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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 17 Sep 2020

Vol. 997 No. 5

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Ba mhaith liom ceist na monarchana feola a ardú leis an Tánaiste. Tá imní mhór ann anois faoi na figiúirí sna monarchana seo. Tá na gnáth-oibrithe ag fulaingt. Tá an cuma air go bhfuil brabús níos tábhachtaí ná an baol sláinte agus beatha na n-oibrithe seo. Tá an dearcadh ann nach bhfuil an Rialtas ag déanamh a dhíchill ná go leor le déileáil leis seo.

Instances of Covid-19 are, regrettably, on the rise. The situation in Dublin is profound and, no doubt, we will have the opportunity to discuss this further throughout the course of the day. Underpinning our response to dealing with the virus must be a proper testing and tracing system. We in Sinn Féin have been raising this issue consistently because it is central to how we handle the situation.

Another issue we have been raising is meat plants and I raise it again today. Meat plants have been the site of at least 44 clusters throughout the State and at least 1,600 cases of Covid-19. They were the principal reason for the localised lockdowns in Kildare, Laois and Offaly. From a freedom of information response to Hannah Quinn-Mulligan of the Irish Farmers' Journal, we know there were 226 cases associated with one plant in July. We understand that plant is in Cork and that it was never closed down. Yet last week, testing in meat plants was suspended. Yesterday, we learned of another outbreak in a meat plant in Waterford and this is causing huge concern. At least 28 cases are associated with this cluster, more tests are pending and hopefully the HSE's infection control team are on the ground. Perhaps the Tánaiste will let me know if that is the case. Local media in Waterford reported that earlier this week, workers from the plant were being bused to work on a packed 50-seater bus. Every seat was full, it was standing room only and people were standing in the aisles. At that time, there were already cases confirmed in that plant. That is shocking. The meat barons are playing with people's lives in the interests of profit, plain and simple, and they are getting away with it. Why? What hold do the meat barons have over Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil?

This should be contrasted with how they are treating pubs. There were 6,800 inspections of pubs over one weekend, yet there have only ever been five clusters associated with pubs, according to the figures released last night. Outbreaks in meat plants have accounted for one third of all workplace clusters. The situation in Waterford has been going on for a number of weeks but it was only confirmed that this was happening yesterday. That is not good enough. This situation is replicated throughout the State. Before he assumed office, the current Taoiseach called for greater transparency regarding where clusters were happening. Will the Tánaiste accept that the HSE should now publish the details of clusters in businesses in public settings? Having to rely on the rumour mill is not good enough. Communities deserve clarity and transparency. They deserve better.

Why are the meat plants getting away with this? Why are workers being crammed into buses? Why was a plant with 226 associated cases not shut down? How many meat plants have had serial testing carried out this week? Will the Tánaiste publish the information of where clusters are in relation to public settings?

I thank the Deputy. Meat plants, as we all know, are at high risk of becoming clusters. There are many reasons for that but we know that is the case in Ireland and around the world. We have known that for a long time and that is precisely why there are specific protocols in place in relation to meat plants. That is why there is a joint committee on it and why surveillance testing happens in meat plants. Even though the positivity rate is very low, it is still done as a precaution, as it is in nursing homes and some other places. While it was suspended last week when there was a huge increase in demand for testing, it resumed last Monday.

The decision to close any meat plant or any business is made by public health officials or by the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, as appropriate. If a plant needs to close, it should close and there is no message, directive, policy or anything from Government saying to our public officials or to the HSA that plants should not be closed if they need to be. I want to make that clear. If public health doctors and officials dealing with the cluster believe a place has an outbreak and should be closed, the Government supports any decision to close a business, meat plant, school or anything else if that is the right thing to do in public health terms.

I hope that is abundantly clear. Regarding details on clusters, the public health authorities, NPHET and the HSE, should be as transparent as possible in putting out details of where clusters are located. It is also important, however, that we are careful about what we mean by that. A cluster can be two cases or it can be two cases connected, and most clusters are in fact households. We must also bear in mind that a cluster stays open until 28 days after there has been no case. When issuing public information about clusters, therefore, we need to do so in a way that does not end up stigmatising people or with a situation where individuals or individual households can be identified. It has always been the case in Ireland, and this is a good thing, that our healthcare information is private, and that if people have particular illnesses, infections or a particular type of cancer, for example, only those people concerned should be telling other people about the situation. It should not be put on a Government website, so we need to be careful when it comes to such information and how it is disclosed.

