Richard Boyd BarrettQuestion:
1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the UK Prime Minister. [24047/20]
Vol. 997 No. 6
1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the UK Prime Minister. [24047/20]
2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the UK Prime Minister. [22608/20]
3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the UK Prime Minister. [22379/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
I met the United Kingdom Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, at Hillsborough Castle on 13 August. This was our first meeting since I became Taoiseach. We had a good discussion on Covid-19 and our respective experiences of managing the virus and dealing with its economic and societal impacts. We agreed that close contact on this topic should continue between our respective Administrations in the period ahead.
We also discussed Northern Ireland issues and noted the recent meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in Dublin.
Finally, we discussed Brexit, including the continuing negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union as the transition period draws to a close. The Prime Minister assured me on that occasion that he was committed to implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol, and to reaching a deal with the European Union on the future relationship.
We also discussed the British-Irish relationship post Brexit and the need to create a new dynamic around that. Since then, of course, we have seen publication of the United Kingdom Government's draft Internal Market Bill, which would violate the withdrawal agreement.
I spoke with Prime Minister Johnson by phone on 9 September to set out in forthright terms my grave concerns about this development. I made the point that any unilateral attempt to undermine the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is completely unacceptable and risks seriously eroding and damaging political trust in Northern Ireland, in our bilateral relations and between the United Kingdom and the European Union. I stressed to the Prime Minister that the United Kingdom Government should re-engage with European Union negotiators urgently.
We must make clear to Boris Johnson that the peace and stability of this island comes ahead of his reckless, race-to-the-bottom agenda for Britain and for the particular business interests he represents. It is a recklessness that has again summoned up the spectre of a possible return to a hard border and breaks agreements, international treaties, protocols and so on that were designed to ensure there would be no possibility of a return to a hard border. We must make absolutely clear to Mr. Johnson and his gurus, such as Mr. Cummings, that despite all their manipulations and recklessness that is just not going to happen and we will do whatever is necessary to prevent a hard border. It summons up in a serious way the need to start talking about a possible border poll. It is also clear and important that we send a message to the European Union that if things go badly and we face the possibility of a hard Brexit as a result of Boris Johnson's recklessness, we will not be used as a political pawn in the battle between the European Union and Mr. Johnson. We will not accept any diktat from Europe about protecting its market if that means the resurrection of the possibility of a hard border. Peace and stability on this island is more important than Johnson's dangerous agenda and it is more important than any market.
In the course of this morning's COBRA meeting with the British Prime Minister my colleague, deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, emphasised the ongoing need for an all-island approach to Covid-19. We have consistently raised this matter in respect of profiling the disease and projections but also in terms of testing and tracing. This approach is also important for cross-border communities and businesses that are particularly susceptible to sudden economic shocks.
As a result of the Covid-19 crisis but, more particularly, as a result of Brexit, these communities live daily with increased uncertainty. Certainly, the Tories' Internal Market Bill has served to deepen the anxieties felt by families and workers on both sides of the Border. This anxiety is not limited to these communities or even to the island of Ireland because support for the Good Friday Agreement has been widespread. There have been particularly important expressions of support from the United States Congress. It has made an important intervention by, again, definitively ruling out any prospect of a trade deal between the United States and Britain if the Good Friday Agreement is undermined in any way or if there is any prospect of a hardening of the Border on our island. I am sure we are very appreciative of that level of political and diplomatic support. The withdrawal agreement in an international agreement, as is the Good Friday Agreement. I put to the Taoiseach that it has never been more important than now that the Government in Dublin holds the British system and Government to account and keeps its feet to the fire.
Finally, we cannot countenance any hardening of the Border. There will be no hard border on our island. It is our job and, more particularly, the Taoiseach's job as Head of Government to make sure that is the case.
The Taoiseach met the Prime Minister in August and spoke with him by phone a fortnight ago. The Taoiseach obviously got no heads up the Internal Market Bill, which we all know is reckless, and at least the former Prime Minister has come out and said the same. However, if the UK proceeds with the Bill, what will be the approach of Ireland and the EU? What is the Taoiseach's most up-to-date view on what our approach will be, should the UK proceed? If it proceeds, then it is on a pathway and we know what that pathway looks like. Obviously, it would be disaster. What is the latest consolidated view of Ireland and the EU in relation to what we will do, should Prime Minister Johnson do that?
