Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

That concludes today's Leaders' Questions. We move to Questions on Promised Legislation. We have 31 names to hand, 14 of which have been carried forward from earlier in the week. I call Deputy Pearse Doherty.

We were told never again would residents in our nursing homes be abandoned like they were earlier this year. There is a situation in the west, however. I have spoken to the proprietor of that place. They have been begging in desperation for the HSE to help them for the past two days. They have not received that help. One nurse has been on call looking after 28 residents for 72 hours. Unfortunately, one of those residents passed away while others are being transported to hospital.

The Tánaiste might not know the individual details of this case. As Tánaiste and a former Taoiseach, will he tell me what systems are in place when an outbreak like this infects a large number of residents in a nursing home? What happens when a nursing home, pleading for help from the HSE for the past few days, only has one nurse and care assistant to look after all its residents, along with two other ancillary staff to prepare and serve food? What is going to be done? These residents, as the nurses have said in desperation, are somebody's father or mother. They need care from the State but it has abandoned them at their hour of need. What is going to be done?

Thank you Deputy. I will come back to you later. It is normal for the leaders to be given an opportunity. I will come to Deputy Naughten in a minute.

Deputy Fitzmaurice raised this issue only moments ago. I do not have any information about the particular nursing home but I will certainly look into it. I will contact the HSE personally and see what can be done.

I might broaden it out because, obviously, we are aware of the same issue.

There seems to be an issue as regards recruitment. I pointed out last week that there are 200 fewer permanent nurses in the system than before Covid and there are 1,800 more temporary or contract nurses. We also have issues with contact tracing and with nurses in the community, as pointed out by two previous speakers. There is a commitment, however, to 8,500 new healthcare professionals to be recruited by the end of this year, 12,500 by the end of the HSE winter plan in April, and 16,000 by the end of next year. There have to be issues beyond just the recruitment process of the HSE to be fair to it. What are the issues? I represent the constituency that has the Garda vetting unit and I do not believe it is a vetting issue. What are the issues across the board with recruitment that are causing these blockages? We must call a spade a spade. Are we really going to have 8,500 healthcare professionals recruited by the end of the year, 12,500 by April and 16,000 by the end of next year?

As I understand it, since the start of the year, the number of people working in our public health service has increased by 5,000, a pretty big increase in any given year. This comprises approximately 800 extra nurses and midwives, as well as 800 extra doctors. We now have more doctors and more consultants working in our public health service than ever before. Up to 1,600 therapists and allied health professionals have also been recruited. It is true that there may be people on different grades and different contracts. Overall, however, the healthcare workforce has increased considerably in the past couple of months.

On the budget, provision has been made to hire approximately 8,000 additional healthcare staff. It is an ambitious target but it is time to be ambitious quite frankly when it comes to scaling up our health service. It is one that the Government is committed to achieving. The funding is there. The Government needs to ensure that we really drive the HSE to make sure that commitment is honoured.

Regarding the legislation that will come up later on the ban on evictions, we know from research from Harvard University that there is a direct link between evictions and the spread of Covid-19. We know if we evict people into homelessness and into congregated settings, there is a higher risk of contracting Covid-19.

We also know we are out of line with most EU member states in that it is much easier to evict people here than it is in other countries. Would now not be the time to bring us in line with other member states to restrict the grounds for eviction? Should we do that now to help the effort to suppress Covid-19?

I am afraid I am not familiar with that particular research. Legislation approved by the Cabinet last night and to be brought forward will ban evictions during this level 5 period. There are, of course, some exceptions such as anti-social behaviour or where criminal acts are involved.

The research that I have seen shows that evictions in Ireland are relatively uncommon compared to other countries. Notices to quit may be more common but actual evictions in Ireland where people are evicted on foot of a court order are much lower than they are in other western democracies.

