Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Public confidence in the Taoiseach's ability to manage the Covid-19 crisis has collapsed in recent months. Today, the Taoiseach promised clarity but instead we have had further confusion. Dublin is left in limbo, our citizens over the age of 70 are left without necessary guidance, and travel advice is confused and unsure again. Most striking is the absence of any comprehensive plan to step up testing and tracing capacity. The Taoiseach and I both know that some people are waiting for results of their tests in some cases for six or seven days. It is this inefficiency that allows the virus to take hold and to transmit across our communities.

The Taoiseach has again today made an appeal to individual citizens to shoulder their responsibilities, which is fair enough. The fact is, however, that the Taoiseach is failing in his. The Government can publish any plans it wants but they are not worth the paper they are written on so long as our testing and tracing capacities are so woefully inadequate. The Taoiseach has to get this right. A first-class testing and tracing system is the springboard for everything we want to see. It is the sure mechanism to allow people to return to work and stay at work safely and to allow children and students return to education and stay there safely. It is also essential to ensure our health system does not become overwhelmed at a time when trolley figures are creeping back up and waiting lists of outpatient appointments are at record levels. The truth is that the Taoiseach and his predecessor, Deputy Varadkar, have failed to put in place the testing and tracing system we need, which is the carrying out of at least 100,000 tests a week with a guaranteed result within 24 hours. We hear stories of people constantly waiting longer than that.

Let it be said that the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, have had numerous opportunities to put in place this testing and tracing system. In April, the Taoiseach's now Cabinet colleagues, the Ministers, Deputies Varadkar and Harris, said they would be doing 100,000 tests a day by mid-May. We are now in September and that target has not been reached. Back in May the then Taoiseach dismissed my call for these 100,000 tests a week, and he did so in a very arrogant and condescending manner. The occasion of the publication of the reopening roadmap was another chance to get testing and tracing right, but this did not happen. The Taoiseach formed his Government at the end of June and again it was a prime opportunity to get things right and to put an emphasis on testing and tracing. The Taoiseach failed again.

Infection rates dropped over the course of the summer and the Government was again presented with an opportunity to get this right but it did not do so and now the virus has caught up with us. The people in Kildare, Laois and Offaly have already paid a very heavy price for the Government's failure and now the people of Dublin face further restrictions and more disruption to their lives. The growing rates of infection and this disruption are directly related to the Government's failure to get things right.

Amid all the bluster and the very long press conference the Taoiseach hosted earlier today, there is on inescapable truth; either we get testing and tracing right and do it quickly or we will be consigned to a yo-yo effect of further restrictions and even lockdowns. I have no doubt that citizens will carry the burden of their responsibilities but the Government must also measure up to its responsibilities.

The Government published a very comprehensive plan today for living with Covid-19 for the next six months. The plan has three key principles, namely, to protect the lives and health of our people and to limit the damage that Covid-19 can do to peoples' health long-term; to protect employment and economic resilience as best we can and to keep jobs in our economy and enterprises viable; and to improve the quality of life through the restoration of public services. We want to do what we did with the schools, a confidence-boosting measure which the Deputy failed to acknowledge.

That is incorrect-----

To bring 1 million people back into our schools, children and teachers, was a very significant thing to do in the middle of a global pandemic-----

It has been acknowledged several times by the Opposition-----

With respect, I did not interrupt.

We did acknowledge it-----

Come on, stop interrupting.

-----on the floor of the Dáil and at committee. We have acknowledged it.

Deputy, this is Leaders' Questions-----

It is unprecedented for people to be intervening but perhaps it is the Sinn Féin way. It is unparliamentary.

I regret the fact the Deputy has decided to take a very partisan political approach to this issue today.

In terms of public services, I have already referenced education. The plan is also about the unprecedented challenges facing our health services over the coming winter. An additional €600 million has been allocated for innovative measures to deal with capacity issues right through the six months. That is additional money on top of what is there to the end of this year.

