Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Last night the British Government announced that it will not hold a public inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane. This has come as a devastating blow to the Finucane family. Pat's widow, Geraldine, and his three children, Michael, Catherine and John, have fought for three long decades for truth. They had hoped that this week the British Government would finally seize the opportunity to do the right thing and grant the necessary inquiry, but yesterday's announcement shattered that hope.

The Finucane family have rightly described the decision as "astonishing, arrogant and cruel". Instead of granting a public inquiry, the British Secretary of State proposes to leave the case in the hands of the PSNI and the Police Ombudsman. This ludicrous proposal flies in the face of the British Supreme Court ruling of 2019. That ruling made it crystal clear that none of the previous investigations, including police investigations, were capable of uncovering the truth as regards the extent and level of British state collusion in Pat Finucane's murder. The court ruled that these investigations failed to meet the standards of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Given the incontrovertible evidence that the British state and its agents were directly involved in the authorising and planning of the killing of Pat Finucane, it is utterly farcical that the British Secretary of State should advise the Finucane family to seek truth and justice in this way. The family knows all too well that this is not a genuine avenue to truth and justice. It is, in fact, a cul-du-sac, at the end of which is only more bluff and more delay. They see it for what it is: another confidence trick. The only reason to take this approach is to continue with the cover up and to ensure that those agents of the British state responsible are never ever held to account. In the words of Geraldine Finucane, this decision "is yet another insult added to a deep and lasting injury".

It is clear that the British Government is determined to keep a dark cloak over the extent and depth of state collusion in the targeting and killing of nationalists in the North of Ireland. It seems that far too many powerful people have far too much to lose from the Finucane family and so many others having justice for their loved ones and peace for themselves. The British Government has set itself against the Finucane family and against the highest court in its own jurisdiction. The British Government has also set itself against the Irish Government and this Oireachtas in its call for a full public inquiry. Speaking on radio this morning, Geraldine Finucane said:

I will never run out of road as long there’s breath in my body. Today is a new day. We shall take stock and move forward.

It is vital that everybody in the Oireachtas moves forward together with the Finucane family in their fight because we are all united in our stance that the demand for a public inquiry is a just one and a necessary one. The family are counting on all of us to continue with our support for them. What, in the Taoiseach's view, can we now do together to ensure the British Government ends it resistance to the truth and grants a public inquiry?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue this afternoon. It is deeply disappointing and very annoying that the British Government has not committed to holding a proper public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. I know the disappointment is keenly and painfully felt by the Finucane family, by Geraldine, the late Pat Finucane's wife, and his sons and daughter. I utterly concur with the Deputy's remarks. The decision was arrogant and cruel. The references to a potential PSNI review or the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland were disingenuous. It is very clear that the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is not at present reviewing the case, so the Secretary of State's position there will require further explanation.

I thought that the statement of Chief Constable of the PSNI, Simon Byrne, was particularly interesting and significant. He described the murder of Pat Finucane as "a truly horrendous crime" and referred to the work of Judge Cory, Sir Desmond de Silva and others and the apology of a former Prime Minister in relation to the murder of Pat Finucane and the State's involvement in it. He also said:

It is our view that there are currently no new lines of inquiry. We now need to decide if a further review is merited given all the previous investigations into this case.

He went on to say:

A review itself is not an investigation. Any decision to investigate would only be made following the review process. Again, it is likely that any new investigation would need to be independently led. We would also need to be satisfied that given the extensive work of Lord Stevens, Judge Cory and Sir Desmond de Silva, that a further investigation has a reasonable prospect of furthering this matter either by bringing more persons to justice or answering the unanswered questions of the Finucane family and their ongoing search for justice.

