Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Before we start Leaders' Questions, I ask Deputies to co-operate with time, which is to the benefit of everybody.

Over the weekend, it was revealed that Deputy Leo Varadkar, when Taoiseach, leaked a confidential document to a friend. The document was a confidential draft copy of the 2019 GP services contract, a contract with a value of €210 million. The contract was negotiated between the State and the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO. Deputy Varadkar's friend was president of a rival organisation, the National Association of General Practitioners.

The facts of what happened are not in dispute. Deputy Varadkar has confirmed that, as Taoiseach, he leaked this document to his friend on a date between 11 and 16 April 2019. The document was a draft. As his own handwritten notes on the leaked document confirmed, it was subject to amendment and change. The grateful appreciation of his friend to Deputy Varadkar, as Taoiseach, was expressed as follows, "To be fair, Leo always delivers." That his friend, Dr. Maitiú Ó Tuathail, was eager to protect Deputy Varadkar, then Taoiseach, is evident in the published exchanges and little wonder given that he had campaigned for Deputy Varadkar to become the leader of Fine Gael.

The leaking of this document was not motivated by public interest: it was giving a dig out to a friend, it is as crude as that, a friend whose organisation was in competition with the IMO for members, subscriptions and influence. It was an organisation that subsequently collapsed and was liquidated in July 2019. So it is clear that Deputy Varadkar abused his position as Taoiseach. He will give an account of himself later today.

The Taoiseach is now head of Government and Deputy Varadkar serves as Tánaiste. The Taoiseach has stated publicly that while these events were not best practice that no law has been broken and, further, that he has confidence in the Tánaiste.

Given his stated position, can the Taoiseach tell us when the Tánaiste informed him that he had leaked this document? Did he wake up to the news on Saturday morning? Who gave Deputy Leo Varadkar the GP contract document in the first place? When did this matter come to Cabinet? Was that when Deputy Leo Varadkar was furnished with the document? Did every member of Cabinet receive the same document? Did Deputy Varadkar inform any other member of Cabinet or any official that he intended to, or had, leaked the document? Was the IMO informed of his course of action before or after he had sent the document to his friend? How has the Taoiseach established that this was a one off event and not a pattern of behaviour? Has Deputy Varadkar leaked other documents? What was meant by "to be fair, Leo always delivers"? Has the Taoiseach asked him that? The Taoiseach has been categoric that no law has been broken. Is that the position of the Attorney General? Is it the position of the Attorney General that Deputy Leo Varadkar has not broken the law? Finally, has the Taoiseach seen all the correspondence, documents and notes of conversations between the National Association of General Practitioners, the Department of Health, the Minister of Health and the Department of An Taoiseach? Has he scrutinised all those? Why is it that he refuses to publish all this correspondence, documents and notes of conversations for public scrutiny?

I have made it very clear that what the Tánaiste did on the GP contract when he was Taoiseach in the last Government was not best practice. It was inappropriate and the wrong way to do things. I have said that and the Tánaiste has acknowledged that and has agreed to come to the House to address the issue and answer any questions that Members have on it.

The GP contract was a positive development and welcomed by all Members of the House. Members had been pushing for a conclusion to long negotiations around a new GP contract. It was welcome because it involved the reversal of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest, FEMPI, worth about €120 million and the chronic disease management programme at primary care level which was worth about €80 million. It was a deal which everyone welcomes. It received a lot of publicity at the time by all media outlets when it was announced by the IMO on 5 April. I have the IMO's press release here. It includes quite considerable detail on items including capitation fees, €2 million per annum investment in practices in deprived communities, chronic disease management, maternity and paternity payments for GPs including the contribution to locum costs. It is all there in the IMO press release from 5 April. On 6 April, the HSE announced the details of the deal and the Government did so. I understand Cabinet approved it on 9 April and then it went to IMO members. The essentials of the deal were out there. As I said yesterday, deals of this sort involving such a significant degree of public expenditure and improvements and investment in the health services, at community care and primary care levels, should be published as early as possible.

That is my view. As I said, the IMO had reached agreement with the Government in this matter.