Two and a half weeks ago, when the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, advised the Government to go to level 5, there were 31 outbreaks in nursing homes and there are now close to 200 such outbreaks. We are hearing a horrendous story about 26 of 28 residents in a nursing home having tested positive for Covid-19. There has only been one nurse and one carer available in the home for the past 72 hours as all other staff are Covid-positive. One person has died and another is very ill. This appears to be a repeat of the horrendous position that developed six months ago, which was a nightmare for people. What measures have been taken since then to ensure there is no repeat of those events?

As the Deputy knows, the incubation period for this virus is 14 days so any cases that arose in the past five to 14 days would likely have arisen in any case, regardless of whether the Government had gone to level 3, 4 or 5.

To answer the Deputy's question, the main focus has been on serial testing and carrying out regular testing in nursing homes to identify staff and residents who may be infected early so we can identify those outbreaks and deal with them much more quickly than would be the case in places where this is not happening. There is also additional funding for nursing homes and support with personal protective equipment and other matters. I will be happy to give the Deputy more details on that later.

In the House yesterday, the Taoiseach, speaking about nursing homes, told us we had learned from the first phase of the pandemic. We find this morning that in my constituency, 90% of the residents and staff in a nursing home have now tested positive for Covid-19. A nursing home has been run for the past three days by a cook and two other staff, which is totally unacceptable. I know the Tánaiste does not know the detail of the case but I have had the opportunity to provide the Minister for Health with the information this morning. In fairness to him, he left the Chamber immediately after getting the information in order to act on it. Will the Tánaiste use his good offices to intervene in the case? We do not want to see a repeat of this in nursing homes across the country. I urge the Government to put a panel of staff in place who can go into nursing homes in such scenarios to immediately deal with crises such as the one we now face in my constituency. This would ensure the case would not be repeated and that residents would not be left in such a deplorable condition as they are now.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter and I will absolutely look into it once I am finished in the Chamber today. I am reassured to hear Deputy Naughten say the Minister for Health is already on the case, which is important.

Much has been done and more is being done than was the case in spring in the protection of nursing homes. This includes serial testing, personal protective equipment, additional funding and staff but the sad reality that we must all face is that if the virus is circulating at high levels in the community, it will get into nursing homes, hospitals, schools, factories and other places. We all have our part to play in ensuring that does not happen. It includes everybody, including all of us here, doing the right thing, adhering to social distancing, ensuring we wash our hands and following all the hygiene rules. It is really important that if we develop symptoms, we self-isolate and do not go to work or anywhere else. In such a case we should ring the doctor to seek a test and not come out of self-isolation until we get a negative test result and have been asymptomatic for two days. These actions will protect everyone the most.

Today we are starting a second lockdown and the people out there are restricted in very many ways. I appeal to the Government to implement logical, reasonable and sound restrictions. The coursing people of Ireland come from the countryside and they love coursing. They mind their animals and nurture the hares. They are in the middle of coursing but everything stopped yesterday evening. Coursing takes place in controlled areas in the countryside. It involves men, women and children out in the fresh air. They are not crowded into an enclosed area with close social contacts. This is totally unfair. Will the Tánaiste speak with the Ministers with responsibility for agriculture and the environment to sort out this matter? The people who were granted the licences are in the middle of coursing; some were running yesterday and the day before but these are now stopped. The hares are being looked after. There will be animal welfare concerns about dogs. This is a business for many people as well as a recreational activity and very valuable industry. It is very good for people's mental health.

A principal officer in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine recently stated that coursing is regulated under the greyhounds Acts from 1958 to 2019, subject to the general control and direction of Greyhound Racing Ireland. Under the Greyhound Racing Act 2019, a greyhound is defined as a dog entered into the Irish greyhound stud book. All greyhounds that race, whether on the track or coursing, are entered into that book. Therefore, the definition of a greyhound includes both track and coursing dogs, so coursing should be covered under greyhound racing and therefore be exempt under level 5 restrictions.