What discussions have been held with him on co-ordinating our plan to fight Covid-19? Last night, the entire UK implemented new restrictions, moving to its version of level 4. I understand the Prime Minister will give a televised address tonight. There has been some discussion over there about a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown. That would obviously impact the North as well. That brings us to co-ordination of activities across the Border. If they go down that route, how will we react to it? What additional testing and tracing measures are being considered given the direction the UK is taking?
In response to Deputy Boyd Barrett's points, peace and stability come first regarding the overall impact of Brexit, and the necessity for the withdrawal treaty and the Northern Ireland protocol to be adhered to and upheld. The EU is solidly and constructively working with Ireland on this. We are part of the one negotiating team that wants to negotiate a future relationship with the UK that is sensible and that results in a free-trade agreement, which is absent of quotas and tariffs and allows businesses to continue as seamlessly as they can. Notwithstanding the impact of Brexit even with what might be called a free-trade-type agreement, nonetheless we want businesses to continue engaging, exporting, importing and avoiding a loss of jobs. That is a key objective.
A no-deal Brexit would be devastating for the economy and jobs in the UK. It would be very challenging to Ireland as well, particularly in the regions and on the western seaboard, and to other member states in the EU. Logic and common sense should dictate a sensible Brexit deal covering the future relationship between the Union and the United Kingdom.
The internal market Bill has undermined people's confidence in the capacity to achieve that. It has eroded trust and it has made it more difficult to proceed. That said, the EU is focused on the end goal and objective, remaining very firm on the necessity of the UK to make amends here and to deal with the issue of the internal market Bill, representing, as it does, an unacceptable breach of its international obligations.
Discussions have taken place at the joint committee between the UK and the European sides. I have had discussions on the issue with the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the President of the Council, Charles Michel. I have spoken briefly with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in the context of a wider discussion with other member states on other issues where we raised Brexit. I will have a further opportunity this week to discuss it with European colleagues.
Europe will not be distracted or in any way blown off course by this latest initiative by the UK. It is very clear on how unacceptable it is and very clear that it breaches agreements previously entered into. Whatever the motivations behind the Bill, it will not succeed in creating any division on the EU side. European Union colleagues are very clear on the importance of the protocol and the importance of having no hard border, as is the UK Government, which still states it does not want a hard border on the island of Ireland and wants seamless trade between North and South. It has equally stated that it wants to implement the withdrawal agreement notwithstanding the reservations as contained in the internal market Bill. Of course, the Bill runs counter to those assertions. I am just giving it to the House as it is.
I do not think it is a question of a diktat from Europe. That is not the spirit of how Europe and Ireland have been working on Brexit from the beginning. A collegial approach has informed the engagement and relationship. Europe has been rock solid. It has shown commendable solidarity with Ireland throughout these issues since the British people voted on Brexit. It is our collective desire to ensure that continues. We will work with Europe in that regard.
On the all-island approach to Covid, there is a memorandum of understanding between the Chief Medical Officer in the Republic and the Chief Medical Officer in Northern Ireland. We have had ongoing contact with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on Covid. Northern Ireland operates to a different jurisdiction from that in which the CMO does. We are endeavouring to harmonise insofar as we possibly can. Deputies will recall that earlier in the summer there were issues with travel where the Northern Ireland Executive was ahead of us in liberalising travel. I think there has been good engagement since then on a range of issues between both CMOs, which will continue.
The British system of testing and tracing is under pressure; we are not. Our testing and tracing system is meeting demand, with 85,000 tests done last week, comprising community testing, hospital testing and serial testing. There have been 13,000 or 14,000 serial tests in meat plants, direct provision centres and nursing homes all with very low levels of positive results so far from the serial testing.
I understand the Scottish authorities contacted us to see if we could help with spare capacity. We were just not in a position to do that. There is global competition for testing kits and the materials for it. Testing in the UK is obviously very challenging. So far, we are managing. We are ahead of them and we can meet demand as it presents itself right now. The HSE is continually looking at ways to improve capacity. We have capacity to do 100,000. Having the capacity to do 100,000 does not mean we have to do 100,000, but I have been assured by the HSE that it has the capacity to do 100,000; we did 85,000 last week
4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [23637/20]
5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [23927/20]
6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with housing will next meet. [22649/20]
7. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [25166/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on housing was established by the Government on 6 July 2020 to oversee effective implementation of the ambitious programme for Government commitments on housing and related issues.