In a sense, that goes to the heart of the matter. I listened to former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern on "RTÉ News at One" just before I came in here. He spoke about his talks with then Prime Minister Tony Blair and the identification high-profile cases such as the Finucane case and others, and that the respective Governments would pursue them. The Irish Government established the Smithwick tribunal, pursued it and upheld its side of the deal reached at Weston Park. The former Taoiseach was very clear that he understood an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane would follow. It seems to me that there has been a consistent effort to undermine any progress towards the truth. Some dark secrets are being hidden and it is time they were revealed in the proper forum of a public inquiry. The necessity to do that is to restore confidence in the broader objective of restoring confidence and reconciliation across the board and enabling proper truth recovery across the board. This decision only delays that. The delay corrodes public trust in the British state's capacity to deal with issues it committed to dealing with. Proper relationships between two Governments and two states must be founded on the principle that agreements that are entered into are followed through on. The Irish Government followed through on its commitments. The British Government has not followed through on its commitment to a full public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. It is extremely important that it does so.

I spoke with Geraldine Finucane at midday to make it clear to her and to her family that the Irish Government will continue to work with them to keep the pressure on and ensure a public inquiry is eventually held. It is my view it is inevitable that at some stage a public inquiry will have to be held into this heinous crime. We will work with other colleagues in the Oireachtas to pursue this agenda.

I thank the Taoiseach. His reiteration of the position of the Irish Government, the Irish State and the Houses of the Oireachtas that there must be a public inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane is absolutely essential.

I join the Taoiseach also in reiterating the fact that agreements entered into must be honoured and delivered on. As he rightly points out, at Weston Park and following on from it there was an acceptance that a number of cases required special investigation. As the Taoiseach rightly says, successive governments in Dublin have held up to our side of the bargain and the British Government has fallen very short - not alone that, but it has adopted a strategy that is very explicitly and obviously designed to block a public inquiry. For the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland yesterday to dangle the prospect - perhaps - of a public inquiry at a later stage more than 30 years after the killing of Pat Finucane is particularly unforgivable. Does the Taoiseach have a view as to what we can do collectively as an Oireachtas, perhaps in partnership with international figures, including President-elect Joe Biden, who has, as the Taoiseach knows, for a very long time supported the Finucane campaign for a public inquiry?

I think that, collectively, we as an Oireachtas can with one voice articulate to the British Government again the view that a full public inquiry should be held. We can continue to work at both European and international level and with international opinion. We have support in the United States from people such as Richie Neal and others, and we can of course enlist the engagement of the President-elect, Joe Biden. Fundamentally, however, it is really in terms of the relationship between Britain and Ireland that this case assumes such importance. As for the broader legacy issues, momentum needs to be injected into legacy generally. It has been stop-start for a long time now, going back to 2014 and the Stormont House Agreement. Commitments were entered into. Their progression has been very slow. The British Government is indicating that it wants to have a fresh look at legacy. My position in response was very clear: that the murder of Pat Finucane had to be dealt with as a catalyst to a broader approach to legacy. It is important, however, that the Irish and British Governments and our respective political communities resolve to get this issue dealt with, as originally committed to by previous British Governments.

Today is a good day for many businesses and people going back to work as we re-enter level 3 of the plan for living with Covid-19. I am glad our party suggested some time ago that we endeavour to have an opening up for the Christmas period. In fairness, the Government has followed that, so today is a good day. However, the critical discussion around kitchen tables at Christmas will be about vaccines. I wish to ask the Taoiseach some questions about this. In America, Food and Drug Administration, FDA, approval for the Pfizer-approved vaccine is due on 10 December. I presume European approval will happen in a similar timeframe. We have a number of other vaccines coming on stream, with various press statements saying they have certain success rates, etc. They all need to be validated, but this is very positive and let us talk about it in a positive way because I feel there has been some negativity towards this in the past few days which has not been helpful. We need to plan for this in a fairly detailed manner. We need a comprehensive roll-out strategy that will deal with all the vaccines that will be available to us. We need to know which vaccines we are purchasing through the European model and we need to know distinctly the plan for the roll-out. I appreciate that Brian MacCraith is being brought in to co-ordinate the new team that will look after this but I feel we need to go broader than that. I am concerned.

