1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach the number of additional staff recruited or seconded to his Department to assist with the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. [31301/20]
Vol. 1000 No. 1
1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach the number of additional staff recruited or seconded to his Department to assist with the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. [31301/20]
2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the number of additional staff recruited or seconded to his Department to assist with the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. [33222/20]
3. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the number of additional staff recruited or seconded to his Department to assist with the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. [33500/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together. My Department continues to play a central role in co-ordinating the State's response to the Covid-19 pandemic. To date this work has been carried out from within my existing staff cohort, although this has involved significant reallocation and re-prioritisation of work within the Department.
This work is co-ordinated through the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 and the associated senior officials' group established to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19 and oversee the cross-government response, which includes communicating public information. However, within my Department, staff from every division contribute strongly to the work on Covid-19, including staff in the social policy and public service reform division; the economic division; the Government Information Service; the European Union, international and Northern Ireland division; and the protocol and corporate support services.
In March of this year, a team of approximately 20 staff of my Department who were not directly involved in the work on Covid-19 were temporarily assigned to assist with HSE contact tracing in Dublin. My Department also continues to deliver a range of other core functions and critical business including supporting the executive functions of the Taoiseach and Government and advancing Government's priorities and policy development through the Cabinet committee structure, and planning for the future with regard to Ireland's economy, Brexit, climate change and the work of the new shared island unit. The Department's structure and resourcing levels will continue to be reviewed in light of the work assigned to the Department.
The Estimates for the Department of the Taoiseach provide for an increase of €1.2 million for salaries. That is quite a substantial amount of money so the Taoiseach might outline what this increase is for. Will he break it down for us? I am sure he has the detail. A large number of extra special advisers have been added in the Department. We have been down this road before with regard to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party. What proportion of that €1.2 million relates to these new special advisers? What proportion relates to other things? I ask the Taoiseach to break that down for us.
With regard to the pandemic, will the Taoiseach outline what expertise or additional staffing has been acquired by his Department to assist in dealing with Covid. In layman's terms, I am asking whether experts have been brought in to help.
We have answered that question.
The Taoiseach might provide detail on all of those. In written replies, the Taoiseach has said that the increased spending will continue throughout the whole-of-government response to Covid-19, including in the area of communicating public information. The advertising spend of the Department of the Taoiseach has increased by millions of euro. Are there extra people to deal with that? If so, what are they doing? Have any experts in this area been hired? The spend on advertising seems to be mostly at a national level. I and others have asked the Taoiseach to reconsider this approach and to channel this spend through local newspapers and radio stations, where it would have a bigger impact, particularly across different age groups. The Taoiseach might consider that in the allocation of his Department's spend on advertising and communications in respect of Covid-19. I would appreciate it if he would respond on that point.
I will ask a question on a topical matter. With regard to those who have been brought in as advisers, has protocol been renewed with regard to how they manage documentation and emails and ensure that everything goes through official channels? Has anything changed or have any instructions been given in the Department of the Taoiseach as a result of the controversy about which we have all been speaking over the last five days?
Are any of the additional staff brought in to deal with Covid-19 addressing the issue of the recruitment of front-line workers necessary to deal with the crisis or the issue of the conditions and pay such workers have to accept? I have raised this matter with the Taoiseach a few times but the more I raise it, the more shocking and extensive are the emails and contacts I get from people. For example, a number of weeks ago I raised the widespread issuing of zero-hour contracts to contact tracers by CPL. I have got a slew of emails since I highlighted that scandal, which was apparently a mistake although I will tell the Taoiseach in a minute why it was not.
I will give the Taoiseach a flavour of what I have been told by the people who are becoming contact tracers, nearly all of whom are science graduates, it is important to say. The issues they have include not being told if they were to be paid for training, which had so far taken 11 hours for one person when they contacted me; being asked to work before being issued contracts; being treated as if in employment while without pay or contracts; being directed to spend their own time practising and learning at home; being given zero-hour contracts; a lack of a human resources presence or anyone to whom to address queries; poor pay at €24,000 per annum; and a lack of sick pay and supports despite the potential for mental health issues for contact tracers highlighted by the training. These are taken from one email from one person.
