Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Restrictions for Dublin city and county were announced on Friday, including restrictions on bars and restaurants banning indoor dining. This particular measure came as a shock. People did not see it coming. According to the Restaurants Association of Ireland it has resulted in tens of thousands of workers being laid off.

It is now clear that the Government’s strategy to deal with this pandemic will involve periods of intensifying restrictions and then relaxing them. For this to be a successful approach we need very clear communication and to understand that it means no surprises at the eleventh hour. Above all the Taoiseach needs to ensure that the State and his Government provide the necessary supports for families, for workers and for individuals who find themselves out of work at very short notice because of public health measures.

Last week the Government went ahead with a very mean cut to the pandemic unemployment payment and now more than 156,000 people who were in receipt of €350 a week will see a reduction in their payment of between €50 and €100. This cut happened precisely 24 hours before the Taoiseach announced these further restrictions on Dublin.

I am also absolutely astounded and gobsmacked at media reports that his Government approved this morning the hiring of ten special advisers for junior Ministers, this being done at a time when he is cutting payments to people in real difficulty who have lost their jobs. If this is the case it is outrageous and I ask him to clarify this matter.

At a time when sectors of the economy are still closed down or are vulnerable to being closed down again, when thousands of people are out of work, this is not a time to be cutting the very payment upon which they rely to pay their bills and look after their families. This decision needs to be reviewed immediately and reversed.

The Taoiseach also scrapped the eviction ban in August.

He replaced it with very weak legislation that provides nothing like the kinds of protections of the original ban and, consequently, has left thousands of renters exposed. He needs to revisit this decision also and reintroduce the original ban on evictions as a matter of urgency.

There are also some 37,000 households whose mortgage payment break is due to end in the coming days and many thousands of businesses are in the same boat. This will undoubtedly cause huge hardship for families and businesses up and down the land. If a further extension of these payment breaks is not granted before 30 September, these families and businesses will fall into default unless they are in a position to meet their full mortgage repayment. Banks and lending institutions need to act now to ensure that these 37,000 families, and businesses, are not plunged into further financial hardship. Deputy Martin is the Taoiseach and he needs to act on this matter because the real danger we face now is that people become more terrified of losing their job, their home and not being able to provide for their family than they are of the virus. That would be the worse possible situation we could walk into.

In terms of my asks, I want a reverse to the cut in the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, a reinstatement of the ban on evictions and the extension of mortgage breaks without interest. The Taoiseach said correctly that we all have to play our part. I agree with him but the State has to lead from the front.

First, it has to be said that the measures taken and announced last Friday were necessary in the public health interest to save lives and to protect people. The vast majority of people accept the premise upon which those measures were taken and announced, on the advice of our public health doctors and NPHET. They are necessary to get the numbers down and stabilise the number of cases in Dublin in particular, which had risen too high in recent times. The same principle applies across the country. We need to get the numbers down and stabilise numbers across the country. That can be done by people adhering to the basic public health guidance. It is important that that happens because, ultimately, we want to keep our schools open, maintain health services and keep as many people as possible at work. Level 3 is not equivalent to the lockdown we experienced earlier this year in that many sectors of the economy are still working. It is an important objective of Government to keep as many people working as we possibly can while keeping the numbers down. The hospitality-tourism sector in particular, along with arts and culture, is bearing the brunt of Covid-19 because it is a disease that in many ways undermines the very nature of tourism and hospitality. That is a key point.

The PUP originally came in, as the Deputy will be aware, as a 12-week scheme. We are now looking at a much longer horizon for the payment and one of the decisions we took in July was to extend it out to April of next year. This Government has put €3.5 billion into the payment; that is what it has cost. This year alone, Government will spend €28 billion on social protection. That is an unprecedented intervention by the State and by Government in supporting incomes. Rates have come down in line with the decision in July but they are still very closely approximated to what people would have been earning prior to coming onto the Covid payment. The Deputy knows that is the situation.

We now have to look beyond April and realise that the impact of Covid, particularly economically and financially, could be felt right through the entirety of 2021. The fiscal planning and the planning around social protection budgets, therefore, has to, and will, take that into consideration. We are very anxious to support people in every way possible. That is why a multimillion euro initiative was taken to dramatically increase the number of places available in retraining in terms of education to enable people to take up employment in different areas and where investment is going such as retrofitting and other areas in the economy.