The committee last met on 30 July and is next scheduled to meet on Monday, 28 September.
In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I have meetings with Ministers, including the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, on a regular basis to focus on particular issues.
The committee operates in accordance with established guidelines for Cabinet committees and substantive issues are referred to Government for discussion and approval.
Significant work is under way on each of the areas covered by the committee through Departments, Government agencies and a range of interdepartmental groups, which will be brought forward for discussion at the committee and Government.
Since Friday, the Labour Party has called for a ban on evictions and rent increases to be reinstated in Dublin after the move to level 3 restrictions. In July, we tabled an amendment to the Government's emergency renters Bill that would have given the Minister power for public health reasons to reintroduce protections for renters in the event of a second wave. This is an area I am familiar with as somebody who introduced restrictions on rent increases for a number of years.
Similar powers were granted in other Bills. It says everything about the Government's approach that renters seem to be at the bottom of the pile as far as it is concerned. We need emergency legislation. We need to have foresight on this. This will be a real issue. Debts will start to be crystallised. People will be out on the streets. We want a ban on evictions. We want the Government to do something on this quickly. The changes the Minister introduced will only give protection until January for those who can prove they have been financially impacted by a limited set of circumstances. It is quite a complicated process. I ask the Taoiseach to look at this. We need to protect these people. We cannot have people being thrown out during this time. I ask the Taoiseach to examine the circumstances affecting the legislation that was introduced and amend it. In effect, the Government can do it through that process.
The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government recently announced €40 million to refurbish 2,500 vacant properties, voids.
There are a significant number of properties, as I know from researching the matter, that have been left vacant for a considerable period of time. Why were they left vacant for so long? The target for social housing construction this year is 7,736 units, inclusive of housing provided by local authorities and approved housing bodies, under regeneration schemes and under the Part V provisions. What is the Taoiseach's projection as of today's date for how many council homes will be built? It was also proposed to buy 800 properties and lease 2,631 properties, for a total social housing target of 11,000 units. Will the Taoiseach give the House the updated figures in this regard as of today?
I want to raise again the issue of evictions and the urgent necessity for a ban on rent increases. I am sure all of us, as elected representatives, are very well aware of the kinds of pressures people are under in our communities. There is a very particular burden and pressure on those in the rental sector. Thousands of workers are now without employment. The reality for many people in Dublin, for example, is that they lost their shirt overnight. Whereas their household income has fallen, rents continue to rise, albeit now at a lower rate than before. Renters need the assurance that they will not be evicted and that the roof over their head is secure in these very uncertain times. We have fared better than some of our European neighbours in this crisis but the fall in Ireland's GDP is the sharpest on record. The Taoiseach will know that in terms of job losses, we come second only to Spain in the second quarter of this year. A terrifying prospect of unemployment rates of eye-watering proportions is before us.
The Taoiseach told us originally that the Government's argument for lifting the ban on evictions and rent increases was that the economy was opening up and the crisis was receding. That is clearly and manifestly not the case. The situation in Dublin is the most immediate evidence of that as it has moved to level 3 plus in terms of restrictions. There is the real possibility that many other counties could join the capital in the near future. The Taoiseach argued that he could not justify constitutionally a ban on evictions or rent increases because of the opening up of the economy and because the crisis had receded. The crisis has not gone anywhere and the Taoiseach's argument is a very flimsy and unacceptable excuse for not protecting people who rent from the prospect of eviction or a rent hike.
Unless the Taoiseach reinstates the eviction ban, he will be throwing thousands of renters to the wolves in the worst of all possible circumstances. We opposed the Government's decision to lift the eviction ban, which had been very successful, as we said it would be, in reducing the numbers going into homelessness. In removing that ban, the Taoiseach betrayed his previous support for the anti-evictions Bill my colleagues and I introduced in the last Dáil and, in so doing, performed one of the first U-turns of this Government. Whatever about all that, in the current circumstances, where people's pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, is being cut, new restrictions are being imposed and fewer people are going to have the income necessary to pay rents, the possibility of people being made homeless is simply unacceptable. It is totally incompatible with protecting public health in the context of Covid-19. The Taoiseach must reinstate the eviction ban. Anything else would be utterly irresponsible and unjust.
It is an ominous combination to have both the incidence of Covid-19 and the number of evictions on the rise at the same time. We know Covid infection rates are on the rise and we have a lot of anecdotal evidence that evictions are increasing. Next week, the official figures for the numbers in emergency accommodation at the end of August will be announced. I expect those figures to confirm that evictions are on the rise, possibly in a dramatic fashion.
