Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Wind Energy Generation

As the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, knows, this last week has seen a devastating bog slide at Meenbog, near Ballybofey. Thousands of tonnes of peat have slid down into the river on the mountain. This peat will make its way to the Derg river. It has probably killed thousands of salmon at this stage, ultimately compromising the Mourne and the Foyle river systems.

This is the culmination of a long planning history at this site where the development has been pushed on against the wishes of the community. This site was part of a planning application that was initially submitted to An Bord Pleanála in 2015 and was refused due to the work of the community highlighting that it was environmentally suspect.

There is a serious issue regarding how applications are foisted on communities, and this is what we get. During the planning phase of this wind farm, the local community told the developer that the ground conditions would make this site liable to slippage and it was ignored.

The development was taken out of the initial application and applied for again to the board, when it was granted. It has always been believed that this was just a first step in achieving the whole development. It has inevitably led to the developer contacting the local community this week to say that he intends to submit an application in the coming months for the rest of the site, which was the original application. This is blatant project splitting and was not called out by any official organisation.

I am raising the issue of Meenbog, but the like has unfortunately been seen at other sites around the country, for example, Derrybrien in County Galway and Drumkeeran in County Leitrim. At how many other sites will this happen? Sadly, this is about the Government turning a blind eye to big, wealthy developers. Local communities cannot rely on the Government to support them and their interests over the interests of developers in such cases. They know that the Government will use An Bord Pleanála to ensure that applications are granted. To add insult to injury, there is little or no control of developments after they have been given permission. Developers can do as they please. Even if planning permission promises to do X, Y and Z to protect the environment, there is no effective control to ensure that they do. That is the end of the process and no one examines it from there on. That is wrong.

At the wind farm construction site in the Finn Valley in Ballybofey, County Donegal, there was a large-scale bog slide recently that, as Deputy Pringle mentioned, polluted a salmon and trout river and a fish farm. This happened because of the disturbance of lands during the wind farm's construction. In south Galway, the State has incurred fines of €10.5 million, and rising, because of a massive landslide during a wind farm's construction. The European Court of Justice found that Ireland had failed to assess properly the development's environmental effects on the locality.

In the Delvin, Raharney and Ballivor areas of my constituency of Meath West, Bord na Móna and Gaeltec Utilities are in the process of applying for planning permission to erect 35 wind turbines ranging in height from 180 m to 200 m, some of the tallest in Europe, with a setback distance from many homes of only four times the height of the turbine and little regard for noise, flicker, the value of people's homes or the environmental effects. Located beside one of the proposed wind farms is one of Ireland's leading bloodstock farms. We talk about climate change and climate action, but what happened in Donegal and Galway did more in terms of damaging the climate than those wind farms could ever do to help it.

If wind farms must be 600 ft to 650 ft tall to get the desired wind speeds, are these areas suitable for such developments? Will the Minister of State put a hold on wind farm planning applications until there has been a full investigation into what happened in Donegal and Galway so that we avoid another environmental disaster in our areas or elsewhere?

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. We have all been taken aback by it and the scenes we have witnessed are shocking. My Department and I are aware of last weekend's peat slide near the Meenbog wind farm, which is currently under construction close to Barnesmore Gap south of Ballybofey, County Donegal. The matter is being actively investigated by a number of statutory agencies led by Donegal County Council, including the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, Irish Water, the Loughs Agency, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and, having regard to the fact that the development is a transboundary project, Derry City and Strabane District Council and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

At this early stage, the precise cause of the peat slide is yet to be determined, be it the construction works on the wind farm, weather impacts, other factors or a combination of various elements. I note Deputy Pringle's mention of the Shass Mountain peat slide, a report on which I have. Initial investigations into the Meenbog incident by the agencies involved noted that, in addition to road construction works on the wind farm site where the peat slide occurred, there was heavy and persistent rainfall and build-up of water within the peat over the recent period, which may have contributed to the peat slippage.

