Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I want to raise the Taoiseach's announcement yesterday of the extension of level 5 restrictions. January has proved to be the most deadly month of this pandemic and, naturally, people are anxious, fearful and worried for the future. Families have been bereaved, people are sick and people's lives are on hold. Indeed, there are many who have not seen a day's work in almost a year. Businesses are to the pin of their collar in a struggle for survival. People feel the burden of this crisis like never before and so yesterday all looked to Government to deliver a clear and concrete plan of action and to indicate that it had a handle on this crisis. Instead, we got a Government that is clearly at sixes and sevens with no idea of how to proceed beyond 5 March. We got a Government that has yet again failed to prepare, failed to consult and failed to plan. Instead of a real plan, the Government has presented half measures that do not go far enough. At the Government press conference, contradiction and confusion between Ministers was rife and clarity and certainty were in scarce supply. This absence of urgency, leadership and plain common sense has caused huge alarm for many people.

One group that is particularly distressed is this year's leaving certificate students. They are under enormous pressure. They need to know what is happening now. They have made their position clear: they want fairness, choice and an alternative method of assessment alongside the option of the traditional exam. It is time for the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education to make absolutely clear that they will facilitate this choice for those students and give them the clarity they need.

The biggest mess from the Government's announcement yesterday is undoubtedly its proposal on international travel. What it announced not alone goes against public health advice; it goes against common sense. It is not a system of mandatory quarantine; it is, in fact, one of voluntary self-isolation. The Government proposes to send people back to homes and other accommodation with other people who may be going to work and who will go into shops and stores and, therefore, risk the spreading of this virus. That is absolutely crazy. People were shocked by the footage on the television last night of people returning home from places like Lanzarote. That was clearly non-essential travel yet the Government's proposal places all hope in people's discretion to self-isolate.

The plan is also unenforceable and, listening to representatives of An Garda Síochána this morning saying the Government has failed to consult with them, there was an echo of all the Government's previous behaviour. They are in disbelief at what has been announced. This half measure plan will not work. It will also, the Taoiseach tells us, take weeks, if not months, to implement. Overall, it leaves people on our island exposed. The right measure is a system of complete and universal mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers onto our island. That is the only thing that stands a chance of helping us achieve the maximum suppression of this virus. This, of course, has to happen as part of an all-island approach that ensures no airport and no port on this island is left without the protection we need to stop the importation of this virus and any new variant. Decisive action like that would say clearly to our people and people beyond that this Government means business when it comes to protecting our people. I ask the Taoiseach to turn away from the half measure he announced yesterday and to implement a proper quarantine regime.

We should acknowledge that yesterday we passed a sad figure - a threshold of 3,000 people who have died in the Republic from Covid-19 and 1,760 who have passed in Northern Ireland. Our thoughts and our prayers are with the families of those who have been bereaved by this deadly and dangerous virus, which constantly evolves and is causing devastation to people's lives and to societies across the world.

I want to make it clear that there will be no half measures from me as Taoiseach or from Government in ensuring a prolonged suppression of this virus. We will do whatever it takes to keep the numbers down once we get them down. We and the Irish people are achieving that. Case numbers are falling steeply as we speak. The swift introduction of level 5 over Christmas and, critically, the adherence of the Irish people to those guidelines is resulting in a steep decline in numbers. That said, the key reality for front-line healthcare workers, who have been performing heroically on behalf of us all for a prolonged period, but particularly during this critical phase of Covid, in assisting all who get Covid and are hospitalised, is that we have to get the numbers of hospitalisations and the number of people in intensive care down. When we get them down, we can never allow them back up to the levels they are at now. That is clear, as far as I am concerned. That will mean prolonged suppression of the virus in this country. That will mean, for everybody in this House, that I do not want people coming to me again after 5 March with special pleading for this, that or the other sector. We simply have had too much of that.

