocacy groups and the HSE to begin work that will make Ireland the gold standard in the EU and perhaps the world in terms of how we treat migrant workers across all sectors of society. He could start with the meat and wider food industry. This is his opportunity. A cloud of shame has been cast over the industry during this crisis.
Migrant workers who come to this country have full employment rights and the full rates of pay to which everybody else is entitled. They are not tied to any one employer. If they wish to work for somebody else, they may do so. Only in the region of 15% of these workers are on work permits. They too have full employment rights and, because of the work permit system, they earn more than the minimum wage. They may change employer if they so wish. It is important to state that all of these workers have rights in that regard.
The impression has been created by Deputy Duncan Smith that this is a workforce dominated by migrant workers. He referred to 70% to 90% of them being migrant workers. We need to deal in facts. The largest ethnic group working in the meat industry here comprises Irish people. The overwhelming majority of people working in Irish meat plants are citizens of Ireland or other European Union countries. As the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, stated, there is a minority of workers who are migrant workers on work permits. As she pointed out, it is important to note that there are terms and conditions regarding issues such as wages for such employees. Their wages are above the minimum wage requirement.
They obviously have access to the same employment rights legal framework as every other worker.
The Deputy's proposal about convening a task force has a familiar ring to it in the context of another task force in my Department on beef matters. I am really disappointed and shocked he would say that he does not accept the figures published by the Minister for Health regarding the number of meat workers who have been contaminated and have gone back to work. The Deputy is entitled to his own opinion but he is not entitled to his own facts. These are the facts as confirmed by the HSE. If we start undermining confidence in the figures that are published on these matters then we are on a hiding to nothing. We can disagree on the interpretation of facts but the facts are that 60% of the 828 workers are back at work. Any one case is a tragedy for the individual and his or her family and we need to work to ensure that there are no more cases. I have replied to the request from SIPTU indicating that I do not intend to convene such a task force because the welfare of these workers in the context of Covid-19 is adequately provided for through the national outbreak team. The latter has access to experts in the disciplines of public health, occupational health, environmental health, health and safety, as well as to the veterinary expertise within my own Department. These are the disciplines that are needed around the table, informing the decisions that need to be taken in individual plants, up to and including closure if that is what the experts determine is necessary.
I have three questions, two for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed and one for the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, which I would like to be answered in that order.
When we last met here three weeks ago, I raised three issues, namely, workers rights, the vulnerability of our food supply chains and the need for transformative change in the sector in advance of future crises similar to Covid-19. I did not get clear answers so I am back again, unfortunately, discussing the same issues and asking almost exactly the same questions.
I am very new to politics. I grew up on a dairy farm in West Cork which, like many, became unviable when milk quotas were lifted. Now we are operating, albeit at a loss, in beef production. In my lifetime, I have seen transformative change in Irish agriculture and the consequences for farmers and our wider communities. I went on to study it and the more I learned and experienced, the more questions I had. Why, for example, is the agrifood sector constantly moving in an unsustainable direction that continues to erode farmers’ and other workers’ rights, weakens our food security and causes irreparable damage to the land? Who benefits? It does not take long to realise that how our land is managed and who gains from it is the result of political choices. Change can only come about when there is the political will to do so and this inspired me to engage in politics. Having made it to this Chamber, with all that entails, I am sure the Minister can empathise with how frustrating it is for me to now realise how difficult it seems to be to get a straight answer in here. I am asking the Minister, respectfully, to answer my questions this time.
First, does he agree that the power of the beef processing sector needs to be tackled? If so, what is he doing about it? The power of the beef lobby is often mentioned in this Chamber, with references made to cartel-like practices, the ever-decreasing prices for farmers and the disgraceful treatment of workers. Too often discussion regarding clusters in meat processing plants have focused on where some workers are from, a divisive us-and-them narrative. If there is an us-versus-them, the "us" is farmers, consumers, butchers, as well as Irish and migrant workers while the "them" is an industry dominated by a small number of players who reap most of the rewards. It is no coincidence that these clusters are in the mega-industrialised segment of the agrifood sector. The global industrialisation of farming has contributed to the creation of viruses and the spread of this pandemic. There are no clusters in small abattoirs, in butcher shops, or on small farms, whereas intensive farming relies on big meat processing plants. I note that the Minister has acknowledged the current problem in beef plants but will he also acknowledge the bigger, more fundamental problems that have led to this one?
My second question is as follows: does the Minister acknowledge how unsustainable our current practices are and what does he plan to do about it?
Ensuring a food system is secure and safe involves more than ensuring stock is on shelves. It is about reducing our total reliance on imports and shortening supply chains. The sector should prioritise local economies, connecting producers and consumers, and protecting farmers and workers. Only then can Irish people be confident that we have an ethical, safe food system.