Deputy McDonald made a comment that I refused to publish something. I would like her to withdraw that comment because I have not refused to publish anything. I will publish anything that is of relevance to this matter. I have asked my Secretary General to have a preliminary look at what is in my Department, following the Deputy's letter that arrived late yesterday evening. The only thing that has been found so far is a letter from Chris Goodey of the NAGP, dated 9 April, to the Department of the Taoiseach. The letter was sent to the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, on 5 April and was copied to the then Taoiseach and the then Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, Deputy Fleming. It relates to the NAGP's concern regarding the removal of medical cards from patients by the primary care reimbursement service. I can read out the letter if the Deputy wishes.

I would prefer if the Taoiseach answered my questions.

She was anxious that all correspondence would be published. This is the letter I received from the Secretary General this morning. It is the only letter and I felt obliged to bring it in because I know the Deputy was very concerned about what she perceives to be numerous pieces of correspondence in my Department on this issue. I have to inform her, from a preliminary examination of this issue, that there are not numerous notes or items of correspondence within the Department of An Taoiseach. Obviously, it would have been the Department of Health and the HSE that primarily dealt with the negotiations with the IMO on this matter.

The Deputy should withdraw the comment that I am refusing somehow to provide information. She should not create the impression that I am trying to hide something. I am not. The Department of An Taoiseach is an open door in resect of any correspondence the Deputy wants to access on this issue or on health. It is important to say that. The Taoiseach is going to address this issue comprehensively later today and answer any questions people have. My apologies, I meant to say the Tánaiste will address any questions.

We must stick to the time allocated. Deputy McDonald had four minutes for her questions and the Taoiseach had four minutes to reply. There is now one minute remaining.

I welcome that all of the documentation will be made public from the Taoiseach's Department and the Department of Health. However, the questions I asked were not for the Tánaiste but for the Taoiseach. When was he informed that this document had been leaked, when did the Tánaiste tell him about it, when did the Tánaiste get the GP document, had he informed other members of Cabinet about it, and so on? I am assuming that the Taoiseach has explored all of these matters with the Tánaiste and others because he has essentially given him a clean bill of health. He has said that these are matters of not best practice. Weasel words if ever I heard them. What I was trying to elicit from the Taoiseach is some sense of how he arrived at the conclusion that there was no criminality involved and that there is really nothing to see here bar a failure to reach best practice. I do not have the scope to record my questions again but I ask that the Taoiseach answer them. He might start with when the Tánaiste informed him that he had, in fact, leaked this document.

First of all, the Tánaiste rang me on Saturday morning on this issue when the article had been published by Village magazine. On the issue around when he first found out, obviously there was a Cabinet meeting, as I said, which approved this matter. The Tánaiste is going to address all those issues but my understanding is that he would have got the document from the Department of Health. That is a matter for the Tánaiste and he will deal with all those questions. That is why he is coming into the House in the first instance.

I was not a member of the previous Government.

You are Taoiseach now.

I know I am, but I am not responsible for what the previous Government did, either from a policy perspective or in any other areas. I want to be clear about that. We formed a new Government to deal with the essential issues facing this country, namely, Covid-19, the economy, keeping our schools open, investing at record levels in health services and dealing with climate change. That is where the Government is going on this.

I have given nobody any clean bill of health. In regard to the language like "not best practice" and "inappropriate", the latter was a word used by the Deputy's party spokesman on health, Deputy Cullinane.

I have said that this was the wrong way to do things. Is the Deputy asserting criminality or has she asserted criminality?

I asked the Taoiseach whether the Attorney General-----

Has the Deputy asserted criminality?

I am asserting-----

The Deputy seems to be asking me whether-----

The Taoiseach is now going over-----

-----there was, in my opinion, criminality.

I asked whether the Attorney General had given the Taoiseach advice.

I want to know what the Deputy is saying. She needs to make up her mind.

I have asked whether the Attorney General has given the Taoiseach advice.

She needs to call it out and stop trying to be a bit-----

Has the Attorney General given the Taoiseach advice? That is the question.

I am going to ask again that we put a stop to the interaction. Can we have the questions put and then answered within the time limit?

They have been put but they have not been answered.

