An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The House has agreed, for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency only, that the rapporteur's report of the Order of Business shall not be read out but shall be taken as read.

There are three proposals to put to the House today. First, is the proposal for dealing with Tuesday’s business agreed to?

It is not agreed.

Deputies Paul Murphy, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Deputy-----

I do not see how we can have a Dáil sitting today that does not debate the rejection of the clear public health advice by the Government and the Tánaiste's undermining of that public health advice in a very cynical and dangerous way on RTÉ television last night. Lives will unfortunately be lost as a result of the Government’s decision. The approach will not avoid going to level 5; it will simply mean going to level 5 later and for longer, potentially into Christmas, after lives have been lost in nursing homes and in the community. We will continue then on a roundabout of lockdown, partial reopening, and lockdown. We need to have a debate today about this and an alternative strategy based on eliminating community transmission by Christmas by supporting people, by full PUP restoration, full eviction and rent ban, but also by investing in ICU and in test and trace.

There is breaking news from Portlaoise. Kilminchy Lodge nursing home has confirmed 31 cases, 21 of whom are patients. This is deeply disturbing. The entire State has gone into level 3. I appreciate that we meet every Thursday to try to agree a Dáil schedule for the week ahead but there are developments happening that require urgent adaptation by this House, and there needs to be accountability to this House from Ministers. I am calling, on behalf of the Sinn Féin Party, for the schedule to be changed to make space for statements from the Minister for Health on what has happened. We will also have other proposals for Thursday.

I support my colleagues on their request. One of the big issues here on the roadmap is the issue of confusion. Under the Government’s roadmap we know when we can get a pint and where we can get a pint but people with a disability do not know when their facilities and training centres will open and their elderly relatives or parents do not know when these facilities will open. We need clarity on all of these issues.

The Taoiseach referred earlier to different counties. There are approximately seven counties with quite low Covid-19 figures in comparison to counties Donegal, Monaghan and Dublin. Local county restrictions seem to have been binned now, where it seems that one size fits all. It does not make sense. This Dáil has been bypassed from these types of discussions since the election. We need to have a debate on this issue today.

We should be able to make time available for a special debate and questions and answers on this issue. This is the biggest issue facing the country now. It is completely unacceptable that the Government should take key decisions separate from this House and that there is no accountability.

We have the five-level plan. It makes no sense at all that eight counties, where the incidence is less than half the national rate, should be penalised. There should be an incentive there for counties to work together to drive down the virus. There are no grounds for penalising counties that have been doing that. Equally, in the two counties, Donegal and Dublin that are already on level 3, it is not clear what, if anything, the Government is doing to address the escalating figures in those two counties.

I have asked the Taoiseach to consider a cross-party approach to this issue. He has deliberately excluded the Opposition. Since he came to power, there have been two briefings since the end of April.

We are moving away from the Order of Business.

That is not acceptable. Can the Taoiseach please arrange for a special time for a debate and for accountability on this issue?

I too ask the Taoiseach for a briefing of party leaders. There is great frustration and angst as people all over the country do not know what is going on. We need the PUP payment restored for all of these businesses that are going to be closed down.

In that context, if the Ceann Comhairle will allow me, I made comments earlier about Dr. Holohan and I asked where he had been for the past number of months. I understand totally where he has been, looking after his sick wife, and I profoundly apologise if I caused any offence. I was asking in the context of the leaking on Sunday night and the whole furore. Do we have any idea the impact of that on people's mental and physical health?

I want to apologise to his wife and family for any hurt caused.

I have not been excluding anybody. I rang Deputy Shortall's co-leader, Deputy Catherine Murphy, last evening. I have been in regular contact with leaders-----

I did ring.

The Taoiseach made a phone call.

I did not interrupt.

That is not consultation. It is not cross-party-----

Can we hear the Taoiseach, without interruption?

There was a cross-party briefing.

Who is saying that?

Am I not going to be allowed speak now? With the greatest respect-----

Can we just let the Taoiseach respond, please?

-----I want to get a few points across. Deputy Shortall says there is no justification for eight counties going to level 3. NPHET wanted every county to go to level 5. There is no mystery about it. She knows that as well as everybody else.

She should not be disingenuous in the House about that. I said to her co-leader last night that there would be a leaders' briefing this week. I said that last week. She knows that but it does not suit so she comes into the House and says the opposite.

