Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Europe will next meet. [29924/20]

The Cabinet committee on Europe was established to oversee implementation of the programme for Government commitments on the European Union and related issues. It last met on 8 October in advance of the European Council meeting held in Brussels on 15 and 16 of October, when it discussed European Union and UK relations, climate change and external relations. It will continue to meet as appropriate, including to discuss issues on the agenda of the European Council. The date of the next meeting has not yet been set.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach spoke about the EU's co-ordination efforts in terms of Covid-19. I hope he will agree that in addition to the specific healthcare and services co-ordination in terms of data, expertise and a vaccine, the Taoiseach and his European counterparts are also discussing the wider economic and social challenges that undoubtedly will need to be addressed. These are things that play an immediate and constant role in the everyday lives of people, things that can and should ensure the common challenges facing all of the peoples of Europe can be addressed collectively by their political leaders.

Social solidarity will prove crucial if we are to overcome Covid-19 and keep down infection rates. We have been living with the pandemic for eight months and we will be living with it for some time to come. There is now a very real demand from people for domestic, European and global strategies to tackle the challenges ahead. The strategies need to put social cohesion at their core. Once agreed, leaders need to ensure the path ahead is properly and wholly communicated. Critical issues such as job insecurity and job creation must not only be dealt with but prioritised by member states. Of course, there are some areas where member states are ahead of Ireland and the provision of sick pay is just one example. We have seen throughout the pandemic those employed in precarious sectors attending work for fear of losing pay or losing their job. The absence of a mandatory sick pay scheme in Ireland lags behind other EU states and that this provision remains at an employer's discretion really makes very little sense in a modern economy and is positively dangerous in the grip of a global pandemic. Perhaps the Taoiseach will update us on the Cabinet committee's wider Covid-19 responses and strategic discussions in terms of a cohesive European response to the social challenges and the economic challenges in the months and years ahead.

The European Council discussed co-ordination in the fight against Covid-19. It should be self-evident that at European and national level we need an integrated and properly resourced approach to combat Covid-19. It is worth dwelling on the fact that countries such as Germany have managed better because they have a tremendously well resourced and well staffed integrated national health service. This contrasts with our fragmented semi-privatised understaffed and underresourced service.

The Taoiseach discussed co-ordination and contact tracing at the European Council. The debacle over contact tracing has everything to do with something I highlighted last week, namely, that the HSE is recruiting people on the worst possible temporary contracts. I fundamentally disagree with what Deputy Alan Kelly said today, that the solution to this is to separate contact tracing from the HSE, when the opposite is necessary. We need an integrated publicly run health service whereby workers in contact tracing and throughout the health service are paid properly as part of a single well-resourced health service. Does the Taoiseach agree this is the problem? The reason we do not have a contact tracing system, why hospital front-line healthcare workers are overrun and why we have high infection rates is because it is not properly staffed and we do not properly look after the health staff. We have this ridiculous situation where contact tracing, which is essential for us to be able to get on top of the disease, is outsourced on rubbishy contracts to workers in a fragmented, poorly organised system. This is the key and we should move in the direction of paying contact tracers and other front-line workers properly, giving them decent jobs, staffing things properly and resourcing the front-line services we need to challenge Covid.

The question relates to the Cabinet committee on Europe. I listened very carefully to the statement the Taoiseach made to the House yesterday on the conclusions of the European Council meeting last week. One of the things he said intrigued to me and I underlined it. It was when he said that in particular we, presumably Ireland or perhaps the Council, asked the Commission to give timely consideration to unilateral and time lined contingency measures that are in the European Union's interest. He went on to say this is an important message that is of great relevance to Ireland. I ask the Taoiseach to address my intrigue and tell us what exactly he means by this. What are the unilateral contingency measures the Taoiseach envisages will be implemented by the European Union on Brexit? Does it mean deploying additional resources? Does it mean new legislative provisions? What exactly is the Taoiseach saying on this? As he knows, money is available under the Brexit adjustment reserve fund of €5 billion. I am interested to hear in his response whether the Taoiseach has a sense of what measures will be funded from this or how the money is to be deployed. Has this been part of the discussions to date?

