Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Tá bainc na tíre seo ag iarraidh na mílte euro de bhreis úis as a gcuid custaiméirí atá ag baint tairbhe as sos íocaíochta mar gheall ar Covid-19. Caithfí deireadh a chur leis seo agus caithfidh an Rialtais seasamh suas i gcoinne na mbanc agus cinntiú a dhéanamh de nach dtarlóidh seo níos mó. On 11 May, the current Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and the then Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation held a meeting with the chief executives of the five main retail banks here, along with Mr. Brian Hayes, chief executive officer of the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland. At the meeting the matter was raised of additional interest being charged arising from mortgage payment breaks.

As the Tánaiste is well aware, on 18 March, the banking sector, along with the Minister for Finance, announced measures in response to Covid-19. Among them was a payment break option that could benefit customers who suffered income loss because of Covid-19. Under this measure, financially vulnerable customers could avail of a break, with no repayments due on either principal or interest for up to six months, with the repayments in question spread over the remainder of the term or the term extended by the length of the payment break.

This will come at a significant cost to the consumer. It is a Covid penalty. It is something I raised in the Dáil on 26 March, more than three months ago, and many times since. All 80,000 customers who have taken this payment break on their mortgages because of Covid-19 will face higher repayments and debts as a result. During the break, interest will continue to accrue and it will be recapitalised thereafter. This will hit some families harder than others.

We can take Permanent TSB as an example, a State-owned bank in which we have a 75% shareholding. Someone with a €250,000 mortgage with 30 years remaining on the term and who takes a six-month break will face an additional cost of more than €6,200. This means the customer will repay all the capital, as per the contract, all the interest and then be hit by a Covid penalty of €6,200. That is an example of a State-owned bank increasing the debt of an already financially vulnerable household.

This matter was raised at the meeting of 11 May, which I know because I have seen the minutes. At the meeting, the chief executive officer of Bank of Ireland claimed the charging of interest during these payment breaks was required by the regulator. The chief executive officer of AIB, in which the State is a majority shareholder, claimed that if interest was not charged, loans would go into default. Neither of these claims is true. No regulator required the banks to charge additional interest on mortgage breaks taken because of Covid-19.

The European Banking Authority, EBA, guidelines published in April indicate it is acceptable for payment breaks to be given without interest being charged. This is what allowed the Spanish Government to adopt legislation in March that would let those impacted by Covid-19 avail of a mortgage payment break on a primary residence without interest accruing. It is what allowed the Belgian Government and banks to adopt measures to ensure no interest would accrue for low-income borrowers availing of a mortgage break. KBC Bank has implemented such a process in Belgium for those customers.

How does the Tánaiste respond to the fact that he and other senior Ministers were misinformed by the retail banks and the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland on 11 May? Most important, what is the Government now going to do? Is it going to act and stop the overcharging of interest on these vulnerable 80,000 customers?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter and his ongoing interest and work on behalf of consumers and bank customers. As the Deputy and the rest of the House are aware, banks are offering mortgage holders and businesses loan breaks of between three and six months. This is very welcome as it gives people breathing space if they are struggling to pay their mortgage or business loan as a consequence of the pandemic. So far, 140,000 customers have availed of the payment break. Crucially, the loan is not reclassified as a non-performing loan, which is important for banks as it does not hit their capital and it is important for the customer because it does not affect their credit rating and the mortgage cannot be sold.

It is correct that interest accrues during the break period. The Deputy mentioned the meeting I had, as Taoiseach at the time, with the banking representatives. It was also attended by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and the banking chief executives. It was on 11 May. I have not seen the minutes but I was at the meeting, whereas the Deputy was not. I know what happened. The banks never claimed they could not waive interest for the period and the representatives said it would be possible for them to waive interest for the period. Their issue was that somebody had to cover the cost of the payment break.