My next point is addressed to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. It is disappointing that it has taken this crisis and the health of workers for the conditions in meat processing factories to be seriously looked at. The clusters of Covid-19 in meat plants have occurred despite warnings from workers and representative organisations. These clusters were avoidable, as they were in direct provision centres, if warnings had been heeded.
At the best of times, workers in this sector get low wages for physically demanding work and no proper sick pay. Now, today, when the Minister and I are recommended to only spend two hours, socially distanced, in this large room, staff in meat plants certainly are not doing that. They are working nearly on top of each other, in dangerous conditions, for long shifts. In addition, there are a disproportionate number of migrants working in this industry, with non-EU workers’ residency depending on their job. They have limited access to social welfare and some 10% have very little or no English, and they are not being heard. These workers are incredibly vulnerable and we are obliged to ask if this vulnerability contributed to the clusters of Covid-19. Why were calls for greater regulation and restrictions ignored? Where were health inspectors and why were resources not available in plain English and other languages?
The State and big business might be happy for this situation to continue but I and many of my constituents are not. We want to know that our food is produced in a safe, ethical and fair way. Workers deserve more protection, farmers deserve to be paid properly and the consumer deserves greater transparency. Does the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, agree that workers' rights should be protected in meat processing plants? If so, what is she doing about it?
Deputy Cairns indicated that she wanted to ask me two questions. One was about the power of the beef sector and the other was about sustainability. I am not sure what the third was.
The third was for the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.
I will be brief in replying. On the power of the beef sector, we have taken specific actions to try to redress the balance. The Deputy might be aware that we have been advocating for and have successfully established a number of producer organisations, for example. The constant refrain regarding the beef sector has been that when an individual farmer rocks up outside a meat plant, he is a price taker. We have been trying to sustain and financially support beef farmers in establishing producer organisations in order that they can work together collectively and, thereby, secure a better price by being able to have a critical mass in the marketplace. That is a relatively new phenomenon. It is not a panacea but they are part of the architecture in most other European countries and they deliver greater balance to farmers in an equation that has probably been unfairly tilted against them.
The Minister alluded earlier to the fact the co-operatives in the beef sector are not working due to a lack of profit. I am wondering what the Minister is doing to actually tackle this.
That is the historical record. I cannot force people to get involved in a co-operative but the historical record is that there was co-operative involvement in the meat industry and those involved exited from it.
What is the Minister doing to tackle that?
If the Deputy will let me reply, I am outlining the things we are doing to try to redress this and to give more power along the supply chain. There is what is called the EU's unfair trading practices, UTP, directive, which we are transposing into national law. In the context of that transposition, we went out to public consultation and one of the issues which we have attached to the implementation of the directive is a regulator for the sector, which will look at the dominance of the meat industry and see how, if possible, that dominance can be curtailed to the benefit of both the consumer and the primary producer. They are two practical steps in terms of restoring some balance along the supply chain.
That needs to be turned into an action.
We concluded a public consultation. We have a fixed period within which we transpose the directive into national law. We were doing it as quickly as possible. As the directive was only completed at the end of 2019, we are losing no time on it. The producer organisations are already up and running and I encourage farmers to join one, if they have not already done so.
On the issue of sustainability, that is core to everything the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is about, notwithstanding some of the commentary that would suggest we are blindly indifferent. As a result of the fact that we are so export oriented, we are acutely conscious of the legal framework within which we operate and the fact that if we do not meet specific targets, there are significant financial penalties.
We are aware of the obligations to hand on the planet to future generations in the most sustainable way possible. We are also acutely conscious that premium prices are available in the marketplace to which we are exporting if we can move further and further up the value chain. This is why we have been working with Bord Bia through Origin Green to ensure the sustainability programme we are pursuing is not just a green sticker on an Irish product but that it is audited and verifiable. It is not often recognised that these Bord Bia programmes are verifiable and audited and that they stand up to scrutiny. This is part of the sustainability. We are global leaders in the sustainability of our dairy industry. Ireland and New Zealand are the most competitive in terms of carbon efficiency for dairy. We are fifth in Europe in terms of beef. We can do an awful lot more in this regard and this is the journey we are on because of the climate action plan the Government has published and the implementation of the targets in the road map.
The food sector, as the Minister, Deputy Creed, has said, is probably the most regulated sector we have. We have inspections by the HSA and the WRC. Workers in the meat sector enjoy the benefits of all employment rights. It does not matter where they come from; they have access to all of the supports Irish workers enjoy. If, for some reason, some of them must take time off they receive full illness benefits. They have the exact same rights as all Irish workers.