This is not something the Taoiseach or the Government can get wrong in any way, shape or form. I believe we need outside expertise. If we take on board what happened in relation to the roll-out of the flu vaccine, a repeat of that situation would leave a lot to be desired. Last year, the Labour Party made suggestions very early about purchasing flu vaccines but we were ignored. We need outside expertise. We need logistics expertise. Clearly, we need a Minister who will be accountable to this House and who will be responsible for vaccine roll-out.

I am asking the Taoiseach clearly whether he will consider putting one Minister in charge of the most important thing in our country for the next 12 months. I appreciate that the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, will be very busy with other things, but we need one person who will be at Cabinet. Obviously, the Taoiseach can decide who he feels is best for that role, but we need one person who will be responsible for the roll-out of the vaccines which are going to change the lives of everyone in this country. That person should be responsible for procurement, logistics, roll-out and everything else. Will the Taoiseach please consider that? Given the change in tone in some quarters, the absolutely ludicrous commentary on social media from certain anti-vax quarters and certain polls regarding how supporters of various political parties will or will not support vaccine roll-out, I think we really need somebody who is actually going to be the person responsible for the most important thing in this country over the next 12 months. Will the Taoiseach please consider that?

I thank the Deputy for his question. The Government is absolutely and wholly committed to the timely implementation of a Covid-19 immunisation programme once the vaccines are approved for use, particularly the vaccines that are in the European Union portfolio. In this regard, I have established a cross-Government high-level task force to oversee the development and implementation of a programme for the roll-out of vaccines. As the Deputy is aware, that is being chaired by Brian MacCraith of Dublin City University.

We are involved in a European Union procurement exercise. In fact, it is the first manifestation I have seen for a long time in the public health arena of a really good, co-ordinated and European Commission-led approach to the procurement of vaccines which gives all the smaller states a good opportunity. We have opted in to six advance purchase agreements with Moderna, Janssen, Pfizer-BioNTech , Sanofi Pasteur, CureVac and AstraZeneca, which was involved in the Oxford trial. The EU is still in advanced negotiations with Novavax, another pharmaceutical company, and is also looking at other possible additions to the EU vaccines portfolio.

The European Commission is seeking to develop a portfolio of vaccines with various vaccine developers. This serves to spread the risks relating to the development and procurement of Covid-19 vaccines from vaccine developers and member states respectively. It facilitates through collective purchasing power access for all member states to safe and efficacious vaccines that they would not otherwise be in a position to procure if they were operating in an individual capacity. It is a very significant advance for Europe to be able to behave in this way. Europe is also contributing to COVAX in terms of making sure that developing countries and others in less fortunate positions around the world can also gain access to the vaccines. Ireland will receive vaccine doses, subject to market approval being granted by the regulatory authorities, on a population pro rata basis of 1.11% of the total European Union delivery.

The task force has met twice so far. Complex logistical challenges have been identified, including storage and transport requirements, and it is clear that the roll-out of a vaccine will require very careful and detailed whole-of-Government planning. The high-level task force will work with the Department of Health and the HSE to develop a national Covid-19 vaccination strategy and implementation plan for consideration by the Government and the chairman has undertaken to me that it will be ready by 11 December. We still do not have a vaccine approved but it is moving quickly, as the Deputy stated. I suspect the European Medicines Agency, EMA, which is the European approval authority, will work almost in tandem with the FDA in terms of the respective timelines.

The arrival of vaccines is a moment for doubling down on vigilance and social distancing and continuing to do everything we have to do to prevent the spread of the virus, but it does present a horizon and an opportunity to move on from this era of Covid-19 eventually.

In terms of the issues the Deputy raised, communications will be key to the roll-out of the vaccine. Historically, vaccines have eliminated some of the most devastating viruses that have killed many people. In that context, the Government, working with the authorities, will be promoting strongly the take-up of the Covid-19 vaccine.

I attended the European conference on vaccinations last year. I am a 100% advocate, in every way shape and form. However, the words "task force" fill me with concern. This is nothing to do with politics. Trust me when I say that we all have to get this right. I accept what the Taoiseach is saying about EU procurement. I accept what he is saying regarding the number of vaccines. We probably will have up to ten options, from what I am hearing. That is all very positive.