Investigations into the cause are ongoing, but the immediate focus of the agencies has been to ensure the putting in place of hardcore berms to prevent further peat slippage, stabilise the peat slippage in the form of dewatering to maintain the peat on site, and minimise impacts on local watercourses. Once these measures are in place, the agencies will endeavour to determine the precise cause of the peat slide and then deal with breaches, if any, of planning and environmental requirements.

I should also mention that the developers of the wind farm were requested by Donegal County Council to submit an action plan by yesterday detailing the engineering measures necessary to eliminate or limit the release of further polluting matter from the area where the peat slide occurred, prevent the release of material built up behind the improvised impoundment structure on site, and mitigate against the further dispersal of peat and sediment beyond the confines of the site.

The wind farm development in question was granted permission through the strategic infrastructure development process operated by An Bord Pleanála. Under planning legislation, the decision on whether to grant permission for a strategic infrastructure development, with or without conditions, is a matter for An Bord Pleanála. In making decisions on strategic infrastructure development applications, the board is required to have regard to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area, the provisions of the development plan, any submission or observation received and relevant ministerial or Government policies, including guidelines issued by my Department. The consideration of such applications also involves consideration of the requirements of the EU environmental impact assessment directive and the habitats directive.

There is a mandatory requirement to undertake an environmental impact assessment in respect of wind farm development projects of a certain scale, that is, if they consist of five or more turbines or have a power output greater than 5 MW. This ensures that all environmental impacts, including potential hydrological impacts, of a proposed development are fully considered and assessed prior to the making of determinations on individual planning applications.

A detailed environmental impact assessment, incorporating a peat and soil management plan and an assessment of the potential for a peat slide, was submitted as part of the planning application for the Meenbog wind farm to the board. Arising from the peat slide and in accordance with the peat and soil management plan submitted as part of the planning application, all works on the wind farm have been temporarily ceased with the exception of those that relate to mitigating the impact of the peat slide and reducing the risk of further slides. Furthermore, I am informed that Donegal County Council, in co-ordination with the Roads Service in Northern Ireland, put in place some temporary road closures in the area on precautionary grounds. The multi-agency group is scheduled to reconvene today to review matters and further co-ordinate the response.

I will point out that, as the Deputies are aware, under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, I am specifically precluded from exercising any power or control in respect of a particular case that a planning authority or the board may be concerned with except in specific and extreme circumstances, which do not apply in this instance.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Unfortunately, it was the response we expected. Interestingly, he outlined a long list of agencies and acronyms that are getting involved now. Where were they during the planning stage? I would be interested in knowing that. I would also be interested in knowing what communications Donegal County Council had with the developer prior to what happened.

There is a simple thing that we can do. He who pays the piper calls the tune. The developer got all of the surveys done. He paid for them to be done. I have yet to see an environmental impact statement that said the development should not proceed or should only proceed if significant safety procedures were put in place. If I was paying for it, no one would tell me that I had to do that. What we can do is decide that a developer should pay a local council to conduct environmental studies. Perhaps then we will see real change.

We did not hear much from the Minister of State about other wind farms. I listened to the Taoiseach yesterday when he stated that the future of wind energy was offshore. I agree with him.

If turbines need to be 180 m to 200 m tall, which is twice the height of the Spire in Dublin, to get the requisite wind speeds because of the low-lying nature of the lands in question, surely these areas are not right for such developments. The turbines in the Delvin, Raharney and Ballivor areas will be up to 150 ft taller than the ones in Donegal. I would like to see the agencies mentioned getting involved in our planning process before it is too late, just as it was in Donegal. Will the Minister of State address my points, please?

I chaired the interagency group in the wake of the Drumkeeran landslide.

We have met on a number of occasions. We have an excellent report, which I have read. It has some very good recommendations that we can learn from. There is no doubt that weather-related events seem to have had an impact, in particular a very dry spring followed by heavy rain falls in respect of Drumkeeran.

