Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Drug and Alcohol Testing

Unfortunately, this issue is becoming more prevalent. It was raised at joint policing committee, JPC, briefings by Garda Superintendent Gerard Roche in the Limerick city division. He stated that, aside from what people would traditionally know as drink-driving, there had been an increase in the phenomenon known as drug-driving. He has requested more testing equipment. Currently, the division has only five machines, four of which are mobile and the fifth one being static. The Garda has applied for a further six machines.

The statistics are stark. From January to September, the ratio of detections for drug-driving compared with drink-driving was virtually 50:50. There were 128 drink-driving detections, an increase of 12% on last year's figure, but the 121 drug-driving detections represented a 128% increase year on year. This major surge occurred during the Covid period. More alarming was what happened during June and September. In June, there were 22 drug-driving detections and 19 drink-driving detections. In September, drug-driving detections numbered nearly three times more than drink-driving detections at 22 versus eight.

People need to be aware that, for a first drug-driving offence, drivers lose their licences and are disqualified from driving for four years. They lose their jobs as well. People might believe they will not be caught drug-driving after a certain time, but a drug, be it cannabis or cocaine, can stay in a driver's system for up to three or four weeks. The consequences are significant. People will automatically be disqualified for four years for a first offence. They will lose their jobs in many, if not nearly all, cases.

Will resources be made available to An Garda Síochána in Limerick to increase the number of machines for testing for drug-driving from the current five to 11? This is a growing phenomenon and education is needed. Gardaí in Limerick are looking for extra resources. Nothing I say takes away from the issue of drink-driving, which is equally as bad, but drug-driving is increasing significantly if the Limerick statistics are anything to go by. We are looking for funding for an extra six drug testing machines so that gardaí can do their job and ensure that people are not driving under the influence of drugs.

I thank the Deputy for raising this serious and important issue. While the Garda has been testing drivers for drugs with the assistance of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, MBRS, since 1999, the Deputy will be aware that the drug-driving provisions in the Road Traffic Act 2016 were only commenced by the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on 12 April 2017. The Deputy has outlined some of its measures and, indeed, consequences if people are caught. One of the legislation's key measures provides for preliminary drug testing, which enables gardaí to test motorists at the roadside whom they suspect of driving under the influence of drugs. An Garda Síochána can establish roadside checkpoints, known as mandatory intoxicant testing checkpoints or MITs, to test drivers for the presence of alcohol and drugs. The operation of MITs and the enforcement of road traffic legislation are operational matters for the Garda Commissioner. The Deputy will appreciate that I as Minister have no role in these matters. However, I am assured that Garda management keeps the distribution of all resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities to ensure their optimum use. I am also assured that this is the case in Limerick.

An Garda Síochána enforcement figures indicate that 1,216 drug-driving arrests were made in the first six months of 2020, an astonishing figure compared with the 591 in the first half of 2018. This represents an increase of 106% in drug-driving arrests despite a 70% reduction in traffic during the period of the Covid-19 restrictions.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Government has committed to ensuring that the Garda has the maximum level of resources available to perform its policing duties. The Garda has been allocated an unprecedented budget of €1.952 billion for 2021. It is anticipated that each county, including Limerick, will benefit from this additional funding, some of which I will outline now. This level of funding is enabling sustained and ongoing recruitment of Garda members and staff first and foremost, given how important it is to ensure that these duties can be carried out. As a result, there are approximately 14,600 Garda members and more than 3,000 Garda staff nationwide. Budget 2021 will allow for the recruitment of up to 620 new gardaí and an extra 500 Garda staff. This recruitment is supporting the redeployment of gardaí from administrative to operational policing duties where their training and expertise can be used to best effect. An additional €22 million has been provided for Garda ICT, bringing the total allocation to more than €70 million for the second year in a row. There will also be continued investment in the Garda fleet of €8 million. This is in addition to the highest ever investment of approximately €15 million in the Garda transport fleet in 2020, a portion of which relates to the Garda Covid response. I anticipate that all of this additional funding will be spread depending on where the Commissioner and his team know resources are required.