I am not talking about a-----

I also want to make the point that people know, in terms of physical matters, about getting things done in one full day between meeting with NPHET yesterday, and we had a very good, long meeting with NPHET, further discussions, into a Cabinet meeting and communicating with the general public.

I have to put on the record this business of excluding Opposition parties. In terms of Laois, Offaly and Kildare, every single Oireachtas Member and councillor was briefed that evening. In terms of Dublin, every single TD, Senator and councillor was briefed by officials up to 11 o'clock and, in some cases, midnight so let us have a bit of fair play all round. That happened.

I am saying that each time we extended to level 3 we briefed people because we knew TDs, Senators, councillors on the ground and the mayors of each council would be under pressure.

That is not a multi-party approach.

I have no difficulty at all with having a debate in the House on this but I put it to the House that everybody wants to cram everything into Tuesday and Wednesday. I believe Oral Questions tonight will be at 11 o'clock.

That is the Government's proposal.

No. It is not.

(Interruptions).

Why? Is it because everybody is here on Tuesday and Wednesday? If we want a serious debate, and let us have a serious debate, we should have it on Friday morning and I will take part in it. What goes on here every week is that the business is agreed by the Business Committee and then every Tuesday, since I have been coming in here, someone stands up and says it is not agreed because he or she wants a debate on this, that or the other issue. I guarantee that next Tuesday it will be the same, and the Tuesday after that. We have a budget next week so it may not be that week but it will be the Tuesday after that, and the one after that also. That tends to be the practice.

This issue merits debate. I accept that last Thursday people were not aware, neither was I by the way, that NPHET would be meeting on Sunday and proposing to go to level 5. I have made a suggestion and I will leave it to the Business Committee. The Business Committee is empowered, with other parties, to make a call as to when there would be a debate on this but I think that is what we should do.

Are we all happy to come in on Friday and have a special debate? Yes, okay. Can I take it that the proposal for dealing with today's business is agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with-----

One point I had made was the idea that sitting until midnight on Wednesday in some way comes from the Opposition. It does not. That is a proposal from the Government at the Dáil reform committee, the idea that we use the Convention Centre on a Wednesday and sit until midnight. We could continue to do votes on a Thursday and, it seems clear to me, that the incentive behind that is the idea of people leaving Dublin early on a Thursday. There is no need for that. We could be sitting late on Thursday.

The other point I make is that Deputy Boyd Barrett wrote to the Business Committee today. Obviously, what has happened in terms of the Government decision yesterday is new. It happened since the Business Committee met on Thursday so it is perfectly responsible for us to come in here and say that we need to have a debate on it.

On a point of clarification about what the Taoiseach said, we have not had a leaders' briefing in three weeks. We have had only one since he became Taoiseach. I missed last week's meeting but we always make our dissent known at the meeting. Members from my group do not come in and object to something to which we agreed. We make it known that we are not happy with the progress.

Is the business for the week agreed?

On Thursday's business, the Taoiseach would have to agree that there have been extraordinary developments in recent weeks that we could not have foreseen at the Business Committee on a Thursday.

One of them is the issue of calculated grades. I appreciate that we had the Minister for Education and Skills before us last Thursday night. The chance to have statements was welcome but there was a missing element, namely, the Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, research, innovation and science. I emailed the Business Committee and the Chief Whip's office today to request that time be provided on Thursday to have that Minister in the House for statements and questions, with a similar format to that of last Thursday night. There is obviously a major crisis over places in the universities for the affected students. I ask the Taoiseach to agree to that on Thursday.

My understanding is that the Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, research, innovation and science will be before the education committee on Thursday morning. That should be reasonable, I would have thought.

To be clear again, I am asking for statements on Thursday. That is a request from our spokesperson, Deputy Conway-Walsh.

The Minister will be in front of Deputy Mac Lochlainn's spokesperson on Thursday morning at a meeting of the education committee.

I believe there could be an opportunity in the Dáil so I make my request again.

In fairness, if we are to respect our Oireachtas committees, we should consider that if an Oireachtas committee has a discussion on a matter, it would seem rather pointless to have the same discussion in the Chamber with largely the same group of people on the same day. I do not know that we would be complimented for our great use of parliamentary time if that is what we were to embark on. Can I take it that Thursday's businesses is agreed to now? Agreed. I thank all the Deputies for that.

I reiterate the concerns over the news of cases and a cluster in a nursing home. I presume that we have a better plan for residents in nursing homes and those who run them than we had last spring.