The Deputy knows how this works. Banks might borrow money on the market for ten years and turn that into a ten-year loan or mortgage. If the mortgage is not paid back for 10.5 years or 11 years, there would be an increased cost of borrowing for the banks and the question is who will cover it. Does it come from the bank profits? Ideally, it should do but banks will have no profits this year and may not have profits for a number of years because of what is happening to our economy. Should taxpayers cover the cost? I do not believe so as it would not be fair on taxpayers, many of whom do not even have a mortgage on a home or business. Should this fall to mortgage holders who are up to date with payments? I do not believe so. It must fall somewhere and currently that additional cost is falling on the customers availing of that payment break.

I was very blunt but clear with the bank representatives and I sought assurance from them that as a consequence of them extending these mortgages or loans, they should only be covering their costs. I said to them that it cannot be acceptable for them to get some sort of premium from this or make some sort of additional profit. I am not sure if it is in the meeting minutes but I remember saying to them that if it turns out that banks somehow make additional profit or premium from this, or if they simply make more money than they would have if the loan had been repaid as originally set out, I would see this action being as serious as the tracker mortgage scandal. I told them if that happened we would come down on them like a tonne of bricks.

What I must find out over the next couple of weeks as Tánaiste and Minister with responsibility for business is whether the banks will make any extra money from this in comparison to a position where loans had not been extended. That is a fundamental point.

The minutes are crystal clear. It is not just Bank of Ireland and AIB. This involves Permanent TSB. Unless the minute taker at the meeting has reflected what happened inaccurately - unless it is the polar opposite - there is a serious issue. It is written in black and white in those minutes that Bank of Ireland said this had to be done because the regulator had demanded it. AIB indicated the same and Permanent TSB argued it was the best option because the loans would go into default otherwise and a credit issue would arise for the customer. Unless the minute taker was at a different meeting, there is a serious issue.

More important is the naivety that the Tánaiste has just expressed.

If the Tánaiste goes to Permanent TSB's website he will see it gives an example. If one has a loan of €250,000 for 30 years one will pay back all of the capital, all of the interest that would accrue normally in one's contract but also an additional €6,200. That is the Covid-19 penalty. Is the Tánaiste trying to suggest to me that the delay of payment by six months is costing Permanent TSB €6,200? There is no country in Europe that is faced with higher penalties as a result of this payment break than Ireland because of the high level of interest rates. The Tánaiste should do what the Spanish Government did on this matter. On 30 March it brought in legislation, which I have given to the Minister for Finance, that would prevent the banks profiteering on the back of a pandemic where the economy was shut down and people, unfortunately, are unable to pay their mortgages this time.

I thank the Deputy. We have had a look at what has been done in other countries around Europe and the way the Deputy has presented it in interviews and so on does not tell the full story. Different countries are doing different things but it is broadly in line with what is happening in Ireland. There are some hardship cases, for example, in Belgium where they are treating it differently but it is not as the Deputy has presented it in the media. He has been quite misleading in his comments in that regard.

Spain, Germany and Cyprus.

The fundamental point for me, and for customers and people who have availed of a payment break, is whether the banks will make any extra money out of this. If somehow they make extra money out of it by making some sort of Covid premium or Covid bonus for the banks, that is not acceptable and we will deal with that but that is what has to be worked out because that is what matters. It appears to me, and this is what was explained in the meeting, is that if a loan is issued for ten years and it is extended to ten and a half years, 11 years or whatever, there is an additional cost to finance. Somebody has to bear that additional cost to finance and I do not believe it should be the general community, whether it is customers or taxpayers. If it is a case that the banks are making an extra profit out of this or are benefiting from it in some way, that would be a scandal in my view. If that is the way it turns out, we will deal with it.

We live in a Republic and in a Republic we cherish our most vulnerable except, it seems, people with intellectual disabilities in a post-Covid scenario where the health services are coming back. Inclusion Ireland has produced a report and analysis of a survey of all families and users and the statistics are quite startling. Effectively, families are burned out and service users are totally regressing. There is no date for a return to services in the vast majority of scenarios and there is little or no respite.