Budget 2021 provides the Garda with a significant resource allocation to support its vital enforcement role on our roads. Drug-driving not only puts drivers at risk but also passengers and other road users. Preliminary drug testing strengthens the Garda's ability to tackle drug-driving and I am committed to supporting this important statutory enforcement provision in my role as Minister for Justice.

I thank the Minister. She stated that the national figures had shown an increase of 106% in the first six months of the year. That correlates with the 128% increase in the Limerick Garda district across the first nine months of the year. It is a serious issue. The Minister also mentioned that there had been a reduction in traffic levels due to Covid. One can only imagine what the detection rates would have been had we normal driving patterns.

This appears to be a growing feature on our roads. The Minister spoke about it not only putting the lives of the drivers themselves at risk but also the lives of their passengers, other car users and, in many cases, pedestrians. Many pedestrians have been knocked down recently.

In the course of her normal engagement with the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Drew Harris, will the Minister ask whether the Garda has adequate resources to ensure that gardaí on the ground in the Limerick district, such as Superintendent Gerard Roche and his fellows, have the extra six drug testing machines for motorists provided to them, thereby ensuring enforcement? I also suggest that the Garda and Department address the education dimension to make people aware of the consequences of their being caught drug-driving – automatic disqualification, no licence for four years and losing their jobs, given that they will not be able to drive.

Without stepping into an area for which I do not have responsibility, I am assured by the Commissioner and his team that they continue to look at all districts and the resources required therein and that they allocate accordingly.

My role is to ensure that the additional funding is allocated and the resources needed are allocated. We have tried our best in this year's budget to ensure that is the case. The fact that we have an unprecedented budget this year of €1.952 billion will allow us to address some of these concerns.

I share the concerns of Deputy O'Donnell. The figures are frightening, especially given the amount of traffic on the road has decreased significantly. I wish to emphasise the fact that the Garda is not only seeing an increase of this type of crime. The force has been able to identify other areas as well. As the Deputy will be aware, An Garda Síochána recommenced Operation Fanacht on 22 October. The Garda has continued its role in the operation and has looked to prevent and detect crime on our roads. In the first seven days of Garda operations, a total of 71 crimes were recorded in the course of the Covid-19 operations that were not related to breaches of regulations. These were mainly road traffic and drug-related. The Garda is focused on this. This is a priority for the Garda even though the force is focused on Covid-19 as well.

The Deputy should note that the Road Safety Authority launched a public consultation to inform the development of the fifth Government road safety strategy that will run from 2021 to 2030. This is something I have no doubt the Garda will address and take on board. I will pass on the Deputy's comments about education. One of the effective tools in recent years has been advertising. Although they can be difficult and upsetting to watch, the advertisements clearly showing the damage that can be done on our roads are effective. When it comes to drugs, it is no different. I look forward to working with the Garda as it implements the strategy and, most important, I will ensure it has the resources to do so.

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

I thank the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, for being here to take this Topical Issue. This matter is of crucial importance for many people who have applied for the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, but who have encountered what can only be described as a bureaucratic mess.

Initially, the pandemic unemployment payment was a flat-rate payment of €350 per week. It provided solace and support to tens of thousands of workers and business people who had been forced to close their doors. The Government decided to amend the PUP from a flat rate of €350 for every individual who applied to a tiered system that resulted in different payments depending on people's previous salaries. Difficulties have arisen predominantly, it appears, for small business owners in respect of whom the Department does not have a clear or immediate access to PRSI contributions. This could have and should have been identified as an issue prior to the new system being introduced and prior to the most recent lockdown and restriction measures.

