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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 28 Jan 2021

Vol. 1003 No. 6

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Facilities

I am particularly thankful to you, a Cheann Comhairle, for allowing me to raise this issue. It arose before Christmas, but due to issues outside everybody's control it was not possible to reach it until now.

This situation arose with the reconstruction of Maynooth Boys' National School, which is on a dangerous junction with heavy traffic. It is adjacent to Maynooth Post Primary School, which has recently been vacated and moved to a new site about half a mile away. That leaves the future of the existing premises to be dealt with in a number of ways. Incidentally, this has been agreed in general over the past number of years. Provision for a Gaelcholáiste was previously mooted and agreed at local level. There was also provision for a local swimming pool to be shared between Maynooth University and the local community, which is awaiting funding at present. The use of the facilities there by Maynooth boys' school on a temporary basis while construction of the new school is taking place was sought and agreed between the respective school authorities. There was no difficulty with that.

However, approval has not yet emerged. That is important because it is essential that in this area of heavy traffic a means be found to facilitate the local agreement between the authorities in Maynooth Post Primary School and Maynooth Community College, the two schools that have vacated the site. All that is required is access for the pupils of the boys' school while the construction work is ongoing, as well as access for the students to the AstroTurf site and recreational facilities. This is accentuated by the fact that, at present, the boys' school is a building site. It is extremely important that the boys gain access to their school independently and without crossing over the building site, which would not be advisable.

It is important to bear in mind that these matters have been agreed locally and without any difficulty. I am happy to report that since tabling this Topical Issue I received clarification by way of a reply to a parliamentary question to the effect that the Gaelcholáiste is agreed and is going ahead as was intended. The other parts of the submission I made remain to be dealt with in whatever way is possible, which will be very beneficial to the pupils of the boys' primary school, and to the local community in terms of the facilities that will eventually come on stream.

The Deputy will be aware that the property in which Maynooth Post Primary School was located until recently is owned by Kildare-Wicklow Education and Training Board, KWETB. The school is relocating to a new location. The property vacated by the school has been identified as the permanent location for the Gaelcholáiste, as the Deputy confirmed in his contribution.

The Gaelcholáiste will take up occupancy once the necessary work on the property is completed. My Department understands that the movement of the Gaelcholáiste to the vacated post-primary school property is a priority for KWETB. The latter has received an application from Maynooth Boys' National School to use the adjoining entrance in the vacated property for access to the school while work is under way on the national school. I note what the Deputy said about the school being like a building site.

The national school has also sought access to some of the school facilities, which the Deputy mentioned, like the AstroTurf pitch and recreational facilities. He will be pleased to note that following engagement between the national school and KWETB, agreement has been reached for the provision of access and car parking to the boys' national school on the vacated school site. Engagement is continuing regarding access to other school facilities on the site. As is the practice, this engagement will be undertaken locally between all the relevant parties, including other schools, with the objective of reaching an agreement regarding the use of these facilities. Any further queries on arrangements regarding the property concerned should be referred to KWETB. Any decision around disposal or lease of an ETB property would first have to be considered by the board and then approved by the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. The boys' national school has approximately 560 pupils so it will need that access and I am delighted that it has now got it in place.

The Deputy mentioned access to the AstroTurf pitch and recreational facilities. The sort of accommodation can be made around that would need to be addressed directly with the ETB. It would also have to be borne in mind that the Gaelscoil, which will take up occupancy in that site once works are completed, would have to be accommodated once it is ready to proceed. The Gaelscoil is currently in temporary accommodation in Manor Mills in Maynooth and once that work is completed it will be moving. The KWETB is also the patron of the Gaelcholáiste, which will have in the region of 500 pupils and is a co-educational school as well. We want to ensure the schools work together and that we can provide access for children. The Deputy mentioned earlier that the boys' national schools is situated at a very heavy junction so we want to ensure, for the children's health and safety, that they have that access and that car parking space. I am glad that has now been agreed between the respective parties. Any other outstanding issues can be agreed going forward between all the relevant parties. I thank the Deputy for his continuing concern and representations on behalf of these schools, in order that we can provide adequate educational facilities for these school-going children.

