Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle agus leis an Aire. Sa tseachtain atá amach romhainn, tiocfaidh deireadh leis an sos a dtugtar do shealbhóirí morgáistí agus d'aisíocóirí mar gheall ar Covid-19. Beidh tionchar aige seo ar na mílte daoine agus teaghlach ar fud na tíre. Beidh na daoine seo i riaráistí agus i dtrioblóid le haisíocaíochtaí muna gcuidíonn an Rialtas leo. Impím ar an Aire, ar an Rialtas, ar na bainc agus ar na hiasachtóirí eile céimeanna a ghlacadh agus cinneadh a dhéanamh go sínfear amach an sos seo. Níl fágtha anois ach sé lá leis sin a dhéanamh.

In March, the Government, the five main retail banks and their representative body, Banking and Payments Federation Ireland, announced measures to deal with the impact of Covid-19 on borrowers. These measures also involved other non-bank lenders. Among the measures introduced was a three-month payment break for mortgage customers, which was later extended to six months. These payment breaks were introduced in response to the introduction of guidelines by the European Banking Authority. These guidelines stated that, where payment breaks were implemented appropriately, loans would not go into default.

According to the Central Bank, 74,000 payment breaks have been granted to mortgage holders since the beginning of the pandemic. Nearly 40,000 of these have availed of an additional extension to their break. These payment breaks are, however, due to come to an end and no provision has been made for those whose breaks are to come to an end or for what will happen afterwards. With unemployment rates remaining sky high and cuts made to the pandemic unemployment payment by the Government taking effect from yesterday, many borrowers are facing imminent default.

The situation is no less grave for our small and medium enterprises. The Central Bank estimates that a quarter of SMEs have applied for Covid-19 payment breaks since May. With further restrictions now possible, the ability of many of those businesses to return to regular repayments is in doubt.

While the option of taking payment breaks of three to six months has been offered by Irish lenders, measures across Europe have differed. In Germany, breaks of nine months were offered while breaks of 12 months were offered to borrowers in Spain, Italy and Portugal. Covid-19 and the public health measures necessary to contain its spread will be with us and with the economy for some time to come. Many of those who have become unemployed will remain so for some time and many of those who lost income will not see it recover for some time. Many businesses whose trading has been disrupted will not be in a position to return to normal activity for some time. Unless these payment breaks are extended in the context of Covid-19, many of these borrowers will fall into default. That is the sad reality of the situation.

This is very concerning. The European Banking Authority's deadline for the application of its guidelines is 30 September, which is next Wednesday, six days away. Our banks and non-bank lenders must extend payment breaks before then or many of these borrowers will fall into default. We are quickly running out of time. I have been raising this issue with the Minister for Finance for some time but he has refused to act. I have also raised it with the Central Bank and have met its representatives in that regard. I have contacted all five main retail banks in the State. This is what the Minister for Finance should be doing. Urgent action is needed.

We read in the Irish Daily Mail that the Minister for Finance is to meet with the banks on Monday. That is two days before the deadline - 48 hours. It is simply too late. Will the Minister ensure that the Government, with Banking and Payments Federation Ireland, the retail banks and the non-bank lenders, urgently announces an extension to the payment breaks granted in the context of Covid-19? Will he ensure that interest will not be accrued during such payment breaks, a measure permitted under the guidelines?

I share Deputy Doherty's concern for those in difficulty because of Covid-19 not only with regard to mortgage repayments, but with regard to a whole range of financial issues. It is a critical issue. If one is facing a particular debt problem, it sharpens and brings into focus a real difficulty. I roll in with the Deputy in saying that those who are in such a position, and who will have act quickly in advance of 30 September, should, if they intend to make an application, do so in this short interim period.

That will not be the end of the issue and it does not mean that it will not be possible after that period for banks to continue offering loan payment breaks on a case-by-case basis. That is not ruled out by the European regulations. This comes from the European regulatory system and it does not preclude doing so. Even after 30 September, it is our experience of managing such issues that it is always best for customers to approach the banks and to engage with them so that the issue is not put off to become a greater difficulty later. It is better to work to resolve these issues than to ignore them.

If customers experience any difficulties in how banks deal with them and how this is managed, they may work with the Central Bank's consumer protection unit and make use of the code of conduct on mortgage arrears. Banks cannot act in a way that is completely contrary to good public policy and the public interest. They have to consider the wider issue and deal with customers fairly. Failing that, the State offers other supports. It is never ideal to be in such circumstances but systems are in place through the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, and other offices to provide supports and advice.