After the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, decided to kick about the National Public Health Emergency Team on live television with regard to its recommendations for level 5, the Government subsequently moved to exactly that position a short time later. The rationale given by the Government at the time was to ensure that the additional time as a result of the delay was to ensure all measures could be put in place to support small business owners and people who might be affected economically. In that regard, it was a downright disaster for many of the people who have been in contact with me. Shortly after the new regime came into place, I received an email from a constituent of the Minister and of mine. It stated that due to phase 4 restrictions, the business was forced to close on Friday 16 October. The person applied online for the PUP and received an email on the Friday evening stating the person was not entitled to the payment but to forward any documents to a different email address. The person checked online at but there was no notification looking for the person's documents. There was only a notification stating that the application was being processed. There was also a warning notification stating that the MyGovID service does not send details asking for financial or personal documents to be emailed. I could read dozens of similar emails that I have received. I could read dozens of text messages and relay dozens of telephone calls I have had with distressed people. These are predominantly people like hairdressers. Quite a number of them are small business owners. They were forced to close their doors as a result of the Government decision. The Government did not have the work done to provide them with supports.

Many of the cases that have been brought to my attention have been resolved following interaction with the Department. I thank the Minister's staff who are involved in this area in that regard. Yet, people should not have to go to their local politician to get what they are entitled to in respect of Covid assistance. It should be provided readily. Measures need to be put in place to resolve that.

Will the Minister ensure that the anomalies clearly in place are resolved for all outstanding applicants? Will the Minister ensure that the anomaly whereby many employers who have been forced to close their doors and who have been put on a reduced payment is resolved? We have the ludicrous situation in our county where employers have had to close their doors and they are on payments lower than those of their workers as a result of this debacle. Finally, will the Minister give clarification on the PUP recipients from the initial stage in March, April and May? Will the Minister clarify the position on those owed arrears in PUP? Will they all be paid prior to the Christmas period?

I thank Deputy Carthy, my constituency colleague, for raising this issue. The pandemic unemployment payment has been a vital support for hundreds of thousands of workers and their families throughout Covid-19. Since March, my Department has issued over 12 million payments to over 800,000 people. A total of €4 billion has been paid out under the scheme to date.

I wish to acknowledge the staff in the Department of Social Protection for the extraordinary work they have put in since March to ensure that payments have been issued quickly to those who need them. This demonstrates what public service is all about. I wish to assure the Deputy that the matter he has raised today does not relate to errors in the records of my Department.

The Department uses earnings data supplied by the Revenue Commissioners for 2019 and 2020 in the case of employees and for 2018 and 2019 in the case of self-employed people for the pandemic unemployment payment. Where difficulties in verifying records have arisen in a small number of cases, it is typically due to outstanding or late returns or delays or non-compliance in the recording or reporting of income and earnings to Revenue.

The Deputy will appreciate that if a person is working or self-employed, that person is liable to pay PRSI. It is reasonable, therefore, to expect that a person claiming the pandemic unemployment payment would have a recent and verifiable record of PRSI. Where a person has applied for the PUP and my Department cannot find any record of PRSI contributions or earnings, the Department contacts the person concerned and asks the person to submit evidence of employment, for example, a payslip. Where the person provides evidence, the claim is put into payment as quickly as possible, generally within a week of receiving the information. Dedicated teams are in place in my Department to follow up on all replies as quickly as possible. I am glad that many of the instances Deputy Carthy raised were subsequently resolved.

The staff of my Department are working morning, noon and night to process payments efficiently and quickly. Since the start of October alone, they have processed and paid over 200,000 new PUP claimants. I wish to put that in context. This is the equivalent to a full year claim load in a normal year.

It is always the case when processing such a large volume of claims that there will inevitably be some cases not paid as quickly as others due to incomplete or missing information or simply because a person does not satisfy the eligibility criteria. As I have said, where that happens my Department contacts the individuals concerned. When the necessary information is submitted, the applicant is put into payment as soon as possible.

I am pleased to say my Department has been working very hard on getting the arrears issue resolved. We hope to have the arrears paid prior to Christmas.