I thank the Deputies for the issues they have raised. The committee deals with Europe and we have a separate Cabinet subcommittee on Covid-19, which deals with all aspects of that. This committee meets to discuss broader European issues, specifically in preparation for European Council meetings. The most important response of the European Council and member states to Covid-19 has been the multilateral financial framework and the next generation EU funding programme, which is unprecedented in that European member states decided, on advice from the Commission, to act collectively to borrow money on the markets to support member states which are under particular pressure as a result of Covid-19 and to underpin them. This type of solidarity manifests itself in terms of giving resources to member states to enable them to deliver on social solidarity domestically. Under the EU institutional rules, of course, this has to get the approval of the European Parliament and there is ongoing trilateral dialogue between the Parliament, Council and Commission. I made the case that it needs to be accelerated.

The European Parliament has its demands and objectives and I say to Deputies who have party members in the European Parliament that the overriding consideration is to get this package through so the funding can start to be distributed and delivered to enable supports to be given to people. In Ireland we are borrowing at very low interest rates at present. We are not necessarily dependent on the borrowing capacity that these funds will afford us, although we will utilise the SURE fund, as the Minister for Finance has said, in respect of borrowing to support the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy scheme payments. This is the most fundamental response.

On Covid, the European response has been predominantly on the vaccine and the advance purchase agreement, which has been a good development. In previous potential pandemics, such as SARS, Europe was not co-ordinated on vaccine procurement. Developing that type of co-operation was quite embryonic. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is providing much advice to Europe. Europe has developed a proposal on co-ordination on travel.

As I stated earlier when responding to Deputy Ó Murchú in respect of the testing technologies, Europe is pursuing whether we can get a co-ordinated approach to the various technologies that different member states are using for testing. Most do PCR but there are other tests such as antigen and so on. The quarantining frameworks that should apply are also being examined.

I read a very interesting article about testing in Germany. It uses a network of private laboratories for testing. The state has an overarching protocol and a network of private laboratories throughout the country has been utilised for its testing regime. The Deputy's central thesis, therefore-----

Not in the case of tracing.

The Deputy's central thesis about the health service does not apply in that context.

As for treatments and outcomes, I ask the Deputy to defer to clinicians. The outcomes in Ireland during the first phase, in terms of hospital treatments, were quite good, which speaks well of the clinical qualities in our hospitals, such as the quality of clinicians and all our staff, including those in nursing and all involved in intensive care. An excellent programme produced by RTÉ looked at some of the metrics at St. James's Hospital, for example. The outcomes should give us some reassurance.

We can always attack our service and there is endless language of attacking, condemning and undermining it, but there are some very bright spots in our health service. The Health Act 1970 affords people access to our acute hospital system. We have many improvements to make but we have put €4 billion into the health service this year to advance State services and the health service across the board, from home care and primary care to community care and acute hospital care. My ambition on the health front is that after the pandemic, we will have embedded improvements into the health service, as a result of the additional resources, that will be long lasting and to the benefit of the citizens of the country in availing of our health service. That point has to be made.

I am absolutely assured that the contracts are not zero-hour contracts. We have made it clear they cannot be and that they must be proper contracts. Good-quality people are being recruited and it is important the job be done well. That means that people who are recruited will be looked after well, and that there will be a good human resources policy and a good HR environment for anybody who is recruited to the contact tracing or swabbing positions.

I have a copy of the contract. It is not good.

We have been told they are not zero-hour contracts and I will further interrogate that to ensure that they are proper and to the level they should be.

We want a deal and that is still the outcome that Europe wants, that Ireland certainly wants and that the United Kingdom says it wants. Notwithstanding all the talk last week, therefore, the joint committee has remained engaged on the protocol issue. There has been some constructive engagement in that regard and I hope a deal can be arrived at. In the context of where that does not happen, Europe will have significant decisions to make about contingency planning, and we have to be alive to that too.

Will the Taoiseach share the details with the House?

