Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I want to raise the change the Government has made to the vaccination plan, as announced yesterday evening. This is both a huge and an astonishing decision that was made without prior notice and, it seems, without any consultation with the groups of front-line workers who will be affected by it. It has come as a great shock and has caused great anger for special needs assistants, SNAs, childcare workers, teachers, gardaí and workers in retail that the Taoiseach has now decided they should not be afforded some level of priority in recognition of the real exposure and heightened risk they face in contracting this virus. It is abundantly clear that the Government has changed tack because the system it has in place is not fit for purpose. We have seen many instances of the flaws and fault lines in the Government's approach but this is the most astonishing admission of failure on its part. More importantly, it has caused huge anxiety among those front-line workers. I do not know how the Taoiseach can defend or explain away the removal of priority from those groups. It is wrong and it will cause unnecessary anxiety and real worry and fear among those workers. I ask the Taoiseach to reverse the decision in this regard.

It is incredible that the Deputy can stand up and speak in the manner in which she has done. This is exactly the scheme that was designed in the North, to which Sinn Féin was a party and which it implemented. The latter is a scheme based on age. We are taking medical and clinical advice in respect of this change. We want to vaccinate people as fast as we possibly can. We are in the middle of a pandemic. Higher volumes of vaccines are coming in. We want to make sure that the most vulnerable of all workers and key workers are vaccinated first. It must be remembered that the prioritisation of the different categories of key workers had not been identified. Such workers range right across the board, from childcare workers to bus drivers, to taxi drivers - you name it. The Deputy should not pretend that it is all simple and easy. It is more important to take the clinical advice which, on the basis of the reviews taken, is telling us that age is the most determinant factor in whether a person gets sick or severely ill or can die. We can get older childcare workers and older teachers, for example, vaccinated much faster in this way.

The news that 14 days after people are fully vaccinated they can meet indoors is both great and to be welcomed. I have seen directly the impact this news has had on elderly people. It does, however, raise issues about where we go from here because this circle of people will get wider. Where are we going regarding vaccination passports or certificates, green certificates or whatever they will be called? The UK is contemplating the introduction of these, as are Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Greece and Cyprus, who are all rolling along with producing vaccination passports. What work has been done in Ireland in this regard? Where does the Government stand on this matter? There are obvious moral and ethical questions and legal issues involved. Where does the Government stand on vaccination passports and what work has been done to date in respect of them?

We have established a senior officials group under the stewardship of my Department to consider the policy implications of such certificates. On the technical side, we are progressing work to make sure that we develop a technical solution that would be interoperable with an EU-wide system for certification, once a person has received a vaccination. The EU is also talking about negative PCR test results and evidence as to whether a person has recovered from Covid. The policy implications are, as the Deputy stated, more significant and need to be teased out. Again, we would be happy to take any submissions from Members of the House or the various parties.

While I accept that a rationale was outlined yesterday, there was considerable moving of the goalposts in the context of our vaccination programme. That will have ramifications. Can the Taoiseach guarantee that all of our educators, SNAs, home school liaison staff and teachers, particularly those in primary schools who would be a younger cohort, will be vaccinated by September in order to ensure that we can fully reopen our schools safely?

That is a fair point in the context of the beginning of the next academic year. The target is to administer the first dose of the vaccine to 80% of adults by the end of June and that 70% will be fully vaccinated by the end of July. By July and August, therefore, we will be dealing with the latter end of the vaccination programme. With the supplies coming in we are in a good position to achieve that. The more important point is that those who are older or who may be vulnerable due to particular conditions - I refer here to teachers, childcare workers, bus drivers, factory workers, retail workers and a range of other key workers - had not yet been prioritised one over the other. There is a great deal of merit in saying that those who are most vulnerable in those key worker categories will be brought up the queue now and vaccinated earlier. This is one of the outcomes of this. This is the advice from the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC.

Will the Taoiseach confirm that it is the Government's intention to let the blanket ban on evictions and rent increases fall just ten days after the 5 km restriction is lifted, in other words, on 22 April? Does the Taoiseach have any concerns about a tsunami of evictions this summer if the blanket ban is lifted on 22 April and the ban more generally is lifted three months later on 22 July? Given that rents rose nationally during a year when a ban on rent increases was in play, for example, 4.5% in our city of Cork, is the Taoiseach in any way concerned that lifting the ban on rent increases will result in very sharp rent hikes right across the State in the second half of this year?