I thank the Minister of State and the Minister for the work they have done and for taking an interest in this issue in the past few weeks. Incidentally, the recreational demands of the area are considerable. Maynooth University borders the site and there are proposals to increase its student mass to 17,000 from where it stands currently at around 15,000. The recreational and outdoor space available there would be very useful in dealing with the recreational requirements of the area. It is hugely important that this matter has been resolved to the satisfaction of local interests, who were always in agreement with it and did not have any difficulty at all coming to the accommodation that was sought by Maynooth Boys' National School. I again thank the Minister of State and her colleague for the work they have done on the issue. I anticipate the work that is still required over the next six months or so and recognise that when the construction work is completed on the boys' school, it will be able to revert to the original access, subject to any agreements that might emerge in the meantime.

I note what the Deputy says about Maynooth University and the 17,000 students who will attend it. I also note that Maynooth Post Primary School, which is the co-educational school I mentioned, has 1,120 pupils. There is quite a considerable amount of education going on in a very small, constricted area. That sort of collaboration and engagement between the relevant schoolgoing communities, as well as the third level institution, is extremely important because of health and safety and the recreational facilities. The Deputy spoke in his contribution about the proliferation of children crossing and recrossing an extremely busy road. All of those issues have to be taken into account. I hope some accommodation can be made regarding the recreational facilities.

The Deputy's written submission refers to a swimming pool. The Department does not have any record of any proposal for a swimming pool on the site of the vacated property. If the Deputy is still interested in that particular topic, I suggest he take it up with KWETB as it may have some further information on that.

Accommodation could be made for the Maynooth Boys' National School regarding facilities as long as it has vacated the site by the time the Gaelcholáiste takes its place. As I said, there will be 500 pupils in a co-educational school coming into the vacated site so there is a lot of construction going on. I thank the Deputy for his continued representations on this matter. I will bring this conversation to the attention of the Minister. We obviously want the works on both those schools to be expedited and to take place and be completed as soon as possible.

Post Office Network

I thank the Minister for taking this Topical Issue debate. Just a few streets away at the GPO on O'Connell Street, there are copies of a beautiful yellow and green glossy brochure available in the atrium. It is a report An Post commissioned a few years ago, namely, A New Vision for Post Office Services in Ireland. Within it, there are different subsections, including one relating to the consolidation of post office services, which is lovely flowery language for shutting down post offices.

In my constituency of Clare, we have discovered in the last few days that Broadford post office, which has existed since 1831 and been a permanent fixture in the village for 190 years, is now going to close. The postmaster, James O'Brien, and his family have done a fabulous job there in recent years but for very real, personal and genuine reasons, he has to retire and step back from the business, which we all respect in the community. An Post is seizing the opportunity of an individual stepping back from his role to shut down the facility. It says people can go 15 km over the road to Tulla or Ardnacrusha or a shorter distance to Kilkishen. That is irrelevant because as we have seen during Covid, more and more people are back in their home environments working from home and villages have become viable once more. It is illogical to do this and shutting down key services is just stripping the bedrock out of a village.

I know the Minister wants to see a vibrant rural Ireland but when post offices, local schools and shops are closed, the very rural Ireland we are trying to protect is hollowed out. An Post is hell-bent on doing this. This is quite a personal thing because it was happy for this post office to remain open for a long time but when an individual retires, suddenly the whole business plan for that community and its 15 km hinterland collapses. That is wrong. That is not how a post office system should work. If it was good enough to run last year or the year before and was profitable then it should be serving the heart of the community and its surrounding areas for many years to come.

I thank the Minister for being here to discuss the very important issues facing our postal services. I remind him that balanced regional development, of which post office service are an integral part, is a key pillar under the programme for Government. The 2020 Grant Thornton report identified the postal service as one of general economic interest due to its high public value but low commercial viability.

The service is at a critical juncture. In terms of sustainability, I have some serious concerns about the latest moves of An Post. In my view, the management of An Post has moved the postal service from a mail company that happens to be a parcel service to a parcel service that is no longer concerned about mail delivery. This was evident in the closure of the Cork sorting centre.

