Ceisteanna - Questions

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Alan Kelly

Question:

1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent phone call with the UK Prime Minister. [43180/20]

Neale Richmond

Question:

2. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach the engagement he has had with the UK Prime Minister since the UK has left the Brexit transition period. [1325/21]

I last spoke with Prime Minister Johnson on Tuesday, 2 March. We discussed plans for a joint bid for World Cup 2030, bringing together the five football associations from Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales.

We also discussed the latest situation on the Northern Ireland protocol and during our conversation the Prime Minister spoke of concerns he had around the availability of various food products and plants in Northern Ireland. I stressed to the Prime Minister the importance of working within the established structures to explore potential solutions to these problems and the need to reduce tensions more generally regarding the implementation of the protocol.

We also discussed vaccines and the roll-out of same. He volunteered clearly that he would have to vaccinate all of his people first before he would be in a position to help other countries including Ireland and Ireland would be high up in his thoughts. He assured me in that respect but they have some distance to go in terms of their vaccination programme. We discussed that issue and he was clear on that.

I also spoke with Prime Minister Johnson on 29 January, following the European Commission's signalling of its intention to trigger Article 16. I was also in contact with the Prime Minister on Christmas Eve to acknowledge the agreement reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union at that time.

We agreed it was in everyone's interest that a deal had been concluded.

While there have been challenges to implementing some aspects of the protocol, I remain firmly of the view that the Brexit agreement reached is very important for Ireland. Unilateral approaches to the protocol or its implementation are not acceptable. The most optimal way of dealing with this is through the mechanisms that have been provided for in the agreement.

I thank the Taoiseach for that. It is somewhat shocking that he had a call with the UK Prime Minister on 2 March regarding the World Cup bid, which we support, and that the Prime Minister did not raise with him in any way, shape or form the proposed plan to breach the terms of the protocol. Did the Taoiseach have any indication? How did it make him feel that the Prime Minister subsequently behaved in this way? Had the Taoiseach any inkling from the conversation that this was going to happen? It seems pretty shocking behaviour, and not very collegiate, that the Prime Minister would act in such a way so shortly after such a call. I presume the Taoiseach has had other conversations with the Prime Minister and that he will continue such conversations with him.

I understand what the Taoiseach said regarding the vaccine supply. We have a real issue here, however, in that 40% of people in Northern Ireland have had their first dose. Northern Ireland is due to receive an extremely large delivery of the AstraZeneca vaccines this week. It has, therefore, got its schedule right. We are going to have a situation whereby a large number of people in Northern Ireland are going to be vaccinated and the position in the South will be the opposite. This will create real issues. Will the Taoiseach have discussions with the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and Boris Johnson in respect of this matter? Britain is going have a huge volume of excess vaccines. Can we even ask whether, because of this unique situation, Britain may be in a position in six weeks or two months to help us out and provide the AstraZeneca vaccine? Hopefully, the national immunisation advisory committee will have approved it for further use here beyond what has already been approved. Will the Taoiseach please do that on behalf of the Irish people?

I am very grateful to the Taoiseach for that comprehensive update. While it is just over a week since the Taoiseach's last telephone call with the British Prime Minister, I think we all agree that perhaps it is time for another call. The events of recent days, to which Deputy Kelly alluded, are extremely worrying. While many of us in this House have consistently said that Ireland will be the UK's best friend within the EU, the UK is certainly making it very difficult for us, particularly when it comes to the fragility of maintaining the settled status of Northern Ireland and the Northern Irish protocol.

Anyone watching the questions in Westminster today will have been taken by the very brusque manner of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when talking about how its action had to be taken and that it was somehow forced into taking that action by the EU. This is all being tied up, quite honestly, with a very unedifying spat over vaccines between the EU and UK. The UK is trying to summon the EU ambassador to London but, of course, it has not provided the relevant individual with any diplomatic credentials, although the chargé d’affaires is a noted and, indeed, very brilliant diplomat.