The Government weakened the anti-eviction legislation. No amount of bluster will hide that fact. At the end of July, in the Dáil, the anti-eviction provisions were weakened, with effect from 1 August. A ban remains for those who face eviction because they were in arrears that are directly related to the Covid crisis. That certainly is the case. However, evictions are now allowed on grounds of sale of property, refurbishment of property or to allow a relative to move in. In other words, they are allowed on grounds which Threshold tell us are the majority reasons for evictions in this State. The prospect is opening up of people having to traipse around to find accommodation in our towns and cities in the middle of a pandemic and at a time when the incidence of the virus is on the rise. That cannot be allowed.
The change in July was justified on the basis that a retention of the existing provisions would not be on sound legal ground. The Taoiseach said earlier today in the House that this is a fact. It is not a fact; it is an opinion. It is the opinion of the Attorney General but it is one which is becoming weaker by the hour as infection rates rise. Has the Taoiseach asked the Attorney General whether the latter still thinks there are legal grounds for weakening the ban and not reinstating it? Clearly, the case for reinstating the ban immediately on public health grounds is overwhelming and unanswerable.
I will use the short time remaining to give the Taoiseach an example of what is happening. This morning, I was present at a threatened eviction to assist the tenant. This woman is a taxi driver who has lost her income as a consequence of the Covid restrictions. This loss of income is the underlying reason that the landlord wants her gone. However, the reason the latter gave in the eviction notice - which was inadequate, and that is why the landlord is now saying, after people protested, that it was a misunderstanding - was not that she is unable to pay the rent due to a loss of income but because the landlord wants to move a relative in. This proves the point that unless the eviction ban is reinstated, people like this woman and her family will be threatened.
The legislation the Government has introduced applies until January and it protects tenants who are in difficulty because of the Covid-19 crisis in terms of income and so on. It protects them from rent increases and eviction. It is a more specific Bill than that which preceded it. The reason the blanket ban could not be continued is that, fundamentally, it was unconstitutional. We were no longer at the time and are no longer now in a lockdown situation. Dublin is not in lockdown. Level 3 is not lockdown. All sectors are open, bar the hospitality area generally and some areas of arts, culture and entertainment. Manufacturing is open, retail is open and construction is open. Significant sectors of the economy are still operating in Dublin.
We hope it does not happen but if we were to move to level 4 and level 5, one would have to consider what additional measures one could bring in to support people in situations like the Deputies have described. For now, the advice is very clear in respect of level 3. The Minister is of the view, in accordance with the legal advice, that level 3 does not merit the reintroduction of the blanket ban that was there for some months during the lockdown and all that went with the lockdown in terms of restricted mobility throughout the entire country. There is a significant difference between the two. Of that there is no doubt and it must be accepted.
Regarding Deputy Kelly's question on voids, the Government has only been in office for three months, give or take a week or two, but we have taken the initiative in this regard. It is the case that for some time there have been a number of empty houses and homes that were not refurbished quickly enough. I made that point to the new Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Secretary General of the Department that local authorities need to move quickly when houses are vacated to get them back into operation without delay.
The length of time it can take to get a house that has been vacated back up and running with a new family or person in it is ridiculous. We all hear anecdotally of cases where all the furniture in a house is taken out and it is boarded up. That is not acceptable in a housing crisis where people are desperately looking for houses. The Minister with responsibility for housing and I took the initiative to provide substantial moneys from the July stimulus to get voids back in use quickly. Some 2,500 voids will be delivered back into the housing stock as a result of that initiative, which was taken weeks after the Government was formed with a view to doing something concrete about voids quickly with the resources allocated to it. The Minister, with the local authorities, has put a lot of energy into trying to realise those particular targets.
I dealt with the issue Deputy McDonald raised on level 3 restrictions versus a lockdown. Even looking at the August return, one can see that, bar some specific sectors, significant sectors of the economy have come back fairly strongly since the reopening. We suffered a lot with construction unemployment and other areas because of the severity of our lockdown in March and April. A number of articles have been written on that but, nonetheless, that lockdown had the effect of suppressing the virus so one must look at this in the longer term.
The same point I articulated on the legislation we have brought in applies to the question put by Deputy Boyd Barrett. As I said, the Minister is examining what additional targeted measures may be required in the event that an area is subject to level 4 or level 5 restrictions in line with Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19 and we will continue to examine that.