I also get emails from people who work in testing who are also on zero-hour contracts. All the phrases that were in the mistaken contract are also in contracts issued to people working as medical scientists in laboratories who have been carrying out testing since March. These are also highly qualified people who are on the most rubbish contracts one could imagine. I have also been contacted by other medical scientists telling me that they are applying for jobs but cannot get them at a time when we are saying that such people are needed in the laboratories. They are having to sign on for social welfare even though the testing system was unable to function for two weekends because there was not enough staff. Despite this, qualified people looking for these jobs cannot get them.
There is also the matter of student nurses, to which the response has been most unbelievable. I brought up with the Taoiseach a couple of weeks ago the matter of student nurses not being paid for working on the front line in hospitals. Does the Taoiseach know how many people watched the video of our engagement on that matter? It was 250,000. There were a slew of comments thanking God that somebody had raised these student nurses' plight because they are working for nothing. This is how we are treating those on the front line. This is how we are addressing the issue of building up the permanent capacity we need to deal with Covid-19.
They have rubbish contracts and student nurses are being exploited, and we are not even employing qualified people who are desperate to work in the testing and tracing area.
What is going on? Is there any sense of awareness of these matters in the Taoiseach's Department or the Cabinet subgroup? Will the Taoiseach address this as a matter of urgency? I do not see how we can deal with Covid-19 with such a state of affairs.
Do any of the additional staff in the Department have a special focus on vacancies in front-line services? There are currently more than 100 key promotional front line nursing and midwifery posts vacant in Cork city alone. There are a further 50 staff nursing vacancies in Cork University Hospital alone. To use a phrase that has been bandied about this week, that is not best practice at the best of times and certainly not in the middle of a pandemic.
We have a bureaucratic centralisation of recruitment within the HSE and that is a big factor in the problem. The common-sense solution is for the directors of nursing and midwifery in hospitals to be given the power to recruit where it is necessary on the ground. The questions that arise are when the 150 posts will be filled and whether the Government is prepared to delegate power to the directors of nursing in that regard.
I ask about Covid staffing in the context of a vaccine if, as we all hope, we have a vaccine in the new year. It will take many staff to administer the vaccine and not everyone is qualified to administer such a vaccine. A person must be a nurse or a pharmacist with certain qualifications, for example. There will be an incredible level of demand for it, so surely the Taoiseach does not envisage that it could be administered on the basis of current staffing levels. Special provisions and recruitment will need to be put in place. Has the Government begun to put in place options for that? It is very important that the administration of the vaccine is done through the public health system. We cannot have a position where the administration of the vaccine is less than 100% of what it could and should be through the public health system while private operators charge for vaccines. Will the Taoiseach comment on that?
There are three matters. I also raise the matter of student nurses. It is not so long ago we were praising all and sundry on the front line and calling them heroes without capes, which is quite correct. This is a terrible abuse of young professionals, and as Deputy Boyd Barrett has said, the sheer unfairness of their treatment is felt very keenly. Will the Taoiseach intervene and what will he do about it?
There has been evidence of zero-hour contracts being issued. CPL is the recruitment agency named, but if it or any other recruitment agency is engaging in that kind of sharp practice and issuing poor contracts that fall short of what the Taoiseach, as Head of the Government, expects, what will he do about it? Has there been an intervention?
On the matter of testing and tracing staff, we know there are 581 staff working on routine contact tracing. We know 214 of these are seconded from within the HSE and will have to return to their contracted positions. We have confirmation that the HSE is targeting a total complement of 800 contact tracers by the end of the year. It is pure madness that the recruitment campaign was not revved up during the summer months and it only began in August and got serious in September. We have raised this matter endlessly with the Taoiseach because it is a critical ingredient in keeping ahead of this virus and allowing society to function to some acceptable level. Where are we now in the recruitment of 800 contact tracers? By the way, we will need more, but we should start with the 800.
