Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I wish to raise with the Taoiseach his Government’s handling of the issue of international travel. There is absolute public confusion and a lack of public confidence in the Government’s whole approach which has been marked as cack-handed and, frankly, operating on a wing and a prayer. Yesterday the Taoiseach was at odds with the Tánaiste, and the confusion between the two hardly adds to public confidence. Instead of managing the risks that we clearly face, he has now pursued a reckless policy with virtually no checks and balances.

In the small hours of last night the Government published its green list in which it itemised 15 countries and territories for which it has reduced the security profile. It has put itself at odds with the public health advice, which is that there be no international travel, and has at once said to the public that they can travel with reduced risks but has asked that they do not do so. Ordinary people have been thrown under the bus. They face the situation that those who listen to the public health advice and forgo their holidays are potentially out of pocket by thousands of euro. Those who do not heed the public health advice and travel will do so uninsured.

The other problem is that the Taoiseach and Government have not produced a red list of those countries and zones where there is a very high prevalence of this virus. There is a deep concern that people are travelling to this island from those places, and when they arrive here, they are asked simply to fill out a form and restrict their movements. There is no isolation and no proper form of quarantine. Putting a form online is not going to address any of this.

I also remind the Taoiseach that the bottom line outside of holiday season is to get our children back to school, to get people back to education and back to work safely and keep them at work safely. We need to get back to basics and the Government needs to have a proper plan and strategy.

I have two questions. First, what will the Taoiseach do to support those families who listen to the public health advice and do not travel internationally and find themselves out of pocket, in some cases by thousands of euros? Second, what is he doing to protect public health on the island from travel into the country from those places with a very high prevalence of the virus? What proper operable and effective quarantine and safety measures will he put in place?

I thank the Deputy for her question. When I was Leader of the Opposition I saw my role as one of making a constructive contribution towards protecting public health and to rise above partisan political sniping.

Is that comment directed at the Tánaiste?

That said, the Leader of the Opposition suggested I was at odds with the Tánaiste, which I am not, but I have to put it to the Deputy that she seems to be at odds with herself. I am clear that the safest thing to do is not to travel. That is the clear message. We are saying to people to holiday at home this year. We have in respect of those 15 countries applied the normal precautions appellation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which basically means that when people return home, they will not have to restrict their movements.

The Deputy and her party had a view that it was okay to open up the island to 59 countries. That is a fact. The Northern Ireland Executive signed up a fortnight ago to an opening up of the island. We are taking a much more conservative approach here. All of the 15 countries would have fewer than five infected persons in 100,000. They are actually safer right now, if I use that phrase, or have a lower incidence, to be more accurate, then we do here in the Republic. I did point that out and I understand that there are different jurisdictions and all of that, but this was signed off on by Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland. That has to be said. I am still willing to work constructively to see how we can protect the island, because it raises challenges for us.

We decided last evening to move the passenger locator form to an electronic basis. The key, if we are honest, is testing and contact tracing. That remains the gold standard in trying to suppress the virus. The timing of the engagement, the quicker one can contact the person who may be a contact of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19, is the key response to determine our future capacity to keep on top of the virus.

I also make the point, and it has to be said, that in the first 12 days of July 2019, we were looking at 1.469 million people arriving in through Dublin Airport. The figure this July is about 134,000 people. There has been a lot of hype and concern about travel. I acknowledge the concern but we need to keep it in perspective. There has been a 91% drop in travel through Dublin Airport in the first 12 days of July between this year and last year. The issue, as I said yesterday, is how we live with Covid-19 over the next 12 to 15 months in the absence of a vaccine being discovered. That is something that should exercise all of us in this House in terms of the broader challenges facing society.

I hope that the Tánaiste desists from the type of sniping that the Taoiseach has described. We need an all-island approach, and I hope that the North-South Ministerial Council meeting next week will provide an opportunity for Dublin to step forward, stop being passive, and to champion that very approach. Our position is well known within the five party Executive, which is that we need every protection for the island as a single unit. That means effective quarantining methods and not placing a form online and championing this as some great transformation and intervention. It is not. It is about testing, tracing, isolating and having effective and robust procedures for those 134,000 people who have arrived on our island. Currently, that is not the case and well the Taoiseach knows it.