However, there are a number of issues to consider. The first issue is to do with the logistics. Second, who gets the vaccine and in what order, whether they be the vulnerable, healthcare workers and so on? We need to find out about that. The third issue is one that is not being discussed. What are we talking about in terms of IT? How are we going to generate passports for people? Fourth, will people who get the vaccine be distinguished from those who do not? What will the former be allowed to do? Will those who do not get vaccinated be allowed to go into certain public events? In other words, what will the rules be? Fifth, I honestly believe that we need one person who will report to the Taoiseach and be accountable for all of this. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has enough to be doing. Other Ministers have enough to be doing.

The Deputy's point is made.

I urge the Taoiseach to consider appointing one person, even if it is somebody brought up just to take on this role and be responsible.

We are way over time.

This issue is far too important to do otherwise.

I thank the Deputy and I appreciate the point he is making. I established the task force for a reason, namely, to bring a varied range of disciplines, both public sector and private sector, to the table to deal with the various work streams that will be required to deliver the vaccine. There is a work stream currently operating in regard to information technology, for example, because IT will be key to this in terms of recording and so on. There is also the issue of manpower and the administration of the vaccine. Given the volumes involved, we will have to go beyond the existing, traditional way of administering a vaccine. Martin Shanahan, chief executive of IDA Ireland, is a member of the task force, as a link into the broader pharmaceutical and multinational industry in terms of its known experience in medicine storage and so on. Derek McCormack, an expert on cold chain logistics, is on the task force. Dalton Philips, chief executive of the Dublin Airport Authority, is a member. Paul Reid is there, obviously, because the HSE will still be a key operator and implementer in operationalising a lot of this work. We have some supports as well from the Defence Forces from a logistics perspective. A good team has been put in place in terms of the various work streams that need to be developed.

The Taoiseach's time is up.

The Government, ultimately, has to deliver this.

Many people were looking forward to the lifting of level 5 restrictions, which takes place from today. We all hope it can be done safely. There has been a welcome reduction in Covid numbers but it is fair to say that they are not as low as many of us would have liked. Therefore, there is an even greater challenge in keeping the numbers as low as possible in the coming period. I have heard a great deal in recent days about personal responsibility and the need for people to be sensible in the precautions they take. I certainly echo that.

However, there is another side to this and it is the role of the State and State agencies. We have got to know a lot about the virus over the past year. We know it is airborne and that good ventilation plays a significant role in reducing risk. Now that the winter season is here and people are far more likely to spend time indoors, it is critically important that there is good advice and guidance, communicated by Government, in respect of ventilation. None of us wants to face a further lockdown in January. The public and business owners will heed good, practical advice but, as I said, the lead has to come from Government.

At the outset of the pandemic, the advice was: "test, test, test". Every evening we can see in the figures that when the number for Covid-19 incidence falls the number being tested also falls, so there is spare capacity. Is it intended to use that capacity and, if so, will the Taoiseach outline a strategy in terms of the numbers now involved in tracing? Is the full complement of tracers now in place? Are there new strategies relating to community transmission? There have been a number of large outbreaks in hospitals, such as in Letterkenny, Limerick and Naas. This has posed challenges for the operation of those hospitals. Indeed, many healthcare workers have become sick and have had to isolate. Routine swabbing in the nursing homes has helped to control the virus in that setting, but there is no similar routine system for staff in hospitals. Is that being considered? Are there other settings that could be considered in a preventative way?

How is it planned to manage international travel, particularly from countries where there is a high incidence of the virus? There is an EU-wide traffic light system, but each country is required to put its own system in place. Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the risks here will be addressed, given that there is likely to be a larger number travelling at Christmas than is currently the case?

We are told that a major factor in the Government making the choices it made was that there was compelling information and evidence on adverse mental health issues. Does the Taoiseach intend to make that information available? Like all Deputies, I hear from people who are in serious distress. We hear about people who are anxious and fearful. It is not just the result of isolation. People are worried about the virus itself and others are in distress because of the loss of jobs, uncertainty about the future and unpaid bills. For some there is a sense of frustration with the restrictions and not having anything to look forward to. Essentially, does the Taoiseach intend to use that information for other mental health strategies?