I have raised the issue of testing and tracing with the Taoiseach time out of number. We are being contacted increasingly by parents across the State who are facing lengthy delays for tests for their schoolgoing children. There was a delay of up to six days in one case I dealt with. Those affected include children with underlying health conditions. Could the Taoiseach respond to that? My position remains that our testing and tracing system is still not up to scratch, months and months later. That is deplorable. Could the Taoiseach respond in respect of children of schoolgoing age, in particular?

I thank the Deputy for raising that issue. About 200,000 tests have been undertaken in nursing homes for healthcare workers across 565 homes since early July. One would get the impression from certain Deputies in the House that nothing at all is being done, that there has been no expansion of the testing programme and that there is no increased capacity. I describe the reality. There have been 381 positives out of the 200,000 tests undertaken as part of the serial testing programme of the HSE. Some 27,000 tests have been done in the meat plants, with testing across 80 plants since 21 August and with 107 positives. As I said, 303,000 tests have been undertaken in direct provision since 12 September, with 18 positives.

With regard to schools, mass testing of 250 schools, including crèches and primary and secondary schools, based on public health advice-----

I thank the Taoiseach.

It is important for me to conclude, if I may. Roughly 5,890 teachers and students have been tested, with 112 positives over and above the index case, which gives 0.19% positivity. I could go on but I obviously do not have time.

As an aside, will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Health or somebody, perhaps through NPHET, to sort out the issue arising over masks and visors? The misuse of visors across the country and, dare I say, in this House is wrong. It is not helping in our collective fight against Covid.

The issue I want to ask the Taoiseach about concerns our use of private hospitals. I have referred to this before. I have been banging on about it for a long time. Without a shadow of a doubt, part of the reason NPHET made its recommendation in recent days was concern over ICU beds. I realise the Taoiseach has answered the questions and I respect what the chief executive of the HSE, Mr. Paul Reid, is saying in this regard but surely it would be cost effective and the right thing for the State to purchase now at least one, if not two, private hospitals.

We are meant to be building two elective hospitals in this country anyway. We need capacity. We need ICU capacity, but we also need elective capacity.

Thank you, Deputy. Time is up.

Will the Taoiseach consider the purchase of such hospitals in the coming budget for the coming year because we need them?

I will make three points. First, there needs to be a sale to enable a purchase. That is a procurement issue and there is a negotiation issue if such a situation were to materialise. Second, there is a €25 million bridging agreement already in place between the HSE and private hospitals which allows for diagnostics and general services to be provided. This will move into a more comprehensive procurement agreement, which has been completed between the HSE and the private hospital sector and will be up and running in the next couple of weeks, again dealing with diagnostics and general services. Third, the HSE is currently engaged in discussions around having provision similar to what was available in the pandemic in the event of a major surge occurring. The HSE is confident it will achieve agreement on all fronts.

We know from media reports that the Minister for Health was urged by legal advisers to introduce legislation to allow the Government to forcibly close meat plants. We know entire counties have had to close on account of meat plants, that a plant in Cork with 226 cases never closed and that meat plants have been a consistent problem in terms of clusters of Covid-19, posing a serious risk to workers and public health. We now know that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is concerned that some plants are becoming complacent. To date, no move has been made to introduce this legislation. Is it proposed to introduce legislation to allow the Government to forcibly close meat plants?

All of us have to make sure we are fully informed in terms of the dynamic of this virus and how it affects particular settings. A total of 27,000 tests have been undertaken as part of the serial testing programme in meat plants across 80 plants since 21 August, with 107 positives. There had been a view prior to the serial testing programme that the plants were the origins of source of the virus. It seems now, looking at that objectively, that that may not be the case. It may be the case that people are bringing the virus into the plants. The difficulty then is that conditions within the plants can be conducive to a rapid spread.

Is it proposed to introduce legislation?

On the introduction of specific legislation for specific sectors, the Health and Safety Authority has powers in regard to workplaces and around making sure that companies adhere to the health and safety practices that should apply.

Will the Taoiseach introduce the legislation?

I will not give a commitment to introduce legislation of that kind. Obviously, such legislation can be put forward.

Thank you, Taoiseach. I call Deputy Paul Murphy.

The plants are not, as of now-----

Please, Deputies.