I am not going to go into specifics now because it could influence or have an impact on the negotiations. It might be perceived in a certain way. There are realities that Europe will have to consider, such as what will happen if we are in a no-deal scenario and what contingency plans Europe will apply and in what form.

Should we not debate that?

We are in a negotiating process. Let us, first, work on ensuring we can bring the United Kingdom to the promised landing zone. Having been apprised by Michel Barnier, I believe the UK can get to a proper landing zone, even on the key issues of a level playing field, governance and fishing. I believe that a great deal of progress was made in earlier chapters of the negotiating process, while on four others, considerable progress was made. In my view, it is possible to get an agreement. If we start talking about what will happen in contingency, that might be seen the wrong way.

The Taoiseach raised the matter.

We have put on record that contingency has to happen.

Shared Island Unit

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

2. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach the status of the work programme development for the shared island unit, including the expected timeframe. [30139/20]

Neale Richmond

Question:

3. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit as committed to in the programme for Government. [30830/20]

Alan Kelly

Question:

4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the allocations planned from the shared island fund. [31299/20]

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

5. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach the efforts that have been made through the shared island section of his Department to develop an all-Ireland management process to deal with Covid-19. [31372/20]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

6. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach the projects that will be prioritised in the initial funding allocation to the shared island unit. [31381/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 6, inclusive, together.

The programme for Government sets out the Government's commitment to working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. A shared island unit has been established in my Department to support this work. The unit is led by an assistant secretary and its work is proceeding to examine the considerations for a shared future in which all traditions are mutually respected, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. Operationally, the unit is focusing its work on three areas, namely, commissioning research, fostering dialogue and building a shared island agenda, including delivery of the commitments in the programme for Government. The unit is developing a comprehensive research programme and will work with the Economic and Social Research Institute and other partners. North-South and east-west collaboration will be an important part of this work. My Department has also asked the National Economic and Social Council to prepare a comprehensive report on shared island issues in 2021. This will provide valuable input from economic, social and environmental partners. Tomorrow, I will launch an online shared island dialogue series, which will start next month and inform the work of the unit.

Strengthening social, economic and political links on the island and the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing Ireland, North and South, are key objectives for this work. I briefed the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on the Government's shared island commitments and made it clear we are happy to develop east-west as well as North-South initiatives. In budget 2021 last week, the Government announced a shared island fund, with a planned €500 million to be made available out to 2025. The shared island fund provides significant new multi-annual capital funding for investment on a strategic basis in collaborative North-South projects that will support the commitments and objectives of the Good Friday Agreement.

The funding will foster new investment and development opportunities on a North-South basis and support the delivery of the key cross-Border infrastructure initiatives set out in the programme for Government. It opens the way for investment in new all-island initiatives in quite a number of areas, including primarily infrastructure but also research, health, education and the environment, as well as addressing the particular challenges of the north-west and Border communities. It will also support our community to achieving greater connectivity on the island and to enhancing the all-island economy and all aspects of North-South co-operation. The funding will be dispersed to Departments and agencies in line with the programme for Government priorities and on the basis of collaborative North-South projects.

With regard to Covid-19, recognising that viruses know no borders it was decided early on in advance of the establishment of the shared island unit that co-operation between administrations would be instrumental in tackling the outbreak. Processes are in place for regular engagement to take place at ministerial, official and technical levels. The shared island unit has no involvement in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. There has been significant engagement throughout the pandemic on how each health system is implementing various public health responses. There has been long-standing close co-operation in health for many years. The memorandum of understanding to strengthen North-South co-operation in respect of the public response to the Covid-19 pandemic, as agreed to in April, copper-fastened and formalised this ongoing close co-operation.

The Taoiseach has taken Questions Nos. 2 to 6, inclusive, together. Given that four Deputies have asked questions in this grouping, I ask that they be conscious of time in order that there will be time at the end for the Taoiseach to respond.

I have asked two of the questions in this grouping.

We have talked about contingency planning and I welcome the fact there is a shared island unit. As part of contingency planning, its terms of reference might need to be changed in the future, depending on what happens in regard to Brexit, but we will leave that for another day.