On homelessness, the Minister has been very committed from the get-go to working with the various non-governmental organisations involved in homelessness, providing supports to those who intervene in homelessness to get the figures down, create additional accommodation in emergency accommodation in particular and keep downward pressure on homelessness as much as we possibly can. That is continuing across a range of initiatives the Minster has taken on a short-term, medium-term and long-term basis, with a view to getting additional capacity for emergency accommodation in the short term.
8. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in the development of the forthcoming plan for dealing with Covid-19. [23685/20]
9. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 will next meet. [23764/20]
10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 will next meet. [25001/20]
11. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Covid-19 oversight group; the terms of reference for the group; and if a list of the standing membership will be provided. [25395/20]
12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the role of his Department in the development of the forthcoming plan for dealing with Covid-19. [25609/20]
I propose to take Question Nos. 8 to 12, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on Covid-19 was re-established by the Government on 29 June to continue to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19 and oversee the cross-Government response. The committee, which I chair, meets as regularly as required and has met on five occasions since 29 June, most recently on Friday last, 18 September, to consider the latest advices from NPHET in advance of a full Cabinet meeting. The date of the next meeting has not yet been set.
A senior officials group, chaired by the secretary to the Cabinet committee and from my Department, supports the special Cabinet committee and ensures a dedicated, high-level, cross-Government focus on the Covid-19 response.
A range of social and economic issues which cut across many Departments has been considered and progressed through both the senior officials group and the Cabinet committee on Covid-19, leading to the development of Ireland's national plan in response to Covid-19, the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business as well as Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19, which was launched last week.
As Members will be aware, following a Government decision on Friday afternoon, County Dublin was moved to level 3 of the framework for restrictive measures for a period of three weeks while the other 25 counties remain at level 2. A package of economic measures was also agreed by Government on Friday to include a 30% top-up to the restart plus grant to help support those affected through the three-week period. This will be available immediately through the normal application process at an estimated additional cost of €30 million. Applications from County Dublin will be prioritised for the wide range of existing loan and voucher schemes available to assist businesses affected by Covid-19 through the July jobs stimulus and other Government initiatives.
Specifically within the level 3 measures outlined for Dublin, a maximum of six visitors from one other household are permitted within a person's home, restaurants and cafes, including bars and pubs serving food, must close indoor dining but can remain open for takeaway and delivery and for outdoor dining for up to 15 people and weddings are reduced to 25 guests with the exception of existing arrangements for weddings last weekend only, which were allowed to proceed with up to 50 guests.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
The medium-term plan, Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19, which the Government launched last week, frames Ireland's approach to managing and living with Covid-19 for the coming six to nine months. It aims to bring some clarity to help everyone to plan over the medium term and includes a framework for restrictive measures, which is a risk management strategy for the next six to nine months. The plan was drawn up by officials on a cross-departmental basis co-ordinated by my Department and the Department of Health. It was considered at length by the Cabinet committee and approved by Government.
The framework is designed to allow individuals, families, businesses and services to better understand, anticipate and prepare for the measures the Government might introduce to stop escalation of the transmission of the disease. It recognises the need for an incremental, stepwise approach which takes account of the societal and economic impacts of the response to infection outbreaks. These measured responses are aimed at ensuring that the impact of restrictive measures on the lives of people in Ireland will be kept to the minimum necessary.
The plan is framed to account for periods in which there is low incidence of the disease, with isolated clusters and low community transmission, through to periods where there is high or rapidly increasing incidence, widespread community transmission and the pandemic is escalating rapidly in Ireland and globally. It recognises the need for society and business to be allowed to continue as normally as possible. Each level contains a basket of measures which are intended, collectively, to contribute to lowering the risk of transmission in alignment with the risk level at that time.
The plan also sets out our medium-term approach and priorities for managing and living with Covid in a range of areas, including prevention of infection and protection of vulnerable groups, health system response and resilience, approach to international travel, continued resumption of public service delivery, including non-Covid health and social care, protective services and access to justice, and developing economic, community and personal resilience. It will be reviewed at the end of March 2021.
