Mary Lou McDonaldQuestion:
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the First Minister and deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly. [16816/20]
Vol. 995 No. 4
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the First Minister and deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly. [16816/20]
I had a very positive meeting with the Northern Ireland First Minister and deputy First Minister at Stormont Castle on Thursday, 16 July, on my first visit to Northern Ireland since taking office. We discussed the importance of North-South and east-west relations on these islands and I stressed the Government's commitment to working closely with the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland and with the UK Government as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. We spoke about the progress made in tackling Covid-19 by our respective Administrations and the great challenges that remain. We agreed we would continue to work together on this, including through the memorandum of understanding between our respective Ministers for Health and Chief Medical Officers, and that we would closely monitor issues relating to international travel. In addition, we agreed to hold a plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in Dublin on 31 July to discuss the many important issues of common interest and concern across this island.
I also took the opportunity to speak to the First Minister and deputy First Minister about the shared island unit that I am setting up in the Department of the Taoiseach, as set out in our programme for Government. I stressed our commitment to working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future. We also considered the latest position on the Brexit negotiations and agreed to work closely together on the many related issues of mutual concern.
During my visit to Belfast, I also met the leadership of the other parties in the Executive, namely, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party. In each meeting, we had very useful discussions on the same issues I covered with the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I also took the opportunity to call on the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis MP, who was in Stormont on the day of my visit.
I thank the Taoiseach for the answer. It is a very welcome development that the North-South Ministerial Council will meet next week. I hope the value of the forum is now widely understood. It is true to say the North-South Ministerial Council and the all-Ireland infrastructure has been neglected for quite some time. I hope the Taoiseach's engagement with the institutions in the North and all the political parties will be positive and forward-looking. I hope that next week, when the North-South Ministerial Council meets, we can finally get some level of coherence in an all-Ireland approach to this Covid-19 emergency.
It should be recalled that for the purposes of animal health, this island operates as a single unit and it is, quite frankly, inexplicable that when it comes to human health, there is controversy around adopting the same approach. My colleague, joint First Minister, Ms Michelle O'Neill, raised her concerns relating to the all-Ireland approach with the Taoiseach in his meeting with her. She specifically instanced with the Taoiseach the area of travel and protections for the island. She informed me of this.
My observation, for what it is worth, is that the previous Government in its caretaker capacity was extremely passive in dealing with the North and the necessity for a single island approach for public health safety. I hope passivity will not be this Government's modus operandi because we need it to be energetic. We need the impetus to come from Dublin to ensure we get the correct approach. By the way, that does not mean throwing brickbats at Sinn Féin. The Taoiseach may do that if he wishes but I remind him there are five parties to the Executive in the North. That means when he meets representatives of the Alliance Party, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and others, it is incumbent on the Taoiseach to make the case very strongly of the absolute necessity for the correct island-wide approach to protect the health of our people.
This is not a question of the constitutional issue or really even a jurisdictional matter in the wider sense. This is about public health, biology and a virus that must be contained across the island. The truth is that for any of us to be safe on this island, all of us must be safe.
That is why we must engage constructively and in a genuine way with all concerned, accepting the reality that we are talking about two different jurisdictions, regardless of whether we like that being the case. I have been very straightforward in this regard. I will not be politically partisan in my approach to issues of the North and the Good Friday Agreement. I have made that clear to both the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I made it clear in my public announcements in the North.
I do not want to be in any way partisan on Covid-19 matters if we can avoid that. However, the United Kingdom took a particular path and the North went with that, allowing travel to 59 countries. We discussed in a very reasonable way the need to have oversight and keep an eye on the impact of this. The more important point is that we want to be as coherent as possible on public health. We also want to activate the North-South agenda as part of the Good Friday Agreement and the New Decade, New Approach agreement. There has been a welcome development on the public health side with the memorandum between both chief medical officers, who are in touch, and we need to keep that level of engagement going.
With the North-South process, there are significant infrastructural commitments on behalf of the Irish Government and, as Taoiseach, I want to follow those through proactively and energetically. I will do that. I also want to see how we can create new momentum within existing North-South bodies and look at other areas where greater collaboration could happen. One of those areas in which I am interested is health, and we have discussed that with other parties, for example, in terms of paediatric health, the national children's hospital, the capacity to take an all-island approach with heart surgery or other major diseases or rare situations that would need a population-based approach on the island to justify certain health services, and the continuation of the cancer treatment service at Altnagelvin for patients in Donegal and that hinterland.