Non-EU migrant workers' residency often depends on their jobs. It is not the same situation for everybody.
Non-EU migrant workers have rights under the permit with which they come in here. We are very careful that they get paid more than the minimum wage. In certain sectors they get paid considerably more than it. In particular, meat boners receive €27,000 per annum. The WRC is the inspectorate that checks the conditions of employees. They are being taken care of.
I will ask questions only of the Minister, Deputy Creed, because in the past I have found it a fruitless exercise to question the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. I want to address what I believe is the situation. I believe the Minister has failed utterly to take seriously any warnings from Deputies in the House, to investigate them or to enforce basic health and safety regulations in the largest meat processors in the State. The figures are quite breathtaking. There are 16 clusters and this week, Dr. Colm Henry told us that 860 workers are infected. The repeated attempt to state that 55% to 60% of them have returned to work is an attempt to minimise this stark statistic.
On 30 April, the Minister was asked in the House about the situation in certain meat plants. At the time he knew there were six clusters and that hundreds of workers were infected but he spent most of his time speaking about the supports and the capital and investment grants the Government was making available to the wider industry. His key contribution was to state, "Our primary concern was to make sure that as we approach peak production, we keep processing capacity functioning". To Deputy Stanley, the Minister said he did not want the message to go out that the factories were letting in the virus and letting it spread. To Deputy Paul Murphy, he said that it was certainly not the case, on the basis of information available to him, that unsafe practices were taking place. The Minister also said this is a pandemic and people get infected by one source or another. Despite examples from Deputies he continued to defend these plants. The Minister also stated there was nothing to suggest that the allegation that there were risks because of unsafe practices was actually true. He stated it was a smear tactic dressed up as a concern, which was regrettable. Today he has reiterated that the protection of public health has to be our overriding concern. The Minister's chief concern then and now is to defend the owners of the major industries, such as the likes of Larry Goodman with his €170 million profits per annum, Dawn Meats and Liffey Meats. All of the big beef processors are being defended in disguise in here.
On 6 May, the study from the US showed that wherever there are clusters in meat plants, within a 15-mile radius the community is twice as badly affected as other areas of the country. The HSE needs to investigate that study, apply it to where meat plants are located in this country and check out what is happening with the communities around them. On 8 May, we found that there are 566 cases of Covid in ten clusters in meat processing facilities. Dr. Ronan Glynn, deputy chief medical officer, had told us that of all workplace clusters, the meat industry is by far the worst. We are three weeks on from the Minister's defence of the meat factory owners, when he more or less said that if people get infected one way or the other, it is nobody's fault, not his, not that of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, nor that of the Minister, Deputy Harris. Perhaps it is their own fault, as was suggested in respect of another cohort of unfortunates who were infected in clusters in direct provision. Perhaps it is their own fault because they were in unsafe work practices. I want the Minister to tell us today whether his primary concern is for the health of the workers and the safety of the community. Will he now apologise for misleading this House three weeks ago and will he apologise to those 800-plus workers who have suffered because all the regulatory bodies in this country have failed them? The priority was really on the needs of the big beef barons to export the meat they were producing. I call on the Minister now to do what the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland is calling for and close those meat plants where clusters exist, to allow for deep cleaning and realignment in those factories, and to allow for safe practices to exist. If the HSA will not tell the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, what meat plants it has examined, perhaps it will tell the Minister, Deputy Creed.
They say that the devil can cite scripture for his own purpose. I certainly would not be comparing Deputy Bríd Smith to the devil, far from it. However, I think she has selectively quoted what I said. The priority agreed by this House was that the agrifood sector was an essential service and that it was crucial to keep supermarket shelves stocked, to keep people with a supply of safe food. It was agreed collectively in this House that these people do essential work. However, I always said that in so doing, the primacy of those workers' health and welfare was not to be compromised. The record will show that on multiple occasions, at any time I have been asked questions about this issue. The Deputy may say that I have or the Government has failed utterly and I suspect nothing that I can say here will change her mind about that. We will agree to differ. However, I think there should be some reassurance, perhaps if the Deputy is open to being reassured, that the HSE is, in terms of the outbreak control team both at local and national level-----
The Minister is eating into colleagues' time. He might get time at the end. I will have to come to Deputy Paul Murphy.
The HSE is in charge of-----
I will accept written answers, please.
My first question is to the Minister, Deputy Creed, and it follows on. Three weeks ago, he accused me in this House of smearing the meat processing plants because I raised with him complaints from the meat factory workers and their unions and I called for them to be inspected by the Health and Safety Authority. Does the Minister now accept that the Health and Safety Authority should have inspected the plants in April when the complaints were made? Will he, please, withdraw his allegation that I was unfairly smearing the meat plants?