To start with Deputy Kelly's questions, the Department of the Taoiseach has not brought in additional staff to deal with Covid-19, as I stated in my reply. It has reprioritised and reallocated work within the Department, as senior members of the Department have been dealing with it on a consistent basis since the outbreak of the pandemic early in the year. The judgment call was that it was better to have senior members of the Department and officials dealing with this matter rather than recruiting freshly into the Department. There is a requirement for experience and co-ordination in the wider Civil Service effort, working with the Department of Health and through the Covid co-ordination Cabinet subcommittee.
There has been fairly extensive work by the officials and I put on the record of the House that, despite all the argy-bargy, we need to reflect from time to time on the extraordinary work that senior public servants have put into the management of Covid-19 on behalf of this country. It speaks to the importance of a strong, highly resourced and high-calibre public service to deal and intervene as a State when something of the order of this global pandemic arises.
I can give Deputies a breakdown later of the posts in the different divisions of the Department. On the wider issue of staffing and public service pay in general, obviously the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform plays a stronger role there. Deputies Boyd Barrett and Barry spoke about how the HSE recruits staff. Since the new Government took office at the end of June, I have been constantly in touch with the HSE, and from the get-go I have been working on the idea of a separate workforce for contact tracing and testing. The chief executive of the HSE and the Minister for Health have been pushing very strongly for this and we have one of the highest rates and volumes of testing in Europe. Denmark is ahead of us when it comes countries of more than 2 million people. The contact tracing side is improving, and while extensive, can be more extensive and we will work on it.
The vaccine will be a major logistical exercise and work is already under way on that. I said on previous occasions in the House that the European Union Commission has signed three agreements so far with Oxford-AstraZeneca, Janssen and Sanofi, and GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals. They are exploring the options and I hope they will be in a position to sign off with three other companies, so that by the end of the year, we might have some indication as to the feasibility of those vaccine research projects and when we will have a vaccine ready. It will take some long period in 2021 before it can be rolled out. It will be a major logistical exercise in itself.
4. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach the number of meetings and phone calls between his Department and the offices of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in the Executive in Northern Ireland since the election in February 2020. [31373/20]
I last reported to the House on this matter on 23 September 2020 and since then I have continued to be in regular contact with First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill. I spoke to the First Minister and deputy First Minister on the evening of Friday, 16 October, when we discussed the evolving Covid-19 position. Prior to that I had a videoconference with the First Minister and deputy First Minister on Monday, 5 October. I had a phone call with the First Minister on Thursday, 8 October, to discuss Covid-19. I also spoke to the First Minister and deputy First Minister on the evening of Thursday, 24 September on the need to introduce level 3 Covid-19 restrictions in Donegal to cope with rising levels of infection there. There is also ongoing engagement at official level on a wide range of matters between both ministers with responsibility for health and between the two health services on Covid-19.
Am I right in saying there were four communications between the Taoiseach and the First Minister and deputy First Minister of the North of Ireland since the start of September? It would be useful to detail the meetings before that as well. The question says "since the election in February", and the Taoiseach has so far detailed four occasions when he was in contact with the First Minister and deputy First Minister of the North of Ireland since the start of February.
I have raised this matter before. Dr. Gabriel Scally was asked-----
I should have included the North-South Ministerial Council and my visit to the North on two occasions when I formally met with the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
We can say we know of six occasions since the election in February where the Taoiseach of the South has been in contact with the First Minister of the North.
Dr. Gabriel Scally, who I am sure is held in high regard on all sides of this Chamber, has said that "if this was an animal disease ... there would be an integrated effort North and South". When he was asked if he felt there was sufficient communication and co-operation between the two states in Ireland, he went further and said absolutely not. In his view:
If this was an animal disease in sheep or chickens or cattle, you can bet your life that there would be an integrated effort North and South, and a huge amount of joint working and joint testing, and it would be seamless.