In respect of families here and their holiday plans, the Irish Travel Agents Association estimate that €800,000 a day is being lost by consumers. These are the immediate people caught in the crossfire of this. The Government has done precious little to intervene on behalf of those families who do heed the public health advice and choose to holiday at home. I ask again how and when will the Government intervene for these families?

In the first instance, on the all-island question put by the Deputy, I will work towards achieving the maximum synergy between the Northern Ireland Executive and our Government in the suppression of the virus on the island of Ireland. That is very important. I acknowledge, however, the de facto situation in terms of the roles and responsibilities of the Northern Executive and the fact that it is connected to the public health advice in the UK. There are issues that we should acknowledge in that respect. People will say in a throwaway phrase that it should be all-Ireland, and we will all agree with that. The reality of doing that, however, is clearly challenging. The joint memorandum between the chief medical officers in the North and in the Republic is good.

That is a welcome start. The North-South Ministerial Council will give us a further opportunity and I welcome the fact that we are having it at the end of July for the first time in three and a half years. That will give us an opportunity to create structures to discuss these things. We discussed travel in a constructive way last week. I just made the point that we were concerned about travel and that everybody needed to keep a watchful eye, North and South, on the travel situation. We are strengthening our position on incoming travel, low though it is compared with prior to Covid.

On the Deputy's question about supporting people, there have been significant and unprecedented supports through the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy scheme for the population in general. We have not come forward with specific proposals relating to compensation of those who perhaps had to cancel holidays that they perhaps booked some time ago. In the stimulus programme, we will develop significant initiatives to support the hospitality and tourism sector via means that will help ordinary citizens to avail of such hospitality and tourism facilities in Ireland.

Will the Government have an intervention for those families?

Rosslare Europort is acknowledged as Ireland's most strategic port. It was made a border inspection post second only to Dublin because of this. However, no Government has applied for it to have tier 1 status so that it can access financial supports from the EU for infrastructural development in line with its strategic position. The programme for Government of 2016, under the heading about attracting jobs and investment and TEN-T funding, states: "In the first three months the new Government will apply to the European Union for the revision of the TEN-T CORE Network, including applying for the reinstatement of the crossborder Western Arc." That included Rosslare Europort. This never happened and the programme for Government of 2020 does not mention it either.

It would follow that if the reason for adding Rosslare to the core network was to create jobs and investment, then not to do so will result in the loss of jobs and investment. It will not stop there. The Government's negligence in not applying to the EU to make Rosslare a core network port like Dublin and Foynes will result in a failure to keep Ireland's exports and imports competitive. Commercial traffic will slow down because of increased regulation when Brexit is upon us at the end of the year. As an island nation, 90% of goods are moved by roll-on, roll-off freight services. The road freight transport sector will be subject to new EU legislation known as the mobility package which is detrimental to Ireland because of our geographic location on the periphery of the mainland EU. The need for a daily direct service to circumvent the chaos of the landbridge will never be greater. These calls have been ignored and to continue doing so will lead to a significant increase in delays, leading to an increase in cost for the landbridge that will not work. The people of Ireland will be unforgiving when rising consumer costs for the most basic of items such as bread and sugar, as well as job losses, could have been avoided.

I ask the Taoiseach to tell the country why the Government is neglecting to take actions that should be taken to keep the country from catastrophe now and post Brexit.

I thank the Deputy for her question and for raising the key issues pertaining to Rosslare Europort. In the context of Brexit, the Government is acutely aware of the necessity to work with the port and the Department and offices responsible in preparing for additional border controls and other impacts that will arise from Brexit. We acknowledge the role of Rosslare in that regard. The Deputy is correct that, given the challenges and difficulties that will arise with regard to the landbridge post Brexit, we need to make sure we utilise and maximise all available facilities and capacity that we have.