In terms of testing and tracing, I note the contrast in the Deputy's language today around testing and tracing and the performance of the HSE with her approach when I facilitated a briefing with the HSE about two weeks ago. There was none of this talk then about "woeful" performance. More than 1 million tests have been carried out in this country since the beginning of the pandemic. Ireland is right up there with other European countries in terms of its testing capacity. It is not good enough for the Deputy to attack people as being "woeful" and to try to belittle the very strong measures that have been taken on testing. Of course we all want it to increase and ramp up but the system can carry out 15,000 tests per day now. It has been at that level for some time now and is under a lot of pressure in terms of community needs and requirements. Deputy McDonald ignored the serial testing programme in nursing homes that was undertaken. It was very comprehensive and has been conducted twice now. It yielded very low positivity rates, thanks be to God, but has kept pressure on the virus in those locations and elsewhere as well.

The plan published today is comprehensive and deals with a whole range of areas. Fundamentally it is about keeping people safe, protecting as many jobs as possible and restoring public services. In terms of quality of life issues, it is about helping and assisting sports and the arts in particular to provide performances, notwithstanding the limitations of Covid-19 itself.

It seems to me that the Taoiseach is making it up as he goes along. If the Government was serious about protecting public health, employment and people's quality of life, it would measure up to a commitment made months ago that 100,000 tests would be carried out per week and that people would be in receipt of their results within 24 hours.

I have the Covid app on my phone. It might interest the Taoiseach to know that over the past seven days, fewer than 75,000 tests were carried out. This is months on from a commitment to hit the target of 100,000 tests. To keep people safe, to keep the economy on track, to ensure that we have some quality of life, including social opportunities, it is my view that we need more than 100,000 tests per week, but the Government has not yet even reached that target.

The truth is that when trouble flared in the midlands because of meat processing plants, and when numbers started to climb, by the Taoiseach's own admission and by his own Minister's admission, they did not have the testing and tracing capacity to catch up and there was a huge time lag. It is very telling that, in today's plan that the Taoiseach has issued, of 59 pages, just one of them addresses the issue of testing and tracing - the most central part of the plan and the Taoiseach has failed. I have to say to him that people in Dublin in particular today, but also throughout the State, are frustrated with the Taoiseach's inability to see the most basic thing, which is to get testing and tracing right and then allow us the opportunity for all else to follow.

The Deputy is shamelessly playing politics with this and she knows it. I agree 100% in regard to testing and tracing and the centrality of it. It is in the plan and the Deputy knows it is in the plan in terms of ramping up testing capacity and contact tracing capacity, and extra numbers being employed. That is the reality. She talks about the midlands. The Government action on the midlands was quick and it was tough, but it yielded results in terms of stabilising the numbers in the midlands and getting the numbers down in Laois, Offaly and Kildare at the time. That will continue. We will continue to improve and to strengthen our testing and tracing responses, and it is a central part of the plan that we have outlined today.

Critically, we also have to be straight with people in terms of the need for all of us to take personal responsibility and adhere to the public health guidance. We have accepted NPHET’s advice in regard to Dublin today and the Government has acted on that, and NPHET will meet again next week in that respect. Our fundamental objective will always be to protect lives and the protection of harm to people as a result of Covid-19, and then maintaining the essential public services we need, that our children and young people need in going to college and to education, and putting in all the resources we can to withstand what will be a lot of significant pressures in the winter time on our health service as a result of Covid-19. Both of those are very important, as well as other aspects of the economy and jobs.

Obviously, today is a very important day. Since the Government basically gave up on the roadmap, this is the day we were all waiting for. I acknowledge all the work that has been done in regard to the reopening of schools and educational establishments. We in the Labour Party acknowledge all that work and the work in regard to the ongoing challenges in the health services. However, there is an inherent contradiction in what was brought out today, and this is not playing politics. This is not a five-point plan; this is a 5.5-point plan. It is the talk of the country because we need clarity. We cannot have a situation where we have Dublin at two and a bit, and they sort of get a yellow card, but if they behave themselves, in a short space of time they may go back to where all the rest of us are. It is like something Orwellian, where some people are more equal than others. If the Taoiseach said that to the people in Laois, Offaly and Kildare, they would not agree with him.