As I indicated earlier, the matter is under investigation by a cross-Border multi-agency group. It is important that we allow it to do its work, as we did with Drumkeeran. Its investigations are at a very early stage and the initial focus will deal with the immediate steps needed to remediate the site and minimise the environmental impacts in a similar manner to Drumkeeran. It will endeavour to determine the cause of the peat slide and deal with the technical breaches in planning and environmental requirements after that.

All works on the wind farm have ceased temporarily arising from the peat slide, with the exception of those that relate to mitigating the impact of the bog slide and reducing the risk of further slides. I share the view of the Deputies that we need to give serious consideration to the location of wind farms, in particular where they could have a detrimental impact. Perhaps in some cases we are offsetting the carbon saved with a large release of carbon through huge events such as bog and peat slides. We need to stabilise and reconstruct our peatlands and boglands because they are, in their own right, probably the most important carbon sinks we have.

I take on board the points raised by the Deputies and reassure them that we will continue this investigation and, it is to be hoped, come to a conclusion. As we said, the report is useful in informing other events but we need to take a very serious look at land use management and its impact in this country. That is something we are committed to doing in government.

Pyrite Incidence

Before I commence, I want to welcome what the Minister of State said, namely, that while wind farms and renewable energy are essential for our future, that cannot be to the detriment of the existing ecosystem and environment. There was almost a race to zone areas suitable for wind farms by local authorities, all of whom were acting with the best of intentions. Some of the areas zoned are suitable but others are not. The amount of carbon utilised in constructing wind farms does not render them nearly as effective.

I will move on to the issue of a pyrite compensation scheme. As the Minister of State knows, there are a couple of different pyrite schemes in place. One is a broad scheme dealing with concrete. One scheme was introduced this summer by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, who travelled to Buncrana to announce a new defective concrete blocks scheme in August. The scheme offers five remedial options. Separate grant limits apply to each option, ranging from €247,500 for the complete demolition and rebuilding of a dwelling to €49,500 for the demolition and rebuilding of the outer leaf of affected walls only. Funding is subject to option limits or 90% of the eligible works, whichever is the lesser.

It is of course welcome that the scheme has been announced for Donegal and Mayo. However, the problem is not, unfortunately, unique to Donegal and Mayo. In my constituency, Clare, a number of houses have been found to be essentially crumbling, without exaggerating the matter, as a result of defective concrete blocks. Owners have had engineers examine the dwellings and it has been found that it is as a result of pyrite in the concrete.

One manufacturer of concrete blocks in the mid-west, that I do not intend to name in the House, links all of those buildings. It is an issue which goes beyond Clare. I understand 35 people are involved in an action group and approximately 33 houses have been identified in Clare. Unfortunately, there is a belief that the problem extends outside of Clare to other areas in the mid-west because it is a result of concrete blocks from one particular manufacturer.

If the Government saw fit to fund a scheme like this in respect of Mayo and Donegal, which I welcome, I see no reason whatsoever my constituents and any other constituents in the country who suffer from exactly the same problem should not be treated in exactly the same way by the Government. It is a matter of basic equality. I urge the Department to consider extending the scheme to Clare.

I am raising this as a Topical Issue matter because I asked a parliamentary question of the Department and was told there were no plans to introduce a scheme. That does not accord with what various Government representatives have said in the constituency. I hope they are right, that the Minister is actively looking at this issue and that an announcement is imminent. It is wrong and improper to differentiate between people with the same problem in Mayo and Donegal or in Clare.

I appreciate the issue of defective concrete blocks is a particularly emotive one for households and I sympathise with all who are caught in this distressing situation. It is very worrying for those affected. The issue came to light in 2013 when significant cracking of external walls was recorded in houses in Donegal and Mayo. An expert panel was established in 2016 to investigate the incidence and causes of this cracking. As part of its work, the panel was asked to identify the numbers of dwellings which appeared to be affected by defects in the block work in Donegal and Mayo, to carry out a desktop study, which would include a consultation process with affected homeowners, public representatives, local authorities, industry stakeholders and other relevant parties, to establish the nature of the problem in the affected dwellings, and outline a range of technical options for remediation and the means by which those technical options could be applied;

