Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I have 16 names from yesterday and an additional seven from today, in addition to the Leaders. I ask for the co-operation of Members in getting through them.

The failure to introduce a mandatory post-arrival hotel quarantine for international travellers arriving in the State has been well flagged. It is a glaring omission in the Government's plan to contain the importation of cases of Covid-19 and is a decision which must be reversed. There is, however, another glaring omission, namely, the failure of the Government to act on the advice of NPHET and the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, with regard to ending discretion in the taking of a post-arrival PCR test by all international arrivals. NPHET has said that its modelling shows that even the best performance in respect of pre-departure Covid-19 tests will miss up to 40% of cases. I know the Tánaiste avoids answering my question but perhaps he will try to answer this one; why has the Government chosen to ignore the advice of NPHET and the CMO as to the issue of post-arrival PCR testing? Will it introduce a mandatory requirement for all international arrivals to take a PCR test post arrival, as recommended by NPHET?

As the Deputy will know, we now require that anybody entering the State to have a negative PCR test. If people do not have such a test, they are subject to mandatory hotel quarantine. We are examining a change which would result in a requirement for two tests, five days apart. This is recommended by NPHET and we are giving it full consideration. We will make a decision in that regard quite soon. This is the model used in Iceland where two tests are required, five days apart, with quarantine in between. That may well be where we go.

I will ask the Deputy to do something for us. Sinn Féin is in government on this island and there are two things it can do to help. Sinn Féin co-chairs the Government in Northern Ireland. It is not now the case that people arriving in Belfast have to have a negative PCR test, let alone two. I ask the Deputy to use his influence as a member of the leadership of Sinn Féin to have mandatory PCR testing introduced for people arriving into Belfast in addition to quarantine for those who do not have such a test. I also ask the Deputy to use his influence to put a stop-----

-----to republican funerals. I know the Deputy does not organise them but-----

A Thánaiste, más é do thoil é-----

-----the attendees are his party's people, members and supporters. The Deputy and Deputy McDonald have to tell people to stop these funerals. They are a bad idea.

Gabh mo leithscéal, a Thánaiste, but there is no point in having a Cathaoirleach if we do not listen to him or her. We have limited time to get through a maximum of contributors. I call Deputy Kelly, who has one minute. If he can be briefer, so be it.

As a country, down through all of our existence we have always shown solidarity with poorer regions of the world. We know there are a number of different variants of Covid-19. During the week, I said that these variants are on tour. The fact that we have introduced certain measures in respect of people coming from Brazil or South Africa does not deal with the fact the variants are all over the world and cases may not necessarily originate in those jurisdictions.

The People's Vaccine Alliance, which is made up of organisations including Oxfam and Amnesty International, estimates that wealthier nations, including Ireland, have collectively bought enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations almost three times over. To put that in context, the alliance is of the view that these nation represent 14% of the world's population but own 53% of the supplies of the world's most promising vaccines. What influence are we using internationally, through diplomatic channels and the EU, to ensure some form of equality in the vaccine roll-out for poorer regions which may not have access. There are two reasons we should do so. The first is that it is the right thing to do and the second is that it will help us all.

The Government is actively involved in this question and is showing leadership on it through involvement with the WHO and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. We are providing money and, down the line, we may even provide spare vaccines to developing countries to help them with their vaccine programmes. We know how infectious diseases work. Covid will always be present somewhere in the world. It is endemic at this stage. Nobody will be safe until everyone is safe. That means that vaccine programmes like those that were used to fight polio, smallpox and other infectious diseases are needed across the world. That is the role we are taking through the UN, the WHO and the EU.

I wish to raise the need for the re-establishment of the NPHET vulnerable people's subgroup. The work of this subgroup under NPHET was invaluable in the planning for the most vulnerable groups and individuals in society and enabled representation and clear communication with Government from those working on the ground, particularly in disability and voluntary groups. As the Tánaiste will be aware, the group was dissolved after it was deemed that it had met its terms of reference on 28 August and its last meeting was held on 24 June last year. During that meeting, those within the disability and voluntary sectors were concerned about the dissolution and highlighted the need to retain a channel for communications and engagement with Government should a second wave emerge. This has not happened.

I argue that for as long as the virus is with us we need to have this group active and reinstated and perhaps give it a further function afterwards to assist in dealing with the trauma caused by the virus to vulnerable people and individuals. Why does the Government not reinstate this group?