When does the Taoiseach next intend to speak with the Prime Minister? Does he intend to put Ireland’s very serious concerns with the British Government's now second attempt to break international law at the forefront of that conversation? We are dealing with many issues on the Brexit horizon. Our own grace periods are due to conclude at the end of this month. Crucially, this will not be the first, last or only time that issues will remain in the post-Brexit era.

Is it not pretty embarrassing that Boris Johnson's Government has managed to do a better job of rolling out the vaccination programme than our Government? This is the Prime Minister who made an absolute hames of the initial response to the pandemic and who, to put it mildly, has shown incompetence at many levels during this crisis. However, Boris Johnson's Government is streets ahead of us in terms of securing the vaccine and rolling it out. Does the Taoiseach have an explanation as to how we could get it so wrong and even Boris Johnson could get it so right? Serious questions need to be asked. As difficult as I suspect it might be to do so, did the Taoiseach obtain any insights from Boris Johnson on the telephone as to how the British Government got it so right and we got it so wrong and why our vaccination programme is in serious trouble and so far behind the UK? This has potentially serious consequences in terms of there being an all-Ireland epidemiological unit, with high levels of vaccination in the North and pitifully low levels here, with all the possibilities that has of encouraging variants and so on, which could undermine everybody's efforts. In all seriousness, I would like an explanation. Does the Taoiseach have an explanation as to the incredible contrast between what we have done here on vaccination and what Boris Johnson has managed to do?

I wish to raise two issues. First, I share the concerns that have been voiced here around the slowness of the vaccination programme. It is absolutely imperative we have those conversations, not just with London and the British system, but that we explore all avenues in respect of supply. I believe the issues around delivery of vaccines also need to be straightened out. I raised with the Taoiseach previously the issue of family carers and the fact they have not been afforded any level of priority. I remind him of that issue and ask him again to ensure that family carers will be recognised and given their rightful place in the order of priority relating to vaccination.

Second, I put it to the Taoiseach that last month we had statements on the New Decade, New Approach agreement. We made specific reference to the Stormont House Agreement and reflected again on the importance of dealing with the past and with legacy and on the fact the British Government has failed to honour its commitments in that regard. In fact, it has threatened to bin the Stormont House Agreement and walk away from the very mechanisms we require to deal with the legacy of the conflict. Did the Taoiseach raise the Stormont House Agreement with the Prime Minister?

First, we agreed during our telephone conversation that we will have a more substantive meeting in the coming period in order to look more fundamentally at the British-Irish relationship post Brexit, which is important. My sense is that the politics being played in the United Kingdom are not constructive in the context of the European Union. The issue relating to the protocol in terms of the dates could have been resolved within the joint committee. Broader issues also fall for consideration in terms of the refinement of the protocol, if that is possible. What has happened here is that the British decision has been counterproductive to any response from the European Union, which has no alternative but to take and invoke legal action in terms of the breach that has now occurred. We have made it clear to the United Kingdom on an ongoing basis - I have also made it clear to the Prime Minister - that unilateral action of this kind does not advance or progress these issues but actually retards them and is regressive.

One gets the sense, however, that there is sometimes an ongoing narrative and polemic around the UK-EU relationship. That is not good. It may suit domestic politics but it is not good in terms of a more sustainable long-term constructive relationship between the European Union and United Kingdom. To me, that is of more fundamental concern than the specific breach we are discussing and this ongoing approach towards the European Union. I read a report in The New York Times this morning which states the EU could have exported up to 8 million vaccines manufactured in Europe to the UK in terms of open borders. The protestations do not, therefore, stand up in terms of the EU approach to the United Kingdom in respect of vaccines.

To respond to the points made by Deputy Boyd Barrett, the first decision the United Kingdom made was not to use the normal authorisation process in validating the vaccine. In other words, we waited four weeks or so for the European Medicines Agency, EMA, to authorise the various vaccines. The UK did not do that. It authorised its vaccines under an emergency provision. This would normally not be done for vaccines because they are being injected into healthy people. People can weigh that up. The clinical advice was that was not something we should do and that in terms of public safety around vaccines and protecting the public, we should go through the authorisation process. That gave a four-week minimum start to the British vaccination programme.