To be fair to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, the protection of tenants has been a cornerstone of his policies so far. He has brought in very strong protective legislation, obviously, within the bounds of what the constitutional framework permits. We are obliged to operate within constitutional parameters in the context of what we do. The Minister has pushed matters to the limit in terms of the degree of protection he can provide and that he will continue to provide even in the aftermath of the 5 km restriction being lifted.

I want clarity on one point.

No, we do not have time.

A direct question was asked, namely, do the rent protections extend beyond 22 April.

The Deputy is not asking the question.

I asked a direct question and could not get a straight answer.

It was a direct question.

The Deputy is not asking the question. Will he resume his seat?

This is outrageous.

I call the Regional Group.

Will the Deputy please respect his colleagues?

(Interruptions).

In 2016, the Taoiseach stood in the grounds of University Hospital Waterford and pledged that he and his party would deliver 24/7 cardiac care to the people of the south east. In recent days, he and his Minister for Health took a significant step in honouring that pledge by committing funding to a cardiac catheter lab at University Hospital Waterford. I thank the Taoiseach for that step, which he and I have discussed many times. Now I ask that he finish the journey.

First, will he commit his office's oversight of and support for the immediate recruitment of the cardiology team required to open this second cath lab? Second, will he commit the HSE to expand funding to provide a 24-7 cardiac care service for the south east once that new laboratory is operational? In so doing, he will restore the faith of 500,000 people in a politician's promise, and in the promise of a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As he pointed out, the main construction contract was awarded and the second cath lab is included in the programme for Government and the resources provided. The current funding, in terms of the recruitment of staff and so on, will also be provided with regard to ensuring the successful operation of the cath lab and the vital diagnostic services it will provide. HSE estates has also confirmed that the equipment for the second cath lab will be of the same type as that in the newly upgraded existing cath lab and will have full interventional capabilities in the event that the existing cath lab is not available. It will mean a significantly increased level of interventional services that can be provided now-----

Thank you, Taoiseach. The time is up.

-----and into the future. We will continue to engage with all of the Deputies on the issue.

Hundreds of young and not so young farmers in the south east have invested hugely in agriculture by buying land, increasing the cow herd and investing in magnificent buildings for animal welfare. Glanbia, with a Dutch company, Royal A-Ware, is investing in a factory to make Cheddar cheese. It has gone through the county council and An Bord Pleanála planning processes but now An Taisce is on its back like a monkey. It is in the High Court for judicial review and is threatening to go to the European court. It will be disastrous for hundreds of young farmers, the farming economy and the economies of the south east if that happens. Can we not do something to stop that frivolous behaviour by An Taisce? The system the farmers are using is best practice. This is simply a case of idealistic people in An Taisce acting the maggot, which is damaging our economy and causing devastation for young farmers.

On the same matter, I find this very serious. An Taisce is completely overstepping the mark. It is trying to dictate a Government agenda. It is also trying to dictate Government policy. Time and again, it has painted farmers as the scapegoats. That is not right. All of us here have spoken about the need for job creation in rural towns and villages. We cannot let this continue. We need strong intervention with An Taisce. Also, there must be collaboration between An Taisce, farmers and Glanbia. What is happening is wrong and I condemn the actions of An Taisce.

This plan to produce 50,000 tonnes of Gouda cheese would greatly reduce our dependence on the British Cheddar cheese market, which is exactly what we want to do post Brexit. It is extremely regrettable from that point of view. Farmers have made many commitments and it is extremely disappointing that An Taisce, following An Bord Pleanála's decision, can get a judicial review and delay this project for many years. That has the potential to make the project economically unviable. It will have huge repercussions for both the company itself and the milk producers supplying Glanbia.