I believe my colleague has confirmed that the HSA has a statutory role independent of us in that it inspects meat plants. That is the case. What I said, I stand over. The Deputy's assertion is based on some logic which escapes me, to the effect that in some way it is beneficial for management to ensure the inefficiency of their processing operation by facilitating the contraction of Covid-19 by their workforce. That surely is self-evidently not in the interest of management, the owners or the workers. What I have clearly stated all along is that keeping food supply chains working through these essential workers, while important, is secondary to the welfare of these workers.
It is the same as three weeks ago. It is the same ideological, touching faith in the pursuit of profit of these companies-----
If the cap fits, wear it.
It is the idea that the pursuit of profit by these companies will never clash with the health and safety of the workers. The Minister, Deputy Creed, should withdraw the comments from three weeks ago. The Minister should apologise to the meat factory workers of the country for not listening to their warnings and for not calling for inspections. There were no HSA inspections of meat factories or of any other workplace in the entire country until Monday of this week. It was zero. Then we had 80 on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. In the last week alone we had 328 confirmed cases of meat factory workers contracting Covid-19. That is almost 40% of all cases in the last week. It is a catastrophic crisis. It was preventable and the Minister was warned about it. Instead of intervening, however, and instead of enforcing the guidelines the Minister and his Department looked the other way. People could die as a consequence of that negligence.
I will give the example I gave three weeks ago, which is Moyvalley Meats. Three weeks ago the Minister, Deputy Creed, received an email from someone from inside that plant with information that staff with Covid-19 symptoms were working alongside healthy staff. The Minister's office told them it was not an issue for his Department and pointed them to the HSE. The HSE said that handling of breaches of the guidelines was not an issue for it and pointed them to the Garda. The Garda did not know what to do about it. This story is repeated everywhere. For a month the HSA said that it had nothing to do with it and the HSE said exactly the same. Since then that workplace is a Covid-19 cluster but I am told there has still been no inspection by a health and safety inspector. To this day the workers say that the guidelines are still being broken. I appeal to the Minister to not repeat the mistakes. Enough mistakes have been made. The Minister refused to accept it. Incredibly, the Minister appears today unable to answer the question about how many inspections have taken place. My mind is blown by the idea that the Minister would attend this debate knowing we were going to discuss meat factories, and not have that basic information. I ask the Minister to not dismiss this appeal, to take it seriously and to intervene now to make sure Moyvalley Meats and the other factories are inspected immediately.
I do not direct the HSA but I am aware, as the Minister, Deputy Humphrey, has confirmed, that the HSA has already conducted inspections in meat plants.
I find it quite extraordinary that Deputy Smith would choose, of all places, the United States of America as a guiding light into how we should respond on meat plants.
It is a picture of what not to do.
Its testing regime-----
It is a study by a university, it is not a Trump response.
Its testing regime is quite simply-----
It is a very important study by a university and the Minister should be familiar with it.
Its testing regime is in no way comparable with the testing regime we have. It is important to put it into context. Every one of those 828 confirmed cases is one too many. We must work to ensure that everything is done to protect those workers. It is 828 cases out of a total of 16,000 workers in that sector.
It is huge. It is a higher percentage than in America.
I have heard much criticism in the media and this evening of the meat industry's handling of Covid-19. Much of this criticism is merited, and some of the criticism is exaggerated. I find it hard to believe, as the Minister just said, that any meat industry owner or management would willingly be negligent to the extent that they would endanger their workforce. The industry is now operating under exceptional circumstances. Coping with the virus is a new and unexpected encounter for everyone. We should assess the failures and weaknesses in the industry in a calm and measured way so that lessons can be learned. We need to ensure that examples of effective best practice in protecting the health of workers are universally applied across all meat plants. As Members of this House we have a responsibility to be accurate, to be fair and to be realistic in our appraisal of the meat industry sector and its performance in dealing with Covid-19.
I cannot speak with authority on what is happening in plants across the country but I can speak with knowledge on events at Rosderra Meats in Roscrea, which is in my constituency. I was contacted by a number of workers and by my local councillor, Shane Lee, bringing to my attention the incidents of Covid-19 within the Rosderra factory and the local community in Roscrea.
From the outset, our primary objective was to protect the health and welfare of the workforce.
I worked closely with Councillor Lee to highlight to management the legitimate fears and concerns of the workers and also of the community and residents of Roscrea. After discussions with senior management at the plant to ascertain the extent of the problem, I contacted the directors of the company. I was advised that everything possible was being done to contain and control the spread of the virus. This included a wide range of precautionary measures that were put in place in accordance with the guidelines.