There is much ground that can be covered on a practical level without becoming embroiled in any political rows. There is much work to get on with that is practical and that would be to the mutual benefit of people living on the island in the North and in the Republic. That is how I intend to approach the North-South Ministerial Council in discussing the health issue among other matters.
Of course that ought to be the case. It is no great surprise that Sinn Féin and I are very much seeking to advance the case of an all-Ireland approach. I hope the Taoiseach will take my comment in the spirit in which it is intended because this is a constructive observation. The Taoiseach cannot on one hand look to the North and say we can see what it has done because Britain has a particular position and it has gone along with it. The island is partitioned and that is why we feel the long or invisible hand, at times, of British influence on the island.
We cannot simply rely on the memorandum of understanding and I am well aware that such a memorandum exists. I am also well aware that it is insufficient for our purposes. One cannot stand back passively and say it is a different jurisdiction while at the same time advance the case that I hope the Taoiseach is advancing that for the purposes of public health, we are a single epidemiological unit. The Taoiseach must make up his mind and this must be grounded in science, data and evidence etc. All this evidence points to the fact that for this island to be safe, we do not need oversight or a distant set of observations but rather an all-Ireland approach.
At the North-South Ministerial Council, and both before and after it, will the Taoiseach actively pursue that approach? This would be instead of simply making observations or citing in the Dáil how there have been phone calls from one chief medical officer to another. I would expect that to happen but it is not enough. We need a coherent single island approach. Will the Taoiseach work actively for that?
I must say to the Deputy that she cannot have it both ways. I do not want to throw brickbats across the House on these matters but Sinn Féin signed off on opening Northern Ireland to 59 states for travel. The Deputy cannot blame the United Kingdom alone for that. People signed off on that in Northern Ireland and this has implications for the Republic. There are two different public health jurisdictions, whether the Deputy likes that or not.
Jesus. The Taoiseach is a disaster.
There is no need for the Deputy to be calling in the good Lord in terms of her responses, but the reality is she cannot have it both ways. She cannot condemn the Government here for being far more conservative than what her party signed up for in the North. I have experience of North-South Ministerial Councils.
It was a very positive experience. I worked positively and constructively with ministers from Sinn Féin when I was a Minister with responsibility for education, for example, or health. I worked with the late Mr. Martin McGuinness and Ms Bairbre de Brún. I know how to handle myself in a North-South Ministerial Council. We should avoid trying to politicise this in a partisan way in advance of the meeting. Let us have respect for all who will attend. I can assure the Deputy I will be energetic.
I will raise the public health issues carefully and forcefully in terms of the importance of the all-island approach to public health. We have to work constantly at that. Deputy McDonald will get nowhere if she thinks that by simply hectoring or lecturing people they will all fall in line. I do not believe that approach will work. Taking the public position in advance of the meeting and saying, "It had better be this way or no way" is not the correct approach.
We will move to Question No. 2 from Deputy Mary Lou McDonald.
On a point of clarification, if another Member wants to come in is it a question of raising one's hand or-----
The Deputy could raise a hand.
I thank the Taoiseach. I am not that-----
2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department with the National Economic and Social Council. [16817/20]
The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, is an independent statutory agency operating under the aegis of my Department. The council analyses and reports on strategic policy matters relevant to Ireland's economic, social, environmental and sustainable development.
NESC is a valuable forum where economic, social and environmental issues can be discussed between a variety of actors and Government Departments. The council's work focuses on the strategic and longer-term view and its current work programme comprises the following themes: transition teams, addressing employment vulnerability as part of a just transition in Ireland; land use, land value and urban development; welfare and employment; and climate change.
In addition, to date in 2020 and in response to the Covid-19 crisis, the NESC secretariat has published seven working papers on Covid-19 across a range of issues including the implications of Covid-19 on housing in Ireland; protecting enterprises, employment and incomes; and progressing sustainability in the context of Covid-19.
