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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Sep 2020

Vol. 997 No. 7

Covid-19 (Transport): Statements

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, the Minister of State and I have met a range of stakeholders from the transport sector. 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 praise, in particular, the people who have been working in the industry, the bus and train drivers, the pilots and the 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, for business connectivity and for a range of different needs, to maintain air connectivity to our island and this Government is committed 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 continuously.

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 the 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 that I and my colleague, the Minister of State, 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 incidence 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 recent 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.

I wish to reiterate the points the Minister made in terms of the devastating impact Covid-19 has had on our transport sector and international networks. I have had several meetings with stakeholders in both the aviation and maritime sectors and I am acutely aware of the financial precipice on which they find themselves. I profoundly hope that the adoption of the broad EU approach to facilitating international travel next month will provide certainty and clarity for these sectors and enable their viable operation into 2021.

Considering the impact of Covid-19 on international travel and global supply chains, one of my key priorities is to ensure continuity of transport links to and from Ireland as well as ensuring that goods can continue to move throughout Ireland. During March and April, a drop in overall freight activity levels was evident given the temporary closure of many retail outlets and construction sites in Ireland and abroad. While supply chains are functioning well at the present time, we continue to closely monitor them.

As more shops and construction sites reopened through the phases of recovery and as other economies abroad began to reopen, business began to increase for hauliers. Heavy goods vehicle traffic on our roads has rebounded for the most part to 100% of pre-Covid traffic levels. Given the importance of the work of our road haulage sector during these difficult times, my Department implemented a number of measures to support the continued functioning of the sector in recent months, including a prolonged temporary derogation for certain provisions of the EU driving and rest hours rules, which expired at the end of May; the extension of expiry dates on driver certificate of professional competence cards of a maximum of six months up to 26 September; and the extension of validity periods for driver licences.

In addition, a number of communications have also been issued to help support the freight sector as it operates through these challenging times such as the public health guidance developed to assist hauliers in the safe operation of their job in an international environment. While lockdowns and other co-ordinated restrictive measures were implemented as necessary this year to save lives, these measures have also severely slowed down economies across the EU and can delay the delivery of critical goods and services. Working in co-operation with member states, the European Commission has taken a number of measures to ensure continued and uninterrupted land, water-borne and air cargo services. These services are of crucial importance for the functioning of the EU's internal market and its effective response to the current public health crisis.

Continuing in this vein, member states, under the stewardship of the German Presidency, are now calling on the Commission to consider drawing up a pandemic and crisis contingency plan for the European freight transport sector. I consider such a plan to be prudent. We must avoid a situation where member states act unilaterally to adopt their own diverging contingency measures. Being on the western extreme of the EU supply chain Ireland has a heavy reliance on all member states working together to ensure that goods can move freely across the EU and beyond, not just for land transport services but also for our shipping and aviation services.

Roadworks were suspended during the peak Covid-19 restrictions before recommencing in May. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has not reported significant national road project delays, although a slightly reduced productivity level has been noted. Just this week I was delighted to announce with the Minister the completion of a significant €14 million safety investment for the N60 in Roscommon. As well as the investment in active travel noted by the Minister, on foot of the Government's July stimulus package more than €10 million was awarded by the Department's regional and local roads division to local authorities for climate adaptation works. Under climate change adaptation measures, 273 projects are to be completed this year involving 150 schemes aimed at alleviating flooding to roads and property, 37 involving works to improve embankment stability to prevent slippage, 41 relating to essential road repairs associated with severe weather and 45 to bridge strengthening and repairs.

Operationally, road traffic volumes fell dramatically in spring due to Covid-19 travel restrictions to approximately one third of 2019 levels during April. They then recovered significantly as restrictions eased and appear to have plateaued recently at approximately 80% of 2019 levels. That is in contrast to public transport volumes, which remain depressed. Despite this fall in road traffic, however, road fatalities are higher than at this time last year. This is seriously concerning to me and, I am sure, to all Members. I appeal to our citizens to always drive safely.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of essential road safety services delivered by my Department and its agencies were closed or severely reduced. The national driver licence service, NDLS, the national car test, the commercial vehicle roadworthiness test and the driver testing and driver theory testing services closed in March 2020 as they could not be continued at that time in light of overriding considerations of public health. As a result, the Government moved to extend validity periods of the relevant permits and certificates to ensure people, including essential transport workers, could continue to drive, ensuring continued access to and provision of essential services. All services have now reopened although due to social distancing requirements not all are able to return to their pre-Covid capacity, and there remains some backlog. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, which operates the national driver licence service on behalf of the Department, continues to work with its providers to see how they can increase capacity within the NDLS while adhering to the return to work protocol. The RSA also hopes to extend its online services over the coming months, subject to the appropriate legislation and technical solutions being put in place.

The driver theory test system capacity since resumption has increased on pre-Covid levels with 19,000 tests per months as against 15,000 tests but the scale of the backlog, combined with the time of year when many school leavers will apply, means increased waiting lists. The RSA is working with the service provider to see how capacity can be further increased. My Department has already approved the retention and hiring of a number of temporary testers to assist in the situation. The authority recently submitted a comprehensive plan for addressing the demands on the service, which is being considered by my Department. It is important to be realistic. There are no easy fixes, and public health and safety must come first.

The transport sector has faced an unprecedented disruption over the past six months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Our priority as a Government is to support it through the coming year, ensuring its safe and continued operation, maintain our essential international connectivity, and protect its ongoing and fundamental contribution to our economy.

The next speaker is Deputy Darren O'Rourke. Is the Deputy sharing time?

I am sharing with Deputies Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Maurice Quinlivan; they may or may not arrive. I will have an opportunity during Question Time tomorrow to raise the taxi industry, public and school bus transport and other important issues relating to transport with the Ministers.

I will be glad to have the opportunity to do that. I want to focus today on the aviation industry. I echo the Minister's commendation of front-line transport workers during the Covid period. Although the aviation sector was one of the worst affected sectors, few specific proposals have been introduced to mitigate the damage caused by the pandemic in this area. The report, Focus on Aerospace & Aviation, prepared by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and published last month, highlights the value of the aviation sector to the State and outlines the huge challenges now posed as a result of Covid-19. Some 140,000 jobs are supported by the air transport sector here, but many are now in jeopardy due to the ongoing pandemic. The staff range from airport staff and cabin crew to mechanics and aircraft leasing employees. The industry is worth €8.9 billion to our economy. As an island nation, we depend on quality air connectivity more than most for business and tourism.

Page 8 of the report states:

Unaided, many airlines could go out of business before travel restrictions are lifted. Some governments have already provided loans or taken temporary equity stakes in airlines and airports to moderate disruption, for example in France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and the US.

On this point, what plans, if any, are afoot here to provide State support to airlines in the form in question? I am aware of the supports the Minister outlined in more general terms. The temporary wage subsidy scheme and the employment wage subsidy scheme remain in place.

Workers at Aer Lingus fear for the future of their jobs, given the crisis facing the aviation sector, which will stretch right into 2021 and beyond. If the treatment of these staff, in terms of the refusal to sign benefit entitlement forms, is anything to go by, these fears are well justified. That issue is not resolved. There is some movement on the employment wage subsidy scheme but the temporary wage subsidy scheme and back pay still need to be addressed. Could the Minister, in his closing comments, state whether he has made contact with the company or his colleague, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys? When will this issue be resolved? When will staff get their back pay?

On the company more generally, has the Government discussed a proposal on cash for equity in Aer Lingus to shore it up, protect jobs and guard against the loss of important routes? Similar moves are happening internationally and are being permitted under the relaxed EU state aid rules that have obtained during the pandemic. Earlier this year, the German state took a 20% stake in Lufthansa in exchange for a €9 billion rescue package. At the beginning of this month, the European Commission approved a €200 million bailout for Alitalia, with the Italian Government now retaking control of the airline. It is important that the Irish State try to protect as many jobs and routes as possible to ensure connectivity for the travel, business and inward tourism that we will depend on for our recovery.

It was a terrible decision to sell the State's remaining shares in Aer Lingus in 2015, and one Sinn Féin opposed. Fine Gael and the Labour Party ignored the very legitimate concerns raised at the time, and we are now living with the cost. A sum of €335 million was raised from the sale. The proceeds were used to set up a fund called the connectivity fund, managed by the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund. According to information I have recently received from the Minister for Finance, only €90 million of this has been invested to date, leaving a pot of €245 million unspent. Has the Minister examined using the money sitting idle in the connectivity fund to shore up jobs in the aviation sector, including through retaking a stake in Aer Lingus and providing financial assistance to our regional airports, such as Cork and Shannon, which are facing massive challenges?

Our regional airports are facing their biggest challenge due to Covid, with only a couple of flights in and out each day. Management at Cork Airport has said the Covid-19 crisis has had a catastrophic impact on the airport's finances, with passenger numbers having fallen by 95% during lockdown and not expected to recover to 2019 levels for another four years. The airport said it will lose around €20 million this year as a result of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Aer Lingus and Ryanair have threatened to close operations at Shannon Airport, which would be a serious blow for the entire mid-west and fly in the face of the objective of balanced regional development.

Is the Minister planning to provide financial assistance in the upcoming budget to airports affected by the pandemic? I am not for a second suggesting we automatically dance to the tune of the multimillionaires who run Ryanair and Aer Lingus but we have to recognise that when we come out the other side of this, we will need an aviation sector that is intact and strong.

Airlines will cite the Government's approach to international travel as one of the factors contributing to some of their current difficulties. Six months into the pandemic, it is shameful that we still have no testing capabilities in our airports, nor even the most basic temperature screening of arriving passengers. People fill in a form and they are literally on their way. One will not find a less restrictive process anywhere else in the world these days. We now have seven countries on the green list. As of an hour ago, with Germany having been added to the list, six of the seven countries have restrictions on Irish people travelling thereto. Most of them have some sort of testing regime. If other countries around the world have introduced testing and temperature screening at their airports, why has the Irish Government decided to take a different approach? At the Covid committee this morning, we heard about the opportunity that exists regarding testing. I will not elaborate on that but will let my colleagues contribute.

I wish to raise directly with the Minister the serious problems that have emerged with school transport in Donegal and across the rest of the State. The Minister, in conjunction with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, overlooked the school transport challenge under the umbrella of the back-to-school plan in a very clear way. Every year at this time, families are always left behind under the eligible and concessionary tickets system. It is a major problem in rural areas, including rural Donegal, because parents may have to travel 20 miles, or maybe more, in one direction to get to work although the school is in the opposite direction. It is not practical for parents to get to work on time, put a roof over their family's head and get their children to school. Post-primary school is the concern in the case in question.

Every year, there are families left behind. We work through it with Bus Éireann and the Department of Education and Skills and find a solution. This year, however, what has been said to Bus Éireann is that any families who did not avail of the ticket before 4 August will have to wait until 50% capacity is reached. In the likes of Donegal, the private transport operators joined other operators across the State to appeal for financial supports beyond the pandemic unemployment payment. Their industry is in genuine crisis and they really were not financially supported by the Government. They were left blowing in the wind. Those very people are now being asked to bail out our school transport system in order for it to reach 50% capacity. This would of course be desirable in the current climate but surely to God the first thing that should be done is look after the families who have missed out.