The second issue was the one-dose approach. Opinion is still divided on this, particularly around variants. Recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci in the United States, who has regular engagement with his UK counterparts, said there is no definitive science on this. He said, for example, he would not approve a one-dose strategy. He and others believe that it can create a vulnerability around the subsequent introduction and spread of variants.

We have decided to stick to the data as presented by the companies. The national immunisation advisory committee advises us clinically on how to dispense the vaccines, particularly in terms of dosage and interval periods. It reviews its advice in the context of data that emerge about the efficacy of the vaccines.

With the Irish vaccine programme, 95% of what we get, we give out within a week. That is not a vaccine programme in trouble. There is a broader global supply issue. As I said earlier, the big three vaccine producers are China, Europe and the United States. They will remain the key vaccine producers and manufacturers right through and beyond the summer.

We have succeeded in this country in vaccinating those most vulnerable to disease, severe illness and death. That is a significant achievement in itself and it should be acknowledged. We have vaccinated residents and staff of nursing homes, front-line healthcare workers and the over-85s, and we are now progressively vaccinating the over-80s and the cohort with underlying health conditions. The whole strategy is to try to get the vaccines to those who are most vulnerable. That gives them protection and broader society greater opportunities and options in how we conduct our lives once we have that done. We are on target to do that. The HSE revised the figures yesterday from 1.2 million to 1.1 million vaccines. We got notification this morning of an increase in the number of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines we will get. The EU is scouring Europe to see if we can create additional manufacturing capacity for the production of vaccines. The relationship between the US and Europe is also important in this regard in terms of the avoidance of protectionism around vaccines. Europe has played this straight up to now in facilitating other countries in having contracts that they freely entered into with the manufacturing companies met.

I take the points made by Deputies Alan Kelly and Boyd Barrett on Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that Northern Ireland is doing well in its vaccination programme. It is good for the island. The more people we have vaccinated on the island, the better. In terms of alignment subsequently, there will be issues. We have to move in accordance with the public health advice we receive. We also have to take on board to the impact of the variants. We are getting hospitalisations and ICU numbers down, as well as case numbers. People's adherence to the guidelines is working and having an appreciable impact on the reduction in case numbers.

On the family carer issue, I outlined the cohorts we have vaccinated. We obviously want to move to the next cohorts. Essentially, the principle will always be those who are most vulnerable. We accept fully the case for family carers. The matter is under constant review by NIAC.

European Council Meetings

Alan Kelly

Question:

3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the European Council. [43548/20]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the European Council meeting held on 25 and 26 February 2021. [13100/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 and 4 together.

I have participated in several engagements with my fellow members of the European Council in recent months. We met in person in Brussels on 10 and 11 December, by video conference on 21 January and, again, on 25 and 26 February.

At the European Council meeting in December, we discussed Covid-19, in particular the authorisation and roll-out of vaccines which began across the European Union shortly after Christmas. We agreed the circumstances in which rule of law measures in the multi-annual financial framework and the Next Generation European Union recovery package can be invoked, enabling the Council and European Parliament to adopt formally the package worth €1.8 trillion which will play a vital role in supporting Europe's economic recovery.

We endorsed the binding European Union target of a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 of at least 55% compared with 1990 levels, a crucial step towards a climate-neutral European Union by 2050. We also agreed on the need for co-operation to tackle terrorism and violent extremism, both online and offline.

On international matters, we discussed Turkey's recent provocative activities in the eastern Mediterranean. It was agreed to return to this issue. We stressed the importance of a strong strategic transatlantic partnership and close co-operation on shared challenges with President Biden's Administration. The European Council President, Ursula von der Leyen, provided an update on the then negotiations with the United Kingdom which subsequently resulted in an agreement on 24 December. That agreement entered into force on a provisional basis on 1 January.