We have to protect everyone's lives equally throughout this country. The virus does not distinguish between Dublin and Kildare, Laois or Offaly. Therefore, I am encouraging the Taoiseach, by tonight, to give full clarity. I agree with, and we in the Labour Party support, the five-point plan - let me be very clear about that. I even had conversations with the Taoiseach to the same effect some time ago. However, I do not support a 5.5-point plan. By tonight, the Taoiseach should make his decisions and give clear advice once and for all as to where Dublin is at.

Is it at two or three? I listened to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, give a radio interview afterwards. He was asked about travel outside of Dublin for people from Dublin and he said "Yes". However, these additional restrictions were only produced after the Taoiseach's press conference. They state that those living in Dublin "should be encouraged to limit travel outside the region". They also list a number of other things, including third level institutions, which I would discuss further if I had time.

I was taken by the Taoiseach's incapacity to answer Mr. Gavan Reilly during today's press conference. He asked the Taoiseach how we can know that the five levels will not be modified again. The Taoiseach said they will not because this has been adopted today, but then he qualified it by saying it might be worth Mr. Reilly's while to talk to the CMO. Why was the CMO not present today? That would have been helpful. Will the Taoiseach please give clarity on this issue by tonight? There are five phases, and we support the five phases. It is the right thing to do. However, 5.5 phases is not the right thing to do because it sets a precedent. What happens to Louth or some other county in a few weeks if it reaches a certain threshold and people ask why it cannot be treated like Dublin? That is the real issue the Taoiseach is dealing with today. I urge the Taoiseach to provide that clarity by tonight so everyone can move on and support him.

Finally, will the Taoiseach also clarify that he and the Government did not deviate in any way from NPHET's advice in drawing up this plan? If they did, will he give details on what that was?

I acknowledge the Deputy has been very constructive in acknowledging the progress made in returning children to schools and in supporting the five-phase plan. I also recall that around the time the restrictions were being implemented in the midlands, when there was a rise in numbers in Tipperary, the Deputy was the first out publicly to declare there would not be any severe restrictions in Tipperary.

That is false.

The Deputy did.

On a point of clarity, I was informed by the representatives - it was not me making a statement.

Come on, you were very anxious-----

I was only restating what I was told by your guys.

-----that there would not be the same-----

That is playing politics.

No, it is not playing politics. It is being on the ball, in fairness.

I am glad the Taoiseach is on the ball on something.

It seems that people have different views outside their own counties generally across the House.

That will manifest itself as well in Dublin, mark my words.

That is completely false and bogus.

I take the Deputy's point, but that is the case.

That is not the case.

Also, it is not two and a half, or two and a bit. NPHET gave us advice on Dublin and we acted on that advice. We were in transition from the first model to this new model that is in the new plan. NPHET gave advice prior to it being adopted by the Government during the week. The modification relates to wet pubs and the matches. That is it. There is no big deal here, in one sense. It is a very big deal for the pubs and their livelihoods, to be fair, but in terms of the broader overall plan the issue is that we got advice from NPHET and we did not want to ignore it. The alternative was to move to level 3, if that is what the Deputy is suggesting. That is the advice. We did not get advice from NPHET on Thursday to move to level 3. The Deputy wants the Government to move to level 3.

No, I did not say that.

That seems to be the implication. We accepted NPHET's advice today in respect of Dublin. NPHET will meet again on Thursday and it could give other advice in that regard.

I think the Deputy was unfair in what he said about a question I was asked. I said that the CMO can go into more technical detail. To be fair, this goes back to the Tipperary question. The numbers were going high in Tipperary and the Deputy was worried that there would be a lockdown, to call a spade a spade. However, there are different iterations and different patterns which do not necessarily mean that when one looks at the volume of numbers one should jump to a certain conclusion. That is what I meant, and the CMO and public health officials will say the same thing. Not every county will be the same. Numbers will emerge in certain counties and there might be reasons behind those numbers that demand a specific type of response which is different from a response in a different county. That is just the reality, and that is how the public health advice will emerge and evolve over time.