The report, which was based on extensive research, investigations and analysis, was published in 2017. It concluded that the reason for the widespread pattern cracking in the affected dwellings was primarily due to excessive amounts of deleterious materials in the aggregate used to manufacture the concrete blocks. The deleterious material in Donegal was primarily muscovite mica and in Mayo it was primarily reactive pyrite. In many of the affected dwellings, the problem appears to have been exacerbated by being in geographic areas of severe exposure to the elements and it seemed to be made worse by the extreme weather conditions of the winter we all remember in 2009-2010

The panel estimated that up to 4,800 private homes and 1,000 social homes in Donegal and 345 private homes and 17 social homes in Mayo could be affected. It put forward a number of engineering solutions that have been incorporated in the defective concrete blocks scheme. These range from removal and replacement of the outer leaf of affected walls only to the complete rebuilding of a dwelling. Varying levels of grants are available depending on the remedial option recommended in the engineer's report or 90% of the eligible costs, whichever is the lesser. Specific details can be accessed at housing.gov.ie.

The Dwellings Damaged by the Use of Defective Concrete Blocks in Construction (Remediation) Financial Assistance Regulations 2020 came into operation on 31 January 2020 and the scheme has been open for applications since the end of June 2020. It provides for a grant scheme of financial assistance to support affected homeowners in the counties of Donegal and Mayo only to carry out necessary remediation works to dwellings that have been damaged due to the use of defective concrete blocks. I must emphasise that it is not a compensation scheme and is very much a scheme of last resort for homeowners who have no other practical options.

I am sure the Deputy will appreciate that a lot of work has gone into investigating and quantifying the extent of the problem in Donegal and Mayo and designing a response to address the issue. While such a comprehensive analysis is not available for counties outside of Donegal and Mayo, in terms of Clare, departmental officials are in communication with Clare County Council regarding the evidential data requirements. Any consideration of an extension to the defective concrete blocks grants scheme would require the same rigorous analysis as that carried out in Donegal and Mayo. Therefore, speculation on any extension is premature at this point. Again, I thank the Deputy for his interest in this issue.

I greatly welcome the confirmation from the Minister of State that officials in his Department are in communication with Clare County Council regarding evidential data requirements. Nobody could possibly take issue with that. We have to establish that the problem arises from concrete blocks.

I believe that will be established in the facts of the cases in Clare. Many of the homeowners have prepared detailed engineering studies.

The majority of the homeowners in this instance are retirees and have family homes. They have worked all their lives and paid the mortgages on them. Like most people having paid their mortgage, they are retiring on a pension and they just do not have the money for the substantial works required. It seems to me, having spoken to the people involved, that much of the difficulty became apparent when they insulated their homes, as was the correct thing to do and as was Government policy. Because of the insulation put between the two layers, dampness built up and the pyrite in the concrete blocks interacted with that dampness, with the result that the walls have started to crumble. It is not down to the very cold winter, as it may have been in other areas. By and large - I am not speaking for everybody - it became apparent after they installed insulation. There is no reason they should not have installed insulation. In fact, it is recommended, so they were doing the right thing at all times. Now, through no fault of their own, their homes are crumbling around them.

I greatly welcome the fact the Department is liaising with Clare County Council with a view to establishing evidential data. The Minister of State might confirm that, in the event that those data show that an extension of the scheme is warranted, the Department will not be found wanting.

The Department would need to see the substantive information the Deputy mentioned that supports Clare County Council's request for an extension of the scheme to County Clare. There is an opportunity for Clare County Council to take the lead and, first, demonstrate that the issues in Clare are, in fact, due to the presence of excessive levels of deleterious materials, whether mica or pyrite, in the aggregate used to manufacture the concrete blocks. Second, the council should quantify the extent of the problem in the area.