What is the difference between this activity and horse racing, for example? There is no difference whatever. It is run in a regulated fashion and if the Tánaiste studies the facts, he will see the Government was wrong in the decision it took at midnight last night. The National Parks and Wildlife Service should be notified immediately that the licences issued should be revalidated from today. What has been done is actually incorrect.

I am taking a different side of the conversation.

Is it from the side of the hares rather than the greyhounds?

Like everybody in the House, I have received numerous communications from my constituents concerned about another lockdown. Their concern arises because they have kept to the rules and regulations but there have been large-scale breaches of those rules by groups throughout the country. Given that the long weekend is coming, I plead with all concerned, and ask the Tánaiste to carry this message as well, that people should voluntarily comply with all the regulations and thereby bring the race of the virus to a halt.

I fully endorse Deputy Durkan's remarks. He is absolutely right and what happens in the next couple of weeks is very much in our hands as a nation and society. We can push back this virus with our actions over the next couple of weeks, thereby protecting ourselves, each other and particularly those most at risk in our society.

I am aware the hare coursing issue has been raised in the past couple of days. This was certainly a topic of discussion at the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting last night. There is an exemption under level 5 restrictions for horse and greyhound racing, and the question is whether hare coursing falls under that exemption. We are going to try to clarify that today.

I return to a matter I raised yesterday, which is the marts. I have now seen the regulations that the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, has said were introduced last night. Unfortunately, they were only published today, as is the norm, and there is mention of agricultural services. I raised this specifically with the Taoiseach but I do not know if the Tánaiste has ever been in a mart. I presume he has, for electioneering purposes at least. There is usually a catwalk across which people can walk and farmers will not buy livestock unless they can inspect it. I am aware of a mart where Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine officials stopped farmers inspecting livestock. If this continues, farmers will have to sell animals from homes and farms, leading to more mixing of people, not less. Will the Tánaiste provide some clarity on this? It would be counterproductive for farmers to sell from their premises.

I have been in many marts but the Deputy is correct in that such visits served electoral purposes. I have yet to have the opportunity to buy or sell a beast in a mart. Perhaps that time will come. We will look into this for the Deputy. At the start of the spring lockdown, marts were pretty much closed but we made arrangements to allow them to operate precisely for the reasons the Deputy suggests, including animal welfare and to ensure sales did not happen away from marts.

We will check up on that and see what we can do.

The idea of catwalks in marts is a new one on me, though I live in a rural constituency myself.

Travel agencies throughout the State have effectively been living under level 5 restrictions since March. They have no destinations to sell and nobody to sell them to. They are in dire straits. The Tánaiste recently said on the radio that travel agencies would qualify for the Covid restrictions support scheme. Two days later, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, said they would not be included. There is confusion out there. Can the Tánaiste confirm whether the Government will include travel agencies in the Covid restrictions support scheme, given their dire financial predicament?

The Tánaiste made reference to the Covid restrictions support scheme earlier. I know he was hoping for a chance to expand on the issue. The scheme is to run from 13 October. The details are to be included in the finance Bill which is to be published shortly. However, thousands of businesses are locked out from today. When will they be able to apply for the scheme? Can they apply from today? When will they receive a cash payment? As the Tánaiste knows, they have bills which must be paid immediately.

I thank the Deputies. Travel agents are required to close under level 4 or level 5 restrictions, so they were covered by the Covid restrictions support scheme from midnight last night. Whether they are covered under level 3 is a matter for debate, but that no longer matters as we are now under level 5. As such, travel agents are covered. They will now receive the weekly Covid restrictions support scheme payment because they were required to close their premises under level 4 and level 5 restrictions.

I have been informed by the Revenue Commissioners that the scheme is to open for applications this week. However, the first cash payments will not be received until the middle of November. They will be paid on a weekly basis from then on, but some administrative work is required from the Revenue Commissioners first. However, the payments will be backdated.