The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has central responsibility for this issue and is, as was reported in the newspapers today, due to meet the banks. I am sure he will remind them that, as I have said, this is not a time to clamp down on customers but a particularly severe period of financial difficulties which we must get through.

In everything we are doing it is recognised that exceptional tolerance and spending are required of the Government in a whole variety of ways to support customers. We have to abide by the regulations as set out by the European Banking Authority. The members of the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland will have to ensure the new arrangements do not lead to a further shock to the economy, which does not need further shocks. I am confident that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, will express that clearly to the banks and that they will work with him and the Central Bank to ensure we avoid this becoming a further difficulty for the economy and a particular section of the country.

Individual banks can always extend a payment break. They always could and always will be able to do that. However, what it means for customers is that they will be in default and will have a negative credit rating. What it means for the banks is that they will have to hold additional capital. The European Banking Authority has recognised the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic across Europe. The authority has said that if a bank announces a payment break before the end of this month, which is in six days' time, its customers will not be in default and the bank does not hold additional capital.

The Minister talks about how the banks can do this and that and about the consumer protection code. We are in a unique position. Tens of thousands of homeowners will fall into default in the coming days. Tens of thousands of businesses have staff who cannot go back to work and who have loans in respect of which the banks will start asking for full payment. What is the position of the Government? The State is the majority shareholder in Allied Irish Banks and Permanent TSB and a significant shareholder in Bank of Ireland. Does the Minister have a position on this? Does the Government have a position on it? Only six days are left to announce a payment break. Otherwise every borrower will be on his or her own.

The problem is that there is consistency in this. This Government is failing to tackle the meat plants, insurance industry and banks. Who is always left with it? It is the ordinary individuals. There is a system in place that we can avail of. The Government should do the right thing and not leave it until the last minute. I cannot understand why this has come down to the wire. We need to protect these borrowers, homeowners, businesses and entrepreneurs.

There are a range of different circumstances depending on the individual circumstances. Some people are now going back to work and payments are starting again. For others who are not going back to work and who are in difficulty, the Government position is clear. Lenders must work with their borrowers and put in place new payment arrangements that are suitable for borrowers who are still experiencing difficulty at the end of a Covid-19 payment break. Lenders are obliged to engage and work with co-operating borrowers to identify an appropriate and sustainable solution having regard to the particular circumstances of a case. It is done on a case-by-case basis but there is an obligation, from the Government's perspective, on all banks to work with customers who are willing to engage to avoid default or other difficult circumstances. For some borrowers, temporary additional supports may be the answer. In this regard, we have to be clear. The European Banking Authority has made clear that banks can continue to support their customers with an extended payment break after 30 September. The authority is making a Europe-wide regulatory change but that does not preclude banks from applying the same break measures that allow customers to get through this period on a specific case-by-case basis. However, it has to be on a case-by-case basis.

Last Wednesday, 80 people were on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick. I am familiar with the hospital as it is my local main acute hospital. That is worrying. I am used to such figures in the depths of January and February but not in September.

Today, the Government launched the winter initiative from the HSE. I understand it was launched late but had been ready for some time. The Government is saying there are 1,500 new beds. A total of 830 new acute beds were announced but 409 of these are actually already in place. Similarly, some 63 new critical care beds were announced but 45 are already in place. That means only an extra 18 beds. The announcement states 484 new sub-acute beds are coming but 395 of these are already in place, so in fact there are only 89. The Government is saying 1,500 new beds will be delivered as part of this winter plan, which extends until April. However, when we add it all up, there are only 528 new beds. Why is the Government announcing 1,500 beds? That is my first question.

Will the Minister break down where those beds are going? We need to know where the concentration of beds will be. We know we have extraordinary issues in the acute sector in the mid-west and in Cork University Hospital as well. We know where the problems are. We know wards in Beaumont Hospital in Dublin are closed because of Covid-19 outbreaks. There is a difference between what is being spun here versus what is the reality. I want the Minister to give assurances with regard to these figures that we will have capacity, because when Covid-19 goes into hospitals beds will disappear. The virus spreads and we do not want it to spread, so wards will close. Will the Minister give clarity on those figures immediately and break down where the beds will go?