Of assistance to Clare County Council in this regard will be the work completed in collaboration with the Department, the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, and Engineers Ireland. The NSAI has put in place a protocol for the assessment, testing and categorisation of damaged buildings incorporating concrete blocks containing certain deleterious materials, namely, IS 465:2018. Engineers Ireland has established a panel of engineers who have the necessary professional experience and completed specialist training on IS 465:2018. Working within this framework, Clare County Council may be able to provide the evidential data necessary for the consideration of any extension of the scheme, which would be helpful to the Department in its deliberations. The Department will continue - I give a commitment to that - working with Clare County Council in this regard to, I hope, reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Hospital Services

I bring to the attention of the House concerns over the staffing issues that will affect the diabetes clinic service in Midland Regional Hospital, Mullingar. Several constituents have contacted me this week over concerns that the service could cease at the end of the month. Patients were told when attending this week that there is uncertainty about the future of the service, and none of those who attended this week was issued with a future appointment. This problem has festered since the retirement of the dedicated diabetes nurse more than 18 months ago. I understand she even deferred a decision on her retirement in the hope that the post could have been backfilled before she retired.

Unfortunately, nothing happened, and since then the service has been dependent on other nurses standing in and assisting the consultant. As a consequence, dates for future appointments started to be pushed out. First it was three months and it then became four months. For those who attended this week, it was their first appointment in more than nine months, and now they face the prospect of no future appointments. This is very difficult for people and especially parents who are trying to manage medication and treatment. It simply cannot be allowed to continue. In the event that the service is not fully restored, the only option for the many service users will be to attend Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin, which is simply unimaginable.

This vacancy was first advertised in December 2019. This is not a new issue. The management of the hospital knew this retirement was coming down the line. In fairness to the nurse, she stayed on to support those families who are heavily reliant on the service and speak incredibly highly of the team in place there.

I want to put this into perspective. I spoke to the parent of a child with type 1 diabetes. The family is absolutely distraught. While speaking highly of the team, she said the nurse was the glue that held the team together for the family. She was on the phone when the family went abroad and the child's bloods went out of sync and when she entered puberty, which also knocked her bloods out of sync. The girl's most recent appointment was in January. She had another scheduled for June, which was cancelled, and this week she was told that from the end of November, no further service will be available to her.

This is devastating. The constituents I spoke to are not just from Longford-Westmeath. It is also children from Offaly and Laois. The son of another lady I spoke to ended up having to attend the accident and emergency department due to an insulin overdose. This is very serious stuff. The specialist service at the moment cannot be allowed to stop. It simply cannot be allowed to fail. It is also the case that children whose diabetes is consistently well maintained are being told they cannot have access to insulin pumps because the service will not be available there any more. There is no excuse for this happening. The position of diabetes nurse is one of the toughest to fill. This position should have been advertised much earlier than it was. There is talk of possibly interviewing for the post in early December, but the patients have been told there will be no more service from the end of November.

I thank the Deputies, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to provide an update to the House on concerns over the future of the diabetes service at the Midland Regional Hospital, Mullingar.

Diabetes, as we all know, is a complex condition that affects people from all walks of life, from the very young to the very old, and is considered an epidemic by the World Health Organization. People with diabetes run a greater risk of developing one or more severe health complications that can greatly impact on their independence and quality of life. According to the HSE, it is estimated that there are more than 200,000 people with diabetes in Ireland. It is estimated that approximately 33,000 of these have either type 1 diabetes or genetic or secondary causes of diabetes. The remaining patients have type 2 diabetes. A significant proportion of these patients remain undiagnosed. Worryingly, it is expected that the number of people with type 2 diabetes will increase by 60% over the next ten to 15 years.

Against the backdrop of an increasing prevalence of predominantly type 2 diabetes in the community, the HSE's national clinical programme for diabetes established a national diabetes working group, with the joint involvement of healthcare providers in primary, secondary and tertiary care sectors, to develop a national model of integrated care for type 2 diabetes. The national model of integrated care aims to reduce the proportion of diabetes-related mortality by 10%. It also aims to reduce diabetes-related morbidity such as blindness and lower amputations. In respect of paediatric diabetes services, the HSE developed a model of care for paediatrics and neonatology to underpin the delivery of healthcare for children both in the present and into the future.