When the Department of Education and Skills instructed that the portal application system be opened, we all believed the directive had changed. I learned very quickly it had not and that the instruction to the bus operators who work under Bus Éireann was that they are not to allow a child on a bus unless he or she has a physical ticket from before 4 August.

Lots of families have been left behind and this is a huge crisis for them. In summarising later, will the Minister address what he, working with the Minister for Education and Skills, will do to resolve this issue?

I will tell him what the solution is and it is very simple. First, Bus Éireann, working with the Department of Education and Skills, must ensure there is capacity for every single child or student who needs it, be it on an eligible or concessionary basis. As the Minister will be aware, concessionary means the parents pay for the service. Parents are, or course, willing and happy to do that but we cannot leave them behind before we look for 50% capacity. The solution is simple. A clear statement should be issued to Bus Éireann that the Department of Education and Skills, in conjunction with the Minister's Department, will resource this service to make sure nobody is left behind, after which it will push towards 50% capacity.

The Department must ensure the private transport operators are resourced in order that they can bail out the Government in this regard. I am sorry for eating into my colleague's time.

I will raise a number of transport issues with the Minister, particularly as they affect my home city of Limerick and the wider mid-west region. I will refer to the proposed northern distributor road and the road from Limerick to Cork but the two issues I want to focus on are the viability of Shannon Airport and the Limerick tunnel.

Shannon Airport, as the Minister will be well aware, is the heart that makes the economy of Limerick, particularly west Limerick, function. The viability of Shannon Airport is fundamental to the economic performance of the mid-west region. Unfortunately, since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the news emanating from the airport has rarely been positive. In fact, it has been disastrous. There have been threats by airlines to cut transatlantic routes. We also had the spectre of job losses and the near-complete collapse of the aviation industry in the State. On top of all this, we have warnings from Ryanair that it may close its base at Shannon over the winter months. In her report, Mid-west Economic Insights, Dr. Catriona Cahill highlighted that Shannon Airport contributes €3.6 billion to the regional economy and supports almost 55,000 jobs. All of this is at risk without strategic intervention by the Government.

Beyond the aviation industry, the mid-west region is extremely dependent on Shannon Airport. Industries have been established in the industrial parks around Limerick and Shannon and many of the firms involved set up operations on the basis of being located close to a functioning international airport with worldwide connections through Heathrow and Boston. It is bizarre that we have a region so heavily dependent on Shannon Airport, yet more than 90% of new airline routes are assigned to Dublin.

Given the plethora of negative news, it is clear the airport and, by extension, the mid-west region, are in a difficult place. I have been critical of the management of Shannon Airport in the past and, unfortunately, I have seen little from it since that gives me cause to change my mind.

In 2012, my party flagged the difficulties with separating Shannon Airport from Dublin Airport Authority, DAA. Regrettably, our warnings were not heeded and our concerns have been borne out as legitimate. It is high time the Government recognised the folly of this move and took remedial action to bring control of Shannon Airport back under the canopy of DAA.

I am hopeful the Minister will today provide a definite date for the completion and publication of the review of Shannon Group PLC. The report of the task force for aviation recovery was issued almost three months ago, yet we have seen no proposals from the Government. In this State, 140,000 jobs are supported by the aviation sector. These people need clarity on their position. The Government must expedite the publication of this new aviation policy and the Shannon review report.

I will use my final minute to make some remarks about the Limerick tunnel. The tunnel is fantastic infrastructure that alleviates some of the traffic problems in the city but the initial estimate that it would take up to 20,000 cars daily from Limerick's streets has not been achieved. This is despite the tunnel having the capacity to accommodate 40,000 cars daily.

Since schools have returned, the constant theme on Limerick local radio and bulletins is traffic delays on the Condell Road and the Dock Road. Shannon Bridge gives immediate access to Condell Road and 15,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily from the north side of Limerick. Limerick City and County Council estimates that 10,000 of these turn right onto the Dock Road heading in the direction of Dooradoyle, Mungret and further afield. I mention this in reference to the Limerick tunnel because the tunnel should offer an alternative route for some of those vehicles. Further use of tunnel could and should alleviate traffic congestion across Limerick. The tunnel is underused for a myriad of reasons and I believe that chief among them is cost and location. We cannot change its location but perhaps we can do something about costs. My party advised at the commencement of its construction that it was too close to the city to build. It is wonderful infrastructure but it is of minimal use owing to its current configuration.

Has the effectiveness of Limerick tunnel been reviewed by the Department? How feasible would it be to reduce or remove the toll for the use of this roadway? The tunnel was designed as a remedy for traffic congestion in Limerick city at huge cost to the Exchequer. Unfortunately, it has not achieved that objective.

I hope to raise a number of issues tomorrow during oral questions. On that basis, I will confine my brief contribution to those who should be travelling by air and those who use transport on the ground.

In the past couple of months, I and others, including Deputy O'Rourke, have spent an awful lot of time in this Chamber and behind the scenes trying to resolve an infuriating social welfare issue for workers in Aer Lingus. This was at a time when we should all have been concentrating our efforts on trying to navigate towards a solution, one where we would have a regime in place that would allow our aviation industry to reopen safely within public health guidelines, while giving workers some light at the end of tunnel. While we hope the social welfare issue has reached some kind of resolution, where has it left us? It has left these same workers still getting low levels of pay, even if they are now getting their full entitlement to short-time work or jobseeker's allowance.

We still do not have a testing and tracing regime in place. When the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, appeared before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response at the start of August he said the Government was working on such a system. That was almost two months ago now and there seems to have been no progress on that.

Last week, the Tánaiste stated on national media that we needed to get to a place where we have pre-departure screening and testing. He indicated, however, that this was a long way away. Imagine a worker in the aviation industry, either in an airline or in support working in catering or cleaning and servicing our airlines, hearing that months into this pandemic, after the industry was shut down so quickly and understandably - the workers understood the reason early on - there is still no light at the end of the tunnel.

We were given the news today that Germany has put Ireland on its red list. If any of us was to fly into any airport in Germany, not just in the capital, we would be able to avail of a free Covid test. Germany has that in place right now. We do not even have anything close to that in place in the airport in our capital, never mind in our regional airports, which are also struggling during this pandemic.

It is clear the Minister for Health cannot lead on all things Covid and, to be fair to him, we understand that his brief is in health and that non-Covid-related health issues are mounting. We need the Minister for Transport's voice on this. Livelihoods are at stake and we need the Minister to take a real lead. All the aviation workers want is to see light at the end of the tunnel. They want a pathway in which they can believe. They want to know they will have a livelihood and work to go to in a few months.

I will speak briefly on cyclists. One of the noticeable changes during the restrictions earlier this year was an increase in cyclists on our streets. This was obviously because there were fewer cars and people felt safer and cycled more. Unfortunately, they were not safer and the number of fatalities has continued at a similar, if not slightly higher, rate as last year, even though vehicular traffic has decreased. On Sunday, we had another cyclist fatality in a tragedy in my constituency. At the start of the month, we had the tragic passing of Thiago Cortes on the streets of Dublin. Almost 19 years ago, I witnessed a fatal collision involving a cyclist on the quays in Dublin city. There can be different factors involved in every incident involving the death of a cyclist. However, every death of a cyclist is linked not only by virtue of being a common tragedy but also by the fact that our roads remain unsafe for cyclists. We have seen work on the segregation of cycle lanes in and around Dublin and other cities during this pandemic. That is to be welcomed but we need ambitious plans to improve the situation.

We need to look at the roads leading into our major cities and towns. Former national roads, such as the N1 and the N2, have been bypassed by motorways and are ideal to give primacy for cyclists who commute every day on their bicycles. We need to come out of this pandemic and if we can provide resources in that regard, it would be fantastic.

I want to discuss pedestrians and people with disabilities. At the very basic level of transport we need local authorities to undertake an ambitious project of accessibility audits for every town and village. It is happening on a piecemeal and ad hoc basis. Journeys that all of us in this Chamber take for granted can be arduous or sometimes impossible for people who are in wheelchairs or have mobility issues. Simple remedies such as the dishing of paths, the matching up of paths with the opposite side of the road and pedestrian crossings are rather mundane and unsexy when it comes transport, but they are the bedrock on which safe and secure transportation networks are based.

We have legislation providing for access officers in all public bodies. Only 23 of our local authorities have hired access officers and, within that, the work of access officers is unclear. We need dedicated disability officers in every local authority to work with operations and planning departments to ensure that not only do we rectify the past mistakes in the building of our towns and villages, but that we plan for the future through our development plans so that everywhere is safe, secure and accessible for people with disabilities.

In dealing with Covid, we have tried to do two things. We have tried to grapple, in some cases, with an infrastructural deficit to try to continue normal life, while at the same time we need to look forward to ensure that the supports that are in place are protected for the security and connectivity of the island.

Let me deal with three sectors. In July, I was delighted when the public consultation period opened for the extension of the Luas green line to Finglas, an area that is exclusively reliant on bus services, which have posed a real challenge during the Covid-19 pandemic. The planned extension of the Luas will see a 4 km track travel through from Tolka Valley Park through Mellowes Road. Some limited objections have been made, which I believe the NTA will address locally. The people of Finglas are very grateful this project has been announced. The difficulty is that the previous Government made much of this, but it remains what is called a post-2027 project in the national development plan.

I do not need to persuade the Minister of the benefits of public transport, which he has championed for many years. I hope that in the review of the national development plan this Government can bring that project forward from a post-2027 project to a much earlier construction date. As I have said, my area is exclusively reliant on bus services from Santry right across to Finglas. The 50% Covid capacity limit has posed a major challenge.

I welcome the Government's plan to live with Covid and the task force for the aviation sector. I urge the Minister to do as much as he can to engage with unions and the airlines to ensure that the long-term connectivity of the island is maintained. I worked in Dublin Airport, which is a fantastic community but it is a very frightened community at the moment. They cannot see hope on the horizon but we can provide it for them.

Taxi drivers are a very important public transport resource. I have raised this issue several times in recent weeks. The Government has indicated it will provide some support or step-down facility to allow self-employed people, in particular, to go back to work with some level of State support. I urge the Minister to do everything he can in his discussions with the other coalition parties and with his Cabinet colleagues. We need taxi drivers in this city. They are an important part of public transport. I urge the Minister to do everything he can on those three issues.

I thank the Minister for attending to hear some of the points I want to make on transport. During a Topical Issue debate before the Dáil rose for the summer, I raised with him the issue of traffic congestion around Castlemartyr, which is causing immense problems for the community in Youghal and Midleton. The national development plan review will come up shortly. I reiterate that this project should be put in the national development plan as it is vital to the economic future of the communities I represent and that I previously represented as a councillor before I was elected to Dáil Éireann.