I thank the Deputy. I will have to check that out for the Deputy. It may well need to be re-established, particularly for groups that may be at very high risk and I am thinking of the Roma community, in particular, which experienced Covid-19 very badly during the first wave, and there are other such groups. I will take this up with the chief medical officer, CMO, to see if it can be established and what the merits and the demerits of this are.

I thank the Tánaiste and call Deputy Barry of the Solidarity-People Before Profit Party.

Yesterday, the Tánaiste told leaving certificate students that clarity on the exams will be provided within the next few weeks. This comment went down like a lead balloon among students who are already feeling a real strain on their mental health. This strain on 17 and 18-year-olds is being caused by both the continuing uncertainty and the continuing threat of a forced leaving certificate examination. The Tánaiste’s comments indicate to me that the Government is both out of touch and out of the loop when it comes to really understanding of what is going on here. The Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, poll published last week showed just 4% support for a stand-alone leaving certificate. Does the Tánaiste accept that stand-alone exams cannot now go ahead given such a crushing level of opposition from the students themselves?

I thank the Deputy. I totally understand and appreciate that sixth years are under a great deal of pressure. These are the same students who lost a chunk of fifth year and are now also losing several weeks, perhaps even longer, of sixth year. It is very difficult for them. I know that they want an answer from Government as soon as possible on what is going to happen with the leaving certificate examinations and we want to do that but it requires some planning, co-ordination and consultation and the ISSU, as mentioned by the Deputy, is part of that discussion now. A group has been set up involving the Department of Education, the State Examinations Commission, two representatives from the ISSU, together with the teachers' unions, principals and management. It will meet again on Friday and we will try to bring this to a conclusion as soon as possible because we understand the pressure and stress that people are under. In developing a plan, however, we need to be able to answer the questions that they will then ask thereafter and that it what we are working on now.

I now call the Regional Group.

The county of Wexford is no exception when it comes to fly-tipping and illegal dumping. It is destroying our beautiful Model County’s landscape from Gorey to Enniscorthy, and New Ross to Wexford. Our county council does what it can but is being hamstrung by GDPR legislation preventing it from using CCTV footage in many instances where it wishes to bring a prosecution for enforcement. What legislative proposals are being brought by Government to assist county councils to bring forward prosecutions under the Waste Management Acts to cure this anomaly to ensure that this disgusting practice stops?

I thank the Deputy. I, unfortunately, do not have any information on that for her but I will raise it with the Minister and ask that he send a reply directly to her.

I ask the Tánaiste and the Government to try to intervene in a situation where the regional newspapers are being gobbled up. The Clonmel Nationalist has been serving the people for generations with excellent journalists and excellent reporting always, even through the Covid pandemic. The journalists work from the kitchen table and bring the news to people's homes. People love these newspapers more than ever, particularly in Covid times.

Last Friday evening, with less than 24 hours' notice, two journalists with 40 years' service were summarily dismissed and were told to go elsewhere. Mr. Malcolm Denmark and Iconic Newspapers are gobbling up these newspapers, including the Tipperary Star and many more regional newspapers. He has also put a bid in now of €6 million for regional newspapers in England. He can do what he likes over there as that is his own business, but we are going to be devoid of these wonderful publications and it is a shameful way to treat excellent journalists and their families who have put their shoulders to the wheel. They laid waste to another ten staff members in those papers at the beginning of the pandemic, which crisis was used for this purpose. They are in receipt of PUP payments together with everything else but they are destroying our regional newspapers. The Clonmel Nationalist is a wonderful publication.

I call on the Tánaiste to respond and ask the Deputy, please, to allow him do so.

I thank the Deputy. I appreciate that this is an important issue. I am not exactly sure what the question for me on this is. If the Deputy is concerned that there is an issue around competition and competition law, there is a procedure by which these matters can be raised with the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, and there are also rules around cross media ownership. Perhaps the Deputy may wish to take this question up in that forum.

Before Christmas I called for a greater use of antigen testing, or at least for the possibility of it to be explored in line with the Commission recommendations. I note that it will now be used in respect of ports. Is there not a role for antigen testing in our hospitals, in our schools, potentially, when they reopen, and in our airports in the absence of quarantine? Antigen testing could perhaps be used for people at least from safer countries to ensure that travel is taking place in a safe manner.