On the more fundamental point, I accept the Deputy's point that he agrees with and supports the five levels. I appreciate that. It is positive. It has to be for six months.

That will give people clarity. The Government makes decisions based on advices on a number of matters. The broad thrust of NPHET's advice on the five levels has been accepted, as has the advice on congregation and so on.

The Taoiseach's own Minister rang me at the time to tell me that Tipperary was not going into lockdown. I ask the Taoiseach to correct the record on that.

That is not what he said publicly.

That is what he said to me. He actually asked me to relay that information on my local radio station. The Taoiseach should ask the Minister about it himself and then he might come in here to apologise and correct the record.

However, there are bigger issues here. First, will the Taoiseach answer the question on whether people in Dublin should travel outside the county? The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has made statements on the matter which are contradictory to this document. Second, the Taoiseach did not answer the question as to whether there was any specific NPHET advice on this plan which the Government did not adopt. If so, will he tell us what that advice was? If not, that is fine. Third, I was very disappointed that, although I asked for it on numerous occasions, this document was not elderly-proofed or proofed for people with disabilities. We need greater clarity on how we will ensure that people who are vulnerable or elderly can have some quality of life during these phases. That is a glaring omission. Finally, does the Taoiseach accept that the Tánaiste's comments regarding a Covid vaccine have created even greater confusion? As I was driving to Dublin this morning, I spoke to an elderly gentleman who said to me that this was great news and there must be some information available to the Government that is not available to the rest of us.

The Deputy's time is up.

Does that not also breed confusion? Does the Taoiseach accept what the Tánaiste said?

It is great to keep throwing out the word and hoping it sticks. That is what some of these contributions are about. The Tánaiste was very clear. He said very clearly that he hoped there would be a vaccine in the first half of 2021. That is what he said to us this morning. That got translated into something else but that is what he said to us. Most people are saying there could be a vaccine in the first half of 2021. The WHO believes there could be a vaccine around March or April but no one is definitive about that because we cannot be. It depends on clinical trials and how various candidate vaccines progress during the research and clinical trial phases. The only good news is that an unprecedented number of companies, more than ever in our history, are chasing and researching a vaccine for one virus. We need success on that front in order to enable us to get beyond the very damaging impact of Covid-19.

The advice from NPHET is very clear that Dubliners are encouraged not to travel outside of Dublin. NPHET is encouraging people not to travel if possible. That is the advice as of now.

As regards supporters and so on, NPHET was not overly prescriptive. There was a discussion on some of those modest issues but there was no major deviation in the broad thrust of the advice.

Therefore there was a deviation.

It is not a deviation. The Government has to decide these things.

That is fine. I just want to know what the deviations are. That was my question.

I can recall the Deputy in an earlier phase of this pandemic being-----

I accept that. Why is the Taoiseach afraid to tell us what the deviation is?

I am just-----

The Taoiseach will not do it.

I call Deputy Shortall.

Anybody tuning into the press conference this morning expecting to get clarity and coherent advice will have been bitterly disappointed. The press conference today brought a Government message that was confused and extremely confusing to the public. The new plan was supposed to provide clarity about the five levels of risk, yet on the first day of the announcement, the Government decided to muddy the waters by talking about level two and a bit. People wanted direction and political leadership. People are worried and concerned about the rising rate of the virus and they want clear advice and coherence from the Government. They certainly did not get that this morning. In the two areas for which the Government has direct responsibility, it was found to be seriously wanting. The first of those is the principal part the Government should be playing in the fight against Covid-19, namely, putting in place a timely and effective testing and tracing system.

The Government has known this from the start, and at no point has it got to the stage where we had an effective system that was able to turn around testing and tracing in a timely manner at the level required. We heard just last week that the HSE is in the process of recruiting 700 staff. The Minister for Health stated this morning that thousands of staff will be recruited at some point in the future. The Government has not done its part of the deal by getting the testing and tracing in place, and the public cannot do anything about that. It is the Government's responsibility.