To achieve these aims the National Public Health Emergency Team will continue to provide guidance and expert public health advice for the overall national response to Covid-19. A Covid-19 oversight group chaired by the secretary to the Government has been established and will meet regularly to provide advice to the Government on the strategic economic and social policy responses to the management of the disease and to consider the NPHET advices. Membership of the oversight group includes senior officials from my Department and the Departments of Health; Public Expenditure and Reform; Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Finance; Foreign Affairs; Justice; the acting Chief Medical Officer and the director general of the Health Service Executive along with the chiefs of staff to the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Minister with responsibility for transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. The Cabinet committee on Covid-19 which I chair, will continue to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19 and oversee the cross-Government response. Senior officials groupings will be convened by my Department to drive implementation of the plan and support preparations for the Cabinet committee and the oversight group.
The cut to the pandemic unemployment payment is happening concurrently with the increase in and stepping up of restrictions. This is a time when people need support from the State to deal the coronavirus rather than punishment. How on earth can the Taoiseach justify slashing the supports to workers who have lost their jobs due to Covid when we have a second wave of the coronavirus and a second wave of restrictions which means more workers are going to lose their jobs? When this was done before the Government accepted that people should not be driven into poverty or homelessness for following public health guidelines. That is why we had the €350 per week payment and the ban on evictions. Now however, precisely when people will need these protections the most, the Government has removed the evictions ban and today it is cutting the Covid payment. I believe the Taoiseach is paid €550 per day from the public purse, yet he is slashing the income of people who are already struggling to get by to €203 per week in some cases. It would take them 1,000 weeks to receive what the Taoiseach makes in a year, yet they are the ones who are being asked to take a cut.
I will make three quick points. First, I learned from the Cabinet meeting's response today that the Government is proposing a six-month review of the Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020 the Labour Party will introduce tomorrow. Six months is frankly stupid. This is a Covid measure. Is this a laugh? We are proposing this Bill to help. The Taoiseach often criticises the Opposition. This is a constructive measure, as he said earlier. Today we found out from Tusla that there have been 63 cases of Covid-19 in early years services. These are some of the lowest paid workers in Ireland. They must make a choice between going to work with a symptom and not getting paid. That is what the Bill addresses. I ask the Taoiseach not to do this tomorrow. I am saying this in a constructive way. We need sick pay legislation to fight Covid-19. We are one of only five countries in the world that does not have it.
Second, will the Taoiseach indicate what the criteria are for walk-in testing centres? We had one in Rathkeale, for instance. The northern part of Limerick city has a 14-day average of 126.8 Covid infections per 100,000 population. That is higher than counties Louth, Waterford, Leitrim or Donegal. It is one of the most deprived areas of the city. What are criteria for bringing in a walk-in testing facility because north Limerick desperately needs one?
Thank you, Deputy.
Finally, what are we doing as regards other testing technologies? Other jurisdictions and countries are using different testing technologies for antibody testing, etc.
Thank you, Deputy.
I have one such test here, which I did-----
What are we doing regarding future testing technologies?
I raise the very deep sense of abandonment felt by citizens with disabilities, their families, carers and service providers. The Government has yet to allocate the necessary additional funding for disability day services to enable them to deal with the impact of Covid-19. We are now six months into this pandemic. The disability services submitted their funding requirements to the HSE in mid-June. I understand the HSE collated and verified these submissions in July.
The submission set out the additional funding required to enable those services to meet their additional costs to operate during this pandemic for the remainder of 2020 and the projected costs for 2021. I cannot overstate the deep sense of abandonment and frustration that citizens with disabilities and their carers and support services feel. It is to their very great credit that these organisations and families have battled on through the crisis, despite the huge challenge and the collapse in revenue for them. Will the Taoiseach commit to the additional ring-fenced funding that is required? The Disability Federation of Ireland estimates approximately €120 million will be a necessary part of the winter plan to allow disability day services to resume for these citizens.
The Taoiseach's decision to press ahead with the cuts to the PUP are a disgraceful and dangerous betrayal of thousands of working people who have lost jobs and incomes because of Government measures. The people who have been hit hardest by the pandemic are now being kicked while they are down. This is grossly unjust and a serious danger to the collective social solidarity that is absolutely critical to defeating Covid-19. If the Government loses the faith of the people and punishes those who have lost their jobs and income as a result of its restrictions, it will lose the dressing room. People will lose faith in the public health effort and it will unravel. It is grossly economically and financially unfair to those who lose their jobs and it threatens the public health effort. Does the Taoiseach not see this? Does he not see that the new restrictions with rising infection rates will mean more people are going to lose their jobs, some for the second time, and others will have no prospect of a return to their jobs? To cut their income is a knife in the back. Does the Taoiseach not see this?