I get that there are issues relating to education and I get the necessity to deal with and provide for special needs children. The Minister for Education is engaging with all the partners. We should allow space for the partners in education and the Minister to facilitate the return of children with special needs to our schools and to deal comprehensively and in a clear way with the situation facing our leaving certificate students. They have gone through a difficult period because they were in fifth year last year and suffered as a result of school closures. They have suffered this year again as a result of the pandemic, coming out of the Christmas period and the schools are closed. Provision will be made for them. The Minister is working with the partners and the national advisory committee on the exams, which has the voices of students, teachers, management and the State Examination Commission, which has a key role in this, and she will come back in a comprehensive way to present options for the leaving certificate students of this year.

However, in terms of the evolution of this, what we have now, which we did not, have last year is the vaccination roll-out. The evidence base for the vaccines is that they prevent mortality and illness. That will give us choices towards mid-year, when we will have significant numbers vaccinated. However, the strategy, as far as I am concerned, is very clear: it will be a prolonged suppression of the virus. The introduction of mandatory quarantine and the additional capacity that will be provided to the State to extend that if necessary is also there as an additional measure. However, the key measure is human behaviour. That is what stops the spread of the virus. Thankfully, the Irish people have responded very, very effectively to this latest phase and the numbers are dropping steeply.

The Taoiseach has set out the very reason and rationale as to why half measures are not enough at this time. He is absolutely right that this virus is devastating and deadly and we have a hard road ahead of us. Most people are compliant. Some will not be but the reality is that for us to maintain maximum suppression we, of course, rely on human behaviour. One behaviour that cannot be countenanced is unnecessary international travel. That is one behaviour we need to knock on the head. The most effective way to do that and the most powerful message that can come from Government at this time is one of universal quarantine.

In other words, if a person comes to any part of the island of Ireland, he or she should face a 14-day mandatory quarantine. That is what is required at this time. Astonishingly, the Government has not opted for that. It has opted for a system that relies on people's best discretion and judgment in self-isolating in their own homes. Furthermore, the Government did not even consult An Garda Síochána, which now says it fears for the health and safety of its members. This is not the way to go. This is a mistake and it is a mistake the Government should remedy now. It should recognise what is required and what has the support of the people. The people will walk those hard yards but they expect their Government to lead from the front.

I expect everybody to lead from the front. The problem with the Deputy is that, unfortunately, she has been on the fence for much of this and has clung to the fence for as long as possible. I remember a headline on the 18 September edition of the Irish Daily Star, which stated "Mary Lou: Open all the pubs". The Deputy was quoted as saying there was no reason that all the pubs should not open again. That was her view then. Whatever was fashionable, whatever was the trend, she jumped on board. That has been her consistent approach to this - jumping on the bandwagon when it suits. Her statements on Northern Ireland over the past two days were brazenly untrue. She should speak to her colleague, the deputy First Minister, who will tell her that we have worked earnestly and in a proactive way with the Northern Ireland Executive-----

The Deputy's party is on the Northern Ireland Executive and has failed to gain the consensus required in respect of some of the issues she has raised. We will continue to work in a constructive fashion with the Northern Ireland Executive.

The measures on travel will not take weeks to implement; they will be implemented very quickly. It is time for consistency all around, from all sections of the House, including the Deputy's party, on this matter. As I said earlier, prolonged suppression is what is required. We will introduce legislation in respect of quarantining capacity and we look forward to the Deputy's support on that.

I too wish to raise the issue of the new measures the Taoiseach announced yesterday. It is obvious the public are way ahead on this matter and understand the risks from the variants, including higher mortality rates, the potential impact of reinfection and the effectiveness of the vaccines. I also acknowledge the terrible and sad milestone we reached yesterday.

There is an understandable fear among members of the public and a desire on their part for the Government to make decisions to keep the country as safe as possible. Earlier, the Minister for Public Enterprise and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, stated on Morning Ireland that international travel is low risk. Where is the evidence for that? How is it that the UK variant is now dominant and how did it get here? How is it that the South African variant is now confirmed to be here and how did it get here? Is it still a working assumption of the Government that international travel is low risk? The Minister, on behalf of the Government, went on to say the vast majority of people are complying with the relevant restrictions. Less than a week ago, I raised the possibility of quarantine of international travellers with the Tánaiste, who told me that it would be unworkable and that the majority of people were undertaking what he called essential travel. I quoted figures provided to me by the Minister for Health which showed that 49% of international travellers, over a month-long period, even after several attempts, did not provide addresses.