The meeting of the European Council was followed by a meeting of the Euro Summit which welcomed the agreement reached in the Eurogroup on the reform of the European Stability Mechanism.

In our meetings by video conference on 21 January, 25 February and 26 February, discussion focused on Covid-19, including the epidemiological situation across Europe, particularly the emergence of threats represented by new variants. There was agreement that vaccine production roll-out and authorisation should be accelerated where possible. It was also agreed that while travel restrictions are necessary at this time, borders should stay open to ensure the free flow of goods and services within the Single Market. We also discussed work to improve European Union co-ordination to ensure better prevention, preparedness for and response to future health emergencies.

At our meeting on 26 February, there was an exchange with NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, following which we discussed EU security and defence matters. I welcome the development of a European Union strategic compass which will identify the key challenges in the period to 2030 in terms of crisis management missions, resilience capabilities and working with partners. The aim is for this to be adopted in early 2022.

The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, also briefed us on the situation in the Southern Neighbourhood region. President von der Leyen recalled the strategic importance of partnership with the region and the acute need after Covid to support its long-term socioeconomic recovery.

We are short of time but it is fair to say the European Commission has not covered itself in glory with the vaccine roll-out. I note from his earlier reply that President von der Leyen texted the Taoiseach on the new amount of vaccines coming to Ireland, which is pretty small considering the losses we have had in recent weeks and the shortfall in the vaccines that were meant to be delivered originally.

The Taoiseach did not get time to finish his reply about discussions with Pfizer and Merck. I want to clarify some points. Did we try to get the Pfizer vaccines like Denmark and Germany? Can we demonstrate how we did that? Many of us have asked this question but we have never been given full clarity.

The Commission has also put forward proposals on travel as we come out of this. Cyprus and Greece have said they will accept any visitor who is vaccinated. Where are we as regards a European Covid passport?

Will the Taoiseach explain the reason AstraZeneca supplies to Britain do not seem to be affected? Why are supples to Europe affected?

On a domestic note, the Tánaiste stated 1.6 million vaccinations would take place in June.

It seems everything is getting pushed back but now they are going happen in June. He said that in the past half hour.

As regards mandatory quarantine, I note that people can be flying in, for instance, through Schiphol to Cork. Where will people who come in from Brazil, through Schiphol, to Cork be quarantined?

Can the Taoiseach clarify whether the British Prime Minister had given him notice of his proposal to act unilaterally and outside of the remit of the joint committee in respect of the protocol? Was the Taoiseach given advance notice of that or any indication that was about to happen? If the Taoiseach was, did he share that information with members of the Cabinet?

It is imperative that we have clarity on all manner of issues but for the purposes of this discussion, on the precise actions that Government has taken in respect of sourcing a wider supply of vaccines within the European system and outside of it. The issue of the Pfizer vaccine has been raised by Deputy Kelly. I am interested to hear the Taoiseach's answer to that. More widely, in respect of other vaccines, what exactly has been done? What exactly is proposed to be done to widen and strengthen our capacities in terms of vaccine supply?

It seems the European Union has performed extremely badly in securing the supplies of vaccine that we need and the contrast with Britain is stark. I wonder the extent to which this is because the European Union is deferring to the big pharmaceutical companies that are producing the vaccine because of their desire to make money and so on. I say that because, for example, the World Health Organization is calling for support for the People's Vaccine issue, which will be voted on at the World Trade Organization where Europe is holding out against the waiving of intellectual property rights, the sharing of technology and so on that would be necessary to ramp up supplies. It seems to me that this is because they are kowtowing to the companies, which are securing to maximise profit from the production of the vaccine. Even the contrast with the United States is interesting. Joe Biden has seized the means of production. He has done a socialist thing. He seized the means of production with the Defense Production Act in order to ramp up supply but we do not seem to have the same attitude.