Future Jobs Ireland 2019 also included a request for NESC to develop policy recommendations for how to manage the impact of economic transition on vulnerable workers and sectors. The research, published in March this year, provided a forward look at the economy in the context of a transition to a low-carbon and more digital future. The council has identified recommendations which will help Ireland address challenges and embrace the significant opportunities.
I present council reports to Government prior to publication or prior to laying them before the Houses, as in the case of the annual reports. To date in 2020, the council has published one report addressing employment vulnerability as part of a just transition in Ireland.
I appoint members to the council under the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006 and the NESC (Alteration of Composition) Order 2010, SI 603/2010. Each of the following sectors nominates three representatives to the council: business and employer interests, ICTU, farming and agricultural interests, community and voluntary sector and environmental sector.
A further six members are public servants, mainly Secretaries General, and must include a representative of my Department and the Department of Finance. The Secretary General of my Department is the chair of the council and an assistant secretary of my Department is the deputy chair.
There are also seven independent members on the council. The council is funded through my Department's Vote and my Department also has governance responsibilities regarding the council.
NESC published a paper last month on the implications of Covid-19 for housing in Ireland. The paper argues that the crisis demonstrates the capacity of Government to take swift and decisive action. It adds that the introduction of legislation to ban evictions and rent increases and in securing additional accommodation for homeless households is the evidence of that. Another important point it notes is the increased co-operation between official bodies and voluntary agencies in dealing with homelessness and their shared proactive approach to protecting homeless people from the virus. NESC warns that tenants who have built up arrears during the crisis are now exposed to eviction when the ban expires and as a result believes it is important that it be extended yet despite this advice offered weeks ago from an agency under the aegis of the Taoiseach's Department the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government saw fit to wait until literally the 11th hour to extend the ban by a miserly ten days. Surely even the Taoiseach would accept that this is at best incompetence on the part of his Minister and at worst an indication of what is to come in terms of housing policy from his Government. The dogs in the street know that tens of thousands of renters work in sectors of the economy that will not return to full employment this year. Some have yet to return to work at all due to public health guidelines. The Taoiseach's Government's mishandling of this issue has added to the enormous uncertainty that they face. As Fianna Fáil housing spokesperson, the current Minister has had months to prepare for the extension of the ban on evictions and rent increases. This plan should literally have been top of his agenda when taking up his Ministry. We now understand that he will bring legislation to Cabinet tomorrow to be published on Friday. The Taoiseach knows that rent-related legislation is technical. The previous Minister had a reputation for rushing legislation through the House that turned out to be bad legislation. His housing Minister criticised the previous Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, on that very point on more than one occasion. Our housing spokesperson, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, has written to the Minister asking that he urgently brief the Opposition on the proposed legislation yet the Minister has not agreed to that. Will the Taoiseach progress this matter and ensure that this important legislation gets the scrutiny that is very necessary?
Deputy Duncan Smith and Deputy Boyd Barrett have supplementary questions.
The NESC has done good work during Covid-19 with regard to producing papers. It has looked at examples of schemes in other states. In particular, it is looking at the German short-time working scheme, the Kurzarbeit, with a view to replacing the temporary wage subsidy scheme and giving some kind of certainty to workers who are very concerned that when the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, finishes so could their jobs and their futures. We in the Labour Party support a short-time working scheme being implemented. I am thinking of the aviation sector in particular, which we know will be one of the last sectors to recover. Has the Taoiseach considered such a scheme? Has he engaged with the aviation industry on such a scheme? I am aware that in Germany Lufthansa has protected 21,000 cabin crew and ground staff jobs by the provision of such a scheme. Why are we not looking at doing the same here? Has the aviation industry come to the Taoiseach's Government to ask about such a scheme in terms of how to protect workers? Any clarification the Taoiseach could give on that would be appreciated.