Where is the evidence of compliance? How will changing the guidance to a mandatory requirement to quarantine at home change that? How will this be enforced? Has anyone talked to the Garda Commissioner about this? Do we have a sufficient number of gardaí to do what needs to be done or what is being demanded of them? I also wonder whether, when he was responding to me, the Tánaiste was aware that some of the limited number of flights that are arriving here are coming from holiday destinations such as the Canary Islands.

It is welcome that the numbers are falling. We need to keep working collectively to ensure that they continue to fall, not least because our hospitals are under extreme pressure and because they are now high-risk environments for catching Covid. I find it hard to comprehend, from the measures announced, what the Government's strategy is. It seems that the starting point is what cannot be done, with a reliance on the default position of employing lockdowns until the vaccination programme is rolled out as we hope, but that is not certain by any measure.

Is the Government still of the view that international travel is of low risk? Has it talked to the Garda Commissioner? What is the strategy for the remainder of the year? To what extent does the Government anticipate rolling lockdowns? Does the Taoiseach accept that high-profile non-compliance, such as international travel, undermines broader compliance?

I thank the Deputy for raising those issues. The Government's view is very clear: people should not travel for non-essential reasons. There are very few reasons that people should travel. The Deputy is correct in saying that a significant number of people who have been travelling out of Ireland have, since the Christmas period, been going on holiday and coming back in. That clearly needs to stop and that is why there is additional enforcement at the ports and airports. Anybody who travels abroad is breaching level 5 rules and that is a fact. They are in breach of level 5 rules and that carries with it consequences. There will be an increase to the fixed penalty for breach of the rules relating to international travel, from €100 to €500. There will be increased Garda checks and enforcement activity relating to people travelling internationally who are in breach of level 5 rules, while the existing regulations relating to having to have had a PCR test prior to coming in will be extended to 5 March. The range of mandatory quarantine measures will also be introduced, some by means of regulation this week and others that will give us powers in respect of EU citizens will be dealt with through primary legislation. The principal Act has to be amended to enable action in respect of such citizens. Also, we will have the capacity under that legislation to extend the measures if we need to.

All aspects of human behaviour carry risk, including international travel in the context of variants, which we are obviously very concerned about. As already stated, prolonged suppression of the virus has to be our goal. The numbers are coming down, but once we get them down, we have to keep them there. The key to that is human behaviour, both on the island and through significant restriction of travel into the Republic, as well as additional measures for any violations of level 5 by citizens who travel from the North into the Republic. There will be measures in that regard as well to deal with that and to ensure there are no breaches of level 5 rules and obligations by Irish citizens in Northern Ireland who come over the Border.

Taken cumulatively, the significant range of measures will have an impact on travel. The requirement in respect of PCR tests has already resulted in a reduction in the numbers travelling into the country. There will always be a need for essential workers to travel into the Republic. The category of essential workers is being narrowed as well in order to reduce the numbers who can come into the Republic.

This is really tough on people and there is a high degree of fear. That is why people are looking not to punish others but to be protected. It is for this reason that the focus is on issues such as international travel in the context of the variants. There is a public understanding of the risks involved. That is why quarantine is being sought, not as a punishment. It is unacceptable that people are going on holidays and, on a television programme last night, we saw students arriving into the country. I cannot quite comprehend why families would want their children to be travelling here when, apart from anything else, there is a very dominant strain of the virus in play.

This did not arrive on a south-easterly. It arrived on a flight or on a boat. That will be the means by which the other variants arrive as well. That is why this is so important. What if quarantine is introduced in the UK, for example? Will we follow on then? Will that be where the all-Ireland approach will be adopted? Has the Taoiseach talked to his UK counterparts about that recently?

We are introducing quarantine into the country.

The Government did not.