A number of issues in the Cork East constituency need to be addressed, including the ability of commuters using public transport services to avail of the green zone fare in the Cork region and Cork county. There is significant discrimination affecting those in large towns in the vicinity of Cork city that have very good public transport links to the city. Towns such as Midleton, Mallow, Fermoy and Youghal have good bus services. Some of those towns also have rail connections. There is a big discrepancy in the fare structure in place and whether people can utilise the Leap card service. If we want to get cars off the road, we need to make public transport affordable. For all areas outside the green zone area in Cork East, that is a major issue. It is extremely expensive for people who want to commute on public transport from towns such as Mitchelstown and Youghal to Cork.

Another issue is coming up repeatedly. We are getting calls, texts and social media messages sometimes in the middle of the night from people who have been left standing at bus stops throughout the constituency because the public transport services are deeply unreliable and are insufficient to meet demand.

I want to highlight another issue with Bus Éireann. Parents of children with serious cognitive disabilities who are attending day services are finding it almost impossible, in particular in Youghal, to get their children onto bus services, which is deeply concerning. I would like the Minister to make an effort with Bus Éireann to see if a small number of seats could be reserved for children attending day services in rural communities such as the one I represent so that they can travel between Youghal and Dungarvan. That is a very valid point raised with me by the Youghal autism group. I commend them on the work they are doing. This is an easy problem to solve and it would make an enormous difference to those families to know their children would have a place on the Bus Éireann service.

It is deeply annoying that Bus Éireann operates an Expressway service, which is a commercial service, and also the PSO services. There is a significant price discrepancy between the two. On the one hand, the NTA advises us that it can operate these PSO services with greatly inflated prices, in some cases double what is being charged on the Expressway services, while, on the other, Bus Éireann claims it can operate a commercial Bus Éireann service at half the rate, which apparently is making a profit. The company is hiding behind the excuse of having them under so-called promotional fares, which should be full-time fares for the community.

We are asleep at the wheel in respect of the opportunities to take cars off the road in Cork city and county. Thousands of people commute from east Cork to Cork city for work every day, but they must do so in their private cars because there is no reliable and affordable public transport option.

I said to the Minister on a previous occasion that if one goes down to the Jack Lynch tunnel in the evening, one will see that the number of vehicles trying to exit the south side of Cork city daily is absolutely frightening. There are almost 100,000 vehicles using the South Ring Road interchange with the M25 at Dunkettle. It is staggering that there is no public transport service on this route, which connects universities, colleges, hospitals and everything else in the southern part of Cork city. For the tens of thousands of people who live in the east Cork area, there are no public transport services going under the tunnel to link up communities like those in Mahon Point, Douglas and Ringaskiddy, where there are thousands of people working in multinational companies, retail, health services and so on. It would be a simple thing to begin the process of addressing these problems. Will the Minister commit to undertaking a feasibility study with a view to ensuring these issues are examined and to see whether potential solutions can be found?

I thank the Minister for listening to the points I have raised and I look forward to engaging with him on all of them.

I have three issues to raise with the Minister. The first concerns Cork Airport and the aviation sector generally, as also referred to by previous speakers. Cork Airport is responsible directly for some 2,200 jobs and indirectly for another 10,000. Those thousands of families are deeply worried at this time. Ryanair is threatening to pull its base in Cork, as is Aer Lingus. While I recognise that decisions were made in the interests of public health regarding international travel during the Covid crisis, which I support and agree were necessary, we need now to plan for the future. We know that aviation will not go back to normal today or tomorrow. We also know that Cork needs a viable international airport to enable it to grow in accordance with what is planned for the region under Project Ireland 2040. The airport is an essential strategic asset to the region. My priority in terms of Cork Airport is working with management and workers to seek solutions. We need direct investment in the airport and to have a high-quality testing regime in place for the aviation industry generally. I submitted parliamentary questions on these matters to the Minister in recent days and I hope I will get comprehensive answers to them. I am asking the Minister to do whatever he can to ensure these jobs are safeguarded and that Cork Airport has a viable future.

The second issue I want to raise relates to the Cork metropolitan area transport strategy. I was one of the first Cork Deputies in the last Dáil to push for the provision of a light rail service for the city, which I was glad to see included in the strategy. However, my fear is that there are many ambitious targets for the long term but not enough for the short and medium term. My understanding is that the proposed east-west line is too limited and that a north-south line is also needed. In the shorter term, there is scope to look at investing more substantially in our traditional bus service and to look towards Belfast's Glider service. A bus rapid transit service would be far quicker and easier to deliver than a light rail service. It would operate on the existing bus corridors and work on the project could begin quickly. It would be a new and eye-catching service, which would capture the imagination of the people of Cork.

Finally, I draw the Minister's attention to the L2455 road improvement scheme. He might wish to write that down. The delays to this local road project have been going on for some 15 years and the road itself represents the worst of Celtic tiger planning. There is a community of approximately 1,000 people living in housing estates in Cork city who are within the same distance of other suburbs as this Chamber is from Pearse Station but they cannot get out of their estates. There are no footpaths and it is not safe to cycle. It is absolutely incomprehensible that the communities in Lehenagh Beg and Lehenagh More have been left to deal with this situation. This road project, which is going out to public consultation soon, will be expensive to complete, but this community has been let down again and again. Some of that is the responsibility of Cork City Council. When the project lands on the Minister's desk, I ask that he provide the funding to allow it to proceed. It is important for the road safety of motorists but also, more crucially, of pedestrians and cyclists.

Agus muid ag dul i dtreo fhoilsiú bhuiséad 2021, beidh go leor plé á dhéanamh faoin ráta dífhostaíochta agus faoin mbealach inar féidir linn fostaíocht a chruthú, taobh amuigh de na cathracha móra ach go háirithe. Ar ndóigh, beidh tionscnaimh chaipitiúla lárnach sa phlé sin. Sílim gurb é seo seans don Rialtas cuí a chur ar bhóithre Chonamara. Níl bóthar maith amháin istigh i gConamara faoi láthair. Tá roinnt oibre á déanamh ar an N59 as Gaillimh go dtí an Clochán ach tá deacrachtaí leis an gcuid eile dóibh. Ba cheart na deacrachtaí sin a réiteach go práinneach. Rinne Comhairle Contae na Gaillimhe iarracht bóthar nua a dhéanamh as Gaillimh go Scríb ach arís tháinig deacrachtaí timpeallachta sa bhealach orthu. Dá mbeadh an bóthar nua sin ann, bheadh lánaí rothar ann chomh maith le seans páirceáil agus taisteal. Tá sé ráite ag innealtóirí sinsearacha nach féidir caoi cheart a chur ar bhóthar atá siar le farraige as Gaillimh trí Chonamara toisc go bhfuil an iomarca bóithríní beaga ag síneadh uaidh. Níl sé ceart ná cóir go mbeadh muintir Chonamara fágtha ar an gcaoi seo. Scríobh mé litir chuig an Aire an tseachtain seo caite faoi Bhóthar Chuan na Loinge atá ag cur bac ar dhaoine dul ag an obair ná ar scoil mar gheall go bhfuil sé faoi uisce chomh minic sin. Tá fadhb amháin eile ann. Níl córas iompair phoiblí sásúil i gConamara ach an oiread. Tá an costas céanna de €13 ar bhus ón gCeathrú Rua go Ghaillimh is atá ar bhus ó Gaillimh go Baile Átha Cliath. Níl sé sásúil.

I want to raise the issue of the dangerous condition of roads in Connemara. As we approach budget 2021, we will need to look at job creation and capital investment projects. I urge the Minister to consider the really dangerous conditions of the roads in Connemara and to intervene urgently to address this situation. The road from Barna to Screebe, which includes cycle lanes, is a prime example of this. I wrote to the Minister last week about the condition of the road at Cuan na Luinge, which has been sinking and is now impassable for residents in the area. The unfortunate reality is that the people of Connemara have few alternatives because there is no adequate bus service. The bus from Carraroe to Galway city costs €13, which is the same as one would pay to go from Galway city to Dublin by bus. I ask the Minister to intervene in this matter without delay.

It is fair to say that the transport sector has been one of the most impacted by the Covid crisis. During the lockdown, buses, trains and trams ran regularly, but were virtually empty, to ensure there was transport for essential workers. During this time, there was almost no income coming in for the operators. While a subvention under the public service obligation was allocated for the sector in the last budget, it certainly will not be enough to cover that loss of income. Will the Minister indicate how the allocation for 2020 will be handled and what amount of money will be given? After the lockdown, the advice from NPHET was to practise social distancing on buses, trains and trams, which is having an ongoing impact on revenues. I am sure there will be something to address this in the budget next month. Private transport providers who operate on a wholly commercial basis are being impacted by the Covid restrictions in the same way as those operators that are funded from the levy.

Dublin Bus usually alters its timetables when schools return but it has not done so this year because it has not received the necessary funding from the NTA to do so. This is creating very significant problems, not for millions of people but certainly for a cohort. It needs to be addressed because it is leading to a lot of additional and needless traffic around schools.

I do not need to tell the Minister that we are playing catch-up when it comes to sustainable transport provision and encouraging cycling and walking. There has been a good investment in that area this year, in addition to the funding that was provided last year. It is really important that we know what outcome we will get from that funding. It is not necessarily buckets of white paint we need but decent networks. An audit of the funding is required. Change needs to be delivered not in a fragmented way but through planning incrementally, which is a different thing entirely, so that we end up with a network at the end of it.

We had a debate in the House in recent weeks on the situation of small public service vehicle operators. There is no doubt that there are significant problems as a consequence of the loss of tourism, restrictions on the entertainment sector and the numbers of people previously working in towns and cities who are now working at home. There is a real difficulty for people making a living in that sector and there is no clear end in sight.

As an island nation on the edge of Europe, we will be even more exposed from January next year when Brexit happens. Both airports and seaports are a big issue in this context, just as they are in regard to Covid. A task force was set up by the previous Minister to examine this issue and there has been some criticism that its recommendations were not implemented.

It was a snapshot and we have a better idea now that this is going to be a much longer-term issue. How we protect public health while at the same time managing the aviation sector is a big challenge. For example, many international airports have testing facilities and we do not yet. The Minister might address what part that might play. We have now moved to a green list, which we are told is the real green list. Is it intended to introduce a red list and even more controls? We cannot take a risk but, at the same time, this is an important sector. According to the aviation recovery task force, the key numbers from Oxford Economics indicate that the estimated GDP contribution of air transport to Ireland was €8.9 million. A total of 140,000 jobs were supported by the aviation sector and the estimated GDP contribution of foreign tourists was €8.7 billion. If we remember back to the period following the previous crash, the tourism sector was the one that started to deliver in terms of a recovery. While we cannot look at that with any degree of certainty at this stage, we have to ensure we end up with a viable aviation sector post-Covid. Having listened to representatives of the aviation sector at the Covid committee, I do not see how that can happen without an injection of funds to the sector. Setting it up again is going to be very different for the Minister than scaling up a sector that is underperforming for all the reasons we know about. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about that sector. In 2018, domestic tourism made a contribution of €3.3 billion to the economy, which is a significant amount, but foreign visitors contributed almost three times that.