With regard to the tier 1 proposal, I think the Deputy is aware of how all of that developed in 2013 with the designation of ports on the basis of overall tonnage. At the time, the tier 2 ports received 2.5% of overall tonnage through Irish ports. Tier 1 ports received 15% to 20%. Post Brexit, the situation is changing and we have to diversify our approach. I know Rosslare Europort has been involved with the county council and the private sector and is seeking a free zone in that area. It is especially anxious to exploit the forthcoming opportunities that wind energy will present. We would be interested in combining both opportunities because there will be significant investment in wind energy over the next years. Ports will play an important role in servicing such activity. I hear the Deputy about the fundamental point of moving from tier to tier, but that obviously has broader implications related to port policy in general. There is the ongoing issue which we are all aware of with the ownership of the port and structures governing it. It is unique among the State's commercial ports and we should work on creating a better status for the port in the future.

On the Taoiseach's comments about ownership, it is not an obstacle to something like applying for tier 1 status. Given that applying for tier 1 status for Rosslare was in the 2016 programme for Government, I think it should be re-entered into the current programme for Government. I remind the Taoiseach that Foynes did not meet the requirements either. It was intimated that it was more to do with the Minister for Finance at the time coming from the same county. I appreciate the Taoiseach's comments about the free zone. He will know that Britain is preparing to apply for ten free zones post Brexit to prepare for the backlash of leaving the EU. I propose that Rosslare Europort become a free zone to allow an intake of stored goods and supplies that was not necessary until now because of the customs union. We tend not to store products. We must capitalise where possible and make Rosslare a free zone, which is the smartest way to allay fears that cash flows will be eaten up by duties and taxes on goods and storage, which will only serve to drive costs up again if that storage is not contained in a free zone. The land is available around Rosslare. The interest has been mooted, as the Taoiseach said. Brexit makes it a necessity. Will the Taoiseach make a further comment on whether or not it is the intention to create a free zone to combat ten free zones being prepared by the UK?

I confirm that we will examine the matter and give it our considered attention. At present, Rosslare Europort is undergoing a major transformation as part of its masterplan, which will see more than €30 million invested in customer facilities, port infrastructure, assets and new technology by the port authority and Ianród Éireann over the next five years. That is essentially for the modernisation and digitisation of the port itself. We have to re-examine broader policy as a result of Brexit. It is in that context that I take note of the Deputy's comments about the change from tier 2 to tier 1 status. I want to do so in an informed, structured way, and it has to be in the context of broader port policy. I appreciate the Deputy's concerns in this regard and her focus on the proposal about a free zone. There are secured custom areas within the European Union and we will work with stakeholders here to see how that proposal can be progressed.

In the programme for Government, I highlight the section on building stronger and safer communities on page 84. It states:

Community safety is at the heart of the ongoing transformation of An Garda Síochána. The new Government will ensure that this will be a key part of our social contract with citizens. An Garda Síochána is enriched by its resilient links in the areas it works with and protects.

There must be clarity regarding the protection of all our citizens, especially children, following Covid. It has come to my attention in my constituency that various people are coming back from holidays or from working abroad in the UK or Germany, and other countries, and are not isolating.

We must look after children and families who are staying home in Ireland and who are not travelling for holidays. In the context of the programme for Government and the issue of community safety, how will the return to school be policed? People are travelling by air and by ferry. There must be a system linked to passport numbers in order that schools can be alerted in advance about children who should be isolating. Where parents travel for work and return home to their families, children may need to stay out of school while their parents are isolating. September is fast approaching and self-isolation for children will have to commence by the middle of August in order that they can return to school.

As we have consistently stated, the safest thing to do during Covid-19 right now is not to travel but rather to holiday in Ireland or stay at home. One of our overarching priorities or objectives - this is why we have taken a very cautious approach, particularly in terms of the commencement of phase 4 and the compulsory wearing of masks on public transport - which I ensured happened the week before last and with which the public complied very quickly - relates to getting our schools open at the end of August. That is essential for the well-being of the children of the nation and their development. To me, it is the number one priority. Alongside it is the resumption of the non-Covid-19 strand of health services. In my view, there is clear guidance to the effect that anyone who travels outside of the 15 countries we identified should, without question, restrict their movements when they return to Ireland. We do not want families travelling to holiday destinations outside of those 15 countries in the first place. It is very important that they do not risk the capacity of schools to reopen or create situations that could lead to the spread of the virus. It is extremely important that we all adhere to the guidance and the guidelines.