That is a scandalous thing for a person of the eminence of Dr. Scally to say about the Taoiseach's Government. It is a direct critique of the Government's handling of this situation, and it is no small thing. The Central Statistics Office, CSO, has said that there have been 950 excess deaths this year, most likely as a result of Covid-19. Half the country is closed, families are being pushed into poverty, a great many people are suffering poor mental health and people are losing their lives not just to Covid-19 but due to the lack of capacity in the health service. One of the great weaknesses in the fight against Covid-19 is the lack of co-operation between North and South. That is something in the gift of the Taoiseach and there would be no real cost to the people of Ireland if that were achieved successfully.
In many ways, the Government has put the responsibility for the front line of the battle against Covid on the shoulders of ordinary people in Ireland, when it could exist elsewhere. I have asked the Taoiseach and other Ministers on many occasions where the locus of co-operation exists within the Government. Does it exist within the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Department of Health? To date, there has been no answer to that question because no central location has primary responsibility for co-operation between North and South and no secretariat or staff are employed full-time to deal with co-operation between North and South.
The Taoiseach has given me examples of conversations that have happened, but those have been nebulous, ad hoc and not structured. Does the Taoiseach not think a structured response is required in light of the island-wide nature of this illness? Does he not think it is beyond time that we created a structure to deal with it on that basis? This is not just my critique or that of Aontú; it is the critique coming from people of the eminence of Dr. Scally.
I note sometimes when I raise this issue that the Taoiseach can get defensive, and I do not think we should seek to get defensive on this issue. We must work as an Oireachtas and a Dáil in total co-operation with the people of the North of Ireland. Can the Taoiseach show me a plan of action that consists of more than six meetings between the head of this State and head of the northern state since February?
It is not true to say that it is entirely and exclusively in the gift of the Taoiseach to deliver an all-Ireland approach. The Taoiseach and the Government in Dublin can certainly have a major bearing on delivering it, however. I have raised these issues with the Taoiseach before and I have told him that the systems, North and South, have been anaemic, quite frankly, in delivering the necessary all-island approach. We all know that for the purposes of epidemiology we are a single unit, and the only way to keep any of us safe is to keep all of us safe. We cannot have a reservoir of this virus anywhere on the island because it will imperil all of us.
We have the memorandum of understanding, as the Taoiseach is aware. The job of work North to South and South to North is to give that memorandum much more dynamic effect. The issues we need to address include, for example, testing and tracing on a cross-Border basis. It is insane to have the tracing element falling down between Strabane and Lifford, for example. We also need an all-Ireland approach in respect of travel and coming onto the island. In fact, if we must explore that matter as a construct of the common travel area and have a two-island approach, so be it. As the Taoiseach knows, we proposed that be considered in the British-Irish Council. In any event, we must have an agreed set of standards for self-isolation, restriction of movement and quarantine.
Unless we have these all-island harmonised platforms, and delivery on them regarding testing and tracing and regulation of travel onto and off the island, we will be doomed for the foreseeable future to yo-yo in and out of very restrictive and massively damaging lockdowns and heavy restrictions. They are damaging economically, but also devastating socially for our citizens. As uachtarán Shinn Féin, I state that we stand ready to play our part in the delivery of that all-Ireland approach. I emphasise, however, that it is simply not going to happen in the absence of a dynamic from Dublin, and a real intent to deliver this all-Ireland approach. I know the chief medical officers are in regular contact and there is some contact between the health ministers, but it should not be overstated. There are complaints north of the Border that the southern system is not playing ball in providing all of the information. That is what I am told from the health minister north of the Border.
Be that as it may, however, whatever difficulties exist need to be ironed out. We are coming into the Christmas period, and hopefully community transmission will be much suppressed. I hope people can expect a decent Christmas. We need to set the bar higher and resolve, as an island, that we will do everything within our grasp to avoid another very hard lockdown. I think we can do that, but we are only going to do it on a cross-Border and all-island basis.