The Taoiseach might also comment on what efforts have been made - I asked a question but I did not really understand the answer - in engagement we have had with Russia and China over their vaccines and why we are not trying to secure supplies of those vaccines. Every day we do not have vaccine rolled out is another day of hardship and sacrifice for the people of this country.

I want to ask the Taoiseach whether Ireland, at a European Union level, is supporting the waiving of intellectual property rights in terms of vaccines, given that it is in our interests that this is tackled at a global level. Why is Ireland ruling out sourcing additional vaccines outside the European Union framework of supply? What is the reason for that? Are all other avenues to get additional vaccines being exhausted? Why is it the case that other European Union countries have been able to get additional vaccines and Ireland has not succeeded in doing that?

The reason this has been raised so often is because of the damage that it is doing to the country. Ireland has had the longest and most severe lockdown of any country in Europe. According to Reuters a couple of weeks ago, Ireland had 163 days of workplace closures and that compared to Germany, which had 34 days of workplace closures. The reason for the length and severity of the lockdown in this country is because the Government has not got the other tools against this virus right and prime among them is the issue of the vaccine. There is a massive cost to society from this. There are 830,000 people currently on hospital waiting lists. We have heard oncologists telling us that there will be an influx of far more advanced cancers into the system because the health service is not able to deal with people who have non-Covid illnesses.

From my perspective, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has been involved in horizon politics. Every time he sets an objective and a date, by the time we get to that date, the objective slides back into the horizon and we never get to the objective. Deputy Donnelly stated that we would have all of the nursing homes vaccinated by the end of January. They were still vaccinating nursing homes at the end of February. On 14 February, the Minister said that within three weeks, all those over the age of 85 would be vaccinated. In my county, I know of GP surgeries that do not yet have a date for their first tranche of vaccines for those over the age of 85.

Other countries have been proactive. We have seen Austria and Denmark get involved in a partnership with Israel to see can they find vaccines. We have seen other countries in the European Union seek to additionally chase down supply.

I thank the Deputy.

This is my final point. I asked Deputy Stephen Donnelly last week in a parliamentary question what actions he had taken to procure additional vaccines outside of the European supply chain. The Minister said none.

There were a broad range of questions. I would say at the outset it would be interesting if Deputy Tóibín followed up that story on Israel. How many vaccines will those countries get in the next month from Israel or the month after that or the month after that? That is the point. There will be no immediate dividend from that particular venture any time soon in terms of additional vaccines, because Israel is vaccinating its own country and will continue to do so. The reality is, as I have stated here repeatedly today, the key to this is increased production and manufacturing capacity.

We have taken on all our full offerings from the European Union in the pre-purchase agreements in respect of the companies that have so far been authorised, namely, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca. AstraZeneca has not fulfilled its contractual commitments to the European Union. It has fallen very significantly short of its contractual commitments to Europe. That has caused considerable annoyance within the European Union and resulted, as we know, in the decision by the Commission in respect of the protocol and so on, so angry was the Commission at the time at the degree to which AstraZeneca had not fulfilled its contractual obligations. The next company will be Johnson & Johnson but it has been clear that it will be April before it will be issuing supplies to the European Union, even though it will be authorised soon by the European Medicines Agency.

We have approached Pfizer. I approached Pfizer here in Ireland. I made it clear to the Pfizer corporation that Ireland would be willing to support in any way any reconfiguration of any plant in Ireland to generate additional vaccine production. Most of the pharmaceutical companies in Ireland are involved in the production of very valuable medicines, and indeed vaccines, for use elsewhere in respect of different diseases globally. We made that offer but, as I said earlier, Pfizer has come back and stated that it is concentrating on the Belgian plant. It reconfigured that Belgian plant and has increased its capacity, as well as in Marburg, Germany, in terms of its work with BioNTech, which has also substantially increased production and supply lines and will continue to do so.