This week we passed an important milestone, with 1 million tests for Covid-19 having been carried out in this country. I express my thanks to all our health service and laboratory staff for making that possible. Contrary to what we might hear elsewhere, the amount of testing that we are doing is reasonably high on a per capita basis. It is higher than in countries such as Germany and New Zealand, which are often held up as examples to follow, and higher than in Sweden, which is also put forward by others from a different perspective as an example to follow. This amount of testing being carried out should be recognised for what it is, and I again express my thanks to our health service and laboratory staff for making this possible.

The Tánaiste has been telling us for some time, including during his tenure as Taoiseach, that we have the capacity to carry out 100,000 tests for Covid-19. Last week, we carried out 72,000 tests. Yet, testing in meat plants was being suspended. Our concern is that what we do has to be based on evidence. The evidence tells us that nearly four out of ten workplace clusters are occurring in meat plants. It is having devastating consequences on local economies and communities, and the people of Kildare, Laois and Offaly can tell us exactly what the impacts can be.

We are told that the Government is alert to this issue and, as the Tánaiste mentioned, all the proper surveillance is being carried out. However, we have a situation where a meat plant with a positive case is bussing workers in a 52-seater bus, with every seat filled and people standing in the aisles. How is that happening? How is that being allowed to happen? How is it that the area where the most serious clusters were developing in workplaces was the area where testing was suspended? What steps will the Government take to ensure that these workers are protected and that there is a robust process in meat plants? Time and again, I and the people believe that the meat barons have some grip on Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil regarding their response on this issue.

I do not have any details on that particular cluster nor on the means of staff getting to work, but I will make some enquiries and respond to the Deputy later, if possible. Deputy Doherty can spin out as many conspiracy theories as he likes. The message is very clear: if public health officials or the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, recommend or order a business to close, then it should close. The Deputy can create any kind of paranoid conspiracy theory that he likes, but I guarantee that there is no message, nudge, direction or policy from Government to say to any public health official that he or she should treat meat factories with kid gloves. That is just a paranoid fantasy from the Deputy's party.

There were 7,000 inspections of pubs.

The Deputy is a clever person. He knows the numbers. He said that there have been very few clusters and outbreaks in pubs.

There have been five.

Of course there have not. They are closed, with the exception of those operating as restaurants.

No, there were nearly 7,000 inspections of the pubs that are open.

Turning to capacity, we have the capacity to do 100,000 tests per week, and not per day, as Deputy Doherty's party leader said yesterday. She got her facts wrong once again. If we divide 100,000 by seven we get about 14,000 tests each day. Is it possible for us to do 14,000 tests in a day? Yes, it is. Have there been days where we have done 14,000 tests in one day? Yes, there have in the past two weeks. Have there also been occasions when demand for tests exceeded 14,000 in one day? Yes, that has also happened and that is what required the suspension of testing.

That was why the testing was suspended last week. The capacity did not exist, despite being at 72,000.

I ask that there be a little respect for the Chair, please. I also ask that we stick to questions and replies.

Most people in the Chamber are familiar with the range of financial supports available nationwide to mitigate against the effects of this terrible virus. I want to focus my questions today on the situation in the three counties of Laois, Offaly and Kildare, which had been disproportionately affected as a result of the virus. Most reasonable people would accept that the outbreaks in those three counties were caused by some failings by State agencies in the monitoring of meat plants and direct provision centres. Most reasonable people would also accept, however, that the suppression and containment strategy used to keep a lid on this virus in those three counties was also very successful, despite all its imperfections.

I accept that a bespoke financial package was provided to those three counties and it did assist for the duration of the lockdown. While the acute phase of the public health emergency has now passed in the three counties, unfortunately, however, the financial fallout remains. Does the Government have plans to provide additional financial supports to those three counties in light of what they have been through? If there are no plans, is that something that the Government might consider between now and the budget?

As the House will know, the counties of Laois, Offaly and Kildare were the first in Ireland to experience local restrictions. We all realised and appreciated at the time that they would not be the last. We all expect that other counties will have local restrictions imposed on them in the coming months, for various reasons, and it is important that those counties receive the same additional supports as were provided to Laois, Offaly and Kildare. We also need to consider additional initiatives.

The Deputy will probably respond by stating that if in future other counties get things that Laois, Offaly and Kildare did not, then that should be applied retrospectively to those three counties as well. I believe that is a fair argument. As we all know, the situation with the virus is worrying in Ireland and particularly in Dublin, with the incidence rate increasing significantly in recent days. That is reflected in a relatively small but real increase in hospitalisations and ICU admissions. Regarding Dublin, however, it is important to compare it with other cities around Europe. Brussels has an incidence rate double that of Dublin, Amsterdam has a positivity rate much higher than Dublin's, and it is also much higher in Madrid, Prague, Paris and many other places. If we choose to act regarding the situation in Dublin in the coming days, far from being slow to act, as some would argue, we will be one of the first movers in Europe in taking action early, ahead of cities and city regions in Europe that have not yet imposed the kind of restrictions that we may need to impose in Dublin. We will be first movers and quick actors, rather than what others would suggest.