Last night, I met Philip. He is 29. I spoke with him at length. He told me about all of his troubles. I spoke with his sister, Lauren. They spent their days painting, driving into the Retro cinema, in Leopardstown, where he has been to so often he has got VIP status. They were cooking also. However, he has regressed terribly.

I spoke with Claire Hendrick, chair of Carmona, St. John of God's, in Glenageary, which represents 500 families. Her daughter, Leah, is 20. Leah wants a life again. Every day she is regressing because of the lack of day services. Life has no purpose for her. She is getting up every day to do nothing. It is devastating to watch. Most importantly, Zoom will never work for Leah.

I spoke to Breda. Her son, Darragh, is 28 and attends St. Michael's House. She said, "I'm on my last legs".

John Clarke, whose son Stephen is 20, says his health is deteriorating and that he is developing habits that are regressing his health. He believes he and thousands of others are part of a forgotten community.

I spoke to Nóirín Walsh about Pádraig, her son, who believes he is going inward and regressing totally.

I spoke to Kathleen Clifford about her son Alan. She asks why the funding for day services has been taken away and transferred to other services. She feels that is discriminatory.

I do not make these comments in a political way. These people are our people. They deserve, under the Republic, to be treated with dignity and respect. They deserve to have their services brought back. They are the most vulnerable and they are regressing. We are opening all pubs on 20 July. I look forward to going for a pint, as I am sure the Tánaiste does also, but by the next phase of reopening these service providers deserve to know when their services will be restored.

To get back to Philip, the Tánaiste has met Philip. He knows one of his parents quite well. He is watching now. He asked me to say the following:

Please ask when can I get back to work. Please ask Leo, the boss, when I can see my friends again. I really want to know.

I ask the Tánaiste to please answer Philip.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. All of us in this House will have had many similar stories related to us by our constituents and many queries coming through our constituency offices which are very similar. As I believe everyone in the House will appreciate, many normal health, education and disability services had to be suspended, discontinued or curtailed during the pandemic period. The Government is working very hard to restore those service to what they should be and what they used to be, albeit within the health guidelines. That includes getting the schools open in full at the end of August. It includes getting colleges back. It includes restoring normal health services including health screening and includes getting services for people with disabilities back up and running. It is difficult. It is not always straightforward. It has to be done safely and in co-operation with staff and with the best medical advice but I can absolutely assure the Deputy that this is a very high priority for Government and for the line Ministers in question. We will not waste any time or tolerate any delay in getting those services back up and running as soon as is possible.

I will not turn this into a political issue. It is too sensitive. It was actually quite upsetting last night. I spent hours talking to people. I could have spent weeks talking to them. They are being let down. The families are run off their feet. Every one of the service users have regressed. The progress they have made has stopped. In many cases they now have new issues. I looked at the Minister's statement last night. In fairness, Ailbhe Conneely, on RTÉ's "Morning Ireland", told a very good story on it. The Minister of State's statement was too bland. She is delighted that services will begin in August. There is no plan in most cases to begin any services in August. I will tell the Tánaiste why that is the case. In order to do that they will need more staff. The staff that have gone to residential care will have to come back to day services. We will need many more staff. We will also need a capital budget to change the buildings, purchase new buildings or take over new buildings in order to adhere to social distancing requirements. I am asking the Tánaiste if we will get dates by 20 July for the thousands of families that are affected. Is there a capital budget in place to change all the buildings to make them fit for purpose to provide these services? Where will the Tánaiste get all the staff to ensure these services can commence again? Will those who are working in residential services be brought back in to provide the day care services?

I am reluctant to give the Deputy a date because if I give him one it is a date I want to stand over. The worst thing one can do in a circumstance like this, other than failing to provide the service, is to give a date that one cannot then deliver. That would raise people's hopes and they would be let down even more and I do not want to do that today. I can assure the House that this is a priority for the new Ministers involved in education, health and disability. Works will have to be carried out to some buildings and a capital budget will be provided for that but even then the work has to be done and that will take time. Also, staff will need to be redeployed back to services and, in some cases, new staff hired, and all of that will take some time. Not all services will be restored at the same time and on the same day. In some places they may come back sooner than in others. I totally understand, appreciate and agree with the sentiments expressed by the Deputy that families are at their wits' end and that people who had been making good progress are now regressing. That is of enormous concern to all of us. We are very keen to get those services back as soon as is possible.