I have also raised this issue repeatedly with the Taoiseach. I go so far as to say that the failure to have an all-Ireland integrated strategy to deal with Covid-19 amounts to sabotage of the efforts necessary to deal with the virus. That is how high the stakes are, and all the public health experts, infectious disease experts and epidemiologists understand that point. It is simple to understand that we have a serious problem if we are operating two different strategies, two different timescales and two different approaches. Nothing is more important than addressing this issue.
During our earlier debate on staff involved in testing and tracing - I hope to God they are not on agency contracts in the North - I should have concluded my reference to an email I received from a contact tracer by saying she finished off by stating "the bad treatment and lack of pay are making me seriously reconsider undertaking the role, or, if I do, I will almost certainly jump ship as soon as I am offered employment where I am actually valued". That was on foot of one of these CPL contracts. If that is the attitude of the contact tracers we are recruiting, it does not bode well for when things really get serious.
We need, therefore, an integrated approach. What tangible moves has the Taoiseach made to achieve that and what responses is he getting? I am also curious about what is going on in the Northern Ireland Executive regarding this situation. We will have a serious problem on 14 November when restrictions are lifted in the North, given that the situation is worse up there. It will be a serious problem for the efforts we are making down here to drive down the infection rate. It is a matter of urgency that we renew our efforts to have a co-ordinated, aligned and integrated strategy in our public health efforts. Has the Taoiseach contacted the authorities in the UK concerning the value and imperative of having an all-Ireland strategy to deal with Covid-19?
I reject the assertions made by Deputy Tóibín. They are simply wrong and overly simplistic. There has been very regular contact at multiple levels. That is the way it has to be. I am engaged with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. At the first North-South Ministerial Council in three and a half years, which was due to the Executive being collapsed, an assembly was held on 31 July. We brought the two Chief Medical Officers along to that, the Northern Ireland CMO and our acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ronan Glynn. Covid-19 was a central agenda item of the North-South Ministerial Council. There was very good engagement on Donegal, Derry and Strabane at a practical level. The more this is hyped politically, the less it is going to happen. I will be straight up. Members can do all the grandstanding they like in the House, but the more grandstanding they do the less effective it will be in trying to get on the ground pragmatic engagement and co-ordination. That is my read of it and I will be straight up about it.
There are two jurisdictions, two health Ministers, two health systems and a CMO in the North and a CMO in the Republic. They meet and engage. The shared island unit is working more broadly. We have created a new unit for ongoing engagement across the board and Covid-19 is seen as an area that should transcend borders given the implications for everybody on the island. There is structured clinical engagement. I am surprised at Deputy McDonald's comment that the Minister for Health in the North has said that the Republic is not playing ball or is short changing them. I do not believe that is accurate. I know this from my conversations with the HSE. These matters should be left at the clinical level in terms of hospitals to hospitals. I do not want to engage in any way in the politicisation of that. It should be practical, pragmatic, clinical engagement on both sides of the Border. That is happening and it will continue. The Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, had a recent conversation with the Northern Ireland Minister of Health, Robin Swann. It was a constructive engagement. That is the reality of that. Deputy McDonald will be aware of how difficult it is within the Executive. Sinn Féin found itself supporting the closure of schools in the North and supporting the opening of schools in the Republic. Different approaches are being adopted. Sinn Féin will know full well the difficulties within the Executive. In this House, we have rows every day, including today, because people want exemptions for this and that. The same applies in the North. Some people in the North, politically, want certain sectors open and other sectors closed. There are different rows about that and it is the same in the Republic. As soon as restrictions are brought in people start to ask, "Can I get an exemption from that restriction or an exemption from another restriction?" This has happened in the Executive. It is my genuine view that the next agenda item is to try to see how things evolve in the North in the coming fortnight with incidences, level of cases, their position on the ending of their current phase of restrictions and the review of that and what they intend to do. This is important from our perspective. Our level 5 is to the end of the month and we want to get the numbers very low. I have also spoken to the British Government and to Boris Johnson seeking to make sure he would underpin and support the Northern Ireland Executive with the funding that might be required to help it support businesses as a result of the restrictions it brought in.