Our ports are also going to be challenged. I have had the benefit of visiting Dublin Port to look at the initiatives it has taken. What they have done is very impressive and going out there to look at the level of preparedness was very worthwhile. However, other ports require attention if we are to see the traffic as something we can distribute in a much more equal way. The Minister might address those few questions in his response.

The next slot is a Government one with Deputies Cahill, Michael Moynihan and Higgins.

I have a number of different issues relating to transport and Covid to draw to the Minister's attention. The first of these is coach tourism. As part of the July stimulus, private bus operators were provided with a package of €10 million. The Minster for Public Expenditure and Reform had a meeting with me and representatives of the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland, CTTC. Coach tourism is a vibrant and highly successful industry in Ireland. As a result of the lockdown and the impact the pandemic has had on international visitors coming into Ireland, this industry has come to a complete and utter halt. With travel restrictions still in place, there is unfortunately no sign of this industry finding its feet any time soon. It is essential that this industry be protected so that the tourism industry can recover to pre-Covid levels after the pandemic passes. If the industry is not supported, viable businesses will close and we will be left without a transport system for tourists when this sector eventually returns to normal. The fairest way the €10 million can be divided is on a pro rata basis. The stimulus should be divided on a fair principle that those most affected must receive the most support. I understand a consultant has been engaged by the Department to determine how this money should be divided within the industry. I ask the Minister to ensure common sense prevails. We must get these businesses the money they need as a matter of urgency and it needs to be divided fairly. The CTTC has prepared a pre-budget submission. I urge the Minister to listen to their points and give them serious consideration. Their main point is that they require €42.5 million as part of a direct Government subsidy to help with the dramatic stoppage of almost all of their tourism operations. I urge the Minister to consider the issues the CTTC is drawing his attention to. It has also suggested that the €10 million should be divided based on last year's tourism-related turnover and that is the common sense way to approach it.

I refer to school transport. We are still yet to receive a response to the complaints raised by parents all around the country about the lack of capacity on school buses. My county of Tipperary is badly affected by this issue. There are school routes where more than 20 students have been refused concessionary tickets due to lack of capacity. For example, upwards of 24 students have been refused spaces on the Hollyford-Upperchurch route. I have also made representations on behalf of families in Moneygall who have children travelling to secondary school in Nenagh. Their concessionary tickets have also been refused and this is putting parents under extreme pressure to organise alternative transport for the past few weeks. The Cloneen to Ballingarry route is also facing similar difficulties. There are not enough spaces on the bus routes and a number of students are being refused. There is a simple solution to this: we need additional buses on the roads. Parents are under significant pressure to get their children to school in the morning when they are trying to get to work. Some of these families have had access to school transport on this route for five or six years and such a dramatic change in conditions needs to be addressed.

Finally, taxi drivers provide a vital service to certain parts of rural County Tipperary where there is no public transport. Many people rely on services such as the individual local taxi driver to get in and out of the local town or village for shopping and personal reasons. I call for consideration to be made for taxi drivers. Their businesses have taken an enormous hit as a result of the pandemic and the restrictions they are expected to operate under. I have been contacted by a number of taxi drivers who are requesting that their licences be renewed free of charge and that they be given access to interest-free loans to enable them to meet the costs of operating their services.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Since 12 March, the world as we knew it has well and truly been turned upside down. Many of the things we had previously taken as gospel in our transport planning are now in question. Further urbanisation, increasing commuter numbers, the decline of rural towns and more have been thrown into question by the onset of remote working on an unprecedented scale. Before 12 March the main roads into our cities were heaving with traffic each day from the early hours until late at night. Packed buses meant people were faced with a daily struggle to get to and from their workplaces. Today, many of those commuters are working from home. Those who must commute are doing so in a fraction of the time and buses operating at a fraction of the normal capacity are getting people to work faster. We have people who spent hours of their day sitting in cars instead of spending time with their families. We have had money being spent in local economies which would previously have been spent in major cities. We have fewer cars on our roads, which is driving down emissions and helping us to meet our climate change targets.

Amid all the tragedy and disappointment we have all experienced over the past six months, these changes are some of the few positives we can take from the experience. We have learned that spending more time with our families and in our communities does not have to be a mutually exclusive choice. The illusion that a person must be in their cubicle to be productive has been broken and employers in many industries understand that. Many will not return to their former ways of life unless they must. I believe we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make this change permanent, at least partially. I accept that the speed of this transition could not have been predicted. What would previously have taken decades has instead happened over a six-month period. No Government could expect to react in that time. We do, however, find ourselves with important choices to make. First, we have the choice of how we choose to react to this change. Do we forge a return to the status quo and all the negatives that go with it?

Will we return to longer and longer commutes with more and more cars on the roads, spewing more and more toxic fumes, to jobs in our cities where we do not want or need to be? Instead, will we opt to be brave? Will we decide that we will retain this to the greatest extent possible? Will we ask ourselves how we can build a system that encourages those working from home to continue to do so in the long term while retaining access to services they need when they need them?

I do not believe we should go back to the status quo. I do not believe it is sustainable in the long run. We need to begin the work now to move in a new direction. Important work needs to be done if we are to achieve this. We need to start by expanding on the existing Amárach research and collect information on the number of employers and employees who are considering making the current arrangements permanent. Should we like to do so, we need to understand where in the country the people and businesses are and what they need. For employers in particular who could do so but who are not considering at least some element of continuing to work from home we need to understand their concerns and what needs to be done to support them. When this work has been done we will need to work to address their concerns. After this, we will need to assess how our transport system will work to assist it. I strongly believe a social dividend should come from the current crisis. The Minister should work towards this end now.

There is a real problem in my constituency. Many children in Lucan are having great difficulty getting to school. Social distancing rules have reduced capacity on our local Dublin buses and our school transport buses. What are the many small bus operators who run just one bus service a day supposed to do? It is just not financially viable for them to operate at half capacity. This creates a real dilemma for bus operators, children and parents. There have been situations in my constituency where children were literally left on the side of the road awaiting collection. Utter panic ensued. Parents stuck in work had no way of ensuring their child got home safely. Even today, a Dublin Bus on the 66 route from Lucan to Leixlip, which runs at a reduced capacity, turned away schoolchildren because there was no room on board the bus.

Joined up Government thinking can help resolve this. A tweak to the pandemic unemployment payment that would enable one of the worst hit sectors of the economy to take on school transport work would be a win-win. What do I mean by this? I mean that bus drivers, whose bread and butter business comes from the tourism trade and bringing US tourists on the Ring of Kerry or collecting holiday makers from cruise liners in Dublin, and who do not want to be sitting at home doing nothing while their buses are parked up gathering dust, are given the opportunity to help resolve this while continuing to claim their payments.

The pandemic unemployment payment was a welcome relief to thousands of people who found themselves unemployed so suddenly in March due to Covid-19. It was put in place seamlessly by the Government and it gave more than 400,000 people hope that they could meet their rent and pay their bills and would not need to worry about a roof over their heads. The wage subsidy scheme has been of huge benefit to people in these impacted industries. Unfortunately, six months later, we still find ourselves in uncharted waters. If small bus operators were allowed to retain their payments and do a small amount of work they could help with school transport. Private bus contractors operate approximately 90% of all school transport services. They are all working at reduced capacity. With joined up thinking we could supplement this fleet with buses and bus drivers currently out of work. Will the Minister work with his colleagues, the Ministers with responsibility for education and social protection, to resolve this issue and get small bus operators back to work so children can safely travel to school without disrupting the working week of parents while reducing pressure on the likes of the 66 bus route from Lucan?

With regard to public transport and Covid-19, I want to raise the roads less travelled within and between the towns and hinterlands of north Kildare and the connectivity between these areas and the rest of the country and, in the main, Dublin. For many in north Kildare, Dublin is so close but for medical appointments or a visit to family and friends the lack of public transport makes it a step too far.

Public transport is our future. For climate action purposes we simply must get more cars off the road by making public transport the preferred choice. While the message right now is to avoid public transport because of public health advice, many cannot do so. We should not be reducing the frequency of public transport or the number of train carriages. We should be increasing the frequency and capacity to facilitate social distancing so when we come out the other side of this we can have a decent, well-run and functional public transport system throughout the State.

Crucially, we must have access to more and better public transport for our people in rural Ireland. This is common sense. However, at present the community in Rathcoffey in north Kildare is looking at access to the bus that goes from Naas General Hospital to Blanchardstown with something approaching longing. We have to fix this. It can be fixed simply by looking at the route and adapting it to facilitate more commuters. Just as we have to fix the way Covid-19 is exposing the fault lines throughout our society we also have fault lines evident in public transport. Equally, for people dependent on public transport we cannot have vehicles filled to the limit sailing past bus stops and leaving them stranded. This is a common occurrence for the people of Kilcock. While at present it does not happen every day, it had started to return when the Covid levels were low during the summer.

We have to address capacity and frequency on public transport. The news emerging about the significance of aerosol transmission is an issue not alone for schools but also for trains and buses. I presume the Minister and the Minister for Health are looking at this with all of the necessary urgency. It is all well and good for new Deputies to be coming in here and making statements in the Chamber but it is quite frustrating. This might be where issues are raised but it is at the committees where they are sorted. Can we please get the committees up and running so we can start getting on with the real work?

I want to raise two issues to do with transport in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath. The first is the reopening of Killucan train station. Discussion on this dates back to 2006. It is on the Dáil record and the Minister can check. Parliamentary questions have been asked back and forth for years. It was stated in an assessment a number of years ago that it would cost €1.5 million to make the station operational again. For nigh on 20 years, the residents of Killucan and Kinnegad have lobbied the Department with responsibility for transport and worked closely with various Ministers and Irish Rail, all with a view to reopening the station to the betterment of the area and commuters.

The population of Kinnegad and Killucan grew manyfold during the Celtic tiger years. There are now thousands more people living in the wider area than when the station was closed almost 60 years ago. Reopening the station would not only make economic sense but it would also make sense from environmental, tourism and common sense perspectives. Recent correspondence I have from Irish Rail states it would provide the technical expertise and skills but is not in a position to provide financial contributions.

The second issue is the advanced plans for the Mullingar bus service. Mullingar is one of the towns recognised in the national development plan. It has a growing population. Its population density indicates it would support a public transport system. It has a population of more than 20,000 people. We have a central train and bus station, approximately a dozen primary and national schools, four secondary schools and a regional hospital. However, we do not have a town transport system. Approximately 6,000 trips are made daily for work and education. Three out of every four trips, and half of the school trips, are by car but 18% of the population does not have access to the primary car in their household. Planning is going ahead for a bus service. Design routes are being given priority. Public consultation is planned for later in the year. Contract documents are in preparation. However, the NTA has said it does not have any funding yet identified for the project. This is beyond disappointing. These are only two of the transport issues in my constituency. The constituency already has a very fractured or non-existent public transport system. I am looking for a commitment that these projects will be prioritised for capital funding.

I am sharing time with Deputies Barry and Paul Murphy.