We are introducing it and the legislation will give us broad capacity to extend it. The numbers have collapsed to very low levels in terms of people coming into the Republic and we must maintain that over the coming period. That is the reality. The Deputy is correct in terms of identifying the variants as the significant factor now in how we deal with international travel. There is a lot of fear and anxiety out there. Bar some Deputies, this is the first time a call has come from different parties for mandatory quarantining universally. That has not been said before by some of the parties that are saying it now. That is fair enough; people can evolve in their positions. The numbers, however, are way down and will remain very low given the additional measures we introduced and announced yesterday and any further measures that will be required regarding the variants. There have been discussions between the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of State in the UK but they are at a preliminary stage. I have had preliminary discussions with the British Prime Minister. North-South discussions between officials from the Executive and our Government have been conducted in a constructive way in terms of sharing of data and so on.

I wish to raise the lack of funding for Kerry roads on our local improvement scheme, LIS, list. This scheme has been in place for more than 40 years to resurface public roads not in the charge of the local authority. I am talking about public roads, not private roads. To qualify for the LIS, there must be at least two landholdings. I know of several roads that have anything from eight or nine landholdings and five to 20 or more houses.

County Kerry's new 2020 list started out with 707 applications that were prioritised. We got just enough funding to do ten roads last year, leaving 697 more to be done. If we only do ten roads each year it will take 69 or 70 years to complete our list. Our last priority list of 2007 had approximately 350 applications. We were doing fine up until 2012 when the scheme was suspended. I know the Department of Finance is against this scheme because it believes the taxpayer is paying for the surfacing of private roads. We are not talking about private roads, however. These are public roads. The people I am talking about are on public and not private roads.

The scheme was suspended in 2012. After being elected to Dáil Éireann in 2016, I made several representations and requests in the rural affairs committee to the then Minister, Deputy Michael Ring, to reactivate the scheme, which he did in 2017. I thank him for that and for giving us funding to finish off the 2007 programme. From 2007 to 2012, Kerry County Council accepted 118 new applications, which were kept on file and are now also included in the 707 applications on the 2020 list. Imagine applying in 2007 to get your road upgraded. We are still waiting in 2021 and will perhaps wait for several more years.

Will the Government be fair to the people in rural Ireland? Many of these people are elderly, and perhaps sick, and carers and home help workers are trying to get in and out on roads that are in a desperate state. People living on these roads are entitled to a good road to their door, the same as the people in Dublin 4. I say again that these roads are not private; they are public. I know the Department of Finance was trying to stop funding on that basis back in 2010. These people have paid their motor, property and income tax and their insurance. In most cases, they have their own water supply and septic tanks and do not even have broadband. I believe they are entitled to a reasonable road surface to their homes.

First, I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Is it related to the local improvement scheme?

Yes, the local improvement scheme.

My understanding is that a new scheme been announced with regard to that and the deadline for applications is 26 February. I will ask the Minister to correspond with the Deputy about the details, however. I take on board what the Deputy said about the challenges facing many people in terms of accessing funding for this over the years. The Government has been in office just over six months and has identified investment in rural Ireland as a key priority. That is clear in the programme for Government, particularly in terms of renewing our regional towns and villages and creating hubs of sustainable development. Road infrastructure and investment in roads is key to that as well as the overall issues of infrastructure from broadband to wastewater infrastructure and so forth.

We will be creating opportunities for local involvement in terms of development in rural communities. The additional capital funding was provided this year through the Department in almost every area including road building, particularly minor roads. We will do whatever we can to assist rural communities in County Kerry and across the country to have a faster acceleration and implementation of that programme for the people involved who have been waiting a considerable time to have funding sanctioned. I will pursue that issue with the Minister and revert to the Deputy.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply so far. Again, I want to make it clear that this scheme was suspended for five years from 2012 to 2017, which is why we have a savage amount of applications now. Some 697 applications are still waiting to get funding. Many of these have been waiting since 2007. I appeal to the Taoiseach. The amount of money we got last year was something in the region of €700,000. That is not enough. Like I said, if we continue in that vein of doing ten roads each year, it will take us 70 years to exhaust the list. That is not fair on these people. They are good, honest, hard-working people who are trying to exist where their fathers before them lived. They want to continue living in these places. They are, however, entitled to a good surface on their road, the same as the people in Dublin 4 are getting. These people should not be left behind. They contribute to this scheme. They pay 20% of the cost and the Department has always made up 80% of it. Do not let these people in rural Ireland down. They vote for the Taoiseach as well as everyone else. I am appealing to him. These people need to be seen after and we need four times the amount of money we got last year to keep up.