On evictions, the Deputy is wrong in her assertions. The Government legislation is not weak. It is more robust than what was in place because what was in place could not be extended without breaching the Constitution. Those are the facts. Nonetheless, what we have put in place in its stead was a provision whereby any renter in difficulty because of Covid will not have his or her rent increased and will not be evicted. That is unlike what has happened in Northern Ireland, for example. The measures we have taken here could be adopted by the Government in the North. Our protections are stronger than in the North and other jurisdictions. That should be acknowledged. No rent increase or eviction for renters affected by the virus will happen because of the legislation we introduced. That legislation applies nationwide.

The facts are these: we are now living with an ongoing crisis, there are tens of thousands of people who have not worked since March and there are thousands across the city and county of Dublin who got laid off on Friday. The very idea of reducing the payment for these workers at a time when interventions for public health are being made is absolutely extraordinary. The payment of €350 is not a fortune. There is nobody sitting in this Chamber who is on €350 per week. I dare say that the ten special advisers for the Taoiseach's junior Ministers will be paid an awful lot more than €350 per week. Therefore, I am asking him to play his part as Head of Government and for the State to lead from the front. I want him to revisit the decision to cut the pandemic unemployment payment. I want him to reinstate it to its original rate in recognition of the fact that people may well be in and out of employment for quite an extended period.

The Taoiseach claimed he cannot reinstate the ban on evictions because of some constitutional complication.

"Some constitutional complication" is now null and void, as demonstrated from Friday when emergency provisions were reinstated in the city. The Taoiseach knows full well he can reinstate the full ban on evictions and notices to quit.

The Deputy is way over time.

If he has read the evidence, he will know the initiative had a huge effect on dampening down homelessness numbers at the time in question. The Taoiseach should support working families and do the right thing.

The Deputy is wrong in what she has just said. It is not the first time that she has been wrong in her understanding of the law in that regard. Level 3 is nowhere near where it was. The point is that the legislation is robust and strong in that people affected by Covid will not face rent increases or evictions. That is what the legislation does. There is an extension of the provision right out until January. That is particularly important.

I take the Deputy's point that €350 is not a considerable amount of money. Of course, it is not; that is accepted. The Deputy speaks of special advisers. The special advisers her party employs, including in the Executive in the North, are also earning much more than that.

There are 14 of them.

The Deputy has been one of the original enthusiasts for special advisers and always has been. She has been a long-term advocate of special advisers in politics. She has never shown any disdain for them to date, and her party has not either, so she should stop the hypocrisy on that issue.

There are 14 in the entire-----

Our objective is to support people.

It is true that Covid-19 and its impact will be with us for much longer than anticipated. We must also recall there are 213,000 people on jobseeker's payments right now and a range of others on social welfare payments and in various schemes who also need support. Therefore, there is a much broader picture here than is being painted by the Deputy.

In the context of the budget and of planning right through 2021, there will be a significant impact on our budget and on the overall resources.

For most of those who were laid off last Friday, it will be their second experience of Covid-related unemployment this year and within a short period. The further reductions in terms of the unemployment supports will be a double blow for many. Most will worry about how they will survive, put food on the table and pay their bills and, of course, about when they might get back to work, if they get back to work at all. As most will have little or anything in reserve, it adds to the very obvious sense of panic and distress. At a point when it is hitting home that Covid-19 will be here for some considerable time, the reductions could hardly have come at a worse time. For that reason, the reduction of these supports urgently needs to be reconsidered and reversed.

A further group of people who are finding themselves with little or no financial supports are parents who have been informed by schools that their children must self-isolate. The acting Chief Medical Officer, CMO, was upfront in advising parents there would be outbreaks in schools and he was correct. Parents are not necessarily required to self-isolate if their children are sent home but those children must be cared for. If a parent is not sick, he or she is not entitled to claim sick pay. It must be understood that the impact is not isolated to the child. As a consequence, there is an urgent need to include parents who are in such situations in the enhanced illness payment scheme. There cannot be any differentiation between a parent whose child has got a diagnosis and children who were sent home to isolate for 14 days because they are part of a pod. Not everyone can work from home and it is not acceptable that these parents can find themselves in the situation whereby they have no income at all.

There also needs to be consistency of approach in schools. The Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN, has looked for a dedicated telephone line for out-of-hours calls and that should be supported. In my constituency, at present there are three schools that have had a recent or current Covid-19 experience. In one school, the public health doctor confirmed a case in a pupil and no restrictions ultimately were required. A sibling of a student in the second school was diagnosed with Covid-19 and 22 students were asked to self-isolate for 14 days. The parents are looking for explanations as to why there is a difference. That simply needs to be done in order that they understand the rationale. The third is a big school which had a large outbreak and which is closed. Understandably, that is under review.