The company agreed to my suggestion to call in the HSE and conduct blanket testing. This was conducted at the weekend of 24 and 25 April. Six days later the laboratory results confirmed an unacceptable level of Covid infection in the workplace. I was aware from my discussions with the directors that they were disturbed at the outcome. They were determined to stop the spread of the virus and were deeply concerned that the virus was having a detrimental impact on the health of their workers. Its impact was sapping energy and wreaking havoc with a hitherto busy and successful production line. The company wanted to halt the virus in its tracks and was prepared to do whatever it took to bring it under control. It sought professional advice, followed best practice and implemented every recommendation. The HSE later confirmed that its personnel received total co-operation, had unrestricted access to the factory and was continuously monitoring the situation.
On being advised of the identity of positive cases, those employees, together with close contacts, were put into immediate HSE-protocol self-isolation, away from the plant in their own accommodation. Production was scaled back significantly in line with available staff. Staff have since returned to work on a gradual basis and following the HSE protocol on self-isolation, Rosderra is almost back to full operational capacity.
The safety and welfare of employees is of the utmost importance to this and other companies and they continue to be extremely vigilant with their protective measures for infection control including: providing a constant supply of PPE, that is, visors, masks and goggles; extending and reorganising canteens to facilitate adequate social distancing at break-times; having extended washing facilities in changing rooms; increasing the number of hand-sanitising stations, which were already at a high level as befitting a food production plant; and reconfiguring its operations to facilitate social distancing or partitioning workspaces where appropriate. All employees have been informed not to come to work if feeling ill or experiencing Covid symptoms, and the company has trained and briefed all staff in their relevant languages on Covid-19-related issues, including Covid-19-related financial support measures.
The vast majority of workers understand the serious nature of the situation and the absolute necessity to comply with every precautionary measure. A minority, through carelessness or naivety, jeopardise their fellow workers and families by non-conforming actions. These people need to be educated about the fact that this virus is at its best dangerous and at its worst deadly.
We should be mindful of the fact that the company employs 440 people at its Roscrea plant. It is vital to the local economy and makes a huge financial contribution to a town struggling for survival. As the company is operating to international best standards, it has valuable export contracts to China, Japan, the USA, Canada and Australia. It is, therefore, very important for the company to protect its hard-earned international reputation. Conscious of these factors, I deliberately did not make any public comment or resort to big-bang publicity. I decided the best approach in the workers' interest was to work with management to ensure the company got the full support of the State agencies in its efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
The current predicament of the workforce or future job security is not well served by blame games.
Condemnation serves no useful purpose and does nothing to improve the position of the workforce. This is not a time to set management and workers against each other. This is a time to work together to resist the common enemy, Covid-19. I am on the side of keeping workers safe while also keeping their jobs safe. There will be a future after Covid-19. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that Rosderra Meats is part of that future. In Tipperary we are also fortunate to have the contribution to our economy of other meat plants in Roscrea, Nenagh and Cahir and we value and appreciate them.
I have made submissions to the Minister on lifting the restrictions on the greyhound racing sector. This is a particularly important business and pastime in rural Ireland. All of the protocols and procedures are in place for a safe reopening of our greyhound racing tracks. I am satisfied that the Minister and his officials understand the necessity to reopen greyhound activities as soon as possible. I ask that he expedite this decision in consultation with NPHET. I would like to have the Minister's views on this matter first.
I am aware of the greyhound racing issue and we have spoken about it previously. Every sector that is subject to the strictures of the road map that has been published is anxious to have the white flag raised for them at an earlier date. I am aware of the interests of the greyhound sector in that regard. I do not want to mislead anybody and it is not an easy ask but we are engaged with the sector and I will keep the Deputy informed of developments.
By way of response to the Deputy's observations on his constituency experience, I will not comment on an individual case but what I take from it is the co-operation that existed between the meat plant involved and the HSE. Whereas I cannot answer for every individual plant, the feedback I am getting from my staff, who are in every one of these plants, is similar. They are getting co-operation from management and the feedback from the HSE is equally reassuring. Regrettably, that is not sufficient to say that the virus will not breach the best biosecurity measures that everybody collectively working in the best interests of worker welfare puts up. It is, however, reassuring to know there is a unity of purpose. Hopefully, for every individual who has been contaminated, there will be a successful outcome and recovery. I also hope we can collectively try to halt the march of the virus, which is particularly insidious and difficult to contain.