About six weeks ago I submitted a document to the Minister for Education outlining the measures we believe are necessary to ensure that schools stay open in a safe and sustainable way, which we all agree is a priority. Unfortunately serious issues with the tracing regime have arisen. The tracing system was one of the priorities we identified. It has been described by one union leader as "shambolic". Many teachers and parents have raised it with me themselves. They are concerned that a different and lesser standard is being applied to tracing in schools. In the last day or two some school staff members have received emails from their schools advising them not to follow the advice on contacts contained in the text they received. The Minister for Education said on "RTÉ News at One" two days ago that there would be dedicated school tracing teams. That is a good idea, provided the proper resources are allocated and the criteria are adequate. However, we have not heard any more about this initiative since then. When will it be rolled out, what will it involve and what by what criteria will the school tracing teams operate?

I thank the Deputy. The HSE is adding about 70 staff to its contact tracing teams each week. The tracing staff are very busy and are under a lot of pressure. They had to deal with a real surge in cases in the last couple of days. That recruitment is happening. We anticipate having hundreds of staff on a permanent basis contact tracing within the next couple of weeks. Off the top of my head I do not know whether or not there will be dedicated teams for school tracing. I had not heard that, but it may well be the case. I will look into it and get in touch with the Deputy with more information.

It is nauseating to see stores that should be closed because of level 5 restrictions remain open on the basis that they sell essential products when these essential products account for 1% or 2% of their trade or floor space. New regulations have been developed overnight. Will restrictions be put in place to curtail those practices, which I think the Tánaiste will agree are unfair?

I thank Deputy Nash. I think he is spot on. I met with representatives of the retail industry yesterday alongside the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English. We outlined the rules and received the industry's assurance that it would abide not only by the letter but by the spirit of the rules If a supermarket or other store is allowed to open that is because it sells essential products like groceries or work wear. Shops are not allowed to open so they can sell other products. For example, toyshops are closed at the moment. It would be very unfair if other shops that do not sell toys were suddenly to start selling toys. It would be a bit like toyshops reopening, selling sliced pans and claiming they were not just toyshops but also grocers. We got a commitment from the retail industry that shops would not take advantage of the situation by selling products that are not part of their normal sales and that department stores would cordon off the areas where they sell clothes, for example. We will enforce this if we have to. Guidance from the National Standards Authority of Ireland will be issued today.

Some 33,301 leaving certificate grades were appealed this year on behalf of 12,215 students. Only 18 of those students received increased grades. Was it worthwhile to hold an appeals process, thereby giving these students false hope? Will the leaving certificate resits take place in November now that we are under a level 5 lockdown?

As far as I know the leaving certificate resits will go ahead. Schools are going to stay open, so I imagine the exams will go ahead as planned. If there is any change we will certainly alert the House. The appeals process was a useful exercise for the 18 students that got an upgrade, though not for the vast majority of students who appealed. There was a very different leaving certificate system this time. In previous years an appeal would have involved re-examining an exam paper and marking it again. The authorities would not only check that marks had been totted up correctly, but also that answers been marked fairly in the first place. It was very different in 2020. There were no exam papers to recheck. Marks were solely based on the calculated grade. For obvious reasons there was always going to be a smaller number of successful appeals.

Under the heading of "Public and Social Housing", page 62 of the programme for Government states "a safe home is a cornerstone of a decent quality of life". If this is the Government's belief, and I have no doubt that it is, why are councillors around the State now saying that they cannot proceed with priority 2 and priority 3 works under the housing adaptation grant for people with a disability scheme? I am sorry to say that Wexford County Council will reach this position very soon. I call on the Government not to leave the State's vulnerable tenants in a position where their homes are in need of priority 2 and priority 3 works for safety, health and quality of life reasons. I ask the Government to urgently intervene to address this funding shortfall and ensure priority 2 and priority 3 works take place in County Wexford in 2021.

I thank the Deputy. I will have to ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to respond to him.