The second area the Government ignored completely this morning is that of international travel. It has effectively parked that, waiting to hear from the EU, until the middle of October. In the meantime, is anyone in charge of international travel? Judging by the figures, it seems that nobody is.

What are the specific criteria for categorising counties as being in one of the five levels? Additionally, what are the specific criteria for counties moving from one level to another? I refer to specifics such as the rate of the virus, the rate of increase and so on.

What does it mean to be at level 2.5, or level 2 and a bit? Where can the public in Dublin, who desperately want to play their part in tackling the virus now because it is at such dangerous levels, get information on what being at level 2.5 means? It is not on the Government website and it was not provided this morning. Where can they find out the new regulations that apply in Dublin?

In respect of the rates in Dublin, why is the Government treating Dublin as one homogenous area? The rates in Dublin vary from 42 to 131 per 100,000. There is a strong case for localised data on an electoral division basis weekly or at least fortnightly. Why will the Government not provide those data and enable people to play their part in working together as neighbourhoods in fighting this virus?

Again, there is an attempt here to undermine the Government's position on this-----

I did not interrupt the Deputy.

The Taoiseach must accept-----

I will accept any constructive criticism. There is no level 2.5. The Deputy should not pretend there is or create that language because it simply does not exist.

It is level 2, then.

A Cheann Comhairle, I did not interrupt the Deputy.

It is normal procedure here to allow me to answer the questions that Deputies ask. I have answered the Deputy. There is no such thing as level 2.5, as she knows well. I said earlier that NPHET advice came prior to the adoption by the Government of the new plan. The Deputy knows that. There are two issues, namely, wet pubs and people attending matches in stadia with capacities of more than 5,000 people. They are the two issues that deviate from level 2 as now adopted by the Government. That is it.

What about visitors?

That is it. There is no level 2.5 or anything like it. NPHET will come forward with advice on Thursday and I hope and trust that the Deputy will accept whatever decisions we have to take in respect of Dublin, as per the advice from NPHET. I have already begun to see, in the question about different locations in Dublin, people trying to wheedle out of any issues that might arise. The acting Chief Medical Officer - not the Government - is very clear on the application of measures throughout Dublin and on taking Dublin as one homogenous unit, one entire area. He has stated there is only one area of Dublin whose rate is appreciably lower than those of the rest, namely, Dublin South. That is the information he has given me and we can publish all the figures. There is no issue with that. The Deputy should not bring forward a fallacy to suggest there are some significant differences, or that only some areas of Dublin are particularly bad and the rest are okay. That is not what we are being told by NPHET-----

That is not what I am saying.

That is the implication in what the Deputy said about localised responses. The acting Chief Medical Officer is very adamant-----

The data confirm it.

-----that the virus is throughout Dublin city and county. There is no getting away from that.

The specific criteria are in the plan. There are seven or eight criteria that NPHET will use to make a decision in respect of a particular county or nationally.

There are further descriptors of what those might be in terms of numbers per 100,000, the R number, the transmission of the virus in a given county and a variety of other criteria which NPHET will decide upon and advise on. The plan is very clear and there is flexibility and discretion built into it. Moving from different levels is very serious. The Deputy can go on about the particular issue around the wet pubs in Dublin as somehow constituting something huge in terms of the plan-----

I did not say anything about the pubs.

The alternative is Dublin moving to level 3 overnight without any advice from NPHET to that effect. That is a very serious step to take for a lot of people. We need to be mindful of that. That can await any county and, therefore, NPHET has to advise in regard to that, following on from the modelling and everything else that will be necessary to make such a recommendation to Government at a given time.

Like thousands of other people, I listened to the press conference this morning and I found it extremely confusing. In regard to Dublin, people in Dublin desperately want to fight this virus and they want clear advice. The Taoiseach said this morning that the country is in level 2 yet the level 2 regulations do not apply to people in Dublin. Dublin is not in level 3, so what level is it in? The term level 2.5 or 2 plus a bit applies because the message is confusing. Dublin is not in level 2, so what level is it in? One cannot help but think the issue is a lack of political leadership and courage in decisions around this area.