Ireland has done well in respect of Covid-19. The levels of the virus are still low here. It is important to make that point. I am just back from the European Council and it was noticeable that some member states are finding difficulties in reopening. As they have reopened, the incidence rate in some countries has increased significantly and this has resulted in localised and citywide lockdowns. We want to avoid that in Ireland at all costs. This really speaks to two things, namely, our individual behaviour and the behaviour of families and communities and, aligned to that, the need, as I said earlier, to develop a strong and speedy testing and contact tracing system. To be fair, in the past month alone, a substantial number of tests have taken place on a systemic basis, for example, within nursing homes across the country. That type of targeted work will continue. The speed of that service will be very important in enabling us to suppress the spread of the virus into the future.

I agree with everything the Taoiseach said but the best way forward in respect of this matter is to take an all-island approach. There should be a link to the passport number of anyone leaving this country by air or by ferry. This is the fastest way to police matters. Using the passport system to police the pandemic is the fastest way to track anyone leaving the country or coming into it. Be it children, parents or whomever, everyone should be tracked when leaving and when coming back. There should be a system to enable An Garda Síochána to trace people when they come back into the country. In the context of schools, such a system would show when families return to Ireland. If a member of a family returns to a household, having been abroad in one of the high-risk areas outside of the 15 countries, then the family must isolate. This would ensure that other children within the school system would not be put at risk. The majority of people are cognisant of Covid-19 and are very respectful of the rules. However, there is a minority of people who do not care and it is these individuals that we must police.

The electronic locator form will give us the capacity to follow up on the contacts of anyone who tests positive for Covid-19. People travelling from places such as those referred to by the Deputy would be jeopardising the overall health status of particular communities or schools. It is very important that we have the capacity to contact trace people and the electronic form will give us that to a strong degree. We decided last night to establish a call centre and this will enable rapid follow-up. The key advice, internationally and from the World Health Organization, is the capacity to contact people who may have been in contact with somebody who had or has Covid-19 quickly. This really is the issue if we are to live with Covid-19 in a reasonable way that allows activity and allows people to engage, as much as possible, in normal family, community and economic life. More and more people will go to this or that sector but the fundamentals have not changed in the context of Covid-19, namely, etiquette, handwashing, social distancing and the guidance we introduced two weeks ago in terms of limiting gatherings in households to ten people. Those are the essentials that will ultimately enable us to live reasonably with Covid-19 into the foreseeable future.

I thank the Taoiseach. We shall move now to the final question from Deputy Michael McNamara on behalf of the Independent Group.

At the end of this week, it will have been one month since Deputy Micheál Martin was elected Taoiseach. I commended him on his election because I thought the country badly needed a Government at the time. A Government was needed to make decisions. Up to now, those decisions have been slow in coming. I appreciate that many of the issues the Government has had to deal with have been complex, but nevertheless the decisions have been slow.

One of the issues I have raised recently relates to the Shannon Group and its importance beyond Clare across the entire mid-west. Shannon Airport is in great difficulty, as is the aviation sector generally. There is much of confusion with regard to quarantining rules. The previous speaker called for people to self-isolate. There is a lot of concern and a growing hostility in the country to the effect that incoming tourists are flouting our laws. The Irish Times, no less, in an article last Saturday, stated that gardaí need to implement our laws. I put it to the Taoiseach that in reality there is no law to implement. There is no legal requirement for anybody coming into the country to quarantine, regardless of where they come from. I wonder why that is the case. Is it based on the legal requirement of being in the EU? Of course we can limit freedom of movement or travel in the EU but to do so our actions must be proportionate and clear and whatever we do must be done lawfully. In Ireland, there is a question as to whether it is either proportionate or lawful because the entire burden is being put back on ordinary people rather than the State actually doing what the State is able to do, which is to bring in laws. If we think that people should not be coming in from Italy, then make them quarantine. We are, however, allowing people to go to Italy. Italy is not the issue, it is countries such as the United Kingdom - or parts of it - the United States and many others.