I thank the three Deputies for raising the issue. Deputy Cahill has been speaking to me about this issue on an ongoing basis and articulating his concerns. There is a balance to be struck in terms of objecting to significant facilities. People have rights to object but on the other hand the increasing use of judicial review is something on which we, as a society, will have to reflect. There is an independent planning process. It is rigorous and it should be respected. There is a growing sense that the judicial review is becoming a new mechanism to frustrate and delay projects hoping that they may not develop. That is creating challenges on the investment side and in terms of the creation of jobs. That has to be acknowledged. What the Deputies are saying is problematic. We saw it in forestry in the past while where there were consistent interventions, which were designed to stop any licences from issuing, and we had to deal with that legislatively. There are significant issues as we prepare the national development plan, for example. We have reviewed this. The range of projects, be they infrastructural or production, that are held up now has to be a cause for concern overall.

I want to place something on the record. In the recent past, Ipsos MRBI carried out a poll on who people trust and of 27 professions, politicians are third last. Only 24% of people have trust in politicians. Even bankers are higher than us. I am a politician and I have to say that I had that same feeling yesterday as I listened to the Taoiseach's plan to open up the country. I want to place it on the record that I have lost all trust in the way we are dealing with the pandemic. I ask the Taoiseach to commit to having an item on the Dáil agenda every single month from now on to allow us look at how we are dealing with the pandemic in its totality-----

-----in respect of vaccinations, an overall policy, which should be zero Covid and control, and giving power back to the people. Talking about a passport for those who have been vaccinated or that I can eat indoors if I have been vaccinated but I cannot if I have not is extremely divisive. At this point, all I ask the Taoiseach to do is commit to having an ongoing item on the agenda every single month in this Dáil as part of the bargain in return for our support for draconian legislation.

Politicians have to be responsible for our actions. When the Taoiseach speaks to the nation, as he did yesterday, people look for leadership and hope. I refer to the last-minute announcement about the change in the vaccine roll-out. I am dealing with carers, teachers, child support workers, members of the Garda and bus drivers. A man told me on the train from Cork yesterday that one of the workers in Iarnród Éireann had died of Covid-19 and asked me where the roll-out was for them. The Taoiseach has to bring people with him. If the medical advice is the medical advice, we support that but he should have discussed that change with the unions and other representative bodies. There should have been inclusion, not an announcement out of nowhere.

I completely support Deputy Connolly in what she said. There is and continues to be a great deal of confusion among the public about many of the announcements that have been made. There is now a change to the vaccine roll-out. We are told that we can visit people if we have been vaccinated but we cannot if we have not been vaccinated. People are angered by that. The feedback on social meeting yesterday was to express anger, annoyance and frustration. Carers are ringing us asking if they have gone down the list in terms of getting the vaccine. Members of the Garda are seeking to be vaccinated. They have been on the front line for more than 12 months and have been completely forgotten. It is time for the Taoiseach to put proper action in place.

In respect of Deputy Connolly's remarks, I regard them as somewhat disingenuous. Politicians are elected in general elections. People elect politicians. I have been elected in quite a number of general elections. That is what I go by; nothing else. We are in a parliamentary democracy. People may not like us sometimes but that is acceptable. I salute and respect anybody who goes before the people in elections and gets elected because that is fundamental to what we are about as a society and has been since the foundation of the State.

It is also disingenuous of the Deputy to say that she wants me to commit to discussing Covid once a month. We have been discussing it every single day in this House since the pandemic began.

We most certainly are discussing it. If she goes through the Order of Business for the past number of weeks she will see sessions on vaccinations, mental health and Covid, childcare and Covid and education and Covid. It is extremely disingenuous to suggest that once a month would be some sort of a commitment on Covid when the reality is we have been discussing Covid day in and day out in this House and at committees of the House also. That is the case.

I have met groups which represent the zero Covid philosophy and had a good exchange of views with them. I do not dismiss any perspectives that people have on Covid. On a regular basis we will continue, as we have been, discussing policies on Covid, aspects of Covid and different perspectives on Covid.

In response to Deputies Gould and Michael Collins, the evidence was based on clinical and medical advice, and on getting vaccines out as fast we possibly can in the middle of a global pandemic. That is what we are endeavouring to do.

That concludes questions on promised legislation. The 30 or so Deputies we have not reached will be given priority tomorrow.