There are ambitious plans for recruitment in health, with 12,500 staff to be recruited, including 5,000 before Christmas and 7,500 afterwards. Where will they come from? Phil Ní Sheaghdha of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has pointed out that some nurses who came home from abroad have been unable to get full-time jobs. What will radically change? Will the Minister explain that to us? Where will we get the consultants we require? The Minister for Health is out on a limb on this. I have never seen a Minister commit to something so much. Will the Minister outline where all these staff will come from, how the Government will deliver this commitment and where these staff will be placed?

Will the Minister tell us the position on the flu vaccine? Some 1.5 million people will get the flu vaccine. We know there is a delay and I accept there are issues internationally. However, we were pointing this out long before now. How will the vaccine get out in time before Christmas? How will we ensure that 1.5 million people, including vulnerable groups and categories, will be dealt with?

I will recap. Where are the beds and what are the beds? Where are the staff and where are they going? How will the flu vaccine be delivered before Christmas?

The commitment of the Government to manage and get us through this health crisis is clear in the additional €2.5 billion spent so far. That will not be the end of it this year or next year. There will have to be major multibillion additional spending so that we can cope. To date, we have coped. It has been difficult and has involved serious stress on front-line workers and everyone else in the country as we have tried to suppress the virus and avoid going beyond the capacity of our health system. However, we have managed that to date. That is why in recent weeks the Government had to make a tough call by raising the level of restrictions in Dublin. Although the numbers are low, they are rising. That forced us to make that call.

That is the primary issue in terms of managing through this winter period. I believe we can manage it. We have 11,000 beds in the system. Even though the numbers are rising, the number of Covid-19 beds is still relatively small. If we can see in Dublin and other parts of the country the same success that we saw in counties Kildare, Offaly and elsewhere in terms of stopping the increase in its tracks, we will manage our way through it. Part of that involves €600 million on top of the €2.5 billion spending already committed this year. This additional spending is to ensure we get through this critical winter period. My understanding is that this will provide a further 900 acute beds and 50 critical care beds. I am confident that the system, as it has shown in the past six months, will be able to be flexible and adapt as needs be, depending on what numbers are required in the bed capacity. The approach will include measures such as bringing private hospitals into the system, as needs be and if we need to do so, which we also did earlier this year.

Critical to managing this will be maintaining the strategic direction of change that was agreed by the previous Dáil and committed to by this Government, namely, the development of Sláintecare. The critical point in our system, as we all know, is in the emergency wards and rooms in our hospitals. We should use what happened during Covid-19, that is, the emergence of the ability to use online and other systems and other new efficient ways of working, to take out some of those pinch-point bottlenecks. That will be the key measure. The HSE and the hospital system, in managing Covid-19, have shown exactly the flexibility we need to be able to manage our winter programme.

I will have to come back to Deputy Kelly with specifics on how exactly we will roll out the flu vaccine.

That is a technical issue and I will have to come back to the Deputy with the mechanism for doing it. The key to it is this broader strategic approach to how we address Covid, implement Sláintecare and use the flexibility that has come in the Covid period to manage the winter period with these additional resources. I am confident that we can and will do that.

I mean no disrespect to the Minister but that is not an answer. He obviously does not have a clue. He does not know the data. This plan has been there for a couple of weeks. It has not been launched, for whatever reason, but he obviously does not know the data. There are 830 new acute beds, 63 critical care beds and 484 new subacute beds. Of that 830, 409 are in place; of the 63, 45 are in place; and of the 484, 395 are in place. The real figures, therefore, are 421, 45 and 89. That is information for the Minister from me, which he should have. Why is the Government saying this volume of beds are in place or are coming, when this is the reality? These are the figures that were broken down at the Government's press conference announcing this this morning, but the Minister does not know them here in the Dáil. I ask him, although I know he is not the Minister for Health, where these beds are going.

The Minister for Health always talks about "the data". Can we get a breakdown of those who have been diagnosed with cancer, month by month, this year versus last year, so that we can see that we are dealing with the disease, which has impacted so much in our society, in the best way? The figures have not been published.

My questions relate to the data on cancer figures and, most important, what the figures for the beds are, why the Government is announcing 1,500 beds and where they are going.

I think it is better to be more honest. If the Deputy puts a series of questions to me about the data, and if I do not have the specific data to hand or in my mind, I prefer to say I will come back to him with the data. That is a more honest reply.