For months, I have been raising the plight of 22,000 taxi drivers whose livelihoods have been devastated by the Covid pandemic. Apart from a little bit of tea and sympathy, this and the previous Government have completely ignored and failed to provide support to them. The taxi drivers who took to the streets in unprecedented numbers a week ago will be protesting again on 9 October. This time it will be a day-long protest with taxi drivers coming from all parts of Dublin city.

They have been forced to organise another protest because of the failure of the Minister and the Government to listen to them or give them any assurances of real support. They cannot even get under freedom of information provisions the answer to the question as to whether the NTA made any recommendations to support them to the Minister or the Minister for Finance. They have had no traction on the request that the ten-year rule for the replacement of vehicles would be extended to 12 years because they do not have the money to do so. What are they supposed to do? There is nothing on an income subsidy. For many taxi drivers, they incur €11,000 in costs before they make a cent. Now, given the new restrictions, they have less of a chance of making a living. Will the Minister give the assurances and supports for which the taxi drivers are asking? They do not want to protest but they are determined to continue and will do so on 9 October if the Minister does not listen.

The aviation industry has been decimated, as the Minister knows. Surely who we need heading the Irish Aviation Authority is somebody who will defend the rights of workers in the industry, who will be scrupulous about safety on the airlines and about protecting consumer rights. What do we get? We get the appointment of Diarmuid Ó Conghaile, whose former job was as chief executive of Malta Air, a wholly owned subsidiary of Ryanair. Ryanair is accused by its workers of running out trade union activists, forcing people into bogus self-employment, flouting all social distancing regulations, refusing to comply with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, regulations and so on. It also has a rotten record when it comes to consumers. However, this is the person we put in charge of the Irish Aviation Authority. Seriously, what is the Minister up to?

I welcome the fact that taxi drivers in Cork will protest next Monday morning. Their demands are just and the Government should concede to them. Many of them actually involve no cost.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the fiasco facing transport workers at Aer Lingus regarding the stamping of social welfare forms for workers on short-term working contracts is anything other than a ploy designed to drive those workers to despair and force them to quit their jobs without redundancy. The original claim by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, on national radio last week that it was a matter solely between Aer Lingus and its own employees did not go down very well. Workers know that the Department has been part of the problem and has been slow to intervene. These issues must be resolved now.

Aer Lingus and other transport workers are watching with trepidation the clock ticking down to the deadline of 30 September for the mortgage moratorium. Many workers availed of payment breaks five or six months back and will be due to start repaying in October and November. For many Aer Lingus workers, these payments cannot be made on the current levels of income and they are fearful of the consequences. The moratorium must be extended. There should also be no interest charged during payment breaks.

This is Bike Week and yesterday was World Car Free Day. Every day, cycling in the Dublin area takes up to 60,000 cars off the road and saves 28,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year. That is according to the NTA. It could be much more. Research from the NTA states that 69% of people think that cycle tracks along roads, physically separated from traffic and pedestrians, would be useful to help them cycle more. Accordingly, we need massive investment in cycling infrastructure.

This was a headline point and was presented as a win for the Green Party in the programme for Government negotiations, with 10% of the total transport capital budget proposed to be allocated to cycling. Is that actually being implemented? According to, it appears some of the moneys being allocated to councils, such as Dublin City Council, are not being used for cycling infrastructure. For example, of the €2.3 million allocated to Dublin City Council for cycling infrastructure, it is planning to use that to resurface 50,000 sq. m. However, fewer than 5,000 sq. m of that relates to cycle lanes or shared bus and cycle lane maintenance or both. Essentially, only 10% of that funding for resurfacing is going to cycling infrastructure, while the rest is going on roads. What guarantee is there that all this money is being spent on cycling infrastructure?

I am sharing time with Deputy Dillon.

I thank the Minister for being in the Chamber for these statements on transport.

Shannon Airport is on its knees. It is in a full state of crisis which has deepened since February and March this year. The summer season has been a write-off and there is little hope of the aviation sector improving sufficiently for a bounce back in the autumn and winter months.

Covid presents opportunities to straighten some practices. An employer told me the other day that he was trying to implement a work-from-home policy a few years ago with his staff but it proved problematic. Along came Covid and suddenly the pathway for bringing it forward was there in itself.

In the second quarter of this year, 120 passengers passed through Shannon Airport. That contrasted with 808 through Kerry, 7,800 through Cork Airport and 155,000 through Dublin Airport. Shannon accounted for 0.07% of all inbound air passengers into the State. That is a dramatic and stark fact which shows Shannon's position. It urgently requires Government intervention.

The aviation task force, which the Minister's predecessor established, has reported back. Some of its recommendations have already been implemented, such as those relating to a temporary wage subsidy scheme. The outstanding recommendation is the need for capital funding for Shannon Airport. This has been asked for by the airport's chief executive, Mary Considine, and her board. Will the Department urgently look at that? It has been with the Government since 7 July. It has been too long for that funding not to have been in place. Covid presents that opportunity for Shannon to redesign aviation policy and appoint a new chairperson to the board. Will the Department look at improving management structures in the airport?

The market share of Shannon continues to slide but this is not unique because there are similar cases in other European countries. The Netherlands and Finland implemented aviation strategies and policies to address the overdominance of their capital city airports successfully. Since 2015, Finland and the Netherlands have examined how to redesign their aviation policies to rebalance the proportion of passengers coming through Helsinki and Schiphol airports. In this five-year period, Schiphol's dominance has dropped by 5%. In that same five-year period, Dublin Airport's dominance has risen by 13%.

This just shows that the gap is growing and the crisis is deepening.

There is an opportunity to redesign an aviation policy for Ireland and to leverage the strength of Dublin Airport. We have two possibilities: a fund for all passengers landing in Dublin could be leveraged and allocated proportionally to Shannon and Cork airports, or - and this is what Finland and Holland have gone for - every major airline seeking landing slots in Dublin could be subject to a conditional clause to the effect that once or twice per week the airline would have to fly out of Shannon. If Lufthansa, Finnair or Delta were to fly into Dublin, it would be conditional on the aircraft not only landing and taking off in the capital but operating a service out of Shannon Airport once or twice per week at a minimum.

It would be positive if in the coming days the Minister and his Department once again started using the language of Shannon being an international airport. At some point over the lifetime of the previous Government, a discourse crept in whereby it started to be referred to as a regional airport. That diminishes its status and standing in European and global aviation and its possibility of obtaining State and European supports.

We need to consider a national airport authority. Dublin had a predatory relationship with Shannon Airport even before Covid came about. Separation has not been good for Shannon. That fact has been borne out. There was a famous economic report, the Booz report, which insisted that Shannon would have to have 1.8 million passengers per annum to be sustainable and viable. In its best trading year since separating from Dublin, the airport fell well short of that, so it is not measuring up to that metric. It cannot go back under the wing of Dublin Airport because that relationship has always been quite predatory and there is open competition between the two airports. We need a national airport authority, as some other European countries have.

Aer Lingus and Ryanair in recent weeks have both threatened to pull out of Shannon entirely. Aer Lingus cabin crew have now set up their own task force of cabin and ground crew. They would like to meet the Minister. They are constructive and are coming up with proposals they see as front-line workers to save Shannon. Aer Lingus has approached the Government, and I have been speaking to the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. The company is looking for liquidity and for the Government to help it through these ailing months. It has received plenty of support in the form of wage subsidy schemes. Any further support Aer Lingus gets from the Government needs to be conditional on it not pulling services from Shannon or Cork airports. We need those services. Aer Lingus is the only transatlantic airline flying out of Shannon at the moment. The minute it goes, Shannon, unfortunately, will go with it. Ryanair also feels like it is the poor relation in this regard. It would argue, to quote one worker, that it is the only reason the lights are still on in Shannon. It also has come to Government with certain asks. It is playing hardball, which I understand, but we now need to start moving a little closer in that regard.

The IAA has a strong presence in Shannon Airport. It has been brought to my attention, however, that in recent weeks some of the authority's junior staff in and around Shannon, not having a huge workload at the moment and there being no planes in the sky, have been put wearing masks and badges. They are going into catering kitchens and coming through the back doors of places, pouncing on staff and saying, "You never checked my ID." This has only added to the anxiety of companies that are already on tenterhooks and very stressed. That has to stop. It is an aviation authority. Its role belongs in the sky monitoring air traffic, not as police officers going into local businesses.

Railways and trains are very close to the Minister's heart. There has been a proposal since 2010 to have a €1.5 million railway stop in Crusheen. It has had many false dawns. The Minister is quite well acquainted with this situation. I hope that during his term it will be restarted and that he will look at it.

Regarding broadband, we need a better mechanism for communicating the amber and green areas. This falls under the Minister's brief. I hope he can look at it in order that people can have a better gist of when broadband will come to their area.

I thank the Minister, the Minister of State, and the Department for their continued work in ensuring transport connectivity, especially public transport connectivity, has remained operational during the past few months.

Mayo's Inishturk and Clare Island rely on ferry services as there are no alternative options available, so it is important to recognise the efforts of those working in our transport sector to ensure these services keep moving. Having used the ferry services myself recently, I know they form critical transport infrastructure for those who rely on them.

The public have played their part with high levels of adherence to public health requirements regarding the wearing of masks on public transport. Many people rely on Irish Rail to travel to Dublin from Westport, Castlebar, Ballina, Foxford, Claremorris and Ballyhaunis.

However, the aviation sector remains heavily impacted by Covid-19, unfortunately. This has had a significant impact on passenger numbers at Ireland West Airport Knock. People throughout the west hold Knock Airport in the highest regard as the beating heart of the Wild Atlantic Way. It is a special place where parents and children are reunited and where families embark on long overdue holidays. It is an arrival destination for those who have left many years ago to once again set foot back on Irish soil. As an island, we rely especially on our airports for connectivity, more so than other mainland European countries. This summer has been different, however, and Ireland West Airport Knock has witnessed a 90% reduction in summer passenger numbers. Earlier this week the chambers of commerce in Mayo, Galway and Sligo called for additional support via the regional airports programme. The financial situation of Knock Airport has deteriorated as a result of collapsing passenger numbers. This is especially disappointing as estimates for the airport had expected 2020 to be its busiest year yet, getting ever closer to breaking the figure of 1 million passengers per annum.

On 20 June, the Government set up a task force to report to the Minister and the Government on the restructuring of the aviation sector. The task force report was sent to the Government on 10 July. I recently asked the Taoiseach how he proposes to deal with the recommendations of the task force but I failed to get a response. Is it to be referred to a special committee or dealt with by the Covid committee, which is currently in session? If it is to be referred to a different committee, which Department will oversee its work, and will there be an opportunity for hearings from interested bodies to be heard? When does the Minister expect the task force recommendations to be acted upon and implemented? As this is a critical national issue, I ask him to take a personal interest in this matter in the view of its importance for Dublin, Cork, Shannon and Knock and for Ireland as a whole. I would like to hear what he has to say in his closing remarks on this matter. Special consideration needs to be given to regional airports in the upcoming budget as they will play an increasing role in spreading passenger numbers when air travel moves towards normal levels versus over-reliance on Dublin Airport and funnelling passengers there.