I have serious concerns around the proposals for the introduction of a potential priority or economy postal system. From information I have gathered in recent days, it is being suggested that the cost of next-day delivery stamps will increase from €1 to €2 and a new lower class stamp will be considered for later delivery. This will create a class stamp system for postal services and could impact on hundreds of delivery jobs for our postmen and postwomen across the country, which will not be overcome by forced early retirement packages. This approach also undermines An Post's universal service obligation to deliver mail to every house in the State, every week day for a uniform price. How will this be addressed and is it compatible with the Communications Regulation (Postal Services ) Act 2011? I am extremely concerned about this matter. The postal service is a vital part of rural life and the fabric of rural society in Ireland. There has been a stripping of this service in recent times which is not welcomed by people in rural communities. We know how important they are. In many cases, people working in An Post are the only people some individuals, particularly old age pensioners, see each day. They have an important role to play in rural life, in my view.

I thank Deputies Cathal Crowe and O'Connor for raising what is a critical issue for all of the people of our country, but particularly rural Ireland.

An Post's social value has been particularly evident during the recent and current Covid crisis. It has played a valuable role in its commitment to rural communities, the elderly and vulnerable in our society. I am acutely aware of the importance of maintaining a post office network and I note the serious decline in mail volumes and the impact of Covid-19 on footfall through post offices have had a severe impact on the postal network and the revenues being generated by postmasters. Since taking up my role as Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, I have met representatives of the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU, to discuss the matters raised in the Grant Thornton report, which was commissioned by the IPU.

The programme for Government recognises that a modernised post office network will provide a better range of financial services and e-commerce services for citizens and enterprises as part of our commitment to a sustainable national post office network. While it is long-standing Government policy that postal services will not be directly subsidised by the Government, we remain fully committed to a sustainable post office network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas.

In response to the structural challenges facing the postal sector generally and An Post, the company put in place a strategic plan for the medium-term and long-term future of the company. Government efforts are focused on supporting An Post in the roll-out of new services and the delivery of its strategic plan. The ongoing transformation in the company aims to ensure the financial viability of An Post and the continued fulfilment of its mandate to deliver a mail delivery service and a viable post office network. To implement the plan, the cost of which was estimated to be in the region of €150 million, the Minister for Finance provided a loan of €30 million to the company in December 2017 to support the renewal of the post office network at a cost of €15 million and the continued fulfilment of a five-day per week mail delivery service which accounted for a further €15 million.

An Post is continuing to undergo vital transformation as part of the delivery of its strategic plan, which has seen the company being split into two distinct business units, An Post mails and parcels and An Post retail. An Post is transforming its retail network by delivering new products and formats. These include, among other things, diversifying and growing the financial service products it provides for individuals and SMEs to include loans, credit cards and more foreign exchange products, local banking in association with the major banks and a full range of State savings products. Two new dedicated sub-brands, An Post money and a new business to business brand, An Post commerce, were launched. Investment by An Post of €50 million in the network is about getting communities to use the enhanced services in their local post offices.

A recently approved capital expenditure programme is designed to develop the newer elements of An Post's financial services business and mitigate declining core mail volumes and revenues on the retail side of the business. An Post also invested in training for all post offices in 2019 and 2020 to better equip postmasters to run their business. The strategic plan in place to transform the company has resulted in An Post recording an operating profit of over €41 million for 2019, the third consecutive year of significant financial improvement, bringing the group out of its loss-making position of 2016.

The Government believes An Post has untapped potential to do more and make a further significant contribution across many areas of business, public and community life. With an evolving mandate, An Post can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable community focused services. As with any business, An Post needs to develop commercial strategies to enable it to grow and maintain its relevance for all its users. All options will be considered fully and efforts will be redoubled to give effect to our commitment to ensure a sustainable and viable post office network.

The people of Broadford are taking this matter to heart. Last year, the previous year and the year before that their post office was viable, operational and functional. It was only when James O'Brien retired that the issue of consolidation or closure arose. Once this post office closes, it will not reopen again and 190 years of operations will be wiped out. This will hollow out the village and damage it forever.