If we are to live with this virus for the foreseeable future, temporary supports are needed that are responsive to changing needs. I have three questions. Will the Taoiseach review and reverse the reduction in the Covid-19 unemployment supports as a matter of urgency? Will he extend the enhanced illness payment to parents whose children are sent home from school due to the virus? Will he do as the IPPN is seeking and provide a dedicated phone line with the HSE where a medical professional would be on hand out-of-hours to ensure there is advice and consistency across the schools?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issues. As I said earlier, the changes to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, last July were designed to give sustainability to it. It was originally designed as a 12-week scheme when it was rushed into the House and introduced as an emergency to underpin incomes. The new rates approximate closely to what people would have been earning prior to being rendered unemployed because of Covid-19. That is still the situation and the figures show that. In other words, people will be in receipt, certainly above, on average approximately 105% of their prior income. Some will be lower; some will be higher and some will be very close to 100% of what they would have been earning when they were laid off as a result of Covid-19. We have extended it out to April and the Government is conscious now that we must plan longer-term in terms of the financial and economic impact of Covid-19 on certain sectors and on individuals and their incomes. That will be challenging. As I said, €28 billion will be spent this year, as opposed to an original €20 billion, for the social protection budget alone.

Originally the social protection budget represented 25% of overall allocation of resources this year. These are very challenging situations facing the Government and the Oireachtas. However, we provide support through the extraordinary measures we have taken with the PUP and the wage subsidy scheme which has also been extended out to April. We also have other schemes such as restart grants, tax relief and other measures designed to facilitate employers and assist people to retain jobs. We will also need to consider giving additional supports to specific sectors that are losing out more than most.

The Deputy raised the issue of a parent who has to stay at home because a child has to self-isolate. Looking at the national figures for that, there has been some mass testing and the figures for those testing positive are quite low. For example, for children aged up to ten, it is as low as 0.5% testing positive. When more than 3,000 teachers and students were mass tested, about 73 tested positive. We need to keep a perspective about that. Given the low numbers, I will inquire with the relevant Minister to see what can be done to help in that situation. At this stage I cannot commit to any broad scheme on that because the implications could be significant. A precedent could be set and it may not fit into any particular social protection scheme. I understand the point the Deputy is raising, and I will pursue it further and come back to her.

On her third point, I will also engage with the HSE and public health officials on having a dedicated phone line she feels principals may require to provide certainty on decisions that have been taken.

I agree with the Taoiseach. That is all the more reason such an initiative would be so important. In one school in my area, 400 pupils are at home today. It can have a big impact. If we are to get the numbers down, people need to feel a degree of certainty about how they will survive it if they are to go two weeks without any income, for example.

Earlier the Taoiseach said the amount of money is unprecedented, but, of course, Covid is unprecedented. Certain sectors have not had a chance, and probably will not have a chance, to get back to work, including people working in the arts, travel and tourism, and the hospitality sector, which has been badly impacted. I saw that in my area where we recently had a high level of restrictions. Those areas need support for longer and, as the ones most impacted by the most recent cuts in the PUP, they need to be looked at from that point of view.

The Taoiseach is getting the same kinds of contacts as I am with people crying on the phone, wondering how they will survive. We are all getting that. There was no lead-in time for this. There is no reserve for people. They are panicking about how they will survive. I ask the Taoiseach to look at those sectors from the point of view of the pandemic payments.

As I said earlier, originally 600,000-odd people were on various pandemic-related schemes but that is now down to 200,000. Many people got back to work as the economy reopened during the summer. In addition, 213,000 people are on the basic jobseeker's allowance. A range of others are getting different social protection payments. One must be fair to all concerned as the horizon lengthens regarding the impact of Covid. We need to think beyond April because the financial impacts of Covid will stretch beyond April. That relates to people's incomes. I take the Deputy's point that, of course, it is very distressing for people to lose work owing to the restrictions that need to be put in place to protect public health as a result of Covid-19. I understand that and certain sectors are faring worse than others.

The August returns show that normality almost came back in many different sectors of the economy. Clearly, hospitality, tourism, travel and all of those areas are the hardest hit. We have to see what we can do to underpin supports for that sector over the coming months, in addition to the very significant suite of measures that have already been introduced for that sector to try to maintain employment in it.