I thank the Minister for her response. She has outlined how the system is supposed to work and should work, but new cases are coming to my attention daily. We need to get this matter resolved because I cannot go back to these people, whom we both know in many cases, and tell them essentially that the Department says it is their fault they have not received payment. These are hard-working people who want to open their businesses in the first instance. They want to get back to work. That is their primary objective. In the meantime, however, they want a little support. It should be remembered that these people do not have the payment breaks from the banks that they had previously. In many cases they are coming under pressure from landlords and the like. They are therefore asking the Minister to step up on their behalf. I was speaking to some of them today, people who have been affected by this debacle and others, many of whom were less than impressed by the Minister's speech earlier, in which she decided to defend the indefensible by going into the gutter and engaging in what I would describe as a rotten display of deflection. I remind the Minister that when she attacks Sinn Féin, she attacks many very good, decent-----

Will the Deputy stick to the Topical Issue matter, please?

-----and hard-working people within her own constituency. I encourage the Minister to forget about the gutter politics and instead sort out the unresolved issues that relate to her Department. These are business people, employers and the backbone of local communities in our constituency. They deserve support, and I ask the Minister to make sure they do not face an unnecessary wait to receive their payments.

I will stick to the issue at hand. I reassure the Deputy that my Department is doing everything in its power to process payments as quickly as possible. The vast majority of claims have been put into payment without any issue. This week, for example, PUP payments have issued to more than 342,000 people. I am advised that there was an issue with about 1% of the total claims. When that happens the Department contacts the individuals involved, and when they provide the necessary information they are put into payment. It is important as well to point out that some people do not reply at all. That would tell me that they know they are not entitled to a payment. In fairness, we need checks and balances in place because at the end of the day this is taxpayers' money. My priority is to ensure resources go to the people who need them most, and that is what we are doing. For self-employed individuals, my Department has recently received an update from the Revenue Commissioners on the 2019 self-assessment returns. As these returns are filed annually and the deadline for filing is 10 December 2020, some returns will be outstanding.

If the Deputy wants me to check any specific individual cases and if he sends in the details, I will be happy to ask my officials to examine them. For many years the self-employed got nothing. There was no support or assistance available to them. However, thanks to the legislation that was passed in 2019, for the first time ever self-employed people who pay PRSI can get this unemployment support, and it is only right and proper that they should. My Department is here to help people, not to put obstructions in their way. We are here to help people in what is a difficult time for everybody.

National Broadband Plan

I wish to highlight the lack of delivery on the part of Eir in rural Ireland. The people I represent are extremely disappointed with the customer service Eir is providing and its approach to the roll-out of the national broadband plan. I receive complaints daily about the way Eir treats its customers and the manner in which it is supposedly connecting rural Ireland to high-speed fibre broadband. Eir regularly shows a complete and utter disregard for the concerns of the ordinary person in rural Ireland, its customers. This cannot continue. We expect people to work, to study from home and to live in rural Ireland with ease and comfort, yet Eir continues to disregard and ignore the needs and requests of its customers without the slightest bit of concern for the best interests of rural Ireland, in spite its being awarded a contract worth €900 million.

I will provide a number of examples in my constituency that prove the way Eir is treating its customers. One woman in the Thurles area contacted me stating she had tried and failed on numerous occasions to cancel her landline contract with Eir. Every time she called customer service she was left on hold for up to an hour. She was not able to cancel her plan for months, despite her best efforts. Then Eir turned around and informed her that she owed a bill of over €100 for that period. Her line had given her problems, she got fed up trying to get it fixed, she tried to cancel her plan and she met roadblock after roadblock with Eir's customer service. This is not acceptable. It would be laughable if it were not so frustrating for people in rural areas. I have a constituent in Portroe who lives just off the main road to Ballina. She is a teacher and during the first lockdown she had to teach a number of her classes from her car as there was so little reception in her house. Eir has run the broadband route along the main road in this area but not down its back roads. This means that this woman's neighbours can access high-speed broadband, work from home, study from home and live comfortably in their homes but she and her family do not enjoy the same connection.