In terms of costs and sustainability in the long term, it costs in the region of €70 million per annum to keep all 900 posts offices operational. Cumulatively, they generate €53 million per annum in revenue, leaving a funding shortfall of €17 million. In a report commissioned last year by An Post, Grant Thornton identified that €17 million as money which the Government, in time, will have to step in and provide vis-a-vis a public service obligation. I ask the Minister to urgently look at this issue. I am told by postmasters that if things do not change, 600 of our 900 post offices may close by the autumn of this year, which would mean two-thirds of our posts offices would be wiped out. Some of these post offices are as old as the Broadford post office, which, as I said, has been in operation for 190 years. They will be wiped out forever.

I thank the Minister for his reply. We need to hammer home the message today of the importance of post office services across to the citizens of this State. They are an integral part rural life. I am concerned about the ramifications we may face in the next number of years in regard to this sector, particularly around the increasing costs of stamps and, in addition, the possibility of a two-tier system for mail delivery, which would be extremely concerning if it were to come about. It would have an adverse impact on the delivery service and the livelihood of people working in An Post. Every household in rural Ireland appreciates the people working for An Post who call to them daily and the availability of that service to them. If we are serious about allowing people to continue to work from home, perhaps to help the environment which is an important cause for the Minister, we should seek to protect this service. It is important that we do that as much as we can.

I join Deputy Cathal Crowe in thanking James O'Brien and his family for their service to the community of Broadford over 190 years. The reality is that many post offices are family businesses that are trusted and respected and provide extensive services to their communities. I wish Mr. O'Brien well on his retirement. I regret that as of now, there does not appear to be anybody willing to take on the post office and keep it operational. I understand that this is a critical issue for the people of Broadford and, similarly, for hundreds of post offices and communities across the country, particularly in rural areas.

We face a real challenge despite the really good work done in this area in terms of mediation. The work done by the Irish Postmasters Union and others in seeking solutions has been very progressive. The Covid crisis has worsened what was already a difficult situation. Footfall has declined by about 20% and there has been an acceleration in the decline in mail volumes, which was traditionally falling by about 7% per annum. That has accelerated to approximately 12%, I am told. There has been a commensurate increase in parcel delivery of approximately 100% but my understanding is that this does not benefit the post office. Some 80% of post office business is social welfare payments, bill pay, mail and State savings services. State savings have held up or risen slightly but the other three services have declined significantly in recent years despite all of the good work and efforts of postmasters, An Post and others.

We have a real challenge in this regard and we have to be honest and upfront about it. New financial services offer one potential revenue stream. An Post has launched its Green Hub initiative, for example, which offers an opportunity for trusted postmasters to offer financial advice and financing for green home projects, such as home energy retrofits, in the same way that they manage State savings.

None of this is easy. I cannot sugar the pill for the people of Broadford and tell them there is an easy and immediate solution. Nevertheless, we do need to find a solution and we can do so by putting all our efforts towards ensuring that as many Government services and financial services as possible are available through the post office network. That is our best chance.

Architectural Heritage

In the greater scheme of things and in the middle of the Covid crisis, I am not sure that the issue I am raising is the most important one we could discuss. However, it struck me when I saw the story in question that it fitted well with the old adage that one should never waste a good crisis. Had we not been in the middle of a Covid lockdown and restrictions, the ESB might not have moved as quickly to do what it is doing.

The Georgian House Museum at No. 29 Fitzwilliam Street opened in 1991 to celebrate Dublin's status as European Capital of Culture. It was operated as a museum by the ESB and the National Museum of Ireland, offering an exhibition of Dublin Georgian home life from 1790 to 1820. The building was restored by the ESB as part of a deal with what was then Dublin Corporation. That deal was agreed more than a decade earlier to allow the company to exceed standard plot ratios in the expansion of its 1960s office complex. Some people will remember the destruction of Georgian Dublin in the 1960s, when eminent figures like the late Marian Finucane and the former President, Mary Robinson, fought hard, as students, to prevent it. When I was a young student, I had the privilege of being part of the campaign to stop the destruction of Wood Quay. That campaign was tragically lost to the vandalism of Dublin Corporation when it built its awful office buildings on top of what was the largest Viking site in Europe.