I thank the Deputy. I broadly agree that there is a greater role for antigen testing in Ireland into the future but we have to be guided by public health advice on this. NPHET, as the Deputy will aware, have not been particularly confident about the accuracy of antigen testing and it believes that in many instances it does not meet what the manufacturers say. NPHET has updated its guidance in the past number of days so antigen testing is now going to be used more extensively for outbreaks and for symptomatic cases, and it has changed the definition of a case in Ireland in Ireland to take into account the fact that somebody may test positive on an antigen test and not just on a PCR test. That is a significant change, which has happened only in the past couple of days. Using the antigen test to screen people, for example, for travel or to attend events is a whole other issue and the evidence at the moment is that antigen testing is effective in symptomatic cases but not so much for screening, but that may change.

Táimid ag bogadh ar aghaidh go dtí an liosta ginearálta anois agus glaoim ar an Teachta O’Reilly.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The trading online voucher scheme, which now falls under the Tánaiste’s Department, has seen the grant issued cut from 90% of funding to 50% at the start of this year. Will the Government consider reinstating the funding at 90% for as long as the current level 5 restrictions are in place so that businesses under enforced closure can have some input into moving online? This would be important given that the level 5 restrictions are going to be in place until at least the start of March and it is important that he gives consideration to reinstating the funding under this scheme at its previous level.

I thank the Deputy for this question. We have a couple of schemes. There is a retail scheme and also the trading online voucher scheme, which has been transferred to my Department. We have decided after careful consideration to change the scheme to a 50:50 model, with the business contributing half the cost and the Government contributing the other half. We believe we will get better bang for our buck by doing it in this way. We will see how it goes and review it again at that point.

I want to bring to the Tánaiste’s attention an urgent issue in my constituency of Meath West, namely, in Enfield, Ballivor and Longwood, where the water supply is constantly tripping and cutting off. This has been going on for a long time. Meath County Council have in place planning, design and the contract ready to move on with water and sewerage projects. All they are waiting on is €1.5 million funding from Irish Water. Can the Tánaiste write to Irish Water for a date as to when the funding for these projects will be approved? This is affecting thousands of households and businesses.

I am aware of the water problems at Enfield and Ballivor. The Minister of State, Deputy English, has also informed me of the problems in those areas. It is of course a decision for Irish Water as to whether it can go ahead with the necessary project, but I will certainly check out the situation for the Deputy.

The roll-out of the provision of medicinal cannabis to people such as Vera Twomey, for use by her daughter, Ava, and so many other people for whom she fought, has seen some positive developments lately. Some outstanding issues remain, however. As it stands, we see that future patients will have costs covered for their medicine under the cannabis access programme, which is great. Existing patients on individual licences, however, will continue to pay large amounts of money upfront for medication for family members. This will amount to many thousands of euro in costs for those families. Has Bedrocon applied to be part of the cannabis access programme scheme? If so, has there been some outstanding issue regarding the inclusion of that company in the scheme? It is terribly unfair that those families already availing of medicinal cannabis will have to pay for this vital medication, while others will have it provided for free.

I am afraid that I do not know the answer to the Deputy's question, but the situation he has described certainly seems inconsistent, namely, that people already on the programme would not reimbursed while new entrants would be. All I can do is to make the Minister for Health aware that the Deputy has raised this issue. I will try to get a written answer provided to Deputy Collins.

In light of the closure of the process under section 37A of the Education Act for autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes in south Dublin, without any classes having been set up in the areas of Dublin 4, 6 or 6W as a result of this process, and considering the enormous impact this is having on families from Ringsend up to Harold's Cross and Terenure, I believe there is an urgent need for a specific section 37A process for these areas of Dublin city. Will the Tánaiste ensure that such a specific 37A process will be set up for the areas of Dublin 4, 6 and 6W as a matter of urgency?

I thank Deputy Andrews for raising this important issue, which I know is of real concern to families in Dublin 4, 6 and 6W. I will let the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, know it has been raised and ask her to furnish Deputy Andrews with a written response.

In November, the Tánaiste told the Dáil that he had requested that his adviser get a copy of the confidential draft agreement for the general practitioner, GP, contract on 10 April 2019. The Tánaiste told the Dáil that his adviser got this second copy from the Department of Health, which the Tánaiste then posted to the home address of Dr. Maitiú Ó Tuathail, the then president of the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP.

Last week, the Tánaiste told the Dáil that his adviser already had a copy of the contract. Will the Tánaiste inform the Dáil which of these stories is true? Is it the case stated in November, when the Tánaiste said that his adviser had got the copy from the Department, or was it what was said last week when the Tánaiste told the Dáil that his adviser already had a copy? Can the Tánaiste also explain why the Department of Health has confirmed that it has no record of any request made by the Tánaiste or his adviser for a copy of the draft agreement?

