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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 1 Dec 2020

Vol. 1001 No. 6

Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly


1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination. [36605/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett


2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination. [38635/20]

Mary Lou McDonald


3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination. [39895/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The Government co-ordination committee was established by the Government to review the activity of Cabinet committees, review the agenda for that week's Government meeting, discuss political priorities and review implementation of a specified element of the programme for Government. The committee meets in advance of Government meetings. I am a member of the committee, which I chair, along with the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, and the leader of the Green Party, Deputy Eamon Ryan. The Secretary General to the Government, my chief of staff and the chiefs of staff for the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party also sit in on meetings.

On Leaders' Questions, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of what we will do regarding vaccines. I raised it in a non-political way and I hope the Taoiseach appreciates that. I think the people the Taoiseach referenced earlier are very eminent people, all of whom will make a significant contribution. However, I have a serious concern about co-ordination. I have a serious concern about leaving it to the current structures of the agencies we have and their capacity for the most important thing facing us as a country.

When it comes to the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination, we now have a task force and a Cabinet subcommittee. The reality is that somebody needs to be in charge of vaccine roll-out. Somebody needs to be in charge of rules by which each and every agency and organisation act. It is not a case of whether Martin Shanahan of the IDA, who is an excellent chief executive, is responsible to his parent Department or to a task force. That cannot be the issue. They cannot be second-guessed. They have to know that they are putting aside whatever they are doing or their priorities in order to deal with this issue and that accountability is linear up to the Government. I genuinely do not mean that in a political sense. The Taoiseach does not have time to do this as well dealing with all the rest of us in here. We need one person to be responsible for this and to sit at the Cabinet table. It will probably only be for a year. I really urge the Taoiseach to reconsider this. In fact, that is not right. I am just asking him to consider it because, in fairness, he cannot reconsider it until it has been considered.

I am asking the Taoiseach to take up my suggestion because logistics will be a massive issue. The rules around who will get what and when will be a massive issue. I refer to the whole issue about mandatory versus non-mandatory. For instance, if vaccination is not mandatory, will people who do not get vaccinated be allowed into public events or public spaces as we open up the country? How would one have rules around that? I cannot even imagine it. I refer to the whole issue relating to ICT. What is going to be done about passports? I have had a number of Covid tests. I have seen passport technology and how it goes on one's phone. There will be a need for rules around how long that lasts.

The actual work of this committee is not just going to be for the roll-out and then everyone gets vaccinated and we are all happy. There are legacy issues that will have to be politically managed. We need somebody at Cabinet who will say "I am in charge. This is my job. This is my role." That person will be doing the State a serious service and will report to the Taoiseach and at Cabinet.

I know what is going on in other jurisdictions. I think the UK has been miles behind anything we have done on this issue since last February or March, but it has done this. I think it is right on this singular issue. I appreciate all the work that is going on with regard to vaccines, the number of vaccines coming through, all the work liaising with the Taoiseach's European colleagues and everything that is going to be done there. I understand all of it. I take an intense interest in detail on this.

I come from an IT background. There is a significant amount of logistics in terms of dealing with this issue. A significant amount of analysis will have to be done through a health passport. That will have to be done using PPS numbers and will have to take in a whole load of various other aspects and nominate by field with regard to people with various vulnerabilities. There is a range of other information.

This issue needs co-ordination. There is a co-ordination group in place. Its chairman is an eminent person. I have dealt with him in the past, both in government and in opposition, and he is well capable of this. However, there needs to be somebody who is politically over all this and all the agencies and groups and who will not be second-guessing in the context of their other work which obviously they have to do as well. I actually plead with the Taoiseach to do this.

To be helpful to Deputy Kelly, I think one answer to how we deal with the vaccination roll-out is to have our public health teams at a level such that they are capable-----

I agree with that.