The HSE has advised that the Midland Regional Hospital, Mullingar has a comprehensive diabetes and endocrinology service which is an integral part of the services provided by the hospital. This service is supported by a multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurse specialists, dieticians and administrative staff. The service includes a rapid access diabetes service, general diabetes clinics, a young adult clinic, a diabetes in pregnancy clinic, a diabetes foot clinic and a community e-consultation service. On the face of it, therefore, one might say that everything is perfect, but I take on board both of the Deputies' points about the diabetes nurse manager.

My understanding, from a supplementary note I have just received, is that Deputy Clarke was correct in saying the position was first advertised on 20 December 2019 but that place was not filled at that time, and then Covid-19 happened. The position was opened to applicants on 21 September 2020, with a closing date of 5 October 2020. The interview board has been convened and interviews will take place in the coming weeks.

That is the most up-to-date information I have.

I appreciate the seriousness of this issue. For the past four years, always on World Diabetes Day, I was to the fore in raising it in the Dáil. I am proud to say that, working with the Ceann Comhairle in the previous Dáil, we managed to turn the lights on the right side of Leinster House blue to mark that occasion. This is an issue that is very close to my own heart and I know how serious it is. My understanding is that there should not be any cause for worry in regard to the service in Mullingar. There is a comprehensive diabetes and endocrinology service in place and the recruitment of the person who will be the glue that holds everything together, as Deputy Clarke described it, is currently in process.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I welcome the commitment that the position is being advertised and will be filled. I hope the delay in filling it will not affect the service in the interim. We are all well aware that diabetes is a very costly issue for the health service. The easiest and most effective way to deal with it is through personal management of the illness rather than expensive interventions. In Longford alone, over a four-year period, there have been 24 cases of lower limb amputation as a direct result of diabetes. In the same period, there were 124 cases of diabetes patients dealing with severe foot ulcers. I am concerned that there has been a delay in filling the post but I accept the Minister of State's commitment that the service will not be affected.

I welcome the commitment the Minister of State has given. Retaining the service at Mullingar makes sense not only from a moral point of view but also from a fiscal perspective. Children learn very early to manage their diabetes and it is a habit that follows them into adulthood. When they become adults, that habit reduces the cost to the HSE in terms of the number of hospitalisations and interventions needed. However, an issue that has cropped up during this period is that there has been a distinct lack of information and no clarity given to parents and patients. That creates a vacuum where misinformation can take hold and rumour can take over, which causes further stress and pressure for people. We need a commitment that the service will not be impacted while the recruitment process is ongoing. Heaven forbid that a nurse is not recruited.

I agree with the Minister of State that we are facing an epidemic of diabetes. I suffered from gestational diabetes. In a response to a parliamentary question from my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, we were told that there are 26.5 full-time equivalent diabetes nurse positions. How do we manage an epidemic with that number?

I reiterate that the Government is absolutely committed to further strengthening and developing diabetes services throughout the country for children and adults. I draw the Deputies' attention to the FreeStyle Libre device that is proving very successful in helping children and young adults to manage type 1 diabetes. It is not an option to manage diabetes. Given the prospective increase in the number of people who will be affected by this chronic health condition in the years ahead, it is a necessity. The HSE has advised that the Midland Regional Hospital Mullingar will build on the success of the very reputable diabetes service it currently provides. Parents are concerned about the future of the service because it is a good service. The HSE has assured me that a number of qualified applicants have been shortlisted for the position of paediatric diabetic nurse manager and the recruitment process for the post will be expedited to the greatest possible extent.