In terms of looking after patients, both general medical and Covid-related, we need to look at the best configurations for their care. I would like to speak briefly about University Hospital Waterford, which is a model 4 hospital in the south east. It provides medical services and acute care services to a population of 520,000 to 615,000, depending on which report one reads. It certainly is in excess of 500,000. The hospital is the regional cardiac care centre and the regional cancer centre for the south east. It provides all general surgical specialties. It is the regional orthopaedic centre and, in fact, the busiest trauma centre in the country. It provides cancer surgeries and breast, colorectal, head and neck, urology and dermatology services. It also supports the south-east palliative care service.

University Hospital Waterford's critical care bed number is totally inadequate to the needs of the region. There are only six ICU beds in the hospital and between three and four high-dependency beds at any one time for the entire population of the south east. The hospital needs investment in critical care beds, at least 12 ICU beds and 12 high-dependency beds that can be stepped up or down. The Dunmore wing was a great addition to the hospital and we were very lucky it was there to provide additional isolation rooms. However, those rooms are nearly all currently in use.

University Hospital Waterford is the most underfunded of the eight model 4 hospitals in the country, yet it is one of the busiest in output terms. For instance, University Hospital Limerick has a smaller patient catchment than University Hospital Waterford but has 700 more care staff. The latter has the lowest staff to bed ratio of all the model 4 hospitals. When will the Government recognise the budget deficits at the hospital and when will it receive a funding allocation on par with the other model 4 hospitals? When will the Government recognise the obstruction to enhancing services at the hospital which has been going on for years, exemplified by the delay in building the new mortuary that was approved in 2014? The remodelling of the CAT laboratory, which was supposed to take 12 weeks this year, took almost seven months to complete. A new CAT laboratory development was announced in September 2018 but has not yet advanced to the awarding of a tender, which will supposedly happen in December this year.

There has been a failure to implement a 24-7 cardiac care pathway for the south-east region, with University Hospital Waterford as one of five regional cardiac care centres. On the past two weekends, patients have been transferred by road ambulance, risking the nurses and doctors who may have to travel, the patients themselves and paramedic staff. That is unacceptable. We have to see about restoring the modular diagnostic laboratory activity that was taking place in the hospital, providing 30 patient angiograms a week. That service was suspended in February this year and has not been reinstated. It could possibly be done through a service level agreement with the local private hospital. Otherwise, the laboratory that was taken off site should be brought back.

The current Covid pathway for cardiac care means University Hospital Waterford cannot give a service to the other south-east hospitals. There is only one isolation bed available to the cardiac service, which means only one patient from an outlying hospital can be accommodated in the morning and one in the afternoon. The Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, may be aware that there were seven patients awaiting transfer to the CAT laboratory in University Hospital Waterford this morning. Those patients are stuck in hospital beds in the meantime. The hospital has only one seat on the South/South West Hospital Group advisory board, even though it was promised three at the outset of this agreement. I have raised this a number of times but it has not yet been dealt with. When will University Hospital Waterford have funding on par with the other seven model 4 hospitals in the country and when will the Government approve funding to implement a 24-7 cardiac care service there?

I thank the Deputy for his questions. I know his commitment to this issue, about which we have had a number of discussions. In terms of the broader issue of model 4 hospital funding, an ongoing assessment will be undertaken that will include the question of funding for Waterford and its needs and demands. I will revert to the Deputy in that regard.

As the Deputy is aware, the programme for Government commits to the delivery of a second cath lab at University Hospital Waterford. The preferred option is a second cath lab and associated 12-bed day ward, which would deliver six additional beds on the roof of the existing cardiology department. Covid-19 did delay the work on that but it is now intended that it will go to tender at the end of this month. I have been assured of that not just by the Minister for Health but by the HSE as well. Prior to that, a lot of progress had been made. The HSE had been advised that funding was allocated in the 2019 capital plan for the provision of the second cath lab. Planning permission was received from Waterford City and County Council in January of this year. The disability access certificate was granted in April, the fire certificate in June and, as I said, it will go to tender now at the end of the month. It is a two-stage process as there are main and specialist contractors. The whole process, which is necessary because of procurement, will take about four months. Thus the works on the new cath lab are due to commence in quarter 1 of 2021. In the interests of being fully transparent, the build will take 12 months so the new lab should be ready by early 2022. This will transform cardiac services in County Waterford. The national review is still under way. As the Deputy noted, the upgrade works to the existing cath lab were also delayed when the contractors had to close the site due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They returned to the site in early August and the lab has been, I understand, fully operational since 14 September. I understand that the arrangement between UPMC Whitfield Hospital and the HSE is ongoing and that the recruitment of an interventional cardiologist has been successful, which will significantly help throughput in the cardiac department as well.