They are the people who deliver immunisation programmes. As I mentioned to the Taoiseach on Leaders' Questions, they are taking industrial action. At a time when they have never proven their value to society more, they are being forced to take industrial action because the Government has shown them zero respect in terms of their status and giving them status as consultant specialists, but also in the fact that we have one third of the recommended public health staffing complement. How on earth are they supposed to deliver a vaccination programme as well as the contact tracing and testing that is necessary? To my mind, that is sort of indicative of the wider need for co-ordination in order that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing and they have joined-up priorities.

Last week, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of graduate entry medical students at a time when we desperately need more doctors, such as for our public health teams. I met them last week. They are paying €15,000 in fees. They cannot manage it and are all saying they may have to drop out and so on. They are experiencing major financial difficulties at a time when the State should be assisting them to qualify so that we have more doctors.

I raised a similar issue with regard to student nurses and midwives. The Taoiseach did not really respond on this issue. When I met several hundred of them in an online meeting last week, one after another, the student nurses and midwives who we need and have been holding together the front line said they would not work for the HSE in a blue fit once they are qualified because it is treating them so badly. They said they will be leaving as soon as they are qualified.

The State is haemorrhaging the nurses, midwives and doctors it needs because it is treating them so badly. When will there be a moment of enlightenment, as we face a pandemic, when it becomes obvious we need more health professionals, including more doctors, nurses and midwives? When will there be joined-up thinking and a realisation that we should stop putting obstacles in the way of these people actually training, completing their education and then wanting to work in our public health services? That is the sort of co-ordination that I think is very sadly missing at a time when we need it most.

As the Taoiseach is aware, responsibilities for domestic violence supports and services are spread across multiple Departments and State agencies. Safe Ireland has called for the urgent roll-out of a funded national service development plan as the start of a comprehensive and long-term response to the enormous everyday problem of domestic violence. Domestic and gender-based violence services are to be commended for developing a structure within which they work together to share experience and develop policy, but it is clear that the disjointed provision of these services is failing victims and their children. I previously raised with the Taoiseach the issue of the lack of refuge places.

I have called for a Government strategy to deliver additional refuge places with trauma-informed wrap-around supports and services. Ireland is currently failing to meet its legal obligations under the Istanbul Convention regarding the provision of domestic violence refuge places, and no additional funding has been providing in next year's budget to remedy the situation. Worse still, the Minister has confirmed that no single Department or agency is responsible for ensuring Ireland meets its legal obligations in this regard. It is my strong view that this perennial challenge to front-line service provision will not be addressed until such time as the Government commits to a national service development plan, as called for by Safe Ireland. Implementation of this plan should be overseen by the Department of An Taoiseach, working with the coalition partners to ensure there is a cohesive and comprehensive policy and service delivery response for victims and their children.

Regarding Deputy Kelly's question, I said to him earlier that I appreciate the constructive way in which the question was put. I established a task force and asked my Department to co-ordinate its work in order to give a sense of the national priority that attaches to what will be a very significant logistical undertaking in regard to the procurement, storage and distribution of the vaccine, and IT infrastructure to back that up, and proper protocols around the administering of the vaccine, including deciding, in the first instance, who will administer it - it could very well necessitate additional personnel, over and above GPs, given the scale of the undertaking - and also the prioritisation of who receives the vaccines and the sequence of that. To be fair, there are structures already in place in the Department of Health around immunisation and we already have people with considerable experience in this area, including the national immunisation advisory committee. The HSE will be the operational delivery arm of all of this. Already, four significant streams of work have been established, covering the areas I have identified. A key additional piece would be on communications around the vaccination programme itself and the value and importance of vaccines in dealing with viruses of this nature.