As has already been alluded to, NESC produced a paper in June on the implications of Covid-19 for housing and it was unequivocal in saying that the eviction and the rent increase ban should be extended. It was very clear from the commentary in that report that it did not mean for ten days. It correctly pointed out, as part of its argument, that the huge numbers of people who have suffered income loss or job loss may have built up arrears and therefore if the ban is lifted there is a real danger that many people who have been impacted through no fault of their own by Covid-19 could find themselves facing eviction if there is not a much longer term extension of that ban. I remind the Taoiseach that Fianna Fáil supported the People Before Profit-Solidarity anti-eviction Bill in the previous Dáil, which passed in the Dáil. The previous Government did not want to implement it but the Taoiseach's party voted for the Bill at that time, which sought to ban evictions on the grounds of sale to prevent vulture funds and unscrupulous landlords using eviction as a way of maximising profit at the expense of tenants. It is clear that the NESC is alluding to that. It also states clearly and categorically that homeless people have seen their situation improve because of public health measures such as getting own-door accommodation and that those measures should not be reversed. This is a body funded by the Taoiseach's Department. Will he heed the advice of NESC and have a long-term extension on the eviction and rent increase ban to safeguard tenants and not reverse the improvements that some homeless people have got as a result of the pandemic measures?
In the first instance it is important to point out that the existing ban is by a statutory instrument and is grounded in the emergency legislation required to deal with the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of Covid-19.
The legal advice is very clear. It is not legally sound, it is very open to challenge and it does not offer the protection that people suspect. It must be replaced. The legislation that will be introduced is designed to ensure tenants who are unable to pay their rents due to the impact of Covid-19 are protected from eviction for rent arrears. The Bill is designed to protect those who could be vulnerable to becoming homeless due to Covid-19.
It is a much more targeted legislative approach, but primary legislation will offer much greater legal certainty, protection and security. It will also strengthen and give a new role to the Residential Tenancies Board, which will work to support tenants in rent arrears. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, study states that about 8,000 people are in rent arrears as a result of Covid-19. We are very clear on the need to protect tenants who are in difficulty because of Covid-19 from eviction. That is what the new legislation will do. It will replace the statutory instrument that has been maintaining the ban thus far.
Deputy Duncan Smith raised the idea of short-term working. The temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme will not end on a cliff-edge. The stimulus programme which will be announced this week will outline the next phase of TWSS and how we intend to support workers in companies that currently utilise it. In the medium term they will be in a position to avail of the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme or something similar.
What the Deputy has suggested is interesting, and by all means we will take a submission on it if the Deputy wishes to write to me, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, or the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. That could be of some value later. In the meantime, TWSS will not end on a cliff-edge for companies. The idea is to give companies and workers certainty on their positions and their jobs in the medium term.
We are running out of time. We can take a brief supplementary question from Deputy McDonald.
It is no secret that the Taoiseach has been hostile to the idea of rent freezes and bans on evictions. During the election campaign he cited legal advice saying that a rent freeze would not be possible. We all know that this turned out not to be the case. Leaving that aside, I asked the Taoiseach if the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government would agree to briefing Opposition housing spokespersons on the proposed legislation. Thus far the Minister has refused to do that. I am asking the Taoiseach to intervene and ensure that it happens, because this is important legislation and it is important that it has the requisite scrutiny.
I take issue with the Deputy's use of the word "hostile". I am not hostile to keeping rents as low as possible. We supported controls on rents in various areas. The Deputy says that now we all know better than before the election. We do not. Nobody knew about Covid-19 during the election. Covid-19 is what made the rent freezes and a ban on evictions possible in the past three months. Without that, it would be legally difficult to do what was done. It would not have been possible. The Covid-19 emergency gave rise to that. We need truth from time to time, not just disingenuous and politically motivated commentary. I am for fair approaches to protect people. I want access to housing to be as wide as possible, whether through council housing, fair and affordable rents or houses that people can afford to buy. That is my agenda. I am not hostile to anything that would protect or help renters in any shape or form. I will talk to the Minister about briefing the Opposition. Timelines are obviously tight. The Government is two and a half weeks old and a lot is happening. In fairness to the Minister, this legislation is being introduced to replace a statutory instrument which we have been advised is illegal.
3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government co-ordination Cabinet committee; and the officials and advisers that attend. [16884/20]
The Government co-ordination Cabinet committee was established by the Government along with nine other Cabinet committees. I am a member of the committee along with the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party. The Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach, my chief of staff and the chiefs of staff of the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party also sit in on meetings.