To recap, will the Taoiseach share the information? Is there spare capacity in testing? Will he also comment on good ventilation and international travel?

The Deputy raised a number of issues. The current epidemiological status is relatively good from a European perspective. We now have the lowest 14-day incidence rate in the 27 European Union member states at 89 per 100,000 people. That is a result of the people of Ireland working with level 5 over six weeks. The people deserve considerable credit for adhering to the guidelines. It is interesting that in the most recent survey of the Central Statistics Office, CSO, more than 73% of people felt that the level 5 restrictions were appropriate. We hear many complaints about the restrictions but the CSO study, which is released this week, suggests that the vast majority of people want to work with the guidelines and restrictions and want to be protected and stay safe. That must be said.

Obviously, we must watch it, as the virus spreads very quickly. The CSO data is also important in that it measures the high number of people who feel that they are experiencing a low quality of life at present as a result of Covid-19. The number has gone up to 30% since April, which is a worry. The number who are downhearted on a continuous basis has doubled since April from 5% to 10% or 11%. That speaks to the need to give people a lift and some quality of life. One always has this balance between severe restrictions and quality of life for people. That is why, for example, we made some modifications to level 3 by opening museums and galleries. We felt the threat is not great in those locations, so people can visit them, the public libraries and so forth. It was likewise with the restaurants, to allow people to get out for a night. That is important for mental well-being.

On the testing, we have significantly expanded the permanent capacity in the testing and tracing system. We have on-island capacity to test up to 126,000 people per week, but that can be increased to 140,000 per week by utilising available surge capacity with the HSE's German laboratory partner.

We offer automatic testing of close contacts. Serial testing will continue in high-risk environments and there will be large-scale testing in outbreak situations. Serial testing has been important in nursing homes. It has been an important extra check and control over the spread of the virus in those situations. Some 92% of GP referrals are provided with a Covid-19 test appointment within 24 hours, while the median time from swab to laboratory result is 25 hours. The average time to complete the contact tracing calls is 1.1 day from when the detected result is communicated. We have carried out approximately 2 million tests in laboratories across Ireland to date. We consistently rank among the countries performing most tests.

In terms of the recruitment issues, more than 700 people currently work in contact tracing centres, of whom 530 are newly recruited. The HSE is building a contact tracing workforce of approximately 800, while more than 1,000 people work in swabbing.

I thank the Taoiseach.

There is an issue around antigen and rapid testing. The European Commission has reported on that and the HSE is looking at that in the context of specific settings such as the healthcare settings the Deputy identified.

I thank the Taoiseach. We are way over time.

The Minister is looking at that as a matter of urgency.

The Taoiseach acknowledged that the systematic approach within nursing homes is working. When I saw the outbreak, for example, in Naas with which I am very familiar, more than 80 staff were out either due to being directly affected by Covid itself or having to self-isolate. That has a monumental impact on the ability of the hospital to operate. The same would have been the case in Letterkenny and Limerick. It struck me that it was an obvious setting to carry out routine testing in the same way that it is carried out in nursing homes. There are probably other settings where the spare capacity could be used in a preventative way as a means of keeping the numbers low. That is going to be the object of the exercise. The public have to play their role and they will pay a great deal of attention to the guidance they are given, but there is a role for the State, and it is that systematic preventative role. I am looking to see what is being done in that regard. I do think people see international travel as a big risk.

As a country, we are particularly dependent on international travel connectivity, but the numbers travelling have dropped significantly on an annual basis. I think it is down 96% or 97% annually. We know from the airports how desolate they are. That said, we are conscious coming into the Christmas period that we need to be particularly vigilant. As a Government, we decided on the framework for international travel in the context of Covid-19 in line with the European Union traffic light system, which will involve Covid-19 testing at pre-departure or on arrival. From 29 November, this will include availability for testing post-arrival from day five for passengers who have arrived from a location that is not on the green list. The testing regime will be implemented through the private supply of testing availability in Ireland. At this stage, the PCR test is still the only test type considered acceptable by the HSE. The Dublin Airport Authority will scale up capacity to meet testing demand, rising to approximately 10,000 tests per day at weekends. The Minister and the HSE are looking at the potential application of antigen testing as a complementary tool to the PCR test at airports and in other settings, especially healthcare settings.