The Deputy has articulated a case very strongly on behalf of his constituents and the people of County Kerry. As I said, a new scheme has been announced and I believe applications are due in before 26 February. I will check that and ask the Minister to engage with the Deputy on this matter. I will certainly talk to the Minister about the allocation and whether that can make a meaningful inroad on a serious backlog that has developed over the years because of the suspension of the scheme between 2012 and 2017. I will make further inquiries in that regard.

On 22 October last, I submitted my first freedom of information, FOI, request to the Department of the Taoiseach on Covid-19 and a zero Covid-19 strategy. I wrote to the Taoiseach's Department, the HSE and the Department of Foreign Affairs seeking all records of correspondence between them and their relevant counterparts in Northern Ireland, Britain or both in respect of: the co-ordination of a response to the Covid-19 pandemic; the adoption of an aligned Covid-19 strategy; and specifically, the adoption of an aligned zero Covid-19 strategy. Three months have passed and it was only yesterday that the Taoiseach announced a whole-of-island approach. However, little evidence of arrangements with either Administration has been properly provided by the Government.

The replies to my FOI requests were delayed but some were finally made available in recent weeks Shockingly, the existence of documents relating to a zero Covid-19 strategy was not evident in any of the responses I received. The possibility of a zero Covid-19 strategy was not discussed at all up until the dates included in my FOI requests. I am being facetious here because I was not shocked at all. The Government has been spinning one thing in the media about such a strategy being too difficult or not manageable. The reality is, however, that the Government has not even discussed the possibility of adopting a strategy of this nature.

The Department of the Taoiseach finally replied to my requests on 14 January, almost two months late. I had to appeal the decision of the Department because it did not comply with requirements set out in the Office of the Information Commissioner’s recommendations. Specifically, I was informed:

- There is no detail provided in the decision makers letter as to the extent of the searches that were conducted. I therefore am unable to properly consider whether the decision maker has conducted adequate searches.

- The decision merely states the subject of the particular exemption being relied upon. The decision maker has not outlined the particular adverse effect that they believe may arise or details of the specific factors considered, having regard to the specific contents of the relevant records.

- No schedule of records has been provided. Therefore, in relation to the documents retrieved the response does not contain:

1. An itemisation of any records or parts thereof being refused

2. A description of their contents

3. A corresponding citation of the relevant exemptions applicable to those records or parts.

In consideration of the appeal I referred to the investigation report produced by the Office of the Information Commissioner entitled, “The Freedom of Information Act - Compliance by FOI Bodies” - January 2020.

It is absolutely ridiculous that a public representative has to go through such rigamarole in order to try to get information about our Covid-19 strategy. It is no wonder that the public has lost faith in this Government. There is no transparency, honesty or accountability. There is just spin and, unfortunately, lies. I updated my FOI requests and resubmitted them on 22 January last. We then had the so called public announcements by the four men who are leading our Government's response yesterday evening, even though everything had already been leaked. The Government's press calls should be renamed leak confirmation calls.

Let us see how much the Government has done in respect of an all-Ireland Covid-19 strategy over the past three months. If that information is forthcoming, will it, as I suspect, emerge that there has been more dithering on the part of this ineffectual and apparently rudderless Government for the majority of the period in question. The Taoiseach went against NPHET's advice in December and opened the economy for Christmas. This led to hundreds of unnecessary deaths. Our hospitals are operating above capacity and our hard-working front-line health service staff are at the end of their tethers. Will the Taoiseach provide a full and detailed report to the Dáil on the negotiations and discussions with both jurisdictions in pursuit of an all-Ireland Covid-19 strategy?