The committee has had two meetings to date on 6 and 13 July. It meets in advance of Government meetings. The committee was established to review the activity of Cabinet committees, review the agenda for that week's Government meeting, discuss political priorities and review implementation of a specified element of the programme for Government.
I would be interested to know if the committee met last night in advance of the Cabinet meeting. As we know, the Cabinet meeting was delayed by an hour and a half or more. My assumption, which may be incorrect, is that the green list articulated in public by the Tánaiste may have fed into a committee meeting and delayed the Cabinet meeting in turn. I am interested to know what discussions of the Tánaiste's comment took place prior to or during the Cabinet meeting. My opinions on the green list have been well publicised. I am sure the Taoiseach is aware of them. The horse has now bolted. The list has been published. I think it is a mistake. Even the language, the use of the phrase "green list" is incorrect.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade was on the "Morning Ireland" radio programme this morning. He is a good communicator and he articulated the rationale. However that rationale still does not cover the gap between the policy and the medical advice, or make up for the public's lack of confidence in this. Has the committee discussed further measures to improve confidence in any detail? Dr. Ronan Glynn, our acting Chief Medical Officer, is doing a tremendous job. Has the committee discussed his observation that workplaces are the new front line of the Covid-19 crisis?
Is the Taoiseach's committee aware of any instances of people who have returned from countries on the green list or the red list, returned to a workplace without restricting their movements or self-isolating for 14 days and brought the virus into a workplace? Has this led to workplaces being shut down or other measures being taken? How often has this happened? If it has happened, why has it not engendered a stronger response on the part of the Government?
I too would like to know whether this Government co-ordination Cabinet committee met in advance of last night's Cabinet meeting. With regard to the green list, it was very clear that yesterday the Tánaiste acted as a critic of his own Government, or at the very least of his Government colleague, in telling the media it was wrong to send out mixed messages about international travel. In fact he questioned the value of having a green list at all. Was that matter thrashed out at the co-ordination committee?
On a separate matter I refer to the proposal to award an allowance of €16,288 to a third super junior Minister. Such an allowance was only envisaged for two super junior Ministers, but it seems the Taoiseach will bring forward legislation to allow this payment to be made to a third.
I put it to the Taoiseach that this is a fairly extraordinary decision to make at a time when he is also proposing to cut the Covid payments that so many workers and families rely on. Is it not something of an extravagance to award this very generous allowance to a third super junior Minister at a time when families fear for their own income levels and wonder whether or not they will get back to normal working life in the near future?
It is one thing to have a lack of coherence and co-ordination about foreign travel and green lists before a Cabinet meeting, but it is something else to have that lack of coherence and co-ordination after the Cabinet meeting where, presumably, the matter was discussed. The Taoiseach is just not acknowledging that what the Minister, Deputy Coveney, said today did not clarify matters but confused matters more. He said that the green list included countries whose infection rate was at the same level as Ireland or below - I am paraphrasing, but accurately - and, therefore, that it was as safe to go to those countries as it was to travel in Ireland. The Minister then went on to say, "We think you should not go there but if you do go there, it is okay and you do not have to quarantine." Where is the coherence in that? Have the members of the Government now become the experts on health advice? For the Minister to say that it is as safe to go to the green-list countries as it is to travel here is, first of all, a signal for people to go to those countries. Why, if it is so safe, would the Government stop people from going and why is NPHET saying they should not go? Presumably, NPHET is saying that because it thinks it is not safe to go, but the Government spokesperson said this morning that it as safe to go as it is to travel in Ireland. If that is not a mess and a total lack of coherence and co-ordination that leads to absolutely understandable confusion on the part of the public, I really do not know what is.
I will deal first with Deputy Duncan Smith's questions. The reason for the Cabinet meeting delay yesterday was that we had a Cabinet sub-committee meeting on the stimulus plan involving Ministers, the Tánaiste, the leader of the Green Party and me, with a whole host of officials, in coming to the final stages of the preparation of what will be a very comprehensive stimulus plan to create jobs. I would not read anything into the fact that we had to put the meeting back. I had come back from the Dáil yesterday after dealing with the duties I had here in terms of questions and so on. The timelines were tight and that explains it. We did meet in advance of the Cabinet, which is what we do. That is the whole idea of a Cabinet sub-committee. In line with all Cabinet sub-committee meetings, I am not in a position to reveal what happens at the meetings. They go through what is about to come up.