As the Deputy is aware, I was in Kildare recently and took the opportunity to meet with the local enterprise office, LEO, and visit some of the businesses that were most affected. In terms of what has been provided in supports to Kildare, there is the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, which is linked to turnover in a firm. By definition, therefore, those counties with local restrictions will see more companies qualify because their turnover will be more affected. In addition, we increased the restart grant plus by 40% for Kildare. Some €10 million has been paid out to date for the original restart grant, and there are 1,566 applications for the restart grant plus, so that will be €11.4 million in all.

There have also been training and mentoring programmes for business, 724 applications for the business continuity voucher and 373 applications for the trading online voucher. The microfinance loan programme in Kildare has had an especially good take-up, with nearly €1 million drawn down from that fund already. As I also announced in Kildare the other day, we have set up a new scheme for those businesses that, for one reason or another, do not qualify for the restart grant or for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection's enterprise support grant. That will be starting in Kildare in recognition of the additional burden on businesses in that county.

I thank the Tánaiste for that clarification. My final question has specifically to do with Kildare. It is unique among counties in that it is the only county to have experienced three lockdowns, two of them back-to-back. I accept that a financial package was provided and commend the Minister with responsibility for media, tourism, arts, culture, sport and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Catherine Martin, for providing an extra €500,000 for marketing the county as a staycation of choice.

That €500,000 is lodged in a Bord Fáilte bank account in Dublin. That is all well and good and Bord Fáilte does an excellent job at promoting Ireland nationally, but that money needs to go to the local tourism agency in Kildare. Those are the people who know the county and people best and can make the best efficient use of that money. Into Kildare is probably the best, most suitable front-line agency to which that money should be provided. I would be grateful to hear the Tánaiste's views as to whether it is possible for that money to be put directly into Kildare so that local agencies can be put in the driving seat.

I thank the Deputy. As he mentioned, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, provided an extra €500,000 to promote Kildare and encourage people to take a break there and visit the county because, as we all know, it is very much open for business. The money is being routed through Fáilte Ireland because it is a State agency and, for obvious reasons of corporate governance and accounting practices, Government money tends to be routed through public bodies. I met some people in Kildare who felt that money was being spent on advertising and the real beneficiaries were perhaps the advertising companies and media organisations, rather than Kildare businesses. Those people told me that the money could have been better used on co-operative marketing with hotels and attractions in the county.

I know the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, met Into Kildare along with Kildare Oireachtas Members in late August. The plan is to ensure that Into Kildare is consulted on the design of the creative messages and how the money will be spent so that is guided by local knowledge.

We have a major crisis in providing buses to get our students to school. I have come into the House today because a view is being expressed outside this Chamber that needs to be said publicly. The public sees the Government running at less than 50%. At the start of this pandemic, I praised the Tánaiste and the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, for all the work they were doing. I will compliment anyone who works hard for this country and I praised the Tánaiste and the Minister for that.

After the election, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party came together to lead this country, at a time when Sinn Féin ran for the hills. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald was sick with Covid-19 but the rest of the party disappeared and there were rewards out for them.

All we are seeing on television at the moment is negativity. Fine Gael went into government with Fianna Fáil and the Green Party to lead this country. That Government got the bus just off the top of the hill and stopped it on an incline. The Government formed and went to the top of the hill but it is now going down that hill at 100 mph and is coming to a 90-degree bend. The job of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party is to talk with one voice and not to take the Government apart by having potshots at each other on the television to be popular.

The Rural Independent Group canvassed for the rural pubs to open because they are the only places in which people can meet and connect. The Tánaiste's party did not even know when he said that he thought that the pubs should open, and that was tweeted. The Tánaiste should stop being populist and do the job that he signed up to do. Fine Gael must work with Fianna Fáil and the Green Party to lead this country. Sinn Féin will highlight all the negative things because that is what it does. Sinn Féin is not the only party in opposition.

The Rural Independent Group sought to form a government with Fine Gael. Fine Gael did not want that and I respect that. I respect Fine Gael when it does good. This country needs leadership. It does not need populism or a Government whose members take each other apart on television. We need the Government to lead and give people hope that we can straighten things out.