I, too, have been inundated with calls from my constituents about the poor state of broadband in County Carlow. This is especially true in rural parts of the county. Now more than ever, a robust Internet connection is required for all constituents working from home and also to prevent isolation in these challenging times. It is important for us to keep connected, and there is an urgency around this matter. There are parts of Carlow where people are really struggling to get basic-level Internet to carry out normal day-to-day tasks, and this needs to change. I welcomed the announcement in June of €32 million for broadband in Carlow, and I know that National Broadband Ireland has requested a licence from Carlow County Council for road openings and that it is now surveying parts of Bagenalstown, Borris, Tinnahinch, Myshall - that whole area. That is welcome but, again, there is the problem of communication and information. I see a website has been set up with a search tool to enable the public to check whether their premises are within the roll-out area and to show the dates for the areas being surveyed. The website can be updated and there are numbers people can ring. It is so important now that every house has broadband. If we have learnt anything from Covid-19, it is the importance of having good broadband for working from home, whether for students, teachers or anyone else. They need proper broadband. Is there a timescale as to when this work will start for Carlow? How long will it take? I would like an update for the people of Carlow in order that we know it will happen. My concern is that there will be problems; for example, that one house down a road will have broadband while half a mile down the road someone else might not have it. What can we do to make sure that every house gets broadband as soon as possible, that there are no mistakes, that there is no confusion and that anyone ringing up about his or her account gets the necessary service? It is all about service.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for being here.

I thank Deputies Cahill and Murnane O'Connor. They have raised two slightly connected but separate issues. I will respond first to Deputy Cahill on Eir's shockingly poor customer response performance and the lady who he said was waiting for hours to try to get on to Eir to cancel a service, but was not able to do so and ended up landed with the bill. That is totally unsatisfactory and something the company will have to address. ComReg maintains a regular assessment of the delivery of service and how companies are meeting their objectives. Given the difficulty experienced and the fact that Deputy Cahill is hearing this from a number of constituents, it is something the company and the regulator, ComReg, will have to address.

In response to Deputy Murnane O'Connor, I will focus on the national broadband plan because it is a critical way of helping to overcome the problem and to deliver high broadband speeds to the entire country.

The plan sets out an intervention area which covers 1.1 million people, 544,000 premises and 100,000 businesses and farms along with 695 schools. The objective is to pass premises in all counties, including County Carlow, within the first two years and more than 90% of premises in the State having access to high-speed broadband within the next four years.

The map of areas that will be covered is available on the website. This shows which areas will be included as well as those targeted by commercial operations, such as Eir and SIRO, which is a joint venture between the ESB and Vodafone.

There are 28,291 premises in County Carlow of which 29%, or 8,158, will be provided with high-speed broadband through State-led intervention. The remaining 20,000 or so premises are in areas where commercial providers are either currently delivering or have plans to deliver high-speed broadband services.

As Deputy Murnane O'Connor said, the national broadband plan intends to spend €32 million in County Carlow. As of 4 November, 122,000 premises across the country have been surveyed. In County Carlow, 4,889 have been surveyed so far where we are looking to see exactly how to get the fibre into the house. We map out the various poles or alignment to make it happen.

Surveys are complete in the areas the Deputy mentioned and in Downings, Ballymurphy, Coppenagh, Killerrig, Friarstown, Slaney Quarter and Kilmagarvoge. Surveys are currently under way in Muine Bheag, Borris, Ballinkillen, Garryhill, Knockdramagh, Drumphea, Coshill, Ballyfeanan, Kilcarraig, Gowlin, Ballon, Glynn, St. Mullin's, Hollybrook, Myshall, which the Deputy mentioned, Liselican and Cappawater. I hope I got my Carlow pronunciation right; it is a test.

I mentioned Myshall but I did not go through all of the names.

The next step is for National Broadband Ireland, NBI, to develop the network designs to deliver to the house. One does the survey first and then connects into the house. Work has already started in counties Cork, Galway, Limerick and Cavan and the fibre connection will be in the first houses in Carrigaline before the end of the year. From the end of January, retailers will be able to resell the service in those areas, so we will be up and running.