There has been only one briefing of the Opposition parties since the end of April. The Government is leaving the Opposition completely outside of this area. It is not engaging with the Opposition or taking advice from a wider circle. On the Taoiseach's other point with regard to NPHET, the Government set down the regulations in the five-level plan yet each level, practically, is qualified by the statement that if NPHET changes the advice the plan will change. How can the Government blame people for being confused about what is being said? It is entirely confusing.

Will the Taoiseach commit to publishing the latest advice from NPHET this evening?

The advice from NPHET has been published today, including in respect of Dublin. NPHET will meet again on Thursday-----

Sorry, has it been published today? I looked for it this morning but I did not find it.

In regard to Thursday-----

The Deputy has asked questions and I am trying to answer them.

Is the advice published?

Deputy Shortall, please let the Taoiseach answer.

The Deputy was briefed about two weeks ago.

I facilitated the Deputy.

Yes, for the first time since April.

The Deputy received a very detailed briefing, including from the HSE. The Deputy's demeanour at the briefing was much different than it is publicly. She is overstating the negativity around the testing, in my view. We want to ramp up and increase testing but it has been ramped up very significantly. More than 1 million tests have been carried out since the start of the pandemic.

(Interruptions).

We introduced serial testing programmes for the nursing homes, which has been very effective.

It is now suspended.

Will the Deputy not acknowledge that it has been effective? The nursing homes have been serial tested twice and we will do so again. Serial testing at the meat plants had to be rescheduled but it has commenced. The same applies in respect of direct provision. I agree there is huge pressure on the community side.

The Government is only recruiting now.

No it is not, it is increasing.

Thank you Taoiseach. Time is up.

Last week, testing was at 15,000 per day. We will continue to increase testing and to recruit additional people. I have no difficulty with facilitating another briefing with the HSE or the CMO in relation to this plan and so on.

Will the Taoiseach publish the advice?

I have no problem with doing that.

The Taoiseach and Deputy Shortall might have a conversation outside. This is Leaders' Questions and we have criteria to adhere to. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

For the Government's roadmap on Covid-19 to be effective and gain public support it needs to be clear, consistent, to make sense and to embrace the principle of fairness and all of us being in it together. To date, the Government's measures and proposals have failed on those counts. The signs are that today's announcements from the Government are failing in that regard.

I want to focus on one key aspect, which is the fairness principle or the idea that we are all in this together. If we do not take all our society with us, and particularly those who are affected by measures and health restrictions, everything will unravel.

One of the affected groups, which I have mentioned repeatedly to the Taoiseach, has come out today in record numbers in a socially distant, masked protest in individual cars. These are the taxi drivers and their protest reached from Ballyfermot to Merrion Square. It is the biggest taxi protest ever. These people used to make their livelihood on the road but there is no roadmap for them. There is no respect or fairness and the Government is ignoring them. Their incomes and livelihoods have been decimated while they accept that the restrictions have affected their industry.

Whereas others have got support in order to keep them in employment, keep up incomes and keep businesses viable, taxi drivers have got nothing. They have been placed between a rock and hard place. They can stay on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, which the Government is going to cut, but many of these people are vulnerable and over 66. Otherwise they can go back to work and lose all the pandemic unemployment payment when a fraction of their previous income is available. We can think about everything on which they depend and which is affected by the restrictions. They include international travel, gigs, theatres, social gatherings and taking people from pubs and nightclubs. Everything on which they rely to make an income is gone or drastically reduced, and nothing has been given back.

As people on the protest today have said, they are not cars; they are mothers, fathers, sons and people with mortgages or rent to pay. They are a vital part of our public transport system, which the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, does not seem to understand. They bring people to hospital and politicians to RTÉ. They respond where there are no bus routes and at unsocial hours. They are a vital part of our public transport system.