The present pandemic has highlighted some of the difficulties of partition. Certain parties in the Executive in the North look towards Britain, whereas we cannot necessarily stand over what the Administration in Westminster has done in respect of either the pandemic or Brexit negotiations. There is a definite need for co-operation in every sphere possible to improve upon this. That has been noted many times in the House and whatever needs to be done, an all-Ireland response is absolutely necessary.

I would like to hear some detail on the projects. The Taoiseach referred to €500 million and I assume he is talking about cross-Border projects such as the proposed Narrow Water bridge.

If we are talking about improved rail networks or the Enterprise service between Dublin and Belfast that only operates every two hours, it is not enough to allow people to commute between those two cities. I accept there are particular difficulties at this time. What is the timeline on the comprehensive report? I would like information on this shared dialogue series. What is the timeline in relation to the plan? What exactly will the work plan look like? I request additional information on those infrastructure projects.

I thank the Taoiseach for his substantive response. I welcome the establishment of the shared island unit and the announcement last week by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, of a budget of €500 million, which is not an insignificant sum. The role of this unit is important not just in the post-Brexit era but now that we have the Executive re-established. We face so many challenges and opportunities on this island and this unit in the Taoiseach's Department has such an important role to play.

Deputy Ó Murchú and I attended a meeting this morning with the House of Lords European Union Committee. The final section of the discussion was on how Ireland and the UK will continue to build North-South and east-west relations post Brexit. The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement provide us with the tools and the roadmap to do so. At this time, as we deal with the global pandemic, the importance of the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly is paramount. How can we use this unit to build trust across this island and engagement at every level, not just ministerial but also, crucially, co-operation? The Taoiseach went into some detail about the engagement between Ministers and officials at the moment but I ask him to elaborate on it, particularly with regard to dealing with the acute challenges we are facing with the pandemic in the Border region.

This was an important new announcement in the budget last week. Will the Taoiseach confirm that we are talking about additional and new money and not money that has already been allocated across Departments for Border or cross-Border projects?

Is there a breakdown, even in indicative terms, of how the proposed €500 million investment will be deployed? It would be useful for us to have a debate and discussion on that.

How is the fund to be administered? Is it to be entirely administered by the Taoiseach's Department or through the relevant line Departments, for example, the Departments of Transport or Environment, Climate and Communications? I have an important question because the issue is not clear in my mind. What will be the structure of the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, which I had the privilege of co-chairing for five years and which was responsible for INTERREG, cohesion funding, PEACE IV expenditure, all of which amounted to considerable cross-Border expenditure? That was co-ordinated but once Britain leaves the EU, will that body, even if it has to be given a new title, continue to operate and have some functionality in relation to the moneys the Government deploys? I know EU funding is still coming. What we do not want is to have some initiatives coming from this body and the same projects applying to a separate unit in the Taoiseach's Department and then being evaluated and perhaps part funded separately. There needs to be co-ordination. Will the Taoiseach outline the oversight of this €500 million and how the SEUPB, as currently constituted, will exist into the future?

The countries that have been able to suppress Covid-19 have typically been islands and have operated as epidemiological units. Countries that have delivered consistent controls internally and controlled their borders, such as New Zealand and Australia, have kept their numbers low and saved lives. The cost of not doing this is hundreds of lives, massive ill health in the country, a wiped-out economy and tens of billions of euro of debt. Ireland is an island and, as such, should have a competitive advantage in this regard. Co-operation is no small thing and we have heard so much about co-operation on Covid-19 but there is precious little evidence of it. The Taoiseach mentioned that there are processes in place to allow for co-operation. Seven months out, we have a situation where there are processes in place to allow for co-operation. We had a Fine Gael Minister previously who, when asked on the radio why he did not give the Northern Executive information about a lockdown, stated he wanted to tell the Irish people first, ignoring the Irish people in the North of Ireland. I want to see practical, real proof of co-operation. Where is the locus of co-operation? Is it in the Taoiseach‘s Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Department of Health? Is there a secretariat, staff or structure employed specifically to focus on Covid-19 cross-Border co-operation? What money is assigned to that? Are planning, funding and delivery happening fully in tandem, North and South, on Covid. If they are not, we will see continued failure and a yo-yo Covid policy in this country.