There is no doubt that the political landscape today will be dominated by this issue relating to the Tánaiste. It is a very significant issue. Given the large-scale problems in this country including Covid, job losses, the CervicalCheck tribunal, which I have referenced, and a range of others, that is not good. This issue needs to be dealt with quickly. The public is now drawn back to the time of golden circles, the Galway tent, friends in high places and so on. We had thought we had moved on.

We in the Labour Party are in a slightly different position from that of others in here as we are the only party of the Opposition that has actually served in government. I grant that individual Members of this House have served in government, but we are the only such party. My party colleague, Deputy Howlin, introduced the lobbying legislation which was meant to manage all of these issues. Obviously, it is being ignored.

There is a bit of time before the Tánaiste addresses the House. Deputy Micheál Martin is the Taoiseach now. Will he ask the Tánaiste not to use the lame excuse that he leaked this document to ensure the maximum number of GPs took up the contract, because it does not wash? The Taoiseach has time to ask this of the Tánaiste.

This is not just about the Tánaiste, however. This is also about Deputy Micheál Martin's role as Taoiseach and how he is going to deal with it. It is about competence and how the Taoiseach will deal with this issue over the coming hours and days. I have two real issues. The Taoiseach has said that he had a number of phone calls with the Tánaiste. Will he confirm to the House that he asked the Tánaiste whether he, or anybody who worked for him, had ever done this before? Will the Taoiseach please tell the House whether he asked that question and what the answer was? If he did not ask that question, why not? He is the Taoiseach. I ask him to please tell me that he has asked that question. I am sure the Tánaiste will have answered "No" because, if he has not, the Taoiseach has a fairly significant problem.

As the Taoiseach has acknowledged, what the Tánaiste did was wrong. It was inappropriate. Whatever happens today, that will not change. It was inappropriate. Will the Taoiseach confirm to the House that, because of this, he will sanction the Tánaiste at some level?

I have asked the Tánaiste that question and the answer was "No" and that he had not done something like this before or since. As far as I am concerned, the most important thing when something like this emerges is that there is full accountability to the House. That was my main concern on Saturday. To be fair to the Tánaiste, he had no issue whatsoever with coming before the House to address the issue and to answer any questions that people may have in this regard. It is of a different order to other incidents. I do not know why the Tánaiste sent the GP contract to the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP, in the way that he did. I do not think that was best practice. It was not appropriate and it was the wrong way to do things. That said, everybody was engaging with the NAGP at some level. Even in this House, the NAGP was lobbying Opposition parties. It wanted to hear what was going on and to be consulted on the GP contract.

Commitments were made that the group would be consulted on this. From what I can gather, that does not appear to have happened in a comprehensive way once the agreement was published. It was published by the IMO in a very detailed way to present to its members. The essentials of it were out there in early April.

Of course, in accordance with the Competition Act 2002, the GPs, as self-employed contractors, would have to decide individually whether to sign up to the agreement that was essentially being offered by the HSE or the Government to the tune of approximately €210 million. Each practice would benefit from additional payments relating to reversal of financial emergency measures in the public interest legislation and the chronic disease management programme, on which we have all actively campaigned for quite some time, as well as various items in the agreement that were published by the IMO. Generally speaking, all GPs are now operating under this and most people would accept it represents an improvement in primary care services. That remains the position.

There are a number of members of this Government who were members of the previous Government. Has the Taoiseach spoken to the other members of the Government on this matter to see if any pressure was put on them to provide this contract, which the IMO indicated would only be provided to its members? Was pressure put on anybody in the Government and who is now sitting with the Taoiseach in government to provide this contract to the NAGP? Has the Taoiseach asked that question? There are members of the previous Government sitting at the Cabinet table with the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach has not answered my question about the Tánaiste. I asked if he or anybody who worked for him - his advisers - ever did anything like this before or since. It is not just about him but the people who work for him.

We all understand this was wrong and inappropriate. It is accepted by the Taoiseach and it is even accepted by the Tánaiste, to be fair. What level of sanction is the Taoiseach considering, irrespective of what happens later today? Is the Taoiseach considering a sanction now? At least tell us that.