The part of Georgian Dublin in which the Georgian House Museum is located is the longest stretch of Georgian architecture anywhere in the world. The museum was offered as a sop to the people of Dublin by the ESB. It was to be allowed to carry out the development of its offices and, in return, it would provide the museum as some small form of compensation. Now the ESB is saying it does not want to reopen the museum after the building is refurbished. Given that it is the only publicly accessible Georgian period home in the city of Dublin and that we advertise Dublin as an architectural Georgian city for tourism purposes, this act of vandalism which is intended by the ESB should be reversed. I ask the Minister to lobby the ESB to stop it happening. I am not sure whether the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who is still in the Chamber, is the responsible Minister. It might be the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sports and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. The redevelopment has already raised €180 million for the ESB through its selling off of half the site. In the middle of a pandemic, it is a deeply cynical move. Moreover, it would be highly ironic for a development of luxury apartments to replace a museum in this city at a time when we are facing a housing crisis and seeing various land deals happening.

I want to see Georgian Dublin preserved but I do not want to see the levels of inequality and poverty that defined Georgian Dublin preserved. It would be wrong for the museum to be converted into luxury apartments rather than being kept as a museum for the people. Many schoolchildren benefit from visiting it because it has an educational aspect. It also helps us to promote our city as somewhere interesting to visit. Enough vandalism has been done to Dublin. Its character has, in many ways, been destroyed by development over the years. Perhaps the ESB would use some of its newly found wealth to ensure the museum is preserved. There is a campaign by the Irish Georgian Society to save it. I hope the Minister will back us up in our call to put pressure on the ESB to keep the museum open, in conjunction with the National Museum of Ireland. It is an important educational and heritage facility. We must prevent further vandalism of this nature in our city.

I thank the Deputy. The ESB began work on Project Fitzwilliam, the redevelopment of the Fitzwilliam Street site, in June 2017. The project involves the construction of two separate grade A office blocks, an underground car park and the redevelopment of the ESB-owned Georgian buildings on Mount Street. The redevelopment will deliver one of the most efficient and sustainable office developments in Dublin city, with a near-zero energy rating, while sensitively respecting and enhancing the Georgian streetscape. The project involves the demolition of some existing buildings, the retention and refurbishment of a number of protected Georgian structures and the construction of a new seven-storey office block. It includes the complete renovation of 11 Georgian houses. The ESB will continue to occupy three of them, with eight houses returning to residential use, comprising 17 residential units. The house at No. 29 Fitzwilliam Street is one of those eight.

The ESB proposal comprises converting the museum building back to three residential units for individual and family ownership. The ESB has stated its belief that returning the eight houses to residential use is the most sustainable means of safeguarding the streetscape, which is the most critical heritage aspects of these buildings. The cluster of eight houses has the potential to become an exemplar scheme for Dublin to demonstrate successful city living. It is also delivering a residential scheme that showcases the standards and designs set out in the South Georgian Dublin Townhouse Re-Use guidance document published in March 2019 by Dublin City Council. A cohesive development of this type and scale offers a unique opportunity within the Georgian core. It addresses neighbour anxiety, modern hygiene and convenience standards, as well as building legacy issues, which were identified as key impediments to attracting owner-occupiers to Georgian houses for the Living City initiative.

The ESB Georgian House Museum at No. 29 Fitzwilliam Street opened to the public in 1991, as the Deputy said, to support Dublin's status as European Capital of Culture in that year. It was never envisaged that the exhibition would run forever. Since 1991, there is a changed landscape in terms of historical and heritage offerings, with many museums and heritage alternatives now available.

The Minister's answer seems to have come from the textbook of the ESB. I have a statement in front of me from the company which says:

Since 1991, there is a changed landscape in terms of historical and heritage offerings, with many museums and heritage alternatives now available. Our commitment to heritage activities is now more closely linked to our corporate responsibilities.

The ESB is spelling it out in that statement that its interests are in corporate responsibilities, not in its commitment to the city. When we talk about successful city living, are we actually talking about luxury, high-end apartments? Are we saying that one can only live successfully in this city if one is extremely well off and that it is shut down to ordinary people?