I welcome the Taoiseach's shared island webinar which is due to take place tomorrow. I look forward to that and to the process wherein all parties can actively participate in the shaping of the work and mission of the shared island unit.

My more substantive point relates to Covid-19. Following on from Deputy Tóibín, I understand the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is due to meet on 2 November. I urge the Taoiseach to ensure the issues of travel to and from our respective islands and a harmonised system for isolation, restriction of movement and quarantine be discussed. I urge that we adopt a common two-island strategy in recognition of the common travel area. I accept we have additional connectivity and obligations in respect of other European jurisdictions and we need to take account of that but it is imperative that we avoid an ongoing lapsing and relapsing in and out of serious lockdowns, such as the one we will enter this evening. We need to get this matter right. The appropriate forum to do so is the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council. The Taoiseach has previously indicated a willingness to deal with this issue in that format and forum and I ask him to confirm that, on 2 November, there will be a substantive discussion and serious movement towards a quick and effective decision and solution on this matter.

People Before Profit was the only party in this House two weeks ago to explicitly support NPHET's call to move to level 5. We did so not because we like restrictions or lockdowns - we dislike them - but because we support a zero-Covid strategy based not on perennial lockdowns but on precisely trying to end the need for lockdowns by eliminating the virus. The excuse the Taoiseach has given for not pursuing an elimination strategy, which would present the possibility of getting out of the perennial lockdowns that the Taoiseach's strategy is essentially offering us, is the issue of the Border with the North. I do not accept that excuse. If places such as Australia can pursue a zero-Covid strategy quite effectively, I do not see why we cannot do so.

What tangible, concrete measures has the Government taken to co-ordinate the Covid-19 response on contact tracing, testing and the timing of restriction levels? Countries such as Wales are now making decisions about restriction levels independent of Boris Johnson. That raises the question as to whether there are others in Wales, Scotland and England to whom we should be talking to discuss the possibility of real co-ordination, which would open the possibility of pursuing an elimination strategy.

This should not be mischaracterised. The elimination strategy is about getting rid of community transmission, which we had almost done in June, and then having a tracing regime that can pounce like a fire brigade on an outbreak of fire. A zero-Covid strategy is like a zero-fire strategy. It does not mean there can never be a fire but the intention is never to have an uncontrolled fire and the fire brigade can jump on the odd outbreak. That is what the zero-Covid strategy is about and it would mean there is no need for lockdowns. That is a prize worth pursuing as an alternative to having lockdowns for the next year. It needs to be taken seriously on an all-Ireland basis.

The Taoiseach has a little over five minutes to respond, which is a challenging task.

I thank the Deputies for raising the issues. It was my initiative to secure €500 million additional and ring-fenced funding for the shared island agenda. Deputy Howlin, as a former Minister, will be aware that successive Governments since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and I am not casting aspersions on any specific Government, have only done some projects on canals and all of that. If only one Department is given responsibility for shared island projects, it will always find other projects that will come ahead of a North-South one and the idea of greater connectivity. That is unfortunate, but it seems to have been the reality. Inevitably, if design is slow or delayed, projects in this space can fall victim to that process. We are clear that this additional €500 million is ring-fenced for shared island projects.

All Deputies, including Deputy Ó Murchú, asked about projects, and I will come back to other issues. There are obvious projects that are in the Good Friday Agreement itself and the New Decade, New Approach document. We have been committing to the A5 for a long time and it is time to deliver. We will explore projects including Narrow Water Bridge, the Ulster Canal and the cross-Border greenway. We provided some initial funding for a greenway between Sligo and Enniskillen in the July stimulus package. We could make a lot of quick progress on greenways in different locations. We provided funding for the feasibility study on the Sligo to Enniskillen route.