On ICU beds, we will assess that but broadly speaking, additional capacity was developed across the country. In addition to that, there is the issue of potential capacity for use in the event of a surge as a result of Covid-19, for example. It is interesting that up to 1,500 staff were trained up to work in ICUs. ICU beds are very labour-intensive and it is not just about the bed. It is about a 1:1 nurse to patient ratio so there are very substantial human resources behind every ICU bed that is provided. I have heard the Deputy's comments on the ICU issue in County Waterford and I will pursue it further.

I thank the Taoiseach. I ask that the Government and the Taoiseach's own office move the Office of Government Procurement review. We have had a specification and a build tender capable on this project since January of this year and we are now expected to wait another four months while we approve an approval for a total spend of €6 million, while every week we are deferring diagnostic angiograms and risking patients up and down the roads. It is unacceptable and I ask the Taoiseach to look at it. Will the Taoiseach also see about the restoration of the diagnostic service? Although the Taoiseach did say that there are ongoing arrangements with Whitfield Hospital, there is no service level agreement, SLA, in place at this time as far as I am aware. Something needs to be done about the cardiac care isolation rooms in Waterford hospital because the service cannot be provided. There are even constraints on providing it between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and something must be done about that.

I ask the Taoiseach to consider a further matter. I have asked the Oireachtas Library and Research Service to do an independent review of costings and support budgets across the model 4 hospitals. I would like the Government to conduct a full independent review of the funding of the model 4 hospitals, looking at University Hospital Waterford's primacy in the region, as well as its funding relative to that of other model 4 hospitals. When the Taoiseach sees that he will understand that something serious and fast needs to be done about that hospital.

I spoke to the HSE earlier and my understanding is that the UPMC Whitfield facility is being used by the hospital. I got that assurance an hour before I came into the Chamber. I will double-check on that, to make sure that facility is being used.

The Deputy and I both know one has to be careful of full independent reviews in terms of their analysis and what they might bring to bear. In health people have their ways of looking at issues. We saw this in terms of cardiac services. I do not mean that in any facetious way. When the reconfiguration was originally announced by Professor John Higgins and his team a full 24-7 cardiac service was provided for. That was overturned by a second independent review commissioned by the then Minister. I had discussions with Professor Higgins after that. I hope I do not misinterpret him but he was somewhat put out that the commitments he had made as part of the review were not fulfilled by a subsequent review. I take the overall point. I would much prefer to see what the immediate demands and objectives of the hospital are and make sure we meet them in terms of funding. I have no objection to an independent funding review of model 4 hospitals.

The point I was making was purely on a review of the funding for the service and the activity. It was nothing more than that.

I raise the issue of what happens when a member of a school community, be it a pupil or staff member, tests positive for Covid-19. I will give an example of what happened in a school in my constituency, for illustrative purposes only because it is at national issue. A member of that particular school community tested positive. The person has other family members in the school. It took five days from contacting the doctor to getting the results of the test. In the meantime, all members of the family self-isolated from the time the doctor referred the person for the test.

The test result was communicated to the principal the next morning and the principal immediately contacted the HSE. Despite the best efforts of the principal, it took five hours, in other words the rest of the school day, for the HSE to respond. In the meantime, the principal, naturally, was anxious and he spoke to his staff members and discussed what they would do. When he received a call that evening from the HSE he was assured that public health was dealing with the case. At this point, it was one week since the person developed symptoms. He was told by the HSE that he should not inform parents and that he should not have informed his staff. He was absolutely taken aback but the HSE insisted this was the advice. He then asked about a template letter for parents. Earlier, we spoke about the possibility of a helpline. The principal contacted the INTO and received some assistance from it. In the meantime, the rumours started. He did not inform parents because he had been told not to but, as the Taoiseach can imagine, it was the talk of the parish. The next day, people contacted the local radio station, which is what people do when they are looking for information. The story was all over the place. The principal, on the back foot, had to go on local radio and explain his actions.