We will go on to Question No. 5. I note that in the next group there are four questioners. If they are going to take a long time asking the questions, we are not going to get answers, but maybe many of them are rhetorical questions anyway.
I would kind of agree with the Ceann Comhairle there.
We can also get rhetorical answers.
5. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent correspondences with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. [31332/20]
6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent correspondences with the UK Prime Minister. [33223/20]
7. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach the engagement he has had with the UK Prime Minister regarding Covid-19 and the situation in Northern Ireland. [33506/20]
8. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent correspondence with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. [33887/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 8, inclusive, together.
I last reported to the House on this matter on 20 September. Since then I have maintained contact with Prime Minister Johnson. I spoke with the Prime Minister on 8 October when we discussed latest developments around Covid-19 and in particular the situation in Northern Ireland, when I supported the cases for additional financial supports to underpin additional restrictions being contemplated at that time by the Northern Ireland Executive. Prime Minister Johnson contacted me following my address on the Shared Island at Dublin Castle on 22 October. There is also continuing engagement at official level between my Department and the Cabinet Office on a wide range of issues, including Covid-19. Today I received further correspondence from the British Prime Minister on my Shared Island speech on 22 October in which he appreciated the inclusive and thoughtful approach and identified issues in relation to the strategic relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland and how we can take that forward. That is the most up-to-date correspondence I have received.
If we could please limit Deputies' questions to one and a half minutes, hopefully we could then get back to the Taoiseach for a reply.
Has the Taoiseach had correspondence or communication with Boris Johnson on the refusal of entry into Ireland of 525 people, according to an article in Vice magazine in 2019, solely or partially on the grounds that they may travel onwards to Britain or Northern Ireland? What appears to be happening is that in the context of a Tory Brexit, immigration rules in Britain are becoming increasingly racist, and nakedly so, and increasingly restrictive. The rules are being applied, de facto, in Ireland in the way the common travel area is being applied. People are being excluded entry into Ireland on the basis of Britain's increasingly restrictive rules. Why on earth are the Irish Government and Irish officials acting as enforcers of a Brexit-inspired crackdown? Are British immigration officials operating in Irish airports or are Irish officials implementing these British regulations? Why is the Irish Government going along with this crackdown on immigration?
My question, which I asked the last time, was on whether the Taoiseach actually talked to Boris Johnson and the British authorities about the imperative to have an all-island approach to Covid-19. What is their response to that? Are they indifferent or dismissive? From an infectious disease point of view, it is an irrefutable fact that to operate on an all-Ireland basis in dealing with Covid-19 would by far be the best and most effective way to deal with it. Will the Taoiseach elaborate a little bit more on what the response has been, if the Taoiseach is making the case which he says he is? As the Taoiseach said, it is not about grandstanding, it is a practical imperative. I believe him, as that is what he said, but what response are we getting other than, as the Taoiseach said, it is two different jurisdictions? Is that code for the Taoiseach being told that they do not care about the need for an integrated approach on an all-Ireland basis because these are two different jurisdictions and they are not co-operating on that basis. What is the block?
I will add to some of the questions asked, but perhaps with a slightly different tone. I thank the Taoiseach for the response given. I tabled the question specifically in relation to Northern Ireland and Covid-19 because they are the most pertinent issues of the day. I think it absolutely exposes something of a gap, going forward post-Brexit, of the Anglo-Irish relationship and of the Dublin-London relationship. There needs to be a formalisation of that relationship. We are very lucky that we are the only EU member state in a position to have that direct bilateral relationship with the Government in London through the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. What efforts are being made to formalise not just the North-South Ministerial Council, which the Taoiseach attended and on which I appreciated the briefing, but also the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, the British-Irish Council and so much more?
I will add to colleagues' remarks. I will state it so that it is clearly understood. The Taoiseach raised the issue of schools North and South.