In terms of Johnson & Johnson, for example, President Biden brought Merck and J&J together. I immediately spoke with our IDA Ireland people and asked whether we could get that deal in Ireland, that is, could J&J and Merck coalesce in respect of their plants in Ireland to increase manufacturing capacity. Again, the answer was that would not be happening here because of what is going on in Carlow, for example, in the Merck plant, and the commitments the company has there and in terms of other plants. Anything we can do to support the companies in terms of increasing production and capacity, and utilising Irish manufacturing capacity towards that end, we will do. If that means state aid support, we are open to doing that. We have made that clear to all of the companies and will continue to do that.

We should not get into an ideological position on intellectual property and should be mindful of the questions that need to be asked as to why AstraZeneca has found a certain difficulty in fulfilling its contracts. Arrangements have been agreed and we are not deferring to big pharma or anything like that.

One of the great achievements that has been missed in all of the debate and narrative is that within ten months, because of the pre-purchase agreements and the funding upfront that enabled the development of the vaccines, we had the extraordinary situation where we actually had three vaccines authorised in ten months. This would never have happened before in the history of the development of vaccines. That is a plus. The model that was used may not meet with Deputy Boyd Barrett’s ideological approach but it actually has worked in the production and development of vaccines that have been very effective in reducing severe illness and mortality and are increasingly showing evidence of reducing infection rates.

I grant that there is an issue with the performance of AstraZeneca in respect of the UK market and the European contract. That is a fair point and the delivery to the UK market from AstraZeneca needs to be examined further as it is in sharp contrast with the fulfilment of its contract with the European Union.

After Johnson & Johnson, we are hoping that CureVac will come on stream and we have not factored that into any figures towards the end of the second quarter. That will be another important additional vaccine.

On the travel proposals, the European Commission has issued a communication on what it is calling a green pass. We are not yet at that stage because public health is cautious regarding the longer term efficacy and utilisation of the passports. There are also civil liberties issues related to the rights of citizens, for example, in making it imperative to have a passport to do various things in society and to travel.

Could we get a brief answer on the Chinese and Russian vaccines?

On Russia, the Sputnik vaccine producer has been invited for a long time now to apply for European Medicines Agency, EMA, authorisation. My understanding now is that it is doing so. Incidentally, Russia is a long way from vaccinating its own population. It will have huge challenges in that regard. If the Sputnik vaccine is approved by the EMA, we will have no difficulty in using it and, likewise, the vaccine from China if it is approved by the EMA. We must have some authorisation mechanism for vaccines and I hope most people will accept that.

The vaccines were approved late in December and the bulk of our restrictions were imposed prior to the vaccines arriving on the scene. I ask Deputy Tóibín to compare average mortality and incidence rates in Europe or the UK with those in Ireland. There was also a dividend from the restrictions we put in place. They have been very difficult for people but we would all agree that we have to put public health and the health service first in ensuring the latter is not overwhelmed as happened last January and February when numbers were too high.

Government-Church Dialogue

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

5. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his dialogue and meetings with faith leaders. [43328/20]

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

6. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement with faith leaders. [13193/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 6 together.

As part of ongoing dialogue with churches, faith groups and non-confessional bodies, I have met with faith leaders on a number of occasions since my appointment as Taoiseach. On 28 October 2020, I met with representatives of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop Michael Neary, Archbishop Kieran O’Reilly and Bishop Dermot Farrell. Discussion focused mainly on the effect which the Covid-19 restrictions have on the health and well-being of the faith community and the great desire to return to worship as soon as possible.

On 17 November 2020, I met with representatives of churches, faith groups and non-confessional bodies, including the Church of Ireland, the Catholic Church, the Hindu community, the Humanist Association of Ireland, the Irish Buddhist Union, the evangelical community, the Irish Council of Churches, the Islamic community, the Jewish community, the Methodist Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Presbyterian Church. The discussion focused again mainly on the impact of level 5 restrictions and the importance of public worship, particularly at this time, with high levels of anxiety and loneliness within communities. Participants requested that consideration be given to allowing places of worship to open for congregational prayer at level 3 of the framework, stressing that the practice of public worship is paramount to all faith communities and particularly for some during Advent and Christmas.

On 23 November 2020, senior officials from my Department held a further meeting with representatives of churches, faith groups and non-confessional bodies. As Deputies are aware, since these meetings, places of worship reopened for public worship from 1 to 26 December when, due to the increased spread of the virus in the community, it became necessary to move the country to level 5 restrictions. As a result, religious services moved online and places of worship remain open for private prayer only.

On 19 February last, I again met with representatives of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Eamon Martin, the newly-appointed Archbishop Dermot Farrell, Archbishop Kieran O’Reilly and Archbishop Michael Neary, to discuss the current level of Covid-19 restrictions and the church's desire to return to worship, in particular, during the season of Lent with the approach of Holy Week and Easter. Recognising the huge challenge which the pandemic poses, the archbishops emphasised that they wished to continue supporting the public health message and to encourage all necessary measures, including vaccination, to protect health and well-being, especially of the most vulnerable. They shared their concern that life at present is particularly stressful and difficult for people to endure, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Recognising the spiritual comfort and hope that participation in public worship brings, the archbishops asked that public worship resume when an easing of restrictions is considered. They expressed a strong desire that people gather safely this year for the important ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter. They also requested consideration of an increase in the number of the bereaved who may attend funeral Masses. I thanked the archbishops for their support and acknowledged the importance of the church community and people’s lives at this time of stress and worry. I outlined the ongoing concerns regarding the spread of the virus, particularly the new variant, stressing that any increase in mobility can have serious consequences for public health and put pressure on the health service. We agreed to maintain dialogue as the situation evolves.

On 25 February, senior officials from my Department held a further meeting with representatives of churches, faith groups and non-confessional bodies to discuss Covid-19 restrictions and related matters. The Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference in a statement yesterday expressed its disappointment in not receiving a response with regard to the easing of restrictions on the numbers at funerals. As I have said at meetings with the archbishops, unfortunately, due to the serious nature of the pandemic, it is not possible to give guarantees of future levels of restrictions. However, next steps will be clarified in the lead-up to 5 April.

The death of a family member is one of the most raw and emotional times anybody will experience. Funerals are very difficult at any time but during Covid-19, for many, they have been a complete disaster. At the moment, attendance at funerals can be a lottery for family members. We have reports from around the country of local priests refusing access to a church to family members on the death of their loved ones. This is having a devastating effect on families. It is well-known psychologically that the grieving process is very important and if it does not happen at the right time, those issues can remain with people for the rest of their lives. The strange thing about this is that in most towns the church is the biggest building. Ten people would be lost in most churches. People are being refused access to a church for a funeral but can go across to the local Aldi or another retail outlet and queue up for crisps and wine, along with 12, 13 or 14 other people. That does not make sense.

I understand it is not an easy job for the Taoiseach to balance all of the rights in this regard. However, Ireland is an outlier in how restrictive it is regarding religious and funeral services. Only two other countries are as restrictive as Ireland is on funerals. Will the Taoiseach consider allowing churches to open for religious services on Easter Sunday? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that the practice of religion is a human right. Even for people without a faith, the importance of faith is very obvious on a human rights basis alone.

In recent days, faith leaders have said they were disappointed with the absence of return to them, via the Taoiseach, on the issues they have raised.

The Sisters of Charity have been again implicated in really quite shameful practices, in terms of the revelations about illegal adoptions and their involvement in St. Patrick's Guild. The order has also been implicated in the mother and baby home scandal but, incredibly, this same religious order will be running the National Maternity Hospital, against a background where Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said last May that under no circumstances, regardless of the outcome of the transfer to the St. Vincent's Holdings group, which is controlled by the Sisters of Charity, was there a place for abortions in hospitals run by the Catholic Church. This is extraordinary stuff. There are visually impaired and disabled residents near the campus of St. Vincent's Hospital in St. Mary's Telford, who themselves went through mother and baby homes and who are now being evicted by the Sisters of Charity. Elderly women who are blind are being evicted by the Sisters of Charity. This is a publicly funded critical part of the national health service but run by a religious order that is unaccountable to anybody and has behaved in these ways. Does the Taoiseach raise these issues? Is it not way past time that our hospitals and the assets these religious orders own are taken back into public ownership?