The Deputy does not need to make an FOI request in order to obtain the Government's strategy on Covid-19. He is aware that the roadmap for living with Covid-19 was published a number of months ago and we are now at level 5 of that roadmap in the context of suppressing the numbers. The numbers are falling steeply but there is enormous pressure on our hospitals.

As already stated, our policy is clear. It is a policy that involves prolonged suppression of the virus and getting the numbers down and keeping them there. We will be assisted in that regard with the roll-out of the vaccination programme. So far, we have been in a position to vaccinate the residents of nursing homes and the staff who work in long-term healthcare facilities, as well as up to 78,000 front-line healthcare workers. The next phase will be to complete the first dose of all front-line healthcare workers. We have commenced administering the second dose in 27 nursing homes. That is a key part of our approach to managing and suppressing the virus. That is why the level 5 restrictions have been extended to 5 March. People have responded to those restrictions and their response is driving down the numbers. That will help to relieve the pressure on the front-line healthcare workers who are doing extraordinary work in our hospitals and intensive care units.

The possibility of a zero Covid-19 strategy has been discussed. We have never received public health advice to pursue a such a strategy. We debated the matter in this House and views were expressed. However, the implications of such a strategy have never been fleshed out. I am willing to debate it at any time in the context of the period for which the country would need to be locked down. New Zealand will be locking down for a further 12 months. That is its decision but its geography is somewhat different.

The Deputy talks about the all-island strategy as if it is all the Dublin Government's fault. That is a false and untrue fallback position that has no substance. The Dublin Government does not run the Northern Ireland Executive. There are five parties on that Executive and they have taken their decisions over time in respect of Covid-19. The two chief medical officers have agreed a memorandum of understanding and they engage with each other. We have had meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council and I have spoken on a number of occasions to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on alignment. The Deputy knows the political issues in the North as well as I do but he does not call them out either because it suits him and others to blame the Dublin Government for everything. That tends to be the fallback position when, as he knows, the reality is different.

I would love to thank the Taoiseach for his answer but I am afraid I cannot. People always ask me what I think of the responses I receive on Leader's Questions and I say I never listen to them because they mean nothing. The Taoiseach's response shows that to be true. I would advise him to listen back to this debate because he has not responded in respect of what I asked him about. The Taoiseach stated that he spoke to Northern Ireland representatives about Covid-19 and the response to it. Where are the records of that? There are no records. I put in an FOI request specifically asking the Department for the records. None were supplied and I was told that there are none. The HSE came back to say that there are no records. What has happened here? Are these conversations taking place in a phone box or something? The Government has civil servants sitting there making notes of these meetings. If such notes have been made, the Government should publish them. I would love to be able to come in here next week and say to the Taoiseach that I am sorry and that I was wrong. I would love to be able to do so but I would say that I will not have to.

I am not as arrogant as the Deputy. I will always listen to other Deputies' perspectives and respond to them. I do not dismiss them like the Deputy does and I am not as cynical as him that he does not even bother worrying about or listening to the reply any more. He should not be putting the questions if that is his attitude.

The Deputy knows I have spoken to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and he knows what the attitude of the members of the Executive is on alignment with the Republic. Unfortunately, one of the barriers to North-South alignment has been that there is a political dimension to it. That dimension relates to both travel and alignment. We are now in the position of being in alignment on the island in the context of the majority of measures we are taking. We are at level 5 and Northern Ireland is at its highest level of lockdown as well. We extended the lockdown until 5 March and not just until the end of February in order to maintain that alignment. There is not full alignment on travel, however. Those are the realities. The Deputy knows that in his heart but it suits him to blame the Dublin Government.

Show us the correspondence.

The Dublin Government does not run the Northern Ireland Executive. The elected representatives in the North are responsible for their jurisdiction and the political decisions they take on the pandemic but the Deputy seems oblivious to that fact and that reality.