Had the ESB kept to its commitment, which was made as part of a deal with Dublin Corporation at the time the company was given permission to flatten the street, the fully furnished and fully refurbished Georgian home, as it stood in the late 1700s and early 1800s, would still be available for all of us to enjoy as visitors. If the ESB takes it away, there is not a single other property in which we can enjoy that historical setting. The company referred in one of its statements to the tenement museum on Henrietta Street. I know that museum very well but comparing it with the Georgian House Museum is not comparing like with like. The tenement museum preserves the inequality of that period of our history. The museum in Fitzwilliam Street preserves the high end of that history and it is worthwhile to be able to contrast the two.

The closure of the museum on Fitzwilliam Street is an act of vandalism and an abandonment of the city. Given the privileges the ESB enjoyed to develop the street over the years and the money it has made from selling off chunks of the site, that it would be allowed to walk away from reopening the museum is not acceptable. I call again on the Minister to put pressure on the ESB, a semi-State company, to hold on to the museum and keep it open for the enjoyment and benefit of the people of this country and all who visit it. I ask that it not be allowed to destroy one of the remaining open public spaces that is part of the Georgian architecture of this city.

This is a critical feature of our heritage and the character of our city. It is an issue that has been deeply controversial going back to the development of the ESB offices some 50 years ago.

There was rightful controversy. Deputy Smith is right to say that the people protesting at the time were absolutely correct about protecting our Georgian heritage.

My sense from passing the site every day is that the architects have done a good job with the new development. It is remarkable but it seems to me it fits in within the site. We cannot see it fully yet, but it looks like it will be a real enhancement to the city.

I believe having people living in Georgian buildings will achieve something. I absolutely agree with Deputy Smith and I commit 100% that we have to work to ensure that our city does not become someplace where a person can only be wealthy if he or she lives within it. I believe in the objective of getting people, especially families, to live within our Georgian quarter. I believe the nature of offices, what is happening with Covid-19, the need for office space reducing and the building of significant other office space give us the potential to open up or bring back in families and people to live in our Georgian quarter.

In making this call, the ESB has said that these eight units will create more space by dividing them up. If the ESB does succeed in showing an example of how we can get people living back within the Georgian quarter, then I believe it would be a real benefit to our city.

This does not take from the argument made by Deputy Smith, which is absolutely correct, about the need to have a mix of different tenancies and to have housing models so that all people of every income and circumstances can live in the city. Anyway, that should not stop us opening up our Georgian houses and using them to get people living in them again. That would be an important and useful legacy and I support the ESB in its approach to try to make that happen.

Employment Rights

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy English, for coming in to take this Topical Issue debate. I wish to raise the issue of non-essential work and the Government's lack of strict, clear and proper instructions to employers. Each day, I have people contacting me about being forced to work onsite in an office or warehouse although we are in a critical stage of the pandemic and their work cannot logically or practically be deemed essential. I looked at the traffic when I was driving here this afternoon. It is clear that there are too many people working onsite in Dublin in offices or wherever and there are too many people out on our roads.

A constituent was sent to do repair work at a house where all the family had Covid-19, despite the family alerting the man's employer that there was Covid-19 in the house and that he should not come near it. Can the Minister of State imagine being sent to a house where there was Covid and where this fact had been relayed to the employer? I am sure the employer did not do it on purpose or knowingly risk the life of the employee, but it is certainly risk-taking. I am sure it was a mistake but it could have ended up with the man catching covid. I hope the people in that home are okay.

Other constituents are worried about the retail and warehousing that cannot and should not be considered essential during a pandemic. A lampshade, a cushion or a lick of paint are not essential when we are dealing with a virus that is out of control.

In a pandemic, browsers in non-essential shops are risk-taking. I do not blame them really because they are following the rules. They are not breaking the rules by going to shops that are open. No staff member in these stores should be exposed to this risky behaviour, especially when masks and distancing are not rigorously enforced.

A constituent who contacted me previously got on to me again yesterday morning to say that an auxiliary worker had tested positive for the virus after working an eight-hour shift without telling the organisation that the worker was going for a test. This resulted in colleagues being isolated while already at the mercy of exposure to coronavirus. This constituent was also worried about exposure of customers in the shop.