As I explained previously, I requested it verbally. It is not uncommon to ask for something and not to do it by letter or email. I often ask for documents. I did not request the document I have here, by the way, but I do have it because it is provided to me every Thursday; it is my folder for each Thursday. My adviser got the copy from the Department of Health and she had it.

I raise an issue concerning the Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill 2020. Some of my constituents have found this legislation very beneficial to them, but it will not be possible for people who do not have arrears on their private residences to use this legislation to try to sort out their financial problems. Farmers, especially, would not have mortgage arrears on private residences because all their financial liabilities would be attached to their lands. This is an omission in the legislation. Will the Government look at amending the Bill to allow people who do not have liabilities on their principal private residences to access its protections?

The Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill 2020 is before the Seanad and that may be the legislative means by which we can deal with this.

When Covid-19 first flared in Ireland last year, I asked the Tánaiste, who was then the Taoiseach, to stop the flights which were coming in from northern Italy. He said "No", and when I asked why he said that the European Centre for Disease Control, ECDC, was advising against it. I asked what was the ECDC's rationale for advising against it and the Tánaiste said that he did not know. I was shocked at the time that the leader of a country would make a decision of that import without understanding the rationale for it. Those flights went ahead, the illness was seeded and we had a massive increase in Covid-19 cases after that.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, yesterday stated that international travel is not a big contributor to the number of Covid-19 cases in the State. In the same breath, he then said that the British variant of Covid-19 is now responsible for 63% of cases in this State. It is now 333 days since Covid-19 came to our shores. I rang the Department of Foreign Affairs this morning to find out when the details of the new arrangements are going to be published. The response was that the Department did not know. The new arrangements for protecting-----

I thank Deputy Tóibín, but his time is up. I call the Tánaiste to respond.

I remember well that at the time the ECDC, the World Health Organization, WHO, the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and NPHET all advised against stopping flights from Italy because that sort of action was at the time seen as being ineffective. Much has changed since then and a lot of advice has changed since then. The Deputy can go back and check over that from the press conferences etc. What we know now is that Covid-19 was present in Ireland well before that, and that someone had sadly died in Cork University hospital, CUH, many weeks before the Italian rugby match and the associated Italian flights. It is likely that Covid-19 entered Ireland in several locations at several times.

It is four and half years since the vote on Brexit in the UK and we are a year into this Covid-19 crisis. Both crises have demonstrated the folly of partition and its huge impact on our island. In the last week, an opinion poll published by The Sunday Times has demonstrated that a majority of the people of the North are in favour of a referendum on Irish unity within the next five years. Will the Tánaiste's Government now bring in a White Paper on Irish unity, establish an Oireachtas all-Ireland committee on Irish unity, lay in place plans for Irish unity and set a date for a referendum on Irish unity?

I saw that opinion poll. If we exclude those undecided, the opinion poll indicates that a majority of people in Northern Ireland are in favour of holding a Border poll. It also shows that a majority of people in Northern Ireland, excluding those undecided, would vote to stay in the Union. People are therefore in favour of a Border poll for different reasons, some because they want a united Ireland and others because they want to demonstrate that the majority of people in Northern Ireland do not want a united Ireland. That is what the poll shows.

The aspiration for a united Ireland is a legitimate one, and it is one I share, but the settled position for Ireland is the Good Friday Agreement and that states that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can or will cause a referendum to take place when it appears that a majority of people in Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland. It is fair to say that we are not currently at that point. What we need to do in the meantime is to make the Good Friday Agreement work, to try to get the Northern Ireland Executive working better and to intensify North-South co-operation and east-west co-operation.

The Government commissioned a report on pay and allowances for student nurses and midwives. Several weeks ago, as the Tánaiste knows, placements for student nurses and midwives in hospitals were paused for two weeks. That comes to an end this weekend and I have had many calls from student nurses and midwives worried that they have not had any calls from the hospitals where they were placed and they do not know whether they are going back to those placements on Monday. Why is that? Has this cancellation of placements continued beyond two weeks?

The Tánaiste is also aware that this House passed a motion on the issue of pay and allowances for student nurses and midwives, including for this report to be published. It has not been published. The motion also called for the March agreement to be reinstated. It has not been reinstated. In addition, the motion called for the second report, which the Minister has stated will look at permanent solutions to be put in place and expedited. That has not taken place. When are we going to see action on this issue and can the Tánaiste offer clarity on the placement issue?