What conversation did the Taoiseach have with faith leaders prior to and following the publication of the commission's report into mother and baby homes? What conversations has the Taoiseach had with them in respect of the whole scenario around adoptions, including illegal adoptions and the role of various churches and religious orders in all of this? In the previous round, I put a question to the Taoiseach on whether Boris Johnson gave him prior notice of his intention to tear ahead and act unilaterally. Will the Taoiseach clarify whether he was in receipt of that information?

With regard to the Taoiseach's dialogue with religious and faith leaders, has he raised issues regarding illegal adoptions and the potential transfer of the National Maternity Hospital to a trust set up by one of the religious orders that reflects their ethos and values? Will the Taoiseach be looking at that again?

To respond to Deputy Tóibín, I fully accept that one of the saddest parts of the global pandemic and the impact on society has been the inability of families to grieve, in the way we do in Ireland, their lost ones who have passed away. This has been a terrible loss to those bereaved. That so few can attend a funeral is a further traumatic blow to the families. They do their best in the circumstances to remember their loved ones.

The public health advice has been clear on this. I would say to the Deputy that it is not what happens within the church that is the problem, or attendance at the mass, it is what happened afterwards that has been a problem. There have been well-documented cases of significant spread of the disease at events after funerals in various locations throughout the country. The difficulty is always where does one draw the line. Believe me, I have exercised on this on quite a number of occasions. We took decisions to increase numbers before Christmas at the end of the November restrictions. It is very difficult. We will be guided by public health advice on this aspect.

The variant is something I feel people do not quite get all the time. The variant creates a different situation in terms of the spread of the disease right now in this phase. We need to keep this foremost in our minds. It is not like the second wave or the first wave. The B117 variant spreads much more rapidly than original iterations of the virus. This is what is informing a very conservative and cautious approach to what is allowed and what is not allowed and the restrictions that have been put in place. It still remains a concern. The number in hospital at present is 357 people. This is still higher than at the peak of the second wave. Likewise, the numbers in ICU are very high. If we let the guard down too quickly and this variant gets control again, it will spread very rapidly.

We did say we would engage. I made clear the challenges and difficulties. Today is 10 March. In the week leading into 5 April, we will review the situation. We will take advice from public health and we will then advise on what we believe is the best way forward for the following six weeks after that.

To respond to Deputies Boyd Barrett and McDonald, these meetings were not about any issue other than the Covid-19 restrictions. All of the meetings I have had were in this context. We have written to the religious orders saying they should make a contribution to any redress scheme developed by the Government, which we hope to have ready, or the work of the interdepartmental committee ready, at the end of April. The information and tracing Bill will be published by the Minister and he is making solid progress on what will be comprehensive legislation in terms of access to one's identity and information.

As for hospitals, I am of the view that hospitals which are predominantly or overwhelmingly funded by the State should be in State ownership. That is my view. The State now essentially supports these hospitals in all manner and means through current and capital funding. In respect of the Sisters of Charity, again that should not be happening. I would have thought that whatever arrangements were being made that elderly blind women would be looked after and protected because that would be the Christian thing to do. I will have to come back to the Deputy on that. With regard to the National Maternity Hospital, my view is the ownership, control and ethos of it has to be informed by State and Government policy.

In respect of Boris Johnson, I did not get advance notice from him in respect of the decision on the extension of the dates pertaining to the protocol, but the following day we got some indication that this was afoot. It is a silly approach to dealing with the issue and it is wrong. Unilateral approaches do not work. We have been making these points repeatedly to the UK side. An approach is being adopted that I do not think is beneficial in the long term with regard to constructive UK-EU relationships.

Perhaps the final few points could be responded to in writing.