In terms of the memorandum in regard to travel, that has been in preparation for quite some time and the whole issue of international travel has been on the agenda for approximately two months or more, since the whole reopening started. If the Deputy recalls, about two weeks ago we put back the decision in regard to international travel until 20 July, which was the day before yesterday, but because I got detained in Brussels for four days, which was not anticipated, we had to put everything back, hence the meeting at 8 o'clock last evening. I had thought I would be in Dublin on Monday morning but I was not. There is no big mystery to the fact that we have had Cabinet meetings and we had to have one at 8 o'clock last night. There was no mystery to that, just that I was in Brussels and was not in a position to be here Monday. Luckily, I got back on Tuesday in time for the Dáil. The memorandum itself would have been in preparation last week and over the weekend. I would have had discussions over the weekend with others in relation to it and those issues were being debated and discussed with the relevant Ministers. We had a very good meeting last night at Cabinet on the issue. It was constructive and matter of fact.
I have to state that I listened to Deputy Boyd Barrett's comments and I think he is overstating the issue. I think there is a degree of hyperbole in what he is saying. The bottom line is that these countries have a lower incidence of Covid-19 than Ireland has. People need to know that information.
Why is the Government telling people not to go there?
There is a need to advise people of what the state is in countries. Some other countries are in a much worse situation. Overall, we are saying that the safest thing to do is to stay at home and take a holiday in Ireland this year. That, to me, is fairly basic and fairly sensible. We have a very restrictive travel regime at the moment in terms of our advice. It is very restrictive and travel is on the floor. The next stage is that we will be putting in place a call centre and the electronic locator form. Contact tracing is key and there will be randomised testing at airports. We are exploring the issue of areas where there is a high incidence of Covid-19 to see how we can further protect our citizens from any potential dangers of people travelling here from such locations and how best to deal with that, both legally and sensibly, in terms of protecting life.
People should remember when they talk about travel from certain areas that there have been some very tough stories in terms of families who cannot get back from particular countries. Travel is not all about tourism. That is an important point. In Europe, for example, they have had various advisories but they have never banned an aeroplane from landing anywhere. Nor have we, and there is a reason for that in terms of workers, family members and so on. We have Irish people who work in Europe and may want to get home for two or three weeks. Some of them are working on behalf of the State. Should our message to those workers be that when they come back, they will have to quarantine mandatorily? They will have to restrict their movements if they are coming from countries outside the list, but we just need a bit of balance in our debate about this. I gave figures earlier which show that travel is on the floor compared with where it was a year ago. That does not take away the dangers of Covid-19 through travel. I work with and talk to the acting Chief Medical Officer. I have great respect for him and I will continue to work with him on this. Cabinet has to take a wider breadth of issues on board when it makes these decisions.
Travel is indeed on the floor. The airport is in my constituency, so I am keenly aware of that. However, I do not think that any of the three of us is engaging in hyperbole in asking questions of the Taoiseach.
Two Deputies were.
In fairness, Deputy Boyd Barrett was very confident in his delivery and all that, but what he is saying is spot on and it is exactly how I feel and how I think Deputy McDonald and others in this House feel. There is an issue with using the wording "green light". Green means go, as I said on the radio yesterday morning, and it was a political decision to give implicit permission in this regard, which is what this wording does. The Government could have just put a list of the countries that have lower rates of infection per 100,000 people on the Government website, which has been a very good resource during this pandemic, and focused on a proper step approach to reopening travel. In order to do that, confidence had to be given to the public, individuals and businesses. We have not stopped aeroplanes and we are all aware of people who have had to come home for sick loved ones or people who were dying or for any reason. We are all keenly aware of that, but we on this side of the House know there has been a step change in the Government's approach to this issue.
I will finish with a point on which I hope the Taoiseach will come back to me. We need to know how many people have come back to Ireland with the virus and have gone into workplaces and so on. That is a key issue if we are to have confidence in any regime the Government puts in place. As Dr. Ronan Glynn said, this issue is the new front line.