The coronavirus has raised many questions. I fully respect it is impossible for the Minister or anyone else to have all of the answers. Every effort has to be made to keep the food chain open, especially when farmers are going through such a serious financial crisis. I thank each and every meat plant worker for keeping the meat chain open by working through this crisis.
On 19 March, I raised in this House the worries of the people of Castletownbere that some of the fishermen on foreign fishing vessels offloading fish could have the virus. We saw last week that my worries were justified as a Spanish-registered trawler offloaded fish in Castletownbere and most of its crew had the coronavirus. Some of them had the virus even before they left Spain but it was not reported ahead in Castletownbere. This has to stop. The people of Castletownbere and its surrounds have to be satisfied that all necessary protective measures are in place when foreign vessels arrive in their port. Some health testing measures must be in place at the ports when fishermen have to leave their vessels. I am delighted to see that Staunton Foods of Timoleague in west Cork, one of the country's biggest pork processing plants with 200 employees, has reported that it is coronavirus free. Well done to the management there for doing its best to protect its staff. I also hope this is the case with ABP in Bandon, which has more than 250 staff from Bandon and its surrounds.
An issue that has arisen with Covid-19 clusters in meat factories is that of the accommodation of workers, many of whom are low-paid and are sharing living accommodation.
What steps are being taken to ensure the guidelines on social isolation can be adhered to in this instance?
To ease the worry of the consumer, I can state there are excellent Irish meat products sold in west Cork and throughout the country in butcher shops and ordinary grocery shops. I have been told that if some members of staff have the coronavirus in a meat factory, they cannot pass it on via the meat products. Is this the case?
On the latter question, they cannot. People should be reassured that there is no evidence whatsoever to support the claim that they can.
I am really disappointed that the Deputy would raise again in this forum the issue of Spanish fishermen, especially when the Irish fishing fleet, particularly the whitefish fleet he alluded to that fishes in Castletownbere in what are very difficult market circumstances, is trying to get its product into Spain. The kinds of events we saw targeting the Spanish boats that were landing their product to have it processed in the co-operative in Castletownbere are extremely regrettable and damaging to our national interest.
On the issue of social isolation, there are supports available to those who cannot self-isolate effectively. There is support available from the HSE to explore.
I am totally disappointed that the Minister has not accepted what happened in Castletownbere. The fact was that a Spanish-registered vessel left Spain when people on board had the coronavirus, and then it stopped in Castletownbere. I have never said they cannot come into Castletownbere or any other port in Ireland; I asked what measures we have in place to protect the people of Castletownbere and its surrounds, or the people in any port in this country. That is what I asked continuously. On 19 March, I mentioned it here, and I asked the question again today. I will not have any Minister or anyone else tell me I cannot raise an issue like this. I will continue to do so. The Minister has a duty to explain what measures we have in place. If he cannot, he obviously has none in place.
The Deputy will be aware but he chooses to blissfully ignore that there are protocols in place for any ship berthing in ports to deal with these matters.
What are they?
They are abundantly clear. The harbourmaster in Castletownbere is fully aware of them and complies with them. Locals are aware that happens.
Were people made aware that crew on the boat that berthed in Castletownbere had the coronavirus even when it left Spain? Was the harbourmaster made aware of this? Can the Minister answer that?
There are protocols in place for our harbourmasters and there are protocols in place for boats that are docking in our facilities.
That is not an answer to the question I asked. Was the harbourmaster made aware of the situation?
I have answered the question.
In the time I have been in this Dáil, I have never seen a Minister go around in circles answering questions as much as the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed. I have never been so disappointed in the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, for not getting back to Deputies. I asked the Ministers, particularly the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, for help. I texted her and rang her mobile. I contacted her office and she had not the integrity to answer me.
The Minister will wait until I am finished. I asked her for help because I had information that would help her to help others but she believed she was above everyone and did not even acknowledge us.
Limerick has stood up to the test and has offered help around this country. I had to contact Ministers to tell them there was a company in Limerick making masks that was exporting to Germany. They did not even know they had this within their grasp. Now the company is producing masks for the HSE, and many staff in the HSE will now not wear any other mask because of the inferior material in the masks from elsewhere. The Ministers never looked to home first; they looked to foreign shores because they did not know what they had themselves.
There is a wonderful international company in west Limerick that helps the likes of the beef sector, on which everyone, including the farmers, is so dependent. In this regard, I contacted the Ministers again, yet I got no call back.
This product screens people when they walk up to a door. It is an Irish product. It screens them and tells them their temperature, and the door will not open if their temperature is too high, so they are not welcome if they are sick. This is a product an Irish company has and yet again, it has not been picked up on. I have brought it to the attention of the House again. I mentioned it to the Minister for Health today. In fairness to him, I cannot say enough of the help he has given to me and others and the information he has come back with; he was not too busy.