I answered the question on the Tánaiste, who made it very clear to me and the leader of the Green Party, Deputy Eamon Ryan, that he did not do something like this before or since. We take it from this that this applies to his advisers as well. He did not authorise any other type of action like this one relating to the GP contract.

I was not a member of the previous Government. It is an important point to make. I am not answerable for the previous Government's behaviour. We had many policy differences and we fought those in an election. As a result of that election, a new Government was formed involving three parties. That demarcation is very real and important. It would be quite a new precedent if future governments-----

I am not suggesting that.

That seems to be the implication - were to take upon themselves the obligation to start sanctioning members of previous governments for decisions they took. The decisions taken by any government must be accountable to the people in a subsequent election, and indeed that is the way it works. That is a general point I have to make.

The problem with lockdowns is we do not know which bits work and which do not. While they do contain the spread of a virus, they also impose huge costs on communities, businesses and, most important, individuals. The costs imposed by the recent move to level 5, including a major increase in unemployment, the removal of social outlets for most of us, and the possible permanent closure of many businesses, were insisted upon by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET.

Each of these measures is having a direct impact on the mental health of everyone in this country. We are all seeing this in our dealings with the public. Based on the Covid-19 wave model research developed by Dr. Philipp Hoevel and his team in UCC, and presented to the HSE last June, we will have entered our third wave of infection by February 2021 if we do not have proper systems in place. As a result, we could have another lockdown on St. Valentine's Day and our fourth lockdown over the June bank holiday weekend.

This is a stark situation and the only way to avert that happening is to do what we failed to do last summer and put in place a proper Covid-19 system with the capacity and capability to test, trace, isolate and investigate the sources of infection. The public will not accept another excuse from the HSE next February that the surge in infections could not have been predicted and that it was overwhelmed by the number of positive cases. The HSE has got fair warning and it must get this right. The public will also not accept the excuse from the Government that this is an operational matter for the HSE.

There is also an urgent need to use Irish-specific data regarding coronavirus trends and patterns to redesign the type of restrictions that should be imposed to manage and control this virus. As Dr. Paddy Mallon pointed out, we are collecting huge amounts of data from contact tracing, laboratories, hospitalisations and digital data. If academics and Government health experts work together to analyse those data, we could find a way that would enable our people to live safely alongside the virus, rather than just surviving from lockdown to lockdown.

Research into Irish Covid-19 patterns could lead to informed controls, rather than the quite blunt policies we have now. We have circumstances unique to Ireland. There is a big difference between dispersed rural populations, which make up 37% of our population, and tightly-knit urban communities. A concerted effort must be made to analyse the data we have available in the hope of preventing the need for further lockdowns. Will the Taoiseach commit this Government to act immediately and prioritise such research to help us all find solutions?

I thank the Deputy for his constructive raising of this issue and his questions. I accept fully his broad thesis regarding the need for Irish-specific research. I read the article to which Deputy Naughten referred regarding Dr. Paddy Mallon. I think it was in the Sunday Independent on Sunday, and concerned the need to do some more work on the specific data emanating from Irish sources. That work is under way in my Department in respect of doing more detailed statistical analysis of a range of variables concerning the virus.

We are learning all along the way. This lockdown is not the same as the first lockdown. The schools are open, and we pay tribute to all those involved in the school communities for the work they are doing. We will continue to work with the school communities to keep our schools open in the best interests of our children and students, so that they do not become long-term victims of this virus. The construction sector is also operating, given the necessity, from a social perspective, to continue to build homes to address homelessness and to deal with the needs of those needing affordable and social housing. Those are areas with long waiting lists. The first lockdown had a major impact on construction and resulted in the country not being able to fulfil the targets on the housing front that we had at the beginning of the year.

What we want to do now is get the figures for the virus down really low, and we should maintain a real collective national effort to do that. That will give us more flexibility at the end of November to see how we will manage the following months. We must learn lessons and use the research to adjust our behaviours, as a country and a people, in a way that is consistent with trying to keep the economy open for as long as we possibly can to protect livelihoods, but above all protect public health.

Turning to the testing situation, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, shows Ireland among the highest ranked countries in Europe for processing high volumes of tests.

The capacity per week is 120,000. More than 112,000 were swabbed last week and to date more than 1.4 million tests have been carried out in laboratories across Ireland.