Many people will have been surprised to see the Tánaiste last night become a new convert to concern about poverty, mental health and ordinary workers. If they thought that was real, they will be quickly disabused of the notion when they hear about the decision of the Cabinet today to increase the minimum wage by a miserly 10 cent, from €10.10 per our to €10.20 per hour, which is an increase of less than 1%. This for the workers on the front line who have been stocking the supermarket shelves, selling the goods and delivering to people, and for whom the Government has been very happy to clap but is not willing to allow a decent pay rise to a living wage. The Taoiseach earns ten times their wage. He takes home €4,000 per week compared to their wage of €400 per week, not to mention the Taoiseach's pension. Given the overwhelming public support for front-line workers and those who have kept our society running at this time, how can the Government refuse to give a decent wage increase for low-paid workers?

The Government is implementing the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission. The Deputy knows that since its establishment the Low Pay Commission has been consistently recommending increases to the minimum wage, which Governments have successfully implemented and fulfilled. It is the Government's view and hope that, notwithstanding the dispute between the union side and the employer side on this occasion, those issues can be addressed with a view to maintaining the Low Pay Commission, not just in terms of dealing with the minimum wage but also the living wage concept as well and how that could be developed in time.

A clear recommendation was made.

The Government's view is that it is better to be consistent in implementing recommendations as they fall due. Obviously, there are wider issues in terms of employment rights as well.

Page 49 of the programme for Government commits to recruit additional front-line allied health professionals such as occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech therapists and so forth. Is there any chance the Government could get the existing front-line therapy staff back to work to deal with the four-year waiting list, instead of continuing to allow them to work at desks as contact tracers? It is seven months since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Can the Government not find ways to provide these vital therapy services to children across the country? As one parent put it: "I am watching my son regress before my eyes and there is nothing that I can do to stop it". The Taoiseach can do something to stop it. I ask him to direct the HSE to use back-office staff to make telephone calls to find out if somebody has been to the pub or the restaurant, and let the therapists treat our children.

I agree that we want therapists on the front line dealing with children and people generally who require interventions from therapists. That is why 500 people are being recruited in the community swabbing area. They have gone through the interview process and the first new staff will start on 8 October in community swabbing. On the contact tracing side, the first 400 people are through the interview process. Some 65 new staff start this week, on 6 October, and 70 start next week. The HSE will start 60 to 70 new staff on contact tracing every week after that. That issue is being dealt with as part of the plan the Government published three weeks ago to recruit a permanent workforce for the testing regime.

Farmers and self-employed people are being discriminated against under the fair deal scheme for nursing home care. This issue has been bandied around for several years. The former Minister of State, Jim Daly, promised that the matter had gone to the Cabinet two or three years ago. It is unacceptable that the assets of farmers and self-employed people, of whom there are many, are being stripped when one of the family members, the father or mother, is the owner of the business and is sick and in need of proper healthcare. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to introduce this fair deal scheme immediately?

My understanding is that it will be published in December.

Last week, I raised the issue of two women workers in Spike Island Tours who were sacked by the board. I wish to bring it to the Taoiseach's attention that they were reinstated last week on the basis that the charges against them were absolutely ridiculous.

I have also been contacted by driving instructors who tell me they are still required to present themselves at various Road Safety Authority, RSA, centres across the country to enable driving test candidates to utilise their vehicles for the duration of the practical examination. They are forbidden to enter the RSA building for the duration of the examination or at any other time of the day. No seating or waiting area is provided and there is no shelter from the elements. There is no access to toilet facilities. The issue has been handed from the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to the RSA and from there to the HSA and back again to the RSA, but they are still standing out in the elements while their cars are being used. This has to be resolved. It is a public health risk.

I will check out the specifics on that. It seems to be an operational issue on the ground and should be dealt with at that level.

I welcome the fact that there will be a debate about what happened the other day and the decisions that have been made. In fairness, on Sunday everybody became incredibly frightened when they thought we were going straight to level 5. I hope that any information that is not in the public domain and that was known to NPHET and to the Government will be given to all political parties so it could be part of the debate. Obviously, we are incredibly worried about our situation and we would like to think we are looking at a full deck of cards rather than half a deck so we can have a full discussion. We have had the worries about nursing homes and we are still worried about whether all infection control procedures that should have been learned from earlier have been operated. We must ensure this information is available so we can have a full discussion.

The two letters are published. The NPHET-----

There is no other information we do not have.

No. The NPHET letters are published. That is the situation. It is either a graduated response from level to level or one goes the full hog.

The issue on the exponential growth is whether one should close everything down now, with no guarantees at the end of the four weeks, although one would hope that it would come down significantly. The chances are it would come down to some degree but the impact on the economy would be quite enormous. The Deputy referred to the shock for some people. Self-employed people, hairdressers and the like across the board would have been in a really difficult situation. The worry is that we have to plan these things, too. We have to work out the full implications of all of this. We would worry that some people would be permanently out of action as opposed to just being out of action for four weeks.

Rural pubs in Kerry and other businesses are to be closed again after 12 midnight tonight. On the Order of Business last week, I told the Taoiseach I knew the Government was going to close them down again even though we have very small numbers in places like Kerry and along the west coast and it does not merit a closure. I and a lot of people also knew that Dublin was not going to be let open after another week because of the massive numbers. To balance the thing out, ye have all the country closed down. It is going to have massive psychological and financial repercussions for the people, publicans and the customers, as well as the rural people in general, to close them down again. What are we going to do with them? Are they going to be given financial assistance? The talk about allowing 15 customers to be served outside in the open air, seated outside somewhere, tells me that there is no comprehension at all about rural Ireland, not even the weather. If people do not die with the coronavirus they will certainly get pneumonia and die anyway if that is all the suggestion ye have. It is absolutely ridiculous.

What the Taoiseach is in effect doing here is a total blanket shutdown because with our climate, the vast majority of these businesses will not be able to operate. That is a fact. What measures have been put in place by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to support the many thousands of people who are worried,upset and concerned today, the business owners and the people working in those businesses? It shows how little thought was actually put into this. We heard this morning on "Morning Ireland" and other programmes spokespersons for the Garda Representative Association saying that they were not even informed what powers they are actually going to have tonight. There is total confusion. I am asking the Taoiseach to really knuckle down to this job of work. He cannot just tell people they cannot go to work without making a clear path for where their income is going to come from next week and how they are going to pay their bills.

I refer to what happened with NPHET releasing its statement on Sunday and with the Tánaiste yesterday trying to get equal. I come from a Border county in Louth and we are very concerned about what is going to happen with the coronavirus. It is okay for us in Southern Ireland doing our restrictions at level 3 but are we going to work together as a united Ireland and get this sorted out once and for all? As for this thing about bickering between NPHET and the Government, we all have to put our shoulder to the wheel and work together. I am really frustrated. Every time I go to Carlingford or Omeath, all I see is yellow number plates coming from the North. We are busting our backsides in the South. If we look at all the coronavirus in the North, they are having an epidemic there at the moment. It is important that us in the South, us in the North, NPHET and the Government all put our shoulders to the wheel and work together to get it sorted out.

In response to Deputies Danny and Michael Healy-Rae, nobody in this House wants to close pubs and they need to accept that. Nobody here wants to close pubs. Do the Deputies honestly believe that people wake up in the morning asking how we can close more pubs? No one believes that. No one wants to do that. The real issue is that there was a recommendation that we go to level 5, which would have closed everything bar a number of essential services, or we would go along in accordance with the plan. There is an exponential growth in the numbers. It is low in about eight or nine counties, including County Kerry, but it is growing in those counties too. On the public health front, level 3 will assist those counties in stopping the growth. There is a serious issue for hospitality, including pubs, hotels, restaurants, tourism, music, arts and culture. Covid thrives in congregated settings and where we have audiences. That is just the reality of Covid-19. It is Covid-19 that is doing this. The Deputies need to really be honest about it. It is easy to say "ye", whoever these "ye" are who knew this and are balancing Dublin. The notion that we are doing this because we want to correspond with Dublin is just nonsense and it is unfair. It might play well locally but it is unfair. It is not the truth. No one wants to do this.

In response to Deputy Fitzpatrick, it is a very fair point. I spoke last evening with the First Minister, Arlene Foster, and the Deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill. I went through what level 3 meant in terms of movement across county borders. I asked that perhaps they would look at how they could take corresponding measures that would harmonise with the kind of measures we are taking in County Donegal and now nationally. They do not have the same schemes that we have here in terms of restart grants or wage subsidies. They have a wage subsidy scheme, a furlough scheme, but they do not necessarily have the financial firepower to underpin quite a number of the sectors. That is an issue for them and we will be keeping in touch with them on it.

Deputies Tóibín, Carthy, Bruton, Kenny, Cannon and Nolan have not been reached. We will give them priority tomorrow.