We will look at the education area in the north west. We have not done a breakdown because, as we know, sometimes the worst thing that can be done for infrastructural projects is to hand over €50 million and then people go off designing the Taj Mahal and nothing ever happens. This has to be done in a robust way with proper design and procurement to make sure that a project can be realised and delivered on the ground and that the various local agencies and authorities are also playing their roles to accelerate a project so that we can make the contribution when it matters. We could, for example, make a contribution over three years, as the project is being designed and developed. It puts flesh on the bones of the shared island concept.

Connectivity is a key objective. For example, I can see us helping to fund feasibility work on faster rail connectivity between cities, North and South.

What about oversight?

The Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Taoiseach will have oversight. We will work with individual Departments and agencies on delivery. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will have a key oversight role.

Reference was made to the House of Lords and that is an interesting presentation. Building relationships is key to this and I would like Deputies and Senators to build settings and approaches in that regard, including through the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The pandemic has restricted our movements, but we need genuine engagement. The Ceann Comhairle would have an interest in this, from Parliament to the Assembly. Nothing can surpass good personal relationships and engagement, east-west and North-South. I see the shared island unit endeavouring to facilitate that. Some engagement would happen at various centres, such as that of the Corrymeela Community and others, where there can be no holds barred, off-the-record sessions with people from different backgrounds, traditions and so on to seek greater understanding. That is important.

Deputy Howlin asked about the special-----

What about the EU programme body?

We secured €120 million from the European package, which is very good news because, of course, that has to be more than matched by the British Government at a ratio of either 2:1 or 3:1; let us work from the higher number. We also have to match it, so that gets us substantial funding that will be organised separately from this, involving separate accountancy, approach and all of that. We are pleased with the Commission for doing that, and President Ursula von der Leyen in particular for being facilitative in that regard.

A number of Deputies have raised issues about the pandemic. There has been concrete engagement between the chief medical officers and a memorandum of understanding has been signed by them. The two Ministers for Health, Robin Swann, MLA, and Deputy Stephen Donnelly, have engaged. I have engaged consistently with the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and will continue to do so, as I will with other party leaders in the North. We are conscious that we are in two jurisdictions. This is not New Zealand, whether we like it or not.

Our geography is substantially different and whether we like it or not, there are two separate jurisdictions operating on the island, governed by an Executive and Assembly in the North, the Government and Oireachtas here. Those are realities. We have a long Border. It is not possible to seal the Border to pursue a zero-Covid strategy. Deputy Boyd Barrett asked about concrete stuff which is not nebulous. When we had problems and moved Donegal to level 3, I approached the First Minister, Arlene Foster, and deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill. They responded in their way, pragmatically, in terms of Derry and Strabane. As I instanced earlier, the chief medical officer in the North is saying that there seems to have been an impact in Derry and Strabane and numbers of infections have come down somewhat. I hope that is the case and that is sustained.

We will do everything we can to co-operate but there are limitations as well. Representatives in the North had challenges in getting to level 3 last week, even level 3-plus in some of the measures they took. Politically, within the Executive, there was robust discussion. I contacted both the First Minister and deputy First Minister again because I was conscious that we were moving to a higher level in counties Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan and would look at increasing restrictions nationally. They have to operate within their political constraints and realities.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has been proactive with all of the Northern parties on co-operation around the pandemic, to be fair to him. He has had a number of meetings with the Minister for Health and the respective ministers.

Deputy McDonald asked about the British-Irish Council. We want to participate in that. Travel has been challenging because public health officials have been unenthusiastic about travel since the early days of the pandemic. Europe is now developing a common travel arrangement. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has been in discussions with Michael Gove, MP, about the British-Irish situation. All of that is subject to agreement from the health authorities about what is safe and what is not.

We will move on to Question No. 7. Would Deputies prefer to spend the remaining five minutes on these questions? Question No. 7 will then remain for the next day.

There is no next day.

Okay. We will go to Question No. 7.

European Council Meetings

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the EU Council meeting of 16 October 2020. [31339/20]

I attended a meeting of the European Council in Brussels on 15 and 16 October. The agenda included Brexit, Covid-19, climate action, EU relations with Africa, and a number of external relations issues.