What we hear from Sinn Féin is only spin. We know that. I am from an Opposition party and I am saying it myself. It is spin. Sinn Féin has the money to do it. It is destroying the name of Ireland with all the spin it is coming up with. I am asking Fine Gael and the other Government parties to come together and lead this country with one voice.

I thank the Deputy. The Government is working as one and has been since it formed. I appreciate that there are people who are opposed to this Government and do not want it to last. That does not include the Deputy, but it does include others. Those people will do their best to stoke up, invent and exaggerate any differences that may occur between different politicians and parties. I remember well, during the height of the Brexit struggle, that people would go out of their way to ask me a question, ask Deputy Coveney a slightly different question, and, when we gave slightly different answers, suggest that he and I were at war over Brexit. That was always rubbish. I see a certain element of that narrative now being promoted by our opponents and other people.

I have no idea what the Deputy means when he says that members of the Government parties have been taking each other apart on television. I have not witnessed that and I would be interested to hear the Deputy give an example.

The rural pubs are going to be allowed to open on Monday, which is a welcome development. It is something for which the Deputy campaigned and fought. We are putting a lot of trust in our publicans to make sure that they conduct the reopening safely and ensure that people are socially distanced. I have confidence in them to do that and believe that they will be able to lead the way and show what can be done. That will, hopefully, allow pubs in Dublin to follow suit in a couple of weeks' time.

What I said at my Parliamentary Party meeting, which I am sorry was not webcast, was that I believed that rural pubs should be allowed to open and that the Government was working on a plan to do exactly that. The Taoiseach felt the same. I have never suggested that there was a difference between us on that matter because there was not. Others made that suggestion. What is their agenda?

The public view at the moment is that we are going downhill at 100 mph while the Taoiseach is driving the bus. The public sees the Tánaiste as trying to make the bus skid and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, asleep in the back. That is what the public is looking at.

I spoke already about spin and the rewards that were put out for Sinn Féin Deputies. Sinn Féin is only here to dissolve this Government. People are suffering and we need one voice to help the people in this country. Sinn Féin can spin all it likes but all it is doing is damaging this country and stopping it from getting back to where it needs to be to help the people. They go out with their food parcels and take pictures; that is what they do and they have the money to put that out in the media and spin. Deputy McDonald was in RTÉ the other day when this House came to a stop. She was in RTÉ before the House stopped sitting in order to be on the television. Sinn Féin is negative but we want to be positive. We want to work, go forward and represent the people of this country. We want to slow this bus down so that we can get around the bend and keep everyone safe. The Government is on the bus and leading the country.

I appreciate from where the Deputy is coming and understand his sentiments. What the Deputy will hear, and is hearing, from the Government is one message that we have agreed collectively. He will hear lots of different voices explaining that message and that is what has been seen over the past couple of days. On Tuesday, we agreed and published a Government plan to deal with Covid for the next six to nine months. The Deputy would have seen Ministers and Deputies from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael out there explaining and defending that plan. That is exactly what we have done.

The Opposition did something different. It decided to try to pick holes in and undermine the plan, thereby undermining the public health message more generally. The parties in government showed absolute unity, went out there and defended the plan. We said that the plan is ours and we did not disown it in any way. The Deputy will see more of that in the next couple of weeks.

The Tánaiste is probably aware of letters from Coillte that were circulated to contractors stating that, for quarter 1 of next year, there may not be work available to them. Those contractors have payments of approximately €150,000 per year and were guaranteed five years' continual work if they bought new machinery.

The Tánaiste is probably also aware that in recent days, pallet manufacturers have said they are running out of timber. To give an example of what is going on, I know of a business in County Roscommon which has made 30 forestry applications. It has been waiting 823 days, 681 days and 713 days for replies to applications but has not got one. The average time it has been waiting for a response for each of these 30 applications is 368 days.

I was in Sligo when Project Ireland 2040 was announced. At that time, it was announced that 440 million trees would be planted. The Government said that it would plant 37,410 ha between 2016 and 2020. A little more than half of that has been planted. We have reached 50% of the target for forest roads. Between 2019 and 2020, felling has fallen by 80% while planting has fallen 50%.

The forestry appeals office received 238 appeals last year but, to date, just 136 have been dealt with. It has received 394 appeals in 2020 but, to date, just two have been sorted. An appeals office has been set up to decide whether a case will go for appeal but the people in this office get €380 for an oral hearing, €240 for a desktop review and €240 if those making the appeal do not turn up. Why then would they throw out an appeal? I know of an application to spread fertiliser made in County Mayo three years ago. Those in the Department have still not answered. The system as it stands is flawed. When one sends in a forestry application, it is a forest service inspector who gets it. These people have no ecological degrees so instead of screening out applications, they are all allowed in. The application must then go through appropriate assessment, an environmental impact assessment and all of the other palaver required under the habitats directive if the area in question is within 15 km of a designated area.