I appreciate that student nurses are going to want to know what the plan is quite soon. We will get that information out as soon as possible. The placement of student nurses was suspended because, as the Deputy knows, student nurses have to be supervised and tutored. Suspending those placements freed up hundreds of fully-qualified nurses to look after patients and that was the priority. A decision will be made shortly as to whether those placements can be reinstated.

Obviously, the hospitals will need to be less busy for us to be in a position to restore students. The Deputy will be aware that the issue of allowances, pay and so on is ongoing. There will be engagement with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, and SIPTU about that

On many occasions I have brought up the matter of St. Joseph's Foundation, Charleville, which has been looking after children with disabilities since 1968. Deputy O'Donnell's father was a co-founder of St. Joseph's. It provides a service in north Cork and the south Limerick area. With a stroke of a pen it has been decided that the preschool children who have a disability will now be graded geographically. Limerick children have been sent to a facility in Limerick that has a waiting list of 180 for each service. It is not unreasonable to ask that we would have a phase-out system. There are five children within a neighbouring parish to Charleville who are now directly affected and are completely at a disadvantage. If this is to happen, could it at least be on a phased basis in order that the children in the services currently who are on the list could be facilitated in the St. Joseph's Foundation care service?

I appreciate that the Deputy has raised this matter before. Unfortunately, I do not have any up-to-date information on it. I will make sure that the Minister is aware of the Deputy's suggestion.

In November the report of the HSE clinical advisory group on medical cards in cases of terminal illness was published. The Minister for Health called on his Department to devise legislative options to give effect to the programme for Government commitment to extend eligibility for medical cards for patients who are terminally ill. What is the status of that review? Is there a plan for a public consultation to ensure the voices of patients, families, carers and advocacy groups are heard on this matter?

I thank the Deputy. I believe the review was published just before Christmas. Much to the disappointment of a lot of people it did not recommend a change. Many people had expected a change to a two-year rule rather than a one-year rule, but for various reasons it was not recommended. I will definitely check up on it to see if I can get more information to the Deputy.

I have become aware of a situation with a constituent who, as the victim of domestic violence, had to leave her local authority home for her safety. When this person applied to Tipperary County Council for alternative accommodation she had to reapply to be included on the housing list. Given there is a total of 15 single-bedroom houses available for 690 approved applicants, this woman will be waiting for years. The council gave her a HAP package, but with the shortage of available housing there is little available to her. Is it not disgraceful that a woman who had to flee her home because of domestic abuse is now in a situation where she is officially classed as having given up her council home and must reapply to the waiting list, while her partner and perpetrator of the abuse remains in the house? I put it to the Tánaiste that we need to see measures taken to ensure that victims of such abuse are not the ones who lose out as a result of having to leave their home. Will the Tánaiste take measures to ensure that people who are forced to leave their homes due to violence are not classed as having given up their houses?

I am very sorry to hear about that case and what that lady is experiencing. I recall that under the last Government we did change the law to give victims of domestic violence much stronger legal rights in situations like this so it is the perpetrator and abuser who has to leave the home, not the victim of the abuse or violence. Perhaps there is a legal remedy in this case that she may be able to take up using that law. Without knowing the detail of the individual case it is difficult for me to answer but the law does provide for that.

My question is on the rapid antigen testing and it follows on from a similar question from Deputy McNamara earlier. This morning we saw the roll-out of two rapid antigen testing centres to cater for the needs of our hauliers. There is also mounting scientific evidence of the efficacy of such a test. I am not proposing that it would be a replacement for the PCR test but it certainly should be considered as a complementary tool. It is particularly useful for identifying the period or phase during which a person is infectious. In that context, it is especially suited for those working in congregated settings, for example. It is quick, cheap and painless and it has its place as a tool in our fight against this virus. Will the Tánaiste outline briefly the plans in place to deploy rapid antigen testing as part of our Covid response?

There is a greater role for antigen testing in our response to Covid. We do need to be very much guided by the advice of our scientists and our public health doctors in this regard. They have concerns about the accuracy of antigen testing. It has been introduced at Dublin Airport and in Gorey for hauliers going to France. It is a requirement of the French Government, which accepts antigen testing to enter France. We do not accept it to enter Ireland; we only accept the PCR test in that regard. It does seem that antigen testing can be useful in an outbreak and it can be useful in identifying Covid cases where the person is symptomatic. The more symptomatic one is the more infectious one is, so it is useful in that regard also. The current advice is that it is not useful in screening because it would miss a lot of positive cases. It has been used in parallel to PCR testing in Letterkenny and a few other places. I have been told by the chief clinical officer of the HSE that it had missed a lot of cases that were picked up by PCR.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation.