I will be sharing time with the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton.
I welcome the opportunity to address the Dáil on the Covid-19 pandemic and the huge impact it has had on the transport sector in this country. Since taking on the role of Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in June, myself and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, have met a series of stakeholders from the transport sector and it is clear that the pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on people working in the industry, on businesses and on the commuters and passengers who use a variety of different transport services.
We need to bear in mind, in the first instance, the sacrifices many people have made and the work they have done in this past six months. I want to paise, in particular, the people who have been working in the industry, the bus and train drivers, the pilots and the whole range of different people who throughout the pandemic have been maintaining a public transport service and other essential transport services, so that even in the very difficult months of March, April and May, when the country was by and large working from home and did not have access to services, we still maintained and ran our key ferries, flights and bus services. This ensured that our shelves were stocked with food and that there was still a skeletal service so that if essential workers and others had to get to work that service was there. That work, first and foremost, has to be recognised and applauded.
Over the coming weeks and months our priority is to facilitate the safe operation and the return of domestic and international travel, to protect those jobs and to protect the vital connectivity that the transport system brings to our country, particularly because we are an island nation.
I draw attention now to the aviation sector, because it is one of the sectors that has been hit worst. Not just here but in every country across the world there has been a dramatic reduction in the numbers of people flying with a dramatic impact on airlines, on airports, on people whose jobs rely on the airports and on the industrial and other premises that are attached to the aviation sector. They have been one of the hardest hit sectors in this pandemic. The question as to when aviation business may be able to resume in a meaningful way is clearly linked to the evolution of the virus, to ongoing travel restrictions and the advisories that may be in place, as well as to the general economic outlook. The Government is fully committed to protecting core international connectivity and is doing what it can to support the industry having regard to all of the demands of this particular time. We can, will and have to maintain connectivity. As an island nation we require, for our own essential purposes and for business connectivity and for a whole range of different needs, to maintain air connectivity into our island and this Government is committing to protecting, delivering and restoring that as best we can. We have had a number of meetings with key aviation stakeholders and my officials engage with airports and airlines on a continuous basis.
The Government has put in place a comprehensive suite of generalised supports for companies of all sizes, including those in the aviation sector, covering wage subsidy schemes, grants, low-cost loans, commercial rates write-offs, deferred tax liabilities and liquidity funding as well which is available through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, Pandemic Stabilisation and Recovery Fund.
We have already implemented several recommendations of the aviation task force, including the publication of safe air travel protocols, and the progression of a European slot waiver for airlines in consultation with European Commission.
Similar to the aviation sector, the maritime sector is in real trouble because of what has happened with the pandemic. Its importance is often overlooked but it is critical too, particularly for the development of cargo facilities into our country and to provide people with access to our island. The sector, while it has had real difficulty because of the pandemic, has proven resilient, competitive and robust right through the crisis. It continues to provide an essential lifeline to our key markets and a supply of essential goods into the country. Shipping operators, who I and my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, have met, are clear that their survival is not guaranteed should this pandemic and its associated impacts on international connectivity continue for a prolonged period. My Department is therefore working to determine what measures we can put in place that will ensure that this sector remains operational through the pandemic with the added complication and challenge of a no-deal Brexit looming. I am keenly aware that the challenges still remain and they are not just financial ones. The Department has taken a number of steps to ensure that maritime services continue, such as the facilitation of crew changes and the extension to seafarer certificates.
Last week the Government announced that Ireland will broadly support the European Commission proposals on both aviation and maritime passengers coming into the country. We will continue to engage with member states and with the Commission to develop a rating that is consistent with our public health needs. As a first step towards this Ireland’s green list has now been updated to include countries with a 14-day cumulative incident rate of 25 virus infections or less per 100,000 people. The normal precautions in security ratings apply to these countries and this move to the European approach on the green list will provide a degree of certainty in the scheduling of services.
However, in looking at other ways in which we could provide for the ramping up of passenger services, we must be mindful of the need to be consistent with public health requirements and cognisant of resources and the capacity available in our health sector for the testing and tracing of the public. It is vital that any alternative arrangements we put in place, including testing, do not undermine in any way the public health aspects of our response to the pandemic.
The Covid-19 crisis has also had a significant impact on public transport over the past number of months, including on bus services. Since the onset of the health emergency, measures have been introduced across the public transport system guided by public health advice to ensure the continued operation of public transport bus services during the pandemic. In common with most other countries, the public transport system has played an essential role, as I said at the outset, in carrying essential workers and making other necessary journeys possible.
A number of targeted Government decisions have been made throughout the crisis in addition to general supports that I mentioned earlier. They included a substantial increase in the 2020 budget for the existing public service obligation, PSO, system which was put in place on 4 June; the introduction of a new temporary financial support for certain licensed bus services. which was provided on 25 June; the introduction of mandatory face coverings on public transport on 26 June; and the introduction of enhancement to certain PSO bus services as announced under the stimulus package on 23 July.
I want to yield to my colleague, Deputy Naughton. I might come back in my closing summary to raise critical issues in regard to the taxi industry, which is in particular difficulty as we know from its members' protest last week, and also the potential for us to develop active travel solutions in this pandemic time. That is something we will always be focused on but I might return to that in my closing comments or when responding to comments that may be made by other Members of the House.