On the test and trace systems we do need more personnel. We are recruiting very actively now for contact tracing. There are some 650 people now working in contact tracing centres across the country, of whom 344 are new recruits and the rest are redeployed staff. A further 450 will be recruited so there will be a dedicated, separate workforce of approximately 800 people working in contact tracing centres. Currently, more than 1,000 staff are working on swabbing and this is also made up of redeployed and new staff. There is continued new recruitment for swabbing purposes.

A total of €650 million has been allocated for testing and tracing next year. It is no small sum of money but it is vital in our battle against Covid-19.

We need to use Irish data to inform Irish decisions and not continue to rely on NPHET advice, which is based on what the EU health authorities are saying. Managing the virus in France and Germany is very different to a rural island in western Europe. The tools used by EU colleagues to tackle the virus may also be very different to the tools that would be used in Ireland that could allow our economy to survive and, more importantly, our people to live. The World Health Organization has made it clear that a strategy of rolling lockdowns is not recommended and we need to take this on board. We need public buy-in to whatever measures we take in this country to battle against Covid-19. There is a genuine concern that lockdown fatigue is beginning to set in. Would the Taoiseach agree that we need to take the time now to analyse the data and find and Irish solution that fits with our unique circumstances and avoids the need for a repeat of future level-5 restrictions?

I accept Deputy Naughten's point about the need for research to inform future actions. With regard to the tools and what is being done in Europe, in many ways we have been ahead of what many European countries have been doing in dealing with the second wave. When I met with EU Heads of State and other Prime Ministers, what they were calling lockdown was our level 3, which was the closure of the hospitality sector. Some countries are just about doing that now, whereas four or five weeks ago we were dealing with that in the hospitality sector. The hospitality, aviation and travel sectors have been the hardest hit with regard to employment and the people in those industries. I am conscious of that. Equally, there are no magic solutions to this. The basics stay the same. I was reminded recently by someone who had seen advertisements around the 1918 flu that they were quite similar to the basic advice being given to people in 2020 for this pandemic: social distancing, avoiding congregation and cough and sneeze etiquette. Fundamentally, it is about human behaviour in prevention of this virus. Our geographical location is a bit more problematic than New Zealand for stopping the spread of the virus. We have a border, we have a very close relationship with the UK with travel, and with the rest of the EU, and this is problematic also in containing and having a zero-Covid approach, which would be very difficult indeed.

In May this year Facebook announced that it is to build a 37,000 km undersea cable around Africa to provide it with better internet access. The cable will connect 23 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Europe, and at 37,000 km long Facebook claims that the cable will be nearly equal to the circumference of the Earth. Compare this to our own dire situation where, almost a decade on from 2011, we still have to raise basic issues about the lack of a vital service such as rural broadband, which puts many counties and regions on the back foot. I want to discuss this issue with the Taoiseach. Every rural Deputy in this House knows this is a serious problem. The National Competitiveness Council also knows it is a serous problem.

In its recent report, the council makes it absolutely clear that the shift to remote working by a significant proportion of the workforce has highlighted the absence of quality, high-speed broadband across this State. Indeed, recent events have reinforced the view that the challenges and frustrations for individuals and businesses working in areas of very low or non-existent connectivity remain stubbornly high. Despite almost a decade of talk about a national broadband plan, there has been relatively little action. The Taoiseach will also be aware that this issue has generated significant concern in rural Ireland in particular. Over the past two weeks, 19 of the 68 marts across this State have been affected by almost total broadband failure. Edenderry and Birr cattle marts continue to operate with speeds of less than 30 Mbps, while Ballinakill livestock mart in County Laois is operating with speeds barely above 30 Mbps. I wrote to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, about the matter of the marts but I am still waiting for a substantive reply. The level 5 restrictions at marts are having a very serious and significant impact on farming families and rural communities. I have been inundated with calls to my offices about the situation. It does not make sense, given that food production is deemed to be an essential activity, that farmers are not allowed to go in along the ringside considering the absence of broadband. It is also affecting the prices farmers are getting and I have been told it is having a significant impact on the prices received. This is unfair and unjust for farming families. The marts in this State have been managed very efficiently and have been compliant with Covid-19 protocols. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene in this matter because it is unfair and this situation is simply not good enough. We need a solution.