They are asking for an income subsidy if they return to work. They are asking that no cut be made to their PUP if they feel they cannot go to work, particularly if they are over 66. They are asking for grants to cover ongoing costs, which run to approximately €11,000 per year, even if they do nothing to keep their car on the road. They are asking for the ten-year replacement rule for vehicles to go to 12 years because they do not have an income that allows them to replace their cars. They are asking the Government to stop issuing new licences when there is not enough work for the taxi drivers that are out there. They are asking that there be no question of the threat of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to remove them from quality bus corridors and bus lanes being pushed through. This would absolutely kick them when they are down. I ask the Taoiseach to respond to the requests of the taxi drivers.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter and I know he has genuinely pursued it for quite some time. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about this and I take fully on board the necessity to do something for taxi drivers and people in similar positions who may not have come under the ambit of the restart grant. I specifically mention people who could not be included in the rates-based system where supports could be administered in the way we did for many small enterprises and businesses.

The Government is considering how to combine the PUP with some measures that would enable people in such positions, such as those in the arts sector, where the level of activity is much lower than it would have been prior to the onset of Covid-19, to earn additional income without losing the basic payment. That is something I have asked the Government to look at and we are engaging on that. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, met taxi representative groups last week. He is clear in the view that they will not be stopped from using or banned from quality bus corridors. He made the point clearly to me this morning that it was not on the agenda at all and he was a bit nonplussed as to how it got on the agenda to start with. He has said it will not happen with regard to BusConnects and has been very clear about that.

The Deputy raised other matters and the waiving of late renewal fees has been implemented until March 2021. The Minister is open to meeting representatives of the industry. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the Tánaiste and others are genuinely interested in seeing what we can do to respond to a genuine need.

I am not arguing with the nuts and bolts of what the Deputy has presented. There are still some sectors which have nowhere near the same degree of business activity that they once had because of Covid-19 and Government mandates based on public health advice. Their incomes have fallen dramatically as a result. Some people may encounter problems if they discontinue the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment for a few work projects because they may find that unsustainable in the medium term. I understand that. There is a need to do something about it.

I welcome the withdrawal of the crazy suggestion, which seems to have come from the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, of removing taxi drivers from bus lanes. We need more than vague commitments. We need very specific commitments. Subsidies have gone to other industries that have lost 20% or 30% of turnover. Taxi drivers have lost 40% or 50% of turnover. The more drivers return to work, the more turnover will decrease, especially if there are more restrictions. As long as Covid-19 exists and restrictions apply, there will not be a viable living for taxi drivers by a margin of at least 50%. They also face ongoing costs of about €1,000 a month, which they cannot cover. They have been clocking up debts over the past six months.

If other industries rightly received grants and income subsidies, those should be extended to taxi drivers and to another group I have mentioned repeatedly and which is also holding a protest tomorrow, namely, the live music, arts and entertainment sector. Those workers need the same thing. We need those commitments. It is madness to continue to issue taxi licences at the moment when there is not nearly enough work for the 22,000 drivers who already hold one. I ask the Taoiseach please to get a move on. Taxi drivers need help or their industry and their livelihoods will be utterly destroyed. They are desperate and they are appealing for urgent action.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport will continue to engage with the representatives of taxi drivers to discuss measures to ease the burden on them during what is a very difficult time for them. As I have said to the Deputy before, issues arise in administering these measures to protect all involved, ensure money gets to those who really need and deserve it, ensure verification etc. That said, there is a need to assist the sectors the Deputy has identified which have not really benefited from restart grants or other interventions which had the merit of involving local authorities insofar as businesses had to be subject to commercial rates, which allowed for ease of administration. Other sectors have not had that benefit. There is no doubt that hospitality and the sectors dependent on tourism and travel have been hit hardest. The Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment has been a very significant intervention by the Government, to the value of €3.3 billion. That will continue and we are now opening it up to new entrants until the end of the year. That represents fairness and a good intervention by the State on behalf of the taxpayer.