That said, I will reflect on what the Deputy said. Those on the task force are well aware that it was established by the Taoiseach, will have to report back to the Taoiseach and we want to keep it at that level in terms of making sure it gets prioritisation across Government and across the different agencies. The Department of Health and the HSE will play a key role in the health dimension of this but will draw upon expertise in other Departments and from the private sector in terms of the logistics side and ensuring we can get the vaccines rolled out as safely and efficiently as we possibly can as they come on stream, if they get authorisation from the various authorising bodies. The Deputy's suggestion is that a Minister or Minister of State be put in charge of delivery of all of that. As I have outlined, it is being co-ordinated by my Department and that will continue. However, I will give consideration to what the Deputy said.

Regarding Deputy Boyd Barrett's point, I already said that the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, who is in office some five months, has secured significant resources to transform public health. That is known and the funding has been secured. The Minister announced plans in September to double the workforce in public health. It is currently at approximately 254 people and the plan is to double that. The hiring process has already begun. The Minister, the Department and the Government have been very clear in their support for the creation of consultant posts in public health medicine. I do not agree that now is the time for strike action, in the middle of a global pandemic. I believe the issue can be resolved through ongoing talks and engagement with the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, under the public service stability agreement. That is the forum for resolving these issues.

The creation of consultant-level posts and roles in public health medicine is a priority for the Government and we are fully committed to delivering on it. Obviously, much detailed work goes into that, as everybody knows. The HSE has put a substantial amount of work into it and the Department of Health has developed a detailed framework for the future public health model that includes consultant-level roles. The business plan seeking consultant status was submitted last week to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for consideration. That will be the basis for the engagement with the IMO on the matter. People in the public health arena are aware that this kind of progress has been made. There is a process that has to be followed. We believe in a consultant role but how that all works out and how people apply for the roles and posts that will be created is the type of detail that needs to be worked out with all concerned.

Regarding Deputy McDonald's questions, we dealt with this issue last week. I agree with her on the need to provide additional resources for more refuge places and to deal with domestic violence on a co-ordinated basis. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has been proactive, and remains proactive, in this regard. She is committed to expanding services and dealing with issues that have arisen and have been brought to her attention.

Garda Reform

Alan Kelly


4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the policing reform implementation programme office. [36606/20]

In September 2018, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland published its report outlining a clear vision and roadmap for strengthening An Garda Síochána and the broader national framework for policing, security and community safety.  In December 2018, the Government approved A Policing Service for the Future as the plan to implement the commission's report.  The plan was developed in co-operation with stakeholders from across the public service, including, in particular, the then Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána.

In line with the approach recommended in the commission's report, an implementation group on policing reform was established in late 2018, with a former member of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland as its independent chairman, and given collective responsibility for the delivery of the plan. The group has held 21 meetings to date.  To help guide its work and act as a clearing house where particular blockages are being experienced, a high-level steering board on policing reform, chaired by the Secretary General to the Government, was also established.  The policing reform implementation programme office, PRIPO, which is based in the Department of the Taoiseach, drives implementation of A Policing Service for the Future.  PRIPO has been resourced with appropriate expertise in the areas of project management, policing, justice and public service reform.  It monitors progress on the implementation of the plan, supports the work of the implementation group on policing reform and keeps the high-level steering board on policing reform and the Government apprised of the progress being made.  The Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality provides requisite political oversight of implementation of the plan.

A Policing Service for the Future is a living document which is reviewed and updated by the programme office as required.  This helps to maintain ambitious but realistic commitments, timeframes and milestones.  A Policing Service for the Future is broken down into four stages of implementation, namely, the building blocks phase, which is of six months' duration; the launching phase, which is also of six months' duration; the scaling phase, which is of 18 months' duration; and the consolidation phase, which is of 12 to 18 months' duration, as currently envisaged.  The building blocks and launching phases have been completed and have seen a number of achievements. They include the roll-out of a new operating model for An Garda Síochána, designed to streamline Garda administration and provide a more visible, responsive and localised policing service to communities nationwide. An Garda Síochána has established and strengthened resourcing of a human rights unit and re-established the strategic human rights advisory committee. The National Security Analysis Centre, NSAC, has been established.