No aid has been given to the farmers. Livestock is selling at €100 less per head due to Covid. Farmers got hit for another €100 due to Brexit. Prior to the pandemic, cattle were selling at €3.70 per kilogram and rising. Now they are selling at €3.40 per kilogram. Overall, there has been a reduction of 80 cent per kilogram over the past two years. Who can suffer these reductions? Yes, steaks are selling to the public. Steak makes up 10% of the quantity of the animal but 30% of its value. Farmers can only claim the Covid-19 payment if they cease trading. Is that not comical? Something better than that would be expected in order to support our farmers. What can the Minister do for the farmers?
To whom is that directed?
The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, wants to jump in.
Actually, I will decide who has the floor. I call the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.
To explain to the Deputy, there are certain processes through which queries are raised. The query he raised with me or with my Department concerned a specific issue, if I remember correctly, of a work permit and somebody who was in the State, possibly illegally; I do not know.
The Minister does not know.
The matter was dealt with in an efficient way by my Department. The Deputy got a letter in response on 1 April. By the way, the Deputy was not the only Deputy who raised the matter with my Department and everybody was responded to at the same time.
It is ironic that the Minister said I got the letter on 1 April. That is April Fool's Day, and that is exactly what she has given me back. Every other Minister I have contacted had the common courtesy to give me a quick call back. As a new Deputy, I offered my help. Deputy Humphreys is the only Minister-----
-----who thought she was above that station. She would not answer a phone call or a text to help somebody elected to this House for the first time. All the rest of the Ministers helped out and worked with me. Deputy Humphreys was the only one who would not reply to a call. As she said, she replied to me on April Fool's Day. Fair play to her.
To respond to that point, my office contacted Deputy O'Donoghue. The issue was raised with my Department. It was a specific issue relating to a specific section of my Department. It was dealt with and the Deputy received a response. I take exception to the manner in which the Deputy has outlined the case.
It will come as a surprise to many Deputies present that notwithstanding complaints to the HSA, no visits were made to meat factories. The HSE did make visits but the chair of the HSA confirmed it made no visits. The visits by the HSE were only in the context of dealing with an outbreak. There were complaints but there were no visits whatsoever up to that point. It came as a surprise to many Deputies to learn that the HSE gave results of people's tests to the meat factory bosses before it gave them to the workers themselves. However, none of these factors will come as a surprise to the ordinary farmers of Ireland, who are well aware of the clout of meat factories and the beef barons in this State. I am not suggesting that the Minister's Government is the first to have genuflected before the altar of the beef barons; it is just the latest Government to do so.
There is a long history of tribunals and abuses of power by that sector. That will continue for a long period. This is simply emblematic of it.
We have regulations in place. We have strict separation of church and State in this country. People are free to engage in public worship. Public health is not a reason to confine that or limit it under the Constitution, yet we do so. We say that a person can go to the funeral of a friend only if no one else is going. How a person is supposed to know who else is going to a funeral before going himself, I do not know. It seems a slightly unusual regulation, but that is what we do. We have even closed the churches but we certainly will not interfere with the power of the beef barons in this State.
I would not like to encroach upon the time of Deputy Fitzmaurice, who has eight minutes.
Nor would I.
First, we have to acknowledge the work that the farming community and the workers in the food chain have done in recent weeks to ensure there is food for everyone. I want quick-fire answers to questions on different issues. The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, said that if more than two people were diagnosed in a factory, or any business for that matter, the company was to contact the HSE. What are the consequences if a company does not do that?
Second, the role of the Health and Safety Authority has been brought up here many times. Every year, we get different numbers of farm visits and all the different things. Is it possible for the HSA to state that from 1 March to 20 May its staff had inspections in X number of meat plants in this country? We do not want to know the names of the plants. Is it possible to give that information for every Deputy who has brought up this matter so far?
My next questions are for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Is it wise to have family members of factory workers who have come into contact with the virus and are isolating still working in the factory even though they live in the same house? Why were the details about nursing homes announced in some areas to help ensure that we all batten down the hatches for a cluster, whereas information about factories was kept so far away?
I will raise some points that related to the whole Covid-19 issue. The price of cattle was brought up earlier. Bulls have been sold during the past month at €3.20 per kilogram. Farmers are losing money. Is the Minister going to bring in a beef exceptional aid measure?
There are 1,400 trained and responsible people in Ireland. The Minister is aware that there are probably 3,000 to 4,000 people from whom farmers get dosing stuff and fluking worms and all of that. There is a problem coming down the line. Is the Minister supportive of those people? Will a resolution be found? Can we still get our dosing stuff beside the mart where the shop was? Are we going to lose those jobs? I know the Minister is sending a letter to Europe. Will he back those people?