I am also conscious of the need to have the best road infrastructure in place to help tourism and Mayo industries as we navigate a post-Covid world. With record numbers of staycations in Mayo, road usage has been much heavier this year compared with previous years. It is excellent to see progress on the N5 Turlough to Westport dual carriageway, construction of which is well under way. It will be critical infrastructure for our county when completed and will result in much safer travel as the existing road between Castlebar and Westport is quite simply unsafe and operating well beyond its intended capacity. I would also appreciate it if the Minister's office would undertake to update me on other important road projects that will benefit Mayo, namely, the N5 Ballaghaderreen to Scramogue road project, the N26 Swinford to Ballina road and the R312 Castlebar to Belmullet road.

We have been flagging transport issues in the House for months now. Transport was severely impacted by the difficulties of Covid-19, but people want to hear solutions and action. To date, we have seen bus routes cancelled or reduced in capacity, the total collapse of the aviation sector and serious issues exposed in our school transport scheme. Locally, in my constituency of Clare, I have been informed of a very concerning situation faced by people with disabilities who use the Dulick Enterprise Centre, in Ennis. I have been told that these people have had bus routes and times changed on them recently, which is leaving service users abandoned for up to three hours, waiting for a bus home following their morning classes. It gets worse. Because of the Covid restrictions, these people cannot stay in the centre while waiting for the bus as it is not safe to do so. I have been informed that the Local Link service applied for additional funding to service this request but that it has been denied. This is outrageous and we need to have this issue addressed and rectified immediately.

Moving to aviation, this morning on Radio 1 the CEO of the Shannon Group reiterated that passenger numbers at Shannon Airport are down 97%. This is causing serious issues in the region and we need the Minister to understand this fact. Tourism locally has declined and we are hearing threats that Ryanair and Aer Lingus will pull their bases out of Shannon Airport. If that happens, the key may as well be turned on the airport. I have spoken to pilots and cabin crew in the Shannon base in recent days and they stated that morale among staff in Shannon is on the floor and their mental health and well-being are being severely impacted. I have written separately to the Minister on this matter and I hope his response is comprehensive and solution-based. We need to start testing at our airports and work towards the reopening of key routes to open the mid-west region to keep business links. We need to ensure we offer direct supports to this sector for these workers.

I congratulate the Minister on his elevation and wish him the best. It is a great honour and a huge responsibility.

Early in the pandemic, front-line hospital staff in the Dublin City Council area were given free parking when they were near particular hospitals. This was a very fair and welcome gesture. This decision was made by the Government and Dublin City Council implemented it. This measure should be reintroduced while Dublin is in level 3. Given that teachers are now effectively front-line workers, this measure should be extended to them, specifically those working in schools that do not have parking. These are mainly inner-city schools and there are not many of them. They include CBS Westland Row, City Quay national school and a few others. Without teachers, the economy would be effectively closed now. Given that members of the public are being encouraged to use public transport, this measure would benefit a small number of schools in the inner city. Not many parking spaces are being used because of the reduction in traffic into the city. The loss of revenue would be small but the gesture would be big and appreciated by teachers. The Government should consider requesting Dublin City Council to give teachers in inner-city schools without parking on their premises a break.

I am disappointed in the statements of the Minister and the Minister of State. The Minister stated he had been in touch with all the stakeholders in the transport sector. According to the information I have, that is incorrect. He has not been in touch with the Irish Road Haulage Association, IRHA, an organisation that gave hundreds of hours of their time to assist the Government in Brexit and Covid preparations. There has been no acknowledgement of the stellar performance of the licensed road haulage operators and their employees during Covid. They called for assistance several times to prevent shipping companies insisting that drivers share a bed cabin space on board ships. No assistance was forthcoming and no correspondence was answered. To their credit, the drivers' steadfast refusal to share meant that not one case of Covid has been reported in the sector. It is disturbing that there is so little regard for the sector. This was something we had hoped would end with the Minister's predecessor, but unfortunately that does not seem to be the case. However, I am sure the Minister will make amends in his closing statement.

Is this Government going to continue to take an ostrich approach and bury its head in the sand in relation to Brexit? Why is it not moving heaven and earth to reduce the economy's reliance on the UK market and the UK land bridge? The UK Government's current actions are clearly designed to threaten the Irish economy and the Good Friday Agreement. It is using the threat of being able to cause chaos for the Irish economy to increase its negotiating strength with the European Union. That includes trying to coerce the Government to compel the EU to capitulate to UK demands. Surely the Government can see that the thing to do is not to passively live in hope that Boris Johnson and the UK Government will be reasonable and climb down. Instead, the Government must react proactively and institute measures that reduce Ireland’s vulnerability to this rogue UK Government. It is time to be proactive. The time has come to put vital daily ferries to mainland Europe in service. Doing so now would dramatically reduce the risk to Ireland’s trade with the EU. Members of the Government are not listening to warnings from the people in the know. They are talking among themselves. They are not reading the correspondence from stakeholders or if they are, they are not answering it. I have spent 30 years using the land bridge as a haulier and the Government is hiring advisers who, dare I say, have most likely never sat in a truck, never mind been to Dover port, in their lives.

I urge the Minister to read today’s UK media. All of the newspapers are carrying a story, which was purportedly leaked, that Michael Gove has written that there will be queues of 7,000 trucks post Brexit lasting for days. He is telling them what they already know. The Tánaiste and half of this Government are busy making videos, telling people in business that we are 100 days out from Brexit and the actions they should take. The Tánaiste stated they should think about their supply chain and if they are using the land bridge of Britain to get to continental Europe, they need to think about how that is going to work and talk to their suppliers and haulage and transport companies. I will offer my advice for the umpteenth time. The Government must take its head out of the sand. The land bridge will not work and the Government needs to put in place a fast, efficient daily ferry service from Ireland to France now. What is wrong with the Government? It is telling people to think about something for which there is already a solution. It appears it is not thinking about it so I will say again that fast and efficient means the shortest, most viable option to mainland Europe and that comes from Rosslare to Le Havre or Cherbourg. It also needs to operate daily. That is the appropriate proactive approach we need, rather than trying to be the Steven Spielberg of Twitter. Anyone would think the Government is waiting for a sign from God.

The flour and the sugar needed to bake bread in Ireland daily are imported. When the baking line is stalled because the product is sitting in a queue and people cannot bake bread, will the Minister and the rest of the Twitter gang be making videos apologising to the business owners and staff of Irish Pride in Taghmon, County Wexford? Will they make videos apologising for the fact that the price of a loaf of bread has risen to €3? That will be the result of the Government's passive attitude. Irish consumers will pay the price. What will the Minister tell the fresh fish exporters of Duncannon, Kilmore and Killybegs when the fish is in a queue in the UK rotting in a trailer? What will he tell the owners and staff of Kelly's hotel in Rosslare, the Talbot Hotel, Clayton Whites Hotel and Whitford House Hotel in Wexford town, the Riverside Park Hotel in Enniscorthy and all the other Wexford hotels when there is no more traffic coming from the UK tourists and the Government has failed to make an effort to replace those UK tourists by putting a daily direct ferry in place to mainland Europe for EU visitors to Ireland? All of this can be avoided if this Government puts a daily service to mainland Europe in place in time and that time is now.

Yesterday, I had a conversation about customs procedures which alarmed even me. I was told a document would take ten minutes to complete but I can say from 30 years of practical knowledge that it takes more like 40 minutes, which means less than two documents per hour. No one has mentioned the fact that the trade control and export system, TRACES, used by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which carries out sanitary and phytosanitary inspections, has not even been advised to hauliers. They have been promised instruction video demonstrations but with less than four months to go until Brexit, they have received nothing. There is an opportunity for this Government to be the angels of Brexit and the Government that saved Ireland from the chaos of the UK's making. If it does not save us, it will be responsible for the demise of Ireland. Who will want to do business on an island when they cannot get their product on or off the island on a competitive timeline, one which gives certainty of delivery times? It will all be because the Government would not ensure that a daily shipping service to and from mainland Europe was in place. It is time to wake up and smell the coffee.

I call Deputy Murnane O'Connor, who is sharing time with Deputies Lahart and Leddin.

I will raise some transport issues that have arisen during the pandemic. When school bus capacity was reduced to 50% and parents were told that if they drove their children to school they could seek a refund of their free travel, was there ever a discussion about just hiring extra buses? Private bus and coach operators could certainly do with the business. The Federation of Transport Operators, FOTO, is only too willing to engage with the Government on this issue. Many of us have received correspondence from the organisation regarding this issue. It was shocking that so many children were left without places and that additional capacity was not brought on stream.

I have a larger issue regarding a private operator. A man in Carlow contacted me last week. He had applied to operate a rural bus service around County Carlow. He had done all the work, had applied for it and was told that he had the contract. He did not have a bus in his name, because he was waiting to see if he would get the contract. One morning last week, he received notification that he had the contract, but by that evening he was told that he did not have the contract because he did not have a bus in his name. He did have other buses. How could anyone from the Department have expected that man to have changed buses and got a bigger vehicle, if he was not going to get the contract? I was wondering how it could happen that someone was told in the morning that he had the bus route, contracted from the Department, but that it was taken away from him by that evening. What is more, when I rang the Department, the bus route was gone and had been given to someone else. We need to look at these things and what we are doing. We cannot forget that we need to support our rural areas.

Why do we have rules for some sections of society and different rules for others? Several constituents contacted me to say that they were no longer allowed to drive a bus because they had turned 70 years of age. While we are all trying to protect those aged over 70 from Covid-19, this is not the reason those people cannot continue to drive. I have repeatedly asked why an Irish citizen can serve as a public representative after the age of 70 in the Dáil or the Seanad, but such a person is not allowed to drive a bus. We must really look at this system.

I also want to talk about my home area of Carlow town. We are in the process of working with the NTA on Carlow town's bus service. Meetings are ongoing, but I would like a written reply to let me know when that service will be started. Meetings are welcome, and I welcome that the service is supposed to be going ahead - and my understanding is that it is - but I would like some dates. Will the Minister please respond to me regarding this issue?

We also have an excellent service in Carlow and Kilkenny, which is one of the best, the Ring a Link service.

It is also in Tipperary.

It is. Under the auspices of EU projects, we have been told that there will be some electric buses. I believe that the Ring a Link service might be in line for one of those buses. Is capital funding available, and will an electric bus be furnished to the Ring a Link service in Carlow, Kilkenny and Tipperary? Is there a subvention or a roadmap? I need answers to all those questions.

I always feel that Carlow, and Kilkenny and the rest of the south east, is forgotten. We have always asked about the possibility of an extra bus, particularly one providing services from New Ross, St. Mullins, Tinnahinch and Borris. Is there any way in these times of need that we can get a bus service in those areas? My understanding is that payments are available through Covid-19 schemes. I also understand, and I would like to have this in writing, that a bus is meant to start operating from Arklow to Carlow. Will the Minister confirm that?