The primary medical certificate is a requirement for the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme. A Supreme Court decision in June resulted in uncertainty about the current legal basis for these assessments. Currently the HSE is not processing applications. Is there a timeline for when people can expect these assessments to resume? If legislation is required, it is essential that it is brought forward in a timely manner to ensure that those with disabilities, including those with multiple sclerosis, can access supports provided under the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme.

I wish to address the crisis relating to primary medical certificates, which confirm that a person is severely or permanently disabled. In June, the families of two disabled children won a Supreme Court appeal challenging a refusal to allow them to avail of the scheme. Both of the children were wheelchair users. One of the parents told me that when her son visited the area medical officer, his wheelchair did not fit through the door. The boy was ordered to stand up by the medical officer but when he tried to do so, he fell onto the floor. In spite of that, the boy was refused a primary medical certificate. The five judges sitting on the Supreme Court were unanimous in their decision to quash the refusal of the medical certificate for the disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme. Following the ruling, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, suspended the issuing of primary medical certificates, denying hundreds of people their human rights. Can the Tánaiste assure me the scheme will be reinstated with immediate effect?

The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, is working with the Attorney General on a solution to this issue. It arises from a court decision that essentially states there is a dissonance between what is stated in the legislation and what the regulations do. I expect that, at the very least, it will require an amendment to the legislation or the regulations. The Minister is currently working on that.

I wish to raise the issue of the local authority veterinary service. There is currently a dispute between the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and local authorities regarding the funding of the service. That has a significant knock-on effect, particularly for small food businesses around the country such as small abattoirs and other businesses that process food of animal origin. On 30 November, the service will be withdrawn, which will put in jeopardy many people's livelihoods, particularly in rural areas where the service is vital. For several years, there has been a protracted process of negotiations between the County and City Management Association and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, but it has not yet reached a solution. The Government should intervene and do something to ensure this issue is resolved. It is a crisis waiting to happen. It has been reported in the media today that there may be no turkeys for Christmas if this issue is not sorted out as quickly as possible.

The Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the Labour Court, which are agencies of my Department, are always available to intervene in such matters. I am not familiar with the details of the dispute, but if there is a willingness on either side to go to the WRC or the Labour Court, those agencies under my remit stand ready to assist.

We had better save the Christmas turkeys anyway.

I have been contacted by Scoil Áine Naofa and others which have expressed their extreme disappointment at the Government commitments to class size reductions for Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, schools. They are rightly unhappy that the commitment to class size reductions only applies to DEIS band 1 senior schools. DEIS band 1 junior and vertical schools are not being included. Will this be addressed in light of the great importance of DEIS schemes across the country? Will additional resources, including staffing, be allocated to DEIS band 1 schools as a matter of urgency? The Tánaiste will be aware that, by the very nature of the DEIS scheme, proper funding and class sizes are prerequisites. I ask him to provide a breakdown of how the planned investment of €5 million will be allocated.

The budget provides for a significant increase in spending on education and staffing levels next year, including a reduction in the staff-pupil ratio by one in primary schools, in addition to the €5 million fund mentioned by the Deputy. I will have to ask the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, to revert to the Deputy with details in that regard. I think I know the details but I would probably get them wrong if I blurted them out now. I will ask the Minister to revert to the Deputy.

In County Clare, there are still several issues with Bus Éireann and school bus tickets for children. There are ten children in Corofin who do not have a seat on a bus. I know the Minister, Deputy Foley, stated that she would engage with a steering group due to the fact that the review of the school bus transport scheme was not done last year. Can anything be done here and now for these children who are left without a seat on a bus, as well as those who cannot arrange a proper pick-up?

To follow on from that point, replies I have received to parliamentary questions confirm that there has never been a greater demand for school bus transport than this year and there have never been more refusals. It is wrong to state that this is related to Covid and that there is no demand. There has never been more demand for school bus transport and never have more children been refused.

There has never been more funding for school transport either, but obviously we are in a complicated scenario given the requirement to reduce numbers and have social distancing and so forth on buses. I will ask the Minister for Education and Skills to revert to the Deputies on their specific comments.