Why take the question in the first place?

I will be honest. I spent an hour and a half answering questions on which I do have the data, relating to transport issues. I was not able to go to the press conference the Deputy mentioned.

The Government has had the data for weeks.

I would prefer to leave the people at the press conference to give the data and explain it because they have real, up-to-date expertise in the area.

What I want to make clear is the strategic approach the Government is taking. It is the wider strategic approach that we, as members of the Cabinet and the Government, have to consider. There is no shortage of support from the Government or of flexibility and effort if we find ourselves in a difficult winter period due to the Covid pandemic progressing in a direction we do not want, or to influenza, or to a recurrence of the problem of people on trolleys, which is a perennial problem every winter.

The key strategic point I want to make to the Deputy, which I believe it is the important point, is that we will use the flexibility we learned during the Covid pandemic to make sure our health system removes some of the obstacles that exist there. That is not a data point but it is the key point in terms of how we improve our health service at this difficult time. We will use strategic decisions such as the development of online, eHealth systems that our system has developed in the Covid period to solve this problem. That is the emphasis we need to make and the important lesson we need to learn. It is what we now need to deliver.

In the North, the opening of schools has been acknowledged as a key driver of a second wave of coronavirus cases. There is growing evidence in the South that the same is the case, as can be seen in the weekly case increases of people of schoolgoing age as a percentage of new cases. It has increased from a low of about 4% a week at the end of June to approximately 13% in recent weeks since schools have returned.

Last Saturday, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, decided to ballot teachers for industrial action. They have resorted to this because they are unsatisfied with the measures that have been taken to ensure their safety and the safety of students at school. We all know that the coronavirus seeks out vulnerabilities in individuals and attacks them mercilessly, but the same is true on a societal level. It has exposed the weaknesses in an underfunded health service in particular, but the same is also true in schools. We are paying the price for the lowest rate of investment in schools in the entire OECD. We are paying the price for a pupil-teacher ratio of 26:1, compared with an EU average of 20:1, and for circumstances in which one in four schools does not have running hot water. It is incredible that in 2020, one in four schools is without hot water.

One crucial, immediate issue is that of ventilation. We know now that airborne transmission is a key way in which the virus is spread. It is why indoor environments are particularly dangerous. A total of 84% of principals say their schools do not have adequate ventilation. Will the Government commit to rolling out a programme of retrofitting of ventilation in schools?

There is also an issue with the provision of information. Last week, the Dáil was cleared out while the Minister for Health was getting a test, but at a school in my constituency, someone tested positive and the teachers and the students who had worked side by side with the student were not even tested. It is mind-blowing. A quite outrageous story was reported a week and a half ago in Drogheda, where a teacher was notified by the Covid tracker app that they were a close contact of someone who had tested positive, but when the HSE found out they were a teacher, they were reportedly told that because they were a teacher, and because the transmission had happened in a school environment, they were no longer counted as a close contact. Why are teachers and students not being categorised as close contacts and tested in the same way as others?

Many other issues are raised in respect of safety at school. Teachers with underlying conditions and at high risk are still, despite the publicity around it and so on, being forced to go into school by a private company, Medmark. One of the cases was a teacher who has reported battling acute leukaemia, diabetes type 2, asthma, anaemia and an auto-immune disorder, and was told by Medmark they had to return to work. Will the Government give a commitment that no teachers who are high risk, and who are advised by their doctors not to work from school because they cannot safely do so, will be forced to attend work? The ballot by the ASTI is a warning to the Government. Is the Government going to heed it?

The reopening of schools has been an important milestone for children and society. The safety and well-being of staff, students and the whole school community has been of paramount importance in the Government's planning for school reopening. The Department of Education and Skills has engaged extensively with stakeholders, including the ASTI, in developing the plans for reopening. Significant funding of more than €375 million was secured and given to schools to ensure the implementation of the Return to Work Safely Protocol and the recommendations of the public health authorities in providing a safe environment for the whole school community.

The Department of Education and Skills has continuing weekly engagement with the public health authorities so that schools can remain open safely, and is also working with stakeholders, including the ASTI, in this respect. Appropriate information and guidance for schools leaders has been provided by public health experts at the HSE and the Department of Education and Skills. Detailed information on the public health approach when there have been confirmed cases on a potential outbreak at a school has been published and issued to all schools. To date, where confirmed cases have arisen, schools have co-operated with public health experts to minimise further risk to the school community. Funding for any personal protective equipment, PPE, required has also been provided to schools.