Further details on specific areas within County Carlow are available through the NBI website which provides a facility for any premises within the intervention area to register its interests. I encourage the Deputy to get constituents do so because people then get updates as to when they will get deployment in their houses.

I wish to give a few more examples. A constituent of mine in Dolla recently built a new house. His next door neighbour has full broadband but my constituent was told he is in the amber zone and cannot get connected even though the fibre is only 100 m away.

In Holycross in my constituency, there are three houses together in a rural area. The houses on the left and right have high-speed broadband but the one in the middle is not yet connected even though technicians have called to that house three times.

It is the same story in Killenaule, Littleton and Horse and Jockey where people are trying to work from home and run businesses. Some of them only need 200 m of cable to be brought to their door to give them high-speed broadband but it is still not being delivered.

These are just some examples of the complaints made by constituents about how Eir is treating rural Ireland and its roll-out of the plan. People are extremely frustrated. Eir continues to ignore and disregard the complaints and requests of customers and it is currently getting away with it.

Rural broadband is essential infrastructure. We need delivery of it and Eir needs to up its game.

As I said, I did not go through all the names because there are so many. I welcome this €32 million for broadband for County Carlow. It is essential now more than ever that we make sure the delivery is quick. I know from working with Carlow County Council that it will be fully supportive of this. I know the people of County Carlow will welcome this. We must make sure it is there for everybody because everybody deserves broadband. It will be part of life that we have a proper connection and a proper service. It is something we all require as part of our daily life now. I will not go on too much about it. Good communication is key here in working with residents, the GAA, schools or businesses to make sure it is done as soon as possible. It is more than welcome.

I thank both Deputies for raising the issue. County Tipperary is as much an important part of the national band plan as County Carlow or, indeed, any other county. I look forward to providing details of the same investment we are going to have to make in that county. That does not excuse or remove Eir from the necessity to start providing customer service in a way it is not and so that its reputation is not being damaged by the level of delay. As Deputy Cahill said, customers are finding it difficult to even make contact with the company.

I will say to both Deputies that the whole project is aimed at getting broadband connectivity to every single house in the country. The national broadband plan was set out as a seven-year project. We will see if we can shorten that. I believe that is possible, primarily, because the demand for the product now will make a real business case for National Broadband Ireland to connect as many houses as quickly as it can.

Post-Covid, this habit of remote working or working from home will be embedded into everyday society. We will, perhaps, see that rather than working or commuting five days a week people might commute three or four days a week, and those one or two days at home will be facilitated by having broadband. Having a complete national roll-out whereby no house or area is left behind facilitates it. The key measure of success will be not just getting to where broadband passes the house but with the householders taking it on. That will be an imperative now post-Covid. I hope that is the greatest stimulus to accelerating the roll-out.

In other areas we are relying on Eir, which is rolling out high-speed broadband in significant parts of rural Ireland. It is ahead of schedule on that. As Deputy Cahill said, it may have a problem with its customer service but the quality of the actual broadband when it is introduced is this fast-fibre high-speed connectivity.

I mentioned other providers. SIRO, for example, is another company rolling out high-speed broadband in other towns, villages and cities across the country. We have, therefore, an effective roll-out happening. I want to see it happen faster but that does not absolve the companies while operating it from making sure their customer relations are working effectively. I will pass on some of the Deputy's comments to the company when I meet it next because it is important that the experience of his constituents is heard.

I thank the Minister. In light of the debate we have just had, I will take the unusual step of saying that I am refusing, unfortunately, an inordinate number of complaints from Deputies from all around the country about the service their constituents have received from Eir. If I did not have my own constituency experience, I would find that surprising. Eir's customer service is appalling and it raises profound questions about whether ComReg is doing its job.

School Transport

I thank the Minister for taking the opportunity not only to be here tonight but for re-arranging the session we were supposed to have last week.

We all agree the restrictions have been hard on many people and many different sectors. They have had unintended consequences which have placed particular difficulties on how people go about their lives.