These are all issues we need to get information on and we must ensure that we give people, particularly in my area, these services and timing is crucial. We have all been through the Covid-19 crisis and, as the Minister will be aware, transport is a major issue. I would like some information on that.

Others have raised the issue of taxi drivers, but I know many in my area who are under pressure. They have mortgages, and feel they have been forgotten. We need to help and support them. I ask the Minister to do his best to see what we can do and provide as much proper transport as possible. As I always say, things do not just revolve around Dublin; we must remember rural Carlow and Kilkenny, where we are always forgotten.

Following on from Deputy Murnane O'Connor's comments, I met taxi drivers and the Minister of State last week regarding those issues and following up on them. Many pressing transport issues are facing Dublin, as the Minster will appreciate, but I will focus on a matter I raised during the climate action debate last week. It concerns e-scooters. There are far more important issues, but this is my e-scooter week and I have decided this is an opportunity to drive this issue home. The Minister was very enthusiastic during that debate, when he said that we should get legislation for e-scooters over the line and let us do that.

That attitude is not reflected in the responses to parliamentary questions, so we need to go back and look at that. I did go away thinking at the time that I was the smaller element in the "let us do that" equation, compared to the Minister. He has the report his predecessor had. I cannot do anything with it. I have done much work with the various providers, and I have seen many developments and much evolution. We now have onboard helmets, some e-scooters now come with indicators and number plates and they are much more robust and durable. Many come with scooter stands, and also have geolocation technology, which means they do not become litter on the street. They are also speed-governed and the technology, as the Minister knows, is so sophisticated that the scooters can now be speed-governed to the point where it is possible to ride them at 15 mph or so along St. Stephen's Green, but coming to a pedestrianised area such as Grafton Street will cause the remotely governed speed to immediately drop off and a rider would have to dismount.

In the context of public transport now being only for essential purposes, there is a case for making e-scooters available in Dublin as they provide a great deal of mobility. The UK, however, has taken the lead. Some of the responses to parliamentary questions from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport state that it is not the right time and it is very challenging to do things during the Covid-19 crisis. The UK, however, legislated for a trial period of one year, in several cities, these e-scooters are being rolled out and a significant appetite has been demonstrated in those British cities for this type of transport. I want to do that here and so does the Minister. Can he give us a timeline that will let us get this done?

I will talk about rail transport, and how it can contribute to balanced regional development as we deal with the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We are beginning to see a new model of working, which could be a significant driver of regional development if we can continue to develop our rail transport infrastructure to service our regions. This is the model of hybrid remote working, where employees mostly work remotely but come into the office perhaps once a week, or a few times a month. Companies and employees are still experimenting, and we do not know what the post-Covid-19 landscape will look like, but experience has shown that once employers adopt a "remote first" approach, as they have been forced to do during the pandemic, many employees only occasionally need to be in the office. Hybrid remote working offers many people who live in the capital for employment reasons the opportunity to move out into our regions where they can enjoy a better quality of life and our rail infrastructure can be a key enabler to make that happen.

Progress has been made in modernising our rail network to make the capital more accessible from our regional cities: Cork and Galway are now just over two and a half hours by rail to Dublin, while Limerick and Waterford are just over two hours. I believe it is possible, however, with fairly boring continuous engineering improvements, to increase speeds so that all our regional cities are under two hours from Dublin. Once the spine of our network is upgraded, we can look at a continuous programme of reopening lines and reorienting our bus services to feed into this network, with a particular focus on funding Local Link to increase the accessibility of rural towns and villages. Equally, we must improve connectivity within our regions, increasing the level of service between Galway and Waterford, through Clare, Limerick and large towns in south Tipperary, such as Cahir, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir, and on the line in north Tipperary through Roscrea and Nenagh. I am essentially talking about making our country much smaller to increase economic opportunities for people living across the State via the new hybrid working arrangements that many employers have introduced.

Rail can also drive development within our cities and regions. In Limerick, we have an opportunity to reopen lines. I hope we can reopen the Limerick-Adare rail line in time for the prestigious Ryder Cup, which is to be held in Adare Manor on its 100th anniversary in 2027. Simultaneously, we can reinstate the line further to Foynes, to enable the ambitious plans for expanding the port to drive the offshore renewable energy revolution. We can establish a suburban rail network for Limerick, with new stations at Ballysimon, Moyross and Raheen, and expand capacity by doubling the track between Limerick and Limerick Junction and begin the work of planning a rail link to Shannon Airport.

I met members of the Green Party in Westmeath last night. They urged me to work with the Minister on the issue of Killucan station. I noted the remarks made by Deputy Clarke but there are, of course, many other possibilities.

Rail has the ability to be a huge driver of regional development. By increasing the quality of our intercity rail network and opening new lines, we can take advantage of how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the nature of work and revitalise our regions.

This is National Bike Week and I thank the Minister for the initiatives that are already in place, including the bike-to-work scheme. I salute Cahir gardaí and in particular Sergeant Ray Moloney for an initiative he is going to have in Cahir day care centre next Sunday to encourage na daoine óga, na daoine aosta and their families to understand the proper use of bikes and interaction with other vehicles and road users.

The Minister knows Caoimhe Kavanagh of the famed bus and coach company based in Urlingford and Tipperary. That company needs supports and practical talks. I encourage the Minister to meet her.

Other sectors have been left behind, including self-employed taxi drivers, thousands of whom we saw protesting on the streets. There are also limousine drivers who are specialists. Foreign dignitaries often travel in limousines when they swing into the back of Leinster House. They are pristine vehicles, driven by exemplary drivers who are courteous to visitors and introduce them to Ireland. Those people also need help because they get none and the taxi association does not represent them. They are exempt from VAT but that is worth nothing to them because they get nothing else. They want VRT breaks and other supports. I am asking the Minister to meet representatives of those drivers, the National Transport Authority and some of us Deputies. They are front-line workers who sell our country, meet our people and always look after them.

Ring a Link was mentioned earlier. It is a wonderful set-up and I salute the manager, Jackie Melia. It was set up in south Tipperary, Kilkenny and Carlow and has proven it has the ability to do what it does. I must declare that I am a board member. Ring a Link has brought thousands of people on journeys.

While school transport may not be the Minister's area of responsibility, I must bring the following point to his attention. Some 50 students have contacted my office about the lack of school transport. One 11-year-old schoolchild is going from Clogheen, under the famed Vee, to school in Mitchelstown every day. He gets a Bus Éireann bus from Clogheen at 7.50 a.m. to be brought to school in Mitchelstown. He is sharing a bus with other passengers and there are implications for contact tracing if anything happens. The real problem for the parents is with the transport option to get home in the evening. These students finish school at 3.40 p.m. and the bus does not come until 5.40 p.m. It is a stupid situation when coach and minibus operators have their vehicles parked up and the Government does not give them a bob. Those buses are going rusty and many of those operators are self-employed.

Some parents clock up distances of 21 km twice a day to bring students back and forth. The Minister is the leader of the Green Party and wants to cut down on emissions and everything else. He has to look at this in a holistic way with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, and others in the Cabinet. I ask the Minister to look at those issues.

I raise the matter of tests for young drivers. The tests are seriously delayed in Kerry. A young fellow who has organised a job in Cork but cannot drive there will lose the job. A young farmer who wants to go to the farmers' course in Clonakilty but is waiting for months for a driving test cannot go to Clonakilty. The same story applies to youngsters going to colleges. They cannot drive because they cannot get their driving test.

The public health team's decision that school buses can only operate at 50% capacity has created pandemonium and uproar all over Kerry, in Gneeveguilla, Rathmore, Killorglin, Cahirsiveen or wherever it may be. People are stranded. Many parents were not sure were the schools going to open on 1 September and had not paid for tickets. Anyone who paid after that date is left standing at the side of the road, waiting for the new buses to come on. Before the decision was made to limit buses to 50% capacity, the Government should have ensured that double the amount of buses were going to run. That has not happened and children have been left on the side of the road in all the places I have mentioned.

Deputy Murnane O'Connor mentioned the over-70s. I have known about this rule for a long time. It is hard to get drivers for school buses now. The exclusion of the over-70s is not a State rule but was brought in by Bus Éireann whereby when one reaches 70 years of age, one cannot drive a Bus Éireann or school bus. I will mention Tom O'Shea and Willie Sweeney from Kilgarvan, who would drive a bus to any part of the world and are now left behind because of this stupid rule.

I know that school transport does not fall under the Minister's brief but it is a nightmare throughout my constituency in Cork South-West. I am getting calls from frustrated and angry parents from Kinsale to Mizen Head. Coaches and buses are available. Drivers are available because they are not driving tourists around Ireland. Why can those vehicles not be used to transport our children to school?

Fianna Fáil promised changes when it was in opposition but the situation has got worse. I hear of situations of children who have had tickets for bus transport in west Cork for three to four years but those tickets have been withdrawn due to a lottery system that was drawn up by Bus Éireann. The whole thing is a shambles. We, as politicians, are at the front line, trying to clean up a mess that, in most cases, could be sorted out locally between the bus owners, parents and local politicians at no extra cost.

I met representatives from Cork Airport last week and they urgently need to meet the Minister. I am urging him not to stand idly by while airports go out of business. I brought up rapid testing months ago with the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, and I have brought it up with the current Government with a view to keeping the airports open. We can surely do that in Ireland without losing our airlines and airports. If we are to open the airports safely, rapid testing is a must. The Government needs to withdraw all Government airport charges in Cork at this time.

Taxi and limousine drivers are suffering extreme stress and anxiety during these Covid-19 times because their incomes have been wiped out. Nonetheless, they have to keep their cars taxed, insured and licensed. They are fearful of cancelling their insurance because they may find it difficult or impossible to get insurance again or a renewal could see their premiums increase. Many drivers are over 66 years of age, working full time and paying income tax but, because of age discrimination, are unable to avail of the pandemic unemployment payment. Significant numbers of drivers have been in the business for 40 years and, having paid exorbitant fees for their taxi plate under the old system, are still bearing a significant financial burden. Regardless of the condition of a taxi, it must be taken off the road once it is ten years old and drivers have to upgrade their cars to keep their licences active. In the current business climate, those cars are predominantly parked up. In these difficult and exceptional times, could that limit be increased from ten to 15 years to ease the financial stress that exists at the moment?

I will take four minutes and leave two and a half to Deputy McNamara. I welcome the opportunity to speak but find it difficult not to despair at our inaction on climate change. I am totally on the Minister's side, as I said yesterday. We need to take urgent action. We declared a climate emergency on 9 May 2019. At the time, the then Taoiseach talked about that being symbolic and I am afraid that is what it has been. We were led by young children and declared a climate emergency through motions tabled by the Opposition.

I heard the Minister earlier and welcome the positive announcements about the western rail corridor. I understood him to say that the report is about to be published, though he can correct me if I misinterpreted him. The Minister will look at increasing capacity to allow commuter travel in Athenry and Oranmore.