I know each situation is different, and the Minister for Education and Skills told us that public health takes over, but surely good, clear information and trust are crucial in these situations. A basic template letter, helpline or whatever would really have helped. If parents had received some communication from the school ensuring full anonymity and abiding by the general data protection regulation, GDPR, it would have made a real difference. Is there any possibility of having a template letter or a national approach to dealing with cases such as this so principals are not left in the position that they just do not know how to respond?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. These are very important points. The Deputy said it took five days to get a test. That is not acceptable.

I would like that checked out and the details followed through because it is not in accordance with the national average - that is not just waiting to get a test but right through - which is about 2.2 days. Some 85,000 tests were done last week and there is a capacity to do 100,000 tests. It is one of the better testing systems in Europe. Right now, we are testing more people per population than most. Some 52,000 tests were taken in the community, 20,000 in acute settings while 13,000 serial tests have been undertaken. That is a significant amount of ongoing work. That is why the delays in the case raised by the Deputy have to be fed back into the system to ensure it does not happen again.

A letter was issued last week to all schools, together with a HSE document entitled, Schools Pathway for Covid-19, the Public Health Approach. It sets out the approach to managing isolated confirmed cases of Covid-19 within a school community, as well as the principles which will underpin the management of outbreaks, or potential outbreaks, and the aligned testing strategy within an educational facility.

It is important to note that the response to confirmed cases or outbreaks of Covid-19 in the community or in a school is responsibility of and will be led and managed by the HSE departments of public health. It is at pains to state that all decisions as to appropriate actions following a confirmed case or outbreak will be made by its teams in the context of a full public health risk assessment. Any actions to be taken by the school will be informed and guided by the HSE departments of public health. School management will be informed as and when actions, such as the exclusion of children or staff, partial or full closure, are deemed necessary on public health grounds. If the school is not so informed, it has not been deemed necessary by the HSE departments of public health.

Again, the HSE has stated the definition of close contacts within a school will be variable and will be determined by a risk assessment that will take account of individual factors within each school or each class. It will not be automatically assumed that a whole class will be deemed as close contacts. Close contacts will be notified and advised to restrict their movements and present for testing on day zero and day seven. Close contacts will restrict their movements for 14 days, even in the event that Covid-19 is not detected in both of these tests.

There is no blanket policy to test entire classes or years. The testing strategy will be aligned to the public health risk assessment which may recommend widespread swabbing in a class or school under HSE mass testing procedures. Some of these have occurred. Up to 3,000 have been done in various scenarios with a positivity rate of about 73. I can check those figures and send them to the Deputy.

A letter did go out. A template is available. Within that template, however, there are significant variables and discretion in terms of the risk as assessed locally on the ground by the HSE departments of public health.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply.

The issue is that of clear communication and that parents and staff know what is happening. I am glad some sort of a template letter has gone out. It will help because in this situation the principal was completely on the back foot. If trust breaks down between a principal and parents or staff, it is very hard to rebuild that. I am glad we are making progress.

There is extra pressure on teachers. Before students arrive in the morning, right through the day and during breaks, until the students leave in the evening, teachers are constantly under pressure and have to be extra vigilant. There is simply no let-up in the day. I have spoken with principals, not teachers, who have said there is a real risk of burnout with some of their staff.

Will the Taoiseach work with the unions to look at the reality of managing and teaching in schools in order that, quite rightly, our schools can remain open and be safe places for the whole school community?

I thank the Deputy. I agree with her on the need to underpin and support principals in schools as they navigate and manage an unprecedented public health pandemic. It is to their credit, and to the credit of teachers, SNAs and all staff within a school, that they have worked extremely hard to make the reopening of schools, and their continued opening, possible.

I salute and affirm the work they are doing in that regard. The Deputy is also correct that additional stresses and strains go with Covid, such as constantly urging students to avoid gathering together and making sure that all the various guidelines are being adhered to. I spoke to some teachers during the past week about this. The school environment now is more different than ever before because of all the public health restrictions in schools and how the schools are managed, broken up and so on. That has to be acknowledged. Equally, however, I have spoken to many teachers who are happy they are back at school and that the children at primary and students at post-primary are also back. The learning environment is key to a child's chances in life, and prolonged absence from a learning environment or from school can be very detrimental to a child or young person's development, so we have to work with and support those involved in this regard. The Department of Education and Skills is continuing its engagement with the partners in education, including the unions, with a view to trying to make sure we all work together to ensure that what has been a strong partnership to date continues to underpin the development of our children and students.