Keeping schools open has been particularly important for everybody in the Chamber and in society. With the level 5 restrictions in place, Dublin Bus is only operating at 25% capacity. It creates undue hardship on service users in Dublin and on school children who are trying to get a bus to and home from school. The capacity is simply not there to deal with the level of demand needed.

While I am raising the issue with the Minister tonight, I am sure I am not the first one to do so through parliamentary questions and otherwise.

It is important that we work to rectify the problems.

I have in front of me a case study report from a school in my constituency, St. Declan's College in Cabra. The report gives a sense of what is happening for pupils in the school and the difficulties they are experiencing. Students have been left waiting for up to two and a half hours in the evening before a bus arrives with sufficient capacity to take them home. Those children are not getting home until close to 6 p.m., having waited in the cold, and must then eat their dinner and do their homework. Some students have to walk 1 or 2 miles further down the road to see whether there is an emptier bus that they can board. Students have reported as many as 15 buses passing by as they stand waiting. Some bus drivers allow passengers to get off their bus but do not allow the schoolchildren to board. There is an obvious and very real safety risk that comes with having schoolchildren standing at the side of the road in wet, cold and inclement conditions. The situation in the morning is equally as bad as in the evening, which is resulting in children arriving to school late and missing their first class, with all the consequences that go with that. I am interested to hear how the Minister intends to rectify this problem.

The Covid-19 health emergency has had a profound impact on the public transport sector due to the fall in passenger numbers and associated drop in fare revenues. The Government has committed to ensuring essential transport services are protected and supported for the duration of the level 5 restrictions. The continued operation of public transport is vital and, as such, it is designated among the essential services that have carried on through the crisis. I thank both the public and commercial operators and their staff for their ongoing work in providing this vital service.

A number of measures have been introduced across the system, guided by public health advice, to ensure the continued operation of services through the pandemic, including enhanced cleaning regimes and social distancing measures throughout the network. The Government's living with Covid plan clearly sets out capacity guidance for public transport at each of the five risk levels. The plan also provides guidance for the public on using public transport at the different risk levels, including a stipulation that wearing face coverings is mandatory and encouraging use of off-peak services and sustainable active travel options where feasible.

Due to the rising incidence of Covid-19 infections, for a period of six weeks from midnight on 21 October, the Government introduced level 5 restrictions for the whole country. At the current level of risk, public transport operators are restricted to using only 25% of the passenger-carrying capacity on their vehicles. The plan's guidance on working from home where possible and the closure of social, leisure and other facilities have reduced the demand for public transport well below normal levels. The advice is aimed at ensuring public transport is safeguarded for those who need it, including front-line workers and, critically, students. The move to 25% capacity utilisation on public transport is one of a suite of measures introduced under level 5 following recommendations from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET.

Issues arising from the reduction in capacity presented on some services at the commencement of level 5, especially on early morning bus services in the Dublin region. Both my Department and the National Transport Authority, NTA, are closely monitoring public transport demand and will continue to be guided by public health advice. Since the move to level 5, the NTA and the bus operators in Dublin, Dublin Bus and Go-Ahead Ireland, have reallocated a number of vehicles and drivers across the network to enhance the capacity in areas that are experiencing capacity issues. Approximately 43 buses have been redeployed by Dublin Bus since 22 October to mitigate the impact of the capacity restrictions and reduce the number of passengers being left at stops. Where possible, these vehicles are being deployed during peak demand times, particularly for school travel. These measures are assisting in reducing passengers waiting at stops. Currently, all available vehicles are in use. While the reallocation will ease the situation, it remains the case that there will be instances of people having to wait for another bus. The advice is, as I said, to try to avail of other modes of transport, if possible, and to bear in mind that journeys may take longer at this time.

The NTA is monitoring very closely the effects of the reduction in capacity, in conjunction with the public transport operators. They will continue to take direction on this matter from the relevant Government emergency planning bodies, including the Department of Health and NPHET. Any actions being undertaken by the NTA and the public transport operators will be guided by those agencies and the advice of the Chief Medical Officer.