As for high-risk staff, an enhanced occupational healthcare service has been put in place. Very high-risk staff are permitted to work from home, and other staff in the normal and high-risk categories can return to the workplace provided that appropriate risk-mitigation measures are in place and implemented according to their school's Covid-19 response plan. This is in line with the approach being adopted in other areas of the public sector, including the health sector. A review process is being put in place where concerns remain and the Department will continue to engage with all education partners, including the ASTI, in the coming months.

The point is that teachers are saying that enough has not been done, and that the conditions are not safe enough for teachers, students and the wider community. They do not want to be saying this; everybody wants schools to remain open, but if this issue is not dealt with, it is only a matter of time before there are school outbreaks, with classes and whole schools being sent home, causing chaos. Teachers are blowing the whistle on unsafe conditions that will mean chaos if they are not addressed. When meat plant workers blew the whistle on their working conditions, they were ignored and dismissed by the Government until it was too late.

Rather than ignore them this time around, I urge the Government to listen to what they are saying and take action. In a concrete way, we can take the example of the high risk teachers. The answer the Minister gave accepts the fact that people such as that teacher with multiple conditions such as acute leukemia, type 2 diabetes, asthma, anaemia and autoimmune disorder can be ordered by a private company to go back to work even though his or her own doctor says it is not safe to do so. That should be withdrawn. The advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, in the USA is that when community transmission is high, better control measures are needed in schools than when it is low. That is the case now and we need urgent action by the Government to address these issues.

In this and other areas the Government cedes to public health authorities because their expertise and advice point towards the best way of managing these matters for all concerned, including teachers, pupils and the wider public. That is where such issues have to be addressed and considered. The process includes a review and it is within that which I expect the Government will listen to the ASTI and others and make sure their concerns are addressed as best they can, subject to public health advice, which is the test that has to be applied.

On the investment in schools, be it in ventilation or in other mechanisms, my understanding of that funding of €375 million is that it was spent in a short period of time but that it was spent effectively. A lot of schools turned things around and did a remarkable job and it was often the school management and board, along with teachers and pupils, who were engaged with that. I understand that this funding allowed schools to put enhanced cleaning and hygiene arrangements in place, modify buildings and rooms to facilitate physical distancing, hire extra and replacement teachers and purchase PPE through a procurement framework. If there are gaps in that, I again suggest that the review process will allow those gaps to be filled. To date, there has been no reluctance from Government to fund the work that needed to be done to back up the public health advice with physical work on the ground to help protect all of the people involved.

In recent months, we have heard impassioned pleas for assistance from almost every sector in the country. The Government, for the most part, has heard these pleas. Help has been provided that has gone some way towards easing the financial burdens of those most seriously impacted by Covid-19. While we remain in the increasing shadow of this virus, the new normal is unfolding as we find ways to operate within the restrictions and guidelines. The majority are being given some opportunity of survival to live alongside the virus. There is, however, a small but dynamic minority that remains firmly in the dark tunnel and is not seeing even a flicker of light on the horizon.

The entertainment industry in Ireland is dying. It is gasping for help and support. This industry is as vital to our culture as all our historic landmarks and breathtaking scenery. It has been silenced for six months. We are not only talking about the big household names in the industry that can no longer tour the country. We are talking about the guy with his guitar who plays in the pubs over the weekends, the bands that play at weddings and parties, the DJs who work in pubs and nightclubs and the actors who perform in established venues. The list that falls under the realm of entertainment is vast and varied. It accounts for no less than 35,000 people who make their living from bringing joy and pleasure to others.

The music has stopped and the party is over for many in the business. Their work may have stopped but their lives continue. The younger generation of entertainer is crippled with debt, such as mortgage commitments, repayment of loans on expensive gear and sound systems, leased vehicles and a variety of other costs that cannot be met. The entertainers with dependant families and co-workers are emotionally wrecked and financially strapped. This group of talented people crave relief from the bondage of their ordeal.