The next question is for both Ministers. There are 12,000 people in the forestry sector. We are talking about hitting climate targets and all of that. At the moment, we have a company that can sell timber to the United Kingdom but it cannot get a felling licence. Can anyone shed light on this? What is going on in the forestry service?
I know there have been court cases and problems. I know the Minister had to get ecologists. There is a backlog. There are problems for businesses and a great many jobs are at risk. Fine Gael is talking to the Green Party, which wants trees almost everywhere. The farmers of this country are being kicked up and down the road but when it came to Covid-19 they fed the country. Since the planes stopped, at least the weather got good, even though the farmers are still farming. What is going to be done for the forestry sector? It is at crisis point. The Government will not get near the targets we have set. There is nothing coming out of the Department. There is chaos in it. I am not blaming the Minister but someone has to take the reins in there now. We are losing jobs and exports. From talking to the timber merchants, it is clear they are in serious trouble at the moment.
I will try to deal with the Deputy's questions quickly. I am delighted to hear Deputy Fitzmaurice's support for the forestry sector. We have difficulties in respect of licensing. There have been a series of legal cases both domestically and in the European courts. In effect, these have forced us to reconstruct our licensing process - to rebuild the process legally. I am satisfied that we are making progress with the backlog.
It is not helped by the constant appealing of licences we are issuing but we are making efforts to try to expedite the process, including the manner in which people are entitled to appeal. It is affecting licences for felling, forestry roads and planting etc. I appreciate the Deputy's support and concern in that regard.
We have an EU directive on veterinary medicines that the Deputy has alluded to and we must transpose that into Irish law. We are anxious to do that in a responsible fashion and we will engage with the sectors affected by it. The previous speaker alluded to price when speaking about supports for the beef sector. He might want to check the most recent prices but notwithstanding that, they are still significantly challenged. As the Deputy is aware, the beef data and genomics programme amounts to approximately €40 million and apart from that we are introducing an enhanced beef environmental efficiency programme, which will put in the region of another €40 million into the sector. That is on top of the beef exceptional aid measure that we had last year.
With respect to isolation measures, I am trespassing on areas that are not germane to my Department's jurisdiction but my understanding is that if it is not possible to self-isolate, there is a centralised facility available with the assistance of the HSE. It may be challenging to isolate in some domestic circumstances.
For the record, I have always found the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, the most collegial of parliamentarians. That is my own view.
Thank you. If the attitude of the Deputy from Limerick changed - perhaps he should look at his own approach - he might find that people would be more collegial.
Let us put it to bed.
The HSA has full powers to go into any place of work and carry out inspections. With the Covid-19 issue, the authority wants to work with employers and employees to resolve complaints if they exist. Every complaint receives attention.
We want to resolve this for everybody. Nobody is looking for the names of factories. Could we get the number of inspections done in meat factories between 1 March and 20 May? It is all we are asking.
The Deputy knows the HSA is an independent body and I have no problem asking it to respond to him.
I thank the Minister.
I suppose, in fairness, Covid-19 has changed everything, including the way in which workers have had to change their processes.
The HSA has done nothing.
Hold on, Deputy.
The authority has carried out 240 inspections-----
In meat factories.
-----since Monday. Included in that are some meat plants.
If we could get the number we would be happy. The period is 1 March to 20 May.
If there is an outbreak in any meat plant, the first port of call is the HSE. The HSA does not go into a plant in that scenario.
What are the consequences for a factory that does not notify the HSE in the event of a cluster of more than two cases?
There is a responsibility to report such a scenario.
We are at somewhat of a disadvantage as these are health-related matters. They are more appropriate for the Minister for Health. My understanding is the individual is notified. I do not intend to add anything further to what has been said about who is notified, but it is usually the individual who is notified and who must take responsibility thereafter. The employer is not routinely notified.
If an employer has more than two cases-----
If an employer has 22 cases, he or she would still not be routinely notified.
A worker who has a problem and is concerned about health and safety in the workplace can contact the HSA. The HSA has received 3,300 complaints since 1 March.
More than 200 of those related to Covid-19. Some were about premises that subsequently closed because of Covid, some were about premises that had not reopened and others were from people who were not working in the places about which the complaints were being made.
No one can tell the HSA to undertake an inspection. There is an assessment and a process and every complaint is examined on its own merits. If an inspection is necessary, that is a decision for the HSA.
I thank Deputies for their patience. That concludes statements by Ministers and questions and answers on outbreaks of Covid-19 in meat processing plants.