The PUP was introduced early in the life of the pandemic as a 12-week temporary scheme. In July, the new Government decided to extend it to April. The rates were reduced but they are still at levels closely approximate to what people were earning before being laid off as a result of the pandemic. This was to make it more sustainable over the long term. A total of €3.5 billion has already been allocated to the pandemic unemployment payment. The social protection bill has gone from €20 billion to €28 billion. We must look beyond April and plan accordingly because the impact of Covid financially to the end of 2021 could be far more severe on us as a country than we anticipated. Someone at some stage has to deal with reality in terms of the overall implications. This also applies to the wage subsidy scheme.
The PUP worked in the initial phase. It has been refined. Originally, 600,000 people were on it and it is now down to 200,000 people. Alongside these 200,000 people are 213,000 people on the jobseeker's allowance of €203 a week. These are people who were made unemployed in January or February and never received the PUP. We have to try to achieve a balance somewhere along the way. We must also do everything we possibly can to create alternative jobs, give additional supports in terms of reskilling and try to facilitate people back into the workplace where work is available.
The idea that the Government is trying to stick knives in people is nonsense and rubbish. The Government has made the most unprecedented intervention in underpinning income in the history of the State. This is understandable and it is the correct thing to do because of an unprecedented global pandemic. Some of the language emanating from Deputies opposite in this regard is unfair. We have to think ahead. All of this is being borrowed on behalf of the taxpayer. We have to work ahead and make sure we can sustain it for an indefinite period. We do not know when a vaccine will arrive. Various projections are made from time to time and there can be setbacks.
We have opened up the pandemic unemployment payment to new entrants to cater for where severe restrictions are brought in. Originally it was going to be tapered off. That is no longer the case and it is being opened up again for people who are rendered unemployed as a result of decisions taken to introduce localised restrictions in given areas. A range of other supports is being given to people in various sectors to try to keep jobs going and keep the enterprises intact to maintain jobs. This is the overall objective.
To answer Deputy Kelly on sick pay, there is the Covid illness benefit. It is very unfair to make the points he made. The Government does recognise the exceptional challenge faced by employees during the Covid-19 pandemic and the lack of a statutory sick pay regime. This is why a six-month period is being given. The Government is reacting constructively to the Labour Party's Bill. We are saying to come on and let us get sense. We need to talk to the various Departments. We also need to talk to employers because the Labour Party proposes they would to take the brunt of it.
Let me speak.
The CMO, the chief executive officer of the HSE and the chief clinical officer all want this.
We also need to talk to the unions so that we get a comprehensive sustainable sick pay regime.
The Taoiseach says he is listening to public health advice. Listen to the advice.
We are working towards this. In the meantime, in the context of Covid, the Covid-19 illness benefit is available at a rate of €350 per week to employees and the self-employed. That is the case.
It does not change the conundrum for low paid workers.
It is paid for two weeks where a person is medically certified as self-isolating. It can be extended for a further two weeks for a maximum of ten weeks where a person is medically certified.
The Taoiseach is able to spread the-----
I ask the Deputy to stop interrupting. He disingenuously presented the Government's case wrongly.
I did not.
That benefit is available for a further ten weeks if a person is medically certified as being diagnosed with Covid-19. In a minority of cases where people continue to be sick after ten weeks they can apply for the standard illness benefit payment and can receive it for up to two years. We have extended this for people living in direct provision as well.
The Deputy has missed the point that we recognise the need to look at the broader issue of a sustainable sick pay regime in Ireland and, therefore, we are anxious to work with the Deputy's party on getting agreeable legislative proposals to make it happen.
It will not help with Covid.
There is enough provision there for Covid.
Can I have an answer on disability services please?
In terms of disabilities, we have been working with service providers, many of whom are not in a position to resume fully, not because of funding but because of protocols on Covid. We will continue to work with them on the funding issue and on restoring services as quickly and safely as we possibly can.
Is the Taoiseach committing to ring-fencing the funding? The providers have sent him a figure.
I have not seen it.
They are in correspondence with the Taoiseach.
In situations such as this, service providers will always send in figures. They are always subject to negotiation. There has been very energetic and hands-on contact between the HSE and the service providers endeavouring to get adult services, in particular, restored. This is important and it is something to which we are committed.