In addition, the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2019 has been enacted, which gives gardaí access to the Workplace Relations Commission for the first time and provides for a modern industrial relations framework within An Garda Síochána.  There has also been progress on legislative reform in a number of other areas. Legislation is being drafted in the following areas: the use of recording devices, including body-worn cameras; the codification of legislation defining police powers of arrest, search and detention; and a new coherent framework for the governance and oversight of An Garda Síochána.

Progress in 2020 has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, I have been encouraged to see the responsiveness and flexibility shown by An Garda Síochána in dealing with the demands of this unprecedented situation.

The implementation group on policing reform and the programme have been actively engaged with key stakeholders to ensure continued momentum on reform insofar as possible under the current circumstances. The third phase of A Policing Service for our Future, the scaling phase, has now commenced.

I hope the Taoiseach believed all that. The Labour Party established the Policing Authority and it will do everything it can to ensure that it, or a version of it, is maintained into the future. My colleague, Deputy Howlin, drove that development. Successive reports of the authority, whose work I commend, showed that An Garda Síochána was not moving at the pace it should. One of the most important functions of the Policing Authority is the power to appoint senior gardaí, instead of the appointments being made through the Garda Commissioner and signed off, in some cases, by the Cabinet. The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland recommended that the Policing Authority be disbanded and replaced by a new body. Fine Gael agreed with its recommendation. Under the plan, the power to promote senior gardaí would be given to the Garda Commissioner while other Policing Authority powers would be transferred to an internal Garda board.

The Taoiseach, I and Sinn Féin opposed that. We believe An Garda Síochána needs less, not more, of an in-house policing mentality. We do not believe that all the lessons that have been learned over recent years will continue to be learned if there is a situation where the power to appoint senior gardaí is back in-house. Does the Taoiseach intend to implement the O'Toole report or does he intend to implement the minority report, which is the report we support and keeps the appointment of such senior people with a policing authority? I accept there must be rationalisation of a number of Garda organisations, but what is the Taoiseach's position on this key point? I do not see anything in the legislative programme on this issue. What is the Government's position regarding the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland report and particularly the role of the Policing Authority?

I wish to reflect on the new operating model for An Garda Síochána, which the Taoiseach correctly said is designed to provide more visibility and a more responsive and localised policing service to communities. This is not the reality on the ground and certainly not in the constituency I represent. The reality is that there is a lack of Garda presence, especially in the evening and at night. There is no community garda available after 7 p.m. This is an operational and resource issue. There is still a lack of personnel in the system. There is also the fact that anti-social behaviour has increased over recent months. Granted, it has been a problem for some time, but in the course of the Covid emergency, reports of anti-social behaviour in some areas have skyrocketed. Call-outs can often take hours because there is a lack of Garda cars. In my home neighbourhood of Cabra, the Garda station closes at 9 p.m. and it appears there is no prospect of that decision being reversed.

What are the measurement criteria used by the implementation office in its appraisal of progress, or lack of progress, in policing reform plans?

I did not intend to speak on this issue but Deputy McDonald referred to anti-social behaviour. It is an issue we all encounter and it can be difficult to address, particularly during the pandemic. We get reports of people complaining of large groups of young people gathering and so forth. There are two ways to deal with that. We can blame the young people and take a coercive approach, which I do not believe works. On the other hand, we can recruit people directly from the community to work in community and youth outreach projects. This is an area in which we have failed spectacularly. In fact, I believe we have gone backwards and made situations worse when we could have improved and dealt with them in a way that does not cause problems and conflicts in the community.

I can think of several such youth outreach projects in our area that were simply closed down. Often people who were from the community and knew the young people might not always have had certain formal qualifications and that was sometimes used as an excuse to get rid of them. Inevitably, the situation worsened when the projects were closed down. The people who were in the projects would say that there would be an anti-social problem in an area if a project closed down and, lo and behold, that is exactly what happened. As well as looking at the policing side of it, we need to consider seriously recruiting youth and community outreach workers from the community on a significant scale.