Deputies may be interested to know that I received an email today confirming the setting up next week of an all-party committee on diabetes under the chairmanship of Deputy Devlin. I was formerly chairman of the all-party committee on dementia which had a hugely successful engagement on the issues relevant to its remit. The Acting Chairman often attended its meetings. The most important point about all-party committees is that politics are left at the door. Everybody involved wants to work together to devise the best possible way of affecting change. I hope Deputies will support the inaugural meeting of the new committee next Tuesday.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I want to raise the need for the Government to rethink its Covid-19 advertising strategy. The message is not tough enough and it is not cutting through. The HSE's advertising campaign has become stale, predictable and it is not hitting home with the entire population. Back in March, we knew very little about Covid-19 or the impact it would have on all of our lives. The message then was that people should wash their hands, cough into their elbow and protect themselves and others. After months of upheaval, a great deal of research and development and, unfortunately, more than 2,000 deaths, the message is to wash hands, cough into one's elbow and download the Covid tracker app. It is stale, predictable and ineffective.

We can do better than this. One of our nearest neighbours, Scotland, is doing better. Its campaign emphasises the frightening ability of the virus to linger unseen. It shows an asymptomatic woman who accidentally infects her grandfather with Covid-19. The advertisement depicts the virus as a visible green gunk that transfers from her hands to the cupboard she opens to grab the teabags she uses to make him a cup to tea. It shows her hugging her grandfather goodbye, oblivious to the damage she has done. It closes with the stark warning, "Do not pass coronavirus to those you love". Australia has embraced very hard-hitting advertisements to ensure its message lands. One of them begins with the words of a young man who infected his mother with the virus. He says:

My mum is in ICU with Covid. We visited her a few weeks ago but I didn't know I had Covid. I had no symptoms.

In a short, sharp, 30-second advertisement, people are encouraged to be Covid safe and to save lives.

Here in Ireland, we are reminding people that Covid-19 is still a problem and encouraging them to wear face masks and wash their hands. We can do better than that and we have done better than that. One need only look to the HSE's QUIT campaign to see how effective advertisements can be. Everyone in Ireland remembers the man talking to his daughter and promising to quit smoking. Everyone remembers Gerry Collins. When he sadly passed away, the HSE told his family that the advertisements in which he featured had helped more than 60,000 people attempt to give up smoking. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, has also run hard-hitting campaigns to crack down on speeding and drink-driving. It knows that the content shocks and scares people but, most important, it changes people's behaviour. We do not like watching such advertisements but we all hear their message loud and clear.

Can the same be said of the Covid-9 campaign or, months on, is it white noise to us? Has it become ineffective? The RSA's Crashed Lives advertisements were rated by the public as the most influential factor in saving lives on Irish roads. Can we say the same for the Covid-19 advertisements? It is time to mix up our messaging and up our game. It is more important now than ever, as we prepare to reduce restrictions, that we are hitting people with the right message, which is to remain Covid safe in order to safe lives.

I thank Deputy Higgins for raising this really important issue and for her valid questions concerning the role of advertising and the Government's response to the pandemic. She made a number of significant points about the effectiveness of hard-hitting advertisements and whether the ones currently being used have become ineffective at this stage. As we all know, Covid fatigue has set in and that is a problem.

Covid-19 is a new, highly infectious disease for which there is no cure and, as of yet, no vaccine, although there was some positive news in this regard earlier in the week. The main tool we have to protect against the virus is adherence to the public health guidelines. As the Deputy outlined, those guidelines ask us to wash our hands well and often, practise good cough and sneeze hygiene, wear face coverings in shops and on public transport, stay in one room if we are Covid positive, stay at home if we are a close contact of a confirmed case, physically distance by 2 m from others, and avoid crowds and crowded places. As the only actions proven to work against the spread of Covid-19, these safe behaviours are the bedrock of the communications programmes of my Department and the HSE. Throughout the pandemic, my Department has been working with a Covid-19 communications behavioural advisory group, comprising experts in driving behavioural change, to understand key population behaviours and drivers and inform our public communications activities.

We all know that the virus has not changed since March. It has not gone away. It is still circulating in our community. After the initial restrictions imposed in spring were eased, disease incidence began to rise as we all began to move around again.

Over the past number of months, my Department and the HSE have, in close collaboration, developed numerous advertising campaigns to empower safe behaviours around Covid-19. These campaigns, broadcast on digital platforms, radio and television and in print media include: Covid-19 symptoms and what to do; Covid tracker app; Covid-19 - cases to self-isolate and close contacts to restrict their movements; HSE Bubble campaign reinforcing the additive effect of the public health advice; the #HoldFirm campaign which addresses the fatigue that the public is feeling with level 5; and the Healthy Ireland building resilience campaign. The government is also developing a communications campaign to inspire and empower young adults to live safely within the public health guidelines. This campaign is being developed in consultation with stakeholders representing this cohort.

All of this work is supported by regular opinion polling carried out by a research partner, Amárach. This is published weekly on my Department's website and shows the commitment in the advertising strategy to assessing how members of the general public are feeling, not only about the COVID-19 measures but on a range of issues relating to the pandemic. This ensures the communications strategy has a strong baseline of evidence-based tracking to rely on.

Underpinning all of the activity to which I refer is the consistent yellow look and feel of the Department of Health and HSE public health advice. The distinctive yellow posters and public health logos were a strategic choice. This branding has become synonymous with trusted public health advice and has been consistently used across all of the above crucial communications work. However, I take on board the points that the Deputy has made. People are fatigued with Covid and maybe they are also fatigued with the messaging that we are sending out. I agree that, previously, hard-hitting advertisements have been very effective.

I really believe that it is time for us to rethink our advertising strategy in respect of Covid-19 - not only what we are saying but also where we are saying it. I would like the Minister of State to work with the HSE to review whether our advertisements are hitting our entire audience because I fear we are not reaching young people. For many of them, their viewing platforms are social-media based. They are not all sitting on the couch with their mams and dads waiting for the nine o'clock news to come on. They are not all tuned in to current affairs programmes that dominate the airwaves. They do not all consume their shows or their tunes via mainstream channels. They stream and they share. They use a variety of platforms to do that - far to many for us to target with our advertising strategy and ones that are not always possible to advertise on - but we know where they consume content and that means we know where to reach them. All we have to do is target our strategy into social media.

I recently tabled a parliamentary question seeking the current HSE Covid-19 advertising levels on social media and the numbers were stark. The HSE has spent €150,000 on online advertising but I do not think it has been spent wisely. The HSE's social media strategy, in my opinion, is overly reliant on Twitter. Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Snapchat together only account for half of the HSE's activity on Twitter. Are we hitting our full audience? That is a legitimate question because that is marketing 101. There is no point in targeting our message at one sector of society and leaving out the people who are most likely to be out and about in the community.

Does the Minister of State know how many posts the HSE has put up on TikTok? It put 1,300 up on Twitter, so how many would the Minister of State think it would have posted on TikTok - arguably the most popular app amongst young people? Ten is the number of posts the HSE posted on TikTok. Are we even trying?

I again thank Deputy Higgins for raising this important issue. I welcome all the input on what is an evolving communications programme. I thank the Deputy because she has put a huge amount of work into preparing for this debate and pointing out where she feels there are some shortcomings in the advertising campaign.

From the outset of this pandemic, the communication objective, as guided by the World Health Organization and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has been to build trust in the public health advice through open and transparent communication. My Department and the HSE are committed to continuing the campaigns that have been so effective in driving down the incidence of Covid in our communities. From the early campaigns focused on at-risk groups, proactive actions individuals can take to encouraging people to visit their GPs and emergency departments, it is clear that this considered messaging is working.

I cannot overstate how much the response to this disease is in our own hands. The main tool we have to help protect against the virus is adherence to the public health guidelines but I take on board the points the Deputy has made in respect of the €150,000 online advertising budget, the ratio of posts, for example, as between Twitter and TikTok, and the amount of young people who use the latter platform and others mentioned. I will certainly feed back the Deputy's information and data to the advertising section of the Department and the HSE. I again thank the Deputy for the time she has spent on this.