There are two dimensions to the points raised by the Deputy, which I thank her for raising. The first relates to the overall issue of connectivity in rural Ireland and the roll-out of the national broadband contract. It is no longer a plan. The contract was signed with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, in November last year and a copy of the contract between the Government and NBI was recently published in line with a previous commitment by the Government. The Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, indicated as far back as 4 September that design work is complete or ongoing in target townlands across 20 counties, with more than 83,000 premises surveyed to date. The laying of fibre should start shortly with the first fibre to home connection in Carrigaline, County Cork, expected around December 2020. The Minister is working with NBI to look at the feasibility of accelerating aspects of this roll-out to support remote working and connect communities to approximately 300 broadband connection points, identified by local authorities, to high-speed broadband this year. That will assist communities to quickly get free public access to high-speed broadband in advance of the main deployment under the national broadband plan. Those broadband connection points would include schools, library hubs, local sports facilities and other public places. That project is well under way and 136 of those sites have been installed to date. Increasing and enhancing that level of connectivity is central to regional development.

The mart situation right now exactly mirrors what happened from April to 8 June during the first phase of Covid-19 restrictions. The overall objective of moving to level 5 was to reduce gatherings and congregations and enable people to reduce their social contacts and the opportunity for social gatherings. That is essentially it. It is a blunt and crude instrument but it is necessary. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, has advised strongly that this is the course of action we should take for six weeks. We are in the second week now and the objective to the end of November is to get the numbers down. We have had submissions from many different Members of the House and the public more generally about different sectors, including gyms, marts, non-essential retail and pheasant shooting.

People have raised all sorts of issues, which I understand, and it is difficult for people. The purpose of level 5 is to work in our collective interest, to reduce the movement of people, gatherings and our social contacts, with a view to getting the numbers of cases down. We are in a downward trajectory compared with where we were two weeks ago. Level 3 was having an impact. The restrictions on interactions between households to one household only was having an impact. Level 5 will have an impact too. If we all work together, we can get the numbers down and get back to a reasonable position in December.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response. I understand that it is important to protect the lives and safety of the public. However, some of the restrictions do not make any sense. One that I am challenging is the restriction on the marts. Food production is an essential activity and I would like the restrictions on the marts to be questioned and challenged.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, stated at the start of October that the first tranche of 7,900 rural homes in the national broadband plan will be passed and ready for high speed fibre within the next ten weeks. While this is great for these homes, it is manifestly insufficient because not a single midland county was included in that announcement. We are undergoing a just transition in the midlands and it is totally unfair with regard to job creation and everything else. We are on the back foot because of the lack of broadband infrastructure. Will the Taoiseach direct the Ministers, Deputies McConalogue and Ryan, to brief rural Deputies on the outstanding issues that I have raised here? Many people are worried, especially businesses. It appears at times that the cart has been put before the horse with the actions taken by Government. We have an online trading voucher of €19.8 million for businesses but many of those businesses do not have adequate broadband, so there is no point in introducing measures such as that or the click and collect method or approach. We need to ensure that those businesses have adequate broadband.

The restrictions on the marts mirror exactly what happened between April and 8 June during the first phase of Covid-19 restrictions. While it posed challenges, people managed to get through that. We are saying that for the six weeks of level 5 restrictions, it is important that we work to try to get through them, notwithstanding the challenges that they present. I do not understate those challenges but it is important that we work collectively to get the case numbers down, and this is the most effective way to do it across the board in terms of a societal response to this. We can concede to each sector as we go along, and before we know it, we are back at some other level that will not be effective. That is the issue for us as a society. I know the Ministers, Deputies Ryan and McConalogue, have been talking to Deputies from all parties, including Members from their own parties, who have engaged strongly with them, especially on issues relating to rural Ireland. Our own Deputies and Senators have been very strong and assertive on these issues. I have no doubt that the Ministers will come before the House and talk to Deputies from all parties, as well the Minister, Deputy Ryan.

I thank Deputies for their co-operation and look forward to it continuing for the Order of Business.