On Brexit, the European Union chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, shared his assessment of the state of play in the negotiations. While recalling our determination to have as close as possible a partnership with the United Kingdom, the European Council noted that further progress was needed on a number of key issues, in particular the level playing field, governance and fisheries, if agreement is to be achieved. I was joined by a number of other leaders in insisting on the importance of a fair and balanced outcome on fisheries for our fishing enterprises and our coastal communities. There was also agreement on the need for full and timely implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. On Covid-19, we agreed that the current epidemiological situation gives rise to very serious concerns. In welcoming progress on better co-ordination of travel within the European Union, we called for stronger co-ordination in areas including quarantine, cross-border contact tracing, testing strategies and the mutual recognition of tests. We also welcomed ongoing work on the development and distribution of vaccines.

We held a positive exchange on climate action and will return to this issue at our meeting in December. I expressed the Government's support for the Commission's proposal for increased ambition at European Union level, including setting a target of at least a 55% reduction in carbon by 2030.

On Friday we held a strategic discussion on Africa in preparation for the European Union-African Union summit planned for 2021. We touched on the situation in Belarus and the shooting down of flight MH17, and separately on the European Union's relationship with our southern neighbourhood. We discussed Turkey and condemned recent provocative maritime activity by Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. We will return to this issue at future meetings. In addition to attending the meeting of the European Council, I also had a bilateral meeting with President Emmanuel Macron of France. This focused in particular on Brexit, including our shared determination to secure a fair and balanced outcome on fish and Covid-19 in France and Ireland.

I want to refer to our earlier discussion. As the Taoiseach said, he discussed the European wide response to Covid-19, specifically cross-border contact tracing. That brings us to the topical discussion of the state of our contact tracing system. I mentioned contact tracing. Reference to private German laboratories is a bit of a deflection, to be honest.

No, the Deputy extolled the virtues of a national health service in Germany. It did not actually apply to testing.

I accept that there is a large private pharmaceutical industry and it utilises its laboratories. There is also a state-of-the-art public health apparatus, something we do not have. We have run down our public health apparatus.

A particular strength of the German system is the strength of its local public health apparatus and tracing regime. That is what is needed. Similar success has been achieved in New Zealand, Australia and so on because of the strength of local public health. We need people with local knowledge, resources and respect, which our public health specialists do not have because they are not held in the same status as other medical specialists, and the resourcing to back that up.

We do not need people on miserable contracts. I have the contract in front of me. It is a zero-hour contract, without a shadow of a doubt. It is littered with statements to the effect that the company can get rid of personnel, does not have to pay them in this instance and so on. It scrambled because I embarrassed it last week. I was tipped off by somebody who is on one of these contracts who is absolutely disgusted. Somebody with a postgraduate degree is being treated like this.

It is no wonder we cannot get contact tracers if these are the contracts they are being handed. The suggestion from Deputy Alan Kelly that we should siphon off the system from the HSE is even worse. It is madness. We need people who are directly employed by the HSE on proper contracts in order to build up strong public health teams at a local level, which is what exists in Germany. Was there any detailed discussion about that kind of thing? That is what we need if we are going to get ahead of this virus.

On an elimination strategy or suppression, Dr. David Nabarro was clear, as was Dr. Tony Holohan at the briefing. We have to have that public health apparatus to have a chance of not rolling in and out of restrictions after restrictions time after time. That is the point. Did the Taoiseach learn anything from our European colleagues in that regard?

There are 46 seconds.

I learned a lot. The Dutch support our plan. Other Parliaments-----

I want to focus very briefly on the European Council, which was the question asked. The Taoiseach touched on three outstanding issues in respect of Brexit, namely, oversight, fisheries and a level playing field. I do not have time to go into them in detail.

We went through them in detail earlier today in discussions at the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs with the House of Lords' committee. Even those who were very strongly anti-Brexit were concerned about the requirements on the European Union side in regard to oversight. It was European Union oversight that was at issue. They asked us if we could address that issue and if there was an independent body that might well address that issue. The fisheries issue is obviously a fundamental issue, but has now become totemic as a matter of sovereignty as supposed to a matter of fish.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 2.26 p.m. and resumed at 3.26 p.m.