People Before Profit has been unique, clear and consistent in arguing that to deal with Covid-19 we need a strategy to eliminate community transmission, so we can avoid a constant cycle of going in and out of one lockdown after another, which is what we believe the Government's strategy is inevitably going to result in. We think the Government is wrong to ignore critical parts of the advice given by the public health experts in their letter of 26 November. In rejecting some of their key advice, in particular around the reopening of the hospitality sector, the Government in fact is endangering Christmas itself and risking the family gatherings, which is what most people want to protect.

If we disagree on these matters, and we do, I hope we are wrong about where the Government's strategy will lead us. One thing is absolutely clear from the public health advice and the letter of 26 November, namely, that its caution about the strategy being pursued and some of the decisions being made by the Government is related to the ability and capacity of our health service to cope with further outbreaks and waves and particularly the resourcing and staffing of our public health teams. It seems there is absolutely no dispute about that.

In this regard, the Government is singularly failing. It is not just that we believe it is wrong in the strategy being pursued but it is failing to provide the resourcing, support and staffing that is necessary for our public health teams and health services generally to be able to deal with further waves of infections and outbreaks.

The public health teams that we praised and applauded are going on strike in January. These are the people on the front line. If we are to deliver an immunisation programme, we will do so with public health teams at one third of the recommended level of staffing and where we have treated them as second class citizens in term of their status as medical specialists. We have recruited contact tracers and testers, who we need to deal with outbreaks, on the worst temporary agency contracts, where they do not even get sick pay and they are essentially in a "hire 'em and fire 'em" position. It is not exactly the way to implement what the public health experts are saying is the much greater capacity, integration and cohesion that is required in public health teams in order to deal with Covid-19.

Finally, there is the utterly disgraceful treatment of thousands of student nurses and midwives. NPHET has also expressed concern about the high level of infections in our hospitals but the Government has removed payment for these student nurses and midwives. They are working on the front line with no payment whatever.

At the very least, will the Taoiseach accede to the demands of public health doctors? Will the Government put contact tracers and testers on decent contracts, pay and conditions? Will the Government pay the student nurses and midwives something instead of exploiting them and paying them nothing when they are working on the front line for all of us?

The Deputy is wrong in his various assertions. In the first instance, I do not believe in the Deputy's zero-Covid approach. It is not viable in terms of our membership of the European Union, our relationship with the United Kingdom and the seamless interaction of people. We also have the Border between North and South and the fact we are not in charge of the jurisdiction public health wise in Northern Ireland. We have seen the overlap and impact there in terms of Covid-19.

The bottom line is that in tackling the second wave, we are one of the best-performing countries in Europe. The strategy that has been pursued has worked so far. It is not a matter of being in and out of lockdown. There have been two phases of very severe restrictions since the Covid-19 outbreak. The very first, as the Deputy knows, was in spring and it was very severe. The second, which ended recently, was less severe because we kept schools open. Contrary to the Deputy's comments, we also kept health services open unlike in the first phase. In the second phase, the non-Covid health services were kept open.

The second phase did not have anywhere near the same impact on hospitalisation, mortality or intensive care unit occupancy rates as the first phase. The evidence from a variety of sources, including the Central Statistics Office, NPHET and others confirms all of this. The second wave has been different. We have had the best performance globally in relation to mortality in the second wave through the various measures we introduced. That said, there can be no room for complacency.