Another constituent encountered a first closed building site this week. The person had been going around to different sites and they had all been open. Today was the first day the person came to a building site that was closed. The person had been sent to block wall stage after block wall stage of buildings that are nowhere near completion and where use of masks and distancing are not being enforced. The man believes he is taking his life and the lives of his family in his hands every day. The man has a child who is immunocompromised and he is extremely worried about this. For what and for whom is this?

I have written to the Minister for Health and the Tánaiste. I got a response from the Minister for Health today. He says that at level 5 all non-essential retail and all non-essential services must remain closed. Yet, we all know that is not the case.

The health of our economy depends on the health of our public and workers. What will the Minister of State do to prevent this unnecessary risk to our workers and customers in the workplace?

The cases remain stubbornly high. The figures were released today. We have a further 1,466 new cases. That is a slight increase on yesterday. The UK variant is now in 63% of samples. It is easily transmissible. We really have to enforce it. This lockdown is not as harsh as the first lockdown, but it should be far harsher with the extremes of this virus.

My thanks to Deputy Cronin for raising the issue. She has touched on several cases. I probably cannot comment on all of them because they are simply examples the Deputy is picking out. I am not familiar with the various stories but I will try to talk in general about the issue. Certainly, we can follow up on specific cases if the Deputy wishes.

There are protocols in place and methods to deal with this. The Deputy has raised an array of situations. I am unsure what part of the country the Deputy is referring to and so I cannot comment individually.

I wish to be clear on this. The Government advice is clear in respect of what we expect under level 5 from employers and various businesses. We are currently in level 5 and we are using the Government living with Covid-19 plan. Within level 5, people should work from home unless it is absolutely necessary to attend in person for the delivery of an essential service, as listed on the Government website. The Government website details what those essential services are. It is not for any individual company to decided where it fits in. There is clear guidance and advice. Most employees who contact us are able to track and follow these. The majority of business owners and employers are working to the protocols, guidance and regulations and, more important, to the spirit of the regulations. There is ongoing conversation when it comes to certain products and what is and is not essential. We have asked all those in the retail community to honour the spirit of what we are trying to do. The spirit of level 5 is to protect people, customers and employees.

The reason behind most lockdowns and restrictions is to stop the movement of people so that we can restrict the movement of the virus and reduce the number of close contacts. That is what this is all about in level 5. We have often had the debate in the Chamber when representatives from different sectors say the virus is not in their sectors or here or there. We are trying to restrict the movement of people. That is how we can bring the virus back under control.

The Health and Safety Authority has published guidance in conjunction with major stakeholders around work safety protocols, back-to-work safety protocols and the different guidance that applies. The HSA can be consulted by any employee or business that needs guidance. The HSA does not have a role in determining which employees can work from home. Along with other agencies the authority carries out compliance inspections with the work safety protocol. Any essential worker with concerns about health and safety standards at his or her place of work should contact the Health and Safety Authority for detailed advice on the protocol. The authority will respond to that and a good service is provided. The authority has given a good deal of guidance and has carried out numerous inspections. The inspections have been targeted in some cases and announced and unannounced in other cases. Certainly, the HSA will follow up on any queries or concerns that people might raise.

It is vital that employers and employees resolve these matters relating to homeworking and the choice to work from home. We had a case recently where the option was not provided for. It is important that these matters are solved locally by mutual dialogue and engagement where possible. In the majority of cases I have dealt with, that has happened and we have seen a responsible decision by the employer or business owner.

During the year at different stages of lockdown different employers might have had different views, but over time in recognising the difficulty with public health and the seriousness of this, they have changed their views and have adapted their work practices. The majority of companies that we know of are facilitating people to work from home, work remotely and carry out their services in a safe environment. It is their responsibility to do that by following the guidance and legislation set down.

Again, if there are any issues or if it is not possible to have those disputes sorted out by mutual dialogue or common sense, the disputes can be referred to the Workplace Relations Commission for mediation or conciliation.

The Workplace Relations Commission is providing services both face to face and virtually and its information and customer service facility can answer queries from either an employer or an employee. It is happy to do that and has engaged successfully in that regard.