On Deputy Kelly's question, that issue is being examined in the context of the implementation of the commission's reports in terms of the governance-----

What about the previous Government's position?

The Deputy should look at the programme for Government, for example, on the precise nature of this in terms of balancing governance with accountability. I am not so sure that the Policing Authority worked, to be honest. I do not mean that in any way to apportion blame, but there were some issues regarding role definition-----

That is true of any organisation.

-----in terms of whether it was about governance or accountability and who was ultimately responsible for the governance of An Garda Síochána. We need to reflect on that continually.

I take the Deputy's point that one does not want an in-house culture that promotes certain people in certain areas. One wants an arm's-length, independent, objective approach to recruitment-----

-----and especially with senior appointments. That is accepted. That has been in place in recent times. We agree on the principles in this, but we must get a model and ensure it works. The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland put a great deal of work into it. I and all Deputies engaged with it, irrespective of whether we were in or out of Government.

The esprit de corps of the commission was a positive one. It was designed to transform. I believe the most important areas are recruitment and education. That is in the next phase and needs a radical change, in my view. We must broaden the experiences of people who apply to An Garda Síochána.

On the other questions, the recruitment is ongoing. A report from the future of policing implementation group was put before the Cabinet today. For example, there will be a greater emphasis on diversity in recruitment and recruitment from minority communities to serve in An Garda Síochána. That is important as well.

Regarding anti-social behaviour, I believe the operational plan is working and appears to be developing. We are recruiting continually to increase the numbers and, to be fair, the numbers working in An Garda Síochána have increased significantly over recent years. A significant allocation was made in the budget for hundreds of additional recruits for An Garda Síochána in 2021 and beyond.

I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett's analysis regarding the community dimension to this. First, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a very difficult time for young people in this country. The report just published by the Central Statistics Office shows that the lowest levels of satisfaction with the quality of life are in the 19 to 24 year old age group. If a person was a leaving certificate student last year, his or her year was undermined and upended. On moving to college, that person's first year was not what he or she expected it to be and he or she is approaching January without having had a proper college year.

No one has travelled this year because of Covid. It has been difficult for all age cohorts, but it has been particularly difficult for young people. Jobs have not been as available either because of the various lockdowns and severe restrictions, so outlets where people could get work have not materialised. If one is young, one wants to be out and about. Therefore, there has to be a very multifaceted approach to helping young people to get through this period.

To be fair to An Garda Síochána, in areas where we had anti-social behaviour or difficulties in the past we got the best results by adopting a community-led approach with community gardaí on the ground working with young people and youth workers.

I recently met Deputies McAuliffe and Lahart and the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, on the issue of scramblers in certain communities in Dublin. The Deputies propose to introduce legislation. It reminded me of a period 20 years ago when we had difficulties in communities with joyriding and so on. The development of An Garda Síochána's community model helped to deal effectively with situations in communities. We must reinvest in communities and rebuild the infrastructure in certain communities to support community development. Something like a modern version of the revitalising areas by planning, investment and development, RAPID, programme is required. The Minister of State, Deputy Joe O’Brien, is keen on that. There was a meeting yesterday of the Cabinet subcommittee on social affairs and equality and we identified areas like that for further work and development. We need to build up a multidisciplinary team of supports in communities that have challenges to help those of all ages to deal with them.

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly


5. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on social affairs and equality is next due to meet; and when it last met. [38078/20]

Mary Lou McDonald


6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [38622/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett


7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on social affairs and equality is due to meet next. [40167/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 7, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality was established in July 2020 and oversees implementation of programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, equality and public services, including matters relating to justice, policing reform and community safety. It receives detailed reports on identified policy areas and considers the implementation of commitments and reforms. In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I meet with Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues. The Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality has met twice, on 2 November and, yesterday, 30 November.