I call the co-leader of the Social Democrats, Deputy Shortall.

My question relates to the availability of the flu vaccine and the adequacy of the supplies we have now secured for this coming season. It is extraordinary to think that last year more than 4,300 people were hospitalised with seasonal flu.

That is more than the total number of people who have been hospitalised with Covid to date.

While Ireland works to prevent a second wave of Covid, it is so important that we also put huge effort into ensuring that we reduce the impact of the flu in order to protect capacity in our health service. As the Tánaiste knows, capacity within our hospitals in terms of beds and staff is completely inadequate for normal times. In addition to this, we are faced with a situation whereby, as a result of the requirements relating to infection control and social distancing, it is estimated that between 25% and 50% of capacity within the public health service will be reduced. Furthermore, it is recommended that 20% of capacity be reserved for a second wave of Covid, which is quite likely at this point. That amounts to 60% of what is inadequate capacity being taken out of the system and leaving a mere 40% available. For that reason, it is absolutely essential that huge emphasis is put on reducing the number of flu cases in the coming season. We need to take a lot of steps to encourage wider uptake. I recognise that the Department of Health has announced an expansion of the free scheme for people at risk who are below the age of 69 and for children between two and 12 years of age. As was the case last year, those over 70 are also entitled to the flu vaccine. We must also take steps to improve the level of uptake, particularly among at-risk groups but also among healthcare workers.

For all of these reasons it is essential that we have sufficient supplies of the flu vaccine. Can the Tánaiste confirm the quantity of vaccine that is available for this season and the number of doses this equates to? What is the estimated increase in demand expected to arise from various factors, such as a heightened awareness of the need for vaccination and a greater sense of the importance of protecting one's own health and the need to avoid unnecessary hospitalisation? Last year, 1.1 million flu vaccines were delivered in Ireland. Can the Tánaiste provide an assurance that there are sufficient quantities of the vaccine available to cope with demand this year?

I thank the Deputy for raising this really important issue. She does so at a good time because this is going to be really important as we head into the winter. We are very closely watching what is happening in the southern hemisphere, where countries are now entering the winter flu season. We need to watch what happens there in order to inform what we do here. Everyone knows that the flu comes every winter. What many people probably do not know is that every year somewhere between 500 and 1,500 lives are lost or shortened as a consequence of the flu. It tends to hit particularly badly in nursing homes and residential settings. It affects the elderly and the ill particularly badly and has an impact on our hospitals. Part of the reason for overcrowding, which is a year-round phenomenon, getting much worse in the winter is the flu and other seasonal illnesses.

What we are planning for the winter of 2020-2021 is a quantum leap in our response to flu. We can do better in terms of suppressing the flu virus than we have done in previous years, even if there was no Covid. The fact that we have Covid creates the possibility of a second wave happening at the same time as a bad flu season, which would be very serious indeed. We need to act now to reduce the risk of that. This involves making sure that as many people over 70 and healthcare workers as possible have the vaccine this year. For the first time in a long time, perhaps for the first time ever in Ireland, we will be extending the vaccine to children below the age of 12, as well as more at-risk groups.

To answer the Deputy's question, the extension will permit all of those in at-risk groups who are aged six months or older and all healthcare workers to avail of the vaccine free of charge. The extension will also provide access to the vaccine for children aged from two to 12 years, inclusive. That will involve the nasal drop version of the vaccine rather than an injection. The HSE has placed orders for 1.35 million doses of the quadrivalent influenza vaccine for the forthcoming winter. This will be sufficient for a 90% uptake among at-risk groups, including healthcare workers. That is a much higher uptake than we would have had in the past. In addition to those 1.35 million doses, 600,000 doses of the nasal drop vaccine for children have been ordered. That would provide for a 75% uptake among children.

To give the Deputy an indication of what the position was like in previous years, the uptake among people over 65 was 68.5%. We need to do much better than that. There must be a big campaign around this. For healthcare workers in hospitals, the rate of uptake was just over 50%. In the community, it was less than 50%. That is a really big problem. We are planning for an uptake of 75% among children. Typically, in countries that provide the flu vaccine for kids, the rate of uptake is in the region of 50%. The rate in the UK is around that mark and in Finland it is 20%. We will have enough on our plate in order to do better than any other country. We should aim to do better than any other country because this will be a real risk in the next few months.

I thank the Tánaiste. I welcome the fact that there will be a promotional campaign to improve uptake. That is especially important among healthcare workers, as the Tánaiste stated. He referred to a quantum leap, which would be very welcome. Can he clarify the figures? Leaving aside the nasal drop doses for children, there will be 1.35 million doses of the quadrivalent vaccine. I understand that last year the figure was between 1.1 million and 1.2 million. This does not seem to cater for a significant increase from last year's numbers. Again, what is the Government's estimate of the demand for doses of the vaccine in the coming flu season? The Tánaiste said that the HSE has placed orders. That is not quite the same as securing additional supplies. Can he assure us that sufficient supplies will be secured before the start of the flu season?

I thank the Deputy. The figures I have been given refer to 1.35 million doses of the quadrivalent vaccine. That will be sufficient for a 90% uptake among at-risk groups, including healthcare workers. There are 600,000 doses for children between two and 12 years of age, which equates to a rate of 75%. I will double-check those figures.

What is the estimate of the demand?

I do not know if there is an estimate for demand, but there is enough to provide for a 90% uptake.

Have the additional doses been secured?

Is the Tánaiste confident that they will be secured and will be available before the onset of the flu season?

As the Deputy will know, the flu vaccine for the northern hemisphere is formulated based on what the flu looks like in the southern hemisphere, because it starts there and spreads to the northern hemisphere. It may be the case - I might be wrong - but I suspect that the vaccine has not yet been formulated, let alone produced. It would not, therefore, be possible for us to have secured a vaccine that has not yet been produced. However, we are aware that there will be increased demand this year and that other countries will be looking to get the vaccine. I am confident that we will be able to secure those doses. The Deputy is right to raise the question, however, because we need to make sure that we do.

The measure of a country is how it values its vulnerable. This can be ascertained by how we treat the people who look after the most vulnerable. Older people in nursing homes have been treated abysmally during the lockdown. They have been treated as an afterthought. When decisions were made, they had disastrous consequences for them. As a result, Ireland has one of the highest rates of nursing home deaths in the world. Despite this, there has absolutely no commitment to a full public investigation from this new Government. Pubs and restaurants are open for business but community facilities for people with disabilities are not open. As a result of the lack of direction on social distancing, many people with disabilities who have been at home since March are unlikely to be able to use services until the end of August at the earliest.

The childcare sector, which is charged with the development and care of the next generation of Irish people, is in chaos. This sector has been under phenomenal pressure in recent years, with tens of thousands of people having to take to the streets. Shockingly, I have received information from the sector which indicates that 180 providers have closed their doors since the start of the pandemic. As many as 10% of childcare providers have shut down due to the lack of support. These closures are accelerating. In the past week alone it has been reported that 55 childcare providers have closed.

My office spoke to two providers on the telephone yesterday and in the time between those two calls, another three providers had closed. I was told this morning that seven childcare providers in Dublin have closed in the past 24 hours.

The childcare sector is dying on its feet, yet the Government is sitting on its hands. I have spoken to representatives of the Federation of Early Childhood Providers and they are not just charging the Department of Children and Youth Affairs with wilful neglect of the sector; they are accusing it of gross mistreatment of childcare providers. The federation informed me that it has set up a mental health team with two doctors to deal with the level of trauma and upset that has been caused to its members by the Department and the Minister. I am asking the Tánaiste to intervene urgently to ensure childcare services have the necessary supports, that we do not see further closures of these services in the coming weeks, and to make sure there is a service for parents in the second half of the year.