In respect of public health, for example, in September the Minister committed to doubling the workforce in public health. There were about 254 people working in public health pre-Covid, and the Government has provided resources to double that number, and hiring has already started in relation to that. In terms of the consultant status, the Crowe Horwath report is there and the Government is acting on it. There are ongoing discussions between the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform, and Health, but consultant posts will be created. The manner and framework through which all of that will happen is an important issue and there is much detail involved in that, which has to be worked out, but the resources are there. More than €4 billion has been put into the health service this year, which is a record figure - €2 billion for Covid, and €2 billion non-Covid - and quite extensive and significant.

On the issue of student nurses, again, it is not the same as the first phase. It is not the same at all. When the nursing degree programme was brought in in 2002 - I brought it in as Minister for Health - it was seen as a radical transformation of nurse education at the time, to put student nurses on the same par with other university students in terms of their degree and so forth and investment in facilities in all of our universities and institutes of technology. All of that happened. Negotiations and work are ongoing between the Minister for Health and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, on a variety of issues in terms of trying to support student nurses in the current climate within the hospitals, particularly, for example, the application of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, to student nurses who understandably have lost the jobs that they would have had at weekends because of Covid restrictions. That has now been made available to student nurses, but crucially their clinical placements in fourth year and their internships must also be protected from an education perspective. That is something that is uppermost in terms of the HSE's objective in this situation.

There is no doubt that the intense hardships people have suffered, and the collective solidarity people have shown have helped staved off the worst disasters in respect of Covid-19. However, the Government is taking a gamble in rejecting the NPHET advice, and it is very clear about that, in respect of the potential impact of opening the hospitality sector, which could lead to the family gatherings we all know need to happen at Christmas actually being imperilled. That is a serious gamble. However, when it comes to something that should be less controversial, namely, the support of our front-line healthcare workers and the resources, etc., that they need, the Taoiseach is clearly failing, because he did not answer the obvious question. Why are 98% of public health doctors threatening industrial action? Why are we in a situation with one third of the recommended level of staffing? How are we going to deliver an immunisation programme with that level of staffing, and with the people we need to deliver it threatening strike action because of the way they are treated?

Thank you, Deputy.

How can the Taoiseach explain that 71% of student nurses and midwives said, in a survey, that they are going to probably leave the country after completing their training because they feel that they are so badly treated?

Thank you, Deputy. You are way over time.

How can he possibly justify the fact that the testers and tracers that we need to keep on top of outbreaks have no sick pay and rubbish "hire 'em and fire 'em" contracts when they should be treated with respect with decent pay and conditions?

I take issue with the Deputy. The Government has not rejected any advice, and he is wrong to assert that in respect of NPHET. We engaged with NPHET, and obviously I had discussions with the Chief Medical Officer. We took a more conservative stance on the restriction of visitors to households. NPHET would have-----

So the pubs could be opened.

We have not opened the pubs. That is the point.

Well the pubs are being opened. That was the choice-----

I am sorry but Deputy Murphy is not even in the Chamber. What is going on is outrageous. I am not answering Deputy Murphy; I am answering Deputy Boyd Barrett. There should not be people in corridors heckling during Leader's Questions. That is not acceptable behaviour.

I want to make the point that we did not open wet pubs because of a range of advice from EY and others, tracking what happened in August and September and taking decisions based on that evidence base. In respect of the point I was about to make, we took a more conservative approach on the household visits, and then traded that off with visits to hotels and restaurants, which, by the way, has a twofold dimension to it. The first is there is the issue of mental well-being and people needing to get out of their homes. There is only so much any Government can do in a democratic society in respect of imposing severe restrictions on its citizens.

Government has to take a measured and balanced approach. One cannot simply lock people up forever. Balance is required. We did not reject advice. We took a balanced, measured approach, which is difficult and challenging and which we are going to monitor. We appreciate very much the advice from NPHET but there was a trade-off. The impact of loosening restrictions on household visits would be equivalent to that of opening the hospitality sector to the degree we did. We decided to maintain household restrictions as they are until 18 December. We cannot, however, get away from the fact that it really is down to personal behaviour and personal responsibility from here until Christmas. We need to send that message through our own behaviours and otherwise and we really need to work to keep this virus at bay. There are no guarantees in this regard.