I have a few questions on the reopening of the country, which begins today. To show the public that we are not always fighting in here, I acknowledge that the Government took on board a suggestion from me last week regarding health workers who were in contact with me about covering the Christmas period. It was that those without children or with grown-up children would cover the Christmas period for people with young children and that they would have the New Year period off. The Government did listen to me and moved the date out by a few days to 6 January to allow such workers to visit loved ones and family members outside their county. I appreciate that.

I wish to raise dance classes for young people in particular. Individual or small group dance classes could have been dealt with more favourably because it is such an issue around the country. Many people do not just do sport. As we all know, young people have gone through a horrendous time. It is the younger group and the older group in society who have suffered the most around Covid. There are so many young people around the country who go to dance classes. I urge that we would consider allowing children to do even one-on-one individual classes in big halls. We need to do anything we can to give them a chance.

The Taoiseach might also just explain to publicans – I hate the term "wet pubs" – why the limit of 15 persons outside is gone.

Regarding what happens from 6 January on, is it the Government's plan to assess that a week in advance or how long in advance will it be? People will need enough guidance. Is it the Government's plan to proceed from here with having restrictions on county travel and on household visits again? I hope we can stick with what we have otherwise.

I met this morning with Sophie Redmond. She is 11 years old. She wrote me a letter and I want to put it on the record of the Dáil. I know she has written to the Taoiseach as well. Here is what she had to say.

Dear Mary Lou,

Thank you for supporting me. My name is Sophie Redmond and I am 11 years old. I love watching your videos on Instagram. [So that is good.] I like how you help people and that is what I want to do when I am older.

You know I need scoliosis surgery. My friend, Chris Andrews, has been helping me look for this.

Please Mary Lou can you ask the Taoiseach if he can help scoliosis children like me and change waiting lists for good. When I have my surgery, I hope we can meet up and do my tik-tok dances.

Happy Christmas

Love and Hi 5’s

Sophie Redmond

Age 11 Loughlinstown

Sophie got her diagnosis in 2017. She was put on a waiting list for surgery to correct the curvature in her spine last March, but her doctor has warned that she might not get a date for surgery until late next year. She also needs urgent surgery on both her knees, as they can easily dislocate. The delay in Sophie's surgery means that the double curve on her spine is twisting into her lungs and pelvis. She used to play Gaelic football and she loves hip-hop but she had to give it all up because of her condition. She is an incredible young girl and her family are wonderful as well. They are sick with worry and concern. This is an issue that has been raised, not just on the Taoiseach's watch but on the watch of previous Governments. I implore him to provide us with a roadmap so that Sophie and other children and young people awaiting this surgery can have some hope and relief and some prospect of early surgery.

One of the key areas that it is necessary to address if one is to really try and strive towards equality is education. I wish to continue to put to the Taoiseach certain points I was making earlier, but just to focus them a little bit more. Fees are increasingly becoming a major barrier to equality of access to education. That is bad, not just for the people who have financial impediments put in front of them in terms of accessing higher education, but also for society because we are not going to get the talented, qualified professionals in key areas that we need if we continue to make life very difficult for them financially because of fees. I referred earlier to the graduate entry medical students, where people, in particular from less well-off backgrounds, have the potential to access medical training and to become doctors. What they tell me is that they are paying €15,000 in fees a year, so that by the end of their training, along with their living costs, they qualify with a debt in excess of €100,000. By the way, they can only get a loan from one bank, namely, Bank of Ireland. The rest of the banks will not even lend them the money to do it. That is crazy when we need doctors but, equally, the student nurses and midwives that we have talked about quite a few times, as well as not getting paid for working during their placements, also have to pay for the privilege of being exploited by paying €3,000 in fees or €7,000 if they previously did a degree. This is madness from the point of view of equality of access to key areas of education where we need qualified people.

First, I will respond to Deputy Kelly's questions about the reopening. Dance classes are a very difficult area. The issue is where one draws the line. Individual tuition is allowed in terms of culture, arts and music, but where does one draw the line with dance classes?

We need clarity.

There are so many different types of dance. One is also drawing children from different communities and backgrounds to the one centre, so one is potentially facilitating the spread of the virus. As I stated in my address on Friday, we are prepared to go so far but no further.

Unfortunately, quite a number of groups were left out in the modifications to level 3. The objective was to try to limit the spread of the virus and that was our motivation.

There is a limit of 15 people meeting outdoors, which is to prevent congregation. We have already seen with the takeaway phenomenon that unacceptable practices were building up in the cities, to be frank, and this was becoming a scene in itself. We were seeing significant outdoor congregation, which is not good if we are looking to stop the spread of the virus. The policing of it is difficult if there are three pubs in a row on a street, for example, with potentially three blocks of 15 people. It would be very difficult for gardaí to police it. Gardaí have said to us that level 3 is more difficult to police than level 5 as there are more grey areas than at the higher level, which leads to a challenge. I am not blaming the Garda for any of this and it is a decision we took but it is an important insight. When we open up, we allow more activities, creating a more difficult scenario all around, whereas level 5, because of its crude and blunt nature, can be much clearer.

On 6 January, we will assess the position, and we will assess it on an ongoing basis with respect to numbers of cases, hospitalisations, people in ICU beds and so on, which will tell us where the virus is at. As I said before, level 5 was different from the first lockdown in that we kept schools, the construction sector and non-healthcare services open. Any new restrictions that may emerge in the new year could be different as well. It does not mean all sectors will fall victim, to use the term, of a new set of restrictions.

Deputy McDonald raised her correspondence with Sophie Redmond. I pay tribute to Sophie Redmond and her courage. It is very difficult not to have a clear timeline for an urgent operation. I will certainly inquire of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to see what we can do in Sophie's case. Covid-19 has made an impact on the capacity of our children's hospitals to do surgery. On top of that are the delays that had been improving, although they had not met four-month targets. I will engage with the hospitals to see what can be done to accelerate the surgery. Every effort must be made to facilitate children like Sophie, who need their surgery, to get it when they need it.

With scoliosis it is a matter of skilled personnel being available and the right people doing the surgery. It is an important consideration. There are other complications arising from a requirement for knee surgery. I will certainly check that out for Sophie if the Deputy sends the details to me. We will certainly do everything we possibly can to help her and her family.

Deputy Boyd Barrett spoke about education and fees in general. I take his point on postgraduate courses but that specific route was created some years back, over a decade ago, and at the time it was considered radical in itself to create new entry routes into medicine. It had been fairly difficult to access but this route has an additional cost element. I will ask the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to review the matter but one of the biggest matters overall with third level is access to finance. The Cassells report has been published and we have frozen fee levels at the current undergraduate level for quite some time. Postgraduate fees have gone up a little too much and we gave additional supports in the budget for postgraduates, particularly those facilitated with grants and so on.

It may be better to deal with the area by giving greater supports to students via income thresholds as those who need it most should get greater supports going through college. This is in preference to, for example, an abolition of fee structures. I would prefer to support the colleges in the first instance and try to give additional core funding to colleges, as they need it to provide quality education. We should give further supports for inclusion in third level education, especially around people with disabilities and who are disadvantaged. We provided additional funding in the budget this year for both those categories. We should also provide funding in the broader SUSI grant structure for students for whom education is too much of a financial burden.

That said, participation rates in Irish third level education are probably the highest in Europe, particularly over the past 20 years from the late 1990s onwards. I was involved in that process as a Minister with responsibility for education. We dramatically expanded third level education and created far more places. We now need to continue to resource it as it is key to economic development in the country. I will ask the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to examine the medical graduate entry programme.

Sitting suspended at 4.25 p.m. and resumed at 4.45 p.m.