In regard to the Deputy's earlier remarks, we all need to be very careful and responsible in how we use international comparative data relating to Covid. We all need to take the information we see on websites like Worldometer for what it is, which is not a like-for-like comparison between countries. Every county is at a different stage in this pandemic. Things look very different in Israel and Portugal today from how they looked a few months ago, and the same applies in other parts of the world. Countries that thought they had eliminated the virus, such as New Zealand, are now seeing new cases every single day. Different countries also count the numbers differently. One thing we always did in Ireland, from day one, was to count cases in care homes. Other countries did not do that. We counted suspected cases where there was not a laboratory test confirming the patient had Covid. Other countries did not do that. We did not discount people who had underlying conditions, as other countries did. If somebody with stage 4 cancer in a nursing home was suspected of having Covid but did not test positive for it, we included him or her in the total. Other countries did not include such cases. We need to be responsible in the way we use language and these types of data. It is not responsible to misuse data.

On the issue of childcare, we are all aware that childcare facilities often close in the summer period of July and August and things are different from how they are in September and October. We want to make sure the sector is fully up and running for September and October in order to meet demand. Data are being collected on reopenings and that information will be available for the period from Tuesday, 7 July, with a weekly update until early September. In a normal year, approximately 40% of childcare providers close over the summer. A total of 60% of the existing services have indicated that they will be reopening by September, and this portion may rise. The Government has provided a reopening package of €75 million, which is being made available through the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and other Government supports for the sector are running through June, July and August. Since reopening, 1,000 services have registered 11,876 children on the Department-funded programmes, and registrations remain open until the end of the programme year. There have been 717 applications for a reopening support payment, with an approximate value of €3 million. In addition, there have been applications for capital grants totalling €7 million.

The number of Covid deaths in nursing homes in this country is absolutely shocking and it is wrong. I am always amazed that when a Government is confronted with these figures, the answer is that it counts those deaths better than any other country is counting them. How the deaths are counted is not something to be proud of. Preventing them is the important issue.

Regarding childcare services, the closures in the sector are complete, full-time closures. The grants that have been provided add up to about €2,500 for reopening, but childcare providers are dealing with overheads like electricity, insurance, rents and wages. They have fewer children coming in for fewer hours. Most of the sole traders operating in the sector are working 70 hours a week under an avalanche of administration and are getting no income at all. Their debts are building up at a rate never seen before and no level of future trading will get them out of that debt. This is a crisis unlike what we have seen any other summer and it needs a different response. The previous Minister for Children and Youth Affairs stated that €750 million would be given to the sector but that money has not materialised. Key stakeholders have been locked out of decision-making by the Departments. There needs to be a proper injection of support and a lifeline given to the childcare sector in order to protect it.

I was involved in the country's response to Covid from day one. I was at all the meetings where the big decisions were made and I can assure everyone in this House that our overriding concern always was to reduce the number of people who got infected and to minimise the number of deaths in all settings, whether in the community, in care homes or in hospitals. We know now from the data on excess deaths provided by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, that we overestimated significantly the number of excess deaths in Ireland. The reason we counted the way we did was that we thought it the right thing to do in terms of saving lives to overcount, because we could then contact-trace suspected cases, not just confirmed cases, which other countries did not do. The excess death figures produced by HIQA tell us a lot, including that we may be one of the few countries significantly revising down the number of deaths during the pandemic period. For some people, they saw the crisis as some sort of competition as to where they were in a league table. There was really hateful and nasty stuff from people who thought it was a sort of competition between countries. When they saw Ireland high up on a league table, they almost took a perverse pleasure in it because it was an opportunity to have a go at the Government, Dr. Holohan or whomever. I deplore that kind of attitude and those kinds of people, I must say, because they did nothing at all to help us when it came to fighting Covid.