Separately, and to bring this debate further, the Tánaiste recently highlighted the report Making Remote Work, which seeks to make sure that remote working will still be a choice for many after Covid and will be facilitated but, again, in a planned and co-ordinated way. We understand that many people were sent home in March of last year to try to work from home in an unplanned and unco-ordinated way. Our hope is that we will be able to build on the success of that and the trust created in it in order that in the future, we will have a proper remote working strategy. That is what we are trying to do in conjunction with all the stakeholders, and legislation will come through the House to reflect that in the near future.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I am forced to disagree with him. I believe the instructions that have been given to employers are a bit lax. Employers seem more intent on finding loopholes, which the Government should be fixing. It is important that we keep our workers safe at this time because our economy just cannot work without our workers' safety. I heard Deputy Doherty ask what planet the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, is living on. I think he is going around with a virtual reality headset on his head because this seems to have been designed by lobby groups rather than public health. The list of people who are considered essential workers is much longer than it was the first time. I am trying to be constructive. We see the Garda checkpoints now on the road. I wonder if there were some way we could identify essential workers and give them passes for their cars or something in order that they could use a different lane on the motorway or something like that if they are travelling and could be easily identified. That way, the Government could be very strict and employers would have to apply to the Government to find out whether their work is deemed essential. I can tell the Minister of State straight that appeasing the lobbies is not worth any worker's life or health. We have seen them lobby. They lobby the Opposition as well as the Government. However, a republic should look after the health of its nation and not just the businesses and its government. The people have been amazing during this crisis. We can see that once we stick to the rules the numbers come down. It is therefore not the people who are the problem. The virus is absolutely a problem but the rules are the biggest problem. We have to be stricter about the rules to keep people safe. I ask the Minister of State to consider that.

I am not sure what the Deputy is trying to get at by taking a swipe at the Tánaiste, my party leader. We have tried at all times to introduce a balance as to how we deal with Covid. At all times it has favoured public health first while protecting people from the threat of the virus, saving as many lives as we possibly can and stopping the spread of the virus. It is also unfair to paint all businesses into one category and to say they are not playing their part. Businesses have taken a major hit over the past year in the response to Covid. A lot of the restrictions are on business and trade and therefore on people's jobs as well. I think everybody has played their part. As a taxpayer, I am trying to support those businesses through this difficult time. It is unfair to come in here and generalise. If there are individual cases, I am more than happy to deal with them. We do that. We respond to them. Our agencies have done so as well in a very professional way. In many cases this has resulted in changes to the approach of some businesses, that is, a few businesses. The majority are, without a doubt, playing their part. If the Deputy is aware of cases, I ask her to bring them forward and we can have them looked at but it is wrong of her to make the comments she made. I remind her that many of her party colleagues wanted to keep pubs open only a few months ago, so it should be borne in mind that some of the commentary in here does not always add up and there is not always joined-up thinking. It is wrong to give the impression that anything but public health has come first in this debate for the past year. I am quite conscious that some workers have concerns, and we try to deal with them. Many contact my offices and our Department about retail and we deal with that. The Garda and the Department of Justice have been part of that enforcement, and we have called into many retail businesses and passed on the advice and the guidance. That has changed the operations. That is what we do. The regulations and the guidance are there. I disagree with the Deputy that businesses need clearer rules. I think anybody who is capable of running a business can interpret what the rules are and who is essential. We have to be very clear. The level 5 measures set out by the Government were the result of a Government decision taken with stakeholders on the best public health advice as to what is essential. Yes, the advice and the guidance in respect of this level 5 lockdown differ from the advice and the guidance given during the first one in February and March 2020. We were dealing with a brand new virus that we did not know a lot about. We have learned a lot over the time since. We have tried to prioritise certain sectors such as manufacturing, education and services for people with special needs. Yes, we have made changes and more traffic will be seen on the roads but it is nowhere near what it would have been in normal times. The restrictions are there.

All right. I thank the Minister of State.

The Deputy is right, however, and I will agree with her on this, that it is a matter of all of us following the best advice. That is how we will stop the spread of the virus. It is not a blame game but a matter of all of us adhering to the advice and the guidance as best we possibly can.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.46 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 3 February 2021.