I echo all of those sentiments. I would also like the Taoiseach to answer the question in terms of the allowance for the third super junior Minister. Is it true that this legislation will be brought forward, when will that happen and how on earth does the Taoiseach justify it? I ask the Taoiseach please to answer that question this time.
To echo the sentiments of Deputies Duncan Smith and McDonald, of course we are cognisant of and sensitive to people and families in situations of difficulty and having to get back, essential workers and so on. That is not the point here. Indeed, the point is not just the green light symbolism and what that signifies, which Deputy Smith referred to, although he is absolutely right on that point.
The Taoiseach did not answer my question. After all the controversy and in circumstances where it is clear there is confusion, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, stated on a radio programme this morning that, in the context of infection, it is as safe to go to these 15 countries as it is to travel within Ireland. How can that be tallied with the advice not to travel? If it is so safe, why is the Government stating that people should not travel? Why is NPHET stating that they should not travel? The two things do not fit together. There is a direct contradiction. Either it is safe and people can travel or it is not safe and they should not travel. In the context of the application of public health advice, since when has it been the case that the Government states it wishes for people to do something but they do not really have to do it? That is the message currently coming from the Government. When there was a 2 km restriction, the Government did not state that there was a 2 km restriction but that it did not really mind people going 3 km, 5 km or 20 km if they fancied doing so. This is the message that is being sent. Is it any wonder people are confused? The Taoiseach needs to clarify the position. People do not know what they should do.
I will get specifics on any incidences of infection in a workplace arising as a result of travel. I am not aware of any such incidences. There have been infections resulting from travel that have had a knock-on impact, many involving households. Deputies may be aware of the house party that took place in Killarney, for example. As stated earlier, the bigger threat relates to how people behave in groups or as individuals. Despite all the hype, it boils down to individual and community behaviour. There should not be 30 people or 60 people at a party in a house. Such behaviour represents the fastest way to spread the virus. If a person who has the virus travels from abroad and goes to a party with 60 or 70 other people, that will spread the virus more quickly. Behaviour is key.
We must get contact tracing and testing in place very quickly. That work is ongoing and has improved dramatically. There was an increase to 46,000 the week before last, which is very significant. That improvement will continue. The time it takes to receive results is decreasing. We must keep working to get faster and better outcomes in that regard. I will put the Deputy's question to the acting CMO and revert to him on it.
I ask the Taoiseach to address my question in respect of super junior Ministers.
I stated last week that there is either a rate for a position, in this case the super junior Ministry, or there is not. The matter will be regularised. There are three super junior Ministers, one of whom is the Chief Whip. The matter will be regularised. Either one is a super junior Minister with a seat at the Cabinet table or one is not.
On the points raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett, the key issue is that the incidence of the virus is lower in the countries on the list than it is in Ireland. The Government makes decisions in respect of public health having received advice from NPHET. It is not new that the decisions may not be fully in accordance with the advice received. It happened in the context of the roadmap, for example.
That is not what is stated in the programme for Government.
In general, the Government has aligned its decisions with public health advice. People have suggested what they think should happen. Some people did not want schools to close as quickly as they did, but within days of the decision being announced they were calling for them to be closed. There has been ongoing constructive engagement with public health regarding the best thing to do. I refer to masks. The public health advice in the early stages of the pandemic was not to wear masks. There was a certain reticence regarding the usage of masks. Having read the scientific evidence of their efficacy, I came out in favour of the usage of masks at an early stage. Their efficacy is probably still a matter of dispute in the medical world but more and more people and bodies, including the World Health Organization, are recommending their usage. NPHET recommended that the wearing of masks be introduced in consumer and retail spaces and that will be done. Mandatory mask-wearing on public transport was introduced. I pushed very hard to get that done. I stopped the various territorial battles that were going on and stated that I wanted the regulations to be introduced. Look what happened. The public very quickly complied with the regulations, despite all the attempts to sow confusion. There has been a significant amount of commentary regarding measures being confusing and questioning who will implement them.
The green list directly contradicts the public health advice.
Similar comments were made regarding the wearing of masks on public transport. The bottom line is that the public did the right thing in that regard. We need to see the matter in perspective as well. We still have one of the most cautious travel regimes in Europe and across the globe.