I look at Galway city and it is crying out for vision. I am tired of the blame game. The local authority states it is starved of funding. The Government suggests that we have Monopoly money, billions to give out. Park-and-ride has never been rolled out in Galway notwithstanding that it has been an objective in the city development plan since 2005. One would imagine that some type of penalty would apply to the local authority for failing to act on its city development plan 15 years later.

As I mentioned last night, I recently attended a meeting with the officials in the county council and when they were asked about park-and-ride, they said that they were looking at a number of options but it would depend on the outer bypass. I have watched this cul-de-sac since 1999. All the eggs of management and the majority of councillors were put into one basket, namely, a road that was going nowhere.

All of the time we let the traffic build up in a way that is unsustainable. There is no park-and-ride or comprehensive school transport system. There is no connectivity with Connemara in any feasible or sustainable way with tickets that are affordable.

We have declared an emergency. The Minister was in opposition when he knew and supported our position, which was that we are not talking about the challenge of climate change. Rather, we are talking about a disaster and there is a tiny window of opportunity where we must take transformative action. To take transformative action, we have to lead.

On a practical level, where is the park-and-ride facility in Galway? The Minister should get on to the council, set a date and roll it out. Some 24,000 people signed a petition more than two years ago calling on the Minister to carry out a light rail feasibility study. Can he please commit to such a study? It fits in with the national development plan. There is wonderful language in that plan on sustainability, growing the footprint of Galway city by more than 40% and increasing the population to 120,000 by 2040. Let us do that in a sustainable way. Let us work together and develop the city in a sustainable way but not at the expense of Connemara, Kilmaine, Shrule or other areas. We must realise that development must be done in a sustainable way.

Before I hand over to my colleague, I want to support him and the other speakers who have mentioned Shannon. The airport in Galway closed and we accepted that as an inevitability at the time on the guarantee that the airport in Shannon would serve the region. We have not served the staff there very well during this pandemic.

I have no doubt about the Minister's commitment to the environment but he, along with most others, will accept that we cannot deal with the challenges posed by the environment alone and are better off dealing with them within a multilateral framework. The most obvious multilateral framework is the European Union. While we have been laggards in the implementation of EU directives, they have served a very useful purpose in Ireland. I refer to the water framework directive, the birds directive and the habitats directive. Equally, the European Union is coming together with regard to air travel, as well as travel more generally.

What is the delay in adopting the European approach? There is currently a nascent approach. The Commission has made a recommendation and it is to be hoped it will be adopted by the Council. Can we get a commitment that we are going to adopt and apply that as soon as it is rolled out? We worked in splendid isolation through much of the summer. We had much more restrictions on international travel than other European member states. At the end of it all, we do not, unfortunately, appear to be a lot better off. There was a lot of resentment in Ireland among people who could not take holidays.

I do not expect the Minister had time to hear what was said at the Covid committee today, but an immunologist based in UCD, Professor Kirsten Schaeffer, who is also a consultant in St. Vincent's Hospital, said it does not matter where one goes on holidays. The act of going on holidays does not matter; it is what one does on holidays that matters. People should be going somewhere safe and should take the normal precautions that they take in Ireland with regard to physical distancing, cough etiquette, washing hands, etc. If people do that, they are as safe in an area with a lower incidence level in Europe as they are by staying in Ireland.

We were told for a long time that we could only travel to countries with a lower 14-day incidence rate than Ireland. As our incidence rate has, unfortunately, risen, we have not adapted that policy. We have not accepted that there are large swathes of Europe with lower incidence rates than we have and that it is safe for people to go to those places. Can we get a commitment from the Government today that as soon as a common European policy, as proposed by the Commission, is adopted, Ireland will adopt that as many other countries in the EU will?

In the ten minutes I have, I will group into ten subjects the responses to what I have heard. I will not have sufficient time to deal with any one issue, but I will reflect on what I have heard Deputies say.

I will start with the contribution made by Deputy O'Rourke. Aer Lingus workers are in real difficulty with regard to back pay and the temporary wage subsidy scheme. I understand the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection said earlier this week that the Department is awaiting the relevant forms from Aer Lingus. Aer Lingus has said it is waiting for clarification from the Department. My understanding is that the relevant documentation is to be provided and I hope that deals with that immediate issue.

Deputies McNamara, Smith, Collins and a number of others spoke about the critical issue of testing at airports. We are an isolated island nation. We have to maintain air connectivity and make things easy for people who have to travel for business or personal reasons. For various reasons, we want to maintain our air connectivity. Within that, the adoption of a common European approach is the best way of going about this because it allows for reciprocal arrangements.

One Deputy said that Germany is looking for us to provide advance testing for anyone flying into Germany or else testing on arrival and quarantining. That European approach is the appropriate route for us to take to develop a stable and clear environment on what is a very difficult issue. It is difficult because we have received different advices. The health services gave us advice to the effect that they did not want testing at airports and that there were difficulties with that approach.

The European Commission's proposal is the right one. We have adopted it in accepting its mechanism for defining what a green list country is. Normal procedures mean that people do not have to restrict their movements or isolate on arrival from countries on the list. We expect to adopt the amber and red route mechanism that the European Commission has proposed. There is a delay in that because we have to wait for the General Affairs Council meeting on 13 October where it has to be agreed at a European level. At the moment it is a Commission proposal. We are supportive of it, but we have to see whether other countries accept the proposal.

In the interim period we have to see where we can get the testing capability. There is a limit on testing capability across the world and we are trying to source what is required and make sure that if there is agreement in the EU on the Commission approach we will be able to adopt the red and amber mechanisms. They are flexible. There are choices within that. We will have to await European co-operation on that.

Deputies Mac Lochlainn, Cahill, Wynne and Crowe among others raised the issue of Shannon Airport. I would put Cork Airport in the same category. Those two airports have acute problems. The dramatic fall in air passenger transport does not just affect these airports or this country. It has been a global phenomenon. In my mind, there is a critical and strategic imperative in retaining international air connectivity through Shannon and Cork. In this crisis or any future scenario, we cannot allow a significant diminution in the regional and important international role of those two airports to happen.

I believe Deputy Quinlivan said that Shannon Airport should be regrouped under DAA. I will be honest. I met the unions based in the airport. I felt that change would take two or three years and would not solve the underlying strategic issues. We have to make strategic decisions on Shannon. I am not sure that reconnecting it to DAA would immediately assist in that. We have to make sure that whatever supports or other measures we put in place Cork and Shannon airports survive and return to growth, and there cannot be a huge loss to the region from that.

Another critical issue is school bus services and transport. I receive regular correspondence about it. Deputy Mac Lochlainn first raised the issue. I am very aware of the personal relationships of people in Donegal who have told me about their issues. We could go right around the country. In a pandemic circumstances change and we do not have total control over what is happening. We spent the summer preparing the school transport system in a way that was appropriate so that we could manage the buses safely and have a system in place. With the increase in numbers a few days before the schools were due to reopen, the health advice was that there should be 50% capacity. We had three or four days to act. The Department of Education and Skills is still examining this. We would need 1,600 buses and drivers.

That availability within a matter of days was not possible. The Department of Education and Skills is working now with the industry, as Deputy Cahill and number of other Deputies have said, to see if we can switch some of those bus services that are not being used in the coach and tourism industry at present and to see if they can be made available. They were not available on the first day back in school by any means and there have been real difficulties, which we acknowledge, but the Government is working to the best of our ability to see if it is possible to provide that additional capacity to be able to meet both the new health guidelines and the needs of the students right across this country.

With regard to the points raised by Deputies Boyd Barrett, McAuliffe and many others on the taxi industry, we are going to have to work similarly with that industry and sit down with it again. I met the representative groups two weeks ago and intend to go back to them, while working with the NTA and with the Department, to see what additional measures can be put in place. A whole series of existing measures has been taken but we need to see what additional measures are needed to respond to the proposals these groups are making. We will come back to them to see if there are mechanisms through which we can support that industry. I cannot commit to that here today because it will require work but we are committed to meeting the industry and to trying to ensure that those involved also will manage and survive through this incredibly difficult period.

One of the most critical issues which did not get as much attention as it could have and one of the big structural changes that is coming to the transport sector from the Covid-19 pandemic is the switch, as referenced by Deputies Michael Moynihan and Leddin, to remote working. It provides the opportunity for fundamental strategic change for the better for regional development and for our towns and villages in a new way and that is something which we must use to our benefit and advantage. It is one of the few advantages coming out of this Covid-19 period. To do that, in response to Deputies Clarke, O’Connor and a number of others, we must review our bus services, our Local Link bus services and our town bus services. Deputy Clarke referred to Mullingar bus services. We need to change our thinking around bus services from being all about long-distance commuting into the cities and to start looking at bus services as more local, rural, urban, village and town bus services, because it may be that the needs of these people in some of these towns will not be about getting out of the towns and up to the city and back. It may well involve working in the town, working from home or working in an enterprise hub, and having local bus services would greatly help to cater for that.

The same would apply to Crusheen railway station, Killucan or some of the other public transport services that were mentioned. People know that my instinct in that regard is to invest in public transport, first and foremost. That has to be our strategic response to create that better local environment.

On Deputy Paul Murphy’s point on the development of cycling infrastructure, I fully agree with and commit to him that we will be delivering on the programme for Government commitments to resource cycling and resurfacing is part of that. It is not an insignificant part but it is not the key element. The key element is the reallocation of space. That, together with funding which will be available, will require political commitment at a local council level and I hope that I can get his and the support of others in this regard. We should be radical now in creating safe spaces on our roads to promote cycling.

To respond to Deputy Lahart, I make a similar commitment that those facilities can also be used for e-scooters. While I am told by the Department that there are all sorts of complexities regarding legislation, I make a further commitment that this issue will get real priority and we will promote it because it is part of this new mobility and moving away from long-distance commutes and looking at alternatives.

Last but not least, with regard again to how we change the way we do things, either Deputy Connolly or Deputy Leddin or Deputy Ó Laoghaire mentioned the need to be proactive with light rail when looking at Cork, Galway and Limerick. That is critical. I look at Dublin, of course, because it is my own home town but one of the things I have been concentrating more than anything else on in the first two months in office is working with the authorities in Cork, Galway, Waterford and Limerick. If our balanced regional development is to work, we need to invest in those cities as a counterpoint to the country tipping off into the east coast, which is not good for Dublin in any case. Was it Deputy Ó Laoghaire who said to advance a light rail in Cork, we could have a high-speed bus service or a really high-quality bus corridor? We could do that, in anticipation of us moving towards a light rail system, which we will. We could do the same in Galway. We do not need to wait for the northern road or any other road. We need to build the public transport in Galway now. We need to build both the cycling and rail infrastructure. We had a debate earlier about the twin tracking of the Athenry line. If we do not do that, the housing will be on a continuing sprawl on a long-term basis and we are back then to everybody driving and commuting, in and out, and getting caught in traffic, with Parkmore Industrial Estate getting blocked up. It will not work. We use this time of change to make change and I really appreciate the contributions of all Deputies in that regard.

Sitting suspended at 6.06 p.m. and resumed at 6.26 p.m.