The Taoiseach is right. On one side of the Border schools are closing and on the other they are remaining open. That is not so much due to the vagaries of Sinn Féin policy but to the reality that we have two different sets of public health advice which are in this instance contradictory. Not alone is that a very awkward situation, it is actually dangerous. We need to work harder to ensure the systems are joined up. Of course there is merit to, and a necessity for, a healthy Anglo-Irish relationship and we must ensure that. The real moment the health of that relationship will crystalise is when we no longer have a British border on our island. That relationship is an important one but the Dublin-Belfast relationship is critical to all of this for now. Has the Taoiseach addressed this issue in respect of Covid with Boris Johnson? Has he put it to him directly that it is an imperative and a matter of national importance and interest for us to have a single approach? If so, what was his response?
As regards Deputy Paul Murphy's question, Irish migration authorities operate within their own set of policy parameters and within the legal framework that has been laid down by the Oireachtas. That will remain the position. I will follow up on the specific assertions the Deputy makes, but the work and role of Irish officials in relation to migration policy generally is certainly not as he has portrayed it.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised issues about the all-island approach to Covid-19. The most recent announcements by the British Government about more severe restrictions in Britain and the United Kingdom should give an opportunity in how Northern Ireland responds. The Republic, the North and the UK have an opportunity in the next number of weeks to be at a similar level for a period of time. The UK Government has moved to very high levels of restrictions because of advice it has received from public health authorities, on which it is now acting. There are different perspectives in the Executive and across the political spectrum in the North about the level at which restrictions should be and the length of time for which those restrictions should apply. In my discussions with both the First Minister and the deputy First Minister I identified early on the very high levels of Covid infections in Donegal and along the Border in Cavan and the need for common-sense, pragmatic levels of co-operation. We will continue to work with the Northern authorities in that regard over the next while. It is important to work in a constructive spirit of engagement.
Deputy Richmond made a very important point. One of the key outcomes of my meeting with the British Prime Minister last August was that we instructed our officials to work on developing proposals around structures for a post-Brexit British-Irish relationship and how the relationship would evolve structurally post Brexit. We have both been members of the European Union since the early 1970s, and during that period a significant degree of familiarity has developed through meeting regularly at European Union meetings, both at an official and a political level. In many ways, that has helped improve and enhance the relationships between successive British and Irish Governments over decades, leading to very significant and strong bilateral relationships which have underpinned the Downing Street declaration and the Good Friday Agreement itself.
The importance of the British-Irish dimension and relationship cannot be understated and it is something on which we have to work very hard post Brexit. I would worry about this issue if we do not move to recognise the realities of Brexit, the fact the UK will be outside the European Union, and the necessity therefore, on a host of bilateral issues and in terms of the issues on the island of Ireland, for Britain and Ireland to continue that key relationship and develop structures and a stronger relationship post Brexit to deal with those issues and work harmoniously together on issues of mutual concern. The next meeting of the British-Irish Council is on 6 November and will be hosted by the Scottish Government. It will be a virtual meeting. On the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, it is my intention to accelerate that forum and create new momentum within it on the wider issue of British-Irish relations.
Deputy Boyd Barrett asked about the UK's response to Covid-19. It has evolved. When we introduced level 3 restrictions, I am not sure the British Government was ready to go to level 3 or to the level it is going to now. We then moved a notch higher than level 3 to level 5, having gone to level 4 in Donegal. The British Government has now moved as well.
As regards travel and the common travel area, I am not opposed to the idea to which Deputy McDonald alluded of the possibility of the two islands having a common approach to travel. All areas are nearly red at the moment for travel, and while that is problematic now, the aviation industry needs some signals for the future and next summer, for example. That is why Ireland has decided to opt in to the European Commission's travel proposals. Equally, there is a need to see if we can develop a common approach on the British-Irish side. There is work going on at the moment to validate antigen testing clinically and see whether that will be applicable. There are different perspectives within our health community on the value of antigen testing or the degree to which it can be used. Other countries are using antigen testing as part of their responses to Covid-19 and the UK Government is looking at a pilot project in Liverpool regarding the utilisation and application of antigen testing. That is something we are going to watch very carefully indeed.