Numerous festivals and events across Tipperary are also impacted as they have been cancelled, with a huge loss of vital revenue to local clubs, organisations and charities. The seriousness of the knock-on effects are evident in my home town of Thurles, where we have two successful event companies. Of these, one specialises in all things electrical and the other provides a complete on-site cleaning service. The management and employees of both companies have been hammered by the repercussions of restrictions on live events and they need help. They need immediate support that will enable them to survive for what could realistically be up to two years.

It is somewhat ironic that our vibrant entertainment industry feels that its voice is not heard. As it stands, it will be the last sector to return to any form of normality. This fact must be recognised and reflected in next month's budget. The entertainment industry's demand for financial support must be heeded. Otherwise, it is facing its final curtain.

I agree with the Deputy. The music, entertainment, arts and cultural sectors are probably among the worst hit. The definition of their work is performance with an audience and that has meant they have not been able to operate. Some businesses have lost 80% and some have lost 30% but a lot of the performing sectors have lost 100% of their outlets, ability to work and livelihoods. It is not just their loss of livelihood but for us there is a loss of entertainment, inspiration, hope, culture and creativity in all of our lives. A price cannot be put on that but we all know it is a massive loss to us as a people.

In recognising that, the Government has introduced a number of measures, initially on a test basis in the July stimulus to try to see what might work. There was a €1 million pilot music stimulus package for funding schemes that were designed in conjunction with the music industry to see how it might be possible to support music venues or genres in this difficult time. There is also a €5 million pilot - again it is a pilot to see what works and then we can scale it up - live performance support scheme, which the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht set up to assist commercial venues, producers and promoters of live performance to provide employment to workers in the creative industries.

Recognising that we need to go further, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Catherine Martin, has established a new task force for the recovery of the arts and cultural sector under the chairmanship of Clare Duignan. The task force, which met for the first time this week, includes culture, the arts, the audiovisual industry and the live entertainment industry, with the events industry alliance having two representatives on the task force. It has critical work to do to answer the question of how we will get our arts and entertainment industries through the worst of the pandemic.

On the pandemic unemployment payment, the difficulty is whether we can do something specific. It is difficult to apply universal social welfare payments down to specific areas but the Government has set up a cross-departmental task force to develop a clear approach, informed by the views of all stakeholders, to protect and sustain the arts and cultural sectors. That will play a key role as part of the development of the national economic recovery plan, which will have to come after the budget and complement and work with whatever is done in the budget to get our entire economy through this difficult period, but specifically the sectors which are hardest hit.

It is younger people and people in the entertainment, hospitality, arts and other sectors who are worst affected by this crisis and we need an economic recovery plan that specifically targets them in whatever way it can. I know my colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Catherine Martin, is talking to all of the people in the sector to try to get that right and I know the Taoiseach and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform have similar views that this has to be the focus of our attentions. I commit to that for those in Tipperary and beyond.

I thank the Minister for his response and his acknowledgement of the needs of this sector. The approach required to help must be multifaceted. Helping the entertainment industry to survive will require what the industry itself is all about, namely creativity. Financial support is crucial to it at this time. Getting the industry itself back on its feet, and therefore less dependant on the financial supports that are in place, will be a significant challenge while the necessary restrictions remain in place. I am requesting that the Government recognises the needs that have been spelled out in submissions from both the National Campaign for the Arts and the event production industry. I request that the Minister and his colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Catherine Martin, who I accept has set up a task force, examine this issue and have that reflected in the budget. The situation of the industry needs urgent and meaningful responses in the forthcoming budget.

Will the Minister have discussions with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and his party colleague, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, to find a way forward for the industry?

I commit to doing that and I know my Government colleagues will give their full attention to this. I will give one message of possibility. We have had real difficulty in recent times with increasing numbers but in the establishment of the five-level framework, there was a clear understanding that even within level 2, we needed to start allowing audiences to come back in a safe and organised way, depending on the size of the venue or how controlled it could be. For large areas of the country, where we hope there will not be an increased level of virus transmission, there will be the possibility of starting to organise some events.

This will have to be done under public health guidelines but the design of the levels, from my experience of the discussion on them, looked to try to give the capability of some events to return or performances to take place in a controlled environment with the proper social distancing. I have been to certain events in theatres or elsewhere and people are doing this. This industry is creative and highly capable, and it is keen to get back to work. We should start doing that. We should use the levels and, I hope, work collectively to get to lower levels of virus transmission.

We are not at a point where no events can take place but the events must take place in a safe environment. The industry can and should work with that aim in mind.