There in an emergency in this regard. Some 12,000 jobs are at risk and contractors who make 150,000 payments a year are about to go bust. I see Deputy Cahill is here. Is the Government willing to give priority to establishing the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine so that an emergency meeting can be held? Is it willing to put a group together with an independent chairperson who knows about or deals in environmental planning? Is it willing to let the parties on each side meet? The Tánaiste will speak about new legislation being introduced. Such legislation will solve nothing in the next three or four months. Will the Government take the steps I have outlined to help the situation, which is dire?

The Deputy is way over time. I asked for co-operation at the outset. Bhí mé ag lorg tacaíochta.

I thank the Deputy for raising the important issue of forestry. The Government is committed to the last Government's plan to increase dramatically the amount of forestry in our country. This will be beneficial for both climate action and rural and regional development. I have taken note of the Deputy's suggestions and I will let the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, know about them. I am sure she will respond to the Deputy directly.

As we all know, there is a backlog of forest licence applications awaiting assessment. This arose following a surge in appeals connected to Article 6(3) of the habitats directive of 1992. This led to the establishment of the Natura 2000 network of designated sites. Article 6(3) requires that where a plan or project is likely to have a significant effect on a Natura site, whether individually or in combination with other plans or projects, it must undergo an appropriate assessment. As a result of these appeals and the subsequent application of the Natura report, a complex restructuring of the appropriate assessment procedure has been introduced by the Department. These procedures are now in place and a project plan is being established to deal with the backlog.

Resources to service this new approach have been, and are being, put in place. New forestry inspectors and additional administration staff have been assigned to licensing. More forestry inspectors will be recruited this year. Two new ecologists have joined the Department's ecology team and four more are to be appointed shortly. The Department has also engaged external ecological experience to help with the backlog of files and four local ecologists have been contracted to provide extra support. A further ecology contract, with five new ecologists, has also been signed. Additional administration staff have been assigned to the appeals office to assist with the increased workload of the appeals committee. Three planning officers have been contracted to work with the forestry appeals committee and a specialist mapping expert has been assigned to forestry issues.

The introduction of this new process has led to delays in issuing licences and has had a major impact on the sector, which we acknowledge. Notwithstanding the delays in the latter months of 2019, it is important to put on the record of the House that 2019 was, in fact, a record year for the issue of felling licences. Some 4,100 felling licences were issued in 2019, which was a 16% increase on the previous year. This year, 783 licences have issued. With regard to licences processed for afforestation, 276 licences have been issued for more than 2,000 ha and 184 road works licences for 65.2 km of forest roads were issued up to 19 June of this year. Furthermore, from January 2018 to the end of May 2020, 3,650 ha of fully licensed afforestation was not progressed to planting stage.

Whoever is giving the Tánaiste his information is massaging the figures. I have figures from the Department. When one gets a licence, it is for four years so if a person planted 20 acres in 2018, it may be recorded as 80 as he or she has the licence for four years. We will move on from that point.

At the moment, timber is being imported from Germany. There is a beetle in Germany and we must be careful not to go down the road we went down in respect of ash dieback. Companies are looking to other places. This started four years ago. We all know about the habitats directive. The problem is that if one keeps sending applications to the same person in the Department, and if that person does not have the qualifications to decide on them, one will keep getting the same answer. Who is going to call stop? Who is going to decide that instead of being sent to forestry officers, applications will now be sent to a person who can screen some out while allowing others in? I know more about Articles 6(2), 6(3) and 6(4) of the habitats directive than most because of their connection to the bogs. If cases are not screened out - and most can be screened out - there will be a logjam of problems. Will the Tánaiste stand over a Department which has sat on its backside looking at this for four years and which is now putting 12,000 jobs in jeopardy?

We certainly do not want to import timber from elsewhere when we could be providing it for ourselves. As I understand it, the Department needs two things: new legislation and additional staff to deal with appeals and applications. The legislation is being developed and we expect to have it within this session. This work is being led by the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. With regard to the additional staff resources the Department needs, as I mentioned earlier, 14 new ecologists have joined it as either permanent or contract staff. It also has employed four extra forestry inspectors on a temporary basis in addition to nine permanent forestry inspectors and a new project manager. Based on what I have been told, I hope we will see improvements and change in the coming weeks.

We have reached the end of Leaders' Questions. Gabhaim míle buíochas as tacaíocht na dTeachtaí.