We are very aware that this is a real issue for people, especially in Dublin and, in particular, for students. It was especially bad in the first few days of the level 5 restrictions but it improved slightly in the second week. We are monitoring the situation week by week. Dublin Bus has done a remarkable job, not only in putting on additional buses but also in terms of its workers coming in to do earlier shifts to cope with the morning peak in demand. I have been talking to both Dublin Bus and the NTA about this and they are very aware of the difficulties. The tradition and attitude in Dublin Bus is that one does not leave a child at a bus stop. Drivers have a huge responsibility in this area and it is not easy. That is the culture in the company and I hope it helps to alleviate the current difficulties.

I am afraid it does not alleviate them. When the Minister came off script at the end of his reply, he was a bit more honest about what is happening. I fully appreciate that the culture of Dublin Bus is not to leave any child at a bus stop. The drivers make a remarkable contribution to our city. They are generally friendly and reliable. However, at this time of level 5 restrictions, there is a very serious difficulty in that there are simply not enough buses to operate at 25% capacity. As a result, children are being left at bus stops in the morning, afternoon and evening. They are being left to walk in the rain and cold. We are facing into another three weeks of level 5 lockdown, which means another three weeks of this problem continuing.

The Minister talked about monitoring the situation but there is not really time to do so. We have been told throughout the pandemic that it is important to act swiftly. I am not sure what that looks like in terms of devising more of a Dunkirk strategy that would see as many buses as possible, private or otherwise, reallocated to come into service. The current situation is simply untenable. In a few weeks we will be coming out of a lockdown that was shorter than the first one and we hope to see an increase in capacity. The problem, however, is that we could be back to level 5 in January. The current situation is causing untold hardship in schools every morning, with children coming in late and wet from the rain. The same thing is happening on their journey home. I do not doubt for a second that the Minister is taking this issue very seriously but the outcome needs to be a lot better. The situation that is arising at bus stops throughout the city, from Monday to Friday, is not tenable and it is not fair. We can do better by our students.

The difficulty we have is that we are constrained by the public health advice, which is based on the assessment of the need to reduce the amount of contact among the population. Under the level 5 restrictions, bus services are reduced to 25% capacity. That is the real difficulty. We are reviewing the situation on an ongoing basis but any change must be agreed by the public health officials and they do not want to change the rules and standards in the middle of a period of restrictions at a particular level.

As I said, there was a particular problem with bus services in the first few days of the level 5 restrictions when the numbers of buses in operation reduced. The numbers have been rising again in recent days. The Deputy is relating what people are experiencing as they go about their daily lives. Drivers have a certain amount of discretion as to whom they allow to board their buses but we do not want to put the whole of that huge responsibility on them. They have to make a call and we will back up the drivers in whatever approach they take. We have discussed other options with the NTA and other ways of making this very difficult situation better. There is no easy solution other than possibly going back to NPHET and agreeing a different public health approach. That is not an easy thing to do at this time. We will look at the bus transport situation as part of the ongoing review of level 5 restrictions. There may be an opportunity at the interim review to change things.

There is a further issue to consider when we come out of level 5, when even the 50% capacity limit will present real difficulties as we start to return to normal. We are a slight outlier in Europe in that we probably have more restrictive measures in place than is the case in other countries. A lot of the safety issues surrounding public transport are to do with the level of mask-wearing. Compliance in this regard is pretty universal in our case. Another factor is how passengers behave and manage their own safety. Again, most people in this country are very conscious of the issues and are acting in a way that is very sensible. The review we are doing will be concerned not just with what we are doing at the current level of restrictions, which in the case of public transport involve a 25% capacity limit, but what we can do when we get back to levels 2 and 3, where we will probably find that the 50% limit is causing difficulties.

We do not want people to leave public transport completely. At the same time, we want to do the right thing in public health safety terms. That is the difficult balance we have to get right.