More importantly, what is the Taoiseach going to do outside of the aviation sector in Shannon? We are asking people to holiday at home and many of them are doing so. Many others are foregoing sums of money they had saved to go on holidays. Are these people going to get any help from the Government in that regard? Why are aeroplanes taking off from Dublin and Shannon and flying to areas that we deem not to be safe? If it is a requirement under EU law, then spell it out and spell it out clearly.

The effect of it is that Aer Lingus and Ryanair are flying those planes in order that they can say to passengers their flight is going whether they go or not. It is increasingly looking like the case that ordinary people have to bear the brunt of everything while big corporations can continue to do as they like, make no refunds whatsoever and nothing happens.

I raised the issue of Shannon Heritage here before. We are now approaching the end of July but Craggaunowen Castle has not opened at all this summer. The Shannon Group appears not to want Shannon Heritage. What is the Taoiseach doing with regard to these issues?

I thank the Deputy for his questions.

The first number of weeks have been extremely decision-orientated. As I said before, I have never come across a legislative programme so significant in one month. With the co-operation of everybody in the House, we are putting through substantive and significant legislation which is the substance of politics, government and parliament. That is ultimately why we are here. That legislation will underpin the July stimulus programme that we will announce this week. Hopefully, that may be of some assistance to the heritage issue the Deputy raised and will give additional capacity and supports to enable people to deal with the crisis that Covid-19 has brought about. To be fair, the Deputy has raised that issue consistently as well as the issue of the Shannon Group and Shannon Airport.

The problem in aviation is the fact that travel has collapsed. Despite all of the talk and headlines around travel, the reality is that from 1 July to 12 July last year we had 2.69 million people in and out of Dublin Airport while this month, a year on, the figure is 134,000 people. That is why aviation is on the floor. That is a significant challenge which the Government is aware of in terms of working with the airlines and with the airports.

On mandatory quarantining, it has been articulated for quite some time that it is impossible to enforce in the first instance. Second, it is questionable as to whether it is the wisest approach. In some countries where they brought in mandatory quarantining, it led to clusters developing in the actual quarantine centres.

It is about the right people quarantining.

That did happen. We have discussed this with the World Health Organization and others. The advice we got was that one must be able to contact people very quickly once they have arrived into the country.

What about NPHET?

I am responding to Deputy McNamara.

The Taoiseach is misleading the Dáil.

Deputy McDonald had her opportunity to ask questions. The Deputy should allow others their time on Leaders' Questions.

The Taoiseach should be accurate.

Deputy McDonald does not own the entire Parliament and she should allow other Opposition Deputies have their say.

(Interruptions).

The Taoiseach should tell us the NPHET advice.

I said that in good form.

That is the essence of it. If one thinks through the logic of mandatory quarantining, how many hotels would the State have to book? The proportionate point the Deputy made is valid and there are complex legal issues involved. Essentially, it is about contact tracing and knowing where people are. That is where the electronic locator form comes into play. It is important because it enables us to have a ready capacity to contact people who may have been in contact with somebody who tested positive. That is actually the better approach to that.

We will work with the Deputy on the other issues he raised about Shannon Airport, the Shannon Group, along with the heritage sites and centres.

The Taoiseach mentioned legislation and I agree. There is a growing number of people in the country. A certain amount of hostility is being encountered by tourists because people think they are flouting laws when they are not. We have to be clear that these people are flouting laws or they are not.

Will we see legislation to move Shannon Heritage from a group which clearly does not want it anymore to a better home where it might be looked after and where the tourism potential of these sites will be exploited not for the profit of the sites themselves but for the small family-owned businesses around them which are dependent on them?

Will we see a new board appointed to the Shannon Group? It comprises not just the airport but the heritage sites and Shannon commercial properties which will bring the strategic vision and direction necessary for this important group to move forward?

Those are issues which I would like to discuss with the Deputy in greater detail, such as moving Shannon Heritage to a better home. That would take some detailed examination but I note the Deputy is concerned about its current operations in terms of its low level of activity and the impact on employment. I hope there might be opportunities arising out of the stimulus package that may be of interest and of use to Shannon Heritage.

I will speak to the tourism Minister on the issues the Deputy raised. I will also speak to the transport Minister on the wider and fundamental questions the Deputy asked on Shannon Airport itself, as well as the appointment of a board.